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TV review: A Very British history, and This Country

06 March 2020


In A Very British History (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), Aminul Hoque tells the story of his family of Bangladeshi immigrants

In A Very British History (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), Aminul Hoque tells the story of his family of Bangladeshi immigrants

SO, WHERE, exactly, is your home? In the first of a new series of A Very British History (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), Aminul Hoque told his family’s story as exemplars of the Bangladeshi immigrants who settled in the UK, especially in the East End of London.

It had, for me, personal reso­n­ance: for 13 years, we served a parish almost in the heart of that area, and if many of the most acute episodes belonged, by the time we arrived, to the recent past, their memory over­shad­­­­­owed and deter­mined the present — and still does today.

The story is familiar, and shared with many of the other immigrant groups in the UK, with that extra ratcheting-up unique to the East End, whose particular charism is to transform all disputes into high drama, and ideally blood feud. First came the men alone, accepting abysmal living conditions to work at any trade offering a job, assuming that it was a temporary way to earn good money and sooner or later return home. They became more settled, brought their wives to join them, and raised families.

The women worked at home, sewing far into the night to provide a living. Slum-clearance and building programmes steadily improved the housing, but brought disputes with established residents: who got the new flats? Bethnal Green was the historic centre of National Front and other ultra-right-wing factions; and racial abuse, organised attacks, and violence grew steadily with, as the Bangladeshis believed, no police in­­­ter­­­ven­­­­­tion, reaching a climax with the mur­der of Altab Ali.

Public outrage brought steady change in attitudes: I was sorry to see no mention of the heroic work of many Christians in that struggle for justice and generosity for our neigh­bours. Hoque embodies the success and apparent assimila­tion of this thriving community, but presented an issue that extends far beyond his own example. His father thought of himself as Bangladeshi and living for practical reasons in Britain: he has returned home to the splendid house built with his savings, by the school that he has built for his village.

Aminul thinks of himself as British Bangladeshi. While he is clearly British, for him, Bangladesh will al­­­ways be the mother country. But what of his three delightful daugh­ters? He takes them back on an extended visit, but it gives him no clarity about where their loyalties and self-definition will lie.

For Kerry and Kurtan, home will always be the Cotswold village por­trayed in the mockumentary This Coun­­­try (new series, BBC1, Mon­­days). One delight of this mag­nifi­­­­cent spoof is the pin-sharp skewer­­­­ing of the vicar, who, with rueful ineffectuality, does all he can to help these terminally disaffected youths. They batten on him for all they can get, slag him off, and yet, despite themselves, they are bound together with affection. They belong.

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