A few weeks back my wife – Lesley Katon – and I were sitting up a hillside in Italy pondering what she might say to the friends due to gather at her 50th birthday party. She wanted to capture her feelings for them, and to define the character of the amazing variety of people she’s become close to over the years. A tough brief.
After dinner that night we went back to the books we were reading – me Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, she Jan Morris’s Trieste. 30 minutes later Les suddenly exclaimed ‘This is it! It’s all about the Fourth World!’ And so she described how Morris, in portraying the people of Trieste – a city that has moved between countries and provided a home to global wanderers – had got to the essence of what she felt about her closest friends.
At the party Les read out the passage below, and it resonated with those in the room. I’m reproducing it here because I think it’s a wonderful piece of writing – full of rhythm and spirit – but also because I feel we could all do with a blast of universalism.
As I write, murderous extremists are beheading those they consider their enemy, and a government has just bombed a refugee camp. Closer to home, our government has withdrawn support for rescue boats in the Mediterranean, for fear that it will encourage more migrants to light out for the UK. Last weekend a government minister described some towns as being ‘swamped’ by immigrants and effectively ‘under siege’. And on Wednesday of this week, in the House of Commons, the leaders of our two main political parties spat the word ‘immigration’ at each other as if it were a term of abuse.
It’s true that in some towns in Britain there are serious frictions between long-term residents and recent arrivals. But the bitterness of the current political language seems a long way from the open-minded approach to otherness I see and hear on the streets of our cities and towns most days. There are incidents and idiots, there is prejudice and anxiety, but in general people seem to rub along pretty well.
Of course, people’s feelings about immigration depend on where they live; their own experiences and circumstances; their ideology, if they have one; and how much they believe that immigration is responsible for our economic woes, rather than the main parties’ inability to imagine and pursue material progress. For some, it’s easier to project blame onto someone ‘other’ than to deconstruct the complex systems that affect our lives, or unpick the collapse of the Left, or question why successive governments have failed to create the infrastructure needed to support a growing population. Isn’t it absurd to blame the least powerful in our society for the failure of the most powerful to create the foundations for growth?
But once again, despite the resounding drumbeat of anti-immigration politicking, I’m constantly struck by how cohesive our cities are. Most people seem less and less interested in a person’s colour or creed and more interested in what they believe, say and contribute. We can all think of exceptions, no doubt, but in my experience they really are the exception rather than the rule.
True to the spirit of Trieste, I’ve wandered, and so I’ll bring this piece back to Jan Morris (who certainly knew a few things about identity and prejudice). Her words portray a minority, but a minority that in spirit is open and inclusive. It is a love letter to what can unite us; perhaps even a glimpse of a future world without borders. Sometimes that seems a very long way off. A very, very long way off. Cynics would say it’s a hopeless idea. It’s certainly true that we will never get there if we always see difference as a threat, rather than something that can make us stronger and better.
From Trieste, by Jan Morris (Faber & Faber)
There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own.
They are the lordly ones! They come in all colours.
They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists.
They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor.
They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists.
They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding.
When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically.
They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean.
They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion, or political correctness.
They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it.
It is the nation of nowhere.