J.B. Priestley on immigration

August 7, 2013 at 6:53 pm (Anti-Racism, Europe, history, humanism, immigration, Jim D, literature, Racism)

As promised, here’s J.B. Priestley, in his 1934 book English Journey, on immigration. His starting point is a recollection of his childhood hometown of Bradford:

…[T]here was this curious leaven of intelligent aliens, chiefly German-Jews and mostly affluent. They were so much a part of the place when I was a boy that it never occurred to me to ask why they were there. I saw their outlandish names on office doors, knew that they lived in certain pleasant suburbs, and obscurely felt that they had always been with us and would always remain. That small colony of foreign or mixed Bradfordians produced some men of great distinction, including a famous composer, two renowned painters, and a well-known poet (in Humbert Wolfe’s Now a Stranger you get a glimpse of what life was like in that colony for at least one small boy).  I can remember when one of the best-known clubs in Bradford was the Schillererein. And in those days a Londoner was a stranger sight than a German. There was, then, this odd mixture in pre-war Bradford. A dash of the Rhine and the Oder found its way into our grim runnel – “t’mucky beck.” Bradford was determinedly Yorkshire and provincial, yet some of its suburbs reached as far as Frankfort and Leipzig. It was odd enough. But it worked.

The war changed all that. There is hardly a trace now in the city of that German-Jewish invasion. Some of the merchanting houses changed their names and personnel; others went out of business. I liked the city better as it was before, and almost all my fellow-Bradfordians agree with me. It seems smaller and duller now. I am not suggesting that these German-Jews were better men than we are. The point is that they were different, and brought more to the city than bank drafts and lists of customers. They acted as a leaven, just as a colony of typical West Riding folk would act as a leaven in Munich or Moscow. These exchanges are good for everybody. Just lately, when we offered hospitality to some distinguished German-Jews who had been exiled by the Nazis, the leader-writers in the cheap Press began yelping again about Keeping the Foreigner Out. Apart from the miserable meanness of the attitude itself  —  for the great England, the England admired throughout the world, is the England that keeps open house, the refuge of Mazzini, Marx, Lenin  —  history shows us that the countries that have opened their doors have gained, just as countries that have driven out large numbers of their citizens for racial, religious or political reasons, have always paid dearly for their intolerance. It is one of the innumerable disadvantages of this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic, this age of passports and visas and quotas, when every country is as difficult to enter or leave as were the Czar’s Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey before the war, that it is no longer possible for this admirable leavening process to continue. Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago. But so, I suspect, is the whole world. It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism. Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.

Update (Rosie):-

Refugee Blues

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

WH Auden. 1939


  1. Ben said,

    Priestley was one of a small handful of public figures who spoke up for refugees before and during WW2, two others being George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, and Josiah Wedgewood. For this he was punished by the BBC, and forbidden to broadcast on the topic.

  2. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Bishop Bell didn’t just speak out for refugees but actively helped them escape and welcomed some into his own home (which OK was a palace but its the thought that more than counts).

    He also gave real assistance to the German resistance to Hitler.

    Except for a couple of Labour MPs he was also almost alone in publicly opposing the Allied firebombing of German cities.

    After the war he opposed nuclear weapons.

    So on the whole not a disgrace to his church and religion.

  3. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Barry Cryer’s Radio 4 Great Lives on Priestley (who he got to know personally in his old age) is a very nice tribute and available:


  4. Alan Gloak said,

    I heard toe comment and took the book of the shelf to read the whole. How true in this present day Priestly was.

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