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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Return of the native
By Stephen Sackur
BBC News, Brussels

After 15 years as a BBC correspondent working in Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo and Brussels, Stephen Sackur is coming home to the UK to become a television presenter. He finds the country has undergone some changes since he lived here last.

Stephen Sackur in the Hardtalk studio
Stephen is the new presenter of the BBC's Hardtalk programme

Until I was 18 years old, I had never met a black man or woman. Nor, knowingly at least, a Jew nor a Muslim.

I was a farm boy born and brought up in Lincolnshire - among the whitest of white English counties.

I remember the stir in my primary school when a family of Vietnamese refugees was housed in Toynton All Saints.

We stared and we prodded and we mimicked because these were people with whom we could make no meaningful connection. They might as well have come from Mars.

They were not threatening, they were not aggressive, but to us they were overwhelmingly weird.

For the past 15 years I have been living far away from my homeland - in Cairo, Jerusalem, Washington and Brussels. And while I have been gone I know that things have changed.

New identities

Even my remote corner of eastern England has been penetrated by the world beyond. The potato fields where my brother and I spent school holidays grubbing for spuds in exchange for shillings are now trodden by Romanians and Poles.

The gang masters, who in my childhood hired local women eager for bingo money, now draw from a deep well of immigrant labour.

Boston's market square
Migrant workers living in Britain's Boston have faced intimidation
In Boston, the market town where I used to spend my hard-earned cash, you might hear Lithuanian, Albanian or Mandarin during a stroll down the High Street.

So the Britain I am returning to is a different place, and I am a different man.

In the course of my life as a foreign correspondent I married a woman from Iraq. We have three children who see themselves as British - though they have never lived in Britain - but as Arab too.

I wonder where my family fits in the currently hot political debate about identity, belonging and Britishness?

Are we immigrants? If so, does that mean we're some sort of a problem?

Bridging chasms

More than a dozen years ago, when I got married, my parents had to deal with a son who had strayed very far from the usual assumptions about racial continuity.

I suspect first news of my match left them with mixed emotions (though only the positive ones were transmitted to me).

My children are asking a simple question: 'Will we like England?'

Probably they still worry about the difficulties their grandchildren might face.

Nonetheless the memory of my Yorkshire grandmother, a woman now in her 90s, swaying to the rhythm of an Egyptian dance band at our wedding party suggests the widest cultural chasms can be bridged.

And the truth is, the longer I have lived outside my own overcrowded, argumentative and increasingly fragmented homeland the more I have come to appreciate its ability to accept, to adapt.

Slavery legacy

For five years I lived in Washington DC, capital of the land of the free, but arguably one of the most racially segregated cities on earth.

It is a majority black city. It has a black mayor.

But spend time in the north-west quadrant of the city where the politicians, the lobbyists and the media folk live, and you'll see nary a black or brown face. Except for the servants that is.

It is hard not to conclude that continental Europe is often less honest about its race problems than we are in Britain
America's first generation of African immigrants were forced across the Atlantic in chains, and slavery's legacy is a wound that is still very raw, visible right across America's urban landscape.

My feeling is that Britain's big cities, for all the talk of gang violence and racial tension, are different.

In London, Birmingham, Manchester there is no absolute separation of the white middle class from the minorities on the other side of the tracks.

Decades, centuries, of voluntary migration have created a patchwork where lines are increasingly blurred. And that surely is an asset we should foster and cherish.


In more recent years, I have been living just across the Channel in liberal, self-consciously tolerant northern Europe.

But when you look hard at the Netherlands, with its growing Muslim population, or France where the principles of liberte, egalite and fraternite are being sorely tested by racial and religious tension, it is hard not to conclude that continental Europe is often less honest about its race problems, and is more frightened - of Islam in particular - than we are in Britain.

Monkey chants directed at black players died on the lips of even the most bigoted English football supporters years ago; in Spain the grunting goes on.

Over the last decade and a half, I have met many people - from Slovakia to Iraq and to Afghanistan - whose dream has been to make a life for themselves and their families in the United Kingdom.

Most will never make it.

We Sackurs, on the other hand, are enormously privileged. We will cross the Channel at our leisure and be welcomed home.

My three children are asking a simple question: "Will we like England?"

After 15 years away, the only truthful answer is: "I don't know, but I fervently hope we will."

Last week Stephen recalled his past assignments and the excitement of a correspondent's job. You can read it here:

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 April, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Council considers migrant issues
17 Jan 05 |  Lincolnshire
Dutch fear loss of tolerance
03 Nov 04 |  Europe


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