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Heart's ease - an infusion was said to help mend a broken heart

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

My grandfather and other aliens

All the anti-migrant rhetoric flying about has made me dig out this booklet, which declares that on 28th January 1920 my grandfather became an alien. That day, two days after his arrival in the UK, he was issued with this alien registration certificate, a small 24-page book, to be stamped and endorsed whenever he travelled or changed address. I found it among my father's papers after his death; thus, thanks to the Home Office's meticulous documenting and controlling of aliens' movements I know a lot of facts about the one grandparent I have never personally known.

I know he arrived in the UK after five years in the Italian army - so he wasn't demobbed straight after World War I. I know he went to South Wales, the destination for so many young men from Bardi and its surrounding villages. Having grown up in a tiny hilltop dwelling, I hope the Welsh valleys and hills gave him some sense of home, despite his alien status. I know he changed lodging several times, and each time he had to travel to Tredegar to get his book endorsed by the local police.

In September 1921 he moved to London, where he met and married my grandmother - who was also an alien. The stamps on his book now come from the Alien Registration Office at Bow Street Police Station - did the office feel as officiously forbidding and unwelcoming as it sounds? My grandparents worked and saved hard, and on 8th July 1925 my grandfather's occupation was officially changed from shop assistant to hotel proprietor. He was now settled, a man with status and responsibilities, but he still had to get his book stamped every time he visited Italy, updated his passport or even when he travelled to Wales to visit his two younger brothers.

The first thing I notice when I look inside the book is that his surname - my surname - has been misspelt. Some things never change, and almost a century later this is an annoyance I can share with him; even people who have known me for decades still manage to get it wrong. Remarkably, though, the book documents that his name was only amended on 1st February 1927 - a full seven years after his arrival, even though I know he would have noticed the mistake straightaway. I wonder: did it take him that long to muster the courage needed to point out an official error? And did the Alien Registration Office mutter any sort of apology for this bit of official sloppiness? Somehow I think not. (His date of birth was also incorrect; the correction being done by my father, many years later. Clearly, Home Office bureaucracy was focussed on monitoring, not personal details)

 
I also notice the two photos. In the first one, from January 1920, he is still only twenty-two, but already matured by the trauma of his wartime experiences (you can read more and see a photo of him as a young soldier here). The second was added only eight years later: he was still only thirty, and yet he had already aged, lost hair and acquired an anxious, haunted look. He still strutted and smiled in family photos, but here, in his eyes and drastically changed appearance, I can see the effects of the "shell shock" which was to mar the rest of his life.

In 1933 he returned to Italy. He was back home, where he belonged, no longer an official, registered alien: sadly, though, he could never again come and go as he pleased, as he'd had some sort of breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital, where he died in 1942.

When I was growing up aliens were non-human creatures from outer space, comical and friendly or dangerously destructive, and so, the first time I saw this alien certificate I reacted to that word. Even without those little green men, an alien is un-naturalised, negatively different, completely "other". How, I wonder, does it feel to be treated as someone so utterly, inferiorly "other"? And how did my grandfather feel about being monitored, feared and mistrusted, and treated like a dangerous enemy so soon after putting his life on the line as an allied soldier?

I used to believe that alien foreigners were a product of a bygone age, when Britain still had a far-flung empire and fearful, xenophobic attitudes were more entrenched. Now our officials use less loaded language like migrant and immigrant, because now we know better... Except that now our government ministers have started whipping up fear and loathing by, for example, describing migrants as "marauders" who threaten our social structures and standards of living, while our Prime Minister further dehumanises people who live in the already dehumanising Calais "Jungle" by calling them "swarms". With such a hard-line stance from our government, and so much fear and prejudice throughout society, can we truly claim to have made any progress in the past century?

My grandfather's Alien Certificate now sits in my room, reminding me of the need to work for a more welcoming, accepting society - beginning with a more welcoming, accepting me. It reminds me, too, to pray for all those desperate people in Calais and on the Mediterranean, and even more, to pray for the minds and hearts of those responsible for our immigration policies and laws, and those in the media with the power to influence opinions. May we never forget that these are, first and foremost, people, human beings sharing our humanity - not aliens to be feared and repelled.

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