Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Do we really need telling that we should be compassionate?

A march through Colchester on Saturday in solidarity with refugees

A march through Colchester on Saturday in solidarity with refugees - Credit: Archant

As the entertainer Max Bygraves used to say: “I wanna tell you a story.” During the early autumn of 1914, following a spot of international bother, Great Britain was prevailed upon to take in a large number of refugees. The crisis intensified with the approach of winter and, over the course of a few weeks, our country took in an estimated 250,000 Belgians. The influx peaked in mid-October when 16,000 arrived in Folkestone in a single day. Although some of the refugees stayed in purpose-built enclaves, with their own shops, schools, churches and police, many were taken in by British families.

The Belgian refugees quickly became a cause célèbre among the well-intentioned middle classes, with a few of them being treated ‘almost as pets’, read one report. With that peculiar hybrid of patronisation and lionisation which we in this country reserve for our best underdogs, “Plucky Little Belgium” became a key phrase during that time. “Have you got your Belgians yet?” became another.

The interesting thing about the refugees is that after almost five years living here, they left hardly any cultural or historical footprint. Nearly all of them after the Great War’s end, simply returned home to rebuild their land and their lives. It was the largest single influx of refugees in British history and yet almost no trace now remains of it.

In the autumn of 1914, over those few weeks, a quarter of a million people arrived here. They were accommodated, found work and absorbed into the population. By 1920, except for a few who had married the natives, they had gone home. Some of the decorative wood-carving for which Belgian craftsmen are famous survives in certain public buildings, along with a few plaques. Apart from that you would never know they had ever been here.

To compare the Belgian refugee crisis with the present one may seem slightly irrelevant. They were not, after all, from a distant war-torn eastern land, they were our near-European neighbours. A century ago, however, most English people didn’t travel far. Unless you lived in, say, a large seaport, you’d hardly ever meet anyone from another country. For many of us, the Belgian refugees must have seemed rather exotic, with their differently-cut clothes and their possessions, sometimes even their children, drawn along in sturdy little carts pulled by large dogs.

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Modern Belgium, which won independence in 1831, was a nation less than a century old when the Great War began and the Germans marched in. Often referred to by historians as the Battleground of Europe, Belgium has hosted more than its fair share of other people’s conflicts. It’s difficult to imagine a situation today whereby a country which now seems so near to our own, might find itself in such dire circumstances, that 250,000 of their people sought shelter here. Nonetheless, in the autumn of 1914 this was what happened.

On a cold November afternoon in 2015, even as I write these words, a few hundred people are marching through Colchester in the rain, in solidarity with newer refugees. They are marching, they say, not to protest but to celebrate the fact that five refugee families have been allocated places in Colchester. The marchers want to welcome them. They have said so and very publicly. Why, I ask myself, does the situation have a familiar smack of ‘Plucky Little Belgium’ about it? Not everyone, though, is singing joyfully from the same hymn sheet. Although one faction may believe that we in the UK aren’t taking in sufficient refugees, another faction stops just short of shouting: “Stand by to repel boarders.” As the extreme centrist that I am, for now, I take neither side.

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What really annoys me, however, is the constant finger-wagging of the do-gooding classes and their visibly-deep concern, as they tell the rest of us what we should be doing and why we should all be as compassionate as they are. I am bored witless with it.

Where do they find the time to go on all these marches, attend so many meetings, be on committees, write overly-long letters to newspapers, fill up arid internet sites with their pontifications and then still find the time to stride around the countryside with expressions of grim enjoyment on their faces, noting down the diminishing numbers of endangered species? Ever tried telling a joke to one of them? It’s uphill work. It’s as if they’ve had the irony component removed from their brains to make room for extra guilt.

I sometimes wonder how an asylum-seeker from a levantine country feels, having just arrived here, only to be patronised by some earnest do-gooder, brandishing a welcome pack while ushering them into a nearby community hall.

My fellow countrymen and women, traditionally, are mostly a kindly, helpful and practical sort of people. We have an excellent track record for taking in those who need shelter from the storm. We have even been known to befriend our prisoners in times of war. We have made ourselves stronger over the generations precisely because of these quiet virtues.

As a race we remain a stable alloy, long-tempered in history’s fire. We do not need to be reminded what to think, what to do, or when to march, by people who read far too much and observe far too little. We’ve proved we can shelter refugees, do we really need all the cheerleading and self-congratulation which accompanies it? Have you registered your protest yet? This is mine.

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