I wrote the essay below for a Penguin anthology, From There To Here, which tells the story of my father's journey to England in the 1970s to become an actor.
The accompanying short film can be found below the text.
ALBERT FINNEY’S SMILE
I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda!
– Arthur Seaton
Years ago, in a darkened room, my dad watched Albert Finney smile. As Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney brawled his way across the screen with a fag perched on his lips, a frown across his forehead and cufflinks that shone like shrapnel. He was mesmerizing.
Finney was a great actor, but there was more to it than that. As my father watched him thunder, a smile broke out. Ask him now and he’ll say there was no light bulb. No moment of epiphany. There was Albert Finney tearing through the streets, out for a good time on the beer and stout. Albert Finney out for a good time – and that, to him, meant freedom.
When he arrived at Heathrow Airport on April Fools’ Day 1971, my dad’s freshly polished shoes met the tarmac with a squeak. The sky was a dull, cloudless grey. The air hostesses wore blue. He was twenty-two years old. The man at immigration, mustachioed and brisk, asked why he was here.
‘I am sorry,’ my dad said, enunciating each syllable as carefully as his Berlitz guide had suggested. Could you repeat that, please?’
‘What’s the purpose of your visit?’ said the man in a monotone. Then, seeing my dad was at a loss, he spoke more slowly.
‘Why are you here?’
The question took a moment to sink in. Realizing that this was not an existential query and that he was not, in fact, required to negotiate his way through the precepts of ontology and the Kantian metaphysics of morals with his limited English, my father gave his answer with no little relief.
‘I want to be an actor,’ he said.
And it was true. Back home in Haifa, he’d been given a generous bursary allowing him to leave Israel and study acting overseas. The award, no mean feat, had even merited a mention in Time. And here he was in London, following in the steps of Finney, Harris, O’Toole and Burton. Anything was possible, nothing was forbidden. As he received a stamp in his passport, he shook the immigration man by the hand and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Thank you,’ said my father. ‘Thank you very much.’ The man’s moustache bristled at the impertinence. ‘Next,’ he said. My dad moved on.
When I try to picture London in the 1970s, I see long hair, flares, and Routemaster buses whistling through the streets – buses managed by bright-eyed conductors with ruddy cheeks winking knowingly at comely matrons hauling bags of petticoats to washrooms in the Old Kent Road. I’m told it wasn’t quite like that, but not so far away from it either.
‘It was the New World,’ my father says. ‘Everything was so innocent. You’d walk down the road and in half the windscreens there’d be signs saying, “Tax disc in post.” It was crazy.’
My dad revelled in this idyll, not quite believing his luck. Some habits remained: for years he carried his passport with him wherever he went. Eventually someone asked the obvious question. My father laughed, then looked more serious. ‘But what if someone stops me?’
At first I thought these words said a lot about the fear he’d experienced in his early years in England but I was wrong – he’d been stung by prejudice long before he arrived. Growing up in Haifa, my father was labelled an Arab-Israeli. To this day, he stays away from hyphens. This toothpick splinter did little to bridge the chasm. It was a Band-Aid applied to a split jugular, and those branded with the telltale splice, the plaster across their throats, have not found their lives easy.
Imagine, then, the joy of arriving in 1970s London. Today, the would-be asylum seeker is met with fear and misunderstanding, headlines that shriek in bold sans serif print. My dad was greeted with peace signs, Volkswagens and dope-addled men called Steve. Buoyed with confidence, flicking his freshly purchased flared trousers round corner after corner with swishes of glee, he made his way, clutching a photocopied monologue from Orestes, to London’s Drama Centre where he took a deep breath and spoke passionately of the death of Clytemnestra. The judges were impressed. For the first time, history didn’t matter, borders weren’t a problem, and hyphens didn’t get in the way. His passion had spoken for itself, and he was awarded a place at the school.
‘London was so English then,’ he says, unwittingly echoing the manifesto of the BNP. ‘Everything was English. Telephone boxes, ounces, shillings – the whole thing was different, unique. These days we’re reaching out toward Europe – even the buses are like Germany. So Englishness is disappearing.’
I get it, but it’s not really something I can understand. My mind reaches for images of what he’s talking about, but all I see is David Tomlinson and Angela Landsbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Is this what was lost? Bowler hats and umbrellas bobbing along at the bottom of the sea? The London I’ve grown up with is so far from the one my father remembers that my attempt to visualise it is a foolish, dizzy amalgam of images; history as a series of half–reels, in which Leonard Rossiter melts into Monty Python, Blowup crossfades into One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, all spliced together in a messy blur of which, one suspects, Eisenstein would not be proud.
Not so my father. For him, recalling the early years brings a sense of calm. You can feel the click and whirr as memories are slotted into the gate. You can hear the hum of the projection bulb being switched on, see the light come into his eyes. The men from the BNP, as they scrawl their midnight manifestos in their Devonshire taverns, might be surprised to learn they’re not the only ones who’re aching with nostalgia. My father, now in his fifties, looks back at the highlights reel with no less fondness.
‘I’m a sucker for it all,’ he says. ‘I found it so romantic, this Englishness. For some reason I still hanker for it. When I retire, all I want – all I’ve ever wanted – is a small cottage in the countryside with books and bottles of wine. That, to me, is England.’
When my father speaks like this, my mother rolls her eyes. And yet he’s not the only one who’s seduced by this vision of Albion. The dream the BNP is fighting to protect is the same dream so many people come here for, the myth of Englishness that still pervades the world, as it pervades my father’s fantasies. If life is lived in one direction, a linear progression, this reverie of what once was, of what could be, is a step over this experiential line into the white space that lies beyond. It is the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. It is the desire to think, and live, outside the box.
So when my father tells me the 1970s was a simpler time, I like to think it’s true. I like to believe that the Volkswagens tooted and the flares were hip. I like all the old stories, and so does he.
As my father has gone on to build an acting career over the last thirty-odd years, his list of credits reveals a great deal about this country’s relationship with his part of the world. In addition to the standard roles – waiters, café owners, misanthropes – he’s played men on camels and oil-rich sheikhs more times than he can remember. In the 1970s, he started off as a junior terrorist. He soon moved up to the role of ambassador; last year he played al-Qaeda kingpin Ayman al Zawahiri. My father accepts these roles with a weary shrug. These weren’t the parts he dreamed of, but he’s used to it. He’s been a terrorist all his life.
Immigration is a big word. It implies journeys, boundaries, distance, breadth. It inspires fear in some, hope in others. But like the hyphen between the two halves of my father’s identity, it doesn’t really mean anything by itself. Everyone comes from somewhere. We are all immigrants – it’s just that some of us inherit our passports, while others fight for them. The story of immigration is thus the story of survival, the ebbs and flows of humanity across a segregated planet.
My father fought hard to get a British passport. He likens the struggle to the climb up a ladder embedded in quicksand. Now that he has it, it’s not what he expected.
‘The value of things erode with time. You reach to the passport, you get it, but by then it’s worthless. It’s not what you aspired for.’
I find it hard to agree with this. It’s doubtless true that once you reach the mountaintop the view’s not always what you expected, but as I sit writing this I look outside and see a different London to the one he grew up in – one with steeper ridges, deeper gorges, and many mountains left to climb. I see them because of his adventures, his fight with the Home Office, his struggle to stay on. We don’t often say anything, but all of us – the British Asians, BBCs, the half-bred, mixed-up mongrel lot of us – feel the same way.
Sometimes as I look up high into the hills, wondering what adventures will be next, I see an old man looking down. He holds a white cane and a battered, blood-red passport in his outstretched hand. I can just make out the grin upon his face. It’s just like Albert Finney’s.