What’s in a word?

On the 31st of July, this article about Farage’s deeply unpleasant attack on the RNLI and the immediate public response to it was printed in The Guardian. Written by Tim Adams, it makes no bones about the value of the RNLI

The lifeboat stations that circle our coastline, crewed by volunteers and funded by charity, are living reminders of the humanitarian impulse that remains the best of us. Nigel Farage’s attempts to undermine that spirit last week, by characterising boats saving drowning refugees as a “taxi service for migrants”, went against everything… that the crews risk their lives for. The fact that donations to the RNLI are up 3,000% in the days since is a welcome indication that the spirit that sends those crews out is as appreciated now as it ever was.’

Photograph: Andrew Fosker/REX/Shutterstock
Image from The Guardian

Since then the RNLI has been ‘inundated with donations and messages of support’ it’s work was widely praised on social media too and according to Rachel Hall, also writing in The Guardian ‘it has been trending on Twitter, with the likes of Nicola Sturgeon and Gary Lineker posting their support.’

Even our Prime Mendacitor felt he ought to join in the debate. His spokesperson said the RNLI did “vital work to protect people’s lives at sea”, but added in an attempt to placate Farage that ‘the migrants’ journeys across the Channel were “dangerous and unnecessary”’

But I think it is necessary to point out that there is nothing new in refugees crossing the ocean or the channel to get to the UK because they cannot bear the terrible things that were being done to them in what, until then, had been their home country. In 1972 they were running from Idi Amin. In 1979 it was the Vietnamese displaced by the Vietnam war. And if you look even further back in our history you will find an influx of people from all over the place, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, even Romans who didn’t particularly want to go back to Rome. Nothing new.

And there’s nothing new about the reaction from the various peoples who were in residence in the UK and didn’t want any more people coming in.

Then I remembered a poem from 1979 which looks at the refugees we called ‘The Boat People’ and is I think germaine to the current reactions now.

“Boat people”


You have to admit it’s the right romantic label
And cleverly attached at just the right moment
To evoke the right response,
Our easy sentimental charity
To soothe and assuage
A manageable, comfortable guilt.

We didn’t feel the same kind glow at all
For all those other frightened refugees
Who fled to us in 1972
From the torture, traps and threatened massacre
Of bully-boy Amin.
But then they were only “Ugandan Asians”
And these are “The boat people.”

It’s a cute description – “Boat people”
Their crafty propagandist chose it well,
A slick soft-sell.
It suggests the sturdy vagrant, travelling for freedom,
Sun-tanned and spicy, glamorous, exotic;
The superior inferior
With the uncanny, useful sight of the clairvoyant.

“Boat people” are different.
They smell of the salt-fresh sea
And are as independent as sailors.
So all the nice girls love them.
Naturally
And it’s quite in order
To let such people cross our closing border
And file to join our overcrowded ranks
Stumbling their thanks.

In every television they are seen,
Grateful, polite and clean,
Polished for presentation,
The sort of charming visitors who please,
Who do not make a mess or bring disease.
They paid their passage here in stored gold leaf.

Their well fed faces and their rounded limbs
Display an affluence quite like our own.
Good servants of an Empire, Yankee style,
And well rewarded
Till the Empire fell.
Then suddenly they had no craft to sell
And they were hated by the new-grown powers
Loathed and belittled, pressured to submit
To poverty, to service, to defeat.
So bought another craft for their escape.

I wonder what our welcome would have been
If they’d been called “the Chinese middle class”
And not “boat people”.

Or they’d arrived here, dirty, underfed,
Unheralded – or ‘red’.

One thought on “What’s in a word?

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