Vinay Patel, writer of True Brits, is a young playwright from the Southeast of London who is ashamed to admit he has never lived north of the river Thames. The play runs at Assembly until the end of August. Grace Knight met him in Brooks Bar to talk about national identity, a grandfather who was more British than British, and the importance of solidarity.
The worst thing I ever said to anyone was to someone on the bus, 'Yeah, don't worry about me. I'm not a Muslim.”
He began by describing his Edinburgh show.
“True Brits follows the life of Rahul, who's a British Asian Londoner, across two time periods: the 2012 Olympics, and just before and after the 7/7 bombings. At its heart it's a story of a young man trying to be a part of the people around him, and his country and the world as well.”
Patel commented that this is a much more personal play than his previous work. I wanted to know what motivated him to write it.
“Quite a few things, actually. Firstly, on a technical level I wanted to tackle doing a one person play, because I've never done one before. Secondly, I approach a lot of my plays from looking at roles, and I try and think, 'What sort of actor do I think isn't getting a good role?'
“I consciously try to avoid writing plays about ethnic minority things because I feel that as a minority writer, once you go down that route, you never get out of it. However, I just noticed a dearth of good, interesting, British Asian roles so I was like, 'You know what? I'm just gonna do one.' And I realised as I started writing there were a lot of things I wanted to say. I hated the fact that most representations of British Asians were terrorists, basically, or people who might be terrorists, or friends of terrorists, or just slightly radical.”
I asked whether the play was autobiographical.
“To a degree, in that the feelings within it are certainly autobiographical. I used some situations I'd been in but I tried, as every draft developed, to take it further and further away from my experience and point it more towards what I was trying to say with it.
“But for me, this play started with the feelings, and accessing those was great. It was a really fun way of writing, but it also made me realise I hadn't tackled those experiences in my own life. I'd sort of brushed it away and said it was fine, but actually I got really angry writing the play in a way I didn't realise that I was.”
Patel went into a bit more detail about the feelings he put into the play, and the setting.
“London is a notoriously grumpy city and for the two weeks [of the Olympics], everyone was so nice, and really happy, in a way I'd never seen in my entire life. [It was] really strange. And I felt it too, and I was like, 'This is great, and I feel like a big part of this.'
Patel commented that he had always told his family that racism in Britain was “not terrible”, and that things were getting better. “I was a kid when Steven Laurence was murdered, which was not too far from me, and the BNP was present in my home borough. So for me, between where I was as a kid and where I was when I was 18, 19, it was actually was a lot of progress there.
“I think as a minority you, well, for me, I forget what colour I am when I talk to people. 7/7 was the first time in my life I've been properly, properly aware of it for an extended period of time. I mean, it really put me on the outside. People would say really strange things. From an out and out racist thing which, because you're kind of used to it, that's kind of fine, to the more insidious.
“I went to uni in Exeter, which is an interesting place in itself, but there was a guy at this party I went to, and he just kept telling me over and over again, [that] 'all brown people should be searched at the airport.' I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. And when people around you don't say anything about it, you think, 'Oh, they're thinking it as well.'”
Patel said it made him question his own feeling that he belonged in Britain. “I didn't believe it any more. And that made me so angry, and so scared.
“I would caveat, though, and I think this is something people need to remind themselves of, that actually, in terms of things that happened after 7/7, even after Lee Rigby was murdered, the reaction from people was nowhere near as extreme as I think you'd get in other places. I dread to think what would happen in America, and I think that speaks very positively of us as a nation.
“We are a lot more tolerant than the news likes to put out. Like Britain First, the paramilitary group. They recently went into a Mosque in Crayford; the video of it is horrific, they harass and intimidate this old man. But again [as happened with the EDL], the leader of Britain First said, 'These guys are idiots.' Pulled the funding. And for me, I think that's really positive. I love the fact that we're still able to hold the far right to account in that way, and that there is enough tacit pressure around to make that happen. I think that is really, really important to acknowledge. And actually, if the furthest right we go in political terms is UKIP, I'm fine with that. You can shame UKIP; you can't shame Combat 18 or the National Front.
“I think the London polls [in the recent European elections] were really telling. The boroughs where UKIP did well were the places with the fewest minorities. It speaks to the fear. That's why in the play, I very specifically didn't want to have a Muslim character. I wanted there to be traits of things people associate with it, like speaking Arabic, or beards, or a certain sense of defiance, and channel that into different characters that just put that paranoid feeling into the air, as opposed to nailing it down to a certain character.
“Another thing in terms of ethnic minority writing is the way that characters are made to represent things.” Patel suggested that the first time a new ethnic group enters a country, it can be useful to people to put aside differences of religion or culture, because, “in a way they experience the same sort of oppression against them, or systems against them. But I think we've got to the place where that filters out a little bit.
“Having said that, another reason behind this play is a certain guilt within me, because the worst thing I ever said to anyone was to someone on the bus, 'Yeah, don't worry about me. I'm not a Muslim.” Which at the time seemed really reasonable but I just can't get over the fact I ever said that.
“That's one time where you do want solidarity within a certain group. The EDL are really good at targeting British Sikhs and British Hindus and going, 'Hey we like you guys, we just hate the Muslims.' And you know what? That is the worst thing. That is the worst thing. That's when you want solidarity because actually that visual identification will stick, and if you want to fight that you have to go, 'You know what, I want to stand alongside Muslims.'
I asked what being English means to him.
“I think England is generally relatively good at being friendly to outsiders. We do generally welcome outsiders and so for me that's something that's really important. Being curious about the world. In a bad form, that leads to empire, but in other times you get stuff like the Commonwealth, you get language exchanges, you get stuff like the British Council.
“But for me personally, I feel at home whenever I'm in Britain. That could be Exeter, that could be Leeds, or whatever. I'm comfortable with the multicultural areas 'cause I grew up in London, but having gone to Exeter, which is 98% white, I felt perfectly at home there, had a great time. It's the same music, knowing the same cultural references, the same jokes. I think that all helps, creates that sense of belonging. For me it's that cultural thing.”
I asked Patel whether he thought English people should feel entitled to national pride, after the damage inflicted on the world by the British Empire.
“This is why I find my grandparents' story really, really interesting. My granddad on my mum's side in particular identified as British even though he was born in India and raised in Kenya. For him, it was a set of attributes that had been transported over to there, and he was like, 'I really like the sound of that. I like dressing in a certain way, or having a certain sense of values to the way you treat women, or idea about what's good for you in education.'
“To an extent he became this ideal of what Britishness was. I remember he told me he came here and worked on rebuilding Thamesmead, and he was horrified to find that the cups had tea stains on them.” Patel explained that to his granddad, this just wasn't up to what he considered to be the British standard. “He went and cleaned every single one of them.”
“I think the weird plus side of [empire] is that we, as a country, do multiculturalism better than anyone else. I think that's not just an English thing, I think Scotland does it very well. I know lots of Indian Scots who properly love being Scottish, and I think England has that too. I think it actually has a very healthy dynamic of multiculturalism. I know that's a really pat, left wing answer but actually I do think England should be really proud of that heritage.”
I asked him what he wanted people to get from the play.
“I can talk about it in two reactions I got yesterday from the audience. One was a young British Asian girl who got in touch to say it spoke to a lot of feelings that she'd had. I think there's a particular story about British Asians which isn't told, which is the one about not how much they don't fit in, but about how much they want to fit in, and that's something I really wanted to put out there in the world.
“The other was a Scottish lady who told me that it put another nugget into the way she was thinking about Scottish independence and what it means to people.” The lady commented that it made her think about how minorities might be viewing the debate. “That's great, I love that. So what I want people to take from this play is that actually, the hardest thing for the last ten years [has been] how much people have wanted to fit in, rather than that they don't.”
I wanted to know whether Patel considered himself to be a political playwright.
“In the sense that there'll always be something within a play that I'm trying to say. I think you either stand on a soap box in Hyde Park and scream out at people or you write a play about it. You'd get more people listening to you in Hyde Park than in a studio theatre, probably. I'm interested in the grander ideas of people's politics with the people around them, and I think that's what the political is about.
“The next play I want to write is about the birth of India through the eyes of two different men, and the conceptions they had for what that country would mean and look like, and what their founding myths would be, and I find that really interesting. Stuff like that, founding myths, what people believe in themselves, what they believe in their country, I find deeply interesting.
“You read interviews with other playwrights and they'll often talk very strongly about the places they've come from, and they make that a very big part of their identity. You can be British Yorkshire, British Liverpudlian, as well as British Asian. That's almost just this other adjunct of it.”