‘From immigrant boy to English man’ — BBC newsreader George Alagiah brings the Charles Causley Festival to a close

By Amy Dennis in Local People

THE newsreader who reported on the recent Westminster terror attack for the BBC told an audience in Launceston at the weekend that he refuses to ‘feel threatened by Islam’, which he described as a religion of ‘quiet purpose and worship’, lamenting that ‘many Muslims feel threatened at the moment’.

Journalist George Alagiah was at Launceston Town Hall on Saturday where he gave a talk as the final event in the programme for the Charles Causley Festival.

He explained to the audience he gained a familiarity with Islam while living in Ghana, where he attended primary school, as he would see his family driver, Al Hassan, a Muslim, stop his painstaking work on making sure the car was faultless, to take part in morning prayer.

He asked Al Hassan what he was saying, Al Hassan’s reply was that he only asked to be kept safe, while a young George wondered why he wouldn’t ask for something more, saying: “I would ask God for a bike.”

He told the audience: “Al Hassan’s Islam never felt threatening and I refuse to feel threatened by it now. For me it has always been a religion of quiet purpose and worship.”

Mr Alagiah with the News at Six team reported on the 2005 7/7 attacks in London and said recently on social media he hoped it was something he would not have to do again. Referencing the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester, he said anyone who has looked at social media would ‘know how many Muslims feel threatened at the moment’.

He added: “There was a nurse who treated people in London and on her way home from her shift she was abused. You are much more likely to be cared for by a Muslim person in an NHS hospital, than blown up on the street by one.”

Mr Alagiah shared his story with the audience, of how he went from an 11-year-old Asian boy living in a house in Sri Lanka with no sewerage — “We weren’t poor, my father was a professional. It was just the way it was,” — to foreign correspondent and newsreader for the BBC. Or as his book Home From Home puts it, ‘From immigrant boy to English man’.

He said: “I call that the ‘magic of migration’.”

After attending primary school in Ghana, he was later sent to the UK to attend boarding school in Portsmouth, which he described as a ‘sink or swim affair’. He said ‘I had never thought of myself as different’, but after an incident at boarding school, where he was teased by a fellow pupil, he said ‘suddenly I was different’. Although he laughed along at the time, he vowed then: “It would not be my colour that defines me.”

He said it was during his adulthood, after studying at the University of Durham, when he felt he ‘needed to reassert that part of me that was Asian’. He said he had put this away in a box at the back of his mind, and unpacked that box ‘to explore and enjoy that idea of difference’. “I want difference to matter,” he said.

He added: “If you said to my parents your son is going to be the presenter of the most watched news programme in the UK, they would have laughed at you. For that little boy at that time with the history of his country it would have seemed ridiculous, but here I am, in the context of a country willing to reward hard work, regardless of where people come from and their gender, and so on.

“Immigration ought to be a question of contribution. Welcome to our country. What are you going to do for us now you are here?

“People say he’s an immigrant success story. Sure. Hard work and luck had a lot to do with it but I often say it’s not just about immigration — I stand here before you as a British success story. I’m what is possible when Britain is true to its values.”

Luck also helped in his work as a foreign correspondent: “Luck plays a huge part in how you get stories and in staying alive,” he said.

In 1994 while covering the civil war in Afghanistan, Mr Alagiah and cameraman Ian were staying in a British Red Cross house, and had met a man across the road with links to the government. Mr Alagiah had decided to go and speak to their contact but on the way realised he had forgotten his satchel containing everything he needed to broadcast: “I got halfway across the road and I thought ‘damn, I forgot my satchel’. I turned around, went to get my satchel and that second a mortar hit the house. That’s the sort of day you think someone somewhere is looking after me.”

He said having been to war torn countries, and countries experiencing famine, people asked why he was not depressed by what he had seen. He told the audience: “It’s not ‘til you go to these places that you understand when people say the human spirit. I feel I have touched the human spirit, I have seen and felt the human spirit.

“I’m not a pessimist. I’m profoundly optimistic about what we as a human race can do.”

Mr Alagiah said he felt at the top of his game professionally when the unpredictable happened. In April 2014 he was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer, a doctor at the time said he was a very sick man who did not have any time to lose.

He said: “I had to reach a place of contentment — look at my life and say here I am, and it’s okay.”

He kept a journal during his treatment. In May of 2014, he wrote that he was alone at home but not lonely, having received the well wishes of friends, family and friends he had not met — the many BBC news viewers. His wife and sons were away from home going about their day as normal. Reading a passage from his journal, he said: “All is well and all is as it should be. Nothing has changed and everything has changed. That’s what’s so strange.

“Somewhere between reality and fantasy is optimism, and that’s where my spirit lies.”

Mr Alagiah’s talk was the culmination of the successful Charles Causley Festival, and 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of the late Launceston poet.

Festival chairman Spencer Magill told the audience: “Our guest this afternoon you’re very familiar with, you see him every weekday evening. Our guest is very familiar with Launceston as well — he attended a number of events [at the Charles Causley Festival] last year.”

Mr Alagiah told the Post: “When they first talked to me about coming I didn’t hesitate. Now, in an age of social media when everybody seems to do their communications online, it’s quite nice to see the whites of people’s eyes.

“Local community festivals have a lot to offer in that way. It’s part of getting people together and having conversations. I’m happy to do it.”

He said delivering a talk was something he had wanted to do for a while, but joked: “I’m not used to talking to less than five-million people!”

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