Immigration: past and present
The history of London is a history of immigration. The city being located on a river, was established by an outpost of the Roman Empire army, whose membership was made up of a mixture of European tribes, few of whom were Roman. Since then London has always played host, welcomingly or otherwise, to people of foreign factions, including those involved in trade, invading armies and those fleeing terror and hardship. By the eighteenth century it could be said that London, like Britain was made up of a mixture of Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normas and Hugeunots.
Immigration continued at pace in the nineteenth century, during which time any member of the British Empire was allowed to take up residence in London and the United Kingdom. Following the second world war, men from India and the West Indies were encouraged to live in the United Kingdom, to do the manual labour required for post-war reconstruction that native Brits were said to have declined. This transformed the face of London, West Indians moving into Notting Hill and going on to create Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest carnival in Europe, and Indians moving into Southall, creating what can now be considered Little India.
In the late twentieth century civil conflict in Cyprus led to Greek and Turkish Cypriots moving into northern London, whilst civil conflict in Lebanon led to rich Lebanese businessmen moving into the more salubrious parts of central western London, and meant Arab holidaymakers changed their holiday plans, switching from the breezy hills surrounding Beirut to the temperate London summers, London offering the same, if not more, of the standard of living that was offered by the Lebanese capital in the sixties and seventies.
More recently the willingness of European countries to open up their borders, and allow free movement of people, has led to Eastern Europeans arriving in London to find work and take advantage of the benefits and health care system, which is offered freely to all residents. It was said that nearly one million Polish people came to the UK following Poland’s acceptance into the European Union. Arrivals are expected from Romania and Bulgaria in the next few years.
In the twenty-first century foreign nationals with large incomes have been encouraged to buy properties in London, which has led to Arabs, Far Eastern businessmen and oligarchs from former Soviet states moving into the city. The financial crisis was said to have led to wealthy French, Italian and Greeks selling up and investing their money in London property, principally South Kensington, considered to be a stable reserve currency, more stable than the Euro and safer in London than in countries where the state under a severe amount of stress is expected to be prone to wanting to whisk the currency away.
Britain has also been the point of arrival for people with less means to purchase a Mayfair town house, people with very little at all, whether fleeing persecution and war, or whether because they see the opportunity to improve their quality of life in Britain or London. People from some of the poorest and conflictual communities and areas of the world, including Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq continue to arrive to seek out a new life in Britain.
Immigration of large communities, en masse, into London has created areas of London, which become settled by and connected to a particular ethnic group. Harlesden, a rather gritty part of north west London, with small semi-detached and terraced houses, has this rather strange enclave, painted in bright yellow, signifying that a Brazilian population has settled there. Of course there is China Town in Soho, and Pekckham Rye, which has numerous African grocers stores, in which bananas of different varieties hang from the walls and ripen, and outside of which groups of men sit chewing the fat.
Anyone getting on the Northern Line train to Edgeware at half past five in the evening, will notice one or two skullcaps clipped to the hairy barnets of Jewish men, some of whom study religious texts, whilst on the way to home in north London. Being a focal point for Jewish social life, Golders Green High Street is dead on a Saturday evening, the Jewish Sabbath, but alive on a Sunday, probably the liveliest place in London at that time of the week. Every restaurant carries a certification of acceptance from a local Rabbi, even the curry house.
Southall, commonly known as Little India, is noticeably Asian. A small shop, a stone’s throw from the train station sells Masala Chai – very Christmassy with its cinnamon aroma, and tabacco leaves, stuffed with seeds and spices, which the consumer is supposed to chew for several hours. One can find the mother of all Indian supermarkets; the Himalaya Palace, and a succession of gold and Indian music shops. One shop advertises the fact that it sells ‘western food’. In the Gurdwaras, Sikh temples, men of many different walks of Islami life are taking their socks and shoes off, and applying an orange kaftan. An old man with a fine mousetache talks in broken English about how Kabul is not doing well – mujahadeen – he says. Across the cold floors, into the dining hall, men sit cross legged on long carpets and eat. In the prayer hall, a beautiful, huge room, with a sea of white carpet, men, and women, sitting in small groups or on their own, contemplated the melodic litargies of wisened and beard distinguished scholars. The scholar sits in a box lit up by orange and yellow hues given life by light filtered by stain glass windows. The man waves a white feathered stick across something that takes the shape of a very small coffin – all covered in white. Either side scholars take their position in booths, which light up when they are present, we see learning and wisdom accreted – pages of large books turned and inspected. Learning al publico. This is not England. I close my eyes and let the melodies of this old scholar’s song fill my mind – my brain trying to make sense of the grammar of this strange language – I feel welcomed and yet unwelcomed. This is not England.
Some, in fact most areas in London are characterized by the presence of two or three prominent ethnic groups. Golders Green, an affluent area in north London, has a large Jewish population, secular to orthodox, who rub shoulders with a sizeable Korean and Japanese population, amongst whom mingle Eastern Europeans and Turks. And in practice whilst one ethnic group may come to be associated with a particular area, most areas in London are a mix. For example Golders Green, as well as having a prominent Jewich population, also has English, Koreans, Turkish and Polish people living there. Tottenham has large populations of Turks, Poles and Afro-Carribeans.
The cultures mix, producing unexpected results. In Golders Green there is a curry house, which has been blessed by a Rabbi, and has a certificate to improve it, many Jewish people wont eat in there otherwise. Back in Southall there is clearly some kind of a Somali population. Going for a stroll with a friend one day we find ourselves drawn to the football results flashing out at us from what looks like a Somali shop specialising in fruit juices. They have colourful garlands hanging up all over the shop, borrowed it seems from their Sikh brothers.
The identify of some areas have changed over time as new immigrant communities move in to the area. Spitalfields and Whitechapel, traditionally poor parts in the East End of central London, have long been characterized by recently arrived immigrant populations moving in, taking the place of the last one, who having bettered themselves have started to move out. In the eighteenth century, with the arrival of the Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing persecution by the Catholics, French was commonly spoken on the street. French weavers’ houses were built, very tall, with an attic room, allowing light to enter the attic room, where the weaver would do his work. These houses can still be found in Spitalfieds today, on streets, which still bear in the French names given to them by the weavers, such as Fleur-de-Lys Street and Fournier Street. By the time the twentieth century had arrived, the area was better known for the Jews, who lived there, who had fled violent campaigns to exterminate them in Eastern Europe. Sandy’s synagogue and the Jewish work house for the poor still stand. Post-war the Jewish population moved out to be replaced by a Bengali population, whose presence remains a strong flavour in the area, and best sampled through the countless curry houses on Spitalfield’s principal street, Brick Lane, and seen in the street signs, written in Bengali as well as English. Signs include translations of names like Quaker Street, leaving one wondering how the word quaker translated into Sylheti. One building in particular, an old Hugeunot church in Brick Lane, later used as a synagogue and now used as a mosque sums up perfectly the ways in which an area comes to be defined by particular ethnic groups. Greek Cypriots were once said to have colonized Green Lanes, which is now mostly Turkish and Kurdish.
One of the sweetest stories concerning how one group leaves a legacy for the new arrivals to the area is interwoven into the history of Somers Town, an enclave of northern central London, sandwiched between Camden Town and Kings Cross. Somers Town’s existence has endured two hundred and fifty years and was initially linked to the political and religious upheavals taking place in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the late seventeenth century whilst Somers Town was pastoral land used for dog fighting and bull baiting, in France, Catholic King Louis XIV outlawed the practice of Protestantism. French Protestants fled from France in fear of prosecution. The ‘Huguenots’ as the Protestants were nicknamed by their Catholic pursuers arrived in London in large numbers, between fifty and eighty thousand, settling in Soho and Spitalfields. In the middle of the eighteenth century, by which time the Huguenots had become part of the fabric of London, the authorities in London decided to build a New Road for north London to ease congestion and to aid urbanisation. The New Road, now known as Euston Road, was to be an outer ring road running south of the pastoral land that would come to be known as Somers Town. The advent of the New Road spurred local aristocrat Lord Somers to initiate a building programme. His land was leased to French Huguenot developer Jacob Leroux. Leroux’s developments included a sixteen-sided residential building called the Polygon, which consisted of thirty-two houses and became home to Charles Dickens and Mary Wollstonecraft. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Leroux’s housing development was finished, but it did not prove attractive to the rich, as had been intended, and was subsequently sold off at cheap prices. As it happened, the selling-off coincided with a revolution in French political life and the beginning of the Reign of Terror; an attempt to purge any opposition to the newly instated principles of republicanism and democracy. This time it was the Roman Catholic clergy, those who had pursued the Huguenots, who were chased out of the country. Many Catholics ended up on the shores of England and in London, and given the low rents, in Somers Town. So, through a coming together of political revolutions, building developments and a crash in the housing market, a French Protestant ended up building a whole urban village to accommodate those very Catholics who had pursued the sorry asses of his ilk a century before. Part of the legacy of the French Catholics in Somers town is frequent reference to Saint Aloysius a sixteenth century Italian saint, found in place names including a church, several schools and a social club.
Multiculturalism, racism, capitalism and politics
In these capitalistic days where money rules supreme, the political elite and popular masses do not show as much hatred and violence towards ethnic minorities and ‘foreigners’ as has sometimes been the case in London and Britain’s history. London, has thanks to the policies of successive British governments since the dawn of Thatcherism, been hollowed out, and rebuilt for global capital, irrespective of the ethnicity, to control and create a new global financial capital, which has over the last twenty to thirty years been populated by Americas, Swiss, Arabs, Japanese, Chinese and Russians respectively. A second class, an educated academic international middle class has also been created. It is largely white western European although not exclusively, and it works for a variety of research institutes, civil service, universities and EU bureaus. Furthermore immigration into the United Kingdom of economic migrants and refugees has been promoted by the political classes and state as a means of reducing labour costs, and widening profit margins for the capitalists.
This recasting of London as a capitalistic hub, a if not the financial capital of the world, together with a desire to soften up the working classes, requires Britain and London is open to immigration, principally as a means of attracting in the wealthiest and most intelligent and greedy people from around the world on the one hand, and some of the poorest and desparate on the other. All of this requires a suppression of attempts to racialize politics and politicize immigration. Obviously immigration itself helps strengthen the hands of those in whose interests it serves. Larger ethnic minorities, in a parliamentary democracy based on first past the post, weakens the chances of success for anyone wanting to represent the English working classes. Furthermore any such attemptes to politically further the interests of the English, and in particular the English working classes, have often been painted as racist and therefore unacceptable.
Multi-culturalism has been celebrated, and an air of liberality has long been in the scent of the London air. Newspapers, politicians and anyone with a voice usually takes pride in making reference to the melting pot of London, diversity as a strength as if homogeneity would be a weakness, of people being traditionally welcomed to Britain and London, within the city walls. In these reasonably liberal times, immigration, and the melting pot is often celebrated, the idea that people from around the world continue to be welcomed into the city walls talked about with a sense of pride.
However, underpinning this is a celebration of the exoticism, the aesthetics of particular newly arrived immigrant communities. There is an absence of celebration of English working class culture, almost as if English culture, and perhaps English working class culture is some kind of clay, some dull stuff, which contrasts with the brightly coloured jewels and stones from other cultures. English food, working class English food and take-aways are derided. Community centres are opened for specific ethnic immigrant populations, linguistic groups and particular ethnic groups have meet-ups, which you can find out about online, but creating an English community centre or holding such a group in the name of English people would be heavily criticized.
Multiculturalism is the cultural equivalent of the state’s monopolisation of violence – it is an attempt to monopolise cultural criticism. Through it the state demands that groups and individuals refrain from criticising each other’s religion and culture. The state has created a climate of fear where we are no longer able to openly criticise or freely interpret the key tenets of certain religions or cultural traditions. The natural reaction from much of the middle classes, and from the unthinking left, to those that criticise or raise questions about other non-dominant cultures, is to apply the label ‘racist’ and threats of litigation, job loss and prison sentences.
Despite the generally favourable attitude towards immigration, there has been resistance voiced. The more aggressive elements of British politics, in the form of the British National Party, and more recently the English Defence League, which has a specifically anti-Islamic agenda, has risen up, representing a significant minority. One million people voted for the British National Party in the last European elections, enough for the BNP to have a candidate elected to the European Parliament. In recent years the UK Independence Party, fronted by the less aggressive, and more welly-boot wearing faux farmer aristocrat, Nigel Farage, has made significant political gains, so much so that it has been suggested that the UK Independence Party will win the biggest share of the vote in the next European elections. Farage has made withdrawing from the European Union, and stopping impoverished people from Romania and Bulgaria from coming to live in the UK, a central part of his political agenda. The increasing popularity of the UK Independence Party, is leaving the members of mainstream political parties, who are signed up to multiculturalism, increasingly frightened, for they don’t really know how to speak out against immigration.
The state does not, of course, apply the demands it makes of people, to itself. The government is able to talk of ‘Islamic terrorism’ insinuating that terrorism has its roots in, and is thus caused by something inherent in Islam. The increasing popularity of the UK Independence Party, prompted the current Conservative dominated coalition government to send sandwich board vans out into the streets with the msessages “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” to extraordinary limited success. The government continues to use the notion of the developed and developing world, implicitly attributing value to the developed countries, and the people that live within them, whilst denigrating those that come from developing countries. Furthermore, the government has recently tabled proposals for letting people with certain types of skill or a certain amount of wealth, into the country, denying access to others. This of course constitutes gross class discrimination – the world’s middle classes may enter but not the worthless poorer classes. It also constitutes indirect racial discrimination, given that many of the world’s poorer and less skilled people find themselves where they are, by dint of the fact that they are members of oppressed ethnic groups. A further direct form of racial discrimination is the distinction made between Europeans and outsiders. Europeans from all over the Union are now free to enter into the UK, Europeans from outside the Union are not. Multiculturalism is not really an attempt to achieve cultural harmony, equilibrium and racial equality. Instead, it is designed to stop people from commenting on immigration policy and how it is being used to serve the interests of British industry, the state and the middle classes. Industry and the middle classes crave the endless supply of cheap labour that immigration brings. It not only helps one compete with the likes of China, it serves to soften up the indigenous working classes. Furthermore, the middle classes, sitting pretty in their ‘detached’ houses and ‘exclusive’ apartments, only ever see the benefits of multicultural British society: thousands of different restaurants, a variety of music and the cosmopolitan buzz of London. Yes, the middle classes and the state encourage immigration, sometimes covertly, but they don’t want to shell out the money needed to properly integrate the poorer immigrants, and they don’t want to know about the adverse effects of immigration policy in the poorer areas of the country. Above all, the middle classes don’t want a proper debate about what is needed to properly support refugees and asylum seekers, because the answer would form a rationale for raising taxes and worsening their own personal economic condition. The middle classes, which in our society have the authorial power to make statements about the pros and cons of admitting refugees and asylum seekers, simply prefer to keep quiet about it.
Consequently, the government requires us to embrace all those people who it lets in and put up with the flaws in its policy without resistance. Fortunately, the parliamentary dictatorship under which we live, is democratically elected, so the tensions created by immigration policy should find an outlet in political debate. So far, the debate has been stifled, by the fact that the only parties that are willing to discuss these issues, are the parties who have either traditionally had a hateful edge (as with the Conservatives) or are just hateful to the core (British National Party and the National Front). Whenever they talk, people assume there is a hidden or not so hidden racist agenda. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats and many unthinking people in this country, afraid to be cast in the same mould, simply cry out ‘racist’, or keep their heads down, as soon as anyone raises objections to the number of people coming into the country. Britain is crying out for a sensible debate on what to do about immigration – one where the right can talk about the benefits of immigration – and one where the left can talk about reducing immigration and setting a cap on the number of asylum seekers and refugees.
The tensions inherent in British society over the issue of immigration remind us that the melting point has sometimes turned into a volcano, which has erupted with violent consequences, with bigger groups, ethnic or religious, trying to exterminate smaller groups. In 1290 Edward I expelled all the Jews living in England at the time. Foreigners, many of htem traders and lenders, have often been the target of riotous mobs looking for an easy victim. Five hundred years later in 1780, thousands of Protestant Londoners took to the street and attacked Roman Catholics and churches, many of whom would have been of French stock, leaving over two hundred people dead. In more recent times, the West Indians who moved to Notting Hill in the 1960s, were repeatedly attacked and killed by gangs of white men, some of them the London Metropolitan Police force. In the last decade, despite the liberal trend, the British National Party, an aggressive group of White Caucasians, fought to put what is considers to be the interests of the members of its ethnic group before others. The British National Party has never been a dominant political force in the United Kingdom. However they have over the last twenty years had successes in London. In 1993 Derek Beacon won a seat on the Isle of Dogs Council fighting for the National Front. In 2008, Richard Barnbrook won a seat on the London Assembly after the British National Party polled five per cent of the London vote. One in every twenty voters in London, who decided to vote, voted for the British National Party. By 2010 the party had won twelve seats on the Barking and Dagenham Council, making it the second biggest party after the Labour Party. All of this indicated an enduring general sentiment amongst some proportion of London voters against immigration, and arguably against the presence of particular ethnic or cultural groups.
The ethnic divisions in London have been played out and are informed by international ethnic conflicts. Britain’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and their killing, murder, torture and persecution of Muslims in these countries, have led British Muslims, and Muslims in London, who perceive the attacks to be part of a general global war between non-Muslims and Muslims, to take up arms against the interests of the British state and/or people who support that state. The co-ordinated bombings of the London transport system in 2005 was the result of such motivation. More recently in 2013, two men, claiming to be Muslims fighting in a war against the British army, approached a serving British soldier outside barracks in Woolwich, South London, and knifed him to death. In response a number of attacks have been made on Mosques and buildings associated with Islam. It would seem that a low level war is beginning to break out between aggressive males, who are looking for a fight, and who find the Islam v West discourse a convenient narrative into which to organise their aggressive activity.
Anti-foreigner, anti-oustider sentiment had long existed in London, but with waves of immigration sedimenting into the bedrock of the British psyche, the notion of who is an insider and who an outsider begins to change. In other words, the increasing ethnic diversity of the British population, is affecting who gets involved in racialized and ethnicized political and violent inter-group conflict. Parties like the British National Party and the English Defence League have started to admit non-British non-Whites into their ranks, people, who would have been seen as the immigrant enemy thirty or forty years ago. Furthermore news documentaries have shown how second generation Indians and Black British people are themselves concerned about the levels of immigration. This reminds us that the notion of Englishness and Britishness is malleable, and ultimately refers not to any essential bloodline or genetic grouping, but instead to a population of people, who feel by weight of number and time spent in the country, a special interest in uniting together to fight against new people arriving into the country. Even in the sixties and seventies white racists would have likely been from Eastern European, Danish, Germanic, Jewish and French stock.
It gets complicated then, anti-immigration is not just about white English people being against everyone else, it is also about people who have been in the country for some time, being against new arrivals. Sometimes there is conflict between groups who have already arrived here, inter-racial conflict, not just between the White British and minority ethnic groups. In Tottenham Turkish people and Black people do not always see eye to eye. I once saw a group of four to five fairly resolute Turkish guys, coming out of a supermarket on the High Road, walking in a line, in concert, in the direction of an African guy who looked like he had just been thrown out. They motioned to the African guy, who had just come out of the shop, inviting him down a side alley. The leader of the Turkish gang said, ‘Come down here my friend. Come, come down here my friend’. The African, who looked tall, athletic and fit, not being completely cowed, given that he might have been a match for any one of the Turkish men, did not act aggressively, given that he was no match for the five, protested his innocence, almost as if he was looking to provoke some kind of violence. In Finsbury Park, I saw another incident where one or two Black people, were surrounded by the Algerians who hang out in the coffee bars down Blackstock Road.
Some Black people have a shared understanding that Black people have to look out for each other, because they believe they are collectively oppressed by white people. This understanding can be used disingenuously. One Saturday night, a black twenty-something was walking home from a pub in Crouch End, when he saw a guy, a white guy, with a nice looking girl, and feeling a degree of envy and resentment, not having the company of such a lady, he decided to insult the guy. Much to his surprise the object of his scorn responded by approaching him and giving him a beating. Whilst the young Black man was being subject to his unrequited full body massage, the driver of a passing car, another Black guy, slammed his foot on the breaks, the car screetching to a halt. The driver got out and gave the provocateur’s assailant a seeing too. Afterwards, after he had straightened himself out, the Black superman looked deep into the eyes of his Black ‘brother’, wistfully spoke about the trials and tribulations of being a victim of racism, and from the pit of his soul reiterated the need for Black people to stick together, as if he was sure that his victim would do the same for him, if the roles had been reversed. As his rescuer spoke, the young Black man shook his head with a sense of futility as if every word of his rescuer resonated with his day to day experience of life, and then nodded his head profoundly about the need to stick together, thanked him and then walked off into the night with a sly grin on his face.
White flight and white resentment
And what of the white English in London? White people can still be found in London. The upper classes and the middle classes seem to have by and large melded into a multicultural upper and middle class. However when it comes to the working classes, there are still some very clear and distinct white working class areas in London, where the population of white working class people, live side by side with other types, but they have their own social gatherings and institutions. For example, in the northern parts of Somers Town, there are several pubs which act as their totems and meeting points, the indigenous working class can be found. A man leans out from his balcony in a string vest and smokes a fag. St George’s flags hang from pub and flat windows; arguably desperate signs of a community experiencing a social and psychological death. In places like Somers Town older white English people, who have lived there all their lives, bemoan the increased number of immigrants or students who move into the area, reminiscing about the old days, when most people were white, working class and English. Some blame the foreigners. But white flight is white people who have decided to leave certain areas of London. Sometimes it is because the economic fortuntes of a certain proportion of the people in an area improve, or opportuinities for a better kind of life tempt them elsewhere. Sometimes its because where a certain area attracts poor immigrants, with poor mental health and little English. White people, given the choice, move, they want to take their children to schools, where everyone speaks English and the children have less problems to deal with. For example, it has been said that the size of the English working class community in Somers Town has diminished over the last forty years. This process was facilitated by Margaret Thatcher’s policy of allowing people who rented Council Houses to buy the property. In Somers Town many members of the English working class community bought their Council house, sold up and then shipped out to more affluent areas. In effect the English working classes, enticed by Margaret, started to abandon their own kind.
The spaces left by those who sold-up and shipped out were filled, thanks to private landlords and state policies, with immigrants, students and middle class types. This has meant a dilution of the working class culture in the area. The new arrivals have their own way of doing things, their own interests and friends. For example students on short-term lets have no real interest in investing in local community relationships, and will be gone sooner than they have arrived. Muslims don’t drink. They do Mosques not pubs. In Shadwell, one Saturday morning at 12am, I see a tall guy, a geezer, balding, young, with stubble over his face, outside the newsagents on the part of Shadwell just outside of the train stations, that connect the DLR to the Overground. He has caught the attention of an attractive young girl, possibly Asian, though she is, unlike the other’s in the area, not wearing a hijab, and dressed shapely, with ruby red lipstick. He says something to her, and she looks at him with an expression of distaste and disinterest. I cross the road, and I see the guy staring at me, staring through me almost, as he steadies himself on his two feet. Can you tell me where the nearest pub he says, I want to watch the match. I want to help, I want to feel locally knowledgeable, but I am struggling, and then a question pops into my mind, “Where’s the football match?” I ask, thinking that he wants to go to the pub and then on the match? This comment seems slightly incredulous to him, and it transforms his thousand yard stare into a transient moment of focus on my face. No he just wants to watch the match in a pub. I strain and strain and try to think of a local boozer, the type I would never think to enter. There’s one up Limehouse way, by Commercial Road, I thought, and I end up telling him that there aren’t anyway round here, he’d have to go down into Wapping. You see, the movement of Islamic communities into certain areas of London has understandably resulted in many pubs in those areas shriveling up and die, to become relics, turned into flats or just simply borded up. In Shadwell Overground train station there’s a picture of a still thriving Railway Inn, or whatever its called, but if you go past that now, you will find that it’s a sad picture of its past.
The social networks of the English working classes are thus diluted, and their sense of belonging and security diminished. Some hark back, nostalgically. A Somers Town resident recalls, ‘Somers Town was lost a long time ago. It had everything you would associate with a working class culture – a street market, greengrocers, fish shops – but these had disappeared by the 1980s. Another says ‘Pubs used to be what brought people together, but they’ve closed now mostly. Used to be good old knees up pubs, family pubs where you knew people and you kept on eye on each other’s kids playing outside‘.
The English working classes start to feel lost and lonely, strangers in their own land, confused by comings and goings, by the decay of their roots. They notice that whilst immigrant cultures are celebrated and funded their own English working class culture is shunned as if it doesn’t exist, as if they don’t have problems, as if English is a dirty word. Morrisey, never much of a working class hero, penned the lyric, ‘I’m dreaming of a time when to be English is not to be baneful, to be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial’. One Somers Town resident commented [Bengalis] end up in Bengali specific centres while our pubs are closing and we get resentful – why can’t there be a Women’s Centre and why does it have to be an Asian Women’s Centre instead?’ Furthermore they feel they ‘are losing out to minorities and new migrants when it comes to the allocation of social housing“. One resident says, “If you’ve got five kids then you get a big house and the only people that have five kids nowadays are the Bengalis and the Somalis and so they get all the big places.”
It is understandable that the English working classes feel a sense of dizziness and fear over the rapid changes that are taking place around them, that make the place they grew up in thirty years ago feel like a distant memory. Some residents transfer their anger of being abandoned by their own on to those who filled the spaces. One comments, ‘The schools have been taken over now – I walked past a rounders game, and the teacher and seven out of the nine pupils were veiled.’
But was Somers Town ever as English or as working class English as some remember it? Perhaps so, but the history of Somers Town, has always been a home for the dispossessed; in fact it was built by a son of the French Protestant diaspora. It has taken in the French, Greek Cypriots and now Bengali and Somali. Is this discourse of the area losing its English identity really just a misplaced way of expressing a basic feeling of anxiety with the pace of change, with the transient nature of community, and the control the working classes have always lacked over their own lives and environment?