London has often been termed a melting pot. It certainly feels like people are about to melt into one another at times. A visitor to London can be forgiven for thinking that they have found themselves in a snowstorm, as if God had taken the world, shook it up, and people were falling randomly in and round the Big Smoke. This has been the case for two thousand years. When the Romans first founded Britain in 43 AD, it was not genuine Romans, but instead a multi-ethnic army of mercenaries, who were filling to fight and die for the Roman Empire that came across to Britain to found London. Potentially, then you see that with all these people, such a variety of colour and complexion, history and birthplace, juxtaposed, they could gradually melt into one another, creating something greater than the sum of the parts, the dream of the diversity agenda, synergy.
There has undoubtedly been cultural influence. Sometimes the idea of melting pot is a misnomer for cultural imposition. It has been argued that Roman Britain and Roman London involved an accommodation of the British to the Roman way of life, and the development of a distinctive Romano-British culture, although whether this is a melting pot or an imposition is difficult to say. But anyway, arguably this juxtaposition of different cultures and ethnicities has produced some kind of rub-off.
I’m not sure how much melting is really going on though there is the occasional rubbing of shoulders. London has long seen a rubbing of shoulders of foreigners and immigrants, ever since the multi-ethnic Roman army founded London, the city has been attracting merchants and traders from far and wide, who have been more than happy to rub shoulders, share viruses and shake hands. In more modern times, in 1851, at the height of Britain’s imperial powers, London Hyde Park hosted the Great Exhibition, which was an attempt to bring the world together in London. According to Untold London, “As the British Banner, a non-conformist periodical put it: “The Crystal Palace knows no difference between Jew and Greek, Frank and Saxon. For the first time in the annals of Mankind, the Negro and the Malay, the slave and the American, will stand together on equal terms.”
In twenty-first century London people make a superhuman effort to find commonalities, to come together, despite their differences. In 2013 East End hundreds of Christians and Muslims joined together for a joint Christmas-Eid celebration. “I’d never met many of my neighbours before,” said Janet Burns from Bethnal Green’s Cranbrook Tenants’ Association. “Occasions like this give us the chance to share something special—it’s been great.” According to Mike Brooke of the Docklands and East London Advertiser, “The Christmas and Eid parties were part of a series of events laid on by Tower Hamlets Homes to foster understanding between communities.” I have rubbed shoulders once or twice. In 2010, England played Algeria, and around Finsbury Park, tasty geezers, and blokes, working class blokes, were supping on Stella, and watching the big TV screens mounted in the Twelve Pins; an old guy with a Sainsbury’s shopping bag, was sat in the corner, irate that all these guys in front of him were stood in his way. Meanwhile just forty metres away in seeing and listening distance, Algerians were spilling out of their scruffy looking coffee and cake bars; urging their team on; both teams Algeria and England were woeful; but for Algerians living in England, getting some kind of result mattered a lot more; at half-time Algerians came out of their bar to chant and sing. Looking up towards the Twelve Pins all they would have seen is English fans subdued by Stella and shit football; and far too lacking in aggression to care; a few came out to have a look. As the Algerians were sucked back into the cafe, I knew that it was time to return to purgatory; during the second half, fans began to shout “get the lanky bastard on” referring to Peter Crouch, the six foot six England striker. England were woeful and the murky atmosphere of the Twelve Pins began to comatose people, you’d suddenly wake up and realise you were watching a football match. As full time approached and with neither side looking like they were going to score a goal; there was only one thing worth doing, and that’s head down Blackstock Road to watch and join in the Algerian celebrations; they act quickly the Algerians, no sooner is the full-time whistle blown, than a hundred or so Algerian men spill out on to the streets, a drum appears, a trumpet appears, chants of various types in Arabic and English can be heard; the police were there; trying to prevent the Algerians from spilling on the road, but the Algerians, were stood on traffic bollards, waving Algerian flags, photoing and filming each other. as an England fan, i was feeling down, depressed on a mix of stella and shit football, i knew the Algerians could cheer me up, I just mixed into the crowd, took a few photos, and soaked up the atmosphere, with a mate of mine, we found ourselves next to a particular group of boisterous lads, all dancing up and down. To hell with it I thought, it being English pride, and I jumped up and down like one of the Algerians, with a big smile all over my face. I saw this sixteen year old jubilantly walking past with a spring in his step, smiling at all the dancing and celebration, until he saw me, the smile dropped, he seemed greatly disturbed that an Englishman seemed to have infiltrated the set-up, he was confused, but man I just needed a bit of joy, a shot of joy.
Melting pot could be about the feeling of allowing oneself to be affected by others, something which may occur more frequently in London than elsewhere. Paradoxically, this allowing oneself to be affected may be precisely because in London, no-one really cares about you. This can make you feel lonely, but it can also make you feel free and it is this freedom to be, that makes one feel more relaxed about beign affected. Some French people talk about feeling freer in London than in France. Patricia Connell, 49, owner of the website, France in London, reported that in France, “you are judged by how skinny you are, what you wear, what you look like, the university you went to and the area in which you live…. Once you become a Londoner it’s difficult to go back. Londoners are a very different breed: more open, more friendly, less judgemental.” It is felt that French people are able to learn a great deal about self-depreciation in London, not a quality that the French are well known for. Pascal Grierson, CEO of French Radio London, noticed, “The French are very good at taking the piss out of others, but not so good at doing so to themselves, and by hanging out with British people they learn a lot about self-deprecation, which can be an endearing quality.”
London might be considered a melting pot to the extent that they feel that they are more likely to be accepted for what they can do, rather than who they are. This means people can come to London to connect with other people in a way that is forbidden in other countries. It is often suggested that London is a place, which welcomes immigrants, which like New York was created from immigration, there sometimes being an implication that there is some inner kindness in the soul of London, its power and its people, an empathy, an affect for people, a motherly kindness, a saintliness, that means it gives succour to the weak. There are stories, which suggest, that indeed, London does lend a hand, and does give succour to poor and dispossessed of the world. In 2013 Mazoub Siddeek, who fled his Sudanese village after helicopter gunships had strafed it with bullets and ended up homeless on the streets of London, found himself training as a caterer at the five-star Andaz hotel in Liverpool Street, City of London, thanks to a policy of social responsibility, which involved the hotel training up homeless people from a homeless charity they had previously made donations to.
London could be considered a melting pot to the extent that many immigrants who arrive in London, first tell themselves that they are only going to be hear for a short while, as if hostile to their new home, as if they cannot cope with the humiliation that comes from having to leave one’s homeland for whatever reason, as if to suggest a myth of return. However with time we find that the immigrants’ attitudes towards London beings to melt. A good example in point being French immgirants arriving to London in the twenty-first century. It has been said that French people, like may immigrants arriving in London feel a good deal of ambivalence with regards to their new home. True, French immigrants, like many immigrants, arrive in the Big Smoke, anticipating opportunity, excitement and stimulation. However these feelings mask a deep sense of uncertainty about their identify, belonging, future and their acceptability and desirability. It has been suggested that French people deal with their insecurities by telling themselves that they will only be in London for a few years, as if their relationship with London will never mean anything, will never be more than a fling, they will eventually return home to their true love. Furthermore they adopt the attitude that rather than them needing London, it is somehow London that needs them, or that somehow they had never asked to be in London in the first place. This results in an attempt to create a world within a world, a home from home. This can be seen in the remit of French Radio London who aim to accompany press review of French newspapers with a “heavy dose of nostalgic music” to give listeners a “sense of being home”. One Frenchman, Hamid Seny, living in London for ten years, noted how his compatriots and he would, when first arrived in London hold on to a “belief of le grandeur de la france, let us teach you savoir-vire let us teach you food, let us show you how great we are”. Furthermore French people would tend to not get too involved with Londoners, congregate together and speak in French with each other. Seny noted, “I remember we were speaking English in the workplace we had to and then outside we would speak French, and we would shout in French, like we are French were different were more sophisticated because we are French.” However the reality for French people arriving in London, for many who arrive in London, is that whilst they think they might be staying for a couple of years, they end up spending the rest of their life in the city. The melting pot of London, the familiarity gained of their new lover, breaks down those defence mechanisms, and there is a slow realisation of the fact that they are becoming a Londoner. Seny, speaking to Lucy Ash of the BBC, comments, “Because we were there just for two years, so we could be arrogant, but because this is home, I see people being low profile, because we are to stay here for five years or ten years, and we want to make friends and coming across as arrogant is not going to work”. He added that, “…we would shout in French, like we are French we’re different we’re more sophisticated because we are French. I don’t see those people shouting anymore, I don’t see those people showing off their Frenchness, you don’t notice them as much as you used to.” Seny, in his interview with Lucy Ash of the BBC, added, “Ten years ago we were all young french kids thinkgin we are learing english getting a little bit of work experience and then we can go back to france, and now I see people married with kids and settling here buying houses and that’s it, we are immigrre, we are foreigners, we are expats, but that’s it, we are home, this is home England is home”.
However, the fact is people don’t melt, they die, they might burn, and they can be incinerated, but they don’t melt. What evidence, really, is there of people from different ethnic groups in London melting and mixing? Perhaps melting is a suitable metaphor only for mating.