In the northern parts of Somers Town, amongst the several pubs which act as their totems and meeting points, the English working classes 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; signs of a community experiencing a social and psychological death. 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, and in the case of Somers Town, white English working classes, who rented Council Houses to buy and then sell their property. In Somers Town many members of the English working class community bought their Council house, sold up and shipped out, abandoning 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. New arrivals have their own way of doing things, interests and friends. 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. The social networks of the English working classes are thus diluted, and their sense of belonging and security diminished. Some hark back, nostalgically to 1970s Somers Town. One recalls, ‘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, 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. One resident commented that [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.” Wendy Wallace, who wrote a fly on the wall piece about Edith Neville primary school, noted in 2005 that the school kitchen had been halal for several years, which meant that no pork and only meat slaughtered in accordance with Islamic rules could be served there. Jean Sussex, senior meals supervisor at the school, was said by Wendy Wallace to have felt marginalised by this decision. She said, “We don’t even get a nice piece of lamb any more… We’ve been completely left out.” Consequently twenty children were forbidden from eating halal meat in the school by their parents.
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.’
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?