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?