Peter Whittle, Times (London), Jan. 22, 2006
Much like everywhere else in the country, the local parade of 40-odd shops in my part of suburban southeast London long ago lost its traditional butcher, baker and fishmonger to the onward march of the big food boys. But one thing it never seemed to have much need for was a shop offering international money transfers.
However, walking through this tatty but reliable street on my way to Woolwich Arsenal station recently, I noticed that among the fast food outlets, specialist barbers and newish halal butchers, there are now three such outlets. Three in just 40 shops? There must be an awful lot of demand.
It’s a very different place from what Rod Liddle dubbed in The Spectator last week London’s “golden crescent”. Just 10 miles north of Woolwich this arc of influence (not to mention affluence) stretches from Ealing in the west, through Notting Hill and Hampstead, to Islington in the east. It is home to the UK’s media, academic and political cognoscenti who decide how we should feel about multiculturalism but have a warped experience of how it works.
The official line in Liddle’s affluent crescent is that diversity is to be celebrated, which is an easy conclusion if — regardless of skin tone and birth country — your ethnically diverse neighbours are wealthy and likeminded. And whatever private misgivings individuals may have, the group-think which operates around those north London dinner tables assumes you’re on message.
Anthony Browne’s recent excellent pamphlet on political correctness, The Retreat of Reason, describes how, however frequent the feeble calls for “a full and frank discussion”, any real debate in Europe about multiculturalism and immigration has for years been effectively put beyond the pale — sometimes, as in the Netherlands, with disastrous results.
The effect of sidelining the more negative aspects of multiculturalism and dismissing them as loony racism, not to be uttered in polite society, is finally beginning to unravel. Like much of London, Woolwich — once home to a strong military presence — and its neighbour Plumstead, have seen an influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers in recent years, in particular thousands of Somalis. What was once a largely white working-class area with a well-integrated ethnic population (accepted without a second thought) has become thoroughly multiracial.
This part of southeast London has never been affluent. It’s what used to be called rough and ready; our idea of a big event was the opening of the UK’s first McDonald’s on the high street back in the early 1970s. But it had something that amounted to a collective identity.
Now, it appears to me fragmented, with different ethnic communities existing side-by-side, sometimes uneasily, sometimes violently and always with a sense of nothingness in the air.
It’s hard not to feel that the booming money transfer industry is just one element adding to an air of increasing transience. Sometimes now, in streets I’ve used since my Sixties boyhood, I’m struck by the sense that this place no longer provides my identifiable roots, that now I am simply one of many who happen to live here, with no greater claim to it sentimentally or historically than the next man.
Such anonymity might be what people are looking for when they choose to live in the teaming metropolitan centre, but in a suburb that has shaped much of your life it’s a hard feeling to negotiate.
But so what, you might ask. Isn’t this nostalgia of the most reactionary sort? It’s likely that if you live in middle-class north London your knee is already jerking fiercely. This is not the picture you want to present. It’s just a deplorable attack on multiculturalism, a bigoted refusal to join the universal acclaim for the all-smiling rainbow coalition that is the capital. Pure Powellism.
Well, no, actually. As the old saying goes, the definition of a racist is anybody who’s winning an argument with a liberal — one who is, after all, used to setting all the guidelines for what passes for national debate, is insulated from the effects of his opinions, and doesn’t much care for being challenged.
But despite increasing worries on both the left and right about the effects of mass immigration and multiculturalism, the golden elite who run the country still don’t hold much with the idea that there might be millions throughout the country who are tolerant in their approach to these issues and detest extremism, but who are deeply concerned about the way in which their neighbourhoods might be affected by such far-reaching social and cultural changes, over which they have next to no control.
Multiculturalism may seem like a great idea in Islington, but such peaceful coexistence is far from the norm in our northern cities, and in poorer parts of London the cracks in the multicultural varnish are becoming more noticeable.
Appalling murders such as that of the young solicitor Thomas ap Rhys Pryce make middle-class whites flinch inwardly from an unsayable fear, that the fracturing of social life in our cities doesn’t accord with the relentlessly upbeat official version.
Furthermore, the iron-clad politically correct view that all racial conflict results from white prejudice visited on other ethnicities is belied by the tensions that can exist between various non-white groups.
Indeed Woolwich was host a couple of years back to the black commentator Darcus Howe, who came here to film a Channel 4 documentary and found suspicion, abuse and sometimes outright violence between West Indians and Somalis.
Depressed, Howe — hardly a man of the hard right — went on to find similar problems between Pakistani and West Indian youths in Walsall, outside Birmingham.
The truth is, if you celebrate difference enough, eventually nobody will feel the same about anything. London, for example, is home now to more than 150 different languages — a fact evidenced on my regular crowded train journey home.
While for some this might flatter a sense of cosmopolitanism, is it not possible that for others, in an everyday context, it can lead to an unconscious alienation? You can no longer make assumptions about your neighbours, and with that goes any sense of anything but the most basic of shared practical experience. You will also be less certain about the reactions of others — and, at an extreme level, maybe much less likely to intervene if you see somebody being stabbed on top of a bus for protesting at the antisocial behaviour of another, as happened in London last year.
We may congratulate ourselves endlessly on the creation of a melting pot, but we should be careful that it’s not achieved by the estrangement of many.
(Posted on January 23, 2006)
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