Celt, Roman, Angle, Saxon, Dane, Norman, Pict—and Bengali, Afro-Caribbean, Turk, Arab, Chinese. Glyndebourne, swan-upping, roast beef and Maypoles—and arranged marriages, bowing to Mecca, halal meat, chop suey. Harris tweed—and saris. Anglicanism and Catholicism—and Diwali, Rastafarian New Year, Ramadan. Milton, Shakespeare —and Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison. All of the former, traditionally British things have been, are being, eclipsed by all of the latter, non-British things.
Although I am not opposed to change as such, I rue all of these particular changes, which dilute and endanger the culture I hold most dear. Although I am not British myself—I was born in the Irish Republic, to Anglo- Irish, Protestant parents—I have always been conscious of some affinity for Britain, and particularly England, which loomed on my horizon like a kindly elder relative. I regularly came here on holidays when I was younger, to marvel at the great cities and the beautiful landscapes where the houses stopped. I always had a strange sense of being at home here, however new and big it may have seemed to my juvenile eyes. I have an impression in my mind, still clear and fresh, which nourished, and nourishes, my superpatriotism—of new-leafed plane trees in the sunlight, the sound of sonorous bells, the sight of black taxis, walking under the trees and feeding ducks in St. James’s Park, the glitter of the river and the smell of the autumn in Kew. It simply never occurred to me that England could be other than irreducible.
It was only after I came to live in London, in mid-1988, that I began to see that I had been hopelessly naive. Maida Vale, Kilburn, Ilford, West Hampstead, Whitechapel, and Deptford, none of which featured on any tourist’s list, became more than just names to me—I lived in them all, in quick succession, six months here, a couple of months there. And I roamed far and wide, my London A-Z in my jacket pocket—I plunged into the terraced backstreets of Hackney, Bethnal Green, Mile End, the Isle of Dogs, Barking, the City, Southwark, Kensington, Ladbroke Grove, Islington, and Stepney, the very names like quotations from half-remembered history texts, or extracts from great books. I spent days walking alone along rainy or dusty residential streets, wandering around ancient churches and graveyards and exploring overgrown alleys dense with purple buddleia, nettle, and bits of bicycle, and I would read up later about the areas I’d visited. I wore a poppy on Remembrance Day, went to the Last Night of the Proms, and saw the fires blaze up on Bonfire Night. In a fairly short time, I came to know London far better than Dublin, and far better than did most Londoners. Soon, I could tell people the best way to get to Artillery Row, or where they should catch the number 53.
But my peregrinations around London were not just an education in geography, but also in the vexed questions of ethnicity and identity I was continually startled anew by the fact that large chunks of London were not just no longer English, but were not even British. Huge numbers of people from entirely dissimilar backgrounds, countries, and races, speaking different languages and practicing different religions, immersed in cultures unlike any of those of Europe, had permanently settled in England. The significance of this came upon me at once; I suddenly realized that these places had not just been un-Englished, but had been permanently un-Englished. Not only were the local English people themselves disappearing from these areas, but it seemed as if all of their primeval roots, all of their history in these English heartland territories, were being set at naught.
This sheer waste of all the efforts of previous generations, and the scale of this dispossession, shocked me. To think that Cockneys are practically extinct in parts of the East End is a sobering thought. To walk around districts like Spitalfields, Southall, or Peckham, contrasting the unselfconscious vigor of the newcomers with the relatively apologetic, greying natives, is to put oneself in mind of the Tasmanian aborigines, or the semi-mythical “tall, red-haired” Guanches of the Canary Islands. I saw thousands of clenched brown fists punch the air in Parliament Square, outside “The Mother of Parliaments,” on the day the Muslims gathered to demand that Salman Rushdie be put to death, and pondered the arrogant, placarded messages: “Islam—Today Our Religion, Tomorrow Your Religion.” The indigenes were clearly in retreat on all fronts—and not just geographically. Churches were emptying, schools were slowly becoming “New Yorkized,” criminals were being let off scot-free, and even self-styled “conservative” governments were handing over British independence to the E.E.C. On the one occasion I counted them in 1993, 18 of the acts in the BBC “Top Twenty” were Afro-Caribbean or partially so.
According to figures taken from the 1991 census, non-European settlement in London is concentrated in certain boroughs—Brent and Newham (40 to 50 percent of the population), Tower Hamlets, Lewisham, Ealing, and Hackney (30 to 40 percent), then smaller, but still substantial, numbers in all other London boroughs, except those on the borders of Kent and Essex. The generally younger age of individuals from the various non-European immigrant communities means that shortly after the turn of the century, white Britons will actually be an ethnic minority in four London boroughs—Brent, Newham, Tower Hamlets, and Hackney—and will almost be in the minority in several others. The same story is being repeated, if on a smaller scale, in all other major British cities. (The census recorded the non-European population of Great Britain as 3,018,000, 92 percent living in England proper—approximately 5.5 percent of the total population.)
Although some on the far right would probably dub post-1945 immigration an “invasion,” this immigration has been entirely pacific. Perhaps if it had been a military invasion, it might have met with resistance from more Britons. As it is, all except the tiny, neo-Nazi tainted parties of the far right and a few renegade conservatives, who regard culture as more important than economics, have been quiescent; most Britons do not seem to mind being told they are “racist” and that their institutions are oppressive. They do not even seem to mind writing out multiple-zero welfare checks for penurious immigrants, with their multifarious needs—and governments no doubt find it easier to go with the universalist flow than to risk censure from “the international community” by enforcing the stricter immigration controls, or pursuing the monoculturalist programs, that are now necessary if Britain is to retain something of its immemorial character. Government ministers, senior civil servants, academics, and intellectuals have been affected just as much as the middle classes by the universalist, chiliastic philosophies and vague feelings of collective racial guilt that have made these demographic changes possible.
Few could have foreseen what would follow in the wake of the trickle of relatively well-educated West Indians and Asians that started in 1945; to them, Britain was so strong and so close that they could not conceive of its dissolution. Impossibly cultivated and well-educated by today’s standards, the war generation could not have imagined a situation when most Britons, even academics, would regard their own culture as worthless, or let the insane fallacies of deconstructionism, moral relativism, pluralism, equality, and Afrocentrism pass almost unchallenged.
But this intellectual challenge was not met, save with apology and retreat. This is why we have arrived at a time when there is a real danger of British culture and civilization vanishing forever. The stresses and strains inherent in multiracial societies have been much in evidence over the last year or so. The hysterical reaction to M.P. Winston Churchill’s candid speech to Bolton Conservatives in May, which called for tougher immigration controls; the acquittal of those who had been convicted of killing policeman Keith Blakelock during a London race riot; Londoners injured by Kurdish bombs aimed at Turkish-owned properties; black M.P. Bernie Grant’s speech in which he called for “reparations” for slavery and suggested some Afro-Caribbeans should consider moving back; the far-right British National Party’s gain of a council seat in the East End of London (although they subsequently lost it, they only lost it by a very small margin, and polled well in other parts of the East End); the setting up of the “Muslim Parliament”; an increase in the number of successful lawsuits and complaints linked to alleged “harassment”; and an increase in the number of violent “racial incidents,” including the murder of a 15-year-old white boy near London’s King’s Cross by a gang of Asian youths. All of these phenomena are insignificant in themselves, perhaps, but they have cumulative importance. There seems little doubt that British society will be irreparably damaged if the trends that permit these phenomena continue.
Although it is impossible to measure it, native resentment appears to be growing. One senses a mood of profound, if so far undirected, dissatisfaction in the air; and to be even rather right wing is beginning to become more acceptable. There is new tension between the right and left wings of the Conservative Party, the hitherto solid “rainbow coalition” is riven with dissension, and greater closeness to the rest of Europe has paradoxically brought us closer to the patriotic, traditional right that is so evident in other parts of the continent. Counterrevolutionary activity in the fields of education, trade unionism, and welfare has indirectly weakened multiculturalism by weakening multiculturalism’s customary allies. Extremist Afro-Caribbean and Muslim organizations have become more active, further alienating an already stand-offish Middle England. And much of the indoctrination that passes for education goes in one ear and straight out the other; a Commission for Racial Equality officer, visiting a Birmingham school a few years ago, despairingly reported that “Twenty years of anti-racist education have had no effect at all!”
But whatever British reaction there may or may not be in the future, the affectionately remembered London of Chaucer, Marlowe, Wordsworth, Johnson, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Noel Coward, and My Fair Lady is long gone, except from the tourist guides. Now comes a London of disparate races and social and sexual minorities subsidized and held together politically by inertia and a dwindling productive class made up of liberal-minded natives. Although in some areas life will remain reasonably civilized for the time being, elsewhere it will get steadily worse (and not just for the ever more outnumbered natives). As the dwindling class dwindles, the ties that still bind will loosen and loosen, until they are completely undone. That all the hubbub of London life, past and present, might be stilled forever is too awful a thought to think, but we must think it nonetheless. All things must pass, I know, but why must this pass, and now? I think of all that I have seen and heard since I came to London, and I am like a latter-day Roman, looking out from a lighted room over dark barbarian marshes.