The Diversity of London

August 23, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Okay. I know this is not news. But London has become a very diverse city.

It's been ten days since I left the site of the Olympic Games. An assignment has occupied a lot of the intervening time, and I am finally now culling the shots I took in England.  What strikes me in the faces I see staring out from my computer is their rich variety. London doesn't quite look like the lobby of the United Nations General Assembly. But it doesn't look at all like the city I first visited more than 40 years ago.

My recollection of London in 1970, I admit, is a bit befogged; I was traveling with the University of Virginia rubgy team and we scored way more pints than points. But London then, as I recall it, was almost as white as an Alabama country club. The only dark faces I saw were in a student hostel.

Much has changed in Britain over the past 40-odd years. For one thing, most hotel rooms now come with en-suite facilities, which is a European euphemism (Europhism?) that means you don't have to go to a room down the hall to take a bath in cold water, which I did in 1970. And who's to say that's not progress?

Whilst this plumbing revolution was going on, the complexion of Londoners was also changing. I suppose this was due in part to the British efforts to replace the Empire with the Commonwealth. You couldn't ask Indians, Jamaicans, Bangladeshis and Nigerians to stay in the club without giving them some opportunities to move where the money and the jobs were. So Britain did.

As a result, the London I saw during the Olympics belied the image I'd formed when I was 21. That image had been reinforced through the years by my travels. I'd come to the British Isles for golf, and you still rarely see the diversity of a country on its golf courses. Or I'd come on business, using someone's expense account, stay at a Park Lane hotel and ride around in black taxicabs; again, not a way to see whole populace. And while I had of course read about the changing demographics of Britain, the knowledge I picked up from reading was outweighed by crunchy-gravel BBC television shows like Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey, which cheerfully reinforced the notion that, really, everyone truly British looked like Jeremy Irons or Maggie Smith. 

That outdated stereotype started to vaporize on my first morning in London. As those who know me can attest, I am a bit of a tightwad in certain things. One thing I can't stand is paying a hotel charge for wi-fi service. It irritates me no end that every Motel Six on an American highway provides free wi-fi, while some much more expensive hotels think they should gouge a little more out of their customers by charging for internet access. My London hotel, the St. Giles, was one such gouger. So I asked around and heard that a cafe around the corner, the Russellside, opened early and offered free wi-fi with its coffee and breakfasts. 

That proved true, and I  became a morning habitue of the Russellside. Two kind women named Susan and Saida (they're pictured on the left) made me coffee while I sent emails, wrote my blog and checked for news on the presidential campaign and, more important, the Nats and the pennant race. Their lunch food was all south Asian, curried and spicy.

The more I wandered around London, the more of this diversity I saw. The market stalls, sweet shops and restaurant row around Brick Lane in what's called (I hope politely) Banglatown seemed all owned by Bangladeshis. (Brick Lane restaurants are in one small way, reminiscent of Garrison Keilor's Lake Woebegone, where all of the children are above average. All of the restaurants on Brick Lane have a sign outside proclaiming that they're the restaurant of the year.) The odds were that a woman who served beer in a pub came from Lithuania, Romania or Poland.

It would be naive, of course, to extrapolate from a few pubs and cafes and conclude that Britain has become a happily integrated, multi-racial society. It obviously has a ways to go.  There were racially-tinged riots in several London boroughs and in other British cities only a year ago. Not many Brits, I suspect, have forgotten that the 7/7/2005 bombings on London transport were carried out by countrymen of Pakistani and Jamaican descent. And you could see the same disparity in the Olympic Stadium that you can see in any American football stadium every autumn. The British athletes on the medal podium, like Jess Ennis and Mo Farah, were much more likely to be dark-skinned than the British fans in the seats. The seats were expensive, which meant that most of the customers came from the Britain's wealthier classes, and I suspect those classes remain mostly white. Just like in the United States.








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