Miranda Sawyer on London's problem with the rest of the UK
PUBLISHED: 13:13 21 July 2016 | UPDATED: 13:14 21 July 2016
The People's Republic of Lambeth. I know, I know, what a load of smug rubbish, but on the morning of June 24, there were many people around me that seemed up for the idea.
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Lambeth, second only to Gibraltar in its support of Remain (78.6% of the vote), woke up to the devastating, surreal Leave result. Then Sadiq Khan seemed to indicate that he might try to keep London in the EU (this is impossible, by the way, also ludicrous)… No wonder people started to come over all Wolfie Smith. Power to the people! The people of Lambeth, anyway.
But not everyone was so rebellious or resilient. When I dropped my kids off at school that morning, some parents were in tears. Parents born in Poland, Slovakia, Romania, even countries like France and Spain, were worried and upset. The school is very mixed, socially and culturally. Around 50% of the school’s pupils have English as a second language; more than 20 different languages are spoken across its community. The children had had a Brexit debate during the week. More than 90% of the pupils voted to Remain.
I tried to joke my way through the downbeat atmosphere. “I lived through Thatcher!” I said. “You just have to put your head down and ignore the establishment.”
Another parent put me straight. “That’s easy for you to say,” she said, not nastily. “You are white and English.” There were, she pointed out, many parents who were now worried about their status. Whether they can stay. Whether their children can stay – some of them were not born here. They fear being “sent back”.
My daughter’s two best friends are Italian-English and Irish (that is, their parents are: how far back do you want?). My son’s: Jamaican-English and English, with Ghanaian grandparents. They’re fine, we reassured them. It’s all fine. You’re all British. You’re all legit. Nobody needs to leave.
But it’s not the reality, it’s the perception that makes people scared and sad. If you believe yourself unwanted, you see hatred everywhere. I saw a grown man, a valued chef who works in a restaurant favoured by celebrities. He’s from Brazil. He was crying.
The next day, my husband told me that a casting agent he knows was shouted at on the bus. A man yelled: “F**k off! Go home!” It’s the first time in her entire life in London that this has happened to her. She got off the bus. Ironically, she’d been on her way home.
“Where did this happen?” I asked. My husband didn’t know. I thought: “Not in Lambeth, surely”. Surely.
Part of London’s raison d’etre is to accept foreigners, and Lambeth is good at this. When I first moved to the borough, in 1990, I only knew people who were not from London. My friends came from Manchester (I’m from Cheshire), Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Edinburgh, Perth. Then, as I met more people, my friends came from further afield. Brixton, where I lived then, and live now, welcomes people from all over the world. There’s a well-established Caribbean community, but also a Portuguese one, Nigerian, Brazilian, French, Italian, Polish... You only need to look at the variety of places of worship to see how international the place is.
And what joined ordinary, suburban me with all these different people was that they, too, had needed to leave where they were from. Some had been forced out by the regime they were living under; others felt that life opportunities could only be found away from home; others that they’d had a yearning inside them, a want that their birth-town couldn’t satisfy. That’s what unites Londoners who don’t come from London. The fact that we come from somewhere else. That we travelled to get here. And then we found the People’s Republic and we don’t want to move any more. Which is, of course, the problem. The People of the Republic don’t travel all that much: at least, not in their own country.
I’ve mentored kids who were born and bred here, and had to explain to them how to get to Oxford Circus, just seven stops away on the tube. They never leave Brixton. Aside from them, many people who were born overseas don’t usually have the money to travel; and when they have, they go abroad to visit family. Even those who moved to Lambeth from within the UK don’t explore all that much. No one who’s from southern England chooses the north of their country for a break. They chase the holiday sun.
The fact is that not many people from Lambeth – from London – bother to visit the parts that Lambeth attitudes cannot reach. Places like Newport, Sunderland, even Birmingham, are not on their radar. Unless they have friends or relatives there, or they follow football, or go to university, Londoners don’t visit other parts of the UK. I’ve met people who have been to Machu Picchu but never seen Newcastle; who have checked out Goa but not Scotland.
So it’s our own fault, really. Lambeth knows its own mind – it will never vote Tory, it will always be inclusive, it likes to collaborate and celebrate difference – but it doesn’t know anyone else’s. The People’s Republic of Lambeth sounds fun, but actually, we need to leave it from time to time.
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