In the 1841 census – the first in which the names of household members were actually recorded – the splendidly named Adolphus Self was living a scant mile away from where I’m typing this, in Kennington Cross, South London. Adolphus was a carriage painter, as was his son, Samuel, who ran a business doing the same in Kensington Church Street in the 1860s and 70s. His son – also Samuel but nicknamed, by reason of his ostentatiousness “Rothschild” – moved sideways and became the night manager at the bus garage in the Fulham Road. And his son, my grandfather, Henry Self, broke the mould by becoming a senior civil servant.
Adding my father, Peter, and then myself to this chain of being, gives us no fewer than six Selfs in the paternal line, born and bred in London – and with two of my sons still resident here, 2041 will likely see a Cockney Self bicentennial. I’ve always been pretty impressed by this rootedness – which is far from commonplace for Londoners; and I thought about it again last week, when the latest census information revealed that no fewer than one in six of contemporary residents in England and Wales were born in another country.
Because rooted or not – the Selfs had to have been uprooted, originally, from somewhere else – I mean to say, we aren’t brick souls formed from London clay. Being, like so many people in later life, a bit of an amateur genealogist, I tracked down this numinous ur-Self, James, to the village of Downton, south of Salisbury, where – up until his economic migration to London in the early 1800s – he was employed as a farm manager. Historically, there was quite a concentration of Selfs in this neck of the Wiltshire woods – but a far larger one is to be found in north Norfolk, centred around Cromer.
We can assume that the Wiltshire Selfs became detached from their clan in East Anglia – but as for these other Selfs, they too, it transpires, were also uprooted from somewhere else; because far from the name being some instance of nominative determinism (and how many times have all of us who bear it suffered the slur of supposed selfishness), it’s a contraction of the epithet the East Anglian peasants of the early tenth century flung at their Danish harassers: Sea Wolves. I know, I know! How impossibly romantic is that – not just a cool Viking name, but one that encodes the manner of our migration.
I wonder what we should be calling contemporary incomers? Obviously, for those of the Brexit persuasion, the East Europeans who managed to – so to speak – get in under the wire, should be called Benefits Vultures; while the virtuous Indians (who continue to be the most numerous newbies) could be labelled Future Rishis. The migrants who’re actually arriving – as my own forbears did – by sea, and in small boats, are obviously about as far from being wolves as is imaginable.
Herded into unsafe open boats by people-trafficking gangs, then corralled into the hideous detention centre at Manston where they’ve had to kip on concrete, these aren’t wolves, but sheep of the sea, driven this way and that by political winds and economic currents they have absolutely no control over. Yet wasn’t it ever thus? Sheep or wolves, migrants are always either fleeing difficult conditions in their homelands, or attracted to better ones in the realms they try to reach – or both. My ancestral horn-heads may have wreaked havoc on the society they eventually joined – but they, too, were only in search of their own version of the British Dream.
And then there’s London – home to around 35% of the current crop of immigrants. By the Medieval era the ever-burgeoning metropolis had its own epithet: the Great Wen – a reference to the widespread fear that its unimpeded growth was poisoning the rest of the body-politic. Like some municipal Moloch, the city snaffled up migrants from the rest of the country – often poor people, who then died prematurely as they laboured in its stygian streets.
What’s changed? Not a great deal, except that as its financial tentacles have uncoiled around the globe, so those from further and further afield have been drawn inexorably in by London’s dubious attractions.
It’s this paradox: that one economy’s growth is necessarily founded on another’s immiseration (to gloss classical theory: a sort of comparative disadvantage), that animates the schizophrenic policy of our soi-disant government: we desperately need fresh blood to feed our sterile, ageing and vampiric population – however, it has to be the right type: readily dilutable with our own thinning cultural plasma. It’s an impossible aim, of course, and goes against the reality, which is healthy hybridisation, cultural and genetic. Nothing demonstrates it more than my matrilineal heritage: all those rooted London Selfs married and had children with migrant women – including me.