Here is a story about my father, one that I’ve not told you before. When I studied at Glasgow, I lived in a tenement block on Maryhill Road, near St George’s Cross. We were driving from there up towards the University one Saturday morning (I can’t remember why), which meant turning onto Great Western Road. As we waited to turn at the junction, I was looking down at the river Kelvin on our right, alongside which I used to run (to feel the city air rush past my body). As we watched, a girl was struggling to carry her bicycle down the steps to the riverside. She had bright pink hair and a full complement of piercings on lips and brow, a not untypical sight in the studentland near the University. So my father, a died-in-the-wool Conservative (he had a tea mug bearing this motto), someone who, at the same age as this girl (the same age as me) had to work through nightshifts and take day release in order to gain his qualifications, who had never in his life contemplated setting aside four years in order to live in subsidised housing and to study something for the sheer pleasure of it, who lived with my mum in an Ayrshire house of pleasing conformity, a Thatcherite of gut reactions - my father looked at this girl, enjoying her life of cycling freedom on the back of his taxes, and said:
- it’s so great that this place exists; that there’s somewhere people can be just as they want to be.
So I’m watching this progression of overtly arty, uniformly white and skinny students, and I’m thinking about the mayoral election in Tower Hamlets. A group of black schoolgirls walk past, and three druggies, including Scarface (the new man to watch on Broadway Market), start shouting at each other about access to their one mobile phone. Across the road the Turkish guy is having a cigarette outside his shop, while a man who probably ought to wear a badge (one of the last authentic white working class blokes in E8! Come hear his vahls before they’re gorn for ever!) starts pulling into position the stalls that tomorrow will carry the Saturday market wares, that will carry the rich-beyond-your-dreams real middle-class folks into the street to ooh and ahh over various forms of somewhat stodgy bread, and I think:
- you can look at this in two ways; you have a choice.
Either you can see a mess of social failure - how many centuries will drunks and addicts wander these streets before we do something to help them? Why do none of the white students even seem to be aware of the black kids’ existence? They dance around one another like the north pole of magnets - pushed apart seconds before contact. Why don’t I have any Turkish friends, despite being on friendly terms with about a dozen? What do those rich white people think, as they pick their way past the betting shops and kebab shops and step over the empty fried chicken boxes; have they trained their eyes to not see any of that, focusing only on that fabulous shop that sells the most amazing reworked wicker, darling? What does the guy putting the stalls together really think about what’s happened to his borough? It’s the stall-constructor I think about the most, because it is he who has been here long enough to see the borough change. Does he lament the loss of the homogeneity, the passing of a shared culture - even a shared language - and wish all of the incomers - including me, of course - back to where we came from? My default feeling about East End life, you see, are the thoughts I’m projecting into his head. The man does exist, and I did watch him yesterday; but these are my thoughts, my sadness. I remember Matthew’s former constituent, losing his flat tenancy (we’re supposed to be glad of this; it's only someone else's sigh).
Or we could see something else. Given the number of different cultures, languages and ethnicities, poured into an impoverished borough, a borough that is run by people who are incompetent when they’re not being actively malign: maybe this is as good as it gets. Maybe Hackney is the future of Britain. We rub along together, the British/Turkish, the white/black, the working/middle-class, the hipster/drugster, the stall-holder/artisan bread purchaser; we manage this comfortably enough. Hackney is an example of how a borough can change, and just about hold itself together.
Our neighbouring borough is Tower Hamlets, and I cannot feel this same optimism for its future. This tale of two boroughs is not east vs west London, or rich vs poor. It is mingling vs separatism, secularism vs theocracy, only connect vs a rejection of the entire concept. Words are too easily minced, because we’re scared to cause offence (well, I am). But Lutfur Rahman’s triumph in the mayoral election last Thursday is a victory for forces who want to impose their view of How To Live Now on an entire borough. The Whitechapel libraries will once again be filled with hate literature. Don’t seek public office or a grant in Tower Hamlets if you’re not willing to conform to the standards of the Islamic Forum of Europe, whose man Lutfur Rahman is. It’s not an accident that Ken Livingstone, a man whose wicked philosophy is built on the separation of peoples and an attendant pandering to self-selected community “leaders”, risked his Labour party membership in order to campaign for Rahman. Tribal identity politics is his mechanism for electoral survival.
A good Tory friend told me my reaction was a failure of love; a willingness to give in to the politics of hate. I don’t think so. Hope is so hard to protect in the East End; it flickers like a candle in a dark and draughty room. Hackney just about manages to shelter the candle, to keep its baleful light glowing through the night. It’s still a place people can be as they need or want to be, in my father’s words. Tower Hamlets just voted to put the light out.