London, Europe’s most globalized city. Of the roughly 8 million inhabitants, white Britons now make up less than half. The city is rich and at the same time rickety. While neighbourhoods such as Chelsea and Kensington are plunged into evening darkness by rich owners living elsewhere, districts like Hackney and Ilford have many bodies and too few rooms.
Poverty statistics show that most of the neighbourhoods that became markedly poorer in the period 2004 to 2010 are in outer London, while the centre became richer. London’s suburbs sit like a filthy headband around the well-groomed centre. The bourgeoisie moves out of the subway map and is replaced by labour immigrants, so numerous that they constitute a social and economic class.
French geographer Christophe Guilluy has shown how the white middle class evacuates Europe’s metropolises. This is not just about Paris, or London. The development is under way in major cities from Madrid to Gothenburg. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of white Britons fell by 600,000, although London in the same period occupied a new million inhabitants.
Rich Londoners do not need the middle class, but they need nannies, garbage collectors, drivers and cooks. Ever more service professions are being taken over by immigrants. The combination of falling wages for low-qualified work and freelancers on ‘zero-hour contracts’ has created a subclass that the British call “the working poor”.
Before traveling to England, I called up Ben Judah, the author with a reputation for being an expert on this new London. He recommended using the Ilford district, as a base. Ilford is not on any travel guide’s list of sights and the hotels in the area reflects this. I wanted to stretch the travel funds as far as possible and book rooms at Banks Hotel. It was no good idea.
The road to the reception was a spike between home-tattooed Russians; vodka breaths tinged with cannabis smoke. The hotel is a maze of mismatched rooms. My window was right out to the dining room. The house rules on the wall included the usual ban on smoking, and some more unusual warnings about the use of drugs and electric tools in the room.
In retrospect, I realize that I should have checked the reviews on TripAdvisor. For while five-star hotels are pretty much the same, two-star hotels are bad each in their own way. Page by page with posts with headlines such as: “I should have slept in the car”; “Why was there a used condom in the room?” And the gangster: “Don’t stay here!”
Banks Hotel finds its clientele among the cigarette smoking European working class. A majority of the cars in the parking lot were white vans. When I ran out for a late snack, I brushed past a multi-ethnic cluster prostitute in short skirts and shiny lips. All corners of the world were represented, and the air drag after them smelled of fish.
Ilford is another village swallowed by London. It is far from the city centre, over an hour by train. The service people most often cannot afford to live in the inner districts. Lack of centrality is not compensated for in comfort. Along the main street, Ilford Lane, old rowan stands along with kit-built new houses in rapid decline. Dead plants are the most common window ornament.
The most striking thing about Ilford is that this is not England. Yes, the street names and architecture are English, but the English themselves is missing. It also does everything we associate with English culture; courtesy, umbrellas, sixpences, self-irony and class divisions. Two-thirds of the population of Ilford are immigrants and there seems to be scant significant integration taking place.
Oxford Professor Paul Collier has pointed out that the rate at which immigrants absorb British culture is far lower than expected. He finds some of the answer that we all have a limited number of social interactions with others during the day, and when the number of migrants increases, a larger proportion of them will be between immigrants, with a lack of assimilation as a result.
At the Grill Hut there are collection baskets for three different Islamic charities on the counter. The cashier, Mahmood, says that after 32 years in the UK he does not consider himself even a little British. Gautam Malikani writes about this, in the book Londonstani from 2007: Immigrants who commute between marking distance from the culture of England and the desire to join it.
The book, which received undeservedly good reviews when it came out in 2008, anticipated the challenge that the cultural teachers, the Englishmen, have left the scene. Much of Ilford seems populated by low-skilled people from a dozen countries who settled in an evacuated town, like the British in their day moved into Roman villas. At Cranbrook Road, the Anglican Church is converted into apartments.
The hate preacher and IS-enthusiast, Anjem Choudary are Ilford’s most famous son. In the park Loxford Lane the niqabs are in majority. But expanding the lens, you also see the muscular black man exercising in bare torso, the Poles playing football with chain necklaces around their necks and the two Chinese who look at their feet as they shuffle.
In the corner of the park lies an abandoned house, almost swallowed by the vegetation, it is beautiful in a Hans and Grete-like manner. I’m trying to find a way in but stopped by netting fences. As I move on, a dishevelled man comes after me. He asks what I wanted in the house. He seems harmless and uneasy. When I ask why he wants to know, he answers “because I live there”.
The man is called Calin Katalin and is 35 years old. He moved from Romania to London five years ago. He apologizes for his clothes and the smell. “It’s not easy to stay decent when you sleep on a damp mattress.” He explains that the abandoned house is full of garbage, but he has emptied one room, so he can sleep there.
Katalin’s history resembles many others. He came to London with all his savings, which he spent on getting the right certificates as a construction worker. The first three years were good, he earned around 15 pounds an hour as a railing installer. He shared one room with five other Romanians, for 300 pounds a month. The rest he sent home to his father.
So, in September, the next gig was postponed. He ended up waiting for the week after week, without pay. Katalin ran out of savings. The Pakistani landlord kicked him out and gave the bed to another. Now he was waiting for one of the old roommates to come by on his way home from the construction site and maybe give him some money for food.
Katalin coughs. A deep, rattling, cough that seemed too big for the slender man. Calin believes that as soon as the construction project starts, things will get lost. “What does the foreman say when he hears that cough,” I ask. “Will he let you work?” Katalin replies that he has worked in construction since he was 16 years old, that he is tough. But he has fever in his eyes.
“Why don’t you try a hospice?” Because he doesn’t regard himself as a homeless. Anyway, he says he has tried and there is a waiting list where Rumanians are placed at the bottom. The sun breaks through the clouds and Calin closes the eyes to the sky. In order to get back the bed in the shared room, he must pay four weeks rent in advance. But the foreman does not give advance payments.
“I’ll probably go for payday loans,” he says, without opening his eyes. A January 2018 study, done on behalf of the Royal Society of the Arts, showed that seven out of ten British workers are “chronically broke”. One third has less than five hundred pounds in savings.
An unscrupulous credit sector lends the poor working money up to the next pay check, against interest rates. This sector has more than doubled since the financial crisis. It now accounts for about 20 per cent of all loans. It is expensive being poor in the UK.
I ask Katalin why he doesn’t just go home. “London is a rich city, the possibilities are here,” he replies, “there are no jobs in Romania”. One of the effects of EU enlargements in the southeast is that states in the south have little or no attracted to economic activity. Rather, they have become cheap migrant labour. One fifth of the Romanian workforce is abroad.
I ask if he has someone there at home. No, he had a fiancé who was going to join him, but she was unfaithful. Unsolicited, he explains how he logged on to his girlfriend’s Facebook account for weeks. He followed the romance and wanted questions that made her lie to him. “It was entertaining!” His face cuts a grimace.
The London of Charles Dickens has been resurrected, now with immigrants in the role of underclass. Men like Calin Katalin wear out, are wiped out. The dating pages of the Romanian site Anuntul is a time-witness. Page by page with ads, moving in their identical, practical search: “Man, X years, working. Seeking serious relationship for marriage. Don’t smoke, drink little. “
Trevor Phillips is a former Labour candidate for mayor and an authority on integration in London. He takes the time to talk while he gets ready for one of those receptions that Londoners go to. Dark suits and cheap wine. “Migrants start at the bottom and have to work their way up, it’s nothing new,” he tells me. “I grew up in a poor migrant home in Wood Green, the youngest of ten siblings.”
“The plight of Muslims and black communities get more attention. But when you look at the statistics, poor whites have it worse, “he says. It is in line with what The Economist wrote in 2006: “The nation’s most vulnerable group, in absolute and relative terms, are poor, white and British.”
In the autumn’s most debated academic book, Whiteshift by Eric Kaufmann, the Birkbeck professor shows that white Britons are marginalized – in part because they are cut off from defining their common interests on an equal footing with other ethnic groups. British identity has become a lowest common denominator, open to absolutely everyone; emptied of meaning, emptied of cohesion.
An interesting aspect of the ethnic map of London is that the largest concentrations of English are now to be found east and west, on either side of the city. A half-hour drive from Ilford, along the River Thames, lies the harbour town of Tilbury. There is still a predominantly English town, 83 percent in 2011, according to local authorities.
The former shipyard city is a picture of the British working class’s final resting place. The road to the centre of Tilbury has too many tattoo studios and liquor stores. When the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen looked for a place to film the decadent white working class from Grimsby, he did not choose the actual city, he filmed it in Tilbury.
In the shadow of Amazon’s giant automated warehouse lies Thurrock, a low-rise residential neighbourhood. Many of the houses have large stickers on the door: “Attention. No cold calling. We will not open the door and will inform the police. There is a lot of crime in Tilbury. From 2016 to 2018, 689 cases of “asocial behaviour” were reported.
Attempts to get the locals to talk fail. After being asked to piss off in four different ways, I choose a different approach. I stop Charlie M., a man in his 70s with a fine shirt, grey sweat pants and a bottle of milk in a shopping net. I say that my wife has got a job at Amazon and that we are considering moving the family from Norway to Tilbury. Will he recommend it?
Charlie thinks before he responds emphatically: “Absolutely not. You must not. This is no place to grow up. The youths here….”. As if completing the sentence, a Vauxhall runs past on the empty street. A young man leans out and roars, his face distorted by rage: “Get out of the fucking way!!!” The old man retreats fearfully to the sidewalk.
The white working-class accounts for about one third of the British population. Peter Cartwright works in the store Card Crazy. He believes that Tilbury is suffers from decline, partly because other ethnic groups have stronger advocates, and partly because “the jobs brisk workers would have done before, are now carried out by low-paid eastern Europeans”. Tilbury is superfluous.
I ask if Tilbury has problems with racism? He seems genuinely bemused at the question: “There is not necessarily much racism here, but people do not like to see people coming here shortly since everything lives better than themselves.” Cartwright believes much of the problem is poor schools. Many educate themselves into welfare clients, like their parents.
He claims to see a working-class culture that finds unity in keeping each other down. It reminded me of a morning drinker at the local pub The World’s End. As I waited for the food, he first gushed at how people in Tilbury “hold together and help each other” and then depreciate the townsfolk as “a bunch of useless c###s”.
I’ve seen enough to talk to Ben Judah. We agree to meet at the entrance to Shepherd’s Bush Market. After a brief handshake we are on our way, in a quick march through the market. Judah generously shares from his knowledge. “This market was rescued from the closure by idealists. Today many of the stalls are fronts for criminals. They are used to launder profits from elsewhere. “
He tells how his own Jewish origins created interest in the immigrants. “There are about 600,000 illegal immigrants in London, did you know?” In the bestseller “This is London”, Judah has interviewed Poles, Somalis, Afghans and Nigerians in areas such as Beckton, Upton Park, Edmonton and Harlesden and describes how Old London is replaced by a “pseudo-global mega city” where some are rich, many are poor.
On the Tube map, London has changed little since 1979: Zone 1 remains the centre; Zone 2 the inner city, and zones 3 to 6 are the suburbs. At that time, Zone 1 housed Britain’s upper and upper middle classes, Zone 2, was the dilapidated migrant neighbourhoods and the rest a working class and middle-class patchwork.
In 2018, Judah claims, this has changed dramatically. The apartments in Zone 1 are largely owned by the 1% from Russia, China and the Gulf. The British establishment’s children cannot afford to live there. Zone 2 is being re-developed and is increasingly resident for the childless, aspiring middle class, while migrants are pushed out to the suburbs.
Judah shows the way. Through Shepherd’s Bush Green, he tells of how Margaret Thatcher’s housing reforms had created a new landlord class when the white working class bought their own social housing and began hiring them out to immigrants. Many moved out into the periphery.
We stop in a shoemaker in a covered shopping street, where he delivers a pair of boots. “You should talk to the cobbler, he’s an English working class. Ask what he voted in the EU poll, ask what he thinks about the migrants! “
Furthermore, further. Down a street in Notting Hill. Judah points to a car park with a chain around. It was recently sold. Price: over one hundred thousand pounds. In this district, German engineers and Swiss financiers live. Down another street. He points to some social housing. “The block that has the most indebted residents in all of London. I don’t know why, I should find out. “
Each sign, each facade is the beginning of a story. We walk past a Pret a Manger sandwich shop: “This is the globalization in practice; owned by US capital and in its entirety driven by underpaid immigrant labour. “
Finally, we are at Grenfell Tower. In June 2017, a fire broke out in the block. Probably a spark from a refrigerator on the fourth floor was the start of the disaster fire. 72 people died. The Guardian writes “The composition of the dead shows how diverse, open and tolerant Britain has become over the past 30 years”. Only seven of the victims were white Britons.
“It was a national trauma. Some would blame local authorities and a renovation project. Others blamed on the firefighters who came too late, others left there staying too many people in the apartments. Grenfell Tower is shrouded in a giant tarpaulin, emblazoned with the words “Grenfell forever in our Hearts”.
The text strikes me as overly sentimental to have been written by Britons. “Do they really mean that the hideous concrete block will always be in our hearts “? I ask. Judah talks about his own people in the third person. “The British have become a sentimental nation. Especially after Princess Diana’s death, public outbursts have become socially acceptable, respectable, expected. I think it has to do with the loss of the empire, the loss of self”.
Published in The American Interest 02.01-2019