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London Bridges the Racial Divide

(Excerpted from “London on a Roll” in the June 2000 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

By Simon Worrall

The whole world lives in London. Walk down Oxford Street and you will see Indians and Colombians, Bangladeshis and Ethiopians, Pakistanis and Russians, Melanesians and Malaysians. Fifty nationalities with communities of more than 5,000 make their home in the city, and on any given day 300 languages are spoken. It is estimated that by 2010 the population will be almost 30 percent ethnic minorities, the majority born in the U.K. Most of these Londoners are the children and in some cases the grandchildren of the many thousands who came here from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent during the fifties and sixties, after the British Empire imploded.

Annas Ali, a 17-year-old Londoner of Bangladeshi descent, feels deeply rooted in British society. “I have been here all my life,” he told me, as we dodged our way through the festive crowds filling Brick Lane in the East End for Baishakhi Mela, the Bangladeshi New Year. The neighborhood is known as Bangla Town. Union Jacks fluttered next to the green-and-red flag of Bangladesh. Indian music echoed off Victorian brick houses. “I was born at Mile End hospital a half mile away and grew up in Hunton Street. My father had a restaurant there.”

Bangla Town has seen centuries of immigration. In the 1600s French Huguenots built a church on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane. Later it became a Methodist chapel. In the 1890s it was converted into a synagogue. Today it is used by Annas and other Bangladeshis as a mosque. Bangla Town has also had a recent influx from the world of fashion, art, and pop culture. Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp, lives nearby. So does Chris Ofili, the young artist of Nigerian descent whose painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” depicting a black Madonna embellished with elephant dung, caused a firestorm of controversy at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year. Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer, has his workshop on Rivington Street. The result is a fusion of cultures unique to London.

Annas Ali himself is eclectic. With his dark skin, raven black hair, and lustrous brown eyes, he reminded me of Mowgli in the Jungle Book. But his hair was cut in the latest London style: short in back, long and slicked back with gel at the front. He is a devout Muslim, an Asian Londoner who talks Cockney English. The gold rings on his fingers were from India, his stylish, midnight blue cardigan—“pure wool,” he told me proudly—from Prohibito, a clothes shop on Oxford Street popular among teenagers. “I want to go into fashion,” he said. “I want to go to the London School of Fashion.”

Two weeks before I met Annas, a nail bomb went off in Brick Lane—one of three that shook the city last year. The newspapers ran features about neo-Nazi groups with names like Combat 18 and speculated about a coming racial war. But the bombings last year were not part of a broader trend. They were a desperate attempt by a single individual pathologically at odds with his times to stop the racial mixing that, with a typically British lack of hype, has been going on for a generation.

“It’s the holy grail of all societies to have the energy that hybridity brings without the distressing divisions,” Trevor Phillips told me as we sat in the living room of his house in Stanmore, a leafy suburb on the northern fringes of the city. Born in London of Guyanese origins, Phillips is one of Britain’s best known broadcasters and the chairman of the London Arts Board. “We’re just reaching for it here. We’re just on the edge of being able to do it.”

Outside, a Volvo dozed in the driveway. Through a sliding glass door I could see a well-mowed lawn. It was every middle-class Englishman’s idea of suburban comfort. What struck me even more was this black Londoner’s ease in discussing a subject that in the United States can be fissile material.

“In America you always have to choose: I’m black, or I’m not black,” he said. “When I go to New York to visit my sisters, I can, if I so choose, never speak to someone who is not black. Here that is not possible. There are so many different Londons that jostle side by side, and so many different kinds of people who live here, and we have a whole set of manners and ways of looking at people who are different from us that allow us to live right next door to them. To be cool about it.”

It is this convivial mixing of the races, not just its diversity, that is so special about London. “There is a great amount of intermarrying here,” says Sunand Prasad, an architect of Indian origin whose family emigrated to London 30 years ago. “The races used to be quite distinct, but rather than the edges becoming ever more sharply defined, as they are in France or the States, they are really beginning to blur.”

Get the full story in the June 2000 issue. Or receive NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC by joining the National Geographic Society—only (U.S.) $34!

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