Olympics return to a London that’s worlds different from 1948

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 16, 2012 

— In 1948, London was a broken city barely crawling out of the Second World War. The Blitz had reduced whole neighborhoods to rubble. There were shortages of milk, eggs, coal and other basics. The Olympic Games, which came here that bleak summer, were about as welcome as a sunburn.

“Our country will not be able to handle the Games: it will take too long to rebuild London,” predicted one English sportswriter, as reported by author Janie Hampton in her book, “The Austerity Olympics.” “England would be jolly well satisfied never to hold the Games again.”

The Olympics went on, of course, and 64 years later, as the Games return here July 27, it is almost impossible to reconcile that gray place with today’s London: utterly rebuilt, a vibrant mash-up of tradition and innovation, a center of global finance – even though perched at the edge of a Europe in crisis – and a magnet for migrants from all over, one of the most ethnically diverse major cities in the world.

Historians describe the summer of 1948 as a transformative time for London – not just because of those Olympic Games, which built faith that the city would recover, but also because of a remarkable piece of legislation approved that July that allowed any subject of the British Commonwealth to come to the United Kingdom and enjoy full citizenship rights. The British Nationality Act paved the way for half a million ethnic minorities, primarily from the former colonies of South Asia and the Caribbean, to move to the U.K. over the next 14 years, a tide that has never receded.

“It is really a key year,” said Randall Hansen, a professor at the University of Toronto who has written about postwar London. “If you took someone from 1948 and dropped him down in London today, the most fundamental change would be how ‘black and brown’ Britain is compared to the 1940s, when it was chiefly white.”

Today 35 percent of London’s 8 million people are nonwhite, hailing from more than 90 countries, putting the city at the forefront of a demographic revolution in Europe over the past half-century. It can lay claim to being the largest Nigerian city outside Nigeria and the largest Bangladeshi city outside Bangladesh. Along its stately boulevards and redbrick lanes you’re as likely to find pubs serving fish and chips as cafes hawking chicken tikka masala, the buttery Indian curry that’s often called Britain’s favorite dish.

The city’s most iconic sporting addresses – Wembley, the northern neighborhood whose stadium hosted the 1948 opening and closing ceremonies and this year will feature soccer in a new venue, and Wimbledon, the hallowed home of tennis – boast among the most multiracial populations in London.

“People think of London and they imagine hanging flower baskets, quaint shops and people in blazers,” A.A. Gill, a columnist for The Sunday Times, said in an interview. “But if you go to Wimbledon, it is like Pune,” a metropolis in India.

Along the High Road in Wembley, shop signs are written in Tamil and Somali, a Caribbean barbershop sits a few doors down from a Bollywood-themed bar, and posters admonish pedestrians not to spit paan, the stuffed betel leaf that Indian men chew like an addiction.

“I never imagined a place like this,” said Simon Karim, an Iraqi Christian who fled Baghdad after the 2003 U.S. invasion, landed in Sweden and moved to London four years ago. His young daughter, in school here, has learned to speak with a British accent he almost can’t recognize.

“The Englishman has been everywhere in the world over the last 200 years, so anyone can feel welcome here,” said Karim, standing at his coffee stall inside a small shopping center along the main road in Wembley. “I feel I am treated better than I was in Sweden. There, you are like a strange person and they only talk to you if they are drunk.”

Many Londoners say that the new arrivals and their descendants are less ghettoized than ethnic minorities in other European cities. The 40-member town council in Brent, the northern borough that comprises Wembley, includes 23 people from minority communities. In 1964, when Len Snow took a seat on the council, his fellow council members were all white.

That change, said Snow, now 88, is “the most striking feature of Brent today.”

Indians in the area now outnumber whites, but in 1963, when Ashwin Patel moved to Wembley, there were only three South Asian families. A young Ugandan of Indian origin, Patel landed at Heathrow Airport with little more than a suitcase and a slip of paper that he’d been given with the phone number of an Indian family. A taxi took him to their home, where he was offered a bed. The next morning, he opened his window and glimpsed the London sky: gray and polluted, nothing like the bright East African skies he’d grown up with.

“I was crying to myself, ‘Why did I come here?’” he recalled.

He found a job sweeping the warehouse of a store that sold parts for heating and ventilation units. But within a year he’d learned enough about the business that the manager, an Englishman, asked him to work the sales counter. A dark-skinned man interfacing with customers was, back then, a small revolution. Customers couldn’t get his name, so they called him Joe. Some of the other employees raised their eyebrows at an immigrant being promoted over them.

A few years later, when he left the company to open a general store in the west London town of Uxbridge with his two brothers, who’d followed him to England, his boss asked him to find an Indian to replace him, Patel said. But he found a less welcoming reception in Uxbridge. Two weeks after they opened, the store was broken into, the vandals scrawling an epithet on one window: PAKIS GO HOME.

A violent anti-immigrant streak had developed among skinheads and other London youth, and the fact that Patel and his brothers weren’t Pakistani hardly mattered. Over the next several months their windows and locks were repeatedly smashed; when they installed metal shutters, those were broken, too. Patel and his family slept in an apartment above the store, and the attacks were terrifying.

“We didn’t dare come outside,” he said. “But we were very strong-minded. We just continued.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, he said, that he felt attitudes toward immigrants changed. Schools began enrolling the children of the new arrivals. As in the United States, the passing of a generation has helped ethnic minorities in Britain assimilate to the point where South Asians, the largest nonwhite group, feel that “the English people have really accepted us,” said Patel. Now 68 and semi-retired, his children, who have children of their own, “think this is our country.”

Which is not to say that difficulties don’t persist. While Indians, Chinese and other groups have generally thrived, still other communities, notably Somalis and Bangladeshis, have struggled to integrate and so remain on the margins of society. One in four people in prison in Britain is from an ethnic minority background, the unemployment rate among Muslim men is nearly 50 percent and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis report poorer health than the rest of the population, according to a 2010 study by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Amid the economic downturn, anti-immigrant strains have reappeared in Britain, if not necessarily in London. The addition of eight Eastern European countries to the European Union in 2004 prompted a flood of new immigration, particularly from Poland. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party came to power in 2010 promising to crack down on immigration, saying that the influx of outsiders had not only raised pressures on schools and public services, but also had frayed the social fabric.

“When there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighborhoods, perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighborhoods,” Cameron said in an April 2011 speech.

Yet London, which has one of the highest proportions of migrants, is also the city where attitudes toward the newcomers are the most positive, experts say. Emad al Ebadi, an Iraqi-born member of the Brent council who moved to London in 1980, drew a comparison to Paris, where lawmakers last year banned the wearing of Islamic face veils in public.

“Here there is no discussion of anything like that,” al Ebadi said. But he noted that integration in schools and pubs hasn’t yet translated to diversity in the top ranks of society. An architect, he still feels he is passed over for big projects because executives prefer “English” faces. Even in the ethnically mixed Brent council, only three out of 10 members of the executive committee are ethnic minorities.

“We are the backbenchers. The decision-makers are still the whites,” he said. “So we have a long way to go.”

Email: sbengali@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @SBengali

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