On Sunday I got chatting with a lady who has lived in this inner-city area for 73 years. She’s seriously contemplating moving into the country, but finding it a very difficult decision.
Some of her reasons are to do with her age. She’s a large lady and finds it difficult to walk these days. Her stairs are becoming a hazard and she’s decided she would be better off in a bungalow.
The rest of her reasons are to do with her environment. She’s fed up, she told me, of the constant stream of people renting around her. She never knows who her neighbours are going to be. And will they be good neighbours, or will they be rowdy, or into drugs, which are common round here?
Even when there are good neighbours, they never stay long. They are mostly economic migrants who are looking for somewhere to shelter until they find work.
She blames this flux of tenants for the mess on the streets. Earlier in her life people round her owned their houses and took a pride in their environment. Now, although it has long been illegal in Britain, people drop litter everywhere. I sympathise with her: a bus stop is against our garden fence and although we requested the litter bin that is now there, a lot of litter simply comes over the fence into our garden. Many people drop their food and packaging on the ground.
And also, she said, she’s fed up with people walking past her house, talking a language she doesn’t understand. She’s now part of the white minority in our neighbourhood.
I pondered this, especially in the light of recent comments from the government about ghettoisation and the fact that ‘multiculturalism’ hasn’t worked (maybe somebody should have worked out what that meant, first). What this lady is really saying is that she misses her own culture, which has moved away from her. She is going elsewhere to find it again.
But why should we blame immigrants and economic migrants? We have an open democracy and people come here, in many cases, to find work and political safety. These are good things we don’t want to lose. But as the news uncovered last night, our democracy also shelters extremists who are fomenting unrest and sending young men to Afghanistan to train as terrorists. That isn’t just about having a democracy – that’s also about our Foreign Office apparently being slow on the uptake when fed intelligence that this is happening.
How did we get to this point? And what can be done about it? Our own racism has created a situation where people from other cultures prefer to live with those of their own language, rather than tolerate the abuse of their neighbours. But equally, many immigrants have not made the effort necessary to learn English and integrate better into our native culture.
I am influenced by my own living in other countries, where each time we learned the language and sufficient of the culture not to give offence. If we are guests in someone else’s nation then the onus is on us to adapt. Or so it seems to me. Consequently, when I lived in a Muslim state I was careful to cover myself up when I went out, which included my head.
This brings me on to the whole subject of the burka, niqab etc. France has ruled in draconian fashion that women should not use the face veil. Britain, say our leaders, is more tolerant and will not follow suit.
But I wonder. If I cover up in a Muslim state, in order not to offend, then should not Muslim women uncover at least their face, in order to fit in with a more open democracy?
Who makes the decisions? And how do they make them? What are the criteria, and who decides?
These are pressing questions.