an old song which tells the story of a 38-year-old woman who stands on top
of a high building threatening to jump. “Come down,” cry the crowds.
“Stop it. Why are you trying to kill yourself?”
I will never go riding in a sports car through the streets of Paris with
the wind through my hair,” she shouts back. Then she jumps.
don’t know why she felt there was no chance of her getting in that
sports car. She may have been poor, a single mother of four, dying of
cancer and afraid of flying all at once. The story is faintly ridiculous
and far fetched but it is said that when people are dying they don’t
regret what they’ve done, rather the things they have wanted to but have
tragedy of the song is that reality may have destroyed her dream anyway.
The man driving the car could have been a jerk, a gush of gritty, charcoal
city fumes could have blown into her face, she may have been freezing to
death in the open car. Who knows. Still her plunge to death demonstrates
the necessity for dreams in our lives. The irony of dreamers is that they
are rarely in the position to realise them because making a dream come
true often requires money, leisure, and freedom from responsibilities.
those who are in a position to dream often don’t have the imagination to
do so. (The moneyed need to be hard-nosed, ruthless and practical to get
there.) There is a group that falls in-between starving artists and
ruthless millionaires. They are the new world pioneers, immigrants,
indentured labourers, refugees - people from poorer or war-torn countries
who tooled only with a willingness to work hard, leave behind sunshine,
and family with a modest dream - that of a better life for their children.
so the world gained its Diaspora - first and second generation of hybrids
in whom continents converge. Almost every country in the world today is
represented in all the major Western capitals. French, British, German,
Dutch, US governments all in recent time have clamped down on immigration,
unwilling to take responsibilities for the problems in the countries they
enslaved, war-torn, repressed or impoverished people of Africa, Asia, the
Middle East now felt their only hope was to make a life in the countries
which grew plump and prosperous off their land and resources. The
inevitable happened. Colonialism came home to roost.
job was too lowly for first generation immigrants. They kept their shops
open all night, mopped toilets, conducted buses, swept the streets.
Although not all were successful, many were, sending their children to
good schools and creating a new generation of “black”, “Asian” or
simply “non-white” professionals whose parents were born in Asia or
children would change the landscape of the Western world - expressed
largely through popular culture, literature, art, sport and music. They
were a powerful influence on their host countries. Dub and calypso would
mix with classical and Punjabi Bhangra. South African voices could be
heard alongside Paul Simon and VS Naipaul from Chaguanas would be writing
about the English countryside, with a title to his name.
Scary Spice to Trevor McDonald, there was no lack of success stories in
the non-white community. Millionaire businessmen, journalists,
broadcasters, MPs, novelists, pop singers and sportsmen and women seized
opportunities and vindicated their parents’ struggles. Last month in
Notting Hill Gate, London, like Trinidad, became a convention ground for
all nationalities of the world during Carnival as some three million
Londoners chipped and waved on the streets. People dancing to calypso
chipped along roads where North Africans sat in their fez listening to
carnival over, let’s take a ride in this city. From Marble Arch we move
onto little Beirut on Edgeware Road to the sight of men smoking hookahs,
and fully covered Arab matrons shopping for underwear in Marks and
Spencers. On to little Dublin in Kilburn where a line of pubs emit folk
music amid signs of the Irish green Shamrock. We stop in a bagel shop in
Golders Green where ultra orthodox Israelis with curly locks mingle with
young liberal Israelis. Stamford Hill is a mixture of Turkish, Kurdish,
West Indian, Ultra Orthodox Hassidim. We stop at a shop which sells 1950s
style Hamburg hats made for Hassidic Jews and meet some regular customers,
two elderly men, one Trinidadian the other Jamaican. Like them, many West
Indian men who arrived here in the ‘60s sport these hats.
of the river in Brixton where speakers fill the air with dub and reggae,
West Indians and Africans mingle in a market with loud calls from hawkers.
Here, amidst the Edwardian architecture, we find callaloo and yams and the
East African specialty of snails.
East End used to be first port of call to newcomers in this country. Today
it is a struggling immigrant culture. On top of previous layers of 18th
century French Huguenots, followed by Jews and Irish, followed by
Bangladeshis who came here during the war and now run the garment trade.
The most recent layer are the Somalis. All of whom live cheek by jowl with
the London working class cockneys.
North East London, we have a lunch of humus, pita bread and kebabs. Here
Greek and Turkish Cypriots live side by side whereas back home they are
divided islands with the UN keeping them apart so they don’t kill one
and South Hall are little Indias with jewelry, sari and food shops selling
spices to the loud sounds of India film music and smells of Samosas and
curry. Although they still cleave to their own community, for the most
part, communal differences at home between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are
forgotten. It is a self-contained community but for the incongruity of a
Tudor style pub.
Neasden, we visit what is considered the most spectacular temple in
Europe, with ornate marble, now even more famous since the Princess of
Wales visited there before her death last year.
But beneath the sheen of cosmopolitan London is another reality.
That of racism.
“Cool Britannia”, there is segregation, partly self-imposed and
partially the result of being rejected from mainstream society. Non-white
people live in the backdrop of the glaring case of the ongoing infamous
racist killing of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man who was stabbed to
death in a south London street by five white hooligans.
are many published stories of young Asian (Indian) boys and men being
stoned by racist thugs. A new study which appeared last month revealed
that police detained up to five times more black men than they did white.
Out of the images of boats and queues of immigrants desperate for their
papers to enter a first world country, a new phenomenon has emerged. The
children and grandchildren of many immigrants are now lining up to go back
the Barbados exhibition in Wembley last month many people in their early
thirties queued up with older retired West Indians inquiring about
voluntary repatriation. They are not the exception. Many of them are
women. Nigerians, Tanzanians, Jamaicans, Asians, Bajans, all expressing
the desire to “go back home.”
even for second generation non-white women is restricted mainly to the few
highly-educated professional women who are expatriates rather than
immigrants - daughters of ambassadors, businessmen, middle class people
from other countries who chose to educate their children here. And even
they have obscure longings.
a Tanzanian born journalist of East Indian decent, is an example. Her
parents moved here in the ‘60s for their children’s education. She has
never experienced racism but she has shuttled between Africa, her true
love, and the UK for the last 15 years. Now she has finally decided to
return to live in South Africa. Although successful here she says she
missed being part of the majority, among people with similar cultural and
up as Asian/black people in Tanzania we had a sense of community. Here I
always feel like a guest, foreign, apart,” she says. “My heart is
never here and that’s why I’ve been longing to go back.” Shabana
still works for the BBC from Africa. She adds:
people, regardless of whether they are from Africa, India or the West
Indies, have cultural bonds that are separate from the Western world.
they are openly affectionate and hospitable. Their tastes in food, music,
art, film are similar. Most importantly, they have all inherited a sense
of community which is what they create by sticking together.”
most non-white people, classed mainly as “Asian” or “black” the
concept of the patchwork quilt is a myth. Stella, a striking graduate in
fashion whose parents are Nigerian who have returned home, was born here.
Paulette, a single mother of four from Tottenham, works in a low-paid job
for the local council. Her parents were born here. But their dreams are
identical: To escape Britain’s racism.
two who have not met have said they find it difficult to get good jobs
despite the fact that their qualifications match that of their white
competitors. Neither have any white friends by choice, mainly because they
feel they have nothing in common with “them”. Paulette, who is deeply
bitter about the taunts she received as a child, won’t allow her teenage
son to bring home any white girls.
who plans to migrate to America, says she would prefer the in-your-face
American racism in the US to the subtle British variety of “false tight
scared smiles” and “polite refusals to job applications.” Paulette
is saving up to go back to Jamaica.
these women, racism and alienation are only part of the problem. Property
and child care are outrageously expensive, and extended family life
impossible due to lack of space, and long distances between the extended
family deny them support they may get at home in times of financial
trouble and illness.
many dream of going home, and some do, many have no choice but to stay.
They stay mainly due to political, military or economic problems in the
country of their parents’ birth. A few stay because of job opportunities
and health and educational facilities for themselves and their children
here. Some simply have no one to go back to.
refugees and seekers of asylum who come from troubled, war-torn,
financially broke or corrupt countries live with longing in their hearts
of a place they truly consider home - be it a hut in Bangladesh or a
mansion in Nigeria.
Britain is not so bad. France and Belgium enjoy the dubious privilege of
being the most racist countries in Europe, according to a survey conducted
by the French government. All-year-round sunshine, babies on
grandparents’ laps, people who laugh without restraint, music,
demonstrative emotional affection, home-cooked food, and a feeling of
belonging. Their dreams are no less intense for being unrealistic.
the Notting Hill Gate Carnival was over, a friend remarked to me sadly,
“It is the one time of the year when white people feel safe around
blacks and when blacks feel comfortable inviting in the whites into their
territory. They have all returned now to their little insular pockets.”
may not jump off buildings but many second generation immigrants live with
the pain of exile, and often its just the dreams of home that sustain them
in their host country.