The English are a mongrel race; given London is not, by some distance, situated in the cradle of humanity in Africa and we British are still 2% neanderthal (and I can think of a few who top that percentage by a margin) it’s hardly surprising that London’s success is built on immigration. Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, early Christians, they all came for the weather and the shopping and stayed.
We tried to keep the newbies out – the Spanish, the French – but weren’t always successful. Indeed arguably the thing that maintains Britain’s place in the world today – English – is the result of the Norman invasion in 1066. Let’s face it that was a fluke of timing, like a last minute winner flying into the top corner off a wicked deflection. But those French Johnnies, who sneaked the away goal to win, insisted on their lingo being spoken in and at Court. It was formal, the locals didn’t know it so they used their own tongue and, since it was a common man’s speech, they didn’t overcomplicate it – they took in words from wherever – it constantly adapted and initially had few rules of spelling or grammar. A spoken language not really to be written, at least not initially. It’s not so easy nowadays – it is codified and it has as many exceptions as rules – but still it changes and morphs and sucks in new words and meanings. Huzzah, I say.
But I’ve not come to praise William the Conqueror but rather some other Frenchies – the humble trades people from the 17th and 18th centuries.
I’m of Huguenot stock, hence the silly name. Le Pard. Like Leopard, only not.
Well Shakespeare has ‘bearded like the Pard’ in the seven Ages of Man speech – a wild beast of a boy so maybe that’s me.
Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
Anyhoo, when the French decided that toleration had its limits, revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and banned Protestants from practicing their version of Christianity, Britain amongst other places said, come on down. Mostly these folk were craftsmen – leather and metal workers and so on – and ended up populating the East End of London, forming something of ghetto. Like stays with like, inevitably.
It isn’t always comfortable; often enough the indigenous folk, even if themselves of immigrant stock get a bit pissed by Hugo or Vincent taking their place in the bread queue. But gradually the newcomers are absorbed and move out. And then the next wave..
Mostly the Jewish immigration was out of Eastern Europe and Russia as the pogroms took hold. Once again they settled in the buildings formerly used by the Huguenots, they integrated and then they moved on. These people were part of the cloth trade often; their influence talked about by my parents and, if I’m being being honest, disparaged by my grandmother, who felt aggrieved by some historic grievances that were never clearly explained to me. But whatever antagonism there was it changed, slowly, still not perfectly as gradual acceptance followed arrival.
And now the next phase.
The Muslim communities
From the end of WW2 the previously Jewish populated areas have been adopted and adapted by the influx from the Sub continent. Not exclusively Muslim but a large section from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Brick lane has more curry houses than anywhere else in such a short stretch but it also still houses the Beigel Bake Shop, as a link to its recent past. Cheek by jowl living – London all over.
We are a tight packed corner of a crowded island and we are at times suspicious of change but if history tells us one thing it’s that England, and London in particular has thrived by absorption. Our language is mongeel and so are we. From Neanderthals to now we are anything but pure bred and we would do well, when needy people cry for some support, to remember that.
Let me finish by bringing you an architectural metaphor.
There is a building on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street that served as the Brick Lane Mosque. It has a natty steel minaret too. But this is an 18th century building.
Originally it served as the Protestant chapel but with declining congregation as the Jewish diaspora moved in it fell into disuse.
So misguided locals took it over ostensibly to try to persuade the Jews to convert but they hadn’t held their faith and come all this way to give up so easily. They bought the building and it became a synagogue.
History sometimes learns its lessons and when the attendees declined the owners passed it on. It remains a place to worship but otherwise it is infinitely flexible. What next? Jediism?
On the wall high up is a rather splendid sun dial. The Latin underneath is rather appropriate
We are but shadows
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