The hundreds of languages spoken in London are the city’s greatest glory

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

Migrant City: A New History of London Panikos Panayi

Yale, pp.424, £20

Every history of London — and there have been very many — has looked at the importance for the city of migration. Not to mention it would be as inconceivable as ignoring the River Thames. Both, after all, flow directly through the city’s heart. In this scholarly new study, the difference is that London’s history of migration — its patchwork of settlement, its Irish ‘rookery’, its ‘coloured quarter’, Huguenot silk-weavers, Jewish street-sellers, German bakers, Italian waiters, Chinatown, Banglatown — is placed centre-stage. The movement of all these people to the capital — its extraordinary national, then continental, then international pull — is the story.

Panikos Panayi, born in London of Greek-Cypriot parents, emphasises that his own story is typical. From its inception, he stresses, this ‘great metropolitan hive’ has been a ‘migrant city’, as well as being, for most of the last half-millennium, the ‘world’s greatest’. It was founded by Roman immigrants who travelled from the sun-baked south to a place at ‘the very end of the world’ (in Joseph Conrad’s words), among ‘sandbanks, marshes, forests and savages’. There they founded a settlement, which thrived as the result of a ‘superb position’ that allowed easy communication with the rest of the country and with the Continent.

Throughout its history — even when disease among closely confined inhabitants kept life expectancy low — the city’s population has been sustained by migration, from within the British Isles and increasingly from the wider world. Recent political events have emphasised modern migration both to London and to the country as a whole — what Panayi calls the ‘hyper-growth’, which has seen the capital expand dramatically since the Big Bang of 1986.

As a Londoner, I was certainly conscious of this phenomenon. How could any resident not be? As A.N. Wilson has said, a ‘typical London day’ now consists of a sequence of encounters with people of all manner of ethnic backgrounds. But I was not really aware of its breathtaking scale or of the astonishing change which has taken place very recently.

Since the end of the second world war more immigrants have relocated to London than during the city’s entire previous history. In 1951 only one in 20 Londoners was born outside the UK. By 2011 this figure was higher than one in three (and even this remarkable statistic takes no account of those whose parents had migrated but who still retained some residual identification with their homeland). Almost half of the ethnic minorities in Britain live in its capital. Many hundreds of different languages are spoken on its streets. London, Panayi says, has become ‘the most diverse city ever’.

And yet, of course — in the Brexit referendum and in all polls — it has been supportive of this change: much more so than many more deprived regional towns and cities. The jobs and the money concentrated in the capital have ensured that these population changes have seemed positive enrichments to city life, no longer provoking the kind of large-scale unrest they have done in the past, from ‘Evil May Day’ in 1517 and the Gordon Riots of the 18th century to the 1950s race riots in Notting Hill.

And Panayi remains optimistic about the capital. Today, he writes, the cosmopolitanism which used to be a particular feature of the East End or of Soho is practically everywhere. In discussing skinheads, the National Front and the British National party, he notices the failure of racists — from the days of Oswald Mosley — to win meaningful success at the ballot box. Diversity, he argues, has simply become a fact of London life — and few would dream of questioning it.

For anyone interested in the evolution of the capital this is an interesting and rewarding book. You can be familiar with the facts of everyday life in a cosmopolitan, multicultural city but still be surprised and enriched by Panayi’s scholarly analysis. I cannot pretend it’s a light read; published by Yale University Press, it’s as academic as that implies. The pages do not skip by. But their content, slowly digested, is absorbing.

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