London: Post Colonial City
There are plenty of opportunities for sophistry in playing with the concept of post-coloniality. There may even be political gains to be made if the term can help to promote coalitions between marginalised and victimised people whose immiseration is a residual product of the shocks that followed the loss of Britain's empire, but the vicissitudes of most post-colonial theorising hold scant appeal for me. The post-colonial character of contemporary London has a simple facticity which leaves it not really amenable to debate. The spirit in which our discussion of it is engaged during the next two days is therefore absolutely critical. We can appreciate London's cosmopolitanism vernacular, its vernacular cosmopolitanisms and the patterns of resistance to both. We will observe the city's ethno-graphic complexities. Its perverse hetero-cultural details may bring pleasure as well as fear, but the temptation to evaluate and assess contemporary London as though it could be a simpler, more homogenous and less irreducibly diverse place, is something we should regard with the utmost suspicion. That impulse is linked not only to fantasies of return to the imaginary homogeneity of past whiteness and the restoration of Britain's imperial status, it is marked by the lingering suggestion that "race", like the black bodies that are its primary bearers and signifiers, belongs elsewhere. In turn, this can feed the comforting idea that true-Brits have been suffered from misguided social engineering of a race relations industry which has curbed their instinctive responses of suspicion and hatred with the blunt instrument of the law. At their worst, these views endorse an analysis of empire and colony as essentially unrelated to the ecologies of belonging created in the core of the old imperial system. Colonial history gets allocated and confined to its victims. Any post-colonial opportunities remain theirs alone.
I want to suggest a different orientation that has the additional merit of by-passing any leftover agonising about being black and British. It is premised on the idea that colonial cultures, aspirations and mentalities extended into and conditioned the life of this metropolis in the most intimate and comprehensive ways over long periods of time. The boundaries of post-coloniality become blurred but its irreversibility now constitutes the starting point. From this angle, the basic idea of post-colonial London has such a clanging, vivid obviousness about it, that to unwittingly endorse a game of "post-colonial London for or against?" would be absurd. To engage in sport of that type brings new dangers now that the re-invention of conservatism is seeking new language and imagery with which to revive and legitimate the oldest of ultra-nationalist and racist anxieties. The close associations between the history of Britains phobic responses to the difficult presence of difference and the life of this city, have been repeatedly overlooked. Sustained confrontations between same and different, black and white, native and interloper have been staged for the benefit of the national community as a whole in urban environments, usually though not exclusively, those that London has supplied. This politics of "race" and representation has featured a cavalcade of mythic figures. Illegal immigrants and black power militants, maimed imams, muggers, dreads, posses, yardies, steamers, gangsters, fundamentalists and Holy Smokes are only a few of the horrifying characters that have brought inner Londons testing encounters with Middle England to vivid life. Their potency was enhanced where they were revealed to prey upon the wholesome, beleaguered and inappropriately tolerant responses of lost and lonely people whose roots went deeper into the local landscape than the immigrants could ever manage. Conservative and nationalist opponents of Britains post-colonial culture produced grim evidence drawn from the destruction and transformation of Londons inner cities to support their cause. In their populist political imagination, new commonwealth immigrants completed the tasks that Hitlers Luftwaffe had been unable accomplish. The noisy alien encampments that had sprung up where peace and quiet had formerly reigned, supplied incontrovertible proof of a catastrophic confrontation between incompatible cultures and civilisations. Charles Moore, now editor of the Telegraph, spoke for this tendency in his 1982 response to Lord Scarmans report on the Brixton riots. He offered a memorable diagnosis of Lambeths ills which linked mass immigration to the other statist perfidies of modernising Labour in government.
The celebrants, defenders and advocates of anti-racism and multi-cultural Britain contested Moores feeble and duplicitous projection of recent urban history. For them, Londons rich cultural life during the last thirty or forty years suggests a utopia different from the heady mixture of high Anglicanism, Powell and Hayek that Moore still apparently peddles. Their counter-history accentuates the themes of cultural syncretism, class-based inter-mixture and democratic mutual regard. It became crucial to establishing the currency of another widespread and myth-enveloped notion which suggests that the British case has provided the best example Europe can offer of what a successful multi-cultural society looks and feels like. Here again the more recent history of post-colonial London has acquired an extra burden. It is called upon to substantiate a deep political transition characterised in part, by the dwindling of overt and articulate, "politically-motivated" racism.
The more extravagant versions of that hopeful claim have been dented by recent events. Everything in Britains post-colonial garden is not rosy. Racial hierarchy structures the life of this city in multiple ways. We should recall that the historic discovery of a host of black patriots, reliable, worthy subjects participating as fully as anyone else in the nations acts of mourning Princess Diana despite the exclusion and discrimination that persistently delimit their lives, was a surprise to many influential people!! The incredulity with which the appearance of that law-abiding, unspectacular blackness was registered by the liberal media was itself an alarming symptom of how much work there is still to do in demystifying racial differences and reconfiguring Britishness. The real surprise generated by the belated discovery that blacks could be ordinary should qualify any optimism we might want to discover in the epiphany of the Ian Wright generation.
This is another way of saying that Londons multi-culture will not necessarily take care of itself as a private phenomenon: organically and spontaneously without being allowed to become an object of explicit political processes and interventions. The experiential and cultural sources of yearning for racial division to be placed in the past, need to be appreciated sympathetically. However, rather than endorse the overly-optimistic portraits of our city that understandable yearning can promote, we need to examine the histories to which those claims to have passed beyond racism into post-colonial heterotopia refer. We may find that Londons cosmopolitan post- cultures are more fragmented, fragile and unevenly developed formations than the stronger versions of the automatic multi-culture thesis would lead us to believe. It is hard to even name but if, in following that agenda, we can set aside the desire to celebrate pre-maturely the great victories of British tolerance and the irresistible rise of what might be called Londons hybrid commonwealth, there are new and important processes to be explored. Against the compelling urge to become cheerleaders for a still-born cosmopolis we must strive instead to practice a careful, almost forensic approach to multi-cultures metropolitan genealogies.
This novel project necessitates a historical orientation but its re-branded history needs to be conceptualised on a different scale: uncoupled from the conventions of imperial geo-politics. Before we can be plausibly post- anything, we have to comprehend the colonial character of this city in a more profound manner than has happened before. Secondly we have to produce histories of the city in this century which allow the presence of diverse colonial peoples and their stubbornly non-colonial descendants a far greater significance than they have been allowed in the past. The shortest walk in the shadow of that infamous Mosque at Finsbury Park will confirm that contemporary calculations must involve more than just British colonial histories. We will have to adjust the threshold of our contemporaneity and re-think the ways in which the histories of this metropolis have been periodised. Foregrounding the workings of empire and the great shock of its demise enforces some unorthodox historiographic sensibilities. The battles of 1958 begin, for example to acquire a substantive significance. The conflicts with neo-fascist groups which ran through much of the 1970s appear less like a distraction from the real political business of opposing governmental racism, and become a significant cultural and political intervention crucial in turning what are still routinely mis-identified as "youth cultures" away from the possibility of an ultra-nationalist politics. The history of GLC, ILEA and other local-governmental initiatives around "race", ethnicity and policing should not be written out of the post-McPherson story as expressions of a juvenilia that had to be dispensed with on the yellow brick road to the citadel of sensible power.
More recent events have provided valuable cues for these large critical projects in the rethinking of Londons history. The likely re-emergence of municipal government is one factor driving this activity forwards but I do not need to remind you that we have assembled to consider Londons post-colonial predicament just as the convulsions around British racism in general and the many injustices arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence in particular, are beginning to subside. It would be derelict of us to begin our discussions here without taking advantage of this special opportunity to reflect on the way that episode has changed our sense of our metropolis, its colonial histories and its post- and neo-colonial topographies.
However necessary, the national and universal resonances of the Lawrences campaign for justice can obscure the layers of neighbourhood narrative in which their long battle was enveloped. The significance of the familys tragedy for their immediate location brought another dimension of meaning to the campaign which seems to have become a means or re-making place, of ontologising it differently. Though their places of memory are less visible in the media, similar local effects have been evident in the protracted battles of other families who have lost their loved ones struck down in the street by freelance white supremacists or killed at the hands and the feet of police officers, prison warders and immigration authorities with their malicious choke-holds and lethal rolls of sticky tape. These continuing struggles testify for several generations of black Londoners whose protests against police indifference and hostility were ignored, dismissed and ridiculed but they might now also lend their voice to the emergent figures of a Black Europe that is in the process of finding its own insubordinate and fearless ways of talking back to power.
The national trauma that culminated two weeks ago in all those agonised trips made by the liberal and the not so liberal media into the racist hell they discovered on the estates of Kentish London can usefully be traced back at least a hundred years. One route into the past proceeds via the New Cross inferno in which 13 young black people died, and the contending moral economies marked so effectively by the idea of racial division first assumed obvious public configurations. From there we pass back towards the histories of Southall, Brixton, Tottenham, Lewisham and Brick Lane until we reach twentieth-century Londons key symbolic locations of unwanted alien settlement: Notting Hill--Brown Town--and Stepney. The first has been made over into the home-turf of New Labour by the hyper-gentrification of the 90s, the second transformed by the perverse elaboration of Mrs. Thatchers dockland folly and the damaging infrastructure that supports it. It is worth recalling the local newspapers which reported "Revolvers, Choppers and Steels" to have been "at play" during the race riots that took place in Canning Town in 1919. Londons police have not forgotten that sequence of events and nor should we. There is a new challenge involved in making it part of the official memory of the city.
The apparent continuity of black and settler victimisation in the century between the useful symbolic markers of Major William Evans-Gordon on one side and Sir Paul Condon on the other, can mask the fact that London was a remarkably different city even twenty years ago. When that march of protest from New Cross finally snaked its way over onto the north bank of the Thames, policing had not been effectively militarised. Surveillance cameras were scarce and mobile phones unknown. The spatial concentration of information and cultural capital in Fleet Street was intact. The Isle of Dogs was still the Isle of Dogs and Ken Livingstone a peripheral figure unknown outside the inner cabal of the London Labour Party. Globalisation was not a word that was widely known or used though there were, of course, myriad ways in which this city, established so long before the nation and the state to which it is always linked had even taken shape, already reached out across the world and brought that conflictual and divided world into itself. Its physical contours and its cultural and institutional life alike bear the imprint of distant experiences and their extensive planetary circuitry.
Michael Ports path-breaking studies of Londons imperial buildings provide one productive and memorable instance of what these inquiries might become but the colonial intimacies that have given the city so much of its character possess other, affective dimensions. Seeking a genealogy in which the iconic figure of Stephen Lawrence might find a fitting position, our thoughts will be drawn irresistibly back to the nomadic life of that original African-Englishman Olaudah Equiano. He found himself trapped on a boat in the Thames at Deptford in 1762, locked in an unexpected confrontation with the master he tells his readers he had loved like a son. Desperate to gain the safety of the city on the river banks where both men knew that his freedom would be secured, Equiano found himself instead being sold from one master to another within sight of the shore he was unable to reach. His diaspora sense of the promise that London represented was especially acute. Today, it alerts us not only to a view of the river as the jugular vein of empire but to a sense of the Thames as an unpredictable and powerful force in the life of the place that has been observed with special insight and precision by sensitive immigrant voices as diverse as those of Ewan McColl and Joseph Conrad. In those extraordinary opening pages of Heart of Darkness Marlow observes that Londons role as a point of departure for catastrophic colonial adventures has made the city into "one of the dark places of the earth".
"They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith - the adventurers and the settlers . . . Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of the unknown earth! . . .The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires".
The circuitry of Conrads own life produces another sense to London: as a destination. Post-colonial sensibilities necessitate fresh ways to acknowledge the histories of migration and the waves of migrants that have given so much energy to the life of this city and those who, like Stephen Lawrence have given their lives to it too, while changing--incrementally, glacially--what it means to be English in the process. Kelso Cochrane, Altab Ali and Blair Peach, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, Asseta Sims and Joy Gardner are only a few of the best-known names to commemorate in this special category. Their life stories prompt a further moment of reflection in our local politics of remembrance. They suggest a picture of middle England and inner London locked in insurmountable conflict over what the future of this country will be.
The contemporary event that began with the murder of Stephen Lawrence requires us to turn in a different direction too. It represents the end of the over-long phase in which Britains and Londons racial politics could be projected via the idea of immigration. Whatever happens next, claims made by this citys black and other minority citizens will not in future be dismissed with the absurd notion that they are only temporarily resident here. In a sense then, the Lawrence story resonates so powerfully because it seems to present the final demise of Enoch Powells long-lived and definitive definition of the dimensions of "race" as a problem for this nation that was manifest in distinctively urban conflicts saturated with national and ethnic symbolism. The murder and the responses to it triggered an emphatically sub-urban tableau that has finally displaced the primal scene represented by inner-city conflict between an aged and infirm white woman and "the wide-grinning piccaninnies" who "push", yes, push, excreta through her letter box. Powells enduring authority, was, you will recall, still invoked in the private conversation of the five suspects captured at play with their knives. I have had my say about Powell elsewhere and we do not need to waste time on him today but I want to say one thing briefly about the way in which his best known intervention into the politics of "race" and nation is remembered: as the "rivers of blood" speech. Powell was not a Londoner, in one of modern British politics more tasty ironies, he came to us from The Black Country. In judging his discursive legacy, we would do well to remember that there are more kilometers of canal in Birmingham than in Venice and to dwell on the significance of the Bourne and the Avon for the industrial revolution in the Midlands but none of that can undo the fact that there is no river in Birmingham. The corner-stone he supplied to the embattled edifice of "race relations" was that foundational image of an English river "foaming with much blood". It was not aimed at the quiet rural worlds not far from his inner-city constituency. It was precisely targeted at the life of this disorderly city. The working class men who marched from the docks in support of their beloved Enoch looked at the Thames every day. It flowed past them and helped constitute their traditions, their identities. Today they are the fathers, grandfathers, cousins, mates and uncles of lost, spiteful and anxious young men like the Acourts and their crew. They responded viscerally to the vivid possibility of race war that is linked in Powells text to the liquid contamination that the Atlantic ocean had conducted into the vulnerable generous heart of London.
"As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history of the States itself, is coming upon us by our own volition and our own neglect."_
To the apprehensive twelve-year-old I was then, Powells words conjured reddened images of the muddy Thames water I had first glimpsed from the vantage point of Cleopatras needle close to the Embankment Gardens where I sat on the grass with my grandmother. A year or so later, as I hit my teens, Powells observations became inextricably linked in my mind to the pathetic homeless figure of David Oluwale hounded to his death in the icy water of the river Aire by Elerker and Kitching the West Yorkshire police officers who had decided to systematically make his life unlivable. It was clear, at the moment whose blood Powell had in mind.
The rate of transformation may be slow, progress fitful and chaotic but things do change. I am not nostalgic for the days when police officers tormented blacks for sport. But we do need to recall them in order to bring a vigorous historical perspective to bear upon the Stephen Lawrence case. Remembering that time is particularly useful when we focus on the political and moral responses that would now either confine the problem of racism to two or three wild and exceptional locations like the frontier areas of Kentish London in which, were told, violent white supremacists currently feel at home, or disperse it so evenly and extensively into Britains institutions that it can reveal nothing specific about Londons political geography. The wider class and cultural conflicts that make this nation, this city comfortable with the image of those five young men rather than of say Richard Tilt, director of the Prison Service as the embodiment of the racist you love to hate, are too obvious to be specified here. They press us towards asking whether the proper name Eltham refers to somewhere in London or somewhere else, an island in the multi-cultural stream, fortified against the encroachments of black settlers. That negative diagnosis is challenged by the fact that the Lawrence family and the police had been given the names of the perpetrators within hours of the killing-- a disturbing and complicating element in the grand narrative of English decency that promises something significant for the future. But a note of caution is necessary as well. Londons post-colonial history shows that an intense appreciation for the exotic fruits of colonial culture has not necessarily promoted a parallel love or even respect for the people who produce it. Whatever common class position and consciousness, proximity and a substantial measure of shared experience contribute in the way of centripetal forces, there are no guarantees of mutual respect or commonality. Indeed, the allure of exotic culture may even have been enhanced by the deepening of social and cultural segregation. This change effectively separates Londons carnival of trans-cultural consumption and play from the troubled lives and colonial histories of its exotic and supposedly primitive producers. If the pensioners remain shocked and fearful, its clear that their grand-children have been seduced into the pleasures of degeneration. The transgressions of the excluded and the underclass are in harmony here with the power of corporate multi-culture that has arrested Britains post-colonial identities for its own purposes. The visual languages and representational codes within which that national and ethnic identity becomes visible, legible and intelligible are themselves colonised by the globalising corporate interests of a different, Americo-centric imperialism. The resulting visual culture racialises difference to produce post-colonial exotica with a high commercial value. It departs sharply from earlier patterns which made visible differences into nothing but emblems of misery and insult. The alien refugees who have settled across the street or down the road are consigned to the permanent twilight of their infra-humanity while the iconic, super-human figures of Michael Jordan and co. look down, smiling benevolently from on high. This appears, at first, to be a matter of ethnicity but it is an issue of class as well. Their inter-articulation was underlined recently when one leading member of the black elite with precious access to the infotainment pages squandered that rare gift with a portentous announcement in one of his columns, that he was fleeing the dysfunctional and anti-social inner-urban world of the black poor and, in line with what he saw as the American model, was taking his young children to the leafy safety of the suburbs. Prominent representatives of the emergent black middle class can now find a suitable niche in calm, semi-detached locations at the end of the lines, or, perhaps like the white peers whose interests they serve as brokers of difference, opt to dwell in those "cobbled developments with controlled security access" from which residents venture to an fro in the style and status of military vehicles with names like "stealth", "patrol", "explorer", "discovery" and "shogun".
The accelerating process of post-modern segregation by wealth is something more than the old developmental conflicts that nourished the city while expressing social, economic and political antagonisms in its very form. Deindustrialisation has combined them with the privatisation of space and movement within the metropolis in ways that oblige us to recall Fanons potent image of the colonial city as composed of proximate but separate worlds that met under the force of law, only in the barracks and the police station. Britains colonial administrators whose analysis of these problems yielded a discourse on plural societies to counterpoint and dispute Fanons own had another vision. They argued that the different incommensurable groups ruled by their colonial authority would meet in a marketplace to which none of them laid claim. Today, though that idea has some minimal endo-colonial life left in it, the situation is quite different. The crowd in the marketplace has been dispersed into its private means of coming and going. Public space is ebbing away, shrunk to the dimensions between the glass of one-gridlocked car and the next. The cornucopia of the market-place has been edged out by carefully-targeted marketing operations that seek to command the truths of consumer identities by their orchestrating their economic, cultural and psychological components and conscripting their addressees into desires they cannot refuse and identifications they cannot control.
Apartheid was Fanons paradigmatic instance of the pure spatial separation that characterised the colonial city. Though social and cultural segregation is increasing, it would immoral to apply that concept unmodified here where barriers, though higher and sharper than they were, remain permeable. However, in considering the economic and social development of post-colonial London we must be prepared to explore how the process identified ten years ago as South Africanisation is underway here too. Andre Gorzs useful term derives from an earlier phase of South African political culture but I think it travels well and illuminates the consolidation of many social and economic relations associated historically with colonial societies in the heart of over-development. The appearance of those gated and secure residential spaces is one important component of this change. The proliferation of service work and the re-appearance of a caste of servile, insecure and underpaid domestic labourers, carers, cleaners, deliverers, messengers, attendants and guards are surely others. The segmentation and casualisation of employment, health and dwelling are the foundations on which these aspects of the destruction of Londons civic order have come to rest. To that preliminary list we can add some of the changes that have impacted directly and negatively on the life of the city: Lottery-fication and the corrosive privatisation of transport, as well as larger cultural shifts like the growing governmental investment in sports spectatorship which has become a ready-made, if mechanical means to build and channel the post-colonial national consciousness that is currently struggling to distinguish itself from the "two-world wars and one world cup" variety of belligerent, alcohol-fuelled nativism. It is now easier to see why, in the light of these traditional definitions of English culture, so many Londoners have systematically sought out post-colonial alternatives and used the idea of a break in racial politics as a way of expressing and affirming their turn away from the morbidities of living in an old country.
It bears repetition that the love of exotica which arises in this confusion is tied to a situation in which glamourous and unfamiliar cultures can be consumed in the absence of any face-to-face recognition or real-time negotiations with their actual creators. But that desire for what was formerly stigmatised and forbidden can also be interpreted as yet another symptom of the collapse of English cultural confidence that has fed the development of anxious and insecure local and national identities. Todays hatreds and violence arise less than they did in the past, from supposedly reliable anthropological knowledge of the identity and difference of the Other. Their novel sources lie in the problem of not being able to locate the Others difference in the common-sense lexicon of alterity. Different people are still hated and feared but the timely antipathy against them is nothing compared to the hatreds turned towards the greater menace of the half-different and the partially familiar. To have mixed is to have been party to a great betrayal. Any unsettling traces of hybridity must be excised from the tidy, bleached-out zones of impossibly pure culture.
Even football, for so long a special means of access into the fundamental concerns of class, fraternity and belonging in British cities, is being comprehensively rearticulated in both politics and culture. Round our way, it is being increasingly taken over by the well-heeled drivers of those "sports utility vehicles" and other point people of the burglar-alarm classes. The waiting time for season tickets at Highbury now rivals applications for MCC. I remember, last summer watching the victory dance of championship-winning Arsenal fans and being amazed at how many people were on the phone in the middle of those vestigial, pre-modern festivities.
The loss of stability and certainty these changes manifest is inseparable from post-colonialitys cultural flux. It has produced anxieties about the limits and character of Englands archetypal ethnic identities: Cockney, Brummie, Scouse and Geordie and the integrity of the larger formation to which they contribute. It can also be registered through concern over what should be put inside the dome. Should it be sacred or secular; Diana or Queen Mum? What role should McDonalds have? Amidst that clamour over the boundaries of the re-branded and modernised Britain are the vexing questions of whether Britons of colour are, after all to be in the picture culturally? Of whether their extensive gifts to England are to be dignified by a belated degree of overground recognition? Here, governmental populism and the forces of corporate multi-culture diverge. The first fears a white backlash while the latter has shed its discomfort with black alterity on the shore of a sea of cash. McDonalds has no qualms about using black actors in its pioneering advertisements. More significantly, it is William and Ffion rather than Tony and Cherie who feel compelled to demonstrate their informal modernity by practising the post-colonial art of jumping up in The Grove. Time and again it is London that supplies the answer to the puzzle of what English culture is going to be.
I am not a member of the migrant generation. Perhaps that is why I am determined not to be defensive about my appetite for a cosmopolitan city in which identity is allowed to be complex. The choice in front of us seems to be stark. We can move towards a renunciation of the intrinsic absurdities of "race" or choose to remain within the hall of distorting colonial mirrors. In choosing the latter and following what I see as the more cautious and conservative path, we would be opting to re-enact the dramaturgy of Frantz Fanons famous primal scene. It involves, you may recall, the figure of a deeply ambivalent immigrant to the metropole who sees himself being seen and feels the bodily trauma of being captured by the gaze of essentially hostile white onlookers who freely amputate his humanity. There in the street or perhaps on a bus, they perceive nothing in his apologetic and familiar colonial presence save the unchanging dimensions of an ineffable otherness. I do not think we should try to play down the significance of that instructive urban encounter, or seek to evade the elemental force of similar not-quite-confrontations with the casual codes of unthinking, white supremacy. But, before we decide over-defensively, to iterate that odd troubling scene indefinitely, as it were by default, we should note that the classificatory marveling of "look, a negre" is not being reproduced in the violent, desperate interrogative of "what, what Nigger?" Europes imperial potency is no longer intact. It has been succeeded by a corporate neo-colonialism with new emphases and different effects than those of its nineteenth-century predecessor. Here, on the edge of a new epoch, we can begin to inquire into the possibility of moving beyond and beneath the old colonial drama into more forward-looking and assertive stances. This new position could identify a dissenting place in Britains emergent multi-cultural polity with a new understanding of identity specified by some equally-novel ways of comprehending and figuring our humanity and of making, and writing Londons history.