The case of the vanishing Cockney

Matthew Collins - 26 05 16

One of the main talking points from this week is Tuesday night’s BBC documentary ‘Last Whites From The East End.’ An interesting and sometimes terribly sad story of white people feeling abandoned in the London borough of Newham.

Old men in a pub describing themselves as being “ethnically cleansed” was of course, old men using the language of the British National Party (BNP). The answer to many of their issues or problems was that they are simply left behind by change and by of course, “white flight,” the quite recent realisation of the great working class dream to finish a life of hard industrious work and then escape to the country. Mrs Thatcher sold many, many people their council homes and for the last twenty years or so, if it has suited them, people have headed to the countryside or the seaside. Many featured on the programme in fact just moved to Rainham in Essex. Hardly the ends of the earth. And Thatcher herself did opine there was “no such thing” as community.

The sad things about the programme was actually the harsh realities; people getting old, people dying and people being genuinely alone. One poor old love was moving all the way to Norfolk to be with her daughter because her husband of 66 years had died. She hugged her Somali neighbour and off she went. Or the dozen lonely old ladies at a tea dance and the lonely old man dancing among them because they were old and alone and their families had moved away and left them. They complained that they no longer understood the language or that they were the only two white people on a bus. Or, that they would not want their children marrying into another culture or to a person of another colour. “Stick to your own we always say” and indeed they did say. And the gene pool was as a result, shrinking all around them.

These people are what I believe to be “static” white working class. For better or worse. You find them all over. North and south of the river Thames and as far in the north of England as Cumbria as far as I am aware! For some reason, the BBC portrayed them as “Cockneys” which was somewhat misleading. A cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells. Generally, that would be people born in Tower Hamlets and not the borough of Newham. It is a quite real distinction. It does not matter what colour someone is, if they are not born within the sound of the Bow Bells, they are not a Cockney. Christian bells do not stop ringing and Cockneys don’t stop being just because a Muslim is born [take note Paul Golding.] The actual and real death of the Cockney is because there is no maternity ward within the sound of the Bow Bells. Surely the BBC would’ve known that? Or don’t they employ working class Londoners anymore? And where are all those middle class Cockneys gone, then?

“Why didn’t they stay and fight it out?” asked the Bengali man who lamented his kids would probably never experience white working class culture. His memory of it seemed to be the racism he faced before befriending those people. Or the mixed race man whose Grandmother used to have a cat called N*****. They also lamented with sadness that the people they knew growing up as kids had gone. The mixed race man married a Romanian woman.

In the case of many, they have only been left a few miles behind by people who moved to Rainham, which is not really the ‘country’ any more. Many genuinely do mourn the loss of their football ground- that was really the only tie that many have to the East End. The new ground is of course in Stratford, about as Cockney as was and is Newham.

The story is actually more about abandonment of elderly, white working class folk. Or that is what is should have been. Or perhaps about the man having prayers in his living room on a Friday and listening to Oasis and watching West Ham on his television the rest of the time. Or the fact that those long empty churches are filling up again with new Eastenders from elsewhere in Europe. And Africa.

I did shed tears for those lonely old white people. Their friends, neighbours and families realised their dreams of flight long after the factories closed and soot no longer fell on their washing. They haven’t adapted and neither necessarily, have all of the new arrivals. Those whites who remain, tied historically to the same narrow streets and still young enough to yearn and to dream, dream as did those before them, about the seaside and polite, village life. Don’t we all? And no mention of the council tax, either.

More than anything, it’s a story about social cleansing. Or it could’ve been.


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