A city of Cohens, Kellys and Khans

September 19, 1997

This short but worthy book is the opening salvo from the editor's new Centre for the Study of Migration at Queen Mary and Westfield College. What might be called "letter-head centres" have become an increasingly visible phenomenon in our cash-strapped yet research-hungry universities. Amazingly enough some of them succeed. This book will give comfort to penurious university bosses as it demonstrates that something useful can be done, even on a shoestring.

In addition to the editor's introduction, the book comprises eight chapters written largely by historians, geographers and sociologists. The Jews are significantly over-represented, while the Irish have to be content with half a chapter comparing their fate and fortune in the East End to that of the Jews. Two newer immigrant groups included are the Bangladeshis and the peoples of Caribbean. By way of an overview, Colin Holmes takes us on a notably swift gallop through the chronological settlement of the major immigrant groups and their reception in London. He demonstrates his near-legendary command of the sources - 18 pages of text being supported by ten pages of footnotes. For those without the staying power to tackle Holmes's magisterial work, John Bull's Island, this will suffice as an "executive summary".

William Fishman furnishes an instructive account of inter-ethnic cooperation when "the Cohens and the Kellys" ruled the roost in Tower Hamlets. Although Anne Kershen alludes to Fishman's involvement in 1936 at the "Battle of Cable Street" when Catholic Irish dockers and orthodox Jews stood up to Mosley's Blackshirts, he says nothing of this, focusing instead on local political alignments and disagreements. Mob violence by the majority has thankfully declined. Instead violence now takes the form of individual attacks on blacks, the flaming of Asian homes and the daubing of swastikas on Jewish tombstones. These random acts of violence show the continuing problem of intolerance towards minorities.

The two chapters on the patterns of Jewish settlement are essentially grist to the mill of human geographers. Andrew Godley, though not a geographer, investigates the secondary migration from the East End to greener pastures like Golders Green, Willesden, Ilford and the surrounding suburbs. His story of residential mobility following occupational mobility is neatly complemented by Stanley Waterman's observation that there is now a return flow. As soon becomes apparent, the movement is towards what is better described as "central" London and does not imply a return to "inner" London, with its associations of poverty and decay. Some younger professional members of the Jewish community simply prefer a more metropolitan, yuppie lifestyle to the delights of Edgware, Hendon, Stanmore and Finchley. The yuppies have been joined by two other sub-ethnic groups - about 30,000 Israelis and a substantial number of South African Jews, 80 per cent of whom prefer to live in London, mainly in the "centre".

The editor's own comparative account of the settlement of Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis provokes an illuminating contrast between followers of Calvinism, orthodox Judaism or Islam. The adjectives "frugal", "religious" and "honest" could apply to all groups and the level of their achievements serves as a useful test of Weber's proposition that there is a particular affinity between Protestantism and capitalism. The economic success of the first two groups is evident while the apparent lack of success of the Bangladeshis should be set in a context of the creation of thriving Londoni villages in Sylhet. These prosperous villages provide visible evidence of the extent of remittances and the endeavours of returnees. They show that migration outcomes are no longer to be measured by "adaptation" in a single destination county. Indeed Kershen herself recognises that "regional migration, secondary migration, return migration and remigration are the characteristics of the postmodern world".

This theme is picked up by two other contributors. John Eade cites a number of interviews with second-generation Bengali women who demonstrate the ambiguities of being neither "at home" nor "away". Local, national, ethnic and religious identities are fused then rent asunder in a way that would frustrate the most ardent census enumerator. One splendidly complex woman, "Afia", said she was definitely not English, but certainly she was Bengali. She was assuredly British but not European. She was an Eastender but not a Cockney. She felt "territorial and clingy" about Spitalfields, but not about Bangladesh. Philip Nanton, writing on the Caribbean case, also talks of returnees "caught up in a dilemma about identity and loyalty". He is unhappy at the increasing use of the notion of "diaspora" to capture these fluid circuits of migration and identity. However, whatever his conceptual doubts, Nanton offers graphic evidence of the results of return to the Caribbean. Britain is losing about 4,400 of its Caribbean people a year; while a third of the Caribbean population is expected ultimately to return to their native islands. There, relatively well-off pensioners can put up their feet after their long sojourn leaving their descendants to battle it out in Babylon.

The contributions by Eade and Nanton seriously question the idea of "a promised land". This notion is too anchored in the past, implying that there is a one-way flow of immigrants for the purposes of permanent settlement. The notion also has an unfortunate Mosaic overtone, inferring that one people has a God-given right to possess one place to the exclusion of all others. To be sure, this is not what the editor or the bulk of the authors want to suggest. They prefer to think in terms of "cosmopolitan London" where, before their ultimate acceptance, all groups go through the uncomfortable initiation rite of "anti-alienism", "xenophobia" and "racism". The view that these reactions are practical or moral equivalents needs to be argued rather than assumed. Moreover, as the Bangladeshi and Caribbean cases show, the promised land might be at home instead of at the destination point. Indeed many migrants are freeing themselves of any territorial constraint on where they might construct or invent their identities. Such migrants do not seek a promised land but a promissory globe.

Robin Cohen is professor of sociology, University of Warwick.

London: The Promised Land? The Migrant Experience in a Capital City

Editor - Anne J. Kershen
ISBN - 1 85972 630 5
Publisher - Avebury
Price - £35.00
Pages - 167

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