Saturday 24 February 2018

White flight takes hold of the East End

* The Last Whites of the East End BBC One
* Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge, RTE 2
* The Graham Norton Show, BBC One

Disgruntled: Bus driver Tony Cunningham featured on 'The Last Whites of the East End'
Disgruntled: Bus driver Tony Cunningham featured on 'The Last Whites of the East End'
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Whenever you see a programme with the provocative name 'Whites' in the title, you can expect a few responses.

The first reaction, inevitably, is to wonder why mention of the 'W' word is immediately surrounded with racist connotations.

The second instinct is to assume that anyone who would agree to take part must obviously be some hideous racist who is hanging on to long outdated notions of white supremacy.

In truth, The Last Whites Of The East End was far more nuanced and much more touching than the name suggested.

The borough of Newham in the East End is classic Cockey territory. The heartland for West Ham FC, it's the kind of area which, had it been French or Italian, would have been designated as a Unesco heritage site.

Instead, it's full of white, working class, English people, and nobody gives a fig about them.

Actually, correction - it used to full of white, working class people.

These days, a remarkable 43 languages are spoken in the local school and English - both the language and the students - is now a minority.

In fact, Newham has the highest proportion of new immigrants in London, with locals complaining that this is driving out those families who have been there for generations, the old, working class stock, who used to work on the docks, factories and markets.

What was genuinely illuminating about the disgruntled locals, who resent being forced from their old stomping grounds by new arrivals who don't even speak English, was that they weren't the kind of knuckle head you expect to turn up at a BNP rally.

Instead, they ranged from the likes of Lou The Jew to a Bangladeshi trader to an Anglo-Caribbean bus driver.

Tony the bus driver was perhaps the most engaging character in a programme which featured some of the most quietly impressive people to have turned up on our screens in a long time.

Married to a Romanian woman, their child is, therefore, part British, part Caribbean and part Romanian. But her father fears she will never be a cockney because he feels like a foreigner in his street.

What 'The Last Whites Of The East End' proved was that you can have a multi-racial society, but you can't have a multi-cultural one.

As ever, the devil lies in the details.

The closure of old pubs in an area might seem like a rather absurd complaint, for instance. But to people who had lived there for six generations, the complete transformation of the local landmarks, as well as the fact that white English are now a minority in the area, means that white flight is inevitable.

Except it wasn't just white flight, and therein lay the main flaw of the documentary's name.

Most of the 'whites' were mixed race to one extent or another and that was the real tragedy - the East End has always been a chaotic and brilliant combination of cultures old and new. But now something has changed and everyone who has ties in the area, regardless of their ethnicity, feels abandoned and betrayed by a political class which, as ever, is happy to use the working class for their sick social experiments.

A depressing reminder that ethnic cleansing isn't always conducted by the barrel of a gun...

I'm not entirely sure when it happened, but at some stage Brendan O'Connor morphed into a decent presenter.

His new show, Cutting Edge won't win any awards for originality, being another panel show but at least it doesn't make the mistake of trying too hard to be funny.

This week's episode featured a good row; the kind of decent spat they used to have on 'The Late Late' back when it was good.

On this occasion, the set-to was between hacks Niamh Horan and Alison O'Connor, who had rather different perspectives on being a working mother.

The more avowedly liberal O'Connor felt more needed to be done to support working mothers, while Horan argued that businesses aren't charities designed to accommodate every whim.

The studio audience was cold towards Horan, which in RTÉ terms means she was saying something right.

What was interesting was the reaction to Horan's assertion that some working mothers 'ride the system' and take advantage of maternity leave.

That's not in doubt, simply because most people have seen examples of this in the workplace. But that's simply an observation of human nature, and riding the system is not unique to women so it was hardly 'one step away from a call for forced sterlisation', as O'Connor claimed.

So, who won?

Sod that, I'm not inclined to be handbagged by either of them. But I'll just point out that the best suggestion came from Al Porter who recommended that women start having kids when they're still in school so by the time they go to college their eldest can look after their youngest.

Y'see, when you need a practical solution, just ask a man.

May I just say what a joy it was to see Elton John appear on The Graham Norton Show the other night. At a time when so many celebrities are so guarded about their private life, it was lovely to see one man who still wants to talk about his kids on a chat show.

Irish Independent

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