Book of the week: Migrant City by Panikos Panayi

Ian Thomson

Fifteen minutes by train from Paddington, Southall is a “Little India” in the borough of Ealing. Set back amid the traffic in King Street is an ornate Hindu temple, and from the Punjabi stalls in Orchard Avenue you can buy quantities of syrupy jalebi. London grew strong and rich by being open to Asian, Jewish, Italian and West Indian immigrant hybridity. Few would object to finding Jamaican pepper sauce or bottles of Polish beer in the city’s supermarkets.

However, the multicultural project is showing its age. Settling in London used to be seen as a commitment. Today, with the internet, cheap flights and satellite television, immigrants are less likely to see themselves as aspiring Londoners than as members of a foreign city, hosted by, but not emotionally attached to, an idea of Britishness. London remains a testing ground for the failures and successes of post-war British immigration.

Panikos Panayi, a leading authority on the history of migration, exalts London as the “capital of everything”, both good and bad. Migrant City: A New History of London, his latest book, is a hosanna to the mixed-race metropolis and its age-old tradition of sheltering refugees and political casualties from abroad. A tremendous achievement, it is brimful of curious facts regarding mosques, synagogues, churches, hotels, stalls, food and music. Just outside the capital, Woking mosque, completed in 1889, was one of the first to be built in western Europe.

Victorian London’s regard for the aesthetics and teaching of Islam was matched by a new tolerance shown to Catholic Irish and Italian migrants. The Italian church of St Peter’s in Clerkenwell, modelled on the basilica of San Crisogono in Rome and consecrated in 1863, remains a meeting place for Catholic Italians in London. In a fascinating chapter, Panayi chronicles the arrival from 1830s Italy of clockmakers, organ grinders and glassblowers.

Italians ran ice cream and confectionery businesses in the city until Mussolini declared war on Britain in 1940 and gangs screaming “Aye-tie!” looted Italian-owned shops in Soho and elsewhere.

However, Italians were made to feel more welcome in post-war London than British West Indians (when the British speak about immigrants they do not generally mean white immigrants, Panayi suggests). Hostilities against Caribbean migrants erupted in the summer of 1958, when white youths went out “n*****-bashing” in Shepherd’s Bush and the area then known as Notting Dale (near the now mainly middle-class streets of Notting Hill). Racial antipathies flared again in 1979 in Punjabi-populated Southall and, more grievously, in Brixton in 1981.

Panayi (who says he was bullied at his north London school as the child of Greek Cypriots) knows how people can pick on a weakness. East London Jews were blamed for the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, when the fear of violation by outsiders reached a peak. By giving a Semitic curve to the vampire’s nose in his Victorian novel Dracula (set partly in Whitechapel), Bram Stoker might have revealed his own xenophobic response to the influx of Ashkenazim to late 19th-century London.

Petticoat Lane Market in Spitalfields (Alamy Stock Photo)

From 1881 Jewish street traders had operated in Whitechapel, and they were also, to a lesser extent, in Hackney. That is where Jack Cohen, son of Polish Jewish migrants, ran a market stall before he founded Tesco in 1919 (Tesco is an abbreviation of his wife’s name, Tessa Cohen). In the culinary cosmopolis of Edwardian London, foreign-born chefs and restaurateurs thrived. César Ritz, “13th son of a Swiss shepherd”, founded the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly in 1906, having worked his way up from waiter. London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in Portman Square as early as 1809. By the mid-Eighties the balti (“bucket” in Urdu) was a staple of Pakistani-run eateries off Brick Lane. The Asian subcontinent’s gastronomic influence had already triumphed with tandoori.

Migrant City, an invaluable and scholarly resource, chronicles multi-shaded, multi-ethnic London in all its glory.

Migrant City: A New History of London by Panikos Panayi (Yale £20), buy it here.

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