Smoulderings in Southall
“I used to drink at the Eight Bells but I gave it up when the Wogs started going there.” The sentiments were depressingly popular, the accent pure County Limerick—two facts which in Southall tell their own story.
For a long time, immigrants of one sort or another have trekked to this drab wedge of suburbia on the far west limb of London. Now established, their accents often flattened out, some of them speak bitterly of the Indians and Pakistanis who have travelled to Southall for the same reasons as they did.
A lot of people here came up from the West Country and Wales between the wars, driven by the slump to seek work in the factories which were attaching themselves to the Great Western Railway line like genes to a chromosome. The Irish too have come, in a slow, persistent stream.
There were few, if any, coloured immigrants until the middle fifties. Then some came to work in a rubber factory, whose hard and unpleasant work made it difficult to compete for labour with other firms. Vacancies in local industry increased the first brown trickle into a flood. Now the Indians and Pakistanis almost monopolise some districts in Southall.
So far there have been no open clashes— nothing to put Southall into the headlines. The local Teds did manage a feeble demonstration outside the rubber factory at the time of Notting Hill but this was easily dispersed. A Sikh temple has been defaced more than once. But on the whole the Southall population has settled into a brooding resentment. Only occasionally are there small eruptions.
There was one of these over education, when parents protested that their children’s schooling was being held up by the presence of immigrant children who could not speak English. Sir Edward Boyle, who was then Minister of Education, came down and smoothed the incident over.
There are continual complaints about the immigrants’ behaviour. Some of these seem to be justified; some are due to a misunderstanding of different social habits and some to downright malice. There are the usual grisly rumours—the Asians make a curry of the local cats, they throw all their rubbish into the garden next door.
Southall’s housing problem is no worse than any of its neighbours. It has no abject slums like Notting Hill or the Black Country. Perhaps the worst it offers are seedy Victorian terraces and tawdry, featureless council estates. The immigrants have therefore moved into, for them, comparatively genteel areas, some of which are inhabited by owner occupiers who worry about a “fall in the value of property” when coloured people move into their street.
Some of these owner-occupiers, not tied to the district by being a council tenant, have moved out of Southall into the similar wastelands of nearby Greenford or Hounslow. Some have gone farther afield, to the new estates which have sprung up in places like Reading and Camberley. Others have gone farther still, emigrating to Australia, whose official bar on coloured immigration they regard as sensible and progressive. It was one of these who explained on his application to emigrate that he wanted to go to Australia “because there are too many niggers in my street ”.
Beneath Southalls’ surface calm, then, potential violence smoulders on. The local branch of the British National Party blows hard on the embers; their propaganda is exceedingly crude but they got nearly three and a half thousand votes in the general election. Last October the Tories played the immigration issue comparatively cool; Labour hung on for dear life and George Pargiter came out with a reduced, now marginal, majority. That may be a clue to a grim future. If the Conservatives decide to plug a Smethwick line in Southall, they could start something which they do not know how to stop.
Some local organisations are doing their best to keep the fires damped down. There is the Indian Workers’ Association which, now that the Labour Government has announced its new tough line on immigration, may be questioning the wisdom of its support for Pargiter last October. There are other organisations which run well intentioned multi-racial outings, meant to prove that we are all brothers under our skins. These organisations are touching only the fringes of the problem; if racial trouble ever became really hot in Southall they would be consumed in the flames with the rest.
Southall is not a pleasant place. It has an ugly industrial sprawl, acres of cramped houses, cheapjack shops and supermarkets. It is near enough to London Airport to have the big jets often screaming over the rooftops. In many ways life here is hard, and it has bred hard working class attitudes, stifling restrictions and anomalies, formidable prejudices. This is an inflammable place and next time, perhaps, there will be the fire.