Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Ollie

Oliver Cromwell lurks over British history like a black cancer spot on the right lung. He came, out of nowhere, arriving aged forty as the member of parliament for Huntingdon in 1628. He made one speech in his first term and that was, by all accounts, met little more than derision. He was a petty-minded, frustrated under achieving man whose dreams far exceeded his prospects.

Or so it could easily have been.

But then, came the war. The Civil War – not a civil war like that which was tinted with roses or when Simon De Montfort staged rebellions against Henry III, but the Civil War. It was a time of arrogant monarchs and dandified cavaliers and the new model army and protestant zeal. But after all this, after the battles of Marston Moor and Newbury and Gainsborough and Edge Hill, after the blood stained the green land and bodies rotted in fields all around the country, after the final swing of the executioner’s axe and the first formalised regicide, then Cromwell really became a problem.

Outside the Houses of Parliament is a statue of Ollie. He is surprisingly short and slight, necessarily protected by high steel fences. His hands are clasped firmly behind his back and he looks as though his thoughts are far away. As though his imagination is lost in a fog of cannon smoke and devout yet silent prayer. The statue is there to highlight his alleged role in protecting the independence of Parliament.

There could not be a more inappropriate man to place on the podium.

Whilst all the traditional dog fighting of left versus right, of Conservative against Labour with a minor side show for the Liberal Democrats will continue with gusto the looming election is unfortunately going to offer something not only different, but also more sinister.

The British National Party are making a play for Barking and Dagenham.

Flabby faced, greasy haired professional bastard Nick Griffin, who managed through the stupidities of proportional representation to get himself elected into the European Parliament last year, is standing against Margaret Hodge for the constituency of Barking.

And even more shockingly, he might have a chance.

Barking and Dagenham, for those who don’t spend long sleepless hours driving around the greater London area, is east of the east end. It is at the end of the a-z. Go far enough along the A124 that runs from West Ham through Barking and across the top of Dagenham and there are no more pages to turn. It is an area dominated by cars, strangled as it is by multi-lane monstrosities that carve ridges through the landscape, the A13 to the south, the north circular to the west and the M25 even further east (as though there were such a thing). It is as much Essex as it is London, yet equally nothing. A hinterland fighting for its own identity. London or Essex, it all depends on who you’re pretending to be.

At night the area is weirdly quiet. It consists of long lines of wide avenues and thirties houses congested into packed estates, backing onto the exhausted industry that lines the river and then swallowing themselves up. There is little high-rise living (and perhaps that’s for the best, since the view would only be disappointing), there is little commerce, for long stretches there is little of anything save for slowly moving cars, concreted front gardens and clustered satellite dishes making some homes suggest that they would be more comfortable orbiting the planet than rooted to the concrete. The A13 rises and dips as it proffers as intravenous tubes to the deserted warehouses and factories, giving an entirely misleading sensation of gently rolling countryside.

The pubs aren’t just closed up, they’re boarded up. They aren’t going to open anytime soon. Shops, cafes and other businesses are secreted away behind iron grates, the locks of which looked as though they may have rusted shut a long time ago.

On a Sunday morning, I returned to see whether it looked any different at times when most of the city was awake. It lost much of its menace, that eeriness of loneliness, that sense of being distant from everyone and everything. The sunlight glowed and at a quick glance it felt normal, but still it felt empty. Perhaps I was there too early for anything other than a few more cars and a couple of teenager pedestrians mooching aimlessly, but as I wandered around I thought: This isn’t so bad. Read the Daily Mail and you’d imagine areas of the country like this to have blood flowing down the streets after the night before drink and drug fuelled anarchy. Instead, it was almost serene as I leant on the cool metal of the bridge above Dagenham Heathway station and watched a tube train stumble its way into the city. I held my hand up to shield my eyes from the glare of metal more used to being underground.

‘Mmmm, Oliver’s army are on their way…’ I hummed.

So, why are the fascist bastards making inroads?

‘It’s all two stops before Dagenham,’ I muttered and turned away.

Cromwell was an over-wrought, zealous fanatic with an obsession about Catholicism and a desire to eradicate it that seemed almost sexual. He created a society, like all fascist regimes, where the need for expansionist violence overrode any sense of normality. After Charles’ death, the Parliament attempted to run the country almost like a modern democracy. But the new model army, Cromwell’s polished steel adorned lapdogs, were trained and armed and bored, needed to be set to work. So they invaded Ireland.

And Cromwell didn’t just invade Ireland – a centuries old hobby of British rulers who’d beaten up the Welsh and the Scots already, but didn’t feel sufficiently well-prepared to take on the French – it was how he did it. The gratuitous slaughter of men, women and children, non-combatants at seemingly every opportunity. 3,500 at Drogheda and then the same again at Wrexford. Systematic murder based on race and religious identity, in the context of a population in the tens of thousands its was genocide.

He committed these atrocities not just to win a war, but because he hated Catholics and Irish Catholics in particular.

The Ford factory used to be regarded as a pinnacle of British industrial ability. Employing forty-thousand people for seventy years it churned out escort after carina after fiesta after mondeo again and again until now it simply doesn’t. Now, it just makes a couple of specialised engine parts to be shipped abroad. Unemployment stands at eight percent which, whilst sounding staggeringly high, I’m also shocked to discover is the national average according to the Office for Statistics.

Council housing was the bedrock of the community, but thanks to the Tories’ right to buy policy of the eighties there’s a chronic shortage of council housing. Couple it with the high unemployment rate and you have a problem. Substantially high proportions of people unable to afford decent rental accommodation and two decades of chronic under investment because right to buy’s success suggested there was no need for it.

But if the unemployment rate is the national average and – let’s be honest – there’s no bloody council housing anywhere, why is Barking and Dagenham different.

Oh, yes, there’s “immigration”.

To my uninformed eye, most of the housing appears to be from the thirties, but it may as well be from the late forties or early fifties for that is when the area was born for the second time. At the end of the second world war the bombed out populations of Bow and Bethnal Green and Whitechapel moved downriver whilst their worlds were rebuilt. And they never went back. They stayed and they built communities and they had children and they settled. The original Eastenders moved further east.

But, as is to be expected, the population that replaced them, the population that came from the collapsed empire, also moved out to larger houses with gardens and closer links to the countryside. In 1996 figures showed that the area was 96% white. In 2001 that was apparently down to 81%. According the Observer, an estimate on Wikipedia put the 2005 level at 73% which apparently means you could expand that to around 65% for 2010. However, there’s a key word to identify in that sentence and it’s not “estimate”, it’s “Wikipedia” – hardly renowned for being rigorously accurate at all times. And aside from this being a possibly badly educated guess it doesn’t actually answer the question ‘and what’s wrong with that?’ The emptiness of Barking’s roads is nothing to do with immigration, with a change the population. Again, a shifting cultural and ethnic dynamic is not unique to Barking and Dagenham – it happens it all major urban centres without the original population embracing the Nazis.

The BNP, however, are enthusiastically using the argument that the change in population has changed the area – that it is being stolen from its so-called indigenous people (side-stepping the fact that most of them only arrived a couple of generations back). Claims are being made that what little council housing that does become available is being given to immigrants in preference over locals and that people of a different shade are being paid by the government to move there in a conspiracy to do, quite what I’m not too sure. That bit always seems to be glossed over.

Apparently, “Africans” have been paid £50,000 by the government to move to council houses in the Barking and Dagenham area. This is being picked up as a mantra by local residents who are instinctively reverting to clich├ęs like “shut the floodgates.” But that is, sorry, a load of bollocks.

1,300 tenants of Hackney were given house buying grants and encouraged to move to different areas. 30 of that 1,300 moved to Barking. 7 were white, 9 were black, 9 were Asian and 5 were mixed race or uncertain ethnicity. Hardly a deluge. And they weren’t necessarily moving to council housing stock!

You can see why I've used speech marks - It’s a lie. Nothing but a lie.

But clearly people are falling for it. People are broke and fed up with the status quo and they’re listening to those who help them find someone else to blame for their misfortune. Isn’t that how it always works? And the BNP will say that they’re not racists and their voters will pretend to have other reasons to vote for them and it is all lies, lies, lies.

On Sunday morning, I couldn’t see how this otherwise normal area was in danger of becoming the most right-wing borough in the country, with a leadership based on hysterical hatred. It seemed too implausible. I wondered what I would do if I saw fuck-face Griffin out and about, perhaps doing a little early morning canvassing? Would I lamp him one? Would I yell obscenities at him? All my possible responses seemed irrational, but then how could I argue with such bigoted insanity?
One thing I noticed was how frequently the word community appeared on signs, painted on the sides of buildings, on flyers pasted on redundant advertising hoardings. Community centres, community action groups, community shelters, community youth clubs. If only everyone would realise that the strength in a community is not just it’s unity, but it’s diversity too.

Perhaps Griffin will win the parliamentary seat. He probably won’t. Even a minister so representative of new Labour’s two-faced materialism and as universally unpopular as Margaret Hodge should be able to survive with the huge majority she has. And even if he slither his way into parliament, aside from seeing his fat, ugly face and listening to his poisonous views a little more frequently, what can he do as the single representative of a party that all the others shun? Very little.

But the real danger isn’t Griffin. It’s the council. The local authority election will take place on the same day. The BNP already has 12 councillors in Barking. If they can increase that 28 and gain a majority then they’ll actually have some real power and start doing real things that legitimise racism. Things like turning a blind eye when black families have bricks thrown through their windows or their cars are vandalised, or giving school places priority based on how long people have lived in the area. And after that? Perhaps making people of different colour sit in different parts of the bus? Refusing local services, such as libraries or refuse collection, to certain households? These aren’t paranoid futures. Things like this are already happening now and the danger is that they will get worse if the people in charge give the local shits an excuse.

‘But we’re not racist,’ they whine. Well, try this on for size: In 2008 the Barking and Dagenham council proposed that a congratulatory letter be sent to the British Olympics team after their haul of medals in Beijing. Pretty innocuous, you’d have thought. The BNP councillors blocked the motion. Why? Non-white athletes were part of the team. Pathetic.

Ian Austin, the communities minister, suggests that we should stop panicking and drawing attention to the situation. That we should trust in the sense of fairness and good judgement of the British people to do the right thing. I really hope he’s right, but after my sojourn out east on Sunday I read in the paper of riots by the English Defence League in Bolton, I hope with my eyes shut and my fingers crossed for luck.

After all, we’ve got form.

Upon his return to London, Cromwell was asked to sit as Lord Protector, a role he joyfully (if anything Cromwell’s dour demeanour showed could be described as joyful) took on.

As he took up residence in the former royal palaces, his life style slowly began to change. It was as though he’d assimilated the tastes and appetites and demeanour of the man whose death warrant he’d to signed. He started to sign his name as Oliver R. R for rex, for king. It became standard for underlings to refer to him as your majesty. It is amazing that when the crown was actually offered to him in 1657 he managed to find the will power, the sudden understanding of self-parody, to turn it down.

But aside from the petty grandiose pampering fantasies of a deluded bigot, he set about transforming the land into one of austere dullness that promoted inwardly and outwards goodliness. Hypocritical given the purple fineries he lived among, yet the Protestant sense of restraint and sourness became the way of life and many who challenged it would be tried as a Catholic and imprisoned or executed. Cromwell’s Britain created an enemy within and then saw it everywhere. It took a personal faith and attributed to anyone who proffered and independent opinion or showed any resentment at the draconian way of life. It manipulated the truth, badging people with a false label and then took their lives away too. And today we proclaim this man a hero? No wonder, Charles II had his corpse dug up and executed to be on the safe side.

‘Mmm, Oliver’s army is on their way, Oliver’s army is on their waaaayy.’

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