Saturday morning I sat at the table eating toast, drinking coffee and reading the Guardian, just like most weekends. Amongst the more serious news of Russia’s covert invasion of the Ukraine, Nigel Farage pops up with his usual mindless tirade. This time he’s focussing on people speaking English and how in, supposedly, large areas of the country it is no longer the dominant tongue.
Farage backs his theory up with an example of a recent train ride. He caught a stopping train out of London Charing Cross, heading for the safety of the UKIP friendly parts of Kent. It stopped at London Bridge, New Cross (pictured), Hither Green and it was only beyond Grove Park – zone four suburbia, non-London residents – that he could hear English being spoken on the train. Although not explicitly said, the implication is, of course, that any English being spoken was drowned out by the cacophony of other languages being shouted in that way people from other countries are wont to do. In other words, there were too many foreigners putting their feet on the seats and generally disrupting his peaceful journey.
My name’s David. I am a resident of Lewisham, through your train will certainly have passed because it’s one of the stops between New Cross and Hither Green and I think you’re wrong.
I don’t deny that you may well have found yourself in a carriage with particularly loud group of, let’s say, Russian students living in Hither Green who, perhaps excited by their trip to the West End or concerned by the imminent invasion of a former Soviet republic, were quite loud. Possibly shouting and cheering or even jeering depending on the nature of the conversation and drowning out any Shakespeare being recited.
Or, you don’t say when your train was, but perhaps it was mid-morning and, as is often the case, the carriage was empty save for you and a Spanish woman talking on her mobile phone. At Grove Park she got off and a couple of English speaking women with pushchairs got on and continued their conversation thus the sound of Anglo-Saxon words filled your ears once again and all was right in your world. Both of these scenarios are perfectly possible and therefore your anecdote could be perfectly true, if not actually representative of a common reality.
And it is fair to say of Lewisham, as it is of the rest of London, that it is a multi-cultural place. There are people from all walks of life, all skin tones, all dialects, all backgrounds here. But when a significant proportion of the population is of Afro-Caribbean descent it is wrong to suggest that English can no longer be heard. Indeed, one of those young Mums who got on the train at Grove Park is black, but her Grandparents came over in forty-nine and she’s as British and you or I, Nigel.
After breakfast and the paper I went, with my English-speaking fiancée and her English-speaking parents, who were visiting, to Brockley Market. The nearest station is St John’s, Nigel which your train might not have actually stopped at, but it would certainly have passed through. It’s just over the road and down the hill. Brockley Market is artesian and earnest, shortlisted for the BBC’s food and farming awards, packed full of raw milk, fresh game, organic purple carrots, golden beets, Mediterranean flat breads and coffee so hip it rides a fixie and sports a beard. The place rings out with English voices.
Alas, most of the voices are received pronunciation, calling out after Florence as she toddles off, but that’s the crime of gentrification which isn’t something I want to get into here.
On the way home, we pass through the park where local kids are playing organised football matches. A whizz of multi-ethnic colour curls across the boggy grass, but I can’t hear anything other than English yells of “man on” and “cross it” coming from there.
Back on our street we sit in our house which we bought of a couple of Cypriot-Turkish descent who only ever spoke English as far as I know. Even if they did speak Turkish to each other, she grew up four streets across so doesn’t she have more right be here than I do? I only turned up in 2001 sporting a degree and middleclass pretentions to usurp the neighbourhood dynamic. Up and down the streets there are people of different shades, different histories. Some of them born in the UK, some of them not; some of them from London, some of them, like me, not. But, I can’t hear any language drowning out any other here.
I have several friends living nearby. Some of those are from New Zealand and one is American. They don’t have English passports. As I’m sure you’d be keen to stress, Nigel, your, UKIP’s, point with this ridiculous train story was to highlight immigration issues, not to be inherently racist, but they’re immigrants and they speak English. So, do they not count in your sums? Is a Southern hemisphere accent okay with you, but not someone speaking French?
Nigel, I guess my survey is as scientific as yours – namely useless – and I clearly don’t agree with you, but at least I’m trying to understand your point.
Can I ask you a question, Nigel? When you’re in Brussels – sweating pure xenophobia in your role as an MEP - do you speak French to your English colleagues? Do you conduct your mobile calls in Dutch? Do you attempt to speak the local languages, or do you just carry on in English?
I’m betting it’s the later, in which case: why should, for example, the two Polish roofers on your train, who are here legitimately for work, speak to each other in anything other than their own language? Especially as they will speak English when buying their groceries, when talking to their clients, when going about their daily lives? Do you know how to order coffee in Brussels without speaking English, Nigel?
Would you mind explaining the difference? Would you mind explaining your inconsistencies?
And while you’re at it, could you try to explain why it’s a bad thing? Spoken words are just a sequence of noises our vocal cords are spurting out. Meaning, Nigel. That’s the important bit. And I think we all know what you really mean. You’re just not willing to say it. You’d like to keep a respectable disguise on until the next election, I know, but also, you saw what happened to the BNP last time out, so you’ll hide the truth for a little while longer, won’t you?