Simon Parke: Immigration experience

26 April 2011

AS GENESIS 11 records, there was a crisis in heaven. A united humanity speaking the same language could achieve anything; so God had to move fast. He “confounded their speech”, we are told, bringing the Tower of Babel to a swift halt. And today, we know how those builders felt, suddenly strangers in their own back yard.

David Cameron recently played the immigration card. To rally disillusioned Tory troops, it was the obvious thing to do. Advocating “good immigration” rather than “mass immigration”, he got the head­­lines he craved. And Vince Cable’s public disagreement with him en­sured further coverage of the speech.

Not that the PM’s various Home Counties dwellings offer him much experience of immigration, whereas I have plenty. On my north London staircase, the world has gathered in search of a living. There are six households, each with a different country of origin.

Above me are an Albanian couple; across the landing, a Polish family; and beneath me, some new arrivals from Romania. None of them speak English, which is why none have so far filled in census forms. They probably think it is another gas company asking them to switch.

A lack of shared language can cause other problems, too. When, recently, some of them were locked out, I could lend them the hammer they wanted, but could not explain how the locksmith down the road might help. If their five-year-old daughter is around, she tends to act as a translator.

Another resident is a Nigerian woman. She can speak English, but wants nothing to do with anyone; so what is gained? An aloof spirit renders shared language redundant.

The final resident on the staircase is a young Frenchwoman whose English is good — unlike her Nor­man forbears after the invasion of 1066, who did not bother with the native language for the first few generations. But they had money; so, despite the language issues, Mr Cameron may have regarded this as “good immigration”.

Ghetto communities exist every­where. Brits abroad create expat. communities that are more English than England, and nations who come to Britain do the same. Learn someone else’s language, and part of your nationhood dies. Equally, only the secure can welcome difference, and, as most of us are rather insecure — unable to disen­tangle ourselves from conditioned patterns of thought — immigrant talk presses many buttons.

Despite Mr Cameron’s strong words, the Government cannot limit immigration from EU countries; so the poorer parts of Britain, with low rents, will continue to resemble a latter-day Babel. But, in the end, it is about me more than them. The global village brings difference to my doorstep and asks: “Who are you?”


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