They come over here, they take our looms... Immigration has been a touchy subject for centuries, says Richard Bean (right), whose new play explores the funny side of racial tension. Here, he offers a forthright explanation of just why we'll never get along. For the other side of the story, turn the page...
Ten years ago I moved to Bethnal Green. It's an area in London's East End, just north of the docks, which has been transformed by different waves of immigration over the centuries. I stayed for about four years, and found it a difficult, caustic place. In the process of researching my new play, England People Very Nice, I bought a security guard at one of the local schools a pint and listened to his stories of gangs, intimidation and racism. His school is divided into three gangs: white and black kids in one; Bangladeshis in another; and Somalis in the third. The odd Turkish kid might drift between gangs, but essentially the lines of race and culture are set.
Britain as a society has never worked with separate cantons, or cultural ghettos, and in my opinion it won't work in the future. Ed Husain, author of The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, grew up in the East End and says he got to the age of 18 without having a single English friend. He slipped into radical Islamic politics, learnt to hate the West, and was only saved by an epiphany that made him find his true Islam. What hope for young Muslims without his fierce intelligence?
I write plays now, but I used to be a psychologist. The rigour of social science is to look for predictable behaviour, normality. For this play I wanted to look at earlier waves of immigration and see if I could find any patterns developing. The French Huguenots started arriving in Spitalfields in 1685, setting up business as silk weavers, and of course met with resistance. They were called "frogs" or more likely, knowing Bethnal Greeners, "facking frogs". French became the dominant language in the streets around Brick Lane, and they were attacked by English weavers in the very organised apprentice-cutters' mobs. The apprentices, the yoof of their day, would smash the Huguenots' looms and cut their cloth in a violent struggle for dominance of the textile industry.
The Irish had also been washing up in Bethnal Green for centuries. Culture, rather than jobs, was the battleground here. Being Catholic in a country which at that time could not tolerate Catholicism led to violence. Pamphlets were distributed in ale houses full of fiercely anti-Papist rhetoric, stoking the hatred of the new arrivals. Catholic priests would come over from Italy and Spain to run secret Mass houses - the mad mullahs of their day. It ended in terrible violence. In 1780 the mob took to the streets in an orgy of anti-Catholic violence which left London burning and 300 dead.
The social scientist has to see this violence as normal, a predictable human response to events. The cockneys of 1780 were a mongrel mix of French Huguenots, country English and long-time East End Anglo-Saxon. They looked at Papism as we might look at radical Islam today, an overt threat to our way of life. Throw into the mix the truth of the Irish taking their homes and jobs and you get the Gordon Riots.
Then, when 100,000 fleeing Jews stepped off the boat in St Katherine's Docks at the turn of the 19th century, making Yiddish a more common language than English, the fear intensified. A group of anarchists, led by Rudolph Rocker, a non- Jew who taught himself Yiddish, introduced Britain to its first Tube bombing. In a precursor to 7/7, a bomb went off at Alders-gate (now the Barbican) in 1897, killing one and injuring many.
In another incident, the French anarchist Martial Bourdin blew himself up, probably accidentally, in a park on his way to destroy the Greenwich Observatory. Terrorists seem drawn to iconic buildings. …