Sunday, 14 November 2010

Who needs pretty buildings when you have a human patchwork?

Into our second month living in Luton, having left the region in 1995, I can say that it’s been fascinating getting to know the town again.

Luton is one of the great ethnic melting pots of England. That certainly gives the place a characteristic local colour in every sense of the word. This morning, for instance, we played badminton in a local Community Centre. Finding our way to the sports hall was a slightly surreal business as we kept stumbling across rooms full of different Black groups, some in neat dark suits, some in long white robes, all of them using Sunday to celebrate the glory of the Lord with plenty of dancing, clapping and singing. It made me feel slightly uneasy to be doing something so apparently trivial as playing badminton at the same time and in the same place as others were pursuing spiritual goals but, hey, isn't that what multi-culturalism is all about? Every one does what he or she wishes without putting up obstacles to others.

I use the word 'Black' because that's how I always thought of this Community, relatively well represented in Luton, although these days we're supposed to refer to them as ‘Afro-Caribbean’. I love the fact that we try to compensate for our bad behaviour towards people by changing the name we apply to them. It seems a complete waste of time. If we discriminated against Blacks, are we likely to discriminate any less against Afro-Caribbeans? After all, the people are the same.

The biggest single immigrant community in Luton, however, is from South Asia. In fact, most of them come from Pakistan and, to be absolutely precise, most of them are from one relatively small area of Kashmir. As a result, when there was that terrible earthquake in 2005, phone lines from Luton were jammed as people tried to ring relatives.

The ‘Indians’ mostly came here for the car industry, when there still was one, in the years after the Second World War. You can imagine how it happened: a handful came first and then they rang home, telling their friends and relatives, ‘grab yourself a ticket – the weather’s crap but the jobs are plentiful.’ That’s why so many came from one small area.

A result was that when we were in the region before, we’d frequently hear South Asian languages in the streets of Luton. You still do, but what’s changed is that you now see groups of ‘Asian’ young people wandering through the town centre, talking English to each other. And not just any old English: it’s the local language, with the local accent. Not an attractive accent, I should say: Luton English is like the town – lively, dynamic but not exactly pretty.

It always seems to me that language defines community even more than religion does, so these young people are clearly English. They’re ‘Asian’ only in looks. It’s fascinating to see that in the fifteen years we were away, a real generational shift has taken place. It’s a striking, and encouraging, example of assimilation.

On the other hand, the ‘Asians’ still group together, as do the ‘Afro-Caribbeans’, or the ‘Whites’ (who in Luton include Poles and Italians and numerous other sub-groups).

Still some progress to be made then. In the meantime, the pattern of widely different groups mingling together without much friction, gives the town a real buzz. OK, it’s not a beautiful place, but the human pageant makes up for a lot.

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