I’m aware of a presence at my shoulder, so I pause, on the point of placing my order.
“Pleez – one more zucar.”
He means “sugar”, one of those words that exists beyond translation, like “taxi” and “coke/coca”. Another new Londoner. The cafe owner, the man who was about to serve my pre-gym Americano, is well-versed in picking up meaning, and spoons another sugar in the young man’s coffee.
Of course the cafe owner’s good at it; a new-ish Londoner himself, he’s from Tangiers, married to a woman from Glasgow (another new etc) and your business wouldn’t last five minutes in Finsbury Park if you couldn’t divine an intention from its sketched outline. We – can I use the Londoner’s grand “we”? – have abandoned nuance in the search for a basic understanding of an/the other’s intent: good, or bad? Mostly, that’s enough.
Trainer Robertas – yet another new Londoner – makes me sick in the gym, shortly after I tut at the zucar overload. “It’s vomit Monday,” he says, gleefully, as I bend over and wretch. But his intention is good, too. It transcends language, at which Robertas has the eastern European’s gift, in any case.
Picking up meaning: we peck at the significance of such interactions, like birds, rooting out worms. When I think about immigration, my intention (which I hope is a good one) is never to forget zucar-man, or the cafe owner from North Africa, or Robertas from the gym, and I don’t mean as exemplars or paradigms: I mean as Londoners whom I know. New Londoners, harming no-one, adding to the national income and quality of capital life.
That’s where most pieces about immigration end, most of the positive ones, anyway. There are negative columns on the topic, too. Let’s do one of them.
Here’s a story from last week’s Brighton Argus:
Nordic Coffee Collective posted a picture of its sandwich board featuring a pun on the word “Ramadan”.
The inflammatory pun read: “Two Muslims have crashed into the Thames Barrier in London. Police think it might be the start of Ram-a-dam.” […]
Tariq Jung, chairman of the Brighton and Hove Muslim Forum, said that while he did not consider the post “Islamaphobic” he did consider it “ill thought”.
He said: “I think if they understood the importance of Ramadan to Muslims they may well not have done this. I think it was ill-thought-out and I think people sometimes do things because they do not understand the connotations and they consider it trivial.
“Free speech is welcome but there is a limit to what you can say or do to hurt people.”
Picking up meaning…pecking at the significance of a minor event. Because a pun might upset Muslims, it must never be uttered, not even by a blackboard outside a cafe; and while Mr Jung is willing – this time – to declare the cafe’s blackboard as probably not Islamaphobic, who knows what judgement he might issue, were the joke to be repeated. The presence at your shoulder: it’s not only asking for sugar.
If only hipster cafes were affected by things like this, who would care? Here’s another exchange I heard, on my way home from vomit-Monday in the gym. Two ticket inspectors are chatting at the barrier.
“Religion, it can be a problem.” She says this warily – testing the ground?
“Do you remember that supermarket a while ago? Last year? I’m losing track of time. That guy who wouldn’t handle pork. He said someone else had to get it, if a customer wanted it.”
“Just do the bloody job, they should tell them.”
The rest of their interchange is unprintable. Wherever the train is heading, it’s not stopping at Planet Happy.
Would this, then, be a fair summary? That because some activist-adherents of one religion have used liberal guilt, and New Labour’s legislative levers, to induce a tongue-tied silence in anyone who has a political problem with any aspect of some recently immigrated sub-cultures, two things (at least) have happened.
One: practices, some far less trivial than banning puns in Brighton, continue unchecked. I believe there’s a link between such activist-driven expression-suppression and conversations like the one I heard at the ticket barrier.
Worse, because we don’t explain clearly which aspects of cultural change are unacceptable, fearing charges of racism or Islamaphobia or whatever, I worry that every newcomer is tarred with the same brush. It’s simpler to say “I want all immigration to end” than it is to explain why you find some of it disquieting. Robertas, zucar-man, cafe-guy: one, at least, is Muslim; all of them are welcome. But our refusal to speak clearly about unwanted practices - whilst salving the liberal’s conscience – has a negative impact on those newcomers who deserve it the least.
Every tin-pot Mega-Corp has values it expects its employees to adopt, yet our national church has joined this sponsored silence about unwelcome cultural practices. Unfair to blame only the church? Not a single institution has spoken clearly about the values that Britain expects of its citizens. We prattle on about how it’s too hard to write such values down, but that’s just an excuse. Treat your neighbour as you would, etc; respect property and contracts; don’t make more noise than necessary and don’t make a fuss when you don’t get your own way. Oh, and treat boys and girls equally in terms of schooling, and don’t mutilate your female young. It really isn’t hard.
It’s sunny, and I want sunshine to win, at least today, so here’s the cafe owner to make a final appearance. It’s the school holidays, so he’s with a helper today: his 8-year-old son, who has his daddy’s eyes, his Glaswegian mother’s skin, and as “RP” an accent as the most retro 1950s-nostalgic could hope to hear. Clearly the product of good intention. Another new Londoner, and a welcome one, indeed.