‘‘I'm not racist,” Rose told me over a cup of tea at her home, “but immigration has got too much.
“I used to know every family in this street,” she went on, her voice shaking a little, “but now I hardly recognise anyone. People come and go and you don’t know them – it’s like a different country.”
It was 27 August 2011 and I was in Essex on the first day of a three-month tour around the UK seeking the views of ordinary people about the state of British society for my book, British Voices. Rose was my first interviewee that day, an elderly widow who’d kindly invited me into her house when I met her by chance in a residential street in Romford.
I have thought back to my conversation with Rose many times over the past six weeks, as I read newspaper commentaries about Britain’s “golden summer”, a period during which we have “changed for the better”, “looked in the mirror and liked what we have seen” and “emerged as a nation comfortable with ourselves”. I wonder whether Rose’s feeling about the country will have changed at all as a result of events in the Olympic Park, less than ten miles from her home.
I met Rose three weeks after riots spread across English cities in early August 2011. At the time, the prevailing narrative was that Britain was “searching for its soul” in the aftermath of the unrest; some commentators had rediscovered the “Broken Britain” narrative, painting the UK as a country of “problem families” and “feral youth”. Yet the riots themselves came just three months after the royal wedding, a time when the nation had “come together in celebration” and “put on a great show for the world”.
These contrasting narratives about the same society demonstrate howany national story constructed on the basis of a single event will inevitably lack nuance – particularly if they paint a wholly positive or negative picture. The people I met on my travels were complex and contradictory, capable of both kindness and ignorance, prejudice and understanding. As I interviewed them about their hopes and fears, I could almost see the good angel and the devil sitting on their shoulders.
If we want the Olympics and Paralympics to be part of real and lasting change in Britain, these are exactly the people we should be paying attention to: having watched Mo Farah win Olympic gold, will someone like Rose now be less concerned about people from overseas coming to the UK in the same way that Farah did? In the Olympic spirit, will Rose’s neighbours put themselves forward to do something positive in a community where Rose felt isolated, and, crucially, will they maintain that commitment?
Narratives are easy to construct; lasting social change is much more difficult. But without it the “Great Britain” story may soon feel dated and empty, and someone, somewhere, will dust off terms like “Broken Britain” once again.
Joe Hayman’s “British Voices: the UK in its own words” is published by Matador (£9.99) britishvoices.org.uk