Last Whites of the East End reveals the complex effects of immigration

Is it possible to feel uprooted from a place you've never left? Plus: Going Going Gone: Nick Broomfield’s Disappearing Britain.

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Tony Cunningham is a West Ham-supporting bus driver, thick of eyebrow and shaved of head, who lives in Newham in the East End of London. He grew up in the borough and has always loved it. Lately, though, his feelings have begun to shift. What’s that sound? It’s Hornchurch calling. “Look at these neat suburban gardens,” it whispers. “Look at this high street, with its branch of Costa Coffee.” He feels bad about this infidelity to place: conflicted and sad. But what can you do? “White people get a bad time here,” he says, nursing a mug of tea. “These people don’t mix,” he complains, driving past some Muslim women outside a primary school.

So far, so Ukip. Except that Tony is not, perhaps, what you think. His father was Jamaican; his new wife is Romanian. Even as he joins the so-called white flight to the Elysian fields of Essex – Newham, which he will leave behind, now has one of the lowest white British populations in the country – it would be hard and a bit stupid to condemn him as racist. The word that comes more easily to mind is deracinated, assuming it’s possible to feel uprootedness before you have even left a place. Fearful and lonely, he is ill at ease in his own world, aching for the past even as he accepts (darkly, his eyes scour the sparkly shopfronts) that it has probably gone for ever. One of the things that first attracted him to his wife – they met when she ran for the bus that he was driving – is that she has the same standards as his nan. “The eastern Europeans are filling up the churches again,” he says, approvingly.

Last Whites of the East End (24 May, 10.45pm), Kelly Close’s rich but slightly disorganised documentary for BBC1, was full of people like Tony. Oh, the muddle of it all. Eileen, who was about to move to Norfolk after the death of her husband of 68 years, did not have a bad word to say about her “lovely” Somalian neighbour. But, still, there was no disguising her situation. “There’s no one here belonging to me,” she said, readying herself for the removal men. Usman, whose family arrived in Newham from Bangladesh in the 1930s, described himself as a cockney. Immigration had, he said, been both good and bad for his community. On the plus side, he no longer has to travel far to the mosque: new ones have sprung up all over. But the minuses include the loss – also to Essex – of his (white) boyhood friends. The latest wave of immigrants, he said, are not experiencing “the British way of life”, for which reason he wishes that his pals had stayed. They should have fought for their way of life, he complained; rushing to the far end of the District Line and beyond is just “throwing your toys out of the pram”. He is convinced that the East End he knew as a child will be gone completely in ten years.

Deracination – it’s not something the Labour Party cares much to talk about, or that politicians of any hue seem really to understand (either that or they’re wilfully ­ignoring it). A shifting population can bring it on, with all its complicated and pernicious effects, but so, too, can a changing landscape. Pull down beloved buildings and the sense of abandonment, displacement and grief can be overpowering – as Nick Broomfield, hitherto best known for his self-reflexive documentaries about such figures as Eugène Terre’Blanche and Sarah Palin, revealed in an extraordinary film for BBC4 (25 May, 9pm).

I can’t remember the last time an hour of television made me so furious, or so leaky: after a certain point, the tears simply refused to stop. Have the 1960s and 1970s taught us nothing? It seems that they really haven’t – and I write, before you accuse me of the worst kind of National Trust-ism, as a well-known fan of concrete. (I am, for God’s sake, the biographer of Alison Smithson.) How can it be that the beautiful and listed buildings that were the subject of Broomfield’s film – the Wellington Rooms in Liverpool and the Coal Exchange in Cardiff – have been left to rot? Simple! Rotting buildings are unsafe buildings and councils can use emergency powers to knock them down and sell the land to developers.

Broomfield’s technique was first to let his camera linger on their finer features (the lovely Wellington Rooms, once a gentleman’s club, have an Adam ceiling and friezes by Wedgwood), and then to show up the ineptitude and instinct for half-truths of their disgraceful municipal keepers: podgy white men, mostly, with no feeling whatsoever for the citizens they are supposed to represent (this, I think, is in the end more significant than their lack of feeling for architecture).

Finally, Broomfield tried, for a few moments, to breathe life back into the buildings. At the Wellington Rooms, Barbara and Ellen, best friends since 1961, entered the ballroom to the sound of Irish music, a fiddler having been arranged (when it closed in the 1980s, the building was Liverpool’s Irish Centre). And then, among the dust and the puddles and the falling masonry, they held hands and danced. Their faltering gaiety was unselfconscious but it was also a rebuke. As they well know, something has been stolen – from them and from all of the people of their great city.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad

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