#LastWhites? The Real East London

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Do you remember seeing this building in the Newham documentary last week?

I am still quietly seething about the style, content and motivations behind ‘The Last White of the East End’ documentary last week, which is available on iPlayer here. For me personally, what rankled most was the factual inaccuracies about Newham schools and the fact that the documentary completed erased all ethnic and religious groups from the narrative that didn’t fit their already flawed ‘Whites vs Muslims’ narrative. This is why you didn’t see any thing about the Sri Murgan Temple at the top of this page, or the Hindu community at all. Or the Sikh communities. Or the churches and the Christians, of many denominations. It didn’t fit the narrative.

For people watching this who lack first hand experience of the East End and of Newham (and mindful of the fact that Newham is not generally considered to be the ‘proper’ East End anyway, as Natalie Pla has pointed out) the documentary confirmed the prejudices that a better documentary would have unpicked.

You know what, there are important and interesting discussions to be had about the ways in which local areas change and adapt. There are real stories to tell about the closing down of East End pubs and all that this represents – the past, present and future of the Old Spotted Dog is an important tale to share, and it would encompass so much of the shifting cultures of Newham. Newham is more than just halal chicken shops replacing Pie and Mash shops, and Mosques replacing pubs (if this has happened anywhere, as the Twitterstorm was suggesting, I would love to see evidence of it BTW) – the reality is a much harder story to tell, and perhaps those behind the documentary couldn’t handle the nuance.

The East End has a long history of openness to migrants from other parts of the world; the documentary captured nothing of this. The story of the East End is not the slow retreat of white people into Essex who feel they cannot live alongside Muslims and feel outnumbered – or certainly this is not the only story, and even more certainly not the only one worth telling.

The East End history is that of The Battle of Cable Street, where East Enders successfully resisted the march of Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts, who sought to terrorise the then-Jewish community.

More recently, in the seventies, the National Front targeted the same area, and Altab Ali – a 25 year old Bangladeshi – was killed in a racially aggravated attack. Current fascist groups still target these same streets today.

Altab Ali from Loud Minority on Vimeo.

The story of Newham and local boroughs like it is one of detailed interweaving stories; communities changing and adapting, shrinking and growing, mixing and distancing. There are stories of interfaith events and the roles the religious institutions play in building a sense of community; some of these are more inward-facing and some more outward facing than others. Untold stories include those that bring communities together in times of need, such as when Newham Mosques not only raised a staggering £10,000 at Friday Prayers to support those in York who were affected by this year’s flooding, but these mosques organised for over 100 volunteers to head up to York to help the clean up. Or the Ahmadiyya community whose peace walks and fundraising has collected millions for national and local charities. Or the work of the Sheba Project, a local action group that brings local communities together through events and activities like cooking and crochet clubs, afternoon teas and Chand Raat.

The history of East End is not one story but many. It is a collection of stories of different groups living together and of migration – the East End is the site of social change and fringe politics, resistance and radicalism, but also of communities made up of the majority of people from different faiths, nationalities and backgrounds just quietly getting on with life.

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