London in 2005 can lay claim to being the most diverse city ever. Leo Benedictus has spent months travelling across the capital, locating and visiting the immigrant communities that give the city its vibrancy and, more importantly, its food.
Here he profiles some of the more unexpected of them: -
"People here don't know their own neighbours, and they're like that their whole life. When I meet English people, which is not very often round here, my experience is that they are lost, really miserable people, sometimes with emotional problems. They don't know how to speak to you. They are surprised you are open and nice to them." - Gosia, 25, from Poland.
London in 2005 is uncharted territory. Never have so many different kinds of people tried living together in the same place before. What some people see as the great experiment of multiculturalism will triumph or fail here.
New York and Toronto would contest the cosmopolitan crown, but London's case is strong. According to the last census, in 2001, 30% of London residents had been born outside England - that's 2.2 million people, to which we can add the unknown tens of thousands who didn't complete a census form. And even this total takes no account of the contribution of the city's second- and third-generation immigrants, many of whom have inherited the traditions of their parents and grandparents. Throughout the 1990s, Greater London was the fastest growing part of the UK - and yet the white population in that time actually fell.
Altogether, more than 300 languages are spoken by the people of London, and the city has at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more. Virtually every race, nation, culture and religion in the world can claim at least a handful of Londoners.
Yet life in the capital is hardly one great coffee-coloured carnival. Few lofty social ideals can be observed in Victoria station at 8am. Indeed, as Gosia remarked, Londoners are notable for their lack of warmth. Their city is a place of business; they have the fewest public holidays in Europe and work by far the longest hours. But London's decade of prosperity has pulled in hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world and started a great convection current within the UK, sucking youth and energy in from the provinces and leaking spent fortysomethings back out into the countryside. On the whole, people come to London for the money. But money is not why they stay.
Language is one reason; fluency in English is a great gift for one's children. Then there are the many refugees, who arrive expecting to return home, but find, over time, that home has come with them. "People don't treat you as a foreigner, but you feel it yourself," said one Somali man of his first trip back after 15 years in London. "You see things like spiders and snakes that used to be normal, but when you go back you are scared. You become westernised, although you don't realise it."
But there is another, more surprising reason why people make their homes in London: Londoners themselves. Bilsen, a 40-year-old Turkish woman, couldn't understand the frosty atmosphere when she first arrived. "When you're on the underground, people don't talk," she explained with horror. "They don't even make eye contact." Quickly, however, the benefits of being left alone began to become apparent. "Like the English say, 'Mind your own business'," Bilsen remarked with approval.
In fact, London's haughty denizens have been waiting for their new neighbours for centuries. This is because of one traditional feature of English life: not something it offers, but something it lacks. It is the great need which has left every Londoner stickyfingered for life. It is food. New immigrants often find that food is the first thing they miss from back home. Thus a parade of good restaurants - usually on high streets, usually with patriotic signage - is the focus around which most new communities begin to express themselves. This is true all over the world, but the British seem to have a unique affinity for foreign food of every kind - so much so that, like tea, they quickly adopt it as their own. The ersatz exoticism of a chicken tikka masala is unmistakably English, and the ubiquitous doner column, a respectable dinner in Istanbul reduced to little more than binge fuel in London, now scarcely registers as foreign.
Londoners' enthusiasm for foreign food creates thousands of jobs for immigrants and makes the establishment of new communities that much easier. Every big city in the world has its Chinatown, but in London, one can dine on food from more than 70 different countries - and then buy the ingredients to make it all again at home. (There are many north Africans in France, but have you ever tried finding coriander in a Carrefour?) There is a good reason for all this. Other European nations have their own strong culinary traditions; the British don't. We have our own simple recipes, of course, but few people these days care to make them. Even our words for places to eat - restaurant and cafe - had to be borrowed from French in the 19th century.
In fact, the mongrel English, fissured with post-imperial self-doubt, neither American nor fully European - nor even Welsh, Irish or Scots - have a rather thin national identity all round. We are proud of our country, but we can't remember why. In Londoners - who seldom have a word of praise for the great city of their birth - this is especially pronounced. The private English also seem less susceptible to big ideas. Our national religion is perhaps the weakest in the world, and in the 2001 census almost 16% of Londoners said they had "no religion" at all - more than all the Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists put together. Londoners resent immigrants less than they might, in short, because they have so few values left to be threatened.
Some, like the Queen in her Christmas message, call this tolerance. I'm not so sure. Having asked everyone I met in the course of this investigation how they got along with their "English" neighbours, I have few problems to report. The picture that emerges is of a broadly tolerant city, but toleration is about as far as it goes. Indifference might be a better description. The days when a man in a turban could stop traffic are behind us, but the days when the average Londoner knows why he wears it are yet to come.
And we will not get there if we forget that thousands of Londoners persecuted immigrants enthusiastically throughout the 20th century. Jews and Germans were early targets, followed by Afro-Caribbeans, whose homes were besieged and petrol-bombed by white mobs throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. And then we come to the skinheads and paki-bashers, many of whom now call themselves the BNP - a party that is still represented on Barking and Dagenham council today.
So when hostility is the usual alternative, perhaps indifference is not such a bad thing. Taxi-drivers do not become multiculturalists overnight, just as migrants do not magically turn into Englishmen at baggage reclaim. Indeed, almost every naturalised immigrant I met referred quite comfortably to native Londoners of all races as "English people". White liberals would throw up their hands at this; white nationalists would heartily approve.
This reveals the insidiousness of the Tebbit test, which insinuates that a person's sporting allegiance betrays their national allegiance. Every person I asked, when forced to choose, said they would prefer their country of birth to win against England in the World Cup final, but only just. One Portuguese man I spoke to said he was very upset when England and Portugal were drawn against each other in Euro 2004 because then he knew one of his teams would be knocked out.
The real lesson here is that you cannot erase a person's attachment to their country of birth, but nor should you try. This, combined with the availability of work, is the source of London's great appeal. People do not come here to become English, in the way that they go to
New York to become Americans. People come to London to be themselves - their children and grandchildren can be English if they want.
Londoners don't tolerate our city's diversity so much as ignore it. And where there is ignorance, intolerance can quickly be fomented. In fact, this happens all the time. One of the most unpleasant facts that arose from this investigation was that every community had a story of media misrepresentation to tell. Lurid falsehoods, it seems, are still the best way of getting Londoners to take any interest in the qat-chewing, dog-eating, drug-running family of terrorists next door. Somehow, it is only when foreigners are problematic that we want to read about them.
The following articles are based on brief visits and should not form the basis of any new generalisations; instead, it is hoped that they will help to undermine some of the old ones. One principle, however, was confirmed and reconfirmed by every encounter. Vietnamese, Somalis, Congolese, Koreans, Portuguese, Nigerians, Turks and Poles are really just the same as everybody else - they work hard, love their kids and move to the suburbs when they can afford it.