(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)
“Recently, John Cleese told an Australian interviewer: “London is no longer an English city… it doesn’t feel English.”
Last night I saw Arnold Wesker‘s 1959 play The Kitchen at the National Theatre in London. It was two hours twenty minutes long.
Good acting; showy direction; but it could have done with at least an hour cut out of it, an actual central plot added in and a decent end line with a point.
What was interesting about The Kitchen, though, was that it was set in the – no surprise here – kitchen of a large restaurant in 1959 with characters who were, in alphabetical order, Cypriot, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, West Indian and I think others… oh and English.
London, according to John Cleese, is not an English city in 2011.
But London was not an English city in 1959.
London has not been an English city for centuries – Jews, Huguenots, Flemings, Kenyan Asians, Poles, Albanians and, before them, Saxons, Normans, Danes and many many others all flooded in on different waves of immigration and invasion including the English.
The truth is, of course, that London was never an English city in the first place.
London was created by the Romans – a load of bloody Italians with all the foreign hangers-on who made up their army… all of them coming over here without a by-your-leave, taking our jobs and women and opening corner shops all over the place.
The Angles and the Saxons came later, lowering property prices in Londinium and Camulodunum – or Colchester as someone-or-other eventually re-named it. Camulodunum was not even a Roman town; the Celts had been there before the Italians arrived with their legions and ice cream shops.
The idea of London or anywhere else in ‘England’ being an English or even a British city is a myth, just as the idea that the British (and, as always, arriving late) the Americans won the Second World War is a myth.
The ‘British’ forces included Australians, Canadians, Czechs, Indians, New Zealanders, Poles, South Africans and many more troops from around the British Empire and elsewhere.
I remember a historian (an Italian one) telling me about the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy towards the end of the War. As he put it:
“A large Allied army composed of Americans, Moroccans, Algerians, Filipinos, Indians and Poles stormed the Cassino front.”
After the War, he got to know a German Panzer commander who had fought at Cardito, a hilltop a few miles away from Monte Cassino. The German remembered:
“We used to wonder each morning what colour the men coming up the hill would be that day. Coloured men of many races came up in waves. At the end of May, the Poles made it up to the top of the hill; they were the only other tall, blond men around apart from us.”
The Second World War was not won only by the British and the Americans.
And London, founded by the Romans, was not even originally an English city.
The English were and are just one group of foreign immigrants among many.