All White in Barking

by Esmerelda Weatherwax  (April 2008)

I have some further thoughts on All White in Barking the last of the BBC’s White season.

It was made last year as part of the Storyville strand so did not necessarily fit whatever agenda, and they do have an agenda, that the BBC have with this White season. The blurb said “Marc Isaacs investigates why the BNP is the second largest party in Barking”.  That isn’t quite what it was all about.

The title was a complete misnomer. Had it been called Growing Older in Barking and Dagenham it would have stood up well with less scope for accusations of bias or racism. It was a clever play on the local accent where we do not always sound the R strongly and it can sound a little like W. Think Jonathan R(w)oss. But beyond that it wasn’t accurate.

It was less about white people in Barking (and Dagenham where I used to live and which makes up the other half of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham) and any perceived racism against non-English newcomers, although there was an element of that, and more about the difficulties of dealing with too rapid change as one gets older.

No mention was made of the history of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham which is still of some relevance as Barking and Dagenham are different places.

To recap from a previous post, Barking Abbey was one of the oldest and richest in England. Its abbesses were from the ranks of Saxon royalty and also included Adela a Becket, St Thomas a Becket’s sister. Barking was a port. Captain James Cook was stationed there at the time of his marriage and the Small Blue Fleet fished out of Barking until they moved to Fleetwood in the early 20th century as the industry declined. The main town is Victorian. I know people whose families have lived in Barking for generations who regard themselves as Essex people.

Dagenham was one of the less prestigious possessions of the Abbey and remained a small quiet village until the mid 1930s when the Ford Works was built on the marshes and the Becontree estate was built to house the workers. At the time they were the largest industrial complex and the largest public housing estate in Western Europe. The development attracted people from all over the UK but mostly they were people rehoused from London’s east End. They regarded themselves as Londoners.

The two separate and different boroughs were merged in 1965 when all the London Boroughs and some from Essex, Middlesex and Kent were “reorganised” into the GLC.

During the 1960s immigrants settled in Barking, some black, some from the Indian sub continent many of whom were Muslim. A Mosque was built. Dagenham remained white working class until about 5 years ago when a large number of black people moved into the area prompting renewed BNP activity about which I wrote in April 2006.
Back to the programme, initially my defences rose at the opening credits “How far are we prepared to go to overcome our fear of foreigners” but there were some intelligent twists.

There were four stories to follow.
  • Sue and her husband trying to get to know new African and Albanian neighbours.
  • Dave a BNP activist who loves his mixed race grandson, “because he’s my blood” but who has moved to Canvey Island because he perceives it as safer.
I originally described Canvey Island as full of oil refineries with only one road off the island, and that liable to flooding. I have been corrected by a reader and my own husband. There is only one oil refinery and two roads off the island. To quote my husband (who used to work in Pitsea) when I showed him the comment correcting me, “That’s because you always go up Canvey Way and never think to use the back way through Benfleet”. Be that as it may, a big fear of the residents of Canvey remains that were there to be an accident at the oil refinery evacuation would be a problem and thus a further road on and off is needed.
  • Monty a Polish Jew and survivor of Auschwitz who has formed a close companionship with Betty a Ugandan lady.
  • The proprietors of the traditional Farmer’s Meat Butchers of East Street which closed last year after 60 years trading, supposedly when African butchers opened nearby.
Monty’s story deserved a programme in its own right. From the photo of him and other boys on the roof of a cattle truck the day Auschwitz was liberated to the annual reunion dinner of the Boys of ’45. Monty and Betty getting ready for the annual reunion dinner of holocaust survivors. “The day I was liberated” said Monty, “62 years ago today. The 5th of May 1945”. Betty is nervous but dressed in Monty’s opinion “like the Queen of Sheba”

His sister in law hates Betty. The implication being that she hates Betty because Betty is black. Might it not be the case that she would detest any woman she perceived as taking the place of her late sister? The elderly friend at the dinner who, asked about Betty, being black and not Jewish, said who should know better than they who have suffered so much. 

When the programme maker asked everybody in turn at Sue’s barbeque whether they would be happy for their sons to marry a white girl, or an African girl. And the Albanian man said that everybody he met in Barking who was a fellow immigrant had, like him, come to the free world for a better life, but no, if his son wanted to marry a Serb then the boy was on his own. 

Dave set up his BNP petition, (on a child protection issue not a race one) just by Dagenham Heathway station, (3-4 miles and 3 stops on the tube away from Barking) outside the boarded up shop that I knew when it was Gateway Supermarket where I used to pick up cat food and tea bags on my way home from work. Later at his home he pointed out houses where Poles, Chinese, Lithuanian and Africans had moved in during the past year, and pondered how the old Italian lady who was unable to move out like him would fare. Which in some part confirms my feeling that it is the pace of change at fault and that foreigners he had known for years were no longer foreigners but his neighbours.

One of his daughters is in safe housing because her African former partner, the father of the grandson beat and abused her such that she is considered to be in danger. It would colour a father’s view which is probably why he doesn’t want to face the fact that his other daughter’s new boyfriend has an African grandparent.
But why did Marc Isaacs insist on rubbing it in to Dave that the boyfriend’s mother was African, when from the boy’s own words it is one of his grandparents who is African. Isaacs was almost trying to goad the old man.

Then there is more to the demise of Farmer’s Meat than a mere dislike of competition from meat served African style. I visited Barking this week and took the opportunity to visit East Street. The former butchers is being refitted (above) but there was nothing to indicate what the new business will be. The pawnbrokers and bookmakers either side were open.  

The market wasn’t on that day but I would hazard a guess that the most important competition to Farmers Meat came from the Iceland Supermarket immediately opposite. Council business tax is also a factor putting a strain on many family businesses. As you can see from the Farmers Meat advert which is still in the Yellow Pages for 2007/8 (above) they were aiming for a quality market and emphasising the provenance of their meat. As the market was not open the only other places selling meat were the supermarket and a halal butchers nearer to the station. The cuts in the window of the halal butchers looked very familiar; it is the method of slaughter that makes halal a speciality. But an African meat shop I know in Dagenham sells very different cuts like turkey gizzard, smoked turkey, cow’s foot and goat; they are not in direct competition with the English taste. The hatter and the shoemaker are never in competition.  Mark Isaacs only asked about the different meat and concentrated on how unattractive they were to the English palate, while filming African girls saying how delicious it all was. Ask any small businessman what his problems are and he will say business rates and VAT returns not what part of a cow he would or wouldn’t eat. As an aside, how different is cow’s foot to cow heel, which, served with tripe, used to be a popular English delicacy, now out of fashion?

When the shutters came down on the Farmers Meat butchers and the camera panned round the crowd I thought it was laid on a little too thick that all the faces shown were not just old, but tired, dazed and bewildered. As if the problem is not too much change but that old people just can’t cope with it, but the problem will soon be solved as they all die off.

Had Marc Isaacs walked another 150 yards down East Street and crossed over the road when he reached the Bull pub he would have been by the churchyard of St Margaret’s, once the Abbey now the parish church. Had he then gone into the refectory he could have been served a cooked lunch by a team of men and women, black and white, all of retirement age and lively and energetic. But that wouldn’t have fitted the agenda.

The advertising that the programme was to “focus on a BNP activist” was at fault in several ways. Dave was only one of the stories and once he knew and liked someone he seemed to brush away their origins. It neither explained what he did with the BNP, why he joined them and what his views as a member were. His BNP work took place not in Barking but in Dagenham, which is another town. I make no secret that I dislike the BNP as an entity but there was a back story to this man here not told.

Sue cried at the grave of her son and explained that she could never move far away now. England flags, cross of St George flying from the graves and many of the houses in the neighbourhood.  “I grew up round here, this is my roots”.

Finally the Boys of 45 drank a toast to the Queen and sang the national anthem and to the sound of their singing the scene turned to Dave on the beach at Canvey tossing bread from his burger to the sea gulls.
What will you do if Africans come here Dave?”

“Over there” he replied pointing to the sea. “Into the drink”

I was left with the memory of one sad and lonely old man and one old man who had suffered but retained his friends. 

If the object of the programme was to demonise the BNP it failed.

If the object was to show the white people of Barking as racists it failed.
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