I’ve just had a conversation with a bloke called Ferdie.
You know how it is, you’re sitting on Maze Hill station waiting for your train up to Plumstead with your mate James, nice sunny day for a change, when the geezer two plastic seats down from you in what passes for a shelter, the guy you’ve just helped out by telling him that, yeah, there are trains running today even if there is nothing up on the board, the guy who's given you the obligatory hard-luck story about having lost his bus pass and is now sipping his can of Tennant’s Super as you quite resolutely stare at the ground suspecting he’s going to hit you up for money, suddenly strikes up a conversation.
The country’s going down the shitter as there are too many immigrants. Up in Woolwich, specifically, there are too many Africans, too many Somalians, they’re destroying the traditional British way of life, they don’t have any respect, they don’t want to assimilate, they’re undermining the country’s values. Tony Blair is to blame and nobody can see that he and the Labour party don’t give a shit about the working man. The guy’s called Ferdie. Ferdie says that the only parties he has respect for are the BNP and the Green Party. At least they stand for something.
My ears prick up at this point. Up to then I’ve been leaving James to “handle” the conversation, which he’s been doing quite nicely with a series of non-commital “yeah mates” mindful of the fact that this may not be Ferdie’s first can of the day and that he has a big scar running along his left cheek and terminating at the corner of his mouth. A pretty serious scar. I’m interested for two reasons, firstly as I’ve always suspected that the BNP and the Green Party are going to make big gains in the near future, the only parties capable of capturing any kind of fallout from the long dire years of Thatcherite Centrism and largely because a local Green councillor I work with has often said that traditional, disillusioned Labour voters will often, when canvassed, say that they’ll vote BNP first choice, Green second if anyone stands in their ward. The second reason is that Ferdie’s black.
So we start talking politics. Unusual enough for anyone to strike up a politically based conversation anywhere in civilian life these days, even more unusual for you to get a largely pro-BNP, forty year old black guy of Jamaican extraction getting into it with you. Ferdie is sure that a lot of BNP supporters wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with a black member, that there may be initial hostility but eventually once the shared values/ “Britishness” was acknowledged, then skin colour as such would become unimportant. This is largely a Blairite rhetoric of “values”, of course, though I don’t mention this and I can sense Ferdie imagining a kind of Rainbow British National Party. He thinks that in order to get elected the BNP will have to get disaffected second and third generation working class blacks and Asians on board. I nod along, keen to hear more.
And there is more. It’s not just this though, it’s the way immigrants are driving down wages. Ferdie’s brother is a painter and decorator. The going rate for a painter and decorator these days, so his brother’s boss has informed him, is forty quid a day. It used to be seventy. Ferdie’s brother can’t live on forty quid a day but Polish labourers who are, short-to-mid term, going to sleep three to a room and send the surplus money back home can. From seventy a day to forty a day? We’re going backwards! Ferdie’s prediction is that ten years down the line London is going to be even more of a radically ghettoised shit hole than it is now. After all, the authentic Brits are leaving for Australia and South Africa in droves and the people who are coming in are all waves of cheap labour from the benighted parts of the earth. It’s a feasible vision of the London of the future that Ferdie spys but doesn’t quite express. A series of barracks, all vestige of the overarchingly social or cultural gone, turned over exclusively to business and largely populated by unassimilated immigrants all working to undercut each other in “the race to the bottom.” Why even bother moving your business around to find the cheap labour. The unfettered movement of capital and labour? Save on expenses. Let them come to you.
The conversation then drifts off to the Iraq war and talk of the Illuminati, at which point my heart sinks a bit. Conspiracy theories and the BNP. It speaks volumes about the death of the Left. Then he’s getting off at Woolwich and we’re left looking at each other, James and I. What is our response to this discourse which, if it came from the mouth of a white guy of similar age would have us screaming racist and condemning him as the worst of the worst?
There’s an extent to which the fact that it’s a black guy, and a working class one at that saying these things that allows us, as white semi-liberals to listen with a degree of sympathy. Ferdie’s “black racism” (which is what his friends call it) if it really is that and not just despair with the prevailing Neo-liberal ethos looking for expression and finding the Left incapable of channelling it for him (he’s always voted Labour apparently, but wouldn’t anymore) is a head spinner and also disabling to a degree. There’s a part of me that feels I have to grant credence to views that, were they coming from a working class white guy I would immediately and violently dismiss. Is that racism on my part, some spurious “authenticity” I’m granting to Ferdie’s voice, that I feel I have the right to deny to others, or is it just the sheer novelty of it? Maybe it’s also that it allows me access to a discourse that otherwise is too contentious and too tainted to really engage with. Immigration. Any idea of “Our Culture”, a bedrock culture that needs to be protected in the face of a discourse of cultural motility and how closely that might align with a Neo liberal agenda. It’s also because there is pathos in Ferdie’s desire for a multicultural BNP that would restore British Values, look after British Jobs and support British Culture, an element that just wouldn’t be there if he were white. Ferdie’s problem may be that he’s simply more working class than he is black, that his identification is much more strongly with his class and his nationality than with his roots and his “ethnicity.” British, working-class, black. In that order.
It’s a strange and difficult, oddly moving conversation that I’m still puzzling over and getting down here in order to think over it some more when James rings me and tells me that his best friend Jodi, also black, knows a couple of other black BNP supporters. We think they may all be Jamaicans and it’s some anti-African thing (I mean but EVEN SO!) but that’s quickly scotched. The idea that the BNP is picking up votes from the Left is nothing new, that they’re doing so irrespective of ethnicity seems absurd, but then, isn’t this the stubborn ineradicable trace of class cutting through identarian politics? Suddenly the idea of a multiracial, anti-immigrant and determinedly mono-cultural British National Party is looming in my head and I don’t know what to do with it. Suddenly, vertiginously, I feel that all the old categories, all the old assumptions and allegiances, really are dead and that bizarre, counter-intuitive new political formulations are springing up.
Ten years down the line, really, what is this place going to look like?