15 June, 2008


More Plain Tales from the Multiculture

I was walking along a street in the West End of London when the driver of a bus stuck in traffic called out to me. It took me a moment to decipher his heavily African-accented English but it turned out that he was asking where he was! I told him the name of the street and walked on, bemused. Unlike an earlier experience, when I helped navigate the Turkish driver of a rail-replacement bus service operated by the Dartford Cheap'n'Dodgy Motors Co across south-east London, on the present occasion it was a mainstream London bus.

The other day I made a purchase in a chain electronics store in central London. This was not some one-man-and-his-brother Gujarati box-shifting establishment in a back street off the Tottenham Court Road, where one might readily expect to be served in sign language by somebody's cousin or nephew overstaying his visitor's visa; this was a major high-street chain. The young Subcontinental man who served me spoke English with an accent so impenetrable that his colleague -- another, only marginally more comprehensible Indian -- eventually had to intervene to interpret.

On a subsequent visit to another branch of the same chain, I sought the advice of a young East European, whose Engish was clearer but whose vocabulary was very limited, making an effective "consultation" impossible, however well he might have known his stock.

Actually this is more typical of East Europeans in London service industries than people generally assume. Many central London and inner-suburban pubs are overwhelmingly staffed by the almost legendary Poles. Magda and Mirek will take your order in impeccable English and cope far better in understanding slurred half-drunken orders -- I refer here to my observations of other customers, of course! -- in a noisy environment than I ever could. But their English is very highly focused on the task. If you chance to speak to them on some more general topic, the limitations of their core scripted repertoire become apparent.

Of course, this doesn't affect the quality of the basic service they provide. I have found Polish and other East European barstaff to be almost universally cheerful, friendly hard-working and efficient, but it does impose limitations and their apparent level of competence can lead perversely to misunderstanding and frustration. I have learned not to make assumptions about what the friendly Pole I am talking to is actually understanding. I am reminded of an anecdote from Radio 4's long-departed talkfest Stop the Week, in which a professor with a good ear for pronunciation, travelling by car in Italy, stopped to ask directions. His pronunciation of place names was so perfect that his interlocutor, taking him for a native, responded at speed in the local dialect, to the good professor's utter incomprehension.

Travelling home from London Bridge one day, announcements on platform 5 were given in incomprehensible South Asian-accented English, while, for a bit of variety, announcements on platform 4 were given in incomprehensible Afro-caribbean-accented English.

Arriving at my local train station on another occasion, I was disappointed to hear an announcement to the effect that services were suspended due to a problem further down the line. Actually, that's not precisely true. I had just read this information off a platform display. The announcement followed. All I could tell for sure was that it was a) an announcement over the platform speakers, b) was probably in a language purporting to be English and c) was delivered in a very strong West African accent. Had I not already read the same information I quite genuinely would not have been able to make an informed guess at what was being said. Unfortunately there was no-one from the district's huge Nigerian "community" on hand to translate.

I could cite many more examples, often involving the largest household-name service and retail organizations.

Several points can be made.

First, why are so many basic service and retail jobs in central London being done by immigrants? I don't mean by UK-born people from ethnic minorities, the children of earlier immigrants; I mean obviously recently-arrived "first generation" immigrants.

Secondly, many of these people appear to be of non-EU origin, and yes I do mean by that that they are not White and speak with recognizable Asian or African accents. On what basis are they here? Can you really get a work permit just to work behind the checkout in M&S?

Thirdly, despite my mastery of the language of this country as a native speaker, I increasingly find myself in a foreign city, where everyday communcication is reduced to a kind of pidgin, or to put it more kindly, Basic English. This is hard work, dispiriting and very alienating. It leaves me feeling just as much a foreigner as all the alien buggers around me, and, frankly, I don't like it.

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