Shock news: Arabs don’t wear poppies. Cabbie talks out of his backside.

Melanie Phillips today linked this tragi-comic piece of Front Page drivel, The First Step to Britishness Is Your Poppy. In it, Carol Gould describes how she was accosted by some idiot of Arab origin who noticed her poppy and demanded to know whether she was “from the Jewish”. She then got in a cab and took a short ride down the Edgware Road to Marble Arch:

The driver was enormously sympathetic but told me that I had been “asking for it” by walking in what he called “Little Beirut.” He then told me that we were in World War III. His white, working class anger at what he perceived as “the Islamic takeover” of Britain was palpable. He was not the first London cabbie who has told me he would gladly join the far-right British National Party if pushed.

(It is worth noting in this context that London Mayor Ken Livingstone is trying to institute an initiative to bring ethnic minorities into the taxi fleet, to tackle its almost exclusively white domain. Keeping in mind that Washington D.C. has one of the worst taxi systems in the world, in part because most drivers can barely speak English and do not know the meaning of the words “cordial” or “polite”, especially where female passengers are concerned, one prays the Livingstone initiative will be approached with caution.)

Now, being a London van and truck driver, one must point out that a fair amount of the congestion I experience when driving in London is of their making. When working for the then Securicor Omega on the city run in 2001, the Cheapside area (west of the Bank of England) was awash with them. They have a privileged status on the roads and stop pretty much where they like, causing further obstruction. And there is a stereotype of cabbies, and it is only a stereotype I suppose, that they talk absolute crap. This one seems to fit the stereotype to a tee, though.

Perhaps it was Mick the Racist, an individual who used to take me from school to various appointments many years ago? (Perhaps not, as he’s probably too old.) I remember being in Mick’s Mercedes limousine when he found his way blocked by a black motorist in Camberwell, and he said “I keep forgetting this is Wogsville”. I was pretty shocked, because I had been brought up not to be racist and even then did not think someone would say this in front of me. I asked him what he meant, and he said it was where you get cut up by the black men (well, he didn’t exactly say black men). I had many experiences with minicab drivers while at school, and a fair number of them were abusive - sometimes physically so, and they made no secret of their anger when they found out that we had told our parents, who had then told the authorities, and in the end they had been reprimanded but still employed ferrying us around town.

Anyway, with the Edgware Road being “Little Beirut”, it might surprise nobody that not many poppies can be found on people’s lapels there. To be honest, I’ve not been looking out for poppies, and while I sort of considered buying one, the idea that I should never crossed my mind until my nan asked me, and my dad and sister when we visited her last Sunday, where our poppies were. But if one is talking about the various “ethnic” food outlets along the Edgware Road, I’ve been in quite a few of them, and most of the people working in them have foreign accents. I would very much doubt that there were many British-born Muslims working in or running many of the places Carol Gould visited. And where are these “hijab boutiques”? I know of a hijabi salon in Edgware Road, and many perfumeries and a dress shop, but not a single hijab boutique. The only such place I’ve ever seen was in Walthamstow, and that shut down a few years ago.

Gould’s reference to “the nationwide atmosphere of devotion every November to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died” is a gross exaggeration, and the statement that “most everyone wears a poppy across a grateful nation” is just plain false. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II (my maternal grandfather in the Navy, my paternal grandfather in the Army), we visit the latter regularly (the former passed away in 2000), but none of us think of poppies as any sort of national identity badge. I find it insulting that this woman could link poppies with national identity and reproach anyone for not wearing them. What about all those who look after the war generation in their old age - both as family members and friends, and as nurses? Some of these are immigrants, but even among the locals, I’m sure many have not bought poppies.

I suspect that the “mobbed” meeting she attended at the Cenotaph was peopled by people who had been sent from various organisations around the country. I personally know of nobody who told me they attended; my grandma who asked us about our poppies didn’t encourage me, when I told her I was going to London after visiting her, to go to the Cenotaph. The Cenotaph is ordinarily a traffic island in Whitehall, passed by thousands daily on buses who do not notice it’s there. (It was built in the inter-war period when there was much anti-war feeling, and its lack of grandeur is deliberate.)

As a white British citizen who has lived in London for most of my nearly 29 years, I don’t recognise the country Gould paints for a minute. People here are not at all patriotic and are not particularly reverent of this or any other national tradition. Gould may or may not be aware of the problems elderly people face in some run-down places where they are terrorised by delinquent youths of all races. The disrespect this shows far outweighs the indifference shown by non-citizens or by people whose ancestors reached these shores well after the war ended (and some of their ancestors, being residents of the Empire, were veterans, by the way). Carol Gould is exaggerating the public’s reverence for this event in order to give an ugly picture of the Muslims in London for her right-wing, Islamophobic, American audience.

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