By George: What the world really thinks of the English

They come over here, they take our looms... Immigration has been a touchy subject for centuries, says Richard Bean, whose new play explores the funny side of racial tension. Here, he offers a forthright explanation of just why we'll never get along.
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The Independent Culture

Ten years ago I moved to Bethnal Green. It's an area in London's East End, just north of the docks, which has been transformed by different waves of immigration over the centuries. I stayed for about four years, and found it a difficult, caustic place. In the process of researching my new play, England People Very Nice, I bought a security guard at one of the local schools a pint and listened to his stories of gangs, intimidation and racism. His school is divided into three gangs: white and black kids in one; Bangladeshis in another; and Somalis in the third. The odd Turkish kid might drift between gangs, but essentially the lines of race and culture are set.

Britain as a society has never worked with separate cantons, or cultural ghettos, and in my opinion it won't work in the future. Ed Husain, author of The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, grew up in the East End and says he got to the age of 18 without having a single English friend. He slipped into radical Islamic politics, learnt to hate the West, and was only saved by an epiphany that made him find his true Islam. What hope for young Muslims without his fierce intelligence?

I write plays now, but I used to be a psychologist. The rigour of social science is to look for predictable behaviour, normality. For this play I wanted to look at earlier waves of immigration and see if I could find any patterns developing. The French Huguenots started arriving in Spitalfields in 1685, setting up business as silk weavers, and of course met with resistance. They were called "frogs" or more likely, knowing Bethnal Greeners, "facking frogs". French became the dominant language in the streets around Brick Lane, and they were attacked by English weavers in the very organised apprentice-cutters' mobs. The apprentices, the yoof of their day, would smash the Huguenots' looms and cut their cloth in a violent struggle for dominance of the textile industry.

The Irish had also been washing up in Bethnal Green for centuries. Culture, rather than jobs, was the battleground here. Being Catholic in a country which at that time could not tolerate Catholicism led to violence. Pamphlets were distributed in ale houses full of fiercely anti-Papist rhetoric, stoking the hatred of the new arrivals. Catholic priests would come over from Italy and Spain to run secret Mass houses – the mad mullahs of their day. It ended in terrible violence. In 1780 the mob took to the streets in an orgy of anti-Catholic violence which left London burning and 300 dead.

The social scientist has to see this violence as normal, a predictable human response to events. The cockneys of 1780 were a mongrel mix of French Huguenots, country English and long-time East End Anglo-Saxon. They looked at Papism as we might look at radical Islam today, an overt threat to our way of life. Throw into the mix the truth of the Irish taking their homes and jobs and you get the Gordon Riots.

Then, when 100,000 fleeing Jews stepped off the boat in St Katherine's Docks at the turn of the 19th century, making Yiddish a more common language than English, the fear intensified. A group of anarchists, led by Rudolph Rocker, a non- Jew who taught himself Yiddish, introduced Britain to its first Tube bombing. In a precursor to 7/7, a bomb went off at Alders-gate (now the Barbican) in 1897, killing one and injuring many.

In another incident, the French anarchist Martial Bourdin blew himself up, probably accidentally, in a park on his way to destroy the Greenwich Observatory. Terrorists seem drawn to iconic buildings.

You can imagine the fear. All these "aliens", the word used at the time for immigrants, coming over, working on a Sunday, eating fish on a Sunday, doing all sorts of things on a Sunday! The threat! This is the end of England! And of course, the predictable response: racism. The British Brothers' League campaigned for an end to "alien immigration" and to some degree achieved that with the Aliens Act of 1905 – the first- ever restriction on immigration to this country. The Jewish immigrants, helped specifically by Lord Rothschild's campaign "to turn these Jews into English Jews", eventually assimilated, became cockneys themselves, fought fascism, and found a way to be both Jewish and English.

By the time the Bangladeshis came in the 1970s, most of the Jews had moved away. A sense of betrayal from the locals, mainly over housing, led to racist movements, this time the National Front. A series of murders in the 1970s inspired a defensive posture by Bangladeshis around Brick Lane and today the former shtetl is transformed into Banglatown.

I haven't chosen to write this play; it feels like an obligation. I don't see what a playwright can write about unless it's his own society. If through sensitivity, legislation or protest, writers are unable to write about our multicultural society, then the arts as an industry will go the way of manufacturing, fishing and farming. It's not easy to write about race, immigration or religion. We're not as free as once we were in this country. I worry about our society; it feels as if we're all going out into the streets with our skin peeled off; we're raw, overly sensitive. We need to become desensitised in order to live peaceably together. My tribe – Yorkshiremen – are stereotyped as blunt, beer-drinking, ferret-loving, philistines; I've never complained once, and I never will.

'England People Very Nice' is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000, to 30 April

What do you think of the English?

Oxford Street, central London, January. It didn't take too long to find out what it's really like to live among us...

Babiker Mukhayer, 63 Sudan, works for a drug prevention charity

'Unforgetting and unforgiving'

Sharon Ohayon, 29, Israel, receptionist

'The English make a lot of effort to be polite. But to have a good time they need a drink first'

Helen Kamaya, 25, Uganda, bank administrator

'Oh how they love Christmas'

Raul Moules, 29 Spain, waiter

'Why are they so obsessed with celebrities? You open a paper, and there is Lily Allen. Where is all the proper news?'

Ko Tejima, 48, Japan, journalist

'I always considered English men to be real gentlemen. But nowadays all you see is men fighting with women for a seat on the Tube'

Xamaadi Moha, 33 taxi driver and Solomon Alayle, 22 warehouse worker, both Somalis

Xamaadi: 'English men like to chat about football. The women talk about going out. But I can always tell the ones who aren't going to pay their fare; they are the most chatty'

Asako Mitarai, 27, Japan, travel agent

'I think the Japanese and the English are quite similar. We both like to join a queue'

Bernadette Bekesi, 29, Hungary, office manager

'I do love the dry sense of humour'

Mojca Henigman, 26, Slovenia and Niels Vollrath, 33 Germany, both working in customer services

Mojca: 'You're all pretty stylish.'

Niels: 'I love the fact you have such extremes, from the aristocrat to the football hooligan'

Fran Lopez, 23, Spain, sales assistant

'I find the English very cold; I've been here for four months and have made one English friend. I just don't get their humour at all'

Jose Luis Bernabe, 36, Spain, TV producer

'English people always seem to stay calm. I have never seen an English person hysterical'

Noha Asaad, 65, Egypt, housewife

'English doctors really are the best. They are so friendly and honest – this is important to Arabs'

Dagmawi Asfaw, 21, Ethiopia and Daniela Vidal, 19 Columbia, both studying English

Daniela: 'You drink a lot, and the women wear very little. It's five degrees and they have so much flesh on show. Don't they feel the cold?'

Lupe Sanchez, 31, United States, runs a promotions agency

'My family are Mexican and really huggy. My English husband's family is very closed. Some English people can be a little unwilling'

Marco Gambino, 45, Italy, actor

'I've been here 25 years. For a job I give the English classes in how to flirt. They are terrible at it'