On the eve of the EU Referendum in the UK, I hope it is not too late to be saying this, sharing this, but I love Alana Lake’s pro-EU ‘Pink Innit’ graphic, which I saw someone share on Facebook yesterday, and now reproduce here. You can download and share the image from the brilliant EU-UK site here.
I love Lake’s graphic because it’s pro-Remain, but also because it uses a defining feature of what Jenny Cheshire, Sue Fox, Paul Kerswill & Eivind Torgersen in 2008 ‘dubbed “Multicultural London English” (MLE)’ in their journal article ‘Ethnicity, friendship network and social practices as the motor of dialect change: linguistic innovation in London’, which you can read in full on the Lancaster University website.
Amongst other things, Cheshire et al suggest—I think—that it is the size and diversity of friendship groups in London that has driven the linguistic innovation of Multicultural London English, and that ‘all speakers draw on a range of linguistic forms that cannot necessarily, or at least can no longer, be attributed to specific ethnic groups’.
I love this idea of diversity driving innovation.
When I first learned of the emergence of the term ‘Multicultural London English’, it was music to my ears, because this was the language that I had been hearing all around me in the East End where I had been living for many years. It was the language in which my novel Foxy-T had been written a few years earlier, and now at last that language had a name. If you haven’t read it, Foxy-T is set in and around Cannon Street Road, London E1. Here’s a quick extract of something I said at an event at Whitechapel library marking the tenth anniversary of publication, which was subsequently published on the Faber and Faber blog:
I wanted to use fiction to map these more ephemeral economies of Cannon Street Road, whether that was the re-purposing of the empty Megna Cars building, the comings-and-goings of a local wedding caterer, or the posting of a club night flyer. Of course, I was thinking of ‘economies’ in the loosest, non-technical sense, as systems of value and exchange. One such system being spoken language, and at that time – particularly in the East End – something seemed to be happening around Black British language, which was now being valued and used by other communities.
Chatting at the time I used to say that you could hear someone talking behind you on the bus and no longer be able to connect voice and ethnicity. Here were young Bangladeshi rude boys in Shadwell calling each other ‘Rasta’. It might sound slight, but that cultural disconnect represented a huge break with the politics of identity that had been fought for in the preceding decades, in every walk of life, including in literature, and this shift seemed worthy of note. More than that, it was obvious that a novel set in London E1 at that time would need to engage with this change head on, rather than constraining it in the kinds of apostrophised contortions that would be necessary to represent this use of language in standard English.
Here’s the opening page of Foxy-T:
As you can see, I chose to spell MLE’s defining ‘tag question’—technical term ;)—with one ‘n’ rather than the now more usual two: ‘init’ rather than ‘innit’. But then at the time Multicultural London English had not yet been formalised or named. It was something I was hearing rather than something I was reading, or reading about. But it was an innovation that I wanted to reflect in my novel.
This is why I love Alana Lake’s ‘pink innit’ so much, just as I love the pro-EU posters that Wolfgang Tillmans has been producing, and the #artists4eu campaigning by Bob and Roberta Smith. I love it because it speaks to the diversity of life in the UK, to ideas of exchange, openness and innovation and to the importance of diverse friendship networks. And these ideas—exchange, openness, innovation, friendship and diversity—are qualities that I also associate with being a part of Europe at its best; part of an international community. But I also love Lake’s graphic because having celebrated London’s linguistic diversity for many years and having done so in a novel, I also take it personally.
Just as I take it personally when far right politicians stand against these positive ideas.
This is why I was relieved when UKIP’s disgustingly racist Leave Campaign poster—so similar, as many have pointed out, to images from Nazi propaganda—was rightly greeted with almost universal revulsion when it was unveiled at a photo op by UKIP’s Nigel Farage.
Steve Bell in the Guardian newspaper made this connection even more explicit, with his ‘Hating Point’ parody.
Never mind ‘breaking point’, I hope that the vile UKIP poster was actually a turning point in the EU Referendum campaigns, because it showed exactly what we are up against. Give them enough rope, I thought, and the far right will eventually show themselves for what they are.
Coincidentally, just a few yards—a stone’s throw—from where Foxy-T is set, just beyond the viaduct which carries the DLR between Bank or Tower Gateway and Shadwell Stations, is a place where Londoners had to make a stand once before against the far right. Crossing Cannon Street Road near Hawksmoor’s church of St George in the East, and running from Royal Mint Street and the Tower of London in the west to Butcher Row and Limehouse in the east, is Cable Street.
This is where in 1936 the diverse communities of London came together to prevent Mosley’s Blackshirts from marching through the East End.
There is a mural commemorating the battle, which is painted on the side of St George’s Town Hall at 236 Cable Street. This is just a short walk west from Shadwell London Underground and DLR stations, if you haven’t seen it but would like to take a look. Started by Dave Binnington in 1979, work was interrupted when the mural was defaced by far right slogans in 1982. The mural was completed by Paul Butler, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort, and officially unveiled in May 1983. According to wikipedia, ‘The mural has been vandalised and restored several times, and was restored again by Butler for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street in October 2011.’ These are ideas, in other words, that it is still necessary to protect.
This year, the year of the UK’s EU Referendum, marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, and I hope that those people who are able to vote on 23 June 2016 will make a similar stand.
I hope that people will see through the empty promises and the racism that has been emerging from parts of the Leave campaign, and that millions of us will use our votes to stand against hatred, insularity, homogeneity, blind nostalgia and selfishness. That millions of us will make a stand for friendship, openness, diversity, innovation and exchange.
I hope that we will vote to remain in the EU.