From Eastern Europe to the East End
‘There is a whole Eastern European city of half a million people in London. More than 80 per cent have arrived since 2004. It is a city working in basic jobs, with a sprinkling of Russian aristocrats and Bosnian refugees.’
Margaret Thatcher loved the maquette of Canary Wharf. She listened enthralled as the architects explained how a light railway would extend through the razed old docks. There was a toy train running round the mock-up. The whole thing was over 10,000 square feet.
The little railway ended in acres of suburban housing. Little red brick cottages arranged in geometrical closes and perpendiculars. The developers explained to the Prime Minister this was where commuters to the financial towers would live. Just 20 minutes away from work and on the water’s edge. All of them property owners. She adored the architects’ model dream.
The Docklands Light Railway still has the feel of a scale model. The stations sound as if they were named after pubs: Royal Albert, Royal Victoria, Galleon’s Reach. But the high-rise housing over the easternmost spur of the DLR has seen happier days. Dirty England flags hang from balconies. Panoramic vistas over gargantuan retail parks. The Millennium Dome (now the O2) is filthy, begging to be torn down.
Beckton is the end of the line, rebuilt for a middle class that never arrived. Now superimpose a poverty map of London over a Tube map. Dark red runs along the line to Beckton. More than 60 per cent of the children here grow up in poverty. But there is worse data. London is statistically parcelled up into 4,772 micro-areas. Beckton is the tenth most deprived. Twenty minutes from the headquarters of HSBC.
Beckton doesn’t look foreign at first. The unkempt trees leering over cracked pavements. The locals-only pubs. Grotty supersavers. Dreary parking lots. It looks like the abandoned set of Brookside. But this Tube stop sounds like a foreign country. Everyone exiting the ticket barriers is talking Polish or Bengali, Lithuanian or Romanian.
Immigrant London used to be found within Tube zone two. It used to be about Bangladeshi Spitalfields and Jamaican Brixton. Right through the 20th century, one trend held steady: immigrants began in the decaying inner city, while the white working class moved out to Kent and Essex.
This is not how immigration works any more. Oxbridge hipster-imposters have colonised Shoreditch. It was more convenient for their cycling habits. And when the Victorian terraces were no longer a parade of Bangladeshi rag shops they made rather fetching open-plan offices. This has pushed immigrants to outer London.
There is a whole Eastern European city in London. This city is bigger than Sheffield, with more than 500,000 people. More than half are from Poland. More than 80 per cent have arrived since 2004. These are people from Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and the other poor countries that joined the EU then or later. This is a city working in basic jobs. But it also has its Russian aristocrats and tens of thousands of professionals, not to mention its refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo.
Most live in zone three. Places like Beckton. Here old whites sip Carling lager resentfully in the afternoon pubs. Escapees from the inner-city degeneration of the 1980s, they have been dealt a cruel turn of fate by the metropolis. The DLR dream brochure they bought into has turned into a place less than 50 per cent white British. Unable to afford a reverse white flight, grittier types take to wearing England football shirts at every occasion. Eastern Europeans make up about 20 per cent of the Beckton population, Bangladeshis a further 25 per cent.
I entered a hangar-sized Lithuanian supermarket. Lithuanian mothers pushed trolleys down aisles of pickles of mindboggling size. There were tables of activists getting out the vote for a Lithuanian fracking referendum. Blue tracksuits lounged in the Lithuanian café-grill. There was everything a Lithuanian might need.
Grotesque Russian paintings were being exhibited on the second level where there was a small bookshop stocked only with Lithuanian tomes and anti-Putin pamphlets. Three women were sitting at a kiddies’ table in the middle, having tea. Chopin tinkled in the background. The owner was clinging on to her prettiness with an appalling blonde rinse. It had given her hair the look of straw. Half-hearted attempts were made to sell me white chocolates. But I wanted to talk about Beckton.
“I don’t live in Britain. I live in Lithuania. I watch Lithuanian TV. I use the internet in Lithuanian. My friends are all Lithuanians. This shop is Lithuanian. I only meet Lithuanians. The only thing I do in Britain is pay taxes to the British.”
Beckton empties between 6 and 7.30am. The first trains belong to Africans and Eastern Europeans. Africans have sewn up industrial office cleaning. Poles, Romanians and Lithuanians have tied up building. Because they are reliable and recommend their friends, these jobs are rarely advertised in English. Their girlfriends dominate house cleaning and waitressing.
In the morning darkness past illuminated Canary Wharf ride the bleary-eyed renovators of a city they barely understand. Men like Jurek, a phlegmatic Polish labourer from Gdansk. He commutes in every morning to Kensington. London construction is a game for the rich. There are no jobs building office blocks and data centres in the suburbs but they are three a penny digging basement ballrooms in the Royal Borough.
Back home, Jurek used to work at a sewage treatment plant. All day he would stare at the shit daydreaming about EuroMillions. They sacked him. He had always loved gambling. So after three days drinking he got on a night bus, without any real plan. He woke up at Victoria coach station-our miserable Ellis Island. Poles he met there told him their foreman needed extra labourers. The pay was only £5 an hour but it was in a good area. They promised good tools.
Jurek was gobsmacked by the white wedding-cake mansions this Perivale Polish company was renovating. They had columns like ancient temples over the doors. Floral stucco mouldings rounded the ceilings. He was also surprised that everyone who lived in Arcadia appeared to be Filipino.Dreamers: Many Polish builders move to London with plans to one day return home and build a mansion for themeselves.
Every morning a busy little woman would unbolt the lower ground door and dash out to stock up on brass polish. Jurek would make a point of greeting her: “Good day, Madam.” He imagined her to be an oligarch’s wife. But she would giggle and rush inside. “Thank you, Mister.” He did this for about a month until one of the bricklayers took him aside. “The owners are in Russia, dipshit. The gooks are the maids.”
Builders know clothes are very powerful things. Try sitting on the Tube covered in paint and dust and sweat after a day hammering and sawing and hauling. Commuters will make that one extra step away. Corner shopkeepers will sneer at you. You will become less visible.
I worked on a site in Pimlico. My job consisted exclusively of loading rubbish. There is more of this on a building site than you can possibly imagine: wood shavings and plaster drippings, untold chunks of MDF, boundless rubble, foam wrapping and glass shards. Renovating a £2.5 million flat for £7 an hour was a bunch of dreamers. There was Stas, who in his ten years working in London had learned only 12 words of English, most of them swearwords. He was a living dictionary of farming obscenities that should be preserved by the Polish Academy for post-industrial generations. He liked nothing better than ripping out windows and spitting long distances.
For ten years he had sworn at co-worker Jacek, a spindly painter from Kraków who knew maybe 20 words of English, all of them paint-related. They were both like sailors, renovating London for nine months and then back to Poland. Stas claimed to have a wife but I found this difficult to believe. Like a sailor, he didn’t know how to live another way.
Jacek had a colonel’s moustache. This painter was here because his daughter had Down’s syndrome. Every pound he could spare was sent back to pay for her care home in Germany. He welled up explaining there are no such institutions in Poland. Jacek’s sacrifice meant that at the age of 50 he had shared damp rooms his entire adult life.
Lunch breaks on the worktops around the pots and drills and coiled wires were like a property developers’ convention. Plasterers kept interrupting each other: “This flat is pathetic . . . Not even a key to the garden square.” The painters puffed up to interject. “We decorated a £3 million mansion in Wimbledon last week!”
Lunch brought Stas and Jacek out of their squabbling and into conflict with the youngest labourer in the team, a grumpy, heavyset joiner whom both inexplicably called Miner. He was a newcomer, in England only since 2009. Miner knew some English. Just about enough to read.
Miner had been permanently alienated from his life in a crammed flat above a halal butcher in Wood Green when a plumber was called in an emergency three years ago. The man had left the Sun next to the radio and switched off the Polish pop music the boys played at every hour and in every house. Miner opened the paper. “That rag claimed Poles are jobs thieves and drunks! You English only pretend to like us to our face!”
He was, like almost all builders, an obsessive saver. But unlike the rest, he was neurotic about it. He was always on his mobile phone calculating the precise value of his savings. This was because like many of the young ones he thought he was only here temporarily. He was saving to build a house, a dream mansion.
Miner needed £30,000 but the exchange rate and the influx of Romanian workers were working against him. He rolled a cigarette. “Those Romanians are a bunch of uninsured cowboy builders! They are driving down our wages. They’re working for £4 an hour. Britain is mad to let them in.”
Miner spent his days drilling and sawing, mentally sketching the mansion he would one day build. He decided it would look like a redbrick Edwardian vicarage. He would get a friendly metallurgist to erect a London postbox as a souvenir outside.
If Conservative MPs ever deigned to talk to Polish builders they might discover people near-identical to the Norman Tebbit fantasy of the working class. Industrious savers. Family people. Willing to work for nothing. Fans of Thatcher, the Soviet-fighter. Disgusted by trade unionists and completely depoliticised.
Polish churches are full every Sunday. London was long a city of empty Victorian churches. These Gothic chapels now echo to Polish mass and Nigerian choirs. Polish churches are full of toddlers and pushchairs. Teary tattooed plumbers cross themselves. Hard-up meat packers shove £20 into the collection boxes for the nuns needing furniture in eastern Poland.
I went drinking with Miner. We began in the newsagent by filling a blue plastic bag with a dozen cans of Lechs. It tore. Traipsing home, Miner shared his confusion about the English. “Why do they give the benefits? Why £60 a week and a free flat for a lazy pig that don’t work?”
Miner snatched the police notice in his letterbox. “Fuck, not again.” He quivered in rage. “The black people are at it again!” There had been a robbery in the area. Miner lived in that part of London derided as Poundland. Dirty parades of betting shops, twirling doner kebabs, payday lenders, unlicensed pawnbrokers and signs for “We Buy Gold”.
The cans were cracked open. Miner drank and grew flushed. There were six people living in two rooms. My friend, his girlfriend, and his father in one room. In the other Margarita the cleaner, her boyfriend (who had just lost his job at a recycling dump) and her tired mother.
Polish builders are a little bit racist. London is probably home to more than 300,000 Polish migrants. But we can only roughly estimate that. So keen are they to save that little bit extra that many go under the radar to avoid tax. This is why every builder I spoke to on the site had been burgled. Their flats are always the cheapest, built with flimsy locks that can be undone in ten seconds. Sometimes landlords are in on the racket.
Burglars love Poles because they are paid in cash and hide it in shoeboxes. When they see builders and cleaners moving in over the road, they are already laughing. They can sometimes make £5,000 from one bedsit. And they know the Poles will never call the police.
Miner wanted to relax by showing me pictures of £5 million townhouses he had renovated. I was saved from this melancholy slide show by the return of Margarita the cleaner. She was too attractive to ignore. Like all cleaners, this girl from Bialystok likes to boast she knows everything about her homeowners. “I could hold them to ransom.” She giggled. “I know the Clapham housewife who cheats because I clean the sheets. I know the Clerkenwell banker who loves cocaine because I find his powdered Oyster card.” But cleaners never think of themselves as cleaners. They are always future professionals. They have big dreams about Britain, unlike their boyfriends, because they speak English. “Few of the houses are really dirty. Cleaners mostly are about polishing and keeping lonely housewives and old ladies company.”
These hours of unsolicited advice are the free English lessons and British crash-courses of Polish London. English unlocks London. Before long, many start flirting with the charming boys working at JD Sports. Those in love with Polish men start to tell them they want to have children here.
Miner’s eyes revolved. This is how the Polish dream house slips out of sight. His girlfriend wants to stay. London has left its Polish builders feeling emasculated. A labourer earns £7 an hour but a cleaner makes £10 an hour. Workmen unable to speak English have little choice but to chase Polish girls they cannot afford the cocktails for.
Not everyone will get lucky like Miner. In 20 years he will still be here, probably in Streatham. He will have a cocky son with literary or financial aspirations in a sixth-form college, flaunting a fashionable Polishness.
The luckless in Polish London drink. Half-vagrants hang around outside Polish clubs and churches looking for work. Every builder has a vodka horror story. Like the builder who tried to hide from his boss in a gutted house by lying under a plasterboard in the rubble.
Drinking blights the Polish countryside. This has now come to the streets of London. The majority of tramps in the city are Polish and Lithuanian. There are at least 5,000 of them. Over 3,000 have been bussed home over the past five years.
There were Polish tramps in north London who were forced to work unloading trucks for Turkish shopkeepers. These villains paid them in the tramp’s drink of choice — the cider White Ace. I cannot describe how bad it tastes. Others were found roasting rats in back alleys in Tottenham and Haringey.
These humiliated tramps are hiding. They are hiding from their families. Unable to bear the shame that London turned out to be a soiled mattress under a flyover. They send emails from Kurdish internet cafés for one begged pound, saying they are better than ever. They sleep mostly by the river. It is calm there. Huddled up, they can sing romantic Lublin hobo ballads and roll cigarettes out of pavement butts in peace. They toast handwash cocktails and curse their naivety for thinking you could night-bus it to a better life. To mix these cocktails, tramps sneak into hospitals and surreptitiously squirt the alcoholic liquid from dispensers into Coke bottles. It really hits the back of the head.
Every year there is a service at St Martin-in-the-Fields for those who died on the streets of London. They are men who were run over by minicabs that never stopped. Men who fell asleep on the Thames shore at low tide but could not swim. Most of them were Eastern European tramps.
The artful dodgers of this London are the Albanians. They are the only people the Poles are afraid of. Builders tell stories of Poles who went to work for Albanians only to be beaten into a coma when they asked for their wages. They ask how Britain could ever have let such dangerous people in.
The Albanian pub in Kilburn looks like a normal pub, your classic dingy mock-Tudor watering-hole. But outside they are grilling meat just like in the Balkans. Guys in gold chains and holed fashion jeans sit outside smoking with cute girls in fake fur collars.
The Albanian pubs are full of mafia stories. This is because the Kray brothers of today are from the Balkans. The Yugoslav wars brought at least 30,000 Kosovar refugees and Albanian runaways to London. The wave brought with it several hundred gangsters, hardened KLA veterans and sworn brothers from criminal mountain clans.
They found work as bouncers. At the turn of the century the brothels of Soho were run by Maltese, a long-established mafia. The Albanians disdained them as weak Soho bisexuals selling only ugly girls from Gateshead. They hatched a plan to conquer Soho. When the Albanians pointed a gun at their heads, the Maltese agreed to sell up. But now the Albanians needed girls. Girls who were better and cheaper. They got in vans and drove to Moldova. They trundled around the peasant villages promising glittering careers in waitressing and modelling. Then they raped the girls and trafficked them.
This is how the Albanians destroyed the Maltese. But this was not the biggest Albanian cash cow. That was Westminster coin-operated parking meters. The Albanians saw them and their eyes lit up. Hundreds of thousands of £1 and £2 coins could be harvested. At first they beheaded the meters and drilled them open to see how they worked. But an easier way quickly became obvious. They bribed a Ghanaian traffic warden for his uniform and the all-crucial key. And got to work.
By 2006 the Albanian mafia was dizzy with success. They had conquered the brothels and stolen the parking meters. But then they overreached. The harvesters had chopped up Westminster into two. The deal did not hold. Meeting in a basement hangout in East Acton where they played cards and listened to Kosovar pop, the meter bosses confronted each other. It ended in a shooting.
Too many girls were being trafficked into Britain. Brothels were spreading from Bayswater into Kensington. The police swooped and arrested the Albanian dons. They were shocked. They had never expected long prison sentences. They needed a new business. They took a minicab to Green Lanes to speak to the Kurds. They had a modest proposal.
Kurdish London began as little fruit and veg and halva shops in Haringey in the 1980s. This was a time when the Turkish generals banned every word in Kurdish. The slightest affiliation to the rebels could see you strapped to a metal surface in a dungeon as the Turkish police switched on the military junta’s anthem. This dissecting table would heat up until the screaming, cooking Kurd would confess to anything. The warbling cassette player always played the same song: “Turkey is my Paradise”.
The rebels would come along Green Lanes shaking tin cans and asking for the shopkeepers to give money for the revolution. At first they happily gave them notes from their child benefit. This quickly became a protection racket. They still made their demands in Marxist mantras but the Kurdish resistance had gone into forbidden business: the heroin route passing through the Turkish mountains.
Green Lanes looks dowdy today. This is misleading. Those dimly-lit and bare-table cafés are really headquarters of billion-dollar businesses. The Albanians shuffled in. They began the offer with the usual platitudes — “As fellow Muslims” — but cut straight to the chase. They would help the Kurds get the gear across the Balkans for a share of the profits. The alliance held up for a couple of years.
The Kurds themselves were snared in the early 2010s. The clans of Green Lanes fell upon themselves. Dons were gunned down while having their beards trimmed. Kurds and Albanians decided it was time to make the big money. They went into property. The money was laundered through car-washes in Tottenham. But the estate agents asked no questions.
Albanian London despises the mafia. Pints are raised to their downfall in Kilburn pubs. These are honest people furious that criminals have tarred their name. These people love Britain more than UKIP ever could. This is because Albanian London is one of refugees. Fathers named daughters born in the UK after sisters tortured by Serbian para-militaries in Kosovo. Children are taught about Tony Blair granting them asylum which saved them from war and poverty.
Poles and Albanians talk about Britain as a “mini-America”. But there is no British dream. East Europeans came to London not inspired by a dream of how great things could be, but by the knowledge of how much worse they can be. Talk of Britishness draws a blank face. Immigrants say, “Britain is a land of opportunity.” But they do not feel particularly welcome. As if they are living in a spare room.
Londoners navigate the city by way of pubs. Polish builders, not so much. They cannot afford it. This only isolates them farther. At 6.30pm, exhausted builders crack open cans of Zywiec on the Central Line. Everyone sneers at them. The Poles go east to Wood Green and Leyton. The Lithuanians take the DLR to Beckton.
Drinkers and stoners gather at dusk on Beckton’s artificial hill above the retail park. Measures have been taken to keep people out. High metal fencing rings the perimeter. Inside, brambles and nettles have eaten up everything. The curve of the hill exhibits crushed beer cans and rusting trolleys. At the top there were nine pieces of corrugated iron shoved into the earth, the size of shields.
There was a battle in Beckton. Lithuanians had broken into this derelict site one night and painted the shields in the Lithuanian colours: yellow, green and red. This had enraged the local whites. They gathered in a local pub and vowed to fight back against the immigrants. They stole in the same way and painted the shields as England flags.
I found where the fence had been sawn through. From the bottom of the hill I could see the paint was in good nick. It had only happened recently. A bunch of Bangladeshi teenage hoods stood laughing around the England shields, pointing at the view. I could smell the skunk.
These are the Beckton Alps. There was a gasworks here a few decades back that produced a lot of toxic waste. They didn’t know what to do with it so they landscaped it into a hill in the 1980s. The planners were enthralled when they discovered the toxic dump had created a panoramic view over Canary Warf and the City. It was decided to refashion the heap into an outdoor dry ski slope that the imaginary commuters from the maquette might enjoy.
Princess Diana opened the Beckton Alps. Photographs of her were taken at the summit gesturing at the view. She had a drink in the Swiss chalet-shaped bar at the bottom. But then it all went wrong. The slope collapsed in 1993, exposing the toxins and crushing the chalet.
Local authorities seemed to have realised by then that Beckton was not inhabited with the traders holidaying in Chamonix they had hoped for. The slope was sealed and left derelict. Metal hunks to keep the earth from collapsing were placed at the top where the viewing platform had once been. But, indifferent to this, people kept coming to roll joints or paint the hunks with national flags.
Two teenage Ukrainian girls from Dagenham in leggings and American baseball caps were taking pictures of themselves suggestively against the sunset. The Bangladeshi boys circled them making macho hoots. But they were too shy to speak to the hot girls. This only seemed to make the Ukrainians more enraged. Their shoot was inching into the provocative.
This dance seemed to have been going on for some time. I interrupted in the vague hope they might offer me some weed. “What do we think of all these Eastern Europeans?” The boys looked for words. “We are all immigrant, innit? Our dads all immigrants . . . Your lot immigrants then?” I nodded. The boys stared wistfully at the girls.
Dagenham had disappointed these teenagers. It was all pawnbrokers, fried chicken places and betting shops. Dagenham was better than Ukraine. But not by much.
The girls both wore very white trainers. The rushing water sound of the motorway was not far away. The darker-haired one put her hand on her hip. “You know, there are no young British people round here. It’s like this. Russian and Ukrainian people hate Polish and Lithuanian people. Eastern European people hate Indian people. Everybody hates black people. Whites hate everyone. That’s just the way it is.”
The weed smelt good. Behind us and over the curving dual carriageway, those ridiculously-named objects lined up dark against a dim sunset: shards, gherkins and cheese-graters. Like the city of Oz.