The first episode of the BBC documentary series The Met reminded me of my time in Tottenham more than 15 years ago and my relief at having escaped. Mind you, the second episode made me understand the reasoning of a Notting Hill resident who always scarpered at carnival time. The romanticised version may have Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant frollicking under nightingales in a quiet residential square. The reality depicted mews dwellers boarding up windows while revellers cheerfully urinated in doorways and basements.
But back to Tottenham. I always laugh when I hear the phrase, invariably used to describe the area, that it’s “one of the most racially diverse boroughs in the country”. Usually that means there are hardly any white Brits left. Those remaining are mainly old folk, longstanding residents who can’t escape. Or, if they are young people, there’s usually something slightly odd about them, rather like the lost proles described by Orwell in 1984. The area may not be quite as bad as a taxi driver who described it to me as “Nam”. Yet it’s still far from desirable.
In 2000 my route home took me on the Victoria line from Kings Cross. When I surveyed other commuters I always knew who would get off at Highbury and Islington and, then, Finsbury Park. All the respectable folk jumped before the next stop, Seven Sisters. From Seven Sisters, my destination, White Hart Lane, via the overhead line and Bruce Grove, was home to blacks, the aforementioned white underclass, East Europeans and passing Spurs fans on match days.
Condescending looks greeted you when you said you lived in Tottenham. The late Bernie Grant was still the MP and memories of Broadwater Farm were near. But I don’t wish to imply that ‘Nam was truly London’s most dangerous area. I’m reminded of the old colonel in Fawlty Towers who rushes to the hotel’s defence when two lady guests describe it as Britain’s worst. “No, I won’t have that. (Pause for comic effect) There’s a place in Eastbourne that’s far worse.” My own paraphrasing of that would be. “No, I won’t have that. (Pause). Leyton and Plumstead are far worse.” Tottenham had its leafy, quiet corners. Sadly, the agitators – and I’d include Grant in that category – made their mark through exploiting tensions.
The first episode of The Met featured the black chief superintendent of Tottenham police station, Victor Olisa, trying to reason with extremists within his own community who suspected his appointment was down to colour. “What I’m getting from you is an undertone that I’m only here because of my colour.” Well, it was more than an undertone actually. I felt sorry for him. The problem is the black community, especially in the days of Grant, but still today, was badly represented. Black authority figures were seen as “coconut” traitors. That perception has lingered. Olisa made another interesting point. The Jewish community would unhesitatingly accept a Jewish senior policeman. For the black community it’s entirely different, “a toxic mix” as he put it. Sadly, it’s precisely because of the tension stokers that it will be a long time before white Brits want to live there again.
I see Tottenham as caught between the sneering white do-gooders who’d never set foot in the place, the black agitators who play to losers in their own constituency and an elite who washed their hands of the area’s problems. I once had an interview with Conservative Central Office. A young researcher noted my address and asked me: “How’s everything in the jungles of Haringey?” I’ve often thought since – If I’d taped that remark and gone to the press I could have caused on the spot resignations.
Yet I’m not entirely without hope. The MP since 2000, David Lammy, is, by Labour standards, a sensible chap.