Migrant City: A New History of London by Panikos Panayi - review by Jerry White

Jerry White

Capital Gains

Migrant City: A New History of London


Yale University Press 448pp £20 order from our bookshop

In 1970, when I was a young public health inspector for Islington Council, I covered a part of Holloway to the north of Seven Sisters Road, from the Nag’s Head to Finsbury Park station. Back then this was an area of clothing factories, cafes and private clubs, all three largely the province of the Greek-Cypriot community. Migration from Cyprus had begun before the Second World War but really flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. It was, to the outsider, a secretive world where English was only spoken if unavoidable, one of chain-smoking men and elderly women robed from head to toe in black, a community still finding its own way in a fast-changing metropolis. Panikos Panayi, born into that Greek-Cypriot diaspora, was at that time eight years old and still grappling with English at a school a mile or two to the north. Since then, Panayi has established himself as one of Britain’s leading historians of migration and of the often-hostile reception immigrants have received at the hands of truculent natives. Now he has put his own story and many years of study into a magnum opus, ‘a new history of London’ seen through the lens of migration.

As Panayi reminds us, this is a very long history indeed. Today’s multicultural London is the heir of the city to which the Romans gave birth some two thousand years ago. Romans, too, came from everywhere: from Gaul, Germania, North Africa and even further afield. Panayi argues that the longevity of the city’s diversity, built into the very fabric of London life over so many generations, is one factor that makes London unique in the history of urban multiculturalism. He’s surely right.

Panayi recounts this story with great authority. How best to marshal one’s material in dealing with a subject so complex is a challenge to any author. Panayi, very sensibly, has organised the book thematically. He has had to make other choices as well, such as whether a book essentially about immigrants from beyond these islands should include the Irish. Very sensibly again, he has concluded that it should: throughout their long history in London, the Irish have most often been remarked upon for their foreignness rather than their similarities to the ‘British’.

In Panayi’s book, the Irish take their place alongside dozens of other migrant communities who have colonised even the tiniest corners of this city in past generations. There can’t be many histories of London that have given room, for instance, to the Koreans of New Malden or the Bombay Emporium of Mayfair in the 1930s. The stories of such communities are woven into the thematic discussions. So on the one hand we see immigrants providing London with cheap labour and on the other we witness them bringing fresh skills to a city where home-grown talent was often found wanting (just think of the London of Handel’s age and its debt to European music-making).

Migrant London is viewed through many different lenses: of religion and food, of wealth and poverty, of art and sport (warning: Panayi is a Chelsea fan), of revolution and entrepreneurship. And, in case anyone should be fooled into thinking that London has always been welcoming to newcomers, we see the sometimes murderous forces of resistance to immigration at large on the streets of the metropolis. In all of this, Panayi moves back and forth between the bigger picture of communities as a whole and the stories of individuals swept up in the tides of history. So we read, in a sample of naturalisation certificates granting British citizenship to European migrants in 1870, of Anthony Zabicki from Poland, a ‘journalist and literary man’ living in Judd Street who arrived in London in 1852, and of Moses Afrilat, a merchant from ‘the Kingdom of Morocco’, resident in Finsbury Square. We are given brief sketches that show how many immigrants who flourished in London enriched the metropolis as a side effect – figures like L G Pathak, the pickle millionaire, who bought his first shop in Drummond Street by Euston station in 1956, and Raj and Shobhna Radia, whose Park Royal factory turns out the indispensable Bombay mix.

Although comprehensive in his coverage of migrant newcomers from overseas, Panayi is at his best when dealing with London as a European city. This may surprise those accustomed to reading tales of the Windrush generation and its successors, but it serves as a reminder that for centuries before 1948, French Huguenots and Catholics, Germans, Italians and Jews from eastern Europe were the building blocks of cosmopolitan London. And it reminds us, too, that between 1940 and 1945 London was the capital not just of the United Kingdom but of free Europe, home to the governments in absentia of France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Migrant City is a big-hearted book, brilliantly researched and accessibly written. It does not tell the whole story of migration to London because it ignores perhaps the most important migration of all – of those provincial Britons who have reinvigorated the capital for generations without number. But Panayi has given us the history of how London has pretty much always been open to the world. Long may it remain so.

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