The surprising news from London

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari
Sadiq Khan

I take a keen interest in news from London, having once lived and worked there. Thus last week I was eager to know who would win when the city’s mayoral election was held.    

In a surprising, decisive show of support Londoners voted Sadiq Khan, 45, as their new Mayor, a Muslim born in London to Pakistani parents. Mr Khan, of the Labour Party, emphatically beat Mr Zac Goldsmith, the candidate of the ruling Conservative Party. 

Born to a bus driver and a seamstress, the 1,310, 143 votes he won, as opposed to Mr Goldsmith’s 994, 614, was described by the BBC as “the largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history”.    

Headline writers and commentators immediately highlighted the fact that Mr. Khan is the city’s first Muslim mayor. He won the May 5 election despite a very negative campaign by the Conservatives and other ‘against’ people who tried to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments.

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Clearly Mr Khan, a former Cabinet Minister in the previous Labour government, has a track record that made Londoners vote so massively for him, in spite of his religion and the attacks. Evidently, Londoners believe that he can deliver and that is what is important to them. 

His victory is also seen as representing London’s inclusiveness. That is why some observers have pointed out that with a Muslim as Mayor, it will now be difficult for Muslims there to claim that they don’t have equal rights and opportunities, or that the west is anti-Muslim. 

Londoners’ record vote of confidence in Mr. Khan reminded me of my observations years ago regarding the city’s diversity (Mirror of September 29, 1978). 

The UK authorities have long touted London’s multicultural credentials and inclusiveness with good reason, as I concluded in that article:

Memory lane: ‘London 1978’

The cleaning woman in your hotel is Asian. The porter is Italian. The bus conductor is from Trinidad and Tobago and the couple asking him if this is the bus to Trafalgar Square are obviously American. The nervous boy next to you has just arrived from France and he tells you he’s here to “pratees ze Inglish” language.

That woman with the gorgeous brocade headtie and a thick accent must be Nigerian and what about those two giggling, matronly women wearing Hollandais wax prints and thick sweaters? ‘Buy And Sell’ women from Ghana, obviously. And that must be an Arab oil king in the posh car passing. This is London ’78.

London is probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. About 8 million tourists go there every year and the money the city earns from them is quite substantial. However, not all Londoners are happy about the annual “invasion” of their city. 

It is easy to sympathize with them because London’s own population is some 7.1 million and in the peak tourist season, June – August, London is a terribly busy place, particularly around Oxford Street, the most popular shopping area. 

Hordes of visitors in national (costume) ranging from Japanese kimonos, through Indian saris to Liberian lappas, stream, bump and toe-step in and out of the popular shops, especially Marks and Spencer’s sellers of the goods with the St Michael label.

Some Londoners complain that tourists make London dirty, cause queuing and crowding and generally make life unpleasant for them. Shopkeepers, however, have not been heard to complain much. Some unscrupulous ones have been having trouble with the law, on profiteering charges. 

All sorts of stories are told of over-pricing of food and refreshments. In some case tourists were paying almost £1 for an ice cream or a hot dog, about three or four times more than the normal price.

John Osborne, a playwright, is reported to have been encouraging an ‘operation insult visitors’ campaign. He urged his fellow Britons to shower the “human garbage” (tourists) with insults, so that they would not return to London. 

(I bet that schoolboy who misdirected a group of us in Cardiff and made us walk two miles in the wrong direction – deliberately, I’m convinced – was an Osborne fan.)

In spite of these, tourists continue to flood the United Kingdom capital because it is such a unique, important city that no one really considers himself travelled unless he’s seen it.

Trade is just as cosmopolitan as the population. You can buy highlife records in some shops. Wax print cloths of the kind favoured in Ghana, ‘Dumas’, are available in special shops, although now expensive at about £12 or £14 for a half-piece. As for food, if there is any national delicacy you can’t get, a near substitute is not hard to find. 

Londoners complain about their transportation but compared with ours it’s heavenly. Double-decker and small buses usually come to your stop every 10 or 15 minutes and in the double-deckers only a few people are allowed to stand when seats are occupied. You can telephone for a taxi (from) anywhere. If you prefer rail, surface and underground trains are plentiful. (The underground train, popularly called ‘the tube’, is the fastest, cheapest and best as it covers all main areas of London.)

According to statistics, blacks and Asians total 1.8 million in Britain but walking the streets of London you would never believe it. In some parts of London you would think you were in Asia, and in others that you were in Africa.

This seems to have sent some natives into a panic, probably over a possible ‘take-over’ by foreigners and recently there have been some nasty incidents between white and dark-skinned inhabitants.

But for the most part, London maintains its appeal and manages to contain and cater to all shades – be it skins or systems. 

In the middle of the city, across the street from Trafalgar Square, where any day you can find blacks and whites and nationals of at least 10 countries making friends and enjoying themselves on an equal footing, stands a grim-looking building called South Africa House.

The writer is a columnist from The Mirror

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