'I feel like a stranger where I live’
January 30, 2013
As new figures show 'white flight' from cities is rising, one Londoner writes a provocative personal piece about how immigration has drastically changed the borough where she has lived for 17 years.
"When you go swimming, it's much healthier to keep your whole body completely covered, you know." The Muslim lady behind the counter in my local pharmacy has recently started giving me advice like this. It's kindly meant and I'm always glad to hear her views because she is one of the few people in west London where I live who talks to me.
The streets around Acton, which has been my home since 1996, have taken on a new identity. Most of the shops are now owned by Muslims and even the fish and chip shop and Indian takeaway are Halal. It seems that almost overnight it's changed from Acton Vale into Acton Veil.
Of the 8.17 million people in London, one million are Muslim, with the majority of them young families. That is not, in reality, a great number. But because so many Muslims increasingly insist on emphasising their separateness, it feels as if they have taken over; my female neighbours flap past in full niqab, some so heavily veiled that I can't see their eyes. I've made an effort to communicate by smiling deliberately at the ones I thought I was seeing out and about regularly, but this didn't lead to conversation because they never look me in the face.
I recently went to the plainly named "Curtain Shop" and asked if they would put some up for me. Inside were a lot of elderly Muslim men. I was told that they don't do that kind of work, and was back on the pavement within a few moments. I felt sure I had suffered discrimination and was bewildered as I had been there previously when the Muslim owners had been very friendly. Things have changed. I am living in a place where I am a stranger.
I was brought up in a village in Staffordshire, and although I have been in London for a quarter of a century I have kept the habit of chatting to shopkeepers and neighbours, despite it not being the done thing in metropolitan life. Nowadays, though, most of the tills in my local shops are manned by young Muslim men who mutter into their mobiles as they are serving. They have no interest in talking to me and rarely meet my gaze. I find this situation dismal. I miss banter, the hail fellow, well met chat about the weather, or what was on TV last night.