London this Week

This is a version of what Europe is becoming—one version of Paris and London and Berlin in embryonic form. It exists right alongside the other images now circulating. If it offers no easy formula for what we need to do, it does offer a weak sense that we might trust the next generation to know what they doing.

A vision of Europe’s future that bypasses the present

Claremont Square, Islington. Photo by Andy F via Wikimedia.

We moved back to London last year. In two decades, Finsbury Park has changed: its mosque now notorious as a hub of assertive Islam in the city, the Andover Estate a symbol of the decline of public housing projects. Both are within short walks of a school, one of those tall red-brick 19th-century buildings that rises from a bed of fences and locked gates like something in a theater set, a symbol of an old institutional form. It looms above the scrum of sari shops, laundromats, and traffic and shrinks next to the glassy high-rises going up all around. This is not an outer suburb; it’s the heart of Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington, home to North London’s Muslim diaspora, to the aspiring young couples who will come to live in those new buildings, to the families only a few minutes away where small houses cost over a million pounds and university places for privately educated children quiver on the horizon. Only a bit farther is Highgate: the mansions, the Jaguars, the young people in hunter boots, the old in mink coats.

This space has come into relief in the mood of the last few days. I came to pick up my kid from that school on Monday and stood waiting with the women in their variously arrayed headscarves, arranged into their different groups—the Afro-Caribbean grandmother talking with me, the Arabic-speaking women huddled together, the unemployed Polish father ignoring the English convert to Islam who keeps her headscarf tightest of all. Paris felt close; it blared from the lurid headlines of the free newspapers tossed about the streets. Of course we weren’t going to talk about that—friendly gestures are easier amongst us even on good days—but as I watched the children through the glass doors slipping on their coats, I felt the care of the teacher handing out her tokens of affirmation in such carefully equal portions. Be nice, be equal, recognize each other, she is saying to us all, her movements poignant in the grey light of that sad wintery afternoon.

When the children come out it’s my son who is the obvious visitor, a Danish-German child with light hair. We didn’t enroll him in the school out of any particular principle—it’s just the local one—but seeing him as part of it comes with a gift this week: a vision of Europe’s future that bypasses the present. The kids come out warmly, roughly, with their hands in each other’s faces and their names singing in the air: Zeynep, Asima, Tariq, Mustafa, Grace, Theopholis. My daughter attends the high school up the road, which also draws on the neighbouring council estates, mostly Muslim, ethnic Brits a small minority. In her classes they talk and argue; they have religious education classes in which they discuss ISIS, right here in the very part of London from which many new recruits will join. Her friends identify her as the German girl, the one from a country with a violent past like their own. They note the Germans letting in the refugees. They perform drama pieces about Syria together. And then they go to Starbucks, just like some sentimental Benetton ad.

This is a version of what Europe is becoming—one version of Paris and London and Berlin in embryonic form. It exists right alongside the other images now circulating. If it offers no easy formula for what we need to do, it does offer a weak sense that we might trust the next generation to know what they’re doing. Here in Europe, most of these cosmopolitan kids clearly do this interfaith dialogue better than their parents, just as we do it better than the generations who shaped Europe in the 20th century. There are few European precedents for this future—and for that very reason, if given space, it might yet exceed what we can imagine.

But if the youth of these new European cities don’t need—indeed, can’t rely on—us to provide the explanation for why accepting Syrian refugees is basic to their ethical well-being, they do need us to cover their backs while they find that explanation. It is now we must protect them against the growth of the glass towers, the incursions of private interest that threaten to leave them no shared space to invite people into, to split this generation, despite its internal affinities, into those on the inside and those on the outside. If we trust these youth to make the celebration of religious difference as fundamental to Europe as it is to the US, we must provide them with the practical conditions under which to make this work. I believe they will keep talking in the mosques and the universities and the theaters. But I fear the grim rites of passage into adult life in London and Paris today that divide them practically and systematically, between those who clean the universities and those who talk in them, between those who drive the taxis in circles and those who travel somewhere in them.

The comprehensive schools of inner-city Europe are fragile versions of the hypothesis that we might share these cities. But they are also tenuous: threatened by the defunding of and loss of faith in transformational public projects, and of the state more generally, which will leave this new Europe without a place to be born. If the work of these schools doesn’t carry through into other shared spaces—into other versions of gardens, suburbs, railways, institutions in which we might live together—then they are just a cruel trick, that red-brick building a throwback to a 19th-century dream of public life snuffed out before it does its real work.

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