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Rt Hon David Lammy MP

David is the Member of Parliament for Tottenham, a neighbourhood in the north London. He is also the Shadow Foreign Secretary of State and a senior member of the British Labour Party. We spoke to David about his perspectives on The DNA of London.

Photo credit: Markus Freise via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

When you think about the DNA of London, what does that mean to you? And what role does diversity play in that?

David Lammy

I mean, the DNA is the mood, the groove, the soul, the heart, as it were, the beating heart of the city. That's what it means to me. And I suppose my starting point is that in great cities, epic cities, cities that sometimes have that kind of global baton handed to them, there's some sort of-- there's sort of almost a pre-eminence. And London has, at different points in its history, certainly been at that point, contesting it with Paris, with New York, with L.A.-- have a kind of density and a depth and a range and are at the forefront of so much: the forefront of culture, thought, ideas, innovation. So that's my starting point for a city.

And in the age in which we're living, where things like leisure economy have been so important, where culture, arts, fashion, vanguard is so important and where innovation is so important, then I think that London's ethnic diversity is at the heart of that story because it's an understanding that that sort of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, the-- it's like a great university. You can't be a university if there aren't different departments rubbing up against one another. And here in the city, in London, in terms of the heart of the city, the fact of different cultures, people with different backgrounds, different stories coming into contact with one another, rubbing up against one another, as it were, is this most amazing kind of creative and dynamic thing that gives the city its personality, its verve. That’s a story that's very old in London from Huguenots, Jewish communities, freed slaves, Irish. 

So that's a story that's not a new story; it's an old story. But it's very present in today's London. And you then see it in our literature, in the books we're reading, in the TV programmes and films we're making that aren't just consumed by us but are consumed by the world, in the things that we're inventing, the solutions we're finding, the comedy that we're producing, the music that the global community's consuming. All of it comes from that diversity, frankly. If London were - I'm going to pick on a city now - Lincoln, it wouldn't quite be the same.

Greg Clark

And David, can we ask you, if you're happy, just to say a bit about your upbringing and how your experience as a young man and your experience in your early career as a politician-- how did London contribute to that in the way that you see it?

David Lammy

So I would say that's the other peculiarity of cities, that somehow, they're combining both the panoptic sense of the global with not actually just the local, but with the parochial existence. And I would say that my upbringing in London was incredibly parochial in the sense that for the first ten, eleven years of my life, I never left London. I barely left the N17 postcode. And so there's a paradoxical nature to the city which is that you can actually-- it can feel like living in a large village. That in these great cities - like London, like L.A., like New York - also, in the underbelly of that city, are challenging tough stories.

And part of those challenging and tough stories can be a story of what people call the underclass - I don't like that term - and what people call the inner city - don't like that term - and what people call the concrete jungle - don't like that term. But I grew up, if you like, inner-city London in Tottenham. It was a very parochial existence in those days. It was a community. Tottenham was a community of Irish, Black West Indians, white Cockneys, if you like, and then some sprinkling of African and Asian families, and that was it.

And my parents were working class. It was always exciting to get on the Victoria line occasionally to go and see relatives in Stockwell, to go and visit my mother who was working for a period when I was, I don't know, six, seven, eight at London Underground. And she worked at the Camden Town Tube Station. Camden was such an exciting place to visit. There were punk rockers, tie-dye clothes and alcoholics hanging around the station, but that was my London.

It didn't emanate. I've often said, I never came to Westminster. The first time I came to Westminster-- the first time I walked out at Westminster Tube Station was in order to go to the House of Commons to take my seat. I'd never been to the House of Commons. There are whole tracks of the city that I have only discovered as an adult, and there are still tube stations that I walk out of and delight in the fact that I've never walked out of this tube station in my life. It happened the other day. I went down to Brentwood and walked out of a tube station en route to Heathrow that I've never walked out of before, and it was very exciting for me. So I would say that I had a parochial existence.

Then I left London for a bit because I went to a boarding school, and I was coming back at the weekends and things. And therefore, I had the juxtaposition of seeing London from the vantage point of Middle England. At that stage, I was in Peterborough and so got perspective on the city. And then, I think, in my late teens / twenties in university in London, that was when I really discovered what was hugely exciting about this city: you know, the 24-hour nature of the city, the clubs, the pubs, the bars. Let's be clear, living in a city when you're in your adolescence, finding your sexual energy, cities are a great place to meet other people basically and fall in love and out of love. There's a great diversity and range in any city.

But, of course, they also can be places where you can feel lonely. I have had periods of depression in my own life. And cities, you can feel very, very lonely. I was quite down, not actually in London, but in a period of my life when I lived in San Francisco, which is generally seen as one of the most exciting cities in the world in which to live, but I didn't quite feel like that when I lived there.

So I have experienced this city, now, through the ages. I'm approaching 50, so in many different ways from the most parochial to the most global and enjoying, of course, in all of those stages, its diversity. There's a sort of romantic image, isn't there, of leaving your village, your town, your city and escaping and discovering the world and never looking back. I'm one of those sort of peculiar people that is somehow chained. I mean, I'm the MP for Tottenham. I'm chained to the community that I've lived in, represented in a way that sort of-- I'm still walking the same streets I've walked despite going off at different stages in my life. And that's somehow very comforting. But also on another level, I sometimes worry that I'm sort of slightly immature, and I haven't really grown up.

Greg Clark

I'm personally sure that's not true. 

Caitlin and I, by the way, are both North Londoners, both of Irish background, so we relate to what you're saying. 

David Lammy

North London is a particular experience, I think. North London very much is the bit of London-- I find it's the bit of London where Londoners want to live and settle. If you grew up here, you're born here, one way or another, your aspiration is to live in North London. It's very much London's London. Although, as with all bits, it's getting pricier. And it is this series of villages. Some of them very hilly. It's a very green part of London, from Muswell Hill to Highgate Hill to Primrose Hill to Stamford Hill. It's a varied up and down--

And you can be in bits of North London, from Enfield Town down to Camden Town, and they can feel very separate. And through North London streets, the Irish influence, the Jewish influence, the West Indian influence, the Huguenot influence, the East End influence somehow echoes across the streets of North London. So, I mean, I've lived here all of my life.

I did live in South London for a bit - and I don't want to be rude about South London because I enjoyed living in Clapham but I did feel like there were a hell of a lot of Australians, Kiwis and South Africans, and it was very youthful, very-- I mean, it was a wonderful place to live after university; bars and clubs. It wasn't quite the sort of homely--

The East End, I find, now, it's full of hipsters. Obviously, large Asian community in parts of Tower Hamlets, particularly. Wide streets. I mean, it's very heavily populated, but it's somehow-- the vistas in the East End are different to North London, certainly not as hilly.

And then West London. These days, I don't think Londoners live in West London. And West London feels incredibly wealthy, very expensive and less and less the area of London that I find myself in. No offence to West-- I love Notting Hill, obviously, and Ladbroke Grove. And that part of West London, I'm very attached to and spent, actually, quite a bit of time growing up. But I think the gentrification of that bit of London, you know-- I'm now particularising, but that's my experience of the city. Now, if you put that in the book or on the podcast, I'm going to get lots of opprobrium, I'm sure.

Greg Clark

Well, we'll only put it in if you agree on it subsequently. 

I do want to ask you one more thing which is, how did growing up in London contribute to your political vision, David? Because you've got a distinctive voice.

David Lammy

Powerfully. But it wasn't actually the growing up in London; it was the vantage point of leaving London. And I think that I left London at two important times. One was, as I say, to go to-- I got a choral scholarship to Peterborough and to be a cathedral chorister, and so I went up to a boarding school in Peterborough for seven years. And the other was when I left to go to the States to go to Harvard, to work in California. And both of them contributed, I think, to the man I am today.

So I think leaving London aged 11 and going to middle England, frankly, birthed a real deep politics, in the sense of social justice because I-- the juxtaposition of the Broadwater Farm riots, for example, in 1985. It was a period where we were selling off all of our school playing fields in this country. Poverty, the tough side of the urban city, the sus laws of the police and stop and search, the deep injustices.

We had a lot of controversial cases: Poll Tax riots, Tottenham Three, Stephen Lawrence. That sort of side of the city as against the middle England vision I saw in Peterborough - sort of suburbs, wide avenues, big trees, picket fences, modern houses - fed me with a real powerful burning sense of injustice and unfairness. Why are young people having their school playing fields sold off in London? Why are we building and having people living in housing developments that just aren't fit for purpose? Why are police so discriminatory against Black communities? That fed a powerful sense of social justice that really came about as a result of leaving the city and looking into the city and coming back to the city. I never lost faith or lost love with London, I might say, but the juxtaposition of something different, what was possible and leaving that parochialism behind a bit was really empowering.

I think also, then, going to university at a period-- as I said, pretty exciting period: Poll Tax riots, Margaret Thatcher leaving, Tottenham Three case. It was a pretty turbulent time. It was incredibly exciting, and I felt very pleased that I came back to SOAS, here in London, to the Russell Square, Bloomsbury area, which is another very, very historic, exciting part of the city that I got to know, and I still very much love.

And then, I think the other point of departure for me was when I went off to Harvard Law School and lived in California. And it was really being away then that I realised how English I am - actually, not British English - and how obviously London spurs my love of Tottenham, my love of Walkers crisps, Ribena, tea, my sort of sense of humour-- makes me the person that I am and makes this the city where I want to live and raise my children. And that's a choice. I don't have to do that; that's a choice. And so for me, it's been the vantage point of departure that's helped me understand my relationship with the city.

Caitlin Morrissey

How has immigration from the Caribbean and the Windrush Generation shaped London?

David Lammy

I want to answer that in two parts. I mean, vast is what I would say. Outsize is the other phrase I would use. Relative to the size of the Windrush generation, the contribution to the city, influence on the city has been vast. But I want to break it into two bits. You'll have other historians.

But I do want to say, of course, that we often-- there's a powerful debate running through this country about how Britain faces up to its colonial past or doesn't. And I'm certainly at one end of that conversation, which is that it doesn't tend to address it properly, and anyone who's Irish knows that to be the case. In fact, the ignorance is extraordinary, so I share that with my Irish brothers and sisters.

So the first thing I'd want to say is, of course, the narrative often starts in 1948 with the Windrush Generation, but where the story really begins is with their ancestors who were taken from the Caribbean-- sorry, taken from Africa to the Caribbean, sometimes through British ports as well. And that story of enslavement, of sugar, of enormous wealth is a broader story than just the Caribbean. It's also the spice trade and brings in India and countries like-- that story to London.

The London that we live in today is massive. The City of London, it's massive. One can't begin to talk about London, really, without understanding that story and understanding that my ancestors' blood, sweat, tears, toil and quite a considerable amount of hardship contributed to what we enjoy in this city. So there's a story before we even get to the Windrush.

Then, of course, we get to the push bit because people forget Windrush didn't just leave the Caribbean because of Britain's invitation. They left the Caribbean because there weren't jobs in the Caribbean. Some of them had found jobs because of the First and Second World War in terms of empire. And the word went back to the Mother country; there's opportunity there.

And there was a push factor because after the running down of plantations and things at the end of slavery and the trade, there wasn't the work. There were labour shortages and stuff in the Caribbean, and that's a real important story to understand in terms of the London that we see. And the work ethic of the city is the other reason why Irish communities are so prevalent in the city. It's labour shortages and work shortages. And it's easy and simplistic to assume that those are sort of endemic and historic issues to do with Ireland or to do with the Caribbean. I'm afraid the English have a real part to play in those labour shortages. And speak to my Indian brothers and sisters, and they'll tell you about the ransacking of India as well, contributing to that story.

So then once we get to 1948 and the Windrush generation, you can't really understand the beating heart of way Londoners get around, which is the Tube, without understanding the huge role played by people like my mother and others. You cannot possibly understand the foremost institution for any [inaudible], which is the National Health Service, without understanding the intense role played by nurses coming from the Caribbean to work and to build this National Health Service, the way in which ordinary white, working-class Brits, whether they were living side by side or not, came into contact with Black people first and foremost through that national health service. And so there was also a multiculturalism, a diversity of experience that started to happen, particularly with that generation. And then a whole raft of jobs across the city, teahouses, postmen, that's where West Indian people were often the lifeblood of the city.

And then, I'm afraid, London's ups and downs, the Notting Hill riots birthing, yes, the Carnival, but also a really tough period: the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Brixton riots, the Tottenham riots, how we police, and that perennial question, how our justice system works, the progress we've made, the lack of progress we've made in some areas. All of that comes into the heart of the city. It becomes something that people want to write about, they want to make music about, they want to make comedy about. The story of gentrification in Notting Hill becomes a global story with a global actor, like Hugh Laurie, playing it. So I think that the West Indian, the Caribbean influence, in fact, you see it today.

It's also true it's really important to understand that the Black Caribbean community becomes, then, at this point, in us, in the cycle, a community that's third, fourth-generation immigrant, very British, is a community that's given way in numbers, to some extent, to Black African communities.

And the real story of human progress, whatever the headlines are telling you, is the story of intermarriage, and that's a story beyond just Caribbean communities. Again, people sometimes call the Irish community the sort of silent, invisible community because of intermarriage as you get down the generations. And equally, the story of mixed-heritage London, the largest growing ethnic group in the country are people of mixed background, like my kids. And that comes to determine the city.

That's a story of progress because where people fall in love and marry people from different racial backgrounds, that's broadly a huge success story. And even today, when you look at the vernacular, the accents of young Londoners, when you look at the music of choice for young teenagers in this country, where, even if they're sitting in the Fens in Norfolk, it's grime, it's drill music. And the London accent becomes almost a global accent, hugely influenced by things like Jamaican patois. So it's an outsize influence when you think about it.

Britain as a country, as an outside country, relatively small island off the edge of Europe with outside contribution globally and the Caribbean community that came here - many from Jamaica but not at all - right across the Caribbean. But Jamaica's also an island with an outsized influence globally, in fact, so outsized that, as we speak, the new vice-president of the United States has a Jamaican father. So it's a very, very, very important community here, has played a really, really big influence. And somehow its relationship, Caribbean people's relationship with Britain, because of that colonialism, is inextricably linked and hard to untwine, frankly.

Caitlin Morrissey

How we should understand the way that London's diversity creates and contributes to the city's strength and resilience and its innovation. And I think that you've touched upon this, but was there anything else that you would have wanted to say?

David Lammy

Well, in a big beast of a global city, the underbelly of that city, the tough in that city, the stuff that I see close up in that city - representing the seat I represent - the tremendous housing challenges, the challenges in education - huge advances, by the way, in the last few years, but still there's challenges there - the challenges in policing and in crime, particularly in tough economic times - and this city's seen its share of tough economic times - the truth is, we can, in politics-- it's my job to bang the table and campaign and to fight and to say what more we need to do.

But, of course, I always say to people, I sometimes get bored of these sort of films that sort of show the sort of doom and gloom of the inner city because there is tremendous humour, I mean, tremendous colour. There's nothing more exciting than sort of walking down the road and seeing what looks like a sort of young Bulgarian with a partner that is probably from Ghana or somewhere like that. And that does forge a resilience; that underbelly of the city does forge a resilience, the great story of immigration.

And here, let's just widen that story of immigration, which is what cities have, because we're not just talking about immigration from countries beyond Great Britain. We're talking, also, about immigration within the country, people coming from towns and cities and villages and other parts of the British Isles. There's the mecca that is the city: coming to the city for work, coming to the city for education, settling and staying here, falling in love, falling out of love, raising children here. And it does take a certain resilience; it does take a certain kind of fight and energy. And people come to the city who have that kind of fight and that energy, or they leave because they don't want to put up with it anymore, or they aren't up for it. So those that stay, resilience is tied in and, I think, in an inextricable way and made the city what it is.

And it's a place of tremendous industry and work and effort. And people who want to put in that work and effort come here for work, to work hard, often to make a life better for their children. If there's a story in the country of social mobility, that story is built on the backs of the City of London. Let's face it, this is the place, when it's going well, in which that social mobility is found. Your parents can arrive here as poor immigrants, whether it's from a town in the north-east of England or whether it's from the north-east of the Caribbean, and they can come to this city, and their children and grandchildren-- the story of mobility is immense. Or in the city, there are no advantages. In fact, you go backwards. There's a struggle on their behalf. All of that is juxtaposed in great cities like London. You can see it every day of the week.

In Tottenham, there's this-- Tottenham's one of London's gateway communities. The nature of its housing stock means that it's a part of London for hundreds of years. The old Roman road that runs right down through Spurs, down into Stamford Hill, up through Enfield, that road has been one of London's gateways into the city. Tottenham has been the home of successive generations of people. It's been the home of many young people, many first-time buyers, many students, also, because of its housing stock. Some stay. Looking at the economic downturn at the moment, I can see that the pattern of freelancers, content providers, actors, comedians, those sorts of people, very, very big in in the community, but also the security guards, the cleaners of our offices, people, unfortunately, who are not having work, furloughed at the moment, are present here in the city. First-time buyers are often the first to get the sack in employment when things are hard. They're all here in the city. Some of them will leave; some of them will become landlords. They might keep a property, but they will make their way to Enfield, to Hertfordshire. They will choose to leave the city, to Barnet, to boroughs that are perhaps a bit leafier, a bit more suburban. But some will stay. And that's the stories, isn't it, of how the city works.

Greg Clark

David, you said some really brilliant things there about resilience and social mobility and how the city is a kind of testing ground where people can build their capacities a lot in what you just said. 

David, I mean, obviously, you are a very proud Spurs fan, and you make no-- you're not quiet about that, and that's brilliant. Is football more than a sport in London? Is there something about football for London?

David Lammy

Yeah, I think that football's very inclusive, so perhaps slightly different to-- well, hang on. Let me just divide that into two. So obviously, here in London, we've got these huge, big beasts of the Premier League in terms of Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal - well, Arsenal's not so big - but you've also got the Leyton Orients, the Barnets, the Crystal Palaces, the Fulhams, the QPRs, the Charlton - wonderful club - and all of it combines, really, to people's sense of identity.

I've been to a few games over the years at Enfield Town. Wonderful, wonderful experience. I feel really, really proud to be a North Londoner if I'm watching Enfield Town or Barnet in a way that's different to watching Spurs. Although, Spurs is in my lifeblood because my father took me to watch Spurs. My father left my family when I was twelve, so it has a-- me being able to take my two boys to watch Spurs and to go with a very dear friend of mine with his boys is one of the most special things in my life.

So I think that football's inclusive in the city. Anyone who comes into the city and wants to make a home can become part of that football experience. It can kind of locate you and place you. It's a huge privilege for me representing Tottenham because I can be in any country in the world and say I'm from Tottenham, and if there's a gathering of more than 30 people, someone will say, "I support Tottenham. I lived there once," or, "My granddad lived there," and there's an immediate connection to the place that's incredibly special. So, yeah, I think it's inclusive; it's diverse.

Watching teams-- Tottenham has a proud history that's been a-- it's not a history of winning things necessarily, but it's definitely a history of verve and flair and chutzpah, to pick a Jewish phrase, that for me, that speaks to that side of the immigrant that comes, gets on with it, sometimes is excluded, and Jewish friends understand that entirely.

I love the fact that Spurs is a club where there's diversity now across the fan base. And you can have a strangely conservative person who lives in Chigwell sitting next to, you know, a Turk. I love that. I love that about Tottenham. Always looking at the highs and lows of just not getting there but not quite getting there and usually, just missing the prize. Arsenal's another experience entirely. I don't want to judge them, but they have won a few more things over the years, but the football they've played has not been the most attractive. They're sort of Steady Eddies, but that's another side of the city. Chelsea - well, I'm not even going to go there, really - Millwall, all of these histories, stories are found across football in the city that reflect the depth and range of the city.

And for those of us who are connoisseurs of the game, if you look at the identity of players in those clubs, the histories of those clubs, and you really-- you could do a book, a portrait of those clubs. You would get a portrait of the city and a pretty good one because it's so broad. I mean, don't get me going about West Ham and the way they play and the way they consider us to be their enemies, and we don't even know they are. But the minute you get into football, you get a good sense, really, of the lifeblood of the city.

Caitlin Morrissey

So the final question we have, which is quite a big one, is, what do you think the future holds for the city and what role does its DNA-- what role do you think its DNA will play in shaping that?

David Lammy

Well, I base the answer to that question on my sort of five decades, I think, living in this city in one way or another, coming back to this city. I've seen London in good times and bad. I've seen London in tough economic times, which I've been on the receiving end of that, and I've seen London in better booming times. And so what I know is, London will always be London. What I understand is that you don't get what's great about London, you know, the mountain top, that sense of huge achievement, without the valleys and the unemployment, the crime, rioting. All of those make up the story of the city.

So in truth, I think that London is heading into tougher economic times than, I think, was the case certainly at the beginning of my political career, the early 2000s. It's already been in tough economic times following the crash. We bounced back a bit, but you can see here in the housing crisis that there are some real challenges in London. I don't think that's set to get considerably better over this period. I think that recession, depression affects the city, but indeed, the bounce-back that this country will make - and it will make that bounce-back - will be birthed here in London, and what happens in London will ricochet across supply chains across the country.

I think that there-- let's see where we get to post-Brexit in the European Union, but that will have effect on immigration, and it will have effect on the type of immigration. I don't believe that there won't be immigration. In fact, I think there's a bit of a conceit at the heart of Brexit where there are some parts of the population that believe that there will be less immigration. I actually think there will be more immigration. And I think that countries like India, parts of the Far East, these countries that we strike trade deals with, in tandem with that will come a degree of immigration. And believe me, people will find their home here in London.

We're going into a tough period but a tough period in all cities. Tough periods in other parts of the country leave behind huge scars that are never recovered from. You can see it after the industrial period; you can see it after some of the economic changes of Margaret Thatcher. Parts of the country that are permanently scarred, never recovered. That's not the same here in London. I'm not saying that there aren't scarring and bruising moments, but cities have a way of-- big cities like this have a rare regenerating and moving and getting-- they're terribly organic. Resilient, I think, is what we talked about. So the future of the city, ultimately, is bright, but of course, there will be low points, and we're definitely going into it. We are in a tougher period than we've been, and we're going into-- and that tougher period, I suspect, is about to deepen.

I would say, over this last period of time, this last 20 years, I pick out a couple of things, and I would pick out the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2012, and I would say we're still caught in that vice. And they're an interesting summer to let settle on.

One was the summer of widespread rioting across the city, starting in my own constituency but spreading to places very different like Clapham Junction where there was serious rioting; Notting Hill, where there was serious rioting; and then across the country. So that is obviously not a summer that one wants to celebrate, particularly. There's a lot of unrest, a lot of grief. The city felt very ill at ease that summer, felt like a scary place at times, where people's businesses were being burned to the ground and cars were being ransacked. And it's young people to some extent, and older people, actually, because it wasn't just young people rioting. It seemed to be out of control. And my first book was about that.

And then there's the summer of 2012, which was this glorious high point it turns out, in this last period, where we gave the Olympics to the world. We're universally thought of as to have done one of the best Olympics, really, in this last generation in which there was this wonderful spirit of volunteerism, in which there was this tremendous celebration of London's diversity, best encapsulated by Danny Boyle in his opening ceremony in which Britain felt very comfortable with itself and which the queen jumped out of a plane. There's that London, that story as well. And I think they're two very different London's within the space of a year of each other and both have something to say about the city.

And I think that I would say that holding those two things-- we built an Olympic Park, by the way, the skyscrapers, the transformation of the East End is immense, and you still see those skyscrapers around. But we still also have huge bits of the city where there's a real underbelly of disadvantage and problems. So I think that London remains between those two places since that time, and it hasn't moved on and is not set to move on very much, I think, over the next decade or so.

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