Ruby Murray, one of the most popular musical artists of the Fifties, is remembered today less for her schmaltzy ballads than as Cockney rhyming slang for curry. Now, though, Ruby’s gastronomic legacy has become a battleground.

Dishoom, the restaurant chain founded by the Tilda rice heir Shamil Thakrar, has launched court proceedings against Tariq Aziz, described as a Middlesex businessman, who trademarked “Ruby Murray” in 2019. And this court case encapsulates in microcosm a profound change that’s taken place in the East End over the last century — while shedding light both on some of the factors driving it, and also why the change has become so difficult to discuss.

It’s easy to romanticise the Cockneys, the eponymous London-born working-class demographic associated with rhyming slang. In reality, though, the argot that gave the world “Ruby Murray” originated as a means of confusing the police in the cramped, squalid, and frequently criminal working-class cultures that emerged in the wake of 19th-century urbanisation. The American writer Jack London described this bottom rung of working-class London life in The People of the Abyss (1903), as a kind of ever-hungry meat grinder.

Here, as he put it, “decade after decade, rural England pours in a flood of vigorous strong life, that not only does not renew itself, but perishes by the third generation”. As an admirer of Nietzsche and keen advocate of eugenics as well as an ardent socialist, Jack London doesn’t fit comfortably into modern political categories. But the meat-grinder he described in 1903 is alive and well — and it has long since chewed up and spat out the Cockneys themselves, even as their cultural traces live on in the current court battle.

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of white British Londoners fell by 600,000, almost three times the fall in the previous decade. And this has been especially marked in East London: by 2013, the white British working class, once synonymous with the borough of Newham, had dwindled to 17% of the total population.

“The Cockneys simply gave ground: sometimes sorrowfully, sometimes resentfully, for the most part quietly.”

Why? In 2013, the BBC’s Mark Easton argued that this was a story of “working-class aspiration and economic success”. Yes, he said, the Ford factory at Dagenham had recently closed its stamping plant at a cost of 1,000 traditional working-class jobs. But the workers had been compensated by winning London’s house price lottery, leaving them “without a job but with a sizeable chunk of capital in their home”. Cue families dispersing into Essex, Kent, and England’s south-East coastal region.

Who now occupies the houses they once inhabited? This is more sensitive. In a 2016 documentary on East London’s shrinking Cockney population, one moustachio’d older man acknowledges that “We’ve always been a country where immigration has played a part”. But he says of the scale of change: “I feel we’ve been ethnically cleansed.”

This is obviously hyperbolic. But from a borough 56% white British in 1991, Newham’s demographic had shifted radically by the 2010s, to 30% white British with some 40% ethnic groups originating on the Indian subcontinent. And a repeated theme, among the Cockneys in the BBC documentary, was unease at perceived closed quality among their new neighbours. Tony, an East End stallholder who views himself as “Cockney” in the sense of working-class East Londoner if not as literally born within earshot of Bow Bells, tells the camera: “You feel alone.” And this is because, as he puts it: “The Muslims stick together.”

His response, along with many others, was to move further out with his girlfriend and new baby. Is this bigotry? In contemporary terms, perhaps; but it wasn’t “white flight” in any classical sense, for Tony describes himself as of mixed Cockney and Jamaican heritage. His girlfriend, meanwhile, is East European. His decision is thus inexplicable from the progressive viewpoint of “multiculturalism”, while his mixed heritage makes it also confusing from the far-Right one of race essentialism.

The thinker who explains Tony’s perspective best — and especially why discussions about migration are not reducible to crude or hostile fantasies of racial purity — is also, ironically, the one commonly accused of advocating precisely such hostile fantasies. Renaud Camus is a bête noire for the Left and centre-Right, for having coined the phrase “The Great Replacement”. This term has taken on a life of its own, usually framed as an elite conspiracy to replace native European populations with migrants from elsewhere: an obviously absurd idea, not to mention one associated with racially motivated violence. For having coined it, Camus is accused of being a “far-Right white nationalist”, making it risky even to mention his name, for fear of guilt by association.

Camus himself, though, emphatically disavows the conspiracy theory he is now inextricably linked with, calling it a “conspiracy theory theory”. Instead, he makes the more modest (and until recently widely accepted) argument that while each of us is an individual, we also share some common cultural traits as part of a “people”. And, he suggests, peoples are not a narrow genetic category, as some extremists suggest. Rather, a people has some physical commonalities, after the fashion of an extended family — plus history, culture and heritage, all stitched together with “desire, will, love”. It is, in Camus’s words, a “spirit and way of being on the Earth”.

In this sense, Tony is very clearly part of the Cockney people and culture: a people into which his Jamaican father assimilated. But while individuals can join a people, as Tony’s father did, at scale, Camus argues that peoples aren’t interchangeable. On the contrary: “Peoples who remain peoples cannot join other peoples. They can only conquer them, submerge them, replace them.” But, Camus suggests, for complex cultural and economic reasons, a transnational consensus has emerged that disregards this reality, claiming instead that peoples do not exist, and we’re all just individual humans who are interchangeable regardless of culture or origin.

This consensus, he suggests, has served to legitimise a movement of peoples on such a large scale that the end result is not pluralism but replacement. This need not be a conspiracy to be happening: indeed, what the 2016 BBC documentary captured was precisely replacement in this sense. That is, not a plot concocted by sinister elites in a smoke-filled room, or even a phenomenon driven by racial animus. But, nonetheless, an empirical fact visible in a comparison of demographic bar charts over time: one people giving way to another, in a geographic area, as the dominant local culture.

And in this context Tony’s decision to move makes perfect sense. For the story of the Cockneys becomes yet more sensitive, when we consider the possibility that some peoples are more porous than others, in the sense of willingness to welcome or interact with outgroups. This becomes visible if we use endogamy as a proxy: that is, willingness to marry outside one’s own immediate ethnicity, borrowing from a 2016 study on the prevalence of intermarriage among migrants to Britain. The paper shows that those arriving from Europe and (to an extent) from the Caribbean tend to mix and intermarry with local populations over time.

By contrast, migrants from the subcontinent — and especially from Bangladesh and Pakistan — were described in the paper as “relatively closed groups with few signs of marital assimilation or integration”. Notably, among these demographics, even where people “married out” this tended to be “a union with someone with an ethnic minority background rather than with a native British person”. Nor did this seem to change much between generations. In other words: though crudely put by those the BBC interviewed, the Cockneys’ 21st-century assessment of their new neighbours was not wholly inaccurate. Empirically, among the more recently arrived ethnic and cultural groups in Newham, some in particular did indeed “stick together”.

And in response, the Cockneys simply gave ground: sometimes sorrowfully, sometimes resentfully, for the most part quietly. But it wasn’t just house price arbitrage. It was also a preference for their own people. One 30-something mother, Leanne, stated this explicitly, saying of her move to Rayleigh: “It’s more English in Essex. I think my boys will be mixing more with their own.”

Against this, it’s commonplace now to claim that the English don’t exist, because peoples don’t. That the inhabitants of these isles have too mongrel a genetic heritage to share any commonalities, while every stereotypical English “tradition” in fact comes from elsewhere (including Ruby Murray, in both historic and rhyming slang form). This would doubtless come as news to Leanne, and those other English working-class communities that abandoned London in search (however reprehensible you may think it) of “their own”.

In turn, how reprehensible you find their decision probably depends where you stand in relation to the urban meat-grinder Jack London described: the capital’s ravenous, endless appetite for new arrivals on the bottom rungs, to sink or swim. For today, that grinder has long since exhausted the native supply of peasants described by Jack London, flocking in from the countryside willing to live in squalor and work for a pittance. In their absence, the cold logic of the meat-grinder has demanded fresh supplies from overseas.

The result has been the emergence of a whole new kind of urban proletariat — and, with it, displacement of the pre-existing one. For boosters of “diversity”, this is self-evidently good. And indeed if (like Shamil Thakrar) you have enough financial and social capital, it really is vibrant, full of opportunity, and genuinely indifferent to your ethnic and cultural origin.

Further down the food chain, though, a more immediate logic applies. The fewer resources you have, the more you need to rely on your neighbours. And, hence, how much you have in common with your neighbours matters a great deal. And because “peoples” in the fuzzy sense of shared heritage really do tend to gravitate toward one another, this means the competition for resources can easily take on an ethnic dimension. Poverty may sometimes be a world of culture-spanning friendships and relationships, forged in hardship; but it’s also, often, a world of ethnic enclaves kept distinct by a preference for focusing on “their own” — or by an inclination to blame every misfortune on the “other”.

Even in 1903, Jack London noted this phenomenon, in which “the men themselves ascribe their homelessness to foreign immigration, especially of Polish and Russian Jews, who take their places at lower wages and establish the sweating system”. London, though, lays most of the blame on the ruthless logic of the market: “Don’t blame the man who offers to work cheaper than you and gets your job.” Either way, whether you prefer to point the finger at ethnic in-group preference, or simply the logic of the meat-grinder, for the Cockneys the reality was the same: a culture forged in London’s meat-grinder was, in time, displaced by it.

They took most of their culture with them. What’s left now is a fight for the right to trademark a lingering trace of their dialect. Under the circumstances, they could have no more ironic memorial.

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