As article 50 is about to be triggered, how do people feel in Smethwick, a Midlands town that voted to leave?
I moved to Bearwood in Smethwick in the hot summer of 1976. We were moving up, leaving behind the sixth floor of a block on the sprawling Lee Bank council estate for a house and garden in a safer area with large parks and better schools, a few miles from Birmingham.
I grew up there in the 70s and 80s, when there was optimism about our future. The colour bar experienced by a first generation of immigrants in the 60s, in some shops and the bingo hall, had been replaced by our own Why would I want to go there anyway? self-induced bar. The days when a Conservative party candidate could run, and win (in 1964), on the slogan If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour seemed distant.
My mother is Jamaican and, like many of my generation, I failed the Norman Tebbit test completely. I didnt support any England team. I would rehearse long debates about how I might reject a call-up for the England rugby team, even if my ability meant that call would never come. Jamaica was great for holidays, but didnt feel like home: everyone there called me English.
So while I was always a Smethwick boy, I can still pinpoint the moment I first felt British: in 1992, when Linford Christie won the 100m at the Barcelona Olympics, this most Jamaican of men running around the track with the British flag. We had grown up hearing songs like There aint no black in the Union Jack; what Christies gesture said was, Im British: deal with it.
A mistrust of foreigners has been singled out as the driving force behind last years vote to leave Europe. But why did places where more than 50% of the population have recent origins outside the UK vote for a policy of exclusion? Smethwick is in many ways typical of the radical changes to Britains racial demographic since the second world war: in the 50s and 60s, Commonwealth citizens from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean emigrated here to alleviate job shortages, particularly in the NHS and transport. A large number of Sikhs moved from the Punjab to work in Smethwicks foundries. Later waves of immigration brought asylum seekers, students and workers from around the world.
When I was growing up, my white British friends liked the same music, played the same games and ate the same food as we did. We knew people who joined far-right groups; but the various gangs were largely multiracial, affiliated to the area more than anything else a loose Smethwick posse. There would be running battles with skinheads from Quinton and beyond; I cant remember a Saturday night that was not punctuated by someone being glassed or having a pool cue wrapped around their head.
Today Smethwick is home to a more diverse range of communities. It is still a relatively cheap place to live, so new arrivals often start off here. You will see Eritrean church services in Victoria Park, eastern European supermarkets on Cape Hill, a Ghanaian wedding at the community centre, alongside the more established Sikh temples and African Caribbean churches.
Speaking to Smethwick friends from white British and second-generation immigrant backgrounds, you hear support for Brexit from a diverse range of perspectives: there is the Fortress Europe argument (people of Commonwealth origin not being able to move to the UK, because preference is given to EU citizens); British Asian shopkeepers who dont like the Polish shops stealing business; an objection to the Thatcherite capitalist structure enshrined in the EU. Underlying all these things is a powerful revolt against what is perceived to be a self-serving political elite.
None of the second- or third-generation immigrants I met on a recent visit to Smethwick thought Nigel Farage would deliver a harmonious society founded on principles of social justice. But the supposed social justice champions, Labour, today have far less connection to the people they seek to represent than they once did. Todays politicians speak relentlessly about engaging and understanding these alienated communities. But even their use of the word community is loaded often based on race or religion or class, as if there were no diversity of opinion among them.
What does the future hold for Smethwick in a post-Brexit Britain? My more pessimistic side worries that inequality will increase, as the fight for a share of an ever smaller pie is orchestrated by a privileged few who use alienation, fear and loathing to divide and rule. But a bigger part of me is optimistic: a younger generation has always found ways of creating new relationships with other like-minded people, be they Italian, Irish, Ghanaian, Nigerian or Indian. It might feel claustrophobic at this moment in time, and Smethwick will struggle with the macro issues. But there are enough people there with goodwill, who want to come together, who will want to get on with it. Hamish Crooks