At the foot of the White Cliffs of Dover, the slogan ‘No Border. No Control’ greets those taking the elevator up the bluffs, or viewing them from the Channel. With inimitable frankness, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) displays the same such sentiment to the City of London as well, tucked away a little awkwardly on a brick wall along Great Eastern Street.
An off-white tarpaulin flies on a wall perpendicular to the billboard, with the words “Borderline Racists” pointed towards the nativist sloganeering, drawing more attention to the anti-immigration poster that one suspects the tarpaulin’s authors may have intended.
It seemed designed to be overlooked; apt for a campaign of ideas that we like to believe only still exists behind closed doors. Meanwhile, across the street on the roof of Shoreditch’s Red Gallery is a large Ukrainian flag, painted in solidarity with the Euromaidan following a photojournalist’s exhibition. It was these blue-and-yellow colors that first slapped me out of my somnolence on a bus ride to Waterloo Station. At which point, I rued that such a piece of UKIP agitprop is perfectly observed from the top deck of a 243 London bus seems insufferably fitting.
In a district of London that prefers its ideas – and even its sandwiches – to be considered ‘bespoke’, I’m almost willing to indulge the term ‘Borderline Racists’ as introspective and satirical. It could be, perhaps, a play on an island mentality, the frothing xenophobia of Europe’s wealthier fringes? Or perhaps a facetious instance of English understatement, leavened by a hearty electoral fear. Mindful of European election results, British (or rather, English) politicians have tiptoed gingerly around the “R-word” in its various guises: its application to UKIP seen – particularly by Labour – as potentially compromising a chance to claw back haemorrhaging working-class voters.
For Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband, the party was merely “deeply offensive”, whilst MP Sadiq Khan’s open letter lamented Labour’s historic over-eagerness to “accuse people of prejudice”. And UKIP’s prominence in popular political debate (if not in actual electoral performance) has afforded the Conservatives a certain veneer of moderation in comparison.
Given the less dramatic shift in loyalties performed by Eurosceptic Tory defectors to UKIP, the Tories are consequently no less comfortable in their deliberations on the “R-word” than Mr. Miliband. “We need the racist thing to seep into the public consciousness” said an ally of Cameron’s to the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr, “but it can’t be us saying it”. You can’t call a spade a spade, but neither can you have your fruitcake and eat it, too.
Sit on the fence in an earthquake, goes the saying, and the fence moves too. That the illicit political commentary of East End graffiti adds the caveat ‘borderline’ to decrying racists is a mockery in and of itself, regardless of the authors’ original intent. It’s a peculiar kind of subversion. After all, ‘The English’, as Kate Fox once observed, ‘have satire instead of revolutions’.
I’ve heard Shoreditch described as a Bohemian Mecca; a Slavic-Islamic coalition that could surely explain a UKIP billboard’s diffidence. Yet a few days ago I noted that the tarpaulin had since gone, along with its mention of racists – borderline or otherwise. In any case, there’s plenty to distract the tired, the procrastinating, and the decaffeinating masses in London’s streets. I once saw a Georgian flag wafting casually from a second-floor window down a side street. A Georgian restaurant, perhaps? Or perhaps a deeply misled EDL supporter taken with its crosses?
I soon reached Waterloo station for the commute home and took a seat in a quiet carriage; an instant study in English passive-aggressiveness should its rules be breached. Remembering his views on foreign languages in the public space, it occurred to me with some unease that Farage could feel quite comfortable here. A friend once described hostile stares from fellow passengers after noticing her reading material in Urdu and Arabic. Icy glares travel quickly through silence.
Walking along Great Eastern Street last week, I glanced again at the billboard and for the first time paid attention to the storefront below: “Fried Matzo and Grilled Fish Specialist” reads the shop sign. Fish ‘n Chips by any other name [would taste as sweet]. These days I am more often confronted by ‘borderline’ views which are cause for concern – mostly when discussion starts to target the Muslim community. To draw the topic closer to (a) home and a family background, I occasionally draw parallels with attitudes to the Jewish community in the first half of the twentieth century, and am frequently met with mute incomprehension. “Yes, but the thing is …” they say, “the Jews integrated”.
Photographs courtesy of Jennifer Jane Mills and Maxim Edwards. Published under a Creative Commons license.