When I come out of the railway station at Stoke-on-Trent, as I have done countless times since my childhood, I make my way to the taxi rank and ask for Barlaston, a small village five miles away, where my parents began their married life.
The taxi-driver invariably registers a total blank. ‘I am going to the Wedgwood factory.’ Blank. ‘You know? Wedgwood? Famous pottery?’ Complete blank.
Only when I produce a post-code, and we can tap it into a SatNav, does the Asian taxi-driver have any idea where we are going: and it is certainly not anywhere in the Britain of my boyhood.
I grew up in the Potteries. When I was young, there were between 50,000 and 60,000 people employed in the industry. Today there are little more than 5,000. Only in recent times, after a gap of about 30 years, have I started to return there — and the place I find is no longer recognisable.
It’s not just that the buildings have been torn down — the whole way of life, the entire texture of the place has been gouged out. My family had a small business here from the late 18th century onwards, and my dad was a director of Wedgwoods. Pottery is, or was, the lifeblood of this region.
When I was a schoolboy, it would have been absolutely inconceivable that someone earning a living in Stoke as a taxi-driver would not know the whereabouts of the most famous pottery factory in Britain. But this has happened to me about 20 times in the past couple of years, and it has left me with a feeling of absolute dislocation.
At some deep, visceral level, this was my home — the place I came from. Where my grandfather and his grandfather and his grandfather before that all ran businesses. Where the same families, the same names, cropped up again and again, often intermarrying; where everyone knew one another.
In the town of Fenton, where my father was born, in a ‘big house’ next to the ‘works’, the workers and their bosses lived cheek by jowl. This sort of situation must have been replicated in so many different towns of Britain, until the Seventies and Eighties.
Then came the double whammy — the destruction of manufacturing industry, and the filling up of depressed regions of our former industrial base with immigrants who had no connection with them.
Now, Stoke is a place where taxi drivers do not show any consciousness of it having been ‘the Potteries’. They are strangers. But then so, too, in many ways, are the indigenous population.
It is a worrying fracturing of society — and I believe the reasons for it can be found in the Census report this week which laid bare the true, staggering scale of immigration to Britain in recent years.
I have seen the changes in London, where I have lived for 25 years, and which I have known all my life. London was always more ‘exotic’ than the provinces. You would hear the occasional foreign accent, or a foreign language being spoken on the bus.
As I grew up into someone who liked trying to learn languages, I used to get on the bus and position myself near a foreign language-speaker to see if I could make out what they were saying.
Now, it is rare to hear English spoken on any of the buses that I take regularly. And increasingly this impenetrable language barrier is becoming a problem in everyday life, because so many recent immigrants from Europe are working in shops and cafes across the country.
A friend of mine went to a well-heeled London branch of Marks & Spencer the other day, and at the hot food counter asked for a ‘pasty’, only to be met with a look of total incomprehension from two members of staff who worked there. They simply didn’t know what he was talking about, and could only turn and point mutely at the menu on the wall. You’d think he was in Azerbaijan.
London has always been culturally and linguistically mixed: that is part of what makes it such an exciting place to live. But the first wave of immigrants in my lifetime were either from English-speaking countries, such as India or Jamaica, or they came in such comparatively small numbers that they learned to speak English in order to survive.
Now, it is possible to arrive in London and live entirely in your own language-world. Is it surprising that society is fragmentary, when countless thousands of our fellow-citizens cannot actually communicate with each other?
There are now ten schools in England where no pupil speaks English as a first language. One of them, in Oldham, is a Church of England school, though there is not much chance of the pupils mastering the beautiful cadences of the King James Bible there! In some 600 English primary schools, English is the second language for over 70 per cent of the pupils.
In other countries which have accepted huge numbers of immigrants, the teaching of the host-language has been seen as an absolute necessity. You can not become an Israeli, for example, without showing a knowledge of Hebrew. How else do societies hold together, other than by speaking the same language?
As we begin to absorb the information from the 2011 Census, we have had to come to terms with its extraordinary statistics, such as the fact that more than a million schoolchildren in England and Wales belong to households where English is not spoken.
The Census has confirmed what we all vaguely sensed — that the staggering increase in the number of immigrants in recent years has fundamentally changed the country in which most of us grew up, in many cases beyond recognition.
When Idi Amin kicked out the Asians from Uganda in 1972, about 27,000 came to this country. It was a story at the time which gave rise to much passionate debate about the wisdom of allowing so many in at one leap. But since they had been given 90 days to leave their African home, there was no option, and since the majority were highly employable people — many of them professionals — there was in the event no difficulty about their finding a place in Britain.
But the migration of the past 15 years has been on a totally different scale. Over four million immigrants have arrived in the past decade; 7.5 million people born abroad are now resident in Britain. In London, white Britons are now in the minority.
And perhaps the most disturbing element of all is that there has been no major public debate about this. None at all. And any attempt to discuss the matter honestly has been censored either by the BBC or one group or another accusing people of racism.
Ed Miliband, whose New Labour colleagues deliberately opened the floodgates to mass immigration, yesterday admitted some communities could not adapt to the bewildering increase in the number of immigrants.
‘The last Labour government made mistakes in this regard,’ he said. He had planned to go even further in a speech on immigration he made in South London, but tellingly chose to drop the line ‘we did too little to tackle the realities of segregation in communities that were struggling to cope’.
Instead, he suggested that the statistics in the Census were a cause for celebration: ‘We should celebrate multi-ethnic diverse Britain. We are stronger for it — and I love Britain for it.’
How many among even Labour supporters, I wonder, entirely swallow the argument that such mass immigration strengthens us as a nation?
Three years ago in London, there was a play at the National Theatre called England People Very Nice. It was considered highly controversial because it portrayed racial stereotypes and dealt with immigration.
The director of the National, a nice, kind-hearted lefty called Sir Nicholas Hytner, felt that the Left had dominated theatre for too long, and he wanted to put on a Right-wing play.
My wife and I hurried off eagerly to see it, but it was not a very good piece of drama. Set in a bar in the East End, the action took place over 300 years, beginning with the arrival of the Huguenot silk workers in 18th-century London, and concluding with some young Islamic terrorists.
Very soon the play was being labelled racist. ‘It leaves you with the sense that the Irish are all wife-beaters and the Bangladeshis are all jihadis,’ said Rabina Khan, a novelist from Tower Hamlets in East London.
It did not leave me with this sense at all. Far from being Right-wing, the play trotted out one of the cliches of modern liberal thought, that of equivalence.
It made out that all immigration to Britain, from the arrival of Julius Caesar to the latest plane-load of Albanian criminals, is somehow the same, all livening up the dull, suburban British scene and making it throbbing and ‘vibrant’.
Everyone knows that no such equivalence exists. Yet the play spoke as if the Huguenot silk workers who arrived from France — not one of whom was in a position to claim benefits from the state — could be discussed in the same breath as the growing millions of people now living in Britain who were not born here.
Whereas Huguenots arrived in their few thousands, this country’s Bangladeshi community alone totals more than 200,000, while there are 482,000 of Pakistani origin, 694,000 of Indian origin as well, of course, as nearly 600,000 Poles and millions from other places.
Another lie regularly rehashed by nearly all liberal commentators is that immigration is universally good for the economy, and that most of the millions who have come here in the past decade are stimulating growth and prosperity.
In fact, a House of Lords report in 2008 concluded this was not the case, and only by the most tortuous mangling of figures could it be said to be true. Take the example of the Poles. We were excited when Polish plumbers, carpenters and craftsmen arrived. Our lavatories had never flushed so vigorously, nor had our shelves been less wobbly.
We carefully overlooked some pretty obvious facts: many of the immigrant workers were black-marketeers working for cash, while they put British workers out of a job. And when they had a bit of success, rather than returning to Poland, they brought over their wives and children, who took advantage of our free state schools, maternity hospitals and over-stretched ‘affordable’ houses.
Those immigrant farm workers from Eastern Europe accept the minimum wage or less, and only this week it was reported that this has led to a fall of on average 6.6 per cent in agricultural pay in Britain, compared with significant rises in agricultural pay in such countries as Belgium and Holland, which do not accept such workers.
Worse, though, is the dismal effect that mass immigration has had upon our culture as a whole. The 2011 census said fewer than six in ten in this country now claim to be Christian. I am surprised it’s so many.
For in schools where 70 per cent of the children do not speak English as a first language, and where immigrant lobby groups are eager to take offence at their children being taught anything contrary to their creeds, teachers choose the easy way out. Nativity plays become celebrations of Rainbow Folk, multi-racial, multi-faith and multi-cultural — that is, of no culture at all.
In Harrow, where only 7 per cent of the school population is Muslim, the council decided in in 2010 to serve only Halal meat for school dinners. As a result of multi-culturalism, we now have a generation of supposedly Christian children who do not know Away In A Manger, and who have no idea of why we celebrate the Feast of The Ascension or why we talk of Advent in the run-up to Christmas.
The inevitable effect, of course, is the fragmenting of the country. An unspoken apartheid operates.
The white working-class population of London’s East End have moved out to Essex and Kent — enclaves which are far less socially varied than the British cities of yore.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ is how some of my working-class friends preface their explanation of why they’d rather live in some bleak bungalow in Canvey Island or Southend than stay in the East End, surrounded by speakers of Urdu, Polish and Somali.
The middle classes, likewise have fled to their own enclaves — the Cotswolds, for instance, for the very rich, the Home Counties for commuters.
Thus, much of central London is now inhabited on the one hand by relatively impoverished immigrant communities, and on the other by the very wealthy from Russia, Greece and the Middle East.
Of course immigration has brought Britain benefits over the centuries, and it would plainly be impractical, as well as inhumane, to suggest that those who have come to live in Britain, quite legitimately, should be made to feel unwelcome here.
That is not what I am saying. But the effect of the huge increase in immigration in the past decade or so has left millions of us feeling a little shell-shocked.
We no longer recognise the country we grew up in. We are increasingly aware that a uniting British culture that evolved over centuries is fragmenting.
It is not racist to suggest that our social infrastructure — our schools, hospitals and housing stock — cannot cope with such enormous numbers of migrants so quickly. The numbers of foreigners settling in this country must be reduced.
And one thing which could and should be done immediately is for the Government to ban the use of any language other than English in schools. Until we all speak the same language, there is small hope that we could ever come together and cohere as the new society of the future.