Joshua Theobald knows all about being different. When he walks from his home in Bow, down Upper North
Street and through his school gate, there is hardly anyone who looks or sounds like he does. His pallid
skin, his red hair, his language, his accent - all of it marks him out as an outsider. Joshua's experience
is the mirror image of what I (George Alagiah) went through all those years ago. For me, arriving at
boarding school in 1967 meant an abrupt and unnatural dislocation from the culture of my home. So it
is for Joshua, except for one crucial difference. He is a stranger in his own land. It's as if he has
walked into another country. You see, he's English; English as they come, but at Mayflower Primary
School in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets that is an unusual thing to be.
In the borough that was once home to the quintessential cockney, there are areas where the English are
an ethnic minority. When I phoned the head teacher at Mayflower to find out how many English families
had children at the school, she had no problem finding the answer. They are conspicuous by their rarity.
There are only three. When I asked where all the other children came from, Lisa Zychowicz, herself
the product of a previous wave of immigration, rattled off a list that tells its own story about what is
happening in the world around Britain. The latest entrants to the school are from eastern Europe. There
are children from Poland, Lithuania, Albania and Bulgaria. As for the rest, there are two Somali
families, one West Indian family, one Thai family, one Chinese family and two Vietnamese families.
But they are all dwarfed by the number of children whose families came to Britain from Bangladesh.
They make up 92 per cent of the school roll.
Joshua says he knew he was different as soon as he started at the school. He was six at the time.
'I knew only one other white boy,' he told me. We were sitting in the head teacher's office about half
an hour before lessons got underway. The autumn sun shone through the window, catching Josh's face and
hair, highlighting just how fair he is. He sat there, hands tucked under his thighs, with Lisa and his
mother, Michelle, for company.
'What, even when you were that small you knew about things like that?'
'I knew he was my only white friend.' The other boy's name is Jack. They are best mates. They live on
the same estate. They've known each other since they were two going on three.
'So who are your other friends?' Joshua reeled off a list of names. Suffice it to say that there was no
Bill, David, Shane or Christopher.
'And at break time what language do you all speak?'
'When they speak to me they speak English, but the rest of the time it's mainly their own language.'
'Do you know any Bengali?'
'I know a few words. Some of the bad ones,' he said with an impish smile. 'And I know some numbers.'
'And do you like it when they speak Bengali to each other?'
'I don't mind. It's just that I don't know what they are saying. You know, if they are saying bad things.'
'And do they say bad things?'
'No. It's just that they are all together. I'd like to know more of their language. Sometimes I feel
different.' lf Josh did try to learn their language, as he put it, he would be trying to pick up a
dialect spoken in just one part of Bangladesh. The vast majority of the Bangladeshis in the borough
of Tower Hamlets originally came from Sylhet.
'Do your school friends come to your home? Or do you go to their homes?'
'I've played outside their houses. I don't think they are allowed to bring people in.'
'What about having them over to your place, then? Maybe for a birthday party or something?'
'I did invite them at the beginning but none of them came. They said they would but the next day at
school they said their mum wouldn't let them.'
Source: A Home from Home - From Immigration Boy to English Man by George Alagiah, Abacus Books, London 2007, pp. 144-146
pallid - blaß, bleich
dislocation - Verlagerung, Verschiebung
quintessential - vollkommen, unverfälscht
conspicuous - auffallend, deutlich
school roll - Schülerliste
suffice to say - überflüssig zu sagen
impish - schelmisch, verschmitzt
1. Why is Joshua exceptional at Mayflower Primary School in East London?
2. Where did his classmates originally come from?
3. Describe how Joshua gets along with his classmates.
4. What are the reasons why the population has so dramatically changed in East London, i.e. the docklands, since the 1960s?
5. What seems to be going wrong with the notion of multiculturalism in certain regions of Britain?