Cory Doctorow became a British citizen this morning. I was privileged to be invited to the ceremony in Hackney Town Hall. Beforehand I spent an hour walking the streets in Hackney that had been the locations of looting earlier in the week. What was astonishing was the air of quiet normality. The clean-up operation seemed to have been virtually comprehensive. Here and there some windows remained boarded up, but in general it would have been impossible for a stranger to know what had gone on. At one point I got lost and wandered into a Turkish tailor’s shop to ask for directions. He smiled and told me I was “twelve minutes” away from my destination. “How can you be so precise?” I asked. “Well”, he said, “unless you are a very fast walker that is what it will take”. He was spot on.
The citizenship ceremony was fascinating and oddly moving. In addition to Cory (attired in his special Union Jack jacket), there were about 20 other ‘new’ citizens, of whom the overwhelming majority were non-white. They were a wonderfully variegated lot, some dressed to the nines, others in what might charitably be described as “smart casual”. They came from all over the world, from Angola to Zimbabwe. We gathered in the Council Chamber, and after a time the Speaker of the Council, an imposing black woman in impressive robes entered to preside over the proceedings. She made a nice informal speech about the importance of citizenship, what a precious thing it was, and about the responsibilities and rights that it conferred on its holders. Then each new citizen was required to swear an oath or make a declaration pledging allegiance to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors”. Interestingly, some of the candidates elected not to read from the supplied script but asked the Registrar to say the words, which they then repeated. (From which I inferred that some of them might have literacy problems, at least in English.) Most of those who read tended to mumble a bit. The only one who was as clear as a bell was Cory (no surprise there).
After that, all the candidates stood and collectively made the second part of the declaration. They were then welcomed as citizens of this great country, and presented with their certificates of naturalisation by the Speaker. Many opted to have friends and family included in the resulting photograph. One person was asked if he had any friends or family. “Yes”, he replied, “but not here”.
It was a touching and impressive occasion, the more so because of its location. It was impossible to square what I saw and heard in Hackney today with Cameron’s odious ranting about a “sick” society. What I saw were people whom I found infinitely more preferable (and probably more valuable to society) than the denizens of Canary Wharf or Eaton Square.