The Polish Social and Cultural Association on King Street in Hammersmith was daubed with racist graffiti at the weekend. I went to school just up the road, and take the attack on the Polish club more personally than I can explain.
There aren't many schools divided by a dual carriageway, but Latymer Upper School on King Street in Hammersmith is one of them; there's an underpass beneath the A4. One part of the school, an 18th-century house, is on the Thames; the rest is Victorian with more recent additions, the main building constructed with one very long corridor at its centre. Running was forbidden, but that was a rule that seemed designed to be broken. Doors were to be kept open, so prefects could make sure no one was beating anyone else up. Doors were closed to stop prefects seeing the beatings people got.
William Morris's Kelmscott House is nearby. Turner lived for a time on Chiswick Mall, and so did various typographers of the 19th and early 20th century. I can’t remember their names, but I can picture the blue plaques on their houses. Weltje Road, to the west of the school, is named after Louis Weltje, the Prince Regent's chef. That’s to sell him short. He was a man of excess, went gambling and drinking with George, advised him on politics, art, style and property. Parliament passed an act in 1786 naturalising Weltje and his wife Caroline – they were from Braunschweig, or Brunswick. He retired in 1790, was given a £1000 pension and threw lunches that lasted all afternoon at his Hammersmith house. Thomas Rowlandson was one of his frequent guests. To judge from the packed pubs on the river at weekends, Weltje’s long boozy lunches remain firmly part of the culture.
On bad days, when games were cancelled at Latymer’s sports ground on Wormwood Scrubs because the pitches were waterlogged, we were packed off on the ‘run around the river’. This was a four-mile run to Barnes Bridge, over the Thames, along the tow path on the south side of the river, over Hammersmith Bridge and back to the school. A four-mile run when you’re 12 isn’t just a long way; it’s a very long time. On very bad days, things only turned worse: the run around the river was replaced by hares and hounds. The fastest runners would be given a bit of a lead and everyone else had to chase them down. They never did: at the heart of the contest was a simple fact – if you weren’t a hare, you’d lost before the run had even begun.
Latymer was a direct grant grammar school; parents paid according to what they earned. It became private after the Labour government abolished the direct grant system in 1975 (during my time there), though it wasn’t then an expensive education. Now the cost is out of this world. I lived in Notting Hill, one of the few pupils who came from east of the school. But Latymer was London. The catchment area was wide not only geographically, but demographically too. The boys’ parents or grandparents were from Ukraine, Germany, Russia, Pakistan, Indian, Zambia, the West Indies; they were from all over Britain, and if you’re going to bring religion into it then there was Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and more. Even if on formal occasions everyone was called by their surname, and you had some notion of the eclectic make up of the school, there was little sense that any of that mattered. There were bullies, but they didn’t come from anywhere specific, or target anyone in particular. Most of the serious fighting was with the nearby drama school, the Corona Academy (one of the pupils was Nicholas Lyndhurst).
There were a lot of children of Polish parents at Latymer in the 1970s. You couldn’t travel through West London without noticing the Polish war memorial beside the A40 near RAF Northolt, the plot dedicated to the 24th Polish Lancers in Gunnersbury Cemetery, the Polish club on King’s Street. I knew little about Poland; my parents had a Polish friend who smuggled people out the country during the Cold War; there was a Polish delicatessen on Notting Hill that sold a lot of smoked fish that looked absolutely ancient and definitely inedible. But Poland from my childhood view was part of West London.
The least that could be done in the shabby, disorganised era we seem to have entered overnight is to give passports or permanent visas to the three million Europeans currently living in Britain, if they still want to live here, that is. It could be called the Weltje Act. We're in danger of become a smug country that doesn't open its doors to anyone, and where everyone goes to bed at nine at night. The worst is unimaginable, while the best is far from better. We may yet become Luxembourg, just bigger and more roundly smug and conservative, soaked in Sky Sports, buttered with instant internet shopping, tanked on cheap supermarket gin, and baked in a hot narcissistic oven at 220°.