If you were to be parachuted anywhere in London, outside the ring described by the Circle Line, I’m sure that you’d have a tough time understanding where you have landed. With a few notable exceptions where natural features – rivers, hills, this sort of things – have shaped the urban landscape, the capital’s urban texture is remarkably homogeneous, with row upon row of terraced houses, interrupted by the occasional cluster of council estates bulging above the sea of black tiled roofs.
If the landscape is a bit featureless, the same can’t be said about the human geography of the city. London is one of the most diverse and international cities on the planet, much to the chagrin of a good proportion of locals who still consider it a little bit more than a village. The complicate patterns drawn by the melange of different communities and their evolution is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting – if not the most interesting – aspect of this otherwise often underwhelming city.
Today I set out to explore one of the chief examples of the ethnic evolution of the city, the place that brought concepts such as white flight and race riot to London, and the UK as a whole: Southall.
Southall is one of the most seen, and possibly travelled through, neighbourhoods in London as it lies directly under the take-off path from Heathrow and along the M4 motorway. But if you were to ask how many people have been there or would prefer it to, say, queuing outside Madame Tussaud’s to see a wax replica of Zayn Malik, I think you won’t get many takers.
Getting to Southall means, to me, walking through Ealing and that means crossing the frontline of the battle for London’s gentrification. Ealing used to be the last affordable and half-decent place in West London’s zone 3, inhabited mainly by long-term residents and newcomers under the guise of a large Polish community who brought along brilliant supermarkets and an impressive array of previously unknown beer brands. The problem is that everyone else noticed.
Acton, like Ealing, is going through regeneration.
Old council houses are being torn down and replace. But how about their old dwellers?
…While other places are already gentifried..
Now Ealing is becoming picking up traits that used to be typical only of Richmond. As I walk its high road, I’m slightly alarmed to see signs for an “organic farmers’ market” and a sprouting of franchises of fake French bakeries, gourmet burger shops and gastro-pubs, all adorned with well-heeled Londoners busy chatting or leafing through the pages of the Sunday Times. Polish shops still resist and, in the pubs, Wisła Kraków jerseys still outnumber Chelsea and Brentsford three-to-one, but for how long?
The ugly, brutalist façade of Ealing hospital signals the border. It’s noon on a hot summer day and half of Ealing has declared it barbeque day: a soft, mouth-watering smell of charcoal and meat permeates the atmosphere. However, by the time I leg it to the hospital, it isn’t grilled sausages and ribs that I can smell: it’s spices. I’m entering Southall, whose inhabitants have also decided to eat under the benign sun; only, they’re doing it differently.
Southall begun almost unnoticed, if it wasn’t for some tell-tale signs: the scent of biryani in the air, or the silver Mercedes rolling along Uxbridge road, sporting a personalised plate reading S1NGH, or the drumming from a local hall that has grown an elaborated, colourful façade complete with saluting Hindu goddesses. There isn’t a sign proudly proclaiming it, for it’d be too much of a tourist trap, but I’m about to enter the home of the largest North Indian community this side of Punjab.
Southall started turning remarkably Asian in the 1960s. Why they chose this nondescript place for their home away from home is anybody’s guess, perhaps the proximity of a major gasworks and of Heathrow airport – both places needing a great number of workers – played a part. Whatever the reason, this otherwise sleepy peripheral borough soon began to fill up with new inhabitants from northern India, notably Sikh.
The arrival of bearded, turban-wearing men and salvar kamees-clad women in a community where the most exotic part of society was, up until that time, made of Welsh immigrants must’ve been quite a moment. Honestly, short of flying saucers from other space, I can’t imagine two communities more apart than 1960s Britons and Punjabi Sikhs.
Astonishment, anyway, didn’t last long. Irritation quickly followed on its heels, and violence didn’t really take long to raise its ugly head. In 1976 such acts, which up until then consisted mostly of petty vandalism and the beatings, crossed a no-return point when a Sikh schoolboy, Gurdeep Singh Chaggar, was murdered by white supremacists that were never apprehended. John Kingsley Read, then British National Party leader, commented: ‘Last week in Southall, one nigger stabbed another nigger. Very unfortunate. One down, a million to go’.
Tensions grew stronger and stronger, with a spate of race riots occurring at random intervals throughout the Seventies and Eighties. It would’ve been easy to depict this as a white vs Indians divergence, but the fact is that, for each BNP or NF dickhead painting swastikas on houses inhabited by a Punjabi, there were as many – and more – whites going on strike to support their new neighbours, and white was an activist, Blair Peach, who was killed by police during scuffles that took place during an anti-NF rally in 1979.
Thirty years have passed from those days as I enter Southall Broadway. I am welcomed by a whirlwind of smells, colours and sights: the road is engulfed with stalls selling everything, from bucketful of steel karas – the traditional Sikh bracelet – to sticky jalebi sweets, from ready-made turbans to bags of naan bread. Bhangra music blasts out of every possible loudspeaker, be it a crumbly ghetto blaster or the Bose system of a passing-by Mercedes.
It’s the cars that attract me to an aspect of Southall that, thanks to my locally based colleagues, I’ve grown to know: this place is affluent. Far from becoming a crumbling ghetto, Southall flourished.
Signs of its economic status are visible everywhere: there are florid-looking restaurants at every corner; shiny cars are parked outside the many gurdwara, mandir, mosques and churches; Ralph Lauren and designer handbags are as ubiquitous as henna hand tattoos and turbans.
How did this happen? Over the years, between the race riots, the Indians of Southall didn’t lay idle, milking the State’s tit as some said they would. They got jobs in factories, they became cleaners and they laboured on British Airways’ jets in the Hounslow hangars; slowly but steadily they sent their offspring to school. The second generation braved racism and prejudice to become Britain’s doctors, dentists, engineers, judges, policemen and women, soldiers and accountants. Forty years ago they arrived in a land that didn’t want them; now they are amongst the contributors of London’s success.
Such is the success of Southall’s Indians that, ironically, the new generations are leaving, moving to more upscale places such as Harrow, Chiswick or even Richmond. In their wake a new community is moving in, coming from the other shore of the Indian ocean: the Somalis.
The coexistence between the new, poorer, arrivals and the pre-existing, more established Indian community isn’t an easy one. The cultural chasm between the two is wide, and diffidence is rife: whilst the Somali lament not to have enough space for their activities, the Indians – and many my colleagues – are prone to describing their new neighbours as untidy, disrespectful, noisy and idle, dedicated only to milking money – the taxpayer’s money, i.e. their money – from the State tit.