Monday, July 15, 2024
HomeCulture WarNotes from a densely colonised area of North London

Notes from a densely colonised area of North London


IT IS an interesting phenomenon that many of the middle classes profess to love diversity while choosing to live in the least diverse areas. They are in love with an idea of diversity. They think diverse areas are terribly lively and interesting places where people enjoy each other’s cultures and patronise restaurants of different cuisines. If I try to describe the reality, I am in danger of being accused of xenophobia and ignorance, or I am met with a blank lack of understanding; the information simply cannot be absorbed.

I live in South Kilburn, an area of North London straddling the boundaries of three boroughs, Westminster, Brent and Camden. It has been said that when the borders around a country break down, they then form inside the country. I experience this to be true in South Kilburn. The area is made up of different and separate communities formed along cultural, religious and national divides. Splendid buildings of the early 20th century, once dance halls and cinemas, now house an Iranian mosque and two African churches. Dr Shomali, a previous director of the mosque, aka the Islamic Centre of England, was publicised as Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative in the UK. During the imprisonment in Iran of Nazanin Zaghari, from up the road in Hampstead, I wrote to ask Dr Shomali if, for the sake of community relations, he might have a word with the Ayatollah. There was no response.

A stone’s throw from the mosque is a Jewish school fortressed by multiple security measures. Protection is clearly an issue. Mothers from East European countries congregate in the recreation ground. Muslim pupils form the majority at the local St Augustine’s Church of England High School. Nearby is situated the School of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Ofsted reported that the pupils did not recognise the word democracy. The diverse groups of the area remain separate and worlds apart from each other.

Living next to a recreation ground, one would naturally expect to hear the sound of people letting off steam and shouts of man on. However, the shouting that I hear from the Paddington Rec takes on an increasingly combative, urgent, alarmist nature. I have experienced many instances of subtle and not so subtle street intimidation in the area. I generally like to cycle, so that I am less vulnerable to this intimidation than when I am walking. My partner was told he shouldn’t live here ‘because it’s a black area, you see’. On the Kilburn High Road incidences of people literally screaming at each other in extended confrontations are not uncommon.

Muslim missionaries set up their stall on a Saturday, opposite Sainsbury’s. They want to engage me in conversation. I mention some of the findings of the ICM poll What British Muslims think, for example that 23 per cent of British Muslims believe that Sharia law should replace British law in areas with a high Muslim population. The missionaries then become hostile and insulting. I have touched on a reality they don’t want me to see.

I enter into a conversation with a woman wearing a hijab in the bank. I ask her how the Muslim men would regard me, a non-Muslim without a head covering. Will they think I lack modesty – some kind of prostitute perhaps? She seems uncomfortable and claims not to know what the men think.

Intensive building work continues in the area. Dwellings are densely packed. What can anyone do? Levels of incoming migration have been unprecedented. People have to have somewhere to live. The more wealthy areas of Hampstead or Twickenham are not going to be pressed into service. For some time, a hoarding around a building site proclaimed in large pink, yellow and purple text, that ‘Brent is the borough of cultures’. The view of St Augustine’s Church, known as the Cathedral of North London, is in danger of being obscured by yet another housing project, this time in Westminster. Each new development replaces one which had a green space around it. The new building takes up the whole footprint of the site. The view of cherry trees opposite my home is a distant memory.

High levels of immigration into the area have, not surprisingly, put pressure on services. The NHS is generous with text messages to me to get various vaccines and screenings. However, if I try to get an appointment with a GP, even a telephone one, I find this is close to impossible. I conclude that if I ever need medical attention, it would have to be via 111 or A&E.

On the plus side, I am grateful for the sound of bell-ringing practice on a Monday evening at St Augustine’s, not as loud as the shouting from the recreation ground but for me a small way to feel a connection to my own culture. There was also the miraculous saving of the Carlton Tavern, a cultural and community landmark of Irish and indigenous peoples for generations and the only building in the street to survive the Blitz during World War II. It was being considered for Grade 2 listing when an Israeli developer illegally started bulldozing it. A courageous local councillor, Jan Prendergast, stood in front of the bulldozer, which had by then chomped through three-quarters of the building. A Westminster Council hearing concluded that the building must be put back, ‘brick by brick’. Every architectural detail was recreated, even the early 20th century ceramic tiles. 

People relate to each other within the context of particular cultures. A large-scale study showed that if cultures of dissimilar societies are too extremely mixed together, social cohesion breaks down. People then have little collective sense of ownership of the area where they live. In South Kilburn, rubbish is left on the street. If I say ‘Good morning’ to someone, there will often be no reply. Some will argue that poverty is the cause. I am not convinced. Historically there have been poor communities in the UK, who nonetheless had a strong sense of community.

We are constantly urged by politicians to celebrate diversity. For years I was on board. I appreciate beauty and value in other cultures. How many multicultural school events have I attended and even helped to create, when my children were of school age? However, for the majority of immigrants coming to the UK today, celebrating diversity is not usually high on the agenda. People generally fight for power and influence. That is how human beings are.

Can we ask the question: How has high and fast immigration affected the UK, politically, culturally, socially, religiously, economically, legally, criminally, and in terms of the position of women?

I just want the reality to be seen.

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Sarah Walker
Sarah Walker
Sarah Walker is an artist living as part of a small English minority in South Kilburn, one of the more densely colonised areas of London. She visits Surrey regularly on family business.

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