I’m following Dar or Danny into his back room. He’s my local newsagent. And it’s full to the rafters with boxing gloves in red and blue, punch bags, shin guards, footballs with stars on them, shorts, and tops. Yes, in true Harlesden style, this is a newsagent that sells boxing gloves. Another wonderful collision/mash up.
Not only that, but they are all hand sewn in Danny’s family factory in Sialkot, Pakistan. Sialkot, it turns out, (what I mean here is that I went home and googled it) produces the most hand sewn footballs in the world. As for the name, Danny; in the 70s, an Irish friend started calling him Danny and it stuck. His legal first name confusingly is Amjad. And the family name is Dar. The boxing gloves are made by Darco. They used to sell to the US and Danny reckons Mohammed Ali must have worn some of their gloves.
Danny is such a sweet man. And he runs a shop called Sweetland. That is not a coincidence. His brother, Max, (real name Masjud) is sweet as well. Ever smiling and gentle. Both of them. It’s a shabby shop but it’s their hearts that you notice. Always friendly and chatty. I first talked to Danny right at the beginning of my Not On Safari project, four years ago. And now I’m back. Also I first spotted Louis Theroux–who lives nearby when he’s here and not in LA – in his shop.
Danny didn’t go into the family business. At 19, he came to Harlesden, moved into a flat on the High Street – now above a halal butcher’s – and became a fork lift truck operator at McVities.
“I was a bit different,” he explains as we walk down Park Parade, “and it was easy to get work here.” That was 1970 and he was very happy with Harlesden. He’d go to the Royal Oak to hear an Irish band on Saturday nights. “All the shops would close at 6pm so then it was quiet except for the Victoria Wine shop on the corner opposite Sam’s. We’d all pop in there.”
This is a man who literally never leaves his shop – from 6 30am to 8 30pm – so a constant stream of his regular customers regale him with shocked gasps. Here was Danny in the street. They couldn’t quite believe it. And I couldn’t believe just how many of his customers we met.
Danny is small, wears a woolly hat and lots of layers. He’s 64 now, and walking is difficult for him. He’s lost a couple of teeth and his face often crumples into an expression of unending kindness. He asks after an Irish woman’s husband who’s just come out of hospital. We bump into a Jamaican lady outside Peacocks, and Danny listens intently while she expounds on the painfulness of a corn on her big toe.
Oh and Danny refers to himself as ‘one of the originals’. I love this idea. What he means is that he and Johnny – who runs the hairdressers and tanning shop, Paraskevas – have been on Park Parade, the longest. “People come and go these days,” he says. But Johnny whose family are from Cyprus, and Danny are both long-stayers. Danny has been here in Harlesden for 44 years. A miracle.
To walk with Danny is to enter into another era. His version of Harlesden is set in the 70s and 80s. He used to do a double work shift first at McVities, and then running a newsagents called Midnight further down Park Parade, opposite the Royal Oak. Hence his frequent visits.
He’s also frequented most of the local religious establishments over the years. He’s a Muslim of course, but his wife, Lucy, is a Roman Catholic from the Philippines. Hence Danny sometimes goes to churches and sometimes to mosques. “I’m not very religious though,” he says. He repeatedly tells me what a good wife, Lucy, is. “She always has a meal for me when I get home,” he explains, “although she works in the City herself.”
He points out that his favourite bags of chips came from Bigger Bites, but that he can’t eat chips any more. “I’ve had a couple of heart attacks and a stroke,” he explains, “so I can’t.”
He last went back to Sailkot 17 years ago. His mum, 86, is still there in the family house. “Max’s wife is there, his daughter too, and his son now runs the sports factory,” he says. “But when my grandfather started that factory a hundred years ago, they had 200 employees, now there are only a few left.”
And then he tells me that in the 70s and 80s, there used to be an annual Irish festival in Roundwood Park. “It was amazing,” he says, “bigger than Carnival at that time with brilliant bands.”
He points out that Peacocks was Woolworths then. “We had a Macdonalds too and they closed that down. People weren’t behaving themselves,” he says intimating drugs as the reason.
From time to time, Danny mutters, “Oh my god” and I start to realise that he’s in a lot of physical pain. I suggest we go back. Later, he admits that he was feeling dizzy and couldn’t see properly. Poor Danny, this sounds awful.
Now we’re back in the mysterious ever-expanding back room and Danny is explaining that they sell to all the boxing gyms around including the famous All Stars in the Harrow Rd. “They’re even promoting boxing in schools now,” he says, “and we sell to Newman College up the road, I go in and check stocks.”
For the World Cup in Brazil, Danny has ordered lots of footballs with different flags on them. “We’re getting them to give to the community schools around here,” he says. “And all the local businesses are going to have ones too.”
I notice a pile of leather belts. Whereupon Danny starts undoing zippers on his multi-layered tops to reveal one of these very belts which seems to be holding his body together. It is not in the belt position but more around his ribs. “It helps to keep me upright,” he explains. It turns out that as soon as he hung these belts in the shop, they started selling. “One woman bought six of them,” he smiles at this incredible belt success.
Ah, but there is another back room enigma. Bags and bags of knitting wool. What on earth is he doing with all that wool? Apparently – wait for this – it’s been there for 30 years going back to the time when Danny opened briefly as a Ladies fashion emporium.
Surely, the time has come to do a cheap deal on wool…
Not everything has always been so sweet for Danny. He’s had to survive some brutal encounters in his shops. Firstly, at Midnight, which was unusual in those days, in that it stayed open late. “I was in the shop alone,” he says, “and three guys came in, they beat me up. I was covered in blood. They stole money and cigarettes. It was strange because I’d never felt scared. I knew everyone around there.”
And then at Sweetland. “There were three men but they stayed outside. Two girls came in with broken glass bottles, they stabbed me with them all over my body. They were trying to steal the till and I wouldn’t let them. A crowd gathered outside and one man persuaded me to let it go. Afterwards, he told me that the young men all had knives. They were caught afterwards because someone recognised them, but only the girls went to prison as the young men had stayed outside and the police advised me that they would be difficult to convict them. People warned me not to go ahead with charges against the girls but I did. It was the right thing to do. I had it all recorded on CCTV too.”
The best thing was how the community helped Danny out. “Johnny cleared up the glass from the front windows for me and ordered new glass. I got a lot of help from people on Park Parade. That’s what we’re here for, to help each other.”
Danny has had a hard life but he retains this infinite sweetness. If you saw him in the street, you wouldn’t notice him. But he has such a big soul…