I feel like a tourist guide today. Something I hadn’t expected to happen. My French friends, Odile, independent midwife and beautiful intellectual, plus her 15 year old son, the gentle and philosophical Seirigne have come on a flying, unplanned visit to London from Marseille. I admit it, in the past, we (Marlon is with us too) would have gone to Portobello Road with them but now I realise that Harlesden has its own nitty gritty temptations. In a strange way, it is ready for new tourism.
As we walk down Wrottesley Rd, I explain that Harlesden is one of the top ten most deprived areas in the UK. Odile is shocked. “It doesn’t look poor,” she says, “the streets are clean. In Marseille, a poor area is much more run down and dirty. Poverty for me is when there is not a piece of wall free of tags and the public space is destroyed, here I see that it is respected.” Deprived? The translation? Perhaps deprivation in the UK, is more behind closed doors than in France? Not as visible but still as pervasive in terms of lack of education and work opportunities, healthy parenting, balanced diet, work opportunities, facilities for the elderly and mentally ill? How do we define deprivation?
At the end of Park Parade, I point out the Royal Oak pub because it’s (well, the pub but not this building) been here since 1839 according to the Brent archives and from 1855, an omnibus was running from here into London. “On le croyerait pas,” says Odile startled again. Today, it’s a noisy (in a good way) Irish pub with all manner of live bands that pop over from the home country to entertain the locals.
We look up – like an observational form of yoga, looking up is becoming a practice on these walks. Of course, I’m working on a deeper, more significant relationship with Harlesden – at the Edwardian facades on the High St and a few of them are sprouting buddleia bushes. Known as incredibly effective butterfly attractors in primary school wildlife gardens, this is obviously not what is happening here. “Ah, I can see that here is poor now,” acknowledges Odile.
Meanwhile Seirigne eyes up the Iceland sign with wonderment in his face. Lost in the idea of the country, he doesn’t realise that this is in fact a mundane frozen food-orientated supermarket. Ah, the joys of being innocently French.
Enjoying the notion of this new tourism, I decide to take their photo (with my deliberately non-digital Canon camera) at the Jubilee clock. A few weeks ago, I have to confess that I was shopping down here when I spotted something completely unexpected. Something never seen before by me in Harlesden. A couple – maybe Eastern European – were taking each other’s photos at this NW10 Victorian landmark. Somehow before this event, it wasn’t possible for me to put tourists and Harlesden in the same sentence. But actually observing this act of tourism, made it possible to imagine it being true. And so, as if to confirm this newly emergent perspective, I record this Marseille/Harlesden (Odile, Seirigne and Marlon) moment on film.
Seirigne wants to see inside a pub. I haven’t quite understood how much Odile wants this to happen. She has been asking if Marlon is going to take Seirigne out, but I didn’t quite get it. I kept saying that Marlon doesn’t really go to pubs. But that wasn’t the point, I’m being a negligent host. “We have nothing like this in France,” she says, “the atmosphere, the decoration, they are so special.”
It’s only 11 30am but I spot someone who looks like an employee standing outside The Shawl, which is at the entrance to the Shopping Plaza. Obviously, Harlesden had pretensions to a future in shopping heaven, when that sign was put up! The Shawl is another Irish pub – there’s a big Guinness sign outside and it’s housed in what looks like an old chapel. The man outside having a cigarette, turns out to be the barman and he kindly invites us in.
Inside – it’s incredible. An ocean of football scarves, flags (Cork is a clue) and photos everywhere of the customers in full-on party mode. Mad hats, big smiles, lots of booze. And more photos of Ireland – the land that they’ve never left. “You wouldn’t believe how crazy it gets in here,” says the barman. I would. I would. The gaudily patterned carpet reverberates with the thousands of pints of Guinness that it has absorbed. One jolly elderly customer (there is only one) enquires if I would like to pole dance for him. Ah, my first pole dancing request of the day!
We pass one of the many fish shops – I have an unproven theory that Harlesden has the most fresh fish shops within a square mile in the UK – and there are razor fish piled up, still in those barberesque shells. We stare in amazement. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live one before, but I remember the shells from childhood holidays at Lytham St Ann’s in Lancashire. And then, (to continue the holiday sidetrack) as if part of a Blackpool sideshow circa 1962, the male assistant gives them a provocative tickle. They wriggle in a most erotic way. Or as Odile put it afterwards in an email – “A young man mocks us in exciting a razor fish leading to a very suggestive movement.” Quite.
Another rude display of fish stops us in our tracks a little further on. Mackerel, barracuda, spine fish – smoked and wierd. Fascinating but also uninviting. “It looks like a Soutine painting. The fish are flat and exposed without a trace of decency, their interiors are cut open, ” writes Odile. And spices, spices, so many spices. This fish shop manager is layered in sweatshirts against the bitter fridge cold as well as the chilly weather. He is surprisingly keen to enchant us with his fish. Michael Brown tells us he comes from Kenya, but he’s been here for 40 years. I’ll have to come back and find out more.
We look up again this time at the contrasts in architecture – the crazy 60s ugliness of Library Parade with all its linear shop fronts and falling apartness, set against the soon-to-be-re-opened Edwardian Library with all its old curves. I try to blame le Corbusier for the ugliness. Odile agrees that philosophically he is responsible. We laugh.
I point out – back in my tour leader role – that the RBS is housed the Greek revival (those pillars!) former National Bank. There’s even a plaque on the side declaring it opened on 17th July 1882 (just before the Blackpool Tower –continuing the leitmotif, I’ve just come back). Not to mention, the gargoyle type faces in the upper half. It looks out of place here. Like a gathering of garden gnomes have landed on the Acropolis.
There are hotels in Craven Park Road called things like The Hollingbury Hotel and Helen’s Hotel. This is tourist information that this tour leader is ignorant of. Until now. It’s another new tourism moment. Who stays at them? Why do they come to Harlesden? Marlon has an answer. “People who are coming to Wembley to see the football,” he says. Stupidly, I’d never thought of that.
We stand and look down Hillside, it’s a dramatically changed landscape. We’re looking onto Stonebridge. The notorious Stonebridge estate. Gun crime – between 1999 and 2002, there were 24 people were shot here, 12 died – crack cocaine, and poverty. This is where the area turned into the Bronx. Gangs of young men, mostly young British black men, out of control. Convinced that the ‘easy’ money from selling drugs was the way to go. The escape from deprivation. The worship of Mammon beamed down from the banks and from Parliament to the estates.
In 2009, 26 year old Shawn Callum was shot outside the Stonebridge Primary School, at a private party one Saturday night in February. He was leaving and was shot in the back at 2am. His friends say he had no direct connection with the gangs or the drugs. He was a beautiful-looking young man who was also a father. His only ‘crime’ may have been to have a cousin who was connected to the drugs and gang world. On such absurdities, turn life and death here. But is this culture changing with the family-friendly new architecture?
“There used to be six tower blocks here,” says Marlon who has taken over as tour leader, “but now almost all of them have been knocked down and replaced with low-rise housing.” It’s been a £225 million project which has happened over the last decade – the go ahead was given early in the New Labour reign and is now almost complete. The deluded idealism of the 60s has been bulldozed by the knowing pragmatism of the noughties.
“I’m amazed,” says Odile, “this is not happening in France in fact. You are ahead of us. We still have high-rise social housing, which is cut off from the rest of society. It’s very bad, very divisive. I am interested to hear whether this new housing has had an effect on the gun, drugs and gang culture?” Me too.
ONE DEFINITION OF DEPRIVATION
According to Longman’s Contemporary English Dictionary, deprivation means the lack of something that you need in order to be healthy, comfortable and happy.