Today, I’m walking with 21 year old, June Mckenzie. Having recently graduated from Westminster University with a degree in journalism – she’s the first one in her family to go on to further education – I met June before Xmas at my ward meeting run by the local police. I was there because of the burglaries in my road; she was there because she wanted to help stop the gun crime. “I can’t see it stopping,” she said sounding frustrated, “black on black crime is complex. I did my dissertation on how it is portrayed in the media. I want to be involved. I know a lot of young men who are in that world. I don’t know what to do, but I want to do something.”
A few months later, I met up with June outside the famous John Line’s butcher’s shop in the Harrow Rd, which without fail has queues snaking round the corner. “We’ve always bought our meat here,” she explained, “it’s cheap and good. It’s a family tradition with us.” She lives with her grandfather round the corner. “If it wasn’t for my grandparents, my life would be very different. I might have been a single mum or in prison. In many ways, they brought me up. Sadly, my granny died nearly two years ago. I still miss her, her death has affected me physically and mentally.”
Just before we said goodbye, June asked if I’d heard of Shawn Callum? “My friend is the mother of his baby,” she explained showing me a photo of the good-looking 26 year old with shaved eyebrows, “ he was shot and killed last year leaving a private party at Stonebridge Primary School.” Why? Was he involved in drugs and gangs? “No, he wasn’t but that is how the newspapers portrayed him. He was innocent. The papers never portray black youth as innocent bystanders,” she said passionately.” The trial is very soon. My friend is nervous about whether the person who has been charged, will be prosecuted or not.”
By the time I see her this time, the 21 year old who was accused of the killing, has been found not guilty. Not enough evidence, it seems. June is upset. Her friend is beside herself. They feel that the killer has been set free and that the legal system has failed Shawn. And them.
But I don’t want to just focus on June and who she knows in that way. So I’ve had the idea of getting her to take me on a hairdressing tour. She spends a lot of time on her hair and Harlesden is big on hairdressers and barbers. Plus I really am ignorant about his secret hairworld.
We meet at the telephone box at the junction of Wrottesley Rd and the Harrow Rd. It’s 6 30pm. Bless her, June’s taking this hair tour very seriously. She’s even changed her hair for me. Last time, it was long and straight. This time, it’s back in a kind of ponytail. “I’m wearing a lace,” she explains as though I’ll understand. Oh dear, I’m already baffled.
Does she mean a wig? “No, we call it a lace, it’s stuck on to the front of my head,” she says, “it’s glossy and long. Women like Beyonce wear them. But I also wear weaves when I’m not wearing a lace.” And how much are they? “I get two packets of weaves for £60 and they last about five weeks. But laces cost between £150 and £200 for real hair and might last a month before they start getting itchy.” Oh, the fine art of laces. I’m astonished. She spends this much money on her hair!
We cross the bridge at Willesden Junction station and pass the nightclub Jet Set on the left. A strange little club – which bizarrely has the words Dine and Dance up there too, but I’m pretty sure that there’s no dining going on – the only time I see it come to life is at the weekend at about 2am. “There was a shooting there too,” she says. “A DJ was shot outside, he has to have round the clock care now. He was trying to be a peacemaker for another guy. I know Craig Robertson who did it. He was only 17 at the time. I grew up with him, my granny would always cook for him, he loved her mutton and rice. I was totally shocked at what happened.”
Our first stop is the renowned barber’s Faisal. Its eponymous owner featured in the 2001 BBC 2 docu-soap (mentioned in walk 4) The Heart of Harlesden. I remember Faisal because he was a photographer as well as a barber. He had a studio downstairs and the shop upstairs. I wonder if he is still a photographer? Today, the shop is packed with assistants and customers – from toddlers to 30somethings.
I talk to Ben who is having a razor cut. How often does he come? “Every three weeks,” he says, “and I’ve been coming for 10 years. Since it started, in fact. I pay £12 for a fade.” Then, there’s a nudge from the barber. “Oh, it’s a skin fade not a fade,” he re-informs me. Faisal is not here today, he only comes in on Saturdays. back.
We wander past a Brazilian hairdresser’s, which only has one customer. It’s nearly 7pm. “I’m not being rude,” says June, “but you never see that shop full.” Then a bar and restaurant called West Coast. Does she go there? “Well, I went a few weeks ago for the after-party of a funeral, but I wouldn’t normally go. They’re not my sort of people. They’re too arrogant for me.”
As we pass the Job Centre Plus – in other words, the former site of the Edwardian Willesden Hippodrome – which is on a hill, June makes an admission. “You’re going to think I’m mad,” she says, “but I’m not. Last week, I spent an hour and a half leaning against that tree and in that time I counted 165 young women and prams going to the Job Centre Plus. They looked angry and disillusioned. But I felt enraged. So many of them are getting benefits and flats. That’s why some of them get pregnant. I felt disgusted. I don’t want to be part of a culture that is like that. Young girls can do some much with their future!! Why waste it! Babies are a blessing but I don’t believe in bringing poverty into poverty.”
Sometimes, it feels as if June is carrying this burden – that how she sees it, the boys without fathers, the girls who are obeying a certain unwritten babymother law – all herself. It’s the opposite of what she wants for herself or them. I can feel her passion and fear rising simultaneously. “In my culture, to be poor is to be bad,” she says despairingly, “that’s why ‘easy’ drugs money is so attractive.”
As if on cue, we pass the Christian bookshop fittingly called The Rock. We pop in for solace. Books like Everyday Jesus Healing Wounds with a plaster on the cover, pink prayer books for girls, a bible especially for brides, a special sort of soft mints with stripes (“You get those in Jamaica,” says June), flowery Jesus bags. It’s an old-fashioned shop, which I could imagine finding in a suburb of Kingston. Yes, Kingston, Jamaica.
Next door is what I think is a skincare and shampoo shop. But we turn a corner and there it is. A sea of hair. Hair in packets hanging everywhere. Wavy, fiercely curly, straight, startlingly blonde, brown, black. All manner of hair. Real, not real. I’ve never seen so much hair in one place. They’re called things like Remi and Milky Way. I knew about the hairdresser’s and barber’s in Harlesden, but I had managed to totally miss out on the hair shops. This is hair for sale en masse. Of course, real hair is more expensive. And June wants real hair.
The slight, 30something man selling the hair, is Afghan. Another customer called Edith – she’s wearing a pretty brown and blonde lace, I’m an expert now – has come from Harrow on a hair mission. “There are twelve hair shops in Harlesden,” she explains. “I might keep a lace in for three months but then it will get uncomfortable. That’s what’s happening now. I’m getting ready for the weekend with my boyfriend and I want to give my head a rest so I’m looking for a wig, a long wig.”
I can’t believe how many hair shops there are in such a small area. Again I’m stunned at the effort and money that goes into these women’s hair. I say so. Loudly. “Yeah, we put hair first and health second,” giggles Edith who works in the City, “it’s our life, and we are willing to go the extra distance. My boyfriend is English and he’s still getting used to it.”
Why? Oh Why? “It means they can have a different hairstyle every day,” explains the doe-eyed Afghan assistant who says his family have been in the UK for 15 years, and now have a lovely big house near Finsbury Park. He might work in Harlesden but he doesn’t live here. The hair business is evidently good business.
In the meantime, the ‘girls’ are admiring each other’s laces. Edith is sporting the eye-catching blonde and brown one, whilst June has a rather more demure black one. “That one is too over-the-top for me, it’s too much,” says June, “ I couldn’t wear that at work.” It’s fascinating that she is so disapproving. Hmm, do I hear the murmurings of a hair war?
Back out on the street, the shutters are going down on the nail shop, Hollywood. However, the former The Green Man, – a pub just down from the Royal Oak, which also opened in 1839, but now a Portuguese restaurant – is thronging with people. “My granddad will be back from Jamaica in April, he goes there in the winter,” says June, ”then you’ll find him in the Misty Moon up the road at this time in the evening.”
Did she ever go to Dreams nightclub? “Yeah, I went when I was young, like 14,” she says, “but I wouldn’t go now. There’s a club there called NW10. Did you see what those girls were wearing to Dreams in The Heart Of Harlesden?” “Yep,” I reply, “almost nothing, and the camera was constantly focusing on their behinds, often barely covered behinds.” “Oh, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “The girls would arrive late at like at 4 in the morning just to make an entrance. They liked to think they were stars. It was all a status thing.”
It’s 8pm as we walk past the rest of the hair shops, hairdresser’s and barber’s. Most are closing. June just pops into one to check how much it would cost to have a ponytail. No, not that kind of ponytail. “It’s a way of grooming the hair to the side,” she says.
Evidently, I’ve still got a lot to learn…