I'm up north in Huddersfield for a few days. To bring some Mediterranean colour to grey West Yorkshire winter, I've been cooking bulgur wheat pilafis, vegetables à la grecque, fried halloumi and penne alla putanesca. This evening I'm going to make fried rice to use up some left-over ham and mushrooms, and I needed a red pepper. These are freely available here even on New Year's Day, but t'was not ever thus. I went out to get one and walk around a bit for some much needed exercise and a memory trip. I won't call it nostalgia.
Ours is a rather run-down suburb of large industrial town. Ten minutes' drive from here there's beautiful countryside, picturesque farms, stone villages, weavers' cottages and cosy traditional pubs, a rarity in England now. However, you can't help feeling that the fact that you can get out of here easily is hardly a recommendation. In winter, it's bleak. Right now the sky's like a pile of wet floor cloths, and it seems as if water is oozing out of the garden walls and flagstones. Naked black trees line streets that are soggy with leaves and litter. Crows and pigeons skulk on television aerials and chimney pots, sodden and silent. I pass a row of shops that has been here as long as I can remember. Up to thirty-odd years ago there was a grocer's, a fish and chip shop, a cobbler's and a butcher's. At the grocer's, housewives queued for ages on Saturday mornings for spuds, sprouts, onions and carrots, and the fags that nobody then knew were threatening to kill them. Large numbers of Asian immigrants were starting to fill up the area, and some of the terrace houses were serving as madrassahs. Locals were hazy about the customs of the new immigrant population.
'Well shooley,' said Mrs Grocer to a Mrs Customer, 'a church is more holy than a house?'
'They dote worship God,' said Mrs Customer authoritatively. 'I know. They worship a prophet.'
Initially, the immigrants were reluctant to integrate, knowing how widely they were mistrusted, resented and misrepresented. To many of us, their otherness was total.
'I saw a Pakistani ont bus!' one of my mum's friends told her in a year when this was obviously a novelty and a threat.
'What's a Pakistani?' I asked.
'Ont bus, love,' she replied, mishearing.
So for a while I thought a 'Pakistani' was a species of bus, like a trolley or a coach.
The one time as a kid I had occasion to go into a Pakistani family's house, I was suffocated by a smell so powerful and so alien it felt almost like a physical barrier. I now know it was the smell of ghee, but then it was nasty and dirty: lurid fantasies about what these people ate were rife, and at school kids delighted in trying to put one another off their puddings by whispering 'thar in't chocolate sauce, it's Pakis' diarrhea!' The headmaster would periodically try to persuade the little girls to wear skirts instead of shalwaar kameez, and the dinner ladies expressed impatience at their refusal to eat meat, but how these kids were actually coping with the strangeness, rejection and prejudice was hardly ever considered. Still, curiosity made me want to build bridges. At the age of about twelve I took it into my head to learn Punjabi. I got a book from the library and tried to enlist some of the Pakistani kids who lived nearby to help. Initially they were very willing, but after a talking-to in Punjabi from a white-robed matriarch, they wouldn't come near me.
I walk past a small grassy hill known as the Banking where one sunny day decades ago some of us were playing when one of our party, Carl, decided it would be a good idea to belt another kid over the head with a plank of wood. So he did. She summoned her father, who came storming up to us and bellowed ' just oo der you think you are?'
Shocked and blinking, Carl took the question wholly literally: 'LuigiCarlGerrardToffolo,' he recited in the name-rank-and-serial-number way he always adopted when asked his name. He was about seven then. He died last year of the drink. Funny how things turn out, innit?
There's a big grocery store here on this corner. When I was a kid, it was an off-license run by a grumpy bachelor who bore a striking resemblance to Adolf Hitler, if somewhat more stout. He sold Vesta beef curries, which came dehydrated in a sachet: this was as culinarily adventurous as most people got around here at the time. On the shelf behind the counter there was a bottle of wine labelled 'Tiger Milk of Ranina', and it must have stood there for well over a decade, as nobody had a clue what it was. The shop later changed hands and was extended. As a teenager I was a regular customer for Carlsberg Special Brew, which the owner would sell me, no questions asked. Indeed it could be said that it was his enthusiastic commendation of this hooligan-strength lager that got me hooked in the first place, when I was about fifteen. Nowadays no doubt he'd be subject to the inquiries of assorted committees, so it's just as well he's dead. Today the place is owned by a group of hard-working Pakistani men. Under an awning, a display of oranges, lemons, peppers, ginger, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes and bunches of green herbs offers a striking contrast to the surrounding grey, and inside there's every spice you'll ever need for Indian cooking, so I'm a big fan. It's open fourteen hours a day. Strictly no booze. I buy my red pepper and a lump of ginger root. I remember my grandma suspiciously sniffing a lump of ginger I had just cut in half. The smell was obviously as powerful and alien to her as ghee had been to me. 'It smells like bleach!' she said, horrified that I was about to put it into our lunch.
Just past the shops on our right is the house where a kid I knew from infant school spent his first decade or so. Ivan had been a transvestite probably from the time he was a foetus. He was extravagantly camp at the age of six, and when not at school would be clattering along the streets, powdered and rouged, in a frilly frock and a pair of his mother's high heels which fitted his feet as turds fit piss-pots, as they say up here. He had a friend called Jaqueline whom he had determined to marry, and gender roles be damned. Ivan went to the shop across the road from school and along with a Club chocolate orange biscuit for playtime, purchased a tasteful ring in thick black plastic with a bright green skull on it. I was the officiating priest at their wedding in the school playground. Other boys as always were tearing around pretending to be fighter jets. (Yawn) Some time ago I read a review of Billy Elliot by Roger Ebert. He says: 'The character of the transvestite Michael in particular seems based more on wishful thinking than on plausible reality: would a gay boy of his age in this neighbourhood of this town in 1984 be quite so sure of himself?' I thought immediately of Ivan, who at half Michael's age in a similar neighbourhood twenty years earlier never had a daunt.
I doubt if I will ever come back to live here permanently. To be fair, it's almost always in grey, wet, windy winter when I visit. On the rare occasions that I'm here in summer I'm struck by the greenness of the streets and hill sides, and it must be admitted that the view across the Colne Valley from my bedroom window is pretty impressive at anytime of the year.
|Not my photo or the present season, but pretty much what I'm looking at now.|