By Bernard Hare LEEDS – I’ve always liked the Beeston area of Leeds. I was brought up in neighbouring East End Park in the 60s. My first memories are of me and my mum travelling to Beeston early in the morning on the 61 bus. My auntie, who lived there, looked after me while mum went to work. My auntie had guard geese in the garden. I’ll always remember those aggressive, squabbling birds – but it never occurred to me to ask why they needed guard geese in Beeston when we didn’t need them in East End Park. Beeston was always kind of rough. I’m sitting at the Formica tables outside Cafe Mack’s trying to understand how outside perceptions of Beeston (typically, a “breeding ground for terrorists”) differs from the reality of living here. Mick Mac, the co-proprietor, seems to know everyone. “Hey up, Jimmy, have you had them whippets castrated yet? Manjit, where’s them flowers you were bringing round?” I wonder aloud: “And the terrorists?” “There’s a lot of rubbish written about Beeston,” Mac tells me. “People here really do work hard to try to get on.” One popular misconception is that Beeston is primarily an Asian area. Let me quote from an article by “undercover” reporter Ali Hussain published in the Times earlier this month. “Voices babbled in Urdu and Sylheti … Thick-bearded men in robes strolled the streets … This could almost be an Asian city, I thought, rather than Beeston, the suburb of Leeds where two of the July 7 bombers had lived.” True, thick-bearded men in robes do stroll the streets, but so do red-faced men with tattoos and no shirts, hoop-earringed chav girls, introverted Somalis and outgoing Poles. In fact, only 18% of the population of Beeston Hill and Holbeck are of Asian origin (according to the 2001 census). In Beeston, numerous communities live side by side. There are asylum seekers and refugees from all corners of the world, as well as many people of a mixed-race or mixed-heritage background, but the largest part of the population remains the white working class. Disaffected youth, limited opportunities, a sense of social exclusion, maybe even a feeling of betrayal is common across all ethnic groups in Beeston, because Beeston is a poor area on the wrong side of the tracks. Some disaffected Asian youths turn to their Muslim heritage in search of identity. Some disaffected white kids express their lack of identity through self-destructive behaviour and crime. In the late 80s, I worked at the YMCA youth centre on Beeston Hill. We did some innovative anti-racist work with local kids. It closed, along with most of the other local youth provision, in 1990 after a round of Tory cuts. Looking back, it seems a short-sighted social policy. Walking around, I find it hard to get people to talk. The community has closed ranks. Everyone is media-weary and media-wary. “The media flooded into the area after the London bombings and many people felt they were misrepresented,” says Ed Carlisle, as we sit in his terrace-end garden in the heart of the “terrorist breeding ground”. The terrorist threat seems far away. “This street is great,” he says. “There are eight or nine different ethnic groups, including refugees, migrant workers, local working class and even me from down south. People just hang out, swap gardening tips and share ice pops or the odd beer.” Carlisle works for Together For Peace, which makes partnerships to foster understanding between people from different backgrounds. Hamara, Asha, and dozens of other community groups are doing great work in the area, he says, and the festival mela this year was a big success. Thousands came from all backgrounds without a hint of trouble. “Something good might come of this yet. Hopefully, 7/7 should have shaken us all out of our complacency – in Leeds and everywhere. Certainly in Beeston, a lot of people are living and working all the harder to make this place a better and more deeply peaceful place to live.” I like Carlisle’s style and I give him my every support, but somewhere in the back of my mind I can’t help thinking about those guard geese. Bernard Hare is a writer based in Leeds. His memoir Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew is published by Sceptre. This is the first in a series of occasional columns.
The Dutch immigration minister says she will look into the legality of banning the burqa, the robes worn by some Muslim women to cover their bodies. Rita Verdonk made the pledge after a majority in parliament said it would support such a ban. The proposal was put forward by independent politician Geert Wilders. “That women should walk the streets in a totally unrecognisable manner is an insult to everyone who believes in equal rights,” he said. “This law is a comfort to moderate Muslims and will contribute to integration in the Netherlands,” he added in a statement. His proposal is supported by two of the parties in the governing centre-right coalition, as well as the opposition right-wing party founded by the late Pim Fortuyn. Mrs Verdonk did not say when she might complete her investigation. If the Netherlands does decide to ban the burqa, it will be the first European country to do so.