Monday, 26 May 2014

When pedestrian is anything but

Friday was one of those remarkable days when exploring the city on foot pays dividends. I walked 6km around the city centre and an area of Leeds I don't know at all - Armley.

Armley for me meant two things - the Victorian gaol that glowers down at the big roundabout and Mike's Carpets, the former Methodist church that's been a cheap carpet shop for about 30 years.  I knew nothing more about it than that. No longer needing a cut price roll end of carpet for a bedsit, nor knowing anyone at the prison I'd had no reason to visit it.

As part of my radio homework for my mentor, I needed to get out to an area I didn't know or feel at home in, and find someone to interview on a more news-y story. I thought of a couple if possible things to investigate further and off I set.

First I had a couple of things to do in the city centre itself. It was a beautiful sunny day and walking about was a pleasure. I chatted to a few of the market traders I like - Joe and Liam, my two favourite fishmongers, Sue at the wonderful B&M Fabric stall - and got some of the market gossip. It's a hotbed of friendships and rivalries, and always interesting.

I met Liam when getting an interview about the affect of the market car park closure on local trade the other week and liked him immediately. He's so passionate and enthusiastic about what he does... pretty much my favourite things. He'd worked for a big fishmonger on the corner, struck out on his own with a weekly oyster bar, and planned for months his perfect fishmonger's stall.
It is a thing of beauty. Big mirrors at the side of his shop create the illusion it's much bigger than it is. Standing near the carefully arrange display you see beautiful fish and shellfish stretching out to infinity between the reflections. The tiles are a glossy black rectangles laid like bricks - it's very 1930s chic. The giant refrigerator units behind the stall are covered in chalkboard, with all the fish and shellfish listed. It's classy, it's attractive and it makes me want to sip champagne and eat oysters. I settled for some samphire to go with the evening's mackerel.

After a bit more pottering in town, I took the bus to Armley Town Street. I had it in mind to visit the Pay As You Feel Cafe on the corner of Chapel Street - even bag an interview if I could.

It's a fabulous idea - taking waste food from supermarkets, restaurants, and the Leeds Market and making meals from it. Slightly wrinkled peppers are still delicious when roasted, and being beyond a sell-by date doesn't stop an apple tasting great in a pie. The Cafe takes makes its dishes from the donated, discarded food and just asks people to donate whatever they feel like. It's a beautiful concept.

As it is run mostly by volunteers and on a shoe-string, it is closed some days its opening hours say it will be open. The nature of the enterprise, I guess, but very frustrating when I arrived to find a closed door and no information. I'd asked ahead of time on Facebook and Twitter whether they would be open as usual but got no reply until the following evening. Ah well.

I had also read of a study by Professor David Dunstan of Queen Mary University of London, saying the best way to get rid of snails was to remove them to wasteland about 20m away. With the RHS publishing a recent survey that 20% of gardeners admit to throwing snails over the fence to their neighbours' gardens, I thought I might be able to visit the Armley allotments and get some comments.

That didn't work out either.  No one was working on the allotments at the time, despite the glorious day.

Hmm, my bid to find some audio for Andrew wasn't going very well.

I went to the library/one stop shop to browse the notices and posters in the hope of finding something newsworthy. I got advice from a lady there for a good cafe to visit for lunch and headed that way. I really enjoyed my stroll along the main street - I hadn't realised what a huge Eastern European community lived in Armley. Many overheard conversations were in what I assume to be Polish, as they were between the shoppers and staff in the many Polish shops. It felt wonderfully multicultural. Browsing the food shelves was brilliant -I picked up some packet foods to try with the kids - chocolate drink, toffee pudding - and promised myself I'd bring my Very Excellent Mate Rach's 8 year old daughter Delilah for a poke around the shops. She's teaching herself Polish and is very keen.

The recommended cafe looked packed so I walked along to the lovely Nurture Cafe run for St George's Crypt.  The Crypt is a Leeds charity for the homeless and has been doing great work for many years. The cafe is part of that - it provides cheap and delicious food at a small profit - my sandwich was wonderful - and also feeds homeless people with a St George's Crypt voucher a free hot meal.

I love those vouchers and have bought them in the past. They are £5 for a book of 5. Each one entitles the bearer to a hot bath or shower at the Crypt and a hot meal in one of their 3 cafes. Rather than giving small change to someone asking in the street, you can give them the voucher and know they can get a proper dinner. I think it's such a smart way of helping people.

I had a quick chat with the women at the cafe about how it works, but they were too busy for a quick interview when it wouldn't be going on air to promote the Crypt's work. I don't blame them at all, but I couldn't spent 3 more hours in Armley just to pop back for a 2 minute chat. I'll save it for another day.

I did chat to a lovely bloke in one of the Polish shops about how the communities integrated, but he was too shy to speak into a microphone. He had very positive things to say, though.  This encouraged me as 2 octogenarian ladies I got talking to in the cafe had been vociferous in their anger and distrust of "foreigners taking over the place," and I had felt rather discouraged.

Still, I had no audio so I needed to get on with things.

Exploring some side streets I cam upon an unusual sight - what appeared to be a building site with a series of wedding marquees across half of the plot. I investigated further and met the very passionate Mr Khatana.  He was leader of the mosque that was now walls and rubble.  In order to have space for men and women to worship separately, they needed to expand. They were removing the roof and building a second storey on the existing building. However, this meant they had no mosque for 3 months.

Not a man to let such things get in his way, Mr Khatana ordered a several whopping great wedding marquees be erected to make a temporary mosque. It had interconnecting rooms, heaters, carpeted floors, a small study and a chandelier. The sides were drawn back on this hot sunny day, but could be laced up tight and were weather-proof for rainy days. A porta-cabin to the side housed toilets.  I loved it - such invention in the face of an obstacle, and such huge pride and enthusiasm from Mr Khatana for his mosque.  I had the grand tour, got my interview and was pressed very earnestly to come back and see the newly finished mosque later in the summer.

Woohoo! Audio! And a very pleasant experience as well.  I may not be happy with rules saying men and women must be segregated, but heck, what business is it of mine how the good folk of the mosque wish to worship? I love their spirit. Enthusiasm is one of my favourite things in people. I can't help but get swept along with their positivity. Mr Khatana had even pressed his phone number upon me so I could ring and find out when the new mosque was ready and have a tour then too.

Waiting for a bus back into town, I saw a bloke waiting in a car that had a UKIP poster on the window.  I asked if I could chat to him about the changes he's seen in Armley and how he felt about them.

Terry was a man with a lot of anger and frustration. He lived all his life in Armley, except for military service posted in Germany where he met and married his German wife. He learnt German, she learnt English. It was expected of her to adopt the culture of her new country.  Terry, as a white working class bloke, was in the majority, knew this place was his place.

Now, at age 63, he feels ousted from his home. He doesn't recognise the religion, traditions, language or food of many people who share Armley with him. Where many see the changing population of Leeds as bringing richness, depth and value to the city, Terry sees strangeness and feels alienation.

He said to me "I've become more of a racist." That shocked me, hearing him acknowledge and name it; I've only ever heard people say "I'm not racist but..."
He told me Friday was a no-go area where we were standing because of (Mr. Khatana's) mosque. That "them muslims" just abandon their cars all over the place when going to the mosque and that Terry "paid road tax."  I asked him if better parking facilities would sort out his concerns - not pointing out that the mosque attendees presumably paid their road tax too - and he said yes, parking would help but look at all the foreign shops and foreign people spending money there! It's bound to be benefit money they're spending. Look at this ghetto!

As the area was full of well-maintained terraced houses with tidy gardens, I did query what he meant exactly - it wasn't a graffiti covered dump, it looked nice here. He admitted that yes, it did look nice, but it was a ghetto in the sense that only muslims lived here now, and East Europeans had taken over the other bit.

"We've lost our voice. We use to have free speech but now all that's racist, or homophobic, or religion-phobic." He wanted the borders closed, and an agreement that people who came here did so with the intention of taking part in what he thought of as "our" culture, and spoke "our" language.

I've lived a sheltered little white, liberal life. I haven't had my home feel less mine, and I like people. I moved about a bit when I was young and I settled permanently in Leeds when I was 22. I feel the city is more mine each year, as I get to know it and its people better.
Terry had the opposite experience. He had a home, he felt it belonged to him and people like him. It altered over the years and he didn't alter with it. Now he's stuck in a mindset of distrust and resentment - wanting things to be as they were, finding petty reasons like parking or shop signs to hang his frustration on.  He can't get the home of his childhood back and he can't accept Armley as it  is now.

Views like Terry's disgust me when I see them in the paper, or hear them shouted by politicians aiming to stir up division for their own ambition. But I didn't dislike Terry. He was friendly and open towards me. I suspect if he were my neighbour he'd be the kind to loan me tools and put my bin out if I was away.

No, I'm saddened by the way our political discourse failed us so blokes like Terry can't find a way back. The two voices shout "close the borders" and "don't be a racist."  How does that help? We aren't going to - and shouldn't - close our borders. Heck, if we did, what about Terry's wife?  And yelling "Don't be racist," only vilifies people rather than engaging with them.
I think Terry'd be far happier if he really knew his new neighbours.  I expect if he actually met Mr Khatana in neutral circumstances they would get on - they both have a lot of pride in what they do and enjoy a good natter.

I'm glad I spent the day on foot in Armley. I learnt a lot more than I expected to.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this especially seeing how you persisted with your quest for a story and found one of real contrasts of the views of Terry and Mr Khatana, when really, and literally they are coming from the same place.
    If there was any way to get them together in a neutral and non confrontive environment, that would make a great story.