After our recent interview with Westway Trust, this conversation took place:
Tom (slapping table with hand): “I think we’ve written as much as we can about this Portobello redevelopment. Let’s move on…”
Angel Lewis: “Yeah, there are so many topics we can write about, (gazing in to the distance) the whole human experience is open to Urban Dandy…”,
9th November, two days before the Westway23/Westway Trust public meeting at the Tabernacle, text message Tom to Angel Lewis: “WT have now pulled out saying they couldn’t guarantee the safety of their staff”.
Reply: “Seriously? Or are you kidding?”
Reply: “That’s what a guy handing out flyers just told me”.
We were forwarded an email exchange between the parties that confirmed that Westway Trust had decided not to participate, one of the reasons being cited was indeed the “well-being” of the WT staff, and they had instead suggested meeting a small group from Westway23 in order to provide more detailed responses to their concerns. No explanation for the sudden security concerns was given, nor was an apology.
Toby Laurent Belson, Artist/Designer/Organiser at Westway23 told Urban Dandy: “It is a degrading statement for them to make. I am personally insulted by the suggestion that any member of the Westway Trust would be unsafe in the midst of a community meeting I have been a part of organising, taking place at one of this area’s most venerated and well-run venues. I have attended countless meetings in this community in which I have only ever seen a put-upon community respond to issues with consideration and passion”.
He explained that W23 still received no apology. “Neither myself, nor any other member of Westway23 or its supporters, have received any reasonable explanation, let alone an apology for it, despite clearly communicating the distress it has caused”.
We asked Councillor Pat Mason, who is the Labour Group’s representative on the Westway Trust board, what he made of the no-show decision and whether it was symptomatic of a deeper malaise at the Trust. He told us: “I advised the trust Chair and Chief Executive to attend the Westway23 Tabernacle public meeting, saying they should not operate in a vacuum without the input of local people and without giving people the right to ask questions, scrutinise their actions, and to suggest what strategies the trust should follow for the future.
“Unfortunately, they decided not to attend because they are locked into the belief that local people should be commenting on and suggesting improvements to the trust’s proposals and strategies, rather than accepting that local people do not support what they are doing and have a completely different vision for their area. So any kind of strongly-voiced opposition to what is being proposed is experienced as unpalatable by trust directors”.
“This disconnect with the community is a historical problem born from the hijacking of the trust by Kensington & Chelsea Council from its inception and used as a vehicle to advance Council regeneration policies and to prevent real community representatives and groups, who were always branded as trouble-makers, from managing their own assets and making decisions beneficial to their communities.
For several decades, the trust has been run as if it were a castle bordered by a moat and peopled by the Council’s grandees who have ingrained their philosophy of neo liberal top down decision-making on the organisation which is a hard mould to break. The trust now has less Community representatives and elected Councillors, and more professional appointees on its board than it had a year ago. It was set up to go down the corporate route and that process will continue unless the local community backs up its wish for an alternative vision with real actions”.
Westway Trust send Urban Dandy this statement: “We took the difficult decision to withdraw our attendance from the meeting organised by Westway23 as we believed attending would not lead to constructive outcomes. It is unfair to expect someone to attend a meeting not knowing who is presenting alongside you, what the agenda is, who the audience is, who is facilitating or how it will be managed.
Having a community meeting is very positive and we support the principle, if you know the details and what to expect. We were informed about some of the details of the meeting from the Press ahead of being told by the organisers. There was always an air of mystery to the meeting, which did not encourage staff to feel confident about attending.
Westway Trust regularly liaises with more than 70 local groups and working with a small group of leaders, who have proposals to discuss, has proven to be the most productive way to make progress. We remain keen to have a meeting with a group representing Westway 23 at their earliest convenience.
We are committed to working collaboratively and positively with all local groups, including Westway23, and want to encourage those that attended the meeting on Wednesday to bring forward their ideas for improving the estate so that we can find a mutually beneficial approach.”
W23’s Toby offers a different route forward: “At some point an organisation set up to consider and listen to the community must do just that. It cannot continue to play politics and bury its head in the sand as people’s lives are threatened ever more seriously by economic and environmental realities. It cannot continue to treat people as idiots on the subject of their own lives.
Wounds, injuries, pain and injustice do not disappear through ignorance or denial. They only bury deeper and spread wider. Without beginning a fundamental process of healing and reparation, the damage simply continues down through generations. In my opinion, that is what we are seeing here and a genuine healing process is what Westway23 have been set up to assist our community in going through. We are trying to be open and honest and shine a light on uncomfortable truths that will hopefully reveal a better, healthier, more nourishing future. I hope the Trust can come around to being a part of that future and put the skills they do have behind those of the local community”.
13th November email, Tom to Angel Lewis: “I’ve written it up, but what would be a good way end to the article?”
Reply: “I dunno…we can say anything, we’re Urban Dandy…”
It’s almost a year since this touching article spewed out of me. I don’t mean to offend when I say it almost takes another artist to understand what it means to have to exorcise that thing that’s running around inside your head. It’s like an emotional release that can almost claim to be the main reason you resumed sleeping deeply again.
Still there were lingering thoughts regarding why the sad event happened. Even among the community that suffered the losses, there were questions, hunches, blame and rumours. The painful story was expressed already and as the flowers have dried and the caskets have been filled and buried it makes no sense for me to personally revisit the event in any detail, so here’s how The Guardian puts our questions to rest.
Press Association Tuesday 20 October 2015 12.51 BST
Shelley Christopher denies two counts of murder and one of attempted murder by reason of insanity.
A woman killed her partner and their four-year-old daughter to prevent the world being taken over by vampires, a court has heard.
Shelley Christopher, 36, was mentally ill when she stabbed 42-year-old Richard Brown 29 times and her daughter Sophia six times before inserting wooden objects into their bodies.
Christopher also attacked another child and put a pencil in her body, but despite her injuries, the girl survived, prosecutor Crispin Aylett QC told jurors. She cannot be identified.
Christopher, of Notting Hill in west London, went to a mental health unit in north Kensington in February, two days before the killings, and told staff that someone was out to get her. She refused pleas to stay at the unit and went home.
She is on trial at the Old Bailey on two counts of murder and one of attempted murder, which she denies by reason of insanity.
Opening the trial, Aylett told jurors: “I’m afraid that this is a distressing case which you will find both terrible and tragic. Ms Christopher was later to tell a psychiatrist that, on the day of the killings, she had received a signal instructing her to kill her family in order to prevent the world from being taken over by vampires.
“The signal had come from a lightbulb in the ceiling. She had done – or tried to do – what she was told. After she had attacked each of them with a knife, the lightbulb had told her to put something wooden into each of their chests in order to stop them from becoming vampires.
“That Ms Christopher must have been mentally unwell at this time is borne out by the findings of the doctors who examined the victims. From Richard’s chest cavity, the pathologist recovered part of a child’s paint brush. The pathologist who examined Sophia’s body retrieved part of a pencil.”
A psychiatrist concluded that Christopher, who is now in a secure hospital, had been suffering from a psychotic illness, most likely paranoid schizophrenia, at the time.
Aylett told jurors that when a defendant enters a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, it was for them, not a judge or psychiatrist, to decide the case on the evidence.
Police found the bodies of Brown and Sophia when they went to the family home on 27 February, days after the killings.
They discovered Brown in the bath and Sophia in bed with a towel over her face, the court heard. Her chest had been covered with coloured plasters and a plastic flower was placed in her right hand.
Social services alerted officers after Christopher attended St Mary’s hospital with the injured child the day before. When doctors operated, they removed a 6.5cm-long broken pencil from the child’s chest.
After her arrest, Christopher told a psychiatrist the colours red, orange and green had become significant to her, with red meaning that she or someone in her family was going to be killed.
She said she had left the mental health unit at St Charles hospital before her assessment was complete because she thought there were vampires there.
On 19 February, she said she had received an orange signal instructing her to kill in order to prevent the world being taken over by vampires. First, she attacked the surviving child, by strangling and then stabbing her with a plastic flower and a small knife.
When Brown arrived with Sophia and asked what was going on, Christopher said: “You’re one of them. You’re a vampire.” She then stabbed him repeatedly in the chest.
She told the psychiatrist that Brown’s eyes had changed colour and he had tried to bite her with his fangs. According to her account, Sophia cried out “no mummy!” and when Christopher asked her if she was “one of them”, the girl replied “yes, I am mummy,” so she stabbed her too.
Aylett told jurors that if they agreed with the assessment, Christopher would receive a hospital order and return to the secure unit where she would remain “for some considerable time to come”.
You will have already read our blog about the predicament facing the Kensington Park Hotel and what it means for the local area.
We thought it would be interesting to follow this up by gaging local reaction to the news that KPH might soon be closing to make way for flats for the rich. Rather than stating the obvious (that the public supports KPH and opposes the building of more luxury homes,) your intrepid dandies set out to ask local businesses what they thought.
Methodology: We asked everyone, indiscriminately and inclusively as long as their business was situated a stone’s throw from the KPH…
Receptionist: ‘I’m not from the area, nobody in here is’
UD: ‘What? Nobody? About 50 people have passed through the reception area since we’ve been here’
UD: ‘But what do you think about the fact that a local music venue is closing?’
An inauspicious start, but we headed north, away from their mirrored windows, closer to KPH…
‘They should let it run, it’s a good place for music. They bring lots of people, they should keep it open’
‘It’s a charming venue. The area is much more diverse now since they improved it’
‘It’s a shame especially because they spend lots of money here, the KPH buy from here’
‘If they become a chain they will buy elsewhere not from local shops’
UD note: Chain being the pertinent word as this would break many links in the chain of supported stores.
‘They are our customers, he uses our services’ (her colleague looking on curiously)
‘Why?’ (distressed now)
‘Oh no! That’s a shame, it’s a very nice place. I know the staff working there, I go there a lot. I never go to the other pub, this one is friendly, everyone is going there, why they want to close? I think it’s not a good idea.
UD: ‘Why do you like it so much?
‘It’s just KPH’
‘I would like to live in this area because it’s nice; rich people live here, poor people live here, it’s very nice, it’s not like this everywhere’
(Staff member expressed surprise when we informed him, bearing in mind you don’t normally go to banks for a chat about local goings on, but we’re just UD and we had to seek that balance) ‘You mean Mr.Powers (sic)? The Mean Fiddler? I’m local to the Mean Fiddler so I know him’ (What followed was all positive but off the record so the iron eagle doesn’t swoop on this friendly soul)
‘It might be closing? I didn’t know, but good I’m happy. The manager keeps parking on our premises without asking. So I don’t go there. Well, I went there once, but not any more’
‘Compared to the way it used to be its a lot better, the clientele is better. He should just ask and I would probably say yes if he has the decency but on a business level it’s a conflict of interest. If rich people move in they might buy furniture from me. We’re a mid-range furniture shop’
‘On the broader picture, I’m completely opposed to this sort of thing, it affects communities and it’s not good for society. It’s always nice to have a local pub and it’s sad to see this type of thing happening’
Estate Agents John D. Wood & Co
‘We go there for drinks a lot, I didn’t know that it might be closing. He turned it all around. That’s a shame, it’s been there for such a long time. It was a mess before he came in and did what he did’
‘We now go there and that’s testimony to what he has achieved’
‘Yeah it’s right in the area and we go in and say hello to him. It should stay, well those are my thoughts. It’s such a shame, what’s happening in London’
(At this point I must say, it seems to sound a little scripted but in truth these are the unadulterated views of the local businesses surrounding the venue)
Local Chip shop
‘I don’t personally drink but it’s sad if it’s going, it’s bad enough having a Cafe Nero over there (pointing),it’s a bit like an extension of Holland Park and not Ladbroke Grove. Like all of these coffee shops, there’s no unique coffee shops anymore, there’s no authenticity’
‘I grew up in this area, now I travel here for work and the area is changing, it’s all for rich people now’
Local Betting Shop
‘Huh? I’m only here covering for the day’ (Okay, moving on swiftly)
Estate Agents Bective Leslie Marsh
(Now here’s a surprise) ‘We weren’t aware of that…I’m stunned, I didn’t know’
(A suited, authoritative looking character stands up and takes over the conversation)
‘Great music venue upstairs. I’ve been to some great gigs there. I thought it was listed as a place of community value. If people realised what was really going on they’d be gutted.
The problem with this area is you can’t go out and drink because it was all built by the methodist church back then. If people knew what was going on….gutted. If there’s a petition going around, I’ll sign it’
‘Yeah I’d be happy to participate. Y’see, Golborne Road end is more community and the Portobello end is now more sanitised. We’ve seen that reflected in property prices; rich people moving to the area now want to live on Golborne instead of Portobello because they see it as authentic. The community is what gives the area its value. The property value is actually based on the community’
‘It will be sad to see it go’
Post Office/News Agent
‘Business is good while they are there, I can sell my cans to their customers for £1.00 while they are there charging £4 a pint’ (smiling)
‘I didn’t know they were closing. It’s improved a lot’
‘I didn’t know (UD note: nobody knows) – it’s a great pub, but it’s what’s happening everywhere’
‘The music is great. It’s weird, to hear classical music played that loud. At first, we had no idea what was going on (laughing) but it’s a great pub’.
UD: ‘The council is assisting the speculators in taking it over’
‘That’s no surprise, they would have got rid of us if we weren’t just the ground floor. Everything in this area will be flats soon’.
…that’s how Kensington Park Hotel and its proprietor, Vince Power could be described. But the continued existence of this much-loved pub and music venue are under threat from the wave of gentrification sweeping West London.
Sitting in the KPH with my fellow Dandies early one morning was an experience not obtainable at Café Nero over the road. In the upstairs Grove Theatre, a sense of 150 years of history pervaded and stimulated conversations about life, politics, love, incarceration, slavery, music and more. By the time our host, Mr Power, arrived, we were fully absorbed by the ambience of the theatre’s vintage arm chairs, the old photographs and the Beethoven blasting out from the bar downstairs.
On that night was Plurabelles, a performance exploring the evocation of women in James Joyce’s writing, priced at £5. Coming soon might be a luxury penthouse flat for the rich, as speculators seek to acquire KPH and turn a quick profit.
Kensington and Chelsea council talks a good game about preserving the bohemian character of the area, but the council has stripped the KPH of its status as an “asset of community value” on the technicality that the title had been applied for by supporters of the pub, known as KPH United.
Power has found himself embattled. In court, the speculators SWA Developments, in the judge’s words, used the “kitchen sink method”, utilising every conceivable legal method and technicality, to try to force through the sale.
SWA now own the freehold, so KPH’s best hope for survival is to obtain listing as an English Heritage building. Power sees the best case scenario as the pub being bought by the community, which would keep the freehold safe. Without such a move, even if KPH survives in the short term, the speculators will start circling again soon enough.
Power’s legal battle has forced SWA to back down on its plans, revealed in court papers, to change the ground floor “from a public house to another commercial use” but of course this is no guarantee that what replaces the KPH will be anything other than more sanitary gentrification in an area fast losing its charm.
Sitting with him in the bar downstairs, it became clear that profit is not Power’s driving force. In fact, Power had the aura of a Laotian Buddhist monk, speaking with a knowing compassion that cut through ego and put his guests at ease.
As we sit, Power chats easily about politics, society, the local area and music. Having lived between Kilburn and Ladbroke Grove for 50 years, he believes passionately in the multi-cultural London that KPH is a part of. He stated “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in London. It’s this mix of people that gives children an understanding of their fellow human beings”.
As he held court, Power broke off now and again from the KPH story to make observations on politics or on passers-by. He seems to understand how all things are connected. At one point he stopped what he was saying and pointed at three women wearing hijabs over the road, holding an animated conversation as they rooted around in their handbags. “I bet those ladies have got some stories to tell” he says. He reflects on gentrification and the destruction of inclusive communities, drawing a straight line between a society in which some people have no sense of belonging and the decision of some Londoners to travel to Syria to join ISIS. And this connects to the UK’s planning laws, which he describes as “so wide that they’re written for the developer” with loopholes that allow investors to evade the building of social housing.
But Vince Power is no nostalgic romantic, he has made things happen throughout his career. The transformation of the KPH has been remarkable and he has balanced the need for change with preserving the pub’s inclusivity. Down the road is a mental health day care centre and Power is happy to welcome its patients for their lunchtime drink, unlike some local landlords. Prior to the KPH, Power made his name running the Mean Fiddler, Benicàssim among other festivals, as well as organising the Sex Pistols’ Finsbury Park reunion. Locally, Power had Subterranea and the Ion Bar, which is now Sainsburys Local.
KPH is a viable, profitable business with great potential. Unlike SWA’s plans for the building, it works. The only access to the rooms upstairs is through the pub, so how it can be changed in to flats while maintaining a public house downstairs is a mystery yet to be explained by the speculators.
The few remaining venues like KPH generate much of the interest in the area that attracts the tourists and investors. They represent the area’s last stand against the imposition of an arid future. The area’s qualities are traded on to make money, but once they’re gone, the value they provided will be gone too. In this way gentrification destroys the thing that was used to attract people in the first place.
“Spaces for creativity, spaces for spiritual enlightenment, spaces for cultural celebration…”
Parts one and two looked at the Westway Trust’s initial proposals for the space under the Westway and Westway23’s response. But, what is Westway23’s positive vision? I spoke to Toby Laurent Belson, Artist/Designer/Organiser at Westway23, aware that the Westway Trust’s approach won’t be challenged effectively without a credible alternative.
“We want wellbeing through healthy minds and bodies that can fulfil Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. Also spirituality and a connection to the earth and a larger purpose. We want opportunity. Break all of that back down to concrete ideas and you have spaces for creativity, spaces for spiritual enlightenment, spaces for cultural celebration, spaces for education, spaces for socialising, spaces for health, spaces for innovation, spaces for the development of people in ways that do not limit their potential. All of it led by and initiated by people who are hardly ever given the reigns to such things”.
How does this contrast to what is happening at the moment? “This area – the Westway Trust and the council – sells itself for a dollar amount on the image of diversity and creativity. Yet those who are actually responsible for that image struggle to survive, let alone prosper”.
So what will work instead? “Let’s have a can-do attitude. A ‘Why Not?’ outlook for our people that extends further than tired, top-down developments that could be anywhere in the world.
The 23-acres of the Westway has always been there to fulfil the wants and needs of the local people and it has been kept away from them”.
To this end, Westway23 has organised itself in to five sub-groups: Marketing, Fundraising, Legal, Research and Alternative Vision, with members designated to each based on their area of expertise or profession. As well as lobbying on behalf of the community, Westway23 told Urban Dandy that it “is supporting community members and organisations currently facing challenges on, and in many cases eviction from, the 23 acres as a direct result of Westway Trust’s actions”.
On the fifth of July Westway23 held a demonstration attended by hundreds of people who marched along the route of the 23 acres. Children mixed with drummers, flamenco dancers, artists, teachers, bohemians, normals and Martin. This followed an earlier march to Holland Park Opera House, beneficiary of millions of pounds of public money, despite it being a loss maker.
Westway23 are active, drumming every Sunday on Portobello Green (weather permitting) and with regular Wednesday evening meetings at the Venture Centre. Keep up to date here: http://www.westway23.org/.
Metres away from the Westway on Ladbroke Grove, the KPH pub is under threat from private developers/speculators who want to build more flats for the affluent. Meanwhile, across the borough, children are being displaced in to insecure, inadequate temporary accommodation miles away as government cuts to local government budgets are deepened. Many families earn their poverty in insecure, under-paid jobs. In these circumstances, people rely on their culture to provide attachments and a sense of identity, worth and shared values; a sense of belonging.
Under such pressure, uncertainty and insecurity define the economic, political and family life of communities. It is appropriate that people look to the custodians of the 23 acres, the Westway Trust. But how will they respond? Their updated Portobello Village proposals are fresh off the press, see here and Urban Dandy has requested an interview. Watch this space.
Part two, “Community isn’t something you can just use as a colourful backdrop to your daily activities”
(Read part one, in which we explained what’s going on and how and why Westway23 was born, here).
Westway23 states that they are not opposed to change along the 23 acres of land set for upheaval under plans drawn up by the Westway Trust. Their protest isn’t against change, but against incongruent change implemented without due consideration for the community. Acting chair of Westway23 Niles Hailstones told me, “They (the Westway Trust) say ‘we had to do something’ – this is a disrespectful comment. They should have talked to the community at the beginning. It’s an abuse of power by the Westway Trust and the council”.
But the Westway Trust is big on celebrating the local community, I point out. “People put on clothes that say ‘community,’ but community isn’t something you can just use as a colourful backdrop to your daily activities” Niles responds, “look at the ‘About Us’ page on the Westway Trust website, look at the photo, does that represent the Westway Trust management team?”
I asked Niles how the area is changing more generally; “This area was known for its political and social conscience, everyone was in the same boat. Now, there’s millionaires living next to people signing on”.
Westway Trust states that it was “formed out of protest” but Westway23 points to their track record as concerning. “Look at Acklam, where Westway Trust started,” Niles tells me, “Acklam Hall, the playground – these were in the original mandate, but they no longer exist. They used the same language to get rid of them – ‘regeneration,’ ‘development’”.
“An era of music was born at Acklam that continues to enrich the area. This shows how resourceful we are. But they only see resource as meaning money, they don’t value our resources. We have access to resources that they can’t attract, like people who will agree to contribute to something worthwhile”.
“There’s an ideology behind all the plans – retail, private flats, office space are top of their list”.
On such gentrification, Sylvia Parnell of the Portobello Café Society states that “it’s what’s happening everywhere: people imposing their ideas on a community”.
Niles agrees: “They think they know better, it’s part of the colonial attitude. Gentrification refers to the gentry. The gentry is a class. So it’s not just about money, it’s a class battle. The elite got rich out of the enslavement and exploitation of African people and resources. That’s going on to this day and it’s flippant to think that it isn’t connected to everyday life”.
Westway23 is switched on to the dangers it perceives in gentrification, wherever it appears. Toby Laurent Belson, Artist/Designer/Organiser for the group explains how he sees the problem: “It’s a loss of diverse human cultures being able to stay in a place and exist with a sense of freedom and agency. It goes without saying that if people cannot feel comfortable, emotionally, socially or materially, then they will leave”.
And, how about our area specifically? “Here, it’s being exacerbated by the local council’s apparent mission to socially cleanse the area. We have traditionally had a great mix of people, many of whom belong to a socio-economic class at the lower end of the spectrum. Current planning intends quite clearly to alter the demographic with a programme of “regeneration” which means knocking down current social housing stock, replacing it with new buildings that will typically see the loss of open space, loss of community facilities and denser populations in what is already the most densely populated borough in the country. The resultant housing stock is likely to contain the usual mix of shared ownership and market rate properties – out of the reach of anyone on less than 70k annual salary. Social housing will be replaced with smaller units that many families will be unable to practically relocate to”.
Picking up on Niles’s point about class battle, Toby views what is happening as “a direct attack on our communities, wrapped up as ‘economic viability’ by those who do not live day to day with the realities of life in the Grove. Or Shepherds Bush. Or Brixton. Or Hackney and so on…” Westway23 is actively engaged with other, like minded organisations in these areas, he tells me.
“The wonders of our diverse and genuinely special community – and others across London – simply cannot survive in an authentic manner because we are forced to adapt to this economic juggernaut”.
And, in the face of such an economic force, how does he rate the performance of the Westway Trust?
“The Westway Trust has failed to provide any permanent or outstanding use of any space to celebrate and support the community. We actually see closures of art spaces and community children’s centres. We see inaccessible, dead space and 20-year services threatened with eviction. We have a sprawling sports centre that was bought with Lottery money; we have a monolithic and moody structure across 23 acres that has never been properly utilised as a space for the creativity that is inherent within its local population. And a specific section of the community – one that has given the area much of its magic – now has countless stories of marginalisation and outright discrimination”.
“What is worse….this has been the situation for over four decades”
Tom Charles for Urban Dandy London @tomhcharles, @urbandandyLDN
Part Three, on Westway23’s positive vision, coming soon
North Kensington is an area of high economic deprivation with stark contrasts in wealth between the haves and have-nots and creeping gentrification. Neighbouring the conspicuously affluent Notting Hill and Holland Park areas, North Kensington is a livelier, multi-cultural area with large Caribbean, Moroccan and white British communities, among many others. It is the bright glow of North Kensington that reflects so well on its neighbouring districts and attracts the tourists. But the growth of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East is having a profoundly troubling effect on the area as geopolitics collides with family life and a simple explanation for the phenomenon isn’t easy to come by.
In recent times North Kensington has gained media attention with a number of high profile examples of recruitment to ISIS. Internet searches for details of these North Kensington individuals provide plenty of macabre coverage and voyeuristic media fascination. A former classmate of two young fighters wrote a piece expressing his shock at seeing his former friends on television and stated his hope that “If someone turned these average teenagers into killers, something can turn them back”.
Identifying what turned these local children in to men travelling to Syria and Iraq in the name of “jihad” is no simple task, and I spoke to a number of people in the affected North Kensington community to find out their views and to try to grasp the extent of how what happens in the Middle East affects the communities left behind. All the names have been changed.
‘Muhammad Ali’, a 50 year-old Somali community leader in North Kensington told me that the ISIS phenomenon is a “cause for concern” in his family and he now keeps a close check on his son’s movements and timetable. He says that he believes ISIS attracts those that are “not succeeding” in the UK, but that there are exceptions to this rule.
Muhammad told me about a local Eritrean who he knew throughout the boy’s primary and secondary schooling who ended up going to fight in Syria. He says the boy used to attend Muhammad’s Saturday school for local youth and he saw the boy struggle after his father died of cancer. On seeing that this young man had joined ISIS, Muhammad says that it was “a shock…the mum was in shock, a lot of distress”.
Like all of the people I interviewed, Muhammad pointed out that the ISIS view of Islam is completely un-Islamic: “You can’t kill a civilian, how many times does this need to be in the Qur’an before they understand it? There’s no verse that allows you to kill Shia or kill non-Muslims”.
Muhammad identifies UK foreign policy as a pertinent issue, seeing the spread of ISIS’s reach to the UK as a spillover from the Iraqi Sunni-Shia civil war that was caused by the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq. This has nurtured a sense of victimization of Sunnis, he says, who often feel like they are viewed as second-class citizens in the UK. “Being told you’re a second class citizen, even if you have a degree in medicine (as his son has) is also a factor. I know we already have to work harder than the English, but ISIS affects the poorly educated, the unemployed, those with criminal records, those affected by the police’s stop and search tactics”.
‘Nour’, a middle aged Moroccan community activist who has lived in North Kensington for 17 years, describes the impact on local communities as “devastating. Parents are suffering in silence.” He tells me that local parents have been unable to get their sons’ bodies sent back from the Middle East, saying that he knows the families of Moroccans, Somalis, Syrians and Iraqis aged between 19 and 26 who have travelled to join ISIS.
Nour connects the appeal of ISIS to the materialistic culture of the UK that is especially prevalent in London. By travelling to Syria, these people are offered “money for clothes, for travel, it is a very sophisticated recruitment drive” in which the economic inequality of life in North Kensington “plays a big part.” The average price of a flat in North Kensington is over £600,000, just under one million US Dollars, so the vast majority of young people have no option but to live at home with their families, often in overcrowded accommodation and without realistic prospects for upward social mobility.
Add to this what Nour describes as “an unreal age where these young people don’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s in the digital world” and the fact that the ISIS recruits are “extremely impressionable” and there is the perfect storm for young people to look for a cause to fight for, to “search for an identity as they develop their personalities”.
Nour is critical of sensational media coverage of ISIS, which he suspects may make the group more attractive, but he stated clearly that he thought that to blame UK foreign policy is “an excuse.” He focuses instead on the UK government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy which he says is “failing to talk to Muslim community leaders. They don’t understand the intricacies and don’t seem to have a clue.” He says that the government should instead facilitate the promotion of “real Islam”.
Nour’s approach chimed with the government and media view that these young people are ‘brainwashed’ in to joining ISIS. But 30 year old British Somali ‘Mustapha Bakr’ asked me the rhetorical question: “Some are already radical, so why does the government label them as ‘radicalised’?” He calls this approach “disingenuous”. By blaming a process of ‘radicalisation’ the government don’t have to tackle the fact that there are UK citizens who are already radicalised and ready to go to war. “People would ask them: ‘what are you gonna do about it?’” Mustapha explains, “and the government don’t want to explicitly say that this (ISIS) is Islam, so they use the narrative of preachers of extreme hate”.
In North Kensington, Mustapha says that ISIS recruits, “from the dole (those receiving unemployment benefits) to the well-educated ones, they get trapped in a small world of wanting to do something. With the social cleansing and gentrification of London, they instinctively link this to foreign policy, such as our military aid to Egypt”.
Add to this the “egotistical thing – ‘I need to be the big boy’ – and the fact that these people can’t say what’s on their mind for fear of being labelled ‘radical’ and you have people with fear and resentment of the authorities in London. Then you have white, British guys fighting with the PKK, supporting the Kurds, and they get welcomed home as heroes”.
I asked Mustapha about the cases he has knowledge of in North Kensington. He says that quite a few people have started by seeing the opportunity to do some charity work to help the Syrians, but they then feel a strong urge to act on the injustice they witness. He tells me about a North African resident of North Kensington, who “definitely wasn’t radicalised. He went to Syria. He was a nice guy, he was well educated. You have to speculate about why he went there. Maybe his friends went. Just like that, he was gone. There’s no conveyor belt, and a common denominator isn’t simple to find”.
Not far away, on a housing estate near Latimer Road underground station, British-born Moroccan father-of-three ‘Zico’ tells me that he has seen people from his estate and a friend of his in Morocco go to Syria.
“We used to see this guy on this estate; he was quiet, educated, about 20. He used to say ‘Salaam’ but would never stop to chat. Next thing we knew he’d made a YouTube video and all the reporters came around here. His mum didn’t even know, she thought he was going off to study in Germany.” Why would he join ISIS, I asked Zico. “You have to have some kind of gullibility, to see Syria as ‘my jihad’ or ‘my way to paradise’”.
Zico also identifies anger against UK foreign policy as a cause – “while you’re in other people’s countries slaughtering their people, there’s going to be a backlash” – and says that a “minority” start with a genuine wish to help Syrians in need but a majority probably see no difference between themselves and British soldiers in Iraq, with “an attitude of take no prisoners”.
Of his former friend in Morocco, Zico tells me he was a successful businessman with a large house, who “left everything and went. He died fighting the Kurds three weeks ago. His three brothers and dad went too. He took his wife. Their daughter was born over there and a week later he was killed, it’s deep. Only one brother is left, plus his mum and son.” Zico saw his friend change over time, becoming more introspective. “I thought he was deep in thought about his shop, but it turns out he was thinking about Syria”.
Zico describes the reaction in Morocco as similar to that in North Kensington. “Parents in Morocco are asking the government ‘why are they taking our kids?’” And he identifies poverty as a motivating factor. “Kids in Morocco are on £3 a day, it’s not enough to survive and the internet’s opened up their eyes”.
Zico’s advice to the potential British ISIS recruits: “Do not bite the hand that feeds you…this (the UK) is the best country you can live in. IS? Sharia law? I don’t think they can handle it really. Here, we have the freedom to do all that, we can live as Islamically as we want. You can’t beat freedom”
“And why choose Syria? You can go and live the Sharia life in plenty of countries. Once you go to Syria, you ain’t coming back.” As the balance of power continues to shift in the Middle East, the North Kensington community is experiencing its impact first hand, and the truth of this succinct statement is all too clear. And while the motivations of those joining ISIS may be difficult to fathom, the tragic consequences are not.