After meeting The Kitchen Table Collective as they completed their array of Artistic expression, we stayed local and spoke with artist Junior Tomlin about art, the area and his own unique cyber style, which is on display at Vinyl Cafe, 273 Portobello Road until early 2016.
UD: What was your intention with the exhibition at Vinyl Café?
JT: I knew the owner Jake 20 years ago. We were looking at each other like we knew each other, and when I told him my name, he said ‘That’s it! You did a party flyer for me’.
After that, he invited me to show my work at the venue.
I sometimes call this particular set ‘From Paints to Pixels’. It’s not quite a retrospective because the much older stuff isn’t displayed; it’s all the digital stuff.
I started out working on game packaging artwork, went on to designing rave flyers, then art for music and digital colouring for cartoons.
This is the first time I’ve shown in Ladbroke Grove, where I live. There have been a few pop up galleries in the area, and a show at Selfridges of the original rave flyers. I put this art on display in Wales, at the Kickplate Gallery in Abertillery. I’ve brought it back home.
UD: Was art your first love?
JT: Yes and it’s nice to make a living from what you love. Sometimes I want to draw more, but I have to make a living too and making money depends on how many people see and love your art. Sharing the work is one thing, selling it is something completely different…
When you have a fan base, other people get to see the work and become interested. Local support and committed art lovers both help.
UD: What is the scope of your expression?
I can paint, gouache and acrylic, as well as my drawing and my digital work. With painting you start with a blank space, and then yougradually obliterate the white with your ideas.
Sometimes I get so transfixed on the computer that I forget my paints are right there waiting for me. But I got so tired of doing art for people and not getting it back from promoters, so I prefer computer because all I’m sending them is a file by email and I can keep what I do.
UD: How do you like to categorise yourself?
JT: (Smiling) Digital/Artist.
When you’re in a freshly made building, it hasn’t become its own building yet and you can tell. It needs time. It can be the same with art. Using a computer can create things that look great, but I like to leave traces of pencil marks, soyou can tell I’ve done this, it’s not just a computer, it’s not one dimensional.
“To bring high street chains in to the area would be commercial suicide”
Our burgeoning blog has been full of reports of high levels of gentrification anxiety in North Kensington recently. London in 2015 has seen a new strain of hypergentrification take hold, one in which the victims are expected to stand impotent and mute watching their communities being transformed in to something different in which their needs are not met, but those of other, wealthier, groups are. Fears abound that North Kensington is going the same way as Brixton.
In this climate, The Westway Trust published its proposals for the mile of land stretching under the brutal A40 which dominates and darkens the area from Acklam Road down to the riding stables at Latimer Road.
Westway Trust are custodians of the mile, entrusted with making it work for the benefit of the local population. But the community group Westway23 has accused them of an “abuse of power” and an intention to betray the area by accelerating the gentrification process.
We wanted to put W23’s concerns to the Trust and give them a chance to give their point of view. We also wanted to explore the context in which the changes will be made and look at the limits imposed on local people by global forces.
We sat down with Phil Dibsdale, Senior Development Consultant of Westway Trust, who is heading the Trust’s programme of changes. Phil explains that he is born and bred in the area and remembers watching from his bedroom window as the Westway was erected.
Phil was joined by Martin Oxley, Head of PR and Communications. Our questions were plucked from our articles on the Westway23 protests, as well as some that arose in conversation:
Q1. Will you build ‘tired, top-down developments that could be anywhere in the world’?
WT: ‘We hope not. We hope to avoid that. Of course, we have to abide by building regulations and standards to ensure safety. We also have to work with TFL, who have a vested interest in what we do. But we’ll ensure that what we build has lots of uses, including on the Acklam site, which is currently underused.’
Angel Lewis @ Urban Dandy: ‘With Acklam, I grew up with it being a hub of hip hop, parties and graffiti; bands came up there who went on to be big. I went to the US for a few years, and when I came back, it was fenced off’…
Q2. What became of Acklam Hall and the playground? Are the fears expressed of a repeat of this history justified?
WT: ‘The playground was closed for health and safety reasons.
Acklam village is not commercially viable, Monday to Friday. It only has a license until 9pm and no sound proofing. The skate park, which is very successful, creates noise that bounces off the motorway and the timber structures. It has a negative impact on its neighbours.
We want to see live music at Acklam. Our current plans for Acklam are to have four bays:
One will be used for market storage,
A second will be a shop unit,
The third, which will be one and a half units, will be for community and cultural events, a white cube where you can do anything,
The fourth will be similar to what is already there.
We want to protect our tenants in the shopping arcade. They will move across to Acklam while we refurbish the arcade. Then they can choose whether to stay there or return to the arcade. With the new arcade design, all the shops will have an outward-facing front. Currently, business is poor because very few people explore inside the arcade’.
Urban Dandy: Will rents increase?
WT: ‘Rents will resume at current levels, but we will introduce a profit sharing system to help Westway Trust recoup its outlay.
In the past, things have happened organically, but it needs to be organised with a business plan. There have been a lot of white elephants over the years.
But this is not about taking a capitalistic approach. All the money is reinvested in the community. Of our 120 tenants, only one, Sainsbury’s, is a big high street chain, and it brings in a lot of money’.
Urban Dandy: But isn’t a Waitrose going up right opposite Sainsbury’s?
WT: ‘The council controls that building’.
UD: What they were saying on the Westway23 protest was: “What’s happening within the language is what was happening when Acklam Hall was closed. Words like ‘regeneration’ should be a warning to the community.” That’s the most specific thing I have heard: it’s the same language again and they lost those two venues previously, so are the fears expressed legitimate?
WT: ‘Obviously I wasn’t around then, so I can’t comment on what was said back in those days but obviously what replaced those things wasn’t properly built buildings they were for temporary uses and made without a strong business plan. That won’t happen this time’.
Q3.How aware is WT of the social cleansing going on locally? Do WT’s plans include anything that will offset it and help unify the community?
WT: ‘There are limits to what Westway Trust can do. We maximise the number of opportunities we can give to local people. We are creating 200 jobs, we’re keeping local businesses going and we have an apprenticeship programme.
The area was actually originally built for the gentry, with those big Victorian houses but then became a poor area. There is a recognition that demographics are changing in the area again. Demographics are always changing and we have to serve everyone in the community’.
Q4. How will local people be involved, aside from attending consultations?
WT: ‘Westway23 were invited to meet with us but didn’t turn up. They can be involved, but we will listen to the ideas generated by the consultations’.
Urban Dandy: You mention invites to the community to take part in the planning process; are you taking steps to attend and become part of the community’s groups and events?
WT: ‘Our Head of Culture and Partnerships is Lynda Rosenior-Patten and she is very active attending events, meeting people and organisations in the community. We have lots of partnerships with local groups and we use as many channels as we can to gage opinion.
If we were private developers, we’d have started the building already. But we have a democratic governance structure which means that community groups are represented. Westway23 were encouraged to sign up’.
Q5. Which groups are your priorities?
WT: ‘Our priorities are the people most in need and supplementary schools. The original area of the Trust was to benefit Kensington and Chelsea as a whole, but I think everyone can see that it is the North of the Borough that receives all of the benefit.’
Q6. Why didn’t you consult the community before drawing up the original plans?
WT: ‘From 2011 onwards we held consultations to establish the tone and parameters of the changes. There has been a lot of consultation and we then chose to put something out there, rather than just a blank sheet of paper. It was the culmination of four years of consultations’.
Urban Dandy: It can seem quite cold, as a resident, to receive a document with artists’ impressions of the plans. It’s easy to feel indifferent about it.
WT: ‘If people are just angry or against us, they can’t have that influence they want. We have spoken to hundreds of people and our Cultural Manager is talking to people with heritage in the local area.
Dialogue has to come both ways.’
Q7. What kind of feedback have you received?
WT: ‘A huge range. From the traders’ survey, we saw that people are desperate for change. Although not all of them filled out the survey’.
Angel Lewis @ Urban Dandy: There is a perceived division between the trust and the local community; if that division is bridged it may feel more like one organisation. Myself, looking at your brochure, I don’t feel included in this, it appears done, dusted and complete.
WT: Well you’ve got to be in it to win it, you’ve got to have your say and this is your chance to have your say.
Tom @ Urban Dandy: I went to a public meeting with the Kensington Aldridge Academy and they wouldn’t answer any questions in a straight forward way, and people were getting angry – they felt that they were being given spin instead of answers, what has been coming back to you from the public?
‘There’s been a huge range of feedback from people saying “why haven’t you done this already?” particularly the traders and local business owners, to people saying “don’t do anything, absolutely leave it alone”.
Over the last nine months with seven months’ of consultations going on, most people have recognised there is a need for improvements and that the market needs to be supported. But they are mostly concerned with keeping the character of the area. It’s difficult, it’s evolved over 100 years so when you try to build something with that character from scratch it’s not easy, but if we can build something with the look and feel of Portobello then it should evolve and people will grow to taking it on board.
The last seven months’ of feedback has proved to us that there’s consensus for change locally’.
Q8. Will flats for the rich and retail units for the middle class be built?
WT: ‘It depends what you mean by rich. There will be 12 flats built to be sold at market rate. This is for financial reasons, Westway Trust raises money for its community projects this way.
As for the shops, they will all be really small. To bring high street chains in to the area would be commercial suicide. People can go to Westfield to get all that stuff’.
12 affordable units is not going to change the tide of affordability and won’t make a great amount of difference to the area. They will look like what is already here. If it were the development on a large scale, like 250 units, then it would.
Q9. How do you feel your ability to fulfil your original mandate is being affected by gentrification and capitalism?
WT: ‘Westway Trust has to represent the whole community democratically. We have programmes to target those most in need. The public realm should make everyone feel safe and welcome.
But there are limits. Health and safety regulations have sterilised children’s play areas and brought about a lot of banality. There’s less sense of adventure’.
Urban Dandy: And gentrification?
WT: I don’t feel constrained by it, it’s one of those waves you can’t stop unless you have government intervention. Gentrification makes my job more of a challenge, and I recognise that for local people it is a real threat’.
Q10. The idea of a ‘village’ is not popular with Westway23 and it does seem a bit tired – any comment?
WT: We found some references to the area as a ‘village’ in documents written 20 or 30 years ago. It was only ever a working title for consultation purposes and it definitely won’t remain’.
And our time was up, we had to vacate the room for more meetings. A conversation that could have run all day ended, but as we packed up we had time for one more question to Mr Dibsdale: ‘Do you still live in the area?’
His reply: ‘I don’t. I can’t afford it to be honest’.
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.
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
Portobello Road, its market and a long stretch of land crossing Ladbroke Grove and Acklam Road has become the subject of much debate as a result of plans for changes to the area published by the Westway Trust. The Westway Trust became responsible for a mile / 23 acres of land under the Westway when the dual carriageway was opened in 1970. The Trust’s remit is to ensure the land is used for the benefit of the local community as compensation for the concrete eye sore that dominates and darkens the areas underneath it.
Of the area under scrutiny, the Westway Trust says: “The markets only operate for three days a week and, outside of those days, areas like the canopy space and Acklam Village do little to contribute to the local area. Acklam Village is hoarded-off and is not accessible to the community from Monday to Friday”.
This is the economic thrust of the Trust’s argument for change, but they are insistent that any changes will not overturn the unique character of the area. Their plans are called ‘Destination Westway’ and include a major proposal for the ‘Portobello village’ – on Portobello Road, where it meets Cambridge Gardens.
But, there is significant opposition to what the Westway Trust has so far proposed. The founder of a 38 Degrees petition against the plans, Chris Sullivan, says that the “last esoteric, bohemian part of West London” is under threat. With creeping gentrification in the area, the Westway Trust’s plans may be a step too far, and community with a very clear sense of self is reacting.
The organisation Westway23 has called for a new consultation process, complaining that the “plans have been developed without proper consultation with the local community and threaten to add to the already negative effects of gentrification on the local area”.
As a result of the community’s reaction, the Westway Trust’s plans are now on hold and an apology appears on their website for the fact that the images of people in their designs didn’t represent the community (they were all white.) They are also at pains to stress that the designs were not intended to be final.
But, despite their attempts at assuaging the community, other recent developments in the area mean that the Westway Trust aren’t taken at their word. The Westway riding stables have effectively been given their marching orders by the Trust who refused to pay for the required improvements. And Maxilla Children’s Centre / Nursery has been closed, its services picked up elsewhere in North Kensington. Westway Trust have been blamed by some for the Maxilla closure, but this seems to have been more the decision of the council who were unwilling to provide assurances about funding despite earlier informal agreements.
A recent release of funds for a community grants programme has been viewed by a number of people I spoke with locally as Westway Trust’s attempt to improve their public image. The same people were critical of how difficult it is becoming to work with what they see as an increasingly corporate organisation.
Amid the upheaval, the Westway Trust has been advertising for a new chair and has engaged two recruitment firms to help them, and so are currently making decisions without a leader.“How much money have the squandered recruiting a chair?” wondered Niles Hailstones, acting chair of Westway23, when I met with him on Portobello Road. He told me how Westway23 was born:
“I challenged the illustration (the initial artist’s impression drawn up by architects Stiff + Trevillion) – they hadn’t included any black people so I offered to facilitate a genuine community meeting. They didn’t get back to me within two weeks, which was the time scale I’d set, so when I contacted Westway Trust again, I was introducing them to Westway23”.
Sylvia Parnell, of the Portobello Café Society, one of many people who stopped to greet Niles as we talked, told me “the Westway Trust wouldn’t let us see the minutes of their meeting about the proposed changes so Niles took the lead, as he was already engaged with the Trust on issues of concern”.
On the Westway Trust, Hailstones is critical of their actions and their approach to the local community: “They always feel that they know what’s best for us because they’re in a vacuum. On the one hand they can be seen as having a colonial perception – that’s unavoidable if you look at the history of slave ownership which has deep roots in Kensington and Chelsea. And on the other hand, the public are accustomed to a system of servitude, where they play a secondary role in the conversation”.
A substantive take on gentrification is at the heart of Westway23’s approach, along with an instinctive urge to protect the local area. Niles continued: “What we’re seeing here is a super imposition of a culture and perception from outside imposed by people from outside the area…like this idea of a ‘village.’ The Westway Trust held their community festival right next to the area they aren’t representing. This is hypocrisy, this is ironic”.
“The biggest component of this has been irony. They are supposed to represent the community, but these changes were all decided without our knowledge”.
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.