Luton, actually

Recently I finished reading Sarfraz Manzoor’s Greetings From Bury Park, a warm and tender account of growing up in the Bury Park neighbourhood of Luton in the 1970s, in which the broadcaster and writer intertwines a memoir of growing up in a Pakistani and Muslim family in modern Britain with an account of his total devotion to Bruce Springsteen (the title itself a pun on that of Springsteen’s first album).  In this book and other writings, Manzoor has contributed to the ongoing debate about multiculturalism, reactivated again this weekend with the unfortunate coincidence of the English Defence League march in Luton and David Cameron’s speech in Munich.

It’s the Springsteen thread that gives structure to Manzoor’s book,  each chapter heading referencing one of his songs. At first, this aspect seems the less interesting aspect of the book.  But gradually you realise that Springsteen provided the essential element of Manzoor’s personal liberation – just as Dylan, say, or Lennon did for my generation. What is remarkable, though, is that the words of the working-class hero from Asbury Park, New Jersey, reached out to the Urdu-speaking teenager born in 1971 in Paharang.  But, in the 1980s,with no Pakistani working-class heroes with whom he could identify, Manzoor’s life was transformed by the music of ‘The Boss’.

So this is a story familiar to us all – of the gradual assertion of individuality and negotiation of personal freedom from the ties that bind: family, tradition, community. Manzoor engagingly describes growing up in Luton, where his father worked in the Vauxhall car plant for a decade before he had earned enough to bring his wife and young children to Britain in May 1974. Sarfraz and his siblings were under pressure to conform in body and soul – the generational divide in the Pakistani community being not entirely unfamiliar to those of us who grew up in white working class Britain in the 1950s.  Manzoor writes:

The biggest lie that I was told when I was growing up was that there was only one way to be a Muslim. That way was to be obedient, deferential and unquestioning; it was to reject pleasure and embrace duty, to renounce sensuality and to never, ever ask why. Even as a young boy this did not appeal and so I spent my life thinking that I was a bad Muslim. The irony was that for all the temptations I never actually did anything too bad: I did not drink, I did not renounce my parents, I did not become involved with any extremist groups. I kept believing in an Islam which was more tolerant, which did not take itself so seriously that it burnt the books of those it did not approve of. I wanted to be a Muslim like Philip Roth was a Jew or Bruce Springsteen was Catholic. When I was young, that did not seem possible, and so I ran away from my religion. But, eventually, it caught up with me. I still hope to find my reason to believe.

What Manzoor means when he writes ‘eventually, it caught up with me’ is September 11:

Osama bin Laden changed my life. For the first thirty years of my life I had been running away from my religion but on 9/11 my religion caught up with me. There was nowhere left to hide. A few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center I was having a drink with Amolak in Luton town centre. ‘You realise what this means, don’t you?’ my friend asked me. ‘It means that America isn’t ours any more.’

I said nothing but understood.

‘Me   and   you,   Sarfraz,   we   always   thought,   fuck   this country; if Britain doesn’t want us we always have America. Not any more, mate, now we are going to have to do what We can in this here country because you know that the second you try to land at JFK they are going to haul your arse into jail. They’re not going to bother with questions. My friend, we are fucked.’

Manzoor tells his family’s story engagingly, with occasional dashes of sentimentality or comedy. There is a wonderful scene where he returns home with his hair in dreadlocks. When he takes off his hat, his father, unimpressed by the new style, asks sarcastically: ‘Is that another hat?’ His mum, just as as sarcastic, retorts: ‘Don’t you understand? Your son wants to be Jamaican. He doesn’t want to be a Pakistani, he is not a Muslim. He wants to be black. Congratulations; two Pakistanis have given birth to a Jamaican son.’

What their son found in the music he listened to, especially in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, was solace for and recognition of the trials of growing up.  While Manzoor and Springsteen grew up a world apart culturally, they both shared the experience of weathering similar clashes with their fathers.

Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late…

Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too…

Now I don’t know what it always was with us
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind…

Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say
But won’t you just say goodbye it’s Independence Day
I swear I never meant to take those things away

Later, both men came to recognise what they had missed in these struggles. Manzoor writes:

When I was younger, I didn’t want to know who my father was because [he] had nothing to do with me. How wrong can a son be? … Where once it was resentment which inspired me, now it is the hope that in my own life I can do his memory proud. These days I am a willing prisoner of my father’s house.

In an article for The Guardian, ‘You’re Muslim – You’ll Never Be English‘, Manzoor elaborated on the tensions he experienced as a teenager in Luton:

Achievement was everything, but it had to be in certain, primarily academic activities. I remember coming home after school, aged 14, after getting my maths test results. I told Dad excitedly that I had got 87% in the exam. “What happened to the other 13%?” he wanted to know. The success of their children was used by the working-class parents of my father’s generation to convince themselves, and the community, that they had made good.

Surrounded by white friends, listening to pop music and watching British television, my parents must have feared that their values were continually being threatened. They had left the motherland laden with the moralities and prejudices of the old country. “Never forget that you are different,” I would be told. “Whites will work with you, but they will never play with you.” What the first generation wanted was to progress economically but remain rooted culturally; they feared freedom. But once unleashed, progress, like freedom, is frustratingly difficult to restrain.

Islam was part of the backdrop against which our lives were played out; it affected everything we did and it defined what we could not do. My parents did not insist that I go to mosque after school – I learned the Koran at home – and, unlike other Muslim children, I was not packed off to Pakistan each year during the summer holidays. Religion was applied to support the arguments of my parents. If I was spending too much time with English friends, or watching too much television, my father could say, “You’re Muslim, remember; you’ll never be English.”

But even as a teenager, I was troubled by the moral certainties that religion demanded, and sceptical of the monochrome world-view that my parents tried to paint. Once in a while, my father’s friends would pay us a visit. Mum would make Asian-style tea, letting the teabags stew in the boiling water, and the men would sip the tea and chew on egg biscuits. The conversation would turn to worries about their children. There would be much shaking of heads. Everyone would agree that this was not a good country in which to raise children: too much temptation and not enough respect.

What were the children doing that was so bad? I used to wonder. In truth, I think we were doing nothing more than slowly and awkwardly learning to be British.

When I was young I used to fantasise about renouncing my British passport and moving to the United States. I was fascinated by the idea of the American Dream, the suggestion that everyone had an equal chance to make something of their lives and to be considered equally American. Bruce Springsteen seemed to be the very embodiment of that dream: someone who had been born to a working-class immigrant family and who had, through his talent and tenacity, reached the very peak of his profession. Bruce Springsteen changed my life because in his music I saw the promise of hope and escape and self-improvement, but where once I longed to escape to the United States, these days I’m convinced my father did the right thing coming to Britain.

In 2005, the BBC broadcast Manzoor’s film, Luton, Actually.  It was the story of his family and about what it was like to come from Luton, a much maligned town that had recently been voted the crappiest place to live in the country.

Since 2007, when Greetings From Bury Park was published, Sarfraz Manzoor has written many articles on Britishness and multiculturalism.  He is often called upon to do this, by TV and newspaper editors, as a consequence of his growing up in Luton, the departure point of the 7/7 bombers, birthplace of the English Defence League, and home of the Stockholm suicide bomber.  In ‘Luton has come to embody the failures of multiculturalism‘, Manzoor wrote:

What has gone wrong in my home town?  There are no simple answers but I would cite three main factors: education, economics and representation. There are schools – and streets – in Luton that are ominously monocultural: the school I attended as a young boy was multicultural, that same school is now 96% Asian. Living in such bubbles – white or Muslim – can breed ignorance which can then spill over into intolerance. […]

The second factor is economics. Luton is a working-class town where for decades the largest employer was the Vauxhall car factory. That was where my father worked  … In Vauxhall you would get workers from different communities all together… and that had a positive impact on community cohesion – but it’s not there any more.  Vauxhall was the glue that held the town together and it’s with its demise it has come unstuck.

Today the average workplace salary is £24,585 – below the national average – and those earning the best wages in the town tend not to live in Luton. Given such issues around poverty it is easy for persuasive extremists to win support by claiming that others are being offered preferential treatment or that the reasons for poverty are related to race and religion.

The final issue is one of representation. …  The white working class in Luton have been ignored. Into that void stepped the EDL, helped by equally unrepresentative Muslims who took to the streets to scream at returning British soldiers.

Though the headline on that article might suggest otherwise, Manzoor is a champion, not a critic of, multiculturalism. In another piece, for The Observer, he wrote:

The recent attacks on multiculturalism make me feel uncomfortable, not because I do not agree that Muslims need to make more efforts to integrate but because the criticisms feel like coded attacks on the idea of Britishness being a diverse and multicoloured story. What is reassuring is that the country seems more at ease with the impact of multiculturalism than do some politicians and commentators.

A BBC poll last week found that 62 per cent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism had made Britain a better place to live. The survey also found that Muslim respondents were more enthusiastic than others in agreeing that new immigrants ought to learn English and pledge primary loyalty to Britain. […]

Like any home, it sometimes needs a makeover, it demands maintenance and to be treated with respect. Whether they are called British Muslims or Muslim British, the most effective means to help them feel wholeheartedly British is to convince them that they have a part to play in the story of modern Britain, that their voice is part of the choir. British Muslims have a role to play in that but so does everyone else. In addition, they need to remember, and the government ought to encourage and remind them, that this country is our home: we are not tenants.

At the conclusion of Greetings From Bury Park, Manzoor sums up the meaning of his personal journey:

It has taken me three decades to realise that there is only one country which is truly mine.  The life my father had built, the family he raised and the life I have fashioned are all due to living in Britain. Every opportunity, every job and every chance to pursue my dreams has been offered by this country, not by America, and not by Pakistan. My father used to tell me he regretted coming to Britain, but in truth it was the greatest gift he gave his children. I was born in Pakistan but made in England; it is Britain which is my land of hope and dreams.

I enjoyed Sarfraz Manzoor’s thoughtful and entertaining book – and for a personal reason, too.  There are family connections to the very places Manzoor writes about in his book.  My wife grew up in Sundon Park, and we often visited her parents there.  Manzoor and his brother and sister went to Lealands High School in Sundon Park. (One of the telling passages in his book tells of his sister being kept off school because their father would not allow her to comply with the school uniform that required her to wear a skirt; eventually his sister became the first girl the school allowed to wear trousers).  The family’s first home was in Bury Park, and I remember the slow journey into the centre of Luton on the lumbering, wide-bodied Crosville buses as they crawled slowly along Leagrave Road.  Later they moved to Marsh Farm, whose tower blocks loomed over Leagrave common where we would walk the dog. And it was in a record shop near the ABC cinema on Leagrave Road that I bought Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run.


3 thoughts on “Luton, actually

  1. “A BBC poll last week found that 62 per cent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism had made Britain a better place to live.”

    Is Cameron going to be allowed to get away with his condemnation of multiculturalism speech I wonder? Are we heading into a nightmare era of jingoistic right wing intolerance care of a propped up political party which got in on a 30% vote? I say sack Cameron before it’s too late and let’s have a proper coalition of the 3 largest parties, it is obvious that the Tories are just going to take advantage of their temporary premiership to do as much damage to society as they can get away with. The Tories do not represent society, they represent themselves, their values, their views which are basically anathema.

  2. its all intresting i have lived in luton over 54 years born in st marys dallow rd and spent a lot of time in the annaxe hospital in london road back in 1958.

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