Luton

Posted on June 30, 2012

3


Home is where one starts from.

T.S Eliot

I was always running back then. My arms and legs flailing around, feet thundering across broken paving stones, my heart jumping relentlessly up and down between my chest and mouth. Running, like the clappers, but never getting very far. For in truth the world is too big a place, for one small child to escape from.

Still, when I think back on growing up, it is the running that comes to mind. Flight, rather than fight. A restless pursuit of escape, that has only led me back to the beginning, standing on a Luton street, twenty years later, and wondering what it was, that I was running away from.

Luton, my home town is an escape hatch of a home. A point of Exodus. Ten million people a year departing from the airport alone. The name a signpost of travel, not a destination. So maybe, my running was a reflection of this impulse, this emotion of movement?

Although, in truth, I know deep down that this is not the case. No, it was fear that relentlessly propelled me into seeking out the future. Edging, with every fretful footstep, to smudge out the present For back then, well, there was a lot to be frightened of.

Amongst towns of a comparable size, Luton has long held a menacing reputation. It was voted the UK’s worst place to live 2004. It has the third highest knife crime rate per hed of population in the UK. An angry face, that continues with the rise of extremes such as the English Defence League. An ill organization who, in truth, are nothing more than criminalized hooligans.

Their sallow hearted supporters, finding themselves banned from starting fights with footballing rivals in places such as Grimsby, instead fixing upon a substitute of a different kind, when offering to take outside a whole religion, Islam.

The objects, of these hollow men’s ire, are not shy in making themselves a target. Islamic extremists have long made a bed in the town, rising to prominence when disrupting the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment in 2009. A fuse wire of hate, that has seen the town become a by-word for both home grown, and imported terrorism.

All of which, is the town I ran away from. Or at least thought I did. For when I think on it now, revisiting the old haunts for the first time in two decades, I see that I was never running away from any of these problems. And, in truth, no one ever did me any harm, whom I did not know.

It was no stranger danger that impelled my feet to run, but that which came from far closer to home. I was running away from my own blood lines, my class. My parents, my teachers, the kids from my own neighbourhood. Leaving behind, like many of my peers, the feral open space for hatred to flourish

Sadly, this violence, and hatred, is all that anybody knows about my town, What of the other tale? Of the quarter of a million people who are not extremists? Of the names of my family, inscribed upon war memorials here ,who fought, and died, fighting against the very intolerance now shown by others, who claim our flag for their own.

It is time this town’s true story is told. To talk not of the thorns, for I want to show you the roses.

Amidst the nineteen sixties tower blocks, sitting squat, resentful, and leering over the people below, you will find eternal countryside. The heave of the chiltern hills carrying in them the gentlest of curves. Each field, rising the land up in a perfect camber, creating a beautiful arched back of earth.

Even within the architecturally abominable Arndale, rebranded as the Mall, there is beauty. Visiting the indoor market, I am transported on a magic carper ride of wonder, to Babel itself. A thousand melodious voices babbling in a million tongues. Colours, scents, people, as vivid as any exotic souk, impossibly alive, within this concrete bunker.

And seeing it all, your senses overloaded, you remember, that this  sense of wonder is not new. That it has always been this wonderful. The fish market, unchanged, the very same spot where your great grandmother would bend down to kiss you, the cold glass eye of her fox stole eyeing you, glad rags amongst the fish heads, as she loomed in.

To top it all, the food is richer than a kings feast. West Indian curried goat, tasting like no other dish on earth, eaten on plastic table tops that become gilded with gold with every mouth full.

Later, magnificent daal’s, born not in the back room of a Luton shop, but passed down by tongue alone across the centuries, and transported here, from the imagination of small villages dotted across Asia.

Perhaps, you have to go away, grow up, and come back as yourself, to see all of this wonder. Only time affording you the space to stand still, not run away, But amidst all of this emotion there is one thing that I know for a truth, and it is this.

When you look into the eyes of the  British Asian woman working behind the counter of the cafe in Bury Park, in that singular look of acknowledgment, you are not peering across worlds, but within them.

You, are no more a stranger, she no longer hidden beneath a Hijab. No, you are both from here, this land, and what you share is a look of us, not them. A look of the future, not the past. And it is enough to make you stop running.

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