The Sunday Times April 17, 2005

We're all British, innit?

Immigrants? Asylum seekers? You've seen nothing until you've been to London's East End. But, as Tarquin Hall found while living there, the difference between immigrants and the British is not what it seems

The advertisement described it as “a spacious live-work studio”. But it was really just an attic in which I could stand up straight providing I stayed in the middle of the room. As for the “panoramic views of the City”, if you opened the single window in the roof, which was like pushing up the hatch of a submarine in high seas, you could catch a glimpse of the top of the NatWest tower.

And what of the “modern furnishings”? Well, perhaps it was a matter of taste, but tables and chairs made of wooden pallets did not appeal to mine, despite the originality of their design.

Only the “separate bathroom” lived up to its description. It had been suspended from the back of the building in contravention of all planning regulations by a man known locally as Rafik the Builder. Measuring 4ft by 5ft, it was barely large enough to house a toilet and a shower. In order to wash, you had first to step over the toilet, avoiding two plastic buckets positioned on the floor to capture raindrops from cracks in the ceiling.

There was no basin and I noticed that the previous tenants had made do with the one in the kitchen. There, on the stainless steel draining board, among a stack of dirty plates and glasses filled with flat beer and bloated cigarette butts, lay a couple of bald toothbrushes and a shaving mirror flecked with dried spittle.

For the past ten years, I had been living away from England — the last three in India. On my return it had been my intention to put down roots in the leafy suburb of Barnes where I had grown up. But London property prices had shot up; I was broke; and this was where I had ended up, Brick Lane.

The Bangladeshi landlord, Mr Ali, who owned the leather jacket shop downstairs, hadn’t bothered to clean the place, even though the former tenants had thrown a party on their last night, leaving the floors littered with empty cans, bottles and the odd needle. Nor had he bothered to paint over the gratuitous graffiti they had sprayed on the walls before absconding in the middle of the night.

“They were students,” said Mr Ali with disdain. “Students are dirty bustards, innit.”

Mr Ali’s accent was an unlikely combination of south Asian and Estuary, the result of having spent his first 14 years in Bangladesh and the last 29 in the East End. He wore a long, collarless salwar, but in place of the usual matching baggy pants and sandals or slip-on shoes, he’d opted for a pair of Levis and alligator cowboy boots. His white prayer cap, although in need of a wash, suggested a man of faith but was at odds with the whiff of booze on his breath and helped complete the impression of a person of contradictions.

However, there was one thing about Mr Ali that was abundantly clear: he was the epitome of the slum landlord. His was a Heath Robinson approach to fixing everything — evident from the tape on the cracked windowpane in the kitchen — and he was disparaging of his tenants, past and present.

“I’ve ’ad, like, nafing but bustards, innit,” he said, complaining about how the students had stolen the toilet seat from the bathroom. “The ones before the students was” — he grimaced as if he’d suddenly smelt something unpleasant — “’omosexuals.”

He emphasised this last word as if it was sacrilege to say it out loud. “I ’eard ’em — you know . . .” His eyes widened and he made an aggressive action with his right fist, punching it against the palm of his left hand. “Buggering, all day and all night! Breakfast, lunch and dinner! Always buggering, innit!” Mr Ali’s promiscuous gay tenants had disturbed the old Jewish lady who lived in the bedsit on the first floor. She had complained to Mr Ali and he in turn had called the police.

“I says to the coppers, ‘It’s not right, innit? The Koran forbids it, yeah.’ But the coppers, they just laugh. They says to me, ‘Mr Ali, it’s the law. ’Er Majesty, she allows the buggering’.”

Other occupants of the attic had included a heroin dealer and a Satan worshipper. He was now on the lookout for a better class of tenant. He liked the idea of yuppies.

“They pay good rent and they don’t spray the walls with ‘cocksucker’, innit.” Mr Ali wanted to know if I was a yuppie and I had to admit that I was not. I was a journalist, I explained. But, no, I didn’t work for The Sun and, no, sadly not the Daily Star, either.

This came as a disappointment to him, although it did not rule me out as a tenant. The rate was £100 a week — “It’s monkey nuts, innit” — with a six-month lease, extendable providing the place was kept in good order. This meant no spraying the walls with graffiti and no staging of huge parties or raves. Loud music, drug dealing and the entertaining of local prostitutes were strictly prohibited. Mr Ali also stipulated that I should not sacrifice any animals on his property — the Satan worshipper had skinned a couple of the neighbours’ cats — nor plan any violent campaigns against pharmaceutical companies as another of his previous tenants had done.

Above all else, at no time or under any circumstances was there to be any buggering.

Mr Ali lived in a three-bedroom terrace house behind the mosque in Whitechapel. He shared it with his wife, their three daughters, their son, Mr Ali senior, one of Mr Ali’s elder sisters, and a boy called Salim whose parents had gone to visit Bangladesh for a couple of months and were yet to return, 4½ years later.

Mr Ali’s family, like 99% of the Bangladeshis living in the East End, hailed from the district of Sylhet in the northeast of the country. Among the 50,000-strong London community there was hardly a person to whom they were not related or didn’t know by sight.

Whenever he needed something done there was usually someone in the clan with the required expertise. As well as his builder, Mr Ali’s doctor, solicitor and accountant were close relatives. When he needed a travel agent, a glazier, a locksmith or someone who dealt in mobile phones all he had to do was flick through the family Rolodex.

“Let me know and I’ll get you anything you want. My sister? ’Er ’usband’s brother’s son’s a dentist. ’E’s got a place in Poplar. If you want a couple of teeth pulled aat, ’e can get it sorted. I ’ad some of mine out with ’im. ’E’s got qualifications, innit.”

Living in such a tight-knit community had its drawbacks, however. Nothing anyone did went unnoticed and Mr Ali rarely had a moment’s peace to himself. “I can’t get away from all them cousins, aunties and uncles. They’re coming out of the woodwork, innit,” he complained. “There’s always people turning up from Sylhet. They come in and they says to me, ‘I’m, like, your auntie’s sister’s son’s nephew. Give us a job, yeah?’” I asked him why so many people came from one single district and not other parts of Bangladesh? “Thas a big mystery, innit,” he said. “All I know is where one of us goes, the ’ole village follows.”

Mr Ali’s uncle was one of thousands who came to London after the second world war. “’E worked in Jewish sweatshops, innit. And ’e flogged stuff cheap in the street. ’E was seriously poor, yeah. But back in Sylhet, everyone thought ’e was, like, a millionaire, innit, cos every month, yeah, ’e’d send money back to ’is family. In them days a few quid was like a fortune in Sylhet.”

In 1970, with civil war looming in Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — Mr Ali senior decided to send his son to Britain to live with his uncle. He was just 14 at the time.

“My father says to me one day, ‘Oi! You’re goin’ to London, innit.’ ’E thought it was a good opportunity, yeah. ’E tells me, ‘Come back in five years and you’ll be rich.’ ’E said I’d get a beautiful wife and we’d build a big ’ouse. That was, like, ’is dream, yeah. But my old man didn’t understand what it was like ’ere in the East End. ’E thought you just turned up and people gave you money. Thas the mentality of them Bangladesh people, innit. They think that in Britain the trees grow money.”

Mr Ali was brought to London by another man posing as his father who delivered him to his uncle’s door in Spitalfields. His new home was a cramped, rat-infested flat in a crumbling Victorian tenement building. The three small rooms were occupied by seven other Sylheti men. There was no glass in the windows, no heating and no running water. A bucket served as a toilet; food was prepared using a gas stove on the floor. For bedding the men made do with second-hand mattresses taken from the back of the Whitechapel hospital; Mr Ali’s was covered in stains and smelt of disinfectant.

The day after he arrived Mr Ali began work in a Jewish sweatshop in the basement of an old Huguenot house. It was owned by a certain Mr Saul whom Mr Ali referred to as “the old Jew”. “’E was a right bustard. Seven o’clock I’d start work and ’e’d be standing there with ’is watch every morning. If I was late, ’e’d take money off my wages. ’Is wife was worse. She was this fat bitch with big boils on ’er face. She was always watching us. If you stopped working for one minute, she’d get at you: ‘Oi! Back to work! Back to work!’ Stupid bitch, innit.”

The conditions in the sweatshop and the tenement building soon took their toll of Mr Ali. A few months after arriving in England he fell seriously ill and spent the next six months in hospital where he was treated for malnutrition and rickets. Once he was fully recovered, the appropriate authorities saw to it that he was enrolled in a local school. When his uncle tried to make him go back to the sweatshop, he was prosecuted.

“Nobody in my family ’ad ever been to school. My uncle thought it was a waste of time. ’E says, ‘You’re ’ere to work. Books won’t ’elp your family, innit.’ I couldn’t read or write. I didn’t speak no English.”

In the evenings and on weekends, Mr Ali continued to work in another sweatshop that was owned by a fellow Sylheti. It was this man who took him on as an apprentice, gave him a place to live and ensured that, when he was old enough, Mr Ali was able to set himself up in business. Without the patronage of this “godfather”, my landlord conceded, he would never have made good, although his willingness to work hard had also been a factor in his favour.

“I didn’t get nowhere by sitting around watching satellite TV. I’ve worked ’ard every day of my life. I tell my kids, no one never got nowhere by being lazy. Don’t take my word for it, I tell them. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon ’im, yeah, ’e said, ‘Be a worker; don’t sit around on your arse, innit’.”

Had he ever thought about returning with his family to Bangladesh as his father had once hoped he would? “The missus wants to go. She tells me, ‘This place is no good. Let’s live in Bangladesh.’ But I tell ’er, ‘What am I going to do in that shit’ole?’ Sit arand, yeah. Thas what they do in Bangladesh, you know. Sit arand all day, innit.”

He shook his head. “In Bangladesh, yeah, when one person gets a job, everyone else like gives up their job and lives off ’im. They’ve got this mentality, innit. ‘I don’t af to do nafing; let my brother pay for everyfing.’

“The coupla times I’ve been back there, yeah, my relatives, yeah, they says to me, ‘Oi! Mr Ali. Give us some cash!’ So I tell ’em, ‘Fuck off, yeah! Make it yourself!’ I’m telling you, them bustards wouldn’t last five minutes ’ere. Any’ow, ’Er Majesty, yeah, she shouldn’t let ’alf of them in.”

© Tarquin Hall 2005 Extracted from Salaam Brick Lane by Tarquin Hall published by John Murray at £16.99. Copies can be ordered for £13.59 + £2.25 p&p from The Sunday Times Books Direct on 0870 165 8585