Keighley is a weird place. Geographically, it sits on the border between multicultural north Bradford, the natural beauty of the Yorkshire Dales and the impoverished towns of north Lancashire, and takes a bit from all of them. The countryside surrounding Keighley is beautiful, and luckily my parents bought a house ten minutes walk away from lonely moorland. I did a bit of walking up there over Christmas, and despite being clad in city Reebok and it being freezing enjoyed it thoroughly - it's great being able to step out of your front door and potter up to the moors by yourself.
My parent's house is at the posh end of one of Keighley's two main South Asian areas. Hyde Park in Leeds where I grew up is also a largely Asian area, so it feels quite homely in that respect. Unfortunately, the area my parents live in and the Braithwaite Estate that sits above it are also dumping grounds for Bradford City Council's problem tenants, and there is a surprisingly ingrained and open heroin problem in the area.
My dad is a probation officer, so knows a bit more about the ins and outs of this than most. There were four gang-related murders in 2002. Two of these were shootings, and two were more traditionally English, involving people having their heads caved in with breezeblocks. This isn't a city we're talking about - it's a Yorkshire town with a population of about 40,000.
Things have calmed down a bit since, but heroin seems to make up a large part of local life. Shortly after my parents moved to Keighley I went to second-hand electrical shop in the centre of town to see if they had any cheap games. A group of Asian lads, the proprietors, sat on tatty chairs smoking skunk whilst a couple of smackheads fenced them a carrier bag full of stolen X-Box games. I didn't stick around for long. My dad said the police know about the place, but keep it under surveillance rather than close it down. Apparently, heroin users in rural North Yorkshire come to Keighley to sell stolen goods and buy smack - it's the last outpost of urban West Yorkshire before you get to the Dales, and consequently has a bit of the border town about it.
In February 2003 when my parents moved to this godforsaken place, I was up visiting from London and a mate came over from Leeds to see me. We took a shitload of MDMA powder and spent five confusing and decidedly surreal hours staggering about on the moors above my parent's house and around the town itself. On Christmas Eve last year, I remembered from our ecstasy wanderings that there was a moody and windswept tarn on the moors off one of the main roads to Halifax, and decided to walk up there.
It was a beautiful winter evening, the wind rattling the bare trees, grey clouds fast-forward across the sky, lonely apart from two cars full of youths parked up by the tarn, steaming up the windows with spliffs. I asked my dad about this later, and he told me that the tarn is a major drug dealing point where people from Halifax and Huddersfield drive to buy heroin and crack. Despite being a beautiful and lonely place, in reality the tarn is only a few minutes walk from the Braithwaite Estate, which is discreetly tucked away below the brow of a hill.
The police and everyone in the town know about this drugs supermarket, but nothing much is done because West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police are so overstretched. Leeds and Bradford are the third and sixth largest British cities respectively, and suffer a culture of criminality and violence that makes them particularly difficult to police - Bradford in particular has a murder rate which far outstrips its size, and both cities have been home to regular rioting since the early eighties. West Yorkshire towns such as Keighley are suffering similar problems to the cities, but it is a recent phenomenon and the police have yet to catch up.
When I lived in Leeds one of my mates was really into heroin. He used to drive over to Keighley to buy it off a bloke in his forties who lived in a high-rise estate at the edge of town. The dealer never handled the heroin himself - you knocked at his door and a few minutes later a child would turn up with a wrap and take your money. My mate had hit a dead end in his life after leaving university. He became an addict. Heroin shuts the world out and makes you not give a shit about anything, and unfortunately that was just what he needed. He cleaned up completely last year, thank god, but it says a lot about Keighley that it is such a big part of life there.
It is a desperate place, suffering the economic depression that is still a feature of much of northern England; but Keighley's main problem is that it is a suburb of the city of Bradford. Similar towns in West Yorkshire have problems, but Keighley's are uniquely exported from a city in real crisis, suffering from ineffective government, economic depression and social collapse.
Late last summer me and my dad did a five mile walk across inner-city north Bradford, to make a change from the usual hikes up Pendle Hill and Ilkley Moor. We were there to look at some of the wonderful nineteenth-century industrial architecture north Bradford is home to; and Undercliffe Cemetery, where the graves of the founders of the Labour Party lie - the Labour Party was formed in Bradford by disaffected Liberals at the end of the nineteenth century as a response to rapid industrialisation, the accompanying poverty, and non-recognition of trade unions. It is part of Bradford's proud industrial heritage.
For someone who hadn't visited the city since I moved to London seven years ago, going back was a bit of a shock. The Lumb Lane and Manningham Lane areas of Bradford have always had a reputation for prostitution, but on this early Saturday afternoon Wapping, Undercliffe and Manningham - a three mile area of inner north Bradford - all had prostitutes patrolling the streets: teenage smackheads walking in the shadows of boarded up maisonettes and terraces in grubby miniskirts, middle-aged men in company cars slowing and soliciting. I can't really convey just how shocking this was - it was open, and it was everywhere, right across a broad crescent of the inner city. I don't think there can be another British city like it.
The city is in a bad way. Bradford was one of the first cities to suffer the post-industrial recession that hit northern England, and is one of the last places where it still lingers. On every other street a small business - a shop, a car mechanic, a pub, a restaurant - had been torched for insurance. In Manningham, long rows of shops sat burnt out and empty from the riots of 1981, 1995, and 2001. My dad quipped that rather than applying for European City of Culture last year, Bradford should have applied for European City of Arson.
We walked through Manningham and up into Lister to see the magnificent Lister Mills, one of Britain's most impressive pieces of industrial architecture. It has been empty for nearly twenty years. The council is trying to sell it to developers to convert into luxury flats, but it was obvious that there was no way this could ever happen - the poverty of the area was striking.
Lister is not just predominantly Asian, but maybe uniquely for Britain, solely Asian. Both myself and my dad have lived in multiracial areas all our lives, so it took us a while to realise that people were actually staring at us on the streets. There was nothing malicious - a couple of young children shouted benchaud at me (translation - motherfucker), and ran off laughing when I returned with harami (bastards); old Muslim blokes in kalwa shamiz buying vegetables from outside grocers nodded in greeting as we walked past.
But at the same time there were gangs of youths watching whilst my dad took photos of the mill with his digital camera, and West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police signs everywhere warning about street robberies, so I suggested we should leave. There was graffiti on the boarded-up windows of the mill that read Islamic Jihad and Hamas. It was an effort for my dad to get his head round this - in the probation service, he works with Muslims who aren't so religious that they won't pop round for a pint of home-brewed bitter at Christmas, and invite him round to their homes for a slap-up meal after Eid.
Race is another one of Bradford's problems. The entire city is racked with poverty, but divided into neglected white council estates in the south, and sub-standard nineteenth century terraced housing, predominantly Asian, in the north. The two don't mix.
In the 1960s and 1970s when most of the immigration to Bradford from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India took place, cheap Asian labour was seen as a way to compete with the government-funded technological advances in the textile industry that were taking place in the rest of Europe. In the absence of government support in the UK, Yorkshire and Lancashire mill owners realised that by employing a low-paid night shift of immigrant workers from the Commonwealth they could produce more and undercut the competition.
A day-shift of well-paid unionised white workers and a night-shift of underpaid non-union Asian workers was the norm in the 1960s and 1970s, not just in Bradford but also smaller textile towns in the region - Huddersfield, Halifax, Dewsbury, Rochdale, Oldham, Blackburn, Burnley, Colne, Nelson - which suffer from a similar racial divide. From the off, whites and Asians didn't just not mix, they existed in different time frames. It isn't surprising that it is these northern towns where the racist British National Party has had most success in recent years.
In the early 1980s when this labour-intensive production became uncompetitive in the face of technology-driven production in Germany, Italy and the United States, as it was bound to do, the non-union Asians lost their jobs first - but the whites soon followed. Whilst northern textile towns suffer a racial divide, both sides suffer high unemployment and poverty. The industrial recession in the urban north hit everyone eventually.
In Bradford, the blight was confounded in the 1970s when the city's borders were extended to take in large tracts of rural and suburban West Yorkshire - the reason why, for an ostensibly small city, Bradford is the sixth largest in the country, with a population greater than Manchester or Liverpool. The boundary changes meant that a Conservative council, serving the wealthier communities outside the city itself, was voted in in the early 1980s. It remains Britain's only Conservative city council. The Conservatives work for the benefit of Bradford's rural suburbs, where their voters are. Issues of poverty and race in the inner city have never been properly addressed.
Consequently Bradford has suffered. Neighbouring Labour-controlled Leeds clamped down on street prostitution after the Yorkshire Ripper years, but the problem was driven to Bradford, where it was neglected and left to grow into a market serving both cities. Projects for racial integration were left in a chaos of self-appointed community leaders with agendas of their own, rather than a centralised council strategy. Programmes to deal with drug abuse, a mainstay of any urban area, were underfunded. South Bradford, where my dad worked as a probation officer for five years, is suffering a heroin epidemic that leaves no family untouched. The white Ravenscliffe and Buttershaw estates (setting for the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too) are in such a state that even my dad, a firm believer in the essential goodness of people, has warned me not to go near.
In recent years, Bradford has been notable for regular rioting. Unusually for a northern town, these riots have not just been an Asian response to marches by the fascist BNP - it surprised everyone when in 2001 the white estates in south Bradford erupted alongside Asian north Bradford. These riots were a direct response to the grinding poverty and underinvestment the city has suffered since the early 1980s. And nothing has changed - whilst European Union money trickles into a city that is one of western Europe's poorest, the British government has done nothing.
The economic renaissance of formerly depressed northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds have been sung highly in the British press. Bradford, the forgotten city, was abandoned by the Conservatives and has now been abandoned by the Labour Party too. It suffers problems too entrenched for market forces and local government to deal with. There has been no improvement since the recession first hit; if anything, it has got worse over recent years. It is shocking that the Labour Party, which owes its very birth to the city, has decided to leave Bradford to rot rather then tackle its problems - which are a microcosm of the economic disaster still affecting parts of northern England.
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