After a year and half in Hampshire I am having to leave this beautiful place. For work purposes, I am having to relocate to Luton, Bedfordshire where my current client is based. As a rule I never write about business related travels but these shape my understanding of the country just as much as my usual travels. Therefore I have to write a few words on them.
Before taking up this new project at Luton I worked for a few weeks at Maidenhead, a sizeable town located between London and Reading. The town centre has good ambience for shopping, eating and meeting friends. Commuting every weekday from Farnborough to Maidenhead and back was a taxing routine. Since it was on company expenses the daily journey was somewhat relieved by taking taxis from the train station.
In Maidenhead, I noticed that there are two types of private transport that one could use – taxis and private hires. Of these, private hires are slightly more expensive. (But in Luton I found them to be cheaper.) They do not have meters in them and they charge a fixed price which could be negotiated for long distances. Private hires are not allowed to wait at train stations to pick up customers. Rather, they pick up customers by prior arrangement. It is easier to get license to run a private hire than a taxi. I am told that there exists a quote of a fixed number of licenses for taxis. In Maidenhead, both taxis and private hires are seen in plenty but never when you need them. Most of these are run by Pakistanis and to a lesser extent by Indians. Upon quizzing one taxi driver, I found that this community is hard-working and willing to work late hours. These may well be the reasons for an almost monopoly that they hold in this trade.
I have been working in Luton for more than a month, commuting Mondays and Fridays, and staying at a B&B while in Luton. Luton is yet another one of many ugly looking English towns with a progressive past that somehow failed to keep pace with the times and has since degenerated into its present pathetic state. The blame must go to the people who have failed in education, people who live without goal or ambition and live off social security. The problem is one of prolonged peace and security without challenge, competition or personal ambition. I remember reading a book titled “Crap Towns”. It listed 100 such towns in the country. Looking at Luton, it is easy to conclude that it must have deserved a mention in that book. Luton town centre is an eye-sore. The buildings are not just old but have a gloomy feel in their appearances. The pavements and walkways are strewn with chewing gums blackened by age. There are only a few restaurants with a welcoming grace. By six in the evening, all life is gone. The streets and squares are deserted except for the smoke-filled pubs. For driving, a complex set of one-way rules are in place and I hear they are confusing. Luton is not particularly great for walking either. It is thickly built on hills. Streets criss-cross often in some sort of a Roman grid-style town planning. Not all have traffic lights for pedestrians making it a dangerous thing to cross roads at corners.
One evening when I was walking through town I came to the cenotaph dedicated to soldiers who had died in the Great War. Here I found a small group of five people reading names of British soldiers who had died in Iraq. The previous night the 100th soldier had died. It was their way of appreciating the sacrifice of the sons of the land. In greater measure, it was their way of showing an opposition to the war, a war being fought with an unjustified cause. Here they braved the cold of winter and attempted in a small way to bring back their sons from a foreign land. I joined this group for the rest of the evening and even read out the names of 25 soldiers who had died.
It was not long before I discovered Bury Park, an easy walking distance from Luton town centre. This place has been colonised by the Pakistani community and offers virtually everything that a decent household may need. There are shops that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Here we find the normal sundry items of Asian origin that have a market among those who have yet to change their habits to a British way of life and consumerism. In all likelihood they never will and these shops will survive for decades to come. There are barbers to give a basic haircut for only £4. There are many cheap restaurants, not at all to my liking but certainly please the local population. There is a library that has done well to cater for the needs of this community. There are video rentals or those that sell DVDs of Hindi movies. There is more than one mosque. Best of all, most of these are open late into the night. One can walk for minutes without meeting a proper British person (there are no British pubs in this place). One can easily forget that one is in Britain.
But such segregation is actually a problem. It does not bring about integration of immigrants within the larger communal fabric of public life. They remain isolated, in an enclave that foments resentments and accentuates differences. It is therefore a breeding ground for trouble. It has now been established that the London bombers of last July hailed from Luton, perhaps right in the heart of Bury Park.
Strangely, I have rarely felt at home in the presence of immigrant Asians in this country. The worst experiences of being at the receiving end of racism have been from these communities, in particular at restaurants. One such poignant experience has been at an Indian restaurant at Luton. The restaurant had two sections. One was cosier, better furnished and well lit. The other was next to the entrance, cramped and obviously meant to be used when it got crowded. On this particular evening the place was next to empty but I was shown the cheaper section. The table had been set for four. The waiter came without a word or greeting. He pushed the three extra sets to the side of table. He plainly showed his displeasure when I pointed out the stacked up mess he had left behind and asked him to remove them. The food was excellent and worth the patience I had exercised but I certainly won’t go there again. Such experiences are common in Indian restaurants meant for the British. They care little for an Indian clientele. True Indian food and impeccable service is to be found at Chennai Restaurant in East Ham. Likewise for Sri Lankan food Jaffna House in Tooting Broadway is highly recommended. I mention these two in particular only because I frequent them when I am in London. There are many more such restaurants all over London and perhaps in other parts of the country.
Farnborough has little Asian presence. Yet I liked it for what it is. The shops suited my needs. The library was excellent and I made good use of it for all my travels. Farnborough town centre isn’t a great deal. The problem is that there is no visible street lined with shops. Rather, the life of the town centre is tucked away in a square surrounded by concrete buildings. Someone driving through Farnborough will not notice it. As such it lacks the liveliness that we find in Fleet.
I am hardly sentimental about leaving this place. Farnborough has been long stay in a much longer journey.