At quarter past two you could see the Police helicopter swinging wide loops in the sky over Whipps Cross at the far end of Hoe Street from Walthamstow. The grand old shell of Alexandra Palace to the left, the emerging shell of the Olympic Stadium to the right. Straight ahead, along the narrow spur of track, the helicopter and Walthamstow, my home.
Walthamstow Village gets its name from being the little acorn from which Walthamstow grew. It gets its reputation from events such as the Craft Guerillas Market which was being held this Saturday afternoon in the Orford House Social Club, a sprawling, slightly run down building set back from the tree lined road. The club, like all clubs from snooker to Conservative to Miners Welfare, is valiantly kept going in the face indifference for a dwindling band of patrons by one or two fanatically committed people. With its high ceilings, large sash windows and white paint job the place must be a money pit. Out back are the bowling greens, still immaculately manicured and overlooked by modest old houses. In the July sun you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Britain of the past, a Britain that still cared about places like the Orford Road Social Club.
The people attracted by the craft market did. One seller had her hair pinned and curled like Lana Turner. A baby suit had a retro picture of a spaceman and on the stage was a stall selling lampshades made of old fashioned wallpaper. All of it was ‘crafted’, made by the people selling it who each had a specialty; one did soap, another pottery, another sleep masks. These people weren’t just harking back to the style of the 1940’s but its attitude too, one of make do and mend, of self-reliance from a previous age of austerity, when even Walthamstow could find a place for crown green bowls.
Walking out and down West Avenue the helicopter was buzzing much closer overhead now, perhaps over the junction with Lea Bridge Road? Its tinny drone was pimpled by the sound of an Ice Cream van making its rounds.
I turned left on to St Mary’s Road. It was on this road not long ago that I saw an old woman skittled by a young boy charging along the pavement. “Excuse me!” she complained “Fuck you!” had come the reply through a thick accent. On one side were railway cottages on the other a row of shops turned, rather inexpertly, into flats. Just visible through the faded white wash you could make out the words ‘Fish Bar’.
At the end of the road are some steps which take you up to the crossing by Walthamstow Central station. I could see several Asian guys stood around, arms folded, waiting. The helicopter was closer. Reaching the top of the steps you can see down Selborne Road. On a clear day you can see the twin spires of the Catholic church on Seven Sisters Road or, even further across north London, the green dome of the church next to Waterlow Park.
Today was a vista of one Police van after another punctuated by crowds of loitering Asian kids and bemused shoppers. Looking right the turn towards Chingford was also choked with Police vans. Looking left was a glut of buses cresting the bridge over the railway track trying to turn into the station. The helicopter was almost directly overhead.
I crossed the road to The Goose, once a hotel now a grotty pub which sells grotty beer to customers too wasted on other substances to notice. A cluster of Police were outside paying close attention to a group of about seven men and one woman standing outside where the smoking is usually done. The leader was a stout man in a West Ham shirt, his goatee the only hair on his egg like head. On his wrist was a gay rights bracelet. He was no racist; he was a concerned local resident he said. His claim to be an outraged ingénue could not be repeated by the man and woman (his wife?) next to him who had brought boards with slogans including “TRUE MUSLIMS DON’T PROMOTE MURDER AND HATRED TO THOSE THAT FEED THEM” The rumour had been of a counter protest by the English Defence League. Maybe these few people, all early middle aged, were it?
At 3pm on the button the protest that had provoked the counter protest came round the corner onto Selborne Road. It was 61 members of Muslims Against Crusades who had marched from Leyton tube station. The Police worked hard to keep the two groups apart. A young Asian with a full beard was ushered across the road away from The Goose and to the station side which was full of increasingly excited Asian youths.
This sort of thing is no longer unusual in what was once a bastion of the white working class represented in Parliament by Clement Atlee and made famous by E17. Back in 2006 then Home Secretary John Reid was confronted in Leyton by a man demanding to know “How dare you come to a Muslim area?” This last week reports came of stickers going up in Leyton declaring “You are now entering a Shariah controlled zone” where there would be ‘no gambling’, ‘no music or concerts’, ‘no porn or prostitution’, ‘no drugs or smoking’ and ‘no alcohol’ and threatening “Islamic rules enforced”. One of the men who put these posters up, a white convert with a striking ginger beard named Jamaal Uddin, was on the march.
As bad as this is there is a still darker side. In 2005 Abdul Muhid was arrested for giving a speech at the end of the market calling for the killing of British soldiers and homosexuals. In 2006 two men from Walthamstow were among three later found guilty of plotting to blow up transatlantic flights. I was in the barbers on Forest Road the weekend after those arrests and the barber said to a waiting regular “Yeah, I knew ‘em. Nice lads, used to come in ‘ere”. It was odd to realize you lived so near people who were working to kill you.
Now, this Saturday afternoon, the two groups were now within shouting distance of each other, a fact they made full use of. “Muhammad was a pedophile!” chanted the man with the boards pleading for true Islam to win the day. “Keep St George in my heart keep me English” they sang, chanting “Scum, scum, scum” while they waited for one of their number to strike up the next song.
The response from the more numerous MAC protestors with the aid of a loudspeaker came back; “Shariah for UK” and “What do we want?” “Shariah!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”
As MAC passed the pub the crowd of Asian youths on the station side, which was about twice as big as the demonstration itself, began cheering wildly. Unlike the protestors who, this warm summer afternoon in east London were dressed in the long robes of medieval Arabia, the supportive youths were kitted out in all manner of designer gear. Apparently the hated infidels produce some natty threads.
“My old man fought a war for you to have freedom of speech” shouted the egg headed man, seemingly unaware that as rancid as the views expressed by MAC are his dad fought for their right to say it.
The response from the youths on the station side was to chant “EDL scum” to which egg head’s friend replied “Who’s EDL? We live here!”
And then the flash point was passed. It doesn’t take 61 people very long to file past seven people and they were led on past Tescos into the town square.
Walthamstow town square lies between the bus station, the market and the Mall. Often it hosts a farmers market or a French produce market. There is usually some entertainment, frequently the same Peruvian pan pipe players I heard coincidentally on consecutive weekends in Sheffield and Harlow playing El Condor Pasa both times. There is a large screen, erected at great expense by the council, which, today, was showing golf.
There are usually competing tables of left wingers, you can take your pick of Socialist Worker or Socialist Alliance but never the twain shall meet. They often protest about the west’s wars of aggression but they stayed home today. There was a small protest next to the Nat West by the McGuffin’s, the local cinephiles trying the get the cinema reopened, about ten members of the Apostolic Church singing hymns under a small marquee and a fun fair with a merry go round which was doing good business with the excited children of the afternoon shoppers.
Then MAC came advancing over the small carefully landscaped hills. The reaction reminded me of Jaws, when the boy gets munched in front of a crowded beach. People who had been watching their children play or queue for the fun fair shouted their kid’s names, stretched out their hands, and seized them. As the merry go round came to a stop a young girl looked with fear at the black clad, flag waving, chanting mob coming towards her before her mother scooped her up.
The problem was as much the crowd of teenage hangers on who had gathered round the hardcore MAC crowd. They were the same very western dressed ones from opposite the pub, I recognized one guy in a horrifically tacky shirt which had Manchester United’s badge on it in sequins. The trimmed grass of the town square often has people sitting, chatting, sunbathing or sobering up especially on a warm day like this. With the approach of the crowd, fired up by their exchange with the drinkers in The Goose, bags were packed, shoes slipped on and retreats beat. The Police seemed to struggle to keep up.
A steward brought MAC to a halt in front of the TV screen and the hangers on fanned out around them. A speech began but attention flashed back to the bus station where a group of Asian kids had decided to run back to the pub to confront the drinkers. The Police stopped them and a scuffle followed. People trying to get their shopping from the market or Mall to the bus station were scared out of their wits. As the fighting died down as quickly as it started one of the Police said that one of the Asians has been smoking a spliff and another on a march who’s ultimate aim is supposed to be modest behavior began shouting “Fuck your mum” at the Police. I wondered how long any of these kids would last under shariah law.
The hangers on drifted back towards MAC where a very immodestly dressed girl in a tight, short green dress came over and said hello to some of them she appeared to know and stayed chatting. Some others jumped on the now closed merry go round and started kicking it. The promised enforcement of Islamic rules seemed rather arbitrary.
The speeches continued over by the big screen but were drowned out by the golf commentary. The first speaker, another white convert, gave a long, rambling speech which jumped without coherence from Iraq, to MP’s expenses, to the credit crunch, to the naked women who he apparently encountered on every street corner. His tone was more consistent than his content, resolutely hysterical, so much so that his voice gave way under the pressure and cracked, breaking into a high pitched squeak as though he was reverting to pre adolescence.
I scanned the signs held by the MAC protestors behind him; ‘Islamic Emirates for Britain’, ‘Democracy = Hypocrisy’, ‘Muslims Rise, Defend Islam’, ‘Establish Islamic Emirates’ and ‘Shariah: Solution to all problems’. I wondered if the man (and they were all men) holding that had ever heard of the hell of life under the Taliban? Another sign read ‘Jihad Against Christian Extremists’. A few feet away the members of the Apostolic Church, surrounded by febrile youths, held each other’s hands and prayed.
Then came the main event, a speech by self-styled bogeyman Anjem Choudary. He was mercifully brief in his remarks, he simply repeated what the previous speaker had said and what the speaker after him would say; Britain is, apparently, drowning under a deluge of drink, drugs, porn, gambling, prostitution, Hollywood movies, fashion and cosmetics. It was a rambling list of things he didn’t like the presence of which apparently means that we are worse off than Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Indeed, public enemy number one was distinctly underwhelming. The only impressive thing about Choudary was his insistence on wearing such heavy clothing on a warm day.
The hangers on seemed to have found the speeches as dull as I did. As soon as Choudary had finished a group broke away back up to the station. It was 3:39. By the time I got up there a couple of Asian youths were being arrested. I asked a Policeman next to me how he felt it had all gone. “Peaceful” he replied as over his shoulder I saw a group of the hangers on abusing a lone cyclist.
I wandered back down to the town square toying with the idea of heading home. When I heard the same old prattle about drink and porn, which MAC seems as obsessed with as the most onanistic teenage boy, that settled it. But as I turned to leave I saw two of the younger MAC members, looking like something out of Star Wars in their flowing black robes, talking with two white guys and a girl in jeans and a headscarf. I edged over to listen.
The MAC guys were playing the same riffs, porn and its alleged ubiquity cropping up again. The younger of the two was spitting out words at machine gun speed and clearly not bothering to vet them mentally. The familiar words, corruption, prostitution, porn, drink, drugs, crime, Iraq, all fell out pell mell. But no attempt was made to explain how any one of these things was related another. Like Choudary, they simply assumed there was no problem for which Islam was not the solution, it was their silver bullet. As a result they see no need to think through any of it. Say the word Islam three times and click your heels and you’ll be in the Promised Land. But you might get stoned to death when you get there for wearing ruby slippers.
It was all less obvious to the listener. Every now and then he tried to ask the younger MAC man a question only to be told “You’re not letting me speak”, pretty rich coming from the kid whose inchoate ramblings had taken up 80% of the ‘conversation’. He launched back into another riff on the evils of western civilization then cited approvingly the NHS which, as his listener pointed out, was a product of the very western culture he claimed to hate. The younger MAC kid paused, appeared to consider this point, then said “You’re not letting me speak…” and launched back into something about pornography.
That was it for the guy who told his two friends he had had enough and wanted to leave. The younger man again complained “You’re not letting me speak” which was too much even for his older MAC colleague who told him to shut up. As the three walked away the girl in the headscarf was told that hanging out with two westerners was Haraam. She left with them anyway. The two MAC guys were left alone and the older one turned to his younger mate, exasperated, and said “What are you doing?” The other demonstrators were kneeling below the golf coverage and praying towards Leytonstone.