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Saturday, 24 May 2008

Springbank adventures

The Warzone

The youth comes tumbling out of the Fish and Chips shop backwards and lands on the pavement, right in front of the bike, blood smeared across his face, his eyes showing the same surprised, but surprisingly unfocused stare that boxers, pole-axed by a strong uppercut display. A pursuer follows, a girl dragging the open tracksuit top of this person, screaming. As the first kid tries to get up, his pursuer, still dragging the girl, runs towards him and aims a massive kick at the head of the boy on the floor. Illegally riding on the sidewalk, I'm stopped completely, blocked from progressing further. The tracksuit boy is leaning over his adversary, shouting and aiming wild swipes at his head, while the kid on the floor shuffles sideways, trying to kick out in defence. Both kids are teenagers, much smaller than me, so I take advantage of a break in the fight and get between them, positioning the bike right in front of the floored youth.

"Hang on a minute, kid, he's had enough" this is me, gesturing at the bloodied youth on the floor, bleedin from his mouth, now getting to his feet. I'm addressing the tracksuit.

"He took me fuckin..(untranslatable)..fuckin twat...." tracksuit shouts "Fuck off. Who the fuck are you?". Tracksuit is very wound up, pacing quickly in front of the bike, which I am manoeuvering, trying to use it as a kind of mobile crowd-control shield, in between lots of shouting.

"Whatever he's done, he's had enough. Just leave it alone, you'll have the coppers here" I begin to say. The girl hanging onto his tracksuit is screaming the same thing, I think, but these incidents happen very quickly and there's a lot of movement. The tracksuit moves towards me, causing panic on my part. Later, as I rewind the incident, this is the 'Shiver down the spine' moment for me - fear always hits after I've done something stupid or reckless.

Suddenly, the bloodied victim is over my shoulder and behind the bike swinging wildly. More panic : swinging at me? I DUCK. No, not at me. Relief! He's swinging at tracksuit, who immediately begins to give back as good as he gets, both of them trading punches across the frame of the bike, like pathetic neighbours having a fight over the garden fence. I dive out of the way, rescuing myself, and the bike, ignored by both the fighters and a small group of other youths, who are apparently partisans of tracksuit. One little kid, probably about 10 years old (but with much older eyes), does'nt ignore me and dismissively tells me to "Fuck off". Humiliated, and scared, I do so.

The incident, which seems to me to be the future of at least parts of the UK, happened about a year ago, and was instrumental in making me pay attention to Springbank, or rather a particular area of Springbank. Springbank is one of Hull's main thoroughfares into the city, but the half mile of this road just before Hull's town centre is an area we've come to know as the Warzone. It is an area of social housing and dilapidated , but still occupied, hundred year old housing stock. Charities have their local headquarters here, and the area that surrounds is used to place immigrants and refugees. It was already a firmly working class sub-division, with generational unemployment rates of 50%.Over the last ten years, the expansion of the European Union has led to a further influx of Romanians, Polish, Lithuanian and other former Eastern Block immigrants who settle here because of cheap rents. Perhaps because of the cultures that a lot of the immigrants come from, a lot of life is lived on the street here with the consequence that as I walk home from work along this half mile, it's possible to feel the tension between the rival groups of muclebound Turks, Armenians, Kurds and Arabs that hang round their respective restaurant. Curiously, perhaps, another group of musclebounds have their headquarters right in the middle of the Warzone, as The Polar Bear is a favourite midweek gay bar. It seems an incongrous mix as most male activity on the street is so determinedly macho.

In many cities with diverse immigrant communities, areas like these become attractive to rich middle class types like us - foodies and cultural liberals anxious to experience some authentic ethnic dining experience. I can't see this happening in the Warzone - the tensions are too real, the restaurants are too ethnic and the people need too much from us.

Immigration in the UK is a complex issue, and like most people, I am confused about how I feel about the country's immigration policy. A population of 60 million+ in a place as small as England (it is mostly England, Scotland's population is only about 3 million) is too many people. Additionally, some immigration over recent years has had an obvious effect on my own standards of living. For example, 10 years ago, working as a freelance carpenter in the UK, I could easily charge an hourly rate of £15.00 per hour or more. Today's freelancers consider £13.00 an hour a very good wage, and the obvious reason is that in the Construction trades (particularly Polish) immigrants will work for much less than their English counterparts. There are, though, hidden forces at work behind this statistic, most notably in the case of tradesman, specifically the evaporation of Trade Unions from the working-class landscape. Trade Unions still exist of course, but their power is negligable, and their ability to protect the wages and conditions of workers is gone. The long term effects of this could be disastrous for Building Firms - as the Trades have become less attractive to UK born people, immigrants have filled the gap, but due to increased mobility and ease of travel across Europe, an increasing number of Eastern Europeans do not settle permanently. Many choose to work until they can afford a good house 'back home', then return. The Polish economy is showing sustained signs of benefitting from this influx of currency. Meanwhile there are fewer and fewer UK born tradesmen and women.

Other effects of immigration make for uncomfortable reading as well, namely the moves by some Islamic clerics to have Sharia courts recognized in adjudicating the Islamic community. This, I find unacceptable, even if I understand why these proposals are mooted, because although the British legal system is not perfect, it is still probably one of the most desirable systems. In the past, European Governments have solved problems like this by simply banning certain religious groups, but in 2008, this is not a solution that anyone seriously suggests. Nevertheless, the Islamic marginalization, real or imagined IS a continuing problem. If there are any doubts that the effects of a small group of active fanatics can have, look no further than Northern Ireland.

There is a need for perspective in all of this. The Warzone is a relatively tiny area of Hull, and the immigrant population of the UK is correspondingly small. Areas like Springbank are though, disproportionately poor. Perhaps if attention was paid to the economic and social effects of creating and maintaining these ghettoes, namely planning where these people are going to instead of concentrating on where they've come from, then the 'problems' of immigration might become the benefits of revitalization. It's either that, or stop immigration entirely. But if we did that, who would build or houses?

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