Bradford Conversations | Thomas Ward


I moved into my Bradford bedsit in the evening of Christmas Day 2006.  I had spent the day singing carols and eating Christmas dinner served by volunteers at the Salvation Army hostel that had been my home for the previous three months.  There had been more carols than I had anticipated and more volunteer dinner servers to chat about homelessness and family and the real meaning of Christmas.  As a result, I was late getting away.  Also, I was chattier than most of the hostel residents and so I had done more than my fair share of talking to the kind volunteers.  Being grateful is an exhausting business and by the time we were given our neatly wrapped digital clock radios by the Salvation Army Major I was tired as well as behind schedule.  I collected my rucksack and shopping bags from my room and signed out of the hostel for the last time.

‘Good luck,’ the receptionist said.  ‘Someone said you’d got a job.’

‘Yes, I have.  I’m going to work on the railway.  I’m going to be a signalman.’

‘I hope it works out for you. Whatever you do, don’t come back here.’

The receptionist was blonde and pretty.  The hostel residents fantasised constantly and graphically about sleeping with her, but she spent her days perched behind her glass window, checking us in and out in untouched isolation.

‘I definitely won’t come back here.’

‘Good for you.  Bye then.’

‘Goodbye.’

I met a couple of friends from the hostel who had kindly agreed to help me carry my stuff to my new place and together we made our way through nearly empty streets to the bedsit.  There were municipal Christmas decorations dangling in the town centre, but, as far as I remember, they became fewer as I got closer to my new home.  I was going to live in Manningham, a predominantly Asian, mostly Muslim, area.  There would have been lights here, I supposed, for Eid and possibly for Diwali, but the shepherds, the wise men, and the baby in the manger didn’t have much purchase in my bit of Bradford.  The Angel Gabriel was something of a local presence, but in his Arabic form, Jibreel, the bringer of God’s revelation to Muhammed.  Over the next months I would get used to the sight of solemn little boys cradling Qurans as they hurried to their Madrassas after school. I would gather a stack of Islamic leaflets, dealing with topics such as modern science’s proof of Quranic revelation, and the holy book’s clear teaching on marriage, hellfire, and the Jinn.  Angels and their words were tough and unambiguous in Manningham.  In this respect, at least, they suited the place.  

The electricity hadn’t been connected in my bedsit so, after I had got shot of my friends, I lay under my duvet in the dark, smoking and relishing the peace of my new home.  The bedsit was tiny and it smelt of old food and disinfectant, but after my time with the Salvation Army the thrill of having my own front door, and of being able to go to the toilet in the night without having to put my pants on, was wonderful.

I didn’t sleep much that night, if at all.  Being awake was too exciting.  That Christmas I was floating between versions of myself, as vague and indistinct as the smoke that drifted around my bedsit.  I don’t remember feeling very festive but I know that I felt alert and happy as I hadn’t done for months, possibly years.

******

That happiness never quite left me during my time in Manningham, even when my car tyres were slashed and half a brick came crashing through my kitchen window.  The area never felt like a good place to live, exactly, but it was always compelling.  I didn’t want to waste my time there, so on my days off from my signal box I would set the Major’s digital clock radio for nine, and then spend the day wandering around Bradford’s backstreets, pubs, and bookshops.  The Salafi shop across the road from my bedsit became a regular haunt.  I would call in on odd afternoons, and spend a pleasant hour eating halal cola bottles while I picked up Islamic leaflets and discussed religion with the shopkeeper.

‘Were you born a Muslim?’  I asked the man, on one occasion.  He must have been in his twenties and was of Afro-Caribbean extraction.  He had what I took to be a Manchester accent.

‘No I am a revert.’

‘What made you revert?’

‘I grew up in Moss Side. I was into bad things.  I had lost my family.  And then I met the brothers and Allah had mercy.’

‘What sort of bad things were you into?’

‘Very bad things.’

The shopkeeper was dressed in black robes.  He had a quality of quietness or recollection about him that reminded me of a few elderly Christian monks that I had met.  Like them, his gaze and his thoughts were fixed somewhere beyond the mundane horizon that I was stuck with but, also like them, he couldn’t be bothered to make a big issue of it.  God was the shopkeeper’s primary audience, not me.  He was fascinated above all by Tawhid, the absolute monotheism of the Islamic vision.  From this principle, every rule and custom of Islam flowed in wonderful unity, at least in the shopkeeper’s mind.  The things that bothered me about his faith: burkas, fatwahs, sharia and planes swooshing lethally through bright Autumn mornings, faded against the glory of the divine oneness, or else found their place organically in relation to it.  I envied the man his conviction, and the overwhelming unity of his vision.

‘So what drew you to Islam, when you met the brothers?’

‘Allah drew me.’

‘Of course, but what attracted you to it, personally speaking?’

The shopkeeper folded his hands neatly on his chest and looked down.

‘Islam is the deen that tells you everything you ever need to know.  About how to pray, about how to manage a family, even about how to enter the mosque.  No other religion explains so much.’

‘Does Islam also determine how a country must be run?  The laws and the punishments and so on?’

The shopkeeper smiled.  He had met twitchy liberals before.

‘Only in a truly Islamic country.  But yes, Islam puts forth the perfect law.  The messenger teaches us how to live.’

Two young women from a Pakistani or Indian background entered the shop, looking for literature on the Hajj.  The shopkeeper excused himself and went to serve them.  The three of them addressed each other softly as brother and sister while their eyes remained gentle and respectful.  Unusually for Bradford, the difference in their ethnic background was irrelevant and so, apparently, were considerations of sex.  I understood something of the attraction of Islam to the shopkeeper then.  If I had done truly bad things (as opposed to silly, ill-judged things) and if I had drifted far from my family, I too would be drawn to an ideology that was sufficiently demanding to give me rules for every detail of life and sufficiently generous to include me in a new family that transcended the awkward contingencies of background, gender and race. 

******

A few weeks later I was in Centenary Square in the centre of Bradford.  There were stalls erected by various Muslim groups, one of which was run by a bloke from a Pakistani or Indian background, who was dressed in western clothes and had a couple of kids hanging around him eating chips.  The leaflets on the stall were made of clumsily folded paper, much less glossy than the stuff available at the Salafi shop.  When I went over to gather some, the man approached me.

‘Hello.  Are you looking for anything in particular?’

‘I’m just picking up a few leaflets.  I like leaflets.’

‘Excellent. Take as many as you want.  And if you fancy a chat…’

The man was much more cheerful than the Salafi shopkeeper.  And he was more obviously like me.                   

‘Why don’t you dress in robes like other Muslims?’

The man chuckled and tweaked the hem of his trousers.

‘Don’t you like my clothes?  They’re from Marks and Spencers.’

‘They’re very nice.  But I don’t understand why some Muslims wear robes and others don’t?’

‘Why should I dress as if I am living in the Middle East?’  The man was suddenly animated.  ‘I am not play-acting at being a Muslim.  I am interested in real Islam.  My Islam.  British Islam.’

‘And that means trousers from Marks and Sparks?’

The man chuckled again.

‘Amongst other things.’

******

The 1in12 anarchist club is located down a narrow cobbled street, about half a mile from Bradford town centre.    (The name comes from Margaret Thatcher’s suggestion that only 1 in 12 people claiming benefits were actually in need of them.)  Sometimes, when I was out wandering, I would call in there for lunch.  When the club’s café was open the food was good but it was often closed (I got the impression that the 1in12’s social-libertarian ethos meant that things were sometimes a bit disorganised at the club).  One day I called in and discovered that food was not available but persuaded the comrade on duty to make me a cup of tea. The man came back with two drinks and half a packet of anarcho-digestives, and we chatted for a while about the National Front’s famous visit to Bradford in 1976.  The Front’s march, and the resistance to it, were roughly equivalent to the defence of Madrid in Bradford’s anarchist mythology.  

‘Everyone got involved,’ the man told me.  ‘There was us and the Trots and even some Labour Party people.  White lads, Asian lads, everyone.’

‘Sounds impressive.’

‘It was.  Bradford City lads got stuck in as well.  The Nazis got battered.’

The man frowned and munched his biscuit thoughtfully.

‘Wouldn’t be the same today, of course.’

‘Why not?’

‘People are more in their own groups these days, aren’t they?  More segregated.  Muslim lads would still fight fascists if they came to town, but they’d be fighting as Muslims, not as the working class.’

‘Oh dear.  That’s sad.’  

‘Yeah it is.’

We seemed to have got as far as we could with the National Front march.  And I didn’t want the old comrade to be miserable. 

‘Is there any chance I could have a look round the library?’

The man sighed.

‘Not really.’  

‘Why not?’

‘People keep leaving the books in the wrong places, or else buggering off with them and not bringing them back.  We’re going to have to have a meeting to sort it all out.’

‘Oh dear.  Do you know when the meeting will be?’

The man sighed again.

‘Not really.’   

******

I had known of Bradford a little, even before I had arrived at the Salvation Army hostel.  When I was at school, I read The Rider of the White Horse, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel about Sir Thomas Fairfax who had commanded Parliament’s forces in the North during the Civil War. The book describes how Fairfax defended Bradford against Lord Newcastle’s much larger royalist army, in a ridiculous and occasionally amateurish siege that had involved Fairfax strapping wool sacks to Bradford church tower as an improvised fortification.  The story had grabbed my imagination more than anything else that I read as a kid.  Beyond the sheer drama of it, I was perplexed that good people and friends could find themselves on opposing sides of a conflict concerning the huge questions of God and government and loyalty, and what it means to be a country.  Those questions, and the sense of their nearly-tragic complexity, had never quite left me, and nor had the story of the church tower with its ludicrous woolly corset.

As a result, while I was living in Manningham, I would sometimes make the trip to The Cock and Bottle pub across the Shipley Road from the woolsack church – now Bradford Cathedral.   The pub had a brass plaque in the snug advising that it marked the spot where Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wife Anne had been captured by Royalists during the siege.  I spent happy evenings there drinking the pub’s excellent beer while I communed boozily with the ghosts of my childhood heroes.  

One evening, shortly before I left Bradford, I went to the pub for the last time.  A drunk woman in her sixties was dominating the bar.  She had apparently just come from visiting a friend in hospital who had had a double mastectomy the day before.  When I arrived the drunk woman was making a tasteless joke conflating her friend’s chopped-off breasts with the chicken breasts she was planning to have for her tea.  The chicken breasts were plonked on the bar and the woman seemed near to tears.  She spotted me as soon as I walked in 

‘Come and sit down,’ she slurred.  She patted the stool next to her.  

‘Thank you.’  The woman was not the sort of person it would be sensible to offend.  ‘Would you like a drink?’

Her eyes took several seconds to focus on me.

‘I’ll have a gin and tonic.’

‘Okay.’

I bought us both drinks and the woman bashed my glass hard with her own so that my beer slopped out.

‘Cheers.  You’re not from round here are you?’

‘No.’

‘Where are you from?’

‘I grew up in Manchester.’

‘But you’re not from there neither.’

‘No I’m not.’

‘So where did you live before you lived here?’

‘Just outside Bedford.’  I took a deep breath.  ‘I was a Roman Catholic monk.’

The woman nodded as if this was precisely the answer she was expecting.  She sipped her gin.

‘Why did you leave?  Did you sodomise someone?’

‘No.’

‘Did you get sodomised?’

‘No.’

‘Well, why did you leave then?’

I drank some beer.

‘I didn’t believe it enough.  And I was worried that I might have joined for the wrong reasons.’  

‘What reasons?’  

‘Because I wanted security, not because I really loved God.’

‘Hmmm.’  The woman frowned.  ‘And have you found your security now?’

‘Not really.  I’m not sure that there is much security to be had, to be honest. Bradford’s teaching me that.’

‘Don’t you like it here?’

There were only five or six people in the bar but the drunk woman commanded attention.  Everyone was listening for my reply.  I took another deep breath. 

‘I like it more than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.  But I’m going to leave.’  

‘Why?’

‘My flat’s in Manningham and my things keep getting damaged. I’ve had my tyres slashed. A window’s been broken.  I need to get out.’

The woman lit an (illegal) cigarette.  She smoked for a minute.  She stared into her gin and patted her chicken breasts absentmindedly.

‘My daughter’s got kids with an Asian,’ she said. ‘And I love them to death so I’m not racist, right?’

‘Of course not.’

‘I grew up in Manningham and the street that I used to live on has got two sari shops, a mosque and a Muslim undertaker on it now.   And that’s all come in the last thirty years.  There’s only one English family left there.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

The woman turned to look straight at me.  There were tears in her eyes. Whether they were due to cigarette smoke, or her sick friend, or the changes to her hometown, or just being drunk, I don’t know.  I do know that I was supposed to tell her that the new people on her street were as English as she and I, but I didn’t dare.

And then, appallingly, the drunk woman stroked my face.  Her palm was cool and very smooth.

‘You get out, kid,’ she muttered.  ‘Get out quick.’

*****

There is a passage in The Rider of the White Horse where Anne Fairfax takes her daughter to visit a dentist in Hull during the royalist siege of the city. The dentist is apparently neutral concerning the battle raging outside his surgery, but when Anne gives her daughter a penny as compensation for her lost tooth, he remarks ominously that the coin shows only the king’s severed head.  Anne is flustered and insists that the king has nothing to fear from Parliament if he will only yield to its lawful will.  She also points out the kings are not divine.  The dentist is not convinced: ‘In the deep enough dark places,’ he tells Anne, ‘near enough to the beginning of things, kings and priests and gods are all the same.’  The line impressed me tremendously as a kid and the force of it has never quite left me. Kings and priests and gods are all the same.  If we are to live together decently, I came to believe, the temporal order we share has to make some claim (however vague) upon the sacred. More than that, we need to be attentive to those inherited and often-grotty institutions that touch (however ambiguously) the things that are lasting and good and beautiful.  I suspect that this slowly-acknowledged insight, courtesy of a kid’s history book, was partly behind my decision to become first a Catholic and then a monk, which led in turn to the Salvation Army hostel and the smelly bedsit. 

I struggle now to make the act of faith necessary to be a proper Christian.  After the monastery, my faith feels as vague and indistinct as the cigarette smoke that drifted around my room that Christmas sixteen years ago.   What worries me about this (apart from the state of my soul), is how to make the necessary connections between kings and priests and gods, between the temporal and the sacred, in the absence of proper faith of the type that I now find so difficult.  The problem becomes acute in a context as diverse as Bradford.  A society that is split on communal lines, that understands itself explicitly as multicultural, cannot have a single shared conception of the sacred upon which to base its common life.   With demographic and cultural change, the transcendent must softly withdraw from public space leaving us only a wobbly, desacralized and dull utilitarianism to guide our life together.  

So here is a question: is there a way to appropriate the various social and political goods of the Christian tradition, rooted in Jerusalem and Athens and Rome, without actually believing in the shepherds and the angel and the baby in the manger?  I don’t know the answer to that question, but it is undeniably important.  My time in Bradford exposed me to a society that was keenly divided and introduced me to a non-Christian belief system which was lively and vigorous, and which made unambiguous and sometimes unpleasant connections between the temporal and the eternal order.  In response, if we are not quite able to believe in Christianity again, can we at least embrace a reverent agnosticism?  If we can’t quite gather at the manger with the shepherds and the angels and the true believers, can we at least hover somewhere nearby, self-conscious and unsure of ourselves, but still grateful for the luminous beauty of the scene and determining somehow to live in its shade?  If we cannot quite pray anymore, can we at least kneel where prayer has been valid, and know that is much better than nothing?

Because if we do not have a sacred canopy to shelter under together, even one that is rather threadbare and that flaps a bit in the winds of unbelief, we will eventually find it difficult to shelter together at all.

******

Sixteen years after leaving Bradford, I can still remember the faces of the Salafi bookshop worker, and of the British Muslim with the M and S trousers, and of the regretful anarchist with the digestives.  But, try as I might, I can’t remember the face of the drunk woman who I met in the pub where Anne Fairfax was arrested by Lord Newcastle’s cavalry.   I remember her chicken breasts and her boozy voice piercingly clearly, however.  And I remember her crying and telling me, for my own good, to leave her city.  The memory still unsettles me.


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