Saturday, 20 June 2009

The curious history of Asian Leicester

A visit to Leicester today gave us the opportunity to have an outstandingly good Indian meal. Curry Fever, at 139 Belgrave Road, won’t disappoint any real fan of Indian cooking. Let me particularly recommend the Pili Pili sauce, the restaurant’s pride and joy.

Belgrave Road is in the heart of the Indian area of Leicester. It was curious driving around it: there was barely a white face to be seen. You can sometimes feel less than welcome in some heavily immigrant-dominated areas of Britain. My wife was refused service in an Asian shop in Luton, where employees simply turned their backs on her. There was a time when I would regularly walk through West-Indian dominated Brixton, south London, at night and the eyes that followed me from the youths gathered on the pavements were fairly intimidating. I would be beaming to them telepathically ‘I’m on your side, I think you’re right, I think your treatment in this society by people with my skin colour is vile and inexcusable’, but had the terrible sense that if push came to shove – literally – I might not have the time to explain all that.

In Leicester today, the atmosphere was completely different. We were served with real charm in the restaurant – by, I think, the proprietor. There was none of the obsequious reverence you sometimes get in Indian restaurants: there was just a ready smile, a courteous word, and a willingness to be helpful – he kept the place open late, and even restarted the coffee machine which he’d already switched off. We were received in the same way in the shop where we went to buy some Indian vegetables: Danielle has become a real expert in Indian cooking and she wanted Dal and Okra (lentils and lady’s fingers). The shopkeeper and his wife seemed slightly amused, perhaps slightly surprised, but behaved towards us with warmth and friendliness.

This perhaps all reflects the special nature of the Indian community in Leicester. A great many of its members are twice-removed immigrants. Britain brought their ancestors from the Indian sub-Continent to Uganda to run the railways and carry out menial work. With the thrusting dynamism of many immigrant communities they built successful businesses which became the envy of many locals, with whom they mixed little: the Ugandan Asians weren’t without their faults and have even been accused of racism towards their African fellow citizens. That however doesn’t justify the measure adopted against them by Idi Amin, president of Uganda and a man who might have taught Robert Mugabe all he knows about respect for human rights. On 26 August 1972, Amin ordered all Ugandan Asians out of the country by 9 November.

At the time, Ted Heath was Prime Minister in England. I didn’t think much of him, but the next Tory Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher, gave me reason to look back on him with something close to nostalgia. I’m not sure she was capable of compassion for any group outside the mainstream of what she regarded as ‘respectable’. Heath had the courage to stand absolutely resolute, and against opposition, on the principle that Britain had a moral obligation towards every Ugandan Asian who had a British passport (to our lasting shame, many had been issued passports that didn’t automatically entitle them to residence in this country).

In the end, 30,000 out of the total population of 80,000 came to Britain.

Quite a few of them already had relatives or friends in Leicester. The City Council became aware that large numbers were planning to come there. It took out advertisements in the Ugandan newspaper, the Argus, pointing out that there was a long waiting list for housing in Leicester, the schools were already over-full and, generally, that it would be far better for them not to go there.

Large numbers ignored the advertisements and came anyway. Their second-phase of immigration didn’t blunt their entrepreneurial skills. Many were unable to get their money out of Uganda; they often turned up with nothing more than a suitcase. But they set to work and rebuilt. Estimates suggest that when the thirtieth anniversary of their arrival came round, in 2002, they had generated something like 30,000 jobs in the city.

The council at least had the decency to admit that the adverts against the immigration had been a shameful episode and officially apologised for them. Thirty years earlier would have been better, but it’s never too late to do the right thing.

The City has benefited enormously from the influx of Ugandan Asians. Personally, the only aspect of their contribution that I’ve seen was today’s excellent meal. But that’s quite enough to inspire my profound gratitude.

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