April 10, 2019 / 11:43 AM / in 15 days

Special Report: Wish You Weren't Here - Postcards from the Edge of London in the Age of Brexit

By Andrew MacAskill and Andrew R.C. Marshall

A woman sits at a bus stop in Dagenham, east London, Britain, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

(Reuters) - Every Friday morning, a pensioner and his grandson gaze across a vast demolition site in east London, one of them remembering a life working at the Ford factory there and the other wishing he could help tear its old buildings down.

For 22 years, Alan Cooling spray-painted automobiles at Ford Dagenham, which made nearly 11 million cars and at its height in the 1950s employed 40,000 people. “Good money but a crap job,” the 76-year-old says.

His grandson, Steve Walpole, is 23 and autistic. The demolition workers have taken him under their wing, and on Fridays they bring Walpole onto the site to watch giant hydraulic pulverisers rip down Ford buildings.

“I love demolition,” Walpole says. “I wish I could work here.”

Afterward, he cycles home and makes Lego models of the buildings. And so, 90 years after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, planted a silver spade in a Dagenham marsh to inaugurate its construction, the Ford factory rises again in miniature from Walpole’s bedroom floor, reborn in multicoloured plastic.

Today, only 1,763 employees remain at the plant, making diesel engines for export to the European Union and elsewhere. Running past the demolition site is a fast train that doesn’t stop: the Eurostar, shuttling between central London and continental Europe.

During Ford’s heyday in Dagenham, globalisation meant jobs. Today, on the neglected fringes of a city that has been transformed by borderless wealth, globalisation means immigrants. For the past 15 years, new arrivals from the European Union and beyond have poured into the once-predominantly white British community, which has been whipsawed by one of the fastest demographic shifts this country has ever seen.

“We’ve always been a white, working-class borough,” says Ronnie Collyer, a regular at Gunay’s Cafe, a Dagenham institution. “We’re a dirty-hands borough.”

In a nationwide referendum in 2016, Barking and Dagenham voted to leave the European Union, one of just five of London’s 32 boroughs to do so. Collyer, a retired scaffolder, voted to remain, but he wasn’t surprised that more people voted to leave. “People thought for the first time they actually had a voice. That was the important thing.”

On the morning after the referendum, Collyer says, a man walked into Gunay’s Cafe and shouted, “Victory for the working man!”

Collyer shakes his head. “When has the working man ever won anything?”

These days he worries about the country’s political paralysis – and its anger. Of Brexit, he says, “Whichever way it goes, we’ll still be a country divided.”

MURAT “DENNIS” KILINC, GUNAY’S CAFE

Gunay’s Cafe serves big plates of cheap food to working men, young mums and pensioners – most of them white, most of them regulars. Its owner is a 44-year-old immigrant from Turkey named Murat Kilinc. His customers call him Dennis.

Kilinc fled Istanbul 20 years ago after his girlfriend left him. “She broke my heart,” he says. “I was really, really depressed. But when I was far from her, I felt better.” In London, he worked at his sister’s kebab shop, met and married another Turkish immigrant, and got British citizenship.

He bought the cafe from a Cypriot (who had named it after a grandson). He became Dennis. And, for reasons he now regrets, he voted leave. So did most of his customers. Post-referendum, they tease him relentlessly.

“When are they sending you home then, Dennis?” says Rob, a former nightclub bouncer.

“Send him home! Send him home!” cries Joe, a former boxer.

These jibes roll off Kilinc like fat from a griddle. He walks over to Rob and says: “You see this man? He used to have a job. He works for three, four hours a day. Then he comes in here. He eats. Afterwards, maybe have a sleep. Then the foreigners come and work hard and take his job. So he gets angry and votes to leave the EU.”

Rob smirks like a schoolboy.

Kilinc returns to his stove. “When we first came here,” he says, “people didn’t accept us. But now we’re like family, really. I’m really happy here.”

Dennis the Turk came first. Then the Lithuanians arrived. Then came Romanians and Africans. Many people were drawn to work on the construction of a nearby stadium complex for the 2012 Olympics – an event that, many people will tell you, marked the last time Great Britain felt great and the United Kingdom united.

Kilinc says immigration has been bad for business: “The foreign people coming here are not eating this kind of food anymore.” Brexit could make things worse. The price of food imported from continental Europe might go up. The Lithuanians and Romanians he depends upon as waiting staff might go home.

So why did Kilinc vote leave? Because at the time he was upset with his Eastern European workers and wanted to punish them. “I thought, ‘I’m going to vote and kick them out of the country.’ But next day I thought: ‘That was personal. I shouldn’t mix my personal stuff with the country’s things.’ But it was too late.”

*****

Brexit was driven in part by a yearning for greater sovereignty – a feeling that Britain needed to take back areas of governance that had been ceded to the European Union. It was also driven by a generation of unprecedented immigration after the 2004 expansion of the EU. Before the expansion, the British government had tried to work out how many of these new EU citizens would head for Britain. A report concluded, “Estimates for the UK range between 5,000 and 13,000 net immigrants per year.” This wasn’t even close: In the next four years, more than 780,000 people came.

Thousands moved to the borough of Barking and Dagenham, transforming its population in less than a generation. In the 2001 census, 81 percent of its residents identified as “white British.” Just 10 years later, that figure had plunged to 49 percent. White Britons had become a minority.

HEATHER LIGHTEN, WEST & COE FUNERAL DIRECTORS

Heather Lighten works at what she calls “the only English business left” on her busy Dagenham intersection: a funeral home.

For the last 33 years, she’s arranged thousands of funerals, sometimes for several generations of the same families. Now 75, she still lives in an apartment above the shop. “I’m a bit of a fixture,” she says.

This branch of West & Coe funeral directors (est. 1903) sits on an intersection called Martin’s Corner. From her desk in the carpeted hush of a reception room, Heather remembers the old days. Martin’s Corner was a little slice of England. It had three grocers, three butchers, a barber and “a proper baker’s.”

Today, the barber shop is Turkish. The grocer offers “Afro-Caribbean, Asian and English” food. There’s also a Lithuanian grocer, a Chinese takeaway and two African fried-chicken restaurants. The butcher is halal.

Her boss calls her “the queen of Martin’s Corner.” She once drove away youths who loitered outside her place by smearing pork fat on the roadside posts they liked to sit on. “How would you feel if I’ve got your mum or dad in here and there’s dozens of yobs outside drinking beer?” she says.

Her desk is crowded with thank-you cards sent by grateful customers. “Some people say I’m an angel,” she says. “Well, me wings must have bloody fell off. I’m just a person that cares.”

Heather voted to leave the EU, but she no longer believes Brexit will deter immigrants or alleviate the pressure they’ve put on hospitals and public housing. “You feel like you’re the minority,” she says. “This is not our country anymore.”

In 2003, Heather went to Gambia on holiday and was so struck by the poverty that she started her own charity. Every year, she raised money and collected clothes in Dagenham, then returned to Gambia to distribute it all. She did this for 10 years until “Malcolm got bitten by the Alzheimer’s dog.”

Malcolm is her husband. They lived together above the shop until he grew too sick for Heather to look after. Now he’s in a home and she visits every day. “He calls me ‘darling’ but doesn’t know who I am,” she says. “But I remember who he is.”

*****

Dagenham was meant to be a working-class paradise. In 1921, on what was then farmland, work began on the Becontree Estate, the largest public housing development in the world. It provided 26,000 houses with indoor toilets and neat gardens, luxuries to families displaced by postwar slum clearances in London’s East End.

The government called them “homes fit for heroes” – the men who had fought and won the Great War. At first, most Dagenham residents commuted to central London for work. Then the Ford plant came.

ANDY EZE, PECULIAR PEOPLE’S MINISTRIES

A hundred meters from where heavy machinery is rendering the old Ford factory into rubble, Pastor Andy Eze stands before a small but lively congregation of the Peculiar People Ministries and channels the book of Isaiah.

“Shake thyself from the dust,” he urges them, “and arise.”

Dagenham is crowded with what old-timers deride as “happy clappy” churches. Some of these evangelical congregations have taken over old English churches; others, like the Peculiar People, occupy unloved buildings, in this case a long, windowless room above a garage advertising tyres from 15 pounds.

Eze is a mortgage broker who moved to Dagenham in the early 2000s. “Back then I was the only black man living on my street,” he says. “And it’s a very long street.”

His worshippers today are mostly black Britons, but there are also some whites, South Asians and a Romanian mother and daughter. What unites them, says Eze, is hardship and hope.

“Be determined,” he tells them, pacing a small dais. “Don’t give up. Somebody say, ‘Don’t give up!’”

“DON’T GIVE UP!” they chorus.

“Something is around the corner.”

“AMEN.”

“Something is around the corner for you.”

“AMEN!”

The church takes its name from the Bible (“ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people”) and, according to its website, is “positioned for the end-time harvest.” For some Christians, the “end times” is a period of chaos and decline that prefigures the second coming of Jesus Christ – an event Eze believes is imminent.

Afterward, he says, the world will change. Dagenham will change. People won’t die in their 50s or 60s; they’ll live for hundreds of years. Pain and suffering will vanish. Satan will be bound, along with one of his masterworks: the European Union.

Like most Dagenham voters, Eze thinks Britain should leave the EU, but not for the usual reasons. He sees the EU’s unifying mission as proof that Satan is trying to unite mankind against God. “Brexit is God’s plan,” he says. “It might look tough and rough now. But if Britain stands its ground, it will become prosperous again. The lost glory will come back.”

*****

Brexit is often described as a display of British nationalism. More accurately, it is English nationalism, of the kind that could conceivably tear the UK apart. In the referendum, 15.2 million English voted to leave the EU, and 13.3 million voted to remain. The rest of the United Kingdom was less enthusiastic. Wales also voted to leave, but narrowly. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to stay. But because England accounts for 84 percent of the nation’s population, the English leavers carried the day.

In the mid-2000s, with immigration rising, Dagenham elected 12 members of the fascist British National Party to its local council. The party – whose policies have included the deportation of all non-whites – later imploded. The name of a newer far-right group is telling: the English Defence League.

KEN BROWN, THE MILL HOUSE SOCIAL CLUB

Down the road from Peculiar People’s Ministries is a bastion of the white community in Dagenham: the Mill House Social Club. Members have to use an intercom to enter the squat, red-brick building, giving it the feeling of a bunker.

Ken Brown, 63, runs the club, which was founded in 1934 for Irish workers who emigrated to work at Ford Dagenham. The bar has flat-screen televisions showing football and boxing, a pool table and a small stage at one end. The smell of bleach lingers.

“In the old days, this place was always packed. People would come in here and drink six pints before their shift in the foundry. Bosh,” he says. “It is much quieter now.”

When he was growing up, Brown says, there was a close-knit white community in Dagenham built around the factories. His mother lived by the docks nearby and used to say if you saw a black man coming off a ship, you should touch him for good luck.

The influx of Africans and Romanians turned him into a pull-up-the-drawbridge Leave voter. “We want our borders back,” he says. “The area has been infiltrated by unkempt, unclean residents.”

Brown’s son drives a black cab, which have been a traditional sight in London for more than a century. Cabbies famously memorise its streets for a test called the Knowledge. They’re now being undercut by Uber, many of whose drivers are nonwhite and immigrants – and rely on GPS.

Brown says his dream of reclaiming Britain’s sovereignty is being undermined by the political establishment.

“The people negotiating with the EU should believe in Brexit,” he says. “They should be the sons and daughters of people who died in World War Two.”

*****

Barking and Dagenham is one of London’s most deprived boroughs. More than a third of its children live in poverty. Wages are low and unemployment is high. Unhappy superlatives pile up here. Its birth rate is the highest in London. So are its rates of domestic violence and childhood obesity. So is the waiting time after calling the emergency services.

People who live in Barking and Dagenham die sooner. The healthy life expectancy of men is 58.2, or five years less than the London average. With women it’s 60.7, or nearly four years less than the London average.

*****

ALFIE LEE, BOX-UP CRIME

Inside a community centre built almost a century ago by two peace activists, boxers form a circle and introduce themselves.

“I’m Amy from Sierra Leone.”

“I’m Keon from Bangladesh.”

“I’m Emma from England.”

“I’m Reece from Nigeria.”

“I’m Rishikesh from Mauritius.”

In the group of about 25 fighters of assorted abilities, just under half say they’re from Britain. The class, part of a program called Box-Up Crime that has the aim of keeping children in Dagenham off the streets, is evenly split between those of white, black and Asian descent.

As rap music blares, the training provides its own soundtrack: Fists thump heavy bags, floors squeak, participants grunt as they put their bodies through the strain of rhythmic obsessions.

Alfie Lee, who is white and one of the most experienced boxers in the class, hopes the sport will transport him from the troubled world beyond the centre’s doors.

Quiet outside of the ring, but a fierce fighter once he steps inside, the 18-year-old recently quit his job working full time at McDonald’s and wants to begin training professionally.

“My mum always told me I can do better things than Dagenham,” he says. “My mum said, ‘You have the potential to go somewhere.’ So that is what I took as my drive to get somewhere, and I am hopefully making it. Actually, not hopefully, I am making it.”

Lee describes Dagenham as a place where people look for good jobs and can’t find them, but where it’s easy for teenagers to earn 2,000 pounds a week moving drugs around for gangs.

In March, a friend of his died after she was stabbed in the back in a park near Dagenham, in what police describe as an unprovoked attack. She was 17. Three people have been charged in the killing and are scheduled to face trial in September.

“If you lived around here, wouldn’t you want to get out?” he says.

Lee, who was too young to vote in the referendum, says Brexit was a betrayal of young people’s future by older voters. “It wasn’t their future to decide,” he says. “It is going to make it harder for people to find work. Migrants were boosting the economy.”

Lee dismisses the claim that the influx of non-whites is responsible for the borough’s problems. At school, Lee says, many of the kids were from different ethnic backgrounds.

“It has never been an issue; we all get along,” he says. “The main issue here is neglect.”

*****

A British property company called Rightmove does an annual survey of the best places to live in the country. In 2015, Barking and Dagenham came last, winning the title of the most miserable place to live in Britain. In 2016, it came last again.

STELLA OSUNBOR, THE BULL

Three years ago, Stella Osunbor transformed a derelict English pub called The Bull into an African grocery, stocked by weekly flights from Lagos. It serves the borough’s African community, the fastest-growing in London.

It is a cold morning. The Nigerian immigrant sits at the till shrouded in an anorak, chewing on a bitter kola nut. Her assistant Maria, a Romanian, busies herself among baskets of yams, peppers, dried fish and moi-moi leaves.

Online reviews from The Bull’s days as a pub are unflattering (“horrible,” “depressing,” “not a place to visit if you can help it”). Osunbor spent a small fortune refurbishing it. “It was a disaster area, inside and outside,” she says.

Hardly anybody misses the old Bull, but it seems not everybody likes the new one. Once, someone drilled a hole in one of the door shutters, then pumped in sealant to keep it from opening.

And Osunbor says the council won’t let her put up a larger sign to show passersby that it’s a grocery now, not a pub. “Dagenham is giving us a tough time,” she says with a sigh.

Still, the customers keep coming.

“Hello, auntie, do you have ugu?” a customer asks. Ugu is pumpkin leaves, used in soup.

Nigeria has hundreds of languages and ethnicities. Osunbor is from Edo, in the country’s south, but she makes it her business to source comfort food from every region. “I get the food I know they cannot do without,” she says. “The Igbo – I know what they eat. The Yoruba – I know what they eat.”

Some customers complain to Osunbor, 59, that Britain has become a more hostile place since the Brexit vote. She also thinks racial tensions are rising. That makes her worry for her six children, four of them British-born, who she says have little interest in Nigeria.

“If the British won’t call them British,” she says, “and they won’t call themselves Nigerian, then who are they?”

*****

Several older residents describe Dagenham as a “shithole.” The local council calls it a “regeneration hotspot.” As a glacier of wealth spreads ever eastward from central London, Dagenham’s low rents are attracting artists from gentrifying areas to the west. There are plans for new houses, commercial areas and parks on the old Ford site.

The local council says it’s also finalising a deal with a Los Angeles-based studio operator to build the city’s largest film studio. Darren Rodwell, the head of the council, says he dreams of the day that “Dagenham becomes London’s Hollywood.”

SIMONA STAPUTIENE, LEAPING TOADS SCHOOL

Simona Staputiene and her husband, Darius, came to Britain from Lithuania after the EU expanded in 2004. He got a job as a truck driver, and she opened a school for Lithuanian children in the living room of their Dagenham home.

“In the first year we had only 12 students,” she says. “In the second year it grew to 30. Then it doubled again.”

Ten years later, more than 2,000 children have attended classes at the Leaping Toads school, now run out of a building once occupied by the Dagenham chapter of the Royal British Legion, the country’s leading charity for veterans. In a large, low room where old soldiers once cradled pints of beer, young Lithuanians learn the language and culture of the country their parents left.

East London has one of the largest concentrations of Lithuanians outside Lithuania. Four thousand live in Barking and Dagenham alone, according to the last census. Lithuanians own clinics, dentists and beauty salons in Dagenham. They work in its banks, supermarkets and library. Lithuanian is heard on its streets and in its schools.

“It is Lithuania in Dagenham,” Staputiene says.

Older residents talk about the good old days, and complain about how far Dagenham has fallen. Staputiene talks about affordable houses, wide roads, green spaces, an easy commute to central London – the very qualities that once drew those older residents to Dagenham.

The first wave of Lithuanians arriving in Britain were dogged by lurid stories. Some were tall tales: Lithuanians hunting, roasting and eating British swans. Others were true crime: In 2016, a Lithuanian robber with an air pistol terrorized Eastern European stores in Dagenham until passersby caught him outside a shop on Martin’s Corner; he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Such stories made some Lithuanians reluctant to be openly proud of their nationality, Staputiene says. One of her aims at Leaping Toads is “to lift children’s self-confidence, to show them that Lithuanians are talented and hard-working people.”

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Just like her school, a delivery service connects Lithuanians to their homeland. Hundreds of vans shuttle constantly between Britain and Lithuania, bringing everything from toys to a box of apples from a grandparent’s farm. To avoid London’s traffic, the vans deliver at night, often at 3 or 4 a.m.

“They usually call 10 minutes beforehand,” Staputiene says. “You look at your phone and think, ‘Who is calling me at this time?’” In the run-up to Christmas, few Lithuanians in Dagenham get an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Nobody’s losing sleep over Brexit, she says. The Lithuanians she knows aren’t planning to leave; they’re here to stay. “Lithuanians will never be 100 percent British. And they don’t need to be. We can still all live together.”

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Andrew RC Marshall; Editing by Kari Howard

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