Saturday, 10 October 2009

The end of an era and a new beginning at Hounslow Homes

Thursday evening may have been the fourth time that I'd attended an Annual General Meeting of Hounslow Homes, the London Borough of Hounslow's Arms Length Management Organisation, but this one was a tad different. Not only was it the first time I'd sat it out whilst a new Lead Member did the necessary, but it was also a landmark meeting for another reason. Alf Chandler, who had chaired the ALMO since its inception, stepped down from the hot seat following the introduction of the new two-term rule, and was replaced at the immediately ensuing Board Meeting by former Vice Chair Mohammad Chaudhry (above left).

Alf has been a giant within Hounslow's housing movement for longer than most people can remember. When I first took on the role of Lead Member for Housing back in 2006 I had assumed that he and I would rapidly find ourselves on a collusion course. Whilst his renowned socialist views on housing and some other issues are not in themselves antithetical to my own, my fear was that they would lead him axiomatically to line up with the Old Guard, and its instinctively Stalinist resistance in the face of my unbashful programme for tenant emancipation.

As it happened though I soon discovered that Alf was very much his own man. Whilst there may at first have been an element of suspicion, as my true agenda became clear I feel he came to realise that my objectives in housing were not after all in conflict with his own, and over the course of my three year tenure I like to believe that a real sense of trust and deep respect developed between us both.

Mohammad, who was victorious in a contested election for the top spot, will undoubtedly bring a new style and perspective to the role. As President of the Pakistan Welfare Association and during his time as Chair of the Hounslow Borough Community Police Consultative Group he has established himself as a respected and authoritative presence in the Hounslow community, and ably assisted by his Vice Chairs Andy Lee, Paula Lewis and Councillor Gill Hutchinson he will put his own stamp on the organisation as it progresses over the months and years ahead.

The AGM itself, chaired by Alf, was addressed by the Hounslow Homes Chief Executive Bernadette O'Shea and the ICG's own Jon Hardy, the London Borough of Hounslow's Lead Member for Housing. Below are a few selected pics from the event:

Too far from (second) home? - photo

Last month I wrote briefly about a double 21st birthday celebration that I attended at the Laxami Narayan Hindu Temple in Hounslow. I've only just received the official photos, one of which I reproduce above.

From left to right: myself, Sukhi Maras (Cranford community activist), Bittu Kapoor (son of the late Balwant Kapoor), Dr. Phool, DL Kalhan (General Secretary Indian Overseas Congress UK and now President), Brahm Mohindra (MLA Punjab Government, former Health Minister, Punjab State), Councillor Gurcharan Singh (former Mayor of Ealing and Conservative PPC for Ealing Southall), Parmod Kad (former Labour Executive member, London Borough of Hounslow), Jassi Khangoora (MLA Punjab Government and entrepreneur), Pandit Ramesh Sharma (Hindu Priest), Sarbjit Singh Gill (President Indian Overseas Welfare Association UK and former Labour councillor, London Borough of Hounslow), Amarjit Singh Dhillon (former Vice President Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall), Karamjit Singh Kheha (businessman), Dalbir Cheema (former Labour Mayor of Hounslow), Councillor Manjit Singh (Conservative, London Borough of Ealing) and Mr. Tamna (businessman).

Monday, 5 October 2009

Sometimes it's not possible to repair the damage we cause

Being a technological caveman it took me a couple of years longer than most to discover the phenomenon that is Facebook.

But, prompted by my twelve-year-old twins who use it as a means through which to communicate with the world, I have finally activated the account that I'd forgotten I set up some time ago and I spent most of last night trawling through lists of friends of friends to see who was on there that I knew. Throughout the night I fired off a couple of dozen friend requests, and have received several returns, some from people with whom I'd lost contact years ago.

Two of these were brothers who attended my primary school. For the purposes of this article I'll call them Jimmy and Robert. I remember both of them well, Jimmy being about my own age and Robert a couple of years older. There were both really nice lads, well liked by everyone. I can't remember either of them ever getting into an altercation with a fellow pupil - not even me, and as a kid I made it my business to upset most of the other kids at some point or another.

Jimmy's and Robert's roots are in the Caribbean. They hail from a very famous sporting family in the West Indies. My recollection of Jimmy was that he could throw a cricket ball seemingly for miles. He also went on to become a very good boxer, although his progress was hampered by a nose which gushed with blood whenever you called it a name.

I had seen Jimmy more recently than Robert. He provided the disco at mine and Caroline's wedding back in 1995 (I do hope I haven't got the date wrong!). Although he himself had moved out of the area some of his folks still resided locally and I was able to make contact with him.

Well last night I came across them both and I sent off a request to them both to become my Facebook friends. A few hours passed before Jimmy responded, accepting my request and joining my thus far embarrassingly small but thankfully growing list. But this afternoon I received a message from Robert informing me that he had no wish to have anything to do with me on account of my political history.

I have to say I was quite hurt when I read Robert's response. Their different ethnicity hadn't even registered when I had sent off the request, just as it had seldom registered at primary school. It just simply wasn't an issue. I had almost forgotten that for so many years I had been an active member and organiser of the National Front. Robert's reply to me provided a disarming reminder of that dark period of my life.

The sense of hurt which I felt upon reading his words was not directed at Robert himself, but was more a reflection of my own feeling of shame at the unhappiness that I must clearly have caused to such a decent man to inspire him to react in that way. During the course of my political work as an independent community councillor I come across politicians all the time who speak to me and even drink with me privately one evening and then announce publicly the next day that they would never have anything to do with me because of my past political activities. This is tacky politicking at its worst and I really couldn't give a toss for the feelings of such people. But Robert's comments provided me with a sobering reminder that it is sometimes wrong to assume that any damage caused by our actions can always later be repaired.

If my experience today strikes a cord with anybody who is still labouring under the illusion that they can reconcile their far-right activity with a "normal" life outside of extremist politics then they should think again, and think carefully. The deeper you sink, the more difficult it is to get back to where you need to be should you ever wish to reconnect with the real world.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Revd. Dr. Edgar Dowse

I was saddened this morning to learn of the death of the Revd. Dr. Edgar Dowse (right), a regular preacher at my Church, at the age of 99.

Dr. Dowse was an amazing fellow. The depth of his theological knowledge was astounding, and despite having long retired from vicarial duties at his own (Anglican) Church he would preach every month to our congregation right up until very recently. Although it had become increasingly obvious that his physical strength was failing, mentally he remained as sharp as ever and each sermon was delivered with as much passion and gusto as the last.

His Anglican background notwithstanding, Dr. Dowse was always comfortable at our (Nonconformist) Church. He always made it clear that he would preach "wherever I am invited".

In 2004, at the young age of 93, he entered the Guinness Book of Records after having become the oldest person in the world to gain a PhD. It was his seventh degree. When I asked him why he had done it he joked that it would be "good for my career".

Dr. Dowse lived in College Road, Isleworth, almost directly opposite the house of my birth. His interests were trains, and reading Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Once more into the breach

I'm genuinely very proud of the way the Independent Community Group's six councillors have performed over the past three and a half years, both as ward councillors and as a small but essential partner in the coalition which has managed the London Borough of Hounslow.

Like every other organisation we have our moments of introspection. We have our tactical disagreements. We have times when one member believes that another member is not pulling his or her weight, or that a colleague hasn't kept us properly informed of something that he or she has done. We are only human.

However - and I've said it before - when I think back to the humble roots of the ICG, and indeed the humble objectives that it set out to achieve, I find myself actually shaking with awe and even a little apprehension as to how far it can all go.

What began as a cry in the wilderness over the sheer unfairness of the way in which the residents' movement in our little Isleworth backwater had been stitched up by a very small but ruthless and unscrupulous political clique has developed over the space of a decade and a half into a huge, sophisticated and omnipotent community campaigning machine, practically guaranteeing that the voice of the people is heard whenever news of any local development, real or metaphorical, breaks out into the ether.

On Tuesday, when I visit the ROWE Community Centre for our monthly Worton surgery, I will be greeted by residents' leaders who have overseen the first estate-based Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in the UK, who have successfully applied for local authority funding to extend their community centre and develop it into an educational resource, and who run a successful young people's project which is the envy of the borough. On Ivybridge I am still reeling from the Anuual General Meeting, held in July, where over 100 people crammed into the hall and at least a third of them volunteered for committee duty.

I and my ward colleagues liaise with The Isleworth Society (TIS) on an almost daily basis about local issues and problems that they have identified. Where their observations are met with negativity or indifference we are usually able to grind out a result by working together and battling away until the residents' concerns are addressed. The tenacity and expertise of groups like the Four Roads Residents' Association (in Isleworth) and the St. John's Residents' Association (almost wholly in Syon), which often include people who themselves serve or have served as officers on other local authorities, ensures that the community is not short-changed.

The Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG), despite the fact that its concerns remain unresolved, can at least instruct elected members in the knowledge that it is our master rather than our servant, a relationship which most certainly did not exist with our predecessors. And it does so safe in the knowledge that as councillors we fight their corner every inch of the way.

In just over seven months the good people of Isleworth and Syon wards will have the opportunity to decide whether they wish this relationship to continue, or whether they aspire once again to be "represented" by people whose first loyalty is to a large political organisation whose policy programme is decided at a national level, and defined by a rigid and inflexible dogma. Aware as we are of the complications which the likely occurance of a general election on the same day will undoubtedly bring about, we will stand proudly on our record and take on all comers.

Last night several of us met at the Inverness Club in Brentford for our monthly social gathering. From the political conversation that developed over a few pints against some agreeable background music it was clear that next May will open up some very interesting and potentially exciting opportunities to advance our position and to shape a local authority which will help to develop further our community agenda. Mindful of events and developments in and around our wards, we will enter the fray better organised, better supported and with far more experience and knowledge than we have ever done previously.

This will be the fifth local election campaign to be contested by the ICG. As Shakespeare's King Henry V put it, it's once more into the breach dear friends. This coming contest should hold no fears for us in the ICG. Let battle commence.

Friday, 2 October 2009


"BNP will not be back!" says pub landlord

The landlord of an Isleworth pub which unwittingly played host to a meeting of the far-right British National Party (BNP) on Wednesday evening will not be re-admitting his unwanted guests after the ICG exposed their true identity.

The "Hounslow" BNP (in reality a motley collection of activists from all across West London and beyond) had used the venue to discuss plans for its forthcoming general election campaign in the Feltham & Heston constituency, as well as its proposed participation in the local elections. Although it aspires to contest all sixty council seats, it currently admits to having only four volunteers, at least one of whom is believed to live in Brentford.

ICG councillors have worked hard to promote unity and cohesion in their wards and believe the BNP strategy was to destabilise these communities and to divide residents on the basis of their ethnicity. The landlord of the pub, which has a multi-cultural clientele, was grateful for our intervention.

Our work against the BNP is actively supported by council colleagues from all the major political groups and we would like to acknowledge and thank them for their help in achieving this result.

ICG deplores recent activity of the BNP

From the Independent Community Group website today:

"ICG Councillors were disturbed to discover that BNP supporters from outside the Borough were congregating last Wednesday at a local pub in a private meeting. The ICG deplore any activity by the BNP and are particularly concerned that they are once again targeting this Borough for their brand of slick-racism especially at a time when people are feeling vulnerable.

"We believe that the landlord in question took the booking in all innocence and will be approaching him with an open mind: nevertheless it is important that he is aware of the dangers to the Borough of hosting this organisation not to mention (his establishment) being known as a BNP hangout."

Since the above was written I know that the landlord, who is currently unavailable, has been contacted by e-mail and we are awaiting a response. We are not presently of the view that the booking was taken in the knowledge that it was being made by the BNP, however we will be in a position to confirm or deny this shortly.

Whatever the circumstances of the booking, we will not accept BNP activity on our watch.