Sarfraz Manzoor recalled the racism of his childhood in Luton in his memoir Greetings from Bury Park. As a film adaptation is released, he asks how much has really changed
Sat 6 Jul 2019
Boris Johnson was still a backbench Conservative MP and Donald Trump was a property developer and reality television star in the summer that Greetings from Bury Park was published. It was June 2007. I was 36, a journalist and broadcaster living in London. The world I worked in was white, middle-class and metropolitan – a long way from the world in which I had been raised. I had grown up in Luton, the working-class son of Pakistani parents. My father arrived in Britain in 1963 and my mother followed 11 years later with their three children. I was almost three years old. Bury Park was the Asian district of Luton, and my father worked on the production line at the Vauxhall car factory while my mother was a seamstress at home. My childhood was defined by a lack of money and a vivid awareness that my future was limited by my class and my colour. When I managed to get to university and build a career in the media, it became apparent that what I had considered an ordinary upbringing was very different from those of the people I worked among.
It was also striking that I never saw lives like mine depicted in popular culture or in books. Working-class lives, Muslim lives, lives defined by their apparent ordinariness. When I started working on a memoir, I did so with the ambition of opening up the world in which I had been raised. I pictured my mother, Rasool Bibi, walking along a street in Bury Park in her traditional shalwar kameez. What would a white person, someone who could not speak Urdu, think of her? What questions would they wish to ask her if they could? I set about writing my book with the hope that by writing very specifically I might tell a more universal story. Perhaps it was possible that sharing my family’s history would help to normalise this immigrant tale, and confirm that stories like ours belonged within the larger narrative of British history.
The suggestion that, being brown-skinned and Muslim, I would never be fully British, was reinforced by my own parents
The book was, at its heart, the story of a brown boy who desperately wanted to belong. I grew up at a time when racist football fans would run through Bury Park smashing shop windows and abusing anyone who happened to be on the street. My parents would warn me to get home before kick-off in case things kicked off. On television I would watch Tory politicians such as Norman Tebbit question the loyalty of folks who looked like me. White boys would urinate through the letterbox of my friend Amolak’s home. The suggestion that, being brown-skinned and Muslim, I would never be fully British, was reinforced by my own parents. My father would tell me that Pakistan was my true home even though I had left before I was three. He would say that white people would never accept me – there was no point in trying to integrate because I would never belong. Whenever I told myself or others that I was British, there was a nagging sense that I was a fraud. My right to say I belonged in this country felt fragile.
It was not until the election of Tony Blair in 1997 that this fragility began to be replaced with some sense of ease and confidence. I vividly remember the Observer headline on the first weekend of the Blair government, declaring “Goodbye Xenophobia”. Nine months after Blair was elected, indie band Cornershop were No 1 in the singles charts with “Brimful of Asha”, a song about a female Bollywood singer. The old certainties seemed to be giving way to exciting new possibilities. By the time Greetings from Bury Park was published, I was convinced that the arc of British history was bending towards tolerance. I was wrong.