One motorway, two Britains: Social divide in West London

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The Independent Online
In West London, two communities are divided by a wide road. On one side, in the poverty of the White City estate, a nine-year-old girl was allegedly raped last week by five nine- and ten-year-old boys. On the other is Notting Hill and Holland Park, the new seat of media and business power. These opinion-formers never cross the road, turning a blind eye to the underclass within yards of their luxury homes

"You're from the manor. I'm bound to buck you up again, star, and when I do, I'm gonna carve you up, blatant." A stone's throw across the six-lane divide of the M41 and a million miles from the softly lit homes of the Notting Hill media set, is White City. They speak a different language there.

Unlike the land across the motorway it has only one well-known author, Courttia New- land, and his homespun dialect, of carving up and dealing in "brown" and "rocks", is a long way from BBC English. Nevertheless, its stubby post-war council blocks lie in the shadow of the BBC Television Centre, which has become, for locals, a grating symbol of how the other half of west London lives.

As 23-year-old Newland writes in his debut novel The Scholar: "Sean asked himself who could've planned putting a multi-million pound government- funded industry bang next door to a funding-starved council estate. Madmen maybe? It was crazy, but that was the way London was built and it had been that way for centuries. And they wonder why there's so much crime, the teen thought, shaking his head."

The relationship between London W12, where the irony of the General Smuts pub and Bloemfontein Road is not lost on the largely black population, and W11, where people who like to write about irony live, has always been strained. Last week it reached breaking point.

On Tuesday, five nine and ten-year-old boys were arrested for the alleged rape of a nine-year-old girl in the toilets of a local primary school. By Wednesday, the west side was groaning under the weight of media intrusion.

"They're watching us from up there," a woman screamed, jabbing her finger at the late evening silhouette of Broadcasting House. "You are all scum. You don't come when we have the Christmas fete, you don't want to know when we need you, so you can all f--- off now."

Rumours were spreading across the estates and anger spreading faster. A tabloid newspaper had been bribing children to tell where the rape victim lived. A TV crew had been spying on people in the hope of catching them smoking crack. Two journalists had been arrested. The community was under siege, locking its little ones away not from primary school attackers but from the media.

"You can understand how people feel," says Newland. "It's a community thing; their people are under threat. It may not be the sort of place where everybody loves each other, but there is a strong sense of belonging.

"And you live with the BBC richies around you all the time. There's a lot of money around, but none of it's coming our way. West London is supposed to be the richest side of the capital - for people not in that bracket who live there, that's hard."

Hammersmith and Fulham council's most deprived area and reputedly one of the easiest places in London to buy crack, the White City estate houses about 8,000 people. A secondary school nearby recently earned the media accolade of "Britain's worst school" with tales of women teachers being backed against walls by sexually aggressive boys and drugs on the premises, although this was strongly disputed by locals.

Alan Yentob may live just up the road, but his employees are warned not to walk home from work through the estates of White City. Some locals miss the easy pickings in lap-tops that such short-cuts used to bring. Commuters keep their passenger doors locked on the Westway, in case of car-jacking, where kids leap out of the dark and grab briefcases and mobile phones.

Newland admits it's "pretty bad" on the M41's west side, but says he wouldn't live anywhere else. "People used to see me around and they thought they knew me, what I was like. But now I've got a book they're seeing that I'm thinking about things and that I'm not what they thought. If that's just me, what about everyone else round here? They might look one thing, but they could become lawyers or doctors if they just had some faith in themselves. It stresses me, but it also gives me hope."

Photographs by Peter Macdiarmid.

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