Just outside Luton town centre, a gigantic big fat robin, two metres wide, cleverly constructed from wire and tissue paper, sits a little lopsidedly in a courtyard. Last week, looking a good deal perkier – and powered by a bicycle – it led the Winter Wonderland parade in a town, which, like most other places in Britain, is doing its best to be cheery in a winter which is bleak not just in terms of icy roads but also in its economic outlook on the eve of Christmas 2010.
Only don’t say Christmas, at least not in the presence of the man behind the giant robin redbreast.
“People think there’s exclusivity in the idea of Christmas and we want our winter festival to be more than that,” says Paul Anderson. “We host people coming together, rooting models of engagement to attract new generations,” he adds with deft ear for jargon which befits a man used to making applications for funds from the Arts Council, European social fund, and soon-to-be-abolished regional development associations
Paul Anderson is the chief executive officer of the UK Centre for Carnival Arts which is based in Luton – the town that is home to the largest one-day carnival in Europe.
But that is not what most people think about when Luton is mentioned these days.
The town is synonymous with Islamic fundamentalism, according to the received wisdom of the British media. The Stockholm suicide bomber was radicalized here, Muslims from Luton have died fighting with the Taliban, a member of the fertiliser bomb plot gang was a Lutonian. Muslim extremists here jeered at returning British soldiers with banners calling them “butchers of Basra”. It was at Luton railway station that the 7/7 bombers left their car and boarded a train to London to kill 52 people on the capital’s transport system in 2005.
On the other side of the coin Luton is where the far-right anti-Muslim English Defence League was founded. It was to Luton that the extremist US pastor Terry Jones, who wanted to burn the Qur’an but never quite got round to it, invited himself to address an anti-Sharia rally in February – until he was told that even the EDL thought he was too far off the loony-tunes scale for them.
But much of this is media construct, or reality filtered through a pre-set media agenda at the very least. What of the reality? I set out to discover whether Christmas 2010 in Luton is a season of misery, division and ill-will – or whether it is not that much different from that of any medium-sized British town.
The square at the heart of Luton is named after St George. And if there seems an irony in that you should remember that though he is the patron saint of England the historical St George was thought to be a Palestinian.
All week it has been covered in show. Blue lights, matching the Roman numerals on the art-deco town hall clock tower, contour the steps at its side, hinting at the salient features which lie buried beneath the icy whiteness. A sludge path cuts a triangular grey line through the winterscape heading, inevitable, for The Mall , which was called the Arndale Centre when it was opened as Europe’s largest shopping centre in 1972. Today it squats like a huge consumer citadel in the hollowed-out heart of the Victorian town. It is a place, which Pevnser, the great architectural guidebook, once said displays “an absence of visual character”. Snow covers a multitude of sins.
The Mall sends out mixed signals. It has just opened a huge glass pentagonal atrium which towers over St George’s Square. Silver and purple twinkling Christmas decorations dangle down 70 feet or more. Some £20m has been spent creating it, even during the height of the recession.
The media is full of bleak midwinter stuff: on top of the snow, the cold and a rising flu epidemic there loom cuts in public services, widespread job losses, the VAT rise and increases in gas and electricity bills. A survey by the Samaritans telephone helpline last week revealed that 2010 was considered a bad year – or the worst year ever – by 30 per cent of the population . Nearly six in 10 British adults are worried they won’t have enough money to live comfortably in 2011. A third fear they may lose their jobs. More than half expect to be hit by cuts to health, education or welfare next year.
But the lights are brighter and the air is warmer in The Mall where white, Asian, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean faces mingle and there is far more wintry than religious headgear. In two days I see only one woman wearing a face-covering niqab
“If you hadn’t told me there was a recession I wouldn’t have known from retail sales,” says the shopping centre’s general manager, Brian McFarland. “ We had 481,000 people in here last week, measured by cameras at the entrances, compared with 499,000 at the same time last year. It’s down slightly because of the snow – but nowhere near as much as out-of-town centres like Brent Cross and Bluewater . Up to 40 per cent of our customers come by foot. The train station is next door. And overall this year we are one per cent up on last.”
Two new shops have just opened which means that the centre is now full. One is a hotdog and milkshake outlet called Moondog. The other, Dr Spafish, offers “defoliation of the feet” in which, at £10 for 15 minutes, shoppers can sit with their feet in fishtanks and have little grey fish nibble the dead skin from their feet. It was arousing considerable interest already.
Some of the shoppers voiced caution. “We’re spending £400 to 500 less this year,” says Maureen Hallet, a support worker out shopping with her daughter Marie Chirombo, a full-time mum with three kids in tow. “We’re apprehensive with the VAT rise round the corner.” Ben Oduru, 31, a receptionist, says he will be spending about a third less than last Christmas on his wife and two children, despite the fact that he expects the economy to improve in 2011.
But others were more upbeat. “I’ll spend about the same as last year,” says Michael Smith, 26, a self-employed kitchen-fitter. “Things have picked up a bit in the last six months. I’m not busy like two or three years back but things are much better than at the start of the year and I’m optimistic it will pick up more next year.”
And others displayed a characteristically British mixture of talking gloomy and acting the opposite. “We’re spending more than last year,” say two 19-year-old nursing students Yasmin Wacey and Aleisha Lascelles. “ but that’s only because we were at college then and now we’re on an NHS bursary. “I’m spending a lot more because everything is dearer and I think prices will go up again next year,” grumbles Danielle Andrews, 19. She will spend around £200 on presents this year though “I don’t think much of these shops. I don’t really like Luton,” she adds.
It is not the view of most Lutonians who have a warm affection for the place that the local vicar, Canon Nick Bell, of the 800 year old flint-faced checker-board church of St Mary’s in the town centre, describes as “ a northern town in the south”. “The atmosphere reminds me of Oldham where I had my first ministry,” says the Revd Bell, who is white. “It’s a friendly industrial town, not Home Counties posh like St Albans, Harpenden, Bedford, Hitchin and the surrounding towns”.
On the road to Hitchin is the Baltistan restaurant. It is named after the mountainous region of northern Pakistan and India bordering on China, rather than the balti cuisine which many curry experts believe originated in Birmingham rather than the sub-continent. In the restaurant a small office party has begun. The celebrants are swimming instructors, all female, all white, and all clad in black.
How has 2010 been for them? All right, fine, could have been worse, we’re all in work at any rate, they chorus simultaneously. “My husband has taken a 10 per cent pay cut,” says one. “We’ve noticed. We’ve cut back a bit but nothing major. We’ve just switched from Kellogg’s to Asda own brand.”
They are united too in proclaiming Luton a nice place to live. But disagreement creeps in when they speak of relations between the town’s different communities.
Luton has more than 27,000 Muslims in a town of 184,000 souls. According to the 2001 Census, 60 per cent of the inhabitants say they are Christian and 15 per cent Muslim. All the shoppers in The Mall had said that relationships between the communities were good or, at least, without tension. “People are good in Luton,” Ben Oduru, who is black, had said. “Hotbed of extremism? Luton is nothing like the press make out. I don’t even see it as an issue.”
But in the Baltistan the youngest of the swimming instructors disagrees. “There were problems in the sixth form when I was there,” she says. She has not long left and is training to be a primary school teacher, giving swimming lessons part-time. “The place self-segregated into different factions. It sometimes got unpleasant.”
It is when other communities are seen as favoured that the resentment begins. “I taught in an all-boys school,” says the oldest of the group. “ By the time I left there were only four white pupils. It was a state school but the timetable had been altered to accommodate Ramadan – which I didn’t object to – but the council told us we couldn’t have a Christmas tree – which I did find offensive. What you do for one you should do for everyone. That’s a real issue.”
It’s the issue that Paul Anderson, whose ethnicity is Western African and Estonian, sees his Winter Wonderland parade as addressing. “Christmas is a really important part of the year but we don’t stress Christmas because that goes against what we are trying to do,” he says. “Luton is a community of communities – we need to break that up and create an opportunity for them to share”.
By ‘we’ he means the UK Centre for Carnival Arts. The organisation now works nationally and internationally, to promote the carnival as an art form, but it has its roots in 38 years of carnival in Luton which began with a hat parade when the hatting industry was the town’s economic mainstay. Over the last century that gave way to the car industry, with Vauxhall as the town’s main employer. It recruited immigrant workers from all over the world but especially the Indian sub-continent.
Since the decline of what was once the UK’s largest car plant Luton has diversified into a range of employment with EasyJet, Luton Airport, several significant IT companies and a university. That economic diffusion is matched by Luton’s ethnic diversity.
Paul Anderson stands in front of a range of extravagant costumes from the parade – a Chinese dragon, Ghanaian drums, a giant flower from the local Samaritans and an image of Shiva from the Gujarati community which is fighting to preserve the Bengali tongue. “If we went for the usual connotations of Christmas, Santa and elves and all the rest, many people would say: ‘That’s not for me but for some other group’. We’d relegate the centre in the minds of the many. We wanted something that connects more,” he says.
“When you get the different Muslim groups wanting floats, it all ends up with people shouting and waving rival national flags and sometimes with violence. We want to avoid religion and getting into fights with mullahs and priests about how we have represented Jesus and all that. We look for ideas that can bring people together. Anyone can see the importance of the Robin.”
Not anyone. Across the churchyard at St Mary’s Nick Bell sees the Robin as a symbol of an approach that has been tried and found wanting. “We’ve come full circle,” says the vicar. “Twenty years ago when I first came to Luton there was a general acceptance that Christmas was a Christian festival. Then 10 years ago there was a move by the council to make it a Winter Festival and water down the Christian content in order to avoid offending anyone. Things have changed under the present chief executive of the council and his predecessor. This year when the Christmas lights were switched on I was invited to say a prayer from the town hall balcony.”
The church is even invited to register a Christian presence among the shoppers. Two prayer trees stand in the centre of the Mall on which shoppers are encouraged to pause for a moment and hang a prayer and a gold bauble on the trees. It is the third year the church and the mall management have co-operated in the scheme. “One tree was filled to overflowing so we now have two,” says the vicar. “It gives people an opportunity to pray without going to church.”
Space has now been found for the building of a multi-faith chaplaincy in the heart of the shopping centre. In addition to prayer space it will have counselling rooms which are being funded by Luton Borough Council which is concerned at a threefold increase in demand for counselling in these bleak times. The town centre police are assisting too. “They see it as a way of us taking problems that would otherwise land with them,” says Nick Bell.
The revival of faith at the heart of these public spaces is intriguing. Nick Bell sees it as an indictment of the lowest common denominator approach that was tried in the Nineties.
“It waters the truth of religion down to a degree where it means and achieves nothing in an attempt to offend no-one – though that in itself offends religious people.”
Over by the flagging Giant Robin the man behind the Winter Wonderland is defensive. “It’s not about not wanting to offend but about establishing something that communicates to everyone,” says Paul Anderson. “We want to uncover the new. Our robin is an emblem of the need for people to do things differently.”
At the heart of this divergence of opinion is the debate between multiculturalism – allowing different groups to celebrate their own cultures, and often doing so out of the public purse – and a cross-culturalism which searches for transcendent values and images all groups can share. It is a more sophisticated version of the disagreement between multiculturalists and integrationists which has taken on new impetus since 9/11 – in which many who like to think of themselves as liberals are exhibiting a new intolerance of racial and religious difference, and are demanding that minorities should assimilate more.
In such a context it is revealing that in Luton it is not the vicar who talks most about the need to restore the religious element to the Christmas festival. Nick Bell wears on open-neck shirt, talks about the church being “relevant”, gets involved in social issues as well as interfaith dialogue and speaks proudly of the Palestinian Muslims who visited him with gifts that included a Christmas crib made of olivewood from Bethlehem.
No, the man who speaks up most forcibly for Christmas is Dr Fiaz Hussain, a university lecturer who is spokesman for the Luton Council of Mosques. “It’s utter nonsense to say that Muslims might be offended by celebrations of Christmas. That idea does not come from the Muslim community,” he says. “We respect Jesus, peace be upon him, and his miraculous birth, and value his life and what he stood for. He is one of the greatest men who every lived and is a role model for everyone, and so is his mother. We are on the same page as the Christians in wanting it to be celebrated for its true sense
“You can talk about a winter festival but that does not mean much if it hasn’t got a heart.
A festival needs to have a happy home from which it can be shared with the wider community. The Christian message of Christmas has something to say to enrich the whole society. We want that shared, just as at Eid we hold dinners to which we invite the whole community to share the message of Eid. It’s important that we are who we are. If we all are, that adds to the richness of the town.”
He could be preaching from a Christian pulpit as he continues: “For too many people Christmas is too commercialised. The word they associate most with Christmas is shopping. But there is another ‘s’ word – spirituality. That needs to be amplified in the contemporary Christmas. Shopping is important because giving gifts is an important part of the celebration. But there is much more to it. Christmas means knocking on your neighbour’s door to see if they are OK, need the snow clearing from their drive, or food fetching from the shops. It’s about loving God and other people. Resolutions should start with Christmas not New Year.”
A Christmas card from Nick Clegg and family stands on the mantelpiece in the home of Councillor Qurban Hussain, a modest terraced house in the Bury Park area of Luton which is home to most of the town’s Muslims. “I don’t send cards out but we do say Happy Christmas to people and go to Christmas parties within the party and community,” says Mr Hussain, who is soon to be elevated to the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat peer. “We join in the festive mood.”
Shopkeepers in Bury Park have clubbed together to fit festive lights to the streetscene. “They are switched on for Eid, Christmas, Diwali. We celebrate all cultures,” he adds.
The truth is that, if there has been an attenuation of the values of the traditional British Christmas, it is very little do with the arrival of ethnic minorities on these shores – whatever politically correct council officials may think.
The globalisation of economics has been driven by a distinctly Anglo-Saxon form of capitalism. The individualism which flourished with the affluence of the 1960s after a decade of postwar austerity had nothing to do with ethnic minorities. The decline of forms of social solidarity including the family, trade unions and the church are greater among the white than minority communities. The ethic of materialism which has undermined notions of society and the common good – and turned us from citizens into consumers – has been led by whites. So was the rise of secular scientific rationalism. So was the Thatcherite elevation of the free market above traditional values in conservatism. So is the tabloid culture of sex, fear, greed and speed evidenced in everything from the Sun to the loathsome Jeremy Clarkson.
All of which is not to say that there are no problems between different ethnicities in Luton, and places like it. But on the ground the day-to-day evidence is that the vast majority of people are working to make Luton, and their world, a better place.
“Of course there are a few extremists but not many,” says Qurban Hussain, “but their voices are magnified by the media. In my 17 years in Luton – I came from Rochale – I have fought six elections and knocked on thousands of doors and never encountered anything but civility.”
“We have one of the best interfaith relationships in the country,” says Dr Fiaz Hussain, who set up the Luton Faith Walk which processes annually from a church to a mosque to a Hindu devalayam and a Sikh gurdwara to a synagogue. He is also a key bowler in the Luton Council of Faiths cricket team, where the vicar confesses himself an indifferent all-rounder. Recently all the faiths attended the opening of Luton’s new synagogue.
In Bury Park, where in the mid-90s, tensions did arise between the Kashmiri newcomers and the more longstanding Caribbean, Irish and Italian residents, an equilibrium has been reached. “Their religion is different; we leave them to it and stick at ours,” says the woman selling Jamaican patties in G’s Afro-Caribbean Foods who worships in the Calvary Church of God in Bury Park. “We get on OK with the Muslims. When they go fundraising for people affected by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan we are happy to make a contribution.”
Ironically enough inter-faith relations improved after 9/11. “It was turning point,” says Nick Bell. “It brought people together. It is now a town where strangers can feel at home”.
In O’Shea’s Irish Bar in Castle Street the owner Michael O’Shea, who is second-generation Irish, and his mother Della, who retains her accent, are enjoying a quiet drink as the snow-bound pub approaches closing time.
“There’s a significant Irish community here. And there’s been a Polish club here for 20 years, plus a big Italian influence after the war, ” he says. The bar serves excellent Guinness but the owner, who was brought up in Britain, has assimilated to lager. Luton has seen wave after wave of immigration over the years. “In the end everyone gets on,” he says. “Luton is a very friendly place.”
That is not to say there will not be tensions along the way. “My family came over from Ireland in the 1930s,” says Scott Ross, the maintenance man at The Mall. “It’s natural for people from other countries to come here to better themselves. I don’t resent them. But the politicians have let too many in at once. It’s not the immigrants fault; it’s the bloody politicians who should’ve taken greater control.
“That’s why you’ve got people like the EDL stirring up trouble. It’s all kids kicking off. It’s an outlet for their negative energy. When I was young we had illegal raves to let out our frustrations. These kids have nothing going for them. There’s no jobs for them. Same as there’s no money for people like me. I had no pay rise for 4 years and then less than inflation for two year – which effectively means I’ve had a pay cut every year for the last four years.
“And where has the money gone? To the bankers who have been given £64bn of our money – that we’re going to have to pay back over the next 10 years. That’s the root of the problem. And the politicians let them get away with it.”
Over in Bury Park you can hear the mirror image of the same diatribe from Iftikhar Opel.
He came to Britain 43 years ago to work for Vauxhall and now runs a letting agency.
“The past year has been terrible,” he says. “And the change of government has made things much worse. I voted for these people – the Conservatives – but the banks won’t lend. They look for a clause in the contract that will enable them to wriggle out of lending. Before I was paying 1 per cent over base rate; now it’s 5 or 6 per cent over. I have no problem with the white community. It’s those buggers the politicians.”
There are some things, it seems, on which everyone can agree.
Can the community come together?
"We don't stress Christmas, that goes against what we're trying to do," says Paul Anderson, who runs the UK Centre for Carnival Arts. "When you get different Muslim groups wanting floats, people end up shouting and waving flags, and sometimes you get violence. We want to avoid religion, but everyone can see the importance of a robin."
Luton's shopping centre, The Mall, opened a £20m, 75,000sq ft extension eight weeks ago. It is fully let – 500,000 shoppers visited last week. "We're spending more than last year," say nursing students Aleisha Lascelles and Yasmin Wacey, both 19. "We were at college last year. Now we're on NHS bursaries."
Culturally divided or richly diverse?
Luton has more than 27,000 Muslims. Some 15 per cent say they are Muslim (against 3 per cent nationally) and 60 per cent say they are Christian (against 71 per cent nationally). "Of course there are a few extremists but not many," says Councillor Qurban Hussain, who is soon to be elevated to the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat peer, "but their voices are magnified by the media. In my 17 years in Luton – I came from Rochale – I have fought six elections and knocked on thousands of doors, and never encountered anything but civility."
Is immigration working?
With 9.5 per cent jobless, Luton has an above-average level of unemployment – in ethnic minorities, the problem is worse. In 2002, the Vauxhall plant closed, but hi-tech firms such as BAE Systems have arrived. "My family came over from Ireland in the 1930s," says Scott Ross, maintenance man at The Mall. "It's natural for people to come here to better themselves, but the politicians let too many in in one go and there are no jobs for them. It's the politicians' fault. That's why you get the English Defence League stirring up trouble."
Can faith cross boundaries?
"It's utter nonsense to say Muslims might be offended by Christmas celebrations," says Dr Fiaz Hussain, spokesman for the Luton Council of Mosques. "We respect Jesus. The Christian message of Christmas has something to say to enrich the whole society. We want that shared. Christmas is too commercialised. The word they associate most with Christmas is shopping. But there is another 's' word – spirituality."
Christ at Christmas?
"We've come full circle," says Nick Bell, vicar at St Mary's church. "Twenty years ago Christmas here was a Christian festival. Ten years ago the council made it a Winter Festival. This year I was invited to say a prayer. In the Nineties we offended no one, but achieved nothing."
The airport is the jewel in Luton's crown. No one could call it an architectural triumph, but it played a crucial role in aviation history as the birthplace of easyJet 15 winters ago. Owned by the council, run by the Spanish, it is 360ft above sea level, and therefore exposed, but has been wafting passengers through all the wintry weather, with only a handful of cancellations.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies