IN THE early hours of May 5th, as the country slept, an extraordinary event took place.
A bitterly-fought local election campaign had just ended. Inside the glittering chrome of Canary Wharf, heart of the new East End of London, and in the fading grandeur of Barking and Dagenham town hall, ballot boxes were being emptied late into the night. Yet judging by the alternate grim and anxious looks swapped between Labour Party officials, it soon became clear something was wrong. And not just in one area, but across the whole of east London.
Decades of political status quo were being swept aside. Some of the safest seats in the country were tumbling. Long-serving councillors and political leaders alike were being cast down, including Labour's longtime East End boss, Professor Michael Keith. And by what?
In one case, by a movement which was led by a friend and biographer of Fidel Castro: someone who had appeared on the reality TV show 'Big Brother', been a figurehead for anti-war campaigners, fought a US Senate commission over an oil-for-food corruption scandal, and who boasted of delivering "two good lefts" to Home Secretary John Reid during a robust physical discussion. In the other, by a former Cambridge blue who had denied the Holocaust as the "Holohoax", counted Jean-Marie le Pen as a hero, included bombers amongst his party membership, and was linked to a network of international extremists. One had long-opposed "Zionist" occupation of Palestine, calling Israel "a terrorist state"; the other wrote pamphlets on Jewish control and influence, saying it was "cowardly" to pretend it did not exist.
Each movement was propelled on a wave of popular resentment: over the war, anger over corruption, housing shortages and poverty, as well as a perception that others were getting preferential treatment. Both represented the underclass, talking the language of 'Old Labour' and the working man. Each had supporters sharing strong views on sexuality and marriage; each lambasted Zionism. And both harboured a simmering rage about who really controlled power. One was the party of the immigrant; the other bitterly opposed to them.
By dawn of that long day, George Galloway's Respect Unity Coalition and the British National Party (BNP) of Nick Griffin had a dozen seats in each council: Tower Hamlets and Barking and Dagenham, respectively. The cusp of the City had seen the emergence of a radical left-wing coalition with Islam at its core, whilst barely four miles away a virulently racist force had sent shockwaves through the political establishment. Each was now the official opposition, in an area soon to welcome the 2012 Olympics. Each had risen as the east of the capital underwent unprecedented regeneration and investment.
The media launched into overdrive. Most descended on Barking, where days earlier local MP (and government Minister) Margaret Hodge had committed political hara-kiri, claiming that eight out 10 of her constituents were tempted to vote BNP. Her comments, combined with BNP propaganda that Africans were being offered £50,000 grants to move to Barking from inner London boroughs (flatly denied by the councils concerned), and a foreign prisoner release scandal at the Home Office, had proven disastrous for Labour.
Yet as the cameras concentrated on Barking, many missed the significance of events just down the road in Tower Hamlets. May's crop of Respect councillors included hijabis and Islamists, social reformers and idealists. At the centre of the coalition sat the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and famous names such as filmmaker Ken Loach. Yet each of the new councillors in Tower Hamlets was Bangladeshi in origin; each a Muslim. Not a single white member of Respect was elected into office.
The party had claimed not only the scalp of Labour's local leader, the well-known sociologist Michael Keith, but also his deputy and the head of housing, too, as well as the Mayor of Stepney. Many of the deposed were well-known Bangladeshis and Muslims. Both parties were ecstatic. How could such radical movements – which represented Muslim resentment and white working class anger – rise inside Europe's most powerful financial centre, the land of Brick Lane and Monica Ali, the Ford Motor Company and anti-racist icon Billy Bragg ("the Bard of Barking")?
After all, surely this was no longer "the Awful East" as once coined during Victorian times, "its cobblestones scummed with grease" as noted novelist Jack London a century ago. Now thanks to the City and Canary Wharf it was scene of £60,000 average salaries, £250,000 loft apartments lining the Thames, nightclubs and bars catering to the bohemians and yuppies flooding in, artists and writers cramming around a redeveloped Spitalfields market. Nearly half of all London's commercial property development now took place down the A13 corridor cutting through from the Gherkin to Essex.
Yet there was something of a precedent. After race riots in several northern English cities in 2001, the BNP had been on a slow rise. But its powerbase was thought to be in the Midlands and North-West England, not south. It had once marched down the snaking length of Brick Lane, scene of notorious battles between young Bangladeshis and white youths during the National Front days of the 1970s and 1980s. But since its last councillor, Derek Beackon, was elected in the Isle of Dogs in 1993, it had become a foreigner to its east London heartlands. The Cockneys were already on the long trudge to Essex, like so many others before them.
Exactly a year before the recent elections, the groomed and charismatic "Gorgeous" George Galloway had swept Blair babe Oona King from power in the East End, overturning a 10,000 majority in the process. Seething anger over the war – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and later in Lebanon – propelled the movement. George's smiling, moustachioed face became a familiar sight outside Whitechapel's famous East London Mosque. Pitched battles took place between his Bangladeshi supporters and young, bearded extremists, screaming that all voters were kufr [unbelievers]. But there was rage, too, at privatisation and loss of social housing, over corruption scandals involving Labour councillors, as well a powerful sense of injustice, that Muslims in Britain were second-class citizens, subject to discrimination at all levels of society.
It was then that I first started encountering his movement. Three AM meetings in the party's temporary Whitechapel HQ, whispering elated faces in the dark, a sense of victory at hand, and one of George's trusted lieutenants, Assad Rehman, in attendance (the same Assad Rehman who would lead the Jean Charles de Menezes and Forest Gate raid campaigns).
But years before that, I had been meeting the BNP too, visiting leader Nick Griffin at his Powys smallholding, where he made me carry a gutted pig to his local butcher (perhaps checking if I was Jewish). I must have passed the test, for I gained his blessing to stay with his man in America, and from there moving through a network of international extremists – including the Ku Klux Klan, suave Holocaust deniers and German skinhead groups – for my book Homeland and the BBC film England Expects.
Just four miles separates Tower Hamlets from Barking and Dagenham. A short hop on the C2C from Fenchurch Street or quick drive down the A13 linking the East End to Essex and the sea. Two worlds connected by the same peoples and the same history, watched over by the looming spires of the City.
As dusk draws down during the Ramadan evenings, the streets and alleyways around the massive East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road swarm with the faithful. Arab, Bangladeshi and African flow like a river into the great building, ready for their iftar meals of water and dates, and for itikaf, the 10-day show of penitence and prayer undertaken by the ultra-pious. For here, in the centre of Banglatown, heart of the East End, the masjid [mosque] is now the centre of life, tawhid [oneness with God] and the ummah [the worldwide Islamic brotherhood] the lifeblood of the community.
Over the course of many months, I had managed to befriend key members of this mosque. Men such as my friend Siraj Salekin, a youth worker and father of five, one of the youngest hajjis [those who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca] of his generation. In the Zaytun Grill on Mile End Road, just past the infamous Blind Beggar pub of Kray Twins fame, Salekin told me the election result was “interesting.”
“The community are very fed up about the war,” he said, wafting smoke from the grill. “I think overall it’s very good to have a change. The atmosphere was really happy. But I have a bit of both feelings. There’s a gap now: maybe even I can go and stand! The way is open for a Bengali MP. People are really talking about changes.”
Mosque and Respect were inextricably linked: through war. And not just one war, but an assault, as the community saw it, on the ummah in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir. And Galloway had realised that. During the election campaign, I had watched him rouse his troops, charming his way through the estates, signing autographs for giggling hijabis who had seen him on 'Big Brother'. He would walk into carefully-selected shops and the ubiquitous PFCs (Perfect Fried Chicken), hugging elders with their henna-stained beards, a roadshow of oddball whites in tow ("come and meet Jow-erje, yer em-pee!" one lady would shout over and over), together with shy Bengali women disobeying their fathers to be there. They were united in rage over housing privatisation and the war.
George was all "inshallahs" [God willing] and "alhamduillahs" [praise be to God] flying thick and fast, making promises to sort each and every problem with a "salaam aleikoum, brother". Even if he had not "reverted", it seemed he understood the language of the East End well. Yet not everyone had been pleased to see him: "I ain't got no respect for you!" shouted one fat Cockney, as the Respect candidates tried to hand him a leaflet.
In The Old Globe by Stepney Green station, the barman could scarcely contain his contempt when asked about Galloway. “The geezer’s a tosspot. We don’t want to have anyone coming in here going to cause race riots. I don’t think I can find any white person who voted for him. All he does is go on about the war."
During hustings, too, Labour supporters began cat-calling the MP with "miaows", imitating his performance on 'Big Brother'. As Galloway accused the Labour leaders of squandering £900m of government funds, they in turn joked about an MP spending more time in his Portuguese villa and on TV then among his constituents. A group of intense young men, cloaked in kaffiyeh and untrimmed beards, then stood up and began ranting about apostasy, attempting to storm the stage. One of the Respect councillors launched himself at a Labour member who had accused him of lying. It seemed like a scene from an 18th century Punch cartoon.
Meanwhile, as we walked through the crumbling surrounds of Stepney's Ocean Estate, Galloway talked of himself in heroic terms, carrying on a tradition begun by the first Communist MPs who rose from the East End after the Second World War. "If you think this is bad," he chuckled, "you should try campaigning in Glasgow as a Catholic!"
And so much of the young, Bengali East End had loved him. "We want people with honesty," one young father told me, sitting on the steps outside a polling station. Despite the threats of violence and eternal damnation hurled around by the extremists of Al-Muhajiroun and their splinter groups, even after battles between Islamists themselves, turnout by Muslims had been high.
"George has taken the shahaddah [Islamic conversion ritual]," breathed an excited Jilu Miah, a young man I had got to know after his release from jail. He was sitting in Altab Ali park, named for a garment worker murdered by white racists over 20 years ago and where the Bangladeshi poet Tagore is remembered in script engraved into the pathway. Miah had been a "top shotta", a notorious drug dealer who ran protection rackets but had ended up high on his own supply; by his own admission a "honkey basher" attacking whites and firebombing pubs, now reformed after finding faith in jail. “Yeah man, we’re all excited, it was so good. So good to know as a community we took control." For men like Miah, reformed characters on the road to penitence, Galloway had become a powerful force for hope.
In fact, radicalism was nothing new in east London. It had welcomed the poorest immigrants for over 500 years, from Huguenots to Jews, yet witnessed both anti-Irish and anti-Chinese riots. It gave us our first Communist MP in Phil Pirater, whilst its grey and twisted alleyways saw the rise of the racist British Brothers League and the first anti-immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act. Seventy years ago its residents had also seen off Oswald Moseley's fascist blackshirts in the famous Battle of Cable Street, whilst in Poplar, George Lansbury's socialists helped birth municipal socialism.
It had held its share of preachers too, from Anabaptists to Quakers, Jewish mystics to Charles Booth and his Salvation Army, right down to Methodist founder John Wesley. Even its buildings spoke of that heritage, the dirty brown brick of the Brick Lane Mosque, with its sundial inscription "Umbra Summus" – "We are shadows" – once a Huguenot church, then Methodist chapel, after which shul [synagogue], then masjid. A century ago, it was where Jewish radicals pelted Orthodox worshippers with bacon sandwiches on the Day of Atonement, the battles of yesteryear mirrored uncannily in the struggles of today.
Today the heart of the East End has become "Banglatown", named after the Sylhetis from north-eastern Bangladesh – Londoni – who migrated here wholesale over the last 30 years. "Banglish" (a mix of English and Bengali) had replaced Cockney accents. Eminent actor Sir Ian McKellen may live in Limehouse, and artists such as Gilbert & George and Tracey Emin in the Huguenot finery near Brick Lane, but this has become a place of mahram and purdah [governing contact between men and women]; of Shah Jalal and his Yemeni pir [holy men] who brought Islam to the troubled corner of south Asia.
The streets to which the Sylhetis had moved were not paved with gold: instead there was overcrowding and desperate poverty, gangs, drugs, rising TB rates, and elders I met still struggling with the English language. Money had been used to buy land back home, whilst sons were riddled with "white" [crack] and "brown" [heroin], drugs stored on "plots" and "shotted" [dealt] by "workers" on their "business lines" [mobile phones] across the insular estates once built for Jewish immigrants.
Sons born to extended families from the same villages were now locked in turf wars. Yet their parents and grandparents still followed the old ways: like other immigrant ghettos across the country, the so-called "village vote" – loyalties to family, area, friends – still played a large role in elections. The night before the ballot I spent the evening with Respect candidate Weiseul Islam, a public policy consultant, as we met uncles and business associates. Earlier in the day, I had watched as his 'minder', James, an intense-faced young graduate who worked for the Treasury, tried to shepherd the Bengali through the final campaigning. By the early hours, though, it was a different matter. Sitting in parlours and cafes, I watched as promises and deals were struck with family members and friendly elders; as the vote was reeled in. We talked to one uncle who had stood as a Conservative candidate: now his nephew was in Respect, he switched his allegiance without a blink.
The day of the elections, I took my first walk through Barking in over 10 years: a decade since I had met neo-Nazi gang Combat 18. Before their world had collapsed in bomb plots and murder, I'd spent 15 months with the two brothers running the gang. They'd been the BNP's stewarding force. Their dream was to create an Aryan Homeland in Essex, merely a stone's throw from where I now walked. I wondered if they would choose it now.
Down past the bandstand, towards the Barking town hall, you encounter a place of white flight and new arrivals, street corners resounding with the heavily-accented French of West Africa, pool halls wreathed in smoke as Latvians, Poles and Russians chatter away. Even Bangladeshi friends had begun moving here, following that age-old trail of Jews, Irish and others long before them. Ironically, their East End council flats were now trading for huge sums, or being used to house the new arrivals – other immigrants, East Europeans – half-a-dozen or more to a room. East London had yet to leave its Victorian legacy behind.
Eventually, I took myself into Dagenham, a land of pebble-dashed, interwar housing and England flags, of West Ham and old Irish. I looked at the electoral register: for every Irish or English surname, there was an African or East European one. Yet most of the black people I saw were young families; many seemed to be running their own businesses – garages, hairdressers, travel agents. That night an Afghan was stabbed outside the train station. His attackers were white.
This was the forgotten Britain some joked. Home, too, to flights of those same immigrants – Cockneys, Irish and Jews – that once dominated East End life. Sprawling interwar suburbs then the sea, and the age-old escape from the ghetto. Over the last two generations, it had become a haven to those whites who venerated the traditions of the East End: pie and mash, the Blitz spirit, and an England that once was.
Racial tensions had been growing for months, as an influx of immigrants put pressure on already-existing economic and social tensions. It had become a housing mecca: to Bangladeshis moving from Banglatown on the first step towards prosperity. And to literally thousands of Africans and East Europeans, flooding into the area since the last census in 2001. A tide of peoples attracted by the cheapest private accommodation in London, in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Barking and Dagenham also boasted a government Minister, Margaret Hodge. It had been a Labour stronghold since 1919. A home to the Ford Motor Company in Britain, and the birthplace of (among others) protest songwriter and anti-racist icon Billy Bragg. It was barely a stone's throw from Stratford, gateway to the Olympics.
As I walked, I thought of the two men leading their parties of protest. Whilst George Galloway had attracted controversy for his calls for British troops to mutiny in Iraq, and for telling Saddam Hussain: "Sir: I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability", in Nick Griffin, the BNP was led by someone who boasted he had updated Richard Verrell's book, Did Six Million Really Die? and received a suspended prison sentence for inciting racial hatred. Unlike Galloway, he was no public orator, seeming to sneer where the Scot could charm.
Yet as Galloway was involved in the charity War on Want, a period during which the Charity Commission found accounting irregularities, Griffin was travelling to Libya during the 1980s in search of funds, as the IRA was being sent weapons by Colonel Gaddafi. The former head of his minders was a known figure in the Liverpool underworld. He had sought links, too, with the black nationalist and anti-Semitic Nation of Islam.
On its website, the BNP said it wanted a return to pre-1948 Britain: a world without the Windrush. Yet it was a world without the NHS or nationalised railways, too. It still believed in voluntary repatriation for all immigrants. With its protectionist, isolationist economic stance, some thought it wanted to turn the clock back to pre-Industrial Revolution days. For it included many who thought global capital and global economics evil; who saw controlling hands behind the flow of money and the media. Who lamented the loss of empire and the decadence of the "liberal elite", with their "politically correct" ways.
In David Copeland, it also included the first ever terrorist bomber of recent times amongst the list of its former members, before the 7/7 bombers ever made their journeys south to the capital. Since race riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in 2001, the party had been on the rise. It had had one councillor elected to the Isle of Dogs in 1993, but that was the last time it had reared its head in east London. Until now.
That same day I had travelled the short hop back to the East End, moving between these two enclaves, united by history but separated by so much else. For if the ugly spectre of racism was rearing its head in Barking, something altogether quite different was propelling Respect in Tower Hamlets.
Outside a Bromley-by-Bow school I had met a young woman called Rania Khan. Bengali but raised in Libya, she spoke better Arabic than many of her elders in this patriarchal community. Together with her mother, a nurse and former officer in the Bangladesh army, she was standing as a Respect councillor. Both were hijabi. Both fiercely independent.
"£2.8m is being spent per day on the Iraq war, and with our taxes going to pay for it!" she said, bantering with young white mums, who seemed less-than-enthralled by the prospect of voting for the fiery young hijabi. "And then there's local issues such as privatisation – why are they privatising our houses? Why isn't money going into direct investment? Well obviously, when they go into an illegal war, they don't have the money to spend, so they're obviously taking it off Tower Hamlets. We are suffering. We are suffering."
For the wide-eyed Rania, her teeth shining in her young, pretty face, the ummah was key to all this. "It's something that touches you," she said. "Children are dying. People are dying. That's why Labour doesn't have much support. That, and the sleaze and the corruption."
I asked her if Islam was the driving force in her life: "Yep. Yep," she repeated, nervously eyeing the "sisters" supporting the Labour man. "Through reading, through meeting people, I was fed up of the normal kind of life, the street life."
Earlier, I had been introduced to Farhana, another Respect candidate – another hijabi, too – and her sister Ruksana. Ruksana now lived elsewhere, but had been a well-known community worker. Her daughter, 15, had already written a whole book, with powerful photos, all about the injustices and terrible suffering of the 'western' war on Muslims.
Respect was a party promoting anti-racism and the fight against Islamophobia. Islam dovetailed with its social agenda – helping the poor, protecting housing, investing in the NHS and equality of education. Yet the people I was meeting were also deeply conservative on other issues: abortion and marriage, for example. This was the same faith that believed in stoning homosexuals to death. If I ever wanted to guarantee an argument, all I had to do was raise the issue of gay rights. Islam literally meant "submission" – to God, to honour the Prophets – and it brought with it a discipline and redemptive quality that was all-but necessary on the streets of the Abyss. But it brought with it a 7th century literalism, too.
When I returned for my next visit to Barking, during the World Cup, everywhere you could see the face of change: from the peeling pubs for sale, to the young African I saw jumping with elation when England scored, hugging bull-necked locals. You could taste the tension, too.
In a laminated bar owned by Indians who said they hailed from Singapore – this was the new Barking, clearly – the crowd chanted: "Ooh are ya – ooh are ya?" pointing in unison at the screen. It seemed a mocking echo of the salat [prayer] back down the A13. I felt far from the chrome of Canary Wharf and the Gherkin just a few miles away. Outside, I passed a happy drunk who had painted his bulldog with a Cross of St George.
Like Respect, the British National Party now had a dozen councillors sitting here. The election had caused huge controversy. Almost everyone I spoke to, even enemies, admitted that had the BNP stood a candidate in every ward, it would have taken control of the entire council. Albeit that during their first proposed measure, none of the new councillors bothered to vote in favour of their own motion, thus ensuring it fell.
"There's a very strong movement of white, working class Labour voters who are going straight to the BNP. We cannot deny it," local MP Jon Cruddas told me over lunch at the Houses of Parliament that July. "The Labour Party has lost them, has not done anything for them, arguably. They don't count in the political system."
Just a week previously I had attended a packed fringe meeting of backbench Labour MPs, all now under threat from the BNP and clamouring for answers. Ironically, the meeting had been chaired by Oona King, the same woman ousted from the East End by George Galloway a year earlier.
"I go drinking in the Legion after the election, right," continued Cruddas, "mates of mine said they voted BNP. I said 'what did you do that for!?' They said what would the story be if we'd all voted Labour. People are aren't going to listen and sit up. They see it as a rational response to their own disenfranchisement."
Cruddas felt New Labour had mastered its appeal to the mythical 'Middle England', yet forgotten its heartlands. Few seemed to understand that this same flow of peoples, of immigrants moving eastwards from the city, had been going on for hundreds of years.
Matters hadn't been helped by his colleague Margaret Hodge, the woman who had said, without bothering to ask her own party or voters, that eight out of 10 of her constituents were preparing to vote BNP. That and a foreign prisoner release scandal at the Home Office, plus extensive coverage by an ever-excitable broadcast media, had sent the otherwise ill-prepared BNP into gleeful opposition.
According to Dr Catherine Fieschi, a senior researcher at think-tank Demos, "this election was close to a textbook case: an Islamic bombing, a Conservative party moving to the centre, the cartoon furore, escaped foreign prisoners, a government mired in scandal and succession woes."
I was now "proscribed" by the party. Not everyone, it seemed, had been enamoured by my book. Least of all former boxing blue and ex-National Front leader, Nick Griffin. Yet one man kept talking to me. Someone who had been the party's leader, here in east London. Someone who had attended Kray gang members' funerals; who knew Charlie Richardson, the famous south London villain; who had travelled frequently to Northern Ireland; who kept violence close to his life. Someone who remembered the day the world changed: the day the Asians came in.
There had been no replies to my requests for interviews with the Barking councillors. If I was to have a chance of entering the "new" BNP, I would need his help.
Dave Hill's house is large. An old sea captain's dwelling in fact. It is a sepia-tinged place: old photographs and worn carpets, memories lingering with the musty smell of age, and the gentle tinge of Hill's dope upstairs. It is from this "manor", a place he calls "aarn [our] world" that Hill had been plotting white revolution for nigh on most of his adult life. Before that, he'd been a minor drug dealer. He was "technically unemployed" he told me, but never seemed short of money. His family stretched back in the area over two centuries.
Hill and I had first met back in 2001, during research for the BBC drama England Expects. He had taken me in his van around the estates and pubs, pointing out places burned down by Bengali gangs, then introducing me to his hooligan friends from the Inter City Firm (West Ham hooligans). At one stage he got out to piss by a children's playground in front of Bengali families.
Hill was the face and leader of the entire East London BNP operation, the front man for its Families Against Immigrant Racism network (the BNP often created such "influence circles", a tactic it lifted from the far-right Front National in France). Yet Hill had no qualms in admitting his belief in racial nationalism and in an international conspiracy of Jews – the fabled "Zionist Occupation Government" so often talked about by American white supremacists.
Rubbing a new pink scar, a result of one or other of the disagreements that so frequently troubled his life, Hill apologised for the difficulty in tracking him down. Much of his time seemed spent avoiding people. Recently he had been in Ireland, before that in hospital, he said. One of our meetings occurred after he had attacked an Asian minicab driver who had taken him to the pub; waited for him to buy his takeaway pints; driven him back home; and wouldn't accept the £5 Hill had decided "reasonable" for the journey. Hill himself had told me the story, adding with a twist of dark humour that SO19, the police armed response unit, had been called.
Until recently, Hill had been good mates with much of the party's London hierarchy. Despite being expelled from its ranks for violence (a disagreement over missing funds) he still knew many people inside its east London networks. Including its new leader, the man seen parading himself on TV screens after the shock of its success in Barking. "I dunno what to make of him, Nick. Whether he's psychotic, mad or a drunk?!"
That man was Richard Barnbrook. Hill had just been asked to rejoin the party he once so loved. He agreed to contact his friend Bob, a huge bull of a man, mouth crammed with glinting gold teeth ("care of the Metropolitan police") who had once been a party member, but seemed to spend much of his time in Spain. Bob had family in the area. Word was sent out to the networks.
Meanwhile, I asked Hill about Barnbrook. "'He's an odd one, all right," Hill slurred through his drink. "I've met just abaat everyone on the scene over the years, like, and I still can't figure him aat. The pinnacle of his career to date is being a supply teacher... what does that tell you?" Hill laughed. "He'll probably be drinkin' sherry when he meets yer!"
Barnbrook had become the posterboy of the 'new' Right. A patriotic nationalist. The terms changed, but the sentiments did not. Like his boss, Barnbrook was one of the rare breed of graduates attracted into the party's ranks. He now sat on the BNP's national committee. Like Hitler, he had also once been an artist.
That artistic interest had extended to a homoerotic film he produced and directed in 1989. It featured naked men, scenes of flagellation, mutual masturbation and oratory provided by the BNP man himself. Of course, this was still the same movement whose press officer Phil Edwards (also known as Dr Stuart Russell) stated that homosexuality "is unnatural" and "does not lead to procreation but does lead to moral turpitude and disease". Nick Griffin had gone one step further, venting outrage that gays were "sick creatures...flaunting their perversion" when they marched in protest against the London nailbombs in 1999. Atrocities perpetrated by one of his former members.
Through Hill's suggestions, and my persistence, eventually a meeting was arranged. It was time to visit the Essex worlds of "Lousy Loughton" and "Dirty Dagenham", as Hill joked, to see what the man himself had to say.
In mid-summer I returned to Respect. The party's offices are located on Club Row, just off Bethnal Green Road and not far from the northern tip of Brick Lane, with its bagel bakeries and homeless, its boutiques and wireless cafes. Club Row leads up past a fashionable restaurant to Arnold Circus, a large roundabout and bandstand surrounded by Edwardian social housing. It was here that the notorious Jago was located, a Victorian hellhole of twisting tenements and footpads, a place where policemen feared to tread. It was also where Jilu Miah, nicknamed 'The Flour Man' for cutting his drugs and ripping off other dealers, and one of Respect's original converts, had had his base.
Inside the whitewashed building, with its laminate floor and modern estate agent feel, the air was hot. A taste of long-brewed coffee permeated the clammy atmosphere. Giant photos illustrated mass anti-war demonstrations. Books by George – on Iran, on himself – littered the desks. Figures, brown-skinned and white, pored over computer screens. One of them was Rob Hoveman, a shaven-headed, decades-long veteran of protest: once head of the Socialist Alliance, a pre-Respect attempt at uniting the Left, now one of Galloway's official researchers. It seemed 'Big Brother' had paid for something after all. Another regular visitor was the tussle-haired John Rees, noted senior member of the Socialist Workers Party and a founder of the Stop the War movement. An imitator of Galloway's thumping rhetoric, he looked more like a lecturer than radical politician. He too had failed to get elected.
"Ach! Here's the man," called out a cursing figure, all crushed silver hair and pink face. Ron McKay was Galloway's fixer and official mouthpiece. A Dundee man and long-time journalist. The two of them seemed inseparable. In TV appearances and on lectures; during his trip to the American Senate and on his weekend Talksport radio shows; during the hustings in which one of his councillors had tried to punch the local Labour leader, McKay's stern, unreadable features would be there. The man in black, ready for a quiet word or restraining hand on the troops. I would see the two of them cruising the narrow streets in George's large blue Mercedes, Galloway at the wheel, a magisterial pair.
It seemed that McKay was parachuted, or came in, whenever Galloway had things to do – or win. “Och, we’ll talk to anyone,” he said, explaining that the party survived on a shoestring – unlike the corrupt mainstream movements – and that an election bus had been impounded due to non-payment of bills. They would talk to anyone and everyone in their quest for publicity. Except Sky News and BBC London (due to perceived past stitch ups). Much of McKay's time seemed dedicated to firing off corrections and threats to various media. Just before the election, McKay and Galloway had uncovered a News of the World sting operation by the "fake sheikh", Mahzer Mahmood, which they gleefully exposed (together with the reporter's picture). It was McKay who confided in me that George might not have done 'Big Brother' had it not been for an expensive divorce and waiting out payments from his Daily Telegraph libel battle. "Aye, he thought he could reach through and out to the rest of the public...I did warn him not to.”
It was McKay, too, who once admitted to mistakenly receiving US$16,000 from Galloway's Jordanian businessman friend – the same man linked to the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal. “The US government says that Interpal [Galloway’s Palestinian charity] is a terrorist organisation,” he chortled, “in which case all of us here” – he lifted his gaze and eyebrows to indicate the others gathered at the surrounding PCs – “fall under that!”
And it was McKay who was a thriller writer, sharing an agent with Ian Rankin and running a publishing house with George, at times scripting the material Galloway would produce. He had known George, as he simply called him, since they met in Beirut in 1977 – he a young reporter for The Sunday Times, Galloway a rising star of the trade union and Scottish Labour movement.
“I was covering the revolution: he was fomenting it!” he laughed.
He said that life with George was fun, and that was reason enough to follow him. "Some of us were backing George at 200-1 last time. No-one gave us a chance,” he said, with what seemed like a bit of relish.
As we sat in Galloway's apartment later that day, among the Ray Winstone videos and drying underwear, it turned out that McKay had been one of two men who had helped organise a trip Galloway made to Bangladesh before his election. It had been crucial in gathering support from the established power brokers "back home", whose hands reached the Londoni and could curry political favour.
A few weeks later, McKay took me for a lunchtime drink in The Owl & Pussycat pub, just up the road from the Respect HQ. His mood was upbeat. Galloway was back in the office, busy typing away at his Guardian blog. But I wondered how truly satisfied McKay was. During the elections, he had confidently claimed the party would take over half the council. Although it was the now official opposition, 12 seats fell short of his prediction.
"If you asked any media or political pundit like you, when George was chucked out of the Labour Party, whether a new party could be created which would get him elected, get 12 councillors here, three in Newham, get a hugely successful candidate elected in Birmingham... people would have laughed. Given that our resources are infinitesimally small, we've done amazingly well. And that's not bullshit. It's unprecedented."
"Labour are trying to carve us out of any positions of influence or authority," complained Rob Hoveman, who was sitting with us. "The Lib Dems and Conservatives are smaller parties here in Tower Hamlets now, but they've given us baubles in terms of committee positions."
I asked if there was life for Respect without Galloway. After all, he had promised to move on from here after only one term. There was a pregnant pause from Ron. "That's a good question..."
We struck up something of a friendship, meeting several times during those summer months with him promising, as he put, "dinner with George". Yet Galloway remained an enigma. When I strolled down Brick Lane and spoke with one of the restaurateurs I knew, he literally spat: "George fucking Galloway.... George fucking Galloway. Oh my god, don't talk to me about that man!"
Reaction was scarcely better from one of the deposed Labour councillors, Doros Ullah, the former Mayor of Stepney and one of those who had introduced me to the Bangladeshi community: "Mr Galloway..." he sighed, sitting in the café below his health and safety business. "George Galloway... The Respect Party MP is not a nice man. He's a nasty piece, to be honest. He has targeted the most vulnerable section of our community: people that believe in Islam, that take Islam close to their heart. He's used their religion to get into their heart."
With the summer air still warm, great flocks of birds wheeled about the spire of the nearby Hawksmoor church, ready for the night's roost.
But the old East End was lost in Mulberry Place, a piece of soulless Nineties architecture that had been dumped in the old docks, east of Canary Wharf. It was here that Tower Hamlets council had its HQ.
With the elections now well behind us, and Respect sitting in opposition, I had come to meet Abjol Miah. A Philippine stick fighting champion and former drugs worker, Miah is well-known in the homes and masjids of Banglatown. Eloquent, educated, determined; only in his mid-30s, yet already a father of four. His voice was soft-spoken, Cockney, but slipping easily into Sylheti or Arabic. A touch of distinguished grey crept into his carefully-trimmed beard. He always seemed out on the road, at community events, up late at night talking with elders, the revered sassas and nanas [uncles], or plotting campaigns in his secret "battle HQ", a friend's run-down council flat, just yards from the famous Cable Street, where Jews and Communists had battled with Oswald Moseley's fascists in 1936.
If anyone was the heart of this new movement, it was him. A respected member of the East London Mosque, during the course of the year or more in which I got to know him, he was voted in as head of Tower Hamlets Respect. An Islamist in the midst of the godless. "It [Islam] shapes my character, my perception, my interaction, my temperament, my approach to other people. It gives me a bit of humility as well," he said, at our very first meeting.
Miah had been, in his own words, "a bit of a lad". In his teens he began studying Islam. Friends of his told me he'd once been a raver, even trained with weapons: but that had been in the bad old days of gang violence and the BNP. "I was one of the first pupils to take the whole school on strike, against racism. They couldn't provide safety. I used to go to my school with shinpads, textbooks stuffed down me shirt. Yeah, that's the way it was. Other people used to stash weapons, pick them out of the bushes when they came out of school. The front gate was for white people, the back gate for Asian people. I was one of the first people to get a prayer facility inside a secondary school."
For it was his dream, he told me, to see his faith extended; to see the Palestinian flag floating above Tower Hamlets HQ; to twin the borough with the West Bank town of Jenin. And he had taken the scalp of Labour's most powerful figure here, Professor Michael Keith, its leader, beating him right in the very heart of Shadwell.
"Labour is now petrified," said Miah, when I asked how he was finding his new role as leader of the Opposition. "The conventional politicians think conventionally. I don't. I've studied that fella, wotsisname... The Art of War, Sun-Tzu, and learned many battles have different objectives."
But the party was being isolated, even as it tried to establish itself. Some of the Respect councillors had begun muttering about their MP and the damage 'Big Brother' had done to the cause. "George Galloway is an issue," Miah said, "but something we can manage." There was a cordon sanitaire emerging, he told me a day or two later, whispering from inside his new office on the phone, not wanting to be overheard. "They stitched us up."
In the immediate phase after the election, Miah's colleague, Weiseul Islam – who'd also manage to get himself elected – said he had been doing a lot of work to limit political damage to the party. He had been exasperated that one of the Respect tactics was to ask the council what it was doing about Islam. "Clearly, no-one's going to take us seriously."
Instead of depressing him, these problems only seemed to motivate Miah further. “We’ve got the biggest youth population in the whole of Europe and in one area, one of the poorest in the UK. I don’t care about the sixty grand salaries,” he said. “That don’t trickle down here. How many yuppies you see around these estates?” And he laughed, a harsh sound.
Nor had the realities of power dimmed his religious convictions. "I think Muslims have the perfect role, a massive role, in shaping the moral fabric of politics. People are realising that people in the western world have a great misunderstanding of an Islamic system. What is it? It's a system where people feel comfortable to live, they're able to worship freely."
It turned out that there was more to Miah than met the eye. He had taken Galloway across Bangladesh to meet its prominent political leaders and families. He boasted to me how those contacts had, in turn, worked for them back here in the ghetto: it was not just the war which had won Gorgeous George a seat. It was the extended village vote.
Now he was on Respect's national committee, Miah saw the party as a vehicle the community could use. His friend Rupon Miah's voice rang in my ears, when I'd asked him about the party. "The Islamist movement is possibly using Galloway...it pre-dates him. There's no long-term loyalty. It's a means to an end. It gives them a face. But what they are doing behind the scenes and in the mosques and with Muslims is building influence."
But in the weeks and months since the elections, it was not clear where the party was going. An internet TV station promised by Ron McKay had not materialised; opponents were constantly trying to outmanoeuvre them.
But for Miah, this was all simply a matter of time. Years of discipline and faith had honed his character for this moment: "We're the biggest political threat," he said, "not just to the current administration – but to the whole system at the moment."
Despite its misfits, the BNP was growing. And it was not merely loss of traditional values propelling it in east London. It was rapid change. And fear.
By the time of the elections, just 30 asylum seekers had been allocated social housing in the borough, according to the council. Yet everywhere you went, and no matter for the smart words of the BNP and its spokesmen, it was "immigrants" and "asylum seekers" on everyone's lips. Even London Mayor Ken Livingstone seemed to be joining the fray, branding former Commission for Racial Equality boss, Trevor Phillips, as moving so far to the right he expected him to "soon be joining the British National Party".
It was not until late August that I was able to meet with the "voice of the British people" again. Tentative phones calls and faxes, text messages and approaches to Dave Hill's contacts mirrored the same, slow build-up I had taken with its hooligan castouts a decade earlier.
I took the long walk from Dagenham Heathway tube station, down to the heart of Dagenham's Goresbrook ward. The old A13 cut through the pebble-dashed surrounds. My first sight of Richard Barnbrook, new face of the BNP and councillor for the ward, came outside a pub. It turned out to be a signature to all of our meetings; where the Respect men and women hung out in cafés and mosques, the BNP cloaked itself in the world of working men's clubs and drinking holes.
Barnbrook was dressed in a beige summer suit; relaxed, legs sprawled outwards, flicking ash from a cigarette and regarding me through small eyes. His other hand held a pint of Guinness. A non-existent upper lip, button nose and protruding ears stuck out from under a neat, old-fashioned haircut. The effect seemed a pastiche of Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal. An official councillors badge was pinned to his lapel (I never saw it removed); an imitation leather council briefcase clutched to his lap.
"I've been told about you," he quipped. "They told me, you know, just to be careful. That you know Searchlight [an anti-fascist organisation]."
I smiled in return and asked how he was finding power. "Power?! Power, power... that's not a word I would use," he laughed, hard and flat.
"We can't even get business cards! We've got third party interference," he counted off points on one hand, "we've got the unions, and we've got Ken Livingstone's pet project, Unite Against Fascism [a pressure group linked, ironically, to Respect]. I've been approached by students, too, asking me how we go about campaigning. We know who they're really working for..."
Very quickly into the conversation, we'd entered a world of conspiracies. Even council officials had refused to paint offices in colours of his choice. He stated "without a doubt" that there were hostile interest groups at work in the world of finance, only a few miles from us here.
Those same 'enemies' – groups such as Searchlight and its StopTheBNP.com website – claimed that the party has risen here not simply through the collapse of old Labour, but lies. Lies in BNP leaflets that suggested Africans were being given £50,000 grants to move from inner London to the borough. Whipping up already latent hostility to the newcomers who, without a doubt, were arriving here in great numbers.
Yet Barnbrook countered that it was simply hard work, canvassing and listening to concerns that won him office. "I went around here with five other people, a long time before the elections, no colours flying, knocking on doors and asking what are your concerns? What do you want to see happen in your community? Now when it came to the elections, those comments they fed to us we fed back to them in our leaflets."
For Barnbrook, it was the "liberals" who were misguided, not his party or the voters. "What they're doing now, they're sitting there – those academic, liberally-minded, wishy-washy people thinking of agendas – they're not talking to the people, to ask the people what their aspirations are. They're sitting in their bloody ivory towers, looking down, dictating policies to people. We don't do that."
And for the next few hours – hours spent drinking – I heard of a return to the death penalty; the introduction of Sarah's Law (the BNP seemed obsessed by paedophiles); the need for discipline in education, and for strong law and order measures. This, from the party that included convicted bombers and hooligans among its ranks.
It all seemed a far cry from the life of a supply teacher, his most recent occupation. When I asked what he really believed in, his underlying motivations, he hesitated. "I'm a nationalist. And I come from a social background. Erm, erm... Old Labour." But not, he claimed suddenly, a national socialist. He laughed very nervously. "No, no, I'm just joking! Hahahaha!"
I steered the conversation to his background. It was a strange picture of his life that emerged. He only joined the party in 1999, he said. The same year Nick Griffin became leader. His epiphany had come in 1986, when he cut up his Labour Party membership. He had seen a mixed race gang attack a couple of other kids. "That's when I realised the multicultural element had not worked out."
But the hostility went back further. He talked of his mother being forced from her hospital bed in south London, during his labour, to make way for "people from minority groups. My father went ballistic."
It turned out that this father, a welder, was a musician. And his grandfather before him had been offered a musical scholarship – something he had had to decline. I couldn't help but feel a sense of frustration here; of dreams thwarted. It was a calling, he said, that drove him into the arms of patriotism and nationalism. A calling, too, which carried a burden. "Kelly [his ex-wife who, he claimed, worked for breakfast television] left me because she married an artist not a politician."
For Barnbrook, his dreams had taken him, at first, into that world of art. His inspirations were Turner and Joseph Boyce, he claimed. "I went to the Royal Academy. I started exhibiting, making a lot of money." He said that he ended up in Thailand on a UNESCO scholarship. That he had taught around the world, and was making up to £100,000 a year. He had even produced a plan for Millennium celebrations in nearby Canary Wharf – which had been rejected – and prepared education papers for the government. "But I never got a reply."
"Then I moved to film," he said, with a wave of his hands, "worked with the likes of Steven Frears, the Derek Jarmans, Tilda Swintons and all that. I even met Gilbert & George at a soirée once. Hence the 'gayyy film'! Let's be honest, let's get this out of the way. It was a film I had to make, had to do for a European fellowship. I wanted to do a film on social issues. So I chose sexuality. So what's centred in the film is homosexual. It's about values in sexuality, how do you recognise your sexuality? The girlfriend pisses herself laughing every time it comes up in the media."
Yet he now found such actions disgusting. He pursed his lips shut tight. "People in the party have asked me, 'Richard, are you gay?' No, I am not. 'Did you bugger people?' No I did not."
The eyes were staring hard, and it was a little while before his lopsided smile returned.
During the next couple of weeks, I managed to meet again with the Respect councillor, Rania Khan, and her mother, Lutfa Begum. They had seen me alone. After so many encounters where I was escorted into sitting rooms by men, the women relegated behind hijab and niqab to the kitchens, I was taken aback. Yet clearly some things were starting to change, here in the East End.
Back in Dagenham, and Richard Barnbrook had just been to the BNP's Red White and Blue festival. It was an annual fete organised by the party, copied, like so much else, from the Front National in France. It was strange to think of the long hand of Jean-Marie le Pen reaching these drab streets.
This time our meeting lasted a near-steady five hours of drinking by the BNP man – the badge still in place – as locals came up to us unannounced to shake his hand.
"There's over 400 flats around 'ere, I ain't been offered one. I'm gettin' fed up with it, y'know what I mean?" said Roger, a former long-distance lorry driver and now disabled pensioner, his lower legs swollen purple and swathed in blankets as he sat on a motorised wheelchair. "I need a wheelchair place 'n I ain't got one. I need a walking frame in me current one, stagger round on that."
Barnbrook pumped his hand, promising to call. The beige suit had been replaced by a green cord jacket. Roger kept on talking. "If you're coloured, then you're all right mate. Can't go wrong if you're Bosnian, they give you a place straight away. I live just daan the road there," he nodded his head "all Nigerians an' all that, all like on the dole, all blacks. Terrible."
Ironically, as the BNP man wandered off, Roger told me that he had converted to Islam and wanted me to meet his Iraqi refugee friend.
Tom, a carpet fitter and grandfather who approached us next, was even more forthright, voice slurred with drink: "All these asylum seekers are comin' in and they're takin' over. At the end of the day, we won the war... but they're winnin' it being over 'ere. I'm terrified for the world my little grandchildren are comin' in to. I really am. They've got nothing to look for at all."
He thumbed towards the BNP man: "I told him if you don't get rid of these bloody lot you don't get another vote from me!"
"I'll make damn sure we do," came the chirpy reply.
Yet outside, as Barnbrook walked through the streets with his badge and bag, head held high as he joked self-consciously with Asian shopkeepers, buying his can of Guinness for the train journey home, you could see the environment had changed. This was no longer a Cockney world.
The BNP man sat next to veiled women, rubbed shoulders with African ladies pushing their children. At a bus stop he stopped to read a headline about terrorism arrests in the local paper:
"It's Third World War..." he muttered, then turned his face for a better angle, trying to look nonchalant for the camera.
On the cusp of September, I sat in on George Galloway's Talksport show, hearing him beam "live from a warzone", as he talked of "rubble strewn with the dead... and bombs printed with United States of America..." sitting on the border of southern Lebanon. Someone in the studio joked they should let the Israelis know his location. I remembered that Richard Barnbrook had been keen for me to introduce him to the ex-Big Brother MP.
Just two weeks later, I went back into the same studio to do my own talk about the rise of these two movements. The majority of callers were BNP members: word always spread quickly through internet forums and message boards.
Then, in the evening glow of the Abyss, I returned to Mile End – its huge garden bridge stretching above – to talk with some of Respect's old friends. Reverts to Islam. Gang members and drug dealers, incensed by the wars on their "brothers". In the choking incense of a shishe pipe, 'Lob' spat out his hatred for the western world:
"No-one's representin' the modern British muslim man and woman, understand? When we 'ad a go at George Galloway and one of the councillors..."
"He didn't reply back to 'is ansaa, get me?" butted in another young man. "In the election he was in Crisp St market where I live, campainin', bruvva come up to him, ask him a question an he culdn't ansaa it, he told 'im 'get lost'. He said 'get lost, get lost'."
Lob sneered when I said that Galloway used "inshallah" and other Arabic phrases in his speech: "He's like you, man, he's one of you, a replica of one of you! An old version with a cigar, yeah?"
So the new generation of angry young men were already turning from Gorgeous George. Just a year earlier and Lob's friends had been handing out leaflets, insisting the Scottish MP had taken the shahadah.
Autumn had arrived. I'd wanted to meet others in the Barking BNP. Where was the new crop of men and women, that promised a vanguard of new Britain? No sign – unlike Respect. The party was ever-paranoid and liked to keep tight control of its spokespeople. Instead, hostile phone calls for Barnbrook from the local press, as fellow BNP councillor, Clare Doncaster, was being evicted from her council flat for non-payment of rent (another BNP councillor was in serious arrears).
Whilst he had been away on holiday in Turkey, four councillors had written to BNP leader Nick Griffin asking what was going wrong in Barking. A leaflet had been circulated in the local pubs.
"We were promised improvements from day one, what have we got? Fuck all... Why is Barnbrook still in charge when he has clearly become an embarrassment?"
The night before my trip to Dagenham, I visited a photo exhibition about the Ku Klux Klan. It seemed prescient. Life in the deep, isolated south of America, the world in which I had immersed six years of my life; around us the revitalised Docklands, tremendous wealth surging through its proud chrome and steel.
The next day I met Richard Barnbrook again. We had moved to Upney and the giant, whitewashed surrounds of The Roundhouse pub, a place of fading boozers and bored barmaids. This time he was not alone. A pale, bespectacled figure sat alongside the beige-suited BNP man. The young man was waving furiously at Barnbrook's smoke. A Coke sat, untouched, in front of him.
His t-shirt advertised a 2-Tone band. "Councillor Lawrence Rustem..." the reedy voice intoned, a bank clerk surely, as he offered his hand. Lawrence Rustem: half-Turkish Cypriot, known to some in his party as a "wog" but a dedicated adherent nevertheless. And now a Dagenham councillor.
I greeted him in Turkish, "merhaba". His face became stone-like. "I don't speak Turkish," came the clerk's voice again, the eyes flashing silver behind the lenses. I knew that Turkey had a 'proud' tradition of genuinely fascist groups, including the infamous Grey Wolves (the National Action Party), connected to the assassin who had shot the Pope.
"I come from Hackney," Rustem told me. "Now I only go back there to see my mum and my nan." He talked of a turning point in his life, when he was attacked by black youths whilst still at school. Now, he said, he had "faith in the flag, looking to make sure Britain remains in the hands of the people who should control, as opposed to George Bush and the European Union. And any Tom, Dick 'n' Harry from anywhere in the world."
If Barnbrook was in a crisis, he did little to show it. Instead, he told me he would take me to the surrounding estates, to meet the BNP's true supporters. There was a surreal atmosphere in Rustem's car. The two men argued, as Barnbrook's dyslexia led us to take one wrong turning after another. An Elvis figure jiggled on the dashboard, whilst the King blasted through the speakers.
As we pulled off the A13 and passed into Scrutton Farm estate, Barnbrook called out: "Look, no litter! No anti-social behaviour, but these people are ignored by the powers that be."
By a single-storey, pebble-dashed building, a social club, a row of men sat. They were tattooed, one shaven-headed, with the sun glinting off gold chains, sunglasses and flushed faces. Friday afternoon had come early.
"'ello Richard, awright?" called out a short, ginger-haired man. He didn't want to give his name, but said he was a driver by trade. As Barnbrook showed off his new sun-tan, holding court over the surrounding men, the driver said: "This country is becoming a third world country... I've 'ad to sell me council house to support my daughter. What generation wants to see that? It's shit mate, absolute shit," he said, spitting out that the Africans were going to "their own churches too".
"You're effectively surrendering," Rustem interjected.
"What else can you do?" said the driver.
"Stand and fight for your country, like your forefathers did," Rustem said, smiling.
"As far as I'm concerned, fucking shoot the lot," came the reply. His friends nodded. "Burn 'em. Burn 'em. That's the way I see it. Why should we pay? Fuck 'em.... this council 'ere don't give a fuck about no-one. My father fought for this country, yeah, I fought to save my kids my 'ouse."
"But there are other ways of fighting..." suggested Rustem, looking at the driver's two young children as they played at his feet.
Around us terriers barked, the barman laughed and told me how they had refused entry to a Sikh mayor many years ago. The place was going to the dogs and he was preparing to flee to the country. My last image was of Richard Barnbrook standing with hands on his hips, lording over proceedings.
More recently, he was spotted running from an irate member of the public, after being overheard during a media interview stating that he did not believe in mixed-race relationships. Only last week he was also apologising for absences in council chambers, the party appearing to split locally.
I remembered a conversation with Matthew Collins, a former BNP member who turned mole for anti-fascist organisation, Searchlight:
"This is not a party that offers hope. If you look at groups like the Militant Tendency in they 1980s, they were sending working class people off to university! The BNP just victimises white people. They have no progressive ideas at all. They would take the working class back to the conditions they endured in the 18th century."
A metaphorical stone's throw away from Scrutton Farm, and Thames View, which I also visited – the BNP's Dagenham strongholds – I walked through the Gascoigne estate in central Barking. According to BNP supporters, this was a hellhole and centre of the new immigrant wave which they so feared.
"Fuck the BNP, fed [policeman]," one young African spat at me, sucking in between his teeth. "They the old world: we the new."
I took myself from Barking to Stratford, with its huge revitalised tube station, seeing the gateway digital clock counting down to the London Olympics. From there it was but a short hop on the DLR to Pudding Mill Lane, a 19th century industrial wasteland of scrapyards, garment factories and a single evangelical church, hemmed in by canals and byways. There was little to suggest that, in less than half-a-dozen years, the entrance to the Olympic stadium would open here.
My journey ends where it began: in the East End. As dusk descends on an evening during Ramadan, Arabs, Bangladeshis and Africans flow into the massive East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road. The contrast with the drab estates of Dagenham could not be greater. Change and wealth are everywhere. Tower House, the ‘monster doss house’ of George Orwell fame and a former junkie squat, is being redeveloped into luxury flats. The crumbling Old Fieldgate Street Synagogue, wedged behind and into the mosque itself, is a pale reminder of a former age.
Just a mile up the road, the Gherkin looms. The sounds of construction ring out; regeneration is everywhere. Less than two years ago, I stood here, watching 15,000 of the faithful line their prayer mats across the road, as the imam of the ka'abah opened the building.
Just before Eid-al-Fitr, Weiseul Islam, one of the Respect councillors, called to say that he was a new father. Rania Khan and her mother shared their hospitality with me, in streets which the plaques say were once graced by Mahatma Gandi. I received a text message on my phone, from 'Lob', the revert: "Stop drinkin and becum MUSLIM!"
That weekend, on Cable Street, a remembrance march passed for those who withstood extremists seven decades before. The cry of ‘No pasaran!’ – they shall not pass – rose from ancient throats. During Remembrance Day celebrations last year, Jewish war veterans were pelted with stones and eggs by Bengali youths.
As I walk back towards Brick Lane, I meet my friend Rupon, a self-confessed former extremist. We share sweet tea, surrounded by ‘brothers’ in an Islamic cafe. He knows most of the current Respect crop: ‘Islamists believe in the sovereignty of God,’ he says, ‘in every area of life. Before, they were rebels without a cause... now they have it: they believe in Armageddon. But they grew up in the East End when the BNP was here.’
Regeneration was everywhere. The sounds of construction sang out across the old Awful East. Yet with twin stars of radicalism lit in her bosom, I thought of Jack London's words in his The People of the Abyss, written a century ago:
"And as I walked I smiled at the East End papers, which, filled with civic pride, boastfully proclaim that there is nothing the matter with the East End as a living place for men and women.”
Barely a mile away, the black length of the Thames glitters. It links two worlds, and two radical movements, sandwiching the growing wealth of the City. With less than half-a-dozen years before the Olympics arrive, they wait – and watch. For now, the shadows of the City are quiet. How long, though, before they explode? And what then for the Awful East and its children?
This story was commissioned for The Observer Magazine ©2006.
You can buy this article, and seek new commissions, either by contacting me direct or my syndication agency, www.featurewell.com