Dewsbury, a middle-sized mill town in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was my home for 17 years. After I left I paid little attention to the town, though I’ve always come back to see my family. When people asked where I was from, I’d say it was a place called Nearleeds, because no one had heard of Dewsbury, unless they’d read Betty Boothroyd’s biography or remembered who Eddie Waring was. But then the headlines started coming: the highest BNP vote in the country; the attempted hanging of a small boy; a 7 July bomber from Lees Holm. Each a surprise, and yet not.

My Yorkshireness was never straightforward. I was born in Sunderland; my family moved to Dewsbury six months later, but that means nothing in the eyes of true tykes or – until they relaxed their Yorkshire-only selection policy in 1992 – the Yorkshire County Cricket Club. My father was a vicar and diocesan director of education; my mother the head of a church primary school. This means that when she reads news of the arrest of another local burglar from Dewsbury Moor estate, up over the hill, she can usually say: ‘I taught him.’

Our official residence was a beautiful, large and mostly unheated house. It was on a gracious street, up safe on the posh side of the valley, where the mill-owners built their fine houses away from the soot and fibres of the mills along the valley floor. Later, we moved next door, carrying our belongings through a gap in the hedge, before my father died one day in the back yard. The Church of England then made my Yorkshireness even more shaky by providing a free boarding-school place in Hertfordshire. My accent lasted little more than a month, and when I returned to Dewsbury two years later, it was with the longer, posher vowels of my mother, who was born and brought up in Surrey. Her father, Grandad Wallace, had been a miner in Barnsley. One day, the story goes, he got on his bicycle and cycled down south. He reached Ashtead, in Surrey, saw a pretty lane overhung with trees, and said he was never going back.

My mother still ended up in Yorkshire – and in the centre of the Heavy Woollen District. After the invention of the rag-grinding machine in 1813, Dewsbury entrepreneurs realised they could spin cloth from ground rags, and that the resulting ‘shoddy’ was good enough cloth for blankets, druggets and shirts. During the First World War, Mark Oldroyd’s Spinkwell Mills produced ten million square yards of cloth and employed 2000 people. Millions of soldiers wore Dewsbury-made shirts and spent frightened nights under Spinkwell Mills blankets. The Official Guide to Dewsbury 1957 (a librarian shows it to me in a fluster, because the police have just phoned to say a gang of book thieves is on the way and the Stephen Kings are unprotected) says that ‘one can stand in certain parts of Dewsbury and see upwards of sixty mill chimneys at a time.’

My mother’s second husband was a Yorkshireman who had started work at 16, sweeping the floors at a small mill specialising in cashmere and high-end wool. He became chief textile designer and sales director. I started at the private school in Wakefield, now we could afford it, but still managed to ignore Dewsbury. There were better shops in Leeds and better clubs in Wakefield. In this semi-rural conurbation, you can head out of town in any direction and hit a city: Leeds, Bradford, Barnsley, Huddersfield. There was no call to hang out in Dewsbury. It was a dump, we thought, and it got worse when the mills started closing, and unemployment started rising. My stepfather’s mill survived, buoyed by its luxury cloths that were popular in Japan, and my parents stayed in Dewsbury when I and all my peers left. I went to university in Oxford, which was pretty in a way Dewsbury never was. The chimneys, Dewsbury’s spires, were hardly dreaming, and even the tower of Dewsbury Minster, a church founded in 627, when St Paulinus turned up, is workmanlike.

There are nice bits, though. Even near the most troubled estates, there is green stuff. Even near Chickenley, where the 12-year-old girl tried to hang a five-year-old boy in a patch of woods. Many people in Dewsbury think the media overdid it. ‘The press wanted to make it another James Bulger,’ a police officer tells me. The CPS reduced the charge from attempted murder to assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, which is what the girl was found guilty of. Still, it was horrible, and not a surprise, to watch the TV graphics on the news bulletins as they slowly zeroed in on Dewsbury as the location of the crime, then on Earlsheaton, then on Chickenley. Everyone knows that anything goes in Chick. It’s lower than the low. A boy at the grammar school linked with mine was always known simply as the Boy from Chick.

The hanging incident was in May. Two months later, the press arrived again. On Tuesday 13 July, the Metropolitan Police raided a house in Lees Holm, a mixed area between mostly Asian Savile Town and mostly white Thornhill Edge. Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7 July bombers, had lived there only for a few months, but his wife, Hasina, and his mother-in-law, Farida Patel, were local: ‘99 per cent of the community had never heard of Khan,’ a Savile Town councillor, Khizar Iqbal, tells me. But everyone knew Farida and Hasina from their work in Dewsbury schools. ‘Farida did a lot for Dewsbury,’ says my mother, who knew her well. She was one of the first Asian women to be invited to Buckingham Palace, for her work in bilingual education. Hasina, too, worked at my mother’s school, and my mother remembers a ‘quiet, sweet girl’ who once made a pair of earrings for a colleague. ‘It’s trivial,’ she says, ‘but I just remember that, and that she was nice.’ Farida and Hasina are now in hiding, because Sidique Khan will always be the Dewsbury bomber, and questions will always be asked about how much the two women knew. The consensus is that they probably knew nothing. Most people I speak to have sympathy for them. But their houses are boarded up, and they’ll never come home.

Last year, my stepfather’s mill left the old mill buildings. Some jobs went, and, as when the other mills closed, many of the workers found jobs in Dewsbury’s huge bedding industry (my stepfather had already retired). The old mills are now shops or flats. On the site of my dad’s, there is now – though the chimney is intact – a development of luxury apartments. I am not nostalgic: the mills were grimy and grim before, and now they’re sandblasted and attractive. The first to be transformed was Machell’s, overlooking the ring-road, with its Shoddy & Mungo painted sign along the brickwork. The council bought it for a pittance, ‘because everyone just saw the mills as places of drudgery,’ says Margaret Watson, the deputy editor of the Dewsbury Reporter, and the child and niece of mill-workers. ‘They were blackened, ugly – who wanted them?’

Bed manufacturers and businessmen, mostly. Stephen Battye, a local businessman, turned Joseph Newsome’s redbrick mill into the classy Redbrick Mill ‘lifestyle’ (i.e. shopping) complex, sold flats in the former Dewsbury Infirmary to locals for £150,000 each, then sold all the luxury flats in Oldroyd’s Spinkwell Mills, now Sprinkwell Mills (the need for the extra ‘r’ is a mystery), mostly to young professionals working in Leeds. And the beds are everywhere. On the other side of the ring-road, as if squaring up to Machell’s, there is the enormous redbrick expanse of Highgate Beds: Sleeping Comfort for Everybody. Along Bradford Road and Huddersfield Road, there are bed factories: Kozee Sleep, HSL, Sleepeezee, Dream Weaver. There are ads for beds in the papers, on the back of parking tickets, on the sides of buses. The Heavy Woollen District now has a new nickname: Sleepy Valley.

Plenty of people wish it were sleepier. Two days into my trip, a man in Ravensthorpe drives his car into the next door haulier’s, knifes one man to death and critically injures others. It turns out to be a dispute over a strip of land, hedge rivalry gone mad. But it doesn’t help the battered ego of a small market town. ‘Where’s it all going to end?’ asks Trish Makepeace, who sits on the Dewsbury Chamber of Trade. ‘The headlines look so bad on TV. But it’s a minority making it bad for the rest of us.’

Like the BNP. When Nick Griffin spoke in the autumn at a meeting in Heckmondwike, which boasts the boastful BNP councillor David Exley, he called North Kirklees (Dewsbury’s administrative district) ‘the jewel in the BNP crown’. A local reporter tells me there were 7000 votes cast for the BNP in the local elections, and 5066 this year in the general election. He says they’re obviously ‘dead in the water’. But those 5066 voters are still an embarrassment. What were they thinking?

Dewsbury has long been a racially mixed town. Asians arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, answering ads in newspapers in Gujarat and Pakistan for jobs in the mills. Councillor Karam Hussein, who represents Dewsbury West, says his father arrived in 1956 and didn’t see daylight for five years, he was working so hard. ‘They were young men,’ Margaret Watson remembers, ‘and there was nothing for them here – no mosques, no halal food, no wives. But they were welcomed, and they stayed.’ When Burnley had riots, Dewsbury’s Chief Inspector Keith Hallas was asked what he was going to do about it. ‘I said, they’re nothing to do with Dewsbury. We’ve no problems here.’ There were riots in Bradford in 2001, but Dewsbury was again unaffected. There have been difficult moments: when the National Front threatened a march through the town centre two years ago, the market traders made a plan for those with lockable units to keep the Asian traders ‘out of the firing line’. When David Exley was elected last year, tension increased. But no moment has yet been more difficult than 13 July. The Press, a local paper, ran the headline ‘When Terrorism Came To Town’.

In the days after the raid in Lees Holm, people expected the worst. I expected the worst. The owner of a coffee shop says you could feel the shock. ‘One Asian lad came in to get his latte, and out of the blue started saying how he totally disagreed with the bombers, how they were outrageous. He shouldn’t have to say that.’ For two weeks, Councillor Khizar Iqbal was out and about, listening, ‘keeping an eye on things’. There was a special police number for ‘community leaders’ to call. Nothing happened. Not even from the BNP? ‘No,’ Iqbal says. ‘I still think they’re right-wing extremists, but I have to give them credit. Nothing happened.’

Dewsbury’s new MP is Shahid Malik, who grew up in Burnley. During the weeks after the bombing, he was rarely off TV. Asians should confront extremism, he said, not just condemn it. But at that point the imams in Dewsbury hadn’t even condemned it. The Markazi Mosque in Savile Town is one of the biggest in Europe. It’s run by the Tablighi Jamaat sect, whose ‘back-to-basics’ Islamism and evangelism make it of particular concern to the authorities; the shoe-bomber Richard Reid used to be a member – so was the convicted terrorist Djamel Beghal from Leicester. It was weeks before senior Markazi figures bothered to deny that Shehzad Tanweer, recruited by Sidique Khan, had worshipped there.

Still, the frantic community-building seems to have worked. Police figures showed a rise of seven or eight race hate incidents in the month, on top of a usual total of thirty or so. These are only the reported ones, but Iqbal hasn’t heard of many incidents on the ground either. Some verbal abuse, but ‘that’s normal,’ he says. ‘Black bastard, Paki – that’s the everyday stuff.’ Some tugging of burqas, according to a group of Asian women who planned a demonstration to protest that they couldn’t walk unharassed down the street. But their husbands objected and the march didn’t happen.

In my ventures around town, I end up on a bench near Percy Jubb’s fish stall in Dewsbury Market, marvelling at the bustle. The market is still famous enough to be a destination for coach trips. A trader tells me there are 350 stalls on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and a waiting list for spaces. The Hayes family tripe stall still operates as it has done for a hundred years, though now they have a fridge, when once the cows’ stomach linings and heels – already cooked, just add vinegar – were brought in barrels packed with ice. The people at the stall are either gaping with disgust or buying the stuff. Toffee Smith’s sweet stall is busy, as is the man who sells biscuits singly, if you want, out of big boxes. But there are more Asian stalls than there used to be and more Asians shopping. Dewsbury’s population is now more than 30 per cent Asian, but during Ramadan, a trader tells me, takings drop by more than that.

I have lunch with a local newspaperman in the West Riding, part of Dewsbury Station and the best pub in the country. Dewsbury is a mess, he says. He is not optimistic about its future. I ask him what’s wrong with it. I say it seems successful, as societies go, and particularly one with two different peoples trying to share the same town. He shakes his head. What’s wrong with Dewsbury? Race, political correctness, drugs. He’s got more than a hundred members of his family here. He’s well known, respected. But now he wants to leave.

The next day, over another pint, a local pharmacist says much the same thing. ‘There is a veneer of culture here,’ he says, ‘But underneath there’s criminality. A lot of it.’ I suppose I could have guessed that. My parents’ house has been burgled with increasing frequency. Recently, they’ve been finding used syringes in the garden. When I left Dewsbury, there was virtually no heroin. Now, there is as much as you need, and more. Dewsbury has more addicts than Huddersfield, and they are younger. A former heroin user says that 12-year-olds are on it now, and that even he finds that shocking.

The pharmacist supplies addicts with methadone, and he has seen their numbers increase. ‘When the Taliban released their stockpiles in the early 1990s, that’s when it started. Now, it’s £10 a bag. The kids who used to get blotto on alcohol now don’t bother – it’s cheaper to be on heroin.’ In Ravensthorpe, half a mile from Dewsbury, J., who runs a drop-in centre for addicts and their parents, is bringing up her grandchildren, because her son and daughter are both addicts. In the Victorian town hall one day, I go to the launch of the Luke & Marcus Trust, set up by two white middle-class women whose sons overdosed. A white-collar worker tells me her niece buys her two sons a bag each a day, rather than have them stealing to get it.

Still, prices are now so low that robberies have decreased. J.’s son, D., turns up and talks freely about his habit: he’s on methadone and hoping to come off it soon. He tells me that all those fireworks going off in all months and at all times of day, which I attributed to an odd fetish for daylight fireworks, signify that a shipment of heroin has arrived. He says that ten years ago, at the same time as the bedding industry kicked off, the heroin would arrive with cotton fibres embedded in it. I hear this rumour from plenty of non-drug-users, too. He says he’s not surprised my parents find syringes in their garden, because three of the biggest dealers live a couple of streets away. They are organised, he says, and competitive. They have laminated calling cards. One pair call themselves William and Harry. I am a bit dazed by this. Are those their real names? ‘No,’ D. says. ‘They’re Asian, aren’t they? Nearly all of them are.’

I ask one of the Asian councillors about it. ‘Young people in our community are involved in this terrible business,’ he says, uncomfortably. ‘We have a collective responsibility to be open about it.’ I ask the pharmacist about it. ‘I did a straw poll of my clients. Out of forty, only one didn’t have a dealer who was Asian.’ I ask the chief of police about it. ‘Absolutely not,’ he says. ‘Dealers are all sorts. You are totally, totally wrong.’ He frowns. ‘You’re coming at this from the race angle, aren’t you?’ He warns me not to ruin months, years, of careful community cohesion-building. He doesn’t say it, but I know that saying such things also plays into the hands of the BNP, who enjoy scaremongering about ‘Asian narco-terrorists’. (Nick Griffin said on his Heckmondwike trip that Asian women’s bones were crumbling under their burqas for lack of sunlight.)

‘You think I’m racist, don’t you?’ D. says, after telling me about young Asian lads he knows who drive Lexuses, but who have no obvious jobs. ‘I can see you’re thinking that. But it’s not about racism. I used to go on Rock against Racism marches. My best friend is an Asian lad called Bashir. It’s not the race, it’s this generation. They are full of hate. Now when I go to my doctor’s in Savile Town I get called a white bastard.’

J. has lived in Ravensthorpe for 33 years. ‘We never had any problems. We lived quite happily side by side. It’s not the community, it’s this generation. They call you goura – “white person”. I love it here,’ she says. ‘I did love it here.’ She says council funding is allotted unfairly. She says ‘indigenous whites’ feel neglected, and if they complain, they get called racist. ‘They spent millions on this area, but on one street of privately-owned houses. Not a single English-owned house.’

Such resentment may be unfounded, but it’s corrosive. Councillor Khizar Iqbal prides himself on not ignoring it, and on speaking publicly about the council’s culture of political correctness. ‘One perception,’ Iqbal says, ‘is that there is an unfair distribution of funding. That is not a fact. The council doesn’t spend millions on Asian estates and nothing on white ones. But it is too busy promoting black and Asian issues. We need that, but they also have a responsibility not to encourage these negative perceptions.’

In another council meeting, when regeneration money was voted for an overwhelmingly Asian estate, Iqbal said it created a damaging impression. ‘I was called a racist!’ he laughs. ‘But they applauded me.’ He is tired, he says, of the council reinforcing prejudices, for example, that Savile Town ‘is dole-dependent. We have doctors, businessmen, professionals. There are millionaires living here!’ He wants everyone – ‘black, Asian, white, whatever’ – to be dealt with on merit. ‘Things changed when the council started interfering,’ the Dewsbury Reporter’s Margaret Watson says. ‘Positive discrimination. People say Asians are the most deprived and all that but then there’s all this positive discrimination.’ This, she thinks, is the reason for most of those 5066 BNP votes. ‘You would not believe who voted BNP. People you’d never expect. They are so sick of everything. It was a protest vote.’ There were bigots in those five thousand, says the newspaperman, but most of it was giving two fingers to Kirklees Council, to Labour, to everything. Still, I think, there must be better ways to stick it to the establishment than voting for Holocaust-deniers. Even if it means the Liberal Democrats.

It’s all getting a bit dispiriting. I go for lunch at a large primary school, where the ‘ethnicity factor’, as Kirklees Council calls it, is 87 per cent. I get cheese quiche, something called tutti-frutti sponge pudding, and an education. ‘People think a high ethnicity factor means a lot of problems,’ the headteacher says. There are problems – children who have to struggle to learn English while they’re learning in English, seven-year-olds who are their parents’ translators – but less than you’d think. The headteacher’s previous school was a large inner-city one. ‘I was told to fuck off on my first day. By the parents. Here, I’ve never heard that. It’s the first place I’ve worked where parents ask me how I am, and actually want to know.’ He gives me a tour of the school, to prove that it’s a quiet, hardworking place. It is. I lose count of the bilingual support workers, mentors and learning assistants.

After the bombings, the Asian parents were shocked, the head teacher says. But he thought things had settled down, until three sets of white parents said they were moving their children elsewhere. He was surprised: the school has had good inspections, is well-rated and harmonious. There are no children sitting in assembly with their hands over their ears, as happens elsewhere. No one has chosen to exclude their children from assembly or RE lessons. Christmas is celebrated – though Jesus is referred to as a prophet, not the son of God – and so is Ramadan. Still, the three families turned up, somewhat embarrassed, and said their kids were transferring to St Paulinus, the local Catholic school. J. told me that her 14-strong family are all Protestants except her youngest. ‘She’s Catholic,’ J. says, as the girl saunters past. ‘So she can go to St Paulinus.’

It is perhaps ironic that Dewsbury’s historic icon is now used as a way to escape the town’s modern reality. I escape again too, in the end, despite a brief fantasy of buying a flat on the site of my Dad’s mill. The thought of living in the weaving shed, or in the rooms where I spent a summer folding scarves is compelling. But only for a moment.

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