The evening before our day trip, I’m having dinner with my friend Dom, who’s just moved to London, and I mention the project. “My Granddad worked in social housing in Aldershot. For the council,” he says. “Before you or me were born. So finding someone who knew him might be a long shot, but you could try if you like.”
Throughout our day in Aldershot, conversations overlap and connections emerge. Some conversations are planned, others just happen. The beginnings of a sense of place, its people and its past, start to form. At 5 pm, we present the project at the West End Centre to an audience of local housing officers, charity workers and community leaders. After the presentation, Lydia*, who works for Rutherford Council, tells us that the local authority no longer provides any social housing in the area. The housing which formerly belonged to the council has been transferred to housing associations: Dom’s Granddad’s job doesn’t exist any more, but there are others building and managing social housing – Heather, for example, who works for the local housing association First Wessex. She will introduce us to tenants’ and residents’ associations.
When we arrive at the West End Centre in the morning, Barney (our host, and the director of the centre) is busy, so we wait for him in the foyer, at a table and chairs painted by local artist Kazland.
(There’s also some crazy mural art in the Gents)
While we’re waiting, a woman in (what we later find out is) Nepalese dress comes up and starts chatting to us… in Nepalese. She apparently only knows five words of English – doctor, Nepal, sister, army, baby – which she uses liberally and, at times, interchangeably. We manage to establish that she is attending a traditional Nepalese dance and music session at the Arts Centre, that her husband is serving in the army, that she has two children back in Nepal, that Sophie and I are not married, that Sophie has no children (our acquaintance seems puzzled by this point and returns to it several times; eventually Sophie expostulates – “I’m only thirty”), that she does not speak English, and that we are all friends. Every thirty seconds or so, she lapses into peals of laughter. Barney arrives; we establish that he is not Sophie’s husband either, that we are all friends, and eventually she heads outside for a cigarette before going to her dance session.
At lunch time, I pop into the Grasshopper Delicatessen on Upper Union Street to buy some lunch.
It is clean and bright and the goods are attractively presented: Polish, British, French and German brands – rows of colourful tins and jars – neatly stacked with prices custom-printed on rectangular cards beneath them, fresh fruit and veg in baskets, a generously stocked cheese and sausage counter. If you have good sausage, the Polish will come, says Maria*, who is helping her mother who runs the shop. There aren’t many Polish people in Aldershot, “not like Hull”, but there are a few, and they are starting to come. I ask her whether she gets many Nepalese customers. Yes, they come in, they look at the spices, but they usually want to buy them in bulk. The M&S down the street is closing; she doesn’t want to compete with Lidl’s prices. But she is offering something else: the best international brands.
She reckons that as the town grows, business will pick up. “They’re going to build 20,000 new homes, and if we can get some of the overspill, we’ll do well.” That’s the plan. [I believe that, actually, planning permission has been given for just under 4,000 homes]. She gets me to taste the contents of some of the brightly-coloured jars (stews, conserves, confits). I come away with a jar of Polish veggie lentil thing, an apple, and a tin of smoked sprat, which I eat in the Westy foyer, much to Sophie’s dismay.
[can you change slightly? Sounds like I’m dismayed that you’re eating in a public place rather than eating sprat… which looked gross – Sophie]
Aldershot is a garrison town and a large number of Gurkhas are based there (the local Nepalese population has grown since veteran Gurkha soldiers and their families were allowed to settle in the UK in 2009). “There’s a problem of perception,” says Lydia*, who works for the council: there are lots of people in Aldershot who have been waiting for a home for a long time, and the perception is that “it’s the Nepalese who’ll get them”. “There are tensions,” says Alice*, who works for a mental health charity. Barney and Jennifer (who works at the “Westy”) have provided tea, cake and Celebrations. We talk with our guests from the council, from local charities and youth groups, from the Citizens Advice Bureau (the ones who came to our presentation), and we tell them more about the project, and they tell us more about Aldershot, and then it’s time to go home, and we catch a train back to London.
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity