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A Cockney Sikh

October 7, 2018
by Suresh Singh

Spitalfields Life Books will be publishing A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh in October. Here is the fifth instalment and further excerpts will follow over coming weeks.

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the story of his family who have lived in their house in Princelet St for nearly seventy years, longer I believe than any other family in Spitalfields. In the book, chapters of biography are alternated with a series of Sikh recipes by Jagir Kaur, Suresh’s wife.

You can support publication by pre-ordering a copy now, which will be signed by Suresh Singh and sent to you on publication.

Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St this summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

There was a lot of violence at Daneford School for Boys in Bethnal Green in the seventies. ‘Paki-bashing’ they called it. There were punch-ups in class, boys would bring bike chains to school to protect themselves and teachers got beaten up on a regular basis.

The years at Daneford were the scariest time of my life in England. When I was twelve I got my nose broken in Buxton Street in the shadow of the Truman Brewery. It was dark and there was a smell of hops in the air. I was cornered by five white National Front thugs of sixteen and seventeen years old. Two were skinheads in Harrington jackets and knee-high steel toe-capped Dr Martens bought on Cheshire Street. They saw me looking at their boots and said, ’What are you looking at?’ When I replied, ‘Nothing,’ they said, ‘You smell and you look like a Paki.’ One grabbed my arms from behind and the other punched me with his fist on my nose. They all laughed. I crumpled to the ground and they all kicked me before running away. I said nothing the whole time. Mum cleaned me up with Dettol and my cousin took me to Outpatients at the Royal London Hospital. We never reported the incident to the police.

It hurt Mum that her son had been attacked, and brought it home to her that we were in a foreign land where her son could be beaten up for the colour of his skin. She believed we had no choice but to continue working to make life better. She also knew that not all white people were racists.

The pain of that evil encounter will stay with me forever. The Sikhism I learned from Dad gave me the strength to protect myself physically and spiritually. I learned how to avoid violence. I worked out which routes to take and which not to take, and which times of the day it was safe. Sundays were the worst because that was when the National Front sold their newspapers at the top of Brick Lane.

My white mates would say, ‘Oh Singhy, you’re all right because you’re one of us.’ They adopted me, even though I came from Brick Lane where the Bengalis lived. I started to go to the pie and mash shop in Bethnal Green Road with them, but I did not like the way they treated my Brick Lane Bengali friends.

I could exist in both worlds because I was neither white nor Bengali. When the white kids said, ‘They can’t speak English properly,’ I thought, ‘It’s back-fired!’ My Bengali friends spoke in broken English, but there I was talking the Cockney lingo. The white boys would say to the Asians, ‘Go back to your own country’ and hit them – bang! I decided I could not accept this, I stood my ground and said, ‘I’m not go- ing to listen to you,’ but it was always, ‘We’ll leave you alone but we’ll beat this one up.’

I left Daneford School with one O Level in Art. I had a lovely art teacher, Christopher Price who ran an antiques stall in Camden Passage. We called him Chris. He used to dress well, smoke in class and tell us ghost stories to calm us down. I had to do a fifteen-hour painting for my O Level exam and Chris encouraged me to use colour like Matisse. Even though I did not like Matisse because I was looking at punk graphics, I took his advice because I knew it would get me a qualification. I may have moaned about it at the time but I enjoyed it too.

At Daneford, there were boys from many different cultures. My schoolmates were Isaac Julien and Mark Banks. We went to jumble sales together, a black kid, a white kid and an Asian kid. We were the best dressed boys in the school. We enjoyed the discourse with our Maoist, Socialist Worker Party, Christian Socialist and International Marxist teachers about politics, sexuality and music. Isaac and Mark became soul boys but I stayed a punk. I was the most rebellious of the three of us. My Sikhism made me fearless.

Me, Mark Banks & Isaac Julien, 1977 (Reproduced courtesy of Isaac Julien & Victoria Miro)

Suresh Singh will be in conversation with Stefan Dickers at the Write Idea Festival at the Whitechapel Idea Store on Saturday November 17th at 1pm. CLICK HERE TO BOOK A FREE TICKET

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Molasses permalink
    October 7, 2018

    70s and 80s were a time when getting beaten up for being non-white was common. It seemed almost like a norm, with school system also appearing to take it in stride. I used to avoid going out in the dark, especially weekends after 9PM close to pubs, the community centres, parks. Libraries were safer, although the NF were commonly found outside selling material. Similar were applied against gay, transgendered, travellers — we have come so far.

    I definitely don’t look back fondly at the past, accept perhaps the missed feeling of youth.

  2. October 7, 2018

    Good luck with the book! As kids we got chased and spit at for being Jewish. Valerie

  3. Claire permalink
    October 7, 2018

    Horrible and so sad that a gang of youths could physically attack a child , despicable. There is always danger where gangs are concerned, it is rooted in the purpose of the hunting pack which is what a gang is essentially. All credit and honour to Suresh for rising above what happened in every possible way.
    Thank you Gentle Author and Suresh and best wishes with the book.

  4. Kate permalink
    October 7, 2018

    Look forward to reading the book, the attack sickens me though

  5. Bob Land permalink
    October 11, 2018

    A very interesting story Suresh and one I can relate too. I grew up listening to and believing rascist rubbish. Even in the mid seventies I remember a racist friend telling his black pals that “it did not apply to them, they were o.k.”

    Around 1960 my parents had a pub in Brick Lane, the ‘Black Eagle Tap House’. You may remember it. It seems to be largely forgotten by local historians now. Many of the customers were Sikhs. I remember my sister sitting on the laps of some them. She thought they were Father Christmas’s. My Dad was a hard man to impress but he always had a good word for the Sikhs.

  6. October 13, 2018

    Facinating stories,I hope things have changed. Thank goodnes they stopped bashing teachers up by the time I taught at Daneford. Is that the same Julien Issac I knew from Kingsley Hall days?

  7. Greta Kelly permalink
    December 3, 2018

    Have just read the book in one sitting! Couldn’t put it down. I bought it for a Sikh friend. I am very happy with my choice. The story is compelling. The pictures are unique. The quality and layout exceptional.
    Congratulations to all involved.

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