Ala Uddin

Got into a lot of skirmishes with other youths

Interviewed on 9 March 2020
At Stepney Community Trust
By M Ahmedullah, Project Co-ordinator

My name is Alla Udin, and I was born in Sylhet, present-day Bangladesh, on 25 November 1971. I moved to the UK when I was an infant in 1975. In the winter of 1979, on 11 December, when I was eight years old, I came to live in Fieldgate Street in the East End. I remember celebrating my birthday in November.

I came with my father, who had been to the UK on and off since the early 1960s. My mum and some of my other siblings were in Bangladesh. My elder brother was here working and my teenage brother, Mueen, was studying at school. They both lived separately but were near to each other. My eldest brother lived in Settle Street and Mueen lived in Myrdle Street, where we stayed after arriving from Bangladesh.

An example of a bedroom in a house in Parfett Street. © Daniele Lamarche

My mum came with my younger sister, about three years after I came. I wanted to go to school, that’s why I came early. As I didn’t want to miss out on school, my father and I made the journey. So, at first, we stayed with our relatives, living at 1 Myrdle Street. He was my great-uncle who passed away several years ago. We would have our meals there and come back and sleep at 35 Myrdle Street.

I started school in January or February 1980 at Harry Gosling Primary. Then went to secondary school.

My younger sister, Nasima, must have been between four and six when she came. She was very young. I had to go pick them up at Aldgate Station because my mother made the journey using an airmail envelope address. She embarked on the plane in Sylhet, landed at Heathrow and showed people the address. They directed her and she made it all the way to Aldgate with my youngest sister.

The first few years of my life without my mum wasn’t too bad. We used to have our meals at my great-uncle’s place. It was easy for us to come back to our flat every evening. I was without mum for about three to four years.

At school, I used to have school meals during the day. Then, as I got older, I used to help prepare food for Abba [father] to eat when he came back from work at British Rail.
Initially, we didn’t even have a stove in our flat and had to borrow one. Then we started cooking at our neighbour’s place, who used to live in Romford Street and bring the food to our house to eat. And later, we got a stove, an electric one. That’s how we lived at that time.

When my mum came, I was about twelve years old. It wasn’t easy to bond again with mum after the separation. I was also the sixth child out of eight children. She had older children and, I suppose, they related more to her than myself. I used to look out for my younger siblings.

My parents had five other children before me and the two younger ones. We were all jammed in one room. My other sister was in there as well. She was married, but after getting a divorce she came back to us because of health issues. My parents allowed her to come.

I was trying to do my GCSEs with my mother, my sister and me sharing one room. There was about three of us in that room, and my sister, my father, my younger sister and brother shared another room. My brother Mueen had his own room at that time. Then, my older brother and his wife expanded to next door by breaking through. So, there was about nine of us in four rooms.

The property was in a very, very, very bad condition. The windows wouldn’t open because the curtain railings were broken, and the window had a hole in it. I suffered from asthma. I think the exhaust fumes from cars used to come through to the house. I suffered from Asma and often had a chest infection because of the cold. I suffered a lot then.
You know the East End is renowned for violence and being a hard place. I got into a lot of skirmishes with other youths. My wrists broke twice from fights. This happened once at school, and then, within a month, I got ambushed in another fight. I was trying to help my friend and they all jumped me at once.

This happened when I was about thirteen or fourteen while studying at secondary school. I couldn’t play the guitar afterwards, after my injury. I used to play the guitar at school and never brought the instrument home because there was not enough space. And, also, Abba wouldn’t approve of that, so I didn’t want to disappoint him. He was very religious and very spiritual.

We had a lot of fun – the youths of our generation – socialising and enjoying entertainment. There was a lot of young Bengali children at that time living around here. Because of all the bombings and the poor quality housing in the area, there were lots of squats and empty buildings.

Some of the bomb-damaged buildings were demolished, which created derelict sites where we used to play as children. We made camps and explored. Unlike today with its video games and things, in those days there was a lot more open space and outdoor activities.

There were also a few English kids around here playing on the derelict sites and open spaces. One English family that lived at 14 Myrdle Street was on the opposite side of us. They were known as the Smiths. We knew another called Andy Barker who lived in Settle Street. We used to play football and kicking around.

There were very few English people around here because it was so run down, and they didn’t want to live around here. Eventually, they all moved out within a few years after we moved in. By the time I was 11 or 12, Andy Barker and they decided to go to Barking. Because we had a large community here and there were a lot of us, we didn’t face much racism in the area.

When it came to school and when we interacted with members of the host community – the English or white kids – there was a lot of friction and fighting. The positive side to this was that the racist hostility we faced helped us develop a sense of community. This is still valued, within our generation anyway. It was a nice childhood. Overall, I’d say, 80% of it was happiness and about 20% was bad.

I saw a lot of businesses changing hands. All along there were fashionable clothes shops. Asıl Nadir was there, one time. He became a multi-millionaire, now worth 140 million. He was a Cypriot who ran a bridal shop on New Road. I was about ten then.
It was very fashionable to shop in those fashion outlets, they were very trendy. The whole area around here used to be full of garments factories. A lot of people worked in the garments trade, which included cottage industries and people working at home.

Initially, everybody used to work in a factory because there was no electricity or facilities at home to work on sewing machines. But later, the women joined in and started working at home. People used to come around and deliver piecework and drop off garments for sewing.

Most people used to do lining of jackets for leather garments and coats. They would come and drop off the cut pieces and pick up the finished items. That’s how women got involved in the garments industry. The demand was so huge, even our family, my sister, used to do sewing at home. My mum did some sewing to get me my first bike. It was a red BMX, which I used to go around. We had a lot of fun and I have a lot of happy, sunny memories.

I knew I didn’t want to be in a factory at an early age and wanted to do well in school, despite the lack of environment and facilities and everything else that was stacked against getting an education. I wanted to get a degree or whatever because I knew, which I heard from my uncles, how important education was to avoid working in the factory.
My father was educated so he could have done much better, but he wanted to be within the community. He could have done well for himself.

I wanted to get a degree. I knew I wanted to do economics or whatever because I wanted to be rich. I wanted to work in the city and so economics was going to get me there. That’s why I studied economics.

I used to come to 46 Myrdle Street, which used to be owned by a great-uncle. They used to live upstairs and later sold it to St Mary’s Centre. That’s how this became a community centre, called St Marys Centre. From here you could see the Natwest Tower those days. That’s what I was focused on, you know, towards that [Natwest Tower] was my goal.
My older and younger brothers both studied computer science and they are doing well. But I got let down because of the lack of good housing. I performed poorly at GCSE. This was because we were still living in a squat in 1987 when I was due to take my GCSEs. Because of the lack of good housing, I had little choice – what I was going to do at A’ Level or afterwards. I could have re-sat them all, but I didn’t want to waste a year. I managed to undertake a B-Tec National, which was equivalent to two A’ Levels, in business. As I studied science at school, I thought I would focus on business, which would provide me with a better knowledge base to achieve my dream. After that, I went to study for a degree course at Greenwich.

We moved into a squatted property in the first instance. Many years later, I met Joe, who was working in Curries, an electrical store in Mile End. He said he used to like breaking the doors of empty houses for people to squat. In those days, he used to make money out of that. That’s a bit of a general story.

The first thing I remember when I came in December ‘79 was that the roads were two-way streets, which later became one-way. I remember all the drunks strewn in front of Tower House because that’s where all the bosses used to go, like, you know, hibernate and sleep it off. So, there was a lot of them, and I felt sorry for these people. I remember broken glasses on the floor, and one had to be careful. Smashed alcohol and whiskey bottles all over the place. The alcoholic thing was an important feature of the area and one had to tread carefully to avoid the danger of being falling on broken glasses.

As a young child, I knew that I was living in a squat. In 1981, we went to Bradford to visit my Uncle who was living there. I think we passed through Harrogate in Leeds. In those days, I saw electric advertising and signs changing, which was quite a contrast from where we lived in London. Harrogate was the richest part of Leeds. I knew we were living in a squat because the control of the property went from the GLC to Samuel Lewis and then Southern Housing, and so on.

The property had two rooms and a kitchen. There was a sink with a square sink basin, which is now fashionable in many properties, but at that time it was not in fashion. There was a toilet, which we converted into a shower and had it plastered. Baba had a shower put in, had it plumbed and everything else so that we can have showers. There was no bath. We just went to the public baths in Whitechapel and Aldgate.

That was before mum and sister came along. We had baths next door when our neighbours moved out. They were Chinese. We knocked the properties together and there was a bathtub next door. My older brother and his wife lived there, along with my middle brother. At night, most of us lived in the two rooms at number 35 Myrdle Street. They lived in number 36.

I don’t exactly remember what happened. But when we used to bang on the door, they were never there and one day we realised that they finally left. At one time, when we went inside after they left, we found suitcases full of clothes and other things. There were a lot of flares, you know, it was the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. I think they were from Hong Kong, and they never seemed to manage life here well. We never met or knew them. Only on one or two occasions, we sensed that they were there, but they were very discreet. I don’t remember exactly what happened to them. We put together, numbers 35 and 36 Myrdle Street by knocking through the passage door. My brother moved from Settle Street, then he got married and he lived here with his wife.

It was so freezing living there. I had to leave the property and try and find somewhere else to go to get some heat. It was so cold. I’d go to my neighbours or my uncle’s. It was so freezing, I tried finding some warmth in many places, like, for example, sitting in a shop. But sometimes we had heating from paraffin heaters. I don’t think the gas heater ever worked. Paraffin carts used to come once or twice a week and they used to sell paraffin in jugs.

The first flat that we were in was painted red. The rooms were painted red and the windows never opened. All the time that we were there, we never managed to open the window. There was a hole in the window and the curtain rails were broken. The curtains were greeny and heavy drapes. You know we used to cover the window with a cloth. We could never open the windows in the front room.

At the back, there were no windows. You could open the back door and go to the back of the house, but it was full of open drains. Open drainpipes leading off to the yard, which was like a concrete surface. In the second property, we eventually put on wallpapers. My father bought wallpapers with an image of a man, but then he painted it with green paint. He didn’t want the images of the man on the wall because he didn’t want any kind of idol worship, which he instilled in us.

By the time my brother moved next door, I think there was a cooker or something that allowed us to cook. I don’t remember exactly what it was like because I didn’t pay much attention. All I wanted to do was to escape from the place, it was horrible.

My mum used to cook. Two of my sisters lived with us, and one of them was divorced, they used to cook. My sister-in-law also cooked occasionally while minding her children. The women took turns to cook, I think. That was before we moved. I used to do what I used to do. As I mentioned earlier, I used to prepare rice and things for Abba to eat when he came back from work. I was around ten years old then.

My mum and sisters worked at home when we moved to Romford Street. We were no longer squatting. We had been housed. We had two machines. They worked on lining and sewing belts – you know, finishing off belts and things like that.

We used to go and play in the car park, which was part of the hospital. That location has been rebuilt. It is no longer recognisable. It could easily fit 30 cars but on weekends the cars wouldn’t be there. So, we would go there to play football, which was a significant part of my upbringing.

We also played hide and seek, hanged out, climbed the hospital properties and the car park. We also picked blackberries during the summer. During the winters we mostly stayed indoors, or at the YMO (Young Muslim Organisation), at 54 Fieldgate Street, where we played table tennis, carrom board and other board games. They helped me a lot.
You know, although people took divergent paths in their lives, everybody reverted to that core belief that had been instilled in them, and their upbringing, YMO and so on. The last time I saw some of the people they were no longer with the YMO. Everybody’s hair had turned silver.

There were fruit trees around the area but now the places where fruit trees grew have been built on. We used to go looking for fruit picking, to pick fruit and things like that. But usually, we’d just want to go rambling and things like that, as children do.

There were some projects, which I came across. At number eighty-two or eighty-three there was a young Bangladeshi lady, called Miss Angie, and she used to take us during the summer holidays to a playground in Hackney. I used to go play around with other kids and we all used to go there to play. There were day trips to the seaside as well. We went to Walton-on-the-Naze, where we used to have things like treasure hunts. We had to find treasures, which was very fun.

There were many dumps around the area overgrown with plants and trees. Wherever there were bushes, there were usually blackberries and other things, like nettles. We used to go to these places to pick blackberries. We never took any home to wash or add salt or anything like that. We just used to pick and eat them. Some people used to tell us not to have them.

There was one guy, who was always drunk, named Paddy. He used to drink and be racially abusive to all the Indians around in the area. He used to keep telling everyone: ‘Don’t want you’ and ‘Go home’, and ‘What’re you doing here?’ things like that. It was very foul and there was no way of reaching him. He used to live in Tower House, and many years later they found him dead somewhere in the Docklands. He was probably the most significant racial abuser. I personally got mugged once.

I think living in the East End, as you grow up, you start to feel like an East Ender. I think everyone else also felt like that. There were different forms of racism, which were more, I would say, in outer areas of Tower Hamlets. As the community grew and Bangladeshi people moved to other location in the borough, they started to have more nasty neighbours and things like that. Personally, because I’ve lived in this area so long and there’s been a large Bangladeshi community, my experience of racism has been limited.
Our property was taken over by Samuel Lewis Housing Trust from the GLC. They were a charitable trust, and then after a few years Southern Housing took over, that’s what happened.

I hear Soyful Alom and others were trying to get their house in Parfett Street refurbished and assume that’s what Sylhet Housing Co-Op did. The St Marys Centre got started and I remember them coming to see us in Myrdle Street, which I think must have been around 1987 or something. They told us about the project. My father brought them into the front room. I was so ashamed for them to see our house in that condition, you know, such an unfit place to live. I complained to my father why he brought them in, which wasn’t fit for human habitation. He said you have to live among the community and that everybody else was living like that.

Fieldgate Mansions in Romford Street. Now (abobe), before(below)

© David Hoffman

The property in Romford Street was quite a contrast because they gave us a purpose-built maisonette. One of my sisters came to the UK in 1987 they didn’t accommodate her. I had become 16 and almost a legal adult. My older siblings had grown up. So, they gave us a four-bedroom House for nine of us. It was still overcrowded but the environment was clean, and the surrounding made us feel like we were human again. I said to baba that this is what we should have deserved as we were educated. But he was religious so he didn’t want to outdo each other. Religion played a big part in our lives, at least, in his life anyway.

Before moving to the four bedrooms maisonette in Romford Street I lived eight years as a squatter.

The thing is education, the lack of being able to, because I had to go all the way to Stepney and Aldgate and walk there every day. Nowadays, there’s a school run, and people take their children to school. There was none of that for me and I had to walk all the way over. So, the first year in school was a bit patchy and that’s what I regret sometimes but other than that life is such, isn’t it?