Brent in Context

 Posted On 08 July 2019

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8 things everyone needs to know about this borough.

Brent has lots of transport.
Traffic, rattling carriages, barges, motorcycles. In Brent, the Grand Union Canal crosses the River Brent, the North Circular starts to attach to the M1 and one day Crossrail will interchange with HS2. The borough has 21 tube stations - more than any other London borough, save Westminster. The eastern edge of Brent is bordered by the A5 - part of an ancient trackway which runs from Dover to Holyhead on the Irish Sea. The largest depot for the London Underground is located at Neasden. Routemaster buses were built in Park Royal.

Brent is a borough of migrants.
On most measures the borough has been one of London’s longest running experiments in mixed community. Here people from different religions, countries and cultures have found a way to share schools, playgrounds and streets, making a life together. The borough is most noticeably a centre of Caribbean, Irish and Gujarati culture, but in total there are 147 languages spoken - each with an associated community.

Brent has space for big things.
100 years ago, large parts of the Borough were still fields - this left space for things that wouldn’t quite fit in to the centre of London. The Gaumont State on Kilburn High Road was once the biggest cinema in Europe. Neasden Temple is the biggest in Europe today. Wembley is the biggest football stadium in the country, The Ace Cafe is the biggest biker cafe. If the money hadn’t run out in 1899, Wembley would have been the location of what would have then been the world’s tallest tower. Europe’s biggest biscuit factory is in Harlesden.

Brent makes outsider culture.
People in Brent are not at the centre of power. 33% of the Brent’s households live in poverty. Culture has always had to struggle against prejudice, racism and wider-confusion. Raheem Sterling is one in a long line of black footballers from the borough who have had to counter or ignore racism and prejudice: Cyrille Regis and Luther Blissett were both from Willesden - Ian Wright lives there now. From Keith Moon to Zadie Smith, from Charlie Watts to Stuart Pearce, from George Michael to Riz Ahmed, to Bradley Wiggins, Lady Sovereign and the rapper Nines - for the last forty years Brent has moulded people who have broken the other moulds.

Brent is the borough of Jayaben Desai.
Brent has only been a borough for 50 or so years. If there was a list of important people from this period, Jayaben Desai (1933-2010) would top it. She lead a strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in Dollis Hill about working conditions, unequal pay, union representation and racism between 1976-78. Jack Dromey MP (from Kilburn, the son of Irish migrants) also played a key role. The strike was defeated and Desai never got her job back - but the event is widely remembered in the labour movement as the point at which the interests of migrants became the interests of all workers and unions. The Grunwick strikes were a national political and cultural moment, played out in film, tv and newsprint - politicians and historians have used them to justify and explain how Britain changed in the decades afterwards. Today Desai has become an iconic figure for feminists, anti-racists and all those concerned with social justice and is frequently included in lists of Britain’s greatest women.

Brent is the home of Euro 2020 - and it could be special.
The year 2020 will be Britain’s first outside the EU, and it will also be the year that Wembley hosts the UEFA European Football Championships - a tournament that Gareth Southgate’s youthful, exuberant team, inspired by the borough’s most famous son, Raheem Sterling, has a genuine chance of winning. The eyes of the capital will be ready to look at the borough and see something hopeful. The country will look to the football team and to Brent, to see something that can give us hope.

Brent brought reggae to Britain.
From the late 60s to the 90s, Brent was a centre for the record industry - much of this came from the movement of people and culture between the borough and the Caribbean. Chris Blackwell came from Jamaica to form Island Records in Kilburn in 1962, Bob Marley lived in the borough in the early 1970s and Trojan Records were based in Neasden until the 1980s. Jet Star distributed music from the Carribean from a warehouse in Harlesden for 30 years. Trojan’s ska releases were much loved by the original skinheads - the UK’s first black/white subculture. Although in the 80s skinhead became a bi-word for ‘racist’ originally the skinhead style was a shared expression of black and white working class kids in urban areas.

Borough of snack and sweets.
Smiths Crisps were first processed in Cricklewood. Wrigley’s chewing gum was made in Wembley. Heinz used to can soup and beans in Harlesden, McVities still make biscuits there today!

Further reading, watching, listening

Kilburn State 1937 - 2007 - Anna Bowman
Short film about the Gaumont State Cinema on Kilburn High Road

50 years of Trojan Records Playlist
Playlist of classic reggae and ska tracks released by Trojan records since 1968

A london Safari adventures in NW10 - Rose Rouse
Interviews with notable local people from Harlesden area

White Teeth - Zadie Smith
Classic debut novel by NW fixated author

The Road - A story of life and death - Marc Isaacs
A documentary about migration and the Kilburn High Road

40 ‘modern’ buildings in Brent
As gathered by modernism in Metroland

Raheem Sterling says media narratives fuel racism

Vice feature about moped sub-culture and enduring relevance of The Ace Cafe

Jayaben Desai’s Obituary in the Guardian

Londonist visits McVities in Harlesden - watch