First memory of Greenford, Middlesex: September, 1967. The beginning of a new school year. I’m a four-year-old in Mrs. Lord’s class. She’s a kind woman with a gentle voice and frequent smile, a dark “fringe” bordering her white forehead, and the rest of her short hair pulled back into a little ponytail. She has gathered us in a sitting circle around her chair as we share our “News.” I have not shared any news yet—but once I begin sharing, it will always be the same news: that I have an older sister in Pakistan (my aunt Anjum’s daughter Naghmi). I am a quiet child, still feeling my way around the contours of the English language. But I understand well enough when the freckled girl with strawberry-blond hair sitting next to me scrunches her nose in a grimace of revulsion and hisses: “Blackie. You’re wearing boys’ shoes.”
In 1967, my uncle Ilyas, whom we called “Chotepapa”—Little Papa—and aunt Talat (“Khalammi” or Auntie-Mommy) bought a small, semi-detached house at 13 Long Drive, Greenford, and all seven of us—Chotepapa, Khalammi, and their baby daughter Rubina, as well as my parents, my younger brother Amir, and I—moved into it from urban Shepherd’s Bush. (Within five years we’d be joined by Rubina’s little brother Azfar and my baby sister Sadia.) Eleven or twelve miles northwest of London, Greenford wasn’t quite Surrey or Richmond, but it was considered a posh enough suburb that various commercial vans parked on Long Drive every week, bringing their groceries to our neighborhood to sell. To the northeast, Long Drive hiccupped into Hill Rise, making its undulating way toward Oldfield Lane North, where the red double-decker buses parked outside the Greenford tube station. Across the street from the tube station was our “Post-Office Park,” with its rocket-shaped ride and spinning swing. And a little beyond it stood the J. Lyons and Co. factory, a giant of the British food industry, about to begin its precipitous decline. To the east of Long Drive lay Birkbeck Avenue, which led to our schools, Oldfield and Coston, at the southern end of Oldfield Lane North. We Najmis were the first “coloreds” to move into the Long Drive–Hill Rise neighborhood.
If you stood facing 13 Long Drive, you’d see the stucco exterior, a brown that goes out of its way to be gloomy. (In later years Chotepapa would paint it a turquoise blue that buoyed the spirits of all the houses on Long Drive.) To the left, you’d see the drawing room’s rectangular bay window, divided into narrow panels, Chotepapa and Khalammi’s bedroom window above it, and the smaller window of the “box room” that Amir and I shared parallel to it on the right. My parents’ bedroom, also located upstairs, wouldn’t be visible because it looked out onto the backyard, as did our one bathroom (separate from our one toilet) adjacent to it. All our windows had the same slate-blue trim as the front door, and all the doors on the odd-numbered side of Long Drive shared the same design: vertical panels, topped with eight little frames of opaque glass, and those glass squares softened with a curvy line in the wood above them. (The even-numbered side of Long Drive had front doors outlined in red triangles.) A door both idiosyncratic and the suburban norm. The slate blue of our front door had a brass “13” affixed to it, right above the slot through which the postman slipped the longed-for blue “air letters” from Pakistan.
You’d see, if you looked, that Long Drive dwellers all inherited the same basic front yard: a concrete square with patches of planter beds in each corner and one in the center. (This was before John the Scotsman has enlivened number 13’s ground with pink-toned crazy paving, we children forming an eager circle around him.) If you lingered until the spring, you’d witness our front yard’s precious period of beauty, when snowbells, snapdragons, pansies, and pastel roses filled it with color and fragrance. See the meticulously crafted snowbells, looking as though they are about to tinkle out a tune? And here, the children’s biggest favorite: snapdragons, in vivid color combinations! We called them “rabbit flowers” and pressed our little thumbs and index fingers strategically on either side of the rabbit’s jaw to make it open and close. We had some absorbing rabbit conversations this way.
If you entered through number 13’s front door, you’d find the white banister and carpeted staircase to your right, both of which often served as our playgrounds. To your left would be the drawing and dining rooms. The bay window of the drawing room would beckon—you could sit on the ledge if you were small enough and observe the world going by. In our family album, there’s a photograph of the five Najmi children sitting on the couch in front of that window, the silhouetted trees on the rust-colored curtains forming the backdrop. We’re celebrating Sadia’s second birthday in 1973, none of us having arrived at double digits yet. Everyone looks cheerily focused on the cake or the camera—except for Rubina and me, perched at opposite ends of the couch on its wooden arms, sticking our tongues out at each other, eyes closed. We had been quarreling over ownership of the decorations, though in this picture, Rubina has acquired the coveted paper lace circling the cake and tied it stylishly around her face with a little bow on the top of her head, while I have transported a big, red, plastic flower from one of Sadia’s gift boxes to my own head.
Straight across from the front door, at the opposite end of the narrow hallway, lay the kitchen. It was small, like all the other rooms, but white and bright and warm. The mothers made curries on the stove and used the door of the pantry, which opened vertically, as a space to roll out their chapatis. Against the kitchen’s left wall was a narrow, white counter with a few stools squeezed under it for the children. In our rushed mornings before school, Chotepapa served us Weetabix, “8-till-1” muesli, or—Rubina’s untiring favorite—Ready Brek, the porridge that made us all feel like Goldilocks. In later years, Amir and I would be walking home from Coston on an October day, the light already dimming as we kicked our way through the rustling leaves on the pavement. By the time we got home, we’d be cold and ravenous, but we could already smell the warm, buttered toast that Khalammi—the only parent at home to greet us—would have ready on the stove’s overhead grill.
The kitchen door led to the backyard, and as you stepped out, immediately to your right you would see another door, part of the dark wooden fence which opened into the alley that separated us from number 15. On days when the garbage was collected, one of our grownups would take the big dustbins out through that door. The backyard was two long strips of lawn with a narrow concrete path running down the middle, leading to the garage in the back. I loved its symmetry. For Rubina’s third birthday, we’d all acquire a swing on the left lawn, adjacent to Mr. and Mrs. Brown’s backyard. The garage looked like a little house itself: a brick building with a narrow front door and two little windows on either side of the door, edged in that same slate blue. It opens into the alley, but since Chotepapa parked his Morris Minor (later traded in for a Ford Cortina) on the street, the garage served as a tool-haven instead. For us children, it afforded a good shelter when we played hide-and-seek, and it was a place dark and undefined enough to be molded according to the needs of our imaginations.
We exchanged few words with the Browns, a couple with two invisible teenage sons. Our parents worried that we were too noisy for the staid English couple, but there was nothing to be done about that. I was fascinated when on summer days Mrs. Brown, a youthful forty-year-old, chose to sunbathe in her backyard. She’d lie perfectly still on her stomach, dead to the world, like a blond Sleeping Beauty in a bikini, whose smooth bronze back had been released from its bra strap while she awaited her prince. Mrs. Brown struck me as the most glamorous woman in Greenford. I tried to get a peek at her breasts from this angle and that, wondering if I’d grow a couple of those some day. My mother and aunt weren’t likely to oblige my curiosity by lying outdoors in bra and underwear.
Next door to the Browns, toward Birkbeck Avenue, lived the MacNamaras, with their five children. They were a lively Irish family and seemed more like us than anyone else we know on Long Drive. The father had a regular job and sometimes also cleaned his neighbors’ windows on Long Drive. The mother worked the night shift in a factory. Ammi and Khalammi exchanged greetings with her from their backyards. Sometimes while Khalammi was hanging the washing out to dry, Mrs. MacNamara shared her anticolonialist, anti-English sentiments with her across the pointy red hats of Mrs. Brown’s ceramic gnomes. Her children—Christine, Sean, and Denise—were young enough to be our playmates, but we didn’t see them every day because they went to a Roman Catholic school. They seemed to accept the fact that whenever their dad drank, there would be trouble at home. Though our parents didn’t allow us to go over to their house, they welcomed the MacNamara children to come and play with us, especially in the summer. On those summer days, we’d sometimes throw a sheet over the swing to make a “wigwam” and use the seat as a table around which to gather for our powwow. Linda, who lived across the street in the apartments bordering Hill Rise—oh, how I envied her the communal building with its black, wrought-iron stairways on either side!—often joined us.
We didn’t know any children to the south of our house. Ron’s corner shop was our big attraction there, the only commercial entity in our residential area. The small store with its essentials and chocolate treats was part of his home. When I returned to visit Greenford a lifetime later, as an eighteen-year-old, Ron was still there, and from his corner shop, I was able to buy the perfect card for Sadia’s tenth birthday: one with a picture of the Swedish pop group Abba on the cover.
What Khalammi remembers about the southern end of Long Drive is the neighbor a couple of doors down from us. An elderly woman, she would spend the whole day in the bay window of her living room. When Khalammi worked at Oakshots, she would pass by the woman’s window, look into it, and wave. Sometimes the woman would wave at Khalammi first. It was a small, essential ritual. Then one day, the elderly neighbor no longer appeared in the bay window, and the milk bottles delivered to her door each morning accumulated.
For decades, J. Lyons and Co. was Greenford’s biggest employer, and, at its height, also the biggest food empire in the world. After World War I, when the company chose Greenford for its expansion, it gave the town’s population, which had dwindled since the late nineteenth century, a lifeline. Its location on the Grand Union Canal was strategic, with easy connections to and from the London docks. By the early 1920s, Greenford already afforded the company access to central London and to the West Midlands on the Great Western Railway. The development of Western Avenue had begun, and even the Underground was inching its way toward Greenford, having reached Acton, four miles away. (Greenford’s tube station didn’t open until June 1947, a couple of months before the British Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.) The strategic expansion proved immensely successful for J. Lyons and Co. In the 1920s, the Greenford factory’s industrial preeminence was such that King George V and Queen Mary visited it on multiple occasions.
Before Lyons came to Greenford in 1921, it had already had a vibrant existence for over thirty years, catering such events as the Buckingham Palace garden tea parties and the Wimbledon tennis championships. Its white-and-gold tea houses promised quality at a reasonable price throughout London and its suburbs, and would thrive for almost ninety years, until 1981.
With the Greenford expansion, the company diversified into tea and coffee processing, and the manufacture of all kinds of foods, including confectionary, baked goods, ice cream, and cereal. Indeed, Rubina’s Ready Brek was invented right there in Greenford. After World War II, J. Lyons and Co. diversified the British palate with frozen foods. It licensed the American Wimpy hamburger brand name for use in Britain, establishing a hugely successful fast-food chain, the first of its kind in the country. In 1973, Lyons acquired the booming American ice-cream chain Baskin-Robbins. Even as late as 1990, after the company’s merger with Allied Breweries, Allied-Lyons bought the world’s largest doughnut and coffee chain, US-based Dunkin’ Donuts. It seems Britain and the US, outgoing and incoming world powers of the twentieth century, still angled for dominance in the food industry long after the British empire had crumbled.
Breadth of food production aside, J. Lyons and Co. employed state-of-the-art technology in its manufacturing process. It built, operated, and sold the world’s first office computer: LEO, or Lyons Electronic Office. One final highlight on the company’s postwar pages: Margaret Thatcher, after graduating from Oxford with a degree in Chemistry, worked in a Lyons food laboratory, researching ways to make ice cream airier and easier to scoop. (Then, while I was at Coston and she was Secretary of State for Education and Science, she canceled funding for the free one-third pint of milk for schoolchildren over seven years old, inspiring the nationwide chant: “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher!”)
As I write this, I am gazing at black and white stills of a video posted on the web page of British Pathé. The images depict a cold day in 1928 when the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, visited the Lyons factory in Greenford. The incongruities occlude my sense of reality. Those roads and pavements on which a crowd awaits the Prince are Greenford, where my first consciousness is grounded. The overcoats that bundle up the men, including Edward VIII, look just like my father’s dark gray winter coat, which I never saw him wear outside of his English life. Yet the cars and vans are from another time, as are the Girl Guides with whom the Prince shakes hands, and the workers—mainly women—waving goodbye with eager, open faces as the royal car leaves the factory. They wear long gowns and white caps. I imagine them returning to this day in 1928 ever after, for the memory and the story: a day when a true-blue prince came into their lives, curious about what they did on their feet, how they spent their long hours every day, how they processed and packaged tea—his royal fingers even touching some of the packages and helping them along. “Some housewives will buy packets of tea which the Prince of Wales has helped to make,” one title card comments.
It’s always about the tea. After all, tea is the world’s most consumed drink, after water. Chai: South Asia’s elixir. Many a student on the Indian subcontinent has relied on it to fuel exam-season all-nighters. Even class divisions blur a little where love of tea converges, the separate and unequal cups notwithstanding. My mother and aunt’s side of the family, the Balkhis, especially loved their tea. Strong, black chai, creamy and sweetened, heightened that mystic strain which in family lore began with the eighth-century Sufi saint Ibrahim bin Adham. In 1838, this Balkhi ancestor was introduced to English literature by the Romantic poet Leigh Hunt, who identified with “Abou Ben Adhem” enough to have a line from the poem serve as his epitaph. The Balkhis’ Sufi strain emerges again in thirteenth-century Rumi and, apparently, still runs like an unworldly current through his descendants in South Asia. What tea could do for their imaginations and memory!
I see my still-young grandfather and his teenaged daughter Talat lifting teacups to their lips while ghazals pour out of them in their Saidpur garden. Amma, an honorary Balkhi by virtue of her wifely devotion to my grandfather, who learned to live with so little, permitted herself this one indulgence besides memoir-writing.
You see why South Asians are perceived as garrulous: it’s the chai that makes us so. Chai has an intimate relationship to words. It unwinds our tightest emotional coils, coaxes us out of our bundled-up individualities into the shared, open spaces of the communal. Fired with memory and imagination, this chai-inspired propensity for words yields poems and stories. (And yes, a cup of hot tea with cardamom keeps me company as I write this.) Let it be said: South Asians measure the quality of human exchanges, the quality of creation, by the teacup.
That the story of chai should be so inextricably linked to South Asia’s colonization, then, might be one of history’s wryest ironies. At first, the British East India Company, fortified by an army of its own, grew opium on Indian lands—at the cost of food and cotton—in order to trade with China for tea. But by the nineteenth century, tea cultivation in Assam, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) had become a staple of full-fledged empire. So when I look at the stills of Prince Edward’s visit to the Lyons factory in 1928, I am seeing tea leaves from India and other British colonies (including Nyasaland/Malawi, to which Khalammi and Chotepapa’s family would move in 1975) arrive in Greenford for processing. The barges that carried the tea sailed from the London docks to the factory’s Custom House on the Grand Union Canal. At Lyons, the tea was inspected, blended, packaged, and distributed. But many brown hands—mostly women’s—picked the tea leaves with deft fingers before Prince Edward ever touched a package in Greenford.
As I click on the Lyons factory stills, one after the other, another incongruity: my eyes search among the workers for an image of my mother. But she hadn’t even been born yet. In another forty years, she’d be there at Lyons, a woman in her mid-twenties, wearing the yellow factory gown, a white muslin kerchief tied over her head in such a way that it resembled a princess’s crown. She’d be the only one-handed worker in the coffee-packing department, her left hand having shriveled up long ago, before Pakistan’s birth, when as a toddler she dipped her fist into a giant pot of steaming tea—tea!—in Patna, India.
In 1967, she would stand among other women in the Lyons assembly line, eight hours a day, focusing all her mental energy on grabbing the glass jars full of coffee beans as fast as she could, pulling them off the conveyor belt and into cardboard boxes for another group of women to wrap in plastic. One false move and the glass jars would smash. She’d be responsible for the waste and the mess, and worse yet, for disrupting her coworkers’ similarly focused missions. The forewoman issued her a warning during her first week: one hand or two, if she wasn’t able to keep up with the other women, she’d have to go. My mother, equipped with a master’s degree from Karachi University but with few options in this alien land, challenged her one good hand beyond its known physical limits. And she kept her job.
Between eight o’clock in the morning and five in the evening, my mother had forty-five minutes for lunch. Instead of getting off her feet, Ammi ran all the way home in her white kerchief—past the tube station on Oldfield Lane North, up Hill Rise, down to 13 Long Drive. Her two-year-old son would already be sitting in the bay window, waiting impatiently for the fifteen minutes they would spend together before she ran again, all the way back to the Lyons factory, before her forty-five minutes were up.
During this time, my father and aunt were at home with Amir and Rubina, while I was at Oldfield Infants’ School, in Mrs. Lord’s class. My father was writing his master’s thesis in physics, though he would have liked to be working on a doctorate. He already had a master’s of science from Karachi University—in fact, he had an appointment as lecturer at Urdu Science College in Karachi and was officially on a four-year leave from there—but with a family to support, a PhD requiring at least six years to complete was impractical. Abbu let the doctorate dream go and opted for a second master’s degree instead; after all, a British M.Sc. carries more prestige than a Pakistani one and would serve him well upon his return to Urdu Science College. So he enrolled in Chelsea College of Science and Technology, whose degrees are awarded by London University. Until the thesis-writing, he took classes in the evenings and worked during the day. That is, once he found work.
“Two things go against you, Mr. Najmi,” a sympathetic official at the employment agency told Abbu. “One is that you’re highly qualified. The other is that you’re colored.”
A memory that still prickles Abbu, now eighty years old, centers on his application for a position in the state-owned telephone department. He knew he had scored 100% on the math test and that his grammar was solid enough to have served him well on the English test as well. There remained only the reading test. Abbu read aloud the full page given to him. At the end of the application process, the woman who appeared to be the chief evaluator told him, “We’re sorry to have to reject your application for the job. You see, there was one word on the page you read for us that you pronounced in such a way that we couldn’t understand.”
I’m on the phone with Abbu, my Sunday morning call from California to Karachi. He mulls over the word, pronounced or mispronounced almost a half-century ago.
“That word was ‘river.’ Maybe I said ‘reever,’ or maybe I pronounced the final ‘r’ instead of saying ‘rivuh.’ But how incoherent could I have been?” he asks, his voice crackling with the memory of the humiliation.
On that day, my thirty-something father, dignified and restrained, fired back, “Your prejudice is so pronounced that nobody can miss it. I’m very sure that no other applicant did as well on those tests, and yet you deny me the job based on this one-word excuse.”
The woman seemed sorry. “I apologize on my own behalf as well as the Telephone Department’s,” she said. And so saying, she walked him out of the office, all the way to the elevator.
Eventually, Abbu found a job as file clerk in an insurance company. It paid about ten pounds a week, of which two or three pounds went toward the tube fare from Greenford to Holborn. “I might as well have sat at home and collected unemployment,” he says. “It would have been as much as six or seven pounds a week. And I would have qualified because I had a family to support.”
“Why didn’t you apply for it, Abbu? You could have studied full-time for a while and maybe gotten that PhD.”
“And eat for free?” he asks, incredulous.
After his regular workday was over, my father would do overtime until it was time for his evening class at Chelsea College or for the Spoken English Course for Overseas Graduates he was now taking, sponsored by the Inner London Education Authority. He enjoyed the spoken-English class. At the end of it, he was one of only two students out of the fifteen or sixteen to be appointed as a supply (or substitute) teacher by ILEA.
“The truth is that most of us who arrived in England from India, Pakistan, or the West Indies needed time to tone down our accents,” Abbu tells me. “It’s one thing to teach at the college level. But we were applying to teach at high schools in the inner city. How could we have engaged those young people with our thick accents?”
Abbu’s Pakistani accent seems not to have mattered to his high-school students. On the phone with me, he recalls in vivid detail the moments that made his supply teaching a gratifying experience.
“Hurlingham Girls’ School—that was my best teaching time in England,” says my father.
Hurlingham Girls’ was a comprehensive school, with some 2500 students and a hundred or so teachers. Every day, some number of teachers wouldn’t show up to take attendance, and the deputy headmistress, Mrs. Gascoign, would have to be in several places at once. Luckily, my father was always there early to help her out.
“You know what she told me one day?” Abbu says on the phone. “She said, ‘Mr. Najmi, I don’t know what I would do without you!’” His voice is beaming.
He recalls that the class with a reputation for out-of-control behavior was form 4S. They hardly had a permanent class-teacher because nobody wanted that job. But names and events from that class, small and fleeting, have stayed with my father across decades and continents.
“Millicent, whose parents came from the West Indies, spoke deep and loud—it was like a roar from the belly. One day I was supervising preparations for open house in form 4S when another teacher—a white South African woman—came by to offer her help. The moment Millicent saw her at the door, she bellowed, ‘We don’t want you! Mr. Najmi’s here to help us!’”
“Millicent,” my father would later say to her, “think about the meaning of your name. How big can a milli-cent be? So much sound out of something so tiny!”
A white student named Barbara in form 6 once asked my father how old he is. “Oh, you missed by just one year, sir! What a pity you’re younger than my mum,” she laments. “I would have proposed you for her.”
By 1970, Abbu had proved his mettle at a variety of Inner London high schools. Ammi had gone from Lyons factory to office job, to ILEA’s Teachers’ Induction Course, and then to supply teaching in primary schools. But my father’s four-year leave from Urdu Science College was up. Rather than apply to stay, my parents decided to return to Karachi, shortly after my seventh birthday. Khalammi and Chotepapa’s family, our other half, would follow suit within a couple of months, renting 13 Long Drive out to strangers.
Twenty-six months later, in August 1972, we were all back on Long Drive, now numbering ten Najmis. In another two and a half years, my parents would return to Karachi for good. My father would rise through the ranks and eventually retire as principal of Urdu Science College. My mother would found a preschool in our living room, which would grow one year at a time until it was a high school on its own grounds. But for a few years, Greenford was my home again, and would remain so until I was almost twelve years old.
How do four-year-olds know to be so canny and so cutting? In one fell swoop, the girl had flung me out of both her race and gender communities, a pariah. Though I made no reply, and though Helen MacNamara and I eventually became good friends, her comment had planted itself in me, a seed that grew independently of my personal relationships, throwing down roots like tentacles, whose grip I could weaken with time and education but from which I would never free myself entirely. It grew green and thick and strong, flourishing on the casual, everyday racism of Greenford’s schoolchildren. And it fostered layers of unbelonging, of wanting to be good enough, which would thrive long after Greenford itself had become an abstraction, past tense.
But you love the first landscape of your consciousness, even if it’s a complicated love, and you identify with its culture on many subliminal levels. However nondescript it may appear to an outsider—with its row upon row of semi-detached houses, its small, green patches of park, its tube station like any other on the Central line, and the habitual opaqueness of its skies—you invest it with your first awareness of being, and it claims you thereafter with a tender tyranny.
Returning to Greenford as a nine-year-old in 1972 and staying until I was almost twelve meant that I recovered several of my former Oldfield friends—including Helen, whose face beamed a beetroot red when she recognized me—in Miss Betty Cox’s class at Coston Junior Girls’ School. It also meant that I was more keenly aware than ever of the “Pakis Out!” graffiti on buildings, in parks, and at the tube station. It meant wincing in silent shame when older English girls walked past me in Glaxo’s field remarking, “Funny smell!” as if to each other, and pinching their noses for emphasis. It meant that to walk the mile home from school was to contrive to walk with English girlfriends, for fear that some of the Coston boys being released from school at the same time might choose to kick my behind again or spit on me as I made my way home. I don’t remember how often this actually happened, but what matters is that I expected it to happen. (Amir, on the other hand, would get beaten up in his schoolyard at playtime—by some Sikh boys who wore their long hair in cotton-wrapped buns, and who had a score to settle about the Partition of Punjab.)
It meant the heart’s thumping terror at the sight of any group of white teenage boys approaching, because they might well be aligned with the neofascist National Front skinheads, who beat up my uncle Shahid on two occasions as he returned home from teaching high school. They had a verb for it: Paki-bashing, which became the noun Paki-bashee to indicate the proud vigilantes. At the very least, it meant that if Pakistan defeated England in a cricket match at Lord’s or the Oval, the low wall under construction around the front yard of 13 Long Drive would be torn down in vengeance overnight. Not that either Amir or I thought of sharing our terrors with our parents. At our age, it just seemed the natural order of things.
But there was another, long-ago Greenford. If I had known of it as a child, Greenford might have served as a richer crucible for me. I might have forged a relationship with it that transcended the hurtings and hungers of my own little historical moment. Greenford—or Grenan Forda, to go back to its ninth-century name—was already a substantial suburb in the early 1970s when I was growing up there. Its history didn’t concern me then, nor was it taught at either Oldfield or Coston schools, but it’s a quaint history nonetheless, of an ancient parish in the ancient county of Middlesex. (In the seventies, “Middlesex” was still an essential part of our postal address.) Entirely agricultural until the mid-19th century, Greenford finds mention in the Domesday Book, that mother of all surveys compiled in 1086 so that William the Conqueror would have lands, livestock, landowners, and property taxes at his fingertips. The Ealing Times of August 24, 2012, drawing on the Domesday Book, tells us quite without irony that in 1086, Greenford’s population consisted of “27 people and a Frenchman.”
Fast-forward through eight centuries of bucolic pace: in 1856, an eighteen-year-old named William Henry Perkin discovered the world’s first aniline dye—Tyrian purple, which he called “mauveine”—and the following year, he established a chemical factory on the banks of the Grand Union Canal, the west side of Oldfield Lane. It became the foundation of the coal-tar industry: aniline from coal-tar, and dye from the aniline. So it was that Greenford found itself the global epicenter of the chemical industry’s phenomenal eruption. Perkin went on to show the world how to affordably manufacture alizarin, the brilliant red which, until that point, could be obtained only organically from the madder root. Greenford legend has it that the Grand Union Canal changed color like a chameleon, depending on the dye of the week. In short, as British History Online will tell you, for a good seventeen years after his first aniline dye discovery, Perkin’s Greenford dyes dominated the British market. Perkin was knighted in 1906, on the fiftieth anniversary of the aniline color purple.
But though he had business acumen, Perkin the chemist was in it for the thrill of the research, rather than commerce. By 1874, he had sold his business and devoted himself to his laboratory, located across from the factory. Here, among other things, he synthesized coumarin, applying a process which came to be known as the Perkin reaction. Coumarin launched the perfume industry as we know it.
The closure, in 1885, of the factory Perkin had founded thirty years earlier was responsible in great part for Greenford’s diminished population at the end of the nineteenth century. The site of Perkin’s laboratory is now a distribution center for untold loaves of Hovis bread. Nothing remains in Greenford of either the factory or the laboratory; their last vestiges vanished in 1976.
But looking out at the unorthodox palms of my backyard in Fresno, California, a middle-aged professor of English, unmoved by the sciences as a schoolgirl, I think of William Henry Perkin. What is it about him, about my recent discovery of him, that quickens the pulse and tightens the throat? What sends me flying to husband and children with each new detail of his life? With triumph tinged with sadness?
I tell my two children that most schools in Perkin’s day didn’t give much space to such frivolous pursuits as the sciences. His own father had hoped to make an architect of his youngest son. But at the City of London School, William had a teacher who conducted chemical experiments during lunch break. The boy gave up his lunches to observe. At fifteen, he persuaded his father to let him enroll at the Royal College of Science. Three years later, as a laboratory assistant looking for a way to synthesize quinine to combat malaria, he made the breakthrough discovery of aniline in his home laboratory and patented it.
Perkin “retired” at thirty-six, with the means to support his love of research and the values to prioritize it over the seductions of commercial glory. Let Germany go on to build a chemical empire. For Perkin it was about the inquiry, about venturing beyond the known frontiers of knowledge, seeking new horizons, Odysseus-like. It was about not settling. Not selling out. The man showed us that we could keep our feet firmly rooted in the earth without withdrawing our heads from the clouds.
Perkin has given me the memory of another Greenford. Thirty-seven years after leaving the West London suburb—a psychic terrain as much as a geographical one—I can look back on it with something other than an anguished mix of tenderness and terror. Today I can go to Google Satellite, insert myself on Long Drive, where the low wall rebuilt one cricket season still encloses number 13. I can make a right onto Birkbeck Avenue, past Stanley and Jeymer Drives, which signaled the proximity of home on our long walks back from school; past 14 Birkbeck Way where my friend Carolyn Waller lived. I make another right and walk the little yellow figure that is me onto Oldfield Lane North, past my elementary school on the left. I can linger there for a moment or dash across the street, the way I did at the age of five, so excited to see my mother that I pulled away from our babysitter Inga and let the oncoming car bounce me toward Ammi instead. I keep walking southward then, across Western Avenue (part of the now-roaring A40), to where Coston Middle (now Primary) School stands, on my right. It’s all eerily, incredibly there. But it’s the buildings I can’t see on Google Satellite, can’t touch with the little cursor-figure, that tug at my heart and urge my footsteps in electronic wanderings around Oldfield Lane North.
It came from somewhere around here—Greenford’s purpling of the world. For the first time, ordinary people, not just royalty, could afford to dress in purples and reds. I try to wrap my head around what this means. Greenford’s synthetic dyes, far more economically manufactured than colors obtained organically from plants, insects, and mollusks, turned a black and white picture of the world into a carnival of colors. The teenaged William searched for a cure and found beauty instead. Beauty by accident. Beauty made available to you and me, straight out of this factory on Oldfield Lane North. And, as if that wasn’t earthshaking enough, from the laboratory across the street, Greenford gave us the gift of fragrance.
I can live with this Greenford, the Greenford of scented rainbows. I can love it, revere it, take pride in it. I can trump the seventies and their National Front skinheads with the nineteenth-century history of one man’s intellectual pursuits. I can look beyond a childhood of unbelonging, to the scholar, the researcher, the writer of some eighty articles. The scientist—the artist—who painted the world in brilliant hues, and perfumed it.
And all of a sudden, Greenford emerges from decades of historical amnesia to share this epiphanic moment with me: the summer of 2012 sees the announcement in a local paper of a new, 20-million-pound high school in Greenford, to open in autumn 2013. Its name: William Perkin Church of England High School. Specializing in science, it will serve twelve hundred students, providing them with an ample library and laboratories that look out on green, open spaces. But that’s not the first thing you’ll notice on this campus. William Perkin Church of England High School will stand out among English high schools because everywhere you turn, you’ll be reminded of Greenford’s gift to the world. Twelve hundred blazers and twelve hundred ties in Perkin’s purple—the rich, regal purple of the people.
Rumpus original art by Alexandra Lakin.