Ziauddin Sardar in riot-torn Oldham finds no scent of curry, no sound of Bollywood, no evidence of electioneering: "an Asian area quite unlike any I have ever seen"
It is 10.50 on Friday morning and I am the only Asian in Oldham town centre. Regulars begin to gather in small groups waiting for the Weatherspoon pub to open. Old men in shirtsleeves mingle with heavily tattooed younger men and skin heads. Within half an hour, the pub is full. Chairs are rearranged as small cliques form themselves. I try to be inconspicuous sitting quietly in a corner, playing spot the Asians so notable by their absence. I can feel many eyes on me, clocking my presence and noting that I am an outsider.
The whole of Oldham feels as if it is trapped in an old Hammer horror movie. There seems to be an ever-present sense of menace - and not even the smallest hint of a general election. There are no billboards, no posters, and no one out campaigning. The shoppers seem muted and listless. What I knew of Oldham before I arrived had been gleaned from Newsnight and its reports on the area's estates that are on a downward spiral of degradation. I never saw an Asian face in any of them.
It is hard to believe this is an area of "high Asian immigration". The Asian areas of Westwood and Glodwick are quite unlike any I have ever seen. There is no smell of "curry" in the air, no sounds of Bollywood hits in the background. The stench around the area is the universal stink of abject poverty. It is what gives the Asian faces of Old ham that stark look of helplessness and total alienation.
In Glodwick Road, I spot three young men outside an "Indian take away". Ghazanfar Ali has a business studies background but no job. Imran Mohammad is a fitness instructor with no one to instruct. Majid Khan worked as a shop assistant, but the shop has closed. They have given up the idea of ever working again. "We are the undergrowth, the weeds," says Ali. "When Gordon Brown talks of opportunity for all, we are not included in the all," he says. "But at least they left us alone," Mohammad joins in, "now they want to pour pesticide on us."
The three begin to get excited, and I find myself surrounded by a small crowd. They start to shout at me simultaneously. "If there is an election on, why aren't they coming here to kiss our babies?" "Why can't the police do something about the National Front thugs?" "Tell William Hague we are not foreigners. We was born here."
This England, this Asian Oldham, has no time for politicians, police or people of the press. Everyone has a story to tell about the police. How they failed to turn up after repeated and desperate calls. How they always arrest the Asians and do nothing about the skinheads. In the recent case of a white pensioner beaten up by Asian youths, even the victim's family doubted that the motive was anti-white racism. Yet the police insisted it was.
"We are being painted as racists," says Mohammad Latif, an unemployed IT worker. "But who are the real racists? The white youth who abuse our children? The police who do nothing about it? The politicians who go on about asylum-seekers and floods of immigrants?"
Have you turned this area into a no-go area for whites, I ask the gathered crowd. At that very moment, a heavily pregnant white woman pulls up in a car right beside us. Majid Khan calls out to her: "OK, love. Do you feel threatened?" She laughs. "Should I be?" "Other people can come here," says Khan, "but we can't go to other areas."
Iqbal "Zebra", who drives a taxi, suggests I go with him to the Breeze Hill High School on Roxbury Avenue. For the past week, National Front members and sympathisers have been causing trouble at the school. "The police know what's happening but they have done nothing," says Iqbal. I arrive in the middle of a stand-off. A mob of white youths is standing in front of the school and shouting racist abuse at the …