Brent in Context

8 July 2019

Eight 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 attaches 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 Metropolitan Line, a key Brent commuter route, is the oldest London train line still running; today it is the only Underground line to run an express service. 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
By 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 areas of the borough were occupied by fields - this left space for things that wouldn’t quite fit in the centre of London. The Gaumont State on Kilburn High Road was once the biggest cinema in Europe. Neasden Temple is the largest outside of India. Wembley is the biggest stadium in the country, The Ace Café is the biggest biker café. Before the money ran out in 1899, construction began in Wembley on what would have 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 scepticism, prejudice and racism. Raheem Sterling is one in a long line of black footballers from the borough who have had to counter or endure racism and prejudice: Cyrille Regis and Luther Blissett were both from Willesden, and 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 40 years Brent has created people who have broken the mould.

Brent is the borough of Jayaben Desai
Brent has only been a borough for around 60 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 between 1976-78, protesting working conditions, unequal pay, union representation and racism. Jack Dromey MP (from Kilburn, the son of Irish migrants) also played a key role. The strike was ultimately defeated and Desai never returned to her job 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 strike was a national political and cultural moment, played out on television, in film and in newsprint - politicians and historians have used the event to justify and explain how Britain changed in the subsequent decades. Today, Jayaben Desai has become an iconic figure for feminists, anti-racists and all those concerned with social justice. She is frequently included in lists of Britain’s greatest women.

Brent is the home of Euro 2020 - and it could be special
2020 is set to be Britain’s first outside of the EU, and it will also be the year that Brent's Wembley Stadium hosts the semi-finals and final of the UEFA European Football Championship - a tournament that Gareth Southgate’s youthful team, inspired by the borough’s most famous son, Raheem Sterling, has a genuine chance of winning. The eyes of the world will turn to our borough and the country will look to the national team, and to Brent, to see something that can give us all 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 Caribbean from a warehouse in Harlesden for 30 years. Trojan Record’s ska releases were much loved by the original skinheads - the UK’s first black/white subculture. Although it later became a byword for 'racist', the term 'skinhead' was originally a shared expression of black and white working class kids in urban areas.

Borough of snack and sweets
Smith's Crisps were first processed in Cricklewood. Wrigley’s chewing gum was made in Wembley. Heinz used to can soup and beans in Harlesden and McVitie's 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, supported by Louis Theroux

White Teeth - Zadie Smith
Classic debut novel by NW based 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, gathered by Modernism in Metroland

Raheem Sterling says media narratives fuel racism

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

Jayaben Desai’s obituary in The Guardian

The Londonist visits McVitie's in Harlesden - watch