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In Memory Of Gurmail Singh

Enlighten Me

Dec 4, 2010
Gurmail Singh: portrait of a random British killing

For once, I think, hunched high above Huddersfield and clenched with shivers, the flowers are appropriate. There's nothing mawkish, not a false note; no ersatz friendship or recreational grief. "Well, we all knew him of course," says Karen Leaney, looking faintly quizzical. "Didn't we, kids? The nice man who gave you sweets on Saturday morning?" Girl and boy nod, cold, and mittens tug at her arm. What has she written, below her white flowers? "Just – with much love, at this awful time. What more can anyone say?"

Karen has lived in Cowcliffe, a fat hill to the north of Huddersfield's centre, for six-and-a-half years. It has arresting views west over the Colne valley towards the Peak District, and blinding winds, and it's a big winding uphill village: not the finest part of West Yorkshire perhaps, but a long way from the worst. Crime is relatively low and there's a helpful mindset to most of these folks who live on the hill; they run errands, offer lifts and sometimes knock on doors when the (rare) buses can be seen crawling upwards. At the highest point, at the centre of much of the community, sit the pub, the Shepherd's Arms, and, directly opposite, the Cowcliffe Convenience Stores.

A faintly grandiose plural; the stores offered everything you needed but were formed of just one tiny room on a street corner; bracketed outside by walls of cracked harling, blown to a bitter weak brown down the years, a couple of wheelie bins, stacked green palettes and blown crisp bags; and, today, bracketed by two vans from the Scientific Investigations Unit and a quarter-mile of police tape. At around 8.30 in the evening on 20 February, the day after his 63rd birthday, the owner and shopkeeper, Gurmail Singh, was hit an estimated nine times, mostly on the head, by between one and all four of four hooded youths. They escaped with some cigarettes. They dropped, in their race to escape, some packets of chewing-gum. Gurmail Singh died in hospital shortly after midnight two weeks ago today. He had been found – by neighbours smoking outside the pub, who had tried to stop the attack – lying twisted on the floor, legs bent, with his head lying in the wine rack. Debbie Reilly, one of the first there, initially thought some bottles had been smashed. The floor was heavy with red liquid, leaked and pooling. It wasn't wine.

Gurmail Singh had apparently been attacked with a "club hammer": imagine a baby sledge-hammer you can carry inside a coat. It's still a nasty weapon. He was 63. He was 5ft 4in tall, maybe 5ft 6in in his turban.

There are two stories here. One, another tale of random violence in "broken Britain", in what had been described as a "rundown" and "working-class" area of doomed Huddersfield. (It's not. It's very pleasant, apart from the blithering cold.) One 20-year-old and three teens have now been charged with robbery and murder, and are due in Bradford Crown Court tomorrow.

The other story, the reason I'm here, doesn't concern the death of the shopkeeper but rather the life of the shopkeeper. The powerful part this one small man – Gurmail Singh, husband, father of three, grandfather to 18 – had played in the community. Sometimes the cliches are true. He was beloved by all, selfless, cheerful. In the recent snow, he found a sledge to use at five every morning and let it slide down the long hill to collect newspapers, then hauled it back high again, now 10 times the weight, and delivered papers door to door. He would shut up shop to drive home older women with gammy legs. He opened seven days a week, from 5.30 to 9 at night. He smiled endlessly.

It wasn't just the constant approbation I heard from neighbours (diamond of a man; always there; nothing but kind; not a bad bone). Last Sunday morning in Huddersfield's Sikh Temple in Prospect Street, there was a remembrance service. Quiet tears, in the corners, on the first floor, from those who had truly known him. Everyone sits on the long carpets, legs crossed (or splayed out, if you're feeling tired or old or rude). You cover your head: if white, like me, you are offered a simple orange band by a charming girl who helps you tie it. What struck me so forcefully, a week ago this morning, last day of February, last day of winter, was the number of fellow-whites. Awkward 70-year-olds, their own rather lovely paisley scarves hoiked high and elegant over white hair, struggling inelegantly to squat, borrowing brown arms to rise again.

White tattooed teenage oik boy-men, in loose jeans and hugging lycra tops, and yet orange respectful headwear, squatting. The Sikhs' "Song of Bliss" is read out, 60 yards ahead at the podium, by the temple committee, gentle drums thrumming, a PowerPoint presentation showing a kind of Tomb Raider illustration of Guru Nanak on a precipitous mountain top. It's odd yet sweet, and incredibly inclusive. Old joints creak at the end, young joints flex and then downstairs, at the long queue for the condolence book, the teen before me is white, has a touch of the chubs, that red-faced wind-and-beer complexion, double-earrings, a dark blue trackie. What has he written?

"Goodbye, old chum. I will always think of you. Thank you. Mark."

Gurmail Singh was born on Wednesday 19 February 1947, in another village, if a warmer one: that of Littar, in the Ludhiana province of the Punjab, high in India's north-west. The area is famously fertile and has one of the lowest unemployment rates on the subcontinent, but the work, mainly farming, is back-breaking and low-paid. Gurmail, fourth of six siblings, was earmarked at an early age to come and join his father, who had left the Punjab in the 50s, and the expanding family in West Yorkshire. This was at a time when Britain was actively looking to the Commonwealth to fill the floors of its factories. When we had factories. In 1963, aged 16, he made the long journey to this cold new world.

His niece, Bally Sandhu, now 42, remembers him living with her family when she was a toddler, in Water Street, near Huddersfield's centre. "He wasn't married, although the marriage had already been arranged." A job had been found for him at a pipefitters in Hepworth, where his father and elder brother Piara [Bally's own father] were already on the floor. "It was shift work, long work, hard work. The hard work, all these years, from him and my own father, was partly from the Punjab culture and their own family, but also because they came from such humble beginnings. It's a story I'm sure you're used to hearing: they wanted their children to have different chances. Didn't want us to struggle.

"What I remember about him," she adds, "and I don't want to sound full of cliches, but he really was simply full of goodness. I've been racking my brains and can't think of anything about him, any flash of anger, anything which wasn't just… good. In all these years, since I was a child, I never heard him raise his voice, never heard him refuse a favour.

"And I know he loved this country, this area. He was a bit younger than my dad so had maybe fewer strong memories of the Punjab. He took to it here: he started this football team, the Indian Star, played for years and later became the manager. I still meet people, not even in Huddersfield but wider, who remember the Star, remember what he did."

He washed the kit, drove the team to games (so cautiously slowly they would joke about needing overnight sleeping bags for a 20-minute journey). He grew to like English food as much as Indian, both cooked by his wife, Mohinder, who had come to Huddersfield independently from the Punjab (their fathers were great friends) when the ages were right; they married on 13 September 1969. He took the odd drink – it was only relatively recently that he went dry – and he hadn't worn the turban regularly until the last few years, as his Sikh faith increased. He loved sitting at the end of the day to watch the football, especially Leeds United.

In later years, as he saved enough to buy the shop on Cowcliffe Hall Road – they had a celebration six years ago, remembers Bally; and the house they had bought, almost opposite, had a formal ceremony of blessing – he took increasing pleasure taking his sons and grandsons to the football. "He was always willing to try different things, anything but set in his ways. He managed to do some travelling, although probably not enough – it's hard to find someone to take on the shop for more than one week a year. It's hard work. I tried it and was exhausted after a couple of days. Which makes it all the more remarkable that, at his age, he stayed open so long and did all these extra little jobs. There was an extraordinary patience and endless kindness to him: when my grandmother was widowed, it's no surprise she went to live with Gurmail out of all her children here."

He took, she knows, genuine happiness in being part of the area, in digging out the sledge when it snowed, in seeing the flash of thanks from a pensioner when he rang the bell; he was an extraordinary man. She muses on: "From an extraordinary family. We, the younger generations, used to rib our fathers a little for their attitude. There was a very Punjabi sense of fate, if not fatalism. Charming, in a way, but that constant attitude – c'est la vie, whatever will be will be – well, we used to mock them gently for it." Her voice darkens. "Because nobody expected this."

Gurmail Singh left Littar 47 years ago, all but penniless: only his journey had been arranged and what would be a lifetime of hard and physical and often cold work. Two days before the robbery that ended his life, there was another attempt (police have been investigating links between the two attacks): he tried to fight back that first time too but was also left on the floor. His turban was knocked off and his plait swung wrongly to the front, and for some reason this detail saddens me intensely. I can't work out whether another detail – all 18 of his grandsons and granddaughters now have degrees, many of them masters – has a bittersweet tang or simply fills the heart with joy.

Last Saturday, in the Shepherd's Arms as the afternoon darkened early, a handful of regulars and the ageing resident border collie, Spot, threw desultory glances at the telly as Italy wore down the Scots; their eyes flicked more often to the windows, where the police vans still sit. Their memories are of the Saturday evening before when six drinkers grew concerned by two hoodies hanging around Mr Singh's shop. One walked across, saw the robbery in progress, tried to hold the door shut. The boys inside threw wine and whisky bottles at him, half-shattering the door and filling his hair with broken glass, then escaped out the back despite an attempted rugby tackle.

Five houses down the hill, where the flowers lay outside the Singh residence, there was a sea of shoes spread over a rug in the hall. In one main room, the women, sitting on chairs, all in white. In the other, the men, dark of dress, turban and countenance, sat cross-legged. I had been invited in (and driven all the way up there – "We are Sikh: it is our duty to try to help and show respect") by a family friend, Jaswant Singh Randhawa, I'd met in the temple that morning, and though I had learned press would be unwelcome for weeks, and the police had told the family not to speak, he insisted it would somehow be OK for me. It wasn't. Gurmail Singh's two sons quietly closed the inner room doors, invited me to reattach my boots and leave. I have never been thrown out of anywhere with such firm but gentle courtesy. A few days later, after relayed messages, they relented, hence Bally getting in touch.

Two communities, the pub and the Singh house, only doors apart, and the cultures comprehensively different, but ever-more meshed: not just through the mutual ground of the shop, nor just this awfulness, but increasingly as the last decade has spooled out. Inderpal Randhawa, who runs the Linthwaite mini-market on the road to Manchester, is also the general secretary of the Sikh Temple Committee, and articulate on the growing links between his and the white community. Revered in the temple, he is nevertheless better known to the locals as their bus driver and he can only fit me in during his lunch-break. "We do feel safe most of the time. We feel, by and large, that we are a big part of the community and that they, so many of them my friends, are a big part of ours.

"Not all of the time: there are some rough people. I had problems at my shop – oh, quite a long time ago – a guy with a very big knife, and a girl with him, carrying some kind of special stick, like a baton. I had nothing in my hand except an accounts book so I kind of held that up to defend myself, but I quietly told my younger son – he was very young then – to go back behind to the kitchen and get a knife. The poor boy came out with a tiny vegetable knife. Useless! So it was a bit dangerous but they didn't get away with anything in the end."

Why had he resisted? "I just feel, we all feel, that we have to refuse and try to defend ourselves. Partly it's because we work hard for every penny we earn. Very hard. And I know life is more important than money, but why should someone who does no work have the right to come in and take my money from me? Why? Also, if every shopkeeper gave in, gave them money, it would make it worse for all of us – they would be coming in every minute to steal. They have to know they won't get anything."

He knew Gurmail Singh, a regular visitor to the temple, for the most part of 30 years. Had life changed for good or better in that time? "It was very hard, rough, for the first few years. We had few pennies in our pocket and the lack of English was for a while a really big problem. And the racism. In that respect, this country is now so much better.

"And now, mostly, we work for ourselves. When we first came, everyone was working. But in the 80s all the mills started closing, mainly carpet mills. Everything you did was depending on someone else, managers or government, and many of us thought, oh, if I just had a little shop I could take charge of things myself, work as hard as I want to, not when someone else says so. That was the dream. Even now, if I just did the bus driving it's still a maximum of five days at eight hours then two days off – so I keep the shop."

He keeps the shop, as do so many others, throughout this land. We go into them almost every day and there lie our spreadeagled modern needs. The Caramacs and pacamacs, Winalot and Camelot, thimbles and Pringles and Strepsils and Persils; and laces and pens and quick Uncle Ben's – hell, Masefield could have had an entire poem out of this modern trade ("I must go down to the shops again…"). But we don't really see them, do we, the lives behind the counter?

"And, do you know, time passes very quickly," adds Mr Secretary Randhawa. "Even though it's a long day, you've got people coming in and out all the time and they want always to talk about family and the weather. All corner shops end up doing service for the community, I think, and doing something I'm sure all these big supermarkets don't. We get phone calls: could you send a loaf of bread with the paperboy? If the boy's gone by then I will take it myself, for free, and Mr Singh was the same. The community – it's like your family. And we get a lot back from them. I am 20 years in my shop, for instance, so the children I remember coming in for sweets are all grown up now and they know us and respect us."

Will this murder change things? "We might be a little more wary but probably not much. Our friends are our friends. I'm still proud to be a Yorkshireman. What we feel, though – you ask if this country has gotten better for us – we feel strongly that, when there is sentencing, for who did this, they go down for the full term for once. If they were given a maximum sentence, and it was kept to, then people would see this, and when they thought about doing crime in shops they would think again. This is the way in which we, this country, could give a tribute to Mr Singh. Make sure the sentences stick. Everyone feels this, white and Asian. Everyone is fed up not just with crime but the justice system, which encourages it. Ask anyone."

I did. Looking for his mini-mart the night before– it's a long, long road, after the coldest switchback bus journey the Colne Valley has to offer – I went into a pub to ask directions and came across Dave Kane, who, it turned out, had done the gates for Gurmail Singh's shop. Even here, four miles from the murder, they're talking in hushed tones about it. "What a lovely man," remembers Dave. "Not just him but all of them. I probably shouldn't say it but I've been working with the Asians about 20 years now and 99 per cent of the time I'd rather do a job for them than for the whites. Far more polite, charming and they offer you a cup of tea or something when it's {censored} down."

Hushed tones, but angry. "Whatever happens, they'll be out in a few years. The police are fine here but the courts don't work."

On that Sunday, finished with my casual snap judgment of young Mark, moved by his words of condolence, I sit down to write my own awkward words. I'm still not quite sure why or quite what I said. I think it was along the lines of: "Thank you for the kindness you have left behind. I did not know you, sir, and am only here to write about you. But I have been struck by the genuine affection you obviously inspired among many and that is rare." Pompous, almost certainly, but I meant it at the time. And I had the time. Late the night before, I'd stopped at a mini-mart on the Fartown Green Road to ask directions (yet again) and buy cigarettes, and casually asked the young man if he was going to the service.

"I should. I want to. We all knew him. He deserves all of this, all this respect. I should go, I wish I could go.

"But I have to open the shop."

Written by: Euan Ferguson

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/mar/07/gurmail-singh-murder-euan-ferguson


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