Over the last month the neighbouring area of Hanwell has become the focus of attention for the worst possible reason. The delicate features of Alice Gross have become familiar to us through the posters put up around the borough but these have melted away following the discovery of her body by a police search team. A “missing person” case has become a murder enquiry.
Hanwell will now be associated with a tragedy but I think it will also be remembered as a place with a manifest sense of community, something that was evident long before yellow ribbons began to flutter on the traffic barriers and lamp posts of West London. In a statement confirming that Alice’s body had been found Inspector Susan Hayward, Safer Neighbourhood Inspector (Ealing Cluster), said “I have worked on Ealing Borough for over 13 years and dealt with a range of very sad and challenging incidents. I have never seen a community pull together to the level it has in respect to the Alice Gross investigation. As the local community Inspector I have seen the community display unity and community spirit that we so often feel is not as strong as it used to be.”
In recent years it has become apparent that Hanwell’s “village atmosphere” is more than just estate agent spiel. Yet this is a “village” with the busy A4020 as well as a river running through it. It seems appropriate that for the last two years there has been “A Minute of Loud” to commemorate Jim Marshall, who sold his amps to Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend from his small shop in Uxbridge Road. For a moment the soaring screech of an electric guitar drowns out the traffic and kicks off a great deal more noise in the form of the Hanwell Hootie, a one day music festival spread across venues in the area. Wearing last year’s Hootie t-shirt at this year’s event is a new tradition. At a time when suburban pubs are closing at a rate of eight a week those in Hanwell appear to be thriving. Recently I attended the YUM W13 event at the Forester pub in Leighton Road, a collaboration between local food producers and retailers. The open area to one side of the pub was packed with local residents enjoying meals as small children, giddy with happiness, danced in front of a live band. Hanwell’s high street is always busy, it has retained its post office and although there are some empty shops there is a general sense of prosperity.
Those who live in Hanwell are proud to do so and those born and brought up there never lose an opportunity to let you know it. I spent almost two hours in the company of a local historian and after the first hour I had to ask him to stop comparing Greenford’s residents unfavourably with those of Hanwell. As cynical as I’ve become about the apathy prevalent in the place I’ve called home for over twenty years his comments had begun to grate. By the time we parted company it had been established that Hanwell people really care about their heritage, unlike those in Greenford. I did try to point out that I was speaking to him because I was interested in local heritage but my plea fell on deaf ears. I left feeling slightly ashamed that I did not have the good fortune to have been born in Hanwell or, at the very least, to have lived there, even for a day.
I’ve wondered if the Victorian domestic architecture that characterises Hanwell has had a part to play in all this, if higher density housing and a more intimate streetscape has made it easier to know and interact with neighbours, compared to the wider streets lined with 1930s semis that are typical of Greenford. Online networking in the area, through social media, seems to overlap comfortably and productively with that which goes on face to face. In Greenford online interaction seems to exist in silos defined by languages, nationalities or age groups. My perception of Hanwell may be distorted, there are bound to be some who feel disconnected or choose to set themselves apart from the rest, but it has every appearance of a community that cares about, well, everything.
It does not surprise me that the village that raised this child recognised that a thousand If Onlys would be a poor legacy compared with positive action that could bring Alice back to them. I have no doubt that the community that rallied to ask the world to #findalice will embrace and support her family with the same intensity. The “can do” attitude that brought praise from police and commentators will become one of “can care”. I hope that the residents of Greenford will take note of what is happening across the river and develop some of that spirit, because right now the people of Hanwell have much more to be proud of than their heritage.
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