Outside McDonald’s in Aldershot, Hampshire, “the home of the British Army”, the scene is more redolent of a street in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. Two elderly women no taller than 4ft shuffle silently down the road, their thin shoulders covered by colourful blankets. Behind them a group of equally wizened men sporting a curious combination of Dhaka topis (a traditional Nepalese hat), and Puffa jackets, greet each other with smiles and cries of “Namaste”, their hands pressed together, their heads slightly bowed.
Nearby, Dave Chamberlain, is cranking up his sales patter on the “Five-a-day” grocery stall. “Susti, susti,” he calls out in Nepali. “Cheap cheap.” As a Nepalese woman approaches, he jokingly puts an empty basket on her head; she retaliates by punching him playfully on the arm.
“We love the Nepalese,” says Chamberlain. “They have great banter, they’re really patriotic and they buy a lot of tomatoes. They’re proper hagglers, and they don’t always understand the concept of queuing. But still, we have a great laugh.”
Not everyone in Aldershot is so relaxed about the arrival of Nepalese following the 2009 campaign led by the actress Joanna Lumley. After memorably ambushing Phil Woolas, the then immigration minister, in a television studio, Miss Lumley’s intervention was a key factor in forcing the government into abandoning rules that prevented members of the Gurkha Brigade who’d retired before 1997 settling in Britain.
The campaign attracted widespread public support for the Gurkhas, who have been an integral part of the British Army for almost 200 years–Miss Lumley’s father was an officer with the 6th Gurkha Rifles. They have lost more than 50,000 men in combat, and received 26 Victoria Crosses (13 to Gurkha soldiers and 13 to British soldiers serving with them).
Today, one in 10 of Aldershot’s 90,000 residents hails from Nepal. Gerald Howarth, the local MP and a defence minister, recently raised the issue with David Cameron, claiming that public services are at risk of being overwhelmed.
One surgery in his constituency has had to take on an extra GP after Nepalese incomers, many of them elderly and unwell, swelled its patient list from 6,000 to 9,000. Some 800 children with Nepali as their first language have arrived in the constituency and must be accommodated in schools. Overall, there has been a 280 per cent increase in Nepalese households in the past year, with 20 new people arriving every week.
The local authority, Rushmoor Borough Council, describes a one-off £120,000 grant, used to pay for two full-time translators, as “peanuts”–especially in the light of a £2.4 million funding cut to their budget.
Mr Howarth’s intervention has unleashed a torrent of previously suppressed opinion, with 70 per cent of his constituents backing his decision to raise this sensitive issue at the highest level. On the website of the local newspaper, gethampshire.co.uk, one resident notes that it “reflects what very, very many people in Aldershot are saying under their breath”.
There’s certainly no shortage of anonymous grumbling, some of it bordering on racist. A posting on the Army Rumour Service website complains about Nepalese children thinking they are “living in a Jet Li film and having scraps at every opportunity” (a police report states that this is due to playground bullying). A taxi driver tells me, with barely concealed prejudice, about Nepalese men “spitting and p———— in the street”. While other residents share tales of frail, elderly men rooting through rubbish bins.
“I can see Gerald Howarth’s concerns,” says Major Tikendra Dal Dewan (retd), chairman of the British Gurkha Welfare Society. “But it is a shame that they have re-opened some negative comments in the community, diluting the good relationships we have been putting in place.
“You’re bound to see more Nepalese faces in the town,” he adds. “They are more visible and like to go for a walk or a bus ride.”
In the town last week I saw only the most courteous and harmonious behaviour, with many people expressing support for the Gurkhas, who have had a base nearby since the 1970s.
“Everyone likes us,” said Muchhetra Gurung, 46, dressed impeccably in a blazer and tie. “They come up and say ‘hello’ and shake your hand.” Since leaving the Army in 2000 after 17 years of service, Gurung has set up home with his wife and son in Britain, establishing two “AM” Asian restaurants.
However, it is not people like Gurung–a relatively rare success story–who concern Gerald Howarth and the inhabitants of Aldershot. It is those Major Dewan calls “the old and bold”–who retired before 1997 and have arrived in the past year–who are less able to adapt.
In a tiny room at the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation building, I found 50 or so huddled around a TV watching a Nepalese satellite channel.
“Many are told the wrong message about life in the UK,” says Gurung. “They’re encouraged by family and friends to come here, and when they do, they find the reality a little different.”
Despite the friendly atmosphere, it is difficult to see the appeal of this cramped room, especially for those who have left family behind or sold land to come here. And yet no one I spoke to regretted the decision. “The people here are very civilised and I like them very much,” says Prem Jung Shahi, 67, beaming from ear to ear. “I’m trying to make friends but it is not easy. In the Army they taught us only how to strip a machine gun and how to kill the enemy; they did not teach us how to speak English.”
Since arriving in December 2009, Shahi has taught himself by borrowing books from the library. He hopes to bring over his son and daughter soon.
And yet for every optimistic tale, there is also sad bewilderment. “I find Aldershot a very friendly town,” says Gyanendr Rai, 55. “But I nearly died after being shot in the Falklands war. I cannot work, I am in chronic pain. I get a small pension and no war injury compensation.”
He points at a Help for Heroes badge on his lapel. “I’m a hero,” he says, “but no one helps me.”
The issue of pensions is raised again and again. The British Gurkha Welfare Society has been campaigning for years for pre-1997 veterans to receive an equal allowance to British soldiers (they currently receive only £2,150 per year, instead of £5,000). Settlement costs for ex-Gurkhas could run up to £400 million, while equalising pensions would cost only around £54 million.
In total there are 36,000 former Gurkhas: if their immediate families are included, then more than 100,000 Nepalese citizens are eligible to move to Britain. Since May 2009, the Government has issued more than 7,500 visas.
“There are too many cultural and language barriers here,” says Mahendra Lal Rai, the director of the Gaeso centre, and a third-generation Gurkha (his father lost an arm in the Second World War). He lowers his voice and points at the quiet huddle glued to the television. “If they are given equal pensions, many will go back home and live with dignity.”
It is an argument that clearly irritates Gerald Howarth, who reacted with anger last week when the Gaeso chairman wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to complain about his comments.
He counters: “I don’t like the implicit threat over pensions: ‘pay us more and we’ll go back to Nepal’. What am I meant to say to other servicemen? There’s huge competition to become a Gurkha, and they signed up on a pension that bought them a decent standard of living at home.”
Howarth, like most people, says he has nothing but respect and affection for the Gurkhas. “I’m so fond of them,” he says. “But this issue is emphatically about the numbers. This is not a land of milk and honey. And we cannot cope here. They have been sold a false prospectus.”
He lays the blame squarely on the fair shoulders of Joanna Lumley. “You have to be objective in politics,” he says. “And that campaign was a nakedly emotional tugging of the heartstrings. It completely failed to take into account what would happen afterwards.” Miss Lumley was not available for comment yesterday.
Now that Aldershot is having to deal with the aftermath of her popular campaign, Howarth has shared some suitably objective solutions with the Prime Minister.
One, inevitably, is more money to cope with the influx. Another is to convene a cross-government committee to examine the problem. While the third is to see if the widespread affection for Gurkhas–they always get the biggest cheer on Remembrance Sunday–can be capitalised on and other communities found to accommodate them.
At which point we shall see if the Big Society is sufficiently broad, and the affection for the Gurkhas sufficiently deep, to include welcoming them–not just on the battleground and the parade ground–but in our own backyard.