David Chamberlain, the Aldershot greengrocer, hollers out his pitch: “Aloo, [potatoes], susti, susti [cheap, cheap].” Knots of smiling men, dapper in their dhaka topi hats, press their palms together to greet old friends. The women, with their jewellery and lungi sarongs, bring a splash of colour and Kathmandu to the steps of Marks & Spencer.
Mr Chamberlain pauses only to point to the tiny figure tirelessly loading fruit on to the stall despite his 67 years. “He’s a hero.”
Nun Bdk Thapa grins and shows his crooked little finger. “Jungle, Indonesia, 1964, break.” And the enemy who broke it? A finger flicks across his throat. “Like that. Kukri.” A broad grin as he remembers how a Gurkha never unsheathes his kukri (knife) without drawing blood–then back to work.
This, surely, is how the actress Joanna Lumley might have dreamt it in 2009 when she led her Gurkha Justice Campaign. With popular support, she forced the government to abandon rules preventing Gurkha soldiers who retired before 1997 from settling here. Miss Lumley became a national treasure.
But now, we spot an elderly man, his own Help For Heroes jacket conspicuous, looking on, scowling. And then the dam breaks. A well-spoken middle-aged lady marches in. “You went voluntarily into the British Army. You have no right to be here.”
An 85-year-old gentleman, 20 years’ service man and boy, shows his Parachute Regimental Association card. “They were mercenaries. I have done my bit. I am a level-headed man, but I have watched this in horror. They have usurped Aldershot.
“Do you know who I am against? Her [Lumley]. It was nothing to do with a cause. She was just selling herself.”
In Aldershot, Hampshire, the dream has soured. Lumley is no longer the hero.
Senior members of Rushmoor Borough Council, covering Aldershot and Farnborough, complain that since the rule change, the number of ex-Gurkhas has exploded to between 9,000 and 12,000, or one in 10 of the borough’s population.
Estimates suggest residency applications in Nepal are still running at 200 a month. The infrastructure, they say, is groaning. One GP’s surgery registered 80 new Nepali patients last month. With children under 18 allowed to join their parents, the school roll has swelled.
Two Facebook groups have sprung up: “Joanna Lumley has—-ed up Aldershot and Farnborough” and “Lumley’s Legacy”.
This in a town that once loved the Gurkhas–indeed, it transpires that Sam Phillips, the man who started the Facebook groups, himself signed the Lumley petition.
Last week Gerald Howarth, the Aldershot MP, told The Sunday Telegraph that the Lumley campaign was “a very good example of how politicians should not be swept along by movie stars”.
But then came perhaps the most dramatic intervention of all. Joanna Lumley, The Sunday Telegraph has learned, wrote on Thursday to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, conveying the message that: “In view of what is happening in Aldershot, can I add my voice to saying ‘Come on, let’s get this sorted out.'”
It may be the Coalition’s turn to face Britain’s most fearsome celebrity campaigner.
With the Gurkhas in earshot, the ex-Para declares: “I don’t blame those fellows. I blame the Government for allowing it to happen.”
Indeed, few in Aldershot want to criticise the record of the Gurkha soldier directly. But when the Nepalis wander off, the old Para grows much franker: “On a nice day they occupy every seat in the parks. I go to the health centre. What do I find? Twenty-five white men and 125 Gurkhas.
“They walk five abreast and force you out of the way. They are belligerent.”
Other pensioners are said to fear Nepali teenagers lurking on street corners.
And from the other side of the divide? Mr Chamberlain, 28, glances at the tireless Mr Thapa, who arrived last year. “We had someone pass by and barge into him. The Gurkhas should be looked after.”
Perhaps some will be surprised to hear that Mr Phillips, the Facebook campaigner, agrees wholeheartedly. The 35-year-old HGV driver has military blood in his veins: his grandfather was a Green Howard, Dad was in the Royal Signals, his brother fought in the first Gulf War. His eyes sparkle when you mention Gurkha history: “The best of soldiers: truly brave, 26 VCs…”
He proudly counts Nepalis among his 1,157 Facebook members–part of his mission is to ensure that Aldershot does not succumb to the simmering hostilities.
This father of three, then, seems anything but the easily dismissed xenophobe–which makes what he says even more worrying. “I don’t want to talk about ‘a tinderbox’, as if Aldershot is about to burst into rioting. It isn’t. But we are at a crossroads.”
He had expected the Government to have thought about Aldershot’s attraction to the incomers: a military town, near the old Gurkha barracks, with an existing network of welfare centres.
Mr Phillips complains of inadequate money and support. He is not alone. Peter Moyle, the Conservative leader of Rushmoor Borough Council, is scathing about a £120,000 ‘social cohesion’ grant: “It’s scratching the surface. We have been told that 24,000 are eligible to come here.”
Mr Phillips sighs. “Five years ago, no one would have had a bad word for them.” As for Miss Lumley: yes, he used her name because he knew it would generate publicity.
Peter Carroll, the founder of the Gurkha Justice Campaign, offers an impassioned defence. “Joanna Lumley in this for herself? She was already famous. She owes her very existence to the Gurkha who won a VC in an action that saved the life of her father, Major James Lumley.”
Then Mr Carroll reveals: “She has written to David Cameron and Nick Clegg to say in view of what is happening in Aldershot, she would like to add her voice to those saying: ‘Come on, let’s get this sorted out.'”
She explained her intentions in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph: “I know that public funds are scarce, but this has to be made to work by more resources being provided.”
The Government’s first line of defence was a spokesman: “The Government has delivered a tough but fair settlement.”
If Miss Lumley endeavours to ‘sort this out’, she will at least be welcomed at the Aldershot Gurkha Ex-Army Servicemen’s Association. Prem Gurung, a standing committee member, is clearly sympathetic to Aldershot’s concerns. “I understand there is a problem. The Government must do something.”
An air of pathos pursued us into the room where elderly Nepalis sat glued to satellite TV from home. On the wall, a photo of the Queen. Pinned on the notice board, a story about a Gurkha who killed 30 Taliban single-handed. And, next to it, an announcement about benefit surgeries.
We had heard suggestions that Gurkhas were painted a rosy picture of Britain by opportunistic middlemen. Rumours swirled of overcrowded accommodation.
Now the story of Aldershot, of victory turned sour, offered one final irony. Ombahadur Damai, 70, 11 years’ service, arrived three months ago. Asked where he lived, he just said: “Room No 8.”
His polite smile never slipped but he stared into the distance. “England too difficult.” He wanted to go home.