On Bonfire Night Halifax looks like Beirut. Or so the papers say

The pruning gang from the borough council are hoovering up leaves all round me. It is a little square garden with a cherry tree. It was laid out where Halifax's only wartime bomb fell, and killed ten people; it had been meant for Manchester docks. This was then, and is still, one of the town's closest-packed sets of streets. (Why did even a maverick bomb so accurately hit a slum?)

But now it is a triple memorial. One wooden seat commemorates the civilian war dead; another, Diana, the People's Princess; a third, the 50th anniversary of Pakistan's independence. A pleasantly Yorkshire frugality. Three for the price of one, like the cut-price store in the town centre, Honest Freddie's: "Pet basket RRP £4.99, you pay £2.00."

From the gangers' pick-up truck comes "All You Need Is Love". But I have walked up here because of the headline in the Evening Courier: "Hell on the Streets". Last night was Bonfire Night. The radio this morning said there had been rioting in Halifax. Rioting in Halifax? Yet there, in the Courier, were police with shields and helmets, looking like the kind of poster they sell at Comicville in the old market hall, where the brass band played in Brassed Off. (Comicville's plastic doormat says, "Stand here to enter, Earthling".)

If there is trouble in Halifax, you assume it is on the far-flung estates on the moor edge. This is where the Ridings School is, which has just been trumpeting its turnaround. As I sit in the three-in-one garden, Alvin Stardust, "1970s and 1980s pop legend", unveils a £1.5 million arts centre at the Ridings. (His son is head of humanities.)

But this trouble was in the streets around me, where many of Halifax's few thousand Asians live.

The streets have the names of Victorian heroes. At the corner of Gladstone Road, the black debris of a burnt-out car. Three tyres are hung around concrete bollards. One bollard has been blown in half. The casings of enormous fireworks called Proton Bombs lie on the wet pavement. Many of the little shops are shut, but this is because trade has dwindled in this run-down enclave of Halifax. No windows have been broken.

Three young white men march in to the corner shop and ask the young Asian who is watching MTV, "Do you have any fireworks left?" All four grin at one another. One of the white men was there last night. But it was a mainly Asian set-to. A couple of young Asians tell me it was all caused by outsiders. "Why should we do this when our mother lives here, and your young brother might get hurt?" But this isn't really true.

Young Asians seem to have ignited these ferocious fireworks at the street corner after a row about a fire at a local college. The police were brought in; some of the boys I am talking to were expelled. They wanted to get their own back. A policeman rose to the bait. He called for "back-up". Result (says the Courier): "It was just like Beirut." The quality of the reporting is an eye-opener. In this supposedly major street battle, no one was arrested.

As it starts to get dark, this next afternoon, young men start to gather. They get more and more excited as they talk about what might happen tonight. "We had gas cylinders with Proton Bombs in them, waiting to point at the police. Wait till tonight." Four Asian men come walking along the road, a few feet apart. The Magnificent Four. "These are the biggest bastards in Halifax." Happy smiles all round.

The Bonfire Night trouble broke out at eight. When I say I mean to go back tonight, local people tell me: "You can't do that. It's a no-go area. No white man is safe." So, obviously, there is no alternative. I go.

The strange thing in these shabby streets is how empty they are. Minicabs occasionally dash past. Some men are going along to the mosque. At the corner of Gladstone Road, about 20 young Asian men and 20 boys - some in white skull caps - are detonating ear-shattering bangers and launching lethal rockets down the street. No one, sensibly, is on the street. These rockets could take your head off. The curtains at the old people's flats are drawn shut. There are no police, no firemen.

The co-ordinator at the Himmat Project was, just as wisely, not present on either night. Himmat is Urdu for "one's own effort". Mohamed Aslam runs homework clubs, and works with the probation service. The project speaks about young Asians self-excluded (my italics) from work. "They're not all saints round here," he says. "Disaffection exists. But this isn't the way. I always quote the story of the elephant with an ant in his ear. To get rid of it, he kept hitting his head against a tree till he died."

I walk out of the "no-go area" past the Latvian Social Club, where an earlier wave of Halifax immigrants meet. How long will it be before the town's Pakistanis are just as unnoticed?

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at BusinessCar.co.uk.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians