Why I left Oldham with a feeling of dread

Bernard Manning is a fine humorist. This has not always been my view. Once I wanted him banned from the airwaves, dismissing him, as I did in a Channel 4 debate, as a foul-mouthed racist.

I drifted into his Embassy Club on my national journey for Channel 4. It is a rather plain place in the tradition of northern working men's clubs. The all-white audience came from the Manchester surrounds. There were parties from different workplaces - the ambulance service, the bakery - each celebrating a birthday or forthcoming marriage. They weren't racists or exotic in any way, just ordinary folk, casually dressed and having fun on a weekend.

I was slightly worried when Manning began his act. He fired a salvo about a planeload of immigrants and my heart skipped a beat. But he then switched the punchline outside the terrain of race. Very clever, I thought. Manning has not lost race as a source for his gags, but he has had to change his act. The racial situation in England is changing so swiftly that the old stereotypes just won't do any more.

Except in Oldham, my next stop. This is a very divided city and dangerously so. It is a racial division. Oldham was once a thriving town which, residents tell me, contained 365 textile mills. (When people quote such a figure, I often ask why not 364 or 366, but there you go.) The tensions began in those days and continue to this day. Punjabis undercut the wages, working long hours for little money, and Paki-bashing was the consequence.

I talked to whites in their forties and fifties. They have fond memories. The booze flowed and, on the way to the local curry house, a "Paki" got a good kicking. It was a sport, a way of life.

The mills have gone. New technology required less labour and the Far East provides the cheapest there is in the modern world. Now a new generation of Pakistanis has grown up. Those who saw them at cricket's World Cup will know what I am talking about. They are extremely solid as a social group and aggressively so.

It is their time now. They have carved out their territory in Oldham. Should a Pakistani be attacked, a posse is mobilised in the twinkling of an eye. The whites talk about two vans out of which the Pakistanis tumble; the violence is short, sharp and thorough.

I talked extensively to poor, very poor, whites. They were preparing for bloodshed, they told me. This is a stronghold of the fascist group, Combat 18. A young woman terrified me. She talked herself into a frenzy about Pakistani filth, about their personal habits. I wince as I write. She dashed indoors to bring out a broadsheet published by the A K Chesterton Trust: the cross of St George was smack bang in the middle of the front page, red as the blood which she threatened.

Her neighbour joined us. Hundreds would die, he said. And wherever I went, I heard similar forecasts which, I suspect, are being pushed by right-wing groups. I can see how it might come about. A riot is provoked between Pakistanis and young whites and the marksmen, the assassins, move in. It is easily done. Night after night, there are clashes. I met young whites who give details of time and place. Both sides move in gangs of between 20 and 40. The mobile phone makes mobilisation easy.

White people, living in poor housing, claim that the Pakistanis are the darlings of the local council. They have got everything, they cry: the best houses, mosques, temples, you name it. When you stare into their eyes you know that they don't really believe it.

And the final straw. "The Pakistanis have taken over the local park," I was told. "It is a no-go area for whites." I had had enough of these people and drove by the park on my way home. White children were playing happily on a summer's day, their parents strolling around without a care in the world. Yet I left Oldham with a heavy heart and a feeling of dread.