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“They tried to take it off at school”: Tan Dhesi on being the first Sikh MP with a turban

The Labour MP for Slough on integration, standing out, and his reservations about Europe.

“The first ever turbaned Sikh to the British Parliament – indeed, I believe, the first ever to be elected to any European Parliament.”

This is how Tan Dhesi, the new Labour MP for Slough, described himself in his maiden speech to the House of Commons. “A glass ceiling has truly been broken,” he said.

“I, for one, Mr Speaker, am very much hoping that these brightly-coloured turbans will act as a magnet as you repeatedly point towards the Member for Slough to make his invaluable contributions to proceedings in this House.”

Standing out for his turban had a very different effect when Dhesi, now 38, was growing up in Kent’s Gravesend. “At school, you get discriminated against,” he recalls. “One student tried to take off my turban then. Thankfully such instances haven’t scarred me, but I’ve always taken any negativity as a challenge.”

I speak to him over a cup of tea in Parliament’s Portcullis House. Today he is wearing a deep red turban, and looks relaxed in a checked blue shirt with no tie. It’s a few days until recess, and Parliament has an end-of-term feel.

“Only 1 per cent of the population is Sikh in the UK,” he tells me. “Anyone wearing a turban, you’re always going to stand out, you’re going to look different to others.”

For the first time, British Sikhs who wear turbans have someone in Parliament who doesn’t look different from them, and Dhesi is proud of that – but he says he will work to serve everyone, in the Sikh spirit of sarbat da bhala. “Working for the betterment of all, regardless of background, colour or creed,” he explains.

Dhesi has been a Labour councillor for almost a decade, and was Mayor of Gravesham in Kent in 2011. He was born in Slough and spent his early years there, where his father worked at the Ford factory in Langley and his mother worked for a local petrol pump company. Both his parents emigrated to Britain from the Punjab.

Work dried up in Slough after a few years, so they moved to Kent where Dhesi’s father started a construction company. As a 16 year old, Dhesi spent his school holidays as a labourer on a building site. He worked his way up from sweeping to operating dumpers and diggers and then to drilling. “If someone is pushing a broom all day, you can’t tell them what to do unless you’ve been there, on the other side, doing that [yourself],” he says. “You don’t quite appreciate how hard people have to work.”

At the age of four, Dhesi was sent to school in India for four and a half years, returning at nine years old to Gravesend rather than Slough. He speaks eight languages: Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, French, German, Italian, Latin, “and a bit of English”, he smiles.

Dhesi recalls turning up as Mayor to the French town twinned with Gravesham and surprising locals with a speech in fluent French. “I don’t think they were expecting a turbaned guy, coming over from England, to be giving them a ten-minute speech in French,” he says, with a chuckle.

“We in England, I think, are famed for not learning or not going beyond English, but it’s important within wider society that we do try to learn other languages as well, foreign languages are important.”

Yet he doesn’t feel “overly attached” to the European Union, citing France’s insistence that Sikhs remove their turbans when going to state school or having an ID photo taken. He calls this “highly disappointing” and “ironic, when more than 80,000 turbaned Sikh soldiers died to liberate [that] very country”.

He adds: “In Britain, I think that people are more cultured, or they’re more aware. The same can’t be said at most European airports. That cultural sensitivity and understanding of people of Sikh background, or Muslims with hijabs or niqabs, or others  - I don’t think [that] is there in various other parts of Europe.”

In local politics, Dhesi has focused on community, faith and integration. “We’ve got a common language in terms of the national language of English,” he says. “So it’s important that we push that, but we don’t do it to the detriment whereby we try to obliterate or eliminate other languages and cultures.

“You can be proud to be Sikh… but you can still be proud to be British.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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I’ll miss the youthful thrill of Claire’s Accessories – but the tween Mecca refused to grow up

From an adolescent rite of passage to struggling to stay open: how the tackiest shop on the high street lost its shine.

The first day I was allowed to go into “town” (hailing from rural Essex, that’s the local shopping centre, not London) with a friend – unsupervised by a parent – was a real cornerstone of my childhood.

We were 13, and looking back, we had neither mobile phones nor contingency plans, and my mum must have been sat at home for the entire two hours scared shitless, waiting for when she could pick me up again (by the Odeon carpark, 3pm sharp).

Finally free from the constraints of traipsing around department stores bound by the shackles of an adult, my friend and I had the most grown-up afternoon we could imagine; Starbucks Frappuccinos (size: tall – we weren’t made of money), taking pictures on a pink digital camera in the H&M changing rooms, and finally, making a beeline for tween Mecca: Claire’s Accessories.

As a beauty journalist, I’m pretty sure Saturdays spent running amok among the diamante earrings, bow hairbands and fluffy notebooks had an influence on my career path.

I spent hours poring over every rack of clip-on earrings, getting high on the fumes of strawberry lipbalm and the alcohol used to clean freshly pierced toddlers’ ears.

Their slogan, “Where getting ready is half the fun”, still rings true for me ten years on, as I stand on the edge of dancefloors, bored and waiting until my peers are suitably drunk to call it a night, yet revelling in just how great my painstakingly applied false lashes look.

The slogan on a Claire's receipt. Photo: Flickr

On Monday, Claire’s Accessories US filed for bankruptcy, after they were lumbered with insurmountable debts since being taken over by Apollo Global Management in 2007. Many of the US-based stores are closing. While the future of Claire’s in the UK looks uncertain, it may be the next high street retailer – suffering from the surge of online shopping – to follow in Toys R Us’ footsteps.

As much as I hate to say it, this is unsurprising, considering Claire’s commitment to remain the tackiest retailer on the high street.

With the huge rise of interest in beauty from younger age groups – credit where credit’s due, YouTube – Claire’s has remained steadfast in its core belief in taffeta, rhinestone and glitter.

In my local Superdrug (parallel to the Claire’s Accessories, a few doors down from the McDonald’s where we would sit, sans purchase, maxed out after our Lipsmacker and bath bomb-filled jaunt), there are signs plastered all over the new Makeup Revolution concealer stand: “ENQUIRE WITH STAFF FOR STOCK”. A group of young girls nervously designate one among them to do the enquiring.

Such is the popularity of the three-week-old concealer, made infamous by YouTube videos entitled things like “I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CONCEALER!” and “FULL COVERAGE AND £4!!!”, no stock is on display for fear of shoplifters.

The concealer is cheap, available on the high street, comparable to high-end brands and favoured by popular YouTube “beauty gurus”, giving young girls a portal into “adult life”, with Happy Meal money.

It’s unlikely 13-year-olds even own eye bags large enough to warrant a full coverage concealer, but they’re savvy enough to know that they can now get good quality makeup and accessories, without going any higher than Claire’s price points.

They have naturally outgrown a retailer that refuses to grow with them; it’s simply not sustainable on Claire’s part to sell babyish items to a market who no longer want babyish things.

Adulthood is catching up with this new breed of teenagers faster than ever, and they’ve decided it’s time to put away childish things.

Tweenagers of 2018 won’t miss Claire’s Accessories if it goes. The boarded-up purple signage would leave craters in shopping centre walls soon to be filled with the burgundy sheen of a new Pret.

But I will. Maybe not constantly – it’s not as if Primark has stopped selling jersey dresses, or Topshop their Joni jeans – it’ll be more of a slow burn. I’ll mourn the loss of Claire’s the next time a pang of nostalgia for blue-frosted shadow hits me, or when it’s Halloween eve and I realise I’m bereft of a pair of cat ears. But when the time comes, there’s always Amazon Prime.

Amelia Perrin is a freelance beauty and lifestyle journalist.