London Neighbourhoods 2: Great Suffolk Street

Borough is justly renowned across the world for its market, where a super-abundance of delights drain even the most assiduously-guarded wallets. Pigeon, partridge, camel and kangaroo – all there for the carnivorously-inclined, with over forty types of mustard to put on them, not to mention a multitude of spices, chillis, salts and chutneys. More varieties of cheeses than you can imagine fill up the stalls, and if you’ve got a sweet tooth you’ll find endless possibilities for satisfying it.

I lived in the area for four years and had a mixed relationship with the market, loving its produce but frequently a little daunted by the crowds it drew and happy to escape into the relative obscurity of non-market Borough. In the final year I lived ten minutes south, just off the grimy High Street in the middle of a community that I had never suspected of existing here: Great Suffolk Street. Although transient toe-dippers, we lived right in the thick of it, with our bedroom directly above a good old-fashioned butchers and the living room above a good old-fashioned café.

The latter, Terry’s, is the kind of place that cries out for the label “Institution” and its cheery awning beckons you in to a cosy space lined with old framed photos. The eponymous founder is no longer with us, but his son upholds the traditions of solid British food and a takes friendly interest in his customers. Breakfast ingredients are sourced from Smithfield and Borough Markets and are graded on the eye-stomach scale with names like “The Standard”, “The Blow-Out” and (replete with Cumberland sausage, egg, bacon, bubble and squeak, black pudding, beans, tomatoes and mushrooms) “The Works”. Outside, a coffee machine serving another Borough Market classic, Monmouth coffee, used to be operated by a prickly but gold-hearted Lithuanian until she left to work in a pub. Her lattes remain the best I’ve had in London.

Just opposite is Ollie’s, a chippie with the same enlightened attitude to portion size as Terry’s. Its hyperactive Turkish Cypriot owner shovels mountains of chips onto white paper and wraps them up with a mesmerising series of flicks and jerks. Two doors down is the marvellously-named Giggling Sausage café which loyalty to Terry’s prevented me from entering, and in an unintentional allegory, sandwiched between them, is a funeral parlour. I joked that Great Suffolk Street catered for our every need, even death. Shiny hearses were sometimes in evidence, although the best was saved until the day we moved out – a full-blown funeral procession for some local legend that paused outside Terry’s, which stood up en masse to the strains of Dixie on clarinet and guitar.

Next door to Terry’s on the other side of the butcher’s is a Turkish barber, Jeff’s, whose owner deftly flicks a lighted ball of cotton wool into his patrons’ ears, singeing any stray hairs. On my most recent visit he told me he was actually Kurdish and is proud of the fact that he has Turkish staff working for him! His father owns a greasy spoon, also Jeff’s, on nearby Webber Street. Another local business empire is the newsagent OL, run by friendly and unflappable Sri Lankan Tamils. I was surprised, recently, but happy to run into some of them in a corner shop they also own near Clapham Common.

Round the corner is a Homelessness Shelter specifically for people with mental health problems. Its residents are a familiar sight on the street, for the most part benign and a little eccentric although for a period the street’s calm would be shattered by a clearly troubled man who railed at the world at length, mostly in words of four letters. Other familiar street characters include a rueful old lady with dazzlingly colourful shoes, who once told me to enjoy my life because she no longer could. “I had friends once” she said with a sad smile. On Sundays, a number of Nigerian families head out for church, a glorious sight in their boubou and kaftan.

The street packs an extraordinary amount into this short stretch (it’s worth pointing out that north-west from here it extends up nearly as far as the river) and there are plenty more shops on the parade – a bakery-cum-deli called Mustard, an organic fruit shop, a betting shop, a tanning salon, a master locksmith and a florist. There is a pub called The Libertine which serves excellent pizzas but is too brightly lit, and I much prefer The Goldsmith round the corner. Just off the dense stretch of shops is a Chilean Café, El Vergel, which is pleasant and airy although it lacks the uniqueness that marks out Terry’s.

Having lived there for only a year I am under no illusions that we really joined the Great Suffolk Street community. Sure, I struck up some friendly acquaintanceships along the way, and had some excellent food and much-needed haircuts and peppered my banter with the odd word of Turkish or Tamil, but other than the “Where are you living now?” I’ve been greeted with on a few return visits, there is no indication our departure has left any dent in the street’s psyche. And why should it? My upstairs neighbour, in his own words, has lived on the street “for a very, very long time” although clearly not as long as Alfred Smith, the Funeral Director, which was established in 1881. And, as points out, the “parade of independent, family-run shops has been serving the local community since the 1950s”. Long may it prosper.

London Neighbourhoods 1: Thornton Heath

This following is adapted from a piece I penned purely for my own amusement in early 2009. A recent return visit to the place in question suggests that it is still a reasonable reflection and I hope it will be the first in a sporadic series of odes to the less celebrated corners of London.

Thornton Heath, on the northern fringes of the London Borough of Croydon is a land that seems little touched by recent decades. Out of the station you step onto a busy road that on first glance is devoid of charm. There are no nice restaurants or shops in sight, the architecture is forgettable and the street-life is seedy without the mitigating vibrancy of Brixton, Peckham or Dalston. Across the road is an infinitely drab Wetherspoons, the Flora Sandes, named after the only British woman who officially served as a solider in World War I. Peer inside and the likelihood is a row will be breaking out between a couple of Caribbean men, ignored by the old Indian crosspatches who drink in silence, enervated by the demands of South London life. In the mornings, belligerent English alcoholics sit joylessly with their pints outside so they can smoke.

But resist the urge to turn back into the station: give the place a chance. With years of intimate acquaintance you might even come to love it. The classic South London hallmarks are all here – tiny jerk chicken emporia presided over by affable mommas; insalubrious kebab joints whose Turkish and Afghan staff produce minor miracles out of all proportion to their bargain prices; halal butchers which have Pakistani names and play Indian music; greasy spoons such as the Brigstock Café where a charming family of Copts serve (arguably) the best bacon in London. And everywhere you will find outlets for the beautification of Afro-Caribbean womanhood – nail parlours, wig shops, make-up salons, the works.

This is a corner of London untroubled by Starbucks, although it boasts a large Tesco, and Subway made it in in mid-2007. I can’t imagine anybody campaigned against either of these in a bid to keep Thornton Heath local. The poshest joint in town is generic Mediterranean and serves meze at passable prices. Perhaps the most famous local amenity, other than the charming 1900 clock-tower, is the Leisure Centure, whose much-loved swimming pool appears to act as a focal point for the community. All are welcome here, from doggy-paddling Punjabi matriarchs to voluminous Jamaicans who bob and sway in the name of exercise to some anodyne derivative of reggae, their efforts magnified in waves across the pool.

Any timelessness you sense is probably an illusion. The leisure centre, for example, only dates from 2004, and required the demolition of an earlier public bathhouse built in the suburb’s Victorian heyday. Indeed, in the late 19th century Thornton Heath was quite something, jolted out of rural anonymity by the arrival of the railway. There was a cinema, plenty of pubs and a bustling parade of shops serving the area’s respectably middle-class residents. But a combination of time and urban development has not been kind. The cinema has long since gone, the pubs are down-at-heel and today’s shops are of a kind that, as a friend once described it “could only survive in South London.” The once-famous Thornton Heath Pond was drained in the 1950’s to make way for a roundabout.

The respectable middle-classes, meanwhile, have by and large upped sticks and made way for a motley snapshot of London’s human tapestry: impeccably upright Caribbean grandmothers and their hooded adolescent grandsons; rambunctious Nigerian taxi drivers; shy Tamils hurrying to the “Ghanapati Temple”; Pakistanis and Kashmiris selling meat, fish and veg; East African Indians such as sweet-natured Surinder from the sandwich shop who calls himself “David”; and, judging by their garb, even the odd Wahhabi hanging about outside the Islamic Centre.

On deeper acquaintance you discover gems, of course. There is a peaceful wooded park on top of a hill, while the Jam Rock café serves an excellent goat curry and the beer garden of the Railway Pub is a fine enough spot for a summer evening. Even the godawful Wetherspoons which, being on the ground floor of the block that used to house my office, claimed more than its fair share of my Friday evenings, turned out in retrospect to be a rich den of humanity compared to the dismal blandness of the successor we appointed when we relocated to East Croydon. A recent reunion there with ex-colleagues reacquainted us with the advantages of good, cheap beer and a spacious saloon bar.

In all, though, not much seems to happen here. Granted you see the occasional police drug search and on some days an Evangelist comes to harangue her fellow sinners while the legless man effs and blinds in his wheelchair over a can of Old Speckled Hen, but mostly you have the sense of a neglected, but oddly content little community lost between London and Croydon. There is no real sign of gentrification – it’s not going the way of Brixton any time soon, let alone Shoreditch – too much effort, and who’d come anyway? For now, I like it like it is.



On the bus: three London vignettes

These all occurred over six years ago, but they could have happened yesterday.

Route 250: Between Norbury and Thornton Heath (August 2008)
A Jamaican woman is screaming down her phone, slamming her fist. “I’m goin’ home to pray for my sister, because she’s a wicked woman! She’s a wicked woman. Dem church people doin’ shit. She’s a wicked woman!” Her anger seems to be welling up from a bottomless pit connected to an ocean of every conceivable evil: racism, slavery, oppression, depression, poverty, depravity, disease… Yet suddenly she peers out of the window and spots a little boy she knows. “Hello darlin’!” she coos, radiant, it seems, with happiness for two seconds. And then it’s back to rage and hatred. “She’s a wicked, wicked woman…”

Route 59: Somewhere around Oval (October 2008)
The last leg on a trip back from Paris. Somewhere around Oval a handsome young black man gets on and sits next to me at the front. I casually glance at a billboard outside the window, which uses the metaphor of slavery to advertise a Card Protection Plan. My companion bursts out laughing.

“It’s like slavery but changed” he observes. “That’s what art is all about – taking something and changing it. Metaphor. English people don’t understand metaphor.”

A pause. He introduces himself as Chief Kingsley, from Cameroon.

“Who can understand metaphor, then?” I ask, slightly puzzled.

“Africans can understand it. And most Europeans too.”

Another pause.

“Oh, and the Irish. The Irish are very good at understanding metaphor.”

He proceeds to tell me about a recent visit to the Writers’ Museum in Dublin.

“Have you read any Irish literature?” I ask.

“No, I didn’t stay there long enough – only a few days.”

I point out in my puzzlement that it would surely be possible to read Irish literature here in London.

“I don’t trust English bookshops. They change things, you know, they change things. I only like originals. I don’t like fakes.”

A night bus: Somewhere between Soho and South Woodford (June 2007)
It is well after midnight. We are going back to a friend’s house from a club and the same is probably true of many others on the bus. Behind me is a noisy bunch of English lads, and somewhere towards the back a mixed group speaking in Polish. At some point the English boys pick up on this fact and decide that it would be hilarious to shout the only Polish word they know at the top of their voices: kurwa (literally whore, but often used as a more general expletive).

I mentally roll my eyes and turn round to them.

“If you want to be a bit more original you could sayŁadna dupeczka’ – means nice arse.”

“Awesome! How do you say it again?”

“Wad-na du-pech-ka“ I enunciate as carefully as my tired, drunk state will allow.

“OK. Wad… Wadna du… Dupiska.”

I laugh and let them get on with it. Their enthusiasm outstrips their accuracy:

“Wadna dupiska!”
“Wapna dupashka!”
“Wazna Dubrovnik!”

I smile to myself as I imagine what this must sound like to the Poles (assuming they are anything other than oblivious to the cross-cultural badinage going on in their honour):

“Nice arze!”
“Niece urse!”
“Norse ears!”

Green Living in the Desert: Masdar City and its Place in the World

In the Desert Kingdom of Abu Dhabi a world-famous eco-city is springing up. But does Madīnat Maṣdar point the way forward or is it just a gimmick?

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

What makes a city sustainable? Something to do with the energy efficiency of its buildings and industry, perhaps? Or maybe an effective public transport system running on clean fuels? What about the materials used to build the city – are they sourced locally or shipped from across the globe following a questionable mining process? Same goes for the food, of course – where does it come from? What does it cost in energy, water and land? And we haven’t even begun to think about the people – surely a truly sustainable city would offer a wide range of fulfilling jobs and lifestyles to a healthy populace free to participate meaningfully in civic life?

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should step back and ask whether the city as a concept is sustainable. Cities certainly have their apologists. Economist Edward Glaeser, for example, whose Triumph of the City reads like a love song to urban life, argues that city living is inherently sustainable. Densely-packed buildings are usually more energy efficient to run than sprawling rural ones, and the proximity of housing to offices, shops and entertainment tends to mean low reliance on personal vehicles. Moreover, cities provide favourable conditions for initiatives like public transport and low energy community heating. But cities also offer ample scope for hedonistic, polluting lifestyles, and even the most frugal citizens are highly unlikely to be self-sufficient in terms of food production.

The whole question becomes ever more relevant as the world’s urban population skyrockets, most estimates agreeing that it has now outstripped the global rural population. What’s more, this urban population is projected to nearly double by 2050. Small wonder, perhaps, that self-consciously “sustainable cities” are being planned and developed all over the globe, from the International Business District in Songdo, South Korea to Auroville, India’s spiritually-inspired township with a sideline in renewable energy. Perhaps the most famous eco-city of all is Madīnat Maṣdar (“Source City”) in the United Arab Emirates.

Masdar City, as it is usually referred to in English, was conceived in the mid 2000’s on a wave of ambition. The UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa, recognising the finite nature of the Emirates’ oil supply decided the economy should diversify by embracing renewable energy. The result was Masdar, or the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, whose mission is to invest in renewable energy and clean technology in Abu Dhabi and worldwide through a business model that encompasses higher education and research and development. At its epicentre would be a carbon neutral, waste-free city of 40,000 sitting amidst a new Silicon Valley for sustainable technology, luring businesses, scientists and students from all over the world. With architect Norman Foster in charge of the design, and the goodwill of global entities from Greenpeace to the US Government, Masdar as an idea shone like a beacon of hope for the future.

Masdar as a real city presents a more complicated picture. Take transport, for example. Initial plans were for a city free of private cars where citizens could move around through a series of shaded walkways or using driverless pods powered by renewable electricity. While the pods are in operation and play well with tourists, their scope has been scaled down and a public transport system including electric buses is proposed alongside an extension of Abu Dhabi’s existing rail networks. Meanwhile, much of the city’s workforce commutes from outside, rather denting Masdar City’s credibility as a sustainable transport hub.

Where energy is concerned, the city boasts impressive credentials – building designs optimise natural light and come with high levels of insulation, efficient lighting and a range of smart systems and appliances. Visitors compliment the pleasant daytime temperatures in the streets achieved, in part, by an entirely passive “wind tower” which sucks up hot air to make way for a cooling breeze and should reduce the need for air conditioning. Masdar City’s electricity is currently provided by a vast array of solar photovoltaic panels but again, this rings a little hollow when we consider the UAE’s carbon footprint as a whole, which ranks 5th or 6th globally in CO2 emissions per capita. More directly, there have been rumours of embarrassing design flaws such as solar panels located on shaded roofs and lights that were difficult to control, but it is to be hoped that these flaws have been rectified with lessons duly learned.

Technicalities aside, how well does Masdar City function as a living, breathing city? Here opinions are divided. Detractors gleefully point out the limited extent to which the original dream has (yet) been realised. A city of 40,000 it certainly isn’t – current projections suggest that it will host 10% of that population by the end of the year – and most current residents are students at the prestigious Masdar Institute for Science and Technology, the Gulf’s answer to MIT. Success in attracting international green technology companies has so far been restricted to Siemens, whose award-winning regional office is open for business and will house 800 employees.

Others argue that its very existence is a testament to a government putting its money where its mouth is, especially when compared to similar projects elsewhere such as Dongtan in China, whose construction is firmly on hold at the moment. By all accounts, visitors come away impressed by the hi-tech, but often lacking any genuine sense of place in what feels more like a project than a city.

Whether a gimmick or a blueprint for the future, Masdar City is clearly a work in progress and a learning experience and it is only fair to judge it as such. Ultimately, I can’t help wondering whether the Masdars and Dongtans are a bit of a distraction when cities like Dhaka, Lagos and Jakarta are still mushrooming and face mounting problems of energy supply, water abstraction and pollution. Whether or not we can build sustainable new cities, surely the most urgent question is how to make our existing cities sustainable and that, I fear, would take more than a newspaper article to answer…



Salt Beef and Synagogues: London through a Jewish Lens

A slightly altered version of this post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

Some time ago my uncle opened the door to a flustered neighbour who asked, somewhat sheepishly, if there was any chance he could come round and turn on her dishwasher. It was a Friday night in the heart of Barnet, North London, and the neighbour was observing the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath). This meant that a range of activities, or melakhot (loosely translatable as “work”), were forbidden.

I will not attempt to unpick the complex Rabbinical Law that enabled the neighbour to ring a doorbell but not switch on her dishwasher. Nor will I speculate on the legitimacy of getting the goy next door to do it for her. I do know, however, that her being able to carry her house keys around came courtesy of a phenomenon called the eruv, a ritual enclosure within which certain Shabbat prohibitions are relaxed.

Of the handful of eruvim in the UK, the North-West London one is by far the most famous. It is also the most controversial, with criticisms that include visual intrusiveness, de-secularisation of public space and risk of promoting religious segregation as more and more Jewish families move to be within in an eruv. Whether or not this last point has any factual basis, the location of the eruv is hardly surprising given the high concentration of Jews in this part of London, sometimes referred to as the “Bagel Belt”.

Golders Green in particular is renowned for its Kosher Restaurants (try Grodzinski’s bakery for braided challah bread), as well as numerous synagogues and a late Victorian Jewish Cemetery in which the cellist Jacqueline du Pré is buried. Nearby Finchley Road was previously dubbed “Finchleystrasse” when it became a magnet for German and Austrian Jews – amongst them Freud – fleeing Hitler’s regime. Now it is home to a new Jewish cultural hub, JW3, which offers talks, films, music and comedy as well as “Zest” café, run by Tel-Aviv born disciple of Ottolenghi, Eran Tibi.

As well as hosting refugees from Nazi Germany, this area has traditionally been a staging post for upwardly mobile Jewish families from the East End. Now synonymous with hipsters and Bangladeshi curry, Whitechapel and Stepney formed the epicentre of London Jewry in the early 20th Century. Hard as it is to imagine today, the aroma of brisket would have wafted up Brick Lane while Shoreditch echoed with the sound of Yiddish.

While the East End Jewish community has dwindled, a fascinating legacy remains. Some of London’s most beautiful synagogues can be found in this part of town, such as the Congregation of Jacob Synagogue on Commercial Road and nearby Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain. In fact, the Jamme Masjid (Friday Mosque) on Brick Lane is said to be one of the only buildings outside the Holy Land to have served all three Abrahamic faiths. It started out life as a Huguenot and subsequently Methodist Chapel before becoming the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, which it remained until the 1970’s.

For some context, visit 19 Princelet Street just round the corner, an old Huguenot weavers’ house, briefly a synagogue and now hosting occasional exhibitions on the area’s rich past. If that’s not enough, why not check out Stephen Burstin’s Sunday morning Jewish walking tours?

Staying on Brick Lane, a more tangible relic can be found in that quintessentially Jewish institution, the bagel shop. Of the two establishments at the top of the road make sure to go to Beigel Bake (the queues are longer for a reason) and opt for salt beef if your diet permits.

Meanwhile, at another institution over on Charing Cross Road, Gaby’s Deli, named after its Iraqi-born proprietor, the bagels are best passed over in favour of the delicious range of salads and hummus. As famous for its surly staff as for its food, the place looked set to be ousted by a chain restaurant until a Who’s Who of West End stars descended for a weekend of protest, cabaret-style, in 2011. Saved from encroaching neoliberal blandness, at least for now, you would still be wise to visit sooner rather than later.

Due to its long-standing history, amongst other factors, the city’s Jewish community is less obviously visible than some of its other religious minorities. One can forget the Jewish provenance of household names such as Marks and Spencer, Fish and Chips (look it up!) and Lord Sugar. Dig deeper and you will find plenty of Jewish Societies. These include SOAS’ own J-Soc which holds Shabbat events and is committed to combatting anti-Semitism on campus, a London Jewish Male Choir and even a Gay Jews in London network. And for a blast of high-vis why not check out Chanukah in the (Trafalgar) Square on December 16th? It promises free doughnuts, live music and an appearance from Boris Johnson to light London’s Brightest Menorah. Mazel Tov!


From Portobello to Peckham Rye: A Guide to London’s Markets

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in November 2014 (p20)

Vibrant local markets are a stock-in-trade of guidebook writing and no trip to Bangkok or Brindisi would be complete without sampling street food and attempting to engage a surly stallholder (who we readily interpret as a “character”) in lively repartee. London is no exception, and punches above its weight in world-famous names – Covent Garden for tourist trinkets, Spitalfields for dubious art and, of course, Camden Lock for international food and the evergreen pastime of Goth-watching. Venturing outside this narrow orbit you hit neighbourhoods such as Brixton and Brick Lane, now firmly hauled out of the economic doldrums by young creatives and bankers, but if this scene starts to pall it’s probably time to cast your net wider.

For a slice of echt South London life, for example, head to East Street (nearest tube Elephant and Castle) where the staunchly un-gentrified daily market (closed Mondays) does a roaring trade in cheap veg, bric-a-brac and household goods. Lining the street you’ll find Afro-Caribbean grocers and halal butchers and for a dazzling range of spices, pick any of the shops at the Walworth Road end. Otherwise expected the unexpected – bargain deals on a mattress announced through a microphone, perhaps, or you may catch the Serbian Roma singing duo (“Like someone strangling a cat” as I heard a disgruntled stallholder describe them).

Staying south, why not check out Peckham (nearest station Peckham Rye) once a byword for gang crime but now yielding to an unstoppable tide of soda bread and soya lattes. Stick to Rye Lane, however, and you can enjoy a scene as absorbing as any London has to offer. Frequently cited as one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the UK, the West African presence is easy to spot here – Sierra Leonean restaurants, Nigerian churches and stalls piled with cassava, plantain and all those other vegetables you wanted to know about but were afraid to ask. Chicken feet go for a reasonable £1.99 and, if that’s not enough, a fiver can get you a “Big Hard Chicken”.

If strange fruit and crossing the Thames aren’t your thing, Clerkenwell’s frightfully hip Exmouth Market may appeal. It’s the kind of place where people sit outside pubs in hand-knitted jumpers drinking craft beers while tapping film reviews into their Macs. If that’s not blatant enough, the presence of Gail’s Artisan Bakery should convince you you’re a far cry from Dalston Junction (for the uninitiated, Gail’s is a wayside shrine to sourdough and German rye bread, whose libations of organic milk can be sampled in all the capital’s chi-chiest neighbourhoods – Hampstead, Dulwich, Notting Hill…).

Indeed, the street is mostly about food, be it the excellent English fare at Medcalf restaurant, razor clams at Bonnie Gull Seafood Café or Moorish classics at Moro, where ladies like to lunch on pumpkin salads and slow cooked rabbit. On weekdays there are food stalls at the Farringdon Road end (a brisk 15 minute walk from campus), some run by the street’s restaurants, others including burritos, pulled pork and an incongruous-sounding “German BBQ”. Meanwhile, if you do want to branch out into the non-edible you could always get a tattoo at “The Family Business” or pick up a present at Bookends childrens’ book store before popping round the corner to The Old China Hand to sample their fabulous range of real ales.

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve been to all the above and time hangs heavy then consider heading south to Deptford High Street, a gem of a traditional shopping street with markets stalls on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, or west to Goldborne Road (market every day except Sunday) a quirky extension to the more famous Portobello Road and informal hub to London’s Moroccan community. (S)he who is tired of London, as they say…