Lockdown in Knightsbridge

This post first appeared on the SOAS Anthropology Department’s Covid-19 blog ‘Love in the time of Corona’.

An odd set of life circumstances has led me to spending the lockdown alone in a house in Knightsbridge. Here I share some notes (abridged and lightly edited) I made during the first week, mostly while out walking.

Tuesday 24th March

First day of lockdown. My neighbourhood streets weren’t quite deserted but they were very empty, and their sun-baked state called up memories of siesta time in small Italian towns. People finally seem to be getting the hang of social distancing. As I performed my close-hugging of one side of the pavement, a masked lady with a small dog gallantly stepped into the street to maintain a two metre cordon sanitaire.

By the Serpentine in Hyde Park, I couldn’t decide whether or not the water looked clearer, and then wondered how much it would be affected in any case, not being suddenly relieved of a fleet of vaporetti like the canals of Venice. All this will do wonders for the air quality, though, won’t it?

Wednesday 25th March

Empty, shut up shops everywhere. Boots had an employee on guard to ensure compliance with its twenty people or less rule. The cloyingly Instagrammable café outside Knightsbridge Tube is now shut, window bereft of pink cakes. The little Italian deli on Walton Street is still open, one customer at a time per favore. Perhaps the strangest, saddest sight was a series of empty buses gliding along on the Brompton Road.

I am struck by two other things today: an irrepressible urge to scratch my nose, and a new way of engaging with space. I find myself actively seeking out empty roads, and feel a surge of joy when I see one stretching before me with nobody else in sight. I feel a strange fear when I look at a narrow passageway, or a pavement hemmed in by cars, and think nothing of stepping out into the street or crossing the road to avoid people, wryly hoping I won’t die a prosaic, non-viral death at the hands of an oncoming vehicle. I’ve tried to perfect a “social distancing half-smile” to direct at people while backing off, although this is a work in progress.

Thursday 26th March

Last night I distributed a couple of hundred leaflets in the neighbouring streets on behalf of the local chapter of Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK. The idea is that residents stuck in their houses can contact volunteers to help them with shopping, or collecting prescriptions or even just a friendly phonecall. This morning I had a call from David, who lives down the road with his partner Elaine, both in the age bracket that has been asked to stay at home altogether for 12 weeks. They are low on milk and potatoes and would appreciate my help in picking up these, and a few other items – “nothing exotic!” he reassures me – from Waitrose tomorrow. He also offers me some of his homemade isopropyl-based hand sanitiser but I decline for the time being. Later, I get a message from a 61-year-old man in the next road offering what help he can, although he makes a point of clarifying that he is “single” and “in good shape” and “available 24/7”. I wonder if he has misinterpreted the nature of the support on offer.

At 8pm, twenty or more households in the street congregate at their doors to clap and cheer for the NHS, part of a national flash movement. It is a magical moment and everybody seems buoyed by the temporary expression of community.

Friday 27th March

This afternoon I taught a UCL ethnography class over Blackboard Collaborate. After talking through the students’ forthcoming assignments, I asked them what observations they had made so far of the lockdown, wherever they might be. Two girls who had travelled back up north to be with their parents said that their friends from home were taking things much less seriously than people in London seemed to be and were still going out partying by the time the students had both been self-isolating for a week or more. Another girl said that she found it fascinating in parks watching people react to approaching dogs – the natural tendency to pet and stroke in obvious tension with the fear that a virus-carrying vector might be entering their personal space. We all wondered, with no obvious conclusion, about the shift of social life into the online. Was this simply recreating existing social interactions, or were new forms of sociality being created here?

I thought about this question again in the evening during a Zoom call with a bunch of friends. Whereas a one-to-one chat I might have with my partner or a friend is starting to feel, with practice, quite normal and almost relaxing, the big groups still faze me for several reasons. The way that you can’t make eye contact with individuals, for example, meaning that so much richness is lost from the interaction. Or the artificial way in which a large group conversation remains just that: a conversation between an entire group. Although Zoom does have a “breakout group” function, there doesn’t really seem to be a way of replicating the dynamics of a group of friends meeting in the pub, naturally splintering and coalescing over the course of an evening.

Monday 30th March

I’m feeling intense cabin fever today but it’s grey outside and the empty streets feel more like Pyongyang than Perugia. So much of what is comforting in walking the streets come from the signs of life: open shops, people sitting in cafes, sauntering groups of pedestrians. Undeniably, there is beauty in the ghost city. In fact, I think the neoclassical wonderland of Chelsea is at its most lovely when deserted and in sunshine, but on a day like today it is overshadowed by bleakness and acts as a constant reminder of the situation we’re in. And as for the many parts of London that I love much more – Peckham, Brixton, Whitechapel etc – these places compel me precisely because of the crowds and the activity. I imagine that they must feel forlorn at present, although of course right now they seem as far away as Auckland.

I took a brisk but half-hearted walk, feeling resentful of everyone I passed except the hospital workers outside the Royal Marsden who I grudgingly reminded myself that I admired. Approaching Kings Road from a side street and seeing a lady walking a buggy and several other people crossing in the other direction, I suddenly felt a lift of spirits. It could almost have been a normal Monday afternoon.

Musings on Multilingualism in London and Mumbai

Shortly after I posted this, a slightly earlier version of the article was (finally!) published by the online magazine Scroll here.

“When we want to be dramatic or romantic,” Sangeeta informed me, “we speak Hindi. When we want to be formal, we speak English. But when we want to respect our family culture, we speak Marathi.”

I nod, enviously conscious of the fact that for me and many of my fellow Brits, conversation, whether formal or romantic, is mostly restricted to English. Yet the everyday multilingualism described by Sangeeta, a young graduate from a Mumbai suburb, is familiar to the point of cliché across India. Take my friend Murtaza, an architect based in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. I’ve heard him conduct business calls in Gujarati, then speak to his girlfriend in Hindi before Skyping his family in Mewari, all the while maintaining an English conversation with me.

Recently, I have found myself drawing comparisons between the linguistic life of my adopted home city, London, and the city that forms the basis of my academic research, Mumbai. London is frequently claimed as one of the world’s most multilingual cities, with 300 or more languages in regular use. Even on a short stroll through the city I wouldn’t be surprised to hear snippets of conversation in English, French, Urdu, Polish and Somali alongside numerous languages I cannot identify. For some this is a sign of cosmopolitanism to be celebrated, while for others, like comedian John Cleese, it makes for a London that is “no longer English”. A similar phenomenon was described by one Captain Hall who roamed the bazaars of Bombay (as Mumbai then was) in 1812 and heard “the sounds of every language” he had ever heard elsewhere. A century later, Joseph Gerson da Cunha described the city as a “real Babel of tongues”.

London Diversity

London diversity (credit: http://www.cityam.com)

Clearly there are some similarities between the two cities, but I can’t help wondering whether sheer number of languages spoken is an appropriate yardstick to measure the multilingualism of a place. In London, according to the 2011 UK Census, nearly four fifths of the city’s residents speak English as their main language, while the next five most widely spoken languages (Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu and Punjabi) only account for 1-2% each of the population. In Mumbai, by contrast, no one language is the mother tongue of more than half the city’s population. The frontrunner, at around 45%, is Marathi, while slightly under 20% each speak Gujarati and Hindi as a first language. Other languages spoken include Tamil, Sindhi, Kannada and Konkani.

Furthermore, the British, unlike Indians, are hardly noted for their polyglot tendencies, and nearly two thirds of the country speak only English. Of course, in multicultural London there is a higher prevalence of bilingualism, but even so, the dominance of English in public life is overwhelming. With a few exceptions, such as the use of French at St Pancras International Station and Bengali street signs around Brick Lane, public signs and announcements tend to be English only. Likewise, the vast majority of London’s schools teach in English medium.

In Mumbai, conversely, the trappings of official polyglossia are everywhere. Street signs are bilingual in English and Marathi at the very least, while trilingual station signs and railway announcements include Hindi too. Schools, meanwhile, operate in each of these language media, or in others such as Gujarati, Urdu and Tamil. Does this make Mumbai the more multilingual of the two cities? My own feeling is that treating multilingualism as a scale is meaningless in this context, and that it makes more sense to think of the two cities as multilingual in very different ways.


Trilingual station sign in Marathi (top), Hindi (middle) and English (credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Superfast1111)

In London, you can get by your entire life speaking only English, and would live a restricted life without it. Indeed, despite the populist perception that the British metropolis is overrun with foreigners who don’t speak a word of English, Census data indicate that only around 3% of Londoners can’t speak English even to a basic level. In Mumbai too, many regard English as the passport to commercial success, and the furious uptake of English-medium education has been likened to an “English storm”. I have met several Mumbaikars who went to a Marathi medium school themselves but are determined that their children be schooled in English.

Simultaneously, however, a regionalist orientation in local government has pushed the Marathi agenda into prominence in recent decades. Directives have been issued for all state schools to teach Marathi, for buildings to display nameplates in Marathi and even for multiplex cinemas to allocate a certain number of screenings each year to Marathi films. This also appears to extend to law enforcement. “All the cops here speak Marathi,” Murtaza once told me, “so if you get into trouble it pays to know some of the language.” Others have gone further, hinting at darker consequences for failure to speak Marathi. More constructive, however, are private initiatives such as Mumbai resident Kaushik Lele’s excellent Learn Marathi blog which has been a lifeline for many students of the language (including me).

Despite these moves, the language most commonly heard in public (at least outside the Marathi-dominated former cotton mill belt) is, arguably, Hindi. While the city has a sizeable population with roots in Hindi-speaking North India, the use of Hindi extends well beyond this community. Indeed, Mumbai is famous for its “Bambaiya” variety which has been celebrated as a “mongrel language” by historian Gyan Prakash and functions as a lingua franca across the city. More than one North Indian acquaintance has admitted to me that mastering the nuances of Bambaiya felt more of a priority than learning Marathi when they settled in Mumbai.

Again, speaking as a monolingually-raised Brit, the idea of London or any other British city functioning in a language other than English is hard to imagine. Equally hard to imagine is London as the centre of a world-famous French or German film industry. I therefore forgive my 18-year old self, arriving in Mumbai for the first time in 2003, for assuming that Bollywood produced Marathi films. Actually, the most accurate label for the language of Bollywood films is a matter of ongoing debate. Hindi? Hindustani? Some even suggest Urdu, and arguably the fact that Bollywood gets dragged into cross-border politics with Pakistan is an indirect consequence of the linguistic (if not cultural) unity of Hindi and Urdu.


Poster for Anarkali with Hindi, English and Urdu text (credit: media.vam.ac.uk)

Meanwhile, the more explicitly linguistic brand of identity politics that Mumbai continues to experience has faint parallels in London. Ethnolinguistic identity is increasingly coming under the spotlight in the wake of the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. Successive British governments have demonised those immigrants not yet able to speak English, while in 2016 PM Theresa May damned cosmopolitanism everywhere by proclaiming that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.”

So far, neither city seems to be losing linguistic richness as a result. London retains the edge in terms of number and diversity of languages spoken, although in practical terms it is dominated by English. In Mumbai linguistic capital is more evenly distributed. English may be essential for getting ahead, but Marathi remains the most widely spoken mother tongue, and its importance in greasing the wheels of diplomacy is perhaps growing. And regarding Hindi, I’ll let Sangeeta have the (almost) last word: “in times of crisis and riots, Bollywood binds Mumbai together. Everybody speaks Hindi. Everybody understands Hindi songs.” Not, I suspect, entirely accurate, but nevertheless profoundly sincere.



London Neighbourhoods 7: Walworth

A friend and I were discussing Marseille and Casablanca, cities that often get a bad rep but ones that we both love. We then got onto the grimmer bits of London. “Basically” she said, linking the two themes “If you don’t enjoy hanging out on Walworth Road, you’re not going to like places like Marseille.”

Maybe the parallel is a bit of stretch – sitting on a traffic-jammed 171 bus in the South London drizzle is a far cry from even the bleakest of pine-clad Mediterranean harbours – but the sentiment is understandable. If Brick Lane and Brixton present the accessible face of urban grit like, say, Naples or Marrakech, then perhaps less-iconized spots like Walworth and the Old Kent Road are the spiritual cousins of equally unloved Casa and Marseille.

I am quite a doyen of the Number 171, as it featured heavily in a former commute, ploughing the length of Walworth Road and its southern extension, Camberwell Road. Today, bent on renewing my pedestrian acquaintance with the place, I start in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. For some, this place is probably hell. It’s no Westfield – the only chains you’ll find here are Tesco, Iceland, Greggs and their ilk – and neither is it anything like the trendy pop-up-opolis that Brixton Market has become. Here, the big draws are bargain stores, Polish and Colombian restaurants, and the inevitable selection of money transfer options. There are also some faintly obscene Shiatsu massage chairs – at £1 for 5 minutes who can argue?

But this beast is in its dying throes, and a much ballyhooed regeneration project promises to deliver “a new pedestrianised town centre, market square, 5,000 new and replacement homes, up to 450,000 square feet of retail space, an integrated public transport hub, five green spaces” in the next decade or so. Indeed one the first sights to greet you as you enter Walworth Road is the Elephant Park plot, where some of these new homes are under construction.

Moving further on, the Latin American vibe of Elephant Castle immediately gives way to a more dominant West African and Caribbean demographic that nevertheless allows rooms for kebab joints and Chinese medicine shops. All the indicators of globally connected financial insecurity are here: betting shops, payday loans, money transfers, and the trademark turquoise branding of pay-as-you-go SIM operators Lebara and Lycamobile, whose Afghan-staffed kiosks promise cheap calls to Romanian, Nigeria, Pakistan… The prize here is the wonderful East Street market which I’ve eulogized elsewhere.

Schwar and Co Jewellers (Est. 1858) and Kaim Todner solicitors hint at a Jewish past and, according to this article there was a Jewish community here, centred around the New Borough Synagogue. This synagogue is long defunct, but other architectural gems remain. The handsome red brick Town Hall and adjacent Cuming Museum are currently closed for refurbishment, but further down St Peter’s Church is a neo-classical John Soane masterpiece. In that typical London trick, it is surrounded by a lovely Georgian Square, just metres from the down-at-heel high street.

Near here is a Nigerian café called University of Suya (tagline “Food of Distinction”). I have a peppery beef suya – often described as a “Nigerian shish kebab” – with jollof rice, and chat to the owner, Ken. He is surly at first, but thaws after I praise the food and ask him about Nigerian London. He is a Yoruba-speaking Lagossian, and believes that Yoruba is a most commonly spoken Nigerian language in London – “South Nigerian people they are many”. Across the road are a Cote d’Ivorian and a Sierra Leonean restaurant, and further down you can find Ghanaian and Eritrean food.

Meanwhile, there isn’t a Café Rouge in sight. Even the pubs are limited. A friend and I once dodged the hostile stares at The Tankard to sample the £2.99 pints and enjoy a refreshing lack of biodynamic wine and hand-cut chips. Today, a glum old couple stare out of the Red Lion further down the road, while towards the Camberwell end most of the pubs have given way to Evangelical Churches and Islamic Cultural Centres. The contrast to what is happening in places like Brixton is remarkable. That said, I spot a “Soya Milk Available” sign in one of the greasy spoons on nearby Westmoreland Road (read into that what you will) and is a new (ish) Lebanese Street Food café, Bayroot, that elicits a tongue-in-cheek comparison to Dulwich from one blogger.

Heading back up towards Elephant and Castle, I spot a sign outside a newsagents advertising the Sri Anjaneyar Astrological Centre run by a Pandith Jayaram Shastry, who promises “100% Removal of Black Magic” and “Gives Life Long Protection”. Curious, I ask the guy the at the shop counter whether they have an in-house astrologist. “Not us. He just rents out a cupboard at the back… You’ll have to ask him, I don’t know anything about it.” And indeed, at the back of the shop is a poky little cell, choked up with incense, walls covered in posters of Hindu deities. A frail-looking young man emerges from a kitchenette and questions me with a look. I ask if he is Pandith Jayram.

“Yes, yes. You first time here? Where you see leaflet?”

“Just outside. How does it work? Do you do consultations?”

“Hand reading, face reading, past, present, future… Five pounds”

I mutter something about having no cash and, taking the leaflet he thrusts at me, make a beeline for the street, thinking it best to leave my past where it is and wait for my future without assistance. At least I know where to go if I want to be reunited with an ex, or get my husband back from another woman. For now, I hop onto the 171, and muse on the road I’ve just walked up and down. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a tourist sight, but if a visitor asked me where she could find the “real” London I might just point them in this direction.

London Neighbourhoods 6: New Cross and Deptford

A few years back I read an article proclaiming New Cross, in (not too) South-(not too) East London, as the “New Shoreditch” (this one? I can’t remember…). Nowadays I would probably roll my eyes and mutter caustically about lazy journalists’ clichés because, frankly, everywhere is the New Shoreditch if it isn’t already the New Dalston or the New Peckham and fast on its way to being the Old Harlesden or the Old Old East Ham or wherever is next slated for hipsterfication. But back then it sounded rather exciting, and a friend and I decided to go on an adventure one evening and laugh in the face of beards and fixies and microbrews or whatever awaited us there.

Of the places we went to I have little memory, although I recall the Rosemary Branch where we sat at the bar with an assortment of derelicts who flirted with the Thai barmaid and insisted we play the battered old piano. We also visited the Royal Albert, which I have since been back to and can recommend more firmly for its cosy décor, nice beer and spicy, chewy sticks of pepperoni that suddenly seem to be all the rage in these sorts of places. Despite the nearby presence of self-consciously “creative” Goldsmiths College, replete with Will Alsop’s famous squiggle on its visual arts building, neither of us felt even the faintest resonance of Shoreditch.

If anyone thinks this is a rather pub-heavy introduction, I would politely point out that the whole bloody neighbourhood is named after a pub, supposedly. The same goes for Elephant and Castle, Angel and Royal Oak. But, I admit, if we’d visited in the daytime we might have focused on slightly different things. Such as the splendid 1905 façade of Deptford Town Hall (now occupied by Goldsmiths) that, with nautical motifs and naval figures including Nelson and Sir Francis Drake, commemorates the area’s history as the site of the Royal Dockyard and a nexus of exploration and trade. One trade, in particular, stands out: according to this article by Goldsmiths anthropologist Paul Hendrich, the jolly-looking ship at the top of the ensemble is actually a slave ship. Hendrich grappled with the fascinating question of whether and how Goldsmiths should take responsibility for the events immortalised on its building. His writing comes across as thoughtful and sincere. Tragically, he was killed in a road accident in 2008.

Another, less bittersweet architectural gem, is the row of 18th century houses on Tanners Hill in Deptford (where exactly New Cross becomes Deptford, I wouldn’t like to say). One of which belongs to W H Wellbeloved, Butcher and Home Made Pies. Across the road is a tiny record shop and café, imaginatively called Vinyl. I popped in there this morning and got a puzzled greeting from a slightly spaced-out man with straggly hair and a proper sarf London accent and I asked him if he did iced coffee.

“Erm, yeah I can do that. How do you want me to make it? Everybody seems to have a different idea about iced coffee… Yeah the toilet’s downstairs. I haven’t cleaned it yet though. Sorry, I’m two hours behind this morning cos we had a gig in here last night… Yeah, we have ‘em most weekends. It’s kind of usually quirky stuff. Not a rehearsal but not exactly a gig either.”

I was charmed by the whole thing. Meanwhile, the real heart of Deptford is round the corner on the narrow, pedestrianised high street that hosts a thrice weekly market which I fell in love with about a year ago. On Saturdays it’s a glorious tat-fest – I certainly wouldn’t come here for the retail opportunities – and a feast for anyone remotely interested in watching their fellow humans. There’s a shop called El Cheap Ou where, amid the tinned food and discount coffee I once listened to three old men badmouthing Prince Andrew:

“He goes around the world selling arms…”

“…and shagging underage girls.”

“It’s not right, he spends thousands of pounds…”

“…And now he’s Vice Admiral of the Fleet. Vice Admiral of the Fleet!”

There is a strong white cockney demographic here, many running bric-a-brac and clothes stalls, but there are also butchers and fishmongers staffed by the standard London melange: Afghanis, Pakistanis, Indians, Jamaicans, West Africans. One fishmonger has a wall devoted to packets of smoked shrimp and dried catfish and, at the far end, about fifty hooks on which hang bags and bags of dried stockfish. With their jaws open they make a villainous sight, second only to the fetid-looking smoked catfish (also sold here) in a list of “Terrifying fish I never want to eat”.

Even on Deptford High Street there are wisps of the “New Williamsburg”, with cafes like the Waiting List, where Vacant Young Things serve you lattes in jam jars and a poster reading “Hate your job? Start a Co-op” pins down the zeitgeist neatly. Things become a little seedier as you reach the north end of the street, with tired old pie and mash shops, a couple of nail bars and a truly frightening-looking pub called the White Swan. There is also a cluster of Vietnamese restaurants, all of which actually seem to be frequented by Vietnamese diners which is a good sign.

Beyond the high street you enter a world of run-down housing estates, sad little parks and even sadder boarded-up pubs. Nobody would call this area the New Anywhere, although interestingly, one of the four towers of the Pepys Estate became the subject of a BBC Documentary after it was sold to Berkeley Homes and converted into high-end flats. Of course, the tower that was sold was the one right next to the river, and sure enough, there is a thin lip of riparian luxury that forms the northern edge of Deptford, a lovely but slightly sterile pie-crust over the rich stew of life below.

London Neighbourhoods 5: Limehouse and Shadwell

If someone asked me to sum up Limehouse I might struggle to give them an answer. It’s the furthest frontier of East End, more popular with bankers than hipsters, although its ranks have swelled over the years with Irish, Jewish, Chinese and Bangladeshi arrivals. Thanks to David Lloyd George, it has even given its name to a verb – “To Limehouse” – meaning to make an incendiary political speech. But what is it actually like?

My induction to the area came at the hands of an ex who lived on Cable Street. His live-in landlord was a Scottish builder with a penchant for lobster, black furnishings and young South Asian men. Throw in a married Welshman who used the flat on weekdays to indulge a kilt fetish and the place began to feel like a bad joke. Small wonder my ex upped sticks to live with a Brazilian drag queen in Bow, but I digress…

Cable Street itself is mostly quiet, the preserve of old Bangladeshi couples and workmen during the day. Its claim to fame is the 1936 “Battle of Cable Street” in which an assortment of Jewish residents, communists and Irish dockworkers joined forces to prevent a march by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Although claimed as a popular victory against the far right, in the short term the battle provoked a rise in anti-Semitism and support for fascism. It also led to the Public Order Act (1936), which banned the wearing of political uniforms in public places.

At the east end of Cable Street is a derelict warehouse that apparently hosts drag nights and an S&M dungeon as well as artists’ studios. As it happens, Limehouse is something of an East London gay hotspot, with a popular sauna and a famous old boozer called the White Swan. My only foray into this scene was a visit to another gay pub in the maze of streets off Commercial Road. We walked in out of the cold, only to be confronted by the even colder stares of a roomful of middle-aged women, evidently celebrating someone’s birthday. It was the wrong pub. The right one, when we found it, was dingy and reeked of last chances.

Another unexpected feature of the area is a persistent legend that it was the site of London’s first Chinatown. The early twentieth century novels of Sax Rohmer abound with Chinese-run opium dens set in Limehouse. Similar dens can be found in Poirot and Sherlock Holmes stories. Hollywood caught on, with stereotype-ridden films like Broken Blossoms, also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl. Meanwhile, one of singer George Formby’s early record successes features the lines “Oh Mr Wu, what shall I do? I’m feeling kind of Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues”.

The reality, according to local historians, is rather disappointing. In all likelihood the Chinese population never rose above a few hundred, and while there were a handful of Chinese cafes and laundries, it was hardly the vice-ridden subculture of the popular imagination. The community seems to have dwindled with the decline of the London Docks and there are few signs now that it ever existed. On a recent visit I spotted the “Chun Yee Society – Chinese School on Sundays” on Birchfield Street, which subsequent research indicates was established in 1906. Other than that, some evocative street names (Nankin Street, Amoy Place etc.) and a few takeaways – clearly modern – are the only whiff of China in Limehouse today.

Traces of an older Limehouse can be found in St Anne’s church, set slightly back from the thundering traffic of Commercial Road. It is one of six London churches designed by genius Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early eighteenth century, his imprint unmistakeable in the church’s geometric simplicity and white chunkiness. On the other side is Newell Street, quaintly cobbled with a cluster of Georgian houses. For a few seconds you could imagine yourself somewhere else entirely.

As a whole, Limehouse feels torn between old and new. There are some magnificently grimy Victorian relics on Commercial Road, including a Town Hall on whose noticeboard a local philosopher has scrawled “Time Kills”. Across the road, The Mission, a behemoth dating from 1932, originally offered religious succour to sailors and has since played host to a social revolutionary movement and a notorious homeless shelter before the inevitable conversion to luxury flats.

Down near the river, Narrow Street is famous for The Grapes, a pub that Dickens describes in Our Mutual Friend. Elsewhere, the suffocating grip of gentrification can be seen in the ubiquitous gated riverside apartments. A few metres away and you’re on the Thames Path, dodging lunchtime joggers and eavesdropping on Canary Wharf executives scheduling tele-cons with Singapore. Nearby Limehouse Basin feels like Monte Carlo with its yachts and expensive property. Am I the only one who aches with longing when confronted with pictures of a smoky old dock of decades gone by, wondering whether I’ve come to London too late?

In the end, Watney Market, in neighbouring Shadwell convinces me that I haven’t. A century ago it was one of the busiest markets in East London, supporting a hundred shops including one of the first groceries owned by a Mr J. Sainsbury. Granted, things went downhill in the decades that followed, but it now seems to be enjoying a new lease of life in the hands of the local Bangladeshi community. There are stalls selling saris, and stores where you can stock up on jackfruit seeds and a sign outside Alauddin Sweets exhorting passers by to Keep Calm and Say Mashallah (“God has willed it”). On balance, I think I will.

On the Bus: Overheard on the 171

A young lady of about 30, evidently connected to the theatre, talks into her phone without apparent inhibition:

“And I said ‘Look. If you’re going to dislike me could you at least do it quietly?’ I just really hate loud public drama… He said that last night they’d slept without touching for the first time ever and apparently it’s my fault. And I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m really not interested in your sleeping arrangements.’ Do you know what I mean? …Stephen Sondheim’s boyfriend came over to our table… I’m thinking let’s just call Stephen and ask him.”

An earnest man talks to an earnest-looking woman who remains largely silent:

“A central theme in the Titanic is the lack of integrity of the middle classes. They completely lack soul and so they parasitize the working classes. It’s like in Brixton Village Market. They sell champagne now and it’s just the same price as it would be anywhere in London. And all the places there are like that now, right in the middle of an old working class district. I feel really uncomfortable in that place.”

A loud, drunk, nerd bellows at his companion in what is apparently English:

“Yeah I played it. It was really weird. It had no verticality. It didn’t talk about game information. I love Star but… One of the other sources that I listened to said that the GVC was really biased because nobody wants to play. 12 people came in and they wanted to play but it was really aggressive because nobody wanted to play a support role. No engineers, no spies. The sources that I listened to say that this totally invalidated the class…

“There was all this class synergy that we could look at and see…

“There’s a thing. It’s really important but I can’t show it to you…!

“I totally and utterly agree, it was the equivalent of seven years ago and everyone playing Level 2… You know as well as I do that 66 is two soldiers and a demo. There is no one single key to fit all locks…

“… new version of Overwatch… the opinion of people that played it. Yes there are class-class encounters… the bigger meta… One time out of ten you have the non-verbal polls and it works… What we consider in the FBS as an encounter…

“…and I know that I sound like an arsehole…

“By having 14 classes at this point maybe more… if you diversify too much it explodes. As someone who plays primarily sport classes, primarily Medic, I have the scenario when I got to the last minute and I have built up 80% uber and my team fucking disappears. Do I let them die? Or do I go in with 80% uber? I am SO potentially talking out of my arse right now…

“I cannot conceive of myself at this point of time being a professional [game name I didn’t catch] player. I’m too old, too disaffected…”

London Neighbourhoods 4: Nunhead

An edited version of this post first appeared in the SOAS Spirit (Print Edition) as Lost in the South East: Welcome to Nunhead on March 3rd 2015.

Nunhead. For years it was just a name to me, and not a particularly promising one. I knew it could be found somewhere in South East London, a bedfellow to unlikely-sounding places like Brockley and Hither Green, but that was it. Since I moved to Peckham a few months ago, however, Nunhead has leapt off the map and (almost) onto my doorstep, and I find myself falling love.

Admittedly if you arrive in Nunhead by train, first impressions aren’t inspiring. A Londis. A chippy. A fried chicken shop. Perhaps a knot of morning drinkers near the station entrance. I can practically hear the Islingtonites sneer. But just round corner, on Evelina Road, things pick up in a rather unexpected way. First it’s a greasy spoon caff and a DIY shop, then a traditional butchers and a few doors down a bakers. Next you pass a fishmongers and a retro/vintage shop and before you know it you’ve hit an honest-to-goodness village green with three pubs, a row of alms-houses and that quintessentially English of institutions, a Salvation Army Temple.

“Urban village” is a hackneyed term, but seems to do Nunhead justice. It is as far from the yummy-mummitude of East Dulwich as it is from the rough-and-tumble enticements of Peckham Rye. It’s a modest sort of place that’s never going to be the next Shoreditch. That said, F.C. Scoper (since 1897) has been described by the Observer as the “best fishmonger in London” and I can personally attest to the excellence of its mackerel. The Old Nun’s Head gastropub, meanwhile, gets rave reviews for its burgers and real ales. Nobody is really sure about the story of a nun fleeing a monastery that supposedly gave the pub, and then the suburb, its name, but “Nunn-head” can apparently be found in records dating back to the sixteenth century.

Lest you imagine it’s all craft beer and line-caught halibut, I should point out the takeaway options: Indian, Chinese, Caribbean, Portuguese… there’s even a “Taste of Barbados” (Bajan Spice) which I look forward to trying. Aside from the aforementioned DIY store there is a bike shop (Rat Race Cycles), opposite Bambuni delicatessen. This latter is the kind of place about which epithets like “the best flat white south of London Bridge” are probably bandied. I spent a happy time there ogling fresh bread, posh cheese, craft beers (yes I know, I know…) and cashew butter. The chicken shop-betting shop pairing across the road is a faintly reassuring reminder that you’re still in South London.

Arguably a bigger draw than any of this, though, is Nunhead Cemetery. In the words of Southwark Council it is “perhaps the least known but the most attractive of the seven Victorian cemeteries on London’s outskirts”. Down a quiet road, huge wrought-iron gates open onto a path that leads up to a grimly majestic ruined gothic chapel. Turn around for excellent views of the City and Canary Wharf but then press on into an eerie maze of trees, dense undergrowth and copious graves. There are no real showstoppers here – all the big names are buried in Highgate – but with a bus tycoon here and music hall artist there, there are some attractive tombstones. Most of the names you see are very Anglo-Saxon, but clustered at one end a number of Greeks, Caribbeans and even a Zoroastrian Parsi can be found.

Even better than the view from Nunhead Cemetery is the view from nearby Telegraph Hill, which comprises a delightful pair of parks, set in attractive Victorian suburbia. There is the Telegraph Hill Centre, a much-loved community centre founded by anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston as well as a Telegraph Hill Society. Much could be said on the subject, but at this point we’re straying from Nunhead into Brockley, and it’s time to catch that 17 minute train back to London Blackfriars. Nunhead – it’s not as far as you think.





London Neighbourhoods 3: Streatham

In 2002, BBC Radio 4 listeners voted Streatham High Road the worst street in Britain. Choking traffic, run-down shop fronts and violent crime were listed among its charms and the nation’s eyes rolled as its stereotypes of South London were upheld. I didn’t know this when I arrived in late 2007, although I was hardly bowled over at first. I wrote the place off as rather dowdy, full of traffic sounds and fumes, signifying very little. “It’s London’s answer to Sidwell Street” I remember telling my parents, referring to an unloved street in blitz-affected Exeter for which I nevertheless have a soft spot.

With time I put down the shallow kind of roots that are all a mid-20’s Londoner is typically capable of. I made friends with a Sri Lankan Tamil who ran a newsagent and urged me to get hitched – “Girlfriend life is happy life” were his exact words. I fell briefly in lust with an incompetent Afghan fruit-seller called Jihad before transferring my (ever unrequited) affections to an astonishingly beautiful Iraqi Kurd in an off-licence. I bought mushrooms from an old English couple at the Streatham Fruiterers, stationery from a lonely Ghanaian girl called Ekuya and jars of baby octopus at the Mediterranean Food Centre on the corner of Wyatt Park Road. I would occasionally have a Full English at the Café Vivaldi (Turkish-run, of course – you’d never catch English people serving an English breakfast in London) where a frumpy customer told me how she filled her days riding buses and making up jokes. “Dowdy” was upgraded to “Family-friendly community feeling” and traffic fumes were superseded in significance by pride at living – until 2010 – on the (self-proclaimed) longest High Street in Europe.

While the verdigris shoots of gentrification were in evidence – new bars and cafés continually sprouted up round Streatham Hill station – nothing prepared me for the discovery, from an ex-colleague, that decades ago Streatham had been the Knightsbridge of South London. The nation’s first supermarket (part of the Express Dairies group) opened in the early fifties, followed (unbelievable as it now seems) by the first large Waitrose. Internet nostalgia forums buzz with accounts of the Locarno nightclub that is apparently where Come Dancing (pre-Strictly) and Miss World were first filmed.

The epicentre of this douceur de vivre, however, was Pratt’s, a drapers-turned-department store that became part of the John Lewis partnership. A thriving café scene sprung up around Pratt’s, and wealthy residents (“lots of Jews” a hairdresser told me in a conspiratorial whisper) lived in the gorgeous red brick apartment blocks that line the street.

What happened next is one of those sad stories of urban decay. People moved out to Croydon and Sutton, the traffic volume picked up and everything spiralled downhill. Pratt’s closed in 1990 – I don’t know the full story but the hairdresser blamed Lambeth Council and told me with tears in her eyes about the death of the café life. Lambeth Council planners have since told me that, when consulting on the Streatham Masterplan, dozens of older Streathamites wrote in to say that all they cared about was bringing back Pratt’s. But Pratt’s is gone forever: even the building was demolished and replaced with a half-hearted attempt at architectural “sympathy” now occupied by an Argos, a Lidl and a Peacocks.

Today, though, Streatham seems to be on the up. On the stretch north of Streatham Hill station small boutiques and restaurants (including the marvellous Tapas Bar 61) hold their own among the chicken shops and betting shops. On nearby Leigham Court Road, Fish Tale, a fishmongers-cum-deli has been serving fresh octopus and walnut oil for the past five years. If that’s not to your taste you can brunch on Eggs Benedict in fancy new café-bars and then come back for White Russians in the evening, and if you want to really settle in, a rash of Estate Agents has sprung up to serve your needs.

Further down the road is something I’ve never come across before: a chain halal butchers. This is no scrappy open fronted affair with tinny Bollywood and a little Lebara phone stall at the front, such as are two a penny in Brixton and Peckham. Tariq Halal Meats is brightly lit, spotless and resounds with piped Qur’anic recitation. The man I spoke to in there (in Urdu, as he seemed unused to English) told me this outlet was only five months old, but that there are others in Ilford, Hounslow, Fulham and elsewhere. Lamb’s feet go for 70p, and there are also tastefully displayed delicacies such as ginger-and-lime chicken and smoked guinea fowl.

What struck me on my most recent visit to Streatham was how there seemed to be more of everything. More Polski sklep (Polish shops) including Bartek Express, which appears to be modelled on Tesco Express, even down to the font used for “express” on the sign, although the chicken gizzards and kielbasa inside suggest otherwise. More Somali restaurants on the “Little Mogadishu” stretch down the hill towards Streatham Station, which also has dahabshiil money transfer outlets and the Al Jazeera East African café. More fairtrade organic latte joints, such as Brooks and Gao, decked out according to the unwritten handbook of gentrification – rustic wooden tables, water in a mismatched liquor bottles, sugar in old Japanese tins and a goodish amount of exposed brick.

Meanwhile, the great Lusophone march south from its Stockwell epicentre is in rude health judging by the number of Portuguese and Brazilian shops now open. In one of these I met a lovely girl from São Tomé and Príncipe, who told me that the shop is actually owned by an Indian man with no apparent Portuguese connections whatsoever. Clearly a market worth tapping into, then.

There are still plenty of pawn shops and nasty pubs, and the traffic still roars past, but for every relic there is something new. A ghost of Pratt’s has risen up in the form of Pratts and Paynes, a newish member of the mostly-South London-based Antic group of pubs which serve good beer and better sausage rolls. The Hideaway Jazz venue, meanwhile receives rave reviews and might one day occupy the same space in Streathamites’ hearts as the Locarno did. Down towards Streatham Common (which in my view is one of London’s most enticing open spaces) the most blatant urban renewal of all comes in the form of a Tesco of mind-blowing proportions. It is hard to see this new “hub” (which also includes 250 flats, a leisure centre and a replacement for the much-loved old Ice Rink, another lost Streatham Gem) turning into a new Pratt’s, but who knows what this part of Streatham might look like in a decade’s time?

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 www.greatsuffolkstreet.co.uk 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.