Category Archives: identity

Strolling

I found some videos recently that I thought were very interesting. They are the work of Cecile Emeke, a black British filmmaker from London whose work explores the thoughts, memories and environments of black youth in London. They are from her series, Strolling, which follows her subjects as they interact with the space around them. In some videos, the memories from growing up within these spaces jostle with the new narratives being created as these areas become more expensive and gentrified. They reflect on identity, history, representation and the erasure that occurs at the intersections of their race, gender and skin colour. An ongoing thread is being and belonging, of being part of the African Diaspora and feeling displaced within the country they were brought up in. Her videos show the complexities of being young and being black in a culture that doesn’t acknowledge that complexity. She provides an outlet for her subjects to give voice to their own realities, and the issues that matter to them in a way that is sympathetic and authentic. Some language and topics will be NSFW.

More of her work can be found here: http://www.cecileemeke.com/

 

 

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1000 Londoners

My friend has recently made a few documentaries, which are part of a larger project called 1000 Londoners. The project attempts to encapsulate and archive the diversity of voices that represent what it means to be a modern Londoner, creating a massive social portrait of the city. These narratives portray not only the lifelong Londoners, but those who decided to make London their home. It’s a very cool project that will be updated every week.

I’ve also included a few more, just to show the breadth of voices:

Make sure to visit the site here to learn more and to see all the questions that were asked for each interview.

 

London is the Place For Me

By the gentle author of Spitalfields Life

Life has sped up again, pushing past an unexpectedly cold, prolonged winter and into the cautious blossoming of spring. Two months ago I became a permanent resident of Britain, my prized visa arriving with the sacred words of ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’.

My journey towards citizenship, with its hurdles, uncertainty and displacement, is reaching its conclusion. By the end of the year, I will have undergone the last of the rituals to mark me as a resident proper, as someone deserving of settlement, of placement, of belonging. I will, and will be able to say that I belong, that I can claim localities and communities as my own and believe it to be true, that I am not one of the millions of transient spectres haunting the city for a short time before drifting onwards.

This feeling of permanency and feeling whole once again- instead of feeling like nothing more than the bills, letters and data the Home Office deemed as my existence- has given me a rather large bounce in my step. I have been out and about a lot recently and feel the way I used to feel as a student, that the city is wondrous and offers limitless possibilities in every unexplored path and undiscovered territory.

All of this is to say that I’ve been doing more exploring recently. East, past Whitechapel to Stepney Green. I hid in East London Thrift while rain hurled itself from the sky and cautiously wandered when the sun returned. Off the high street, old shops-turned flats mingled with Victorian houses flanked by small public gardens. Standing beside them were low and high rise council estates, slightly worse for wear, though many had balconies bursting with plants, toys and other signs of family life.

Further down the street led to a park and Stepney City Farm, which was unfortunately closed, though I still enjoyed looking at the goats, sheep and exotic chickens. By the time I reached the farm, only a few minutes down the street, the surrounding area looked shockingly like any number of the small villages found in the countryside (minus the thatched cottages). The ancient country church stood across the street surrounded by land, and the streets were silent. Walking past the farm and back towards the high street, industrial 70s buildings returned, filling up the spaces between corner shops and inter-war housing.

In a small community centre, nestled between council estates, a voice on speaker transported me back to Morocco, to the call to prayer that engulfed the city throughout the day. A large crowd of men- fathers, brothers, sons- gathered around the building, spilling out into the car park. As they prepared, boys played and chatted, while fathers attempted to keep order. Looking forward, I could see the high street again in the distance, with its murals, shopping centres and statues.

So many experiences jostling for attention in such a small area! Such delights that a short jaunt could lead to traversing time, locality and memory! As Henry James said in his famous quote, it is difficult to speak adequately and justly of London. It is both England and outside of it, a global city that feels deeply local and tribal once you move outside the centre ( no matter where I live, I am a SE Londoner, and I bristle at anyone who attempts to slight it). It is unabashedly, aggressively multicultural, daring you to falter in the wake of its daily hustle and bustle. It remains an odd honor and a privilege to remain here, experiencing it, in all its guises. I can say with utmost certainty that I may not yet be British, but I am definitely a Londoner.

Here’s hoping that more discoveries will be made once the weather rights itself again. And on a light note, my friend introduced me to this song:

Love Song

(note: it took three years to gather my thoughts enough to write this post.)

I was watching a series about Perfume a few days ago on BBC4 and the most intriguing idea was discussed. Christopher Brosius, an ‘alternative perfumier’ was making a custom perfume for an Anglophile designer who wanted the smell of England (from his apartment, it was clear that this meant Victorian/ Edwardian). He highlighted the smells of wet tweed (pungent due to the urine traditionally used to make it softer), whiskey and scotch, pipe tobacco, cobblestones and old books. Brosius then travelled to London in order to find the scents that would be recreated in perfume form. He was dismayed to find that the London he loved as a young man had disappeared; all the familiar smells of pub smoke, worn taxi leather and phone books in phone booths had vanished. Only a few recognisable scents remained that hinted at “England’s sense of eternity”. For Brosius, his memories of the city all revolved around scent.

It made me think about how we process our memories of urban space and cities. My memories of London (and England as a whole) are visual and auditory. For me, music is how I recognise and remember London. There are songs that represent London as I first witnessed it, when it was both new and achingly familiar. The Clash reminds me of 2003, when I was a college freshman in my dream city for the first time, in a Dead Kennedys shirt with Walkman in hand. Music acts as personal memory and archive. Blur’s ‘Oily Water’ symbolises my first trip alone on a London bus, seeing South Kensington for the first time in 2005. Entire albums and oeuvres act as representatives for certain periods in London, and my past can be charted through track listings and now obsolete audio devices. My personal London could even be divided into the Walkman/CD era (2003- early 2006), with music that was mostly Anglo-American and 1970s-90s inclined— and the MP3 era (late 2006 onwards), which represented an explosion in how I experienced music and the city. The act of hearing the scratchiness and skips of songs taken from LPs also were important parts of the urban soundscape for me, lending an air of the cinematic and creating an optimistic feeling that this was the day that everything I knew to be true could change forever. Music also allowed me to experience London when I wasn’t in it. Through familiar sounds, the sites that I held dear were transported to my local surroundings. There were times were I felt the presence of London so strongly whilst listening to something in Maryland or Philly that it felt physical; the clarity made me feel like I was hallucinating.

I also trace the histories of streets and neighbourhoods with music; New Cross and Lewisham are mapped by post-punk and Northern Soul. Through these sounds I see an area rebuilt after the destruction of WWII, hear echoes of melodies in buildings that have been transformed over and over again for each successive generation. Through music that combines English and Caribbean rebellion I see the resistance of communities and activists against the National Front and racist authorities in the 70s and 80s. Listening to certain music from the 50s and 60s allows me to think of a country in flux, where 50s rationing gave way to new ideas of social housing and architecture, and how Britain changed with the coming of high rises and estates. Music allows me to walk through these varied timelines; to understand the shadows of these changing geographies as they coexist, like translucent map overlays. With music I am an urban flâneur attempting to understand the soul of London and other cities, towns and villages across the country. English pop music is extraordinary in its geographical abilities; streets, architecture and various mundane artefacts of modern living are described in anthropological detail through pop songs. Riots, subcultures, people and histories can be understood through albums, making listeners into historians. My archives are vast, with England existing in every scratched LP, cassette tape and CD I own. It is even digitised, with music folders on my computer carefully labelled with the places and years that I first heard tracks.

The most interesting aspect of having music assist memory is that places are constantly revisited in a way that sidesteps nostalgia. Memories and areas already seen are deepened by a steady flow of new music that reminds me of barely remembered details that are then given a new significance. London is a series of physical, social and intellectual spaces that constantly change and expand, and I consider myself quite fortunate that music will always be there to help me find my way.

Travel and claiming authenticity

The urge to travel is getting stronger every week. Now that home has become more established and permanent, I want to visit lands both near and far. Preparing for Morocco has been an exercise in blissful planning and researching, which has only made me think about other places that I want to see. Invitations to see my friends’ hometowns in various countries seem even more tempting and my list of places to travel to over weekends and holidays continue to grow. Since it is impossible for me to do anything without reading about it and writing lists, Morocco has earned itself a folder on my laptop, filled not only with places of interest and what to bring, but also customs to follow, appropriate clothing to wear and food to try. Morocco feels like the next step in my travels, a departure from the foreign, yet still familiar, cities of Western Europe. Not only will it be the first Muslim country I’ve ever visited, it will be my first time in Africa and in the Global South, which is pretty significant to me. I want to travel through Africa more in future, through North and West Africa, especially since some of my studies focused on the megaregions/slum cities of West and Central Africa. I also want to visit some places in the Middle East, though I’m not sure where at the moment.

Having to look for new clothes for my holiday is really bringing home the cultural differences that I am likely to encounter. For both men and women, modesty is necessary, and though clothing will probably be more Western in the cities, I want to err on the side of caution since I will also be in smaller, rural areas. My original idea was to stock my wardrobe full of airy, vintage sundresses, but numerous travel guides and forums have stated that legs and most of the arm must be covered. For a country like England in the summer, clothes that are youthful, light while still covering up do not exist (even maxi dresses, which I’m too short for, show a lot of flesh.) So I’ve begun looking around my neighbourhood at hijabis and Asian women in more traditional clothing for inspiration. It’s absolutely amazing to look at the differences of groups within the same spaces, and the creativity that exist within such clothing restrictions (though by saying restrictions, I am clearly being Western in my thought process, since I doubt that many of these women view it as a restriction). Texture, pattern and colours become more important and create a look that can be vibrant and speak of the blend of cultures, beliefs and heritage that these women occupy. It is not only these women that are embracing and re-establishing their culture, in many diasporic communities all over the world, the rise of blogs have created a global space where traditional fabrics and patterns are being utilised in modern ways that allow people to show an approximate visual representation of who they are and where they have come from.

Clothing aside, thinking about travel so much has made me question what I want out of it, what I hope to see and whether my presence in certain places is a good thing. Many travellers, especially minorities I would imagine, like to believe that they will not be tourists in the ignorant, disruptive stereotypical way. This has especially become important in an age of ecotravel, sustainable tourism and visiting places, many of them postcolonial, that aren’t in the normal tourist spheres of Western Europe, North America and parts of Asia. But it has to be remembered that my status as a minority will always pale to the fact that I am a Westerner who is (relatively) well-off, and how I process foreign places and people is always seen through Western eyes. What I am most afraid of is going into another country and appropriating its culture, whether it is in order to have an “authentic” experience, to have a souvenir to bring home or to feel like a seasoned traveller. I do not want to compartmentalise and categorise my travel experiences in order to fit a general narrative, but I also do not want to approach it in some neo-colonialist way as though it is my playground and it is solely there for my amusement. I simply want to go and experience it in all its subtleties and manifestations for as long as I can, and hopefully learn something along the way, even if it is simply the reaffirmation that there are many ways to live life outside Western expectations.

I must seem intimidating

A short/poem that I really enjoy. Sometimes it’s very easy to fall into this way of thinking when you’re alone and underground.

It’s interesting how people try to protect themselves in shared, urban spaces. When in the train, my thoughts mirror those of the man in the film, ”you hear such terrible stories”. A mask is put on that separates me from those around me, acting as a barrier that I hope fervently is impenetrable, though I know that any series of unexpected events can lead to its removal. There is a thrilling and terrifying expectation that anything can happen once I board the bus or the train that can completely change the course of my day for better or worse. I want to seem intimidating, not only because I don’t want to be a victim, but because it’s frightening to think that my life as well as everyone else is based and ruled by happenstance, crossed wires and unexpected delays. But I am learning that this is simply the consequence of urban life, that the networks and and paths forged by millions of people each days act as a haphazardly choreographed mirror to the orderly (though in London’s case, not so orderly) streets, buildings and structures that mark the city’s boundaries. These daily mundane dances that we all do to get through the days render all these structures more public, more amorphous than they were meant to be, allowing for all these possibilities to occur. I am learning that I need to become less intimidating in order to do my part in breathing life into the city, making it more unpredictable and more wondrous than it was before. I have heard such terrible stories, but there also exists stories that prove London’s worth over and over again.

West of the Centre, South of the Thames Part 1

There are two locations that hold a special place in my heart, though for entirely different reasons. The first location is Bayswater, a small area in West London that is filled with grit and a slightly rundown grandeur. This was my first glimpse of London seven years ago, and it’s remained indelibly entangled with my love of the city. I stayed in a crap hostel; the pristine, white Georgian exterior belied the horrible, decrepit environment within. But away from the hostel I was awed by the area, the urban symphony of languages merging over the sound of traffic, music and general life. Each shop was an insight into a country that I desperately wanted to devour, each side street could possibly lead me into another world. While my classmates busied themselves with the age-old tradition of finding the nearest pub or American chain, I walked around in a daze, trying to commit to memory this rest stop for so many travellers. From that first visit, a few places still shine brightly in my mind: Marble Arch and Edgware Rd, where I watched a thief run by with victory in his footsteps; Tower Bridge, where I watched my beloved Thames rush by as if my dreams had finally caught up with me. But Bayswater is the most solid from those memories, its transient nature leading to a feeling of permanence, of certainty. I am comforted by the fact that it will consistently always change.

I find myself drawn to this place still, all these years later. Out of all the places I’ve loved, it’s one of the few that still make me draw that same excited breath of wonder, hoping that I will see something that will drastically change my life. I feel compelled to go back onto Queensway and retrace my previous steps, as though I am a ghost trying to make peace with my destiny. Compulsively I view the same buildings again, knowing that they have changed hands repeatedly and are no longer the spaces that I once knew. I become split in twine, my present and past selves trying to mediate inside a place that contains spaces once known, lost and never seen. It remains my place of possibility, filled with potential energy and actions that are never used up by past explorations. Unlike Southeast London, which I consider my home regardless of my location, I am drawn to Bayswater by the fact that it will never be my home. It is my place of transition and transformation, a space in which I was allowed to change and discover in order to become myself. Its lack of history to my former self acted as a catalyst for my urge to find somewhere in this vast, sprawling city that I could call home. And from the transitional West, I was led to the solid, complicated, political and always wonderful Southeast, in the small package of New Cross.