Category Archives: memory

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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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:

Going Underground, Pt 1

As 2013 quickly approaches, I’ve decided to write this post in honour of the one day of the year when trains run 24 hours in order to help tired revellers return to their edge of the city. I’ve grown up with both a deep respect and fear of trains. My father was a train conductor and I have many half-remembered memories of gaily swinging around handrails in empty carriages and fearfully following my parents between cars in the New York subway.

There is something that I continue to find completely astounding about these behemoths, their quaintness and continuing technological advancement, the community and alienation that can easily be found in each carriage. It is completely true that Londoners expect a certain level of quiet on the train (though this can be adjusted for area, time of day and closeness to a holiday), and that any acts that stray too far from this generally accepted social contract will cause most in the vicinity to become aggrieved, furiously placing their noses closer to their newspaper of book, or turning their headphones up whilst pointedly looking off into the distance (of course, this changes depending on age or alcohol consumed). Despite this contract of solitude, there are still instances when friendships are forged and love is found. Its interiors act as an extension of the city, a social and historical map, forever being adjusted, improved, forgotten.

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A very belated Londonversary

Where I started five years ago, Goldsmiths, New Cross.

The days have shortened; the sky is illuminated by the pale winter sun. The frost has left reminder of its touch on the remains of leaves on the pavement. London is at its best during winter.  Autumn has passed me by in a whirl of new work and visa application panics. My fifth London anniversary passed without much fanfare in September, as I was preparing for my Life in the UK test- which I passed with remarkable ease, despite my rather rusty study habits. My sixth Thanksgiving, a moment of calm amidst the chaos, was spent with my friends, a holiday which my husband has taken to for its culinary possibilities (though I found his latest endeavour of turkey-filled turkey dubious). On Tuesday I finally completed my last visa, after a night spent wide awake with fear that I’d forgotten something important. It feels like a milestone in my life, the SET(M) form (also known as indefinite leave to remain/settlement), a culmination and documentation of a lifetime of dreaming and struggling and risk.

If you had told me ten years ago that a uni trip to London for a week would have led to the events occurring now, I wouldn’t have dared to believe it possible. In the past 5 years, I have earned a second degree and possibly set upon the path of moving towards a doctorate, made close friends and married one of them, and explored even more of England. I’ve picniced in front of a henge and looked for fossils along the Jurassic Coast. I’ve walked along an icy beach along the North Sea at Christmas and stood on neolithic burial grounds. I’ve seen my favourite actors on stage and witnessed my teenage music heroes front row centre in concert (oh Pulp). I’ve travelled all over London and seen such wonders and delights, not mention absurdities. I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel outside the country- with three weeks of massive cultural shock in North Africa, travelling through the Atlas Mountains on rain drenched roads on a mad local bus, driving along the edges of Moroccan desert, walking around medieval cities and dealing with complicated, friendly, infuriating people. It has only made me greedy for more experiences in more places, from Finland to Peru to Mali. Life in London has expanded my world and given me the confidence to live as I want, with passion and wonder and enthusiasm. The world feels so close, so within reach, that I sometimes take such marvels for granted. Other times I am shocked into stillness, amazed that I have managed to stumble into a life formerly only dreamed about.

As my fifth year here draws to a close, I feel ready to start anew. I want to move past the precarious existence that the visa process seems to encourage. Constantly applying for visa creates a sort of identity crisis. It is jarring to know that after becoming part of a community and beginning to amass items that speak of permanence and shared memories, it could all be so easily taken away if the right t’s aren’t crossed and i’s aren’t dotted on an application. I began to feel as though my experiences and memories were being flattened and forced into a specific narrative of evidential documentation. If this visa comes through next spring, I will be a few steps closer to being able to integrate fully in British society,  to participate in electing officials who affect my life and to feel as though I truly belong. That burden of foreignness that remains long after I’ve stopped actually thinking of myself as foreign will finally dissipate. After five years, I’m happy to say that I’m still very excited to what the future will bring, as long as I have biscuits and tea at hand.

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.