Category Archives: modernity

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:

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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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Love in Notting Hill’s Sliding Doors, Actually

(Note: I have been writing this for months!)

England, and London in particular, inspire a certain type of American Anglophile (and I include myself in this) who have learned about the UK through films and old tv shows shown on PBS and BBC America. Whilst I think that things are improving, I have come across many a person- student and non-student- who are horrified that life across the pond does not resemble Downton Abbey, Notting Hill or some other schmaltzy Richard Curtis feature. This then creates issues when they have to live in an area that is completely different economically, culturally and geographically from their home area, which due to misrepresentation through film, exacerbates impending culture shock. I also think it prevents some from actually exploring their neighbourhoods/cities and interacting with locals in a way that will make them feel more engaged with the spaces that they are temporarily inhabiting. Providing a large range of images of the UK goes a long way in helping people find the familiar in other cultures, or at the very least, prevents them from over-romanticising/stereotyping by showing the complex histories that make up British society.

This doesn’t mean indulging only in serious fare, I think comedies and sci-fi do a fantastic job in helping cultural understanding (as evidenced by Doctor Who and others).  So here is a small selection of modern films and shows that show a truer variety of Britishness:

1. Attack the Block– a sci-fi comedy about youths on a council estate that team up with other estate residents to fight marauding aliens. It has a strong cast, with lovely performances by established actors and newcomers alike. Alongside the main plot of protecting their ‘block’, is a realistic portrayal of the class and racial tensions that occur in marginalised areas, as well as the roles and identities that inner-city youth perform in the absence of supportive infrastructures and programmes.

2. Peep Show– Like the other hit show of the early 21st century, The Office, Peep Show unfolds in a spectacularly awkward fashion. Peep Show follows the lives of flatmates Mark and Jez, two late 20-something misfits in Croydon. The characters’ thoughts guide us through their lives, and the point-of-view camera work allows an extra level of realistic embarrassment that allows you to empathise with the two leads,  even as you’re laughing at their pettiness and misfortunes. A masterclass in the awkwardness and general weirdness that can be found in English humour.

3. Phoneshop– a sitcom about the misadventures of phone shop workers on a busy London high street. Phoneshop is not only exceptionally funny, it portrays a range of multicultural, urban voices that normally only feature in youth-based dramas, if at all. It is a surprisingly authentic (for a sitcom), matter of fact and sometimes poetic snapshot of modern London life that isn’t shown nearly as much as it should be.

4. This is England/ A Room for Romeo Brass– Shane Meadows is a master of constructing sympathetic, affecting and sometimes brutal portraits of male coming-of-age stories that allows the audience to witness the geographical and class-based constructions of working class English masculinities. With his use of unknown actors and the constant backdrop of the Midlands, which offers a bleak beauty that grounds all of his films, he has created worlds that offer an anthropological insight into the troubled lives of isolated young men in post-industrial communities.

5. The Inbetweeners– said to be an uncomfortably true and hilarious view of male teenage life by most of the twenty-something men I know. A sitcom of four boys as they progress throughout a suburban high school, it is the complete opposite of similarly themed American and English programming that tend to pop up every year. These boys are awkward, average-looking, tend not to get the girl and end up in situations that manage to be both vile and cackle-inducing in equal measure. This show makes it obvious how hilarious teenage life in a boring town actually is.

The flaneur

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define…

-Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life