Category Archives: Uncategorized

Blog Interrupted

It’s somehow become March without me knowing it, and more months have passed without me writing anything. My drafts increase yet again with more half-finished entries, and I find myself hitting a block when trying to describe interesting things that have occurred. I’m not sure why this is happening, but having  hesitation when writing terrifies me because it has never happened before, and  it causes a sense of anxiety that makes me avoid my little blog, which makes me incredibly sad. So I am taking a break. I’ve been writing my thoughts online for over a decade in some form or another and I think I need time to make my voice declarative again, instead of this passive, boring thing that it’s become recently. Also, over the past eight years, I’ve gone from freshly scrubbed expat to a citizen. This blog will have to change because I’ve changed. So consider this a temporary goodbye whilst I figure out how to best reflect my new life as a thirty-something citizen, and to regain the writerly passion that has escaped me recently.

Here’s to a new year and a new blog.

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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/

 

 

A spotty history of place name origins in Britain

One thing that I love and hate about England are the place names, which can deviate wildly in pronunciation from how it looks (see: Loughborough, Leicester, Beaulieu and my personal bugbear, Belvoir). There’s even an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to ‘counterintuitive pronunciation’ for those you who like a headache with your learning. Since I’ve just come back from a mini-holiday to Devon last week, I decided to look at various place names in England. Like America, England’s names and accents are the result of many languages and cultures melding together over the millennia, from the Romans to the Vikings.

A quick and basic (some would say spotted) history: Devon was part of the kingdom of Wessex, ruled by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons from the 5th to 11th centuries ACE. Other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that existed at the time were the main kingdoms of Northumberland (which still exists as a county) and Mercia and the minor kingdoms of Sussex, Essex, Kent and East Anglia, all of which still exist as counties. From the 8th to 11th centuries Britain was invaded and occupied by Viking forces from Denmark and Norway. Their occupied land became known as The Danelaw, or the land of the Danes’s law, based on the Treaty between Wessex king Alfred the Great and Viking king Guthrum. Guthrum had taken land from Mercia and Northumbria, and after a series of successful battles against Alfred’s forces to conquer Wessex, was defeated in 878 and a final time in 884 after attacking Kent.

The Danelaw, which was allowed to continue under Danish rule, stretched from Yorkshire in the north all the way to Essex in the southeast, flanked on both sides by the still English kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex. Alfred’s daughter, the amazingly named Æthelflæd, became ruler of Mercia, eventually taking back parts of the Midlands and East Anglia in the early 10th century before her death in 918. Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder becomes King of Wessex after Alfred’s death, taking over Æthelflæd’s kingdom when she died and taking back all of Essex and East Anglia from the Vikings, which extended Wessex’s boundaries. By 911, he’d also annexed London, Oxford and all of Oxfordshire and Middlesex from the Vikings as well. By 918, Edward had reclaimed the southern part of the Danelaw, bringing it back under Anglo-Saxon control. By 954, Viking king and ur-metal singer Eric Bloodaxe was driven out of Northumbria in the north, ending Viking rule in England and helping to smooth the path of a united England under Wessex rule (though this was short-lived) by 973 by Edgar the Peaceful, Alfred’s great-grandson.

I attempt to explain this history in order to give a better understanding of where many northern England names originate. Travel upwards from Essex, through the Midlands towards Yorkshire and Scandinavian linguistic remnants abound, mixing with Saxon and Roman place names. One such affix is –thorpe, which can be found in names like the giggleworthy Scunthorpe and nearby Raventhorpe, Thorpe Audling in Pontefract, Copmanthorpe in York or Hilderthorpe in Middlesbrough. Thorpe derives from the Old Norse þorp, which means outlying farm or settlement, a linguistic reminder of Viking occupation. Another suffix is –by or –bie (in Scotland), which means ‘village/settlement’, which can be found in place names up and down the northeast coast, like Clee With Weelsby in the aptly named Grimsby, Thoralby in North Yorkshire and Derby (pronounced dar-bee). A particular suffix that I noticed in York was –gate, which comes from gata and means road or street, which makes perfect sense since I mostly saw it on street signs. Some major streets are Colliergate, Petergate, Gillygate, Swinegate (a penny if you can guess its origins) and the famous Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate, whose origins are debated, but may have originated from the stocks and whipping posts that once stood on this tiny street! There are also towns with the suffix, such as Spittlegate in Grantham.

Further north towards Scotland the prefix kirke- or kirk- becomes noticeable. Derived from the Old Norse kirkja, or church, there are villages from Northumberland to the Shetland Islands bearing this word, such as Kirkabister in the Shetlands (from ‘church’ and btólstaðr, or dwelling place/house), Kirkwall (which comes from vágr, bay) in the Orkney Islands, Nunnykirk (Nunni’s church) in Northumberland And Kirkandrews-upon-Eden in Cumbria, which simply means Church of St Andrews upon the River Eden. In the county of Cumbria in the northwest, places with –waite and –waithe suffixes are more prominent, which may reflect the geography of the area, since thwaite or þveit means meadow or clearing. These villages can be found all over the county, from Upper Allithwaite, Subberthwaite, Scalthwaiterigg, Crosthwaite and Lyth, to Gawthwaite, Legburthwaite, and Micklethwaite. Other seemingly strangely named places with Norse origins are Skegness, skegg means beard and nes means promontory, it could have originally meant beard-like promontory or the promontory of someone named Skeggi. Ainderby Quernhow in Yorkshire is the result of a few Norse words, bȳ, kvern– a mill stone, and haugr– a grave hill or barrow, which also has an Anglian equivalent (barrows can be found all over the country, I’ve stood on one next to Stonehenge). So the name translates as ‘Eindrithi’s farm/settlement’, with the mill stone shaped barrow acting as a physical barrier between two other villages in the area.

More expected are Anglo-Saxon affixes, which can be seen all over Britain. A popular suffix that originates in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons is –ton, which was originally tūn, or a farmstead, village or estate. This mutated into –ton and –tone, as seen in Thrumpton, near Nottingham, Swarkstone in Derbyshire, Kettlebaston in Suffolk, Teddington in southwest London, and Turweston in Buckinghamshire. An explanation to why many places with different affixes share similar pronunciations is due to their shared origin. The suffixes -bury, -borough and –burgh all derive from burh– a fortified place or settlement, which leads to names like Upton Snodsbury in Worcestershire (pronounced Wusster-sheer, glad you asked), Loughborough (that’s Luff-burrah) in Leicestershire (lester-sheer),and Whinburgh in Norfolk.

If many Norse affixes describe conquered settlements, than Anglo-Saxon affixes focus on the environment. There are several water-based affixes- mouth (unsurprisingly, the mouth of a river, as seen in Portsmouth, Yarmouth and Weymouth), -mere (lake or pool, Windermere being a famous lake and serendipitously containing both Old Norse and Old English), -bec (stream, can be found in the hilariously named Tooting Bec in southwest London), -ford (narrow stream that can be crossed, seen all over London in Brentford, Deptford, Ilford and Stratford) and -bourne/burn (brook or stream, seen in Blackburn, Eastbourne). Land affixes are even more extensive, here are a few common ones: the seemingly related -dean/den/don (from denu, wooded valley/denn, wooded swine pasture/dún, valley respectively). -Dean can be seen in Brighton and Hove in towns like Ovingdean, Rottingdean and Bevendean, which were all originally valleys named after figures of the time, as recorded in the Domesday Book. The -don suffix can be seen in a few places in London, from Croydon and Wimbledon in the south, to Hendon and Farringdon in the north. -Den can be seen in Morden in the outer boroughs and Willesden in north London.

My blog’s namesake comes from the saying that London is a city of villages, areas that have been incorporated into the city as it spread over the centuries. They are remnants of a geography long since lost under a millennia of city-building. -Ham makes this clear, as it derives from ham or hamm, meaning homestead/village or sometimes meadow. It can be found all over the city, from Twickenham, Fulham and Clapham in the southwest, Rotherham  and Dagenham in the east,  to Lewisham and Peckham in the southeast. -Stead/sted also indicates place, a meaning that’s survived to the present, from the original stede. This can be seen in the southeast in Pumstead, and in the north with the beautiful Hampstead Village and Wanstead. A final locational affix is -wich, from -wīc, which means a place of activity and trade. This can be seen, unsurprisingly, in Greenwich, one of London’s most important historical harbours, and further east in Woolwich, where, where wool was traded while it was still a tiny Kentish village.

This started off as a post to gently poke fun at British place names, but quickly transformed into a small research project. It’s been illuminating learning about the origins of these places to the best of my ability, since I am neither a linguist nor a historian. It’s shown me that the multiculturalism dreaded by some in modern society is nothing but a continuation of what has always happened on these lands, culture, conflict and change. These names have developed over the centuries due to the constant influx and melding of cultures that reached even the most isolated of the Scottish isles.  I could not even hope to delve into the impact made by the variety of indigenous languages, which borrowed from conquering foreigners and also made it back to the continental mainland. All of these places, from ever-expanding London to the smallest coastal village, contain immeasurable histories, and act as placeholders for moments that have long turned into dust. So maybe, in the future, when I pass Mucking, or Chipping Sodbury, or Gog Magog Hills, or god help me, Belvoir, within my giggles or sigh of irritation for a bizarre pronunciation, there will be a curiosity around how they came about.

 

London Links

Just ended one job and started a traineeship, so sorry for the radio silence! Here is the long-awaited (I’m sure) London links!

And another link that I really like (maybe I should start doing general links instead)

London Links

Links for this week:

Meanwhile Spaces and Reclaiming Community Space

I went to a great conference last month that was organised by Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield of This is not a Gateway. It was at times very moving (one of the discussions featured the lovely and quietly inspiring Sylvia McAdam of Idle No More), radical, thought provoking and horrifying. Throughout the conference was the question of what space is for, can it ever be neutral, and the uneasy relationship between institutions, government and the people who occupy these governed spaces.

After going to a great discussion about ‘meanwhile’ temporary spaces in Berlin, and the history of these usually radical/activist spaces (as typified by squatting in the 1970s/80s), the speakers talked about their frustration of how meanwhile spaces have been replicated globally, including London. Temporary spaces in Berlin are unique because after numerous clashes and arrests early on with squatters, the city government quickly consented to these alternative uses of space, and in many cases, funded and regulated them, allowing them to flourish in certain neighbourhoods around the city. This occurred because they realised that the congregation of young people and ‘creatives’ could help regenerate a still-developing city.

Such regulations -such as cheap rent or no rent in lieu of work/experience and long contracts with landlords/ city officials to use unused spaces and buildings- allowed a thriving music and art scene to develop in the 90s. Spaces were also created that tried to serve local communities, through kindergartens for children. The problems that occur when this model is transposed to other countries is that the underlying philosophical/political impetus to civic/urban improvement and activism through reclamation of space  is exchanged for a more corporate, neo-liberal model of consumerism and (immediate) gentrification. Leases are short-term, projects are sponsored by corporate entities, spaces tend to just house art/clothing instead of community spaces and in many cases the spaces are privitised and unavailable to the majority through pricing, location and general exclusivity.

I wonder, if in times of severe and damaging cuts by a government bent on austerity, how radical true meanwhile spaces could be in Britain. Spaces such as Bar25 in Berlin (according to the speakers) mediated between community services and conspicuous consumption through luxury nightlife and lifestyle services.  While I think cultural differences (and health and safety) would make such a pairing difficult here, having gone to a variety of feminist and activist events in the past few years, I am always amazed by the continuing histories of radical liberal spaces in London and how they continue to be used for diverse populations. Maybe in London’s case, the key to meanwhile spaces is in the past, using old institutions, libraries and working class halls to continue to encourage and nourish new forms of creativity and activism. To reuse community sites abandoned by local and national governments in order to join up communities and activists groups. It’s happened with urban farms, volunteer libraries, charity property companies and idea schools born out of squatting and activist circles. To create modern alternative spaces, there needs to be reclamation of unused public structures.

In Liverpool, the council has reached the radical decision to sell off derelict homes for £1 to residents who want to get on the property ladder. They have to agree to live in the property for at least five years and make the homes liveable. It is meant to be a more nuanced, community-based attempt at regeneration, a way to revitalise the city without gentrifying the area and the increased marginalisation of its poor. Could this work in London as well, selling off properties for a tuppence, with the agreement that the properties will be used specifically for the community? What types of spaces could be created with such an agreements- nurseries, community centres, advice drop-ins, community food centres and skills training spaces for young people? The more I think about it, the more excited I feel about the possibilities inherent in such non-permanent, shifting spaces and how we can redefine what it means to occupy urban environments.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Like many Anglophiles, I’ve grown up watching, loving and memorizing old English comedy. PBS acted as my guide into the vast world of dysfunctional suburban families, camp shopmen and well-educated men in dresses putting on silly voices. The antiquated worlds of Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served, Fawlty Towers and Monty Python were sometimes pierced by servings of Black Books and AbFab on Comedy Central, or Chef (a little known show about an angry, proto-Ramsey chef played by Lenny Henry.) Whilst many were drawn to Agatha Christie or historical dramas on Masterpiece Theatre, I was always more intrigued by the rampant silliness of fare such as a Bit of Fry and Laurie, Posh Nosh and Jeeves and Wooster. It wasn’t highbrow, but it was very, very funny.

I feel that as I have grown up, so has English comedy- my husband and friends cringe whenever I talk about my love of these old comedies- they find them embarrassing, such as finding old relics of racism in your grandparents’ attic. Much like other old comedies I grew up watching on late night television and on cable (I love Lucy, the Honeymooners, Bewitched, I dream of Jeannie, Good Times,  The Mary Tyler Moore Show…), I find these comedies to be instructive archives of societies gone past, of generations in transition, of roles that were being renegotiated or subverted by those not in power. They act as historical record and as a collective story of who we wanted to be, what we feared and the objects we found important.

Though I no longer watch much of these old comedies, there remains a fondness for them. I can see shades of that bawdy and eccentric English comedy tradition when watching the Inbetweeners, Shooting Stars or Black Books. I also love the dark, awkward, slightly surreal and provocatively silly strain of comedy that was heralded by Brass Eye and the Office and is now found in most popular comedies from Peep Show to Phone Shop to Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. Even now as many of shows  have gone off the air, I find myself constantly searching for more comedy to fill the void, bringing me to people such as Sarah Millican, Richard Herring,  Josie Long, Nick Helm and full circle to American comedians deconstructing notions of nationality, identity and geography, the hysterical Rich Hall and Reginald D. Hunter. I look forward to doing more growing up with my old friend, and seeing what I can learn and recognise from it as the years go on.

With all of that said, I decided to post an instructive video on how to make tea by the very funny comedian and rapper Doc Brown (also known as Zadie Smith’s kid brother). Possibly the best example of modern English sensibility combining with a treasured English pastime. It is a bit sweary, so I’d say it’s NSFW.