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.

 

Museum Review: The Avery Research Center

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I’ve recently returned from a month long road trip across the American South, from Maryland to Kentucky and back again. One of the best places I saw was a museum and archive centre in Charleston, South Carolina. Wary of supporting a tourist industry that seemed to still uncritically support its antebellum and Confederate past in order to draw crowds that longed for the problematic glamour of plantation life, I tried to spend more time in institutions that explored African-American history. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture was one such place.

DSCN0770Housed in a beautiful brick building around the outskirts of historic Charleston, Avery originally existed as a normal school for black young people. Avery was created during the Reconstruction period in the States, the post-war period when both emancipated black people and white people struggled in a Charleston that had been ravaged by the Civil War. Since young black people could not learn in white schools due to segregationist laws that would eventually be more commonly known as Jim Crow (named after a famous 19th century minstrel character), Avery Normal Institute was created in order to train them for teaching and professional roles. The school remained open until the early 1950s, closing in the wake of Brown v Board of Education ruling. Many Avery alumni went on to become community leaders and important local figures in the civil rights movement.

In the 1970s, some of these leaders joined with the local black Charleston community to reopen the Avery Institute as a centre that spoke not only of the Avery’s history, but also that of black life throughout the lowcountry of South Carolina. Through their outreach and activism, they were able to gain the support of the state government and University of South Carolina and reopen the Avery in 1978. The new Avery, now a research and archive centre flanked by beautiful gardens near the harbour, exists as a community space that houses galleries, the Phyllis Wheatley literary and social club, a reconstructed classroom, and an archive that can be used by students and the public alike.

I went to the centre on a whim, and was unsure of what to expect. The building itself is beautiful, possessing a dignified, academic grandeur that matched the other striking European-inspired buildings in the district. Entering the side of the building, I was given a tour by the extremely knowledgeable guide that runs the front desk. Starting off with a charmingly old video detailing the centre’s history, I was given a short tour stating where everything was (you are allowed to explore the building on your own). Impressed by the many famous photographs on the wall of iconic black figures, we travelled to the top floor, which held one of the main galleries of the building.

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I was instantly hit with envy when I entered the gallery, I could see myself working there, walking the halls every day. The temporary exhibition, titled Dust in Their Veins: A Visual Response to the Global Water Crisis, was the work of the Chicago artist Candace Hunter. A series of silhouettes outlining female torsos framed the walls, some with added installations spilling onto the floor. The work created an urgent conversation around women and children around the world who suffer due to lack of proper access to water, and the issues that result from attempting to find this limited resource, from health issues to girls being forced out of education due to sanitary problems once they begin menstruation or being needed to find water. The exhibition was moving, and I could not help but think of my privilege while I held my half-empty water bottle in my hand. The anonymous torsos- representing millions of lives deferred, usually compressed into statistical phantoms by a calamity-saturated Western public- were given life and colour, imploring the audience to bear witness to their struggle. They rested starkly against the pristine white walls and warmly coloured wood floors, incongruously lit by the cheerful sunshine outside that sparkled across the harbour.

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Passing through the gallery on the top floor led to the grand staircase of the institute, where I imagined the wonder of the formally enslaved children as they entered the front doors for the first time. The walls were lined with prints of rural black women by the famous local artist, Jonathan Green and previous lectures with low country luminaries like Julie Dash. One room had been converted into a facsimile of a Reconstruction-era classroom. I wandered around the room for a moment, gently touching the small desks and wandering around the sparse interior. The other halls were filled with prints of various black history items that shifted as I turned into a new corridor. The archive was dark, closed for the day, though I tried to no avail to glance inside as I walked by.

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Walking back into the main corridor, I went into the other gallery space, which had the Africa: Masks, Music, and Motion exhibition on African masks with related ephemera. Along the walls were prints about Mandela and civil rights, creating a connection between African and African American culture past and present, a fitting symbol of the cultural traditions and struggle that formed lowcountry culture. The masks are part of the institute’s digital archives, and have been donated over time. I was reminded of other similar exhibitions that I’ve seen over the years and how much context changes how museums can be experienced. Gone was the taint of Empire-fuelled anthropological fervour (and the path of theft and mayhem that marked the way), which always lingered in the back of my mind, no matter how much I loved the vast range of artefacts that I saw. I felt a sense of happiness and contemplation when viewing the exhibition, which felt like an attempt to reconnect the community to the types of traditions that had been destroyed and forgotten during the horrors of slavery.

The Avery was one of the highlights of my trip, and I can’t overstate what a great place it is. It’s incredibly rare to have a black cultural centre that is academic while also constantly reaching out to the community at every level. There should be a place like Avery everywhere, upholding marginalised cultures and showing that it is worthy of dignity and respect.

Weekly Links

My first night in London, 2007

 

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)

North by Northwest

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Marking my newest tube map has shown a striking fact that I’ve tried to ignore for six years- I know nothing about north London. Aside from small pockets like Finsbury Park, Camden, Holloway and Angel Islington that have the good fortune to be close enough to the city centre or proximity to other places and people that I wanted to visit- north London remains a mystery to me. I know vague things about it- the large communities of Orthodox Jews, media types and celebrities- but the actual physical form of it, the history and feel of the place remained outside of my reach. The problem is, simply, there isn’t much happening up north. Much like my far west residence, much of it is simply residential, and that dreaded word- suburban. However, this is the year I promised myself that I would push past my complacency and explore this unknown frontier where rich men roamed.

I started my journey in Hampstead, the north’s spiritual home. Cris-crossing between the Under/Overground I emerged in a lush area flanked by park opening and London staple Daunt Books. Making a note to swing around and come back to Daunt, I started through the park, wary of of the greenery that would inevitably cause havoc on my hayfever. I was struck immediately by the wildness of Hampstead Heath. Much like its sister to the south, Richmond Park, Hampstead was less clean-cut than other parks, lending it  an artistic, romantic wildness. Beautiful Georgian homes peered from behind the trees as the crowds flocked towards the numerous ponds, watching the ducks and coots frolic in the water as footballs were gently passed around.

Walking up sharply inclined paths that cut through the trees, past cyclists and families led me to Parliament Hill. I stood in the high grass and gazed at the sunbathers in various states of deshabille as the park unfurled gently behind them, the cityscape visible in the distance. With the dense greenery behind me and the golden green grass that surrounded me, I could understand why this had been the setting for so many paintings and films. Moving past the topless sunbathers that ignored the brisk spring weather for that rare chance at sun, I walked down the sloping path, past the tennis courts and middle aged gay couples holding hands, to another part of the park with yet more ponds. Sitting down on the grass I watched the sunseekers sprawled out on picnic blankets, their Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s food surrounding them like a Manet painting. A young spaniel ran from blanket from blanket, hunting for affection, completing the scene.

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After tiring of the cheery pleasantness I set off again, passing the men’s pond, which was surrounded by middle-aged men in small swimming trunks, their soft stomachs spilling over. A quick glance over the fence showed men on the pier, goggles on, gazing at the pond, empty save for a few swimming rings and honking water fowl. Eventually I left the park, though a quick glance at google map showed that I was nowhere near my starting point! I walked around the park, marvelling at how different the area was from my small suburb.  I stopped when I saw a bus stop whose destination was Highgate. Deciding to continue my adventure, I hopped on the bus, hoping to see the famous cemetery. As the bus travelled to Highgate, I felt as though I was leaving London altogether. Highgate is known as a village within the city for very good reason. The chic pubs and well tended buildings became sparser as the bus heaved itself up a sharply inclined country hill. The buildings reminded me strongly of the early colonial buildings in Williamsburg, plain and sturdy. We passed what looked like a village square before stopping at a large school. It looked unlike anything else I’d seen in London, the closest comparison I could think of was Dulwich Village in the southeast.

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Walking around the area I’d felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Amongst the normal high street shops was the delightful looking High Tea at Highgate, which I reminded myself to return to (I am forever searching for teashops). At Highgate Bookshop, further down the road, I had a look in, happy with the shop’s tininess and quaintness, and it’s solid collection of fiction. It was like a Richard Curtis film, I expected Hugh Grant to waltz in at any moment. After sating myself on books I walked back to the green, cutting through small streets and looking at the fancy houses and rich greenery as well-dressed parents and their children in well-tailored school uniforms walked past.

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After exploring a bit more, I left Highgate Village and walked towards Muswell Hill. I was only there for a moment, but I managed to get a picture of London in the spring.

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5 Ways to Tell That You’re a Londoner- The Transport Edition

Five ways to tell that you lived in London too long:

  1. You’re annoyed rather than horrified when you hear ‘there is a delay due to person under the train’ during rush hour.
  2. You become slightly enraged when tourists stand on the wrong side of the escalator (there are signs!)
  3. Your sense of time changes- it is now entirely reasonable that it takes up to two hours to get across town, whereas two hours used to mean that you were able to drive into another state or two.
  4. As long as there’s a night bus, there is a way to get home. It will probably take 3 hours.
  5. You express your frustration with obnoxious people on public transportation by furiously not making eye contact and pretending they’re not there.

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: