Monday 9 July 2007

Meditations on London (Adagio)

'This ain't my London no more'.

The words pierced the air on the chilly, early January evening. They sank like two pieces of lead in my stomach. The melancholy behind them could not hide the anger J felt at seeing her birthplace transformed in a hipsters' paradise. We were standing on Bethnal Green Road, near the newly-opened Rich Mix and J was getting all teary and nostalgic. Also pretty worked up.

London's East End has always worn its pride on its chest. After all, this is the birthplace of the Cockney Rhyming Slang, the secret language developed by the East-End dockers 200 years ago and adopted later in the 1850s by the underworld to confuse the police and eavesdroppers. J was a cockney through-and-through and felt that she was part of a dying breed. With developers moving in and preparations for the Olympics well under way, she reckoned this part of London would be blitzed to oblivion in a few decades. According to what she related to me that evening the new regeneration programmes were doing away with the fabric that had held together all the different communities of the East End. The story of this forsaken part of the capital was one of immigration, innovation and can-do attitude. From the Italians in the 1840s to the Jews in the first part of the 20th century, the area had seen no shortage of immigrants. Nowadays it was the Muslims in the areas of Brick Lane, Mile End and Tower Hamlets that gave the East End a different hue and shade.

'This ain't my London no more' 
These words left me at the same crossroads on which I found myself when I came to live in the UK almost ten years ago. The immigrant's dilemma is one where they have no past in the future country they'll inhabit, nor present or future in the one they’ll leave behind. They are like shipwreck survivors, swimming, limbo-like, in the deep waters of involuntary amnesia and adaptability. Yet, this by no means guarantees that they will necessarily become new Robinson Crusoes, their desert islands occasionally being nothing more than mirages in the middle of the ocean.
 J's comments yielded no reply from me. What could I say? I didn’t know much about the current situation in the East End, or even in similar deprived areas where massive regeneration programmes have been implemented. Very often, with very little regard to what the local populace have to say about them.
 It's a delicate issue, identity and belonging, it always is. Once in their adopted land, an immigrant’s experience usually feels like travelling through a narrow passage to an unknown, but much broader world. A journey seen mostly through the prism of those around her/him. It takes a long time for the immigrant to put on their own glasses in order to see their new surroundings in their own way, unaided. It is then that comparisons are often made. Comparisons that are nothing but ways to compensate for lack of a previous life in the new country.
 To me, this manifested itself when talking about Thatcher and Blair (apparently, the latter was a political reincarnation of the former) or missing out on references to 'Coronation Street' or 'Eastenders'. The tendency in this instance is to look for parallels. And as J's words 'This ain't my London no more' reverberated in my head, my mind flew back to Havana and converted her phrase into 'That’s not my Havana no more'. No, it hasn't been for a long time. No hipster-driven gentrification there of which to speak. But the combination of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence I witnessed when I went back to the city of my birth recently left me feeling like J, pretty worked up. As another smoke ring came out of J’s mouth, I began to think that after all, there were two, not just one, people standing on Bethnal Green Road, feeling betrayed. We both looked at the newly-opened Rich Mix, its lights drawing two parallel lines on the pavement.
 © 2007

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