'This ain't my London no more'.
The words pierced the chilly wind of the early evening. They sank like two pieces of lead in my stomach. The melancholy behind them could not hide the anger and angst J felt at seeing her birthplace transformed in a yuppies' paradise. London's East End has always worn its hubris on its chest, whether it be by supporting the Hammers or using 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 is a cockney and feels that she's part of a dying breed. With developers moving in and the Olympics well under way, this part of London will be blitzed to oblivion in a few decades she reckons. According to what she related to me that evening the new regeneration programmes are doing away with the fabric that has held together all the different communities of the East End. The story of this forsaken part of the capital is one of immigration, innovation and DIY attitude. From the Italians in the 1840s to the Jews in the first part of the 20th century, the area has seen no shortage of immigrants. Nowadays it's the Muslims in Brick Lane that give the East End a different hue and shade.
'This ain't my London no more'
These words left me at the same crossroads I put myself on 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've left behind. They are like shipwreck survivors, gliding along in the deep waters of observation, adaptability, acceptance and identity.
J's comments yielded no reply from me. How could I? Having been only in London for 10 years, I had no experience of the current situation in the East End, or even in similar deprived areas where massive regeneration programmes have been implemented with no regards whatsoever to what the local populace have to say about it. Ergo, I could not countenance her claims. It's a delicate issue, it always is. An immigrant's raison d'etre is nothing but a slow passage to an unknown world seen only through the prism of those around him/her. It takes a long time to put on one's own spectacles to see the surrounding world without rose tinted lenses, or cynical irises. The one weapon the foreigner has is comparison, which by right makes it the wrong one. In cases where countries are so dissimilar as in the UK and Cuba, the common denominators between both nations: populated by human beings of flesh and bone, governed by the rule of law and free education and health care; these become secondary in the pursuit, by the immigrant, of an immediate identity with which to integrate faster and subtler into the social make-up. To me this was the difference between talking about Thatcher and Blair, missing out on the jokes about 'Dynasty' or 'Dallas' and being completely floored whenever The Smiths' great years were mentioned. But compared I have. And as J's words 'This ain't my London no more' reverberated in my head, my mind flew back to Havana and with that to 'This ain't my Havana no more'. No, it hasn't been for a long time and the current miasma that I witnessed up close and personal back in February when I went back to the city left me feeling like J, angry and anxious. And therein lies the immigrant's fidelity. The parallel world which runs alongside the native's. The upside (and downside) is that we can take this fidelity too literally sometimes and miss the smaller details, we can get lost in an alien labyrinth which only the indigenous person knows how to get out of. In English, they call it 'to put your foot in it'. In Spanish, it's similar, 'meter la pata'.