Friday 26 February 2016

Urban Diary

On the ol’ bike, innit? His accent is a much as a surprise as his question. Then, again, I probably look a sight. Worn-out Birkenstocks, yellow, hi-vis ankle-slap-bands and helmet under my left arm. So, why not banter a bit? I probably stand out in this very centric, tourist-friendly part of London. He is leaning on his walking stick, just in front of me in the queue. Yes, on the ol’ bike, I answer politely. I tell him that I have just done an inverted L-shaped bike journey from White Hart Lane to Stamford Bridge. He grins. On looking at his white-and-dark-blue shirt, cockerel on the left hand-side, I suddenly realise why. A bit far for a Spurs fan to travel, innit? I challenge him jovially. He adjusts his thick-rimmed glasses. A solitary ray from the mid-afternoon summer sun lights up his receding grey line. I used to go up to good ol' White Hart Lane until a few years ago, though I’ve lived here all my life.

I’ve lived here all my life. Sometimes a neutral-sounding sentence can shake us awake from a long-held, misconceptions. This Sainsbury’s, across Holborn Station in London’s West End, sits almost in the middle of a tourist hub. Souvenir-chasers go through here en route somewhere else. Like me, who has just momentarily stopped to buy a bottle of water – the frozen one I took with me from home this morning having been emptied around Kensington and Chelsea – plenty of visitors navigate through this urban jungle to go to Covent Garden or the British Museum.

I’ve lived here all my life. For some stupid reason I have always seen W1, WC2, SW1 and SE1 as tourist hotspots first and foremost. Hotels, museums, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. You spot the famous landmark and take a selfie in front of it. Places you visit and then come back home. Wherever that home may be. London or abroad. The capital or Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton or another major city. Perhaps a little town. Anything except for “I’ve lived here all my life”. I forget that beyond the wide and populous Southampton Row there are roads on which people live. People who have neighbours. Neighbours who might or might not have children and even grandchildren. Children who go to local schools. In short, despite tourism and rising rents, there is normal life in central London.

Walking-stick man and I joke a bit more. The new season of the English Premier League has just got under way and there is much to look forward to. He praises Chelsea’s manager, Jose Mourinho and I return the favour by bigging up Tottenham Hotspurs’ young and promising Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino. I come out of the supermarket, get on my bike and stop to think for a moment that sometimes all it takes is a neutral-sounding sentence to shakes us up a bit. Even if it means accepting another reality.

Covent Garden: I'm sure that there is normal life beyond these streets

© 2016

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Tuesday 1st March at 6pm (GMT)

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Socially Awkward Linguistic Situations)

Learning a foreign language is not just about skills and dedication; it is also about context. Determining one’s context is as important as decoding complex grammar structures or incomprehensible syntax. I learnt this lesson the hard way as a newly-graduate English language teacher more than twenty years ago. There I was, fresh from uni, talking about phonetics and phonology to my students, when all some of them were interested in was to find out how to say “your rent-car is ready, sir”.

It is this contextual aspect that came to mind recently when I read the now-customary section in The Economist called “Johnson”. This was a regular feature years ago that has made a much-desired come-back.

The phases one goes through foreign-language-learning are not dissimilar to the ones one undergoes when taking the first steps in one’s native tongue. There is much to decipher, digest and interpret. The difference is that when presented with a vessel of new words the foreign-language learner will immediately hang on to primary meanings. They are the equivalent of a life-saving piece of wood in a shipwreck.

It takes a while for second-, third- and multiple-meanings of a word to take hold. I always knew that “baby” was an infant or very young child. But the “baby” who just cares for Nina Simone is of a different variety. Same with the “baby” whom (repeatedly) Robert Plant is gonna leave in Led Zeppelin’s monster hit. That baby had nothing to do with youth (even if she was young).

Thus, from primary-meaning acquisition the learner moves to a nuanced zone where the context defines the meaning of the word. We, those of us who have studied a foreign language, begin to think in that target lingo. It happened tome halfway through uni and it is one of the reasons why I am able to write a blog in English despite the fact I am a native Spanish-speaker. At some point, through hard work and skills-building, I managed to create a personal structure based on the English syntax, semantics and grammar.

I mentioned semantics in that paragraph. Semantics can be misleading sometimes. When we are learning a foreign language we not only adapt to unusual patterns (and make them familiar to us) but also we adopt linguistic tics in the same way a native speaker would. How many times have I not heard a fellow Cuban nowadays start a sentence with the word “like”, just like a US or – come to think of it – a British teenager?

In the same way, we, non-native speakers, sometimes appropriate language we rarely give a second thought to. Some of this language could come across as socially awkward. The Economist’s “Johnson” section had a wide selection of words that describe men and women but that tend to favour mainly the former over the latter. For instance, I am guilty as charged of using the word “chatty” for women whilst for men is, “says a lot”. I used to use the word “bossy” to describe a woman I knew until I realised that I was unconsciously patronising her and boxing her in. It also works the other way around. I have been called “articulate” on a few occasions, which used to bring a smile to my face until I noticed that it was usually accompanied by a look of surprise on my interlocutor’s face. At a higher level, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, used a put-down in Parliament a few years ago that no one has forgotten about. In addressing a female colleague, he told her to “calm down, dear”. Well, at least, I have the excuse of being a foreign-born non-native speaker. Oxford-based Cameron has no such excuse. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Who are you calling bossy?

Which brings me back to the start of this column tonight. Learning a foreign language does not depend on innate skills (believe me, I was not born with an MFL gene), but on hard work and dedication. It also depends on the context the learner decides for themselves. Is it communication they are after? Is it specialist translation they need? Is it the whole shebang? In more than twenty years I still have not found the answer. I’m still learning.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Friday 26th February at 6pm (GMT)

Friday 19 February 2016

London, my London

A defining moment of the Viking Age came in 1066 at the village of Stamford Bridge. It was here where King Harold Godwinson defeated invading Norwegian forces under the command of King Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s brother.

This Stamford Bridge, however, was, and still is, in Yorkshire, north of England. Nothing to do with the one in SW6, London; the finish line of my three-stadium bike-tour. And yet, I saw parallels between the two places.

For the last thirteen years there has been a battle in English football, specifically in the top division, namely, the Premier League. This conflict has gone beyond the terraces. It is more a financial matter than a fan-driven one. It has pitted owners versus cash-strapped supporters. It has awakened followers, football-refuseniks and neutrals to the reality of modern soccer. At the heart of this issue is the sport itself, what it used to be and what it has become.

In the summer of 2003, Roman Abramovich, Russian billionaire, arrived at Stamford Bridge, southwestern London, to take over Chelsea Football Club. On doing this he changed the face of the sport forever. In that first summer, Chelsea spent £110m on 13 players. This set the tone for the various takeovers that would happen in subsequent years: Manchester City, Manchester united and Liverpool Football Club are all now foreign-owned. The latter, with its well-proven pedigree in the sport, was bought by the Fenway Sports Group. Anyone familiar with baseball will recognise the first word in that company’s name. It is the name of the Boston Red Sox's stadium.

As I stood outside CFC's home ground, giving both my bike and myself a much-needed rest, I could not help thinking that the only times I had been inside “The Bridge” (as we fans call it) had been to purchase merchandise in its shop or as participant in events held on its premises. I had never been to a match. The ticket price was too high for me. In this bloodless battle over who bought which club I could see only one casualty: the loyal football fan.

In the hot midday sun, I also reflected on how this tug-of-war was not limited just to the Premier League. I had just cycled from one end of the city to the other. 34.4 miles in three hours, fifty minutes and 25 seconds. Along the way I had seen deprivation, regeneration-linked gentrification, magical and practical urbanisation and new-money invasion. The well-designed housing estates on the almost-traffic-free Grosvenor Road in Pimlico, contrasted with the 60s-built, ordinary-looking Tottenham mid-rises. In the minimalist properties in SW3 I imagined most notes were scribbled using the Cyrillic alphabet these days. Council properties in East London were being flogged off in the Far East at plush fairs to prospective buyers who never had any intention of relocating to Britain. It was not just football where the playing field had changed for the worse. Unlike in 1066 the battle was not between an invading force and a fearless home-grown army but between unbridled free-market power and national sovereignty. For all that the rightwing press railed against “foreign welfare scroungers”, they were letting off the hook the tycoons whose tax contributions to the Exchequer were, at most, risible. Some of them lived in the white doll-looking houses past which I had just cycled.

I had conceived the idea of the three-stadium bike-tour based on the fact that Tottenham Hotspurs, my starting point, had not won the league since 1961. Arsenal’s Emirates, my next stop, had not tasted success in England’s elite football competition for eleven years, whereas Chelsea, at whose stadium I was now, had won four Premier League titles since Abramovich's takeover. From former to current glories. Irony of ironies. Look at the table now and see who is doing better and who is doing worse. During my journey, though, I realised that I was also taking the lid off another London. One that had eluded me all these years, either because I was just another commuter going from A to B, or because I was not looking at the whole picture. Stamford Bridge gave me that final – but still only temporary – piece of the puzzle. Roman’s pet project had unwittingly become a synecdoche, not just for football but also for what was happening in London, property-wise, investment-wise, finances-wise. The part that was being used for the whole. Suddenly, Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire and its SW6 cousin were no longer just two places in England, separated by hundreds of miles, but two conflict zones. The former, steeped in history, the latter’s outcome, yet to be known.

© 2016

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Tuesday 23rd February at 6pm (GMT)

Thursday 18 February 2016

London, my London

In 1870, an almost-thirty-year-old Claude Monet arrived in London with his family, forced to emigrate by the raging Franco-Prussian war back home. Whilst staying in the British capital, Monet found time to study the works of British visual arts giants Constable and Turner. Their influence can be seen in one of the French painter's most famous works, “The Thames below Westminster” from 1871. As a keen admirer of impressionism, I always make sure I pay it a visit whenever I am at the National Gallery. The delicate, foggy-looking, but still light-filled canvas portrays London’s Embankment in all its romantic glory. Never mind the fact that by then, my adopted city had acquired various nicknames, some of them fog-related. By the end of the 18th century, London was already known as “The Smoke”. “Pea-souper” and “London Ivy” were also two others terms that described the gamboge-coloured smog that stained clothes and occasionally brought the city to a standstill.

As I turned right on to Victoria Embankment on my bike in August last year, I tried to imagine what the view greeting young Monet on one of his excursions along the Thames would have been back then. On this completely fog-free, very warm summer day, I thought that he must walked further up, probably as far as Embankment Pier to get a good sense of proportion of the bridge and buildings he would later immortalise.

Some fellow bloggers and readers have mentioned that London must be a cycle-friendly city. Maybe the assumption has been made because of my enthusiasm when writing about touring the city on my sturdy Raleigh. But the fact remains that London, like many other metropolises around the world is chiefly car-obsessed. That the situation has changed in the last few years should not be underestimated. There are more bicycles on the street of London now. Many of them, I found on the Embankment. On this particular day I was a lucky witness to the latest works on the East-West Cycle Superhighway. This is a new scheme that will create safer routes for bike-riders and a better understanding of cycling as a healthy-living, pollution-free travelling option. But a lot remains to be done. The project has attracted controversy and it has polarised motorists and cyclists. It has not helped that newspapers like the Evening Standard have decided to use it in arather sensationalist tone when reporting on the matter.

I would have loved to pay more attention to the view Monet must have enjoyed when painting his “The Thames below Westminster”, but I was more concerned about keeping myself safe. The Superhighway was still being built which meant the closure of one lane on the normally avenue-wide Victoria Embankment. Frequent temporary traffic lights did not help as drivers became more impatient. Much yelling and cursing accompanied me during my journey down this popular thoroughfare. Although the pavement looked tempting I did not give in to law-breaking. The myriad tourists and people enjoying a sunny, summer day out would not have forgiven me. Families milled about. This was the London I had come to fall in love with over the years: welcoming, laid-back and inviting.

In order to distract myself from the frequent swearing directed at me and fellow cyclists, I allowed my mind to wander off. I thought of the refugee crisis reaching peak point at the time and how maybe, just maybe there might have been a Monet amongst those displaced by the Syrian conflict. I tried to think hard of how this 21st-century “impressionist” (man or woman) would portray the bridges, piers and building heaving into view now, what they would think about them.

Another Monet-related thought magicked itself all of a sudden when I cycled past Temple tube station. This was the point from where the proposed Garden Bridge would cross over to the South Bank. The Joanna Lumley-backed, Princess Diana-inspired project, whose total cost is £175m with £60m coming from the public purse, has caused an uproar. Not only because it arrives at a time when local councils budgets are being slashed but also because the benefits of it are not clear yet. It will be a pedestrian-only bridge with cyclists made to dismount and push their two-wheelers to the other side. Physical activities, other than running, will be banned. Other prohibitions will include: social gatherings, flying kites and playing musical instruments (what if people decide to whistle? Then, what?). What would young Monet have made of this urban ornament? After all he was the one who painted the Water Lilies series. Perhaps he would have been inspired to leave a trail of thin, but visible brush strokes behind. Or maybe, just maybe, he would have sided with the dissenting voices. Monet was amongst those who came to the aid of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French officer falsely accused of communicating French military secrets to the Germans at the tail end of the 1800s. He was a bit of a revolutionary in that sense. Besides, impressionism was, lest we forget, a radical movement in the 19th century. Panned, derided and laughed at by the critics, the impressionist works that hang in major museums around the world today would not have been there had it not been for their creators' tenacity. I thought of "The Thames below Westminster" again.

The Embankment came to an abrupt end at Westminster Bridge. Checking the notes in my pocket, I realised that I was supposed to cycle around the Palace of Westminster in order to carry on down Abingdon Street-cum-Millibank. This I did, venturing further into deep southwestern London territory. All along, I had the Thames on my left, its dark, muddy waters throwing up quick flashes of light in the early afternoon summer sun.

Someone is having a break
A queue of cars was awaiting me on Chelsea Embankment. After having almost glided down Grosvenor Road, traffic-free, the bumper-to-bumper, straight line forced me to snake my way around the motors. Through their windows I saw handbrakes pulled all the way up, looking like headless versions of van Gogh’s sunflowers and desperate-looking faces which carried none of the mirth I had seen before between Temple and Westminster tube stations. I turned right onto Cheyne Walk in a clever attempt to avoid the build-up, but when I re-joined Chelsea Embankment the situation was the same. Once again, the pavement looked tempting. Once again, I resisted. 

Since most cars were going right, at the crossing with Beaufort Street, I found myself again on a traffic-free road, this time, Cremorne. I followed the street around, all the way to Fulham Road. I turned left and headed up to my final destination, the headquarters of the football team I had begun supporting almost straight after I moved to Britain: Stamford Bridge.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Saturday 20th February at 6pm (GMT)

Tuesday 16 February 2016

London, my London

After my stop at Arsenal’s football headquarters, the Emirates, I headed off towards Angel Islington. At the end of the speed-bump-filled Drayton Park, I was greeted by the A1’s last urban transmutation: Holloway Road. This is a long thoroughfare that runs from the North Circular or A406 to the Angel. To drive, walk or cycle on it, is to become acquainted with some of London’s landmarks, such as HM prison Holloway and London Metropolitan University. In its one-hundred-and-sixty-four-year-old existence the former has served as residence to one Emily Wilding Davison, of the suffragettes’ movement and infamous Myra Hindley, the notorious Moors murderer along with her boyfriend Ian Brady. The latter has counted amongst its famous alumni, one-half of Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and feminist Julie Bindel. Law enforcement and education sitting almost side by side. I could not help thinking, as I crossed over to Palmer Place that more investment in the latter would probably mean making less use of the former.

My thoughts were still on London Met and its former student luminaries when my tarmac-licking two-wheeler turned left on to Liverpool Road.  Current Labour leader Jeremy Corby went there, although back then it was still being known for its former title, University of North London or North London Polytechnic. At the time of cycling from White Hart Lane to Stamford Bridge, Labour had yet to elect a new leader. The party was still in disarray over a disastrous general election and on a soul-searching mission. When I sat down to revise this post a few weeks ago, the British Parliament had just been asked to vote on the decision to bomb Syria. It had pitted Arsenal-supporting now-party-leader Jeremy Corbyn versus Spurs-loving Hilary Benn. Suddenly English football-s fiercest rivalry (think Yankees against Boston Red Sox in baseball) had taken on a different meaning. To add to the irony (or the sadness of it if you are a left-wing Labour voter), Arsenal’s nickname is the “Gunners”. Its crest has the image of a cannon on it. A peace-loving party leader, who supports a team that has a weapon of war as a logo, votes not to drop bombs on innocent civilians. Opposing him, but still in the same party, is a dick. Sorry, a cock. Apologies, a cockerel-sporting Member of Parliament. The Spurs crest is that of a rooster.

Another thought that assailed me as I biked on Liverpool Road, Angel-Islington- bound, came after observing my fellow cyclists. I had noticed a change in this now, very up-to-date bicycle-themed London landscape after I set off from Bill Nicholson Way. At first, there were barely other cycles on the road. The majority were pavement-riding, law-breaking, hoodie-wearing youngsters (and a few adults, too). Mudguard-free and thick-tired, most of these bicycles looked as if they were mainly being used to get from A to B.

The scenery changed as soon as I got to Stamford Hill. Here were the first fixies, which even the beard-boasting Haredi were riding. I noticed also an increase in bicycles with dropped bars with their customary Lycra-wearing proprietors. However, it was on Brownswood Road where the bike traffic increased ten-fold. Here were pricey Bromptons, dreamy, adventure-inspiring Lunas and steel-frame Noodles. As I came closer to the Angel, these classy-looking, expensive cycles were joined by Boris self-service, Santander-sponsored bikes. These bikes (except for Boris ones) were not just means of transportation to get someone from A to B. These were statements. Purchasing power statements. Fashion statements. Neighbourhood statements. What I discovered as I continued my journey towards the Thames was that London had not only become a more cycle-friendly city but also a place where the type of bike one had probably said as much about the owner as a car did.

I stopped for a few minutes outside the restaurant that has become my favourite eaterie in the capital. The Indian Vegetarian Restaurant on Chapel Market is a cheap buffet outlet with a friendly staff, a cozy and intimate atmosphere.

After this small detour I resumed my journey westwards. At the traffic lights at Angel Islington, I went straight ahead on to St John Street and turned right on to Roseberry Avenue where one of London’s two dance hubs is situated: Sadler’s Wells (the other one is The Place in Euston). I knew Farringdon Road was not far and with it, the Thames.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Thursday 18th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 13 February 2016

London, my London

Tottenham Hotspurs Football Club’s headquarters, White Hart Lane, stayed behind as I cycled on, on this – already – pretty warm August summer morning. My three-stadium bike tour was just getting going. Haringey’s High Road morphed into the A10 at Bruce Grove train station and the smooth surface gave a much-needed respite to my calves and legs.

Before you arrive at Stamford Hill, Stamford Hill is already coming out to meet you. Even before you get to the traffic lights on the intersection of Clapton Common and Amhurst Park, this north London district’s distinct feature makes itself known to the visitor. The conspicuous, high-crowned-black-hat-wearing, frock-coat-sporting Haredi were out en masse. To see them was to transport oneself to 18th-century Europe whence these strictly-Orthodox Jews apparently originated. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Haredi live in this five-ward area of London. Their solemn-looking demeanour concealed a feverish, almost demented passion. I was aware of their ecstatic approach to praying, even if I had never ventured into one of their synagogues.

N16 is also renowned for another more recent, gentrification-related phenomenon. To some, the demarcation of Clapton Common to the east and southeast, all the way to Victoria Park, southbound Stamford Hill itself (including when it turns into Stoke Newington Road and eventually into Kingsland Road), Commercial Road to the south and Essex Road to the west, constitutes the Hipster Republic of North, North-eastern and Eastern London. Unfair, some others might say, after all, not everyone in Shoreditch or Hoxton has a £5-a-bowl cereal for breakfast or wears checked shirts. However, the label has stuck and the deeper you go into east London the more heavily hirsute mugs you come across. Ironic beards, never forget the irony.

I did not go down that way on this day for my date was with two other stadia: Arsenal’s Emirates and Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. To reach the former I turned right on to Manor Road at Stoke Newington train station. A sensuous ease took over me as the combination of the late-morning warm sun and a – now – downhill trajectory allowed me to soak up my urban surroundings better.

An Arsenal fan: probably still waiting for another title... 12 years on
This was provincial London in almost-the-centre-of-the-city. The N16 postcode changed into N4 as soon as my front wheel crossed Green Lanes to get to Brownswood Road. Cars were advised to slow down as this was now a 20mph zone. Speed bumps became ubiquitous. Roads narrowed further down. All that was missing was a donkey-drawn cart to take me back to the trading days of the Nag’s Head market in the 19th century. I do not know if any other major city in the world has the same knack as London of conveying intimacy, even when I knew I was getting closer and closer to its sought-after, much-visited tourist hub. These were not the suburbs anymore. N1, Islington is a tourist attraction in its own right with two main hubs, one, Islington itself, around Angel tube station and the other one, in Nag’s Head indoor market. I was only a short distance away from the latter. I had arrived at the Emirates, Arsenal Football Club’s stadium. I was still, however, on enemy territory. The sun had reached its zenith and the temperature was fast climbing up to the 30s. I needed to get away quickly, not only because on taking the photo accompanying this post people took me for a Gunners fan, but also because I still had to find my way to SW6, Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge. The next stage of my bike journey would take me through central London and along the Thames, a ride I was really looking forward to.


Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Tuesday 16th February at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 10 February 2016

London, my London

Irony of ironies. I sat down to write this post in August, last summer, whilst my bike’s tires were still red-hot from having been in all-day contact with the seething London sun-kissed tarmac. My feet were still being massaged with one hand as the other one, keyboard-aided, left a trail of disparate, off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment, but rather original and enthusiastic thoughts on the hitherto blank page. I had just returned from my three-stadium bike-tour, a tiring journey that had taken me from north London to the southwestern part of the city. I was exhausted but in high spirits.

Irony of ironies. The idea for this cycle trip had come about after my AlexandraPalace-to-Camden-Town excursion. As I parked my vélo in the midst of this human zoo, I recalled a phrase I had inadvertently thought up earlier when I slid down Prince Albert Road and which I ended up using in my previous post: the Holy Trinity of cricket, rugby and football. Not being an expert in the former two, I decided to explore the latter through a post I innocently thought of calling at the time “the English football league top division: from past to current glories”. This was a logical (if somewhat un-sporty) appellation after I decided to begin my route at Spurs’ homeground White Hart Lane (last-time league winners in 1961), cycle down to the Emirates, headquarters of the Gunners, AKA, Arsenal Football (no league trophy since 2004) and end at Chelsea Football Club (last season's winners). But instead of a defence-splitting, straight journey from N17 to SW6, via Islington, Euston, Hyde Park and South Kensington, I opted for a different route. In an elegant tiki-taka, Barcelona-like possession-focused style I would take off from Bill Nicholson Way, bike through part of Stamford Hill, whiz down Drayton Park, past the Emirates on my way to Farringdon Road, turn right on to the Embankment without crossing the river Thames, keep biking westwards and arrive at Stamford Bridge: the “current glory” in my jaunt. A longer trip, but far more picturesque than the “kick-the-ball-long-and-hard-straight-at-the-bloke-at-the-front” approach.

Irony of ironies. Luckily I never wrote that post. I would have been laughed out of town. I would have had messages of sympathy and commiseration instead of trolling. Please, do Google the English League (Barclays Premier League) now and see where Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea sit at the moment. It is eerie that this was exactly the order in which I set off on my cycling trip.

I did still take off in the manner I had planned. Saddling up just outside the front gate of White Hart Lane on Bill Nicholson Way I looked to my right. Down that way the High Road would have taken me further up north and almost out of London, through the multi-faceted and multi-tasking chiefly-African-run Tottenham barber shops, still charging six or seven quid for a trim and serving as Speakers’ Corner and Relate counsellor at the same time. After that, Edmonton Green, with its revamped shopping centre and its three emblematic high-rises. Relics of a time when apparently Tories favoured contractor-designed tower blocks in contrast to Labour’s preference for cottage-style estates. It was near here in 1805 that young ten-year-old John Keats moved to with his family. So, if someone ever were to ask you “Where’s the Poet? Show him! Show him!/Muses nine, that I may know him!/'Tis the man, who with a man/Is an equal, be he King/Or Poorest of the beggar-clan/Or any other wondrous thing”, you could very well say: he lived here, on Church Street, Edmonton.

I looked to my left and psyched myself up for the long journey ahead. Tottenham’s High Road is mainly populated by low-rise buildings on either side. This made my trip more bearable as I did not feel crushed and overwhelmed by the surrounding architecture. Add on the colourful shops near Bruce Grove train station and you are being given a snapshot of a London not many people are familiar with.

This is an area where the Western Union Money Transfer business mixes with that of fresh fish and seafood. Chains include the ubiquitous McDonald’s next to the Hackney-founded, family-run bakery Percy Ingle. The High Road becomes the A10. Turn right at the traffic lights, go up the hill and you will end up at the Bruce Castle Museum, a 16th century manor house where you can trace back Haringey’s local history. Carry on, as I did, and you suddenly find yourself at the Marcus Garvey Library immersed in culture and tradition.

Pan-African, Jamaica-born Garvey led one of the most organised mass movements of people of African ancestry. The library has a special place in my heart. In 2000 I taught a series of Afro-Cuban dance workshops with a fellow Cuban drummer as part of Haringey’s Black History Month celebrations.A couple of years later I returned, this time as a story-teller, with more percussionists and an artist. I always felt that in a small, but significant way we all managed to capture and convey Marcus Garvey’s message that “For man to know himself is for him to feel that for him there is no human master. For him Nature is his servant, and whatsoever he wills in Nature, that shall be his reward. If he wills to be a pigmy, a serf or a slave, that shall he be. If he wills to be a real man in possession of the things common to man, then he shall be his own sovereign. When man fails to grasp his authority he sinks to the level of the lower animals, and whatsoever the real man bids him do, even as if it were of the lower animals, that much shall he do”.

Of equal importance is the building next to the library, the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, named after the charismatic, Guyanese Labour MP for Tottenham who held his seat from 1987 until his untimely death in 2000.  Bernie’s tireless activism led him to support various worthwhile causes, from feminist ones to educational ones, like a multi-racial school curriculum. At present the arts centre offers a varied programme of events, including world music gigs.

I pressed on, the morning sun warming the back of my legs and neck. I was cycling away from Spurs’ territory (or, as I call it, enemy territory) and entering Stamford Hill. The stage was set for the next chapter of my journey.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Saturday 13th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 6 February 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In Sit Up and Switch On

The mark of an epoch-making writer is usually measured in the effect they have on generations: past, present and future. If those who are yet to come can take ownership of a text in the same way of those who have come and gone, then the writer will have succeeded.

William Shakespeare is one of those writers.
May I peer into your soul?

This is not a post about the Bard, well; it is not a post about him in the sense of an essay or scholarly text. If that were the case the result would be a faux-scholarly treatise for I still am a novice when it comes to Shakespeare.

This column tonight is more about a fascinating new project The Guardian just put together. To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death some of the more outstanding and versatile British actors were filmed performing speeches from some of his more famous plays to the camera. The outcome is mesmerising for many reasons. One was the delivery. Each actor/actress had a unique approach to Shakespeare but there was a common thread running through their performances. A beautiful common denominator that united them all. Two were the expressions. They ran the whole gamut of facial phraseology, a stunning display of rainbow-like human emotions. I switched the volume off at some point and just watched their eyes, mouths, noses, hands silently (the only sound was the constant purring of our washing machine in the background). They said as much as the words they uttered. Third were the props they used or lack of them thereof. Eileen Atkins’ glass of wine at the end of her scene is as powerful as Adrian Lester’s prop-less one-second pause after “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them.

To watch these first six films (I believe The Guardian has commissioned more) is to be exposed to Shakespeare’s intricate nuance. The beauty of his plays was that they were rarely black-and-white. Lester’s Hamlet (below) is a good example. I love the way he plays this renowned soliloquy. He is knackered. Hamlet is beyond exhaustion. His father has been murdered by his uncle with whom his own mother is consorting. That is enough to send anyone over the edge. “To die- to sleep- /No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.” How many of us have not felt like that, at the end of our tether? Life pulling us in different directions?

I wish I had done Shakespeare properly in uni. I wish I had taught Hamlet properly, too, when I had the opportunity. The Bard not only wrote for an audience, but for the mind. The evidence is in the amount of people who read his plays without necessarily looking to attend a stage production. We all carry an internal Will. Do yourselves a favour, click on the link (in red, above) and enjoy once more this epoch-making writer.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 10th February at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Urban Diary

The smell hits me as soon as I come out of Cartridge World: dried salt cod. It is not just the instantly recognisable waft, but the memories it evokes. For a split second I am back in Havana as an eight- or nine-year-old in a fun-packed, baseball game in the courtyard behind the fishmonger’s five or six doors down from my bloc of flats. All of a sudden it is all makeshift baseballs again, using a tennis-ball base and plenty of string and Scotch tape wound around it, a wooden, dented bat and sewn-up gloves.

However this is not Havana in late 70s but London, E17 in 2016. Walthamstow on a Saturday winter morning. Minus the winter. The local postie sees to that. The January-defying dark grey shorts, red jumper, rolled-down thick socks and trekking shoes have been a common sight during this climate-change-ratifying weather. He walks just ahead of me on Hoe Street towards the intersection with Lea Bridge Road and High Road Leyton; his single-strap, yellow-and-red bag banging repeatedly against his side.

An avenue of people stands beside me at the traffic lights. It looks busier today. Perhaps because it is Cup day. This is deep claret-and-blue Hammers territory with Upton Park a stone’s throw away. Although it is only noon and West Ham are not due to play Liverpool until later on in the evening, some of the locals might already be on their way to their local boozer for an early pint and some pie and mash. Sandwiched between Lyca- and Lebara-decked shop fronts their nasal Cockney twang mixes with heavily rolled Somali “Rs” and agglutinated Polish consonants.

I make my way to Tesco Leyton Superstore where I have left my car. I drive out, turn left onto High Road Leyton and at the traffic lights I am forced into a stop by another vehicle stationed in the middle of the street, at this box-junction-free intersection. Julie Fowlis’ “Tha Mo Ghaol Air Àird A' Chuain” is a perfect companion for this mild, cloudless Saturday winter morning. As my car slides down Hoe Street, the rolled-down window lets the smell of dried salt cod waft in again. Baseball-filled memories flood back.

© 2016

Photo taken Property Link

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 6th February at 6pm (GMT)


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