Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Time to Press 'Pause'

 I'm not quitting, just taking a break

In my natural habitat (photo by Deborah Jaffe)


I started this blog in June 2007. After an uncertain beginning, it pretty soon became a space where I could let my creativity run wild. Unsurprisingly, many of the pieces I wrote here made it to my first book, "Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner". The experience of blogging and the (mostly) positive feedback I received as a blogger, gave me the confidence to approach publishers.

However, as many of you, fellow bloggers and readers, have noticed, I don't post here often. That's because in between holding two jobs (teaching English as a foreign language and delivering cycling training, in addition to promoting my book when possible) I find it difficult to update this much-cherished space of mine. That's why I have decided to pause for the time being. I won't be idle, though. In fact, I haven't been idle. One of the reasons why I'm taking a break from Blogger is that for the last seven years I have become more established on Medium. As a platform for writers, Medium felt like home as soon as I signed up to it. Becoming a member years later was the logical next step. What that meant was that I suddenly had access to a wide range of contributors, writing on anything from relationships to food. I also loved the sense of community we all created.

You, too, have the chance to access similar content (including my own posts) and become part of the Medium community. By clicking on the link below, you can sign up, become a member, start reading stories on your favourite topics and even write your own posts.

Don't delay. I'll be waiting for you.  Hear that sound? That's the sound of the kettle. I've just put it on.

Become a Medium member today

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Four Ways in Which Writers Can Support Independent Bookshops

And why I, as a first-time published author, will be promoting my book at them

Photo by Deborah Jaffe

What have Irish poet Seamus Heaney and African-American novelist Toni Morrison got in common? Their books are amongst many I have bought at independent bookshops over the years.

Newly arrived in Britain more than two decades ago, I remember the excitement of venturing into an indie bookshop on West End Lane, in then chic-becoming West Hampstead. West End Lane Books is still there, its green exterior welcoming book lovers, both local and beyond.

Since then my love affair with these offbeat, unique and occasionally architecturally whimsical buildings has intensified. Some boast neatly arranged shelves. Others are jungles of higgledy-piggledy nooks and crannies. They all, however, offer a friendly hand to the visitor, inviting us to get lost in a volume’s open pages for hours.

It wasn’t long after I’d fallen for independent bookshops’ charm that the first threat appeared on the horizon. Behemoth Amazon arrived in the bookselling world and changed its business model overnight.

I confess that at the time I was as guilty as the next person of moving my custom online and using Amazon as my go-to for cheap music and literature purchases. Yet, at the same time I still frequented independent bookshops. It’s just that I did it less often.

Perhaps it’s because of more maturity on my part or the effects of an eighteen-month-long pandemic and its knock-on effect on socialising, but I have lately felt the urge to visit more indie bookshops. To amble in and ask the staff how they’re faring, how the business is doing and how the current situation is affecting them. As a newly published author whose book, Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner, is being marketed and sold in all major retailers including Waterstones, WH Smith and, yes, you guessed it, online, on Amazon, I want to focus more on indie bookstores and its eclectic clientele.

An independent sector in such a crowded and commercially-driven world like bookselling is a precious resource to hold dear. Not every author has the backing of a big publishing house. That’s why I’ve come up with four ways (amongst many more. Please, feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments box) in which we, writers and readers, can help keep indie bookshops afloat.

1-    If you move into an area where you’re planning to stay long, have a look online and check where your local indie bookshop is. Many are difficult to find. High rents and overheads mean that sometimes bookstores have to share the space with other venue users. Hoxton Books sits on a busy thoroughfare in trendy Hoxton, but unless you know where to look, you’ll miss it. Have a walk around. Who knows? It might even inspire your next post, or even book.

2-    Find out if they support other causes. Many independent bookshops link up with other creatives and support them in various ways. I’ve been to nights of poetry and music, where the money collected is split evenly between venue and performers. Again, have a butcher’s* online. That tenner you coughed up for the new edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Sujata Bhatt’s Augatora? It goes towards supporting the free performance you’ll attend next time.

3-    Join a book club. Many independent bookshops run them. Part of me feels funny in suggesting this one because when it comes to reading, I’m a lone wolf. But at the same time I understand the importance of analysing certain literary works with a group of like-minded readers, even if they don’t all agree.

4-    Bookshops nowadays double up as cafés, a trend that would have had fictional character Bernard Black (of Black Books notoriety) in a fit. But they do. If you can spare some time (and money) enjoying the homemade cakes on offer and drinking the freshly brewed coffee, you will still be supporting independent bookshops’ survival.

Independent bookstores are more than retailers. Many are community hubs, beating hearts of a neighbourhood, town or village, challenges to readers of all ages to broaden their horizons. Let’s hope these hives of creative power are still kicking around in years to come. Let’s get behind them.

*Cockney rhyming slang: “look”, from “butcher’s hook”


Friday, 18 February 2022

Diary of a Cycling Instructor 20th September to 1st October)

Cycling back to Edmonton and its incinerator

 

Phallic and menacing: the beast in the background (photo by the author)

Edmonton never stood a chance against Cambridge. Not as a vis-à-vis encounter. After all one is a ward and the other one a city. The imbalance was shown more in the way of how campaigns played out in each area and how effective they were.

It always feels strange going back to Edmonton. As soon as I cycle past White Hart Lane (or Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as it’s called now) and enter N18 territory a sense of nostalgia overcomes me.

I lived in this neighbourhood of Enfield for more than twenty years (my abode was in N9). Whilst some people have long had reservations about this part of north London (diverse, multicultural, working-class), I’ve got a soft spot for it. I was one of Edmonton’s residents, one of the many immigrants shopping in the Green, having my hair done (when I had long hair) at Victoria’s on Fore Street and buying jollof rice and chicken from Rebecca’s Kitchen.

But when I went back recently in order to deliver some cycling training at a primary school off Fore Street, there was another thought doing the rounds in my head. A Facebook friend of mine had just sent me a link a few days before to a BBC Sounds podcast. The programme – called “Power to Which People?” – focused on the planned expansion of the Edmonton incinerator, the largest of its type in Britain and a bone of contention for environmentalists and community groups for many years.

I had already moved to Edmonton and my son was still a small baby when I first spotted the monster in the distance. It stood erect, a carbon dioxide emission machine coughing up smoke continuously. I still remember that in those years we had someone from Greenpeace or similar outfit camp up in our fifteenth-floor flat for a whole day, monitoring the incinerator.

Since the news was announced, there has been a campaign to stop the extension of the incinerator. “Power to Which People?” touched on that. A village in Cambridge faced a similar issue. A developer wanted to build an incinerator in Waterbeach. Had they gone ahead with their plans, the new structure would have been taller than Ely Cathedral and visible for miles around.

The council stopped the project on its planning stages arguing that it would have a detrimental impact on the landscape and nearby historic buildings.

Sadly, Edmonton is not Cambridge. It is an urban, heavily populated and deprived part of the UK. There are historic buildings, however. Salisbury House, on the northern side of the A10, is a Grade II listed late 16th century three-storey building. The poet John Keats lived on Church Street with his siblings and grandmother. A blue plaque links his presence to the area. But instead of cathedrals, there are chicken shops, kebab joints and Poundstretchers.

Edmonton is already at the receiving end of a pollution onslaught. It’s surrounded by the North Circular to the west, the aforementioned A10 to the north (officially called Cambridge Road. Oh, the irony!) and Southbury Road (already Ponders End territory) to the east. To the south, Mollison Avenue completes what I used to call when I lived there “the square of death”. Lung-wrecking fumes from cars, lorries, vans and buses engulf the local population.

As I cycled away from the school the first day, I turned around, looked up and locked my eyes on the beast. The incinerator still looked menacing. Phallic and imposing, it was the tallest structure dominating Edmonton’s urban landscape. I set my pedal and rode off. Power to which people? My answer to the question is: power to the people trying to stop the incinerator’s extension.

Every school has them: the eye-rubbing, guilty-looking, late-running children pushed gently (and occasionally not so gently) towards the school gates by angry-red parents.

The location of a headteacher’s office tells you a lot about the way a school is managed. There are pros and cons when it comes to the headmistress/master’s office location. Put it in close proximity to classes and I can smell micromanagement a mile off. Place it away from the madness and it’s a hands-off type of SLT (Senior Leadership Team), trusting teachers to do their job.

Or a headteacher who doesn’t give two monkeys how the school is run.

I love a staff room with a sense of humour: a hatted skeleton looking like a version of a mambo-dancing, “The Mask” era Jim Carrey is just the start we need every day.

It will probably have to wear a “mask”, being so close to the incinerator (photo by author)

...

“Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, on sale now.

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Chronicles of a Newly Published Author

Brixton: a cultural and intellectual powerhouse of London

 

Photo by Deborah Jaffe

One of the advantages we, immigrants, have when relocating to another country, at least at the start, is a lack of awareness of codes.  By this I mean that we are not conscious of local prejudices and hang-ups. The urban geography we slowly become acquainted with is just that: new territories to discover and new names to learn.

That’s how I found out about Brixton and its (unjustly deserved, in my opinion) bad reputation. In my early days at the travel agency where I worked for more than half a decade, I once mentioned to a colleague where I was planning to go later on that evening. He looked at me as if I’d just sworn at a client on the phone. Brixton? Are you mad? Do you want to get knifed?

Irony of ironies. My colleague (London-born and nearby Kilburn-dwelling) came from Irish stock and in years to come he’d relate to me tales of his parents (both from Northern Ireland) and the animosity and discrimination they faced when they arrived in the British capital. Yet, here he was, repeating the cycle. A cycle whose meaning I couldn’t grasp at the time but which was already making me curious.

Of course, I went to Brixton that night. As days turned into years and years turned into a couple of decades, I came to fall in love with SW9. I may live north of the river and hang out mainly in east London, but there’s something about Brixton that lures me back. It’s the crazy, organic and hard-to-define cultural and intellectual mix the place has to offer.

I saw a post-Baduizm but pre-New Amerykah Part One Erykah Badu at Brixton Academy (before it became O2 Brixton Academy) in the early noughties. I’ve raved to anyone who will listen about Fish, Wings and Tings, one of the top street food joints, not just in London, but probably in the country (pre-pandemic I’d already been to the place about half a dozen times. I can’t wait to go back). I danced my head off to the beat of master percussionist Kevin Haynes’ batá drums outside Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant in Brixton Village on a sultry summer evening a few years ago.

At Pop Brixton I enjoyed an excellent dance-heavy set by the bandleader, pianist and producer Eliane Correa’s band, Wara, in the summer of 2018. And at the Electric in 2017, I was reunited with the music of one of my salsa heroes: Isaac Delgado. Along the way from that evening in the late 90s up to now, I’ve caught up with the history of the place. From the controversial sus laws to the Brixton riots, I’ve been filling up the gaps my university degree never addressed.

In the summer of 2015 when I embarked on a three-market bicycle tour (Borough, Brixton and Portobello), it was in the second one where I stopped and spent more time. Whether speaking in Spanish to the many Latin Americans who have stalls or work in the area, or waxing lyrical with the elders on Brixton Station Road, this was me taking full advantage of the culture London had to offer. The difference was that this time around I was aware of the code system. And I didn’t give two monkeys.

So, piece of advice for any fellow immigrant newly arrived in London. Go wherever the hell you want to go. Codes are meant to be broken and postcodes to be travelled through. You could even start in SW9. I know it will welcome you with open arms.

...

“Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, on sale now.


Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Diary of a Cycling Instructor (6th September to 17th September)

 The loneliness of the long-distance BMX rider

The office these days (photo by author)

He said, me and my dad cycled to Epping Forest. I asked him, you’re telling me that you went on that bike? And he nodded. Nah, I replied, no way you could have cycled to Epping Forest from here Lordship Rec, on a BMX. And he insisted. And I resisted. And he kept going at it. Minuscule Year 5, looking at me, resembling more a Year 3 if you ask me. And eventually I relented. In the end, I relented. We’re all allowed our fantasies. Even if they’re about fifteen miles long and ridden on a BMX.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Chronicles of a Newly Published Author

 Petticoat lane in east London and an immigrant's memory-building

Photo by Deborah Jaffe

Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.” Zadie Smith, “Intimations

More than being overheard, we writers hope that our readers will eavesdrop on our conversations. Even when there’s no other interlocutor but our reflection on the mirror. We don’t want to be read by accident, but with intention. So, yes, please, come closer and place that glass on the wall.

Memory-building works in different ways. Years after I visited Spitalfields Market and Petticoat Lane, I ended up cycling down the latter in my first shift for the Felix Project as a volunteer. By them I’d been in London for twenty-one years.

For almost a decade I was a volunteers’ manager, amongst other roles. First, at Enfield Arts Partnership, in Edmonton, and after that, at the Field Federation of Churchfield and Houndsfield Primary Schools, also in Edmonton. Along the way, I learnt the value of volunteers’ selfless contribution to society. Long before Eton-educated, twenty-five-grand-shed-owner David Cameron’s ill-conceived, opportunistic “big society” idea, I had already seen evidence of communities coming together for no other interest than to improve the lives of the many.

Eventually it was my turn to become a volunteer. It all started in 2012 with a local group, Bountagu (a portmanteau of Bounces Road and Montagu Road in Edmonton, Enfield), a Big Local-funded project that sought to tackle various pressing issues. It, then, continued behind the mike at East London Radio, co-presenting different shows and leading one, “The Marathon Man”. Since 2018 I have been volunteering for the aforementioned Felix Project, hoisting a heavy, Deliveroo-style bag onto my back and cycling from café to café, restaurant to restaurant, or supermarket to supermarket, collecting unwanted food in good condition in order to re-direct it to where it’s needed most.

That’s how Petticoat Lane (or “The Lane”, as it’s known by locals) and I reconnected. The market on Wentworth Street runs six days a week and the one on Middlesex Street (word has it that the street changed its name from Petticoat Lane to Middlesex Street in the 1800s to spare the blushes of virtuous Victorians who couldn’t deal with the thought of underwear) operates only on Sundays. In regards to the latter, it is said that one of the reasons for its presence is the influence of the Jewish community. Since Saturday is their Sabbath, it makes sense for them to shop on a Sunday.

That’s how we build our memories. That’s how we take pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. That’s how one day we catch ourselves talking to ourselves.

And you reader, yes, you, you are more than welcome to place that glass on the wall and eavesdrop on our conversation.


Monday, 31 January 2022

Meals On (Two) Wheels: The Barn on Holloway Road

A north London cafe that has earned its rightful place amongst the capital's top gastronomic choices


The Barn could be that place you take a photo of for when you’re down in the dumps. The layout, the staff and the homemade food make for an unforgettable experience.

This lower-ground eatery (you have to go down a few steps before you enter food heaven) is located on Holloway Road, north London, a short saunter from Highbury and Islington Tube and Overground stations and around the corner from Arsenal Football Club’s The Emirates.

With so many restaurants and greasy spoons around, a food lover is always spoiled for choice in this area. I’ve had some lovely fish and chips from Fish and Skewers, just on the other side of the road. I have used my injera to mop up the juices of cubed tender lamb in my awaze tibs at Mesi’s Kitchen.

However, when it comes to breakfast, I’ll stop at The Barn, if time allows. The key phrase is “if time allows”. Time stops at The Barn. You’re ushered to your seat by one of the three brothers who run the café and immediately you feel at home. A home you’re not in any rush to leave any time soon.


On my latest visit I went for the grilled halloumi on toast with roast veg combo. It also came with mixed baby leaf, balsamic glaze and chilli oil. All this was laid on two pieces of toasted ciabatta. The ciabatta was warm, the salad crunchy and the halloumi nicely done. To drink, I had what I always have: a strong mocha (sometimes with a triple shot of espresso, if I’m in the mood)

The place was almost empty when I arrived but after a few minutes two regulars came down. I realised they were regulars because the staff asked about both their wellbeing and that of their relatives’. One of them was a woman who pulled out a laptop from her bag. Another one who was not going to leave any time soon.

Restaurants, cafes and bars have taken a big hit during these Covid-ravaged times. It goes without saying that whenever I’ve got the time and finances to stop at one of these establishments and sample their food, I do so without thinking of a certain price hike (bearing in mind that the bill came up to just over a tenner, that was not a bad deal). Places like The Barn are not just food joints but hubs. The man eating his “The Barn Breakfast” two tables away from me would definitely agree.

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Around London's Magnificent Seven

Brompton Cemetery and Kensal Green: flipsides of a royal coin



The irony of it. I’d already been to Brompton Cemetery, but never inside Brompton Cemetery.

London works in mysterious ways. How many times have I cycled or walked on Fulham Road? Usually on my way to or from Stamford Bridge (never to a game, though. Can’t afford the ticket prices. But I’ve been to a couple of events there and, of course, to the shop).

What I’d never realised was that one of London’s Magnificent Seven was right next door to the Bridge. Many years ago, I stopped at the entrance to the cemetery on the Fulham Road side to fix something on my bicycle (you can also access the graveyard from Old Brompton Road).

What first catches the visitor’s eye is the layout. A road called Central Avenue threads its way southwards straight past regularly spaced colonnades and the Great Circle until it reaches the chapel.

The affluence of the neighbourhood Brompton Cemetery sits in is reflected in the many notable people buried here. From women’s suffrage movement leading activist Emmeline Pankhurst, to the “Lady Gaga” of the 1920s, Marchesa Luisa Casati, you’ll find plenty of several famous residents here.

Brompton Cemetery is also an architect’s dream of a place. Or that of a student of architecture. Or even an art student’s. Today I spot a couple of people sketching the columns in the Great Circle.

The café is a welcome stop. I’m in need of a sugar boost. What with this September day being hotter than your average August one. A warm, but much-needed breeze caresses my face as I rest my bones for a few minutes before saddling up and carrying on to my next stop: Kensal Green.

I come out directly onto Kempsford Gardens, turn left onto Warwick Road and ride all the way up, Ladbroke Grove-bound.

As a city, London has a peculiarity that I feel puts it in a category of its own. However, my lack of world-travelling experience stops me from making conclusive, conversation-ending comments. For instance, I’m unable to make comparisons with any other major metropolis, where perhaps, a similar situation plays out.

In the British capital it’s not uncommon to find social housing estates (or council estates) within spitting distance of well-off areas. I lived in Edmonton, Enfield, north London, for many years. The area had (still has) a reputation for being rough. Yet, it was within walking distance of Winchmore Hill and Bush Hill Park, two neighbourhoods that could comfortably be labelled as middle-class.

The Royal Borough of South Kensington and Chelsea is different. There is a stark contrast between the moneyed southern part (mostly hundred-thousand-pound houses and million-quid mansions) and its multicultural, migrant-heavy northern counterpart. A bicycle journey between two of London’s Magnificent Seven, Brompton Cemetery and Kensal Green, is evidence of this.

As soon as you turn left from Holland Park Avenue onto Ladbroke Grove, the scenery changes. What were tree-lined streets before becomes a compact mass of people walking up and down the busy roads. It doesn’t help that this next stage of my tour coincides with school pick-up time. Throngs of children and their parents/carers mill about. Either waiting for lights to change or for buses to arrive.

Ladbroke Grove’s tarmacked surface carries a painful reminder for me. It was on this road that I pushed my bicycle down to the site of Grenfell, where a fire had broken out on Wednesday 14th June, 2017, in the early hours of the morning. A few days after, Saturday 17th June, I pedalled down the Regent’s Canal towards Notting Hill. I wanted to help out. I wanted to show the survivors that they mattered, that this part of London mattered. That they were in our thoughts and hearts. That like many of them, many of those who died, this immigrant could have faced a similar fate (I, too, used to live in a high-rise).

Pedalling up Ladbroke Grove today, I recall a few lines from a poem written by the Vicar of St Clement Church, Alan Everett, for the victims of the fire:

Forced to watch
Lights at the windows
Torches
Of those who were still alive
For the time being
Signalling
Desperate faint hope
Until floor by floor
The darkness snuffed them out.


The oldest of London’s Magnificent Seven, Kensal Green is also the city’s oldest commercial cemetery. For birdwatchers, the graveyard is heaven on earth. It was declared a conservation area in 1984 and boasts rare flora and fauna.

With seventy-two acres covering the area between the Grand Union Canal and Harrow Road, this is a place worth more than a visit. I’ve already been twice and it’s likely I’ll come again.

153 monuments are included in the National Heritage List for England at Grade II* or Grade I. No wonder Kensal Green has a lot to shout about. Some of those buried here include novelist Anthony Trollope, Lord Byron’s wife and the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

With only an hour to spare, I get back on my bicycle and head for my final destination: Highgate Cemetery. Sadly, I get there at quarter to five and last admission is at half four.

Of London’s Magnificent Seven, Highgate is the only I’ve never visited. There are two sides (although if you’re only interested in paying your respects to Karl Marx’s grave, it’s the East Cemetery you need to go to). There’s an entrance charge, which is eight pounds fifty if you only want to visit the East Cemetery and a tenner if you want to include the architecture-rich west side, too.

I get back on my two-wheeler and make my way back to Abney Park, where this tour started. Hard to believe that the sun is still shining brightly and that the hoodie I brought with me (you can never be too sure when it comes to the highly unpredictable London weather) stayed in my pannier. As I cycle down Stoke Newington Church Street, I’m already thinking of my next adventure. By bicycle, of course.



Monday, 24 January 2022

Around London's Magnificent Seven

 West Norwood: a Gothic cemetery with a touch of the millionaire about it


Halfway through what is an exceptionally warm September day, it occurs to me that my attraction for cemetery parks is as much about their history as it is about my disappointment with London’s modern architecture.

As I cycle away from Nunhead Cemetery on Linden Grove, I think of Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, and his opinion on many of the capital’s latest vertical additions. One of his more recent pieces dealt with 22 Bishopsgate, a monster of a building at 278 metres high, located a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street.

Moore asks two questions: the first one being, is there such a thing as too big when it comes to such buildings? And the second one is, is so much space needed at a time when remote working and the altered habits of the pandemic might conceivably reduce the demand for conventional office space?

I’m not interested in the second question. It is the first one that has troubled me for almost as long as I’ve been in Britain. 22 Bishopsgate comes only second to the 310-metre Shard in the race to be the tallest building in the UK. Throw in the Gherkin, the Grater and Nine Elms Vauxhall (in reality, the complex sits between Battersea and Vauxhall) and for the last fifteen, sixteen years, we have been looking up most of the time in central London.

The effect of this new trend is that the traditional, low-rise design I came to love so much when I first relocated here is finding less and less urban space. Most architects want to build up, not across. Or, if they build across, they still want to go up. Perhaps, that’s why I feel attracted not only to London’s Magnificent Seven, but also to its parks, green areas and (low rise) estates.

Another reason why I dislike the Shard, the Gherkin et al, is that they all smack of money. This is the new London of overseas investors, dark, fancy, empty flats at night (a lot of property is bought but not occupied) and poor doors (the segregation of inner-city upmarket apartment blocks). No, thank you very much, but that’s not for me. I’d rather hang out in the rundown area in and around Bethnal Green than bloody One Commercial Street.

The world’s first Gothic-style graveyard, specific-designed West Norwood sits on a hill. After a pleasant ride down Dulwich Common (great road infrastructure), I pull up just outside this “Millionaires’ Cemetery”. The reason for the moniker is the number of high-quality mausolea and memorials.

At first sight the formerly known South Metropolitan Cemetery has more in common with Nunhead than with both Tower Hamlets and Abney. Its paths are tidy, its landscaping manicured and its architectural gems clearly signposted. I wonder what autumn here will look like. It must be a festival of colour with so many trees (oak and lime amongst others) providing much-welcomed shade right now. Grade II-listed West Norwood boasts great biodiversity as well. Bats, woodpeckers and tawny owls have found a home here. In addition, a £4.6m awarded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2019 will help restore historic monuments and secure the graveyard’s future for years to come.

Amongst the people buried here, some names are familiar: Baron Julias de Reuter, who went on to found the well-renowned Reuters agency and Sir Henry Tate, founder of the Tate Gallery.

With the sun just past its zenith, I saddle up again and head for the river, this time to cross it back northwards. The next stage of my bicycle journey will take me to two cemeteries in the same borough. Yet, the areas they sit in couldn’t be more different. This is the London many tourists don’t know about. The one where a door can lead the visitor through a hotel-style lobby, whilst another one will take them to a social housing development.

Saturday, 22 January 2022

Around London’s Magnificent Seven

Nunhead: from hamlet to architectural gem


The first few days of the ninth month of the year are meant to usher in change. This change is of a slow nature and transition, though. It’s as if summer has trouble vacating its room and autumn is too lazy to move in. The unexpected weather situation plays out in people’s choice of clothes. Instead of long-sleeved tops and hoodies, we have vests, cropped tops and the odd bare-chested, beer-bellied bloke on display on the Regents Canal towpath.

I decide to take the longer route to Nunhead Cemetery; down the canal, Limehouse Basin-bound, instead of the faster and more direct one down Whitechapel and Mansell Street. I’m in no hurry and could do with a break from motorised traffic.

It’s logical that as a cyclist my eyes are fixed either on what’s ahead of me or on the ground. Factor in regular shoulder checks behind me and what this means in reality is that I miss a hell of a lot of what goes on above.

The end of summer signals migration for many birds. Whilst I’m still none the wiser when it comes to our winged friends (this was my homework from the first lockdown and I never got around to completing it), I’m aware that swallows are about to head south once more.

Still riding as carefully as I can, I scan the skies above me every now and then. There are no signs of swallows, or swifts (I often confuse the two). A V-shaped skein of geese passes me overheard, its quasi-military flypast formation a beauty to behold.

What I do notice is the long, white trail of a plane on the cloudless sky. A rare sight just a year ago, these other birds (of a metallic winged nature) are making a quick return to our airspace.

Over the walls of a school on the banks of the Regents Canal, I hear laughter. It’s the sort of laughter that makes me nostalgic for those eleven plus years I worked in primary schools. There’s no sweeter sound to make my heart sing than that of children playing during morning break or at lunchtime, making up their own games, giving a makeover to others or bringing back old ones.

I leave the off-road path and join the westbound traffic on the A1203. Again, I’m surprised by the amount of vehicles on the road. It’s not even noon yet, however it’s a horns-beeping and free-fumes-for-all motor festival here in east London.

Cycling over Tower Bridge and heading south of the river, I wonder (not for the first time) how Londoners feel about the Thames. I was born by the water. The sea was a few minutes away from my flat in Havana. And polluted though the water is, we love sitting by it, on the Malecón (seawall), declaring our love to it. Away from it, almost every single habanero I know feels nostalgic for the sea. But a river is not the sea. The vastness of the latter is limited by the banks of the former. At the same time, this city’s history is closely linked to water. The first settlements were based near the Thames. The current site of the City of London is the original Londonium, named so by the invading Romans who made their way along the river.

We must also take into account the sheer size of London. Would someone living in the sticks (say, Barnet or Bromley) feel the same way about the Thames as someone living in Greenwich or Westminster? Propinquity tightens bonds, in my opinion. A closeness that Wilfred Owen’s ghost feels himself in the poem “Shadwell Stair”, as he moves “along the wharves by the water-house/and through the cavernous slaughter-house”.

Built in 1840, like Abney and Brompton cemeteries, Nunhead was a small village surrounded by market gardens and open fields. Unlike five of the other “magnificent seven” (Highgate Cemetery sits on a hill), Nunhead rises to two hundred feet above sea level at its highest point. On a clear day, in the distance you can see the City of London and its (ugly, in my opinion) all-domineering, towering high-rises, St Paul’s Cathedral and even Alexandra Palace.

The silver lining for the graveyard, especially for its trees and wildlife, came in the 1960s and 70s. Unable to earn any revenue from the grounds, the United Cemetery Company left it to its own devices. Nature took over and the cemetery changed from lawn cemetery to meadow and woodland. Bird species include green woodpeckers, tawny owls and ring-necked parakeets. Amongst the trees, specimens include the horse chestnut, the gingko and the oak.

Nunhead has three Grade II-listed buildings: the two gate lodges and the Anglican Chapel. The latter was destroyed by an arson attack in 1976. Thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund the building was refurbished and made safe and accessible to the public in 2001. It is nowadays used for theatre and music performances.

As I unlock my bicycle outside Nunhead I hear fluttering overhead. I look up and I think I see a couple of swallows criss-crossing the air. But, then, again, they could also be swifts. You never know. And I’m none the wiser.

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Around London’s Magnificent Seven

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park: not just a burial ground for the East End’s working class.


My early morning cycle ride to Abney Park sets me up for the journey ahead. Carrying on to Mile End, my body welcomes Hackney’s flat terrain. Not too much exertion yet.

At the bottom of Globe Road I turn left onto Mile End Road in order to continue my journey towards Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. I’m now on the previously much-maligned Cycle Superhighway 2. Hard to believe that it was only a few years ago that this long road, running from Aldgate East to Stratford, was nothing more than a blue strip with no dividing line  between motor vehicles and bicycles.

The difference between then and now couldn’t be starker. At present an off-road, segregated lane snakes almost all the way eastwards.

I fall behind a head-down, traffic-charging, heavily tattooed fellow cyclist. “Fellow” might be stretching it a bit. With his brake-free, fixed-wheel track bicycle, he belongs to the sort of tribe for whom purity in cycling is all that matters. A frame, two wheels, pedals, handlebar and seat (D-lock hanging from his rucksack, of course). That’s it. Who needs my seven gears when his own muscular legs can propel him anywhere he wants to go?

His D-lock becomes a blur before I go over the canal. I’m now in Tower Hamlets, home to the largest Bangladeshi community in the UK. Saris are a common sight and I immediately think of Sujata Bhatt’s poem “My Mother’s Way of Wearing a Sari”. I still remember a few lines but I will have to look up the rest when I get home.

These days

in the darkness,

broken up by the moon’s

almost full brightness, before dawn

my mother rises

and in this room without a mirror

in this room where we all sleep together

she turns away from the windows-

her glass bangles pushed up, away

                   from her wrists

so they are motionless on her arms

                                      soundless-

In the darkness she finds her sari

and begins to wrap it around

her waist – her right hand is firm

and fast and moves like a fish

fanning in and out of the waves-

                   blind, mute,

her hand zigzags making pleats

so fast I cannot count them

By the time I enter Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park the sun has inched further up on the cloudless sky. I’m beginning to feel the effect of this early September’s Indian summer.

Unlike other members of the Magnificent Seven (Highgate, Abney and Kensal Green, for instance) THCP is not a celebrity-magnet. In fact, this cemetery almost ceased to exist in the mid-to-late 60s. At the time the Greater London Council (GLC) decided to clear the graveyard in order to make way for a brand new park.

The GLC’s plans hit a wall when many local residents, whose relatives were buried here, voiced their disapproval. The idea was shelved, but not before a section of the grounds was cleared for the intended park.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park’s proximity to the Docklands might be an explanation for the number of sailors interred here. Many of them lie in unmarked public graves.

Like Abney Park, THCP has a scruffy look. Paved paths and bush-covered trails share space equally. Personally speaking, I love it. The grounds have an air of wilderness about it. Plants and flowers grow almost undisturbed and species vary between woodland and meadow.

There’s however a sad story behind THCP’s “rough” look. During the Blitz, the Luftwaffe targeted the aforementioned Docklands (the Thames being a centuries-old major trading and shipbuilding area) which resulted in the East End being left in ruins. Many homes were left uninhabitable, shops and local business destroyed and a third of London’s docks wrecked. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park suffered a similar fate unfortunately.

Trivia moment of the day. I learnt recently that one of the graveyard’s most famous memorials belongs to Joseph Westwood. This man ran a shipbuilding company. Eventually the company became known as Thames Iron Works. Some of the employees put a football team together. With the passing of time, the football team became West Ham United FC. The team’s origins are still referenced in nicknames such as “The Hammers” and “The Irons”.

Reaching-out me would have loved to share this information with my “fellow” track bicycle rider, but I doubt he’d have stopped to listen. It looked as if he had places to rush to, his D-lock hanging from his rucksack as he disappeared in the distance.


Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Around London's Magnificent Seven

Abney Park: a hidden treasure in north London 


A serotinal morning announces itself by blending extant estival greens with emerging autumnal reds. Perfect start for a Covid-delayed tour of London’s Magnificent Seven. These are Victorian-era cemeteries that were created to ease pressure on parish burial grounds.

It’s logical that as a north London resident I kick off at Abney Park, a graveyard opened in 1840, in nowadays trendy Stoke Newington. I don’t spend much time inside, though. I’m so used to these grounds, having found them by chance many years ago, on one of my many cycling jaunts. During the first lockdown in 2020 Abney was one of the two places, along with nearby Clissold Park, my girlfriend and I frequented.

Today I come across early-rising runners, friendly dog-walking strangers and school-age children following anxious-looking parents. Abney’s location serves as a quiet short cut between Stoke Newington High Street’s hustle-bustle and Stoke Newington Church Street’s café life with the added bonus of chancing upon famous graves.

Like those belonging to the non-conformists buried here. These were rebels who defied the ways of the Church of England and refused to align with a particular Christian denomination. The chapel (derelict and rundown, though it is) was designed in a manner that showed no bias towards a single Christian sect.

In addition, if like me, you are into the music of the late singer Amy Winehouse, you’ll be interested to know that her video “Back to Black” was partly shot here.

With the sun beginning to beat down on the pavement and my stomach rumbling, I hop back on my bicycle and head off for my second destination: Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.

No matter which route I choose, everywhere is bumper-to-bumper. The start of the academic year, road closures and the proliferation of LTNs (low traffic neighbourhoods, a polarising issue if ever I saw one) means that from Amhurst Road and all the way down Mare Street to Roman Road, I have to zigzag my way around buses, lorries and cars.

Some years ago I came up with a moniker for this area: the Hipster Republic of North, North-eastern and Eastern London. Its borders have changed slightly (gentrification works in mysterious ways), but the core of it remains the same. It starts in N16 Stamford Hill and continues through Stokey, Dalston, Hackney, Hoxton, Homerton and Shoreditch. From £5 bowls of cereal to ironic beards, from zany and thought-provoking graffiti to checked shirts, this is the new, creative (and some might say, overpriced) London.

One of the tell-tale signs that lets you know you have arrived in Hipster Land is the frames you see either on the road or parked. I’ve been dipping in and out of Laurent Belando’s excellent book, Urban Cycling, so I’m able to recognise some of the specimens. The bicycle par excellence in these parts is the fixie, or its close relative, the single speed two-wheeler. Understandable when you notice how flat most of east London is.

But it’s not just the road surface that contributes to the ubiquitousness of these machines. Both fixie and single speeds are fashion statements. Their cultish and aesthetic appeal is all part of the phenomenon I’ve come to describe as “the individualisation of cycling” (some people would call it “fetishisation”). A bicycle is not just a bicycle. A bicycle is an extension of a rider’s individuality.

Furthermore, there’re also the professions. Fixie/single speed owners tend to belong to that turn-of-the-century cabal that spread slowly through previous no-go areas in east London (I still remember when someone told me Mile End was known as “Knife End”) bringing rents and house prices up. They are the artistic directors, marketing managers, graphic artists, web designers, performers, project managers, communications and media managers. Of course, their bikes have to say something about them in the same way the brands they create say something about their company.

Following hot on the (w)heels of the fixie and single speed come the road bike, porter bike and vintage two-wheeler. Today I spot an equal number of these frames on the road. From just past Hackney Empire to Old Ford Road, off Cambridge Heath Road, they seem to be everywhere.

Out of the three, it’s both the porter and vintage bikes I’ve got a soft spot for. Road bikes, or “racing bikes” leave me cold. Perhaps, it’s their aggressive look, too much Tour de France, incongruous on these narrow streets.

The porter and vintage bikes, on the other hand, invite effortless elegance and style. Today I see a lot of what was formerly known as girls’/women’s bicycles and have been thankfully re-baptised as “step-thru bikes”. Just a clever way of convincing gents that they don’t have to swing their legs over their seats the whole time to prove they’ve got a pair.

Rolled-up yoga mats poke out of baskets sitting at the front of porter bicycles. In others, pooches sit comfortably, a gentle breeze ruffling their hair. In open defiance to speed or terrain, porter and vintage bikes are the non-conformists of our age. Perhaps a place at Abney is already waiting for them when they reach the end of their cycle.

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