This Little Island

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March 30, 2017

Today is the day Britain leaves Europe.

Two vivid memories spring to mind, both from the early 1990s.

The first incident occurred a few weeks after I arrived in London from Canada. My days were spent job-hunting and sightseeing. I had come to London with a few hundred pounds and had found a room for 20 quid a week. My landlady, the impossibly named Lady Drew leant me her typewriter so I could write query letters to publishing houses. The ‘l’, the ‘j’ and the ‘t’ were wonky but this was before computers so you were allowed to send letters to publishers with sentences that looked more like rivers than train tracks.

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Between job interviews I would take advantage of the free museums and galleries. One day in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Field where you could get a cheap cup of tea, I found myself at a long table next to a woman reading the Times. When she came to the end of a section, she folded it and tucked it next to her dirty plate. It was clear to me her newspaper, when she was all finished with it, was headed for the bin. So, I reached over and picked up the section lying under the rim of her plate.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“Um, I thought your were finished,” I said, guiltily putting it back down.

“Doesn’t mean you can have it,” she snapped.

There it was: her newspaper was not for sharing. My dirty paws were to stay off it. She had made it clear. And there was a subtext here: I could tell that my accent hadn’t helped me in my newspaper borrowing. I had been called a ‘pushy American’ by so many cab drivers, newsagents and publishers by now. I knew I wasn’t considered ‘one of them’, and probably never would be.

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Cut to a few years later. I have a great job, I’ve been saving a little, paying taxes, and managed to buy a small flat. In short, I had become the perfect little immigrant. I am in love with London, in love with my work, I have an incredible, diverse and bohemian bunch of friends. Life is good. One Sunday as I walk home through the Portobello Market just as it is closing up, I notice a stall-holder packing up her things. She’s tossing stuff into an old cardboard box in the gutter. It is clear that the items being thrown in the box are unwanted: they’re broken or chipped. In other words, they’re the items she doesn’t think are worth her while packing into her truck to sell at the next market she is headed to.

A small ceramic vase not much taller than a Penguin Classic catches my eye. It is not especially pretty, and might even be cracked, but it is turquoise—my favourite colour. I stop and pick it up. There is that question again: “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Um, I thought you were throwing it away,” I say sounding sort of strangled.

“I am,” she replies.

“So, um, well, I thought maybe I could have it then,” I say.

The woman lunges at me, grabs the vase and smashes it to the ground. I stand for a second stunned by her violence. Then I turn and walk with a lump lodged somewhere between my throat and my heart. I have spent the past 25 years trying to understand this act.

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I’ve never written about these small events. Mainly out of respect for my adopted home. It’s not a good look choosing to live in a foreign country and then moaning about it. “If it’s so crap, then why don’t you leave,” is an annoying refrain, but one that is true nonetheless. So I tend to only mention the positives about life in Britain—or my life in Britain. And the positives do outweigh the negatives.

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But with Brexit (a term I despise for its jaunty, punny elision of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ as if it were the punchline to a racist joke) the genie is out of the bottle. The mean-spirited side of the islanders I live among is out for all to see. The small-minded lack of generosity, the ‘Little England’ mindset of the conservatives who yearn for some lost Eden that never existed is now at the forefront. The horror of it all has been made public. My narrative of coming to this place and being welcomed and finding a home here now has to be rewritten.

The bean counters and bureaucrats have won. I wonder what it would be like to move here now. I got my fair share of “Come here to steal our jobs, then?” from cab drivers the minute they heard my accent. I hate to think of what I would get now. I had one employer way back who threatened to sack me because according to her, I “looked too happy.” She was a young woman but already withered from bitterness. She was allergic to stimulants which meant coffee and tea were banned from the office. One day I brought in some peppermint tea. When she walked into the kitchen and spotted it, she shrieked and called her boyfriend to come and take the contraband stimulant off the premises. I remember her shaking with fury and shouting at me, although I can’t remember now what she said exactly.

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But all this was the forgettable hum in the background of life in one of the greatest cities on earth. When things got too mean or lacklustre or grey or snobby or ironic, there was always Brixton Market, Ridley Road, Chinatown, the Portuguese cafes in Stockwell, the Lisboa on Golborne Road, the Spanish bar on Hanway Street, the Italian Church and its shop on Clerkenwell Road. You get the picture.

Not only is there a glorious diversity in this city, but it was something I always had the sense was wanted, was welcome. Now I am not so sure. The messages out there that my antennae are receiving are coming from the newspaper hoarders and vase smashers: Let’s make Britain so crap that no one will ever want to come here. … Let’s keep everything to ourselves, even the things we don’t really want. … Just because we don’t want it, doesn’t mean anyone else should have it. …

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The future of this tiny island in the North Atlantic will be one of tip-toeing through the shards of broken vases knowing deep in our hearts that we can at least have our own damn newspaper that we bloody well paid for—written in the Queen’s English, full of tits and asses and headlines made up of stupid puns, and no one can ever take that away from us, not even the immigrants.

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Note: for my friends and acquaintances who voted to leave Europe, this is in no way a diatribe against you. It is the misguided campaign, the cynicism and the lies peddled by the politicians that I find inexcusable. The whole project to leave Europe was based on falsities and dishonesty and a small-mindedness.

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Homesickness

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

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This was a bit of graffiti I spotted just before moving to Missoula around the corner from my house in London. If you had to write one sentence to sum things up, this is a pretty good one.

I am editing a manuscript for Verso Books by the British writer, activist and journalist George Monbiot. When I edit, I like to listen to Classical Music. Anything with words distracts me. But today a radio programme came on NPR called ‘Wednesday Freeforms’. The DJ had an English accent and his voice gripped me. I had to stop working and listen. His choice of music—everything from 80s rave to Bjork to the Kinks to the Pet Shop Boys—whirled me back to my life in London. To the parties, the dirty streets, the music, the energy, the rain, the understatement. An image of Elephant and Castle sprung up strangely in my mind and even that brought on a strange ennui. Elephant and Castle! This brutal concrete roundabout is so ugly and non-user-friendly, that I have never held any kind of affection for it. Until now.

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E and I walked past this every time we went to her ballet rehearsal the last summer before we moved to Missoula. Why do I like this kind of landscape? What do I see in this kind of ugliness?

The DJ, Howard Kingston, mentioned he had just heard from his daughter in London. Apparently she was on a bus. “Lucky her,” I thought. But why? I don’t know why as I embark on this second year in Missoula that my love, nostalgia, affection for London is washing over me to such an extent. It is not that London is a better place to live than Missoula. It isn’t. Nor is it that I was born and bred there. I wasn’t. But there is something profound about making somewhere your home. And London is where I created a life. I had moved from Canada as a very innocent and wide-eyed colonial. Even though my mother had the vestiges of a plummy sort of British accent, I barely understood anyone.

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Victoria Park in the Autumn: even the leaves form an orderly queue before dropping!

I struggled when I got to London in 1990. I had very little money, no job, and no friends. I did have a room at the top of a stone mansion across the street from Kew Gardens for which I paid £20 a week (the cost of five lattes on Broadway Market today). This house was owned by the impossibly named Sir Arthur and Lady Rachel Drew. Lady Rachel was lovely: grey hair in a bun, always rushing off somewhere or doing her Alexander technique exercises or grinding Quinoa seeds before anyone else had ever heard of it (she was vegetarian). I adored her. Sir Arthur was something from a film: huge grey eyebrows like massive caterpillars and an accent like Rowley Birkin QC played by Paul Whitehouse in the Fast Show. He was really quite sleazy which might be the contents of a story one day. They were both in their late seventies and rented me the smallest of their rental rooms (there were two others rented out to gay actors). I had hot water for an hour in the morning and no heating. I got chilblains and had to borrow blankets from a woman I worked with at my very first job in London: designing Mary Berry cookbooks.

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Columbia Road. That’s all I need to say.

I guess, creating a life gives that life more meaning. If I had been born in London, as my husband J was, I don’t think I would have such affection for it. When I walk into my front door in East London, I get a feeling of having worked for every darned brick of that house. A sense of gratitude that over time London was so good to me. The first years were so lonely and difficult. I often cried. I wrote letters to friends back home. But I liked the men and had no trouble finding lovely British boys to have dinner with. I realised quickly that I preferred British boys to Canadian ones. The accents, the reserve outside the bedroom, and the sense of humour went a long way.

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And there’s always the British seaside.

Here I am in Missoula with my London-born husband and daughter. J still has no desire to return to London. My daughter E said two days ago that she would like to be back there ‘tomorrow’. You wouldn’t know she was homesick. In fact I don’t think she is. She is so in the moment and the moments here are wonderful. She loves her friends. She likes the life. She has truly blossomed in Missoula.

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With its funfairs

It is not a good feeling being pulled between two places. Like being in love with two people, it can drive you crazy. And my homesickness (for want of a better word) for London is perhaps a trick of memory and distance. Perhaps what I am feeling nostalgic for (the Elephant and Castle roundabout for heaven’s sake!) is more about what London and her streets and smells and buildings represent than what they really are. London represents for me a life of freedom away from my family and any familiarity. A sense of total and utter independence. A sense of horizons so open, I could have walked anywhere and done anything.

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And the totally inhospitable shingle beaches.

I am a quarter of a century older than I was when I first moved to the UK, so of course I don’t feel the same levels of freedom as I did then. I am married, I have a child, I have an obviously diminishing number of ‘good’ years ahead of me. Yet, I feel London is the place I want to be as I get older. Perhaps the place one calls “home” doesn’t stem from anything as rational and reasonable as where one is born. Perhaps the ties that bind us are truly mysterious and unfathomable. Maybe being in London is just another reminder of this mystery. And maybe that’s why its call is so persistent.

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And the reminders to take your pills.

Addendum 1: The DJ who took me away from my work, as if reading this post, put on Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’. Is there another song that is so very London at its crazy, lyricial , humourous, odd and wonderful best? If he had put on ‘Waterloo Sunset’ I would have been weeping into my laptop.

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E and one of her friends reading the local rags on the way to ballet.

 Friday, September 18, 2015

Addendum 2: Today as I was posting this entry on my blog, another DJ at NPR, my friend Mike Steinberg, actually did put on ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by total coincidence. I emailed him to say I had just written that if I were to hear that song, I might just burst into tears. And he replied: “That was Ray Davies’ fault, not mine. Sister Ray takes over my show whenever he pleases.” Now that’s what I call a radio show and it’s only in Missoula. This illustrates exactly the dilemma to stay or go….