Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Amelia and Grandma#2

Amelia and I are having a much easier day today. I am beginning to distinguish between cries of hunger, wind and boredom. Getting it right most, if not all, of the time has made for a happier time for the two of us. I even managed to get some reading done during her morning nap and that was the inspiration for our afternoon stroll.

I am reading a pre-publication copy of a collection of short stories by Gerard Donovan for review. The stories are all set in Ireland, so Millie and I thought it would be a good idea to take a walk around Kilburn, the Irish heart of London. At least, when I visited friends there 30 years ago, it could be identified as an Irish district. There are still Irish names on some of the pubs and cafes and I could recognise some Irish features among the elderly men sitting on roadside seats outside a bookmaker's, cigarette in one hand and newspaper showing today's racing fixtures in the other.

I looked at the shops and was delighted to see a newsagent's stand displaying copies of the Clare Champion, the Connacht Tribune, the Limerick Leader, Kerryman, Meath Chronicle, Wicklow Today, Mayo News, Sligo Champion and several others. I was relieved to see that there must still be a significant number of Irish people around. However the next newstand was full of Polish papers and the one after that, papers in what looked to me like Arabic script.

Kilburn High Road is now a cosmopolitan area, with colourful stalls full of fruit and vegetables for every cuisine from West Indies, Africa, India, Pakistan, Europe and the Middle East. I saw more women wearing hijabs than western dress and I felt oddly out of place pushing Millie's stroller, wearing t-shirt and casual trousers, while all the other grandmothers and mothers were covered from head to toe.

I really should get out and about more. Living in North Devon, we are cut off from what is happening in UK cities. Perhaps that is why the summer visitors find us all so quaint and old-fashioned!.


  1. Heavens, M! Have you found any gates to lean on, while you chew straws and say 'ooh, arrr' while clotting a quick batch of cream?!

    I lived in London for years, but it's changed so much in the last couple of decades that I too have completely lost touch with it. I feel like an alien tourist when I go there now, whereas I used to feel a terrific sense of belonging.

  2. London's a bit of an eye-opener to us country folk, eh? I love it but only for 3 or 4 days, whereupon I have to high-tail it back to civilisation. Last time we were there we stayed in Paddington, took a wander one evening and ended up on The Edgeware Road. I felt like I'd gone through some kind of portal and emerged in The Lebanon. Fascinating, but *I* was the foreigner.

    Glad to hear you and Millie are settling down to a nice routine.

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one who is out of touch, Juliet and Cath. When I recounted my experiences to my daughter this evening, she said that people probably take holidays in Devon to remind themselves of what England used to be like.

    Isn't it odd that we should each feel like outsiders in our capital city? Could it be that adopting a policy of multiculturalism rather than integration has robbed the city of its identity? I cannot imagine that New York has the same problem.

  4. Fascinating post, M, especially for a born and bred Londoner like me, so maybe my thoughts on the subject are slightly different. The capital has always attracted a flow of immigrants - and London would just about grind to a halt without immigrant labour. As each wave of immigrants has arrived, whether as refugees (think of Eastern European Jews settling in the East End in the 19th and early 20th century) or economic migrants, they have set up their own communities, with shops, meetings halls and places of worship. (My own ancestors arrived in London from Ireland, India and France during the 18th and 19th centuries.) In Notting Hill, for example, where I lived - and before it was fashionable - we had flourishing communities within the community, more recently Moroccans, Portuguese and Spanish, which sat comfortably alongside the well-established Afro-Caribbean groups. You can see the same pattern in many of the world's largest cities, including New York and Paris. My immediate neighbours and good friends came from Ireland, the Sudan, Egypt, Singapore and Spain. Edgware Road, with its Arab restaurants, was a favourite place to eat, especially in the summer months, sitting outside at one of the pavement cafes, tucking into endless dishes of Lebanese mezze.

    I missed the vibrance when I moved to Devon and I still do, although I love the landscape, and much else besides, of my adopted county. But I have been deeply shocked at some of the overt racism I have encountered here in the West Country, which isn't exactly threatened by immigration. (For example, one local man I know refuses to be treated by a non-white doctor and when a Notting Hill friend, originally from Dominica, came to stay, people's jaws dropped when she had the temerity to walk down the main street in Tiverton. Wrong shade of skin colour, you see.) Reading the Guardian still feels like a seriously subversive act here.

    What I don't miss about London, however, are the millions of tourists, the crowds, the noise, the pollution and the violence. These were the factors that combined, eventually, to drive me away from my beloved city.

    (Sorry, very long comment but am on soapbox. Will get down now!)

  5. D - it was a huge culture shock for me coming out to north-east Essex after having lived in London (Stamford Hill, Balham and Chiswick). Colchester seemed like some forgotten monoculturalist outpost! I was regarded by my work colleagues as a dangerous radical extremist because I recycled things, read the Guardian and had friends in London who were not of Anglo-Saxon origin. Racism was not only overt but the unchallenged norm. Things have moved on a little bit here in the past 20 years . . . but not very much.

  6. I feel very dismayed (understatement!) that my comments have been interpreted as racist. I have no time to reply properly but will answer all the accusations later.

  7. M - I don't think they have been interpreted like that AT ALL, M!!!! I think we're all agreeing that, having lived and felt a sense of belonging in the vast melting pot that is London, when one's been away, especially in the depths of the English countryside, going back just doesn't feel like going 'home' any more. I for one find aspects of it quite scary now, whereas I never used to when I lived there. London changes so fast and is so vibrant, noisy and overwhelming, whereas, by comparison Devon and Mersea don't and are not!

  8. J, you appear to have read my remarks in the spirit that I intended but the spectres of racism and xenophobia have been raised and I feel I must deal with them.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. The last comment appeared twice, my daughter's laptop has an ultra-sensitive keyboard!

  11. M - absolutely no intention on my part to accuse you of racism or xenophobia; you are the very last person I would ever attribute such sentiments to. I was referring to the racism I've found outside London and among people who have had little or no experience of living alongside others of different backgrounds and cultures. Most of the time, in cities, people just sort of rub along with each other because they have to; there are tensions from time to time but these generally pass. (But then there are all sorts of tensions in my village - I think it's part of the human condition!)

    It's true that if you leave a city and go back after a longish gap, it no longer feels familiar. London no longer feels like home to me, although it's where I was born and where I spent my first 50 years. I think what I was trying to say - but probably didn't express very well - is that the reasons London no longer feels familiar to Londoners like me are complex and possibly somewhat different from those of people who live elsewhere in Britain. The ever-changing variety of nationalities, sights, sounds, colours, and food etc etc that go with the territory become so familiar to Londoners that they become the norm. Any initial shock factor quickly disappears. But this certainly isn't the case, say, for the occasional visitor or for someone who returns to the city after having been away for a long period. In which case, yes, they would be in for an understandably big shock!

    The other aspect and maybe this goes to the nub of what I was struggling to say is that Londoners don't really think about London as the capital city in the symbolic and representational way that people born elsewhere in Britain think of it. To a Londoner, London is simply home, warts and all. Of course, Londoners should probably get out more and go and experience life beyond the M25 but the thought that they could no longer stagger 200 yards down to the corner shop in their pyjamas to buy their newspaper and latte would probably make them very nervous indeed.

    Anyway, am truly sorry if I caused offence or gave the wrong impression with my earlier comment (or even this one) and it will teach me to engage brain fully before pounding the keys.

  12. The melting pot doesn't take away individuality. The different food, different styles of dress, different customs become part of the whole rather than pockets of differences. You can get some pretty amusing hybrids likes denim jackets worn over saris or taco pizzas but nobody gives it a second look.

    Here in culture-free central Florida, we don't see too much exotic dress unless you count golf pants, but even here we occasionally see women in head scarves, but I've never seen a women in a full burqa anywhere except in pictures.

    In any case, I don't think I'd feel out of place wearing my ordinary attire no matter what other women might be wearing and I don't think that were I in another country, people would feel out of place wearing their ordinary attire just because I might be wearing something different.

  13. D, I confess I was taken aback by what you appeared to have read into my post, which was simply an observation on the change from the Irish identity of Kilburn as I recalled it. I actually love the colour and bustle and diversity of many parts of London.

    I am certainly not anti-immigration (coming from a family of immigrants)and my years of voluntary work with refugees would preclude any prejudice against them.

    Having gone over everything I said, I think you were probably referring to a remark I made in one of my comments, about the difference between multiculturalism and integration. I was referring to the number of women I had seen wearing the hijab.

    As I walked along the Kilburn High Road I saw many women with young children. What struck me was that 7 out of 10 of these women were dressed in the hijab, a few in full burqa. Only 3 in 10 were dressed in European or ethnic dress e.g. sari. I was disturbed by this because the hajib is not an ethnic dress but a symbol of the status of women in a particular section of the Muslim community.

    I believe that women should have equal rights, as I know you do. English law gives women equal rights but we have accepted that one group of women should be treated differently. That is what I find disturbing. That is why I felt alienated in my own capital city - not because I'm white but because I'm free to live and dress as I please and I was outnumbered by women who are not.

    In the past, immigrants worked hard to learn English and to become assimilated into British society, while retaining some of their traditions. I suggest that the policy of multiculturalism is responsible for some groups of immigrants living entirely outside of British society, having no intention or need to integrate.

    A literary stroll with my granddaughter led me down an unexpected blind alley!


I love to read your comments and promise that I will reply as soon as I can leave my garden, sewing room or kitchen!