Ola Nubi, Pia Ghosh-Roy, and Katrina Woznicki
England, England, USA
Illustrated by KLARXY
London, My London: A Town of Contrasts
East London reminds me of the ingredients of a casserole, different elements in the pot with some of them blending quickly while the others take a bit more time, and some remaining individual separate pieces.
For more than twenty years, I have lived here, laughed here and cried here.
With family and friends who also call East London home, we stood in the streets and remembered those who had died in the 7/7 bombings. Just the day before, we had laughed with David Beckham and Prince William because London had been awarded the bid to host the 2012 Olympic games in Stratford.
I remember when the Docklands was just miles of derelict swamp and wasteland dotted with 1930s style two and three bed flats, interspersed with the odd WW2 ruin. My first job, in the mid-nineties, was working as a clerical clerk in a company occupying an office in the tallest building at Canary Wharf at the time, The North Colonnade. Typing away, I had a bird’s eye view of what was going to become an important part of commercial London. I would sit there and dream of the time I would write my first book; the characters flirted around my subconscious begging me to tell their stories, but their timing wasn’t right. They needed time to grow. I needed time to grow.
The Millennium ushered in a new wave of development in the East End. Upton Park, apart from being the former home of West Ham United Stadium, is also where I used to buy fruit and vegetables. Pubs and pie and eel shops which once heaved with West Ham supporters have now been converted into boutiques, shops and hairdressers.
In the market down the road from the station, eager shoppers cut past multi-coloured swathes of silk and chiffon scarfs and heavily embellished abayas and join the crowds that jostle side by side to buy groceries, poultry and meat. A fishmonger stands outside his shop asking people to come in to buy his fresh fish for less than five pounds. I pick my way through the market avoiding the puddles from the ice running in trickles from the vendors’ tables. Do you know that in this market you can get your hair done, buy an evening gown for under £25 pounds and a pair of shoes for less than that? I have learnt that if you are trying to keep to a budget, it is an excellent place to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for a fraction of what you would pay in the big shops fifteen minutes away in Stratford.
In recent years, the dreary monotone of post war council flats and houses has been pushed aside to make way for the gloss of high rise buildings and designer stores. During the run up to the 2012 Olympics there was a great push to prepare the East End for the world. Like a neglected bride it had lost its appeal and needed lots of make-up and an elaborate dressing up.
Westfield shopping centre is the tiara centrepiece; it has a cyclopaedia of high-end designer shops, high-end restaurants and eateries, commercial houses and offices. They share the space with some bargain outlets where I see the young in faux designer gear. Many of them mere teenagers hanging around the shops trying to be cool but ending up looking stroppy and bored, pushing wide-eyed babies in buggies. Children in adult bodies trying to survive in a world where the rules change every beat of a second.
London is a town of contrasts. New Stratford, full of yuppies and foreign investors buying a piece of concrete city, while the local disaffected youth distract themselves by spending what they don’t have or just hanging around in a post-Brexit Westfield.
I have watched as Old Stratford struggles to make itself heard as places of worship, Internet cafes and coffee shops take over from three generations of groceries and fishmongers. Young professionals from the European Community or broader Commonwealth boosting up the declining population due to lack of teachers, nurses and social workers. Tall buildings for commercial and rental use are creeping up on every square inch of space, enough of them to induce vertigo.
Barking, East Ham and Dagenham high streets are a faded hint of an England that once existed. I pop into a charity shop and listen to one of the workers speaking in a wistful tone about the way things used to be and how the country had gone to the proverbial dogs. White haired and weathered face, I could hear the fear that was behind her laugh as she talked about her feelings about England after Brexit and how it would affect her children and grandchildren.
I try to put myself in her shoes as I watch a country that often celebrates its pre-WW1 and WW2 lush green and pleasant glory, that it has exported for centuries in prose and film, and struggle to absorb the changing face of Britain as the great grandchildren of its commonwealth come of age.
First, second and third generations have heard this narrative for years. Once it was just background chatter or relegated to social media or certain media outlets; the fears behind the coming ‘deluge, hoard’ coming to ‘swamp’ our small island. Yet after Brexit the tone changed and became more strident and some people began to take it on and it became a mantra.
For the first time in the more than thirty years I have spent in this country of my birth, I could feel the tension and the unease on the streets, between families that had made this place their home for decades and it was unsettling. Like a passing storm it gathered to cause damage but dissipated into the air but not without leaving some clouds that still hang in the air, just as a reminder that anything can change. All it takes is an election, or a terror attack and the headlines in the papers start looking like we have stepped back fifty years.
Just at the bottom of my street there are some posh looking flats disdainfully towering over the old estates smouldering away into sin-bins of crime. I see the kebab shop, the Chinese take-away, the African grocery shop; a reminder of the new lives that had come to the East End, looking for a new home. I wonder whether they will ever find what they had come here looking for because it probably never existed except in their imaginations and in episodes of Downton Abbey and Mr Bean.
Meanwhile, East End still reminds me of the cheery markets of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Barking. The cool Britannia of Shoreditch and Stoke Newington and the Biegel Bake Bakery that keeps churning out the most delicious challah bread and cakes. A couple of times in the year there is an African pop-up market in Brick Lane where you can buy anything from bold African print outfits and accessories to Jollof rice and plantain. Shea butter in cute little jars that remind me of the ones sold at the back of Tejuosho market in Lagos.
London, my London, is a town of contrasts. East London also has places of natural beauty – the Stratford Games Park, Wanstead, Gants Hill, Debden, South Woodford, Epping Forest and Roding Valley – even the names conjure up an image of blue skies and wide limitless space, something not otherwise in abundance in London. The next time it is sunny I intend to take a leisurely walk down the footpath that leads from Hackney Marshes to the Games Park and think about the characters for my book.
One of the many things I love about East London is that it reminds me of just anywhere in the world I want to be. Pre- or post-Brexit, nothing is ever going to change the way it feels, the way it tastes and sounds. It’s got a vibe and a beat to it that’s uniquely and unapologetically East London. My London.
A Few Seconds of Stillness
There’s a bench in London perched on the head of a hill like the Queen’s crown. It is a swelling of the land, a gentle wave rising from the earth, rather than a hill. But we city folks must give our mounds more audacious names, or we’d never have hills to climb. Mountains yes, we climb many of those every day. Invisible mountains, the ones that come with living in cities, the ones that swell less gently than a hill. They’re made up of steep lines of stretched nerves, jagged, breathless lives, and cramped perimeters of space – splinters in the skin.
These invisible mountains rise sharply around us. We ascend as best we can, we run to catch up, we hurry Underground to take the next train. Miles of escalators, tunnels of train-tracks, lives heaving, people rushing. And there we are, standing in the middle of this time-lapse video.
We must stand on the right, always on the right side of the escalator, so that others can run down the left, usually two stairs at a time. Half of them run without reason, their feet propelled by an inner programming. Perhaps because they were told that time is money, and early birds get the worms, and that no idiom was enough to stress the gains to be made by sprinting across life. The other half run because by beating the speed of motorised stairs they can save a few expensive seconds to reach the job that pays for their Islington apartment where every square inch costs as much as the seconds they save.
Most often, the Runners run down the left, tutting at hapless tourists who dare to stand on the wrong side of the escalator, and rush to their platforms. The Standers stand on the right till their stair gets to the bottom, and walk to their platforms. The train runs as it runs, and stops at the station as it was scheduled to do. And then, the Runners and the Standers all shuffle forward, they mind the gap, and get on the same train at the same time, and sit down next to each other.
You might be one of the Standers. But in a city that’s running around you, you’re never ever still. Stillness is hard to find. Even while you stand on the escalator, the stairs move you forward, and even as you sit on the train it takes you to the next station, and the next station, and the next.
This is your station today. Get off. Ignore every other place you need to be, forget every other thing you need to do, and get off.
This is where I get off too. This is where the hill is. The real hill. The gentle hill. A swelling of the land in the heart of Richmond.
I walk past shops selling sourdough bread and baby clothes, and make my way to Water Lane. A narrow lane, which slopes down to give you what it promises. The water’s edge, the River Thames. Here in Richmond, the river is a thing of quiet grace, its shores less flamboyant than they are in the city. People walk their dogs, some sit by the water with their coffees and newspapers, morning light bounces off the boats.
I walk with the river on my right, till I reach Terrace Gardens with its manicured picnic-blanket lawn. I don’t stop here. I cut through it and come out on the other side to a field that is straight out of a childhood in the countryside. This is Terrace Fields, the gentle slope that crawls up to my hill and rolls down to the river. At its top is a gravel path still strewn with acorns where my bench sits waiting.
I sit down with the Roebuck Pub behind me, and the land falling away in front, falling down to the water. The river is a silver arc, a sickle moon. The bare trees are covered in cobwebs of mist. The frosted grass swells and dips.
They tell me it’s the only view in England protected by an Act of Parliament. I have seen this view in every season. The same river, the same steeple in the distance, the same row of foliage. But nothing is the same – the seasons fall like curtains at a theatre. It is a four-act play. Soon, the birds that have left will come back, the winter quiet will melt away to their chirps and songs. The empty nests that are now visible in the trees, black blobs stuck in the branches like upturned porcupines, will disappear behind new leaves.
There is a clump of trees in the middle of the river, an island. It’s called Glover’s Island, named after Joseph Glover who bought it in 1872 for not a shilling more than seventy pounds. The island is elongated, it curves with the curve of the river, and looks almost as if it wants to float off around the bend, as if it would like to sail a little, have a wander, see the world. But it stays, this island. It centres the eye, it anchors the view from Richmond Hill as effectively as the law that protects it. On this little island, overgrown with trees and brambles, migratory birds and the minds of city folks come to roost, even if it’s a momentary rest before they must move on again.
A family walks through my view. The children let out a shriek, bringing my gaze back from the far distance. They’re pointing to the corpse of a half-eaten rabbit lying on the slope. Probably a fox, their mother tells them. The little girl starts to cry, in her hand is a stuffed Peter Rabbit, she turns Peter away from the scene, hides him in her coat. The mother hurries them on, she points to a painter with his easel and puts her finger on her lips. Hush.
William Turner painted this view over and over in his lifetime, committing it to paper and canvases that now live in the Tate. Even while he moved his brush to bring out the rippling of the river and the waving of the trees and the smudges of wind, he captured, in every frame, the stillness that is Richmond Hill.
As I get up from my bench, a pigeon flaps down. Its wings are as loud as the half-eaten corpse, its cooing is as mellow as the light. I walk back into my day. Around me the land undulates, the river flows, and boats pass. Everything is alive and breathing. But even in all this movement, there is stillness. The same stillness that is there in the sweeping of the eye and the wandering of the mind, that is there in the flight of birds, and in the flipping of the pages of a book. The stillness that is there in my breath as it comes out in little puffs of mist.
While the rest of London wrestles with its day and runs down the left side of escalators, some will get off at Richmond station. They will walk along the river to a bench on a hill, and for a little while, be still.
Fullers, Flowers, and a Fish Knife
London, the city chained to the word “grey,” is rarely described in the context of colour, its industrial history cementing its reputation for dirty air. People talk about “getting London out of their lungs,” as if they had to go far. They don’t. On Kensington Church Street in Notting Hill stands a verdant, practically exuberant pub known more for its flowers than pouring Fullers. It’s called the Churchill Arms Pub, and the running joke is that the pub’s budget for beer rivals its budget for flowers because blooms burst out of brick. The owner spends an estimated £25,000 on blossoms; it even won an award in the 2007annual Chelsea Flower Show . It was here that I discovered the city’s green, offbeat side, and fell in love.
The pub is said to have first opened in 1750, though what it looked like then is anyone’s guess, but it stood in a sprawling, smelly London I obviously never knew, back when horse shit dotted streets and anything green was harder to come by. My pub has witnessed a great deal. It would be another decade before King George the III would inherit the throne. Perhaps my pub overheard conversations about the colonies, Napoleon, the war of 1812 and that awkward Regency period, mad kings and unfaithful queens, factories, the Titanic, the Great War and then another one even longer than the first, the Iron Lady, the Beatles, and suddenly, it’s the 1980s, men are wearing eyeliner and lipstick, and someone talks about adding a Thai restaurant next to where the booze is poured. Maybe the idea didn’t make sense at the time, but other things weren’t making sense either so why not?
Churchill Arms Pub’s interior is as bubbly as its exterior. For the past 30 or so years, it has been divided into two spheres. Both sides feel like fragments of dreams. The Thai restaurant is filled with plants and there’s a sizable portrait of a smiling Queen Mother, who was still kicking back daily glasses of gin when I first visited. There are no windows. Dead butterflies decorated a wall. There’s not a lot of room to move around; seating is tight. You feel stuck at some strange garden picnic. Yet, it’s cheery and weird with delicious food and strange smells that waft between the two sides: beer, flowers, burning oil, curry, fish and coconut. Across the foyer is the traditional English bar with the usual dark wood, brass fixtures and foaming pint glasses. There are Churchill tchotchkes positioned high and low, his puffy face and scowl visible from any corner, any barstool, though the former Prime Minister never drank there (but his grandparents reportedly did). Hanging from the ceiling is a hodgepodge of lanterns and containers, including antique-looking chamber pots. I desperately wanted to pocket one as a souvenir. I was 20 years old and had never seen anything like this place, a bar choking with flowers and serving curry instead of fish-and-chips. But this was my first time being so far from home. This was the first time I used my new passport, going anywhere on my own, a destination I had chosen for myself. I ordered a hard cider and Pad Thai, unsure of whether I was saying “Pad Thai” correctly or even how to eat it, but I recognized “noodles,” “peanuts” and “egg,” and ran with it.
The food was flavourful and surprisingly cheap. I ate my noodles with a fork because I didn’t know how to manoeuvre chopsticks. I was new to the world and its customs, but willing to learn. And I was as far as I had ever been from the small greasy pizzerias and Greek diners I had grown up with in a rural region of upstate New York, a stretch along Lake Ontario where the ground was covered most of the year with rotting apples, wet, brown leaves or too much snow. Until the Churchill Arms Pub, I had never seen so many flowers in one place that weren’t still rooted in the soil. Flowers grew in gardens or were spray-painted unnatural colours, often obnoxious neon hues, and kept in grocery store refrigerators, or were clipped and displayed in glass vases; they didn’t burst out of the walls.
At Christmas, staff at Churchill Arms Pub swap out the outdoor baskets and buckets of flowers for about 90 miniature Christmas trees positioned on the façade and roof, pointing up toward the sky as if a forest had suddenly sprouted in the plaster, and they string about 21,000 lights. The place appeared decorated by the Mad Hatter after a few hits of cocaine. I felt lucky to see this, and would see this holiday display again with my daughter 16 years later.
I had been fascinated by the city of London, and England, since childhood, long before I ever set foot on its historic streets.
Maybe my curiosity began in 1981 with getting up at four in the morning to watch the royal wedding of Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana, lost in a whirlwind of silk taffeta looking like a meringue, trapped in a dress with a 25-foot train that wouldn’t fit into the glass coach that was to carry her to the cathedral. I was eight years old.
Or maybe it began shortly thereafter when I noticed history books filled with British exploration. My little upstate New York town is rooted in colonial history, and the War of 1812 took place not too far from where I grew up. Frigates, sloops, and brigs flying American or British colours prowled Lake Ontario battling for control, all this green virgin land up for grabs between white men, the native Indians already being pushed aside. Many of the ships at the bottom of Lake Ontario were lost due to storms, not combat; the Hamilton and the Scourge, both armed schooners, sank August 1813 in a squall near Watertown, New York. Thirty-three years earlier, HMS Ontario, a 22-gun warship, skulked from Fort Niagara to Oswego when it, too, sank in a storm in October 1780, said to be the oldest shipwreck found in the Great Lakes. Growing up less than three miles from Lake Ontario, the lake had always felt more like the sea, brooding, violent, rarely calm. You couldn’t see anything but more grey water churning towards you. It was easy to imagine ships suddenly disappearing. One hundred-thirty men lost their lives on the HMS Ontario, the name of the town where I grew up. The wreck was discovered in 2008 near Rochester, where I was born. Not too far from where I swam and water-skied as a teenager laid England’s dead.
Winters along Lake Ontario were brutal, so I read countless books and developed a love for literature and the English language. William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mary Shelley. Virginia Woolf. D.H. Lawrence. Martin Amis. George Orwell. Kazuo Ishiguro. Zadie Smith. Hilary Mantel. All the Bronte sisters. One of England’s greatest exports is its voice, which had reached every continent by the time I was reading English authors. This intrigued me. The stories were wonderful, yes, but how did a rather small island nation with a history of crappy weather and crappy food formerly bullied by the Romans somehow make itself a leading voice of the written word? I had to know.
It would be the beginning of everything. There would be my claustrophobic life in that small Lake Ontario farm town before my trip and then, after my three months in England, there would be the rest of my life, filled with travel and possibilities and anything else I could do to make it different than what it was before. Escapism would mature into curiosity. Curiosity would mature into going towards places instead of running from them. I have the Churchill Arms Pub, and all of London and England, really, to thank for that.
I wasn’t a naïve country girl lacking big city experience. I had visited New York City when I was a teenager, but New York never captivated (and still doesn’t) the way London does. I would return to Churchill Arms Pub two more times: second, as a newly engaged 27-year-old; and third, in 2009, at age 36, when we took our then five-year-old daughter there during Christmas break after some sightseeing and I got to bask again in those 21,000 white lights strung across the dozens of evergreens.
My husband and I had our first argument as an engaged couple at the Churchill Arms Pub. It had been an unseasonably warm day in August 2000, a day that was better suited for an outdoor café than inside a dark, windowless pub. I wanted to buy an antique fish knife from a shop a few doors down and use it to cut our wedding cake. He thought the knife was too expensive, considering what he had just spent on an engagement ring. I bought the knife anyway, which has a mother-of-pearl handle, and dates from around 1910. He was annoyed at first, and then he grew to like the knife. It was used at our wedding, and is brought out to cut every birthday cake or to slice into any special-occasion dessert on holidays. Once we brought it to Coney Island for my daughter’s 10th birthday. We most recently used it to divvy up her 13th birthday cake, a massive chocolate-upon-chocolate concoction that the knife separated with ease. It was never designed to slice and serve cakes but was intended for upper-class fish service, as the shopkeeper explained to me when I told him why I wanted to buy it. How many tables in English families’ homes had it sat on before ending up in an antiques shop near a now-favourite pub? It was cutlery reimagined. The shopkeeper was amused by my interest in it, and after wrapping up my fish knife, gave me a small picture frame to congratulate my engagement. Every time I take the knife out to enjoy some cake, it reminds me that the pub where I experienced more than one beginning isn’t as far away as it feels.
I was raised to distrust the world and its inhabitants, to fear whatever wasn’t familiar, which was almost everything. That point of view was challenged at a noisy, over-decorated tavern in central London. Pubs are where things happen: conversations, observations, and connections. You can walk in the door thinking one thing, and a few hours later, walk out thinking differently, no matter what you drank. If I’m in London, I make time for the Churchill Arms Pub. If a friend is headed to London, I recommend the Churchill Arms Pub. When I see diaphanous baskets of flowers anywhere, or walk into a place decked out in an over-the-top style, I remember the Churchill Arms Pub. It will outlive me, the fish knife salesman, the current pub owner, more queens, kings, and hopefully several generations, because my pub has seen them come and go for nearly three centuries. Maybe one day, my daughter, all grown up, perhaps studying abroad as I did, will go back, not remembering how we tried to coax a five-year-old to enjoy Thai food, and she’ll mention to someone there, “My parents argued about a knife here.” My London will become her London.
London—dirty, loud, overwhelming, and to me, always beautiful—invited me to see the world in a new way. See our quirky pubs, our new buildings squeezed next to old ones, London tells me. See our obsession with flowers, how we plant green to stave off the grey. See that old church missing a chunk of its foundation because a bomb bit into it all those years ago. See our cafes, all that tea. Yes, there is so much of it. You’ll soon realize how the cogs of England move or don’t move because of things said or unsaid over cups of tea. See people of all colours and creeds agreeing and disagreeing, loudly, and in different languages, sometimes over Fullers, sometimes, tea. See Buckingham Palace, its chandeliers, its tapestries, its red velvet, and know that it used to smell badly of urine when a teenaged Queen Victoria first moved in, almost the same age as you were when you first came to us. See our Tube stations, our labyrinth of tunnels where we once hid from those bombs, and how much the mice love to munch on Cadbury wrappers, hoping to find a scrap of chocolate. See our ships glide down the serpentine Thames, crisscross our huge world, how they travelled thousands of miles long before your grandfather arrived on a U.S. Navy ship to help us fight fascism. See how we landed so far from our own homes, and named distant shores after a fat queen sitting in a gilded palace smelling of piss. See how every Christmas, we string lights anywhere and everywhere, we put the year behind us, and that when Big Ben strikes midnight, we begin again, and you should, too. Go and do and be. See as much as possible. See it all.
 REFERENCE: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/christmas/2016/12/09/churchill-arms-britains-festive-pub/
Ola Nubi is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
Pia Ghosh Roy is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
Katrina Woznicki is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
KLARXY is a Contributing Illustrator for Panorama.
Share this piece: