Tuesday, 14 November 2006
Owen Powell – 14th November 2006
After our jaunt round Alex's part of London, we thought that for our next afternoon on the project we should try my end of town. I live, and have lived for five years, in Limehouse. Or, rather, I live in a part of London that has as its nearest railway station a station called Limehouse. I have a feeling that the advent of the underground system (and, more appropriately, the Docklands Light Railway) has caused whole areas of London to be subsumed under the name of their closest station. Looking at old maps of my area, I find that I actually live in Stepney, or even Ratcliffe, names that mean very little to anyone any more, surviving only in the odd street name. Limehouse itself is incredibly fashionable and posh, taking in the marina with its yachts and the riverside pubs and converted wharf apartments of Narrow Street. There are two world famous British actors living less than ten minutes walk from my front door, both of them spied on recent trips for a pint of milk and loaf of bread. But they live in Limehouse (proper). I live in Ratcliffe.
I didn't fancy showing Alex around Ratcliffe, so we headed to another nearby posh area, Wapping. Wapping is now known as the London headquarters of News Corporation, where the Sun and the Times are printed, and also has a Pizza Express where my friend Sally once sang jazz for an evening. (See, New York? You haven't got a monopoly on cool!) I wasn't really sure who we might find on a wet Tuesday afternoon, so we stuck to our tried and tested method of enquiring in shops.
A newsagents and a fish and chip restaurant were both staffed by smiling Bangladeshi men, who suggested that if we were looking for Bangladeshi men, we'd have a good day, but that other nationalities might be harder to come by. The baker was English, but said that some of his customers were from various European countries. A mini-cab office looked very promising, and also very very scary. Ushered into the back room by the boss, we stumbled across four men reading newspapers, playing cards and watching television. We needn't have been worried. As we haltingly explained the project, they broke out into beaming smiles and seemed keen to take part. All, however, were from India, and our meeting with Dhanji had already ticked that particular country off our list. "Come back tonight!" they said, as we left. "All the drivers tonight are from Somalia!" I told Alex I'd go back in the evening. (I didn't.)
Next, we tried our luck in the launderette. The lady who looked like she was running the place, moving swiftly about with an apron on, folding and stacking things, heard our introduction and nodded her head toward the older gentleman sitting in the corner reading the sports news. "He's the owner, speak to him." Another introduction, another baffled look turning into a welcoming smile, and Antonis was off. A Greek Cypriot of a young-looking 68 years, he had moved to London 46 years ago. Unlike most of the rest of the Greek Cypriot community, who he said were to be found up north in Green Lanes, Antonis had spent his London life near Docklands. He was now in semi-retirement after a very active working life in clothes manufacturing, and had invested in the launderette – cleaning garments now, not making them. Some of his family, his mother and brother included, were still in Cyprus and he visited them occasionally. It seemed that they had never visited him. Antonis looked a bit sad at this point, so I asked what I thought was a great question to change the subject. "You've been in London since you were 22," I began, "When you got to 44, did you stop and think, hang on, I've now lived in London for half my life?" Antonis looked at me like I'd just poured soup into one of his washing machines. I turned to look at Alex for help. He had a face on. But it was a good question!
After repeating the question, and another pause, and some more prompting, Antonis declared that he had never thought about it, as he was far too busy at the time. A good answer to a good question. My journalistic instincts spent, we backed out of the launderette and left Antonis to his paper. The washing machines whirred on.