Thursday, 23 November 2006
Trinidad and Tobago and Me
Alex Horne – 23rd November 2006
On the day after Owen's birthday we'd headed (un)steadily down to the very end of the East London line, confident that we could get our total up to the required monthly rate of 16 by the end of a day spent in a famously multicultural corner of town.
I had lived in New Cross for a year whilst doing an MA at Goldsmiths College. After a sheltered childhood in the picture postcard Sussex town of Midhurst and four years locked in the fairytale castle that is Cambridge University, I relished the gritty atmosphere of this East London Borough. People often call it a vibrant place to live. What they really mean is it's a violent place to live. And for a young adult one step away from real life, this was dangerously exciting.
Of course, I could afford to relish this lively/deadly ambience because I was a student. I wasn't really living there. I was staying there. But I liked to kid myself that this was my spiritual home; that the seedy bars and dodgy minicab (so nearly cannabis) offices were where I belonged. And so did the many other arty students who floated along the Old Kent Road towards Deptford Broadway wearing clothes so trendy that they often looked like idiots.
In my compact but adequate flat above Icelend on New Cross Road, I shared a kitchen with two Danes, two Brits, a Greek and a Belgian. This was highly unusual. In almost every other flat, the Brits would have been in the minority. If ever the phrase "melting pot" could be used without patronising or simplifying a situation, this corner of South East London was the place to do it.*
Typically, however, I didn't really sample the delights of that pot at the time. I never ate in the Thai restaurant opposite the library where Owen bagged us our most recent find at lunch. Nor did I have my haircut in the Caribbean Paradise Hair Salon. I mainly ate insanitary food purchased impossibly cheaply from the country/supermarket below us (£5 for two enormous turkey crowns, three bags of ready roasted potatoes, ten fish fingers, a pack of viennetta, 3 litres of coke and a pack of double funsize mars bars) and drank in the scarily British Marquis of Granby.
And, most regretfully, I never ever even set foot inside the legendary Caribbean restaurant "Cummin Up" which I passed every single time I caught the tube, and whose food I could smell from my very doorstep. Why not? Like all normal people I love fast food and often succumb to the "Perfect Chicken" sold at various Turkish eateries round the corner or the best kebabs in the world cooked in the Maroush on Edgware Road, but for some reason I never dared go into "Cummin up". I didn't think I was meant to go in there. I thought it was a Caribbean thing for Caribbean people.
Luckily, that was exactly why we had to go in there today. And surprise surprise, we were made to feel entirely welcome. If only I'd had the courage to cross that threshold five years ago, I'd have had a much more satisfying nutritional experience whilst learning very little about the world of Broadcast Journalism.
For while things like "Curried Goat & Rice, (The most typical festive dish)", "Cow Foot & Rice (Shin area very gluey, again generally prepared with butter beans)", "Ackee & Saltfish & Rice (Jamaica's National Dish. Very delicate yellow fruit prepared as a vegetable with saltfish generally cod)" may not be my normal lunch fare, they did look incredibly appetizing (and reasonably priced too – as one would expect from an establishment whose motto is "The taste without the expense").
Carol, the duty manageress and our representative for Trinidad and Tobago, was very patient with us. As the never-ending stream of customers placed orders and picked up dishes she told us that she'd swapped the West Indies for Eastenders in 2002 to work alongside her husband of fifteen years. She now lives in Brixton, hates the cold but loves the atmosphere at "Cummin Up" where traditional Caribbean recipes are made with all the customary ingredients and where people from all different communities can enjoy either a taste of home or the flavours of a far off land.
So, whoever you are, next time you're in New Cross (or Catford, Forest Hill or Sydenham) look out for the "Cummin Up" sign and order something exciting. For a first-timer like me, even the beverages like 'Irish Moss', 'Soursop Juice', 'Baba Roots', 'Jamaican Bigga Soda' and 'Magnum Force' sound exotic. And even if nothing on the menu takes your fancy, don't worry: as the colourful notices explain, "Anything you don't see and like, call us. No request too strange, whilst edible!"
*By the way, one of the Danes, called Theis, inspired my favourite joke about the area thanks to his brilliantly Danish pronunciation: "Which is the only London station to be named after a baby crab? New Cross Station (New Crustacean). Maybe it works better out loud…
Thai-m for Lunch
Owen Powell – 23rd November 2006
My girlfriend, Rachel, and I met Alex in Shadwell, near the scene of our recent triumphs in Wapping, and headed south on the East London line, towards New Cross. The East London line is one of the weirder tube lines – all the others have semi-graceful curves on the map, but this short orange oddity just goes straight up and down, with a fork at the bottom. If you turn the map upside down, it's almost like south London sticking two fingers up to the north. In fact, it's the only line with more than half its stations south of the river, so maybe the gesture is one of pride, rather than confrontation.
Almost as soon as we arrived, we started looking for a place to have lunch. Alex had heard of a Caribbean café he was eager to try, and we also liked the look of an Italian-style "slow food" restaurant, but our tastebuds (and wallets) were most easily stimulated by an establishment simply called 'Thailand' which offered two course lunches for only £3.99 a head. It's one of Rachel's favourite places to eat if she's studying in Goldsmith's library, just over the road, and even though its recent makeover has left it looking less authentically Thai, the food was excellent. I'm not very good at restaurant reviews (as the last sentence perhaps indicates), so maybe it's enough to say that we had chicken satay, chilli mussels and vegetable spring rolls for starters, and had two thai green curries and beef with ginger for main courses. They were all super.
While we ate, Alex and I told Rachel about how the project was going. We discussed an idea we'd had for the obvious sequel – trying to find a person in every country in the world who had originally come from London – as well as some more esoteric ideas about nationhood itself. Most geo-political problems around the world can be simplified into disputes over land – one area is claimed simultaneously by two separate groups, as is the case in Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, Taiwan, even Northern Ireland. We had yet to meet anyone who disputed their UN-given nationality, but we all agreed it would be interesting when and if it happened. Lots of people around the world, of course, live in a country without knowing it – tribespeople in places like Papua New Guinea and areas of South America, but it was unlikely that any of them would be in London. As a counterpoint, what if we found someone from somewhere that wasn't a country at all, for example, someone who was born in Antarctica? Antarctica is the only land mass left in the world that is not ruled over by one nation's government. It appears to have the same legal status as the bottom of the ocean, or the surface of the moon, but unlike seas or satellites it would be possible to be born there. As far as we know, no-one has been (what pregnant woman would decide to live at the South Pole, for starters?). We put all these thoughts into the category of bridges to be crossed when come to.
After the meal, I sat down at a spare table with our waitress and grilled her a bit. Her name was Thida Smith, and she had been in London for two years and nine months. She had an English husband, who she had met in Thailand. I closed off this line of questioning for fear of uncovering a cliché. Not being a trained journalist, I sometimes find it hard to phrase questions in the right way, so I thought it was safer if we stuck to food. After complimenting her on the meal we had just enjoyed, I asked how it compared to real Thai food. Thida said that it was broadly the same, but there was a real difference in the amount and type of spices used. The food she cooks in the restaurant is significantly milder, as most of her clientele are not Thai ex-pats but Brits like me, with our less adventurous palate. She even seemed to imply that she wouldn't enjoy eating the food she cooks, saying that at home she sticks to original Thai recipes and ingredients. I made a comparison with the oft-quoted story about the British invention of the Chicken Tikka Masala. Thida nodded. I asked if she thought we'd manage to complete the project, and she seemed fairly optimistic on our behalf, adding that the area we were in now should provide us with lots of opportunities to find people. Well, for the next hour at least we were going to give it a go.
Tuesday, 14 November 2006
Digging a Hole to China
Alex Horne – 14th November 2006
High on our St Lucian fix (and with Paul's Stella swiftly sunk) Owen and I decided to indulge in a spot of showboating down in Old China Town - which, as we discovered on Day One of this project, is located in Limehouse.
According to the valuable and potentially inaccurate internet resource that is Wikipedia, this East End area was dominated by opium, gambling and hand laundry dens throughout the late 19th century. But, disappointingly for all sorts of addicts including ourselves, the whole oriental district was destroyed by the Blitz and all that now remains is a rusting statue of a dragon eating another dragon which is in turn eating the first dragon. I'm sure it's meant to have some sort of very meaningful meaning but Wikipedia doesn't mention it so I'm going to say it's a representation of a freak occurrence that did actually happen in one of the three lairs mentioned above. A dragon actually ate a dragon that was actually eating the other dragon – fact.
Anyway, we'd drunk half a can of beer each, it was still only 5pm, and we were determined to find a Chinaman in Chinatown so we ignored the blatant lack of Chinese remnants, put our heads down and charged into Canary Wharf, a more modern but still fairly fearsome giant. Unfortunately, whilst battling against the tide of determinedly homeward bound businessmen (all the time trying to ignore the fact that whilst these people were earning large amounts of money and creating stable livelihoods for themselves and their families, we'd been walking around London, asking people if they're foreign and accepting alcohol from strangers in a bid to complete an overambitious project for our own sense of achievement and the faint possibility of a very nebulous body of work at the end of it all) we failed to persuade anyone to take part in our scheme.
Instead we found a small sushi bar, largely ignored by the departing herd, run by two young Asian girls. Sushi? Asian? "So you're Japanese", I deduced, neatly putting two and two together and getting (minor but definitely discernible) racism. "No. I'm from China and she's from Malaysia", came the belittling reply. I know it's not really bad racism – I just presumed her nationality on the grounds of the grounds - but I did feel ashamed for slipping into a Q.I.-style trap and half-expected the word "JAPANESE" to flash up behind me and that howling alarm to really ram my mistake home.
I couldn't tell if Lei herself (22 years old with a BA in English Literature from Royal Holloway) even registered my error. I thought I could detect a slight "he thinks we all look the same" expression on her face but then I clearly can't read faces all that well. And I should say that Lei was our first representative to then deny our request for a photo. "I'll email you one", she promised. Two weeks later, I'm still waiting.
The rest of the conversation didn't go particularly smoothly either: I over-compensated for my narrow-mindedness by grinning weirdly and saying, "So, China! Brilliant! I love China!" This wasn't entirely idiotic – I had spent four months there whilst on a 'gap year', but because it was a 'gap year', I did spend more time socialising with my fellow intrepid English travellers than making any real Chinese friends or absorbing any real Chinese culture – something I've regretted ever since.
"Where in China?!" I persisted, thinking it was boundto be Quanzhou, the sleepy East coast town (population: 7.5 million) where I stayed back in 1997. "You won't know it", said Lei. "I will! I know China, I will!" I replied, desperately. "You won't", said Lei, conclusively. And that was that.
She was almost certainly right. I clearly don't 'know China'. But we'd found our Chinese representative fairly close to London's spiritual Chinese home and just as long as she gets in touch soon with a jpeg portraying her Chinese face, that's all that really matters – isn't it?
Alex Horne - 14th November 2006
I'm not normally a brave person, but once in a while sheer adrenaline takes over and I do something that surprises even myself. That's what happened soon after Owen had bagged himself a Cypriot in a launderette in Wapping, when I boldly addressed three men in a grocer's shop, one of whom was clutching a can of Stella Artois and had just uttered the sentence: "Hey, I'm from the Caribbean!"
Now, we've all got some preconceptions. I guess I realised then that one of mine was that I tend to presume I won't have a nice sixty minute chat with a strange man from the Caribbean holding a beer at three in the afternoon in Wapping. And I guess one of his was that he presumed people who approach you with a folder in a shop in the East End at 3pm are always trying to sell you something. Once we'd both put those notions to one side, Paul and I got on just fine.
We were already pleased to have stumbled upon someone from Cyprus in an area where the Bangladeshi community seem to outnumber the British (we found Rana, of course, on day one). So, when we found out that these three grocer-dwelling gentlemen were from St Lucia, Barbados and Guyana respectively we couldn't believe our luck.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that our Guyanese fellow was in no mood for global questions. Dubbed 'The Professor' by the others, he explained that he was a citizen of the world, not just one country, and didn't want to be constrained by our queries. Considering Guyana is confusingly referred to as part of the West Indies despite its physical location within South America, and is currently embroiled in some sort of border dispute with Suriname, we thought it best not to try to persuade him otherwise. Instead we let him get on with his business of pacing up and down the street, photographing the cars, the shops and, mostly, us. I'm sure, like us, he had his reasons.
The third member of the group was Eric, a tall man who reminded me of the first American President in 24 (who is currently helping out the pathetic stand-in leader in the third series that I'm struggling to watch on DVD). Frustratingly, however, he explained in extremely eloquent English that he wasn't articulate enough to help us with our project. Instead he would pass on our phone numbers to his more loquacious brother, who lives near Kensal Green and would love to share his Barbadian memories with the world. Eric then went on to talk at length about his own life in Barbados, his deep passion for all forms of cricket, and his well-crafted political stance on immigration – none of which he was happy for us to use. A frustratingly modest man.
Two down, our hopes were pinned on Paul. But even his approval was looking doubtful as he hesitated suspiciously, trying to work out if he was being taken on a ride, being used for some nefarious scheme that would probably involve identity theft. In the course of what turned out to be complex negotiations, however, he did release some crucial details of his own journey to London from St Lucia.
He arrived in England, a twelve year old with sandals still on his feet, at some point in the 1960s (he was adamant that we wouldn't learn his actual age). He had left far behind a tropical, volcanic island in the eastern Caribbean sea, and found himself in a freezing flat with no running water, attending a school where his lack of P.E. kit meant he was forced to run, shivering, half-naked round the streets of the East End.
This was not the London he had eagerly anticipated. In his previous Caribbean classroom Paul had learnt all about Big Ben, Tower Bridge and the glorious architecture of the capital. For after finally 'winning' the island on the back of no less than fourteen battles with the French, the British were keen to stamp their authority upon their new progeny. Like some pushy parent after a messy divorce, the colonisers taught St Lucian children about their fine achievements, and soon encouraged them to make the honourable journey to the motherland and rejoice in staffing the health system and manning our trains and buses.
It was not until 1979 that St Lucia became an independent state. Even now, as a Commonwealth Realm, it still recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of State, represented on the island by a Governor-General. Is that not a bit embarrassing? Sure, swash-buckling sea battles in the 1600s are all very exciting but why should a 160,000 strong island population have to ask their God to save a Queen who lives on another island ten hours away by plane?
Well, it's not really my place to say. And neither Eric nor Paul seemed to have a problem with that particular situation. What they have a problem with is what's going on in their own country today – i.e. the UK in 2006. After living here for almost fifty years they say they feel less safe now than ever before. Not, Eric stresses, because of any racial tensions – although that is still a problem that occasionally surfaces – but because a new generation is running wild.
This is a bit of a complicated one and you've got to remember that throughout our conversation The Professor was snapping away with his camera, Paul was still trying to work out if he was being conned and we were still in the doorway to a greengrocers in Wapping. In fact, it was largely thanks to the encouragement of the three amused and stereotypically East End ladies who ran the shop that Paul did eventually agree to join our scheme. It took a while, but at the end of our encounter he posed for our own camera, gave us his mobile number and promised to stay in touch.
First, however, we had the problem of London's unruly youth to discuss and like I say, it's complicated. When Paul first arrived, things were literally and metaphorically black and white. There was the black community, recently landed from the West Indies, and the white Londoners who eventually got used to their new neighbours.
These days, however, things are just too cosmopolitan. Yes, says Paul, there were people from India here before – as well as from Bangladesh and other parts of Asia - but now the Eastern Europeans have come and the balance has been upset. For according to Paul, these new immigrants don't care about Britain, have no historical links with the Queen and so won't worry about treating the resident population with respect.
According to this rationale then, the fact that the British took control of the island in 1814, after having fought with the French since they effectively bought it from the native Carib people in 1660, means that St Lucians now have more loyalty to their colonisers than the immigrants who have no stronger tie than the European Union (and often not even that). It's hard for me to get my head round that sort of allegiance. I can understand that a lot of good was done in the Caribbean and that previously unobtainable opportunities were granted to the people there, but nationalities from all over Europe now have those same prospects without the spectres of colonisation and servitude lingering in their past. Why should they be less grateful than any 'members of the Realm'?
"We are more British than them", says Paul and that's pretty much the end of the argument. It's also partly why, despite his current misgivings, he will never go back to live in St. Lucia. He may have had his bin set on fire by kids last week, and the tube might well be overcrowded but this is his home and this is where his friends are. He no longer knows St Lucia or its people. Things have changed on both islands and it's this one that he feels more affiliation with. Of course he's patriotic but he's also a proud Londoner.
I happened to be wearing a claret and grey stripey jumper that day (it was a bit chilly and I'm not very trendy) and Paul immediately assumed I was a West Ham fan like him. When he found out I was a Liverpool supporter he took it as read (sorry, accidental pun) that I must have grown up there – he didn't even contemplate the fact that I might have started supporting them just because they were good in the eighties – for Paul is entrenched in his community and a hammer through and through.
By the time the talks had reached a conclusion, I think we all felt a sense of achievement. Paul and Eric had been anxious that we were doing this for the right reasons, that we were learning about London as we went, and that their side of the story would be told. I was glad to have summoned up the courage to approach them, fascinated by what they said, and incredibly chuffed to have met someone from at least one of the Caribbean islands – just twenty three to go.
We parted company amicably and with a certain amount of ceremony as Paul offered me the beer he'd been holding throughout the diplomatic meeting. When I'd first noticed the men and the drink an hour before I'd been wary. It's not uncommon to see guys who may or may not be from the West Indies enjoying a sociable drink in the middle of the afternoon but I'd normally tend to keep a low profile when walking past - just to make sure I don't get involved. Now I happily cracked open the hitherto untampered with can and Owen and I greedily gulped down the contents as we strolled back to the DLR.
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.
Sunday, 12 November 2006
Mihai the Builder (can he fix it? etc etc)
Alex Horne - 12th November 2006
I've known Mihai, our Romanian representative, for a couple of weeks now. Our bathroom ceiling had had a hole in it for several months and I can't even hit a nail with a hammer, let alone mend a roof, so after I'd dawdled for far too long my wife asked around at work to see if anyone could recommend a builder/real man. A colleague immediately replied saying he'd recently managed to find a guy who was talented, nice and reasonably priced. I gave him a call and he gave us a practical quote in a matter of days. Simple. Everyone happy?
Well, we certainly are. But then we're the lucky customers of a man doing a good job for an affordable fee and I no longer have to worry about breaking our home. And we're not the builders who are used to charging a slightly higher fee for the same work and who now find themselves undercut by a sudden influx of foreign workers. Coming over here, taking our jobs…
And then we're also not part of that legal influx of foreign workers taking jobs for less money who have swiftly found themselves the butt of a whole new raft of xenophobic jokes. For while Mihai is certainly content to be able to make a decent living over here, he's keen to point out that it's not particularly easy to be an Eastern European immigrant in London right now.
While Mihai repaired our bathroom hole, repainted various walls and fixed several cracks, the two of us barely spoke. He would have seen me walking up and down the street clutching a folder covered in flags or staring at my computer, trying to find out how to meet an Arab on the internet, but we never really chatted until the final day of the job when I finally plucked up the courage to explain our mission. I didn't want him to think I was too odd before the hole was not a hole.
Thankfully, he was eager to help. In fact, he seemed glad to have an opportunity to speak his mind about London, the UK and immigration, issues all close to his heart. Because Mihai is frustrated by the Eastern Europeans' current lot.
He's lived in London five years longer than me, landing nine years ago on a plane from Piatra Neamt. In January next year Romania and Bulgaria will officially join the EU but Mihai managed to secure a much sought-after visa a decade early due to the fact that he was three years into a physics degree. It was understood that he would soon return home to complete the course.
Now, however, his life is in London. From his first seasonal job picking strawberries, he moved on to working as a tiler for two years and managed to qualify as an electrician in his spare time. By the time the tiling company he worked for went bust he'd left his number with enough clients to get a decent amount of private work. Through diligence, good results and word of mouth he's been able to make his living doing general building all over the capital ever since.
So things are going well for Mihai. But he can't ignore the suspicion that many people here look down on Eastern Europeans like him. In typically articulate English he admits he's obviously subjective, but believes they're providing a crucial service that is largely ignored by the rest of the population. They're the engine of the country, supplying cheap labour on demand, but one that many seem to mistrust, mock or fear.
Even on his way to my house today, he tells me, he wondered what would happen if all the foreign immigrants stopped working for one day. Nothing would happen. The country would grind to a halt. Surely then people would realise how valuable they are?
Mihai himself is extremely hard-working but not exceptionally so. Eastern Europeans here quickly cultivated a reputation for industrious graft. Out of the 600,000 Polish immigrants to have arrived since their acceptance into the EU two years ago, only a hundred have sought benefits – that's a tiny 0.02%. Instead they do jobs many Brits turn their noses up at, whilst paying taxes and spending their money in our economy. If it wasn't for the Eastern Europeans it is often argued that interest rates would have risen a lot earlier than next January and far sharper.
Interestingly, he's happy for people to think of the Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants as 'all the same'. He says they are all happy to work for less money and do a good job, considering the quality of life and opportunities they gain in comparison to life back home. What he objects to is the sneaking feeling that they're not to be trusted, that they're here to make a quick buck, that they're cynically using our country for their gain. He understands why British labourers might be narked but it's not the builders giving Polish workers a bad press. It's the media middle classes. And it's very hard for the Eastern European voice to be heard over the growing anti-immigration grumble. He says they're the new Irish - the subject of supposedly harmless jokes that betray a suspicious nation.
Of course large-scale immigration is not without its problems. Schools, for instance, have been forced to spend extra money teaching thousands of new Polish kids to speak English, diverting money from other areas where funds are desperately needed. But this is the price a country must pay for a willing, able and affordable workforce. In terms of jobs being stolen, it's true that some have found their working lives turned upside down thanks to what they see as unfair competition, but competitive pricing does not necessarily spell disaster.
Mihai arrived well before the Polish arrival. He'd already started working for himself and his livelihood was at as much risk as anybody else's. But he says there's plenty of work, especially in London, and he soon built up enough contacts to stay busy. In fact, for the last five or six years, he's been working non-stop. He remembers a fortnight without work a couple of years ago when he feared his luck had finally run out so sought employment distributing leaflets for an advertising company. He was given two huge boxes of fliers and told to put them through people's letterboxes (something that I should really think about doing while on my next door-to-door round). Those two boxes are still in his hall. The phone soon rang again and he's barely had a break ever since.
So Mihai is here for good. He married a Romanian girl in Tottenham some years ago and last week hosted (I have no idea if that's the right verb) one of his two kids' christenings. He feels he's got as much to offer the country as anyone else and has earned his place in London. It's very hard to disagree with him. Especially when he's just performed a miracle in your bathroom.
Wednesday, 8 November 2006
Doing the rounds
Owen Powell – 8th November 2006
I now feel sorry for politicians and salesmen.
Before today, they were the only people I could think of who would set out, notebook and A4 file in hand, with the express purpose of knocking on a load of doors just to ask nosey and impertinent questions. Now Alex and I can be counted in that unsavoury group.
I arrived at Alex's house late, and after a quick morale-boosting cup of coffee, I noted ruefully that we were walking out of the one house on the street where we knew there were definitely two other nationalities, as both the builder and the cleaner were hard at work in different rooms. However, these two "finds" were literally too close to home for him to contemplate at the moment, fearing that a negative response might result in a botched ceiling or a stained carpet. Instead, we tackled every one of all 47 houses on the opposite side of the road. Over the course of nearly two hours, we knocked on all but three doors, and we had reasonably good reasons for those three.
The first was George's neighbour, as he'd told us she'd been there for 40 years (a fresh arrival, in his eyes, but almost certainly not useful for our purposes). Ten doors down from here, we found a sign by the letter-box saying, "No door-to-door sales", and didn't fancy quibbling over semantics with whoever answered. A bit further along, we could hear a massive dog growling and barking and periodically launching itself at the other side of the door from where my about-to-knock fist was raised. We looked at each other, and while no words were exchanged, it became apparent that the best course of action was to try the next house along. We're not that brave.
Of the doors we did knock on, 21 were not answered. I suppose that's a reasonable proportion; people have to work, after all. Maybe they just weren't answering their door. During the course of the day, I got to thinking that if I wasn't expecting anyone to call, I might not answer a random knock at my door either.
One lady fell into a category by herself. She pulled back the curtain in her front room, saw that we were standing there on her front step, and waggled her finger at us in a rather unwelcoming manner. It was nigh on impossible to gauge her nationality from such a gesture.
So, that leaves us with 22 people who answered the door, spoke to us through downstairs windows, opened upstairs windows to lean out and chat, or came home with their shopping just as we were giving up. And what an interesting bunch they were. A frustrating bunch, in many ways. Although we found a total of nine nationalities (and hints of about ten more), only two were happy enough to let themselves represent their country in our project. And one of these was the George-and-Iris combo Alex has already written about.
After returning home, I constructed a very basic spreadsheet (yes, I'm taking this seriously) to remind me of all the people we'd met. Here's a selection of some of the words I filled in under the column marked Attitude: 'Suspicious', 'Embarrassed', 'Enigmatic', 'Sleepy', 'Confusing', 'Unwelcoming', 'Relieved', 'Stern', 'Terrified', 'Concerned', 'Apologetic', 'Baffled'. It certainly made me re-think this specific approach to the project, although not the whole project itself. There were times when Alex and I caught ourselves standing on someone's doorstep, little black notebooks poised, pens in hand, muttering to ourselves things like, "Is this where they said the Sudanese might be?" Any immigrant, legal or not-so-legal, witnessing that from an upstairs room might question our motives. Yes, we weren't in uniform, and yes, we seemed friendly, but perhaps we were coming across as authority figures. With most people, we didn't even get to the part where we asked to take a photo of them standing next to their house number, so we could trace them later.
An ongoing highlight for me was the way in which people who were starting to understand the project (including most of the British people we met) would lean out of the door, nod their heads one way or the other and suggest we "try a few doors down", as they were sure there was someone there from Brazil, or Ghana, or the Caribbean. One lady, in fact, trying to be helpful, told us that her neighbour in the flat below was "Black British", which I wasn't sure how to react to. This list of potential finds makes interesting reading in retrospect. The man whose 80% claim Alex mentions elsewhere also suggested we listen out for music, as that was where we'd find the Russian music teacher. And a music teacher we did find, although he actually hailed from Ukraine – a small difference in some people's eyes, but probably not in a Ukrainian's.
Two people answered the door in dressing gowns (by now it was nearing 1pm) which made me feel a bit better about being late again. One of them said she couldn't help, as she was just going out. In a dressing gown?
Finally, as we neared the last five or so doors, we had success. Dhanji Patel is 62, is a retired building contractor, grew up in India, and, according to my spreadsheet, has a 'Super' attitude. He has spent 25 years in the UK, and came here via Kenya where he gained a British passport to go with his Indian one. He still has a cousin out East in India, and a brother a shorter distance West, in Kingsbury. After a quick chat about cricket (becoming a theme, I think), we moved on to his neighbour. Who was out.
Alex Horne - 8th November 2006
Two days after getting married on New Year's Day 2005, my wife and I moved in to our ground floor flat halfway down Ashburnham Road, Kensal Green in the Borough of Brent, Greater London. Almost two years later, it feels now like we've lived there forever.
During the course of our first door-to-door expedition, Owen (writing partner, not wife) and I met a friendly lady called Iris ten doors up the road from me. I'd never met her before but we had a nice chat about the project and when her husband turned up a few minutes later, Iris excitedly introduced him to the two of us. George has been living in the same house on Ashburnham Road for the last 74 years. We all decided he'd be the perfect United Kingdom representative for London.
Kensal Green is not one of London's top tourist destinations but it does possess a history fascinating to someone like me – i.e. someone who now considers it home. The name first cropped up in England's written history in 1253 and is commonly translated as 'Kings Holt'. Holt? Yes, Holt. Apparently, it's a type of woodland. Fine. And which King? No-one knows. It's just some sort of wood that once belonged to some sort of king.
It was not until the 19th century that the area began to develop from this unspecified regal forest land into something approaching a city district. In fact until as late as 1851 the area was still thought of as decidedly rural with only 800 people living there during that particular census (just eighty years before George was to arrive).
But in 1832 the grand Kensal Green Cemetery had been opened to solve the problem of London's scant burial grounds and the many workers needed to maintain what was to become one of the largest graveyards in London started to move into the area.
Unfortunately, while the cemetery quickly became fashionable amongst prominent dead Victorians such as Thackeray and Trollope, the area for living people did not. At the turn of the century many houses still used ancient privies draining into decrepit pipes instead of regular sewers. Residents often kept pigs, the slaughter of which at the local (and appropriately rustic) inn, 'The Plough', provided the cultural highlight of the week. Whether or not that's any worse than Karaoke Night or Pub Quiz and Curry Evening, there's definitely something agricultural about an area where people had to clean up after their swines.
So when George moved into the area at the age of seven, Kensal Green was thought of as a near slum. Like so many nooks of London, it rubbed shoulders with respectable types like Queens Park and Maida Vale but Kensal Green knew its place as a dwelling for the less privileged, harder working class.
Even as late as 1971, a quarter of the housing lacked full amenities - a fact that I'm sure would have delighted Charles Dickens, himself a regular visitor to Kensal Manor House a century before. But, to quote the famously gritty London author, the area was soon to 'turn my silver lining outward like Milton's cloud,' (i.e. every cloud…). For the lack of redevelopment from the 1950s to 1970s meant that the area's many Victorian houses were eventually saved and buildings such as George's home have now been restored to their full historic glory.
George himself has watched the area grow and change with mixed feelings. He remembers when the current West Indian barber shop opposite his house was a traditional grocers with hams hung from the ceiling and fresh fruit and veg spilling on to the street. The two buildings boarded up round the corner used to be a thriving community supplies shop and a chemist where locals would routinely write out their own prescriptions. In those days the residents of Ashburnham Road had everything they needed on their doorstep and rarely travelled further a field, becoming instead one close-knit all-knowing community where everybody knew everybody was just like everybody else.
As time wore on, however, its cosy position, nestled in between prosperity and degradation, attracted an eclectic mix of residents with Irish and Afro-Caribbean immigrants first arriving in great numbers during the 1960s. A couple of decades later, many of the Irish moved on (with the exception of my wife – she's not in her forties, but she is Irish and still here) leaving behind a trail of colourful pubs and Celtic signs, and Indians, Africans, Portuguese, Italians, Brazilians and, more recently, Eastern Europeans started taking their place. People no longer shop in the same three shops and talk about the same things and George no longer knows all his neighbours.
And it's not just immigrants from overseas that are changing the face of the town. Phrases like 'up and coming' and 'renaissance' have recently been bandied around the area, with the explosion of London's property market and Kensal Green's excellent transport links causing large numbers of young British professionals to migrate to the area, bringing with them pricey delicatessens, luxury gift shops and gastropubs that once more leave some residents feeling cut off from and priced out of the area they grew up in. Of course if you tell many of these new arrivals that George bought his house from his father in 1968 for just £1100 they probably wouldn't be all that happy either.
As we shuffled from door to door I couldn't quite make up my mind how I personally felt about the ever-changing area. I like the fact that it's almost impossible to get 'Three In A Row' when you play 'Nationality Neighbours', but a lot of people like George do seem slightly unsure about the new cosmopolitan atmosphere. Having said that, nearly everyone we met was keen to share their own relative memories of the area and while it's true that people no longer know everyone else on the street, there was still enough camaraderie and community spirit on display to convince me that change is not all bad; our local friendly vicar promised to spread the word in Church the following Sunday (his congregation includes many people from Ghana whom we would love to meet as soon as possible), several people fondly recommended 'Jim from next door' or 'Greek Nick' from down the road, and everybody knew my lovely Italian neighbours.
I understand how bewildering it must be for George to have seen his home change so much in the course of his life, with almost every different culture thrown into the mix in recent years. He remembers an utterly different London – a street with no cars*, let alone the parking meters, satellite dishes and green recycling bins that now adorn the still simple terraced houses.
One resident told us that 80% of people in the Borough of Brent were born outside of the UK which is, I think, a telling statistic. Especially because it's not true. The borough does have the country's highest percentage of people who've come from overseas (46.3%) but the fact that people here think it could be as high as four fifths just goes to show how conscious they are of the blend.
Despite feeling so settled here, I only really knew a handful of my neighbours before our street-long search. Now, at the calculated risk of sounding sentimental, I'm looking forward to at least waving at a good few more (although I realise they'll probably wave back with a 'there's that man who asked us odd questions' look on their face). I also didn't know that London boroughs have mottoes before researching our little community. But they do. Because they are little communities. Appropriately enough, Brent's is Forward Together. I very much hope it's prophetic.
*The day after our expedition Brent Council took the unusual step of cleaning Ashburnham Road. Leaflets were posted through our doors explaining the procedure and advance warning was given that there would be no parking between 9am and noon. As I walked down the street at eleven o'clock (ignoring the two cars, forgotten by their owners and now sporting bright yellow parking fine rosettes), I pretended that it was 1932 again. It was odd to walk down a street with no motor vehicles. It struck me how wide the street was and I tried to work out why they built it so – Was it aesthetic? Did they know there'd need to be enough room for three lanes of traffic (parking on either side and a one way street in the middle)? Or did horses and pigs need enormously wide lanes? More pressingly for me, when did the pavements appear? Did pedestrians just wander all over the street? Was there a system for fast and slow walkers? I've been trying to find old photos of Ashburnham Road ever since but have so far drawn blanks. I'll keep trying. These are important questions.
Friday, 3 November 2006
Happy Birthday Milco
Alex Horne - 3rd November 2006
Within minutes of our meeting, Milco and I agreed that he's one of those people who looks older than he is. I certainly thought he was older than me. And I was wrong. He'll be 26 on Sunday.
We'd decided to meet at three in the afternoon at an appropriately cosmopolitan bar called Funky Munky in Camberwell. I bought him a coffee to say thanks for helping me. He's working nights at the moment so hadn't had breakfast yet. As soon as our drinks arrived he got talking.
In April 2000, when he was just 19 years old, Milco got off a train at Victoria Station with no money, possessions or friends. He'd come to live in London. Apparently he's not unique in turning up unannounced like this as a large American Rastafarian gentleman soon approached and persuaded him to stay in a hostel on the Harrow Road in Kensal Green, just 200 yards from my front door. I pass the building almost every day and often lose my patience with large groups of young international students who emerge from its doors before taking ages to get through the barriers at the tube station looking far too happy to be using public transport in London. The boarding house itself is covered with welcoming hand-painted flags from around the world but looks like it would probably collapse in a stiff breeze. It used to be called the Millennium Lodge but once that best-before-date passed it became the much less inspiring 'Hotel 639'.
There, according to Milco, "all sorts of things" went on. Soon after arriving he was approached by a Polish gentleman who offered him a day's work. Not knowing what to expect but being much braver than me, Milco said yes and was taken to a different, more structurally sound hotel room where he was given a smart suit. They then took him out shopping. This has never happened to me when I've been offered 'a day's work'.
He was subsequently instructed to go around all of London's Louis Vuitton shops buying as many handbags as possible. Each time he made a purchase, the Pole's Malaysian colleagues would pay him 7% of the bag's price. Bearing in mind that each bag costs around £420, Milco could therefore make a couple of hundred pounds per day by looking smart and shopping. The Malaysian Men, meanwhile, got a load of bags they could sell at a higher price back home where genuine Vuitton bags are otherwise almost impossible to purchase. They wanted to employ someone from a country like Macedonia because people from within the EU not only have to pay VAT but are also only able to buy one bag every three months in order to keep the range as exclusive as possible. It's an odd system but one that kept Milco employed for a good few months. In fact, he was soon offered the job of 'Introducer' – which meant he had to find up to five non-EU people per day (sounds familiar), take them to the hotel room (their office) in Knightsbridge, explain the plan (not easy) and take them out shopping. Amazingly, the system worked perfectly until shops like Harrods finally became suspicious and stopped accepting cash from people with accents like his.
Clearly, The Malaysians had a very different reason for finding Eastern Europeans in London than me but for both of us the search proved a simple one. They're everywhere. And whilst it seems incredibly daring to me to leave home whilst still a teenager and start working for, let's face it, dodgy men in a foreign country, it was a simple logical move for Milco. Halfway through a psychology degree in Macedonia he realised that in all likelihood there would be no job awaiting his graduation. In England, on the other hand, his employment possibilities were endless, degree or no degree. He decided to cut his losses and came here.
It's not easy to say why employment is so low in Macedonia. Well, it's not easy for me to say. Milco explained the situation carefully and comprehensively but as an ignorant Englishman, there was a lot to take in. I always wonder why there is such a greater emphasis on 'history' at school, rather than the 'present'. Surely if people understood what's going on in other countries they would have a less narrow, less negative view of immigration. Or perhaps that's being naïve and idealistic. I'm just another ignorant Englishman.
As far as I think I now understand it, the People's Republic Macedonia was one of the six republics gathered together to make the Yugoslav Federation after World War II. Following the federation's renaming as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963, Macedonia was likewise renamed, becoming the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. Tito, the overall president, was apparently that rare oxymoron, a friendly dictator. Immensely popular, he led the country with remarkable stability until his death in May 1980. (Now, as I've stressed once too often before, I'm politically ignorant so do ignore the contents of these brackets but this seems to me to have been a good way to run things. If there's only one bloke in charge and that bloke is a really good bloke I imagine everyone else must have been able to then relax and things would generally have been fine. That can't be right, can it? Someone tell me I'm an idiot and why please.)
Without Tito holding things together the republics started to drift and Macedonia became independent fairly peacefully in 1991, dropping the 'Socialist' from its name in the process. As the result of a naming dispute with Greece in 1993 it was then admitted to the United Nations under the provisional and backward-looking name, 'The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' (FYROM). I was fifteen years old at that momentous time - at the peak of my capital-naming-GCSE-geography powers - but I'm ashamed to say that up until meeting Milco I'd never even heard of the capital. It's called Skopje. Ring any bells with anyone else?
Isolated, Macedonia started to lose its way. Previously government-run companies became privatised and were soon abused by greedy opportunists. Many people lost their jobs and a huge gulf opened up between the rich minority and the poor remainder. Thirty percent of the two million population are now unemployed. Many, like Milco's sister, have at least two degrees but still can't get a job.
He casually mentions a war in 2001 when the Kosovan Liberation Army sought more rights for the Albanians that make up a quarter of the populace. "It was not much of a war. They just got on a hill and started shooting. The US and UN then got involved and told them to stop and what else could they do? They had to agree. Otherwise they'd do to them the same as they did to Serbia".
So things aren't great in Macedonia right now, although Milco insists that the people are happy despite their average income of around £150 per month. Things may one day change, but not any time soon. In 2005, Macedonia was officially recognized as a European Union candidate state but it won't be allowed to join until having undergone several awkward and expensive social reforms. Even if this does eventually happen, Milco predicts yet more gloom when the many over-qualified people finally have the chance to head out in search of better jobs and lives, leaving behind a disjointed society struggling to find its place in an unbalanced club. And they'd have to pay VAT on Louis Vuitton handbags.
For now though, most Macedonians simply don't have emigration as an option, lacking money and/or the connections necessary to obtain a visa. Luckily for Milco, the absence of the first was compensated by the acquisition of a rare au pair visa which allowed him to make his solitary way to the UK.
Six years later, he now thinks of London as his home. He's grown up here. We first crossed paths in a Soho comedy club, a place where baffled expressions usually reveal the faces of visitors but where Milco blended right in, betrayed only by his decidedly un-British first name. He proudly explains that while French, German or Spanish people can never understand British humour, he fully 'gets' the jokes because he has lived here so long, and because Macedonian wit is similarly dry. "Would I like Macedonian comedians?" I ask. "No", he says. "You wouldn't understand the political references". Fair enough.
Milco clearly knows a lot more about Britain than I do about Macedonia. But I can't help thinking he also knows more about Britain than I do about Britain. From his distinct point of view he sees a country propped up by foreign helpers. It's immigrants like him who are keeping the country running. While British young men fight and drink on the streets, get arrested for fun and then complain about "where the country is going", other hungrier and less spoilt young men are arriving, working hard and respectfully enjoying the security these louts take for granted.
Milco himself is currently working nights as a waiter in a top-class casino in Kensington, where the gamblers come from a different social stratum altogether. Members of the Kuwaiti Royal Family rub shoulders with Chinese mafiosi and barely flinch when they lose (or win) a million with one bet. He won't be working there for long. He's ambitious, keen to grab the opportunities he's found for himself.
Inspired, I try to follow suit. Does he have any foreign friends that I could, perhaps, have a chat with over coffee? "Of course", he smiles. Milco now knows lots of people in London - not many of them British and even less Macedonian - but all making the most of our capital. He promises me a man from Mauritius. We say goodbye and head off for our respective breakfast/dinner. I'm confident we'll stay in touch.
It seems that Milco is a particularly approachable man. With this character, the hostel's agent at Victoria station and myself, much of his life in London seems to revolve around strangers walking up to him and using his nationality as a reason to start some sort of association.
Louis Vuitton is the most counterfeited brand in fashion history: just over 1% of all "Louis Vuitton" branded items are not counterfeit.
One of my new year's ambitions next time round will be to have a naming dispute with Greece.