Friday, 2 March 2007
No.49: Sri Lanka
Alex Horne - 2nd March 2007
Almost three months after our morning’s trawl of the south side of Ashburnham Road, Owen and I decided to have a second crack at NW10, this time concentrating on the Rise rather than the Green (Kensal Rise does indeed rise, by the way, if you’re coming from the south. From the other direction, of course, it falls but “Kensal Falls” would sound too much like a waterfall and expectant tourists might be disappointed. Kensal Green is not green).
Like in November we thought it would be a good idea to save time and aide our memoires by using a single word to describe the mood of each person we came across. As always, we were expecting an enormous haul of willing immigrants.
At the civilised hour of 10.30am we set off from the bottom of Chamberlayne Road, opposite Kensal Green Cemetery, perhaps the most cosmopolitan graveyard in London (one of the key regulations of the endeavour, unfortunately, is that the people we find must live in the city, but this could well be an idea for a future project) and entered almost every establishment between the New Church and Kensal Rise station – with some success.
But first, some failure.
And a lot of coffee.
First up, the car wash, where my hopes were raised on The Day of the Snow by a Kosovan with a sponge. Unfortunately we were told that today he’d just gone off on a two week holiday and everyone else was too busy to talk. “Are you from Kosovo?” I persisted. “I’m too busy to talk”, came the reply. They were quite literally “too busy to talk” (except to make it quite clear how busy they were and what that meant they weren’t able to do). I’m pretty sure he was from Serbia but the only adjective I could write down for sure was “busy” (and from now on, our key adjectives will all be found “in speech marks”).
A large proportion of the time we spend approaching people we think might be foreigners is actually devoted to getting the moment of contact exactly right. We often walk past a shop, glance in, then stop the other side of the door, just out of sight, and discuss whether the people inside look (a) alien, (b) busy, and (c) happy. If the answers are yes, no and yes (in that order) we proceed. With caution. If I hadn’t already known there was some chance of getting a Serb at this location, there’s no way we would have entered the carwash on this basis, with the answers being at best ‘maybe’, ‘yes’ and ‘hard to tell because of the preceding ‘yes’’.
When it comes to places that serve food or drink, this discussion usually takes place in the warmth of the café/bar/restaurant itself, fuelled by the appropriate coffee/beer/food. So on entering the first café on the corner of Harrow Road. we ordered drinks, noticed the Arabic writing adorning pictures of somewhere hot on the wall and waited until the jovial looking owner got off the phone whilst sipping two incredibly strong (and definitely not British) espressos. Eventually the time seemed just right to pop the question, Owen jumped in and, hooray! He was willing to talk to us! And we both described him as “expressive”! But, oh no, he was from Morocco. And we’ve already met Rashid. We knocked back our caffeine and left.
Next we came to a money transfer shop, so common in London but which I had never before been inside. In case you, like me, have never had to wire money anywhere, I’m pleased to report that the interior of one of these places looks very much like a bank, except that this one had no queues whatsoever. The two cashiers looked genuinely “excited” to see us and told us ‘yes, we get lots of foreign people here’. ‘Great’, we chorused, ‘where from?’ ‘Oh, Brazil! They’re all from Brazil! We’re from Brazil!’
Brazil. No good to us of course. We’d interviewed a man called Bertrand in Islington. They were however “helpful” too and pointed us in the direction (North again) of next door’s dry cleaners-cum-tailors.
‘I’m rushed off my feet today’ was the immediate response of the cleaning/adjusting business’ owner, despite the fact that his shop was also empty. ‘I can’t chat on Fridays or Saturdays’, he explained, ‘it’s the end of the week’. We had to admit he had a point. Those two days are indeed at the very end of the week. Why this meant ‘no chatting’ we didn’t ask because he was a Cypriot and we’d already met Antonis from Wapping (also in the laundry business).
After another encounter with a (slightly “short-tempered”) Moroccan in the adjacent café we then met our first new country in one of the trendy delicatessens that had recently sprouted across the road. True to form, though, despite another dearth of customers, the Frenchman behind the counter said he was too “flustered” to answer our questions right then. ‘It sounds very interesting’, he protested, ‘but I can’t do anything now. Maybe come back later?’ To be fair he was sort of rushing about, putting pastries on trays and that sort of thing, but we were beginning to feel like we’d missed some community meeting in which everyone in the area had agreed not to talk to us on any account whatsoever.
The hairdressers opposite strengthened our suspicions with “surly” being the adjective I scribbled next to the “Lebanese” nationality of the manager and “sheepish” beside his two Polish assistants (we didn’t need them anyway, we’ve got friendly Hassan and lovely Iwona). After one Italian Cafe, two Indians and a Bangladeshi curry house (got, got, got), we were then rejected by the lady in charge of the Caribbean takeaway further up the road. This was even more painful both because we’d patiently bided our time while her only two punters finished their supermalts (I still don’t know exactly what this is) and because she was from Jamaica – our bogey country. This was our fourth close shave so far with the third largest of the Caribbean islands. At least now I know where I can find a Jamaican within a few hundred yards of my front door. If the worst comes to the worst I can always come back and beg.
The first internet café of our trip provided our twelfth nationality in just thirteen stops as the “laid-back” proprietor told us he was from Pakistan. We soon discovered that this wasn’t going to be a simple find either, however, as he insisted he was ‘only looking after the shop for a friend.’ ‘A friend?’ we enquired. ‘Yes! He’s from Pakistan too. Interview him!’ Apparently this man didn’t feel comfortable stealing the tremendous thunder one gets from being involved with this project whilst on babysitting duty for his mate. We tried to explain that it didn’t really matter if the people we spoke to don’t actually own the building in which we’re speaking to them but he was having none of it. ‘Be patient’, he said, testing our patience. ‘He’ll be back at two… ish’
And so, into the carpet shop next door and our very first British sighting – a statistic not lost on the gentleman in question. ‘From your accent I guess you’re from London!’ quipped Owen on hearing a cockney-ish voice. ‘That’s right’, he replied gruffly. ‘I’m the last one left’. Ah. Good for our project, but not so good for him apparently: ‘And I’m thinking of leaving too. I’m serious. I’m the only bloody one left. Put that in your book!’ Alright then, sir. Done. We scampered away.
On the other side of the railway bridge we then found a shop, closed unfortunately, that finally seemed to mark a change in our fortunes. All Nations was its name and ‘Specialize in African Afro Caribbean and Continental Groceries’ was its claim. And while its shutters were shut, our hopes were lifted and we bounded across to the road to the corner of Chamberlayne and Harvist Roads, where our faith was rewarded in the most ramshackle of settings, The Salvage Shop.
Now, this is a place I recommend to everyone. In fact, I’ve brought a lot of my friends specifically to its door over the past couple of years - it’s that spectacular. You can barely squeeze through the quirky furniture, broken typewriters, vintage tennis racquets, ‘unique’ paintings, spare hooks, fireplaces and springs that are piled in no particular order from dusty floor to peeling ceiling, but if you look hard enough you can nearly always find some gem hidden amongst what some might call junk. In fact a better writer could probably draw quite a neat parallel with the area in general – but I’m not quite sure how without the words ‘salvage’, ‘broken’ and ‘junk’ making it either offensive or patronising.
Anyway, on this occasion we certainly found our pearl secreted in the office at the back of the shop in the form of the manager, Sophie, and her merry band of salvagers. She, unfortunately, was from Cyprus (cf Antonis again), but she was so keen to help, so energetic and so funny that we felt like we’d scored an extra ten nationalities. ‘What countries do you want?’ she barked through her cigarette smoke while examining our folder from back to front. ‘Ah, you need Yemen? I was proposed to by a Prince in Yemen! But he doesn’t live in London now. I’m learning Arabic and Russian by the way…’
This sort of thing went on for a while. In the end she took our details, pointed us in the direction of a Jamaican hairdressers just beyond the station and promised to get us any further nations we desired. We promised in return to bring her a bottle of champagne for ever five finds. Starting with Harsha, one of her several Sri Lankan helpers who she’d beckoned into the office as soon as we’d finished our story.
Shy but apparently very happy in this chaotically cheery environment, Harsha answered our questions quietly whilst distractedly fiddling with a torch. He’s 23 years old and has been living and working in Kensal Green for two and a half years now. ‘I’m a removals man’, he added, a little unsure if that was the correct job description to use in front of his boss. Thankfully she nodded and confirmed, ‘he’s a removals man’.
The worst thing about London, he laughs, is the women; ‘the women are terrible here! They fight too much and they shout too much!’ He has a girlfriend back home in Sri Lanka who is much better behaved.
When not removing things that people don’t want any more he’s studying for a Masters in electronics from the University of Bolton which seems to be going well because halfway through our chat, the fiddled-with torch was suddenly fixed. His face lit up briefly. ‘I’m going to be an electrician one day. But I miss Sri Lanka a lot’, he whispered, almost as if he didn’t want Sophie to hear his confession. ‘There’s no place like home’.
After a little more banter with the two of them in which Sophie claimed to have taught Harsha all of his colloquial English (‘He speaks brilliantly now thanks to me; things like, ‘Come on you bastards, work harder!’ - I taught him that!’) we said our goodbyes and headed up to the road to get some more much needed coffee.