Wednesday, 18 April 2007
Shine a Light
Owen Powell - 18th April 2007
Electric Avenue in Brixton – so named because it was the first shopping street in London to have electric lights installed – hosts a famously multi-cultural, multi-national market. Where better to find the 20 or so different nationalities we needed to get our search back on track? (With 192 to find in a year, it’s exactly 16 a month, or one every couple of days, a rate we haven’t quite managed to keep up with so far). As it turned out, our two hours in south London weren’t particularly fruitful in terms of finding new nationalities, and our tried-and-tested tactic of asking shopkeepers, market-stall-holders and restaurateurs might have outlived its usefulness.
As Alex describes elsewhere, we were given an enigmatic, Greek-chorus style introduction to the charms and chaos of Brixton Market by Kelly, from Kashmir, but after an hour or so of searching, we had no new nationalities to report. Just as we were thinking of giving up and trying our luck elsewhere, we approached a nervous-looking man running a stall selling children’s clothes. Rather wearily, perhaps, we explained the project. “Yeah, ok, you can speak to me,” he said. “I’m from Eritrea. What do you want to know?”
It’s hard to know how much of a genuine cross-section of London’s non-indigenous population we’re actually managing to meet. The people we have interviewed so far have either approached us, keen to share their stories, or have been approached by us in a public place, and have been neither too shy nor too suspicious to talk to us. But it’s clear that for many people, coming to London wasn’t about travel and excitement, but about danger and separation and fear. I would imagine that we will never hear some of the most remarkable stories, because – almost by definition – we will never be able to meet the people who lived them: the refugees who speak no English, people fleeing regimes who do not want their presence in London publicised, people who for religious, cultural or political reasons would not want to answer questions posed by two nosey, curious, middle-class white boys. There is also an element of fear or embarrassment on our part, meaning that (to pick a clichéd but visible example) it is highly unlikely that Alex or I would ever have the gumption to instigate a conversation with a woman wearing a niqab, worrying that we might be crossing a line somewhere that shouldn’t be crossed (and also aware that many niqab-wearers are second or third generation British Asians, reacting against the perceived laxness of their parents or grandparents). The result of all this is that the general tone of this whole project is perhaps a little brighter, a little more positive than the “average” experience of the “average” world citizen who arrives to make their home in London. In our defence, we are concentrating on the hopeful stories and the ones with happier outcomes because those are the ones people want to tell us. But that doesn’t mean that from time to time we won’t meet people whose experience of London is a bit more mixed, a bit more like the story that Key from Eritrea told us.
He had been in London for 14 years. How has your time here been, we asked him. “Rough,” was the succinct answer. “I came here with big hopes, but you need a lot of strength to survive.” He had struggled for many years, with a succession of different jobs, from a motor mechanic to working in restaurants as a kitchen porter. “When you first arrive, it’s tough,” he went on. “You have no friends, no family, no money, no language. You don’t even recognise the weather. It’s hard to settle. And it’s hard for everyone, so no-one gives you much help and advice, they’re all going through the same things. Everyone has their own attitudes, their own stubborn ways. You know, you try for jobs, but if you don’t have the experience – people don’t want to know.” Trying to make ends meet on the market was also proving difficult. Key paid £20 for his slot on half-days, and £30 at weekends, sometimes not selling enough to cover the costs. But he hadn’t given up just yet. “I’m doing now what I should have done 14 years ago,” he said, waving an application form at us. “I’m applying for a new job.” We wished him luck.