London is the place

For Attillah Springer, Trinidad is home — but London is a place as special as it is hard to define

Breathtakingly beautiful Kensington Gardens. Photograph by © London and PartnersBrixton Market is like being in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean all at once. Photograph by © London and PartnersMarianel Nunez and Nehemiah Kish perform in The Prince of the Pagodas at the Royal Opera House. Photograph by Johan Persson, and courtesy of The Royal Opera HousePhotograph by © London and PartnersPhotograph courtesy AngosturaSpitalfields. Photograph by © London and PartnersThe dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is an iconic part of the London skyline. Photograph by © London and PartnersTower Bridge beautifully lit up at night. Photograph by © London and Partners

Saturday. The sun is out and I’m staying in Notting Hill, house-sitting for a friend. It’s not the warmest weather, but the market on Portobello Road is bustling. There are stalls selling vintage leather jackets, designer falafels, and artisanal bread. A panman plays at the crossroads of Talbot and Portobello. The hipsters are out soaking up the sunshine. The tourists are out too, taking photos of locations made famous by the eponymous film set in the area, featuring the typically hapless funny gent Hugh Grant.

I head down to the local Fairtrade coffee shop, where the attendants are Spanish and I occasionally want to be obtuse and demand to know why they have no Hong Wing. In the early afternoon I leave the coffee shop and jump on the 390 bus. It takes a route via Oxford Street, where I never really come, because I’ve never considered myself a tourist in London.

Central London on a Saturday afternoon is ram-cram with shoppers and tourists and busking musicians. Looking out of the window of a bus is better than television. This part of town hasn’t changed much since I was a child. It always shimmered with big-city glamour.

These days I avoid central London as much as possible, I guess in the way most Londoners don’t feel the need to stare in awe at Big Ben. London is a sightseers’ paradise of façades and appropriately placed shininess. But leaving the West End is the best way to see what the city is really like.

It’s a long ride to Tufnell Park, a quiet area in north London, where I walk down a long street in search of a Cuban-style Santería tambor. I don’t know the number of the house, but the sound of drums in the distance keeps me moving along.

Inside the living room and kitchen of the otherwise typical-looking English house, Cubans and curious English onlookers are trying to get into the front and back steps of the complex Bata drums, brought to Cuba in the nineteenth century — according to legend, by two Yoruba babalawos. The akpon or lead singer is thickset and dark, singing Yoruba in a Spanish accent that sounds more like Trini. A few onlookers know the rhythms. The air is thick and wet with the memory of an island far from here.

As the pitch of the tambor cools down, I leave just in time to jump on the Tube to Covent Garden, where I’m seeing the Royal Ballet perform The Prince of the Pagodas. On the way, five girls from Liverpool on a hen night ask me for directions to Leicester Square. They are up for whatever London has to offer. One of them is blasting Vybz Kartel’s “Summertime” from her iPod. They sing along, changing Kartel’s patois “summertime inna Portmore” to something a little ruder. There are a couple other Caribbean-looking passengers in the carriage, cutting their eyes at the bleached-blonde, spray-tanned lovelies.

Covent Garden is buzzing when I get there, and inside the Royal Opera House it’s a totally different world from the one I’ve just left in Tufnell Park. It is standard ballet fare: beautiful princess loved by the king, evil sister trying to take power, the fool who is much smarter than he looks, and the prince who is bewitched in some way. During the intervals we sip champagne and marvel at the seamless blend of classical and contemporary architecture that informs this formidable building.

It is raining by the time I leave. Back to Notting Hill, where in spite of the torrential downpour the Notting Hill Arts Club is pumping a steady pulse of dubstep from its underground dance floor. I decide I’d rather be in bed.

Sunday. The sun comes out. It’s perfect for a morning run. I head out past Notting Hill Gate and east to Kensington Gardens. It is breathtakingly beautiful here. I think this is one of the best features of London: there are so many green spaces in the city. And they aren’t all carefully manicured. There are patches and points of wilderness in my favorite places to walk in the city. I love Brockwell Park in south London more than I love Kensington Gardens, but there’s nothing like a long walk on Hampstead Heath, even in the depths of winter, to make you love London even more.

Swans are out in the early morning light. There are runners and tai chi-ers and boxers sunning themselves in the dawn. The animal lovers are there too, and the dogs are as typically London as their owners, openly delighted at the return of the sun.

Monday. I head down to Brixton to see my dad. Brixton has come a long way since I first came here in the 1980s. My only memories of the place then are grey, although the revelation that Electric Avenue was a real place excited my eight-year-old heart more than the glitter of Piccadilly Circus.

I still smile every time I come out of the Brixton Tube station and turn left, and it’s like being in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean all at once. The incense man outside the supermarket is really from Barbados, though he pronounces “incense” like a Jamaican. A car passes, blasting the latest funky house summer scorcher, the unholiest of combinations of high life’s easy groove, dancehall’s driving bass, and soca’s call to wine.

Electric Avenue is dominated by the market, the heart of Brixton’s dwindling Afro-Caribbean community, now being replaced by young trendy English — the only ones who can afford real estate now that SW9 is a popular postcode. Still, you can buy shadon beni from the Vietnamese fish monger’s, scotch bonnet peppers and coconuts from the Ethiopians, and Kananga Water from what can only be described as a religious artifacts shop — where, if you like, you can also find an oil to keep your lover, incense to bring you money, and so on.

To match the gourmet tastes of the newly gentrified populace, the market has its own upscale “Village” now, where the world’s best food is on sale, and the once-dingy curiosity shops have been remodeled to sell designer versions of the food of the migrants who have lived and worked in the surrounding communities since the 1950s. They are the toast of London’s gastronomic press, and many of them boast special awards.

Caribbean food is not left out of the chic mix. At the end of Granville Arcade is Brian Danclair’s newest culinary offering: Fish, Wings, and Tings, where you can have the best roti in south London and real ginger beer to boot.

Tuesday. It is raining again, in a most un-summery sort of way. I opt for a winter coat on account of this sudden change of weather fortunes. I am supposed to be home finishing this article. Angostura, however is launching a new blend of bitters to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

To be honest, I steered clear of the Jubilee celebrations in June. Not that the Queen ever did me anything personally. But I guess my post-colonial sensibilities are rubbed the wrong way by this celebration of power.

To avoid being more late than I already am, I take the Tube to Hampstead. Now here’s a little secret for travellers: if you’re coming from Brixton and not going into central London, don’t take the Northern Line. The Northern Line is the slowest and most over-used of the Underground lines. Travelling at peak times on the Northern Line is something akin to a bull run. Commuters have no problem elbowing you out of the way. Personal space is a joke, and while they don’t shove you in like they do in Japan, I’ve seen men in suits do things with their bodies to get onto a train that would make a contortionist blush. The Victoria Line is much faster, so switch instead at Euston and then take the northbound Northern Line. That cuts a good twenty minutes off your journey time.
The problem with the Tube, however, is that sometimes there’s more than one exit. If you come out the wrong way you can end up a little disoriented, even if you’ve been really careful and planned your journey.

It takes a good ten minutes for the signal to return to my phone, so while I’m waiting for Google Maps to reload I end up walking way past my turnoff. Luckily, Hampstead is one of London’s most beautiful neighbourhoods. I briefly consider ditching the party and heading to Hampstead Heath for a long walk. It doesn’t matter if it rains when you’re walking on the Heath. In fact, very little matters in that wild beautiful silence. You can forget you’re in a twenty-first-century city. The Heath awakens all sorts of Victorian Dickensian fantasies in my overactive imagination.

But I decide I’m wearing the wrong shoes for the Heath. (Although, like any reasonable woman who lives in a big city that is so good to walk in, I’ve got a pair of comfy flats in my handbag.) I make it to the party, hosted by the new Trinidad and Tobago High Commissioner. There’s a lot of buzz and excitement around the upcoming Olympics and the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of Independence being hosted at the Tricycle Theatre.

Wednesday. It occurs to me how rare it is for me to lime with Trinis in London. Aside from a few school- and childhood friends who live here, my circle of London acquaintances is a random collection of artists, academics, and activists from all over the world.
I spend my morning in a meeting for activists interested in dismantling traditional structures of philanthropy. They’re the cream of the social-change crop, trying to figure out how to fund meaningful projects without compromising their activist values and professionalising their movements.

After the meeting I take a quick stroll up Commercial Street and onto Shoreditch High Street, where my Moroccan bredrin Hassan Hajjaj has a boutique selling pop art. It’s the perfect location for this kind of store, Old Street being the design part of London, where they’re too trendy to be trendy.

Old Street is a frontier neighbourhood, the boundary between central London wealth and north-east London’s grimy chic. Hackney, like Brixton, has become a cool place to live. To the south-east is Brick Lane, the heart of London’s Bengali community, flanked by Spitalfields Market, where a hundred years ago Jack the Ripper stalked the night looking for victims.

Continue up City Road and you get Angel, one of the first places where my love affair with London began. Back in the 80s, when my mother was on scholarship at City University, Islington was a scarier, grimier place, thanks to another recession and various Thatcherisms. My mother had a Port of Spain sense of direction, identifying north from south by the ever-reassuring presence of Trinidad’s Northern Range. I had to learn the city quickly to reduce incidents of getting lost, jumping on a train going in the wrong direction.

Thursday. It’s a no-plan day. So I take some time to get bewildered by my London life. It’s so varied and consuming that I have this extreme reaction at least once a week, when I decide it’s best I don’t leave the house at all.

I feel immense guilt about abandoning work I’m supposed to be doing. The guilt keeps me in bed listening to Radio Four and feeling sorry for myself.

Part of London’s attraction for me is that it gives me the headspace I need to get some writing done. As much as I love Trinidad, with a kind of chest-hurting intensity, the daily grind of life gets to me sometimes. My London existence is the opposite of wealthy, but even on a poor writer’s non-existent salary I manage to have a pretty awesome life.

I suddenly wonder what’s going on in Trinidad. Listening to the radio serial The Archers makes me think of mangoes. I can’t bring myself to eat the ones you can get in the market here. It’s not the same. I feel pangs of guilt for so willingly abandoning home. For enjoying London way too much. For letting its many attractions make me think I can live here, even though the weather is so shockingly and consistently disappointing, and I consider myself a woman of the sun.

Friday. It is sunny when I leave the house. But by the time I get to St. Paul’s Cathedral it is a different day. It is raining and cold, but since I am used to the vagaries of English weather I have three extra layers in my bag, and an umbrella. The rain doesn’t affect the purpose of my journey here: to take part in a protest heartwarmingly named the Carnival of Dirt. I’m a member of the group Foil Vedanta, focused on highlighting the sins of various multinationals committing crimes against humanity and the environment. The rain is driving, but our voices are strong, and mud symbolically spread on the faces of the protestors runs in tiny rivulets down our faces.

We march through the City, London’s business district, making speech stops at some of the hotspots of the world’s ongoing “financial crisis”: the London Stock Exchange, the Bank of England, the Royal Metals Exchange.

There are activists from West Papua, Canada, India, Iceland, Nigeria. We march through the streets as bankers watch from the surrounding buildings. The march comes to an end in Whitechapel’s Altab Ali Park, where there was once a church, destroyed during the Blitz, and now named for the twenty-five-year-old Bangladeshi cloth worker who was brutally murdered in 1978 by three teenage boys.

We eat samosas from a curry place at the bottom of Osborn Street. A young activist wearing the “Anonymous” mask made famous by the Occupy movement dances a jig in front of the CCTV cameras. Police officers keep a respectful distance even as successive speakers chant down the evils of Babylon all in their own special ways.

It’s too cold to lime for longer than is absolutely necessary. I return home, by bus. Hoping to get some writing done before I go out again into my London life.


Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to London Gatwick Airport from Port of Spain, Trinidad