Last Saturday, a sunny haze enswathed north west London. It was a haze that resembled the bright clouds that had hung mysteriously over a scene in one of the preceding night’s dreams, obscuring softly. Despite feeling a little ill, as had been the case for what felt like weeks, I decided to head out and explore London. It’d been a while since my last trip, as life had either taken over, or rather I’d allowed it to get in the way.
I left the house with the usual: water, camera, wallet, sunglasses and a smile. I took the Overground from Queen’s Park to Euston, then changed and got the Northern Line to Burnt Oak in Zone 4, north London. I chuckled to myself on arriving at the station, as the aridity of my new location’s name contrasted massively with my desire to pee. Being that the city is fairly devoid of public toilets that aren’t depressingly gross with only crass marker-pen messages scrawled across walls to cheer you up, I had to find somewhere on arrival. Luckily, when I emerged from the station, pushing my way through large glass doors with beautiful wooden frames, I found myself on a busy high street.
Immediately, London’s distinguishable diversity became manifestly apparent. Next to Hair 4U Solutions stood a bright green Ghanaian restaurant called Ariya Kitchen serving dishes such as Bitter Leaf and Assorted Meat, Efo Riro and Fried Fish. Deciding that I didn’t want to pee or eat there, I continued along the road, which dipped and rose, thronging with the bustle of a Saturday afternoon. Passing a fishmonger’s, my eye was drawn to the textures and colours. As I tried to capture this on my camera, one of the workers started joking with me. I’ll charge you a tenner per shot, he said. You wanna watch out taking a picture of the boss over there, he continued, he might charge you more! Promising that I’d give him fifty quid on my return, I patted his shoulder as I walked away. Instantaneously I felt inspired and welcomed by my new environment.
Burnt Oak reminded me of India, or Thailand where the shops and their wares spilled out onto the streets and tiny places, so small only one person could reasonably consume the space, contained a workshop and store combined. After passing piles of pans, stacks of rugs, tables of cheap make-up, and chintzy furniture whose glitter and artificiality bedazzled the eye, I entered an Iraqi, Persian and Lebanese restaurant called Sumerian. I headed straight to their bathroom, which I was impressed with, I have to say. For a start it was very clean, was prettily decorated and had a lovely rug and smelt good. I think you can tell a lot by an establishment’s toilet, so I felt confident and excited about ordering lunch.
Sumerian was fairly empty when I arrived, so I chose a table for four by the door. Behind me sat a woman, some shopping and her cup of tea. She was middle-aged, with a round and soft face. She looked like the kind of woman that had seen a lot, had her fair share of ups and downs and was a warrior because of it. Whilst looking at the menu I lent over and started a conversation with her. Are you from here? I asked. She replied that she had never been to Burnt Oak before. She told me that she worked hard Monday to Friday and when she had free time she liked to get on a bus and head somewhere she’d never been before, to explore London. Now I am quite an impassioned person, having a multitude of facial expressions at my disposal that speak a thousand words. My eyes widened and jaw dropped, silently stunned at the odds of meeting someone else who had the same idea as me. The synchronicity was perfect.
Composing myself again, we continued our conversation. Debbie had moved to London about 27 years ago. Originally from British Guiana (now known as the Republic of Guyana), one day her uncle invited her to come and visit London for a few months. Back home she had been working as a teacher, which she’d found rewarding. The way she described the education system in the British Empire’s former colony, nuzzled in between Venezuela and Suriname, sounded very progressive. Debbie told me how all the kids wore the same uniform, which meant that nobody stood out as being superior or inferior due to the school they attended. It also meant that for those that couldn’t afford the uniforms, which was often the case amongst the poorer Guianese, that there were lots of second-hand ones available. This sounded like a genius plan, as on my travels in Indonesia, India, and Jamaica for example, so many children were unable to study because they couldn’t afford the uniform. Such an unnecessary travesty, denying kids across the globe the chance of the freedom of literacy.
When Debbie decided to stay in London permanently, she didn’t want to repeat her teacher training, as required by the British government, so she became a community nurse. We chatted about our mutual experiences with people with learning difficulties. I work with teenagers at a London high school that have Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, and Dyslexia, amongst other things. We both agreed that we wished that discussions about mental health, disabilities and what are politely called Special Educational Needs, were more commonly discussed, being that they are so widespread. My short experience as a teacher’s assistant has shown me that the lack of awareness about the kind of behaviours that kids with “issues” face, tend to be more misunderstood, are prone to bullying, and a sense of isolation. Teenagers will probably always have the propensity to be mean, but if there was an educational campaign that celebrated our different characters and brains, over time this might go some way towards encouraging more tolerance and respect for diversity.
We continued talking as I had my shwarma and cardamom tea and then we were joined by Laura, an English woman who was also in a loquacious mood. Usually associating this kind of warmth and openness to warmer climes, I sat back basking in the beauty of free-flowing banter with total strangers. Laura, who kept touching Debbie’s hand in an engaging and reassuring manner, wanted to share her thoughts on interracial relationships and the redundancy of seeing and positioning ourselves in terms of skin colour. She said: My husband is black, my friends are black and I don’t see why we need to care about race anymore. What’s the point? Debbie smiled all along and I listened attentively, rather than infusing the conversation with my own thoughts. After all, I know how I feel so this was a great chance to just listen. Debbie told us how there was antagonism in Guyana between the Guyanese and the Jamaicans, and that in London the Surinamese weren’t very tolerant of the Guyanese, suggesting that racism and intolerance exists amongst the same as well as different skin tones. Again, from my own experiences travelling, I’d have to agree. Exploitation based on difference is unfortunately ubiquitous.
I bought Debbie another tea and as Laura left, she told me she wanted to find someone to write her biography. I’m a writer, I replied, feeling slightly arrogant at having said it out loud. I’ve had such a colourful life and I want someone to help me tell my story, she said. Needless to say, I’ve got her email address. As Debbie and I parted, her with a bag of chicken and green plantain, and me with a full heart, we shared a hug in the middle of the restaurant.
I continued up the high street, passing little slices of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, and fusions, like the Afro Euro salon. I giggled at the cheap unisex hairdressers’ sign, which was called Favours. The place was tiny, looked like a squat and had customers. Burnt Oak wasn’t a wealthy part of town, and rectangular uniform council housing lined the road at the apex of the high street. An old cinema, which I later discovered was called The Savoy, was boarded up, covered in posters advertising events with the likes of Ratpack, Radiohead, Beenie Man, and Krept and Konan. I turned down a smaller road, and looked around Saint Alphage churchyard. The doors were locked, which was disappointing but the norm in the less frequented holy buildings. On my way back towards where I’d started my trip, the sun had brought people away from their TVs and into their gardens and onto the streets. Men washed and buffed cars, optimistic BBQ smoke billowed over a fence and people hung out chatting. Life in the sun, even if it was still pretty cold, just felt so much better.
As I climbed on bus 302, leaving Burnt Oak behind, I felt a profound sense of gratitude. I’d been made to feel at ease by the market traders, embraced by a stranger, and offered the chance to write someone’s book all in the space of a couple of hours. Walking amongst the panoply of colours, artefacts, fruits and phones it was as if Burnt Oak had a little bit of something for everyone. It had no ego: it was humble and non-judgmental. Despite London’s many vices and dichotomies, what my exploration had shown me was people from far-flung corners of the world were living contentedly side-by-side that day.