I was born in London, a London of the 1950s just emerging from the ravages of the Second World War and the era of British colonialism, a new London with more educational opportunities and better health care and social services for the poor and working classes, greater cultural diversity as immigrants from South Asia, Africa, and the West Indies came to find work in the “Mother Country,” a London where my Indian father and English mother met and married. Although I have actually lived in the city of my birth for only 5-6 years in total, they include periods in my infancy, in my nursery, elementary, and secondary school years, and while I was a university student. London, birthplace of my mother, will always be dear to me and, as cities go, is perhaps the only one where I could imagine myself feeling completely at home.
But my London is not the home of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace—in fact, after all these years I have yet to visit the Tower of London. “My” London is a city of neighborhoods, and specifically, of the neighborhoods of North London where my mother grew up, where my father lived as a student, where I was born, and where in turn I lived as a student—Kentish Town, Belsize Park, Hampstead, and Camden Town. When I return, I go straight to my family, infinitely more important to me than any monument. When my mother returns, she and her sister Bette head straight out to Castle’s pie and mash shop (not my cup of tea—I’m squeamish about eels) and then for a ramble over Hampstead Heath, ending up at Kenwood House for tea and a bite to eat.
“My” London is plaice, haddock, or cod-‘n-chips in newspaper, the thick, soggy chips salted and liberally doused with malt vinegar; crowded street markets with stalls where half the goods seem to have fallen off the back of a lorry; corner shops run by British Asians selling fresh coriander and green chillies along with English sweets and tabloids; bakeries full of fresh crusty loaves and squashy jam doughnuts; the Tube, double-decker busses, and black cabs (my Uncle Bill drove one–see Get Me To the Church on Time); and, of course, pubs, which can still be found on just about every street corner.
In my London, Cockney accents emerge quite naturally from the mouths of British Asian youth whose grandparents immigrated there from the former Empire—after the sun set on it. (See Gurinder Chadha’s I’m British But…) Visiting a friend in Hackney back in the 1980s, I found the adult education booklet carrying night-class listings in eight languages, including Bengali, Punjabi, Greek, and Turkish.
My London is the London of Brick Lane and Southall, of the Royal Free Hospital and aging public housing estates; of pub food that features samosas as well as Cornish pasties and traditional English Sunday dinners; of the Bank Holiday fairs on Hampstead Heath and the Caribbean Notting Hill Carnival every August Bank Holiday weekend (by the way, given the importance of Notting Hill to Britain’s history of race relations, it infuriated me that they managed to make the movie Notting Hill without a single black character in it).
My mother married for love and had to leave her beloved city for most of the rest of her life; yet it has never left her heart and therefore it can never leave mine. Every seven years, when I watch the latest edition of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series (Here’s the late Roger Ebert interviewing Apted in 2006), I wonder fleetingly what my life might have been like had my parents decided to stay there. But if they had, I wouldn’t be who I am now.