Josna Rege

194. London, My London

In 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, Britain, Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, Nature, places, Stories on April 13, 2013 at 9:35 am

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.

London from Parliament Hill,(hampsteadheath.org.uk)

London from Parliament Hill (hampsteadheath.org.uk)

the Heath in Autumn (hampsteadheath.org.uk)

the Heath in Autumn (hampsteadheath.org.uk)

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.

Queen's Crescent market (kentishtowner.co.uk)

Queen’s Crescent market (kentishtowner.co.uk)

“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.

The Flask, Hampstead (tigergrowl.files.wordpress.com)

The Flask, Hampstead (tigergrowl.files.wordpress.com)

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).

Notting Hill Carnival (demotix.com)

Notting Hill Carnival (demotix.com)

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.

I leave you with the British Asian band Cornershop’s 1990’s hit, Brimful of Asha, and a rendition of Hubert Gregg’s sentimental 1940’s favorite, Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. ah, josna, thanks as always. i love your abc…this one makes me want to be a londoner, or at least somebody who can love a place like you do, AND be a cosmopolitan, like you are. the place where i grew up remains in my head as suburbian banality, and i have always been getting jittery at the ideaof WHAT IF i had lived in a real city, a london, say? bine

    • Thank you, bine. I’m not sure if I really am a Londoner even though I claim to be, given how little I’ve actually lived here. No doubt some of the intensity of my feeling comes from the fact of having lived so far away from it, and from how much my mother missed it.

  2. V gd Josna. I recognize the descriptions of the soggy chips & squashy doughnuts because I was born in London in the 1950’s.
    Evangeline Tankful DCBE (ho ho)

  3. I lived in London for only a year, and it is a special place to me. The picture of Queen’s Crescent Market especially took me back… 🙂 Thanks for sharing today!

    • Queen’s Crescent is the neighborhood in which my mother grew up. My uncle used to have a junk shop in the Crescent, and my cousin’s daughter lives there now. I love these little connections that bring us all together.

  4. I have always been a little bit jealous and a little bit proud of your wonderful cosmopolitan
    flair for life! I have always known London was your special city and now that I have been there I feel I know a bit about what you are so proud of. It is certainly unique and impressive. I will never forget our lovely ride down the Thames past all that history and culture, even though it was not where the real people actually live.
    This is the first time I knew that they actually eat EELS !!!! Yikes!
    I suppose that is sort of like finding out that the Khasis eat pig brains chopped up with raw onion and chilli mixed with the meat from the pigs cheeks as a delicacy! It is called “doh khlieh” which translates to “head meat”! Delicious!

    • Marianne, even though I ought to react with a similar Yikes at doh khlieh,somehow I don’t. Your description makes it sound delicious even though I’d like to think I couldn’t bring myself to eat it!
      Most of my life has not been spent in London, or in any city for that matter. As you know, other places also hold special meaning for me, perhaps more. In this I was trying to convey a little of what it was about London that gives it that special feeling for me; not the official history with its pomp and circumstance. xo J

  5. Ah! London.Also my favourite city. Both my sons and their spouses live there so it has become a kind of second home to us. Every time we go there I come alive in ways I can’t explain. Your descriptions Josna just invoke feelings of wanting to be there. What a place.

    • Don, I recognize what you say about coming alive in ways you can’t explain. I saw the truth of this about 16 years ago when I took my mother to London with me. When we got to Hampstead, the old stomping ground of her youth, she came alive–and literally looked ten years younger. One consolation for your sons living so far away must be that it gives you the opportunity to visit them–and London–regularly. It sounds as if you manage to get there much more often than I do. I suppose it’s quite obvious in my post how much I’m missing it–and my family.

      • I can see you do miss the family and London. I know something of how that feels. What a lovely description of your mom coming alive. I often watch Sky News and experience London in that way when I’m not there.

        • Sky News–I wonder if I’d have to have a satellite dish to get that? We get a couple of different BBC America channels–I’ll have to look to see what kinds of programming they carry. Sometimes I go online and listen to the BBC radio or look for podcasts to listen to with my mother of people speaking in a variety of London accents. Thanks, Don.

  6. I’m a member of the A-Z team just checking in. Glad to see that everything is going smoothly for you during the Challenge! 🙂

    • Thanks for checking in, D.L.. How nice of you to visit–the team is so attentive. So far, so good–but now it gets hard, in this second half. If feel as if I’m running the Boston Marathon and approaching Heartbreak Hill!

  7. I’ve never been to London and probably never will but I enjoyed your post and love all the links. I just spent the last… over an hour watching and listening to them all.

    • Kristin, It makes my day that you enjoyed my story. I hope I gave just a taste of a different London of the monuments and monarchy. “Meeting” you and discovering your blog and the blog of just one or two other people are the most important part of the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge for me. When it is over, I hope we can continue to visit back and forth. I am looking forward to reading back into your blog; every post I’ve read so far has amazed me.

  8. I spent the fall of 1979 studying in London and feel some part of it is mine too. I adore reading books set in cities where I have lived, even if only briefly. And I loved this post for that reason! I came to London after spending five weeks in North Africa, then two weeks traveling in Italy and France, and though it was late August, it felt so chilly! So when I read Jean Rhys’s stories of shivering in London, I understood! Lovely post.

    • Is that the same fall when you wrote that lovely sonnet you’ve just posted? That exemplifies what it was like to be separated before the Internet. But receiving a sonnet like that, handwritten, in the mail–wow! I would treasure it forever. I love the fact that the great cosmopolitan cities of the world can be claimed by anyone for whom they have significance. And yes, literary works set in a place are such fun to read when they additionally give us that spark of recognition. Thanks, Allie.

      • Yes, I wrote my sonnet during my semester in London, whist viewing a LOT of Shakespeare–the RSC, sigh. My beloved did not treasure the sonnet, I am quite sure, as it ought. I have it memorized and can be coaxed to perform it on occasion… Love London!

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