Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead Heath’

401. More Than Enough

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Nature, places, Stories on July 24, 2017 at 2:23 am

Hampstead No. 1 Pond (photo: J. Rege)

I ought to have known as soon as the ATM at the Hampstead branch of Barclays Bank swallowed up my debit card on the morning of my return flight; when the taxi driver who drove me to St. Pancras to catch the train to Gatwick took me to the wrong station; when the airline found my painstakingly-packed suitcase 5 kg. overweight; when the price of an overflow carry-on bag rivaled the excess baggage charges; when, after my rush to the airport, the plane was delayed by nearly an hour; and when, to add the ultimate insult to injury, I was told that my two precious jars of Marmite would now have to be confiscated because I had transferred them from the overweight suitcase into my carry-on bag. As I fought back the tears of fury, frustration, and self-pity that sprang to my eyes, I told myself that I ought to have known the universe would conspire to make my last day in England a disaster.

But all along the way, felicity had trumped misfortune. The Hampstead walk that last morning was an experience that no bank or ATM could possibly take away from me; the guide who led me astray was set straight by another one who knew the way; at the airport, those who would exploit hapless travelers were rendered powerless by an open-hearted stranger; the delay was rendered delightful by tea and an M&S custard tart, sprinkled liberally with nutmeg; and even the loss of the Marmite, tragic to be sure, was not total: while two were confiscated, a third made it through, with a lot more besides.

It was a compressed trip, as highly charged as it was fleeting. In just over a week I had travelled up to the West Midlands to see my dear Uncle Ted, back down to London to see regal Auntie Bette, the matriarch of the clan, and Auntie Angy, who had not let marriage into the Sharp family (Sharp by name and sharp by nature) rob her of her sweet disposition. Time had not permitted me to travel up to Norfolk to see my cousin Susan and her brood (including a new grandbaby), or to Bristol to see my old friend Cylla (who had become a double grandmother since my last visit), or to Hoddesdon to see Barbara, or to visit Robin, who had become a widower since the last time and Savita, my old schoolmate from India, who were based in London itself; and I had missed two cousins altogether. But, to quote my sister’s favorite Rolling Stones song, “You get what you need.” I had got plenty.

When they told me, at the airport check-in, that I could either incur 45 pounds in excess-baggage charges or, at the conveniently adjacent luggage store, that the smallest bag I could contemplate buying would coincidentally also cost me 45 pounds, I almost gave way to despair; but this Kafkaesque double-bind was to give way to a singular sweetness. At the airport outpost of Boots the chemists, where I attempted to buy their largest plastic carrier bag, the young cashier asked me if I would prefer a cloth bag. “Yes,” I breathed, “yes please. Do you sell them?”

No, they didn’t, but if I could wait a few moments, she had one that she could give me.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she said, as I stood open-mouthed at her generosity, “it’s nothing.” And sure enough, the sweet young angel stepped out and returned with a bag whose capacity rivaled the £45 offering at the price-gouging luggage shop. I was overcome by gratitude, but my heartfelt thanks only embarrassed her, so I left to find a set of scales where I could off-load some of the heaviest items in my suitcase (including, sadly, the large and ill-fated jars of Marmite).

Earlier that day, the sinking feeling in my stomach when the Barclay’s ATM on Hampstead High Street swallowed my debit card threatened to plunge me into the Slough of Despond, as I wrangled in vain with the bank clerk, all the while watching my last free hour in London ticking away. But as I continued my walk down Hampstead High Street, the feeling of well-being returned from my walk across the Heath earlier that morning. I walked past the Oxfam shop at the top of Gayton Road,  where Andrew, Nikhil, and I had lived for six weeks in 1997, while I was participating in an NEH Summer Seminar on postcolonial literature and theory, and where I now picked up a pair of bone china mugs and paid 5p for a recycled-plastic carrier bag that bore the heartwarming slogan, “Be Humankind.” Hurrying down Downshire Hill, into Keats Grove, past the poet’s house and gardens, I reached the 24 bus terminus at South End Green at last, in good time.

Well Passage, Hampstead

All that morning a feeling of homecoming had accompanied me every step of the way, as I strode confidently and alone down Mansfield Road, where my cousin Lesley had once lived, and up the steps to the Heath, where morning dogs and dog-walkers mingled and meandered at their leisure. This was where my mother and her brothers had rambled in their youth, where my parents met and courted, and where I had been born. There was a moment, walking down the narrow Well Passage, when I might have been my mother in a sepia photo c. 1952, in which she walks, swinging her arms, with her brother Ted and his best friend Curly, in a circular gypsy skirt with a wide cinched-waist belt and a dimpled smile on her face as if the world was new and she and her mates owned it. No bank nonsense could dislodge that feeling.

(from michaelhaag.blogspot.com)

On the long summer evening before, Cousin Lesley and I had taken the 24 bus to South End Green, walked onto the Heath from South End Green, and stood overlooking the pond and the row of houses beyond. It was in one of those houses, in South Hill Park, where we had stayed for three months in 1963 with Auntie Dorrie and Tamara on our way back from Greece to India, where I had walked to nearby Gospel Oak School every morning with Lesley, where I first saw the Beatles on television, where I first saw television itself (see British TV, Fall of ’63). As we watched children watching the ducks and the swan and its half-grown cygnet, Lesley asked their mother to take our picture. We walked on, to the bathing ponds where Mum and her brothers and their friends had passed many long, happy hours in their teens and twenties. I passed and photographed a fallen horse chestnut branch, with the not-yet-ripe fruit still in its prickly skin. Come September, children would prise the glossy nuts out of their burst casings and play conkers, if children still played conkers today. But now was now. I was here, and on my last day in England, it was more than enough; it was plenty.

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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.

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