Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘London’

259. London without Lily

In 1930s, 2010s, Books, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, people, places, Stories, travel, United States, women & gender on April 14, 2014 at 8:42 am

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Kenwood House Coffee Café (artist: Ashley Cecil)

Kenwood House Coffee Café (artist: Ashley Cecil)

Every time I return to the city of my birth, I prepare for a hectic and joyful flurry of visiting—my mother’s sister and brother, cousins (or as we say in India, cousin-sisters and brothers), their children and grandchildren, and old friends—friends of my parents from before my birth, their children, who go back with me to the beginning, and a small number of friends who have either migrated to Britain from the Indian Subcontinent or whom I have got to know over the years during one of my extended stays. I ache for London when I am away from it and certain places in it (Hampstead Heath, Kentish Town, Camden Town) have an almost magical resonance for me, but as I plan to return once again, this time after six long years, I am reminded that it is people, as always, who matter the most. This time though, it will be the people who have passed away during the intervening six years who are uppermost in my mind: for I will return to a landscape without them in it. This time, no one defines London more by her absence than my mother’s oldest and dearest friend Lily.

Over the years I have visited Lily at a succession of different houses, in Highgate, Haringey, Kentish Town—just a short walk from where Mum and she were born, in adjacent streets—and Regents Park. We have met for lunch or coffee in Hampstead, shopped for boots at Camden Lock (Lily had impeccable taste), or just sat companionably over tea in her living room and talked about everything, from difficulties with family to personal fears to favorite musicians (hers were Pat Metheny and Miles Davis), books, and writers. In retrospect, it was probably I who talked, mostly, and she who listened.

British Edition, Michael Joseph, 1962 (


I never made elaborate plans in advance to meet Lily, simply let her know when I was coming and arranged to meet once I had visited all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. In fact, on one visit I surprised her by just turning up at her door unannounced. If she was put out she didn’t show it; she seemed unflappable, which was balm to me after the high drama that always attended my family relations. Although we were as close and went back as far as any member of my mother’s family, she shuddered at the thought of my calling her “Auntie” and strictly forbade it, saying that it made her feel old. So from my teen years on, she was always just Lily, who never judged or patronized me, never presumed to tell me what to do, but always listened, with brief responses that were absolutely on the mark. And she told me what to read.



Lily was a voracious and discerning reader who had her finger on the intellectual pulse of the city. She seemed to know everyone, had entertained Natalie Wood back in the day, had taken a creative writing class with Beryl Bainbridge before Bainbridge wrote her first novel, and had an impressive knowledge of the music and culture of our generation as well. Now that I look back, I realize that I counted on her to let me know what I had missed since I had last been in London, and to point me in the right direction for catching up. Only now do I realize that it was Lily who introduced me to the writers and ideas that have become the subject matter of my scholarly work and the touchstones of my sense of belonging in the world. Only now, after she is gone, do I realize that it was Lily who turned me on to Doris Lessing (“If you liked The Summer Before the Dark, that’s nothing compared to The Golden Notebook”) in the Spring of 1974 when I was studying in London and trying to read all the contemporary British fiction that I could (see TMA #135, Doris Lessing and Me); Lily (as well as my dear Uncle Ted) who sent us a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in the early 1980s, soon after its publication; Lily who, on hearing in 1990 that I was interested in Black British writing, sent me to Compendium bookshop to pick up a copy of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power; The History of Black People in Britain. Who else of my mother’s generation in England read all Maya Jaggi’s book reviews in The Guardian as well as remembering what life was like before the War? How is it that only now, as I try to process the shocking news of her death, do I see what a critical role she played in my intellectual development?

Street Scene Kentish Town circa 1931 ( artist: Cliff Rowe, at the Tate )

Street Scene Kentish Town circa 1931 ( artist: Cliff Rowe, at the Tate )

Lily had been my mother’s best friend from childhood. They were born months apart in the late 1920s and grew up together in the same working-class neighborhood of Kentish Town, North London. They aced their Eleven-plus exam together, went off to Grammar School at Parliament Hill School together (well, six months apart, but that’s another story), were both evacuated from London, along with their school, to live with different foster families in St. Albans during the bombing, left school together, got their first jobs at the same time, and went to the movies and out dancing together a couple of times a week. It was indirectly through Mum that Lily met and fell in love with Leon, the man she married; Mum met Dad around the same time and marriage was soon to take her away from England and Lily, but they remained close friends, writing to each other, exchanging cards, and getting together every time we returned.

After global communications became easier, Lily would always ring on my mother’s birthday and Mum would do the same on hers. She even came to visit in America once or twice, and Mum made a big fuss of her. She loved Lily, and always respected and admired her as well, her intelligence and dry wit, her beauty, sophistication, and style. Perhaps in her mind Lily had the life that she sometimes felt she would have liked to have lived if she had stayed in England rather than uprooting and traveling across three continents. In any case, whenever I visited Lily in London I couldn’t escape the feeling that somehow it should have been my mother, not me, who was enjoying tea with her in her sunny and elegant living room (no one else we knew, before or since, had a chaise longue). But it wasn’t my mother, of course; it was me.

Now, as I prepare once again to return to London, the city will present me with a bleaker, more impersonal face. Doris Lessing died in November at age 94, and though I have mourned her, the loss will come home to me again as I ramble over the Heath in Hampstead as she did so often (and where my mother once happened to see her, walking on the Heath herself—with Lily, I shouldn’t wonder). Lily died several months before Doris Lessing, although I still don’t know the date; as things turned out we didn’t receive the sad news until some time after Christmas. I will try to visit her daughter and son, whom I haven’t seen for many years and but nonetheless feel a kinship with. Even as I look forward eagerly to meeting my beloved friends and family, I can’t help feeling a certain dread, because for the first time I will be returning to a London without Lily.

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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,(

London from Parliament Hill (

the Heath in Autumn (

the Heath in Autumn (

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 (

Queen’s Crescent market (

“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 (

The Flask, Hampstead (

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 (

Notting Hill Carnival (

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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41. Eating for Four

In Britain, Food, Stories on April 30, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I lived on my own for the first time over a period of nearly five months when I was nineteen and studying in London. It was also the first time I had cooked for myself alone, and so I naturally cooked for four, as I had seen my mother doing all my life. The trouble was, it didn’t occur to me that I could keep the leftovers for another meal, so I simply ate seconds, and thirds, and fourths, until all the food was finished. My father had a horror of our leaving anything on our plates, and he had trained me well. During those few short months I gained more than a stone—sixteen pounds over my regular weight of 100 pounds.

Before I left for London, Mum had written down some essential recipes for me: chicken, prawn (shrimp), potato, and cauliflower curry. I still have them somewhere, on a tattered sheet of lined paper, streaked and stained with grease and spices, singed from the time it caught fire on the gas burner. These recipes became my standbys, and soon I was moderately famous for my prawn curry. Whenever I returned to England my cousin Sue would invite friends over with the promise that her cousin Jo was going to make a better Indian meal than they could get at any restaurant. So I had a reputation to uphold. As a college student I hadn’t yet had much cooking experience, but I could make a good late-night snack of spicy curried potatoes and piping-hot poories, or thin English pancakes—crepes—filled with curried potatoes and peas, rather like a dosa. (The high carbohydrate content is no doubt evident to the contemporary reader, but in the seventies we had not developed any such sensitivities.)

Before I found my own flat in London I stayed with Auntie Bette and Uncle Bill for a month. That laid the foundation for what was to follow after. I soon settled comfortably—much too comfortably—into their seductive English lifestyle: tea and biscuits in the morning, three square meals a day—followed by pudding, of course—and tea, biscuits, and sweeties while watching telly in the evening. Then, just around the News at Ten and before bedtime, Uncle Bill would say that he felt a bit peckish, and he or Auntie Bette would make a thick cheese-and-piccalilli sandwich, which went down well with another round of tea.

But the pounds really started to accumulate once I was living alone. How on earth did I gain so much in such a short time?

The first cause, no doubt, was Digestive Biscuits. I would buy a large packet of them, sit down with a book and a pot of tea, and go through them all one by one, dipping each one absent-mindedly into my tea as I read (and, as often as not, leaving it in just a second too long and having to retrieve it soggily out of the cup with a teaspoon).  There is nothing like a good book accompanied by a nice cup of tea and a Digestive—or ten.

Bread was the second culprit. The hot, squashy brown loaves that one could buy  at the baker’s on the Camden High Street were to die for. No sooner had I got them home than I would cut a hefty slice, spread it liberally with butter and sparingly with Marmite (as they warned on the label), and sometimes, top it off with a few slices of cucumber, tomato, or radish. I loved that bread and worked my way through my daily loaf at an impressive pace. (I’ll never forget the time I went to cut into a new loaf only to find that Rosie, my landlady’s two-year old, had got there first, burrowing in from one end and hollowing it out completely!)

Paean to Marmite! Although I liked marmalade well enough, nothing sweet could ever replace the taste of well-being produced by a thick slice of buttered bread-and-Marmite.

In America, Marmite is universally misunderstood and Marmite-lovers mocked. Americans love sweet foods, and for them, the color of Marmite suggests only chocolate spread. What a rude shock it was for Andrew when, anticipating chocolate spread, he spread a generous dollop of Marmite onto his bread and took a large bite. He isn’t generally a man who holds a grudge, but I don’t think he’s ever quite gotten over it. Axle grease is his name for it, and most of our friends agree with him.

While I’m waxing poetic over Marmite, I can’t resist posting this letter, published a few years ago in The New York Times Magazine, which demonstrates the degree to which this substance is maligned in America and the depth of feeling it stirs up among believers:

“I am distressed by the blatant anti-Marmitism displayed by, of all things, an Englishman, referring to Marmite as “the odious brown sauce made out of vegetable extract.” This stuff is nectar! It is the very taste of home! When, in these days of political correctness, can we Brits expect to see an end to this cultural abuse?” (NYT Magazine, March 14, 1999)

What this properly indignant but rather nationalist letter-writer neglects to mention is that the stuff is loved not only by idiosyncratic Brits, but by people  throughout the former British Empire and Commonwealth, where it goes by other trade names, including Vitamite and Vegemite.

The other top contributors to my English stone were cream slices and jam doughnuts. I could rarely resist picking up one of these divinely calorific confections while at the baker’s buying my daily loaf. Mum had always spoken longingly of cream slices, so it was practically my duty to eat them, on her behalf, as it were. They were little apple turnovers made of flaky pastry and filled with freshly whipped English cream. Nothing more can be said—they have to be tasted. Equally tempting were the jam doughnuts. In order to appreciate these, one has to put firmly out of one’s mind all ideas about doughnuts based on the Dunkin’ Donuts variety. Believe me, DD’s have their place, but the missing “ugh” in “donuts” perhaps best suggests what is missing—the supreme doughiness of English doughnuts, fried and coated liberally with a coarser grade of granulated sugar than is generally found in America, endowing them with a texture on top that perfectly complements the jamminess and doughiness on the inside. In America, donuts tend to have a hole in them rather than being filled, and even the filled ones tend to use jelly, not jam, further impoverishing the final product. (The glorious exceptions are the raspberry-jam-filled doughnuts to be found at Henion’s bakery in Amherst, every bit as good as—no, better than—any I have eaten in England. I credit Henion’s doughnuts with keeping me (more-or-less) sane during the long ordeal of writing my doctoral dissertation.)

When I got back to America I made up my mind to shed that extra stone, and lost the weight as quickly as I had gained it. It was easy: there were no more Digestives, no more cream slices or jam doughnuts, no more late-night snacks of cheese and piccalilli or bread and Marmite. I was living at home again, and Mum still cooked for four, but all I had to do was to eat my share.

I still cook for four today—old habits die hard—but now the problem is, what to do with the leftovers? Come and visit!


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39. Two at a Time

In 1970s, Britain, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on April 17, 2010 at 2:33 pm

As a dashing youth in his late teens or early twenties, my brother-in-law Dan once said, “I run up the stairs two at a time now, so that when I get older I can slow down to the normal one at a time.”

My mother always walked extremely fast, and was half a block ahead of us all whenever we went out together. She had an administrative job, but she made sure that it was not a sedentary one. Her office was on the fifth floor and her boss’s office on the ground level, so, rather than taking the elevators, she made a point of racing up and down five flights of stairs several times a day. It was certainly the road less traveled, for she was the only one of her co-workers who consistently took that route. At Mass Mental Health Center, each floor housed a different department or ward, some of them locked down, so taking the stairs meant passing through different worlds, worlds that were unknown to those who confined themselves to the elevator.

stairwell, MMHC © 2003 by Anna Schuleit

One lovely Spring Sunday when I was nineteen and studying in London, I set out for a walk in the park, but once at Primrose Hill I decided to continue on to visit my Uncle Len, Auntie Angy and Cousin Lesley in Edgware, a suburb of North London a few miles away, and to go on foot rather than taking the Tube as I usually did. I walked up the Edgware Road, passing through neighborhood after neighborhood, High Street after High Street, each with its corner pub, butcher, baker, newsagent and sweet shop, fish-’n-chip shop, launderette, and, more often than not, second corner pub, each with its locals going about their Sunday business. When I got to Edgware, I realized that I hadn’t rung in advance and that they’d be in the middle of their Sunday dinner; and besides, I wanted to keep on walking. From the Edgware Road I turned west and struck out on the London Road, which became successively the Uxbridge Road, the Broadway, Pinner Road, and Rickmansworth Road, as I walked past all the stations that I normally whizzed by on the train; until, just before nightfall, some five hours and 23 miles after I had left my flat in Camden Town, I turned up at my Uncle Ted’s door in Rickmansworth. And he was out!

The next-door neighbor inched the door ajar and eyed me suspiciously, and when I said that I had walked out from London to see my uncle, she was so alarmed that she nearly shut the door in my face. Finally, with extreme reluctance, she allowed me to step into her front hall and ring Mick Marsden, my Uncle’s friend and commuting buddy, who took me to his house, where his wife Sue served me a welcome bowl of hot soup; for I had set out in the morning with no money and had not had so much as a drink of water all day.

I think of Dan’s two-at-a-timing, and my mother’s stair-racing, and my own impromptu marathon every time I am poised to press the elevator button rather than taking the stairs up to my third-floor office at work. Last I checked, Dan was taking the stairs at a decent clip, one at a time. And nowadays, when I go out walking with Mum—now that, at 82, she has slowed down a bit—we can finally walk side-by-side.


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17. Chickens on the Pot

In 1940s, Britain, Family, history, Stories on March 11, 2010 at 11:32 pm

My mother Gladys—Glad, as her family called her—was only eleven when the Second World War broke out, and because London was a special target for bombing, she was evacuated along with her entire school to the old market town of St. Albans.

London was only 20 miles away, but it seemed much farther to Mum, and she was terribly homesick. Hers was a large, closeknit family and she had never been away from them. She had never slept alone either, since they were three to a bed at home, with her tucked in the middle between her two elder sisters. As the youngest girl, she was the only one of the six children to be evacuated, since her younger brother Len was too young to leave his mother, her next-elder brother Ted lied about his age and joined the air force, and the other siblings were already grown and working.

During her evacuation Mum was billeted with three different foster families, in situations ranging from abusive to exploitative to more-or-less-tolerable. In one, the family’s biological daughter secretly tormented her, knowing that she could never complain; in another, the foster-mother starved her and spent the government money entertaining the troops; and in a third family—the best of the lot—the foster-mother extended the food budget by  filling her up with cheap carbohydrates, until she grew so plump that they began calling her Dumpling as a term of endearment.

This last family had a garden, and even kept chickens. Like many others at the time, they had no indoor toilet, so if nature called during the night, one was obliged to use the outhouse in the back garden. Nature did call one night, and so Mum picked her way gingerly down the back stairs and across the yard, groped for the door, and ducked quickly in.

Accompanied by a raucous squawking, screeching, and beating of wings, a dark figure sprang up from the pot and pushed past her into the night.  He was a chicken thief, who had been at work in the coop when he had heard someone approaching and taken cover in the privy along with his haul.

I can’t imagine how Mum screwed up her courage to venture down at night ever again. It occurs to me that this early experience might also account for her lifelong aversion to using strange bathrooms when away from home.

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3. The Horn Player in the Cupboard

In 1970s, Britain, Stories on February 28, 2010 at 7:49 am

When Andrew and I went to London in the autumn of ’73, we were trying to get as far away as possible from the U.S.A. But things—and people—have a way of following you, and so it was with us. On the very plane trip over, Andrew thought he spotted a man from my class at university, and sure enough, it was he. (Soon afterwards, we were to run into him again, at the very first party we were invited to in London.) We rented a room in a run-down house in Tufnell Park and soon learned that not only was one of our housemates American, but that she was from Brookline, and lived not a block from my parents on Harvard Street. We didn’t hold her origins against her, of course, and apart from the rotting pheasants she hung in the upstairs landing and the apple chutney she made that exploded through the dirty jamjars she had salvaged from skips, she was a very good roommate.

One day our Brookline High School classmate Conrad Bergschneider showed up at our door. Somehow he had found out that we were in London and had tracked us down. He was looking for a place to stay and  ended up staying with us, in a former closet that Nick, our housemate-landlord, called a bedroom. The trouble was that not only did the closet lack an electrical outlet, so one couldn’t see in it at night, but its dimensions were barely four feet by six feet and Conrad was a giant of a man, much taller than it  was long. He had to sleep with the door ajar and his feet sticking out.

It soon turned out that Conrad played the French horn. He used to practice in his closet. Muffled blasts buffeted the closed door and shook the creaky old plaster-and-wallpaper walls. And inside Conrad had to bend his head and back over his instrument, his elbows held as close to his sides as he could manage, trying to be considerate. He was a gentle soul. He never complained, but began to spend more and more of his time in our room, gradually unfolding as he emerged from the closet until he finally reached his full size.

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