Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Centre stage

Last Friday I was in a play. Not entirely intentionally. As part of the summer Watch This Space festival, the National Theatre staged a performance of Domini Public by Roger Bernat. Via a pair of headphones which each audience member is given as they arrive, a series of questions are asked, the answers moving "the cast" around the stage like chess-pieces, as the game or play unfolds. Beginning in giggling awkwardness the action unfolds to encompass death, rape, a group of prisoners (those who answered yes to the question "Were you born in London?") escaping incarceration and finishes with a somewhat strange gathering in a tent - like confused wedding guests piling into a marquee to watch a nauseating tribute video.

The idea of those who come to watch theatre becoming part of it, echoes the inclusion of new city-dwellers into the urban theatrical productions London stages. Each district, each borough, each street is a new performance space. Travelling through you join new casts and tread different boards. From my huge kitchen windows I have box seats for the never-ending production of "Holloway All Hours". Numerous actors swap on and off stage in order to keep the action flowing all day and all night.
After four days (and unpopular late nights) of sanding and painting the flat-in-renovation act of the play appears to be over. Evident mostly by their off-stage sounds, its protagonists have appeared from time to time to smoke in paint-spattered clothes on balconies or wielding paint-rollers. Somewhere an invisible yet repetitive scene of a table-tennis game recurs, breaking silence between acts. Faces appear at windows, lost in thought, clutching mugs of tea or their cat. Lights flick on and off, illuminating activities in kitchens, bedrooms, sitting rooms. Many actors are so involved in their television-watching and tea-brewing they give no indication of being aware of their audience. Feline thespians cross multiple scene sets, occasionally displaying their fight training, scrapping centre-stage over a small, fluffy prop.

But as I watch the windows opposite I realise there is a second play unfolding in parallel - the one in which my windows form part of the scenery and stage. Once again I am an unwitting actor, as the cast I watch becomes my audience. To the late-night DIY enthusiasts I am the girl who's appeared late in the play, who walks around a lot but doesn't seem to have many props. To the phantom ping-pong players my radio and cooking sounds provide equivalent off-stage sound effects. Shakespeare was only too right when he wrote of all the world being a stage. In a city there are so many acts to be enjoyed, and someone is always watching.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Pastures new

I write this lying on the floor. Somewhat uncomfortable, but it is my very own floor. In my new flat I have only one chair, which was here when I arrived. After less than a minute perched on its wobbly legs it is not hard to see why its previous owners left it behind. Almost devoid of any furniture at all, until I get myself organised to find some, I am grateful for the single wobbly chair. It will not be here long, but I hope I will. Here I finally am, in a flat of my own. Just me, yet I am not alone. My flat is a horizontal slice of a large terraced house, and above and below me are people and animals as independent as I yet sharing a front door, a roof and many, many bricks.
From windows at either end of my flat I can see life playing out. People walking along my new street; entering houses, leaving houses, chatting on front steps, driving cars, carrying shopping home, walking dogs and small children, even washing their cars whilst their pair of Staffordshire bull terriers dozed on the pavement. I spent my first morning in my flat cleaning, aided by the extremely kind Accidental grandmother, who tackled my new fridge-freezer, while I dealt with a locksmith and some slightly grubby skirting-boards. Hungry from our morning's slaving, we set off towards the Holloway Road for some lunch. We had only just turned out of my road however when our progress was brought to an abrupt halt.

Under the all-seeing eye of a serious-looking female vicar clad in full-length black robes, there came a procession which halted both road and pavement traffic. A couple of hundred people, wrapped in white muslin shawls, some covering their whole bodies, with varying coloured borders, came towards us; clapping, singing quietly and even ululating. In their midst swayed multicoloured, silk umbrellas, shading precious boxes and books, and a striking fellow in full gold robes. One man's bright yellow high visibility jacket glowed beneath his white shawl, an oddly incongruous turquoise plastic first aid kit clasped behind his back. (Interestingly it looked very similar to the one my father presented me with, as a cautionary accompaniment to my new tool kit, the following day. Quite how much injury one can inflict upon oneself with a small hacksaw, a Stanley knife and numerous screwdrivers remains to be seen, but at least I can cope with any accidents which might arise on a public march!)

From the yellow, red and green colours which recurred throughout the procession and the signs outside the church at the end of my street, which shares its space with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, we gathered they must all be Ethiopian. Posters in a script I could not begin to identify gave dates for some festivity I could not even guess at. As they filed towards the church, and strangely the performing arts school on the opposite side of the road, we were able to continue on our search for food. But the shawls appeared throughout the day, on numerous streets. Quiet song filled the air around the church for the rest of the weekend.

I felt hideously ignorant not to know what was being celebrated at the end of my new street. Hopefully in time I will learn my new area, and the locals with whom I will share it. But despite my newby status, I felt it had to be an auspicious sign that I had arrived amid celebrations. And so begins a new chapter...

Saturday, 10 July 2010

East vs. West: The Cold War of London

Usually one of the first questions a Londoner will ask another Londoner upon meeting them is "So, where do you live?". This is not merely part of the standard "And what do you do?"-type polite conversation at which most Brits excel. If you are a Londoner you can tell all you need to know about where the conversation is going from the answer to that question. Where does this new person call home? The instant that you reply to such a query, the asker's brain begins computing. East? West? North? South? Well-connected transport-wise? Safe and middle-class or cool and slightly dodgy? Do you prioritise shopping facilities or boozing establishments? If they know the area even vaguely they will follow up with a series of street-specific queries to glean even more information about whether they are likely to have anything in common with you.
The London Postcode Map (by South London Maps)
When the Pet Shop Boys sang about East End boys and West End girls in the 1980s, the likelihood of the twain meeting was purely lyrical. But their classic hit about inner city struggles and class divides still rings vaguely true in London today. An urban Cold War splits East and West London, although money is beginning to blur the lines. The west of our city is a harbour for old money, ancient families, the middle and upper classes. The streets of Notting Hill, Hammersmith, Fulham, Shepherds Bush, Richmond, Barnes and Wandsworth are pounded by the wheels of sporty buggies and Ugg-booted feet. Post-university, students of Nottingham, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and many other ancient cities of learning, flock to this area of London to recreate their student house-shares; but in finer houses, with higher rents, and usually greater proximity to a Waitrose.

The East's development is newer. As illustrated by the characters of the popular soap opera "Eastenders", lower class London typically has held these trenches, but the new instant wealth of the City has begun to drag the area into modernity. Expensive penthouses, all steel and glass, mushroom up within old warehouses. Edgy fashion designers run studios off Brick Lane, and send their angular models down catwalks though disused industrial buildings. Whilst Brick Lane itself holds firm as the city's premier venue for Indian cuisine, restaurants of a more exclusive and expensive nature have begun to spring up among the curry houses, catering to the rich bankers with fat wallets who make their millions around Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street. The old docks and water-front markets are undergoing regeneration, no area more so than Stratford; a long way out east, and the site of the upcoming 2012 Olympics. Billions of pounds of investment promise to improve infrastructure in the area, once reliant on heavy industry. Its industrial, and hence now somewhat stagnant, economy has left East London less developed and more impoverished than West. Crime rates are higher here, and the area contains many scenes of turf war and gang clashes, often between horrifyingly young children, which hold back economic investment and further development of the area.

Similar divisions differentiate North and South London too. Whilst those in the south may deem themselves more civilised than those in the north, many North Londoners (stereotypically music, film and arty types, more bohemian, although often no less wealthy, than the bankers and lawyers in the south) regard southern London as boring. Proper south - "Sarf of the river" - is for many North Londoners a hell-hole of sink estates and all that is wrong with British society. The irony is that every area of London now has its shiny, plush Starbucks, and also its dodgy alleys with discarded rubbish it is best not to look at too closely. Where one lives and feels an affinity to is entirely personal. Every Londoner thinks their area is best, safest, cleanest, the most fun for a night out, has the greatest pubs and the most reasonable rents.

But I am about to cross the divide. Having lived in South-West London since I moved to the city almost three years ago, I am going north. Leaving the safety of upper middle-class Putney, and decidedly upper-class/who-cares-about-class-when-you're-this-rich Chelsea, I am moving to North London. I relinquish my SW postcode for a simple N. (I have also relinquished, no doubt to their owners' immense relief, numerous Accidental Family spare bedrooms, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I gain a shorter commute to work, lots of trees, the Regents Canal, Hampstead Heath, and most importantly a place of my own. Just nobody crush my dreams by mentioning the word 'mortgage'.

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