I’m sitting in a Polish airport less than a fortnight after the Grenfell Tower blaze when an email pings into my phone. It’s from a publisher friend asking if I’ll change my mind about editing an anthology of writing about London. When he first asked, a couple of years earlier, I dithered and decided no: the world really didn’t need another book about this most documented city. But this time he’s more pressing. He’s been chatting with his daughter, ‘and she said, “You’d be mad not to do it now.”’
By the time my flight is called, I’ve recklessly agreed to take on the book, feeling increasingly queasy as the capital rears up to greet me through the plane window – a glinting, inchoate mess of brick and steel roistering across the land in the bright summer sunshine, with the Thames bucking and twisting through its middle.
Five months later, I’m cycling through north London in driving rain when I’m held up by a massive demonstration. It’s only after I’ve walked my bike to the head of the crowd, weaving through the placards and the megaphone-topped motors, that I realise I have become part of a funeral procession. Inside a glass-sided hearse at the head of rally is the body of Mehmet Aksoy, a thirty-two-year-old Kurdish film-maker and activist who has been killed documenting the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa. He has been returned to his adopted home six weeks after his death for a send-off that for these Londoners, in this part of the capital, amounts to a state occasion.
He is part of a centuries-old lineage of political émigrés who have waged their propaganda wars from London; who have belonged to the city without ever feeling it was where they were meant to be
Mehmet – or Memed, the Kurdish version by which he insisted on being named – was one of the first contributors I signed up in the hectic days following that first airport email. It took some sleuthing to track down a writer I only knew from a showcase of work by young Kurds living in Hackney. It was four years before the inception of the anthology but his contribution struck a powerful chord and I was determined to find and include it.
‘How does one tell a story in a language one does not know?’ it opened, before recounting, in 700 searing words, the story of a small boy cut off from his mother tongue, whose inability to express himself creates a potential killer: ‘I can tell you that he thinks about murdering those closest to him: the local Tamilese shopkeeper proudly wearing his national costume behind the counter, the Irish woman who sleeps outside the station with a placard written in Gaelic, the singing, skipping deaf kid who goes to school past his window every morning. I can tell you about the hatred he has for his mother who never told him a bedtime story in her tongue and about the kleptomania that grips him in his home, the need to take back what is his own.’
By the time I found Memed, he was in Syria, so we never met in person. But a correspondence began that introduced me to a talented artist–activist who was both angrily political and a passionate idealist. ‘If there’s anything I can do to help . . .’ he would write, as if he was hanging around with nothing to do in his shell-strifed redoubt.
Memed’s personal story is invisible in the anthology but turned out to be as relevant to it as the tale he chose to tell. He is part of a centuries-old lineage of political émigrés who have waged their propaganda wars from London; who have belonged to the city without ever feeling it was where they were meant to be; and whose remains now lie for ever in its cemeteries. (The word émigré itself was invented during the French Revolution to describe political dissidents, many – if not most – of whom found their way across the channel to London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.)
The more I thought about the London in which I have lived for the last forty years, the more I realised that any account of it would have to accommodate two apparently conflicting realities: the panoramic and the personal
The road from Warsaw airport to Memed’s funeral procession was to be more tortuous and revelatory than I could ever have imagined. I’d been in Poland to give a talk about surviving in the post-truth age, which had evolved into a meditation on the importance of perspective. One touchstone was Offred, the narrator in Margaret Atwood’s politically revitalised The Handmaid’s Tale, who describes it as, ‘the illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface’.
‘Perspective is necessary,’ she says. ‘Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criss-crossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.’
In a totalitarian state like Gilead, making your own perspective is a subversive act and a necessary prerequisite for escape. But mapping is also a communal project. The more I thought about the London in which I have lived for the last forty years, the more I realised that any account of it would have to accommodate these two, apparently conflicting, realities: the panoramic and the personal; the view from the plane window and the demonstration that turns out to be the funeral of someone you know.
I was struck too by the extent to which our mapping systems had broken down and our openness to perspectives differing from our own had been allowed to collapse. How else to explain the succession of ram-raiding motorists who had ploughed their cars into pedestrians over the previous few months on the city streets? Or the catastrophic chasm between the rich and poor in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, where home-owners were offered rebates by a council puffed up by its budget-balancing prowess, while tower-block tenants died in cheaply renovated flats? As one outraged resident wrote (in an open letter reproduced in the anthology): ‘A tower block full of disadvantaged neighbours has now been repurposed as a human chimney.’
The task of forming my own perspective took me back to population research, where I discovered two startling pieces of information. The first was in the most recent Census, in 2011, where it was recorded that 37 per cent of people living in London were now born outside the UK. The second was in a survey by the Office for National Statistics, which revealed that Poles had overtaken Indians in 2015 as the biggest foreign-born population living in Britain.
It was one of those shivery eureka moments when everything seemed to come together. I realised that one way of telling a genuinely new story about London would be to follow this new demographic – to see what an anthology would look like if more than a third of its contributors were born outside the UK.
In Poland, I’d met up with a journalist, Ewa Winnicka, who had spent months criss-crossing the UK to report the stories of chambermaids, builders and farm workers who were often living in squalor while quietly keeping the UK economy going. Her account of Marcin, a one-time advertising executive now sorting London’s rubbish at a city-limits mega-depot, was one of the bleakest I’ve read of immigrant life. But the Polish story is not all about the miseries of a zero-hours economy. A young émigré novelist Kinga Burger contributed a pin-sharp comedy about a beady twenty-something clubbing among the chaos of the the Brexit vote, sick to the back teeth of the refrain: ‘I have a friend who is Polish, he’s very nice.’
The biggest revelation was that a city is the sum total of everything that exists in its citizens’ heads, and that this is often contradictory, sometimes uncomfortable and nearly always ranges far beyond the city itself
One discovery was that the challenge of accommodating difference involves form as well as content. My publisher’s original brief was ‘fiction or non-fiction, maybe even some poems, on the theme of inequality in the city’. But I wanted to include refugee writing and it quickly became clear that for people who have only recently arrived in a language, poetry is often the genre that first gives them a voice.
That meant creating a palette, so that a sonnet by a Syrian teenager could be shown to hold its own alongside one from a classical poet such as Ruth Padel. And Padel’s wistful reminder of the forgotten rivers still running beneath the city could, in turn, sit productively alongside the vibrant street beats of performance poet Inua Ellams, who evokes late-night revellers reeling home from clubs along the Thames. But the biggest revelation was that a city is the sum total of everything that exists in its citizens’ heads, and that this is often contradictory, sometimes uncomfortable and nearly always ranges far beyond the city itself, as it stands here, today.
In one story, by Grenada-born Jacob Ross, an African massacre is endlessly relived in shared rooms in Northolt, Harlesden, Peckham, Elephant & Castle. In another, by Helen Simpson, a smug jet-setting businesswoman strikes up a conversation with a young London-based Australian, who complains about the unreasonable demands of her boss.
‘So where was he emailing from, your boss?’
The image that ultimately sums the project up for me comes from a memoir by the journalist and author Jane Shilling. She’s wandering through Peckham market in search of fish when she happens upon a bric-a-brac stall selling a glass-fronted memory box full of miniature tableaux from the life of an unknown couple. ‘I find myself wanting quite urgently to rescue this box: to take it to a place of safety, to give its stories meaning and context once more,’ she writes.
I read her words and realise that compiling an anthology such as this is all about finding memory boxes while looking for fish.
‘My House in Harra’ by Omar Alfrouh
My house in Harra is like a fort, ten bedrooms
A large painting of my mother and father
hanging on the wall
welcoming whoever walks through the door
My house in Harlesden is small
Three bedrooms for six people
But I am trying to feed it yoully rice and tabola
and kabsa and aeraan and tea
and my sister and brothers, grandparents and uncles
The kabab used to mean we were together
Now it means we are apart
I went to come back to all the tables
where my family gather
I want to die where I was born
Omar Alfrouh is a student at Newman Catholic College in Brent. He was born in Syria and arrived in London in 2017.
Tales of Two Londons: Stories from a Fractured City, is edited by Claire Armistead, and will be published in paperback on 9 May. It includes contributions by thirty-nine writers including Ali Smith, Jon Snow, Daljit Nagra, Andrew O’Hagan, Michèle Roberts and the Grenfell Action Group. Order your copy here.