Tales of Two Londons

STORIES FROM A FRACTURED CITY


Edited by CLAIRE ARMITSTEAD

“This anthology sets out to mirror London’s diversity by ensuring that more than a third of the voices are of those not born in the UK. It aims to reflect the fact that any city is the sum of its people, and the intelligence they offer is various and sometimes oblique. How do the triumphs of community activism square with the curse of gentrification? What is it like to give birth shortly after arriving in a strange city? How does Londoners’ love of cats and dogs feel to someone who has lost everything? Memoir, reportage, history and several different genres of poetry keep company in its pages, sparking off each other in challenging, invigorating and inspiring ways.”
—from the Introduction


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About the Book

London today is embattled as rarely before in peacetime. On one side the city has flourished, cementing its standing as a world leader in business and culture. Infrastructure investment outstrips anywhere else in the UK, property prices have soared, technology and new media industries have burgeoned. On the other, poverty remains endemic, homelessness and the privations of low paid work are evident everywhere, gang violence is rampant, and the burnt-out hulk of the Grenfell Tower housing block stands as an ugly reminder that, even in the wealthiest areas, inequality can be so acute as to be murderous.

In these pages Claire Armitstead has drawn together a rich collection of fiction, reportage and poetry to capture the schisms defining the contemporary city. In a metropolis with nearly 40% of its population born outside the country, Tales of Two Londons eschews what Armitstead labels a “tyranny of tone,” emphasizing voices from beyond conventional arenas.

Here, alongside writers with established reputations, we find stories from hitherto unpublished immigrants and refugees, from people working with deprived youth in city, from Kurdish activists, and from tenants groups. Taken together, their stories portray the fabric of the city: its housing, its food, its pubs, its buses, even its graveyards. Above all, this scintillating anthology draws on the rich mélange of people who inhabit today’s London, both lamenting the unequal way the city treats them and celebrating the vibrant urban life their co-existence delivers.

Contributors: Akwaaba Writing Group, Arifa Akbar, Memed Aksoy, Omar Alfrouh, Sophie Baggott, Kinga Burger, Duncan Campbell, John Crace, Tom Dyckhoff, Travis Elborough, Inua Ellams, Jo Glanville, Stephen Griffith, Lynsey Hanley, Jonathan Jones, Nicolette Jones, Ben Judah, Sarah Maguire, David McKie, Rowan Moore, Daljit Nagra, Andrew O’Hagan, Ruth Padel, Michèle Roberts, Jacob Ross, Ferdous Sadat, Jane Shilling, Helen Simpson, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Lisa Smith, Jon Snow, Yomi Sode, Richard Norton-Taylor, Alex Rhys-Taylor, Ed Vulliamy, Ewa Winnicka and Penny Woolcock.

292 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-682191-36-1 • E-book 978-1-682191-37-8

About the Editor

Claire armitstead author photo

Claire Armitstead was born in south London and spent her early years in northern Nigeria. She worked as a trainee reporter in South Wales, covering the Welsh valleys during the miners’ strike, before joining the Hampstead & Highgate Express as a theatre critic and sub-editor. She then moved to the Financial Times, and subsequently to the Guardian, where she has worked as arts editor, literary editor, head of books and most recently, Associate Editor (Culture). She presents the weekly Guardian Books podcast and is a regular speaker at festivals around the world. She has been a trustee of English PEN since 2013.

Read an Excerpt

From Rosalind by Arifa Akbar

I heard about Rosalind Hibbins before I met her. I was buying an attic flat on top of a converted period house on Lady Margaret Road, a tree-lined backstreet that runs from Kentish Town to Tufnell Park, and I had just exchanged contracts with its former owner, Holly, when she mentioned the woman who lived downstairs. She spoke of Rosalind with such strained diplomacy that it seemed as if she were revealing furtive knowledge of a faulty boiler or leaky roof that she’d kept hidden until too late. ‘She’s a character!’ Holly said with a nervous laugh. ‘Every street’s got one.’

I was moving from a large 1930s block on Camden Road where my neighbours had been too many and too fluid to get to know beyond the briefest of helloes in the lift. It suited me that way; I had grown up on a housing estate in Primrose Hill after my parents returned to London from Pakistan, and as the only non-white family in our council block, we tried to live as quietly as we could amid the curiosity, and occasional hostility. As the postwar generation died off, our neighbours became far more unknown and indifferent to us, and we to them.

Rosalind introduced herself to me the day I arrived. She was a strapping woman with tidy red hair cut short, and a way of speaking that quickly travelled the scale from genial to spiky. The furniture was still being hauled up when she emerged at the top of my stairs with a box of organic tea, and looked at me with wonder. ‘I’m so pleased to finally meet you,’ she said. ‘I looked up your name. I didn’t know if you’d come veiled.’

Oh god, I thought, but she was full of neighbourly spirit after that. She asked me what else I needed, and when I spoke of a housewarming party, she saw my bare living room and said she’d lend me her corner tables so I’d have some flat surfaces to serve food on to my guests.

I found out more about her as time went on. She was in her early 60s, with no husband or children, and estranged from her sisters, apparently. Despite her age, she had a ruddy strength about her. She had grown up in the country and her hiking boots, which she kept under the settle by the stairs, were always muddy. She had been a librarian at the British Library but found, after retirement, that her true passion was stone-carving.

I also discovered that she had a knack for friendship, but for fall-outs too. She received floods of birthday cards and had friends forever doing her favours. Yet the other two flat-owners in the house spoke of her in the same nervous way as Holly when they took me out to the Pineapple, a pub on the adjacent street where we discussed all communal house matters after that. A few drinks in, they spoke in plainer language: she had fallen out with them dramatically over the years. She had differences in opinion with the Catholic church on our road too and had stopped going to Sunday service there. Even the owner of the local newsagent who had once been known for carrying her shopping home for her now pursed his lips at her name.

She took an interest in me from the first but I suspected it was because she needed an ally in the house. She told me she’d read newspaper articles I’d written on my father’s dementia, and another on Terry Pratchett’s death. ‘Congratulations on writing without sentimentality,’ she said in an email.
She called on me for small tasks at first—watering her plants while she was away, buying milk, hoovering the hallway. Then, a distressed phone call when I was in the office. The builder we had enlisted to lay our porch paving was threatening to take up every last stone and abandon the job in anger. Could I come home and talk him down? I did, begrudgingly, and found out afterwards that she had managed to alienate every builder who had worked on the house.

I got more phone calls in the office after that, some with Rosalind in tears, asking me to fix this or that. Stranger things too: she stopped me along the hallway in a panic, saying that there was a mouse in her kitchen and could I watch over it while she called pest control; another time, she ran up the stairs wild-eyed to ask if I could investigate a possible gas leak in her flat. With each episode, I felt what really disturbed her wasn’t the problem she presented but fear or maybe even acute moments of loneliness beneath it. But alongside her vulnerability, she was difficult, demanding, and increasingly, I became confrontational back.

Then, one day, she caught me on the stairs when I was in a troubled mood about work and over tea she listened in such a way that I felt the possibility of a solution, though she hadn’t given any outright advice. I came away feeling that I was no longer pressed up against my problem but could breathe easier alongside it.

There were other moments like that which crept up on me over the next eight years, when we’d bump into each other on the stairs and talk about life over tea—her joy at finally renting a studio in Bethnal Green and becoming a bona fide artist ‘at my age!’, my slow but steady progress with a book idea, her dislike of the new pope and, ultimately, of all organised religion. I felt I understood her better after hearing her ferocious attacks on parts of the church, only because she held equally outspoken views on Islam which she had volubly expressed to me in the past, knowing I was a Muslim. Now I figured it was nothing personal.

She’d point at objects in her flat as we talked—the stone-carvings propped up against the fireplace, the leather case which contained the love letters that her father had written her mother before marriage that she claimed never to have read (I told her I’d never be able to resist). She cried each time she pointed to the photograph of her father, taken at 90-something, and told me again how it devastated her when he died.

She caught me exhausted one time and craving escape from the city. ‘It’s still bluebell season,’ she said, ‘you should go and see the bluebells’, and gave me a map to a copse at the top of a golf course on the outskirts of London. As a British Asian urbanite, I hadn’t even known bluebell season existed. I was curious, and so I trekked there with a flask and a packed lunch and the bobbing sea of flowers were so joyful that they breathed new life into me.

It became a friendship, of sorts, with its confidences, rows and appeasements. Or perhaps a kinship in which she saw something of herself in me and I, for my part, recognised my inability to compromise in her and I imagined it leading me to the same future—a woman without family, alone in older age. Yet her life offered reassurance too because it showed me how I could live fruitfully this way. She had warded off loneliness, for the most part, and kept a hold of her passions.

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