Colonialism has come home to roost. The
concierge is Spanish. Our newsagent is Gujarat, the cleaner Polish. On the
streets we hear Italian, Polish, French, Urdu, Arabic and Swahili.
Eastern Europeans are coming in by the
thousands to do jobs the British won’t do. A floating Taj Mahal on the
Thames flirts with the solidity of the spires of Westminster.
London, like a crazy genius kleptomaniac,
absorbs it all; allows the mix of people from everywhere. It watches the fun
and the fallout of old and new; dirt-poor and wealthy.
The sprawling city is always springing
surprises. Turn a wrong corner from a bustling shopping district and you can
come upon a sanctuary rose garden in a church.
It takes at least an hour and half of
travelling by tube, bus, cab or walking to get anywhere.
There are endless disruptions on the tube. We
arrive two hours late to dinner to friends in North London. It is still
light at 9pm and we admire the garden. We sit around a large wooden table
with people I knew and lived with years ago when I was a student.
Zed Nelson, a photojournalist, is here, grown
up now to Gun Nation fame after his photos of America’s gun culture were
picked up by Time magazine.
He is putting Wendy Fitzwilliam in his new
book on beauty, which was indirectly inspired by her.
He says, “I read somewhere that although
hospitals, streets and buildings in Trinidad are named after a beauty queen,
the Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul is unacknowledged. This inspired me to do a
project on the world’s obsession with beauty rather than substance.”
I don’t know whether to be ashamed or proud.
So I laugh.
Feeling like impostors we gratefully accept
the invitation of an Oxford dean to stay in the rooms reserved for fellows.
I smuggle my Cosmopolitan by stuffing it under my jacket past a dozen
learned professors preparing to go for a candle-lit supper.
Timeless courtyards, ivy spread across stone
walls, roses, window boxes, heavy wooden gates; I wouldn’t be surprised to
see carriages, horses and Shakespeare walking along cobbled streets.
Wherever you go there are people who want to
escape their lives. When they get away, they find the world not so
different. Here there is flooding, the worst in 60 years. The swelling River
Thames has been spilling into Oxford Reading and Windsor. There is the
surreal sight of post districts, ancient vicarages and stone cottages
submerged in dirty water.
Children wade, people sit with hands on their
heads; I wonder if I am in central Trinidad or Oxfordshire.
After the old world, New York has a kind of
lightness to it. The concrete is cheerful in hot sunshine.
A friend has loaned us an apartment, and I am
embarrassed when I look out of the window of the kitchen to find that I am
looking at another woman, who, like me, also has stripped down to her
Apparently, it is fashionable in parts on New
York to live curtain-less, and display your body and life to your
After the many-layered languages of Europe,
America’s surface simplicity is relaxing. There is no “Portsmouth” or
“Warwickshire” here to expose you, delineate you as a foreigner. The simple
language of immigrants and dollars and cents.
Trains rumble underfoot. A siren screeches bringing on an unexpected
longing: The savannah in the afternoon sheltered by the northern range. Our
own island craziness is enlarged, exposed under the microscopic view of a
small island. But it’s here too; it’s everywhere.