Recently I stayed in Bethnal Green with some of my grandchildren while their parents had a few days holiday to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The estate where they have lived for about five years is nearly all Bangladeshi, and Muslim. It is quite an experience to pick up the kids from their school and see that most of the mothers are in full burqas and hijabs. Some of the little girls also wear veils; all have black hair and brown eyes, and my grandkids’ friends are called Tariq, Hassan, and Mohammed.
I went to shop in Bethnal Green Road on Saturday morning, and joined the stream of motley ethnicity: again many women in long black robes, and men wearing long gowns. Along the side of the street are many market stalls, and saris flutter in the breeze alongside jeans, blouses and T shirts. It reminds me of Linking Road in Mumbai: strong smells of curry, a jostling throng of Asian people and a mix of spoken English and other languages. Added to the Bengali I thought I could identify Polish, maybe Spanish and French.
This is London; this is the famed East End. This is the land of barrow boys, fish and chips, and jellied eels. But where are they? They have given way to kebabs, curry and burgers. Any Fagin-like, light-fingered urchins have been replaced by brown-eyed girls in jeans, and boys on skate boards, clutching mobile phones.
At the bus stop, a bunch of disparate women chatted amiably. One informed me that the 388, which I needed, doesn’t come frequently and I might be in for a long wait. She appeared to be of European extraction, possibly Polish. Her daughter was light haired and blue eyed. The man whom I took to be the father had dreadlocks and another accent which I couldn’t identify. A lady in a sari settled comfortably on the bench with an array of bags, and a small boy looked solemnly at a stout old lady with grey hair, a double chin and twinkly eyes who observed, “I’ve been sitting in that café, been ages waiting! ‘Ere kid, cat got yer tongue then?” and heaved herself up as the bus trundled into view. She was the only one who seemed remotely like a cockney.
I also got up. Forgetting I had bought a bottle of wine as a treat for my son, I set the shopping bag down on the pavement rather sharply while I searched in my handbag for my bus pass. There was an ominous crack and liquid seeped out of the plastic bag, accompanied by a not unpleasant smell of white wine. I struggled on to the bus with the dripping bag. “Hey! You can’t bring that on the bus!” said the be-turbanned driver. I laboriously unpacked the now dripping items of shopping from the winey bag, stuffed them into the other shopping bag I was carrying, and regretfully emptied the wine into the gutter. Everyone waited good-naturedly while I performed this task, murmuring in sympathy. As the bus got into gear and moved off, a large black woman in a vividly patterned dress and wonderful headgear thoughtfully handed me another plastic bag. “Here,” she said, “I always carry an extra one.” Gratefully I took it.
Later, at the gates of Victoria Park, I was with six-year-old Pascal buying an ice cream. We dug out all his carefully-saved pennies and he chose a large cone with a chocolate flake. The brown skinned vendor grinned happily at him and poured on extra chocolate sauce and sprinkles. “And now, how about one for you?” he said turning to me.
“Sorry, no money left,” I replied.
“No matter, have this one on me!” he said, handing me a cone brimming with whipped Mr Softee ice cream. I was stunned.
A few weeks earlier I had been with my sister-in-law in affluent Kingston-on-Thames. She went to an ice cream van and asked for a cone, which was duly handed to her. Then we both discovered we had come out without any money! The vendor was apoplectic with rage. He seemed to think that this was a wicked conspiracy perpetrated by a gang of grannies. In vain I tried to placate him, explaining that this was a simple mistake. When he demanded that I come back the next day with the £2.50 and leave my glasses as security, I decided it was time to walk away, which I did. So to be given a free one in the “deprived” East End was definitely a surprise.
I took Pascal to the funfair at the Olympic Park, now beautifully landscaped for the enjoyment of the general public. We wandered about among the rides and attractions, managing to spend quite a lot of money on short-lived but enjoyable experiences. At last we came to a stall where for a pound you could throw a ball, and if it went in the net you won a hideous stuffed toy. Naturally we had to have a go. Pascal could barely see over the counter, so his throw was wasted. The black lad in charge lifted him up and gave him a couple of free turns. He didn’t net the ball, but we left feeling Up, not Down because of the lad’s kindness.
I went with three of my grandkids to the East End Church (Newfrontiers), where the congregation was a good mix of black and white. Great worship, plenty of opportunity for participation from the congregation, friendly, passionate for Jesus. Someone had made delicious cupcakes which were consumed with relish after the meeting!
Then later we attended a barbecue in Mile End held at the home of a friend who is a doctor (GP). A fascinating mix of people gathered there, ranging from other medics, to an art teacher who also successfully exhibits her work in the West End, to musicians. I was surrounded by happy and beautiful conversations about how people met with Jesus, church life, use of art in life, speaking French… It was stimulating and fun!
What do I deduce from all this? London is a fascinating city. You can’t pigeon-hole it or pin it down. It is evolving, changing, intriguing. People from other ethnic groups are not necessarily hostile, or even very different. They sympathise with everyday dilemmas. Women relate to women, appreciating normal irritations and frustrations. They have kids, they go shopping, they use buses.
I know this is a simplistic blog, and I don’t understand a lot of the complexities that we all deal with, but I think I understand increasingly that we will all extend sympathy and grace to each other as we interact more. I like the countryside and solitude and simple lifestyles; but I am also learning that I like London, and I like the swirling colours and sounds and smells and languages of a big city. I think I am being enriched; and what is more, I think I am being prepared for an eternity which is infinitely more diverse than I formerly realised. I think God likes it too. It’s a rainbow world.
Photographs by Mostaque Chowdhury