Sometimes when I walk around London with my camera, I also carry a notebook and a pen.
After a while of wandering, I sit in a coffee shop or a park and reflect on my day over a cup of tea.
I’ve always been drawn to pretty notebooks, the thrill of opening the first blank page and setting down my thoughts.
It’s easy to forget the little things about a place – the smells, the sounds – that photos can’t capture.
A few weeks ago, I decided to hop on the tube over to East London.
It has always been one of my favourite places to take pictures.
Such a vibrant area of the city, so full of life.
I shared some photos of Petticoat Lane already, but here are some more from nearby Brick Lane.
I took a few minutes of video too, just people watching, picking up the sounds.
But I thought I’d do something different here and share a few thoughts directly from my notebook:
I’m sitting in Allen Gardens on Code Street, the sign for which is also written in Bengali, as are the other street signs in the area.
It’s not very pretty, but it’s a green space behind the crowded markets of Brick Lane.
It’s a Sunday, the day the streets fill with vendors and shoppers, tourists and locals.
It must be the most diverse place in London.
Recently, it seems to have hyped itself up a bit more than usual.
New cafes have popped up between Bangladeshi sweet shops and barbershops, their walls, doors or shutters adorned with original street art by Stik, C215 or Malarky.
Street style here is brilliant.
People take risks with their clothes, wearing clashing patterns that come together perfectly in a mix of high street, vintage and subtle designer.
There are so many photogenic people who stand out from the crowd for one reason or another.
Down side streets, there are photo shoots happening everywhere against the colourful painted walls.
Friends taking pictures of friends – budding models, clothing designers, fashion photographers – all collaborating to get their names out there.
Everyone seems to be super hipster cool, sifting through racks of vintage clothes and shoes, sitting on kerbs eating Chinese noodle dishes from aluminium tins with plastic forks.
There’s also the local Bengali community, beckoning tourists into their restaurants, each of which is, of course, the best in all of London.
The guests in the windows are all white, all tourists.
There are covered Bangladeshi women filling bags with colourful vegetables from the wooden street stalls.
There’s the tourists who have come by to soak it all in, lugging giant cameras, stopping people in the street to ask for directions to Columbia Road Flower Market or how to find their way back to the tube.
Everyone has a camera with them now.
Phone cameras, plastic fisheye cameras, DSLRs, 35mm film cameras, Diana cameras.
They’re pointing them at street art, at musicians, at their food, filling Instagram feeds with square filtered photos of guitars and shoes and colourful stacks of muffins.
Look around you in any direction and 10 photos are being taken.
Street art is on everyone’s radar now, more so than ever before.
It covers every (legal and illegal) empty surface here and on most surrounding streets.
East London is one of the top places in the world for street artists to come and leave their mark.
There’s a huge international street art community represented on the walls around here.
Walk through and you’ll bump into one street art tour or another.
The level of talent has exploded. Much of the art is gallery worthy.
There’s still scribbly graffiti tags as well but it’s becoming more and more rare to see them.
Every street sign pole is covered in stickers.
Most poles and railings have bikes chained to them.
There are clever, quirky or creative signs.
Stalls sell handmade jewellery, vintage dresses, fake flower crowns to wear in your hair. They sell silk scarves, boxed up Barbie dolls and old-fashioned roller skates. Dig a bit and you’ll come across boxes of postcards from the 1970s, ancient hair pins and neon earrings shaped like cassette tapes.
There are ceramic dishes and retro sunglasses for sale, photography coaster of London scenes and handmade birthday cards. You can find doc martins with Union Jacks on them, giant stuffed orang-utans, disused street signs. There’s stacks of old books with yellowed pages, mechanical parts and hand knit sweaters.
People walk through the street carrying big bundles of flowers wrapped in brown paper from Columbia Road around the corner. Lilies, sunflowers, roses.
There’s music: reggae, afro-beats, blues, a bit of house.
There are buskers playing Johnny Cash on guitars.
A drunk guy with long thick dreads saunters through the crowd, singing at the top of his lungs, “I shot the sheriff”.
On repeat. And nobody looks twice.
A train clanks across the bridge on the other side of Allen gardens where I’m sitting in the grass.
People are laughing around me, drinking cans of beer. A barefoot middle-aged guy in his 50s squats down next to me and says, “Whatcha writing, love? Ah, never mind, I’m a nosy old fella me. Just tell me to fuck off.” He ambles back to his patch of dirt before I can say a word.
Someone belches in the distance and laughs louder.
Bike wheels spin down the streets. Some people stop to pose next to a nearby mural.
The air smells of late afternoon curry cooking inside someone’s home, preparing for dinner.
The sun is shining brightly.
It is the end of Summer and a beautiful day to be outdoors.
And then I pack my notebook away and I leave Allen Gardens. I walk back, slowly, through the crowds, to Liverpool Street.
I’m always as happy to head back to west London as I am to spend a day in the east.
The east leaves me feeling creative and inspired and the west gives me a clear space to organise my thoughts.
I don’t think I’d like to live in the east, though.
Someone once said to me when I moved to London many years ago, “Live in the west, play in the east”.
And that’s stuck with me I guess. I’ve lived in Knightsbridge, Kensal Green, Ealing Broadway, Earl’s Court, Southfields and South Kensington. North, south, west and further west, but never east.
West feels more like home, though I’m not sure I can explain why.
I love the neighbourhood feeling of where we live now, the quiet and clean streets, the small gardens, the grand houses.
The east draws me in with its eccentricity, its creativity, its quirkiness, the richness of its history.
There’s a clear line between the two halves of the city and many more lines in between, but I guess that’s what I appreciate most about London as a whole.
It’s the diversity – of the areas themselves, of the people who inhabit them, of the buildings, the beliefs and plenty more.
Do you live east or west?
Would you consider moving to the other side? (Not even counting the ongoing north-south debate!)
Why or why not?
Let me know in the comments.