Exploring Brick Lane on a Sunday Afternoon

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.


And you?


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.


I’m curious!

Guest Post: Africa’s Sweetest Voices in London

Written by Efemena Agadama, a poet and playwright, originally from Nigeria, who is working on his first novel. 
He normally contributes articles to
his Amnesty International blog.


“The man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world.” – Oscar Wilde

From top left: Lily Mabura and Namwali Serpell;
From bottom left: Alex Smith, Olufemi Terry, and Ken Barris

As London remains the global city of literature, where the great minds of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, George Elliot, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Milton, and Keats once held sway, the sweet voices of Africa shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for Africa Writing converged at the prestigious Travel Bookshop at Notting Hill on July 3, 2010.

But this time around, it wasn’t the flag of the English literature that they hoisted, though with due respect to the English literature.  It was the brightly coloured rainbow flag of the sweet African literature; the literature where words of wisdom, onomatopoeic rhythms, drama and compact plots entwine to weave the beautiful honeycomb of a unique world literature that has been the love of other world literatures.

And the revered voices were Namwali Serpell, Alex Smith, Olufemi Terry, Ken Barris and Lily Mabura.  Oh! It was a lovely and endearing gathering.  They were so humble and social that you wouldn’t be able to identify them.  Even I couldn’t identify them.  However, I guessed on one – Namwali Serpell.  As soon as she entered with all smiles, complexion of a mixed race, pretty hair style and a modest gown, she hugged two members of the audience at the front row, and I was behind at the third row.  In fact, I felt hugged too.  I felt her hugging me with her pretty smiles.  And when she smiled at them, I still felt she was smiling at me.  Please, don’t laugh at me.  The aura of the African literature that the five shortlisted writers brought into The Travel Bookshop auditorium could make anyone feel hugged in such a situation.  Now I understand why people used to fight over Michael Jackson’s shirt during performance.  Look at me fighting over a hug in my spirit.

After a while, the moderator, Saara Marchadour hit the drum for the music of the day to begin.  She in her modesty asked them one after the other to read excerpts from their shortlisted entries.  Ken Barris started the drumming.  He stood up and began reading from his “The Life of Worm.”  Its reading had the professionalism of a news caster.  He cleverly alternated his eyes between the script and the audience.  Alex Smith read hers “Soulmates” with a very emotional tone; Sharp, clear and with subtle demonstrative cues of drama.  As she read, one could hear the words like the rendition of an actress on Shakespeare Globe Theatre during the performance of Macbeth this past June.  Olufemi Terry had a louder voice.  I think his body build added substance to his voice – softly audacious.  Then Namwali read from her “Muzungu”.  She read with a dramatic flow and a clear voice.  As she read one could see a reflection of all her travellings in her rising and falling tone.  And the fifth shortlisted writer, Lily Mabura with her creative candour, gave us a noble background to her story and set the fire aglow to signal the end of the reading sessions.

Thereafter, the respected and famous Saara Marchadour of the Travel Bookshop interviewed them on the stories and inspiration behind their shortlisted works.  And she opened the floor for audience members to ask questions.

It was lovely and very exciting.  Just being in the presence of these great writers is like being locked in a small room with a million and a million of Shakepeare, Wordsworth, Soyinka, Achebe and Coetzee.  These shortlisted writers have really re-hoisted the African literature flag in London and it now flies higher.  Really, London remains the world’s leading city in Arts and Literature.

The Bigger Issue is Sometimes Us

One of my articles was just published in Seven on homelessness and some of the people who break through the stereotypes.

Big Issue seller Ralph Millward was beaten to death by three teenagers last month, but an overwhelmingly compassionate reaction from the local Bournemouth community exemplifies the wide spectrum of attitudes toward the homeless. At Ralph’s funeral, a friend said: “We’re all the same. Understand us; we’re just people.” 

Continue reading…

Graceless in Edinburgh

One of my articles was just published in Seven on a theatre production called Graceless which addresses Feminism and its meaning in 2009:

Womanhood means independence, love, nurture, office politics, impending wrinkles, wobbly bits to conceal and curves to flaunt. It makes us vulnerable to the lure of frilly knickers and inevitable blisters from staggeringly high heels that would make Carrie proud. Womanhood leads us on a journey of friendship, family and self-discovery, twisting around the oddities and awkwardness that often accompany us on the ride. It’s about time we confronted the raw truth of it all. Continue reading…