City Lit London (Oxygen Books, 2009) is an anthology of writings by over sixty popular authors whose work describes the world’s most happening, exciting and diverse city.
Will Self gets inside the head of a London cabby … Jan Morris flies into Heathrow … … Alan Bennett gives us a ride in the Queen’s carriage … Rachel Lichtenstein takes us for a walk down Brick Lane……Xiaolu Guo enjoys a greasy spoon in Hackney… Sam Selvon recalls the boat train arriving from Trinidad … Dostoyevsky strolls down the Haymarket … Barbara Cartland takes us to a West End ball … and much, much more.
City Lit London includes extracts from Rachel Lichtenstein's On Brick Lane and Rodinsky's Room.
At the time I was working in the old synagogue I walked past the shops along Brick Lane selling sweetmeats, boxes of mangoes, brightly coloured saris and illuminated pictures of Mecca without ever entering them. Like most other tourists, the only Bengali owned places I visited then were the Indian restaurants for a cheap curry. Back then the Bhangra music spilling out of the shops, the call for prayer from the mosque and the chatter of voices speaking foreign languages was nothing more than an exotic soundscape for my wanderings. I had no real understanding of what was taking place in the Bangladeshi community around me.
In later years I began working as an artist in local schools, spending time with the children whose parents worked in the streets in and around Brick Lane. Many of them were employed in the same trades and businesses as my grandparent’s generation, as leather and textiles manufacturers and wholesalers, as shop owners and tailors. Some of the children I met had been born in Bangladesh, many visited for extended holidays in the summer. They saw themselves as Bangladeshi first and British second. Fifteen years ago nearly all of the children I worked with were struggling with English and spoke Bengali at school and at home. The next generation are far more assimilated and describe themselves as British first and Asian second. Through working with these children I began to learn more about their culture. I heard stories about life in villages in rural Syhlet where most of the community living in and around Brick Lane have come from. I celebrated their festivals with them and got to know their parents and other local people who slowly began to share their stories with me. I talked with teenagers struggling to come to terms with their Muslim identity, elderly people who yearned for home and successful businessmen who’d become councillors and millionaires.
In 1999 I married a Muslim man whose father used to sell spices wholesale to the restaurants in Brick Lane in the early 1970s. Through him I learnt more about the Muslim religion and culture and the Asian history of Brick Lane. Gradually, like learning a new language, I was able to read the street in a different way.
(extract from On Brick Lane reprinted in London E1)