During lockdown this year many people have been stuck in cramped flats with limited access to greenery (not that kind) and fresh air. I’ve been lucky to spend my time in the countryside but I understand the struggle of those who had to spend months confined to four grey walls on the ‘twenty eight floor’, as I kept putting it to myself every morning, counting my blessings to not still be in the city during this time.
Chicken Shop Paradise: The Essence of Familiarity is a piece I wrote in 2019 when the hustle and bustle was anything but bizarre, and when the country could still relax within two metres of each other. I wanted to post this writing now to remind us of the beauty of busyness and the peace you can find amongst the mayhem sometimes; a statement which applies now more than ever. Chaos can be both external and internal. At the moment it is both. We must never forget the power of unity and community – and the comfort of familiarities, as our world seems upside down. We must never forfeit our inspirations.
Whether you are in the city, in the countryside or somewhere in between, I hope you enjoy.
CHICKEN SHOP PARADISE: THE ESSENCE OF FAMILIARITY
After months of making home here, this street still avoided any sense of familiarity to me. I stomped the red carpet of Hackney; styled by me, wearing me. But ‘me’ wasn’t ready for recognition and my Spring line for 2019 featured a series I like to call ‘Hood Up, Head Down’. Hiding myself kept me an alien, an outsider but it meant I could explore without expectation; make mistakes without reprimand; live without an audience. I never became familiar therefore I never became comfortable. It kept me on my toes and the extra height let me see things others couldn’t.
A favoured stage to creep through the shadows in the background of was Hoxton high street. I was both hero and villain as the production played its way through my thoughts. I was judgemental and accepting, sceptical and trusting, angry and peaceful, attracted and repulsed, inspired and stupefied, excited and tired. London is tumultuous and life plateaus too easily; the city keeps the wheels rolling.
Coffee shops are the cliche of the creative however they hold true to their inspirational position in society. I often plot up outside with an Americano, a book and my guard up. Sometimes however, I leave the novel in my bag and read the story of the streets instead.
Tasting as bitter as the barristers twisted expression, I sipped from my coffee like a starling perched on a flowerpot after rain. I was killing time and therefore prolonged the usual rapidness of my caffeine-fiend driven gulps. After the unusual blaze of sunshine the city had just holidayed through, I watched the street dwellers scramble in the sudden chill of February’s tradition. The perfume of barbecued meats and fried chicken dominated the air, prompting me to feel a slight rumble of hunger that I was too poor to act upon. The coffee would suffice.
A line double the size of the van itself had stretched in the face of the Caribbean food truck parked to the North East of my senses. It harboured customers of all walks of life ready to order. It teased me and my empty pockets as I sat and studied the shop’s hustle. Everyday this line never seemed to diminish and I often saw the same individuals indulging in the toothsome choices. Familiarity comes in the form of routine and everyone’s day fits in time to eat – this is universal. This line held people united in choice; they chose to come to the same place, at the same time, for the same lunch everyday. It wasn’t spoken of, but they had formed a community. A group who all loved the same thing. They struck conversation during their wait for lunch; their familiarity with each other allowed them an ease of socialising, something the English are notoriously inept at doing with strangers. That is exactly what they were – strangers. But some of the greatest people you’ll ever meet will be strangers and London is full of them.
Two trucks down from the Caribbean pillar of attraction sat two Turkish women in a food trailer preparing and selling Gozlemes. The muscles in their tanned arms flickered as they rolled over the traditional savoury pancakes. The woman who served the till had a unique beauty to her. I will never forget how mesmerised I was by her dark eyes the first time they met my sapphire inspectors. She always tilted her head to the side in company with her thank you with such a motherly air that I felt, in that moment, completely at ease. I got lunch there most days; the low cost and sweet service brought me back every time. I never knew their names and I never will.
Anonymity is where my excitement in London lies. No one knows me and if I think I know someone then I’m wrong. The city is ever-moving, ever-growing, ever-changing and its people follow suit. Boring is rare – almost offensive in this cosmopolis of creativity and culture and you’re free to explore it to exhaustion. Insecurity is irrelevant here; no one will remember what happened come the morning. Getting a seat on the train during rush hour takes precedence. We are all familiar by not being familiar; rarely have I seen the same face twice.
Corner shops are a celebrated and universal love in London. The convenience stores pop up all over the city like mosquito bites on a tourist’s arse in the backwaters of Kerala. They supply almost everything from food to toiletries to alcohol to other miscellaneous items that seem to find a demand. My favourite amongst many in the lengthy road was faced by a small Indian man with teeth like overlapping pieces of chewing gum. He bared this smile often, illustrated with apprehension and a dusting of distrust yet never with any stroke of ill will. In his humble and kind demeanour you could recognise the love and care in the little man that he shared with those most deserving of it. He always blessed me a good day and I blessed him back. I am still thankful for him forgetting about the time my friend got a smoke on tick and never came back to pay for it.
A corner shop fronted by a white face is a notable experience. Our familiarity recognises that these establishments are painted brown. In my experience, most petty shoplifters won’t steal from corner shops, understanding that the owners have immigrated to England to support their families (Sainsbury’s, however, seems to be fair game) – a funny sense of morality.
Polish construction workers scatter the streets, weaving in and out of shops in pursuit of their different requirements. Food, cigarettes, drinks. They dot around the city with such confidence and familiarity you would believe it was their birthplace. Their hi-vis painted a colourful picture amongst the dull background of the East End of London. Speaking exclusively in their mother tongue, they were animated in their conversations and almost always in groups. Erupting in laughter; nodding their heads up in mannerism; smoking Marlboros between index finger and thumb – I came to perceive these actions as characteristic to the European workers. Never would I cross them on the street without a teeth baring smile complimenting me. London isn’t diverse: diversity is London. It is what makes the bones of this city. It wouldn’t be the London we know and love without the multicultural food options, the Indian and Pakistani corner shops, the multitude of different people. The world’s our world and this city’s a universe in its own right. A rich burst of the traditional yet moving with innovation.
A regular sighting was the elderly man who always fashioned the company of his pet parrot. I knew he secretly relished the attention the bird brought him and it wasn’t the pets companionship that was the only factor to the duo’s regularity. My first meeting with him encouraged a fascination and I learnt the psittacines name was Lola. Vibrantly red, yellow and green, she was a cocktail of colour that brought excitement to the grey wash of the city. Who said dogs were man’s best friend?
Catching a few eyes, the two surprisingly didn’t turn all that many heads. The fellow didn’t invite a crowd of curious strangers to pool around him over his unusual choice of pet and he certainly didn’t stop traffic, yet the sight of bird and man was surely strange. London is familiar with its weirdness; it doesn’t shy from the unconventional. London celebrates individuals and welcomes uniqueness. I wonder if the more we normalise being out of the box the more we are just building a larger one around it. The abnormal becomes normal and then where do we go? A better question might be: how far will we go? There’s no fear here to be different and with no worry comes no limitation and with no limitation comes the danger of no reprimand – how obscure will we become? Some interesting things to think about. London is explosive, it is vivid and technicolour and handsomely liberating. Perhaps this is why a man and his pet parrot can casually prance through the street without bother. I personally find it a huge player in the swing of London’s charm.
Teenagers aimlessly skipped along the pavements, usually huddling outside the corner shops in groups smug with the natural intimidation of being young. I don’t think I ever saw an adolescent party without a strewn bike laying at their feet or a can of KA in their sticky palms. Play fighting, smoking, laughing and simply enjoying the freedom they’ve never known otherwise. Occasionally the thought that premature adulthood destroyed them as some grew up quicker than kids should have to would come waving in but from observation this is an aspect of city children that only outsiders seem to rejoice in pitying. School uniforms and tracksuits appeared the only chosen fashions, together a sort of ghetto regalia and both always styled with trainers. They all had a charisma about them which is only present in rarities outside of the city. Here everyone was winsome and cheeky in their charm. I admired their confidence; something I’ve never possessed because I’ve never had a home like them. Their mama’s, mama’s mama lived on the same streets they do now, it was lineage and family history. The streets were a birthright.
Their familiarity within the area was like the photo image in a man’s brain of the lines on his palms. Every crease on his hand representing the lanes and hidden streets of Hoxton. Youth is magical, it is fun and carefree and innocent. It can be dark, hard, reckless and easily stolen. It can also be all of these aspects combined. The most important part of growing up is what you learn from the lessons life teaches you. Intelligence is not solely expressed academically; it can present itself in a myriad of ways and children are the torch bearers of their own destiny. Watching the kids in Hoxton trot home after school showed an insight to London most people don’t get to look into.
Through familiarity they knew their way back to the flats; they knew which shop to stop off at for a carton of peanut punch; they knew when to wave their friends goodbye like reflex; they knew which people were to be avoided in the street; they knew the smells, tastes and sights of their end of the city. They weren’t part of London, it was part of them. Babies become toddlers, toddlers become children, children become teenagers, teenagers become adults, adults the elderly and the elderly pass on for the cycle to continue. In the words of the London poet, author and musician Kate Tempest “We die so that others can be born. We age so that others can be young. The point of life is live, love, if you can, then pass it on.”. These children are handed generations worth of living and loving while growing and forming their own gifted experiences to eventually pass on as well. A truly marvellous metamorphosis to observe.
Young adults waltzed along the dirty road with clean, trendy outfits. I often referred to them as “Anglo-Londoners” but usually their origins were unclear. Platform shoes, leather jackets, skin tight trousers, tiny sunglasses. Hair and makeup always painted in eye-catching colours; completing the uniform of their costumes which nodded at the fashion of every decade past but charged into the future. I sometimes cringed at how out of place they looked being so squeaky clean in the filth of the city, but still held an admiration for their aplomb in being different. Many sucked at cigarettes (scarcely rollups) clung between long, manicured false nails and never budged the pouting look from their faces, as if in permanent inhale. They were beautiful. They knew they were beautiful, and they wanted the world to know that they knew – not to agree. As the American actor Terry Crews said “looking cool is the easiest way to mediocrity”, and my God did these people look cool.
Despite their strut and amongst their confidence lay insecurity, however. Perhaps an insecurity only recognised by other insecure people but I sniffed it out like a dog with the stink of kebab up its schnozzle. I wanted to crumble the perfection they strived for and I sniffed it out like I was hungry for something ‘wrong’ about them. Something that doesn’t make you want to strut. Familiarity for me was to be insecure. Adolescence was not a strut for me, more of a stumble and a falling flat on my arse. Desperately, I wanted other people to meet me on the ground in calamity, too. Watching the animation of fearlessness and confidence these young men and women and all those in-between possessed was inspiring. They electrified the pavements they stomped on. Self consciousness was familiar; confidently handling it, as they did, was alien. I was eased by it. I didn’t feel so ugly or vulnerable anymore, I felt human. Understanding that everyone may feel like shit sometimes can be the greatest of discoveries, and make you feel a little bit less alone when feeling like shit yourself. My new familiarity was that we can all feel like shit together and I liked that. Just keep strutting.
As I observed, feeling more foreign than usual, my attention was caught by a young woman sitting on the other side of the street. She looked part of the furniture; sunken into a chair, sitting in her cloud of cigarette smoke. I watched her, mesmerised by the comfort she seemed to possess as she herself surveyed the street. Feeling a strange relatedness to the girl, I had to fight the urge to spring up and run over to her. Begging to question her on how she fit in so well, how the scenery became her backdrop and how the public her fellow cast members, but I couldn’t quite muster up the confidence and resumed my examination. Shifting my legs to readjust my position, she copied my move. Frowning in confusion I wondered if she was watching me too. I crossed over my legs again, as an experiment, and she once more took my shape. Squinting my eyes, extending my face and focusing, I realised I had caught myself in the reflection of the opposite shop window. In my observations of other people I had forgotten to observe myself. I was lazy in my approach to being accepted into the city; you have to fight for your place. Fighting the wrong opponent, I had become unfamiliar with myself and recognised a stranger in that space. The essence of familiarity is just another word for comfort. Finally I was comfortable in my own skin, in my own city. London became my oyster.
Draining the last drops of coffee from my paper cup I stubbed out my roll-up cigarette, collected my bag from under my chair and wandered off to my next landscape. Suddenly familiarity clarified itself and I knew my way without hesitation. I had finally found my place in this city. Inspiration slumps in alleyways, it dines in banquet halls, it drinks too much beer and it is teetotal. Inspiration loves you, hates itself and sometimes muddles that one up. Inspiration follows a simple person home, yet sleeps in the bed of a genius. It is not discriminative or selective. You may find your biggest inspiration in looking at a plain, white wall or perhaps a mandala of exquisite colours and patterns. There is no right or wrong to inspiration, and when it rears its head you must clasp both of its ears and ride the poor sod into a masterpiece. Familiarity means comfort, but sometimes to be inspired is to be uncomfortable. My greatest inspiration has always derived from other people. I love the way people make me think and feel and I love the way people make me understand myself much more than I could on my own. London has granted me my most life-changing inspirations, so I say thank you to that wonderful chicken shop paradise.
WIAEA (What I Am Excited About):
Song: Ocean by Cerys Matthews – a friend sent me this song a few weeks ago. It has beautiful lyricism with delicate vocals and very sweet music. Sometimes that’s all you want.
Book: Watching The English by Kate Fox – one of the greatest books I have ever read. This is an anthropologist’s explorations into the qualities of the English, something half related to the post today and just all in all a funny, clever and cringingly spot on read. Everyone should read this book!