City of Suburbs

Nadifa Mohamed at the edges of London

Text by Nadifa Mohamed

Illustrations by Angelique Heidler

I am a child of the buses, silent and watchful; I am carried through this city’s veins within a corpuscle of diesel and human voices. I circulate through the lower limbs of London, deep into its capillaries and clots of wealth and poverty, the bus darting impassively past money-transfer shops, solicitors, greengrocers, funeral homes, luxury-car showrooms and ever-expanding numbers of estate agents.

To leave the estates and terraces on the southern flank of London for the aloof, stuccoed neighbourhoods at the centre is to travel up like the puck in a carnival high striker: the bell trilling as soon as you hit the extravagantly wealthy W1. My world, however, is in the postcodes in the high teens where you are more likely to find a toad on your doorstep than a Lamborghini. Here, the city is wild with parakeets, rabbits, snakes and badgers, and rather than the bland commercialism of the centre, mini-markets sell Mirinda soft drink for Somalis, kielbasa sausage for Poles, patra for Indians. The sprawl of the suburbs demands some change every few miles even if it is just in terms of groceries.

For new Londoners such as my newsagent, Aakash, a Tamil poet from Sri Lanka, the suburbs are his only knowledge of London. Working six days a week, he spends Sunday at home with his family and, in the six years he has lived here, he has only been on the Tube once, to take his children to the Natural History Museum. Within my own childhood, trips “uptown”, as my father would say, were rare and special. It felt like travelling into Disneyland: from the malevolent towers of Parliament to the exotic animals at Regent’s Park and fairy-tale costumes of the Beefeaters.

Now, though I go uptown much more frequently, it still seems somewhere too busy, congested and expensive for real people to live, even though they do. From the hilltops of Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park, the skyline from Battersea Power Station to Canary Wharf spreads out, a crystalline mirage glinting on the smoggy horizon, remote, magical and ready to evaporate. I can never imagine living in the heart of London; I would not only miss the birdsong, but I also don’t believe that I would be welcome or happy living cheek by jowl with bankers, lawyers and well-recompensed salarymen and women. I overheard one banker, living in Notting Hill at his wife’s behest, compare the 5am convoy of bankers leaving for their offices in Addison Lee cars to slack-shouldered northern miners despondently setting off for the coalface. The sheer expense of buying or even renting in London’s desirable parts requires a Faustian pact: financial success at the cost of freedom.

As a writer, there is no early commute, no bonus to work all hours for and no avaricious spouse to keep in style. The suburbs allow creatives, especially those with no trust fund to fall back on, to live at a sustainable level. In return, new forms of music, language and art are nurtured into existence and eventually co-opted by the children of the wealthy in a symbiotic relationship that has persisted for centuries. Not all suburbs are equal, however, and the reaction you get if you say you live in Peckham is very different from if you say Hounslow. Certain suburbs are selected by a narrow pool of young, white, affluent “hipsters” as suitable for gentrification. This generally means poorer areas with good transport links and the same style of Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian architecture they grew up with in the “nice” suburbs or Home Counties. While “creative” in reputation, neighbourhoods such as Brixton and Peckham often appear stiflingly narrow, with fashions and allergies imported from the US and a self-consciousness rarely seen in London’s perimeter, where quirks tend to be real rather than manufactured. I have heard too often how “grim” and “dodgy” primarily black or Asian neighbourhoods apparently are, from people who would mock the xenophobia of their grandparents’ generation. Although the poverty and graffiti of newly fashionable neighbourhoods are often perceived by first-generation gentrifiers as “real” and “vibrant”, the original inhabitants and the shops, cafes and pubs that serve them very quickly become the butt of nasty jokes and are rapidly replaced by businesses that fit the area’s new complexion.

The council estates that form a link chain across London are the most interesting places for me. Often the first foothold in the city for new migrants from the rest of the UK, as well as the wider world, they throw private renters and council tenants together in a way that the segregated centre often manages to avoid. You can stand outside a tower block and hear grime, Buddhist chants, jazz, Koranic prayers and the hollering of television preachers through the windows. The intimacy of living above, under, around your neighbours, untold children pouring out at the first notes of the ice-cream van, young black teenagers practicing rhymes in the stairwell, an elderly neighbour sitting on a lawn chair on a balcony, a dog yapping beside her, spices in your nose from the cooking next door, are what I love about this city’s suburbs. I close my eyes and don’t want to be anywhere else. §