Articles

Take the tube to Whitechapel and cross over the bridge into the station, and you join a flowing crowd from all corners of London and beyond. There is a magnetic force to the area that draws all manner of people towards it: the teeming street market, the East London Mosque, the supersized new Sainsburys, the Royal London Hospital. Crossrail is coming. Excavation and construction proceed apace, and in a few years, vast numbers will be able to zip from east to west in a matter of minutes.

Return to Whitechapel, Spitalfields Life, January 2013

The Formica tables have gone, replaced with modern ply and steel ones, and matching chairs. The halogen lighting is bright, the plywood clad walls homely, yet sleek. No flock wallpaper in this establishment. Fragrant smells curl out from the kitchen. Ali, one of the waiters, from Sialkot, Pakistan, is getting ready for the lunchtime rush. He was not always a waiter, he confides, but a former newspaper man at the Jhang newspaper in Pakistan before coming to England.

At the Lahore One Kebab Restaurant, Spitalfields Life, January 2013

Growing up in East London, Gulam was a member of a popular Jewish youth group, the Oxford and St George. He used to go to haida on Christian St with a bunch of his Jewish friends until the rabbi noticed he was not Jewish. He and his old friends from those days still have the odd reunion. Both he and Moona mention the Fieldgate Synagogue, nestled in between the increasingly expansive East London Mosque buildings, and are clearly saddened that its future in the East End is uncertain. The mosque tried to buy up the synagogue, but they refused to sell.

Gulam Taslim, Funeral Director, Spitalfields Life, January 2013

That morning, the centre is peaceful and quiet, as Sarah shows me around. Each birthing room comes with its own birth pool, soft bean bag seating, double bed for partners wishing to stay, and an en suite bathroom. The space is cocooning, yet not claustrophobic. A young mother, Jamiyla, has just given birth. She rests in a room, cocooned with her new baby, and her partner, ecstatic but exhausted.

There is a good view of the Isle of Dogs, its mix of sixties high rise flats, sleek modern buildings, divided by jigsaw shapes of water. Arcs of washing are strung between the windows of a tower block opposite, hopeful in the face of dull, still weather. Looming just beyond in the mist are those other tower blocks that dominate the skyline: Canary Wharf, CitiGroup, Morgan Stanley, HSBC.

At the Barkantine Birth Centre, Spitalfields Life, January 2013

He stretches out his arm with deceptive languor, like a big cat, wrapping it around mine, gently but with precision. “So when I take your arm martially,” he says, firmly pulling it towards his body, “I can use your power to pull you back, and break your wrist or arm.” Before I can react, he lets go, quickly reassuring me he would never do such a thing. I am in no doubt. His bright blue eyes twinkle with glee at the beauty of what he has mastered over years of practice; strength in softness, power in vulnerability.

Phil Hewson, Tai Chi Master of Stepney, Spitalfields Life, January 2013

The choir move upstairs in a phalanx, upbeat and determined, and Gina assembles them in a corridor. A nurse helps along an elderly gentleman in suit trousers and braces, on a zimmer frame; he is been waiting eagerly for the choir all evening.

Everyone is focused on Gina who raises her hand to conduct. A deep breath is inhaled in unison, and the singing begins. Richly textured voices, high and low, old and young, flow through the hallways and into the wards. As we move upstairs, we pass a room, and glimpse an extended family gathering around a bed for a night’s vigil. Someone is nearing the end of life.

At St Joseph’s Hospice Choir, Spitalfields Life, January 2013

As my father departed this life, he handed on his sense of obligation, like a baton in a relay race, slipped it into my unsuspecting hand. For a while, I ran with it. It was all I had left of him. I posted the parcel and disbursed his legacy but was unable to escape the same dispiriting sense of inadequacy he felt.

No matter how hard he tried, he could never do enough for his half brother, or the others he left behind; he could never transmute his luck into theirs. And in his absence, neither could I.

What Do I Owe to My Father’s Far-Flung Family? New York Times Magazine, May 2012

After my father’s death I came upon a little spiral-bound notebook, in which he had written, ‘The purpose of this exercise is not to leave some literary monument to my name, but to record how I realise that I have lived a life of delusion in trying to please others and thus have made a mess of my life.’

A stark pronouncement, I thought, yet the Biro jottings did not record anything of the sort. Most telling was the entry ‘New Car Feasibility’, listing the pros and cons of vehicles: sturdy Fords versus sporty Renaults. Wobbly tables detailed running costs, interest rates and the trade-in value of his car. Like him, it was on its last legs.

My Freewheeling Father, Sunday Telegraph Stella Magazine, April 2012