Saturday, 27 June 2009

Salaam to the World on the start of my epic journey: Bricking it in London!

And so after all the research and planning I am finally starting my global journey - which I commence with a mixture of excitement but also trepidation: this is a long-haul journey which will take several years and I hope I am up to the task!

The starting point for my trip is London, in my home country of England (for the purposes of this trip I am splitting the UK into its 4 constituent countries) with Tarquin Hall's "Salaam Brick Lane". This book should not be confused with the popular novel called "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali, although it is set in the same part of London, currently known for its large Bangladeshi population. The author of this work returned to the UK from abroad after 10 years and found himself spending a year in a tiny bedsit in the East End of London...

The reason I chose this novel is that - living near and working in London, I get a real sense of the city as a place of diversity and cosmopolitanism - not only in the modern day but historically. An amusing example of this is where at one stage the author meets an Indian anthropologist who is searching for the 'true' English East Ender and who is appalled to find that there are no residents who can trace their pure Englishness beyond a generation or two... and this I think, sums up a very key element of 'Englishness' (and why Englishness is so hard to define) - the English are a mongrel race that have always incorporated other cultures and will no doubt continue to do so. Tarquin Hall acknowledges this as a key strength of our culture, and also - being an upper-class public-school educated graduate who grew up in 'posh' West London - demonstrates how prejudice can just as easily be experienced across CLASS in England, as RACE. The fact that his girlfriend who joins him in his 'bijou' bedsit (mistakenly) expecting a city of glitz and glamour is an Indian-born American, adds to this wide perspective of class and culture.

The book itself is an enjoyable read, with a series of interesting - and often tragicomic - characters such as his landlord Mr Ali - "an unlikely mixture of South Asian and Estuary", and his Albanian neighbours. This is narrative non-fiction in the vein of Bill Bryson (with aspirations to Paul Theroux), and I'd recommend it as a taste of how London is perceived and experienced by its own residents.

A particularly striking part of the book is the description of the author's many hours spent gazing out of his attic window at a bagel store across the street. In the space of 24 hours a whole cross section of London drifts into its doors without ever meeting... cleaners in the early hours, builders later on, commuters grabbing breakfast at rush hour, tramps and beggars during the day, clubbers in the evening and prostitutes & drug dealers throughout the night. A whole panorama of interlinked humanity that combine to make up London, yet move in very different worlds - all intersecting at a humble bagel store in Brick Lane.

It may seem unusual that I didn't pick a novel for this first leg, however I believe England has a culture of socio-realism in literature (such as George Orwell's travel writings) which this book reflects, and, to be honest, I am not convinced there are that many worthy novelists at the moment who are dealing with indigenous topics and settings. I plan to wrap up my journey (after several hundred intervening countries) back in England..., which I shall be splitting up further into regions. I hope to be to find suitable writers to end my trip at this time (which will no doubt be several years away!).

Next stop is France and a rather nice luxury apartment in Paris with the best-selling “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. Compared no doubt, to future journeys, my trip from London to Paris is both cheap and comfortable.

I purchase a one-way standard ticket online for a mere £39, leaving London at 8.02 in the morning from the hugely impressive St Pancras International station. St Pancras International is a triumph of nineteenth century station architecture and one of the wonders of London. The newer elements are just as impressive: below the magnificent curved glass ceiling, a nine-metre high sculpture of lovers meeting beneath the station clock watches diners in an excellent restaurant and a the longest champagne bar in Europe. Also there's a great range of independent, upmarket shops to browse through.

The train itself is comfortable and air-conditioned with food and drink available from a cafĂ© bar, and the journey is just over three hours; arriving at 11.17 in Paris’ Gard du Nord: another impressive historic station that has recently benefitted from a major refurbishment. I shall update you on my French sojourn in the next post!

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