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The old and the new in South East London


My south east London ranges from sticky and urine-soaked, to smart and classy within a few steps. I can walk in the woods, stroll along an isolated industrial Thameside, shop at budget supermarkets and drink hipster lattes all within a mile or so of each other. I can ask, and repeatedly forget, how to greet someone in Romanian or Yoruba. 

It took me a while to discover the richness of London. I arrived here because the careers department told me to go into consulting and I was terrified of becoming a burden to my Mum, having been brought up on a Birmingham council estate, a school-dinners girl who had to eat when the sandwiches-pupils played, and vice-versa.  At the consulting partnership, I quickly became flummoxed by my colleague’s obsessions with money, status, and how they knew how to act in public situations. And what was this mysterious networking/cow-towing thing everyone else did that appeared completely inauthentic to me?

The first time I heard the words, ‘a sense of un-entitlement,’ were from a literary agent referring to the protagonist of my novel HELEN AND THE GRANDBEES But her observation made me feel suddenly understood. While I was living quietly in Deptford, trying to make sense of the over-flowing High Street shops, I would spend my evenings spraying pesticide against cockroaches that dared cross the line from the kitchen to the living room. I did now have a ‘good job’ – as encouraged by the careers department – but my expectations of friends and life experiences were curtailed by my working class background. That’s why I was living in the cheapest rental I could find in London. I was defending myself against the likelihood that everything went back the way it used to be.

In HELEN AND THE GRANDBEES, however, I describe a more acute story of un-entitlement. Some consider themselves unloveable; others have been neglected while their parents prioritise partying over showing love to their kids; and still others are disenfranchised by severe abuse, left with the unsaid message that they deserve nothing better. If life experience instructs a person not to hope, or expect, it’s simper to rely on the things that provide a basic security, the locked door, the neatly painted white rooms; holding conversations in the mirror.

But it’s not always the end of the story. “How do you think that a person becomes wise?” asks  a character in ‘Helen and the Grandbees’, “She has to tumble through the agony of thinking that it will not turn out right, and then see how things are when the dust of  tragedy has settled,” pointing out the value of our capacity to love and to advise, whether our education has taught us the language to impress or not. Disenfranchised Helen is over-awed that her mixed-race daughter, Lily has grown up to be a PA but resents that Lily was brought up by her adoptive family to identify as black.  

I’m strangely comfortable in this ‘other land’ where the language and dynamics are more eccentric because I can just be the way I choose to be, and well, I’m just really fond of my neighbours. London has let me be all my selves, comfortable with my pebble-dashed Brummy heart.