WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I SAT UNDERNEATH A SIGN SAYING ‘TALK TO ME’

A long time coming…

Well, not years and years, but for at least one year, I was thinking about it. Sophie Calle was an inspiration. A French artist who often interacts with members of the community in her installations, she once customised a phone box in New York, made it personal, cosy even, then left a notebook for people to write in. They responded by writing about their love lives, their anger, their fears. More recently, she sent a painful break up letter – which had been written to her by an ex – to all sorts of people from a graphic designer to her mother, from a psychoanalyst to a children’s story teller and garnered their responses for an installation called ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ that I saw at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2009. Her work affected me in an emotional way. I liked that.

So did the promenade performance of ‘Living Costs’ by physical theatre group, DV8 at the Tate Modern in 2003. There was one particular part which really touched me. An elderly woman – I’d seen her before in their shows – sat naked in a corner just as we arrived the top of an escalator, she had a sign saying ‘Please Touch’. It was shocking. It seemed morally reprehensible and dangerous. For her. She looked so fragile, so vulnerable. Tiny, bird-like and defenceless. At first, I felt afraid for her. And then, I felt afraid of touching her. What would happen? Would I like it? Would I feel repulsed in some way? Would I be sensitive enough towards her?

Some people avoided her, others stroked her arm. I decided it would be a failure of my own courage not to touch her. So I went and gently, ever so gently stroked her back and her arms. It was exquisite. She remained passive. No-one touched her breasts – little bags on her chest. Somehow it was an intensely beautiful experience. Who else am I not touching out of fear?

I’m not a performer but…

Doesn’t everyone have an artist/writer/performer inside them? All that stuff about everyone has a book inside them. Yes, but what kind of book? What kind of art? I don’t want Not On Safari In Harlesden to be only walking and talking, I want some departures to other lands. On this occasion, I wanted Harlesden to talk to me, as opposed to me talking to Harlesden.

I talked about it for quite a while. And did nothing. It required more verve and bravery, than the walks. It was scary. Maybe no-one would talk to me. Maybe I would feel a fool. Maybe some people wouldn’t like me being there and tell me so. After all, I was asking to be talked to…

The idea was to uncover Harlesden in a different way…

The trigger for action was a friend of mine. She mentioned that she thought I was muddling along in life. I nearly died of shock and insult. I do not perceive myself as a muddler. But, it did get me going.

SATURDAY JUNE 25TH 2011

The day before I was terrified. Of exposing myself in this way. But today, I’m sanguine and Marlon has arrived with his camera to film whatever happens. Oh, and to make my sign. What’s son for, if not to make a mother her sign? And tie the sign to the chair. The practicalities.

There is one rule:

a) Marlon must not engage with people, that will distract them from the focus ie talking to me. Also I don’t want them to know what I’m doing.

I have a small plan:

a) I will be passive at first and not engage with people.

b) Then I will see what happens when I do have eye contact with them.

Ah, ah, but will anyone talk to me?

We leave the house musing about us as a mother and son team. The last time was when Marlon was in his foundation year at London College Of Communication and he made a short film ‘Mummy’s Boy’. It involved a son killing his mother. Oedipal separation anxiety. I played the mother. Need I say more?

We struggle down Park Parade with the chair and the sign. Marlon is embarrassed. Poor son. He doesn’t do making a spectacle of himself. I do. Of course. He gives me the sign to carry. That’s the worst bit for him. It is a placard with Talk To Me in very loud black letters. I feel as though I’m on a demonstration. It’s a sunny day and people strain their heads to read the sign and then, smile.

I think this is a good portent.

I feel like the circus that has come to town. In a small way. I quite like being the circus that has come to town.

There’s a lot of staring at me going on. Oh, and I do have two big roses instead of horns on my head. I’m slightly Frida Kahlo – but no mono-brow, sadly – with a smattering of Carmen Miranda.

There are discreet looks from the laundretteers opposite the new Le Bombeiro, the Portuguese restaurant that has replaced Os Amigos. A restaurant called Fireman. Interesting. There’s a strong whiff of  ‘what are they doing?’ emanating from the bus stop, and naked fascination from the Brazilians at the also newly named Kactus bar and restaurant.

I’m marching now. Unabashed. With the sign high in the air. Proud. Marlon is carrying the chair in a way that signals that he hasn’t got anything to do with that  strutting woman behind him.

People mutter ‘Talk to me’ in a bemused, bewildered, mulling over way. I feel as though the sign is expected to say something like ‘Fuck The Cuts’ or ‘I’m So Angry I Can’t Fit Everything On To This Banner’. But I’m glad it doesn’t. That it’s more unexpected.

The destination is in sight. The Jubilee Clock. Harlesden landmark. It’s on a paved island where people cross the road, where the Nation of Islam often appear, where gospel singers proclaim. At this moment, I’m a little worried that it’s too far away from people, that they won’t venture anywhere near me.

And it is already occupied. By Gloria, a preacher. She’s got her speaker, her microphone and her leaflets. And her voice. Meanwhile we try to fix the sign so that it doesn’t collapse. The wind is the enemy of a home-made sign. Gloria stops talking and wanders over.

“What you doing,” she asks more as a demand than a question.

I explain that I’m writing about Harlesden. My small plan is discarded already, I am engaging.

“What you know about Harlesden?” she proclaims pursing her lips in disgust. Then she takes in my lurid pink skirt and orange blouse and instead of going down the ‘cussing’ route, she changes course in mid-breath. “Nice colours,” she pronounces instead.

Gloria is talking to me. Non-stop. I’ve got my first talker and I’ve only just arrived. She’s a twice a week preacher, it turns out, and has been in the UK- she was born in Jamaica – for 43 years. Harlesden, 39 of them. I’ve only been here 15 years. A spring chicken.

I start off by writing our conversation down but she doesn’t like that. Threatens to sue. I decide to abandon my notebook. It’s interfering with simply relating. She tells me about her church, it’s a pentecostal one, the Beulah Apostolic Church of God, in Church Road. I’ve been meaning to go there, I say. “Is it okay for me to come?”  Of course, she’s outraged that I would think otherwise.

Somehow we end up mentioning dancing. I say I’m always up for a bit of dancing. And then she gets very stern and says the dancing that happens at her church, comes from the spirit that moves them. Not the other way round. I acknowledge the difference.

I ask what reactions she gets to her preaching? And she says some people tell her to go away, but for others, it makes their day.

In the midst of all this, Gloria eyes me up and down, especially the roses on my head, and announces: “You gipsy woman,” in a way that makes me think she genuinely thinks that I am. I love that mistake. I love that, for her, I can be something so different. And, that it’s OK. We still get on like a house on fire. Well, two houses burning side by side.

Turns out she’s starting up her own church and there are services at Willesden Library on Sundays.

Oh yes, and the man and the yams. She tells me about a man who came up to her whilst she was preaching, and he had a couple of yams under his jacket. “Would you like to come home and cook me yams,” he declared apparently. “I told him,” she says as she raises her arms into the air in a declamatory manner, “there is more to life than yams.”

Warm, feisty, hilarious – Gloria is my kind of woman. She’s off to the cafe now to have some breakfast, then, she tells me she’ll be buying some oxtail to put in a stew. “If you lived next door to me,” she laughs, “I’d be in your house all the time.” Then, she comes up and gives me a mammoth hug. A moment of melting under the Jubilee Clock. A moment I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t come out with my sign.

Seeing my sign seems to make people feel jolly. It’s as though I’m reaching out to them in some way that they don’t expect. And they appreciate the gesture. Two Somali teenage girls pass and give a sly smile. Ah, I’d like to talk to them. Men mutter as they pass, and I wonder if they think this is a ruse to get a date. Briefly, I wonder what would happen if I sat under a sign saying: ‘I Want A Date’.

Families crossing the road suddenly notice that I’m not the usual-Jubilee-Clock-island fare. Children wave at me. Teenage boys ignore me altogether. This is a step too far for them.

Suddenly, a rather plump gentleman in a yellow T-Shirt stumbles towards me me. His mouth is open, and he has a strand of spittle tumbling from it. My immediate thought is that he’s on medication. I notice his shoelaces are undone. He has difficulty speaking. I get up so that I can hear him. I want to hear him. Although I’m daunted slightly. What will happen? I want to really appreciate everyone that comes up to me. “Can I talk to you about politics?” he says in a very polite, friendly way.

“Yes, yes, please do,” I say. He starts off telling me how much he knows about maths and politics, and then he drops in the stunner. At first, I don’t quite catch what he says. He starts talking about 1963 and the car in Dallas. “I’m him,” he says, “I’m J F Kennedy.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Has he been re-born? In a very different body. I don’t want to offend him. I say something about being re-incarnated. But before I know it, he is also telling me that he wrote Tony Blair’s speeches. Now I understand what went wrong for New Labour. They had J F Kennedy writing their leader’s speeches.

Anyway, what I was worried about by this time, was that J F Kennedy might want to stay talking all day. And that I will have to devise a way of subtly moving him on. Fortunately, he decides himself that it’s time to go. He also gives me a big hug before he departs. My second hug of the day. The sign is working.

At this point, Marlon and I have a short discussion about the location. Should I try somewhere else? So off I go to sit outside All Souls Church on the corner of Station Road. This is a much lonelier spot. And strangely windy. People on their own pass by, and they’re a lot more reluctant to get involved. They spot me, lower their eyes and rush by. People in cars gaze with interest, but most people want escape as soon as possible. I feel like I’m one of those street charity sellers. A pariah. And then a jogger shouts out, “I would talk but I’m in a hurry”, and makes me laugh.

I realise that the good thing about the Jubilee Clock island is that it is an intersection, and lots of people pass by. They give each other the confidence to look and speak. They’re more relaxed because they’re in a crowd. We go back to the original location. Frankly, it’s a relief to be back. People are so much readier for me here!

I like the atmosphere. Most people don’t come up and talk, but they obviously like that I’m here making a little spectacle of myself. It appeals to their someone-is-not-afraid-of-making-a-fool-of-themselves sides. I’m doing my own version of Red Nose afternoon.  A small gentleman with a small moustache walks up to me and starts talking about Jesus.

He’s smiling in that heavenly beatific way. ‘Jesus is someone to depend on, he is a saviour, a joy, a refuge.’ A refuge, I like the idea of someone creating a refuge for people. A quiet hiding place. This man is not imposing his Jesus information on me. He’s just delighted to share his information about Jesus with me. ‘Jesus’ has obviously helped him out of a few scrapes. I ask him if we can’t help ourselves? Do we need Jesus to do it? But he’s an unassuming man who’s trying to help the world through Jesus so I can’t get angry about it. He’s trying to give in his own way.

There’s a man who is often around with a book and a can of special brew. He wears a hat, has grey dreadlocks, sometimes a kilt, and has the air of errant nobility about him. He’s standing by the HSBC now, and I’m wondering whether he will stroll over. I always wonder about him – his story, who he is, why he’s on the streets in this way. But he keeps his distance.

Instead a couple of Community Support Officers – “the plastic police” as Leeroy Simpson, Mr Harlesden Town Team, comments later – come over. Wayne and Richard. “I’ve never seen anyone like you here,” says Wayne observantly, “you’re unusual. It’s usually religious people.”

There’s a lot less going on in terms of crime than people think, they say. “Brent is just like any other London borough,” says Wayne. “There is no more crime or less. We go around talking to people, creating relationships, so that there will hopefully be less mishaps.”

I notice a plastic bottle in Wayne’s pocket. “Is it spray of some kind?” I ask imagining he must use it if attacked. “No, it’s sanitiser,” he says, “I’m a bit obsessive about hygiene.” I can’t helping smiling at the Community Support Officer and his sanitiser!

Finally, I notice a blonde middle-aged man with his supermarket bags staring at me as he passed. Ten minutes later, he’s back asking me what I’m up to. Clive, he’s called. The same as my brother. I explain about my mission. And he’s thrilled. “I love it that you’ve taken the time to come here and do this,” he says, “you’ve made my day.”

He’s grinning from ear to ear. I guess it’s the – I’m not here to sell you anything material or spiritual, I’m just here to listen to you – aspect of my being here.

It turns out that Clive works here, but has 18 year old twins in Kenya. “I was married to a Kenyan woman who died,” he tells me, “now I’ve got another girlfriend out there. I spend my time between here and there.” He has a travelling spirit.  “Somehow  you being here, reminds me of that travelling spirit,” he says. I know what he means. That freedom we all feel when away from the daily grind. And the way that freedom allows you talk to different people, all sorts of people, in a much open, less culturally restricted way.

Exactly. Clive is chuffed. Me too.

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17 Comments

Filed under Walks

17 responses to “WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I SAT UNDERNEATH A SIGN SAYING ‘TALK TO ME’

  1. Nice post, and a great idea. It must have taken a lot of courage. I assumed that you would get Christians and “oddballs” talking to you, just from seeing the pictures! I would definitely have taken the time to speak to you, and I would have appreciated the “license” to talk about my passion. (I am both a Christian and an oddball!)

    I realise your post is not about Christianity, but more about human vulnerability, the profound value of communication, and questioning our cultural experiences. But I’d like to share what your post made me think about, if you allow!

    Christians tend to struggle with the fact that they are excited about the gospel of Jesus, but they often don’t know how to communicate it to others. Fear of being misunderstood, and social conventions about physical, emotional and intellectual space: this often impedes us from sharing about it. Many street preachers tend to have a personality that thrives on conflict: an aggressive exterior that serves to protect them from significant abuse. Sadly, the aggression often masks the genuine love and concern that is at the heart of the gospel message.

    I’d love to find a role where I was allowed, and expected, to talk about Jesus. It’s not easy to communicate it, even with someone’s permission! I think that what is unique about that is the fact that the gospel is “good news”: it’s a specific kind of information: Christians believe it is about something that happened in history, and has implications that are hugely significant for every human being. It’s news that asks a person to radically re-assess their worldview, news that demands a response…many people will not be happy to engage with that kind of thing. Perhaps you already feel I’m preaching or proselytizing by saying this!

    Therefore I would suggest that asking someone who is a Christian to talk to you about the gospel, will prove not just interesting, but profoundly challenging as well. Christians are often afraid of making themselves vulnerable by talking about Jesus: it’s a similar feeling to sitting in the street with a sign, I imagine.

    • Duncan Alldridge

      Hmm. This is a REALLY interesting area. I’m a Christian too and this is a recent evolution for me on my spiritual path. I’m just getting used to using this ‘label’. It still makes me a little ‘sick’ because of the labels and barriers to people it throws up and stuff in my teen years I associated with it. It’s always stuck in my mouth. I’m 46 and Jesus is more attractive now; the meek, mild, forgiving, nuturing, feminised and church-ised image that had dominated is now also a rebel, a huge risk-taker, constantly challenging authority, unafraid of showing his emotion, a dramatist and a story-teller. Yes, he is news that demands a response. That’s the challenge. I really connect with how you’re with this and what it throws up for you. But let people be put off! Surely that’s the whole thing about choice. It’s only fear that prevents us from really being where we are with ourselves and the ‘talk to me’ event really throws that up. Christianity is not an easy option or mask behind which we can hide, it is, for me, a channel through which I can say to God ‘I want more of you in my life; I want this RELATIONSHIP!’ It’s saying, ‘I’ve turned away from the best relationship EVER, and I can’t do it on my own. And I’m not going to be afraid of sharing it!’ And that relationship comes through Jesus. Where it falls down on the street (and everywhere) is where Christians come across as being ‘right’. We hate people who think they’re right. I’m right means my mind is closed! I think there’s huge fear in the minds of the audience also, many evangalists are simply just ‘being’; there is no egoic prize for ‘conversion’… And of course we think we’ve heard it all before. But we haven’t. Many of us never confront big questions in our lives because we’re never actually open enough to talk about it. We’re too concerned with ourselves, our own stuff and worries. And we’re so bloody apologetic about our faith. “Oh I’m terribly sorry, I’ve disturbed your day with some good news – hope it doesn’t rock your world too much”. The fact that preachers come across as challenging may be because of all the fear I hold about myself and my relationship with the soul-world; I feel it’s far easier to get on the ‘preachers are challenging and invading my privacy’ bandwagon, than it is to be open to what they are saying. And we can come to Jesus in various ways – I’ve always taken a wide berth of the Glorias in my previous life. What’s fantastic is that ‘talk to me’ is allowing me to see what else is going on with Gloria, without judgement.

  2. Monique

    I really enjoy your blog. I only go to Harlesden to buy hair and hair products, I try to spend as little time there as possible but that post has….has eased my anxieties about Harlesden just a little.

  3. Emma Wallace

    I love what you did. We all live in these worlds where we are so afraid to communicate. I have lived in my house for 12 years. There are people I see everyday, I feel as if I know them but I have never spoken to some of them. How sad that it takes a flood, a royal wedding or something to get people over the ‘stranger danger’ barrier!
    If only we talked to people in our communities more!

  4. Duncan Alldridge

    I love this. I’m interested by the ‘out there’ street-therapist image it throws up. Also, it’s interesting that some of the major encounters seemed to be with semi-evangelistic Harlesdonites and I love the way this article brings them into the real world, as real people and not nutters. I find courage a really admirable quality. A few weeks ago we had a street party in our street. Some people down the end of my street organised this for no reason than just to celebrate the street. Great! There was a toast to the street and photos – live band, bouncy castle, tug of war etc – since then I’ve met more neighbours, found out what they do, been in their houses, and it’s great. I juggled late into the evening with a girl of, say 7, didn’t see her parents, and the evening ended with making a gift of these balls to her. She went home with smiling eyes.

  5. Doe Kan

    To me this is an inspired exploration of the many complex themes of what it is to be human in relationship to your son, your community: Harlsden, and indeed to yourself, which had me laughing out loud one moment, then deeply moved by your courage, curiousity and honesty… and everyone elses. It is beautifully written, photographed and injected with the unique personality of you, Rose. Thank you for taking us on the road with you! It’s been fantastic to experience!!

  6. I did something similar in Harlesden about twenty years ago … but I was horizontal on the pavement outside the Mean Fiddler at 2 a.m. Quite a few people talked to me, and some even offered me food … I miss Harlesden Gardens …

  7. Rose, you’re my Blog of the Month … simply for taking me back to Harlesden … I have many fond memories of the place …

  8. Rose, I’m now in Manchester, and there’s no chance that I will return to London, but if I had to, I’d stay in Harlesden, or West Kensal Village as I saw it described by one estate agent … or maybe Kilburn … I used to walk between the two late at night … sheer madness, now I look back on it … your blog shines a little spotlight on a rather colourful part of north London, and for that you are to be congratulated …

  9. Gill

    This must have taken a lot of courage but so worth it. All the way through reading I was thinking, “Would I go up to Rose or would I just walk by and smile?” I definitely would have smiled and hopefully curiosity would have got me talking to you. But what’s more important is the picture you paint of Harlesden – a place of ready smiles. I was particularly heartened by the comments from the police that Harlesden is no more crime ridden than any other place in London, which is what I had always felt, but it’s good to have that confirmed. Was it your son took the pictures? Compliments to him. What a great idea! And a really interesting, well written read. What’s next?

    • Hi Gill Thanks for your support and comments. I’ve got a few things in mind for next, including dancing Willesden Junction in a spontaneous way with some fellow dancers in September!

  10. I’ve always thought Willesden Junction would make an excellent space for free interpretive dance … good luck with that one, Rose … how about a dance at every station between Willesden Junction and Richmond … that East London line one of my favourite London rail journeys …

  11. I would love to join you for the dancing. And I saw that first photo and thought, oh, wow, how Wonderful!

  12. caroline hunt

    Ah I loved reading this,so vivid and interesting.

  13. Rosella Taylor

    I grew up in Harlesden and still consider it my home. Since leaving ice never found the community spirit again, all the people I went to school with have moved away, it’s a real shame, I’m trying to find an excuse to visit again, just to see what’s changed and if anything is the same.

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