Tag Archives: Religion

THE MAN WHO MAKES ART AND CUTS HAIR

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Frankly, I love the combination. Faisal Abdu’allah – formerly Paul Duffus – is an artist and a barber. Faisal is the grooviest barber’s in Harlesden (the cutters wear red and white checked shirts) – boxer, James De Gale and rapper, Gappy Ranks are regulars, it’s always full – and its eponymous owner, Faisal is doing really well as an artist internationally. His work (photographs, screen prints, film installations) fills three floors of a super dooper new museum, Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno in Gran Canaria at the moment, he’s also a visiting professor at Stanford University as well as a lecturer at East London University.

This man is a dude, if one can still say that. Today, he cuts a dapper figure with his spotted cravat and low key swagger. And is full of art tales, Harlesden tales and Louis Farrakhan tales. The barber’s shop –  white modernity prevails – is on the High Street near Willesden Junction and he has a work/gallery space downstairs. A local boy, he was born down Tubbs Lane – his Jamaican parents came over in the 60s, his father worked at the Heinz factory in Park Royal – and went to Furness Primary School and what was then, Willesden High School. One of the first things he says to me is – “I think the Capital City Academy is one of the most beautiful buildings in London”. Which makes me want to look at it again.

He starts showing me the brochure from his ‘mid-career’ show in Gran Canaria which is large black and white photographs of people that form a kind of wall of trust, they were taken when he was based at Stanford University for a year. “It’s called 10% of Separation,” he says, “I got a student to choose someone they totally trusted, then took their photograph, and then continued from there. One 23 year old chose his 50 something professor which was moving, then other people had dilemmas about who they would choose. That was all part of it.”

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Faisal has been in a few documentaries, and famously the 2003 docu-soap The Heart Of Harlesden. Docu-soap, there’s a pre-lumping-everything-together-as-a-reality-show kind of term. Someone is following him at present as part of a four barbers from around the world documentary. There was one in 1991 called That Day Changed My Life. That day was when he was a 20 year art old student in Boston. “My parents were Pentecostal Christians and when I was a child, I went to a church (must be the Rebirth Tabanacle) every Sunday down Leghorn Road. I had some surreal experiences there. But when I got to the US, I realised that there were gaps in my consciousness spiritually, politically and culturally. I didn’t know anything about the Harlem Renaissance or Black Power. Someone mentioned Malcolm X and I started reading. Someone mentioned Billie Holliday and I started listening. It was all about discovering my own sense of purpose and also who I was as an artist. I started listening to the radio and I thought I was hearing Martin Luther King, but it was Louis Farrakhan. A couple of weeks later, someone invited to the mosque where Farrakhan was preaching. That was the day that changed my life. The women were all in elegant white, the men all in suits and bow ties and the words were all about empowerment for young African Americans. Somehow it fitted with where I was going. I went every week after that. In fact, they sent a limo and two minders to pick me up. That was because I was English and therefore somehow special. Often people talk about the Nation of Islam as though it’s all about hate, but for me that place was nothing but love.” When he got back, Faisal became a Muslim and changed his name, although he was no longer part of the Nation of Islam. And the documentary followed him around.

As we set off on our walk, I discover Faisal has a wife, three kids and lives these days in North Harrow. Posh now? “Well, I sleep there but my community is in Harlesden, and I go out between here and the West End,” he says. He still cuts hair on Saturdays and says it keeps him real. As we walk down Tubbs Rd to number 52 where his family used to live, he says he remembers it as a friendly neighbourhood with mainly Jamaican and Irish families. He was the ‘wash belly baby’, the last of eight.

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After being inspired by lack of good barbers in Boston to start cutting hair, it was shaving palm trees into the head of his nephew that got him the job at City Barbers which was once down the High St opposite the Job Centre. “They saw him on the street and asked him where he’d had his hair cut, then they employed me for six years. That took me right through Central St Martins and the Royal School of Art, it paid for my materials. It was great, it was also bringing together of two worlds together that don’t usually meet. And cutting hair informs my work. The stories of the people I cut often become my work. At Stanford, there was exhibition of my photographs which showed the complexity of the Black British identity and I was invited to do a barber shop performance where I cut hair and they totally got it.” He even met his wife at City Barbers!

We start talking about invisible Harlesden – in that Faisal wants to find archive photos of his shop from the past. “I know it used to be a record shop at one time,” he says, “but I want to find out more.”

As we’re walking past the shops that admittedly look pretty bad generally, ie facades, general cleanliness, and arrangement of contents – I discover that Faisal has distinct potential as Harlesden’s own Mary Portas. He has opinions about the place and how it could be. He suggests dressing spaces, in fact,  a Harlesden shop makeover event. Which is a great idea. And that the shops could do with having a visit from ‘the style police’! “Brent council need to do a clean up here, look at the pavements, they are filthy,” he exclaims, “after all, Harlesden is the gateway to Wembley. Look at these facades, there needs to be a standard set and an aesthetic created. Windows are dirty, interiors are crammed with items and there’s not enough light. I know when I did the interior of Faisal, I had the first plasma TV and all the other barbers stepped up their game. Look at that shop over there, it could be a sculpture by Sue Noble and Tim Webster.”

We pass the Jam Down Bakery and Faisal has nothing but praise for their meat loaf, patties and coco bread.  I mention that I’m soon off to Trinidad where my friend, novelist, Monique Roffey’s family live. “I know Chris Offili really well,” he says of the infamous- for-using-elephant-dung    artist who now lives in Trinidad, “we were at the Royal College of Art together.”

For Faisal walking the High Street is like going back in time. “I remember this shop being a toy shop,” he says near JJ’s wine bar, “my family could never afford for me to have anything, so I did a lot of looking. I make a point of taking my own children to toy shops and letting them have what they want. I talked about my lack of toys when I opened my show recently in Gran Canaria and how it affected me. But the most important thing is sanity, and for that we have to keep our values. That means not getting distracted by the ‘success’ of peers.”

On the corner of St Mary’s Road and Craven Park Road is a new block of flats. Underneath – I’ve been told there’s squat. We arrive and there are strange curtains up at the windows but also a sign pronouncing The Citadel so we assume that the owners have agreed for this American church (I look it up afterwards) to rent it. In my mind, I’d been imagining an Occupy Harlesden, but sadly that is not the case.

Walking back, Faisal talks about the influence the Pentecostal church had on him as a child. “For years, their prophecies that the end of the world was nigh, plagued me, I was really affected by that and scared,” he says. “It also influenced my work. It’s a very one dimensional way of interpreting the world and trying to scare you into being ‘good’. I did a photographic installation called Heads of State which was photos of bodies in a morgue. At the period at the end of the 90s and beginning of 2000s, I was losing a lot of clients. They were being shot. I used one suit six times to go to funerals and then I threw it away because I decided it was bad luck.”

Does he think the situation is better now? “I think the people involved in drugs and crime are wising up,” he says, “they’re not driving flash cars and they’re not killing people that owe them money, because they’ve realised if they’re dead, they’re definitely not going to get their money back.”

At the moment, Faisal is photographing potential Team GB Olympian, triple jumper, Nadia Williams in training. “She has to jump another 36 cm to qualify so that’s what it’s called,” he says. “That’s over in Hackney and sponsored by an investment bank. I would have loved to do something in Brent.”

Brent – are you listening?

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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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SPARKLY BRAS, UNEXPECTED COCKROACHES AND BRAZILIANS.


Thank goodness for 21 year old, Julia Divine! Yes, Divine. Name of names. A Brazilian – her sumptuous, kind-looking mother, Victory Divine, recently opened an eponymous vintage and seamstress atelier in Park Parade – at last, who is willing to walk with me. A rare breed indeed. I’ve been trying for a few weeks. Emails, trips to local shops. To no avail. I went down Station Road – Harlesden’s little Brazil – and asked in shops like Planete Brazil. They turned up their noses. Seemingly, weary, disinterested at the suggestion. I was a little disappointed.

Until I found the lively, deliciously opinionated Julia. I’d found her amidst the pink feather boas and glittery jumpers in her mum’s shop. And now we are walking. “We came over from Brasilia in 2006,” she explains, “my mum is actually a pastor and she came with the church. My dad is a prosthetic dentist but they split up a long time ago. I was 16 when I came here and went to the Capital City Academy. It was a complete waste of time. The teaching was really bad and they made me feel different.”

Although Julia used to live here, she’s moved in with her fiance – who has a wonderfully strange name that I sadly can’t mention because post-walk they both have an attack of the privacy virus, but he explains later that his parents were hippies and it’s Anglo-Saxon as an explanation – in Acton. She met him through a friend who went to Cardinal Hinsley. The Catholic boys’ secondary school near me, that has now been re-named Newman Catholic College. “We’re getting married in June,” she says with sudden animation, “at St Lukes in Queens Park where my mum is a pastor. It’s an evangelical Christian church.”

By this time, we’ve walked down Station Road as far as the Amber Grill. Formerly the Willesden Junction Hotel – built in Victorian times for travellers who arrived by train and was probably rather grand, its original painted letters are still at the top of the building – it became a very tatty pub but is is now a Brazilian restaurant. To be honest, I’ve never seen anyone much in there and had relegated it to my no interest mindfile. But Julia is an unexpected fan.

“They do traditional rodizio,” she says, “where waiters bring you slices of slow-cooked grilled meat to taste at your table. I really like it here.”

The strangest discovery is that a pastor – they are popping up everywhere – co-runs it and that it is linked financially to the International House of Prayer next door. Another evangelical Christian church. I’m having a run of them too. The waitress is Brazilian and a member of this church. “I’m studying English,” she says, “and I live upstairs with my husband.”

The conversation turns to the defining qualities of a Brazilian. Physically. “I’m half-Italian,” she continues, “like many Brazilians, but there are so many different types of us. You can’t generalise.”

“There’s a waiter here who is half Chinese and half Brazilian,” says Julia confirming the Brazilian melting pot identity, “and we also have more Japanese outside Japan than any other country.”

Next we pop into the Associacao Portuguesa which helps Portuguese speakers with benefits, jobs and legal advice. “There are 30,000 Brazilians in Brent,” says Edmar, a PHD student who is volunteering here, “a lot came to learn English in the 90s, but US is the first port of call. It was difficult to get in after Sept 11th so they applied to the UK again.”

Julia seems to have sneaked off but re-appears again with a young man in a high visibility jacket.

It’s her darling *****, 25, who used to be a DJ and a radio presenter but lately has gone sensible and got a job over the road as a bus mechanic with First Direct. “I usually work from 4 am til 12 30,” he says, “but since Julia is with you, I’m doing overtime.” Saving up for the wedding? “I am,” he grins contentedly, a young man who knows he’s lucky, lucky, lucky in love. They’ve already bought the dress on Ebay. It’s a size 6. After all if it doesn’t fit, Julia’s mother is a seamstress.

Julia hasn’t got a job at the moment. But she does have a voracious interest in criminal law. She is also ambitious. The Capital Academy has fortunately failed to drain her of that. “I’ve just applied for a job translating Portuguese legal documents,” she says.

She looks cute but goodness, she is sparky too. Sabor Mineiro is a little Brazilian cafe on the corner of Tubbs Lane. My friend, writer, Monique Roffey loved going there when she lived up the road. But Julia disapproves. “Their food is not seasoned properly, it’s not good,” she says authoratively. That doesn’t stop her giving me a quick tour of the mostly deep fried specialities from coxinha which have shredded chicken and cheese in dough, to pasteles which have minced beef inside a pastry envelope, to kibes which are a bit like falafel.

We cross over to Planete Brazil – the bikini and handbag shop which has also turned into a hairdressers. Bizarrely, the receptionist at the hairdressers, is still diffident. Just like last time. Even with Julia in tow. She says she doesn’t have time to speak. They have one customer. Mind you, he does look like a rotund version of one half of Jedward and has opted for a neo-mohican in a deep red.

Have I mentioned the flat screen TVs? Everywhere. They scream shininess. As in big new shine. How important new is to the newcomer. And their soap habit. “They’ve all got Sky,” says Julia pragmatically, “they get all the soaps on the Brazilian channel, Record.”


The butcher and mini-supermarket owner next door is much more friendly. He’s been here for 9 years and has 5 businesses. “I’m from a central state called Minusgerais,” he says, “and I always hang my Easter Eggs from the ceiling like that, it’s tradition just like they do in Brazil.”

And then we have an unexpected bit of information from Julia. “Look pest control,” she points out as we pass First Direct and her now invisible beloved. “Did you know number 18 buses are full of cockroaches?”

To be honest, I had no idea. “They like the back seat near the engine,” she says with the benefit of insider’s knowledge, “they always find loads there.”


After that brief but significant cockroach moment, we go into William Wallace. Another hairdressers, this time dominated by black and red, and thankfully, warmth. Down a corridor at the back, and we discover Brazilian Lingerie. It is truly secreted away. Patrizia, the mistress of the lingerie, gives me a tour of her sparkling bra-bedecked hangers. “The difference is that Brazilians wear bras like this,” she pulls out a verdant glossy one with diamante straps, “every day. It’s not special to us, it’s what we wear. Whereas in the UK, you’d probably wear it to a club. Also Europeans hide everything, we like a nice cleavage.”

Patrizia has been here 10 years. She came to learn English and ended up meeting her husband and having a child. “My great grandfather was Portuguese but I’m not Portuguese, I’m totally Brazilian,” she says her six inch wedges confirming it.

Our final destination is Kero Coffee, a cafe on the left past the Post Office. Here we find Limarie – a Brazilian with one set of French grandparents – who is full of beans and positively verbose in comparision to some of her compatriots down the road. She points out one of her customers who “is Moroccan but tells everyone he’s Brazilian because he wants to be Brazilian so much.” She knows her characters.

Limarie tells us a little bit of her story. “My Native Indian grandma was really pretty and my Spanish grandfather chose her, then raped her. She never forgave the Spanish, she wouldn’t let us get Spanish passports. But in Brazil, we’re not racist, it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is. And we don’t use skin whitener, we’d rather be dark.”

Limarie has one of those big, generous hearts. She has a 7 year old son, a 9 year daughter and an Italian husband. “My daughter gets bullied at school because her hair is curly and different. Those curls are so gorgeous and it makes me very sad that she is treated like that here.”

However, the next instant she look over at Julia – divine as ever – and pronounces that she reminds her of a celebrated Brazilian actress but she can’t recall the name. “Well, people do say I’m like a Brazilian Angelina Jolie,” pipes up Ms Divine. Stellar as well, it seems…

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MOTHER’S DAY WITH THE SALVATION ARMY

Everything I knew about the Salvation Army could be summed up by – fire and brimstone speeches involving multiple mentions of damnation, novelist, Jeanette Winterson’s strange upbringing, lots of brass instruments, and my friend, Caralinda Booth, now an A & R woman in Bejing, but also the great, great granddaughter of William Booth, its founder. In 1865, I read later. They are also evangelical Christians. There is a large building in Manor Road that proclaims Salvation Army from the outside in big, bold letters, with a brown and white cross to back it up. I’d been meaning to get in touch with them. Somehow, I’d imagined a shabby interior with heaps of second hand clothes ready for the homeless.

So I was genuinely surprised to discover a huge, fairly freshly painted hall/place of worship – in fact, it’s been there since 1903 when there were well over a hundred Harlesden residents at services with a full band on the stage – a very modern screen showing a baby for Mother’s Day and a mixed congregation of about twenty people. Mind you, the original crest declaring more lustily Blood and Fire is still there. And copies of their old-time newspaper, War Cry, are also available.

“Where are the officers?” pipes up one evidently regular member. A ripple of laughter wings its way around the attendees. And territorial envoys – yes, a fascinating title, which makes them sound like they have arrived temporarily from an alien planet and maybe they have – Mark and Julia Cozens appear. To cheers. Another shock is their lack of uniform, well, I should say the casualness of their apparent uniform. They are attired in dress down black trousers, navy blue sports shirts with a up-to-datish red shield Salvation Army logo and black shoes, their navy fleeces are on the backs of their chairs. They look as though they are about to facilitate a social workers’ meeting. Which turns out to be an apt impression.

There are more formal uniforms –  navy, lots of badges, with mini bowler hats – but they are in the congregation. ‘Soldiers’ – I find out later are members who commit to the S A core belief system including no alcohol, no smoking, and no gambling, – are allowed to buy themselves uniforms. The flags, the colours, the uniforms, the ethos – they all remind me of the girl guides. Yes, there’s definitely the same do-gooding spirit. Just this seems like a lot more fun.

Julia takes to the lo-fi pulpit (there are several kerfuffles around sharing a mini-mic) which really is in the midst of the people. There is the Mother’s Day introduction, and then Mark on the piano. Absolutely no pomp and ceremony, not to mention sacraments. This is very much employing the love of God as a community reassurance and inspiration. I’m an agnostic but I can appreciate these sentiments.

Psalm 139, thanks to the mothers, and those who act as mothers for instance, foster mothers, then Mark encourages everyone to dance as they sing. There’s clapping and swaying and giggles. And lovely inclusiveness. Jasmin, is invited to read a poem she found on the internet about mothers, there’s a history of Mother’s Day ( apparently it goes back to Isis days, but Christians typically  appropriated it for the fourth Sunday of Lenten and by the 1600s, it was a day when servants and tradespeople could visit their families) and a lot of little jokes.

Natasha, a British Asian woman, has her husband and her baby son, Adam with her. It’s his first birthday today. We sing Happy Birthday. Where else do you have birthday singing in the middle of a service? Natasha tells us how she was a successful career woman who never even considered having a child. And now, she prefers to stay at home with him rather than go out to work. There are wild whoops.

However, my astonishment rises to its zenith at the next section. Mark actually introduces a Mother and Daughter Quiz using the screen on the wall. I’m thrown into a publand state of altered reality. Princess Grace of Monaco and Stephanie, Judy Garland and Lizzie Minelli and many more are all part of this compelling challenge. All I can say, is thank goodness I am here. Because no-one else recognises Peaches Geldof. Frankly, we could be in the Misty Moon next door and I think that’s the point.

We’re even invited to talk about our own mothers. As you can tell, I’m being swept along on this  wave of participation. And I find myself describing a fish n’chip meal, my mother and I shared  recently up in the market town of Otley(we were both born there). The haddock was so fresh, the batter so light, it’s a Yorkshire thing. We were both in bliss. And that is very much what my mum has taught me. How to derive contentment from the simplest of activities.

A young woman – she must be in her 20s – called Fui stands up to talk about her mother. She’s from New Zealand (like many here, her family are all Salvation Army members) and her roots are Samoan. “I have an extraordinary mum,” she says softly but proudly, “she’s very giving, and she also worked her way up from being a cleaner to being the vice president of the most successful cleaning company in New Zealand. I find her inspiring.”

A daffodil moment follows. “If you are here with your mum,” says Julia, “take a bunch of daffodils and give them to her, and give her a kiss too.” These territorial envoys have been out shopping for mother’s delight.

“There’s one son being very quiet,”mentions Mark and he’s talking about their 17 year old son, Luke who is himself a ‘soldier’ based at the Regent Street Salvation Army.  He’s sneaked out but comes back and makes his way forward to hug his mum.

Informality with a capital I. That’s what impresses and surprises me most about this service. I’d imagined something musty with a large helping of ‘you will die in hell if you step on a crack in the pavement’, and what I found is so much more compassionate and friendly.

There is a moment of prayer led by Mark. He asks us to think about our mothers, those who have cared for us, and extends his invitation to all of those who love and care for children including doctors and nurses and gives us the opportunity to say ‘thank you’. I find it useful to have a little time to reflect in this way. About others.

He reads from the Old Testament, and there’s a “Is that a new bible, you’ve got?”. It’s Carol again, she is a regular who is a bit of a joker. I love these interruptions and the way they are so naturally threaded into the more reverent. This bit of the Bible talks about treating others as though they are your family. Mark quotes a sticker – this is making the Old Testament relevant time – he saw on a bus. ‘Treat  cyclists as if they are your granny.’ Exactly, that’s Mark’s view too. He wants us to know that there would be no trouble in world, if that simple message was adhered to. He’s not afraid to mention the difficulties involved either. “It’s not always easy to love our family,” he says, “but ask God and he will give us the compassion we need. When you meet someone whether a shop keeper or a bank assistant, treat them as a family member and see what a difference it makes.” We end on a song – ‘Let there be love shared around us’.

I find myself smiling despite the potential dreaded sentimentality, and asking Joyce, the 80 year old (OK, I have to admit the majority of the  congregation are over 50), Joyce what had made her decide to attend the Salvation Army services. “My family is Methodist,” she says, “and this was the nearest thing I could find. I would describe it as very comfortable as a place of worship. I come to their luncheon club as well.”

The Salvation Army is the polar opposite to high church, they started up to help the alcoholics and homeless in Bethnal Green and their key words were soup, soap and salvation. They don’t do the sacraments like baptism and holy communion, they focus on the message rather than the rituals of Christianity.

Tea and cakes follow. Someone even saves me a piece of Adam’s first birthday cake. People chat. I ask 64 year old Jean who is a soldier (ie more committed than Joy who is an adherent) how she got involved. “I was brought up in Paddington,” she says,“and the Salvation Army ran the nearest Sunday School. It was the Good Will section and there were a lot of slums in that area at that time. I started helping out and have carried on. I also play the cornet.”

Ah yes, the cornets, back to them in a moment. Jean starts talking to me about the symbols in the SA flag, and Leeroy Simpson, chair of Harlesden Town Team 2010 (in charge of all sorts of action from cleaning up Station Road to Willesden Junction), who has a certain swagger about him, happens to be standing nearby. “The blue is for the purity of God, the yellow is for the Holy Spirit and the red is the blood of Christ,” says Jean quietly. “That’s almost the same as the Jamaican flag,” counters Leeroy noisily,“black is for our skin, gold is for the riches to be found there, and red is for the blood spilled by our people and green is for the lushness of the landscape.”

Mark very kindly shows me a sepia photo of the Harlesden Salvation Band in 1934 – with their trumpets, trombones, cornets in this very hall  – and leads me to a back room where there is a lot of brass ‘umpahing’ going on. Not to mention squeaks and groans. It’s cornet practice taken by David whose family has also been in the Salvation Army for years. “At the turn of the century, it would have been all the local business people who were members here,” he says.

“Julia and I like to make everyone in the service feel at home. For us, the content is all about what we call the Kingdom lifestyle,” says Mark,” we want to talk about God’s kingdom as  it is in our daily life. It’s all about our relationships with each other. That’s why I mentioned treating everyone as if they were a member of our family, and related it to the cyclist and granny poster.”

What does evangelical Christianity really mean, I wonder? Evangelical comes from Greek which translates as bringing good news. I’d always thought it meant that they are ardent proselytizers, in other words, their propensity to stand on street corners proclaiming that we would all go to hell if we did not repent and join them. But my impression is anachronistic if this service is anything to go by. “Living out the core beliefs and sharing them by example,”says Mark as his explanation of the modern ethos. He also mentions that this approach is post-modern in that the realists in the Salvation Army have to take on board the dwindling congregations and develop new ways of telling their story.

Ah ha, it seems these particular territorial envoys are not from alien planet after all.

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THE SEX TOUR (WELL, A WALK WITH A TANTRIC GODDESS)

Not enough sex on these walks, I decided. I’ll have to invite the leonine and totally outrageous, Kavida Rei along. Kavida – who organises monthly sensual soirees in Convent Garden and has written books on tantric massage and sex – describes herself on her website as a Tantric Goddess. Are you getting the picture? Yep, she’s a force of nature. Her latest blog features her own long sought after, and recently achieved ejaculation.

The day before we meet, I sent her an email asking her to dress discreetly because we were going to visit a religious establishment. I didn’t want to reveal where we were going. “Be direct darling,” she replied, “do you mean I have to wear underwear?”

“I don’t care about your underwear,” I shot back, “but no shorts, probably a below the knee skirt and bring a wrap around.”

“I’m getting my Amish look together,” she said. I told her I was very much looking forward to seeing her attire.

And so I’m waiting for her one sunny Wednesday afternoon at the top of the stone steps at the Harrow Road end of Willesden Junction. I look across and see that my favourite strange railway building – the metal building on the stilts which looks like it has travelled here from Bangladesh or somewhere else where the amount of water forces the architecture – is immersed now in sycamore leaves. Almost hidden.

Before I get to hum ‘You’re so sexy”, there she is sunglasses, muted colours, mad hair, big smile. But hold on. Whoops, up goes the skirt, and the naughty Ms Rei is posing at the bottom of the steps demonstrating her lack of knicker-wearing! Willesden Junction may not recover. Sadly, there are no train-spotters around to share this unusual moment.

Our Tantric – it really (as opposed to the reductive media Sting version) is a Hindu philosophy, which says you can find sensual and spiritual delight in everything from breathing to dancing to putting out the rubbish – Queen is from rural Hertfordshire and Harlesden is a bit of a shock to her system. “I don’t recognise this produce,” she says as we pass bowls of little green chillies outside one of the many High Street butchers and grocers combined.

Her own neighbours, she insists, are completely au fait and comfortable with her activities. In other words, one week she is collecting one of her sons from school (he is 16, the other is 20 and studying History of Art) in appropriately low-key school-run clothes and the next week when her son is with his father, she might be going out with her new partner sporting full-on PVC fetish wear.

“Oh, the hair shops are fantastic,” she shrieks as we peer into one of the amazing emporiums of hair. “I needed one of those when I dressed up as Cher recently.”

I know Kavida will love my favourite shop – as you know by now – Wrights, that marvellous mixture of photographic equipment and lingerie. And especially the sexy tights and stockings. In fact, I bought some brilliant black stockings with beautiful ties all the way up the back for our mutual friend, Jake (another, tantrica, Jacqueline that I met at an International Tantra festival in Catalonia but that’s another story) on her hen weekend.

“That’s so cheap,” exclaims Kavida pointing at a black basque with red ribbons. “In Coco de Mer, it would cost a fortune.” I point out the Nueva Donna nurse’s outfit, but she says her partner, Roland would go for the policewoman’s costume.. Especially the handcuffs. They’re both into the dark side of tantra as well as the light. “We love BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sado-Masochism),” she laughs proudly, “we often sort out our differences by doing some sub and dom role play. It’s about surrender. You receive more, the more you let go. There’s no space for the mind to sabotage you and so you really can reach an altered state. I’m very passionate about it because it is very healing for both men and women. But we also like the theatricality of dressing up. We had fun shopping at Sh, the sex shop for women, they’ve got a great dressing room which is quite private downstairs and Roland would test out the outfits with me. I bought a great waitress’ uniform with apron and cap. But Ro has got a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. They all add to the fun.”

One of Kavida’s many activities is offering sex therapy and tantric healing. As I stand outside Wright’s dazzling display, I wonder how she feels about tantric massages being offered in such a prolific and tawdry way everywhere? If you look in the back of Time Out, every masseuse is selling supposedly tantric massage experiences. Does she get pissed off? “Oh yes, “ she snorts more like a horse than a lioness at this point, “they all think wafting a few rose petals around and a feather is giving a tantric massage. It’s ridiculous. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A healing tantric massage is really about creating an intimate space between you and allowing vulnerability. The tears are the healing, as well as the orgasm.”

At this very moment, Lloyd (not his real name because he’s married), the muscle-bound and very sexy 40 something that goes to my local gym and is wont to turn up on my doorstep occasionally expecting a sexual greeting. He hasn’t had one so far. But what synchronicity that he should appear in the middle of Harlesden High St just as the conversation is turning to sexual healing. All in red, he looks hot today. I wave. He won’t have a clue what we’re discussing which is probably quite fortunate.

Inside the shop, Kavida makes a beeline for the tights. I find myself talking to Sonia Uttam who came over from Kenya  – her family is originally from East India – thirty five years ago. She’s a gorgeous 60something. “The Irish used to buy so much from us,” she says confirming my previous theory about this being a quintessentially Irish shop. “But the Somalians and Afghanis don’t buy so much. The Polish do though. And the Portuguese and Jamaicans. “

Meanwhile Kavida is striding over to Ben Uttam – who came originally from Mumbai – and asking him if he tells his wife she is beautiful. “I tell her that marrying her was the best decision I ever made,” he says. There’s a communal ‘ah’ from us two at the longevity of their love. At which Sonia strolls over and insists that they have a photo taken together. But Kavida is still not quite satisfied. “I hope you’re still enjoying yourselves sexually,” she interjects cheekily. Ben is unfazed.

“I still get excited when I see her bare thighs,” he says ever so sweetly. Tantric Goddess and I have tears in our eyes at this moment. We have found that rare jewel of lasting, sexy love in the lingerie shop. Oh, it’s one of those rare touching moments.

But Tantric Goddess is unstoppable in her shopping. Now it’s a flame-coloured thong. “Because normally I don’t wear underwear,” she explains, “Roland gets excited when I do.” As we leave, Ben rushes up to Kavida with a present for being such a good customer. It’s a pair of pink furry handcuffs. He doesn’t realise what a perfect present this is.

Spotting the Shawl across the road, Kavida suggests we share a Guinness. To a pub at 3pm! Both of us profess we hardly ever go to pubs these days. This one is half-full of  Irish gentlemen nursing pints. She’s just telling me proudly about her 20 year old son being in New York at the moment as a DJ, when the Guinness brings on sex memory. In typical Kavida style.

“I had sex with this bloke in a synagogue in New Orleans,” she says, “in front of the  Torah ark which is considered the most holy place. I consider sex to be the holiest of holy activities so for me, it was entirely appropriate.”  Kavida is Jewish and obviously has a history of fruity rebellion. “There was a time when I loved having sex in churches,” she giggles, “I loved pulpits. In fact, if boyfriends wouldn’t shag in a church, they were out.”

Walking down Craven Park Road afterwards she just telling me about an idyllic naturist island off the South of France, when Starlight Records catches our attention. “It’s such an old fashioned record shop,” she says enthusiastically because she’s also a singer/songwriter, “with great reggae vinyl.”

The owner ‘Popsy’  -a white-bearded, gentle-looking Jamaican; there are three similar men in this parade of shops, there’s JJ at the wine bar and jerk chicken shop, and George at the cool clothes shop, Avant Garde next door – is chilling out with a cigarette and his two huge dogs are lying next to him. It’s like going back in time. And place. He tells us he’s been here for thirty years.

But can he survive? There are very few record shops left. “Our main distributor went out of business last year which was down the road, now I have to get records from New York,” he says managing to emanate total chilled ‘outness’. “I am thinking of dividing up the shop and having an internet provision here too.” Hawkeye Records over the road have done something similar, now they’ve got a bakery and take away as well as records.

“I feel as though I’m holiday in Harlesden,” says Kavida. She admits that Roland had told her she was wearing too much jewellery for Harlesden so she’d taken some pieces off. But now she’s seeing an unexpected side to our NW10 neighbourhood.

I’ve got another surprise in store for her. I can tell she’s thinking where on earth are we going? But she’s being bubbly to cover her doubt. The route – Craven Park Rd, then right before Hillside down Brentfield Road – is urban desolate. So I ask her how she’s changed since she’s been – 18 months – with Roland, to distract her from the concrete. “I’m much more feminine,” she says, “because he is so in his masculine energy. He is very sensitive but he still takes charge in that male way. That has meant I can be softer.”

Eventually, I’m able to stop her talking for a second and direct her attention to the left. There it is – the magnificent Neasden Hindu Temple. It really is an amazing sight. So unexpectedly decorative in this industrial landscape. Kavida is ecstatic. She hadn’t guessed that this was the religious establishment that we were visiting. “It’s the perfect heart-centred place to take a tantric goddess to,” she exclaims.

We’re lucky, we’ve arrived at one of the prayer times when the sacred shrines are open. Ironically, it’s me who is handed pieces of material to cover my legs and arms. We’re directed outside once we’ve removed our shoes. The craftsmanship – 2,820 tons of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tons of Italian Carrara marble were sent to India and carved into these ornate pinnacles by over 1,500 artisans and finished in 1995 – is spectacular. We’re drawn to the voluptuous statues of dancing goddesses on the outside of the temple. They are flexing their barely clad bodies in all sorts of joyous, celebratory ways. They are incredibly sensual. “So these goddesses are allowed to be this sexy and undressed,” says Kavida, “and we have to cover up. What’s that all about. Look they’ve even carved their nipples in. No doubt it’s men who are scared of women’s sexuality and ultimately their power, and so want them to  hide their bodies away. It’s not right. That’s so non-tantra.”

We enter the sacred space and a few Indian families are in prayer. One of the men lays prostrate on the floor. They touch the shrine and kiss the hand that touches it in a time-honoured fashion. We stare at Rama and Parvati– the heroic prince and princess from the Ramayana – who are fetchingly bedecked in pink and blue. There’s an atmosphere of spiritual reverence but also a crazy sound of beating in the background.

“There isn’t an S&M party going on behind the scenes,” says Kavida with characteristic irreverence.

I burst out laughing but smother it with my hand. “I think they are feather-dusting the deities,” I say equally ignorantly.

As we walk away our heads back and transfixed by the marble lotus flower ceilings, Kavida tells me about a 25 year old British Asian man she knows. “Often Indian families are so repressed when it comes to sexualty,” she says, “he is a virgin and very shame-filled. But I got him to come to one of our sensual soirees and he ended up kissing someone. He felt ashamed at first, but came back and now has started getting rid of those layers of repression. I’m really happy for him.”

I decide to ask one of the information assistants why we have to cover up when the  goddesses on the temple depict such an overt pleasure in their bodies. “Because we are ordinary people,” he says, “and they are not. They are on another planet so they can do what they want. They have attained that right, we have not.”

Ah yes, they are ‘in heaven’ so they can take their clothes off and act erotically. We mere mortals must wait until we die before we are allowed such unabashed pleasure. “An enticement to death? wonders Kavida.

In the temple shop – truly fabulous tat from sparkly garlands to ayurvedic remedies – we hear a family discussing the stock. “Why have they got an Eiffel tower key ring here?” asks the young father. His wife cannot explain. Neither can we but we can’t help loving the idea of it anyway.

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ON THE TRAIL OF THE BLACK MADONNAS

Ah ha, apparently, there are around five hundred Black Madonnas – a black version of the Virgin Mary, who various scholars suggest is a pre-Christian mother figure with the goddess Isis as an ancestor – scattered around Europe and three of them are in Harlesden and Neasden. The Black Madonna is also said to teach us to embrace our dark and light sides, our negative and positive characteristics. Very much my kind of woman in this case.

But instead of visiting two of these local Black Madonnas – the priest at the Catholic Our Lady of Willesden church in Harlesden is on his day off – I find myself at a shop called All Eyes On Egypt on Park Parade that has been intriguing me for some time. Is it the home of a mysterious cult? I must be following the Isis thread instead.

I’m greeted by the very spirited, Amsu Re who happens to look like Eddie Murphy.

He sparkles and crackles with preacherly zeal, but on the side, I can’t help seeing that he’s a bit of a laugh. “People are robots,” he says in an American accent, “they don’t want to know the truth or talk about the deceptions. This shop is about education.”

A few weeks ago, I saw a poster on the window of the One-Stop Jerk Chicken shop in the High Street, advertising a talk entitled The Angry Vagina, which was taking place here at this shop.  “Oh yeah,” says Amsu Re, ”the author, Queen Afua was over from the US so we launched her book Overcoming The Angry Vagina here.”

Queen Afua advocates natural remedies and the health of the womb. In other words, don’t let the medical world intervene and remove wombs when it’s not necessary. She’s also concerned that young women ‘don’t give themselves away too easily.’ Originally called Helen Robinson, she’s now an African queen. I love the idea of re-appropriating names in this grand re-positioning manner. I want one myself. Maybe not African but more appropriately Celtic. Similarly, Amsu Re was probably born with a name like Colin Walker but has become the vastly more mysterious and kingly, Amsu Re.

Queen Afua – she’s a holistic practitioner who’s worked with Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu – asks a vital question. Is your vagina happy or angry? Or more appositely, is your spouse’s vagina happy or angry?  She also makes suggestions of ways to increase vaginal contentment – to men and women. And watch out, because she has hinted that her next book could be about the Angry Penis.

There are pictures of Bob Marley, natural oils, soaps, posters of black women and men who fought against slavery and for women’s rights, then there are those of sports stars like the magnificent Usain Bolt. All Eyes On Egypt seems to be about inviting black people to become more aware of the richness of their culture. Instead of being in the media as the victim or perpetrator of a killing. A re-education.

Mercifully, Amsu – who tells me he was born in Paddington but later brought up in one of the towers at Stonebridge, “I remember us all playing outside together in an innocent way” before he and his family went to live in the US – has a sense of humour too. “You know why Usain Bolt can run so fast. It’s because Jamaica is where all the rebel slaves went,” he says, “so they had already learnt how to run away from their owners.”

And Egypt is African and the cradle of civilisation. “The word Egypt means those with brown faces, “ he explodes with passion, “and ancient Egypt included North and South America.”

Mmmm, did it? And then, he adds – “Did you know that John Hanson was the first black President of the US in 1781, forget Barack Obama?” he says in an authoritative fashion. There are photographs of this black ‘President’ around the shop but later I check out the facts around this assertion and discover that John Hanson was more probably a white merchant which is what white history recalls, and the black John Hanson was a 19th century senator who promoted the relocating of black people to Liberia. This seems to be a photo of the latter as photos weren’t around until the 1800s.

So truth takes a strange turn at All Eyes On Egypt. I agree with their premise – redress the status of black people in history – but advise caution on some of their wilder shores. Amsu Re despite being charming, committed and fun, has a conspiracy theory edge to him, which is a step too far for me personally. There are books about Jay-Z being a member of the Illuminati, the Moorish Paradigm and much more.

However, it makes me smile to see one of their posters is the pope kneeling in front of – guess who – yes, a Black Madonna in Poland in 1999. “Yeah, you see, even the pope respects the Black Madonna,” he grins.

He also shows me two photos of dignified black women from the early 19th century in the US. “This one is Harriet Tubman,” he says, “and she escaped from slavery but went back to the plantations to rescue another seventy slaves using something called the Underground Railroad which was a system of safe houses. She was an abolitionist and suffragette. The other one is Sojourner Truth who was also a slave who ran away. She was the first black woman to take a white man to court and win the case. She managed to get one of her children back from a slave-owner.”

At home, I read about these incredible women and when the text says “born into slavery” I feel instantly moved by what that actually meant. They were incredible women. And Amsu Re? “I’ve seen a lot of unjust things, “ he says finally, “you can make a choice in life and I try to be a better person.” And I believe him.

There’s a sign above a door saying ‘Hold On To The Rope’. What does it mean? “Stay firm,” he says giving one of his ever-ready smiles, “don’t give up.”

The next morning – yes, this is a walk in two parts – I’m going to find a real Black Madonna. I’m straying a little out of Harlesden into Neasden and is actually the parish of Willesden – to St Mary’s Church.

St Mary’s – C of E but high church, anglo-catholic, as they say – is an unexpected pleasure. I walk down past Roundwood Park – formerly the grounds of Victorian grandee in these parts, George Furness who had a manor house here – but now a wonderful council-run park, and up to Church Road. Over the bypass and next to a big roundabout, I come upon an unexpected vista. Suddenly, the grim urban surroundings melt away, and there is St Mary’s looking as though it is still set in a village. Yes, a village.

A place of worship – there were a series of wooden churches that burnt down – has been here since 938 and it is the ancient shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. Pilgrims came from far and wide to visit ‘The Black Virgin of Willesden’ and the well to which miraculous powers were ascribed. By 1475, it was an unusually popular and drunkenness and gambling were reported. But, in 1538, Thomas Cromwell stripped the church of its carvings and the Black Madonna was burnt in Chelsea.

I push open the heavy fourteenth century door and the scene is pure Vicar of Dibley. It’s 9 30 am on a Saturday and a couple of the ten parishioners welcome me in a very affable manner. Suddenly, the vicar sweeps in and kisses one of the alters on his way. Singing, incense, Hallelujahs and communion all follow. I try to keep up – there’s a delightful mixture of black and white stalwarts. My eye wanders over to a plaque, which commemorates Cyril Verres Davis, the first black churchwarden here from 1985 to 2000.

At the end of the service, the vicar, David Clues shakes my hand. Immediately warm, friendly, witty and urbane – he oozes confidence and obviously adores his job, his congregation and his church. He reminds me of the Cameron/Clegg tribe with a bit of Ben Bradshaw thrown in. And it turns out, that he is also a Lib-Dem counsellor, the only one in this ward to be re-elected.

“Come and have coffee with us,” he says shunting me into a backroom which takes me back in time to the 1960s in an institutional way, it reminds me of my own childhood Yorkshire village church, “you’ll have to be brave, they all like to talk a lot.” He waves me in and like a perversely young father – he’s in his 40s, they’re all older – tells them to be nice to me.

They are. Of course. There’s a lot of bustling going on – staple guns at the ready for programme work – because they are in full preparation for the annual pilgrimage next week. “Oh, it’s great fun,” says local historian, Roger Macklen, who informs me that he started off as low church and has ended up high, “pilgrims come all over the country, there is a procession and balloons.”

There’s a flurry of excitement as I ask about the oldest part of the church, and Steve, an ex-engineer who’s been a member of this church since 1972, leads me to the other end. “Look at this pillar,” he says proudly, “it’s from the 12th century and was discovered in 1872 during some renovation work. You can see this was originally the outer wall before this extension was put on to make the church bigger. In 1800, there were 200 people in Willesden, by 1872, there were 20,000, they needed more space in the church.”

Finally, David stops running around and sits down. He’s a bit of an X factor vicar. He likes the limelight and doesn’t mind admitting it. He’s theatrical in a charming way. “I’d heard about St Mary’s because of its soup kitchen,” he explains, “which was fantastic and happened every night. But last Xmas, we sat down to eight turkeys and there was only one homeless person. Other places had opened up similar provisions so we called it a day. We suffer here geographically, there used to be streets of terraced houses around here but they were all pulled down. Now we’ve got a bypass and a roundabout around us, but not so many people. But we always keep the doors open because I believe we are a valuable place of refuge and solace.”

At last we’ve come to the Black Madonna moment. We step out into the church again and there amidst all the finely carved 19th century sculptures sits the Black Madonna and Child. It is a bold, modern, primitive piece of religious sculpture.  Baby Jesus stands on his mother’s knees with his arms outstretched in a gesture that is surrendered, trusting and welcoming. Funnily enough, it reminds me of the major arcana tarot card, the Sun. In the 19th century Rider Waite pack, a child rides naked on the back of a horse – it is a powerful image, which urges you to trust the universe and not to fear it.

“I’m tremendously proud of our Black Madonna,” says David, “it was commissioned in 1972, and a woman sculptor, Catharni Stern carved it out of lime wood. They were uncertain political times and I think its solidity gives reassurance. Pilgrims do come to visit and also take holy water from the well. It’s very special to us.”

This Black Madonna looks out of place in a good way here. She’s got solid peasant woman limbs in a church that is full of slender figures. No-one knows what the original statue was like – Cromwell had it burnt in 1538 – only that it was in black wood (and some think it was candle soot-blackened) and covered in silver plate. But for hundreds of years, people came to worship her here.

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MIDDLE-AGED WHITE WOMAN OUT AT DAWN

Three walkers today – me, my 23 year old son, Marlon, who’s a filmmaker, and his girlfriend, Tania, who’s also 23 and an animator. They got excited when they heard me talking about my first walk, so they want to come. We leave at 6 am. The sun rises today at 6 58 am.

Why go at this time? To see what’s happening in Harlesden at this time in the morning? Who’s around? What are they up to? Mario, my ex and Marlon’s father, says later. “What you went out before the criminals get up?” It’s teetering on the edge of bad taste, not to mention safari-ism. I can’t help laughing.

It’s still dark, but illuminated. Street lights. The sounds – oh, so loud – are the birds. I think they must be blackbirds and I get irrationally disappointed when I see pigeons later on sitting in a row and making similar sounds. Pigeons – can this be true? Somehow, there’s no romance in a pigeon singing. If a blackbird is Frank Sinatra, then the pigeon is that bloke on X Factor who used to be a dustbin man.  “It reminds me of coming home from nightclubs,” says Tania already seeming to put nightclub in the past tense. Surely not.

I’m surprised at just how many people and cars are around. At the bus stop in Wrottesley Rd, I go up to a woman and ask her where she’s going. She looks alarmed and on the verge of ignoring me. This almost darkness signifies possible ill intent. By me, a middle-aged white woman. This is a new role for me. “I’m a pastry chef,” she says eventually, “ I’m going to Liverpool St.”

I notice how I see differently in this semi-darkness with neon moments. As if my eyes become attuned to the world differently. I see a strange house with a little balcony in Park Parade that I’ve never noticed before. It’s out of keeping with the rest. Is it where a bomb dropped? Further down, the words dollar in red lights circulate round the front of the pawn shop like a poor taste version of the one of the many Tracey Emin look-a-likes that still litter art galleries.

Over the road, Saj’s Supermarket is open but I’m not sure if it’s just opened or has been open all night. I ask one of the young men who is bringing out yams and plantains. “We’re open 24 hours,” he says. A man wearing what looks like a piece of clothe round his waist hurries by. Where are you going? I say to him trying not to be too aggressive. My new pre-dawn etiquette.

“To the mosque,” he says. We guess that he’s Somali. I didn’t realise that there were any mosques here until I spoke to my newsagent, Danny, (he’s anglicised his Pakistani name, Dar) a few weeks ago. He mentioned that he sometimes pops into the mosque on the high street. I couldn’t envisage where it could be. “Shall we follow that man and find out?” says Tania half-jokingly.

A few days ago, Marlon and Tania observed what they thought were Maori women (this is getting a bit far-fetched even for Harlesden) coming out of a boarded up building, Park House, in Manor House Rd.  We go and have a look. There is a tangle of satellite dishes on the second floor and a light at one window. We surmise that someone is squatting there. I wonder who? I’ll have to find out on a different occasion.

“Weren’t you talking about there being a church in the rooms above Iceland?” asks Marlon. I was. I’ve seen a tatty banner declaring its mission. I think Iceland used to be the location for M &S, which was bombed during the Second World War. M&S eventually moved out of Harlesden in the early 80s and they never came back.  The huge rooms above all those frozen burgers and chicken nuggets – get used in eclectic ways.  Ten years ago, there was a club called Dreams, now there’s one called NW10, and a church too. Just recently, I’ve seen a sign for a gym and a karate club go up.

Just round the corner, I can’t help smiling at an unusual sign in a shop window. It announces boldly – Here photos come alive, here legs come to dress – and they do. This is Wrights, the fantastic shop that sells Italian lingerie (Sexy pirate outfits by Donna, not to mention baby doll Santa costumes all year round) and photographic equipment. Oh, it’s such an Irish concept. Except, it’s not Irish. I think the family who own it are from Uganda. But perhaps it’s the powerful influence of  The Shawl nearby, a very Irish pub. I’m recalling the story about Salpetriere Hospital in Paris where a famous neurologist called Jean-Martin Charcot conducted experiments on women suffering from hysteria. At one point they were put in wards near epileptics, and they too started experiencing fits. I’m putting forward a similar theory. The Irish who came over to work here from the 1840s onwards on Willesden Junction, they brought with them the expectancy of their own madly eclectic shops. Not for them the one-dimensional. And lo and behold many years later, Wrights has fulfilled this dream.

As if in harmony with my thoughts, deliveries of Guinness are just arriving at The Shawl. Meanwhile Craven Park Road is heaving with huge lorries carrying waste plastic, and highway maintenance equipment. Unbeknownst to me, this is very much the hour of industrial passage. This secret ritual has obviously been going on for years, as I hunkered down under my duvet.

Suddenly, another man appears in a piece of skirt-like material. We turn off the main road down a back alley. Now, it really is dark for the first time. And quite scary. We could quite easily be in Delhi back street without a map. The buildings are grimy, there are bits of newspaper blowing about and we’re tentatively following this gentleman. Finally, at the end of alleyway, we turn a corner in silence. We’re hiding our anxiety with a blanket of quiet. And there it is. What looks like a garage. There are rows of shoes at the doorway and all we can see are disappearing heads and a row of clocks showing the different times for prayer.

We’ve made our discovery so we scurry back to the main road. A cleaning machine – one with two swirling brushes and an East European man (another guess) in the driving seat – is nudging us off the pavement. Bus stops and cafes are filling up. It’s getting lighter. We realise we’ve missed dawn. The sun rising over Willesden Junction is not our lot today. It’s wet and cloudy and it’s time for us to go back to bed.

Additional information – a few days later, I’m reading the Daily Mail, my excuse is that I’m a journalist – and it mentions that The Likely Lads, incredibly feted 1960s comedy with James Bolam and Rodney Bewes was filmed at Willesden Junction.

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