I first met Sanchita Islam quite a few years back in the lobby of what was then the Whitechapel Library. Arnold Wesker was there too. For a radio programme, I was taking them through the streets just to the north, their East Ends, and looking at the different meanings and memories tied up with the buildings on and around Brick Lane. I wasn't sure they were going to get on. But after a tricky moment early on, they hit it off just fine, and it was one of the more memorable pieces of radio I've pulled off.
Sanchita's style of art is eclectic. This is an oil painting entitled 'Dadu' - the Bengali word for paternal grandmother. I find it wonderfully evocative and affectionate. Sanchita is British of Bangaldeshi heritage, and has taken an unconventional route to being a well known and regarded artist, writer and film-maker. Don't take my word, here's her own account:
'Her path towards becoming an artist has been an unconventional one.
A former model, a former Miss Bengali beauty queen, a double graduate from the
London School of Economics, the recipient of a Channel 4 bursary to attend Film
School, and a Chelsea School of art school drop out, her education has been eclectic
to say the least. She has always been somewhat of a maverick, eschewing the gallery
system, Sanchita set up her own Pigment Explosion Gallery, off Brick Lane, in 1999,
engaging in international art projects and showing her work in both galleries and
unconventional spaces in London and abroad.'
You can find out more here about pigmentexplosion - and in March, she's going to have a mid-career retrospective entitled 'The Rebel Within'. It will be at Rich Mix on Bethnal Green Road. Thanks to Sanchita for allowing me to post these images of her art - and see you there!
LATER- Sanchita Islam comments: The painting of Dadu is based on a very poor quality digital photo I took of my step-grandmother in Barisal Bangladesh. The bed on which she sits, where we see her absorbed in the Koran, was as hard as wood, but she didn't seem to mind. The house is over one hundred years old - relatively untouched with its crumbling, cracked walls - and very charming. I am a great admirer of Vermeer, his use of light and the elevation of the ordinary folk into something monumental. I was trying to create a modern day Vermeer in a Bangladeshi setting, a subject we see rarely in contemporary modern art. I'm not saying I am anyway near Vermeer, but that was my point of reference and inspiration.
The other piece is the beginning of a 30-foot scroll of the panoramic view of East London executed from the top of Shoreditch House, which I completed during my residency there. I've been drawing the East End of London from rooftops for many years and am constantly fascinated by the rapid state of change of urban landscapes. The view was quite dramatically different by the time of completion with the fat concrete arm of the new train line brutally obscuring everything in its path. The landscape has altered irrevocably as a result.
I have just bought, for the modest outlay of £5, a copy of the 'Indian Front News Bulletin' for March 1934. It is, as far as I can tell, the newsletter of Indian Communist students in London.
It's duplicated, in much the fashion of the student literature I helped to produce about forty years later. But what really caught my attention is that it contains an article on Kashmir - not an issue which captured a great deal of progressive attention at this time.
Indeed, on the back is a cartoon (not very good, but still), which addresses the aggressive nature of British imperialism across the sub-continent, including in Kashmir.
A large part of the concern about Kashmir - this was 1934 after all - was the implications of British policy there for the Soviet Union to the north. There is also a suggestion that the British had inflamed communal tensions in Kashmir (by pressing the Maharajah to redress Muslim grievances) for their own strategic purposes.
The article argues - and this is certainly unchallengeable: 'The truth is that the people of Kashmir are exceedingly poor and that they have been cruelly exploited'. It's a well written and well argued piece - as you can see for yourself:
Two successive spellbindingly beautiful sunny, wintery Sundays. Last weekend, I climbed the 'great hill' from Willesden to Archway (see the previous blog entry). This Sunday, I stayed closer to home - I guess the last bike ride of the year, through and around the Heath. The autumn colours are now fading, but there are enough ochres and mustards around catching the dazzling low sun to excite even the most faded eye.
Walking Zadie Smith's 'NW'
Towards the end of Zadie Smith's new novel NW, the central character, Natalie/Keisha, walks out of her home near Queen's Park - walks out on her husband, her old life - and makes her way across north London. It's a memorable walk. And today - with the bright winter sun making every aspect of the city sparkle and shine - I retraced Keisha's steps. It took me three hours. Well worthwhile!
You can follow in outline Keisha's walk by the chapter titles: 'Willesden Lane to Kilburn High Road', 'Shoot Up Hill to Fortune Green', 'Hampstead to Archway', 'Hampstead Heath', 'Corner of Hornsey Lane', 'Hornsey Lane'.
Whatever truth you look for from a novelist, it's not cartographic precision. But Zadie Smith maps out her character's route pretty precisely.
The walk emphasises how much the lives of the main characters in NW intersect with the author's own. It walk starts at Keisha's house on the Willesden Lane side of Queen's Park. Within minutes she has passed her friend Leah's house - and the Caldwell estate which plays such a big part in the novel.
This is exactly where Zadie Smith was brought up. She went to Malorees primary school just a stone's throw away. Her mother, it's said, still lives here. So too does Zadie Smith, not now in a council flat but a three-storey Victorian house. It makes you wonder how much of Keisha's story is Zadie Smith's exploration of 'the other path', the way her own life might have worked out.
Where Winchester Avenue meets Willesden Lane, cheek-by-jowl with more gentrified Brondesbury, stands the Fiveways estate. Not quite the model for Caldwell, but with much in common - including the stout boundary wall. Caldwell has five blocks linked by walkways and bridges. 'The smell of weed was everywhere'. On a Sunday morning, Fiveways was quiet, almost sylvan, and entirely odour free.
Keisha at one point ends up in Albert Road - quite a way to the south. She can't get through - there's a police cordon - and has to retrace her steps. The geography doesn't quite add up. But trying to make sense of it, I make the detour. Past the entrance to Paddington cemetery on Willesden Lane - where, as the novel glancingly mentions, Arthur Orton, the Tichborne claimant is buried. Past the basketball court. Along stylish Lonsdale Road - reminding me of Hackney's Broadway Market - and into Salusbury Road with its book shop and library ...
When I reach Albert Road, the other side of the tracks from up-market Queen's Park, I feel that perhaps this is also Caldwell - the estate is an amalgam. The sun is strong, the sky so blue, every vista has an enchantment. But there's also something a little spooky about the estates off Albert Road. For one thing, at midday on a beautiful Sunday, there's no one around. Hardly a soul. And then there's the hardness to the architecture. It's a little forbidding.
If Natalie/Keisha had managed to thread her way through the length of Albert Road and beyond - at least if she was doing it today - just before reaching Kilburn High Road, she would have come across a remarkable sight. Beirut come to north London. A wreck, a ruin, an estate block which looks as if it has been ravaged by a tsunami. Part demolished and - it seems - abandoned. A really unsettling and arresting image.
By the time she hits Kilburn High Road and heads north (as she sets out on her walk, her intention is clear: 'Without looking where she was going, she began climbing the hill that begins in Willesden and ends in Highgate') she has teamed up with Nathan Bogle. He's flying on something or other, and rolling joints. And as they pass Kilburn tube, it also becomes apparent that he's poncing girls.
They head up Shoot Up Hill. The area changes. 'The world of council flats lay far behind them, at the bottom of the hill. Victorian houses began to appear ...'. This is an area Zadie Smith knows with easy familiarity - close by is her old secondary school, Hampstead (though it's not Hampstead - Hampstead cemetery lies here, yes, but this is NW6 not NW3).
Not too far up the hill, however, it crests. If you want to continue going up, you have to turn along Mill Lane, Hillfield Road, Fortune Green Road, and then still more sharply ascending, to Platt's Lane and an outlying section of Hampstead Heath.
This seems to be the route Keisha and Nathan follow - pausing, briefly, on the margins of the Heath for squalid, feral sex.
They stop in the doorway of Jack Straw's Castle, the highest point of the walk - and indeed just about the highest point in London - then head down towards Archway.
The walk ends at suicide bridge on Hornsey Lane, which runs sixty feet above the busy dual carriageway that's Archway Road. She has headed here for a purpose but 'had forgotten that the bridge was not purely functional. She tried her best but could not completely ignore its beauty.' She steps on the ledge, and peers out at London as best the railings allow. She doesn't attempt to jump, but instead abandons Nathan and hurries off after a night bus. The journey is over.
From Bicester to Catania
It's curious how one thing leads to another. I posted recently on this blog a Unity Theatre photo from the late 1940s which included Joe Figoff, a name which meant nothing to me but which is sufficiently distinctive that I thought I'd see what an internet search revealed. And, indirectly, it has led to the photo above - taken at Arncott Camp, near Bicester, in 1942.
I am publishing the photo with the blessing of Pat Langham-Service. It belonged to her father. George Dorrington, who died a couple of years ago in his 90s. He features in the photo, along with other members of a Pioneer Corps company - one of them, the tallish guy just right of centre, is Joe Figoff.
George Dorrington had done what so many others neglect to do - written down the names of all those in the photo on the back.
Some of these same colleagues, though not Joe Figoff, put their names to a wonderful signed Christmas menu - at the time, December 1943, they were serving with the Pioneer Corps in Catania in Sicily. Again, my warm thanks to Pat Langham-Service for permission to post this moving memento of war. I wonder how the 'community singing in the dining hall after dinner' went?
It may well be coincidence and nothing more - but also among those fighting in Catania in 1943 was Alec Bernstein, the novelist Alexander Baron, who was later a colleague of Joe Figoff at Unity Theatre. He had also at one time been in the Pioneer Corps. Baron wrote about his few weeks in Catania in one of the most powerful of his novels, There's No Home, republished just last year. I wonder if he would have known any of those who signed this Xmas Day menu?
While Nancy Mitford coined the terms 'U' and 'non-U', her younger sister Jessica - writing as Decca Treuhaft in this 1956 pamphlet - devised the parody 'L' and 'non-L'. Jessica and her husband, Robert Treuhaft, knew plenty about left-wing lingo. They were in the mid-1950s members of the CPUSA.
The Wikipedia entry on Jessica Mitford records: 'In 1956, Mitford published (stenciled) a pamphlet, "Lifeitselfmanship or How to Become a Precisely-Because Man". In response to Noblesse Oblige, the book her sister Nancy co-wrote and edited on the class distinctions in British English, popularizing the phrases "U and non-U English" (upper class and non-upper class), Jessica described L and non-L (Left and non-Left) English, mocking the clichés used by her comrades in the all-out class struggle.'
How rib tickllng was this send up of what might now be described as political correctness?
Not bad at all - as the pages copied, right, attest. An early example of the left learning to chuckle at itself.
My other recent pamphlet purchase is just as bizarre, but otherwise totally different. G.K Chesterton - best known today for such novels as The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man who was Thursday - was a hugely productive journalist and essayist. His political views were unorthodox, somewhat reactionary, and he was also keenly, if again in unorthodox manner, religious.
This 1916 pamphlet republished an article from Nash's Magazine. It is an arch piece of reactionary populism - objecting to 'the extension of divorce among the democracy':
'A democrat in any sense must regard that extension as the last and vilest of the insults offered by the modern rich to the modern poor. The rich do largely believe in divorce; the poor do mainly believe in fidelity. But the modern rich are powerful and the modern poor are powerless. Therefore for years and decades past the rich have been preaching their own virtues. Now that they have begun to preach their vices too, I think it is time to kick.'
Though as so often, Chesterton kicked as part of the losing team - he had a remarkable eye for a lost cause.
Another wonderful photo from the left-wing Unity Theatre in the 1940s. This is from Beryl Vuolo (then Beryl Lund), 'Red Beryl', who - as I've blogged before - has a wonderful scrapbook of her acting career at Unity, and about the fuss when she was suspended from the civil service as part of the 'red purge' for appearing in a Unity revue, 'What's Left'.
Beryl is the young woman reading the paper. Harry Newton, on her right, was Unity's resident set designer. Joe Figoff is the man with the glasses standing behind Beryl. And on her left is her friend Muriel Dobkin, with whom she later travelled to Italy.
If you can identify the man on the left of the photo, do let me know - click here to contact me.
And the newspaper they are looking at - it's clearly a staged photo, they are staring at the back page rather than the front page story about Beryl - is the 'Evening Standard' of 5th October 1948, which Beryl happens to have in her fantastic cuttings book:
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