This is a picture from Oxford Circus, probably my favorite part of London. I remember the first time I saw it…It was years ago – 2003. I stepped out from the Underground and walked on to a glorious and cacophonous mess of people all rushing, moving, having some place to be. London has lots of museums, parks, theaters, but this is my favorite spot. To me this is London. Loud. Vital. Crazy. Multicultural. During my trip, I explored Chinatown, hung out in Soho, and ate dinner at a Polish restaurant in Kensington. All of these experiences felt incredibly British to me because Britain signified a wonderful amalgam of races, cultures, genders, experiences. London was a hub of all of that – that wonderful mixture – not a melting pot, because we don’t meld into one soupy oneness, but instead a weird and clashing salad.
When I walked the streets at Oxford Circle, I felt the alive – a true citizen of the world, because that’s what London meant to me: it was a city of the world. A true global city. As I walked through the streets, I caught snatches of Polish, French, Urdu, Spanish, and American-inflected English. I knew I wanted in.
When I returned to the States, I started my MA work, and worked on my thesis. I wrote about the African and Asian diaspora in London. I looked at literature of postcolonial heroes like V.S. Naipul and Sam Selvon. Contemporary icons like Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie occupied my reading. I loved their work because they exposed the London I romanticized for its complex messiness. My privileged view of the city was evolving and deepening. I loved it more because of Kureishi and Rushdie. One could say I became obsessed with black and Asian Britain. My research expanded to film, television, and music. Again, the scrubbed, shiny, glossy surface of London was lifted to show a far more interesting and urgent place, one that is continuously trying reconcile and include.
In one of my classes during my postgraduate work, I studied the literature of Virginia Woolf, a literary hero of mine. I read Mrs. Dalloway at least fifty times. I loved Mrs. Dalloway’s love of the city. I started to read Woolf’s diaries and saw that she, like me, loved London. She had a prickly, complex relationship with the city, though. A lot of it angered it, but a lot of it inspired her. I felt slightly closer to this literary giant because we had something in common, no matter how slight or tenuous.
I write this on June 24, 2016, the day after the referendum that voted the UK out of the EU. The repercussions of this vote are yet to be seen. So much has been written – most of it exaggerated and designed to be polarizing and frightening. I’m not sure what my future will be with London – much of it is now hanging precariously as we learn more about what’s going to happen to the millions of Brits living in the EU and the millions of EU nationals living in the UK. I don’t want to be angry at the Leave supporters – they’re not all xenophobic racists. Though race and immigration played an ugly part in the Leave push, it doesn’t account for everyone who voted to leave, nor does it rightly describe or represent those who supported the Brexit.
It’s easy to fall into the sniping and snark – at the height of Remain’s stunning loss last night, I indulged in some of that myself – but I’m not going to. I’ll just think about that first day when I climbed the steps from the Underground and emerged onto Oxford Circle. I’ll think about the blinding lights of all the competing neon signs, each trying to outdo the other. I’ll think about the kids, all in imaginative and expressive clothing and hairstyle. I’ll think about Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, a monumental book in my literary upbringing. In it, Selvon’s hero, Moses goes through a stream-of-conscious rant about London – how much it means to him, despite all of the grinding hardships of poverty, racism, isolationism, and alienation – the rant still ends with his love of London:
“Always, from the first time he went there to see Eros and the lights, that circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gay laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire, in all this, standing there in the big city, in London.”