Sunday 29th July, 2007

Ira Mathur
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Notes from three cities


Colonialism has come home to roost. The concierge is Spanish. Our newsagent is Gujarat, the cleaner Polish. On the streets we hear Italian, Polish, French, Urdu, Arabic and Swahili.

Eastern Europeans are coming in by the thousands to do jobs the British wont do. A floating Taj Mahal on the Thames flirts with the solidity of the spires of Westminster.

London, like a crazy genius kleptomaniac, absorbs it all; allows the mix of people from everywhere. It watches the fun and the fallout of old and new; dirt-poor and wealthy.

The sprawling city is always springing surprises. Turn a wrong corner from a bustling shopping district and you can come upon a sanctuary rose garden in a church.

It takes at least an hour and half of travelling by tube, bus, cab or walking to get anywhere.

There are endless disruptions on the tube. We arrive two hours late to dinner to friends in North London. It is still light at 9pm and we admire the garden. We sit around a large wooden table with people I knew and lived with years ago when I was a student.

Zed Nelson, a photojournalist, is here, grown up now to Gun Nation fame after his photos of America’s gun culture were picked up by Time magazine.

He is putting Wendy Fitzwilliam in his new book on beauty, which was indirectly inspired by her.

He says, “I read somewhere that although hospitals, streets and buildings in Trinidad are named after a beauty queen, the Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul is unacknowledged. This inspired me to do a project on the world’s obsession with beauty rather than substance.”

I don’t know whether to be ashamed or proud. So I laugh.


Feeling like impostors we gratefully accept the invitation of an Oxford dean to stay in the rooms reserved for fellows. I smuggle my Cosmopolitan by stuffing it under my jacket past a dozen learned professors preparing to go for a candle-lit supper.

Timeless courtyards, ivy spread across stone walls, roses, window boxes, heavy wooden gates; I wouldn’t be surprised to see carriages, horses and Shakespeare walking along cobbled streets.

Wherever you go there are people who want to escape their lives. When they get away, they find the world not so different. Here there is flooding, the worst in 60 years. The swelling River Thames has been spilling into Oxford Reading and Windsor. There is the surreal sight of post districts, ancient vicarages and stone cottages submerged in dirty water.

Children wade, people sit with hands on their heads; I wonder if I am in central Trinidad or Oxfordshire.

New York

After the old world, New York has a kind of lightness to it. The concrete is cheerful in hot sunshine.

A friend has loaned us an apartment, and I am embarrassed when I look out of the window of the kitchen to find that I am looking at another women, who, like me, also has stripped down to her underwear.

Apparently, it is fashionable in parts on New York to live curtain-less, and display your body and life to your neighbours.

After the many-layered languages of Europe, America’s surface simplicity is relaxing. There is no “Portsmouth” or “Warwickshire” here to expose you, delineate you as a foreigner. The simple language of immigrants and dollars and cents.

Trains rumble underfoot. A siren screeches bringing on an unexpected longing: The savannah in the afternoon sheltered by the northern range. Our own island craziness is enlarged, exposed under the microscopic view of a small island. But it’s here too; it’s everywhere.

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