“Stepney’s a shithole”, he says.

Impression of White Horse Lane, Stepney.

So I took the tube to Stepney Green, in order to lay my shadow on the streets that a man I admire had walked, Trevor Huddleston, nearly half a century ago, and to sit in the church where he had preached his sermons. It’s stormy weather outside there, a wind that makes the shop signs advertising halaal snacks and presents, rattle; and the scarfs of the Somali sisters fly in high air like angels’ wings hinting to a coming promise. Stepney’s dirt of crisp packets (we are all obese now) and dust around the ankles I walk down White Horse Lane. It’s one of these suburbs that look kind of poor and OK; I place where I knew where I would find Yam and Okra and TomToms when I needed them; but probably a bit tight to live in as well. What do I know? Today, White Horse Lane is populated by a screaming lot of small human beings in uniform; and its houses and shop arrangements are touched by a number of upgrading programmes that carry names like “Ocean Renewal” and other triumphant misnomers.

Walking past me on the sidewalk, a young guy is shooting ambitious glances over; he’s about ten years younger than I am, and I laugh inside, thinking that this glory I walk in is still doing its job by charming teenagers. He’s wearing two deep scars on his left cheek; and I instantly send thoughts to friends from Naija and the faces of beloved ones in Westbury, place of dreams, in Johannesburg. Adornment? Fucked up crime? What do I know… So he checks me out, and I move on, on the way to visit the church in which Huddleston served, in the hope to have a graveside chat with one of the Anglican  people there. Passing constructions sites, a centre for mathematical something, and a soccer pitch on which adolescents sweat and swear at each other, I stop and look at the church building from across the road; following its darkish, gargoyle-adorned towers till they meet the grey sky. “Hey, ya”, a voice calls me; and turning I see that it’s the young man from before, turquoise shirt and slightly shy grin under a base cap. He looks as if his parents could run the ‘indo-bangla fusion food’ shop I checked out with hungry eyes but empty purse. He’s like: “Hey, didn’t I see you last year? In Santorin, didn’t we meet there?” and stares right into my face. I must have made a poor flirt; non-Greek like whatnot and particularly eager to check out the local Anglican crib. And busy I was recalling what the hell I did last summer, both of us now stopping on Stepney’s primary-schooler-infused Lane. I remember a German summer, trips, papers, lakes and pedal boats, but nothing about a broke island. All this does not stop him from saying that I seem like a nice person to know and that my eyes are beautiful and all these things. I tell him I remember seeing him, not in a sweaty club on Santorin but in front of the Western Union shop half an hour ago, and that I had wondered about the story behind the precisely parallel scars on his cheek. “Been fighting?” I ask. “Yeah”, he says, “was shit.” “But you survived,” I add; and he’s like: “Yay, but wasn’t funny”. And: “Does one see them that much?” I calm him: “No, no, just thought it looks like a story.” Smiles. “What’s Stepney like?”, I want to know. “Stepney’s a shithole”, he says. “That’s just what it is”. Oh Linton, where art thou? Stepney in Inglan; “Why?” “Too much drug business going on.” Crime. Kids pushing, world wide local stories. That’s Stepney today. I gotta go but can’t before he scribbles down his cell in my notebook, in case I come back any month from now. And he’s heading out to greener pastures, at least Greece might be cheaper for him this year, perhaps, I think.


I trot around Huddleston’s church, where I find locked doors and big cars in the churchyard, the signature paradox of churches and their schizophrenia of practise’n’preach, only broken by some shining, spiritual people that do not care about labels and relaxing in the absence of sorrow but who grow by creating spaces for others to liberate themselves, who celebrate when they listen and who live when they connect; and who care forcefully knowing, as Audre Lorde once put it; that I am not free while any (wo)man is unfree, even when her or his shackles are very different from my own.”, whether in Stepney, Sophiatown or Santorin. And having seen I go. Back to ‘Indo-Bangla’.


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