This post is one that I wrote last year elsewhere. Although it’s too late to see Harlesden High Street, it’s not too late to vote for Tara Arts – where I saw this play – in the Lloyds Bank Community Awards. Click here to support them.
Two young men, Karim and Rehaan, sat outside their fruit-laden high street shop, calling out ‘Come, Beautiful’ to passers-by, trying to sell them jack fruit. A bag of spice here, a greetings card there. Some loo rolls. Trying to work out what, when, how and why people buy or don’t buy; trying to work out how to make their way in a community where everyone is negotiating space and defining what it means to belong.
We were in a tiny theatre in the back-of-beyond to watch Harlesden High Street, described as a ‘feast for the senses’ and ‘an explosive exploration of the meaning, value and significance of home’. It’s on for another couple of weeks, so it’s not too late to get yourself down there.
The young men’s narratives intertwined with that of Karim’s mother, Ammi, as she reflected on her past. Struggling with her sight, she remembered her younger years of travelling round London with her bus-driver husband, sitting on the front seat holding his packed lunch because home was wherever he was. She chuckled with pride at the thought of her daughter’s beauty which had, according to the tales the family told itself, been great enough to push up house prices in zone 2. Her fading eyes sparkled as she gigglingly told the story of conceiving that daughter on the back seat of a bus in Hammersmith Bus Station during a bomb scare in the pre-War on Terror days. Hammersmith, of all places.
Images of West London were projected onto the screen at the back of the set and I was lulled into security by their familiarity and by constant references to places which have always been just around the corner. Places like Ealing and Acton; the destinations of the buses which took me to my house. This was the world in which I grew up. This language, with its localised vocabulary and intonation, is the soundtrack to my childhood and has always been normal.
I saw West London through my eyes but I also saw it through theirs. Their alternative perceptions of the same place held up a mirror which compelled me look at myself and my surroundings in a different way. Indeed, I’m the very person they were trying to figure out; someone who pops into their shops to buy inexplicable items. A phone card for Afghanistan. A pound’s worth of peppers from a plastic bowl. A diet coke. With no apparent rhyme or reason. I am that person who wears a scarf which matches my outfit, unlike those who live at the other end of the bus route where clashing tones are thrown together in a mismatched cacophony of market-stall/pound-shop colour and craziness. So true.
West London was seen through my eyes, their eyes and – inevitably because of what I do and care about – through the eyes of those who don’t yet call this place home. Individuals whose stories I’ve heard and whose perceptions of this part of the world shape mine as I seek to situate myself in their shoes and walk alongside them through times of dislocation and lostness. It’s a place I have always known, but it’s a place I now revisit and reposition myself in; a context which I still simultaneously see through the readjusting eyes of a returnee and the expectant eyes of a new arrival.
Suddenly a chill passed through the theatre as it resounded with the sound and sight of virtual rain which poured and pattered down the back of the screen. They pulled out a large orange cloth to protect their merchandise before being inspired by an alternative. Rather than using the cloth to cover and protect what they were selling, they stretched it out as a canopy to shelter passers-by and invite outsiders into. Their abstract words, ‘Come, Beautiful’, directed at imaginary pedestrians, became a real invitation and we found ourselves stepping into the stage, settling ourselves on an up-turned fruit crate and eating the raisins they gave us as the narrative continued. Sitting inside their space was the inevitable culmination of a production in which fiction and reality had long since converged. We laughed at the randomness of it all as we munched away at Bombay Mix and heard them agree that home is where you sell in the rain.
The play is described as being for ‘everyone and anyone who has ever lived in London’ and it was certainly that. Of course, I loved it because it’s about the ground from which I sprouted and where I now bloom alongside those for whom life germinated many miles away. But, even if you’re not a Londoner, I imagine it would be hard to not connect with those common human experiences of growing older and seeing what happens when the world gets bigger and dreams, for many, get smaller.
The young men described their experience as second generation immigrants as ‘inhabiting the grey’, contained in a strange bland place between their parents’ then and there and their own London-based now, seeking out meaning and flourishing in this world. You don’t have to have crossed a border to try to figure that one out. Nor, in fact, do you need to see a play; you could just go to Harlesden High Street for real or wander round any part of London with your eyes open. Still, you don’t want to miss out on some London culture, so book your tickets here before it’s too late.