I won’t be here in this room for much longer so I want to describe what our part of Mile End looks like. We live in a 1920s redbrick building that faces out onto a busy road. By the train station across the road, a horse chestnut tree has been standing there for far longer than any of us can remember – even our neighbour, Mrs Robinson, the old lady who’s lived at Number 21 since 1964, swears it was as big then as it is now. Every autumn it sheds its fruit and delighted children quarrel over who will keep the biggest ones. Later, they’ll thread them with string and challenge each other to duels in the playground.
Our building is built around a large courtyard, which belongs to everybody. At one end there is a sycamore tree and, according to Mrs Robinson, it, too, has stood there since before she arrived. It’s in this courtyard that everyone comes together to talk and laugh and (sometimes) to quarrel. It’s a playground for the children who use it to play football, to hold bike races, to have picnics or, as they did last February, to build snowmen. On warm summer evenings, adults will bring out chairs and pots of tea or coffee and sit gossiping with each other for hours. Sometimes – and these will be my most cherished memories – the residents organize barbecues or parties to celebrate someone’s graduation or the birth of a child, or simply the beginning or end of summer.
I can tell you how this building of ours has changed and how families and friends have come and gone. The first girl I kissed – Amy – lived at Number 17. The first boy I had a fist-fight with – Leroy – lived at Number 12. The first guy I fucked – Farid – lived at Number 27. My best friends through adolescence – Anwar and Jerome – lived at Numbers 11 and 9 respectively. There was the old lady at Number 2, the local spy, whom we all hated because she’d watch us from behind her net curtains and report us to our parents. And there was her cat that Jerome and I poisoned with kerosene because the older boys had dared us. (We were thirteen and being in a gang bored us after two weeks.) I could go on, but what I mean to say is that this place has been my home for a very many number of years and, in all that time, it has been the only constant thing in my life.
You see, you never know the worth of a place until you have to leave it behind. You never know how much you love the four walls of your bedroom, its nooks and crannies, until you’re packing what you own into big brown boxes, deciding what’s worth keeping and what needs to be thrown away. You never miss your neighbours until you have to cross to the other side of town and make new ones all over again.
To the outsider, Mile End is nothing special. It has only a few claims to fame. On 14th June 1381, the young King Richard II rode to Mile End and signed a charter to end the Peasants’ Revolt. (Later, he had most of the rebels and their leaders executed.) On 13th June 1944, the area was hit by the first V-1 flying bomb to strike London. The blast killed eight civilians, injured thirty and made over 200 homeless. Mile End was mentioned by Pulp in the song of the same name and features on the Trainspotting soundtrack. (It’s about a group of squatters who take up residence in an abandoned fifteenth-floor flat of a derelict tower block.) And it got a mention in The Streets’ song, Has It Come To This?: ‘my underground train runs from Mile End to Ealing…’
But to me, it’s my homeland. I could take you on a tour of all its landmarks and milestones. The derelict flat my friends and I used to use as a den: we’d go there to drink cider, smoke joints and (sometimes) fuck girls. The bus stop where Jerome and I were once stopped and searched by the police because a stupid white girl had been mugged there by two teenagers who matched our description. ‘One of them was black,’ the policeman said, looking at Jerome. Then, he turned to me and said: ‘And the other was Asian.’ The tree in the park by the canal under which a girl called Mandy let Anwar and me touch her breasts. It was under the same tree, years later, that a guy called Daniel gave me a blow-job. The cemetery in which my friends dared me to spend a night. I only made it to about 10pm but they were kind enough not to go on about it.
So, whenever someone asks me ‘Where are you from?’, it will never be Britain or even London, but always Mile End.
At the same time, W10 beckons and the ‘readiness is all’. The passed couple of weeks have been a time for re-assessment, re-evaluation and re-direction. By that, I don’t mean an existential crisis so much as a utilitarian one: I need to gauge my effectiveness as a human being. But how? Finding significance in the ‘mundane’ – thinking long term: career, property, and so forth – has always been a challenge for me. The readiness is all and I think I’m ready for a major change. For, since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? And, as Bill Monahan once said: ‘Out of everything you can do or think you can do, pick one thing and be it.’