East Ham high street – amusements, bookies, pound shops.
Boxes spilling onto the pavement. Washing machines, fridges, stacks of nomadic architecture.
England’s colonial past erupts in a ruckus of phone cards and flashing LEDs, attentionseeking boys, tattoos like blades – a dinting and melding of dialect, East End filtered through Lithuanian, Ghanaian, Tamil, Urdu.
Behind a row of pawnbrokers, the market hall, walls the colour of orange sorbet.
Poster shreds and chalk graffiti, Tamil lettering like neat mathematical compounds.
There are moments when the city becomes elevated, ungovernable, interiors that have held you captive are suddenly perforated. Warnings smoulder in snugs and saloon bars, in the derelict arcades and ad hoc masjids. You hear the frustrations and resentments, heaped up for so long like drifts of junk in a charity shop, start to crackle and burn.
Narrow plywood corridors, partition walls summoning the colours of Colombo, lime-green, saffron, duck-egg blue, pastel sweet like sugared almonds.
Fluorescent grottoes crammed with Tamil DVDs, Ghanaian religious tracts and pirate copies of Nigerian horror – flying stars, shrieking commands, lurid graphics.
Place becomes kaleidoscopic, allusions to mythical states, utopian worlds splintering and reconfiguring.
Scent of mango, crushes on the street, in and out of South Indian restaurants, queuing in bright canteens – mirrored walls, trays of dosas, doors opening onto Goa, Kerala, Colombo.
Rumours pulsing, E3, E15, E10, groups assembling on corners, on forecourts, spilling onto the streets – diaphanous threads spanning Green Street, Romford Road, a shimmering sequence of forecasts.
Flats raided. Armed police. Underground, Sellafield, Westfield.
An intense heat activating scents, unlocking memories.
lime, tamarind, ginger
candy floss and cinder toffee
coconut and rose water
cigarette smoke and jasmine
hot ketchup on thin chips
incense burning in shop doorways.
The night is violet like a postcard from Miami.
Black flag, Shahada, white Arabic lettering – a little stall with the scent of frankincense, books, DVDs, scholarly texts.
Mohammad al-Britani – Simon. Standing behind a stall, fleeting glance in my direction. I recognise him instantly, a face from the old days. I first met him, must have been 2001, 2002. I was living on an estate in Bethnal Green. Simon was in a band with one of my flatmates, Jay. I remember they all used to come round and sit in his room, drinking cans of Pilsner. They entombed themselves there, curtains drawn, slabs of cigarette smoke, listening to black metal at window-rattling volume. Slayer, Bal-Sagoth, Akercocke. They would talk for hours about sleeve notes, back catalogues, encrypted meanings in songs. Nightmarish posters sellotaped to woodchip walls, Salvador Dalí, H.R. Giger, Odd Nerdrum.
I remember Simon’s strange demeanour, intense but somehow detached. Even then he thought it was his job to educate. He was one of those awkward blokes, found it difficult to talk to women, cagey and defensive. There was something about him, maybe Asperger’s – vulnerability always there like a film of dust.
I remember most Saturday nights there’d be me and my mate Ayesha sitting in the lounge drinking vodka and cokes before going to some party in Tottenham or Hackney. After a few cans in Jay’s room, that lot would venture out in their black T-shirts, combat trousers and heavy black boots. Simon would become bold and expansive, overspilling with emotion, as if he was too big for himself, tipping ashtrays, kicking cans – alcohol unlocking a cascade of diatribes.
He said he was committed to black metal because it imagined something real, authentic, an ethnic paganism. He despised what he called modern society, said it was insincere, emotionally vacuous; went on about the corrupt, decadent nature of it. He talked about the conjuring of an ancient past, how the world would be better without humans.
We infuriated him because we wouldn’t accept his views; he said we were unenlightened. We used to play stuff like early jungle tracks to antagonise him, or insane rave classics like Bam Bam’s Where’s Your Child? It sent him a bit mad.
He hated all the music we were into. I remember him going on about sampling, about electronic music, saying it was all a rip-off.
That crew forged an elaborate collective image, immersed themselves in a totally new ideology. It was as if they were undergoing a process of reinvention, uncovering facets of a new identity. It seemed to me that in a sense they’d all rejected their past, and that to broach it, even to each other, might be regarded as an act of treachery. Simon never really talked much about his background, except to say that the family was religious, the evangelical type, his dad had been involved in setting up the Alpha Course at a church in Woking, a stockbroker on permanent leave. There were four kids and Simon was the youngest. Religion had crept into the house as a frame of discipline. Since he’d started his archaeology degree at UCL he’d completely distanced himself from his family; he didn’t even like being called Simon any more and had adopted a raft of pseudonyms.
I was evicted from that flat in 2002 and temporarily rehoused in the opposite block. I didn’t really think about Simon at all after that. And then there was an episode almost a decade later, one of those strange loops in time: 2011, that intense and vivid autumn when the Occupy movement had transformed St Paul’s into a bubbling mass of tents and sound systems. I was at the Finsbury Square site looking for my mate LV. I remember the night, sharp and still with the scents of November – woodsmoke, fireworks, onions and ketchup. I’d been drifting round trying to find her.
The moment I walked into the encampment I sensed a cloying atmosphere, the black energy of the comedown. I stepped past the circles of dim, shuffling sleeping bags and felt a scuttling sensation on my skin, the damp filters of regret. I came to the middle of the square, where there was some sort of gathering, an assembly being addressed by a bloke who looked like a Grant Wood painting, American Gothic, face utterly devoid of compassion. I was encircled by conspiracy theorists who’d burrowed in through a David Icke message board. When I found my mate, she was sitting next to a fire with a skinhead bloke in a camouflage jacket. I registered the arrogant expression as he sat there telling some journalist about the Zeitgeist Movement, about the psychic bombardment of the city –
terrorism, Jew, Judaism, kabbalah, Illuminati, occult, evil, New World Order, tyranny …
They had declared this area autonomous, they were deflecting rays coming from the City of London, they would summon currents and energies and rechannel them, they were going to rig antennae on top of council blocks in Shadwell, Hoxton and Bethnal Green.
She’d been sending texts asking me to come and get her out. When I found her, she looked up at me with a look of delight and incredulity, kind of saying how the hell did I get myself mixed up in this?
There were blokes hanging round watching, a brooding circle of ex-ravers, ex-military, ex-travellers. They’d decided the site had to be completely teetotal, even though it was Friday night and the rest of the city was basking in a glow of warm intoxication.
I remember feeling really charged up, standing my ground against this contingent. One of the blokes stepped up and bashed the beer bottle out of my hand. I grabbed LV by the arm. I remember both of us laughing, giddy with adrenaline as we stumbled through dark rows of tents. I remember them jeering, hounding us out. I heard that strident voice leading the chorus, a voice barbed with hostility, declaring that our presence was altering the energies, that we were polluting the zone – I knew the voice without even needing to turn round… Simon.
And now, in the eye of a heatwave, I stand at a stall in East Ham market watching him with the other blokes, noting his ease and composure. He glances over and says, “Hello, sister”, in a spirit of benign camaraderie. He acts like he doesn’t remember me, but I understand the importance of his role. It’s about dawah, about drawing people into conversation – whether he remembers me or not isn’t important now, this is a clean slate, he’s not who he was before.
I watch as he engages a woman in fierce conversation. The confidence he used to get from the drink is being channelled now through his faith, his absolute moral certainty. I have watched him on those You Tube documentaries, hanging round Waltham Forest, putting stickers on lampposts, proselytising his new faith – Sharia4UK, Al Muhajiroun, Saved Sect.
I buy some incense. There are three of them on the stall, an exuberant Welsh bloke called Hamza with the same skinhead, same straggling red beard as Simon, and a good-looking Asian bloke who steps up to serve me, “Better than Febreze, them, sister,” he says in a Bradford accent.
I recognise him as well, always next to Choudhury on demos.
This article was first published in the May 2015 issue.