I’m growing fond of Streatham Hill. It’s a buzzword for ‘shit’ around much of London, which I quite like. I ask somebody at a party where they live and they say ‘Pimlico’ or ‘Balham’ or whatever, and I say ‘nice’, and then they ask me where I live and I say Streatham and they say ‘oo’—the same sort of ‘oo’ noise people make when a footballer on the telly trips up and his shin bones burst through his calves.
But I like Streatham more and more. Yeah, the architecture is pretty ugly, and moving here after the splendour of Strasbourg was a real shock to the system. But there’s a lot of life here. Every day, all I have to do is walk down Streatham High Road and I’ll find something interesting and new. It might be food, it might be music, and it could be from any country in the world.
The mixture of people is perhaps my favourite thing about this city. My flatmate Ivan, forty years old, was born in Uganda, and has lived in London for the past twenty or twenty five years. His girlfriend Nancy—she lives over in Clapham on her own in a gorgeous flat—is a diplomat for the USA. She grew up in Brooklyn, and has a brilliant accent that reminds me of the Beastie Boys. Ivan’s best friend is a guy called Ray who lives across the city. He grew up in Ghana, and has family in Accra.
My second flatmate, Anna, is in her early thirties, grew up in Rome to parents hailing from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. She works in retail and she’s a hopeless romantic at heart, like me. Then there’s Amelle, who’s the same age as me. She’s a paramedic and has lived in London all her life, but regularly visits her family in Morocco and in Spain—when she comes into the kitchen on the phone I hear her conversations weave effortlessly from English, to Spanish, to Arabic.
There’s a brilliant Italian restaurant just up the road called Don Luigi; Anna knows the owner, and sometimes helps out in the kitchen if they’re short-staffed. Last time I was in there the owner gave me a free shot of something sweet and spicy in a little clay shot glass, and encouraged me to guess the seven ingredients. When I could get not even one of them correct, she wrote them down on a piece of paper for me, along with her signature.
The next business along is a Turkish barber where I get my barnet sheared. The two guys who run it, when they’re not busy, sit on a bench out the front of their shop and eat pizza and watch the traffic. And a little further along Streatham High Road there’s a trendy bar-restaurant called the Hamlet where I went for a hungover meal with Anna and Amelle last week. The waiter is from Sicily and his mother tongue is Italian, but he speaks English with a strong French accent because his mother is from France.
My upbringing tells me its bad manners to ask where somebody is from—never mind to ask about their ethnicity. But the people I know here do it all the time. Nobody takes offence in the slightest. It makes me really happy to see it—to see how very different people can be and get along. And nobody holds anything against you, no matter what your story is. Everybody is forever teaching each other about the way their family does things, about the food they eat, the way they live back home or abroad. It inspires me every day.
Yeah, Streatham gets a lot of stick. But it’s really quite nice, once you dig a little deeper.