Skip to content

So Long, Roland Collins

September 29, 2015
by the gentle author

Today I publish my interview with Roland Collins as a tribute to the late-blooming artist who drew Spitalfields and the East End in the fifties and died on Sunday at the fine old age of ninety-seven years

Roland Collins

Ninety-seven year old artist Roland Collins lived with his wife Connie in a converted sweetshop south of the river that he crammed with singular confections, both his own works and a lifetime’s collection of ill-considered trifles. Curious that I had come from Spitalfields to see him, Roland reached over to a cabinet and pulled out the relevant file of press cuttings, beginning with his clipping from the Telegraph entitled ‘The Romance of the Weavers,’ dated 1935.

“Some time in the forties, I had a job to design a lamp for a company at 37  Spital Sq” he revealed, as if he had just remembered something that happened last week,“They were clearing out the cellar and they said, ‘Would you like this big old table?’ so I took it to my studio in Percy St and had it there forty years, but I don’t think they ever produced my lamp. I followed that house for a while and I remember when it came up for sale at £70,000, but I didn’t have the money or I’d be living there now.”

As early as the thirties, Roland visited the East End in the footsteps of James McNeill Whistler, drawing the riverside, then, returning after the war, he followed the Hawksmoor churches to paint the scenes below. “I’ve always been interested in that area,” he admitted wistfully, “I remember one of my first excursions to see the French Synagogue in Fournier St.”

Of prodigious talent yet modest demeanour, Roland Collins was an artist who quietly followed his personal enthusiasms, especially in architecture and all aspects of London lore, creating a significant body of paintings while supporting himself as designer throughout his working life. “I was designing everything,” he assured me, searching his mind and seizing upon a random example, “I did record sleeves, I did the sleeve for Decca for the first Long-Playing record ever produced.”

From his painting accepted at the Royal Academy in 1937 at the age of nineteen, Roland’s pictures were distinguished by a bold use of colour and dramatic asymmetric compositions that revealed a strong sense of abstract design. Absorbing the diverse currents of British art in the mid-twentieth century, he refined his own distinctive style at his studio in Percy St – at the heart of the artistic and cultural milieu that defined Fitzrovia in the fifties. “I used to take my painting bag and stool, and go down to Bankside.” he recalled fondly, “It was a favourite place to paint, especially the Old Red Lion Brewery and the Shot Tower before it was pulled down for the Festival of Britain – they called it the ‘Shot Tower’ because they used to drop lead shot from the top into water at the bottom to harden them.”

Looking back over his nine decades, surrounded by the evidence of his achievements, Roland was not complacent about the long journey he had undertaken to reach his point of arrival – the glorious equilibrium of his life when I met him.

“I come from Kensal Rise and I was brought up through Maida Vale.” he told me, “On my father’s side, they were cheesemakers from Cambridgeshire and he came to London to work as a clerk for the Great Central Railway at Marylebone. Because I was good at Art at Kilburn Grammar School, I went to St Martin’s School of Art in the Charing Cross Rd studying life drawing, modelling, design and lettering. My father was always very supportive. Then I got a job in the studio at the London Press Exchange and I worked there for a number of years, until the war came along and spoiled everything.

I registered as a Conscientious Objector and was given light agricultural work, but I had a doubtful lung so nothing much materialised out of it. Back in London, I was doing a painting of the Nash terraces in Regent’s Park when a policeman came along and I was taken back to the station for questioning. I discovered that there were military people based in those terraces and they wanted to know why I was interested in it.

Eventually, my love of architecture led me to a studio at 29 Percy Studio where I painted for the next forty years, after work and at weekends. I freelanced for a while until I got a job at the Scientific Publicity Agency in Fleet St and that was the beginnings of my career in advertising, I obviously didn’t make much money and it was difficult work to like.”

Yet Roland never let go of his personal work and, once he retired, he devoted himself full-time to his painting, submitting regularly to group shows but reluctant to launch out into solo exhibitions – until reaching the age of ninety.

In the next two years, he enjoyed a sell-out show at a gallery in Sussex at Mascalls Gallery and an equally successful one in Cork St at Browse & Darby. Suddenly, after a lifetime of tenacious creativity, his long-awaited and well-deserved moment arrived, and I consider my self privileged to have witnessed the glorious apotheosis of Roland Collins.

Brushfield St, Spitalfields, 1951-60 (Courtesy of Museum of London)

Columbia Market, Columbia Rd (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St George in the East, Wapping, 1958 (Courtesy of Electric Egg)

Mechanical Path, Deptford (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

Fish Barrow, Canning Town (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St Michael Paternoster Royal, City of London (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St Anne’s, Limehouse (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St John, Wapping, 1938

St John, Wapping, 1938

Spark’s Yard, Wapping

Images copyright © Roland Collins

At The Unveiling Of The Huguenot Plaque

September 28, 2015
by the gentle author

Mavis Bullwinkle at Hanbury Hall

I hope Mavis Bullwinkle will not be too embarrassed if I reveal to you that, of all those who attended the unveiling of the Huguenot Plaque yesterday, it was she whose involvement with the Hanbury Hall extends the longest. Mavis’ uncle Albert was caretaker there before the war in the thirties and Mavis confessed to me that, as child, she remembers performing plays with her cousins on the stage after-hours, when she returned from being an evacuee at the end of the war. In 1951 at the age of nineteen, Mavis joined the weekly bible class there when her own church, All Saints Spitalfields, was demolished and then she graduated to the role of Sunday School teacher which occupied her each weekend until 1981.

Mavis may not herself be a Huguenot but, as a local resident for more than eighty years, she has come to embody a certain continuity in the neighbourhood and her generosity of spirit is emblematic of the best tradition of Spitalfields. As you can imagine, there was no shortage of Huguenot descendants yesterday to remember the quarter of a million refugees who came to Britain in the seventeenth century and, in particular, the twenty thousand who came to Spitalfields.

The Hanbury Hall was originally built as a Huguenot Chapel in 1719 then extended to the street and converted as a church hall for Christ Church in 1887 and now has been newly restored with flats on the top. Yesterday’s unveiling of the plaque was the culmination of three years of Huguenots of Spitalfields festivals organised by Charlie De Wet which were attended by more than twenty thousand people and the plaque of twenty Delft tiles designed by Paul Bommer is the legacy of this project.

As we all sat in the three hundred year old hall and listened to the story of the Huguenots, how they fled their home country in fear of their lives, of the refugee camps that were created here and of the charities that raised funds, the parallel to the contemporary crisis became inescapable. At the conclusion of the three year Huguenots of Spitafields festival which has brought light to the unexpected contributions of the Huguenots to British society, I think we all recognised that as one story ended another was just beginning.

Paul Bommer’s Huguenot Plaque

Charlie de Wet, Director of the Huguenot Festival for the last three years

Rev Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church, leads the service of thanksgiving

You may also like to read about

Paul Bommer’s Huguenot Plaque

Mavis Bullwinkle, Resident of Spitalfields

At The Harvest Festival Of The Sea

September 27, 2015
by the gentle author

Today I preview the Fish Harvest Festival which will take place this year on Sunday 11th October at 11am at St Mary-At-Hill, the Billingsgate Church, Lovat Lane, Eastcheap, EC3R 8EE

Frank David, Billingsgate Porter for sixty years

Thomas à Becket was the first rector of St Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, the ancient church upon a rise above the old Billingsgate Market, where each year at this season the Harvest Festival of the Sea is celebrated – to give thanks for the fish of the deep that we all delight to eat, and which have sustained a culture of porters and fishmongers here for centuries.

The market itself may have moved out to the Isle of Dogs in 1982, but that does not stop the senior porters and fishmongers making an annual pilgrimage back up the cobbled hill where, as young men, they once wheeled barrows of fish in the dawn. For one day a year, this glorious church designed by Sir Christopher Wren is recast as a fishmonger’s shop, with an artful display of gleaming fish and other exotic ocean creatures spilling out of the porch, causing the worn marble tombstones to glisten, and imparting an unmistakeably fishy aroma to the entire building. Yet it all serves to make the men from Billingsgate feel at home, in their chosen watery element.

Frank David and Billy Hallet, two senior porters in white overalls, both took off their hats – or “bobbins” as they are called – to greet me. These unique pieces of headgear once enabled the porters to balance stacks of fish boxes upon their heads, while the brim protected them from any spillage. Frank – a veteran of eighty-four years old – who was a porter for sixty years from the age of eighteen, showed me the bobbin he had worn throughout his career, originally worn by his grandfather Jim David in Billingsgate in the eighteen nineties and then passed down by his father Tim David.

Of sturdy wooden construction, covered with canvas and bitumen, stitched and studded, these curious glossy black artefacts seemed almost to have a life of their own. “When you had twelve boxes of kippers on your head, you knew you’d got it on,” quipped Billy, displaying his “brand new” hat, made only in the nineteen thirties. A mere stripling of sixty-eight, still fit and healthy, Billy started his career at Christmas 1959 in the old Billingsgate market carrying boxes on his bobbin and wheeling barrows of fish up the incline past St Mary-at-Hill to the trucks waiting in Eastcheap. Caustic that the City of London revoked the porters’ licences after more than one hundred and thirty years, “Our traditions are disappearing,” he confided to me in the churchyard, rolling his eyes and striking a suitably elegiac Autumnal note.

Proudly attending the spectacular display of fish in the porch, I met Eddie Hill, a fishmonger who started his career in 1948. He recalled the good times after the war when fish was cheap and you could walk across Lowestoft harbour stepping from one herring boat to the next. “My father said, ‘We’re fishing the ocean dry and one day it’ll be a luxury item,’” he told me, lowering his voice, “And he was right, now it has come to pass.” Charlie Caisey, a fishmonger who once ran the fish shop opposite Harrods, employing thirty-five staff, showed me his daybook from 1967 when he was trading in the old Billingsgate market. “No-one would believe it now!” he exclaimed, wondering at the low prices evidenced by his own handwriting, “We had four people then who made living out of  just selling parsley and two who made a living out of just washing fishboxes.”

By now, the swelling tones of the organ installed by William Hill in 1848 were summoning us all to sit beneath Wren’s cupola and the Billingsgate men, in their overalls, modestly occupied the back row as the dignitaries of the City, in their dark suits and fur trimmed robes, processed to take their seats at the front. We all sang and prayed together as the church became a great lantern illuminated by shifting patterns of autumn sunshine, while the bones of the dead slumbered peacefully beneath our feet. The verses referring to “those who go down the sea in ships and occupy themselves upon the great waters,” and the lyrics of “For those in peril on the sea” reminded us of the plain reality upon which the trade is based, as we sat in the elegantly proportioned classical space and the smell of fish drifted among us upon the currents of air.

In spite of sombre regrets at the loss of stocks in the ocean and unease over the changes in the industry, all were unified in wonder at miracle of the harvest of our oceans and by their love of fish – manifest in the delight we shared to see such an extravagant variety displayed upon the slab in the church. And I enjoyed my own personal Harvest Festival of the Sea in Spitalfields for the next week, thanks to the large bag of fresh fish that Eddie Hill slipped into my hand as I left the church.

St Mary-at-Hill was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677

Senior fishmongers from Billingsgate worked from dawn to prepare the display of fish in the church

Fishmonger Charlie Caisey’s market book from 1967

Charlie Caisey explains the varieties of fish to the curious

Gary Hooper, President of the National Federation of Fishmongers, welcomes guests to the church

Frank David and Billy Hallet, Billingsgate Porters

Frank’s “bobbin” is a hundred and twenty years old and Billy’s is “brand new” from the nineteen thirties

Billy Hallet’s porter’s badge, now revoked by the City of London

Jim Shrubb, Beadle of Billingsgate with friends

The mace of Billingsgate, made in 1669

John White (President & Alderman), Michael Welbank (Master) and John Bowman (Secretary) of the Billingsgate Ward Club

Crudgie, Sailor, Biker and Historian

Dennis Ranstead, Sidesman Emeritus and Graham Mundy, Church Warden of St Mary-at-Hill

Senior Porters and Fishmongers of Billingsgate

Frank sweeps up the parsley at the end of the service

The cobbled hill leading down from the church to the old Billingsgate Market

Frank David with the “bobbin” first worn by his grandfather Jim David at Billingsgate in the 1890s

Photographs copyright © Ashley Jordan Gordon

As part of the CRIES OF LONDON events at Bishopsgate Institute, we are staging a CHIT CHAT with traders from Billingsgate on November 4th at 7pm. Tickets are free. Click here to book yours.

You may also like to read about

The Last Fish Porters of Billingsgate Market

Charlie Caisey, Fishmonger

Around Billingsgate Market

Roy Reed at Billingsgate Market

Albert Hafize, Fish Merchant

The Hackney Whipping Post

September 26, 2015
by the gentle author

There is sometimes a certain tendency to talk about the past as if it were a better place, as if relics automatically speak of our ‘glorious history.’ Yet, occasionally, truth breaks through to remind us that, speaking of the past in this country, it was for many a place of suffering, of want and of violence – an inescapable but far less palatable historical reality.

Thus the emphasis of retelling history can often tend towards the celebratory and so, when the churchyard of St John-at-Hackney was handsomely restored with Lottery funds in recent years, the seventeenth century whipping post was conveniently consigned to the nearby backyard of Groundwork, the organisation which supervised the renovations, where it has been rotting ever since.

Historian Sean Gubbins of Walk Hackney drew my attention to this neglected artefact and took me there to see it last week. He showed me a photograph of it standing in the churchyard in 1919 and confirmed that it had decayed significantly in the last couple of years. Apparently, Hackney Council owns the whipping post but Sean can find no-one who wants to take responsibility for it and many would prefer if it simply rotted away.

In former centuries, the stocks, the whipping post and the pillory were essential elements of social control, but today these fearsome objects are treated with indifference or merely as subjects of ghoulish humour. Since they became defunct, they have acquired a phoney innocence as comic sideshows at school fetes where pupils can toss wet sponges at popular teachers to raise money for a worthy cause.

Yet the reality is that these instruments of violence and public humiliation were used to subjugate those at the margins of society – to punish the poor for petty thefts that might be as small as a loaf of bread, or to discourage vagrants, or to chasten prostitutes, or to drive homeless people out of the parish, or to subdue the mentally ill, or to penalise homosexuals, or to demean religious dissenters, or to intimidate immigrants into subservience, or against anyone at all who was considered socially unacceptable according to the prejudices of the day.

We need to remember this grim history, which reminds us that the struggle towards greater social equality and tolerance of difference in this country was a hard one, only achieved by those who resisted the culture of obedience enforced by state-sanctioned violence and enacted through instruments such as this whipping post.

Extract from Benjamin Clarke’s ‘Glimpses of Ancient Hackney & Stoke Newington’ 1894

Postcards supplied by Melvyn Brooks

Model of the Hackney whipping post

Tudor stocks and whipping post in the entrance to Shoreditch Church

If anyone is interested in helping to save and restore the whipping post please contact Sean Gubbins

You might also like to read about

In the Debtors’ Cell

Graffiti At the Tower of London

Portraits Of South Asian Writers

September 25, 2015
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Lucinda Douglas Menzies (who has more than seventy portraits in the National Portrait Gallery) has been working on a series of South Asian Writers which will be exhibited in Spitalfields from 7th-13th October at 6 Puma Court, E1 6QG and we publish a selection here today.

Rehana was surprised to hear the words, but realized they must be true, and here it was, the thing she had been looking for, a small window into her daughter’s locked heart. It was not that she was diffident but burdened. Burdened by the beloved, the disappeared. By her own widowed mother. Rehana embraced Maya, who was still so thin and brittle, but instead of telling her to be careful she found herself saying, ‘Write some good stories.’

- A Golden Age

Tahmima Anam is a British Bangladeshi writer, novelist and columnist. She was born in Dhaka and grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok. Her first novel, A Golden Age, was published by John Murray in 2007 and was the Best First Book winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The Bengal Trilogy, of which this is the first, chronicles three generations of the Haque family from the Bangladesh war of independence to the present day.

We could barely make out the tracks with our torchlight. From all sides, beyond our little pool of light, darkness lay in ambush to claim us. Dulu, sensing my unease, reassured me that he had imprinted the layout of this land on his mind from our last visit. He could find his way even with the torches off. We crossed the valley, over a fence, and entered the beech forest down a sloping path. We walked on fallen leaves, but enough of them remained on the branches to murmur in the wind.

As I waited, leaning against a beech tree, Dulu went crawling in the darkness. He must have been at the point of leaping on one of the clusters when we heard a gun go off and the barking of dogs. The pheasants whipped up a storm as they scattered blindly. Dulu ran back and dragged me deeper into the forest. In the distance we could see light jerking between tall beech trunks. Amidst the barking of the dogs, another shot went off. No doubt they were looking for us. I held onto Dulu and he broke into a trot.

- Catching Pheasants

Manzu Islam was born in Bangladesh where he lived through the 1971 war, walking the swamps for weeks to reach the refugee camps in India, then returning to fight as a freedom fighter. He came to England as a political refugee and, after studying for a degree and working as a racial harassment officer in East London, he became interested in writing. He has written four books including The Mapmakers of Spitalfields (1997), an anthology of short stories set both in Bangladesh and the East End, Burrow (2004) about an illegal immigrant in East London and The Song of our Swampland (2011).

There was a rustling of silk behind me, and it took me a moment to realise that my mother was standing there. She put her hand on my shoulder. A spidery claw, with nails filed and polished to drips of bright blood; her palm was so cold, it felt that it might sink through my flesh, like a knife through warm butter. I sensed people were watching her, as she stood with her oldest child, and watched her others dancing, and that was her intention; that they saw her as the loving mother of happy children. That everyone in the room would be aware of how good a mother she was, by the measure of our apparent happiness, by the measurable inch-width of our smiles. She seemed pleased that she had won them over, and asked me, with the flirtatious charm that she had poured over the guests like syrup from a pot, if I was going to dance.

“Nah, Amma,” I said, replying in Punjabi. “No, Mummy, I don’t dance”

“Go on,” she said girlishly, adding with a steel tone, “Dance with your little friends.”

- The Good Children

Roopa Farooki was born in Pakistan and brought up in London. She worked in advertising before publishing six critically acclaimed novels, and has been listed three times for the Orange Prize. Her last novel, The Good Children (2014) follows a game-changing generation of post-Partition Pakistani immigrants from 1940s Lahore to modern-day London.

He could remember the long, noisy, rattling trip in the Beeston Humberette to the huge showroom of the Great Eastern Motor Company in Park Street, where he was taken to feast his eyes on the steam and motor-cars on display. The open-mouthed stares of people who stopped in their tracks to see that rarity, a car, phut-phutting down Circular Road. (The child Prafulla was not immune to this sense of wonder; he and his brother sat for long hours in the front balcony to watch motor cycles going down the street; when a horse-drawn brougham or a Victoria or, better still, an Oldsmobile, made an appearance, the boys’ day was made.) Much earlier, when he was a little boy carried in the tight embrace of his father’s arms, the spectacular experience of watching the ascent of a gas-balloon carrying a man up up up from the Oriental Gas Company fields to the sky.

The kadam tree in the garden that looked adorned with perfect spheres of creamy-golden light in the monsoon. The man who came around every evening, a ladder on his shoulder, lighting the street lamps.

- The Lives of Others

Neel Mukherjee is the author of two novels: A Life Apart (2010), and The Lives of Others (2014), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Costa Novel Award, and won the Encore Award. He was born in Calcutta and now lives in London.

Somewhere, Something

We travel not to explore another country
but to return home fresh, bearing gifts.

Our lives the airports we fly from,
our bodies and souls, maps and compasses –
days the journeys we make,
past the continents we leave behind.

Surely there is somewhere, something
that justifies our coming and going?

Isn’t that why we seek a sign from each other
of experiences worth dying for
as we commune with love under starlight
brittle with frost and the sharp taste of blood?

Let’s fly free, not nailed to a mast;
see the universe with new eyes
not blinded by shadows that light casts.

- Dreams That Spell the Light

Shanta Achayra is the author of ten books, including five volumes of poetry and her latest, a novel, A World Elsewhere. An internationally published poet, critic, reviewer and scholar, her poems figure in major anthologies such as Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton), The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry. Her New & Selected Poems is due for publication in 2016.


The children all search for their mothers
The women want each other
The men stand around
Making plans
On phones and in huddles in corridors.

The children have wet eyes
The women quietly wail, some even gently sway
The men instruct everyone
On how to mourn, pray, grieve and feel.

Sylhet or London?
What were the man’s last wishes?
Did he give instructions to you, you or you?
He didn’t expect to die so soon,
And said nothing to me.

What is going to be our judgment
On where to lay the man?
It’s the last thing we ever do
For someone we all loved.

Later, as the women made tea
and then put the children to sleep,
The men were still found discussing
What to do with him.

And then, the pronouncement was made.
He shall be buried here,
she said,
It is my decision to take.

Delwar Hussain is an British-born writer and anthropologist who grew up in Spitalfields. He spent two years conducting interviews on the boundary between India and Bangladesh before writing his first book Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border (2013). He is currently writing his second book about the city of Dhaka.

The security men are watching Ray. They regard her with a perfect indifference. There are three of them, of varying heights, their belted khaki safari suits finished cleanly with the bright gloss of winter sunlight. They loiter at the entry gate, two of them standing arm in arm, dwarfed by the high peepal trees behind them, the branches against the sky. The earth around them is pale and heavy, the colour of gram flour, interrupted rarely by weeds. They do not seem self-conscious. The third guard sits on the knee-high wall that forms the boundary of the hamlet, right against the road that connects the local farms to the main town. He is older than the other two. His hair seems paint-stained, the white unnaturally thick over the grey brush beneath. The badge on his cap glints in the sun. Ray can see the light flash as he turns, even at this distance. His posture is correct; a long neck lends him significance as he twitches abruptly to take in his surroundings, alert and urgent.

- The Village

Nikita Lalwani is a novelist born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff. She is the author of two novels: Gifted (2007), winning the Desmond Elliot Award Creative Writing prize in 2008, and The Village (2012). She is currently working on a novel set in contemporary London entitled The Altruist.

The Calling

the night is abrim with the in-between children
they are summoning Mother India

take us back xxx take us back xxxtake us back

but the Motherland is piping the old grief
I was down on my knees xxxon my knees

why did you fly for the moon
for the cities with their pistons of desire

the night is abrim with the in-between children
their heads are down, they are crying

take us back xxxtake us back xxxtake us back

our songs are afresh with the plough and the oxen,
the smell of open fires where the roti is crackling

and our roses are the roses of home

- He do the Feringhee Voices

Daljit Nagra is a poet who has published three collections with Faber & Faber. He has won the Forward Prize for Best Poem and for Best First Collection and his books have also been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize. He was born in Britain and has an Indian heritage.

Uff! Such fun I’m having in Dubai. I’m here only, staying in a fab hotel on Jumeirah Beach. But life here, you know, it’s totally fab. So different to Lahore. There’s no dust, no beggars, no poors, no smells, no flies, no filth, no in-laws, no crime, no bombs, no open gutters and no potholes either. Everything is clean, shiny and happy and there are no trees so there are no leaves to sweep and no birds to sit in them and do potty on your car. There are no parks but who needs parks when you have nice cemented compounds and the servants, they are all smiley and polite and English speaking with no families and no bother. All my friends live in big, big houses with Flipinas and swimming pools and twenty-four hour electricity, and they have no armed guards and no razor wire and no high, high walls even. And the malls! And the restaurants! And the clubs! Uff, complete heaven, I tell you.

Janoo says they have no freedom and that I should try doing a protest demo here and see what happens to me. And I said, ‘But what is there to protest about, haan?’

- The Return of the Butterfly

Monhi Monsin is a Pakistani writer based in London. She has written two novels, The End of Innocence and Duty Free. Her books, The Diary of a Social Butterfly and The Return of the Butterfly are based on her long running satirical column in the Pakistani weekly paper, The Friday Times.

Discovering Wolverhampton had a Starbucks had been a bigger shock than discovering it had a tourist information centre. Indeed, for years, I had defined the town by its lack of a Starbucks. The fact seemed to sum up the city’s arrested development: the aggressive coffee chain, which seems to have more outlets than employees, which would open stores in the lavatories of the opposition if it could do so, couldn’t, evidently, be bothered with Wolverhampton. But as with so many things to do with my past, I’d got it wrong.

My date was late, giving me plenty of time to see how Wulfrunians were taking to café culture. Judging from the conversations floating around the till, they were struggling.

Customer one: ‘So y’am saying “tall” ay yower biggest size?’
Customer two: ‘Can’t I just have a simple coffee?’
Customer three: ‘Do yow serve fish and chips?’

- The Boy with the Topknot

Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi parents in Wolverhampton and raised as a Sikh. At the age of ten he worked part-time in a sewing factory. He attended Wolverhampton Grammar School and graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature. Between 1998 and 2006 he was a reporter and feature writer for the Financial Times before publishing The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton in 2008.

Arrival 1946

The boat docked in at Liverpool.
From the train Tariq stared
at an unbroken line of washing
from the North West to Euston.

These are strange people, he thought –
an Empire, and all this washing,
the underwear, the Englishman’s garden.
It was Monday, and very sharp.

- Split World: Poems 1990-2005

Monica Aleevi is a British-Pakistani poet and writer, born in Lahore, Pakistan, who came to England when she was a few months old. She has written eight poetry collectioins, including How the Stone Found its Voice (2005), inspired by Kipling’s Just So Stories, and Homesick for the Earth (2011), English versions of selected poems by Jules Supervielle. Her latest collection is At the Time of Partition.

The furniture in Mandira’s room – the bed, the study-table, its chair, the cupboard, the bookshelves – was old, enduring. The armchair was stolid and stoic, and seemed to cradle the space that existed between its thick arms; one felt protected when one sat in it. As I got to know Mandira better, as we became intimate and then grew increasingly unhappy, the room became her refuge, her dwelling, and when she said, ‘I want to go back to my room’, the words ‘my room’ suggested the small but familiar vacuums that kept close around her, that attended to her and guided her in this faraway country. Because, for a foreigner and a student, the room one wakes and sleeps in becomes one’s first friend, the only thing with which one establishes a relationship that is natural and unthinking, its air and light what one shares with one’s thoughts, its deep, unambiguous space, whether in daytime, or in darkness when the light has been switched off, what gives one back to oneself. The bed and chairs in it had an inscape, a life, which made them particular, and not a general array of objects. That is why, when she spoke of her room, I think what she meant was the sense of not being deserted, of something, if not someone, waiting, of a silent but reliable expectancy.

- Afternoon Raag

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of six novels, the latest of which is Odysseus Abroad. He is also a critic and a musician and composer. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Awards for his fiction include the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, the Encore Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the Government of India’s Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2013, he was awarded the first Infosys Prize in the Humanities for outstanding contribution to literary studies.

Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

You might also look at these other portraits by Lucinda Douglas Menzies

Spitalfields Portraits

Huguenot Portraits