Nine international artists, all of whom have adopted London as their home, share their experiences in this exciting new anthology.
This collection of nine essays, first published in Italy and now translated into English for the first time, brings together the work of eight international authors and one photographer, all of whom are immigrants to London.
I have never been an immigrant to the capital; I am a born and raised and currently residing Londoner. The closest I have probably come to seeing my home city anew is when I returned here after three years living abroad in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At that point, I felt a bit of reverse culture shock at the vast supermarkets with their well stocked shelves, at the distances people were willing to travel for a Friday night out and the interconnected tube system that allowed them to do so. But to say that the experience of returning is the same is more than a stretch – it doesn’t compare at all.
So I am always curious to know what London is like to those who are new to it. I will quiz people I meet who moved here as adults (What was it like? Was it daunting? Does it feel as expansively anonymous as I imagine it must?), and readily absorb depictions of the London immigrant experience in novels, intrigued (and often sobered) by them. Obinze in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; Gilbert and Hortense in Andrea Levy’s Small Island; Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; Zhuang, the protagonist of Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. So I was eager to read this text, to add more perspectives to those already catalogued.
It is Xiaolu Guo whose essay provides the opening to this anthology, and the one that is most what I was expecting, painting a sharp and witty portrait of the UK and London as seen by someone who is new to it. ‘Oath to The Queen’ charts her experiences over the years, from her early encounters with English culture listening to the farmyard sounds and regional accents of The Archers, through to bafflement at the multiple choice questions in the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test, and finally her naturalisation ceremony.
But beyond the shared characteristic of London as an adopted city, there isn’t much that unites the contributions and, Guo’s and one or two others aside, they mostly don’t explicitly explore the experience of adopting a new city as your home. We move from Guo’s process of naturalisation to Viola Di Grado’s experience of trying to build back a life and a sibling relationship after addiction, and then on to Saleh Addonia’s love of art house cinema consumed between visits to the Job Centre. Chloe Aridjis’ piece jumps from a childhood in Mexico and the discovery of the English language through exposure to 80s rock music, to a homage to Hyde Park’s Animals In War memorial and interviews with the National Gallery’s warders.
Russian-born Zinovy Zinik’s contribution, a favourite of mine, spans forty years of London living, beginning with an early morning arrival in Charing Cross via a foggy Calais. Writing many years later, Zinik expresses how: ‘…it’s gradually dawned on me that there is no such thing as the single city called London – there are many Londons, towns within towns with worlds within worlds. London is like a Russian Doll. But it is not a single Russian Doll, there were many.’. And this paragraph so perfectly articulates the very thing I love most about this city that it makes me pause, go back and read the section again, fold over the corner of the page so that I have it saved for later. I did the same thing with Joanna Walsh, who writes that, ‘London is language, always open to interpretation’ and ‘London’s an inside city, but as soon as you think you’re in, it puts you outside like a revolving door’; a perfect description of the mercurial, fickle characteristics of the capital. In these essays, I relish seeing this mostly wonderful, sometimes difficult, always changing city of mine through others’ eyes and how they capture perfectly things I have often thought.
‘London, an exercise in learning’, Susana Moreira Marques’ contribution, is more aligned with Guo’s, tackling as it does the process of learning a new city, and grappling with a different language and culture: buying a newspaper each day and ‘yearn[ing] to find out how much I still can’t read or understand’, building a habit of walking the streets and observing the city’s occupants, taking notes, finding that ‘there’s always something inspiring to notice walking in London: a small act of love or hate’.
Vanni Bianconi’s piece, ‘The Loveless House’, which I found harder going than the others, is divided into sections that mirror the floors and staircases of the eponymous building. It is part architectural history, part a series of anecdotes about the people he encounters and conversations he overhears as he climbs ever higher towards the building’s attic. This piece, centered as it is on a building, and dotted with photos of that building, serves well as a lead-in to the final piece in the anthology, a black and white photo essay by Wolfgang Lehrner; images of urban architecture and city workers, close ups of office blocks cropped into abstract patterns, repeated individuals in dark suits staring intently at their phones. The photos are striking, but, without any words of introduction or framing, this photo essay felt somewhat disjointed from the rest of the book, and the contribution which was the least evocative of London. The collection is called ‘Hop-On Hop-Off London’, but the individual photos are untitled, and almost anonymous, containing no clearly identifiable landmarks or reference points that root you in this particular city.
This is a collection of essays that are mostly deeply personal. It gives us vignettes of the authors’ lived experiences, rather than providing a sweeping social commentary on the immigrant experience, although it is possible to infer this in parts. Guo wryly states that ‘an informed immigrant is a good immigrant’, whilst Moreira Marques describes the ‘cruelty of life in a large city’ as demonstrated by the story of the homeless man, himself a Portuguese immigrant, who was found dead outside the Houses of Parliament after a particularly cold night. Observations on the inequalities and changing face of London are also given by Addonia who discusses with a friend the gentrification of Barnsbury, the ‘shipping out’ of the working classes, and Zinik who describes the transformation of Soho, once ‘dark and dangerous, now it is all neon lights…swanky and organic’.
On the whole, I didn’t get the insight I was expecting into what it feels like to adopt London as your home; it was more a varied set of musings and personal recollections from a diverse set of authors, all of whom happened to have made London home at some point. And as with most anthologies, there were some pieces which resonated and struck a chord, others which I found harder to penetrate. But all were welcomed for the broadening of my world that they provided in a lockdown winter, and allowing me, from the confines of my currently very small sphere of existence, to experience my beloved city through new eyes.
Lucifer Over London is published by Influx Press, and is available to order online or from any good bookshop.
Feature image is ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ by Elodie Barnes.