A Summer adventure in New York

Sometimes when I read The Guardian’s Q&A question What is your earliest memory?, I am surprised that people remember moments as late as when they were three or four years old. On this, I have a crisp memory and remember symmetry in dreams when I was a toddler. I am not sure if this is unusual. Apart from that, one of my earliest childhood memories is telling family “I want to go to New York!”. My mother would attest to that. I always dreamt of travelling as a child, and New York was on top of my list. I’ve never made it until now in my 40’s, and this was also my first ever visit to the USA.

Growing up in Trinidad in the 1970’s and 1980’s, you really could not avoid being seduced and attracted by the media images of the USA. We had exposure to numerous American television programmes and film, such as, Sesame Street (aired morning and afternoon), Laverne and Shirley, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Taxi, Working Girl, etc. There are far too many other songs, films and books that represent the country and cities. New York to this day is still tops and will always be a magnet for these creative outputs. Here are some of my highlights of my recent visit ‘across the pond’ with family this summer.

My first impression at the airport was a bit of apprehension for being fingerprinted and photographed at the immigration desk, which seems like a normal Home Land Security procedure for visitors. However, trepidation was quickly replaced with genuine awe on the first sight of the city as we approached on a Go Link shuttle bus from New Jersey. There was an amazing moon above the night skyline of skyscrapers in Manhattan – I couldn’t help thinking of the film tune Arthur’s Theme with the line ‘…Caught between the moon and New York City’. As there was traffic, our shuttle driver also took us for an extended drive around the buzzing and luminous Saturday nightlife. We saw famous landmarks such as the Lincoln Centre, Times Square, Central Park and recognisable famous streets.

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Day One – Close to the hotel was the impressive art deco Chrysler building, and it is breath-taking to see this many times throughout the next week. For Sunday brunch, we tried Scotty’s Diner on Lexington Avenue. It was very busy around 10:00am with people having breakfast, which I presume was a Sunday morning tradition. It was interesting to observe the dishes being served such as French toast and pancakes with a variety of toppings. The portions are definitely bigger there!  Therefore I stuck to a muffin in preparation for the big lunch that came later at friends.

Next was the trip to Queens to visit family friends and it was an adventure from the start. The walk to Penn Station was about seven blocks but not far away to walk. Again, it was amazing to see the shops at ground level but also to look up at the amazing architecture. It was a fabulous surprise to see on route one of the world’s most famous and tallest buildings – The Empire State Building.

It was the first time I used the city’s public transport. The Long Island Rail train ticket was reasonably priced to take us to Queens and seemed to run quite frequently for a Sunday. It was packed with young people heading to the Babylon Festival and we had a friendly couple who sat next to us. The young man even checked his app to tell us when our train was due to arrive in Sutphin Boulevard. The station exit that we came out had an amazing tribute to Jazz Legends of Queens. Apparently, New Orleans may be the birthplace of Jazz…but Queens is proud to proclaim that it is “the home of Jazz”. There is even a Queens Jazz Trail. I also noticed that ‘On the Road’ author, Jack Kerouac, was also a past resident.

It was also great to spend time with very dear friends and to see the suburban homes and gardens in the neighbourhood. There was a Punjabi celebration in a park closeby and according to Wikipedia, Queens is now an ethnically mixed community.

Day Two – We decided to use the buses and to walk around Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There were no location plotters in the buses, so you had to play attention for your stop which was considerably easy due to the street grid system. I love that about New York! I think this systematic urban planning for a new city has fabulous benefits and must have been exciting for the generations that made the modern city.

As we stopped near Bleecker Street, there was street art that resonated the social and cultural heritage, including the splendid punk band  The Ramones, and others leading all the way to Little Italy. Little Italy is a must to visit, especially if like me, you have Italian connections or relatives. This is where Italian migrants settled, and although now they may have moved out of the area – it really was incredible to see the sights, story and to imagine what life was like then. Little Italy also runs parallel to Chinatown, and therefore it was interesting to see the similarities with another migrant community.

Little Italy is a must to visit, especially if like me, you have Italian connections or relatives. This is where Italian migrants settled, and although now they may have moved out of the area – it really was incredible to see the sights, story and to imagine what life was like then. …On Little Italy. 

Next was a walk to the shore through the financial district past Wall Street. The financial district had banners up boasting that it was the Best in the World’s Capital Market. As I walked through with my business information hat on – I also thought of the Wall Street Journal and NASDAQ.

A short walk away is the station for the Staten Island Ferry, which is free to use and runs every 30 minutes. It is interesting to read why it is free now, as it wasn’t always free. The wind was blustery on the ferry but the views of the city and the Statue of Liberty are breath-taking and worth a fortune for a free ride!

After the round trip back to the Manhattan shore, we walked up to the 9/11 Memorial. As I approached the memorial, my exhilarating holiday mood changed to sombre and reflection. Taking in the scale of Ground Zero and remembering the television images on that terribly shocking and sad day kept crossing my mind. It is surreal, but also strangely connections you to those tragic moments when history changed. I was there for the thousands of people who lost their lives on that day. It was both a pilgrimage, and a duty to pay my respect at the 9/11 Memorial.

That day ended with a last walk along Broadway all the way to 37th street. It took about two hours but it was fabulous to go past the buildings, the African Burial Ground, Dean and De Luca Deli (from the film Manhattan), various shops and New Yorkers. It was nice just to observe people going about their normal business and leisure activities. It is fabulous to look up at the very tall buildings as you walk along the pavements on the ground. Again, I kept thinking of the people who had designed and planned the city in the past and how fulfilling it must have been to create this amazing city with towering architecture.

Day Three – Having worked in libraries and information centres, the next day I went to see the United Nations (UN) Headquarters from the exterior with it’s famous block architecture and international flags. You can get free tickets to see the visitors centre but time was short to spend a long time there. For many years and even now, I still use UN publications and their website for information. I have also blogged at work about their Year of Pulses 2016.

Next we walked along 42nd Street past the Woodstock Hotel where apparently my entrepreneur grandfather stayed on a business trip in the 1950s. And then we walked to 41st Street towards the New York Public Library (NYPL) on Library Walk. There was a great build-up of awe on the street approaching the library with plaques on the ground aptly designed with heart-warming and uplifting proses, excerpts and quotes on books, libraries, knowledge and information. The Library was close to our hotel and it inspired me a few times that week.

The NYPL building itself is designed in an European classic architecture and built on a spot that was once a water reservoir. I only had time to see one of the reading rooms but spent some time in the library’s shop too. It was very similar to the British Library’s shop and I bought some souvenirs. One tip – the NYPL (Twitter @nypl) has a fabulous Twitter feed that you should follow!

Just behind the library was the fabulous Bryant Park. My first visit was at lunchtime and it was fabulous to see the park being used during the lunch break by workers, people playing chess or just enjoying the warm summer outdoors. There was also live music one evening, and it was really awesome to take it all in with lofty buildings surrounding the park.

Times Square was a close walk away and good to see during the day and night. Coincidently, there was recently a BBC Two ‘New York – America’s Busiest City’ series that explained that Times Square initially was home to the New York Times, hence its’ name. The advertising boards have been a part of its’ peppered history and seedy days, but has been recovered to be a focal point for digital advertising boards, news feeds for advertisers and live news broadcasts. Day and night – it seemed to be a tourist hotspot.

Day Four – We took the subway this time to Queens and again it was an opportunity to use public transport. Grand Central Station was not far and as you enter – you are impressed by the décor, the lights, astronomical ceiling mural and station elegance. There is an Oyster Bar apparently too, but I did not get a chance to see it. The journey to Queens was my first time on the subway and it is different, as well as similar, to the London Underground and other underground networks I have used. You literally go from deep underground to way overhead above ground rail tracks! New Yorkers were happy to help confirm and to give me directions. Knowing me, I still had time to look out for poetry, art and buskers.

I was meeting friends again and was picked up from Liberty station in Queens. It is the place in New York where the West Indies meets the East Indies. The shops represent a multicultural community – the melting pot that Trinidadian Angela Hunte wrote about in the song ‘Empire State of Mind’ sung by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. The food that my friends cooked or bought were on par to that in the Caribbean. It seemed like a home from home to the Trinidadian community there.

The shops represent a multicultural community – the melting pot that Trinidadian Angela Hunte wrote about in the song ‘Empire State of Mind’ sung by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. The food that my friends cooked or bought was on par to that in the Caribbean. It seemed like a home from home to the Trinidadian community there.

Day Five – After a fleeting visit on the bus to the Museum of Modern Art and a walk to Central Park, I was excited to dedicate some time to seeing the park and to having a Hot Dog! The park was created for the public health and wellbeing for the residents of the city. It is also fascinating to see in the BBC Two documentary the number of animal and plants species that have to be cared for and the enormous amount of work that needs to be carried out to maintain a park that size. The park is beautiful with lush green trees, picnic areas, street entertainers, space etc. I particularly liked the ‘Literary Walk’ with statues of favourite dead people such as Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare and Robert Burns. The park is too big to see even in one day, but it is a must to see the contrast between the green spaces and the skyscrapers that surround it.  I also had a Hot Dog by the famous Nathan Hot Dog company, as recommended by one of the park guides.

Later that day we took a train to Mount Vernon in Westchester County, which passed through Harlem and over the Hudson River. I couldn’t help thinking of the negative reputation the Bronx had in the past, but ironically and more positively the music, dance (e.g. Harlem Shuffle and Break Dancing) and art that it inspires. Apparently it is still a place of contrasting communities with gentrification creeping into areas that were once neglected parts of Harlem. On arrival in Mount Vernon on the other hand, it seemed more affluent and picturesque. The best of both worlds, it is not far from Manhattan and within reach to the city for commuters.

Day Six – I had also dedicated a day to shopping at Macy’s. It was nice to spend quality time with my mother shopping. I didn’t go on a silly spending spree but it was still kind of my mother to buy me a dress in the summer sale. It was interesting to see a ‘sale checker’ in Macy’s. I haven’t seen this facility for shoppers anywhere before. It was great for checking prices when items get mixed up or are reduced further in the sales. It was also nice of the sales staff to offer us the Charity Weekend Card at $5.00, which allowed us to have a further 25% off the price of purchases. I was really pleased with the final sales and discounted prices. So the New York shopping sales is not a myth, even with the current sterling to US dollar exchange rate.

I rarely use Taxis in London, but I used the iconic Yellow Taxis with my mother. There were lots of them around, reasonably priced compared to London and are frequently used in Manhattan. The fierce competition between Uber and these traditional taxis on the road is also mentioned in the BBC Two documentary.

I also liked the SMART City initiatives and innovations I saw such as the street platforms for checking your ‘on the go’ connections, device charging points etc. There are also digital boards to keep New Yorkers and neighbourhoods informed.

The most negative aspect of the visit was the high quantity of homeless people in the city. Sadly, homelessness is everywhere in First and Third World countries. But I hope that they are cared for by the organisations responsible everywhere, especially in countries with cold winters.

On reflection, New York is one of those places where you just have to visit! I imagine it will be interesting whatever time of year you want to go, and there are many museums and shopping that would be better in the colder seasons. It is still one of the world’s greatest cities, and I hope to visit it again another time to have another bite of that Big Apple.

Eye-catching Street Art for All

In recent years, there has been an explosion of colour and creativity with eye-catching street art across the globe. I have had an appreciation of this art form for a long time as it is usually thought provoking, skilful and beautiful. This probably stems from seeing the cult hip-hop and rap movie ‘Wild Style’ set in New York in the early 1980s. Do look at the introduction to the film to understand how this stayed with me. Graffiti on underground trains were one of the first types of graffiti street art, tags, murals, stencils etc. When I moved to London there were a few to be seen, but certainly there have been an increase in the visual landscape in parts of London and other parts of the world I have visited recently.

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Cult Film ‘Wild Style’.

Graffiti and street art are not a new phenomenon. As with ancient civilisations, humans were writing on walls to decorate them, convey messages and for pure art. In Pompeii, we have seen evidence that graffiti was written on the walls in what would have been a bustling city. In the brothels, there were graphic drawings on the walls on the types of services that were available. There are parts of the world where art must have been drawn on walls or caves with primitive instruments.

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Graffiti in Pompeii.

In recent years, there have been real stories of how street art has moved from a covert hobby to a legitimate art form. Whilst researching the topic I found the article The Law of Banksy: Who owns Street Art’ in University of Chicago Law Review by Peter N Salib, who goes into the details of street art for its social value and benefits to the community. He also discusses the financial and commercial value of street art to communities. The rights of property and creative intellectual property rights of the artists are explained in depth.

Banksy is a world-renowned artist, and so he has been keen to give voice to a world that is at times – unfair, corrupt and downright self-destructive. I love it when he collaborates anonymously and supports causes that make me think, shakes up the status quo, or that which is simply sublime. I have only seen a couple of his works close up. One of those was in Tottenham, where the artwork on the wall was removed and sold off for a large profit. I guess that is just the way of the world.

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Banksy’s ‘No Ball Games’ Street Art before it was removed in Tottenham.

There are many street artists doing this across the world as you may have noticed on social media. The Berlin Wall and Belfast have been galleries for fabulous street art and graffiti – that have changed the narrative of their recent darker past. I haven’t visited these two cities but their street art culture is very much an attraction and a valid reason for me to want to visit these cities one day.

The Berlin Wall and Belfast have been galleries for fabulous street art and graffiti – that have changed the narrative of their recent darker past. …On global street art.

I particularly like the German street artist Alias too, as a few years ago we had one of his thought-provoking calendars. I actually got excited at the beginning of each month to see what he had to offer as we turned the page each month in the calendar. To see if his art has the same affect on you – see his website for some of his street art!

The best way to see street art is to get out and take a walk. If you would like an informed guide, tours are available in clusters of London. A couple of years ago Rachel Kolsky, of Go London Tours, gave members of SLA Europe a walking tour of the East End of London. It was an added benefit to stumble across all the street art near Brick Lane. You can see the photos here on SLA Europe’s Flickr account.

In Hoxton, Shoreditch and Dalston in London – I usually have to glance at the magnificent artwork as I drive through the city. However, I have been specifically on my own walks to look and photograph street art. The whole creative energy and regeneration of the area has taken place for over a period of 16 years. I have seen changes from edgy rundown buildings to current hip venues and offices. The hoarding boards come in handy to create street art, but there are also many building walls with street art in a concentrated area.

There are many other remarkable areas of street art – such as Camden, Hackney, Islington, along the River Lea, and even closer than close, in my neighbourhood in Walthamstow!

In my neighbourhood, there has been a gradual increase in the number of street art visible around our corner. It is a fact that Walthamstow has seen a lot of regeneration, and the dreaded gentrification (which I am all for!). But also the new street art has created genuine community interest and pride in our environment. Wood Street Walls (Twitter @woodstreetwalls)  is based in my area and have worked with local businesses and buildings to add community colour, statements, beautification and identity with the local area. I can now walk five minutes to see some amazing artwork outside on walls of local pubs, cafes, shop shutters, parks etc.

As with most art forms, the community has been great in supporting artists. However funding and space for art works is still lacking, and therefore artists still require the assistance for local and central government. Street Art is fine if the walls are approved but artist also want a space for their art and therefore local authorities should be able to facilitate affordable artist spaces and studios. A couple of business engagement aspects I like are the crowdsourcing campaign by Wood Street Wall for the residents to ‘Pick Their Pattern’ of an image of William Morris that they wished to be painted on a wall near the William Morris Gallery. And campaigns that ran to crowdfund for specific art projects.

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Completed William Morris crowdsourced ‘Pick a Pattern’.

If you are without these in your environment – you can get a copy of the book ‘London Graffiti and Street Art’ by Joe Epstein. It contains great photographs of street art across London, but also some inspirational and admirable quotes from street artists and what their art means to them.

One fabulous quote in this book by artist Zaki Dee 163 – The Chrome Angelz/The Others is: “Having been born in London, and grown up here in the 70’s and 80’s, through the 90’s, I was lucky enough to have been involved in, arguably, the three biggest movements of the last 40 or 50 years. From Punk and New Wave, into Hip Hop, through to the House/Rave scenes – and it’s no coincidence that London was at the forefront of all these subs-cultures when they first exploded onto these shores. After all this time, the UK graff scene is still going strong, and in London you can see some of the best work this country has to offer.”

It is fantastic and uplifting to see street art in clusters, isolated or even in the most unexpected places. They are a joy to behold! And just to keep us hooked…street art changes over time, and so it is worth going back occasionally to see new displays that are freely available to us all.

Indulgent Flavours with Food Fusion

I really enjoy when people start talking about fusion foods and dishes as I feel quite at home on this subject. It has always been one of my passions. As a Trinidadian, it comes naturally as a direct result of centuries of our collective history, geography, culture and more recently due to globalisation.

In relatively small islands in the Caribbean, Trinidadian cuisine has been allowed to fuse for centuries by its rich history, multiculturalism and the diversity of its people. The islands’ heritage were made up of Amerindians, Africans, Indians, Europeans, Chinese, South Americans, Syrians and Lebanese – the fusion of cultures and different ethnicities have influenced its cuisine as well as other elements like its music. Trinidadian food writer, Wendy Rahamut, wrote in her cookbook ‘Caribbean Flavors’ that “each of these cultures has left its own unique mark on the food of the region evolving in their own way to produce a new type of fusion cuisine that is mouth-watering, spicy and delicious.”

“Each of these cultures has left its own unique mark on the food of the region evolving in their own way to produce a new type of fusion cuisine that is mouth-watering, spicy and delicious.”

-Wendy Rahamut wrote in her cookbook ‘Caribbean Flavors’ 

Over 27 years ago in 1989, Alan Davidson described Trinidadian food in an article ‘Cooking up a Rainbow’ for The Sunday Times as “Food in Trinidad is an attractive hodgepodge and it does reflect the ethnic mix.” Right up to date to the present, this is also very much happening in Trinidad with new generations tapping into the richness and uniqueness of the islands as mentioned in this article ‘The Trinidadian Eating Experience’.

As a differentiation between world cuisine and fusion food – world food is when the dishes remain pure to its identity but are consumed by other groups. On the other hand, fusion food is when the ingredients, culinary techniques, skills and most of all…tasteful flavours have been merged and/or used to enhance a particular dish. I am not a food industry expert to define it as such, but it certainly seems to me that is the result with fusion food.

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Trinidadian Food at my friend Sherry’s House Party in Trinidad.

I grew up in an East Indian home but long before then, there were other cultural ingredients in our makeup that was accessible which meant that we adopted and adapted different styles and influences over 200 years. A typical Sunday lunch in Trinidad can be rice, callaloo (spinach dish with an assortment of vegetables, crabs and coconut milk), stew meat, roti (flatbread originating from Asia), and macaroni pie with fresh salad – there are continents of the world connected just on that one special plate! Not only is this fusion food – it is soul food!

There are continents of the world connected just on that one special plate! Not only is this fusion food – it is soul food! …on Trinidadian Food.

My love of food got more interesting when I moved to North London as a student. My family and friends exposed me to all types of restaurants and cuisine ranging from Greek-Cypriot, Turkish, Italian, Nigerian, Asian, Bengali and some traditional English dishes. It seems that fusion food has evolved in my time here too, with mixing and experimentation occurring to this day. Everyone can observe (and even better, taste!) that London is a fully cosmopolitan capital and so the city is lucky to offer these flavours to accent some of the best diversity of world cuisine.

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Sushi – I made after a Lesson in 2014.

Continue reading “Indulgent Flavours with Food Fusion”

On the beat with Community Action

It takes a Village to raise a Child – African Proverb

I was born and grew up in a village in Trinidad but I was certainly no country bumpkin! The village, Dow Village, was smallish in size but mighty in activity and life.

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Diwali Street Scene in Trinidad

We were very busy with several multi-cultural, multi-religious, traditional and modern activities, events and celebrations. As I look back at those early childhood years of village life on a Caribbean Island, I realise that we had a special community energy and participation in many aspects. We had bazaars and raffles to raise funds for various initiatives towards sports days, construction of buildings, treatment for unwell villagers, the Temple’s fund, local schools, re-enactment of Ramlila, Diwali Celebrations, Christmas, Eid-al-Fitr, Holi (Phagwah), street and house parties, and other events (please let me know if I forgot any!).  Some of the activities we held would entail selling fresh food, tea parties, Bar-B-Ques, Curry-Qs, playing games, and various entertainment ranging from sound systems to live music (such as tassa drums, Indian Orchestral to local Rock Bands). The village then was busy with life – it never felt boring or backwards.

Residents left their doors unlocked and gates open with low crime levels. Everybody knew everybody and it was used to our advantage – to build our community, to watch out for each other, to have pride in our neighbourhood.   There were bad points occasionally with fallouts but generally my village has stood the test of time. Up to now, I love my neighbours in Dow Village and I am sure that they love me too. We experienced everything from life to death and we can still touch base with each other wherever we are in the world with modern technology. Some of us may have left our villages for the wider world but David Rudder and Carl Jacobs sing in the Calypso ‘Trini to De Bone’:

“There’s no place like home some people say
Though some have to leave to make their way
But in their hearts I know their destiny
To come home and big up dey country” – Trini to De Bone.

I came to study in London over twenty-five years ago and lived in Hornsey and Tottenham initially. I used to hang out in Holloway, Highbury, Stoke Newington and Islington. It was interesting from the offset to experience so many cultures, tribes, languages and communities in North London. These ranged from North Londoners, Cockneys, Post-Punks, Irish, Greek Cypriots, Turkish, Kurdish, Nigerians, West Indians and lots more other ethnicities. It was a new melting pot for me to take in.

I eventually ended up in Walthamstow and was sceptical to move to East London as I had grown used to North and North East London. However, the timing was right again. Walthamstow still had affordable family homes, green spaces, and convenient travel links and a community feel about it. Moving to live here was a very good decision in the long term, and so the community story continues.

Walthamstow was recorded c. 1075 as Wilcumestowe (“the Place of Welcome”) and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Wilcumestou. It does lie geographically on the edges of London and was a route between London and Waltham Abbey. Today that welcoming community spirit is still alive and kicking in Walthamstow. There are many remarkable things about the town and a few of them include:

  • The famous Walthamstow Market which is renowned for being the longest street market in Europe. I understand it has changed over the years but you can still get great bargains.
  • William Morris Gallery in gorgeous Lloyd Park, which was once the home of William Morris, world renowned designer, craftsman, poet, writer and socialist. His creations, ethos and influence are still relevant and inspiring today.
  • The Village area has old buildings and quaint houses which make you wonder about the past and the people who lived there. There lies too the Vestry House Museum which has permanent and temporary exhibitions, a community room and beautiful garden. I have been on guided walks with Joanne Moncrieff‘s Westminster Walks, who tells you all the facts about the buildings and area to bring them alive.
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Storytelling by Mike at the Walthamstow Garden Party, The Lloyd Park Centre.

There are two community initiatives that I actively contribute to: The Lloyd Park Centre charity and the Poets’ Corner Residents Associations. Since 2004 at The Lloyd Park Centre, I have been a Management Committee and Fundraising and Events Group member. After many years thinking of helping in a local charity, the timing was right to start. I was inspired to get involved when I heard that this organisation was formed by volunteers in the 1980’s and still depended on community participation in its constitution, operation and strategic direction. It is also the lifetime commitment of inspiring Pauline Thomas MBE. The organisation’s history and commitment over the years is very admirable. In my time there, it has moved from portable cabins to an environmentally purpose-built designed building, and its financial turnover has doubled. I have seen it grow from strength to strength in offering children and family services such as day care, holiday clubs, baby clinics, Dad’s Club, Twins Club, Grandparents support, Autism support, outreach and a franchise of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Mobile Library to a deprived community.

I have volunteered consistently for all these years and have been very ‘hands on’ in attending regular meetings, helping when and where I can with my skills, knowledge and most of all…my time. Committee meetings are not so daunting as you are briefed and guided by the other committee members who are already there. As time goes by, I have learnt from the organisation and challenged myself to activities that I wasn’t aware I could do – for example, I cooked for 200 people in their kitchen for a fundraiser! Generally I plan, organise and run events in my own time and all other activities that a local busy charity requires. I have to hone in on my organisational skills as this is not my day job and from my use of social media – you can see what I get up too! As with everything, nothing stays the same and the organisation is constantly evolving, improving and taking on new challenges.

I am proud that when I worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers I won a financial award for volunteering as part of their Community Affairs programme (Hello David!). They have a long history of Corporate Social Responsibility. I also have won the charity’s Volunteer and Fundraiser award a few times. However, it means a lot more than that to me. Over the years, my volunteering was a team effort to raise money and my goals really were to give support, help as much as I can and to be engaged in an organisation that has made a huge contribution to the local community and families for over 30 years. The last 12 years have been fun, satisfying and helped me developed outside of my day job and profession. It has relit that community flame that I had as a child in Trinidad.

Child is the Father of Man – William Wordsworth

I was made redundant about four years ago when I needed to re-focus my energies and give back to the place where I live once again. Luckily I had the time to volunteer in my neighbourhood residents associations when we were planning our London 2012 ‘Milimpics’ street party. We have our own Poets’ Corner blog and social media channels that have been going since 2012. We have since rebranded to Poets’ Corner E17, as there are streets named after Poets and we are on a corner. We have been constantly engaged in transformational regeneration initiatives that are happening on our doorsteps!

We are also very keen to support local businesses and love our high street. I have seen derelict shops being taken over as pop-up shops to permanent retail outlets. In the last few months – there are several new high street shops emerging such as coffee shops, art shop, craft beer, chocolate shop, giftware, Italian deli and hairdressers. Local venues Ye Olde Rose and Crown, The Bell Pub and Mirth Marvel Maud are used as meeting social places and also are at the heart of the nightlife. The last five years have been amazing, heart-warming, social and definitely local.

 

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Little Free Library Project – in Poets’ Corner.

We have continued the spirit of London 2012 Olympics with many activities including an annual street party simultaneous as the national Big Lunch celebrations, spring cleaning (which has made me obsessive about dumped rubbish and litter!), crime-watching, Halloween Party, Puppet Show and fabulous Christmas Carolling on the street. We have also taken part in the magnificent E17 Art Trail which has made us work collaboratively to display Estate Agents boards as ‘Poets for Sale’ with poems in our front gardens. For the 2015 project, we created ‘I want to tell you a story…’ stories on places on Walthamstow. Residents Barry and Lesley Coidan have been the driving force for a lot of these initiatives and deserve special recognition and appreciation. Before I forget to mention – we also have two Little Free Libraries in the neighbourhood, which started in Walthamstow for the United Kingdom (original idea is from the USA).

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Why am I telling you this? I enjoy taking part in community events. I also think there is a special energy that I have been lucky to experience in my homeland of Trinidad many years ago, and here now in Walthamstow. It is very fulfilling and reassuring that we have neighbours and people in the community that we can rely on, pull together and to contribute to our society on wider urban issues, such as crime prevention, sustainability, environment, economy, culture, festivities and general awesomeness.  You just have to remember the terrible London riots of 2011 to recall what it is like when neighbourhoods fall apart and communities are at threat when you take your eyes of the ball.

I don’t have my own business but if I did – it would be based on the arts, crafts or food in the community. Volunteering has made me certain about that and myself. With Utopian and socially ethical views, I would feel compelled to consider where I live, the people it is going to affect, how we can work together to make our part of the world better for ourselves but also for my immediate neighbours.

Anyway, I really love taking part in the fun, and all the exciting energy and buzz of Walthamstow. We are celebrating our next Brazilian theme street party soon in tuned to the Brazil 2016 Olympics. And so the beat goes on, and on.

Trinidad Carnival is Colour

Well, I have finally done it! I have my very own blog after many years of suggestions from friends and acquaintances that I should have my own online space.  I am a fairly prolific social media user, have blogged for work, guest blogged and used collaborative technologies since the 1990’s as work in libraries and information centres.

In the past I am too busy with other things to have time to blog, but I feel the time has come to merge my stories as they become interwoven into one space.  It may be easier for me to do this here due to the info centric, rich connections and experiences I encounter in my simple life, community, work and profession.  Let’s face it … this online space is for everyone to use for good and I also want to use this as an archive for future reference.

For my first post, I wanted to write briefly about Trinidad Carnival which occurs every year two days before Mardi Gras, directly followed by Ash Wednesday and Lent.  It is a time of year where I instinctively feel excited, and try to tune in from wintery cold England to the heat, energy, bursting creativity and vibrant colours or as wef4ffd61ffe17e19013e28c4547029b39 say… bacchanal (derived from bacchus) that is Trinidad Carnival.

The history of Trinidad Carnival is long and goes back to the 18th Century when the European plantations owners celebrated masquerades before lent.  Their African slaves were not allow to take part but formed their own caboulay celebrations. Here they developed mas’ (abbreviated from masquerade) as we know it now – whereby African musical and dance traditions fused with European masks and costumes into an eclectic and exotic mix.

 

And so I am writing this in London, but my heart strays away to the land of my birth this time of year. From as early as I can remember, I can remember Carnival! Carnival is part of the Trinidadian (Trini for short) psyche, mindset and makeup (no pun intended). Children would take part in schools by making masks and costumes. Usually schools arrange a bit of a “jump up” dance for the parading of these creations on the Friday before the Carnival weekend. There would be an extra tinge of excitement in the air as it is the start of four days of holidays for the Carnival celebrations. The actual big and commercial celebrations usually start the previous year with the launch of Carnival bands, parties or ‘fete’ as we say, being once a French colony. This is big business now, for when one Carnival finishes, the planning for the next year starts immediately after a short break.

I found some gems of carnival video clips from the 1950s when British Pathe digitised their archive.  The effort that went into the costumes are stunning with wonderful results.  I wondered if they were funded centrally or whether the costumes were made out of their own pockets! Anyway, I love the themes such as American Native Indians, Egyptians and all the other finer details in the mas. In the 1970s and 1980s, I had noticed even then that cameras and broadcasters transmitting the parades to people’s homes and possibly abroad.

As a child, I used to be excited waking up on Carnival weekend as the whole weekend would be a visual and rhythmical treat. Saturdays during the day would be filled watching on television the ‘Kiddies Carnival’ and later that night, some of the steel pan ‘Panorama’ competitions. The show usually finishes late, so I sometimes never saw all of the steel bands. What people don’t realise – the steel bands themselves in Trinidad are massive and consist of scores of musicians and organisers.  The orchestras fill a large part of the epicentre of the competitions at the Queen’s Park Savannah stage. The flag bearers were generally women who danced away to the steel drums on stage and were a treat to watch too – they waved it and shaked it!

On Sunday there would be the Dimanche Gras competition showcasing the large Kings and Queens Carnival costumes and the Calypso competition.  This is no longer the competiton format but it was exciting to see it then over the weekend.  The televised shows always made exciting live viewing and that was very special about Trinidad (this year I listened to live radio via the web in London and have seen live streaming on the web too in the recent years!).   

I remember the costumes being very elaborate and colourful in the late 70s and 80s. Now the costumes are still beautiful but a bit monotonous, as they are mainly bejewelled bikinis with feathers.  Don’t get me wrong – I guess this has made mas more accessible and now everyone can afford to participate in a piece of the action in an all-inclusive Carnival band.  A relative told me that most of the big bands mas are currently manufactured in China. However, I saw a few years ago that some top designers such as Brian Macfarlane still make theatrical theme-based mas, and also there are still organically handmade costumes in some communities across Trinidad.

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Jab Jab – Brian MacFarlane.

On Carnival Mondays, we would wake up to young children in my hometown Dow Village wearing their homemade masks.  They will go door to door chanting slogans and making noisy music with a pan and stick expecting small money for their efforts.  Pocket money  was given as an appreciation for their efforts.  Sadly, I understand this tradition doesn’t happen now in my village. From early morning on Carnival Monday when it is still dark, there would be live television broadcasting of J’ouvert – the official start of the adult Carnival on the streets of the cities.  I only attended J’ouvert once in Port-of-Spain circa 1985 with relatives and we got there for about 3am in the dark.  It was amazing to witness and participate in a celebration with people dancing on the streets at that time in the early hours of the morning.  The debauchery, dancing and parading would continue into the daylight of mid-morning. This is broadcasted on live television too, if you can’t go out to the streets. In recent years in London, I love seeing dawn tweets of Trinidad J’ouvert on Twitter.

J’ouvert leads on to the official parades of bands. Historically there is no wasting of time on the start of Carnival and revellers make the most of time before the Ash Wednesdays cool-down.  The rest of the day would be spent watching the Monday parades of bands on the Television.  My village had traditional celebrations such as Jab Jabs (derived from Spanish for diablo) dressed as devils with whips.  Unique to my village, some East Indians in the community would also have a parade to the beat of East Indian tassa drums to the next main town Couva.

On the final day that is Carnival Tuesday, our parents would always take us to Port-of-Spain (my mother’s hometown) to see the mas meeting up with our large family with homemade picnics and snacks for the day including delicacies like our own Trinidadian pilau (mixed rice dish with meat, pigeon peas and vegetables).  There we would be based all day to see the great and traditional masqueraders displayed on the Queen’s Park Savannah stage.  We would see traditional masqueraders such as the Sailor Bands, Midnight Robbers, American Indians, Minstrels, Moko Jumbies on stilts and blue devils covered with blue powder to name a few characters. There too, we saw the great bands of 3000 plus masquerade members by designers such as Raoul Garib, Wayne Berkeley, Stephen Lee Heung and my all time favourite designer – the world renown Peter Minshall.

Peter Minshall not only created beautiful exquisitely designed costumes for Kings, Queens and his band members – he retained the theatrical themes and origins of the mas with performances on the main Queen’s Park Savannah stage. Frequently his costume designs were provocative for social and political commentary with theatre and drama.  For example, I remember vividly on television the King of Carnival performance and showcasing of Mancrab for his band theme ‘The River’ – it was pure drama!  This was aired live on television to the movement and sound of calypso music.  I still think of the year he created the band Rat Race and the vision of hundreds of people dressed as Rats in the ‘savannah’ and on the streets of Port-of-Spain.  It is hard to cover all the beauty, vibrancy and growing up with Trinidad Carnival but they are cherished memories of the creativity and the celebration of our people.

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Rat Race by Peter Minshall.

On the business side of Carnival, Minshall is renowned for exporting his talent and creations at major global events such as the Barcelona and Atlanta Georgia Olympic Games Opening ceremonies.  He is also credited for designing the Tall Boy which he patented and invented with Doron Gazit.  It was great to see him also back from a haitus from Carnival in 2016 with his design of ‘The Dying Swan’.

There would be no Carnival without music.  Kaiso and the oral traditions came over with African Slaves and evolved into calypso and eventually to the modern day soca (soul and calypso).  The development of this music genre is innovative and laced with fusion beats and can be social and political commentary but generally is more upbeat, rhythmic with innuendos for having a good time.  Nothing can beat a good calypso to get a fete going or everybody on a dance floor or street. I still actively look forward to the new music releases and social media is a great tool for that hobby.  I remember when I first came to London, I had no clue what the latest releases were as I tend to listen to mainstream British radio and not the UK soca radio stations.  I used to receive cassettes sent over with relatives who went to holiday to Trinidad. Thankfully now I can find music on online radio stations, You Tube and via my own social network.  Forbes recently published a list of Carnival Entrepreneurs with the Trinidad Carnival Powerlist and there is much talk that soca music is finally going mainstream. I hope so, with so many Caribbean Carnivals being celebrated across the globe.

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At the British Library where I currently work, this is the final week for the dazzling exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’. I am extremely grateful to the curators of the exhibition for helping me understand the world and for my own self-discovery as an Indian-Trinidadian. I learnt so much about West African culture and its oral traditions, ancient manuscripts, symbols, fabric, musical instruments, musical history and art forms. It was also an immense pleasure to see the ‘Carnival Queen’ designed by fellow Trinidadian Ray Mahabir on the speaker-box with a nucleus of calypso and soca music curated to visuals of Nottinghill Carnival inside the speaker-box. Being in there, it was one of the moments when you can see all the dots joining up – a world connected. Old with the new.

Being in there, it was one of the moments when you can see all the dots joining up – a world connected. Old with the new.

I feel I can write a book on my experiences on Carnival, which has been dubbed a long time ago as the greatest show on Earth. I borrowed a few books to research from the British Library before my visit last year for Trinidad Carnival, and it has been documented for its social, cultural and delightful impact.

Today in London,  I wanted to remind those who know me that it is Carnival Tuesday and I can’t help my thoughts straying to Trinidad and that infectious energy, freedom, rhythms, empowerment and colour of my country and the people.   Later this year, I look forward to a little bit of that enjoyment at the Notting Hill Carnival in August.

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