New Victoria artistic director Theresa Heskins has attracted critical acclaim for the globe-trotting zeal of her hit production of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, currently at London’s Cadogan Hall as part of an extensive new UK tour. She recalls how, growing up in south London, a lack of foreign travel didn’t prevent her from being influenced by all manner of far-flung cultures.
Apart from the odd drive out to Margate if the sun shone, we were a remarkably unadventurous family. Sitting out on the balcony with a bag of salty vinegary chips was a high day. God forbid that, like Auntie Betty, we would sign up for passports and buy big suitcases and mini sized toiletries and get on aeroplanes and go and stay abroad. In hotels. Where you would, of course, be forced to eat foreign food and listen to people speaking foreign languages whilst practising their strange foreign lifestyles.
Despite this circumscribed existence, I managed to learn a lot about life outside of the Elephant & Castle, London SE1. I never stayed in a hotel or possessed a passport. But the world, with it all its richness of foreign food and foreign languages and foreign lifestyles, was kind enough to come to me instead. Because SE1 in the 1970s was a remarkably cosmopolitan place.
In the flat next door to us lived Anna and Paulo with their sons Paolo Jr and Giacomo, who were the same ages as my sister and I. Paulo Sr was a chef in an Italian restaurant and would bring back treats like stripey multi-flavoured ice cream that he called cassata. Anna was a mean cook herself, and would often bring round a portion of her meatballs with spicy tomato sauce.
I never stayed in a hotel or possessed a passport. But the world, with it all its richness of foreign food and foreign languages and foreign lifestyles, was kind enough to come to me instead.
One sunny afternoon Paolo Sr called all us kids downstairs. Surrounding a yard, each flat had its own pram shed, used either to stash a statuesque Silver Cross pram or as a storage cupboard, depending on the age of the family’s children. Paolo took the padlock off the door, pulled out a big blue plastic half barrel, and reached into the darkness at the back of the shed. Out came a crate of grapes. He tipped them into the barrel. Another crate. And another. Precious fruit, seen only at Christmas in our house, poured in by the boxful. And then, even more extraordinary. ‘Take off your flip flops, kids’ (in an Italian accent). And we did, and he lifted us into the barrel, and there in SE1, looking over the wire fenced playground to the Old Kent Road and the notorious Heygate Estate beyond, we actually trod grapes. I’ve often wondered how that wine turned out.
My friends Lucky and Barbara were second generation Jamaican and Bardadian respectively. Lucky was an only child, and her mum a single parent and hospital nurse who worked unsociable hours, so I often spent time at their house watching an independent thirteen-year-old prepare her own dinner. Callalloo salt fish, ackee, jerk snapper, plantain, rice with coconut and gunga peas. We’d watch telly in the front room, where I was struck by the ornate, ugly/beautiful glass cabinet full of precious ornaments. The same piece of furniture dominated Barbara’s front room. Her mum, in gorgeously formal English filtered through the warmth of her Bajan accent, spoke about this cabinet as if it were a symbol of her life in Britain. She clearly valued both enormously. She also talked about ‘Back Home’, where chickens roamed in the yard and you could pick breadfruit and mango off the tree.
On Sundays, she’d put on a hat and white gloves, pick up her best handbag and go off to the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I went along once, to a family christening. A very different experience to popping along to the big stone C of E church for the Mother’s Day ceremony (they gave out free daffodils for the children to take home to mum, which was why I became a committed Christian on that one day of the year). By contrast, the Adventist church was in a building that felt more like a community centre, and had wooden school chairs lined up instead of pews, and the christening turned out to be a naming and blessing – baptism would come later. At school, Religious Education, with its emphasis on Bible studies, couldn’t be opted out of, but I was learning most about the faiths of the world direct from the people who practised them.
On the corner of our street was Hansa and Shanti’s newsagents. Hindi-speaking South Asians who’d fled Idi Amin’s Uganda, they’d worked ferociously hard to re-establish themselves in business. A brightly coloured little Shiva danced by the till. I worked there after school each day and became part of the extended family. Scrupulously polite about the language they used in my presence, yet their fluent English made copious use of Hindi words, in this way I picked up a few morsels – enough to namaste the many relatives who’d pop in from time to time. Hansa drank copious amounts of chai, and taught me to make little parcels of spiced vegetables she called samosas; and took me to her nephew’s wedding, where the bride wore a flame-red sari and jewellery so gold it was almost orange, and I was startled to discover that all the food must be served by men.
I often wonder whether the adventurous life choices I’ve made were influenced by being exposed to so many different lifestyles. And I hope that somehow young people growing up in less diverse communities are able to gain the knowledge that there’s a big wide world out there.
What with three hours a night at Hansa and Shanti’s, and six school hours a day sitting next to my best friend Bhavna, a Gujarati-speaking Hindu whose name had been chosen by the horoscope cast at her birth, perhaps it’s no surprise that I arrived home one evening to inform my mum that I’d become a Hindu. I would no longer be able to eat meat, I told her. Like the daffodil ruse, this wave of spiritual conviction was motivated by something more earthly: my poor mum didn’t really like cooking, and it showed. Perhaps that’s why other families’ kitchens held such a fascination for me.
Down the Old Kent Road, Yvonne’s dad owned and ran a caff. They were a Turkish family, and very strict. She was permitted by school to wear trousers as part of her uniform, instead of a skirt. Her dad didn’t like her socialising even with schoolmates, so we’d sneak in when he was out and sit at the formica tables, snacking on rice wrapped up in exotic vine leaves, which she called dolmades.
Nor were my own family slack on the ‘cultural melting pot’ front. Only a generation earlier than Anna and Paolo and Hansa and Shanti and Yvonne’s dad and Barbara’s mum, my granddad had used his precious British passport to up sticks, leaving the idyllic setting of his folks’ Cypriot olive farm to seek his fortune in SE1. Surprisingly, he decided to become a hairdresser. He was followed in the 1970s by parents, siblings, cousins, all their ancestral home after invasion and division. Sturdy women dressed in black speaking lively Greek; sad-faced silver-haired men used to a life of agriculture, crashlanding in smoky Inner London. Today, Nicosia, where they came from, is the world’s last divided capital.
That was my Mum’s side. My Dad was the son of a market barrow boy: Cockney through and through. With him we’d go ‘down East Lane’ on Sundays, where sometimes you’d actually spot a Pearly King and Queen. We’d sample sasparilla and cockles and whelks. For a treat we’d go into a pie and mash shop and have a dishful, with its mysterious ‘green liquor’.
Though I’m glad to have lived in that part of London, I’ve never wanted to move back. I value too much the openness, both of landscape and of people, I’ve encountered in the places I’ve lived since. But I miss the exuberant diversity of the place I grew up in. I often wonder whether the adventurous life choices I’ve made were influenced by being exposed to so many different lifestyles. And I hope that somehow young people growing up in less diverse communities are able to gain the knowledge that there’s a big wide world out there, and many ways of living your life too.
Around the World in 80 Days continues at London’s Cadogan Hall until 2 September 2017 only. It then visits 14 further theatres around the country and concludes with a Christmas season at The Lowry in Salford Quays from 5 December 2017 to 7 January. Click here for full tour schedule.