East London Day: Biryani, Deadpool, Halloumi, Uber, Boat

As I emerged from beneath a borrowed dinosaur-duvet at a friend’s house on the hazy morning of Monday, clambering my 6 foot frame out of the rickety bunk-bed her son usually sleeps in, the enormity of the day before hit me: I had had an East London Sunday. A big one. Life-affirming, perhaps. An unexpected, largely unplanned, spontaneous day which led me to soak up the strangest of blends of experience that the East End can yield. No eels were eaten, but aside from that, it was authentic. See.

It was Sunday morning, and like every day, my waking ritual involved grappling for my iPhone, trying desperately to hold it at an angle which wouldn’t rotate the screen, but wouldn’t require me to move my head. Checked the Guardian for any life-changing news -same old Brexit. Checked Twitter – not much going on. Checked my WhatsApp – no messages.

I made a coffee and entered the living room. I couldn’t find the TV remote (later discovered it under a pack of crisps) so started live-streaming The Andrew Marr show. I watched the bit with Yanis Varoufakis, saw that Blair was coming up, so turned it off, thus protecting my Sabbath.

The day plan involved popping along to the Ahmadiyya Walk for Peace, then going for lunch with a friend, and then in the evening, ambiguously ‘going out’ for drinks. Little did I know the adventures which would befall me.

I messaged my friend Aisha, who I would later be going to the Ahmadiyya event with. She suggested we meet for coffee beforehand. I agreed.

I walked through Wanstead, the place I have called home for close to two years. It is an odd pocket which is central enough to call itself London, East enough to be called East London, and historically wealthy enough to not be called gentrified. It has been stiflingly tweely middle class for an age.  A five minute drive north of Forest Gate, Wanstead is a pocket of affluence and we happened to find an unusually reasonably priced flat here. I walked past a Labour Leave campaign table and a Labour In campaign table. I walked past the Manor House which yielded me a Saturday breakfast so large I literally had not eaten since. I got down to Wanstead Station and went west to Stratford.

In Stratford station, armed police with machine guns chilled slouchily at the balcony overlooking the atrium. As I hope is a normal response for most humans, I immediately worried that I was looking really suspicious. This was only multiplied by my inability to find DLR platform 17; this confusion forced me to walk past the aforementioned officers three times each.

I found it and hopped on, sad not to be able to sit at the front and pretend I am on Rollercoaster Tycoon. Luckily, I had a lot to keep me entertained.

Clearly, my planned quiet coffee at the Excel with Aisha had not accounted for the fact that today was Comic Con. Already perturbed by the armed officers in the station, a gentleman wearing full military gear from the Call of Duty: Black Ops game, also yielding a machine gun, sat beside me. My mind began to race, thinking very macabre thoughts about how it was that a legion of geeks (used here in an empowering way) can march onto public transport armed with machine guns and katana swords without anyone checking them out. This thought only continued throughout the day. Aisha messaged me to tell me to stay on to Royal Albert Docks; we would meet at the Ahmadiyya Peace Walk first, and then go for coffee. The armed soldier, the wizards, anime creatures and furverts all got off, leaving a more soberingly empty carriage, looking out on the industrial wasteland.

I arrived and met Aisha at the main council buildings in Docklands. What a place and what a building. Overlooking City Airport and the huge Tate and Lyle sugar factory, and beside all the rowing and watersports clubs, it is a striking spot. It was heaving with people.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community organise an Annual Peace Walk, and this year it was taking place in Newham. In an act of phenomenal generosity, the Ahmadiyya community match-fund anything raised by all the charities taking part – the day would raise thousands and thousands of pounds. It is a stunning example of community-mindedness. The area was a mirage of busy people directing people everywhere and everyone was in Hi-Vis, like a rave. Aisha showed me in and got me signed up and it was clear that this was a huge event. Aisha helps to run one of the small community organisations which was being supported by the walk: I like going to these events, and will be working with Aisha, so wanted to come along.

Ahmadis from across the UK had come to Dockside and were eager to start their walk. The Mayor of Newham was there, as was Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham. The crowds gathered outside, Quranic readings rang out over the loudspeakers, and then they were off, much to the delight of her restless sons.

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Then came a surprise. It turns out, that despite my amused messages about Comic Con earlier, we actually were going to Comic Con, and they had an extra ticket for little me. Back to the DLR I went, again sharing a carriage with some eccentrics and again marvelling (get it) at the characters. The joyful weirdness of seeing the costumes in the mundane surroundings got me, so like a good citizen journalist, I began discretely photographing everyone.

 

 

I found Aisha and the gang, and we headed in.

We entered and immediately began searching for coffee. I haven’t been into the Excel Centre before, and it is an absolute monster. It is one of the largest and most prominent exhibition spaces in the UK, and it hosts a whole world of massive events that bring people to this little bit of East London. As well as the MCM Comic Con, of ‘Revenge of the Nerds‘, as the Express termed it, the centre will soon be hosting the Annual European Congress of Rheumatology, the Safety and Health Expo, the dubious International Conference on Men’s Issues and the World Modelling Convention (or as I called it, ‘My Moment’).

As with the Olympics, it is funny who many people with so many different motivations descend on Newham.

So we managed to find a table and get some coffee, and had fifteen minutes chill time, in the middle of 135,000 nerds dressed as Stormtroopers, The Incredibles and a dinosaur.

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Then we took the kids around the exhibitions steering away from any stall which might tantalise them to want to buy anything. Again, the whole place is heaving with characters. For me, as someone with no investment in the world of comics, it just was joyfully surreal and I had no idea what was going on. I saw the Zombie stall and immediately veered away (I have a deeply irrational fear of zombies – fun fact) and absent minded bumped into two men dressed as zombies, screaming with purely white eyes as they ate a mans face for a selfie (see Trauma).

The kids came away with some Minecraft swords and then we headed back to Dockside for the rest of the Ahmadiyya event, which for me involved eating a lot of food and thanking people for the food. Biryani, rice, saag aloo, lamb, chicken, rice pudding. Dream.

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Time had ticked on, so I bid farewell to Aisha and the kids, and hopped back on the DLR. I had plans to meet for lunch (thereby making the Biryani a Starter, or perhaps a Palate Cleanser). I had planned to head back across to another of my little East End spots – Spitalfields. In about a million other blog posts I have glorified Spitalfields, so lets just say I got on the DLR, got off at West Ham, awkwardly greeted one of my pupils on the platform, then hopped on the District Line for a few stops to Aldgate East.

Aware that I almost always am late for things on weekends, as though I cram all my punctuality into the ‘Not Getting Fired’ time of the weekdays, I was power walking down Commercial Road to meet Nasima.

Nasima is a friend who works as a Senior Lecturer at the University of East London – I met her when I was mentoring and she was Professional Tutoring Mr Rocky Singh (@MrSingh_Edu). We had a loose plan to eat some Turkish food on Brick Lane, but as soon as we reached our agreed meeting place (“That gentrified sweetshop on Petticoat Lane where all the kids are probably called Sebastian”), we autopiloted towards Zengi, an Iraqi/Turkish inspired restaurant. I love Zengi. Their food makes my eyes roll back in my head, in a good way. We chatted life, jobs, work, and that ghastly Last White documentary, before necking some Mint Tea, and ambling around Brick Lane.

Brick Lane on a Sunday is a living counterclaim to the idea that there are no white people in the East End. There are millions of them; they keep the vintage-jacket market afloat and gladly spend fifteen quid a pop for a block of sustainably-sourced vegan chocolate served on a range of rustic logs. Brick Lane on Sunday is a mix of European tourists, Bangladeshi touts, cockney stall-holders and throngs of hipsters. My children documented this phenomenon on a school trip, where we played Hipster Safari and they took photos.

We meandered our way past the Cereal Killer cafe, the nexus of all that is wrong in society, beyond the dreams of Nathan Barley himself, and parted ways. Nasima headed off past Boxpark – shops and food joints all together in shipping containers – and I headed off to meet my chums from school for what I thought might be a few hours of sociable tipples.

Whilst one of our group perused for vinyl in Rough Trade, we met in the alarmingly poo-scented surroundings of The Big Chill. For some reason there was a large group of Tottenham supports there, chanting ‘Yid Army’ – this sort of thing would never have happened around these ends when the Krays were knocking about. We became a group of five and for multiple enjoyable hours, we veered around watering holes around Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Hoxton, moving dangerously close towards ‘mindless drifting’.

The weather was decent and much of the merriment was outdoors merriment. In one venue, a white singer unironically sang about Rastafarai in a broad deep Jamaican voice to a mostly indifferent crowd of halloumi-munchers and beer drinkers.

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The streets were thronged with a casual Bank Holiday crowd. We ambled on and found a decent little place with a free jukebox which I couldn’t understand, so kept on accidentally playing Kate Bush songs, which whilst brilliant, were not ‘the right vibe’. Restlessness hit our little East End drinking evening, and it was the crisis point. What to do? Head home? Call it a day? Head back towards home for food?

Then the idea for the Boat Party was floated (get it?). Sure it was far away, and sure it was hard to get back from, and sure it was getting late, and sure it was a weird thing to do, but … yes, so we decided to go. We popped to the shop and I bought some Space Raiders and ordered an Uber XL. The Spotify playlist droned out the hits of the 70s, and we passed around a jolly bottle, as we cruised through area after area, back to the Dockside near City Airport in search of the elusive party boat, the Tereza Joanne.

And then it materialised.

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The crowd was a slightly older crowd, and despite my Athenian boyish youthfulness, I somehow managed to pass easily by the Over-30s rule. It was hot, sweaty and full of a soul-funk-HipHop loving older Essex crowd of black and white displaced Cockneys. The tunes were on fire and it rumbled on into the wee hours.

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Who knew that a stationary boat, fully equipped to respect the existential virtues of HipHop, can be found on the random little riverbank of Newham? The taxi was called, we headed back to one of our homes, and the party quickly ended, with a flourish of vinyl and a conclusively passed out friend.

Waking up the next day, it dawned on me that it was a fundamentally East End day, far more in tune with the reality of the times rather than the nostalgia of yesteryear. It was gentrified and traditional. It was dirt cheap and overpriced. It was religious and irreligious. It was peaceful and it was loud. It was black, white and Asian. It was a day of fusion and blurred cultural boundaries. It was halloumi, biryani, late night chicken and Space Raiders. It was lassi, gin and water. It was heaving crowds and moments of calm.

It was exhausting.

 

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