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The Mapmakers of Spitalfields

Written by Chris Searle for Tribune on no date provided

ALONG the canyoned streets of Spitalfields in London’s East End, a Bengali man incessantly walks, from Brick Lane into all its tributaries - Hanbury Street, Spelman Street, Chicksand Street, Old Montague Street - saluting his neighbours as if they are of one kin. In his mind, he maps out this city, drawing a blueprint for a new metropolis, sketching out with ‘expectant maps’ the dreams of its arrivant peoples, as they struggle with its hostility and racism. Pursued by ruthless ‘mad-catchers in white overalls’, he feels ‘the cold like an icy syringe digging deep under his skin’. Once he led the defenders of his east London streets against crop-headed young fascists selling Bulldog and throwing bricks into restaurants. Now, those battlements are the streets of his secret surveying, of the ‘golden city’, that his neighbours had mapped in their dreams. Such is the setting of the title story of Syed Manzurul Islam’s luminous collection, a work of rare empathy and moving insight into the minds and hopes of new Londoners.

Sometimes his characters remind you of Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, written in 1956 about the Caribbean experience three generations ago. They remember the ‘lost place’ of their riverside, village homes as enchanted gardens and ‘fabulous’ locations. They see themselves as ‘castaways’, with a dragging nostalgia compounded with visions of alchemy in this new, confusing city that promised from afar to give so much.

In the story, ‘Going Home’, they meet every week to fan that same sense of elegiac inflaming, through their ‘lacerated alliance in this no man’s land’. Yet, in contradiction, they seize this place which is now their home: they will not give it up. ‘London is our city, so let us take the city’, they declare, and to make it theirs they need this new cartography, these new routes and clear roads ahead. For they are an antidote to old illusions. In ‘The Tower Of Orient’, Munir and Soraya move into a tower block with a heavenly view of the Thames, the London skyline and the rising banks of Greenwich. The ‘opulence beyond all dreams’ seems to have arrived for them in this ‘destination of fabled fortunes’. Yet what do they find? What are the meanings behind the muttered words of the old white woman who is their new neighbour, who sees them come into their new home and says: ‘God, what’s next?’ What is below them, as the ‘metallic grave’ of the lift falls down - with them inside it?

These are moments that are also emblems of the whole lives of these new map-makers, and Syed expresses them with a poignant and powerful eloquence. His book is a key text of our cities and their now-times, and should be read by all those who claim a part of their future.

This is a review of The Mapmakers of Spitalfields

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