Yardbirds In The Big Smoke

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Back in 2002, after struggling for several months trying to make a living in London, I did what anyone in my place wouldn't have done and went and bought a used tenor saxophone. This was after failing as a rickshaw rider due to my lack of knowledge of London's A to Z, almost being mugged while flyering outside a rave in Brixton, and getting fired from a pub in Shoreditch for serving a triple absinthe shot to a guy who ended up leaving a colourful Pollock-looking decoration on the pub's floor. I was — and still am — pretty useless at any pecuniary endeavour, but at least I could play the sax well enough to grab a couple of pounds an hour blowing jazzy muzak for the tourists. Maybe six years of music conservatory would come to my aid, I thought, proving to the world, and therefore my family and myself, the true value of a music degree.

Of course I didn't make any money busking. And not simply because music degrees are rather useless. The truth is I was too scared to open my case in order to invite coins — I was afraid of being deported or of breaking some arcane law that might have seen me thrown into a dark dungeon in the Tower of London. I would just find an isolated spot and play for a couple of hours, generally by the river or in a park, practising scales, arpeggios, a couple of solos, and whatever I could remember by heart. The hours would fly, weather allowing. And maybe here lies the true value of music in its capacity to create intensive experiences that transcend any form of logic or common sense beyond any degree. This job-search avoidance scheme, however naive, became a way of gauging my surroundings and of finally landing in London — of biding the time I needed for my mind and soul to fully arrive in this city after my body.

Of course I didn't make any money busking. And not simply because music degrees are rather useless.

I would spend these early days carrying my case all over the place, playing here and there for a while, talking to the musicians. All over London everyone was playing more or less the same tunes: Autumn Leaves, As Time Goes By, a couple of bossa nova numbers, regrettably some Kenny G too. Many of the buskers showed the same traces of frustration at being a form of publicly available light entertainment and weren't precisely welcoming. Others were outright mad. Some of them were charming and memorable, like Charlie.

Charlie used to play tenor outside Camden Town station. He was a gifted musician who could take on all the big names without a sweat: Coltrane, Gordon, Rollings, Parker. My English college at the time — the place that granted me the right to be in the UK as a student — was literally across the road from his spot. Out of the frequency of my stalkings Charlie and I ended up having a pint at The World's End. Just one, for he needed to "see a man about a dog," an expression I would come to understand years later. Charlie insisted on paying for our drinks — it had been a great day, he said. I accepted on the premise of returning the favour in the future. That was the last time I ever saw him. Some weeks later I heard from one of the other local buskers that Charlie had died of an overdose. I frequently wonder what happened to his sax, if he sold it at a pound shop to pay for the fix that finally got him, or if it was binned with the rest of his belongings after they found him dead under a bridge near Camden Lock.

When my situation in London became somewhat stable, I gave up this musical dialogue with the city. As life sucked me into middle-age “normality” I even stopped playing the sax. I could say I lack the time, but it's actually the desire that's no longer there, for whatever the reason. But the tenor is still here at home, resting in its case, untouched since who knows when. I've threatened to sell it several times but I've never summoned the courage to do it. I guess what stops me isn't the hope that I'll start playing again but the feeling that when the sax finally goes, a big slice of my history in this city (and some of the people I met) will vanish forever.

Camden Town Station, London NW1 8QL

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Cemetery

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Three years ago when I visited Paris for the first time, my boyfriend was adamant that we visit the iconic graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison at Père Lachaise. I, for one, couldn't for the life of me understand why he wanted us to visit an (almost) empty churchyard with only graves to greet.

Needless to say, it was an experience that I now cherish. Oscar Wilde's tomb, covered in red lipstick kisses, is now protected with glass to avoid further deterioration.

With Père Lachaise on my mind, I decided to travel to Highgate in North London. “Home” to Karl Marx, George Eliot and Douglas Adams, among many other notable names of years past, Highgate Cemetery proved to be a lovely little haven with glorious history and architecture attached to it.

There are many spots in London that you can make your own. Find your own corner where you set your mind free and let your spirit roam. Your own happy place. For me, up until now, it was the Southbank. But who says you can’t have two?

Like with Père Lachaise, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Highgate Cemetery. I’d read up on it, heard about it from others, but I never imagined that I’d feel the peace and tranquillity at a cemetery as I did there. Not a sound except for a few groups of tourists shuffling their feet, also making their way through the route on the map, probably looking for Karl Marx and George Eliot (who, according to the attendant there, is a “he” to Americans and Canadians). Not a peep except the occasional chirp of birds and the alien sound of aeroplanes that crowd the London skies.

Thousands and thousands of stories make up this cemetery – an asylum seeker, a boxer, a famous chef, writers, philosophers, politicians. Lives once lived, now preserved.

Even as I walked along the old headstones and marked and unmarked graves, I imagined myself going there each morning to clear my head. A brisk walk, a jog, even, with no one around. Or a summer afternoon with clear skies, only just shielded by a canopy of trees. Maybe take a book along with me, to read or to write in, sit next to Douglas Adams’s headstone and borrow a pen from his makeshift pen stand where visitors often leave a pen or a pencil as a token of their appreciation for his writing.

I thought of a quote I had once read as I walked behind the tour guide who pattered on about the Victorian Age and Gothic Revival architecture in the West Cemetery: “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms”. How apt was this quote in this place. Thousands and thousands of stories make up this cemetery – an asylum seeker, a boxer, a famous chef, writers, philosophers, politicians. Lives once lived, now preserved.

My tour guide spoke about a famous Victorian doctor whose grave now lives in the catacombs “specially preserved because he was a very important man”. I couldn’t help but laugh at that statement, at the absurdity of “importance” even in death when the body has turned to dust.

Karl Marx’s original grave, which was among “ordinary” people, is a contrast to the grand headstone he has been given now. Did these people care about being assigned special status in their afterlife? Even in death, we are divided into “rich” and “poor” just by the design of our graves. Whatever happened to “from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust”?

It was with these thoughts and questions buzzing in my mind that I left the cemetery, feeling a strange sense of peace and calm. Strange because it was a morbid place to be in. Calm because I was around so many stories lived and since untold.

The Highgate Cemetery is divided into East and West. Entry to the West Cemetery is allowed only through a guided tour for health and safety reasons.

Highgate Cemetery, Highgate Cemetery, Swain's Lane, London N6 6PJ. Phone: 020 8340 1834

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Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Is A Place Of Solidarity

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Kenwood Ladies' Pond is a pond in Hampstead Heath, just off Millfield Lane. As the name suggests, only women are allowed to swim here. Membership is available for £5 a year. Non-members can also swim by paying a fee. It is marked as Highgate Ponds on most maps.

Kenwood Ladies' Pond, Highgate Road, London NW5 1QR.


The ladies who swim in the reedy waters of the Kenwood Pond are a fearless lot. By tradition, each 1st January a group of devoted members greets the new year with a freezing plunge into the old clay pits. They share the water with ducks and the bed of tangling things underfoot.

Located on the east side of Hampstead Heath, the pond is concealed from the male gaze by a froth of trees. I find it to be a place of great solidarity. If you forget your costume, you will be offered one of the soggy spares on the changing room peg. It’s a place where women celebrate the strength and resilience of their bodies, without concern for how they look.

In the communal changing hut you will mingle with large Jewish grandmothers, naked from the waist down, and lithe, intimidating 50-year-olds. You will swim with best friends whose weekly catch-ups take place surrounded by ducks. Little rubber-capped heads become tiny as they swim out into the pond that seems bigger than it is, almost edgeless. You wonder if they'll come back but they always do, steady and careful with their energy.

Here bodies that bear the marks of age, motherhood and inertia take new pride in being useful. Nobody cares, nobody looks. We are all just arms and legs to cut through the water, lungs to power back from the slippery banks. There are no ropes or lanes, so no competition or comparison; it is a place to forget the rules of the century.

Here bodies that bear the marks of age, motherhood and inertia take new pride in being useful.

The fact that the pond is just for “ladies” is both prim and liberating. Old black and white pictures show women with cropped curls and shingle cuts laughing at the water's edge. This was a space just for them, and it was much more than just “not the men's bit”. I love the camaraderie of places made just for women – beauty salons, hamams – where you feel softness and quiet power, and know that these places are no longer second best.

You have to be strong to swim in the Ladies' Pond – children must take a swimming test first and the silty weight of the water is surprisingly difficult to move in. You also have to be patient, willing to trust your blood to warm up and able to suppress your first instinct to jump straight out screaming. On cloudy days it can look hostile, menacingly still and deep. In the summer it is paradise, with swimmers baking dry among the daisies.

A pond is perhaps the least glamorous of all swimming destinations, redolent of toads and sinking stones. It is an especially English kind of water, guarded in back gardens, a space for rain to fall in. It does not have the beauty of lakes or the fun of the sea; the pond is a stoic kind of thing. And when you exit the water at Hampstead you will have a ring of mud around your neck and a sandy darkness between your toes.

But somehow a dip in the pond is all the more cleansing for not being that clean. It gives you a small sense of achievement, reminding you that, undressed, unnamed and unobserved, you can still win private battles.

Photographs by Juhi Pande

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