Lost in Cricklewood: the immigrants who wound up living on the A5

Filmmaker Mark Isaacs describes the inspiration behind his latest BBC Four documentary The Road: A Story of Life and Death

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The Independent Culture

A year or so before the London Olympics was due to start and people from all over the world would arrive in London in their droves, I was thinking how great it would be to make a film about the lives of some of the people from elsewhere who were already living here in London.

I had recently moved to Kilburn from the East End of London and became fascinated by the road I was now living on. Everyday, I would pass by the hundreds of shops and houses inhabited by people from almost every corner of the globe and slowly I became determined to find out more about their lives.

The road in question is known today as the A5. It cuts a straight line from Marble Arch through Maida Vale, Kilburn and Cricklewood and continues out to the North West of London, eventually coming to an end some 260 miles away in Holyhead, North Wales. It is the UK's oldest Roman road, full of history and the ghosts of the past.

With a small team of researchers and a commission from the BBC Storyville strand, I set about looking for people on the road whose lives touched me in some way, people who I believed would have the power to move and engage a cinema and television audience and get beyond the stereotype of the ‘immigrant’. One of the first people I met was a 60 year-old Irishman called Billy. I found him staring into space in a cafe in Cricklewood accompanied by scores of other Irishmen of his generation. They seemed like a lost tribe to me. They had arrived in Cricklewood in the 1960s (via Holyhead) to build our roads and work on the transport system. None of them were working anymore, most had cut ties with the 'home country'; they were lost in Cricklewood.

Next to the cafe, a group of Eastern European men stood on the very same street corner where the Irishmen had stood 40 years earlier, hoping to be picked up by builders for a days labouring work. I grew very close to Billy over the course of filming and he revealed so much of his life to the camera. Billy passed away during the making of the film but his memory lives on in it.

Billy often spent his nights in a pub in Kilburn listening to Irish folk music. On one occasion, I filmed him watching a young Irish girl singing to the punters. Keelta had recently arrived in London from the north east of Ireland determined to make it as a singer. Her voice captivated me and I decided to follow her story too.

In a hotel in Maida Vale, an elegant and unassuming Kashmiri concierge called Iqbal, told me something that stuck in my mind throughout the process of making the film. He said: “When you leave your country and you come to a new place you lose your home twice, you lose both the place you have left behind and the place where you arrive… You think it will be the most civilised place in the world… but then you realise it is not like this”.

The film follows Iqbal as he is waiting for his wife to receive a visa so she can join him in London, and his words clarified to me just how many immigrants live in a transient space caught in between two worlds.

His words found an echo in the lives of many of the people I filmed on the road. Bridgette, a German former air stewardess, who I discovered running a lodge for foreign language students in her flamboyant home in Cricklewood, tells poignantly of how she was most happy in her life when in the air and belonging to nowhere. Now she has come down to earth, her life is more difficult as she struggles to deal with her estranged husband who ran off with her best friend.

The film’s laugh-out-loud moment is when Peggy, a 95-year-old Jewish lady from Vienna, speaks revealingly about her relationship with her husband. Peggy had a wonderful sense of humour and is perhaps my favourite character in the film. Her revelation of how she still dreams of being re-united with her mother, killed in Auschwitz, will always stick in my mind.

Through the lives of these people featured in the film, I dig into some basic questions of belonging and the search for home. Like many Londoners, I am drawn to the vibrancy and changing nature of the Capital but also acutely aware of the solitude and loneliness experienced by many who live here. Out in Colindale, I film a group of Burmese Buddhist Monks who have no interest in finding home and belonging in this world. For them, the possibility of peace lies elsewhere.

This sense of oneness with the world will never come to most of us and like the immigrants in the film we too are in a state of transience. In this sense, I hope the film holds up a mirror to all of our lives.

Storyville: The Road: A Story of Life and Death can be viewed on BBC iPlayer