Life in the family of nations: Shared needs forge bonds across the multi-ethnic community

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The Independent Online
Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street: visions of hell, they seemed to me when I first arrived in London jobless and penniless 15 years ago, places where people pushed past each other six abreast over the burning pavements, shoulder to shoulder but unrelated, eyes not meeting, faces glazed with strain.

These people came swarming from towns all over this country and countries all over the world; they had nothing in common, I thought; if one fell, surely the others would trample him underfoot.

Imagine how grateful I was to find the safe harbour of a live-in job with an urbanely wealthy English couple in Pimlico. And we did have things in common - I loved pictures, and they owned some tender Edward Ardizzones, and a Pissarro. The job sounded perfect - 15 hours' light housework a week, in exchange for pounds I0 and a basement flat where I could write.

Too perfect. Actually, I was on tap all day to shop, cook, clean and answer the soft but deadly calls of 'Coo-ee' which filtered down from above.

Moreover the cut-glass-toned lady of the house was mildly demented; she wanted me to wash her underpants by hand under her close supervision, and clean the Persian carpets with a duster, on my knees. Oh, and the basement roof let in the rain. . .

Back on the streets before long, damper but wiser, no longer believing that apparently like-minded people with Pissarros were any more civilised than anyone else, I was offered a sus-piciously cheap bedsit in Chiswick by an

accommodation agency.

'You won't like it, no one does, but never mind,' said the man.

'Why not?'

'Well, they're a bit weird. Russian.'

I stayed there for two very happy years. What I first noticed was not that they were Russian, but that everyone was old - a collection of 70 and 80-year-old women who had fled Russia because of the Revolution. My landlady, Maria Petrovna, still strikingly beautiful and even coquettish at 80, had lost her first husband, an Imperial Guardsman, to Bolshevik bullets, and had spent most of her young adulthood in camps.

Now nothing trivial bothered her - she did not fret about my boyfriends or bath-water. Besides, because all my new house-mates were old, I seemed to them charmingly, ludicrously young, a child to be encouraged with savoury pancakes or apples from the garden. They were Christian, monarchist, conservative, had lived through firing-squads and Stalinist purges; I was a socialist pantheist, and green as grass.

We had absolutely nothing in common; we got on like a house on fire. Their kindness fell like balm upon my soul. Big cities seem to me to resist socio-biolo-gical accounts of human kindness. To simplify these complex arguments, in communities where there is a good chance of people being in some way genetically related, apparently 'kind' behaviour in actuality favours the success of shared genes. (On an island this makes obvious sense). But it is harder to see the same covert logic behind Russian-born Maria Petrovna feeding Dorset-born Maggie Gee home-made cheesecake with fresh vanilla pods in London.

The street in Kensal Rise where I live now is a melting-pot of nationalities. We had not been there long when I locked myself out with my young daughter Rosa. We phoned the police from a call-box, but they didn't come. It was very hot.

We stood on the pavement looking gormless for a bit. Then Italian Anna, who lives opposite, came over with her neighbour Flora to introduce herself and ask if we were all right. Flora went and got Richard and his friend, three

houses down, who brought a short ladder. Too short, as it turned out.

So someone remembered Flora's nephew Giacomo, a builder with a long ladder and a van who lived two streets away. Ten minutes later, he was round and we were back inside, with half-a-dozen new friends.

Not long after, my father become very ill, and I was talking at the school gates about going to join my mother, who was looking after him. 'But you cannot go alone,' said Solomon, from Cameroon in West Africa. 'Eminta must go with you. Of course she will go with you.' It was a four-hour journey, Eminta had three children under six, and we had not known each other long, but their offer was instantaneous, and meant a lot to me.

The multitudes swarm on for ever, down Regent Street and across Piccadilly, multicoloured, multifarious, apparently indifferent to each other. Watching them still stuns my

senses, as it did when I first came to London. There are muggings in broad daylight, and senseless stabbings in the shadows.

And yet, there are also mornings when if one human being should accidentally fall - the flood will briefly, unexpectedly stop, and the faces will become human, and the kindness of strangers, irrational, miraculous, will bear the lost one up.

Maggie Gee's latest novel, Lost Children, was published in April by Flamingo.

(Photograph omitted)