How I saved the trees and other stories.

In 1986 I drove and parked easily my Austin 1300 with sun roof and cassette player to Vicky Park at eight in the morning where the deer grazed and my family plucked shiny conkers from the ground. The red globes lay shiny in the unused but now oft desirable grate waiting to be players. One day I chucked them out into the garden.

The conkers sprouted. I thought I was clever planting one at each corner of my patch called a lawn which had variously been a wild flower meadow, a sunflower forest and a potato field. My neighbour used to mime over the fence for neither I spoke Gujerati nor she spoke English that she would have the small potatoes for her Aloo Kofta.

The trees grew and grew. We loved them. The neighbours began to huff. The words “house insurance” were uttered.

Over the non-partitioned and non-conserved Leyton Marshes I found an interesting shiny twig. I stuck it in the ever-sinking soil in my garden and within two years a tree grew magnificent. My sari-clad neighbour told me it was a cherry tree and avoided hanging her white sheets near its branches. The cherries fell. She picked them from her pavement. The cherries fell and I threw them to the pigeons.

After much moaning from long-term neighbours, those who had brought their houses whilst I lived here, I poisoned three horse chestnut trees leaving a sturdy one which was far from the next door neighbours and the chrysanthemum neighbours over the back who had lilac and holly trees mangled together. The cherry tree was huge and polished in its glory.

Blossoms and conkers, cherries and pigeons came and went.

As if they’d got together and conspired against beauty, nature and me, the neighbours moaned about roots and house insurance again. I investigated the cost of a giant cherry tree removal and let the horse-chestnut be for she was harming neither bricks nor mortals.

My neighbour had inherited an electric saw and was a very handy man, a ladder-man. I’d sked if he’d chop down the cherry tree. He and a mate did it and what fun that was. An artist wanted the divided trunks for fire etching or some fashionable art style current at the time and before M-H. In the end a young woman carted away the logs for firewood.

A third of the cherry-tree still remains covering dead roots and crowded over with huge fungi.

The horse-chestnut is a playground for pigeons, recently magpies, blackbirds, doves and homing pigeons, robins, squirrels, starlings and sparrows. I hope the disturbed nesters from the new Aldi site come and find refuge here.

When I leave this place, for surely I will, the newcomers will chop down the loved tree because concrete is king. This is what happens when patios replace grass; cats have to come onto my earth to poo and birds have to keep lookout.

Once a baby blackbird fell from the nest but we in this human block never knew. We never actually saw it.It squealed. Every stealth cat arrived. The mother -bird was squawking and squawking on the fence. Pitiful it was. Neighbours opened upstairs windows; back doors sounded as they opened. After an hour all was quiet. I never found a dead bird so no-one knows how the tragedy ended.


about FGM

Last year they made such a fuss on telly news about female genital mutilation. I knew not one person who had heard that Feb 6th was International Zero Tolerance to FGM Day and I know no-one to whom I can even mention FGM. There’s a a whole smelly knicker graphic ness about FGM and a new and strange vocabulary to know about.

I hear lesbians chat about clits but never cis women. I certainly never hear my generation use words like labia, clitoris and genital. Never. Still most people I know have not understood International Women’s Day or heard of it.

In the seventies my mate married an African and they went out to the continent to live. She’s died within the year from malaria on her brain. Her husband like many people had no idea what a clitoris was but was in the bent of his mother who was pressing for her “white” grandchild to be baptised and then circumcised. My friend was on cut watch all the time because, don’t forget, despite being highly educated, she was still just a woman with no say.

At the death of her mother the child with Downs Syndrome was sent to her  grandparents. in the UK. Phew!

The fight against ending crap FGM is an old old fight and not helped by the “Gender Minister”(sic) in Sierra Leone giving the go-ahead for rusty old hags to use rusty old razor blades to cut flesh from girl children because it’s culture. Culture, my arse.2016-01-03-12.43.05-1-1.jpg.jpeg


In a month when Waltham Forest Libraries publishes its plan to interprete International Women’s Day as a month of lady-related topics and loosely related themes to women in society ( “Gone Girl”) and when I await an answer, any answer,  to my now-formalised complaint about a session for women and daughters making up together as wrong because IWD is not about the sexualisation of children then along comes National Potato Day next Monday followed by International Hijab Day on 1st Feb. In a month when the first prosecution  for FGM in the UK gets underway and controversy simmers around the “I Am Girl” women into sports advert then I am agog at all around me but not silent.

Waltham Forest Council back in the eighties was like a force getting its kicks on Route 66 forging ahead, embracing every idea and debating everything before deciding what was  workable. Women on and outwith the Council insisted that  street-lighting was raised so that dark streets became highways for women to feel safe. It worked. The Council listened to school office-workers (mainly women) and gave them three “Religious” days off and rightly so because teaching staff had them. In fact WF was “lighting up tomorrow with today”. Women congratulated themselves. Waltham Forest was a unique progressive borough.

Nowadays the Borough is coming across as muddled and unliked, neither bothered about women especially down St James’ area with the “Rooms Of Our Own” disappointment nor meeting the demands of older people compared to Islington and Hackney where there are regular activities for seniors. The school students of the nineties look from their adult hood into the Borough and wonder what happened to drag it backwards.


On the Waltham Forest mothership we are going backwards. The paternalism mounts as any newcomer to the borough with any idea is  accommodated. The replacements for the  shakers and movers of days of yore can sit back and rest on their velvet cushions in their art-deco town hall knowing that their community is taking care of itself, ticking all the impressing boxes. That’s how an enterprising entrepreneur can suggest that mothers and daughters in painting their faces together to please others is right on. It is so not any on. Those who questioned everything in the borough moved on in so many ways and became older. Those who remained, the long-time residents, volunteer in museums and galleries while new residents use public places to  infect the naïve with their own ignorance about achieving equality and self-esteem. It appears to their audiences that that we are all progressing when in fact the opposite is true.

I am assuming that soon the Borough will realise that Hijab day is a -coming.  Now where I live most of the women I pass and see wear an hijab. My friends wear hijabs. My ex-colleagues wear hijabs. On bad hair-days I wear hijabs. My mum and her friends all wore headscarves. My friends on Scottish islands still wear headscarves. The queen still ties on an headscarf. Well, she doesn’t: A maid does that, a domestic worker even. I collect vintage head scarves. I bought headscarves from the Salvation Army Shop for 20p each and sold them on to Beautiful Interiors for £1 each where they sold for £7 each. Ha ha! Gotcher. I see no reason for  a day devoted to the hijab. I don’t see why we need to acknowledge the potato, love them though I do. I do compliment a woman on her hijab style or colour which kinda takes away the vanity aspect of hijab-wearing. I compliment women all the time and found nothing silly about telling my date how fabulous he looked in his three-quarter leather coat and sparkling clean finger-nails. Credit where it’s due. I know that the Hijab day is probably supposed to be a catalyst for conversation. I’m pulsing.

An artist in East London has been commissioned to do vox-pops with the public about the status of the hijab. Here it’s assumed that only young Moslem women, gobby or not, will give some views. That’ll be interesting for all of us, their mums ‘n’ all. yellow lady“Girl with a pearl earring” by RAGWORKS

Last year there was an art exhibition at Brady Arts in Whitechapel, a photographic exhibition about the hijab. I was stunned at the topic. I’m stunned that an art exhibiton can be a display of pressed flowers but there you go. I go along to my friends’ women-only tea club which is attended mostly by senior women in hijabs. I had so wanted to discuss life with the women. It began. I found out in a minute between the curry and the cake that they had all worked in local factories in the seventies. They had been out of their houses. That was it though. They had given away too much, For a blink they used “I” then quickly said a prayer and returned to the normal “we”. They were not going to share  their experiences. I wanted to know more. I persuaded them to come along to an heritage tea party in Ilford. Three woman came. Two kept quiet whereas one had stories all about the tea, the staff, the joy of being rich in India and then the struggle in England moving down to London from the Midlands. That was it. She had given enough and declined any more invitations to be the subject of vox-popping.

Amina took her thirty tea-club women  to a beautiful grill restaurant in Green Lanes. The Sahara in Leyton is too dear. The night before she phoned to comfirm that I were coming and that she had to still dye her hair. At the restaurant I remained silent as thirty women joined in the pre-meal prayer.  I sat opposite Amina and she pointed to her covered head and gave me the information that she hadn’t had time to dye her hair. I thought nothing of it and carried on sharing the Nan bread and dipping my chicken pieces into the curry gravy. After the meal there was commotion as Amina tried desperately to get the right money out of some women for the communal bill. I offered her twenty pounds if she were short and could see a tear in her eye. Her clan disappeared outside and into the discount shops as soon as the ice-cream spoons had been licked clean. Amina  exited to the cloakroom and I waited with my latte.

When she returned she was radiant; Her hair was newly-dyed and ginger at the tips which suited her reddened lips. She was a vision in red away from the black hijab and black sleeved tunic. She pursed her lips and adjusted the glittery clasp which was supporting a mane of seventy-year old pony-tail. “Wow, Amina.What happened? You look lovely”

“Oh these women! If I don’t wear hijab, they insult me. Have they gone? “And she looked through the vast shop front.

hubba on Goa Beach 12th Nov 2011Building workers in Goa.2012.

I related the story to my daughter as we  repeated our  illuminating stories about cleavage and women in society and the ways we’re being dragged back by newcomers with backward ideas and ways. Good to talk. Je suis Charlie. Her take on the Amina story? She categorically said, “The women bully her. It’s a case of bullying. After all, Amina’s been in this country fifty years. She’s educated. She mixes with everyone.. She is being bullied otherwise she has the intelligence to decide her way in life in UK in 2014.”

So I wondered why the status of the hijab couldn’t be a conversation on March 8th, International Womens’s Day because it might affect all women and if not, a large percentage of women. The problem there is that many many women and men , those who insist plumbing and blue is for boys and agree that the important room for women in any house is the she kitchen,  see IWD as a disease pushed on by lesbians in DMs, something to be ignored except if it provides free Zumba and a free £23 worth of a pedometer.

PS Just finished “Gone Girl” and bit off my nail varnish reading “The Blackwater Lightship”.


Secrets of the Henna Girl

In this brave and finely judged story, Sufiya Ahmed tackles not only the question of forced marriage but also the wider issues of culture, religion, class and ethnicity which are often entangled with it. Zeba Khan, brought up in a small town in the north of England, is taken on summer holiday by her parents to visit her family in rural Pakistan. There she learns that, in a matter of weeks, she is to marry her cousin, Asif. Zeba is outraged and only under extreme pressure accedes to her parents’ wishes. They are themselves under pressure from her
father’s elder brother, Asif’s father. While struggling to come to terms with the direction her life may now take, Zeba makes friends with Sehar, a British-born woman of her own age who herself was the victim of a forced marriage. Now pregnant, Sehar has made plans to escape, once her baby is born, through a contact she has made with the British Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit. These plans are tragically frustrated when, neglected by her husband and his family, Sehar dies in childbirth. Zeba takes advantage of Sehar’s contact to make her own bid for freedom. This story, told by Zeba, is painstaking not only in revealing the reasons behind such marriages but also the difficulties of rescuing their victims, predominantly women but also some men, who, for their own protection, may well have to cut off contact with their families and their former lives completely. It portrays Zeba’s warm Muslim family life, distorted and almost destroyed by traditional notions of ‘honour’ and female subordination. Ahmed is clear that such notions are not endorsed by the Quran, and a quote from the Prophet Mohammed – ‘Obtain the virgin’s consent before you marry her’ – precedes her story. Ahmed is also nuanced in her treatment of the feudal aspects of rural Pakistan and on the place of women. Perhaps her most memorable character is the family matriarch, Nannyma, a woman whose status in her community allows her to challenge its worst aspects. If the care with which Ahmed writes occasionally gives the story a didactic air, this is a subtle and powerful book that, while it unequivocally condemns forced marriage, has a great deal more to say about the importance of universal human rights, the benefits and challenge of living between two cultures, and the role of women in Islam and traditional Pakistani society.


Clive Barnes


Laptop at a writing Workshop.

At bloomin’ last I saw a laptop being used by a writer at a writing workshop. First time ever. People still use A5 feint lined paper in pads or A5 notebooks…. with gel pens indeed!

During the inevitable predictable ice-breaker I confided in my partner at the table in the round and asked her not to repeat what I’d said. Oh trust! She opened her gob and told the other wannabes that as soon as I entered the room I had wanted to leave. Mouthy. But it was okay because I was amongst stoics, creative in their own bubbles who had little experience of relating to people who don’t look like them. Yikes. Ready to run. I’d travelled with Up Your Street seniors who’d never smelt the inside of a writing workshop so had to stay to wink at them across the table at least.

We were at Canada Water Culture Space. To many people that means “library”. The Canada Water library is like a market-place. Today Anansi stories were being drummed out to toddlers and those engrossed kiddies were sitting whitely on the floor carpet by the front door. There’s a café, some chess areas complete with noisy players, lifts going up and down, stinking toilets and seen from the actual culture space room, a river.

The workshop was promoted as being all about the Mixed-Race identity but you didn’t have to be Mixed-Race to join in. You had to bring an object that reminded you of home. Four of us did as we were told. The rest is history.

I’d lugged in a cheap vase so I was actually bothered to read out my paragraphs and SHARE.

‘Today was different as though the wolves had been set free. My father returned fuming with the story about his brother-in-law standing arms and legs akimbo preventing his entrance. The story was shocking. Finally after the Burton van was loaded, my father and brother were allowed inside. My grandmother’s mink coat had been left in a wardrobe. There had been a box loaded and inside was the white vase with its lid, some coat-hangers, Vim and yellow dusters and a whole box of fish knives and forks. As for the furniture my brother said the wood wasn’t worth the taking.

My mother sat down and retrieved her knitting needles and the pink matinee coat in the making.

“Any sign of the blue glass set? See, Rita bought that for their fiftieth. That’ll be gone then.”

My brother told me to put the kettle on.’






Big ole windy Bertha. I loved her. The wind was going mad on the tree tops outside. I do live next to Epping Forest; am proud to say. I used to live on a windy and very nasty cold northern island, home of my ancestors. The wind used to lift me and howl across the flagstone roof looking for any broken skylight into which she could swoop and cause havoc. My washing was once dragged across to a neighbouring uninhabited island, torn on the barbs of fields and telegraph poles. I loved that wind. It swept and hissed and moved flower pots and polytunnels from the hillsides into the village. The pier master would radio in and warn fisher folk to stay home and batten down the hatches. Ferries stopped running and school students were told to stay put in the morn. New residents dreaded having any reason to be flown into the mainland hospital for any treatment, baby-birthing, canal-dredging: older people were stoic in the face of war and famine.

Today I stayed in and watched television as the war continued in Gaza. I’d watched 9/11 unfold in the same atmosphere, in a place which couldn’t be controlled. Nature was at her best both on the windy island and in urbania today.

I left New Orleans a few months before Katrina struck. Unbelievable. I am more than sure our breakfast waitress with her great smile was swept away with her bowls of grit and deep-fried sugared doughnuts. And then the horses. There were horses always floating and bloated with great yellow gnashers stuck in the bits. I met not one jazz musician although I searched and searched.


Half Of A Yellow Sun

**Interview with Mrs Chinyere Achonu from Leyton about

Half of A Yellow Sun by  Ngozi Adichie.

The half of a yellow sun refers to the Biafran flag design.Biafran flag

“A story,  a story. Tell me a story”.

Chinua Achebe, master Nigerian story-teller and  Adichie’s mentor and  fan praised her story-telling craft. The Daily mail went so far as to describe the book as a classic. There’s a whole queue in front of Adichie’s work a vying to be classic let alone read.

During the Biafran War many of the Ibo community members from Nigeria comprised of minor civil servants  lodged in Walthamstow. It was the late sixties, early seventies . Years after the Nigeria-Biafra War they moved back home retired and elderly . They left behind a population of mixed race offspring raised by professional white English mothers. Only those  forgotten mothers  can have any idea about the impact of the war on Nigerians in London but like their spouses they relied on pro- Nigerian government news on BBC TV.  The men meeting at The British –Biafra Association  meetings in Red Lion Square,  Holborn during the war outbid each other in their guilt for being safely away from the mutilations, rape, curfews, black market trading and starvation and then wrote group cheques for their unknown comrades in the field In a bid for self- salvation. After the war no-one spoke about it.  The important thing then was to know your enemy and get Nigeria back on its feet.

Who in London wants to remember let alone review the war? The book is a story and has to be that. Adichie knows that memories are warped and elaborated. She pays homage to her parents and grandparents by writing down what they revealed. She is the dutiful daughter and the privileged tutee of the master story-teller,  Achebe.

For me I respect  Adichie for gathering  stories from her traumatised parents whose related experiences of the Biafran War inspired her to  shape characters in a time she never knew when a country was  rapidly- changing and being mortally fractured in the process.  Exploring those  memories and  by creating  three main characters,  Adichie  shows  the way people use their instinct to survive,  and their capability to adapt to circumstances and fellow humans. The impact of the novel is by way of its crafted story-telling . The reader needs to empathise with those desperate people in villages and towns where running water and electric light never existed,  in places where some people have much and most people have nothing . She does a good job taking the reader there and setting the scene. She is however more interested in relationships and how people tick.

Hope reigns in the novel. There is an Igbo saying , “No condition is permanent”.  It used to be painted on the overcrowded public transport together with prayers to God.  It’s a mantra deep down in the psyche of eastern Nigerian people.  It suits the book.  So could suit, “Nothing surprises us!”.

I disliked the main characters: The white visiting professor searching for something deep in Africa and looking weak  in the process,  the houseboy daring to be intelligent and thinking with ambition and cunning  (going right against the grain!) and the young learned daughter of Biafra who would be all right whatever happened. Cream always rises.

The book tails off at the end as though the story-teller is exhausted and the reader has to form their own conclusions especially about who the narrator is . (Spoiler alert).

Here is a book I can easily forget and others say the same. It is worth celebrating as Achebe does but one not worth revisiting.

C. Achonu (Mrs) August 2013_________________________________________________