I spent an hour late yesterday morning wandering around the Finsbury Park neighbourhood where the latest London terror attack took place. I know it quite well. These days, I often travel to and from Finsbury Park station by bus as part of my route to and from somewhere else. Back in the early 1980s I lived and had friends right next to the immediate area. I shared a “short life” house – a kind of licenced squat – just down the road in Holloway, close to the Sobell sports centre, and spent many hours in someone else’s house, close to the old Arsenal ground, doing my apprenticeship in social deviance.
A white man I worked night shifts with in a Home Counties warehouse once told me he’d never walk through Finsbury Park at night because the black people would get him (I paraphrase). At that time, I’d never been there. Months later, I was routinely doing exactly what my former workmate had warned against. Finsbury Park was part of my patch of the capital. I saw bands at the Rainbow Theatre and drank at the George Robey pub, where Johnny Rotten’s dad was sometimes seen. By reputation the area was rough, dark and dangerous. In some ways, for some people, it was. But, somehow, I seemed to fit right in.
The station, a teeming transport interchange served by two Underground lines, two bus stations and National Rail, is right next to the Arsenal FC merchandise shop and opposite a T-junction with Seven Sisters Road, on whose Rock Street approach the 106 frequently gets clogged in traffic and where, on St Thomas Road, the Finsbury Park mosque stands, facing an Italian cafe and a stone’s throw from the premises of the African Development Trust.
The mosque was one of two focal points for visible responses to a man from Cardiff called Darren Osborne allegedly driving a van into a group of people further down Seven Sisters Road, on the other side of the railway bridges that straddle it. The other focal point was on the other side of Seven Sisters Road from the mosque, the few yards of it between the Arsenal shop and the bridged part, where the street falls into shadows, the roar of vehicles reverberates and most pedestrians don’t linger long. One of the people, all Muslim, driven into was Makram Ali from nearby Haringey, who came to the UK from Bangladesh when he was ten. He died of multiple injuries. Osborne has been charged with terrorism-related murder and attempted murder.
The atmosphere on the streets seemed to me to be – and these things are very subjective – that mixture of melancholy reflection, assertive fortitude and business as usual with which Londoners are becoming familiar. The walls in front of the mosque and beside the railway bridge were festooned with tokens of sympathy and messages of togetherness. They drew people in. It didn’t feel intrusive or voyeuristic to linger and read fragments of the word collage formed outside the place of worship, with its declarations of friendship and support. “Love will reign,” it declares.
Recent attacks and disasters probably have strengthened connections, human and geographical, across the city, often in small, personal, coincidental ways: before I settled near Finsbury Park I had lived for a while in North Kensington; one of my daughters is a schoolmate of someone who lost relatives to Grenfell; someone I know online was in a bar in Borough Market during the London Bridge attack; and now, added to the display before the mosque, was a card signed by pupils from the Hackney primary school that most of my children went to, which stands close to the route of the 106.
Here, and by the bridge, all kinds of people spent a little time with their own thoughts, the full range of local humankind. Also, supplied as standard, there was a conspicuous police presence and a crank. The crank, a man dressed in the national colours of Ireland, wearing a pert little kilt and carrying a banner saying “Christ will come soon and sweep all politicians from power”, had quite a chat with the police before crossing to the station forecourt. Soon, spiritual airs and reels were blaring from his portable PA. No one took the blindest bit of notice. Famous for this kind of thing, I’m told he’s also lately haunted Latimer Road.
Much is different since I lived in this part of Islington. The George Robey faded away long ago and the Rainbow, originally an Astoria cinema, stopped being a music venue at about the time I moved east. For the last 22 years it has been a pentecostal church, owned by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (HQ: São Paulo). But the bridge and the station are still there, Arsenal didn’t move very far and although there have long been people who hate what they imagine Finsbury Park is like, the real thing keeps on showing that they’ve always had the wrong idea.