London at random
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - June 15, 2019 - 12:00am

I am here in the UK for an official visit to my home school, the University of Nottingham. It is one part of my job as a head of School, English, at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia that I relish. I decided to take Thai Airways this time, since the airline I took last year had a four-hour stopover in Dubai. I liked talking to the Filipinos there but found the airport food too expensive. And so I took Thai and loved its delicious food and enjoyed the short stopover in Bangkok, which I spent reading George Orwells’ short book, Why I Write.

“Unseasonable” is the word to describe London when I landed. It is summer, but London is soaked with rain and whipped by wind with a long and cold tail. My kind cousins lived near Heathrow Airport and they gave me a water-proof jacket with a hooded fur and an umbrella to ward off the elements. It was a whirlwind tour of the city, capped by dinner with Dee and Angelo, friends from Ladlad, our LGBT party-list in the Philippines, in this French restaurant where I ordered an appetizer my parents would have loved: escargot with bacon, this shellfish being part of our Bicolano menu, simmered in spices and coconut milk.

The School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London was the site of my reunion with Cristina Juan of SOAS, as well as Candy Gourlay, whose young-adult novel, Bone Talk, is now reaping the rewards it so richly deserves. Bone Talk has received rapturous reviews and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal and the Costa Book Award. I read the novel on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila last May and was taken by its nifty narrative and well-drawn characters. It makes jabs at the American colonial enterprise and correctly touches the pulse upon which colonialism throbs.

A similar thread runs in the exhibit “Motions of This Kind: Propositions and Problems of Belatedness” curated by Cristina and Delphine Mercier of SOAS. Eleven Filipino artists brought their works to Brunei Gallery in the heart of central London. Yason Banal shrewdly slowed down the gallery’s Wi-Fi to the speed (or rather, slowness) of the Philippines’ Wi-Fi. Cian Dayrit astonished me with her tapestry that used the old names of countries before the colonial master changed their names, and hence, their destinies. The North and South axes were shifted in a rotation that defied the fixity of the maps drawn by the colonizer. And it was all done on a tapestry abloom with words for sea and soil.

I lived in the UK in 1989-1990, when I took my MPhil in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, through a generous scholarship given by the British Council. During holidays, my friend and classmate Tina would take the train and travel for 14 long hours to go to London.

Then and now, I love London because it makes my imagination move. I am doing research for my second novel, and the first part of this novel is set in Scotland-England in the 16th century. Therefore, I have to do research. And this being the 21st century, it mostly means visual research. What is the exact color of the clothes the people wore? And was that blue-green Oriental vase in the castle glazed or not? How did they look at landscapes, since then and now, the notion of landscape is a very British preoccupation?

I visited the Natural History Museum, my jaw falling at the sight of the blue-brown building soaring to the very sky. Since the second part of my novel deals with a Southeast Asian country during colonial times, I took photographs of Buddhist mandalas, golden combs, and golden ear plugs. I also visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and stayed longest in its Southeast Asian and South Asian sections. I took photographs of a betel-nut container (also made of brilliant gold), wooden shields used in battles, headdresses to protect the warriors from the enemy’s blows. I stared at the intricate tapestries from India, the curves of calligraphy shimmering on the pages of old books, the leaves and flowers in the arabesques of gleaming tiles from Persia.

They will join the trove of photographs and memories I had gathered last year when I made my first official visit to the home school at the UK. These were culled from the vast riches of the British Museum, shelf upon shelf arrayed with remnants of the Empire, yes, but remnants nevertheless that a postcolonial writer in the 21st century could perhaps mint into brave and beautiful words.

I also had lunch with longtime London resident, the journalist Gene Alcantara at the wonderful Mama’s Kubo Filipino Restaurant on Finchley Road, in West Hamsptead. I had beef kare-kare that melted in the mouth, as well as generous helpings of tortang talong and squid adobo. I complimented Rommel Bustarte, the chef and director, for the softness of the meat and the home-grown flavours that burst on the tongue in his excellent restaurant.

Last year, I had dinner with Cristina and Candy at Romulo’s Café, whose Quezon City branch was a favorite restaurant of the Manila Critics Circle. One of my most vivid memories in that branch involved our deliberation for the winners of the National Book Award, with the late poet and National Artist Cirilo F. Bautista in attendance.

I asked Gene when did the profile of Filipinos in the UK change? I remember the profile was mostly housekeepers in 1990, and he said the borders opened ten years later and the nurses came here, followed by the engineers and assorted personnel who now help in firing the economy of Great Britain, pre-Brexit and even post-Brexit. So when the Pinoys here tell me I should migrate and live here, I just smile and say, I do not know, but maybe one day I will?

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