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Inua Ellams, bridge theatre
Photograph: Oliver Holms

Inua Ellams: ‘London is the closest I’ve felt to a home’

The poet, playwright and performer on what the capital means to him

Isabelle Aron

Inua Ellams moved from Nigeria to London when he was a child, and (apart from a few years in Ireland) he’s lived here ever since. From finding a poetry community in Borders bookshop to putting on his first play, he explains how the city has shaped him.

I moved to London when I was 12 years old. I’d been here once before when I was eight or nine. I remember falling in love with it and thinking: This is my city, this is where I want to be.

I knew so little of British culture. My cousin who lived here gave me a pair of football boots. I’d never owned anything like that in Nigeria. I lived in Victoria and I was so proud that I ran all the way to Pimlico wearing them. I blunted all the studs and wrecked them, it was so silly.

The city gave birth to ‘Midnight Run’, a project I run where I gather strangers to explore the city from 6pm to 6am. One night, my friend and I had been to the Battersea Arts Centre and we were waiting for the bus. It didn’t come so we began to walk. It was an epic journey, it took seven or eight hours. I’ve now done it across the world. It’s about building a community for one night only to migrate through a city.

London is peopled and staffed and populated and driven and inspired by immigrants. It’s given space to my voice and taught me how to amplify it. The city’s buildings have become points of amplification for me. I don’t think I’d be an artist without London.

At Borders bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I began hanging around poets like Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Roger Robinson and Jacob Sam-La Rose. We’d always end up there on Friday nights, writing poetry or reading X-Men comics. Those guys became sort of unofficial mentors of mine.

My first poetry performance was at the Aroma Café on St Martin’s Lane. It was a £15 cash-in-hand job and it felt like a million bucks.

It was lovely to have my play ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ streamed as part of the National Theatre at Home series. So many people tuned in to watch it, which was humbling. Many of the barbers and clients I met when I was researching the play finally got to see it as well. It was beautiful.

My first play was at the Battersea Arts Centre. After it burned down, I was one of the first artists to see the ruins and discuss plans to refurbish it. I have a piece of work there on permanent display – it’s a poem on kindness, stitched into a tapestry which hangs outside the grand hall.

London is the closest I’ve felt to a home. Everywhere else has felt too big or too small. London has enough of a spread and a cultural dynamic which means that you can meet people from various walks of life living within blocks of each other. There’s a lot of cuisine, art, music and poetry which interact and take inspiration from each other, which makes London the best place to be for me. 

‘An Evening with an Immigrant’ is at the Bridge Theatre until Oct 15.

The National Theatre saves panto season with ‘Dick Whittington’.

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