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You are in: London > People > People Features > London People: Shami Chakrabarti

Shami Chakrabarti. Photo by Gurjit Nahal

Shami Chakrabarti. Photo by Gurjit Nahal

London People: Shami Chakrabarti

Interviews with people, who live, or work, in London who have made an impact on the city; each in their own way. And their relationship with London.

by Sarah Kinson

Shami Chakrabarti is Director of Liberty, a London based organisation that aims to ‘protect civil liberties and promote human rights’.

When did you first arrive in London?

15 June 1969 at St Mary’s, a maternity hospital near Hampstead Pond that no longer exists. At least that what my parents told me!

Where did you grow up?

Harrow in North West London. Perhaps I have a rose tinted view of things but I don’t think there was the fear there is today about letting even relatively young children play outside. I walked to school and back by the age of nine or 10. And I have vivid memories of standing on street corners gossiping to friends, having spent all day chatting to them at school! There was a lot of hanging around. So I do resent the idea that kids just hanging around and not doing anything wrong, is always a menace.

Have you ever moved away from London?

No, I’ve always lived in London. I didn’t even move away to go to college. I do love London and it’s hard to think of many places that I’d rather be. I am definitely a city person and so the only time I had dreams of leaving was perhaps when I was younger and I thought about going to New York – so if  it wasn’t going to be London, it was going to have to be an even more intense city!

What parts of London have you lived in?

First of all, in Harrow, where my parents still are. Then, when I was a student, I lived in a bedsit in between Golders Green and Cricklewood.  Golders Green was an incredibly special place. It represented cosmopolitan London to me. It had all the comfort of North West London; the trees and parks, but it also felt like it was much closer to the action. There was a very well established Jewish community, and a burgeoning Asian community. There were generations of new migrants coming in and out and rubbing along all really well with each other.  Then I lived in Stamford Hill in Hackney, before I moved to where I live now.

Where do you live now?

In Lambeth, where I have been for about 17 years. It is very painful for me to admit, but I am a South Londoner now. It was my husband who tempted me over the river and I have to tell you that it is a very big deal for me. To call myself a South Londoner, is a very odd thing. Whether you were born in London, or whether you come to London, there is something very special about where you start. And it is very unusual for people, I believe, to move across the river.

What is it like?

Lambeth is a mixture of very posh, grand, Victorian and Edwardian houses over looked by grim looking tower blocks. There is wealth and poverty; cheek by jowl.  More positively though, you generally see people of different races all rubbing along together, whatever the bad press says. But clearly there are worries, and as the mother of a growing boy, I do worry what it will be like for him when he is a teenager.

What do you like about it?

I grew up in the suburbs, where you don’t get the benefits of living in the country. Yet at the same time, you are tantalised by knowing that there is all this exciting stuff just a few miles away, and as a kid you can’t always afford to get there. So, now I enjoy being so central that I can walk to the river, and into  central London, if I want to.

Is London a good place to bring up children?

Yes, whatever the fears and problems, it’s still a fantastic place to bring up children. There is so much there to share with them, and they can meet people from all different races and faiths. If the world were more like London, the world would be a better place.

Describe a normal days' work for you

There aren’t that many normal days at Liberty – but it would probably begin just off the Borough High Street in my bunker, which is what I call the Liberty office, as it’s in the basement and there are no windows. Then, I might go and speak at a school, or have a meeting in Westminster with politicians, or journalists. Or get a train to somewhere else in the country.

How has life changed for Londoners since the London bombings in July 2005?

I think less than you might think. I have no doubt that part of the strategy of the bombers was to make everybody afraid and to try and spark racial divisions, but I don’t think the bombers have succeeded even one fraction in that. I think it has changed for those who work in law enforcement and intelligence services, and I know it has changed for human rights campaigners – but in terms of ordinary life in London it hasn’t changed as much as the bombers intended and that is testament to the great spirit of this city and its people.

Yes, there is more stop and search and in some places a bit less tolerant to people who are difference but it hasn’t changed as much as some of the doomsday predictions said it would. There was a threat before, and the threat goes up and down periodically now, but ordinary people are not living their lives in fear.

To improve the quality of life for Londoners do we need more freedom, or more security?

In reality the two, to some extent, go hand in hand. If we lock London down, never leave our homes, impose curfews on all our kids, and run around carrying compulsory identity cards - that would not improve the quality of our lives. We would certainly be less free, but I don’t think we would be more secure either. What we need to see is freedom and protection going hand in hand, and look at each new big idea on its merits to make sure we are not introducing counterproductive measures. That is true whether the fear is terrorism or knife crime.

What is your view about the issue of knife crime?

I don’t think the answer is locking up every kid who is foolish enough to carry a knife. I think there is a bigger question about how we are treating our kids and whether there are enough safe places to be. Having places to hang out, without parental supervision, is part of growing up. You can say we can lay on sport for kids, and of course that is a good idea, but you also need safe spaces for children and young people to be where they don’t feel that they have to carrying around knives.

What do you do to relax?

I love going to the cinema and I like wandering around the Tate Modern. I like eating and drinking and London is great for that.

Where do you find tranquility in London?

The South Bank is particularly close to my heart. There is something tranquil about being close to water - and that water is next to some great buildings to do with culture, politics and the courts; all lining the river.

What is the worst thing about London?

The difficulty in getting around, if you are commuting to work.

What is the best thing?

All the different people you meet. And, the fact that you can live in London all your life, but still find something new. I have spoken to cab drivers who say the same thing – they’ve done The Knowledge and driven cabs for 30 years but they still discover a new street or a cut through.

If you had only one more day in London (i.e. had to leave tomorrow) what would you spend your last day doing?

I would go to some places that have meant something to me: the South Bank; Parliament Square; Leicester Square; China Town; the law courts around the Strand and the Aldwych. These are all places that have featured in my life.

Where do you want to end up when you pop your clogs?

I’ve never thought about it and I am not sure that I am that bothered! In London, I suppose. I am a North West London girl who ended up in South London; maybe it would have to be in the Thames! I am not a desperately sentimental person but I would like those who knew me to think kindly of me, particularly my son.

last updated: 08/10/2008 at 15:47
created: 08/10/2008

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