Etta Burrell on Brixton, Religion, and Seafood
Etta Burrell, owner of the culinary delight that is Etta’s Seafood Kitchen, is a captivating woman. A true Brixtonite flaunting a way with words and contagious laugh, she speaks about her life and her restaurant with the beauty of a poet, the tales she tells rich and full of intrigue. We at Brixton Art Prize wanted to speak to her, a member of the Brixton community, to shine a light on some of the incredible characters who live in Brixton Village and how they feel about the area, both in the past and how it is evolving today.
‘How could you leave the sunshine and think, this is a better place!’
Childhood, Jamaica and England
Etta Burrell is of Jamaican heritage, flown over to London in 1968 with her parents’ hope of improving their lives. She speaks of her siblings 10 siblings; ‘Out of 10 children I was the first to be born in a hospital because I was a twin! Daddy left Jamaica to make our life a little bit better which was daunting. I was the eldest child,’ she tells us, as the others of her siblings they left behind in Jamaica. ‘I think I’m still suffering from that’. Moving from Jamaica to Brixton solidified her identity – ‘I’ve always been a Brixton child’. But the experience was bizarre nonetheless. ‘The No Irish, No dogs, no nothing thing was going on – it was weird. Snow was up to the door and we couldn’t open it. We had these paraffin burners and we used to get chilblains – it was awful. I thought this was a better place!’ She laughs at the absurdity of it all – ‘How could you leave the sunshine and think, this is a better place!’
The parenting and methods of discipline were different, too, back in the early 70s. At school she speaks of the cane, and at home similar methods were practiced. ‘My dad used to lash me – and would day, go to school and tell them to call the police!’ Despite the seriousness of the subject, she laughs about this, able to discuss these matters casually and with reflection. ‘I couldn’t understand why they would want to hit me. I never had this life in Jamaica. When I was 13, I tried to kill myself – but someone said to me; how are you going to know if they’ll be sorry when you die! So I dusted myself down and started all over again.
‘Our parenting was funny and I think hit was because they were suppressed. Mother was very ill – mental health – menopause.’ She speaks of the lack of understating and empathy towards the very normal element of the female development, and how it can send you ‘a bit crazy’. ‘They treat it as a mental problem’.
‘Sometimes we don’t know what we have until we lose it.’
She speaks somewhat wistfully of her life in Jamaica and the differences that became apparent here, especially in schooling. She left school in 75 and made her own way, after being told by her headteacher she would become nothing, which she ‘remembers all the time.’ ‘She literally told me I would become nothing.’ It’s something to do with, she thinks, ‘not understanding the culture and not understanding the language. I was in a higher grade in school in Jamaica. They put you down a grade, so your esteem becomes very low, which I found really odd.’ A sense of confusion and mild frustration at the system and the way things are over here becomes apparent in the way she reflects – but never in an angry tone, always speaking with wise consideration. ‘Sometimes we don’t know what we have until we lose it. My dad has lands in Jamaica and houses in Jamaica – and we were wealthy people!’ In addition to this, she speaks of the feeling of displacement that comes from immigration, in ones birth country and ones new home. ‘When we go back, we feel like we are tourists, you know what I mean, and they treat you like that. So we tend to be sitting on the fence wherever we go. Your mentality has to be really positive.’
‘He told me – if I can’t have him, I won’t have anything. So you know what hun? Bye!’
Etta has three children – Cheryl, Serena and Alexandra. ‘And a wonderful grandson Miles who keeps me alive.’ Miles has just turned 8 – ‘Happy Birthday!’ She wishes him, to the microphone. She speaks with exuberant joy about Miles, a clearly important figure in her life. Of her daughters too she has high praise. ‘My girls are so special.’ Serena has an estate agency, Cheryl a business in Cornwall, and Alexandra runs Oaks – another estate agency. ‘Very proud.’ Last year, she tells us, they lost the girls’ Dad, Roy – of whom Etta is no longer with. ‘Yeah devastated. Devastated about that. But yeah. I did it on my own, left him when I was quite young. He told me – if I can’t have him, I won’t have anything. So you know what hun? Bye! And I just did what I had to do for my girls.’ Words of inspiration.
Granville Arcade and Early Days at the Restaurant
We move to the portion of her life in which she started up in Granville Arcade, now more commonly known as Brixton Village Market – the time in which Etta’s Seafood Kitchen was born, and has lived for 12 years – coming up to 13. ‘Oh yes. And my Dad died on the 13th March. Anyway. 13 is a good number,’ she says in a cryptic manner. We ask her how she started up in Granville Arcade, not just with Etta’s Seafood Kitchen. ‘I used to have a boyfriend there. He had a record shop at 93 Granville Arcade. It all started from there really.’ She previously ran a bag shop on Atlantic Road.
‘I tell you if you have faith, it can move mountains, believe you me – but it happens when it’s supposed to happen to you, not when you think it’s going to happen to you.’
The idea to search for a place in Brixton for her restaurant came to her in a magical, other worldly kind of manner, as she explains to us. ‘I had a dream that I was born on a Wednesday. In the dream someone kept saying, ‘Go to Brixton, it belongs to you, it belongs to you! And I’m thinking, hm. I go back to sleep, it comes back in my dream saying – Etta you don’t listen! I woke up about 2 in the afternoon and they [the dream voice] said you need to go to Brixton.’ She walks around Brixton thinking of never being able to afford a place there. ‘Something said to me, go up to the office [of which office is not specified but presumably the one in which the building she wishes is rented]. I had about 10 pound in my bank account, bringing up my girls, but God is So GOOD! Let me tell you he provides – everything. Listen. Faith is a great thing – faith, I tell you if you have faith, it can move mountains, believe you me – but it happens when its supposed to happen to you, not when you think its going to happen to you.’ After this, a man at the office tells her to come back at four o’clock. ‘When I came back down at 4 – I was late as well – and when I came back at 4 they were giving the building away for 3 months! For nothing!
‘He said Etta, go away, write a business plan. I say, what the hell is a business plan? I don’t know nothing about no business plan I’m bringing up kids!’ She asks for help from her daughter in situations like this but they replied, ‘Mummy you should try and do stuff. But I’m not taking nothing on I don’t understand!’ The plan was written and Etta returned to the building to take it on and create her restaurant.
‘Everything I needed was provided … Everything is possible and it happens’
The people of Brixton truly came together to help Etta’s dream come true. Her recounting of the generosity of her friends and of strangers is heartwarming and promising, to know the lengths the community will go to in order to make something good. ‘My friend made me a little kitchen – I burnt out about 4 cookers because we weren’t allowed to have gas. And every time one burnt out – someone brought me another one. Everything I needed was provided. Then the magazines started coming in […] I was so humble to everything. Everything is possible and it happens. I know what I’m good at and that’s cooking. And when I cook even though its a little bit it tends to feed a lot of people. God provides! And when they come, they don’t wanna leave.’
We ask her why, or how, she learnt to cook. ‘Oh god,’ she says. ‘Sorry Mummy – but I thought Mummy couldn’t cook rice!’ She laughs. ‘I used to work in Curtis Shoe Shop, [earning] 1.50 a week. I had to buy a few things for my parents, and with the rest I used to buy a crab claw, one prawn, some mussels..’ She reminisces dreamily about the beginning of her seafood journey and the little morsels she used to buy. ‘There used to be a fishmongers and they used to give me a piece of this, piece of that , I used to come home and eat what I want – I used to live the life! It used to be amazing round Brixton.’ The nostalgia for the old Brixton returns – ‘It really used to be amazing.’
‘People isn’t important anymore and that’s sad.’
The People of Brixton
We ask her more on the topic of Brixton, this time how it is now – how’s the market? How’s Brixton these days going? ‘Brixton is going. We need a lot more support. I think we’ve forgotten the people that surround us, which is really really bad. The people that put into Brixton Market what Brixton Market was.’ She talks sceptically of the importance of wealth over community values. ‘Is this real or is money more important than people?’ Brixton seems to have become a commodified item in part of a disposable society. People are selling ‘plastic bags for 28 pounds that say Brixton Village – which you throw in the bin. Doesn’t make any sense. Why do you have to print Brixton Village on it? Then you stick it in the bin. Everything else that surrounds us is more important. People isn’t important anymore and that’s sad.’ But you’re people and you are community. Surely there are people out there? She agrees with us in a sense. ‘Yes. They come and think you’re the only one left in Brixton Market. Everyone changes but sometimes it’s how we change. You can’t brush off certain things. What goes around comes around and you can’t help it.’ She is full of little isms like this, somewhat enigmatic yet with an air of wiseness. She hints towards gentrification perhaps, and the influx of new movers. With all the new people you start to wonder – ‘who are you?’ ‘It’s nice to see the art gallery come back,’ she says, talking of Brixton Art Prize, ‘doing whatever you’re doing there – and its needed! Everything is for a reason. If something belongs to you, honey – it belongs to you and nobody can take that away from you.’
‘I think art is an expression of oneself where we are coming from – and I think that’s a great thing.’
Art, Our Prize, and Community
Talking to Etta about Brixton Art Prize, we want to judge is she is sceptical of another new venture in the village, but she is positive about us. ‘I think this will make it better,’ – ‘it’ being this loss of soul and community in Brixton. ‘It’s good, because we need a little but of encouragement. People need to be supported. There’s loads of lovely art around Brixton – I’m really proud of that one they did – the skeleton heart,’ referring to Nuclear Dawn, the famous mural up near Coldharbour Lane. There are quite a few art places she has visited and mentions one on Electric Avenue. ‘I saw some art there and I didn’t get it.’ Regardless, she is supportive of the concept of art. ‘I think art is an expression of oneself of were we are coming from – and I think that’s a great thing.’
We discuss the goal of the prize, to bring light to the community centres and arts groups in Brixton. She agrees, but retorts with ‘Community centres that we haven’t got! No this is what I’m saying. We need to be looking after our young children because things are going pear shaped. We used to have places to go – St Matthew’s Church, after 8, every Sunday, 2 hours – but we had somewhere to go. Do you understand what Im saying?’ She talks about a community centre on Flaxman Road – ‘the children used to go there, play music, do this, do that, do artwork – we’re talking about the 80s, the 70s.’ There is a growing need, clearly, to build up this sense of community that existed back in the day, which is rapidly fading. A hard task to tackle, replicating the feel of Brixton in the 80s, but an important one nonetheless.
Etta seems to be interested in the prize and our future. ‘£15 for you thing? Let me know! What do we do with the artwork? … It’s all online?’ She cackles at the thought of handling the process. In a manner reminiscent to her asking for help writing the business plan all those many years ago, she endearingly gives the responsibility of internet matters over to her daughters. ‘I’ll get Cheryl to do it!’