Clara Macedo Cabral: cultural explorer

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 25 seconds

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Clara Macedo Cabral met her husband Titus in her native Portugal: less than a year later the pair were living in Highbury. It’s been a culture shock – but one that has inspired three books about Portugal. Interview by Nicola Baird

clara“I miss Portugal, mostly the lack of light,” says Clara sipping a cappuccino at Oasis Café in Highbury Fields. “Our wedding was in Lisbon and then I moved here in September 2005. I had to give up my flat in Lisbon and career – I was a lawyer for the Ministry of Work and Social Security.”

English is Clara’s third language so she admits that, “When I arrived here I missed half the conversations, but I’ve gradually improved.” Pregnancy introduced a whole new set of words, but when her son Thomas was born in December 2006 she explains how distressing the language barrier sometimes was. “In hospital didn’t understand what the nurses or midwives were saying! I was so tired and they told me ‘newborns need to be cuddled’. I didn’t know that verb ‘cuddle’. I remember crying so much. What I wanted was warmth and sympathy.”

But it’s Thomas, now six and able to speak Portuguese and English, who has helped Clara integrate and provided the inspiration for a series of books.

Tina's Ices parked near Highbury Fields playground. You can just see the electric cable that makes it the cleanest and quietest ice cream van in the borough.

Tina’s Ices parked near Highbury Fields playground. You can just see the electric cable that makes it the cleanest and quietest ice cream van in the borough.

“I started to go to Euphorium Bakery some months after Thomas was born. I was desperate to be out of the house and not isolated at home. I’d take my computer to the café and while he was sleeping I’d write – it was a book of chronicles because there was no time to write longer pieces. I have taken people into my books people that I met in Islington, like Tina who sells ice creams and Peter Powell who gave walking ours, but has now passed away, and Cordelia, the park keeper in Highbury Fields playground. I am a good friend of hers and she does a fantastic job over there. Also a homeless man I met at Highbury Corner with whom I have good chats about literature and politics.  He has covered a wall at the exit of Highbury Fields station with poetic quotations he knows by heart and have guided him throughout life (it has now been removed).”

“I still love the noise and movement at Euphorium, being amongst people,” says Clara Macedo Cabral.

“I still love the noise and movement at Euphorium, being amongst people,” says Clara Macedo Cabral.

Euphorium became Clara’s second home. “I knew all the employees, as some were Portuguese and Brazilian. I saw the courtyard changing (it’s now covered) and the building work. I wrote because I wanted to reconnect with myself. With the baby I was so alienated from my inner needs and I was having to adjust to new weather and the rules of a new culture.”

In that first year of motherhood Clara, 44, also spent time at the British Library reading room finishing her Masters (from the University of Lisbon) which focused on the writers Katherine Mansfield and the Brazilian modernist Clarace Lispector to ask if there was a feminine way of writing. “I had a Brazilian nanny who’d bring me Thomas when he needed to breastfeed,” explains Clara.

Masters over Clara dedicated herself to writing more. “I always feel a guest in this country. I don’t want to grab too much attention, I want to integrate myself, get to know the rules and understand the subtleties – the unsaid things. You don’t get understatement in southern European countries! But I don’t want to totally change what I am. So my second book Raposas is  less centered in motherhood and more about the politics and economics of this country and the way austerity measures are affecting the Londoners I meet.

Why Clara loves Highbury

  • I like to walk around North London visiting the places where Marie Stopes had her first family planning clinic (Holloway) or the school to educate girls that Mary Wollstonecraft established in Newington Green.
  • All my family has bicycles and we like to go along the old railway line (Parkland Walk) for lunch in Highgate. I use my bike to drop off my son at school too.
  • I’ve spent many years in Highbury Fields playground – I owe it a lot and it gave me a social life. We also love to go to Hampstead Heath on the overground. We also like to go on the bus (#4) to the Tate Modern, then take the boat down to Greenwich.

To order a copy of LISBON STORY direct from Clara, email

Lisbon Story
Her son may be growing up in London but Clara tries to visit Lisbon regularly. Thanks to her son’s enthusiasm for the tram track up and down the seven hills of Lisbon she began to develop the plot for Lisbon Story. “The number 28 tram route in Lisbon is very picturesque,” explains Clara. “It passes haberdasheries, the cathedral and through narrow streets where sheets are hung up on drying lines. You pass the monastery and a flea market. But it is changing very fast. Those haberdasheries are now used by insurance companies and banks. It made me think that my son was going to have a different memory of Lisbon. This change is happening all over Europe – the facades of buildings are decaying and there is no money to repair them. Craftsmen and independent shops are dying. I see it acutely because I go three or four times a year, and I want to hold on to the places I’ve known.”

The result is Clara’s beautiful story about a young boy and his grandfather living in an old-fashioned style in a small courtyard in quite a communal way. The story takes place during the Festival of St Anthony (13 June) and is filled with pictures of traditional Portuguese homes decorated with Chinese lanterns and what’s known in the UK as pop-ups restaurants where grilled sardines and pork are sold.

There is an English phrase “Can’t see the wood for the trees,” which applies to most of us. We are all so busy rushing to work and coping with daily chores that it is very easy to miss the changes taking place under our noses. Clara’s infrequent trips to Lisbon helped her notice this intently – and the result is a beautiful modern story about a boy who loves trams. For those of us who are staring in at the pictures it’s also a snapshot of a changing city.

  • To order a copy direct from Clara email
  • Lisbon Story is being launched in London in Lambeth – which includes an area around Oval also known as Little Portugal – in early July 2013. The Portuguese Culture Institution, Camões, is also distributing the book to 71 countries where there are Portuguese language lessons. Lisbon Story is aimed at five to eight year olds and is in English and Portuguese, with illustrations by Slovekian artist, Andrea Lozekova, who has a child at Sacred Heart Primary School.

Over to you

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.