Talia Hussain: community champion

Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 45 seconds

Everyone has a story. Cycling across the borough to work and shops helped Talia Hussain find a flat and volunteer for Cycle Islington. Now she’s helping strengthen the Canonbury community vibe through street associations and of course a Jubilee street party. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill.

Talia Hussain: When I first lived here, I literally knew just one of my neighbours, but now with the street association I know a tonne of them. We’re all in a WhatsApp group.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

As a university student Talia’s first visit to Islington was on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with her Canadian parents who were holidaying in London to search for old pottery at places like Camden Passage and the antiques market that has just become an Amazon Fresh. Fast forward 20 years and she’s settled in Islington as a full-time resident and community activist who’s even stood as a candidate for Parliament in 2018 and a few times as a local councillor.

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Endlessly busy Talia Hussain may not yet have become an MP, but she’s still managed to do a huge amount locally, first as a campaigning committee member of Cycle Islington (until 2021) and more recently organising neighbourhood street associations around Canonbury. She’s also midway through research about clothes shopping for her PhD. “I’m focusing on the fashion industry and the role of retail practices in sustainability and unsustainability,” she says wearing a fabulous ensemble of a Squid Games-shaded aqua long-sleeved jumper with cosy cowl neck set off by fingerless gloves that she’s also knitted using a paler blue wool.

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Talia Hussain: “I’m happy to sit down and knit or sew, or do baking.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

Places Talia Hussain loves in Islington

  • Mildmay is really nice, because it is close to everything: Newington Green, Upper Street and Dalston.
  • I love Regent’s Canal. Everyone likes it when it’s peaceful and quiet. I like to see a heron, the swans and all the little water birds. I also love the New River, especially when you notice there are some fish. I find staring at fish mesmerising!
  • I really love the Island Queen, 87 Noel Road, N1. I was there in February for my first Sunday pub roast lunch in two years. Those mirrors they have with the plants painted on them makes it feel so luxurious and glamorous.
  • I do like strolling down Upper Street: it’s got such a vibe. I like Essex Road as well.
  • I also really like the tower just off Canonbury Square. I sometimes walk that way home, enjoying that bit where you turn off the busyness of Highbury Corner and walk towards the tower and you feel you’ve suddenly entered somewhere quiet.
  • I have a friend who lives near White Cross Street food market (Monday -Friday, 11am-2pm) and we’ll go and get random food and sit in the park or his flat eating amazing food.

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Talia Hussain is helping neighbours get to know each other in Canonbury (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

Street association
Talia’s a big fan of street association. “These are not super new – they’ve been happening around Canonbury for a while,” says Talia. “About four years ago I got this knock on my door from a community worker, Nicky, who with a small group had got a little bit of funding from the council to pilot a project to set up street associations. This area of Canonbury has a lot of on-street council housing, not an estate, so there are no tenants/residents associations, but the idea was to get something like that together to build the community and get people knowing each other.”

With Nicky’s help her street made a WhatsApp group. “There are about 10-12 of us now and that’s enough to organise Christmas drinks, a street party, even a jumble sale and there are plans for street planters, a bench on the corner, a street party for the Queen’s Jubilee and a nice party in September when three streets come together. As each group of people becomes a little bit more self-sustaining, Nicky organises another street by knocking on their doors. This time last year one of the group organising this – left to become ambassador to Cameroon – so they were looking for someone to help, organise and be responsible for budgeting, and report on how we were spending money to council who was local to the area. I was suggested, so I got recruited from being a member of the street association turning up to hang bunting to being on this organising committee,” says Talia.

She puts the group’s success down to it being a stress-free, low-key way of people in a neighbourhood getting to know each other. “It wasn’t easy during covid but then we organised a September street party and people brought cakes and baking and we got lucky and had extremely sunny weather. It’s just nice to chat to the neighbours and have a sense of community. Nicky is an amazing bundle of energy and helpfulness who knows everyone. So, when Nicky does a door knock you have a momentum and is a lot easier to keep going with things… and once you know people it’s easy to go to them and say who is in? I need three others to help me do this thing. Once you are organising a street party the bar to entry just gets lower and lower. You don’t have to do anything, you can just come and if bringing a cake too, that is just wonderful.”

For Talia one of the highlights of having a Street Association is the street party where a street is blocked off and neighbours meet up for chat, food and fun.

“We did the sassiest dog competition and one of our councillors was judging and went ‘all the dogs are winners’! Normally on the street the cats are in charge… We have good hardworking councillors in Canonbury, not every ward is as lucky as having such hard-working councillors [which is why Islington’s] bike hangars are now the most expensive in London. There needs to be accountability and opposition,” she says – a feeling that inspired her to stand as a local councillor for the Greens in the May 2020 elections.

Talia Hussain: “I’ve been involved in Cycle Islington forever – over 15 years. It’s taken a really long time [for councils/government] understanding that you have to take action so people can be safe on bikes. I’m not a crazy lycra-wearing racer. In fact, I like cycling in my skirt.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

Cycle love
Raised and schooled in Canada, Talia is both artistically skilled (helped by her Fine Art Batchelor’s degree in Fine Art done at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design which taught print making, drawing, sculpture and even welding) and the possessor of an MBA business degree which she took in London at Imperial College.

“Living in Islington is just a coincidence,” says Talia who has mostly worked in design and production. “I was looking for a place to live and a friend moving to Brighton suggested we move into his flat in Mildmay. Because I was working at an agency in the Old Bus Factory near Cally Road station, and living off Newington Green I ended up cycling across Islington. The overground wasn’t open then so it was a 20-minute journey by bike but much longer any other way.”

By chance she then ended up buying a flat in 2005 on her bike route to work, “though by then I was working in Brixton, on what is now the Q2 (Quietway cycle route from Walthamstow towards Bloomsbury and on to east Acton). It’s a tiny little wedge of leafy streets between Southgate Road and Essex Road that’s just lovely: sweet, quiet, leafy residential areas.”

“The number of people using this route for cycling when I moved here at first might have been 15 or 20 people a day and now you will see 15 people at a time going down the street! I think partially that’s just a huge increase in people wanting to cycle and wanting exercise and not want to be crushed on to the tube,” she says.

Talia isn’t keen on lycra-clad cycling, seeing bike riding as an enjoyable way to get around London, whatever you are wearing. Together with her partner, Ossian, she does a weekly shop on the bikes filling her panniers. “We can fit enough shopping for two into one and half panniers, though you do have to plan. When I’ve visited friends in America who have to drive to the store, all of a sudden you have 48 cans of pop! People worry how will I get enough food home to feed myself? But for a lot of people that’s not really an issue – more of an issue is not wasting food, especially fresh produce. We try hard not to do that so we plan our shop according to what we’ll make during the week. Veggie lasagne with pan fried aubergines on Sunday dinner will becomes lunches for the rest of the week.”

Talia Hussain: “I think sometimes people need a seed to grow around. When no one’s doing anything no one is doing anything, when they are doing something then they are…” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

Another reason Talia loves to bike is for the exercise. “I don’t want to wake up knowing I’m going to sit on a bus then sit at a desk all day. I enjoy seeing the city as I go around, and I’ve seen huge numbers of people enjoying this more and more including students… Now with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) the number of people you see cycling with small children with cargo bikes or kids seats has increased. You wouldn’t dare cycle like that three or four years ago. My neighbours now have a toddler so instead of using their SUV they bought a bike with a toddler seat. They were able to make that change because the council has introduced LTNs that make it feel safer.

Talia may have ended up in Islington by chance, but now she can’t imagine: “Wanting to move anywhere else in London. Being here in Islington it’s so close to everything. It’s not far to get to places like Lea Valley or the Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford or down into Soho. I really love using quiet cycle route streets that takes me all through these new Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN) all the way to Walthamstow or down to Soho.

Over to you
Also if you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via islingtonfaces@gmail.com Thank you to Ernie, our newly appointed Islington Faces chair (April 2022) for suggesting this interviewee. If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola