Divinc Interview: Wandering Through Hidden Spaces in London with Saira Niazi

DivInc — Tell us a little about how your childhood days, family and dreams of what you wanted to become while growing up.

Saira — I come from quite a big family, I have 4 brothers and 2 sisters. I had a great childhood- my parents often struggled to make ends meet growing up- but we were close knit family and they rarely let us feel as though we were lacking.

I didn’t like secondary school. I had no friends and I’d often bunk off and go exploring. I thought I wanted to be a Geologist because I loved the earth and I loved being outdoors. I went to college on the other side of town to study Geology in A-level but ended up failing and consequently dropping the subject. My tutors told me I would never be able to get into university with only 2 A-levels. I did — and I got into the university I really wanted to go to, (Goldsmiths) where I studied International Relations. I’d always been quite interested in current affairs and history. Growing up in the post 9/11 world as a British Pakistani, I thought it was really important that I learn about the world.

What made you start Living London?

I’ve always really loved exploring. I love learning through my explorations, through the places I go and the people I meet. Living London started out as book project that I started while I was working a 9–5 job that I didn’t enjoy. It became an escape. Through writing and photography, I’d record my journeys to various hidden gems and spaces around the city. Soon enough a few years passed, and I’d gotten to a stage where I’d collected over a thousand places. I decided to start a blog and then had the idea of leading walking tours. I thought it would be nice to be able to share and connect hidden gems in an area and bring them to life through storytelling and anecdotes of people and place. I started out just doing them for fun but soon realised that there was quite a demand for what I was offering, and that I could possibly make a living from Living London.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own company?

Meeting and working with so many incredible people has definitely been one of the most rewarding aspects of starting my own company. Also, just being able to do what I love, to share my knowledge and stories with others, to give others similar opportunities and get paid for it! This has been enormously rewarding. I really believe in what I do. I think by connecting people to different places, projects and communities, our perceptions of what it means to live in a city as diverse, open and inspirational as London, can be transformed. There are endless possibilities for collaboration and collective growth.

Tell us about three spots in London you would recommend for exploration.

1- The London Wetland Centre in Barnes. It’s a magical wetland nature reserve home to all kinds of birds. It’s a really peaceful spot. You won’t feel like you’re in London.

2- Aziziye Mosque in Dalston. It’s one of the prettiest mosques I’ve ever been too. It used to be a cinema before it was converted. In the basement, there’s a hidden restaurant that serves the best Turkish food in London.

3- Golders Green crematorium, a beautiful and moving place to remembrance. It houses memorials of many famous people who’ve passed including Sigmund Freud and T.S Eliot. There are sprawling gardens surrounding, that are magical all year round.

What is the best advice you ever took?

Be your most authentic self, always.

What challenges did you face while starting your own work and how did you overcome them?

I faced a lot of challenges. Sometimes I’d spend days prepping for a tour and arranging visits to secret places and on the day only one or two people would show up and it was really disheartening. But I’d keep going. I started to think outside the box and collaborated with people I thought were doing really exciting things. This was inspiring to me. I also started to have my events regularly listed in The Londonist.

What would be your advice to young people who have just started working on their dream?

Don’t give up and don’t listen to the naysayers. Do what you love, do what you believe in and if you’re persistent enough and if you work hard, you’ll succeed. People have always told me what I can’t do. From my school days up until now and insofar, I’ve proved them wrong. Don’t allow people’s opinion of you and your abilities to affect your own opinions. As cliché as it sounds, you really can do anything you put your mind to. You can achieve great things. Also, I’d say constantly innovate and experiment. If something doesn’t work, don’t be afraid of change.