Saturday, 22 December 2007

And The Bells Were Ringing Out

“It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas,” goes the song.

And so it is.

It’s starting to feel like the end of the year, like finality is fast approaching.

Anyone would think that the apocalypse is nigh or perhaps a tornado or a volcano or a tidal wave. I mean, if the end of the world was just about to begin then buying every last tin of tomatoes, stalks of broccoli and can of Fosters is hardly going to help and you would hope that in their last moments of existence people would be able to find something better to do. But then again, possibly they wouldn’t. They’d probably leg it down to the shops to buy a few extra galleons of milk in case Auntie Ethel decided to sit out the nuclear winter in their shelter after all.

Seriously, you should see the insanity in the supermarkets around here. The desperation and the aggression, the over-compensation, the almost inevitable waste (or so I suspect - no family can eat eleven kilos of sprouts, can they?). Besides, we live in the (almost) middle of the biggest city on the continent. There are five large scale, big name supermarkets within a half hour walk from my house and at least a further fifteen corner shops within ten minutes. At the very worst they will be closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Two days. Let’s be honest, it’s unlikely to even be for that long, but people are stocking up like they need to feed a regiment for the next three months. You’d think that it was 1963 and that the missiles could start flying at any moment.

I used to love Christmas, the drunken frivolity, the giving and the sharing and, hell, everything about it. Even, sort of, the fairy tale of the son of god born under a star to bring peace to the world. It’s nice. Just thinking about it used to give me a warm glow inside.

Increasingly, though, that’s no longer the case. I’m getting more and more grumpy as each year passes. I leave the gift shopping later and later in lone protest against the advertising and store dressing that seems to begin earlier and earlier and so, consequently, I’m fighting against the rampaging hordes of desperate mothers and guilty husbands. I find the centre of London claustrophobic on an average Saturday afternoon, but in December it’s utterly unbearable. The streets are packed with people layered up in heavy coats, gloves and woolly hats, who then become drenched with sweat the moment they enter an overheated shop. Everyone gains an extra two feet in width as the number of bags surgically attached to their hands increases every fifteen minutes. Those more innocent are barraged out into the road, knocked to one side by a taxi transporting a peroxide blonde footballer’s wife fresh off the train from Hertfordshire, heading to Selfridges and the privileges of a personal shopper.

Me? I take a rucksack, keeping my hands free to shove the occasional cyclist under a bus, and a plan. Get in, purchase presents and get the hell out of Dodge.

Rarely works, though.

Plus, there’s the never ending Slade-Mud-Wizzard-Wham medley of audio torture, bits of tinsel attached to the door handles of public toilets, a stuffed penguin dressed as a reindeer dressed as Santa in the middle of every damn shop and the electricity drainers suspended from every lamp post, tree and vertical object on every high street around the country (to say nothing of some people’s houses). Mind you, it could be worse - at least the Christmas lights no longer seem to be just adverts for fizzy orange drinks or the latest kids movie or condoms or whatever, but how come the eco-police don’t harp on about the four million extra light bulbs along Oxford Street switched on for sixteen hours a day for nine weeks?

Oh, and then there’s my favourite part of Christmas. The complex negotiations over which parts of the festive period we’re going to spend in which parental abode. A process of feints and bluffs and counter strategy which needs to accommodate a myriad range of considerations: quantity of time spent with each family; quality of time spent with each family; number of meals where; sisters; grand-parents; aunts and uncles; dogs; cousins. Who we see when and where becomes so convoluted with twists and turns, a couple of hours here, twenty minutes there, that in fact we spend all our time driving the three miles between junctions four and five of the M42. I’m confused, but I think that I’m having lunch on Boxing Day with my Dad, Beck’s Uncle Peter, my cousin’s husband Paul and mine and Beck’s nephew at a secret rendezvous point somewhere in Wiltshire.

It’s enough to make me say “sod it, bugger Christmas” and stay in London sulking. I’ll draw the blinds, speak to no-one, spend the day in bed reading books, drinking fine ale and masturbating. It’ll be great.



Actually, you know, it’d be shite. And in the end it’s the little details that make Christmas so special and overcome all the crap in the run-up.

On Wednesday afternoon we went to buy a tree. This involved a fair degree of faffing; first we went to the local garden centre (too big and too expensive), then to Homebase (wrong shape) and then to a couple of random blokes selling them off the street (sawn off at the base; impossible to water - it’d be dead before we got home from Birmingham) and then back to Homebase. A small, rather full of character I think, tree now perches on the chest in the lounge.

We decorated it that evening. The box of decorations was, incredibly, where I’d left them the year before and I even managed to find a set of lights that worked. We sipped red wine, listened to Rufus Wainwright and in the artificially warm fuzz of the evening tied tinsel around the pot, dangled baubles and bells and stars. She smiled at something daft I said and I smiled back. Suddenly all was right in the world and that glow in the pit of my stomach returned.

I started thinking about all the times past. Of as a little kid my Dad drawing a clock face showing the time that I could get up in the morning and placing the piece of paper next to my Noddy clock; of getting up, finding Mum already up and about and being over-excited because Father Christmas had already been, unable to understand that she was getting undressed, not dressed; of the sheer unadulterated joy at getting the exact Action Force or Transformer toy that I’d dreamt of for months; of silliness and a lack of competition in playing board games with my sister and my cousins; of the straining in my gut as I force down one more roast potato and know that I’ll have find room for pudding; of sinking into the big, bright pink chair in the window of my grand-parent’s dining room, opening a bran new book and beginning to read, feeling slightly dozy as digestion takes place; of the smell of drambuie; of tunelessly howling carols in the Railway Inn late on Christmas Eve having already sunk too much Brew XI and then slurring my way through a solo version of Fairytale in New York somewhere between the pub and my parents house.

Despite the odds and all the attempts to make it trite and frustrating, it is still a wonderful time of the year. Merry Christmas everyone, now get off the internet and go spend time with your family.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Stabo Mowie Po Polsku.

It’s damn cold outside.

Cold enough to make your testicles shrivel as you walk, your lips crack when you smile and frost forms in your hair instantly.

Still, I suppose I am in Poland and big over-ear hats and knee high sturdy boots remain one of the stereotypes that haunts the former Eastern block countries for a very good reason.

I’m writing this having just devoured a rather large mushroom pancake which cost a rather surprising £2.50. Eastern Europe doesn’t seem as ludicrously cheap as it did nine years ago when we sat in Prague sucking bottles of Budvar for about 12p each. Today it’s almost as though two Polands exist simultaneously side by side. As though a Western tourist can reach out and touch a wall that feels solid and real, but if you pushed a little harder it will start to dissolve and underneath there’s something else. Layers of reality piling up on top of each other.

Old and new.

This is a country that has so many pasts. It has the history of the ancient Polish Kingdom, one of the first fully formed monarchies on the continent, it has a history of domination by either Prussia or White Russia and even briefly the French. Then there was a brief triumphant period between the wars and finally over forty years of enforced communism.

And now.

Now it’s a place where virtually everyone under thirty-five speaks English and everyone over, Russian. Where the young and the old are separated by more than just the passing of the years. A country naturally divided in half by the river Vistula and resulting in a western region buoyant on EU investment and an agricultural eastern half shackled by new trading restrictions with the Ukraine. It’s a country that wants to accelerate into the twenty-first century, but desperate not to do so at the expense of some of their hard fought identity.

In the first world it is sometimes difficult to see the differences when everywhere could be anywhere.

The cafĂ© I’m indulgently taking up a table for too long, over-looks the beautiful old square of Poznan. The centre of the town for over seven hundred years, the current buildings appear to be eighteenth century town houses. Four stories tall, clad in a myriad range of stunning colours and intricate details along their roofs. At the ground floor they are illuminated by a range of neon signs. Segafredo Coffee, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Red Bull.

I come to places like this and I instinctively want to write about them. I’m swept up in their beauty, their history, the difference, the otherness. I’m interested in the ramshackle iron tram system, the brutalist 1950s soviet architecture, the remnants of different social norms and I look for a story to tell. But the thing is, I can’t. I can’t write about Poznan or Poland without dealing with everything I’ve listed above in some fashion. I cannot truly understand what is, I can only observe.

It’s all about voice. I could write a story with believable characters, with a coherent plot, with detailed references to Poland now and gone and it would (possibly) be competent enough, but it would still lack that magical sequence of letters that make the words spring out of the page and exist independently.

I’ve encountered this problem before, but I think it is only recently that I‘ve begun to recognise it. When we were in Croatia I was shocked at the number of men in their mid-thirties with missing limbs, or scars, or in wheelchairs. Survivors of the war. When we got home I tried to write a story that drew on Croatia’s history and it’s present situation of emerging from the ashes using the viewpoint of a veteran. What was I thinking? It was, of course, utter crap, and so it should have been. What right do I have to presume to understand the thoughts of a man who fought in a civil war?

In the spring I wrote a piece about Berlin, about an old man who returned to the street he grew up on for the first time since the war. Auguststrasse happens to the site of the Berlin Biennale that Beck and I had visited in 2006 and the nineteenth century architecture left to ramshackle makes it incredibly atmospheric. I really wanted to write something set on the street. The narrative takes place with the old man walking along the street reliving his youth in a series of blurred flashbacks, the present and the past overlap each other. Parts of it work. I was pretty damn pleased with the final sequence and felt that I’d written about old age and lost love and childhood memories competently, yet Auguststrasse is in the Jewish area and consequently the holocaust demanded to be included. It’s too big a thing to simply ignore and, of course, I couldn’t write about it with authority and so the whole piece fails. I tried to give the characters a strong sense of regret and I deliberately dodged the question of mass German participation, even though my character was compliant rather than active, trying to suggest that it is almost impossible for us today to truly understand what happened.

It failed because, again, who am I?

These are, it would seem, ventriloquist leaps too far for me at the moment.

Continuing with my example for a while: Yes it’s true that you don’t have to be a holocaust survivor or participant to write exceptionally well about the event. You don’t necessarily have to be Primo Levi to write something like If This Is Man or The Drowned And The Saved. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is superb, but then his parents were survivors and the work is as much about his relationship with his father as anything else. W.G Sebald was just a boy in 1945 but in both The Emigrants and Austerlitz he tackles the issue, but then he was German. Both of these writers have a way into the story, yet two generations removed, born into a non-practicing United Reformed Christian family in the West Midlands I have not.

This is, I suspect, about as an extreme an example as you can get.

Experience does not completely create voice, nor, indeed, does it allow you write stunning prose, but it does, I feel, give the words an added significance. It helps the reader to believe if they feel you know what you are writing about. Incidental details, supporting characters, there are many things that can be researched (although I would suggest more than just a quick look at wikipedia) and included, but I’m starting to feel that to truly write the central characters and themes of any work I must, at least, understand.

George Orwell lived penniless on the streets of both Paris and London almost seeking out the experience of starvation, poverty, of the underclass in contrast to his own upper-middle class childhood and his work as a policeman in Burma. He wanted to write political novels, words for all people and he instinctively knew that in order to be read by those he most wanted to reach he must experience the life for himself.

I could still, if I chose, write about Poland. I just have to write about an Englishman in Poznan for a brief visit. Alternatively I can come back and properly immerse myself in the area and the culture and I might find it coming alive for me, but maybe not.

Of course, it might be that none of this is true.

I’m told that Jim Crace just makes everything up. Every single detail, every location, everything either stems from his existing knowledge or his imagination. He’s a fiction writer so if you don’t know something why not invent. It is, partly, down to the confidence with which you put pen to paper. I only found this fact out recently and I’ve been a little concerned that I won’t be able to read his work again with the same intense pleasure it usually gives me, in the meantime you‘ll find me in the corner scribbling down every concept and emotion I think I can connect to.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

All That You Can't Leave Behind

I’m lying in the early morning dark. The glow from the street light cuts behind the ill fitting blind and casts a low glow across the bedroom. I can hear Beck in the bath, there’s the sound of water splashing like a gentle tide ebbing against a jetty wall. I try to focus on this rather than the dull thud in my head caused by a visit to the Marquis in Cannonbury and the New Rose on the Essex Road.

The room around me is a scattergun mess of clothes, electrical cables, adaptors, open cases, creased books and loose sheets of paper. Ah, yes, I remember. Beck is in the process of packing. I went out last night to keep out of her way whilst she finished working and prepared for departure. Clearly only one of those things has been achieved.

She comes back into the bedroom and I grudgingly roll onto the floor. When I finally make it to the bathroom I find that the deep soak she enjoyed has drained all the hot water. I attempt to take a cold shower, but as the heating hasn’t even kicked in yet and the air in the room is acutely chilled. It’s just too much and I resort to ineffectively splashing a little water around my crotch and arm pits exhaling with an “oh” and an “ah” as I do so. I get dressed still smelling of midnight sweat and go in search of coffee.

Two hours later and we need to be leaving, but Beck’s laptop is still running in the still disputed spare room and in the bedroom she sits atop the small, battered suitcase I acquired at some point that usually just lives in the bottom of the wardrobe storing hiking gear as I tend to prefer a rucksack. Spilling out of the sides I see what looks like a suit worn by a engineer sent to defuse a chemical bomb (it turns out to be the coat she brought in Canada for wearing in the artic next year) and a pair of maroon high heels. Presumably not to be worn together.

“Do you really need that?”
“It’ll be cold.”
“You’ll never get it shut.”
“You’re always so defeatist.”
“Couldn’t you take a smaller coat?”
“It’ll be cold.”
“Not so cold, surely? Isn’t that thing designed to keep you alive if you stumble and fall in snow and lie helpless for a few hours whilst the temperature drops to minus twenty?”

Eventually, we get the two bags zipped up and (probably) containing more or less everything she needs. I carry the suitcase down the stairs. It’s clearly well over the weight limit, but Beck insists that she’ll repack at the airport and I therefore have to find another bag which I can either use to take things back home or she can take on board as a larger carry-on bag.

I finally turn the ignition, after a quick dash back into the house to collect passport and flight details, and we pull off at 0955. Twenty-five minutes later than planned, but not too bad. The traffic through Lewisham is relatively light and we’re making reasonable time despite a minor panic crossing Blackheath.

“I’m not sure if I’ve got the adaptor that connects my computer to a projector.”
“Do you need it?”
“Do you want to go back?”
“Just stop and I’ll check… No, it’s okay. It’s here. We can go. Wait! I might have forgotten…”

We join the A102, accelerate up the hill cutting through the lanes of traffic and then are forced to brake heavily when descending the other side. And then we stop. The queue for the Blackwall tunnel is back beyond Greenwich. I consider trying to leave the bypass and head for the Rotherhithe Tunnel instead, but there’s road works between me and it and they’ll probably hold us up even worse. We sit it out.

For thirty minutes.

We inch forward sandwiched in-between a white van with faulty brake lights and a testosterone pumped idiot in a black Porsche boxer who thinks that if he nearly touches my bumper every four minutes I’ll realise what an obstruction I, personally, am causing and magically clear the road. There’s no accident, no broken down vehicle. The tunnel isn’t flooded, a hairline crack hasn’t appeared in the forty year old concrete. It’s just three lanes of traffic merging into two.

Eventually we emerge on the north side of the river, back into the sunlight and out of the electric tinted gloom. We make reasonable time up the A12 and the M11. There’s a bit of confusion at Stansted as the first car park I pull into has a minimum charge of £16. We finally get inside the terminal a little over an hour before the flight is scheduled to take off and join the queue.

The first of many.

You see, I really, really hate flying. Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s not that I’m scared of being up in the air, or that the motion makes me feel ill or anything like that, but I hate airports. It’s probably largely to do with the fact that I’m nearly always booked onto the cheapest possible flight to anywhere in the world at that time and it’s almost invariably leaves in the middle of the night (today is the exception), which means that it’s an expensive arse to get to the airport and then there is the continuous, loathsome queuing.

You queue to check-in, a process that would be significantly sped up if the unnamed Irish based airline had more than one seventeen year old girl dealing with all passengers and having to explain to each that yes, fifteen kilos is a lot less than other airlines, but it’s made quite clear on your confirmation email.

Then you have to queue to pay for the excess baggage, particularly galling if you’ve actually come in a dead on the limit despite the fact that you’re carrying the tent and the rest of the camping kit whilst your travelling companion, who only has to pack clothes, has somehow come in nearly eight kilos over. Then you have to get back in the check-in queue to prove that you’ve paid the excess baggage extortion racket and to collect your boarding passes. Then just because the seventeen year old girl is a vindictive little shit who hates her job you’re sent off to join yet another queue, this time for oversized baggage.

The security queue seems to creep around half of the terminal and is filled with increasingly anxious clock watchers as the second tick mercilessly by. The rules constantly change. No liquids. Up to 100ml of each liquid, but only if it’s in a plastic bag. Take your shoes off before passing through the metal detector. What are you doing taking your shoes off, fool, there’s a backlog of delayed people here?

Then there’s the inevitable bag search which results in either your travelling companion trying to explain that potassium permanganate is a powder you mix with water and soak your feet in to prevent trench foot not a component for a bomb. Alternatively you can explain to the screaming Polish soldier with a machine gun that you’ve no idea how the scalpel got into your hand luggage - even though it’d be so much easier to blame the numpty who thought they might want to sharpen a pencil during the flight.

Once all that’s done there’s just time for you to join the queue for a bottle of water from Boots, but not enough time to queue for breakfast and you ask yourself how did this happen again when you’re sure you allowed an extra half an hour this time. This is followed by a sprint through the airport as they change the departure gate to one in a shed on the next runway over.

Then more bloody queuing.

Onto the plane, off the plane, onto the pointless bus at the other end, passport control, baggage collection (presupposing of course that your bags made it onto the same plane as you), customs, the bus to take you to the place you thought you were flying to but actually turns about to be forty miles East. The whole process just threatens to break my sanity. Feet shuffling, the fat guy behind me who thinks that queuing means he has to be close enough for his belt buckle to touch my arse cheek and is nearly overpowering me with the smell of his cigarette and cheap burger breath wafting across the back of my neck.


Actually, none of that happens this time. The flight to Poznan seems quite empty and the queue to check-in is pretty short. The seventeen year old is in charge is a boy and Beck bats her eyelashes, smiles sweetly and gets away with the excess weight. I’m not flying so I don’t get to see the security queue but she made the flight so it probably wasn’t that bad. The only queue I have to endure is waiting behind someone who can’t work out how to pay for the car park.

My deep rooted unhappiness at the prospect of flying anywhere means that I really should be getting the train when I go out to join her on Friday. I could get the Eurostar form the rather lovely, restored St Pancreas to Brussels, from there I can catch a fast train to Berlin and then one that stops at every single village on the way to Warsaw via Poznan. It’d take a little longer, sure, but not that much when you factor in getting to the airport, a couple of hours standing around there and the same at the other end. With the train you just seem to walk through an orderly process, easily accommodating the volume of customers and not pressurised by lack of investment. There’s no weight limit beyond what you can carry. It’s so much smoother and efficient. On the journey you can look out the window and take in the scenery, the little trackside details in small German towns. Even when you change trains it’s far more pleasant - I love station architecture. St Pancreas is gorgeous and the new central Berlin station is fantastic. Stansted airport’s only feature of note is its dreary, pale, depressingness. At the destination you arrive, by train, slap bang in the middle of the town with a short amble to your hotel or hostel, not on an old military base somewhere in the same region.

But damn them it’s just so cheap. Looks like, in some twisted form of mental masochism, I’m flying again.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Market Forces

I’m writing the first draft of this sitting in the car with the rain lashing down outside. I’m in the car park of a junior school in Bethnal Green whilst Beck struggles through the torrents to Columbia Road flower market. All of this is a little odd for two reasons. Firstly, I rarely write anything anywhere other than at home, but I’m trying to snatch what few moments I can have with Beck before she flies out to Poland at the end of the week. Secondly, to be completely honest I probably shouldn’t be writing anything other than fiction this weekend as there’s a deadline looming, hence why she‘s getting wet and I‘m writing this. It’s a good job I’ve taken to carrying a notebook around with me and in the gaps between seconds I can scribble a couple of words down. It makes a handy excuse.

Nearby is Old Spitalfields Market’s, originally built on an ancient market site back in 1886 as a fruit and veg compliment to the meat based Smithfields a mile or so down the road. Both buildings have beautifully arched glass roofs, wide open at the base with the ceiling supported by ornate iron pillars. Spitalfields is significantly smaller (if you go to Smithfields late at night you can actually drive straight through - a handy shortcut at times) and is now surrounded by permanent shop space hosting designer furniture, cafes, bars, the odd art space, etc, etc.

It’s interesting because the market forms a border between the East End and the City. To the West you have Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street with the London offices of Royal Bank of Scotland, ABN Amro and most of the other world’s financial institutions. Money that’s serviced by aluminium framed champagne bars, endless branches of the same coffee shops and top end strip joints. On the Eastern side you have the Ten Bells, a pub notoriously linked with some of Jack The Ripper’s victims, the shell of the Old Truman Brewery closed since 1988 after three hundred and twenty two years of brewing and the Golden Heart where when she was at Goldsmiths Beck watched a group of female Undergraduates first piss in the basin then tear it off the wall after a private view at a gallery. Oh, and there’s the low end strip joints too.

Things are changing. Or rather, they already have. It’s too late.

Despite a valiant community struggle nearly fifty percent of Spitalfields has been torn down - right in front of the offices for the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings too. New glass fronted shopping units are cropping up, trendy semi-chain restaurants with names like Giraffe and Leon are opening for business. Tracey Emin still lurks in the area (I often saw her striding out as I drove slowly through the traffic along Commercial Street on the way home from the M1) but she’s hardly a struggling artist these days. Back in the early summer she chartered a private jet to fly her to Venice as she installed the Biennale. Many of those who lived in the area through the grim days of the seventies and eighties have either been pushed further East, out to Hackney and Dalston, or they’re waiting for retirement sitting on a rather nice nest egg as property prices soar way beyond the quality of the structures.

Location, location, location indeed.

Beck thinks that the artists have all moved to Shoreditch, but I’m not so sure. I think they've bee pushed even further forward. If you go out around Old Street or the Hackney Road on a Friday night then you’ll see city boys looking to rough it, for that urban chic vibe, or so-called creative-types who never actually do any work because they’re so far gone and anyway their bohemian lifestyle is funded by Daddy’s share options.

Everyone’s a fake in some way.

The face of most cities is changing. Partly it’s because of the economic climate, partly it’s thanks to a reversal of the dash to the suburbs made by previous generations and partly it’s through deliberate attempts to regenerate. It scrubs itself up, but in doing so it seems to lose a little bit of itself at the same time.

And perhaps people do exactly the same. Don’t we all subconsciously begin to adapt to those around us?

When I was younger I didn’t care what I looked like. I had big, long hair, usually dark clothes, chunky doc martin boots and a grey trench coat. It was almost a negative look, one conjured out of my own mind rather than consciously following others. At some point when I was at University I cut all my hair off because I had decided I looked like a berk and when I started to work in London, surrounded by young people with money to splash, I became interested in fashion. I mean, not ridiculously so, but I bought more shirts than I’d ever had before and started looking for interesting details on jeans and trainers. I was even prepared to pay more than seven quid for a t-shirt.

As I moved on to a smaller company, where I was the youngest employee by a decade, I became more interested in suits. Mine got a little more expensive, I investigated different cuts of jacket. I began to think about what I wore and, more importantly, whether I was happy with what it said it about me. I secretly began to quite fancy a tailor-made suit, but knew that I couldn’t afford one.

Now things have come back full circle. I haven’t had a haircut since August and my locks are beginning to cover my ears and curl up at the back. I can no longer be bothered meticulously shaving everyday. While Beck was away I grew a two week beard, but I shave a little more frequently now as she doesn’t like kissing me when I’m spikey. My clothes are, in the main, falling apart. Aside from the previously mentioned jeans the soles of my trainers are coming off and one of my favourite jumpers has a bleach stain down the front from where I was cleaning up some dog crap we accidentally walked in.

Is it deliberate or is a little part of my brain just thinking that this is what I should look like. Like a character from a Sartre novel? Or from Zola’s The Masterpiece?

It’s not just me, either. Beck has been known to announce that it’s important for an artist to dress with a certain style and when she works in schools she’ll dress much differently to how she will in the studio. She calls it “smarty” fashion. She’s not a teacher, she’s an artist, but she needs to have an authority with the kids. How does she look both smart and artistic? Only smartys have the answer.

She tells me that in Banff there were two “dance nights”. For the first she changed into smart shoes and a pretty top. For the second she went along in her fleece and hiking books, far more suitable for the snow flecked Rockies. She’d never be able to go out like that in London, it can take a little while but perhaps we begin to reflect our surroundings and so perhaps wholesale tearing up whole areas is not the solution.

Back in the East End some areas are stubbornly holding on. Brick Lane, indeed Columbia Road and, in particular, Petticoat Lane markets are still serving their more traditional base. There’s pirate DVDs, dodgy leather goods, mobile phones unlocked, fags with Arabic script down the side, a sewing machine and obviously stolen bikes and other, legal, items. On Sunday I saw something I thought only existed in 1930s New York caricatures: A guy standing in the rain burning wooden planks in an old metal barrel swigging from a can of Red Stripe at ten o’clock in the morning.

Meanwhile in the partially redeveloped Spitalfields Market people were wandering around slurping iced Starbucks crap, wearing their smartly dry cleaned winter coats looking to buy a piece of “young designer” clothing or jewellery. Okay, but is it just me or do at least half the stalls sell the same tatty-cool clothes and coral jewellery? There’s a diminishing number of second hand record and book sellers, the little food stalls of curry, stir fry, goulash, baked spuds and pancakes have been completely expunged and in their place are prefabricated glass boxes just dumped in the middle of the market hall. These are all still available for rent to someone who thinks it’s a good idea to try and run a business on a site that only gets busy on Sundays.

The twenty-first century is winning the race by a country mile.

I overheard someone saying that it was a good thing to have places like Spitalfields. Is it? Is it really a good thing that there is somewhere that we can buy a olive stuffed piece of focaccia at £3.50 a slice? Okay, so it’s nice (I’m pretty partial myself), especially for those who can afford it, but is it actually an actively good thing, or does it just offer luxuries for some at the expense of the many?

It’s a hard one. Who am I to say what should be done to improve inner city areas with my middle-class white-boy credentials? For as areas are regenerated and cleaned up it is undeniable that crime figures typically go down, property prices rise and why would some lefty-sub-literati have the right to say that this is a mistake?

But it seems to me that everyone just gets moved on a few miles? That, rather than going “great a Pizza Express, now I have no need to deal drugs I can be a waiter instead,” people all get dumped in the few remaining areas where the problems just get worse. Picking up the litter and inviting a Subway franchise in does not get to the underlying problems of society, it just brushes them under the sideboard for a few years.

For anyone who thinks this is an exaggeration, on Monday the lunchtime BBC London news (yes, okay most people won’t have seen this, but I spend virtually all day in the house) ran a brief story about how fifteen of Brick Lane’s famous curry houses have closed down in recent months due to soaring rent prices. Regeneration is pushing the Bangladeshi community, who have lived there for decades, out. The area may be tidier, there be less petty street crime, it may be safer to walk around at night, but how many people will have lost their livelihoods in order for this to happen and what are their choices now?

There are no easy answers to this, but I think it’s important to ask the question. Feel free to argue amongst yourselves.