Friday, 26 November 2010

Cold Front

Part of the British caricature is that we’re obsessed by the weather. Perhaps it’s because we simply can’t cope with it. As the long months of grinding disruption and endless panic-mongering news coverage proved at the beginning of the year, reinforced by the announcement I heard at London Bridge station on a freakishly oppressive May evening that the trains were delayed due to “today’s extreme heat”, unless it’s grey sludge filled skies occasionally breaking to form resignedly sardonic sunlight which just can’t manage. We fall apart.

I fit the stereotype of British and like many a German newspaper cartoon (probably). I watch the weather forecast with intense interest. I wasn’t always like this. In years gone by, I wouldn’t have cared what each new day brought, but recently I am watching out for one thing in particular: the temperature. Or, to be more precise, how cold it’s going to get.

September 2008:

I arrived outside the converted Edwardian house with some trepidation. The whole exercise of flat hunting was proving to be demoralising. Already functioning in some sort of squewed daze where my surface activity seemed smooth enough yet underneath there was a scorched soul, I was becoming increasingly dismayed that the crashing property buying market had sent the rental market into orbit. I was reduced to scrounging around at the bottom of the studio/bedsit flat price-range where friendly rats were seen as a bonus. I paused before ringing the doorbell trying to bury my preconceptions that it would be as bad as all the others I’d seen; the ones where the mould in the kitchen smirked at you; where the toilet slumped seedily away from the wall; where if I stood in the centre, stretched my arms out and rotated gently my fingers would brush all four damp walls; where missing floorboards had scratched at my ankles.

I went upstairs.

It was… surprisingly nice. In fact, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. It was clean, relatively spacious and had kitchen appliances.

I took it.

November 2010:

The heat caught at the back of my throat and teased the moisture out of me. It weighed heavy on my neck. Sweat prickled my neck. A solitary blob of – what? Sweat, snot or tear I wasn’t sure which? – slide across the rim of my nose, paused for a second at the tip, dangling into the dragging space before spiralling into the air. It never hit the tiles at my feet; instead it disappears into nothing. The tiles baked. They were too hot for anything other than the cracked backs on my heels. I felt a mess compared to the Hungarians I shared the sauna with. Their bodies glistened whilst mine was matted in thick wiry hair. My feet left deposits of grated white dead skin, their steps left only the faintest damp impression.

I slumped forwards; my forearms creased my thighs; my shoulders hunched. It was the sort of heat that breaks you. My jaw slipped and hung open. My eyes rolled in their sockets. The man next to me slapped his breast like his heart fluttered.

The air warped. It was unstable, incapable of balance. I could barely make out the clock on the wall, it blured with the thermometer. The red mercury nudged at seventy Celsius. I had only been in there seven minutes. It felt like forever.

November 2008:

I sat in my new, mildly cramped flat and let the six o’clock news wash over me. The television was on, but I wasn’t watching it. I ate my reheated dinner from days before and tried not think about having a drink. Something felt wrong. I felt… cold?

‘An unseasonable coating of the white stuff,’ said the BBC London weather man. You know, the irritatingly smug one whom most sane people could cheerily drown.

I looked out of the back window into the small garden. A shallow layer of snow settled and the air was filled with flaked chill. It looked like an unwritten memory of a CS Lewis’ story. Pretty, delicate, sinister. It felt cold.
Here’s the thing: I don’t typically get cold. Often, I’m too hot. I seem to maintain an internal furnace that pumps out surplus coal fired heat to keep me warm, to such a point that in late November I hadn’t even investigated my new home’s central heating system.

Which, as it turned out, it didn’t have. Instead, it was equipped with a single wall mounted heated with no thermostat and a single on/off switch.

I turned it on. A pale red light flipped up in the corner. I wandered away and when, thirty minutes, later I still shivered came back and put my hand on the cool plastic cover. I held my hands above it the open grill at the top and felt the gentle waft of heat flump out of the system with all the force of a dying puppy’s breath.

It felt like the world was ending. Surprisingly, it appeared that the apocalypse would not bring fire, brimstone, the scattering of machine gun fire nor the white exhaust of uncontrolled rockets, but icy tendrils that refused to let go, the vacuum of the disappearing banking system, Sarah Palin’s very existence, Haitian floods dragging 500 to the depths, gunmen trawling through Mumbai, and the breaking of waves off the coast of Somalia towards the oil tankers. I was cold and I didn’t understand why.

Unfortunately, the heater turned out to not be broken just crap and the temperature dive proved to the start of a cold snap.

December 2008:

I put a second jumper on and began to think about it logically. When the boiler had broken the Christmas before I hadn’t been so cold, so consistently. But that had been a terraced house sucking in warmth off the neighbours. I was in a studio flat within a converted house; a single room that jutted out the back of the building to be exposed on three walls, the fourth leading to the communal, unheated, staircase. Above me there wasn’t a loft cavity, but the roof triangulated with the shape of the old tiles. Below me, the back room of the ground floor flat was rarely used. I was totally exposed to the weather.

I borrowed a thermometer off my parents. A marble block of a paperweight with a heat sensitive strip across it. Not the most sophisticated piece of equipment, but it would do. It had a minimum temperature of 10 degrees. When I placed it on my desk it showed nothing.

I switched the heater on.

Three hours later it had crept up to 11 Celsius.

January 2009:

I borrowed one of my folk’s old hot water bottles and started to wear hiking socks in bed. I had never, even under canvass, worn more than boxers and a t-shirt before but I considered wearing combats and a jumper. Eventually, I decided that the restrictive cling of the extra clothes would make me lose sleep. Besides, it might get even colder.

And then the weather broke.

By February the sun returned if only to add a fuzzled hue to the room, a smattering of hope for what might come. By April, I knew I would again be claustrophobically hot in the cattle cart morning trains, my cheek pressed roughly against the vibrating glass enroute to the city centre.

March 2009:

The world hadn’t ended, so instead I started to write a story. A story about all the shittiest things I could think of. A story set in an endless thumping summer heat; a story where the cold I’d just escaped was a distant loss mourned for.

April 2009:

Ian Tomlinson died of still undetermined causes and a police officer without identity flashes bashed the face off a woman protestor during the G20 protests. In true twenty-first century style both events were caught on camera and played again and again on Channel 4 until the snarl of the copper as his open fist whipped across her face became embedded in my brain. His fury and disdain were inescapable.

I started rewriting early notes of late scenes for what would become my novel. I took out the parts that had already happened. If it was on the news, it wasn’t bad enough.

In July, whilst I went to Derbyshire for a week, the person I shared an office with arranged for the air conditioning to be switched off so that by midday of the day I returned droplets of sweat ran down my stomach and I felt mildly sick. In August torrential summer showers highlighted a different problem – namely that my bathroom window had a tendency to leak in particularly angled heavy rain which meant more than one evening swabbing out.

And yet, I liked my flat. It was compact, but it was starting to resemble something almost homely. I rearranged the furniture and it felt calmer. It had been a particularly cold winter, I reasoned. The relentless biting cold had been partially self-induced: I’d been unwell, an exhausted husk whose insides had been brittle like fine glass approaching sonic testing. I still couldn’t rescue all my books from my Dad’s storage facility, so they were left behind the coded security gates a West Midlands field, but, you know, it was okay. Besides, where else would I go?

November 2010:

The icy pitch almost stopped my heart. It shivered across my skin like a Flanders’ gas from 1917. My head broke the surface with a gasp for stolen air and the baroque marbled tiles of Budapest’s Turkish baths looked like angel’s clouds. This cold bit, but then, as I pulled myself out of the pool, it was gone and the fugged warm air like a towel caressed my shoulders once again.

I padded outside, where the late November sky was pitch black like my swimming trunks. All around yellowing walls, more akin to those of a palace, enveloped a sequence of pools. The air scratched with chill, but above the waters lingered steam like a haunted morning mist with nowhere to go. In the pools heads bobbed, their bodies safely secured deep in the 40 degree waters. The cold was dismissed by the warmest bath. The perfect calm floating bliss enforced tranquillity.

There are two sorts of cold. There is the short, sharp snap. The sort that makes your spine curl but only for a moment because then it passes. Then there is Russian cold. The sort of cold that gets inside your bones and rots you from within. The relentless crushing chill that doesn't give up.

December 2009:

It got fucking cold and stayed that way.

That second winter was the coldest for over thirty years; temperatures plummeted as the snow packed down and refused to bugger off. Grit shortages, transport network collapse, men trapped in remote Scottish lighthouses contemplating eating their dogs for Christmas lunch dominated the news and in one small, south-east London flat the air inside turned that pale grey it does when there’s ice in it.

In no particular order, I winced getting into bed when the frozen sheets touched my skin; I ran boiling hot water to do the washing up because my hands could take the scald; the flannel left on the side of the basin never dried; my olive oil froze, forming lumpy dispirited lumps like in a lava lamp; I lay in bed and watched my steamed breath snake up to the roof; when I switched my computer on it grumbled grouchily as it ground the gathered chill off its fans; my mirror steamed up whenever I boiled the kettle; I had to squat above the toilet, the icy porcelain being too much to bear; I wore fingerless gloves to type and the nubs of my digits went numb as they pounded the keyboard as I deliberately bashed it hard to try and keep the blood pounding.

This time, it definitely wasn’t me. I’d stopped drinking quadruple whiskies as standard. I’d started a regime of sit ups, press up and weights every evening. Although it didn’t last, I felt fitter and healthier than in years. Just cold. And winter lasted a long time.

Imagine waking up to feel the duvet like a child’s corpse hugging your shoulders; coffee from the filter poured out cold yet the hot plate still burning your fingers; an endless flush of goose-pimples snaking around your breast once the shower warmth had faded. That was my winter.

May 2010:

Dave slipped his tongue inside Cleggy’s mouth in the gardens of Downing Street for the waiting media’s delight whilst good ol’Gordie Brown’s lifeless husk hung from a coiled light fitting.

Sort of. It made me shiver anyway.

November 2010:

The cold is coming. VAT rises, benefits cuts, teachers reduced to mere weeks of training, university fees to cripple future generations forever, a fucking happiness indicator to see how seriously we’re pissed off, McDonalds and Pepsi writing obesity guidelines, forests being sold to the cheekiest developer to add to their land-bank for a decade until it becomes worth something again, fucking bastard big arsed society replacing gainful employment, aircraft carriers no-one wants without planes to land on them, Ireland imploding and sucking everyone else in just for the craig of it, the dream of a green economy just another broken lie, the country’s infrastructure built up on fragile legs of straw isn’t having concrete supports cast but rather the big bad Gideon shaped wolf huffs and puffs and the whole lot comes caving down on our penniless heads.

I sympathise with the students who’re cold in their kettle and so burn their placards and a bus shelters, beat the crap out of a police van and Milbank house to keep their circulation going. The country is getting angry again which may be good, but it’s too late. School children march against police riot vans, small girls in blazers and ties face up to plastic masked body armoured hard men and “I made it all up, but it came true anyway,” rings in my head. I can’t remember who wrote that, but it spooks me.

The cold is coming. There is nowhere else to stay for the winter.

And it will be long and hard.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bike

Late October:

The light had that pale washed out morning feel to it, as though it couldn’t quite be bothered to wake up properly. The grey clouds congregated above the hills and down by the waters, in the shadows of the neo-gothic damn towers, the rain settled a slight sheen onto our cagoules.

Well, my internal monologue helpfully pointed out, six months ago you never would have imagined being here.

Early June:

First date conversations are difficult to get right. There’s a fine balance to hold between not letting the talk drop into awkward silence and – if you’re me– not relentlessly babbling from nervousness until something utterly inappropriate slips out. But that evening it all felt rather easy. The narration sustained itself naturally without any need for repetition, hesitation or deviation.

Well, at least until she said: ‘Have you got a bike?’

By this point I’d already established that she was a keen cyclist – the hefty panniers stashed under the table had been one of the give-aways – but I liked her lot none-the-less. Unfortunately the question felt like a stepping stone into chatting about bikes and cycling.

Fuck.

‘Not at the moment,’ I replied truthfully.

‘Oh. Why not?’ she asked before I could finish diverting the subject.

Fair question, I thought.

‘Um, to be honest, it’s been a little while since I’ve ridden,’ which was technically true as well, ‘but the main reason is that my flat’s really tiny.’ And with that more or less honest explanation I veered us into a discussion about homesteads before I accidentally cornered myself with a complete untruth.

Fifteen years previously:

I sat on the back steps of the mini-bus as the others swooped in off the Lake District hillsides; their faces splattered with mud and their grins smeared wide. Whilst I would never have said so, I was slightly jealous to have been left behind. Again.

‘I can’t believe you don’t know how,’ someone might have said.

‘Never learnt,’ I shrugged.

‘But it’s easy.’ And so for the umpteenth time I was cajoled into sitting atop a narrow metal frame in a car park. ‘You just need to try harder.’

I did. I tried really hard. I lifted my left leg up and pushed down on the pedal; my right foot had barely escaped the tarmac before I tilted to the left and landed down in an oily puddle entangled with the bicycle.

‘What is the point in learning to ride a bike aged sixteen?’ I grumbled from the floor, using spite to hide my shame. ‘I’ll be able to drive soon.’

Late June:

I sat down in the Battersea pub, my face flushed from an afternoon’s Greenwich sun.

‘I think…’ I trailed off and bit my lip, apprehensive at the enormity of what I was putting myself up for. ‘I think I might need to learn to ride a bike.’

‘Oh, really?’ replied Google-Steve and his face lit up. He likes a challenge.

Late October:

My friends had gathered themselves from around the country to the centre of the Peak District on a drab October morning. I worried that I might let them down. I worried that I wasn’t ready; that I wouldn’t be able to do what was expected of me.

‘How far is it again?’

John looked at the map on the information point. ‘Er, about twenty-six miles.’

Oh God, I thought.

Late July:

‘So,’ I straddled Steph’s bike whilst sunshine blessed itself upon Stratford Racecourse, ‘where’s the ignition on this thing?’

My audience chuckled appreciatively, but they didn’t realise quite how scared I was.

That’s right, my internal monologue chipped in, make stupid jokes. That’ll hide the crushing disappointment when you can’t do this.

Shut up, I told it. I don’t like not being able to do things. I tend to avoid, to circumnavigate, the difficult. I was afraid of failure.

‘Just give it a go,’ said Google-Steve.

‘Except, that’s kind of the point,’ I replied. ‘I don’t know how.’

‘Okay, well push down on your right foot, give the pedal an almighty shove and then… Well… I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s kind of instinctive. You just ride.’

So I did. I went about six inches before the wobble dragged my foot back down to earth. The innate need to be balanced was overpowering.

‘Okay,’ Google-Steve scratched his chin. ‘Perhaps we better start with the basics.’

And so he got me skirting along without using the pedals, trying to get a feel for the balance of the bike. He explained the physics of taking off and gaining momentum and yet, despite the fact I desperately wanted to succeed, the voice in my head kept telling me to stop wasting my time.

‘At work,’ he said ‘there’s an email conversation by Dads about how the best way to teach their kids to ride a bike. I wonder if I could ask for tips in teaching my thirty-one year old friend.’

I slumped over the handlebars, sweat from stress and anxiety (if not actual physical exertion) stained through my pale t-shirt. I managed to raise a sarcastic eyebrow, but no words came.

‘Why the sudden urgency anyway, Dave?’ asked Steph.

I went back to the beginning and explained the whole thing, stressing that strictly speaking I’d been honest throughout. ‘But now, bloody Boris has launched this bike hire scheme and I’m not sure how long I can keep the ruse up without being exposed.’

‘You have to tell her,’ gushed Lucy. ‘It’s so romantic.’

‘Or alternatively,’ chimed in John ‘a desperate attempt to dig yourself out of a hole of your own making.’

The most excruciating thing wasn’t the bad jokes and scorn of my friends (I was used to them), but the puzzled stares from children. Children who sat on bikes.

Children who sat on bikes and then rode said bikes along without the aid of a friend running along behind holding them upright by the saddle pole.

Eventually, as perspiration streamed down my brow the blood from the gouged flesh on the backs on my calves seeped into the tops of my socks, I realised that Google-Steve was running, not behind me, but alongside me.

‘Keep going,’ he shouted. ‘Keep looking straight ahead and pedal like hell.’

I was doing it. I was actually riding a bike. Albeit at just above walking pace, but it felt amazing. Yah-boo defeatist internal doubts, I thought. And promptly crashed into the plastic barriers that form the edges of the racetrack.

‘Ouch,’ I said from down on the grass, underneath a mountain bike. ‘That didn’t actually hurt after all.’

Huh, my internal monologue was surprised. Perhaps there wasn’t so much to be afraid of, after all.

Early August:

The months flowed past briskly. We went to galleries and restaurants and pubs and parks sharing each others London. Long warm afternoons became entangled with life as we peeled back the layers of who we were; prying and revealing in equal measure and still I didn’t say anything.

Yet bikes seemed to be everywhere that summer. I started to take more notice of people and how they rode. The lycra clad men who tucked their elbows in and hunched up into themselves. The daintily poised ladies who sat bolt upright and whose legs moved at a singular pace. The transient cool types who couldn’t wear a helmet for fear of their hair. Those who found it second nature and those whose wobble suggested it was harder than they remembered.

The Barclay’s branded terminals sprang up around central London. Ports without vessels, they haunted my future. Time was running out.

Late October:

The rain lashed down more enthusiastically as Architect Steve finally turned up and we set off. We took a couple of laps of the car park to warm up and then launched ourselves towards the steep ascent.

The others powered their way up easily enough, but I felt the hill winning.

‘Ngah,’ I grunted, but it was insufficient and two-thirds of the way up my foot came down and the bike stalled.

This is going to be fun, the voice in my head adopted sarcasm for a change. And it’s such a delightful day.

At least I didn’t fall off, I reassured myself.

Mid August:

‘And turn here,’ Google-Steve jogged across the Hyde Park grass, squatted momentarily and slapped the ground. I leant into the racing curve and missed the bruise he’d made, but not by much.

‘Right,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to run and zig-zag as fast as I can. Try and follow my line as closely as you can. But try not to hit me.’ And in an instant he shifted gear and accelerated away.

For a moment my feet wheeled in the air before I remembered to change gear, but even then I struggled to catch Google-Steve. He could run than I could cycle. My embarrassment was distracted though as I careered straight into a low-hanging branch.

‘Ow.’

I pushed on as hard as I could and for a second it felt like I might catch him before he broke left. I turned to follow and nearly span out of control. Nearly, but not actually. I recovered and made the turn.

‘You know,’ I called, ‘this must look pretty strange.’ I nodded to the couple walking along the path eyeing us suspiciously.

‘Yeah, this guy stole my bike and now he keeps chasing me.’

Late August:

As we walked through the back streets of Pimlico, between Tate Modern and Hyde Park, we passed an immaculate line of Boris bikes. Still sparkling and new their metal hides glinted in the sunshine. They were neatly aligned, like riderless cavalry horses at the water trough.

‘I don’t think they look too bad,’ she said. ‘You should register and we could go for a ride.’

‘Um,’ I scratched the back of my head. ‘I should probably make a confession.’

Later she told me her immediate thought was: ‘I wonder if he’s going to tell me about that blog I found?’

I stepped closer to her, ran my hands along her forearms and stopped at her elbows.

‘You know how I said I hadn’t ridden in a while? Well it’s been fifteen years really.’

‘Oh.’

‘And you know how I said I didn’t have room for a bike, well you know that’s true, but the real reason I don’t own a bike is that fifteen years ago I was trying and failing to ride.’ She looked a little confused. ‘I can’t actually ride a bike.’

‘Oh.’

‘But I’m learning.’ And I went into great detail about Google-Steve’s training programme and the progress I appeared to be slowly making, before concluding with: ‘And I can ride upright on my own now, although my control is still a little random.’

There was a pause and I held my breath.

‘That is so sweet.’

Phew.

Late October:

As the day wore on I started to catch myself doing things instinctively. Minutes would roll by and I would realise that I’d been distantly gazing at the view rather than agonising over staying upright. And just for a short while, the clouds broke and the sun peeked out, yawed its lazy way across the valley and all was beautiful.

Late August:

The Pembrokeshire coast gently soaked up the wind at the bottom of the cliffs as I rode in circles around the tents.

‘Bloody hell,’ said Beagle. ‘Dave Marston riding a bike. That’s something I never thought I see.’

I grinned and accelerated across the field, stretching my legs out to let the momentum carry me until out of sight behind a Landrover, a gust of breeze caught me at an odd angle and the ensuing wobble veered me off course towards a bush.
Still lacking complete control there, my less than optimistic voice reminded me.

Early September:

‘We’re just going to ride around for an hour or so,’ said Google-Steve as we mounted up on the edge of Battersea Park. ‘No-one can stay that tense forever.’

Off we went doing laps of the park building up endurance. Plod-plod I went as joggers and small girls undertook us, but Google-Steve just patiently wheeled along.

‘Just keep looking where you want to go. You’re doing great.’

We rounded the corner on the approach down to the river. Chanting berobed people clustered around the giant golden Buddha in his veranda.

‘Don’t look at the hippies, don’t look at the hippies.’

I looked.

Late October:

The air rushed past me on the descent. It flooded into my lungs and made me feel alive. That sensation of being airborne, of gliding almost out of control yet just a tweak would tame the momentum was triumphant. I took the corner at the bottom in a sweeping controlled arc and I felt like I could do whatever I wanted.

Until, moving almost faster than I could see, Google-Steve overtook me.

You’ve a way to go yet, moaned my internal monologue and whilst I agreed with it, I didn’t mind. It was going to be great fun.


With thanks to everyone who supported my biking adventure, but especially Google-Steve, patience of a saint.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Dear, John.

It was an unseasonably bright Saturday morning when I disembarked the tube at St John’s Wood and wandered down the road reading the Guardian magazine as I went. I ambled along, chuckling at reading about Blake Morrison’s, experiences of fatherhood, zipping my way in-between the elderly men in long black gowns exiting the synagogue and feeling oddly comfortable in West London.

I glanced up from the page as the road curved into Abbey Road and discovered I was centimetres away from tipping a tripod, with a rather expensive video camera atop it, over. The pristinely blonde American woman with overstated make-up standing on a crate on the other side looked even more surprised than I felt.

‘What the-?’ I muttered and evading the obstacle with a deft hip twist. The road was more packed that usual by bodies of all ages congregating around the graffiti mauled white walls outside the famous recording studio. A tall woman, dressed all in black with an amply displayed cleavage, appeared to by trying to capture both her breasts and the peace rocket symbol etched into the wooden gate in the same photo with her mobile phone. Numerous middle-aged men in colourful smocks, fake moustaches and thin round spectacles pretending to be with Sgt Pepper posed, in front of the paint fraying white scraped walls, for pictures with people far too young to remember.

One of the play-actors rather spoiled the illusion by fiddling with his Blackberry.

It was Saturday the 9th of October, 2010. John Lennon, had he survived the four bullets Mark Chapman put in his back, would have been seventy.

A young man, with a fashionable woollen t-shirt, undone to his breastbone, said: ‘Let’s do the crossing.’

‘It’s the wrong crossing,’ I thought. He meant the zebra crossing from the cover of the Beatles penultimate/final (depending on whether you’re going with recording or release dates) is a couple of hundred metres further up the road. The crossing directly outside the recording studio had to be added to accommodate the volume of tourists swooping down the hill from the tube station and straight across the road.
Tch.

All these people, the thousands of them crossing Abbey Road in a stern faced line, are living a fiction. I doubt John would mind. He spent most of his life doing the same thing; being made-up.

On the cover of Abbey Road he is at the front of group, in a white suit and sandals, his hair flowing wildly out of control, his beard nestling its way down his chin and neck. He was in his heroin withdrawal, bed-in peace activist stage and his then shocking get-up was designed to provoke as much as anything else. He’d come a long way from the slightly chubby faced young man looking down the central stair-case on the cover of Please, Please Me.

That cover was reprinted for the so-called Red Album, the first collection of their singles, and replicated for its companion the Blue Album when the older band posed in the same positions. These were the first Beatles records I encountered as a small boy in amongst my parent’s collection. I didn’t understand until years later that they were the same people. It seemed impossible. And I was right. The Lennon on the cover of the Red Album is real; the older one is made-up.

He’s invented by John Lennon.

Curiously, in the final picture of John, the one snapped on the street with the sweatily fat Chapman in the background, he looked like he did when he was young. His hair is short and curly; he wears a black leather jacket over a black shirt and dark glasses. He could be back in Hamburg. He looks like he fleetingly recognised himself.

In 2010, despite having been dead for thirty years, John Lennon is an omnipresent piece of Western culture. He’s been taken far beyond Lennon the man, and become something more. He’s been pulled into the limits of fiction. His whole life has been applied to screen: his childhood in Nowhere Boy; his late teens, early twenties in Backbeat; lord knows how much film footage of his band; his early middle age in The Two Of Us; even his death. He crops up as a supporting character in numerous books, although possibly my favourite is in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles where he appears as the God of LSD.

Had he lived, I wonder which way would his career have gone? Would he have continued to plod out dross in the way the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney or would he have had a difficult couple of decades before finally releasing acclaimed albums that speculate on death and age in the way Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and, to a lesser extent, David Bowie have done?

It’s impossible to know for sure and we’re not helped by the fact that Lennon’s output was already so confusing. He veered from the oblique lyrics of Happiness is a Warm Gun or Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (except me and my monkey) to the simplistically flawed philosophies of Imagine and Working Class Hero. He was the same writer who somehow managed to dredge up on the most mournfully nostalgic trawls with In My Life and also the gibberish of Revolution Number Nine; the sickly smush of Darling Boy and the startling self-aware confessionals of Mother and Jealous Guy.

Contrary bastard.

He was the peace activist who bullied his band mates and was an utter shit to his best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe, and then tore himself to shreds with recriminations when Sutcliffe died. He beat up women journalists and yet wailed about injustices in Vietnam. He doted on Sean Lennon to exception; he ignored Julian Lennon to such an extent that McCartney wrote Hey Jude to cheer him up. He was the man who preached love as a way to be free and serially cheated on his first wife in meaningless affairs. Even Yoko, the so-called love of his life, he humiliated by loudly fucking another woman at a party whilst she made small talk with the guests. His notorious eighteen month lost weekend was spent with May Pang, Ono’s assistant.

He took pot to cut down his drinking, acid to cut down his anger, heroin to pull back from melting his brain and then drank himself into oblivion. He really couldn’t do anything by halves.

And all these contradictions are the differences between Lennon the man and Lennon the cultural icon. He was an angry young man; a womaniser with guilt who was morally shredded by his own urge to be famous and the subsequent impotency that bought. These are flaws, but they make him more real. You can’t imagine an X-Factor winner having such cracked and cavernous depths.

Indeed, I suspect that, despite the humongous piles of words written about him, no-one really knew John Lennon. Not even himself.

When the Beatles Rock Band playstation game (or whatever the heck it is) Yoko said that John would have loved it. Would he? Or would he have just been confused by it? Or would it just be another case of him being reinvented as someone else once again?

There are a staggering number of memorials all over the world to John Lennon. There are those that just about make sense like John Lennon airport and then there are those that are weird: The Imagine towers in Reykjavik; a statue in Palermo, in Havana, several in Spain, a bust in Sopron music school in Hungary. But they’re not to Lennon then man; they’re to the Lennon whose trendy counter-culturisms and made young men envious. They’re monuments to the flawed emotions his music helped us to see inside ourselves.

And was that what Mark Chapman realised? That the forty-year old who’d just signed the copy of Double Fantasy wasn’t the near revolutionary of ten years previously, but rather a middle-aged man who’d spent half a decade raising his son and nothing else? Was it that failure to live up to the myth that drove Chapman to return to the Dakota Building, call out “Mr Lennon,” and draw his pistol?

Or, was he just jealous of all the bands that only existed because of Lennon; the Catcher in the Rye accusations of fakery nothing but a cover for the realisation that he could never define culture in the same way?

The death of John Lennon the man is a tragedy. The death of John Lennon the icon was a blessing – as he fell to the ground, he became immortal. He never got to let us down again. As time rolled on our vision of him became like we were looking through his broken and smeared spectacles and his failings fell to the wayside. His story remained finite, except in our imaginations.

Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t miss him, though.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Brockley

At the start of the 1979 film, Manhattan, Woody Allen narrates different prospective openings to a novel the character he’s playing is supposed to be writing whilst a montage of city images rolls across the screen. Like most of Allen’s leads it’s just a variation on himself and so the film’s Woody’s novel’s Woody loves Manhattan in so many different ways, some of which are understandably affectionate, some are reflections of neurotic insecurities about anonymity, and yet he can’t find exactly the right words to express himself. Everything feels a little inadequate, insufficient as the opening to a story.

I know how he feels.

Unusually, when I started this series of blogs I had a clear idea of where I wanted it to go. But then, it was only an idea so I suppose it doesn’t matter so much that it turned out to be wrong. After all, it’s been a busy few weeks. A lot’s happened. More than I expected.

I sat at my desk one sweaty evening recently writing words about Whitechapel when my mobile rang. I glanced at the display, and one of the genius things about mobile phones is that knowing who is calling enables you to answers appropriately. In this case it was my ex-girlfriend: ‘Hey,’ I said.

We exchanged the required pleasantries, got cut off, tried to ring each other back simultaneously, and eventually established she was calling because she was on a train arriving in Brockley in a few moments. An old friend, who now lives abroad, was in town and my ex was meeting her for a drink and wondered if I’d like to join them.

‘But you don’t have to.’

‘Oh, I’d like to,’ I replied. ‘But I’m out a lot this week and was planning on writing all tonight.’

‘Well, it’s up to you.’

‘Tell you what: I’ll crack on and, if I can, I’ll pop down later.’

The call ended and I went back to my typing. I stuttered out a couple of sentences, but kept finding myself picking up and holding the phone. I quite fancied going to the bar. I didn’t particularly want to see my ex-girlfriend. The last time we’d met had been a ridiculously forced affair, although in fairness we both had other things on our minds, and I was supposed to be writing, but I really wanted to catch up with the visiting friend.

I wrote some more. I paced around the flat. A few more lines appeared on the white screen.

‘Fuck it,’ I said to myself an hour or so later and walked out of my flat.

As I walked along Wickham Road I could have been visited by any number of memories, such as the time we wheeled an old tea chest packed with crockery down the street, from the house we’d temporarily stashed it in, to our new flat, underneath a belting July sun and bickering the whole way until I said something too grouchy and she stormed off. Or any of the times I’d visited her in halls of residence. In particular, one of the first winter evenings whilst she talked on the public phone in the stairwell I rested my brow on the first floor window and looked out into the night. I saw the actor David Haigh walking down the street. I was new to London, then. I didn’t realise how it worked, that a minor celebrity could be spotted anywhere, especially if it was near where they lived. Or how it used be our route to play badminton at the school halls, or to rent videos from the much missed Homeview, or a sunny afternoon on Hilly Fields, or any number of other things that made life tick by. But these were not necessarily moments of dramatic tension worthy of note. They were just stuff. Just life.

Besides, I didn’t see any of those things. Mainly because Brockley is my home and whilst I love it from Rivolli Ball Rooms down to the Toad’s Mouth Café, from One Tree Hill church to the local butcher, I also let it slip into the background. And also because my mind was filled with thoughts of someone else. Somewhere else.

I realise that during the course of writing this series that the physical movement of the walk I was supposed to be crafting seems to have stopped several entries ago; indeed in the parts where it all got closer to home. And that’s because it didn’t happen. Well, it sort of did. I did walk from Dalston to Brockley following the stretch of the East London line, but I didn’t do it alone and rather than a soul searching historical analysis of the city, it was actually a pub crawl that effectively terminated in the Amersham Arms in New Cross. What? Did you really think my thought process followed what’s written down here? Do you think I’m totally mad? I made it up. That’s what I do. That’s kind of the point. Stuff happens and I turn it into something else.

‘Aren’t you bored of London yet?’ asked my friend Ben who now lives in Singapore, but was in town last week for a work trip. For a change we’d gone to the pub. I must have looked slightly baffled for he continued: ‘I mean, when I came to leave, I’d just had enough of it. The bustle and the thrust and endless congestion of people. Don’t you yearn for some space?’

‘Nah. The city is like an extra friend. One that’s familiar and comfortable and yet still, after a decade, surprises me.’ For example, I’ll tell you although I forgot to tell him, just the other week when I was pacing the streets and mulling over a few ideas and I decided to cut through Nunhead cemetery, just down the road from Brockley. I must have gone past the gates hundreds of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever walked through. I’ve certainly never found the charred stone remains of the chapel at its heart, half-reclaimed by the undergrowth, brittle against the gin clear sky. It was beautiful, like discovering a hidden tribe’s legacy.

‘I’ve been reading your blog. I would have thought there isn’t much left to surprise you.’

‘But that’s just a portion of East London. I’ve just discovered there’s a whole Western half of the city with its own stories and histories to blend with my own.’

I arrived in the bar to find a gaggle of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen for a long time and some I’d never met before. After the necessary cheek kissing and skirmished introductions I went for a drink. On the way, I paused just for a second and glanced around. It hadn’t changed. Pale wood panels still adorned the walls, ranks of empty wine bottles still perched on the skirting, each with a tale to tell, fairy lights still drooped across the windows, the scratched wooden tables surrounded by rickety wooden stools that shouldn’t be able to hold my weight, the Rolling Stones still played on the tapedeck. Some things are timeless.

‘All right, Steve?’ said the landlord. I was impressed that, despite the fact I hadn’t been in for almost two years, he still managed to misremember my name. ‘What can I get you?’

‘Something cold.’ And I wafted my shirt to indicate it was hot.

‘They’re all cold,’ he smiled.

‘Yeah, I guess they are. I’ll have a Budvar.’

Whilst he fixed my drink he made small talk: ‘Been some time since we’ve seen you.’

‘Uh, yeah. I guess it has.’

‘You moved away, didn’t you?’

‘Oh, only down the other end of Brockely. Down by the…down…’ but I trailed off because he had glanced, slightly confusedly, at our table and I realised that he’d the same conversation with my ex-girlfriend and that she’s told him that she now lives in Hackney. ‘Down by the station.’

‘Oh. Three pound ten, please.’

I handed over my money slightly relieved that he’d reverted to business and not forced any further explanation. But then, I guess he’d be used to discretion. I remember hearing him talk, a few years ago, about running his bar and how he liked it that people used drinking holes to fix points in their relationships. He’d seen people on first dates, proposals being made and rejected, couples fracturing apart, friends leaving and children coming home at long last. Tears and smiles for all manner of reasons, and over a drink it all seemed a little easier.

I took my beer back to the table, sat down and enjoyed myself.

Back in Dalston, I suggested that I’d developed a sense of being the star of my own movie as some kind of armour; a protective shield against being swallowed up by reality. But the more closely I look, I realise this isn’t true. It isn’t something I’ve consciously and artificially constructed. It is how I’ve grown up and I hadn’t noticed until now.

It’s just me.

And, so, yeah, in that case I guess I may be occasionally arrogant and cocky and relentlessly sarcastic and frequently prepared to find inappropriate humour. And, yes, I’ve done some bad things. I’ve told some lies I regret, I've looked the other way at the wrong time and I’ve used people. Sometimes in ways you would expect and sometimes I’ve taken people and stuck them in my writing because I am so vain and self-obsessed as to think that people will find my own life utterly fascinating. And sometimes I feel guilty about these things, but, let’s be honest, if I wasn’t fascinated by my own life I’d be a pretty fucking depressed individual. If I wasn’t convinced that people would want to know what I have to say, then what would be the point?

My new girlfriend and I lay side by side under the sunshine of Greenwich Park, deep beneath meadow curled grass, at a time when she probably wasn’t quite my girlfriend nor me her boyfriend. Just yet. For reasons I can’t remember, we were discussing random foods we’d eaten.

‘And there was this barbecued ghost,’ she said and then corrected herself: ‘Goat. Barbecued goat.’

‘I quite like idea of barbecued ghost,’ I smiled.

‘It’d be somewhat insubstantial.’

And that’s not only a good gag, but a great point. We do all have ghosts that we carry around in the backs of our minds; spirits and memories that highlight the decisions we’ve taken and where we’ve come from. “Just ghosts,” to borrow a Laura Marling lyric “that broke my heart before I met you.” Or ghosts of fictions once read, friends lost touch with, jobs you hated, songs you loved, life it all its muddled, coincidental, evil bastardised, glory. I find that mine are vividly bound to places because a physical place can swamp the senses so entirely in sight and smell and sound. Cities and landscapes have no choice other than to be emotive, but the ghosts don’t have to be a weight. They are, by their very definition, insubstantial things of thought. They help make up who we are, but it’s up to us who we become.

Tch. There, you see? Arrogance. Holding forth opinions on the big picture; encouraging layers of meaning when there needn’t be any. This blog doesn’t have a big reveal or a point. It doesn’t explain. It doesn’t need to. I could, I suppose, make something out of coincidences, such as on the way home from the day job this very evening, as the train pulled in Brockley station, I finished reading Francis Spufford’s new sort-of novel, Red Plenty. In the acknowledgements, which I’d skimmed from New Cross, Francis thanks the School of Slavic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London. A website somewhere lists the contact number for this organisation as my work direct line.

‘Uh, we’ve got a delegation of Slovenians coming to a drinks reception and wondered if you might be able to tell us how to say “Cheers!”?’

‘Kockyofski,’ I smirked, childishly.

But it is just a coincidence. It’s nothing significant. It’s just stuff happening. It’s just life. We all, occasionally, look o hard for things when in reality it’s like Edwyn Collins sang on the hidden track for his much underrated Gorgeous George album, “The music only makes you higher if you’re a moron and that’s what’s bothering me.” Or as Britpop also-rans Mansun said at the end of the fairly mediocre Attack of the Grey Lantern: “The lyrics aren’t supposed to mean that much, they’re only there to give a human touch.”

They’re only words, after all.

Later on one of those moments cropped up when someone’s at the bar, someone’s in the toilet, someone’s outside having a cigarette or trying to call their boyfriend and suddenly I realised the only ones at the table were me and my ex-girlfriend.

‘How's your work going?’ I asked.

‘I hear you’re seeing someone,’ she replied.

‘Uh, yeah,’ I tried not to instinctively smile in case it came across as smug or something rather than just an automatic reaction whenever I think about my new girlfriend. ‘I am. She’s lovely.’

At the end of Manhattan the too young girl says something that expects a response and all Woody can do is look into the camera with a half smile and a raised eyebrow and we’re left to fill in the blanks for ourselves. Because if he said anything, then it’d been an ending and only stories have endings. This isn’t a story about stories, his eyes say, but a story about real life and real life, even when it’s shrouded by a story, doesn’t have an ending and this seems as good a place as any to simply stop.

Friday, 27 August 2010

New Cross and Gate

When I was a small boy I wanted to be a soldier. Not, you understand, because I was particularly compliant in following instructions, or because I craved physicality, or even because I was in any way brave. No, it was because I believed the films I watched and the comics I read whereby the mavericks and the unruly and those who refused to do it by the book for the sake of their men won out in the end. In the same way, as the years inched by with the mind numbing grind of puberty, I wanted to be a racing car driver, a spy, to be in a band. I wanted to at the centre of attention. I wanted to be a hero in my own rebellion.

Almost ten years ago, the rickety old East London carriages – poor relations of their newly air conditioned cousins – tumbled along the tracks. I stood by the door, my body rocking uneasily as yet unused to the train’s rhythm; electric blue sparks fizzed up from the railings against the windows in the way that they always used to even when it hadn’t been raining. The rucksack on my back was heavy in a reassuringly permanent way; the bag over my arm contained my first ever suits. I felt like I was grown up, heading out into the big world. I felt as though my story was turning.

The train terminated and the doors grumbled open. It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon and so the station was what I would now describe as quiet, but then still seemed to be busy. People slouched hurriedly, the ice cream van graveyard behind the razor wire fence glinted in the summer sunlight, up above the traffic inched along the road filled with resentment. Welcome to your life, I thought. Welcome to New Cross.

That was all a long time ago, of course, and when I walked out of Surrey Quays it was many years later and half a mile further north. The Woodpecker Estate that sits along the borders is, apparently, notorious. It is the home of one of South East London’s more vicious gangs. And yet on a sunny Saturday afternoon it was hard to fathom. Low rise town houses and small apartment blocks with banks of grass and properties hidden behind trees and bushes and roads named after seventh century Frankish kings from a time before France was France, rather than spiked tower blocks and darkened gantries cornered by blind spots where the CCTV can’t stretch. It could almost be anywhere.

‘God, I didn’t mean places like that,’ chimes the memory of the man from South West London. And he’s right, I guess. It’s all about familiarity. The spaces around New Cross bring forth memories such as wandering through the park towards Deptford with a hangover split asunder by searing sunlight and the screech of kids on mini-cycles and yet the charm of a feverantly contested cricket match overrode all. As I closed my eyes I heard cheap imitation willow thwacking against a tennis ball not the rapidly fired pistol shots that cut down the Polish nurse who’d wandered into a dealer’s arguments on the same day as I started my masters at Goldsmith’s. The incessant sirens that drowned out our tutorial were a source of minor irritation or perhaps amusement, without the realisation that a woman lay on the tarmac with her life escaping. Nor do I think of the French students tortured to death for their credit card numbers by a psycho who later tried to escape this grandmother’s Brockley Edwardian townhouse through the fourth floor skylight, but of the beginning of another year and watching London be doused in glittering red, blue and green from atop Telegraph Hill.

When I exited the station a decade prior, I can’t remember which pub would have been on the opposite side of the road. Now, it’s the Hobgoblin. Another student friendly chain pub. Once upon a time, it would have been the Rose, a pub I’d studied the exterior of extensively on one of my first visits down to New Cross when my then girlfriend arranged to meet me at the station. She was almost two hours late leaving me to stand on the grey damp street corner, under the orange hue of the streetlight, letting the traffic flush up mucky rainwater. I watched people go in and out of the pub enviously. Aside from anything else I quite needed a wee. But in those pre-mobile phone days deviating from the arrangements could bring more difficulties than it solved.

It was probably a good thing I didn’t sneak in for a crafty pint. I was later to hear rumours that on match days Millwall fans would lurk by the windows, hidden by the off colour glass, and watch for opposition fans to arrive at the station. Upon spying their target they would rush out and tip the surprised supporter off the bridge and onto the tracks below, before disappearing back into the pub’s conspiracy of silence.

Typical New Cross. It’s rather fond of its fucked-up pubs and so am I. There are probably stories to tell for all of them, but, alas, I don’t really have the space. In the far west stands the madness that is the Montague Arms, a pub with almost certainly the world’s most insane décor, from the human skeleton behind the bar via the penny farthings and muskets randomly affixed to the wall and the scattered steel buckets to catch the rain seeping through the ceiling to the centrepiece of an embalmed zebra riding in the back of horse drawn carriage all under brothel red lighting. The exterior signage encourages coach parties enroute to and from Dover to drop in. Lord knows what continental visitors think, even if Paul McCartney did, accordingly to local legend, once pop in to see the mad house and end up playing some songs on the rickety stage.

Next is the establishment sometimes known as the White Hare which changes hands pretty frequently and still no-one goes in. For a while, last year, it was a lapdancing bar. Now it’s just a non-descript bar sitting on the corner where once the gate to the city was and now is deep in the centre of wider London.

Then, where the road forks into the one-way loop that I’ve spent far too many hours stuck in, there’s the holy trinity of the New Cross Inn, the Marquis of Granberry and the Goldsmith’s Tavern, once known simply as the GMT. The New Cross Inn was always the safest, blandest one of the three with the best bands playing late at night legally. The other two were never that concerned by licensing laws. Once, I was the Marquis’ first paying customer at eleven on a Monday morning, but more frequently I could be found there on a Friday night failing to hustle for the pool table, propping up the bar acting thirty years older than my twenty-two, trying to translate my midland-northern hybrid ways to the big city. The jukebox would always play Sinatra late on, and the Pogues and then White Shade of Pale giving last orders the maudalin send off it deserved before the lights went out and the music quietened down as the doors were bolted but the customers stayed inside with the pink cheeked landlord with his wrist permanently bandaged and outside the gun shots shattered the burger bar’s glass and the sirens raced down the main road and yet no-one bothered us.

The GMT was hairier. Once upon a time, it only got busy after everywhere else had closed up from exhaustion. Once you’d bustled past the bouncer in the leathers with the face tattoos and the pierced knuckles, the light inside was so appalling that you’d never be able to tell what you were drinking. The windows were ninety percent covered over by plywood and yet still a brick would sometimes come through the ten percent exposed. For a while I knew a girl who worked behind the bar who would return change more than she’d been given supported by an exaggerated wink and yet no-one gave a fuck. There were nominally three rooms. The main bar where most crammed sweatily in, a sticky floored back space with a single set of amateur disco lights and the mixdesk that played music you’d only heard in your dreams. There was a snug too, but as the only way to reach it seemed to be through the gents it only attracted a certain mix of people.

That was then, though. These days it’s clinically clean with bright windows and the world’s blandest Italian resturant upstairs. Not that I’ve ever been, but it’s just not right. It bears the name the GMT but passes no resemblance. It’s too safe.
At least the Venue is reassuringly still a cesspool. It stands imposingly on the main road with its plain concrete exterior bearing down on the cluster of drunks in the street. And at two o’clock in the morning people spill bleeding and vomiting into the path of traffic or lurch uncoordinatedly at the bus stop a white glaze to their eyes. I once met someone who thought it was the best club in London because it was the only one where “you’re guaranteed a fight.”

Charming.

I do my drinking in New Cross these days in the Amersham Arms. The Amersham spruced itself up just before my Masters. Occasionally confused former locals still find themselves standing in the middle of the bar wondering where all the wrapped tight jeans, stripy tops and student haircuts appeared from. All the rest of it, despite it still being there, it all seems like a long, long time ago.

Not as long as ago as when the first V2 dropped down outside Woolworths and killed thirty-four people. I’ve always found the incidental Woolworths detail strange about that story, as though it passes some comment on the people who died. They were shopping in Woolworths. It’s an Iceland now and above it is, allegedly, a rat infested postgraduate halls of residence. An Iceland and a library that never seems to open. No, not that long ago, but long enough for me to feel old. Old and tired. And yet New Cross seems to keep on being young.

It has a youth and vigour that gets reinvented by a influx of new students determined to live up to the Britart and Blur heritage, but with each year that passes and for each umpteenth time New Cross and Deptford are touted as the new Shoreditch, the new Hoxton they seem to get a little more stale. A touch more sterile. They still look uber-cool. When I did my Masters there you could pick out the undergraduate art students from a hundred paces, but New Cross doesn’t need to be the new Hoxton. The old one’s just up the line now, anyway. Let it just be New Cross.

Back ten years ago, I walked out the station and crossed the thronging road towards my girlfriend’s student digs where I would live for the final few weeks of her tenancy. It was a flat within in a mansion block on the southern side of the Old Kent Road. It was a flat of vibrations where the front windows rattled from the continual crawl of traffic outside and the back shuddered every morning as the old routemasters in the bus depot warmed their weary engines for an hour before the day’s work began. A beautiful building hemmed in by relentless carbon monoxide.

My ex–girlfriend keeps appearing in these, doesn’t she? It’s not entirely surprising – ‘How long!’ people will often exclaim – but when I started this journey I fully expected her to be screeching loudly by the time I reached New Cross because all through these memories she lurks. From the time I staggered down the New Cross Road from Deptford at the end of my first week at work, pissed on only five pints and a youngsters inexperience of drinking on an empty stomach, to the guy who used to be always found on late night buses chewing his food so vigorously that great lumps of tinged saliva would flump out across the air or from buying cans of Stella at the old Duke’s Taxis for an outrageous price under the counter with the girl who later threw herself in the Thames, to the “skunk-weed-whiz” guys who used to lurk in the alley between the park and the main road and who appeared late night on my television screen for some fly on the wall cop doucdrama being approached by mini-skirted girls with fairy wings whom I’d last seen slurping lager off the table at the Rosemary Branch. And yet as I walked by way down from Dalston she actually became quieter. She faded somewhat into the background.

When I was a youngster I wanted to be a rebel without a cause; an outsider; the lead in the drama in my head. Perhaps I didn’t have to do it in a blaze of gunshots or a screech of tyres echoing the heroes of my childhood. Perhaps I could do it by just being me. Perhaps it would be sufficient to just save my own world, rather than everyone’s. Perhaps we’re all doing it, all the time and it just depends on how
vocal your internal monologue is.

On one of the nights when we broke up I wandered around Brockley and New Cross for hours. I wasn’t looking for anything. I just didn’t want to be the house. I wanted the perpetual motion through darkness as a distraction. As I crossed the end of the Old Kent Road that’s nowhere near Kent, near the burnt out house which isn’t the site of the racist arson attack in the eighties that killed thirteen, but could be, the only other guy abroad at that late hour was coming in the opposite direction.

‘Got any change?’ he asked even though his clothes were newer than mine.

‘Nah,’ I vacantly replied. It was true. I’d just run away, fled the house with nothing but my keys.

‘Cunt,’ he snarled as we passed.

I turned around and hit him. I punched him square in the eye and felt it squish under my knuckle. I kicked him in the testicles so hard that blood seeped through the crotch of his jeans and he crumpled over. I pulled him to the ground and pummelled his temple against the kerbside whilst my thumbs gouged at his jaw, tearing at the corners of his lips.

Except, I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. It was a thought that flashed through my mind and for a second it was a possibility, but then it broke apart as I realised no matter my anger it wasn’t worth it. Nothing would have been worth it. I may be guilty of many things, but nothing worse than where the reprimands would be solely self-administrated.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Canada Water to Surrey Quays

‘Have you ever been Westfield’s, David?’ asked the shopping obsessed and arguably slightly dim girl.

‘No,’ I replied, barely even looking up. ‘No, I haven’t.’

‘You should go. You’d really enjoy it.’

‘I doubt it,’ I muttered.

‘You would.’ Surprisingly she’d heard me and I wondered how many other people heard the things I said under my breath. ‘It’s got all the stores you could want in one place and then it’s got this luxury goods area. You know? Really nice shirts and good quality jewellery and stuff.’

‘Yeah, you see I know that and I still don’t think I’d have fun there.’

‘And when you’ve shopped yourself out you can go and get some food,’ she continued undeterred. ‘They’ve got everything all together in this international area. It’s really quick, good food. You know, Nandos and Wagamama’s and Strada and Giraffe and everyone you’ve heard of.’

‘You’re still not really selling it to me.’

‘You should go.’

‘I’d rather stab my eyes out with a rusty nail,’ I smiled. And seeing as this was a couple of months ago, I added: ‘Besides, it’s in West London. I get a rash if I spend too much time in West London.’

‘Where do you live again, David?’

Now, I knew she was a Hammersmith girl who rarely ventured further south or east than Trafalgar Square and only the most dedicated London explorers ever seem to know where the hell Brockley is hidden, so I went for the it’s marginally better known neighbour: ‘New Cross way.’ She cocked her head and looked baffled. I followed up with the slightly geographically inaccurate, but at least familiar sounding: ‘Between Peckham and Lewisham. Sort of.’

‘Oooh, Neeew Cross,’ she said as though it were somewhere entirely different. ‘There’s a big shopping centre just like Westfield’s there, isn’t there?’

‘Er, nope.’

‘Yes there is.’

‘No there isn’t.’

‘There is.’ She looked confused. ‘I’m sure there is.’

‘I’ve there nearly ten years. I think I’d have noticed.’

Except she was right and I was wrong. Well, sort of.

I stood at the crossing by the exit to Southwark Park and looked across the road at Surrey Quays. Surrey bloody Quays shopping centre. A Tescos, a knock-off camping and sports warehouse, a Frankie and Johnnie’s pizza bar, and some a eighties matchbox disaster of a shopping centre with faded vomit coloured floors and low level high street chains squeezed into surprisingly small retail units. Westfield’s, Europe’s biggest and most pretentious cathedral to the capitalism of crappy tat, it ain’t.

Not that it should aspire to be, either.

I think I’ve only ever been there once (aside from the camping gear warehouse which I go to frequently and am always disappointed by the shoddy nature of the kit) and that was when I forget to pack any t-shirts to visit Michael in Liverpool, years ago, and couldn’t stomach the fight back through the traffic. Buying something new was just easier.

But that’s the slightly odd thing. Like Westfield’s, Surrey Quays is perfectly easy to reach by tube and yet the majority of people come by car.

‘God,’ the strawberry blonde has said to me on more than one occasion, ‘why on earth do you drive in London?’

Well, obviously I’m a diesel guzzling selfish environmental terrorist, but also the reason no-one ever knows where Brockley sits is because it’s not particularly well served by public transport unless you’re happy on the bus or want to go everywhere via London Bridge. Which, if I’m honest, I usually am fine with. My nightbus treks in recent years have been extensive to say the least.

‘Aha,’ she has never said, but I’m borrowing her for the sake of convenience (sorry), ‘but now the East London line’s reopened surely that all changes?’

Hmm, but it’s still only going in one direction, although slightly more integrated it may be. The thing about driving is that it helps you understand how the whole city clips together, not just the routes dictated by the TFL’s central office. The only other way to truly discover the hidden London is to do exactly what I’ve being doing throughout the course of this blog: walk. And we don’t always have the time to walk. Besides, the traffic’s not always that bad. It took google-Steve, Steph and I less than an hour to chunter across from the M4 home. Although that was at almost midnight on a Sunday.

Keen tube map observers will have noticed that I appeared to skipped right past Canada Water. That’s because Canada Water is a bit of a non-place; somewhere that falls in-between other places. Stand on the southbound platform for the East London line and look right. You will be able to see Rotherhithe station less than a hundred metres further up the track; look left and the daylight that heralds Surrey Quays is snubbing against the tunnel’s black. It appears to only exist because the diggers for the Jubilee extension missed intersecting with either of the existing stations.

A nothing area that bears a real name, one derived from the old dockyards where the boats to and from Canada moored up, adjacent to a place that holds a fake identity. Surrey Quays didn’t exist until Thatcher’s docklands’ regeneration commission helped the shopping centre open. Before then it was always Surrey Docks, confusedly so-called not because of the region its ships came from but because it sat on the old county border with Kent. Surrey Quays, a region of London that’s Thatcher’s child. Bet the cockneys who lines the streets with their barbecues and cans of Fosters as the marathon pelts on by in April turning the area into a wholesome street party wouldn’t appreciate being reminded.

Above ground, at Canada Water, there is little to be seen except, in April, the throngs pushing their way down to catch up with the Marathon in either the City or Docklands and the Daily Mail printworks. Whilst arson is always tempting at the sight of the country’s least well and most enthusiastically bigoted daily paper, it’s also noticeable that they still haven’t taken down the sign on the exterior of the building that namechecks the LondonLite. This was one of two free evening papers launched simultaneously to prevent the other getting a market strangehold that told you absolutely nothing about people you’d rather had been chemically put to sleep several years ago. One’s usp was that the ink didn’t come off on your hands. Seriously. That’s how crappy these publications were.

They were distributed by almost violently aggressively men and women on street corners thrusting unwanted scrap paper into your hands, refusing to take ‘no thanks,’ the fact that your hands were either in your pockets or laden with goods as good reason to not want a copy of their publication. The genius that is Smoke once suggested taking copies, folding them up and setting up stall adjacent offering ‘free paper hats,’ to confused commuters.

Still, they were a feature of London street corners near stations and major bus stops for a few years, often be glowered at by Evening Standard hawkers trying to flog a barely superior publication for sixty-five times the cost. For a while, after the disappeared, I missed them. They were a convenient enemy. Like the Charity Muggers who still line the popular pavements they were an easy irritant to moan about. Although the best defence has to be the gentleman I followed along Holborn recently who when greeted with the enthusiastic ‘how are you feeling today, sir?’ responded with a curt ‘hostile.’ But now the free paper floggers are no longer there and, unsurprisingly, it’s only when I consciously try to remember them that they appear in my memory.

So. Canada Water. Don’t believe the map. Except for the occasional conserved duck nest in an artificially tarted up and maintained subsidiary of the Thames, it doesn’t exist.

Still, Surrey Quays (despite the enforced name change) does and it isn’t New Cross. There’s a whole industrial estate in the way complete with Milwall’s the New Den where the riot between Birmingham and London football fans kicked off shortly after I’d moved down. The streets burned for an evening after a Championship playoff match, cars were tipped over, bottles and bricks twisted through the summer evening’s sky and the odd fire burned inside the husk of a Nissan Micra. The evening afterwards I wandered into the pub and leant at the bar next to the battered and bloodied man with ‘hate’ and ‘love’ cut into his knuckles. ‘If a fucking Brummie walked in here now,’ he snarled ‘I’d tear his cock off.’ I ordered my drink in my poshest, most forced accent.

Then there’s the refuse plant visible from the trains and out where in the new year I saw an inflatable Father Christmas being bounced between two mini-jcbs like a complex game of season volleyball. My train was trapped at a signal as the wheeled silently and serenely past broken up fridges and through troughs of pulped household waste, the nine-foot Santa balloon bouncing ahead of them at every twist and turn. In my head some epic piece of swirled strings music played for their soundtrack.

‘Oh, come on. You’re making this up now.’

Well, not really no, but perhaps just a little bit. I mean it happened. Or at least I’m pretty certain it did, but did it really happen like that. Did I think those thoughts at that moment? It becomes difficult not to tilt the language. I get confused, sometimes, as to where the line between the fiction of my internal monologue and reality lies and which side of it I should be standing. Or writing.

In the Observer recently Robert McCrum reviewed a memoir about the Vietnam War and discussed the difference between history and fiction. The function of history, he argued, is to tell the truth whilst the moral drive of fiction is to get it right through the contrivance of invention. In other words, to borrow a phrase from Francis Spufford, to make shit up.

In that case, what is my other discipline? How does the language of sales work? Isn’t that just making up shit that you think people want to hear?

‘How do you go about writing something?’ she asked over the glass topped kitchen table and because I wanted to impress – and because I didn’t really know the answer -I told her a story she wanted to hear about structure and strife. But here’s a recipe that might be closer to the truth (for me anyway): I start with a blank white computer screen and an idea of an emotion and a sliver of a movement and I take a dollop of what’s gone before and I start to make shit up that I hope someone will want to hear. Maybe there’s no-one listening, but that’s my problem and no-one else’s.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Rotherhithe

I found myself on the south bank at last. I had expected to feel more comfortable, more at ease, but instead I felt slight odd, as though I’d been away too long. As though the journey had taken as long as the reportage of it would do. I paused briefly and attempted to realign myself. It helped if I thought hateful thoughts of Boris who almost certainly wasn’t in the silver testicle that Saturday morning. The weather was too good. He’d be off doing something rich, wench skinning or something. The London Assembly building, that bollock shaped mess of glass and steel, cast a shadow over one of the last naturally open spaces in central London, almost obscuring its new ‘sold for development’ placards firmly implanted into the dusty ground.

I dropped down into the narrow confines of the enthusiastically cobbled streets that ran between the river and the paved road. Once these had been like everywhere else, a mix of warehouses and mills and shipping ports and then they were abandoned and then gentrified into Starbucks and boutiques and pinned up chain restaurants that feed the inevitable drudge of office worker overflow, the Thames path hikers and the tourists waylaid between Tower Bridge and the Design Museum.

I nipped down an alley to the water, reasoning that the river front would be quieter. Instead, in an indication of how long it had been since I’d last been down that way, the towpath seemed to have been widened out and someone was pretending that it was the banks of the Seine by laying out metal tables and horrifically priced inane food from any number of dulling faceless places.

In the heat I beginning to feel quite sweaty and the sudden onset of musked eating and chunky cutlery and bustling warmth made the air constrain around me. I edged away and tried to escape the corporateness.

When, I wondered, had all that boring same-old stuff appeared? The last time I remembered walking along that stretch of river the boards had been drawn across the buildings and a desolate sense had lurked. The night previously, I’d wandered into the Brockley Jack, the place I would later tend pump, for a Friday pint. Whilst waiting to be served, the bassist from the Queens of the Stone Age, bald head, weird twisted goatee and all, waved at me with a slightly confused grin on his face.

‘What’s the bassist from the Queens of the Stone Age doing here?’ I asked the person at my side.

It was only when he came over to speak that I discovered not a Californian bawl, but a Midlands drawl and I realised it was my friend Simon from university, whom I hadn’t seen for years. It was all the more odd given that he should have been at home in Thurso on the north Scottish coast. By coincidence his partner’s father lived in Brockley and was a keen patron of the Jack. The next day we’d hooked up near London Bridge and after a beer or three, had taken their new baby for a stroll along the embankment.

And then, back in 2010, the path abruptly narrowed and stopped. An inlet ran off the Thames and the only crossing was a strap of iron help up by chiselled railings.
On the far side the world was the sort of space I’d been expecting; a run of forgotten buildings that contorted into a tight maze of muddled streets.

At home, I have a book called Derelict London that catalogues the empty shells of the city’s buildings. One such is Chambers Wharf which was once the last remaining run down warehouse on the Thames, proudly used by TV execs from the Professionals to the Sweeney. Yet now even that is being reinvented as luxury flats. People will move back in and haunt what was once there. But that’s the thing with London – it just keeps on having history, on telling stories.

Two cyclists in helmets and day-glo coats wheeled idly past me, their motion hardly justifying their excessive gear.

‘Oh, look at that,’ grinned one of them as they tootled by a corner shop with racks of vegetables and distressed fruit outside. ‘It’s trying so hard to be a proper
deli.’

‘Well,’ cooed the other, ‘someone’s got to try and improve the area.’

‘Twats,’ I muttered to myself hoping that they’d hear but not respond in kind.

The path cut down behind and through some more residential streets. Rows of sixties and seventies low rise council houses that had replaced the waterfront village façade and gained picturesque river views since all the bodies had been removed.
More or less.

‘We don’t all live in your blog,’ I’m worried someone will one day say, even someone badly disguised. ‘You don’t own the world.’

‘Yes, I do,’ I’ll reply, flustered. ‘I’ve got the receipt somewhere.’

‘Gah!’ They’ll explode. ‘Can’t you ever be serious?’

Well, yes and no.

‘I think,’ she ummed in the late afternoon dipping sun of Hyde Park one Saturday, ‘if there was no reference to me at all, then I might get a little offended.’

No pressure, then. Telling things the right way – that’s the trick, in the end, isn’t it? Making the stories and the ghosts work for me and not the other way around?

Eventually, my route popped out at a wide open spot. There was nothing but the breaker concrete wall at the waterside and on the city rim a wide, raised patch of green with the hint of a moat running around it. There was a public information sign surprisingly free from graffiti, but not as surprising as learning it was the one time site of a manor house built for Edward I. A holiday home for the twelfth century self-styled hammer of the Scots to jolly his way down the river to, aboard a
galley tugged along by Welsh prisoners of war.

Plague ships used to bubble down the Thames to Rotherhithe. They bought the dying to isolation hospitals until their bodies could be dragged out to Blackheath or Nunhead, to be dumped down the pits.

The Mayflower launched from Rotherhithe. It pulled out of London, her crew stumbling out the Shippe pub and up her gang plank, before snaking around the Kent nub down to Southampton to collect the Pilgrim Fathers. Her Captain, Christopher Jones, didn’t stay in America. He came to London to die and was buried in the church yard opposite the pub that some sentimental bugger decided to rename after the famous vessel that went off to help forge a nation.

Opposite, Ed’s summer residence, inside what looked like a concrete bunker, was a pub. My resistance finally faltered. The hot weather and my exertions had won. I wanted a pint.

Inside the Angel, I found classic styled wood panels complete with glass arches dividing snugs and saloons. I stood at the bar between the tattooed, jaded eyed labourers and the tweed jacketed, moustached retired gents. I was mildly shocked to discover it was a Sam Smith’s pub - one that was a far cry from their usual locale of Fitzrovia and the surrounding area. Although, of course, the whole Sam Smith’s set up refuses to make sense. Small brewer from darkest Yorkshire buys up dilapidated central London pubs restoring them to their Victoriania beauty and then by selling only their own brand booze undercuts the rest of the city. The most famous of their beers was always Man in the Box. An alpine style lager recognisable by the elaborate pump top of a old man puppet dressed in traditional German clothes inside a transparent plastic case. Despite the removal of the models years ago, ‘A pint of Man in the Box, please,’ will still get you the same beer on the counter.

If only the bitter tasted better, they’d be perfect.

Never-the-less, I took my cold pint and wandered out onto the veranda overlooking the river.

On the southern side the river felt quieter, less imposing than it had appeared from the north. It was as though that wide exposure view somehow calmed the aggressive swirl that peeked out between snipped of buildings earlier. The water was free from traffic. The pleasure cruisers only came that far east if they were heading for Greenwich and even the floating junkyards, usually a pit of rusty contagion, seemed to have gone on their summer holidays.

At the other end of the veranda a man in cycling lycra squatted on the floor and his head between his knees, a tabloid paper laid out in front of him, a half drunk lager leaving a translucent patch to the top corner of the newsprint.

‘You all right?’ I asked.

Slowly he raised his head to look at me. His eyes were bloodshot as though from tears, or a syringe into the corner. He appeared to pleading, but for what I couldn’t say. He stayed like that for a moment, trying to work each other out, trying to figure what was what, until he looked back down to his paper.

My phone bipped to itself, deep inside my pocket. I took it out and read the message. I smiled inwardly, suppressing the pleasure at her response and found myself being surprisingly pleased at being surprisingly pleased. I nodded to my distraught drinking companion, but he was having none of it, so I finished my beer and felt a little bit cool. Until I reminded myself how I was spending my day.

Once outside I cut across the bottom end of Southwark Park and past yet more people baking themselves in the pleasant glow of summer’s weekends. On the far side of the park, the Rotherhithe Tunnel sank down under the river taking a flood of cars into its bending and twisting depths. It’s not a place for the claustrophobic. Unlike its bigger cousin, the Blackwall Tunnel, the Rotherhithe is two way and refuses to follow a direct route, manoeuvring itself under some unknown river bed obstacle.
The oncoming traffic always feels as though it is about to chink the corner of the bumper at each and every tight corner. But worse, is the congestion of cyclists wearing oxygen masks to prevent asphyxiation; flimsy pieces of cloth to block out the cloying exhausts. I can’t bear to keep the windows down and I’m underneath for a shorter period of time and not exerting myself. How do they survive?

At the entrance maw, Stu and I once whooped Michael on through the early stages of his marathon whilst further down the road a dj stood on the roof of uber-cockney pub shouting out individual names for encouragement to the tune of Keep on Runnin’ and Eye of the Tiger. Michael came round the corner, waved to the bellows of his name and disappeared onwards towards docklands, back the way I’d come.

I appeared to have left Iain Sinclair and George Orwell and Joseph Conrad and all the others on the north bank. There were no writers ghosts lurking around that corner of south London. Which was odd, because it’s packed with as much history and imagination as everywhere else. From being the birthplace of Michael Caine to the home of the Norwegian government in exile during the Second World War, there’re plenty of memories to be found. Perhaps, they just had to be mine and I hadn’t formed them yet.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Wapping

Once upon a time Wapping was one of the hidden sides of London. It was a haunt for pirates and navy deserters and drunkards and whores and crazies. It was where the original Mack the Knife would stab you as soon as kiss you. As time wound on, it stayed the same and yet the city evolved around it. Dockyards appeared to serve ever further flung lands and pushed the area deeper out onto the rim of the Thames. Its people became increasingly isolated from the rest of the city, buried in the gaps between the river and the thumping warehouses and twirling cranes that unloaded the first wooden and then steel ships that chugging in and out of London. The Nazis bombed the hell out it, but Wapping didn’t particularly care. Nor did it when the dockyards dried up and the warehouses fell silent and the boats stopped coming, even though it was left even further out on the periphery.

All alone.

I suspect that’s how it likes it.

But still time changes a place. Riverside apartments became trendy; narrow cobbled streets no longer automatically equalled danger, but instead exuded an old world charm. The old hydraulic pump station that had sat derelict and surly for a generation, was restored and reopened into a swanky restaurant, with dinners squeaked in around the remaining mechanics. The soft pale white of dining sheets and silver glimmer of trendy furniture were offset against the rust smudged workable green of the dynamos. Down in the basement, where the water once ebbed and flowed, in a damply dank room there is an art gallery where light and physical matter fight against legacy for dominance over the space.

Like any other east end gallery space, I’ve gone and been mesmerised by the smartness and beauty and I’ve turned up and been indifferently baffled. Space and light tend to be its preferred themes; images cranked in blackened corners, shapes contracted around golden curves underneath the darkness. Abstract and specific; vague and fixed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The Wapping Project. I find the name disturbing. Projects are brief and fleeting, defined by time boundaries. Does a gallery-restaurant combo really aim to give the whole area an finite conclusion point?

On the opposite side of the road, there stands the Prospect of Whitby, a pub which claims to be the oldest in London. Meh. So do plenty of others. Certainly, there appears to have been some venue designed for the patrons to come and get inebriated on the site as far back as when fat old Henry VIII sat on the throne. Doubt it was the same place though. Still, it’s a pretty enough place with windows like those from the stern of pirate ship overlooking the Thames. It forms a trio of boozers, along with Captain Kidd and the Town of Ramsgate that hug the river and take their characters from the myths of the oceans.

Tthe river dominates much of Wapping. Stairs snake down the side of these pubs deep into the waters. Once they provided steps to waiting flat skiffs to be punted across to the southern side or up and down the choppy, stinkingly foul waters. Then, someone hit upon the bright idea of dumping bodies into the Thames and these were the easiest, quietest, murkiest access points. Dastardly deeds to be done under the dome of darkness. These days, they’re more likely to be borrowed by film crews and tourists looking for a moody shot of London’s forbidden side.

But the river. The Thames screeches and stinks and swells for attention. This is the true docklands, where the water not the steel towers reign. It binds the people to the city as much as it acts as a conduit from west to east. The Thames flows endlessly, starting out in the rich suburbs and through the even richer centre and out, out into the east where the people live. It carries ideas of Londonness, a definition of us, and yet in Wapping it is only visible in-between the gaps. People were so desperate to be close to it they lived on the very rim. Or alternatively they put up barriers that they were then forced to inhabit, acting as a shield between the majority and its corrupting tide.

Joseph Conrad, by all accounts, used to drink in the Prospect. There’s part of me that’s slightly sceptical about that fact since I walked past a blue plaque for his house in Victoria the other day. It was a trudge, at the end of the nineteen century, from Victoria to Wapping, but in the end, this tale isn’t interested in fact. It relies on fictions, on stories to give it life. You didn’t believe that all of this could be true, did you?

Anyway, so Conrad supped ale in the Prospect with all the low down scumfucks who passed through its blood tattered doors on a nightly basis. Conrad was born in the Ukraine and English may have been his third language, but still he wrote stories with heart, with head and with something to say. His most famous, the Heart of Darkness, was nominally about the congo although a bunch of Americans made it about Vietnam for Apocalypse Now, but it could just have easily been about the Thames. The noble and honest man of Kew sails downriver, fighting the sheer humanity he fails to truly find on the way to a final conflict with a man lost within his own reflected madness in the east, perhaps even in Wapping, perhaps even in the Prospect of Whitby.

Hmm. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Isn’t that the thing about stories, about fictions, that you tell them and then retell them in a slightly different way, with a slight adjustment of the emphasis and then the one single truth can be about everything that’s ever mattered? Isn’t that the thing about life?

Wapping tube station, as it once was before the East London Line became rebranded as part of the London Overground network, juts a little spitefully out of the cobbles and soft red bricks. It marks the exit not only of the first tunnel under the Thames, but the first tunnel underneath a watermass anywhere in the world. That tophatted, cigar chomping Victorian of note, Brunel, burrowed his way from south to north, ignoring collapsing soft soil and clay; letting the Thames flood back up, drowning his men and ruining his equipment. What did he care about lives and wives and children left bereft back home, he was carving history for himself.

His stubbornness was remarkable as it took eighteen years to claw through the three-hundred-and-ninety-six metres. It was intended for horse drawn carts and carriages, but was instantly pedestrianised until the steam propelled engines, which must surely have flooded the narrow stretch with putrid choking black smoke, came followed eventually by the new air-conditioned electric beasts that silently slipped underneath my feet.

Certain north Londoners no doubt consider the fact that the tunnel was dug from the south bank outwards as further example of how desperate their southern cousins are to escape the inferior life on the far bank. I prefer to think of it as the extension of a unifying hand across the waters; a hand that is grasped, but with a slight sarcastic sneer in the doing so.

‘The problem is,’ said the girl with the French accent, ‘he’s just too clever. I’m not used to going out with someone who I don’t feel intellectually superior to.’ I let her talk. Sometimes it’s just easier. ‘God, it’s so much harder going out with someone you actually fancy.’

She had a point. Of course it’s easier to bedazzle someone of moderate intelligence with a sour and quick wit. (‘Oh babes, you totally crack me up you do.’) But in the longterm it makes it harder, not easier, despite the inevitable conflict of two strong minded individuals(‘You’re just a bully. Another bully who wants his own way all the time.’). In the end it’s easiest when the fit is utterly natural and not grounded on a fakery. When the only thing told was the truth.

I thought for a moment about getting on the train and nipping under the river to Rotherhithe. That would be acceptable, I thought. I would be continuing to follow the rails of the East London line. But, I looked over the darkened glass of my specs. It was a gorgeous summer’s day. Walking felt more appropriate. I winked at the station, knowing full well that I’d see it again some day, and headed west for the first time that day; west towards the bridge.

I walked up past Execution Dock; a small strip of water tugged land which was once the place where nautical criminals were sent to repent their sins in the maker’s purgatory. A dedicated court churned the cases, passing the almighty’s judgement down. Those sentenced to death would be hung by the neck off the shore until they were dead, dead, dead and then their stricken bodies would be pinned inside the cold embrace of irons and dangled above the river until the high tide had submerged them and washed away the last traces of their life, thrice.

The execution dock’s most famous victim was Captain Kidd, a Scotsman who made his name and his fortune in the Caribbean mainly fighting pirates and the French as a naval barrage gun and cutlass for hire to the local British administrators. He appears to have managed to get too far into bed with the Whigs who were toppled by the Tories and Kidd sent to hell as a present. Since then, his real life has been rewritten and fictionalised until a myth of high-seas piracy is all that could possibly endure. His life was reimagined to more aptly fit its end.

I briefly stepped out onto a grassy patch next to the lapping river. Boys and girls lay poleaxed by the sunshine, skins crisply turning lobster pink, eyes sharply closed underneath their oversized sunglasses. It was but a brief glimpse of a docile afternoon before I tilted further into the modernist flats cluttering around stream inlets and fortified memories of a forgotten age which dragged the whole area into a different class from the one that fought running battles in 1986 against Rupert Murdoch’s closure of the print works. The echoes of bottles crashing on stone and socialist rights chants as militant as that of the Durham miners had died away; drowned out by rebuilding schemes designed to sanitise.

As I walked, I was reminded of a time I went in the opposite direction. We hiked from Tate Modern on the southern bank across from St Paul’s out to the Mile End home of Matt’s Gallery. From nationalised heroic populist modern art all the way to sub cultural alternativeness filtered through a middle-aged middle-classed appreciatively empty wine glass and the drifting image of the scars on the girl’s forearms. I forget exactly when it was, but for some reason it felt like the world was on pause, as though there was time for lingering and dawdling because in the sunshine life would forver be a holiday, until our final breath had been taken.

And in the moment between times I popped out of a side passage and the luxurious basin of St Katherine’s dock opened out in front of me, replete with its Starbucks masquerading as a dumpy lighthouse. And in front of me, on the far side of soulless Hilton, Tower Bridge cut across the glimmering skyline.

The bridge was a mess of turquoise girders and neo-gothic turrets of plain brick. Tower Bridge arches the river confident in being taller than its surroundings, taller and more imposing that the castle crumpled into the bank from which it takes its name. There are plenty of stories surrounding Tower Bridge. Like the time the number seventy-eight jumped the gap as the ramp began to raise; or when the stockbroker being investigated for fraud buzzed it in his toy plane before flying off north until he ran out of fuel and crashed in flames across the Lake District’s fells; but this isn’t the place to tell them. Tower Bridge is too central for this tale. I was just passing through, after all.

The bridge is, however, a landmark in more than one sense. It is such a iconic symbol of London that the myth of the American millionaire who bought the old London Bridge to span the gorge on his Arizonian ranch believed he was buying Tower Bridge instead still survives despite emphatic denials from everyone involved. But it’s more than this. It’s the point where north meets south; where east meets west. The East End doesn’t want anything further west of Tower Bridge (well, perhaps Soho); the west can stick the rest.

I stood in the middle of the bridge; one foot on either side of the divide so I could look down and see the river churning muck and grime and all the wasted promise that makes it so special. Should we look for divides, I wondered. Or should we just take the city as a whole. Is it too big for that? Or is it just all the places I haven’t been to yet waiting to tell me something; something about themselves and their people and something about who I can become rather than who I have been.

I stepped fully over the gap and smiled. South London. Home again.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Shadwell

After the frantic battle of people passing through Whitechapel and the disinterested obnoxiousness of those dawdling around Hoxton, the streets felt silently normal. The roads contracted back close together; the dwellings imploded from beglassed chic flats into terraced housing. Shadwell seemed mildly abandoned, or perhaps simply occupied by those less concerned by the trends of the world. Yet even in Shadwell there was change. On the compact road down to the stations, alongside the tired old supermarket and kebab house new flats were being built, new blocks dug deep into the ground, the foundations attempting to reach as far down as those who had been there for generations.

Some five years or so ago, at a party in suburban Leeds I met a couple who had moved out to a barren Thames subsidiary, Greenhithe or some such nonentity of a place, but before that they had barricaded themselves away from life in Shadwell. I can barely picture her, but he was one of those characters destined to be old early, from his dour demeanour to his sensibly grey marks and sparks sweater he smelled plain. Annoyingly, he had sat himself down next the stereo which was playing CDs I’d mixed especially. Party tunes from sixties classics to swirling hip-hop; I was deliberately trying to be overtly eccentrically cool. Check me out, it practically shouted, smug shit that I can be. He kept turning the volume down. It’d get to the point where the tunes couldn’t be heard over the chatter so I’d turn it back up.

Then he’d turn it down again.

Eventually, he said: ‘I don’t really like music.’

Later in the evening, some tea lights and church candles were broken out and scattered around the lounge forcing ambience. I noticed him shift to the edge of the armchair.

‘What’s the matter,’ I spitefully asked, possibly with a slight slur to my voice, ‘don’t you like candles either?’

‘They’re a fire risk,’ he replied. ‘Do you know how many people die in house fires caused by unwatched candles? But it’s okay. I’ll keep an eye on them.’

And he did, closely and for the rest of the evening.

Shadwell. It’s a confusing place. Before the Jubilee line extension opened, but after the Dockland’s Light Railway had been installed to ship out disgruntled city workers to Canary Wharf, people who attempted to make their way to New Cross for the first time would glance at the tube map and see that the East London line intersected with the DLR at Shadwell. Somehow this would always seem easier than going off piste and onto the overland via London Bridge. They would strut out to Bank, full of confidence, no doubt meander aimlessly around the labyrinth of the station for half an hour; finally find a DLR to Stratford and shuttle off one stop to Shadwell. On arrival, they would step out of the train glance around and fail to find any helpful signs. They’d descend down from the platforms in the sky to the packed streets, often smoulderingly dark for this seemed to be mainly a winter error, and continue to fail to find the East London line. This is because, intersect is a generous description for a station that’s four hundred metres away and around a corner. You have to exit the controlled environment of the public transport network and interact with the real world for a while.

I spent a lot of time in Shadwell when I was evacuated out to Blackwall. The company I worked for had finally moved out of Crossharbour and into the City. I’d duly moved away from the DLR only to for the bastards to purchase another company based in the weirdness that is Blackwall and send me back. It was the most frustratingly annoying commute I’ve ever had to undertake and the switch at Shadwell was at the epicentre. It was winter (something about Shadwell really draws people in on chilly evenings) so it was perpetually dark and in my suit, carrying my little work case, I felt conspicuous as I walked between the two stations, sometimes my shoes crunching the broken glass of the telephone boxes at the foot of the DLR’s stairs, from which New Cross residents used to receive confused phone calls along the lines of ‘I’m in Shadwell. It’s slightly creepy. Where’s the bloody tube?’

To which the residents of New Cross, who nearly always used the sensible overland when coming from the City or the West End, would reply: ‘No idea.’

So I lurked on Shadwell DLR station and nustled myself down into the depths of my then new duffel coat. It sits high above its people with a particularly urban view of the corridors that snake around the exterior of blocks of flats; sheets drying on balconies with no room for anything else save the faded plastic of outdoor toys and desperately exhausted potplants. The concrete square was cracked and open; where the wind whistled across it nonchalantly, gleefully pointing out that no-one else had gotten up yet.

It made me tired. It still makes me tired. It made me feel idenityless, little more than a cog within a larger motion. I hadn’t even realised I was looking for something else from whatever I was.

I was fed up with working for big business and the office politics of smarm and guile that were served up alongside it. Blackwall, just a few stops further up the DLR, was the most ridiculous place to have an office block. Four mammoth and squat pugs of capitalism were enveloped by a wall that looked as belonged on the perimeter of a Victorian prison. On the inside there was a precocious bar with no cliental, a news agents for people who had already arrived at work and a sandwich shop. The rest of the world was kept at bay. People told me tales of running from the security barriers to the DLR station, spooked by the noises from behind the railway pillars that kept it aloof, or from the deserted concrete play courts, or the rattle of chain fencing in the wind. Fucking idiots.

But, as I stood on the platform above the congested traffic that inched its way mournfully through the A12-13-tunnel junction I could kind of understood what they meant. It felt like we were working on the tip of an apocalypse; as though some sort of dystopian nightmare was colliding from the council housing and the office blocks and the snarled up traffic and the infrequent silently gliding trains and none of them, no-one, wanted to be there of all the places.
The DLR is a funny thing. It’s like a hint of the future; almost like a monorail in an idealised vision of a tomorrow that was in fact yesterday. Driverless trains take worker drones in the sky and under the river; through the gleaming arching substructures of towers reaching up to the money-lined heavens. It’s like something from a fiction that wasn’t going to come true, but then it hiccupped out a shadow of itself. Driverless trains make sitting at the front like being on a rollercoaster and it dips and dives under the water at Cutty Sark before breaking back out into the sunlight at Mudchute and repeating the trick on the way out of Shadwell to the termini of the city. It goes to many strange and wonderful places Elverson Road, Pudding Mill Lane, Beckton, the horror show that is the Excel Centre; further and further east stretching out the distances of Essex hugging the Thames and darting off in weird subsidiaries.

All of which is pretty irrelevant to Shadwell, other than this is where the DLR commences. Oh, sure, it goes on to Bank and Tower Gateway, but they’re on the inside of the congestion zone, behind the barrier of the square mile, integrated properly (more or less) to the rest of the tube system. No, it’s only once the trains reach Shadwell that they clamber out of the underground tunnels and into the sky and then they become a law unto themselves, ignoring the rest of the network and going their own way. Wherever that may be.

Sitting around google-Steve’s and Steph’s not so long ago, I regaled some inappropriately late meander across London’s bus network for no other reason than it made feel smugly superiorly cool, Lucy yawned, stretched slightly feline like and then asked: ‘How do you have so much time to go out? Don’t you go to work anymore?’

‘Nah, I just don’t sleep much,’ I replied even though it tasted false, ‘besides if
I’m not out I’d be in alone and that creates problems all of its own.’

Shadwell was once just a creek. It was once a cluster of huts on the outskirts of the city bound to the crook of water, until in 1587 when it was drained away by government decree. The East End is full of areas being torn down and rebuilt on the whims of the state; it helps the people cement their self-imposed feelings of rebellious anti-establishment.

I stepped across the pin tight narrow run of Cable Street. Further up the road was a pub, the Crown and Dolphin. Its immaculate sign from another time glinted in the sunlight, it even appeared to tilt somewhat in a non-existent wind. It looked welcoming. I quite fancied a cold beer, but if I was to have one it wouldn’t be there. The Crown and Dolphin had closed down a while ago just leaving its perfect façade out on the street to fool the world.

By the Eighteenth century Shadwell had been rebuilt and fostered a vigorous spa business; wealthy Londoners and landed gentry enjoyed the sulphurous waters and basked in the healing properties of the natural world. As I walked, this thought made me chuckle especially when I remembered the West Londoner’s comments about Whitechapel. It almost seems a typical Eastenders scam; bring ‘em in, soak ‘em up, fleece ‘em for every groat.

‘Is it even possible to make sarcastic facial expressions?’ I asked glancing up and possibly raising one eyebrow as I did so.

‘David,’ sighed the dark haired girl with the soft southern French accent, ‘if anyone could make sarcastic facial expressions, it’d be you.’

I crossed out of the packed houses, pas the reformed sailors church now used as a crèche replete with bouncy castle under the nave and onto the blandness traffic clugged drag of the Highway down to Stepney. It used to be called the Ratcliffe Highway, but the prefix was dropped after the murders of 1811. Two attacks in the space of twelve days. A drapers shop and then a pub. Two families gutted. Seven people dead. Fragments left alive to come to terms with their grief.

John Williams got the blame. An Irish down-on-his luck sailor with long held apparent grudges against people he may not have even met. He never got to explain though, seeing as he hung himself shortly after the arrest. The tabloids had whipped up a sensational controversy to be adored. Did Williams kill anyone, let alone himself? We don’t know. The local mob appeared on cue to cut down his shit soaked corpse. For good measure they jabbed a stake deep into his heart and dragged him through the streets behind a cart, dumping what was left of him into a pit.

Almost two centuries later a gas company dug him up again, stake and all, on the corner where Cannon Street meet St George’s. The landlord of the Crown and Dolphin decided to keep the skull as a souvenir and there it still sits, behind the bar, hollow eyes following the swirling movement of people until the pub closed its doors for last time. I wonder what happened to the skull. Perhaps it finally got to rest.
As I crossed the road, I paused to wait for an imaginary coach containing Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey to pelt on past on his way to Limehouse. He went to smoke opium, perhaps with Sherlock Holmes, in the den painted by Charles Dickens for the Mystery of Edwin Drood. The fictions of London occasionally overlay each other uncontrollably in my head. That was Dickens’ final novel; Shadwell, a place for literary giants to come and die.

Beyond the Highway and the buildings morphed again; they shifted from houses to converted warehouses hosting alternately spacious and cramped apartments. The streets remained cobbled for effect and at the end, overlooking the Thames, was the Shadwell Basin.

Once it at the Empire’s heart; the collection and distribution point of food and resources and cold hard cash tainted by blood exhumed from lands around the world.
After centuries it fell into disuse before being reborn as a false plaything for the privileged. Its marina style is trying so hard to evoke the Mediterranean, but it wasn’t. It was in Shadwell. When you sweep in westbound on the DLR, the view out one window shows bobbing yachts and wooden ships restored like airfix kits and dingys catching thrust of the tide and the view out the other window of blocks of congested flats and the strained people who live in them.

The basin is accessible by the old iron drawbridge that once served the docks. As I crossed over it, my footsteps left a slight echo of a clang in my wake and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was there to keep the plebs out or the over-indulged yuppies in. Whose land was it after all? Or was it no-one’s but the city’s? The city acting as an overlord to us, giving us all life through the toxic blood of the Thames. In front of me I found a cramped narrow passage way down to the river, one of the few remaining steps into its murk.

Wilfred Owen, the roar of Flander’s shells still in the horrors of his memory, wrote about that spot: “I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair./Along the wharves by the waterhouse,/And through the dripping slaughterhouse,/I am the shadow that walks there.’

But if I was at the Thames, then I was in Wapping and it was time to think of some different stories.