Tuesday, 29 June 2010


It only took a few steps for Dalston became a memory, a place abandoned to the moment previous. The main road instantly seemed less congested, less frantic, more dissipated, as though it wasn’t trying quite so hard to be something. I turned right onto the streets of De Beauvoir Town. Nominally part of Hackney, it desperately wants to be Islington. In contrast to Dalston’s tightly packed narrow terraces, De Beauvoir prefers wide avenues with trees like ornaments forced through the concrete; it felt like a place of triumph as though, if a sun bleached army of stragglers strode out down it they would come in peace and be welcomed.

Iain Sinclair, who was still travelling with me at a discreet distance and offering helpful titbits of arcane folklore, accused De Beaviour’s residents of mounting middle class raiding parties across the border to Dalston. He gets to say things like that because he lives on one of those streets. I don’t so all I get to do was slouch along with the barest hint of a sneer from my deep rooted appreciation of its, well, its niceness.

But after drifting past the Vietnamese housing centre, I paused as a shiver of déjà vu snuck up. The Talbot. A typical Victorian curved wooden bar pub that was suddenly recognisable. A night, years ago, on one of my first foray’s into the Islington-Hackney borderlands, I’d ended up drinking there. I’d never known where it was since I’d been following rather than leading for once. I remembered stumbling out and finding my way home more by luck than anything else.

We’d gone to the Talbot because Brian lived around there somewhere. In reverse snobbery he always called it Hackney, but, as I’ve said, it’s Islington in disguise really. I glanced in through the windows of a house broken into flats that might have been Brian’s. It wasn’t. The shape of the room and the angle of the light falling across the newly scuffed brown leather sofa were all wrong. Brian and I once invented a word for that, for snooping in through people’s windows. It was a word that combined the innate nosiness with an appreciation of pretty things. Why couldn’t I remember it? Why was my head a jumble of half-formed ideas all the time, clinging onto the useless and forgetting the important?

Frustrated I aimed a half-hearted kick at a dawdling pigeon and missed.

Brian and all the others I’d been with that night are all gone now. They’ve upped sticks and fled the capital to gain space and raise children in access to green fields. At times I have felt as though I could follow them; to run screaming from the city’s suffocating tendrils and then, at other moments, I cannot envisage being anywhere else. London now has such a hold over me that it is as much a key to the lock of my identity as anything in my past. Hasn’t it?

From my initial resentment at its sprawling insanity, the city has burrowed its way into my heart the way William Lyttle, the mole-man of Hackney burrowed his way out from his cellar and into London’s arteries. He was called the mole man of Hackney, but really he was of De Beauvoir town too. Lyttle died the week after my exploration of the East London line, but as I walked I already knew his legend and just maybe I heard the tiny scrapings of his trowel clearing away chunks of dirt.

Mole-man’s excavations were so extensive that they moved far beyond his original claims to merely be extending his cellar. Sturdy shafts of mining darkness dropped down from his garden. Neighbouring houses had reported subsidence, daunting cracks running up their internal walls. The pavement collapsed to reveal a patterned spiral of cubby holes and routes possibly drawing out a message to hell. The electricity was cut off to the whole side of the street. He was a one-man warrior against property prices. He reminded me of Mick Jackson’s the Underground Man, although equally eccentric the Duke of Portland seemed to be trying to get away from the ghosts pecking at his shoulder. I suspect Lyttle was more like the munacielo of Naples. The munacielos were employed to clear the water systems underneath the city, according to legend one sneaked into the homes of the city’s elite stealing their valuables and seducing their frustrated wives. They are still blamed for lost car keys and earrings, although I don’t know whether they’re also held responsible for the city’s infidelities.

Not that mole-man would have been planning anything so seedy. He struck me as naively romantic; someone searching for something yet never knowing what it would or even if he’d already found it.
Sound familiar?

The idea of another world packed with lost ideas underneath London is a potent one for stories. From HG Wells’ the Morlocks, to Toby Hill’s Underground via Neil Giaman’s Neverwhere, the mythological potential in reading in the dark is powerful. It is an area I’ve explored but never quite descended deep enough into. There might be something there in the future, but for the moment, my stories need daylight. I need sunshine.

I reached De Beauvoir square to the neck shredding mewl of an anguished child. The sirens rebounded off the elaborate Dutch gabbled houses that encircled me. The buildings’ windows were like eyes, the balled sun blinking back at me from the glass. In the grassy centre a man in a pale kaki gap t-shirt and matching shorts squatted down and attempted to reason with the howling toddler: ‘What? What is it? Do you not understand what I’m saying? Is Mummy only speaking to you in Latvian at home?’

Beyond him, sprawled in the combative sunshine, two pasty white girls exposed their bikinis and much more. They lay in the direction I walked, their hands rubbing along their thighs, lathering up sun cream. To not look at them would be to not look where I was going, to consciously have made the point of turning away, which would have highlighted that maybe I had been looking at them ourselves. The one stared back at me, almost daring me to do what I’m not entirely sure. Challenge her? Make an approach? Wink suggestively? Whatever, it all made me feel mildly perverted.

I broke her gaze and looked West. A block across was Lawford Road where George Orwell lived. It was there, according to one flatmate the critic Michael Flynn, he attempted to perfect his style of prose devoid of adjectives; a way of writing that couldn’t lie or be misconstrued. It was also there that he beat up his other flatmate, Rayner Heppenstall, with a shooting stick after the less successful author staggered home drunk, making bit too much of a row. It was too beautiful a day for Animal Farm or 1984 or Coming Up for Air to be found anywhere other than the depths of my mind, but George picked up the pace and fell in behind Iain and I.

The cracks were appearing in De Beauvoir’s happy calm façade and so I returned to the main road, and crossed into Haggerston proper. The two areas are often like two different worlds ripped apart by the Kingsland Road. A Hackney ying and yang. I slipped across the traffic, weaving between buses and holiday bikes and then underneath the rail route I was supposed to be following and not being distracted by its surroundings. The railway bridge arched high above. In the distance I could see a train approaching. I expected the framework to rattle, like the apocalypse. Instead, it proved to be annoyingly restrained; little more than a shimmer of fuzzed up air. All mildly disappointing.

‘You keep disappointing me, David,’ slurred the girl with the dyed red hair under her breath. As she spoke she shook her head and in doing so her whole body swayed awkwardly from side to side. I wondered if she might fall of her chair. ‘So disappointing.’

‘Yeah, well,’ I looked around and decided I didn’t want an argument, ‘ain’t I just that.’ I took myself far away to bed. What else could I have done? What else should I have said? "Sorry" wouldn't have worked. There was nothing to apologise for. Was there?

At home I was suddenly all alone: the couple upstairs had moved out; the old chap who lives downstairs was in the hospital. It was just me rattling around the rooms of the large house where sweat clung to the walls and yappy barks echoed from somewhere downstairs. I made noise just to drown out the silence, to pretend there was someone else who knew I was alive.

Back in Haggerston I unearthed the skeletons of low rise housing, semi-gutted by regeneration. A tiny square, designed pre-car, hosted a war memorial adjacent to a window boxed pub flush with colour that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the most remote village. It was immaculately rebuilt English of imagination.

Haggerston apparently has the highest crime figures in Hackney, yet I felt safe. Utterly relaxed as I sauntered along. Funny how the sunshine does that; how the brightness exposes everything yet gives it a sheen of enchantment and you a sense of immunity. It could have been so different on a drizzling November evening.
Of course, the whole rail route had been regenerated, really. Haggerston, like Dalston, like the others, is not a new station specially constructed for the East London line. It once was on the overland out of Liverpool Street’s disowned sibling Broad Street, a station discarded into the gutter to starve to death by a Victorian parent with too many mouths to feed. It had been resurrected. The East London Line feels as though it’s about giving things purpose once again.

After a while I reached the canal. Unlike the canals of my youth, those that wind their way through Birmingham and the surrounding area, the Regent’s canal has only recently been semi redesigned to serve a leisure function. Now it aches its way from east to west, interspersed with tiny metal foot bridges like camel’s humps, and occasional flushes of sandstoned pathways or carefully landscaped greenery past wonderful corners of London such as two of my favourite Islington pubs, the gorgeously maintained Island Queen and the bonkersly eccentric jazz bashing ale guzzling Wenlock Arms.

My earliest experience of this canal was further west, at the York Way bridge where the road drops down to the Kings Cross fork. Another glorious summer’s afternoon on some sort of art treasure hunt which also included table tennis in what was once a broken down MOT garage and is now, probably, a Nando’s chicken joint or a faceless glass drowned office block. Down on the towpath, a man in his thirties leant back against the wall, his arms splayed either side, his head arched upwards his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open in a gasp of exhalation. In front on him, on her knees a woman hitched her skirt up to reveal the tops of her stockings and wrapped her blood red lips around his erect penis. I’ve always presumed she was a prostitute, but perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps she was just his enthusiastic amour.

‘Afternoon,’ I should have said nonchalantly, but I was younger in those days and less conscious of the audience in my head requiring entertainment. I was more afraid of consequences. I hadn’t worked out that inertia was the worst course of action.

My friend, a sometime poet, was mugged along the Regent’s canal. Somewhere probably not too far from the bridge I had momentarily paused in the sunshine atop. Drunk on cold cheap cider after an equally warm afternoon in London Fields - or was it Victoria Park, I forget - he walked along in the late gloom until confronted. The ring on the finger of one of his assailants, probably worth more than anything the poet owned, split his cheek open. That’s the thing about the canal: Beautiful in the sunshine, lost and isolated with occasional flashes of crimson in the dark.

I tried to glance at my own reflection in the stagnant water, for I can be a little vain, but it was too thick and green to offer more than a dark, shivering shadow. A shape, possibly a person yet indistinct. Hovering between reality and fiction. Someone without an identity. Without a character.

On the opposite side of the canal were blocks of flats with silver steel doors and shattered windows that left jagged tears. People still lived inside, abandoned to the inevitability of the builders, lost to transition as their world is pulled apart. And yet, down the street a gaggle of small boys ran laughing, spraying water at each other out of empty coke bottles, lost in the moment with no aspiration other than to soak their opponent.

Is that it, I wondered? Am I too concerned about the big narrative arc? Am I afraid that, like mole-man, I will strive without ever actually finding what I am looking for? Without ever achieving anything? But perhaps it is the journey that is more important. Perhaps the end point would only reveal itself when the story’s threads had been fully unravelled and then rebound.

I found myself back on the main road where the sun made my skin feel flushed. Partly to seek shade and partly because I knew where it led to, George, Iain and I crossed the road and disappeared between two tower blocks down a side street. I felt that odd buzzing tingle again. Maybe I was foreshadowing, but then again it was Hoxton next.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010


The airy cool sheen of the station’s atrium felt like it belonged in Blade Runner. No, Star Trek. It was too swish and clean to be from out of Philip K Dick’s bleak imagination. Besides, the sky outside was flushed with light blue not the dreary perpetual rain that Ridley Scott gave the world. Wherever, it should have been from a place yet discovered. But there it was. Opening out across four patiently idling trains poised to dart down under the Thames and away to the distant South East. Mid-Saturday morning it was quiet. Just three people disembarked with me and only four more waited to clamber onboard. One of them was a young boy with tussled blonde locks, surely no more than eight or nine years old, who wore a pale blue t-shirt that screeched in white bold type ‘No I am not on ~*%^ing facebook!’

‘Nice,’ I mumbled to myself - and you can take that any way you choose to.

Dalston. I’d been there many times before, although not for over six months. Previously, it had been a bit of a foreign, far-flung land; a place only reachable by a complex network of public transport (or at the very least a train and a bus). Yet suddenly it felt so much closer, almost an extension of my, if I may, manor. It was the furthest northern tip of the bit of London I could claim as my own.
I stood on the edge of the Kingsland crossroads and blinked in the searing sunshine. Summer had fully arrived in all its oppressive bollock chaffing half blinding misery glory. A bus’ hydraulics hissed aggressively at the woman struggling to force the pushchair across the road. The carbon monoxide clung to the air before it settled in the back of my throat.

Iain Sinclair, in Lights Out For The Territory, called the Kingsland crossroads “bandit territory”; the runs down from Hackney to the perceived sanctuary of the City fraught with threats behind every lamppost. He was, of course, parodying the perception of a certain type of Londoner that anywhere North-East of Cannonbury or De Beaviour Town is unsafe; an alien land full of weird, less economically viable, folk. Sinclair hams up the stereotype by dropping a Haitian exile into the flat above the old bank, where in the dead of the night he practises ancient rites twinning Dalston with downtown Port Au Prince; two voodoo republics within the larger sea of their cities.

The odd thing is, Sinclair wasn’t writing a novel.

But, there are definitely ghosts in Dalston. Memories whispered in my ear that morning. Memories that I needed to exorcise once and for all. I turned right; I headed north.

Further up the road, past the sixties fronted mall straddling the east-west railway, past the lurid ménage of Ridley Road market, past the guys in bulky parkas with thick eastern European accents sitting and smoking heavily outside Tesco Metro, past the overflowing car boot sale in the Primary school playground and the Turkish restaurant in the building that, with its minarets, looks as though it was once a mosque, up where the road’s one way split cracks open north so there’s no way back south, I once sat in the car and waited.

It was well gone midnight as I slumped down in the driver’s seat, my stomach tucked underneath the steering wheel so that my eyes were level with the bottom of the window. The world service bumbled patriotically in the background. I can’t remember what about. Something about books and dying on the cusp of morning, perhaps.

There was a bang; an indecipherable crack like sated thunder and then shouts, but no words - just guttural noises. I sat up and looked about. I switched the radio off and coming down the street behind me, from somewhere deep inside the maze of terraced back rows, there was the rhythmic flapping of sneakers smacking against tarmac and as I blinked the young man hurtled past the car. Ahead, he burst out on the main road where his skin was flushed by the tired orange hue of streetlights. He paused in the middle of the road. For a moment it was like he was mesmerised by the headlights of oncoming traffic embedded in his memory; as though his brain couldn’t understand why there were no cars or buses or trucks angrily honking and swerving their way around him.

And then he was off. North. Always with the fucking north around Dalston.
As he disappeared from view I became aware of the slower. heady thudding of middle aged boots and a policeman bumbled on by, truncheon in hand, utility belt of modern restraint gadgets gently slapping against his hips. At the end of the road he paused too, but because he was knackered. His hands rested on his thighs and his shoulders, buried under the stab proof padding, slouched. He looked south then north and then grudgingly headed off in the correct direction.

I didn’t go quite as far north on that summer’s day. I didn’t need to. I knew what the road looked like. It was yet another run of windows and doors straight out onto the pavement. It could have been any of them; there was no difference between the streets. It was just a cipher; an image of a road rather than an actual place. Instead, I was distracted by the glimpse of a monolithic tower gasping out between the terraces. So I went for a closer look.

The church turned out to be St Matthias’ – the patron saint of alcoholics who replaced Judas Iscariot after thirty pieces of silver changed hands. The building felt derelict. A sensation enunciated by the wall that effectively sealed off the doors, but a sign helpfully pointed out that access could be gained from the rear. Built in 1856 it seemed extraordinarily large and dominating; all red brick aggression, dulled slightly by several generations of street dust hanging off its walls, and a cavernous central nave. Given that, according to the 1851 map of London that hangs on my kitchen wall, Dalston at the time was on the periphery of the city, little more than a rag tag hamlet clustered around a farm and a pub serving the north Essex and Hertfordshire horse drawn traffic pummelling capital bound down the road. When its foundations were laid, the architectural sketches must have shown it lording over the manor and eclipsing the skyline yet over the twentieth century it had become smothered by endless runs of houses and flats that snaked many miles further north before there’s even a sniff of greenbelt.

The church’s architect was William Butterford who designed dozens of churches, not least the cathedral in Melbourne and whose name seemed familiar. It took me a moment, but eventually I remembered the blue plaque on Bedford Square that bears his name and which I pass most days. A coincidence in a city built upon them.

As I turned to leave, I noticed that the church was cornered, unsurprisingly, on Matthias’ road which in turn runs down to Newington Green. I worked in Highbury for years and frequently lunched on cheap Turkish stew off Newington Green and more than once caught the twenty-one night bus back to New Cross through the darkened sulk of London. It was another reminder that the city which, when I first arrived, seemed implausibly sprawling was in fact contracting with every day that passed until eventually it would be small enough to fit in my head.

Finding my way back to the main road I recognised the block of flats and a couple who’d I’d completely forgotten had ever existed came back to life. I looked up at the windows where I thought they might have once lived, but probably didn’t, and wondered what had become of them. They were just more faces blurred into the haze of time. I remembered that his Aunt ran a private detective agency, but equally I failed to recall any of the conversations we must have had about it. I must have pried? Surely, I couldn’t have been so bloody English about it? And I remembered Mexican food at a birthday party and feeling like it didn’t matter how drunk I got because there were always constants to ground me.

Back on the main drag, a white haired guy with a dog curled at his feet was drinking his second pint of Guinness. The sunshine sparkled through the dregged froth clinging to the skin of the empty glass. It was just gone eleven o’clock in the morning.

And I thought about that night at the Shacklewell Arms. The time when we’d arrived at one in the morning, after several hours drinking potent Belgian beer down in Dove on Broadway Market, to see a friend of a friend’s band play. The band hooked themselves up in the back room, tucked away behind the serious business of serious faced men with serious sized stomachs and serious expressions on their faces as they stared down opponents across draughts boards. The six of us doubled the audience.
Someone passed me a pint of Guinness and it barely touched the sides as I fought dehydration.

Another stout found its way into my hands and I tried to pace that one. I decamped briefly to the bathroom to flush water around my aching eyelids. Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was the band, but I struggled to stay conscious during the set. They didn’t seem as vibrant nor as self-confidently artlessly cool, with their raybans hiding their twenty yard stare and the dangling unsmoked cigarettes tucked under guitar strings, as they had when they’d climbed atop the roof of the old Keith Talent gallery and the traffic on the side street had ground itself up amongst the swirling bodies below. In fact, I only perked up sometime around two when they played the one song I particularly liked. You know, the one with the catchy jangling picked up riff and the call-return vocals?

Nah? Well, it was a while ago now. Someone told me they’re not together anymore. Just another casualty of growing up.

And when we did finally fall out at Lord-knows-what-o’clock, again the Dalston road was eerily empty. It was wide and clear, stretching out north to the city’s hinterlands, like a prairie that had lost its mechanised herd.

Somewhere around Dalston is, allegedly, the square that the original writers based Eastenders on. Like I care, but it’s a “fact” that seems to be a source of at least a little local pride and morbid curiosity from some who have struggled to prise themselves off the sofa. After all, some people, I guess, love it:

‘Did you see Eastenders last night, babes?’ asked the girl with the dyed red hair who I thought I’d written out this narrative ages ago, but keeps coming back like a persistent dose of thrush.

‘No I fucking well didn’t,’ I replied and rolled my eyes, wishing I’d never answered the phone.

‘You should watch it. I’d love to able to chat about soaps with you.’

‘Would you now?’ I outrightly scowled.

‘God,’ she tutted, ‘I don’t know what’s up with you, but you’re being really grouchy these days. Cantankerous, even.’

‘I am not fucking cantankerous,’ I grunted back and reminded myself that ghosts come in different guises and don’t have to be ancient.

Slightly further south I stepped off the main road and onto the bustling concrete slabs of Gillett Square. People sat all around. One guy squatted on a door step stuffing MacDonald’s into his mouth, appearing to guiltily wince with each chew. Some perched on the low walls enjoying the sunshine. Most sat on brittle aluminium furniture, off which the sun winked like it had a plan, with their fashionably curved cups of macchiato in-between their fingers. I closed my eyes and the bright daylight and chatter faded away to be replaced by the downpour and the shuddering thumps of rain globules hitting those same tables and rebounding upwards.

We sat in the hazed deliberate gloom of the jazz bar on the far side of the square and watched the rain to avoid looking at each other. We talked in circles around a relationship that had died without truly saying anything. It had been almost a year – a year that had felt both indefinite and instantaneous – yet still the specifics were shunned in favour of generalisations and attempted similes. If we didn’t characterise it fully then neither of us could be culpable. It was only when I caught her briefly looking at me with what I imagined to be the edges of tears in her eyes did I realise that we had probably been talking about different people all along. People who had both once been us and yet had never been; people who were specific others yet still ultimately unknowns constrained by the stories in our heads.

In a stone’s throw from the jazz bar is Justin’s flat where I looked down from his living room window at the rust smeared east-west railway line as it nipped under the road. Across the tracks stood a signal box. I found it strangely calming to watch the man go about his nightly levered work under the sixty watt bare bulb glow. On the side of the box someone had scrawled ‘Go home artist scum.’ I looked at the green and purple hatcheted letters and I thought sour things about how perhaps not everyone was as welcoming and open minded as the cult setters would like us to believe.

And mere steps away from Justin’s flat, back on the main road, one Halloween I hung onto the pre-purchase ticket machine at the bus stop like it was a life raft for my body and soul as they drowned in white wine. I held it tight between my shuddering arms lest it float off south without me, closing my eyes against the swirling glittering lights of closed shop signs and headlights refracted in glass and curved around poised mannequins.

Back at Sinclair’s “front line” and left down the road to Hackney, past the multi-hued mural, there once was a flat within a converted warehouse where the concierge sulkily read fitness magazines and ignored the visitors becoming increasingly saturated in the rain. It was the place where I’d climbed out of the American’s window and pranced along the gutter rim, one foot unsteadily in front of the other under the clear night sky with now forgotten music jangling in my ears and bottles of this and that dangling from my fingertips.

What would have happened, I wondered in the sunshine, if I’d opened my arms out wide to the silver moon and let myself drift out onto the night air? Would I have simply fallen in a crumpled heap, cushioned by sodden cardboard boxes fly tipped in an alley? Or would there have been a breath of magic? A moment of imagined drama in a story not really being told?

I took my glasses off and blinked in the searing sun before rubbing my eyes clear. Questions that proffered no answers were useless. Dalston was full of endings. Or vignettes close to endings; scenes that wrapped up lives and brought thoughts and feelings to a close. There might not have been any answers to be found under its mottled semi-colonised streets, but at least by starting there I was able to make some claim over Dalston for beginnings. And in the doing so, a little chunk of the protective arrogant façade cracked; underneath which there was the faintest glimmer of light. Just a smidge, but it was a start.

I crossed the road and passed through a metaphorical barrier; a border of artificial clique that fizzed as it bushed against my skin. There weren’t any answers. There was only the journey; the finished line heading south stopping next at Haggerston.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Returning East (a partial dramatisation).

When the East London Line finally reopened in full, I was outside the city being shot. As flabby faced professional toff Boris Johnson waved his Union Jack from the window of the first train and tried to take responsibility for something instigated years before he was elected to office, I was running through a forest with shells ricocheting off trees to either side. The calm silence of the woods and the glorious heat that became trapped in the green bowl were punctuated by the cack of gas cylinders pumping, metal bolts being thrust back and the occasional yelps of pain.

Lying in the unkempt grass in front of the ruined house, I knew I was surrounded. I just couldn’t see them. Too late, they’d seen me. A dozen pelts smacked into my exposed back and shoulders; I couldn’t even tell what direction they come from. All
I knew was the stinging sheer that pinged across my body.

‘Yargh’ I may well have shouted.

‘He’s hit! That’s it buddy,’ the guy in the orange t-shirt and the purple tinted plastic visor bounced across the undergrowth, ‘you’re out.’

I trudged away from the game zone, dragging my paint gun in my wake, the gentle rattle of unfired balls against the plastic magazine rolling in rhythm to my step. In the safe area, behind the protective netting, I unpeeled my bright yellow hood and special forces wannabe face mask. Sweat from the thirty degrees heat plastered my hair in dank streaks across my scalp. I sat down on the overturned log and let the adrenaline surge drain through my bloodstream and out my sweat pores. I chuckled, for from my memory came the bark of a thousand war film sergeants ‘Smoke ‘em, if you’ve got ‘em.’

‘Hey, Dave!’ someone said and I turned. At that moment, the juke box in my head hit emotionally epic and I felt like it was the flashpoint in the credits of a classic movie.

From a bias angle it seemed like the moment when the matinee idol turns to the camera and the right hand corner of his lips curl and goosebumps shiver through the audience. In that single moment, I felt like a hero.

‘The problem is, I’m not you,’ someone recently, helpfully, pointed out. ‘I can’t walk into a room and have the confidence to just stand up in front of people and talk.’

Ssh, I thought, it’s just a bluff. Don’t tell anyone, though.

I’m not a hero. Don’t be ridiculous. I may be arrogant and occasionally my mind plays tricks on me and I become mildly self-delusional, but nothing more.

Although, is it even arrogance when you’re just pretending?

And in the evening after we’d pretended to die a dozen times we raced around the mini roundabout outside the club; building dizziness and pushing aching legs, pulling the spiral tighter and tighter until the late night lights segued into the blackness and then became clear again as a single orange laso encasing us for protection as we giggled blissfully like children.

‘Show me your bruises, then,’ the girl with cropped tar black hair and an accent that oozed southern France said a couple days afterwards. I raised my left shirt sleeve to show the only one I could in public. It was the colour of rotten apples and snaked from my armpit to my elbow along the soft undercurrent of bicep. ‘Cool.’

Except it wasn’t really. It was just, well, life. Bruised skin. It’d heal. But then I do so like to be thought of as cool, especially in a detached Bogart-Marlowe couldn’t give a damn way, so I let it stand and tried to ignore the little accusing voice.

A few days later I fell out of the Big Chill Bar in the old Truman brewery. Quite what I was doing in a place either there or in any of its neighbours, places so metropolitanly groovy that they serve ironic cans of Red Stripe rather than real ale and all the other customers are ‘aving it big style under the neon glow of diluted pupils until they caught your eye and went all laconic and wiltingly cool, I can’t remember. I righted my stance and my jacket and decided to try and grab the last East London train of the night home. Shoreditch to Brockley in less than fifteen minutes. I glanced at my watch and felt the ground sway. Marvellous.

Except I couldn’t find the station.

‘So, you’re sure you know where we’re going?’ asked Rob a few hours earlier as we passed Miquita Oliver on the corner outside the Golden Heart and I’d internally wondered if she was now just paid to lurk around Shoreditch at all hours.

‘Sure,’ I’d winked back, implying that I slinked out there all the time when really I’d checked googlemaps before leaving. But at the end of the night I wandered around the top end of Brick Lane opposite the old Tea Factory and the corners where on sunny afternoons fucked up guys and flowered skirted girls perch with roll ups between their lips and tattered old suitcases open to display random wares and I could not find the damn entrance. I could see the railway line’s swanky new single piece metal bridge sparkling over my head, but the door proved to be more tricky.

When I popped out onto Commercial Street, and looped past the Commercial Tavern for the umpteenth time I wanted to strangle the unbidden memories of nursing a pint of Black Sheep in an idle early evening’s sunshine and watching Tracey Emin sauntering on by and – hey – hadn’t I once read an arrogant article by Jeanette Winterspoon about how she her little house somewhere nearby? I wanted them to shut up. They weren’t contributing anything, they weren’t helping and then the train rumbled its yawning way above my head and was gone without me.

I sulked through Spitalfields and snagged a bus down to London Bridge; heading home the old fashioned way. As the bus bent and twisted its was across the Thames I decided that a thorough exploration of the line was needed, given that the a-z to in my head had suddenly become out of date.

Over the next few days, I concocted a plan for the first free sunny day: I would ride the train all the way to Dalston and walk home, editing my mental map as I went. In the end, I bumped into the new line earlier than planned. On a late night dash from Baker Street home I jumped off the Jubilee Line at Canada Water. I soberly stood with my hands in my pockets, rocking on my heels and looked up the line to Rotherhithe , visible as it had always been just up the tunnel – as though when they’d dug the soft southern chalk out to cut the Jubilee Millennium extension the compass had been faulty and a new station had been erected to cover over the cock up. It had been two and a half years since the line had closed and probably much longer since I lurked on that platform, but suddenly I felt the snuffle of nostalgia sneak up upon me. When I boarded one of the swankily cooled orange and blued up trains home I felt the novelty of it not grinding to a halt at New Cross Gate, but it was still the old East London line. I wanted to experience the twenty-first century version – and, as it turned out – both re-evaluate my relationship with the East End and possibly deliver the final kicks to bring a bloody silence to the final ghosts that could be found there.

I hit shuffle on the memory jukebox and turned to shrug at the imaginary audience, because whilst logically I know I don’t live in a story sometimes it’s more fun to pretend.