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.