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.
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.