“We all need the perfect smile for the day we’re on tv,” said the sign in the dentists’ window. Below the slogan a caricature of a beaming set of perfectly artificial teeth was drawn, complete with the necessary pinging star at the corner. I couldn’t decide which was worse, the cynical sleaziness of the dentists selling unsustainable dreams to the impressionable or the fact that I saw lies rather than optimism everywhere I looked.
I turned back to the clustered street market stalls and squinted as the sun shone down between the plastic canopies and steel poles that formed the temporary frames. It seemed familiar, and yet I hadn’t popped out where I’d expected to. The a-z that lives in my brain had short-wired itself. I’d expected to find myself walking along a narrow residential street where the two storey terraces slumped forwards and overhung the gutters, casting the pavements into much needed shade. Instead, I had arrived in the middle of stalls draped in mix-matched clothing, jeans and striped vest tops, summer dresses of purple and lime green, shirts with flowered detail running from nipple to navel, dvds of films unrecognisable, unbranded vats of toilet bleach, blackened plantain and sprouting sweet potatoes, halal chicken wings sweltering in the late morning, the flies idly swatted aside and yet something about that unexpected world felt both reassuring and uncomfortable at the same time.
Fully aware of my memory’s fallibility I had a back-up map in my bag, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. That felt like too much of a cheat. After all, I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was, I understood how I fitted in within the wider Hoxton geography, I just didn’t know when I was; I couldn’t place when I’d walked down this street and for what purpose. I couldn’t make it distinct from all the other half-recalled moments that had been slowly spilling out across the early morning.
Perhaps I was merely being directionally challenged. Perhaps it only seemed weird because I’d arrived from the wrong angle. I turned and began to walk backwards down the road. That felt a bit better, the line-up of shops felt more accurate in reverse. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I reopened them, the sun’s heat was gone to be replaced by the looming gloom of a winter’s afternoon, the grey bite of deserted London streets after the weather has turned and I had a sense of searching for something; somewhere that was fading into nothingness as the light turned to dark and the memories broke apart.
‘Look where you’re fucking well going, you dick,’ someone sidestepped me and I was back in the heat and the bustle, vaguely aware of people wondering why the hell I was walking backwards. I righted myself and the memory was gone again; strewn to the winds of time. Why couldn’t I remember? It irritated me irrationally, but under that was the bigger question: How much else had I forgotten? How much of my sense of self had I surgically burnt away with whisky over the past couple of years?
Which, of course, had been the intention, but suddenly it was something I regretted. I didn’t want to forget, I wanted to embrace my ghosts. I wanted to remember how it felt to like myself. All of myself, not just an idealised publicly presented version of me.
Hoxton. Phh. It’s always self-indignantly felt shat upon by its neighbours, starting way back in the sixteenth century when, apparently, the agricultural lands were levelled to enable the middle class citizens of Islington to use the green walks for their leisure. It makes noises about being the downtrodden underbelly, but right after the great trampling European ambassadors to Tudor England began building moated manor houses to idle away their weekends there. Somewhere around there, on the crumbling wall of a fifties flat block, is a blue plaque marking where the house of William Parker, the Lord of Monteagle, the guy who grassed up the Gunpowder plot conspirators lived. Rebel spirit? More like establishment crony, but, ssh, don’t it.
As I crossed the end of Falkirk Street, the cheery sign pointed out Hackney Community College. Once upon a time a lunatic asylum stood on the same site. Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented upon it, around the same time as he was trying to get himself incarcerated to effect a cold turkey cure for his opium eating, and his friend, the poet Charles Lamb, bounced in and out as did Lamb’s sister after she stabbed to death their mother with a knitting needle. Poets: Mad bastards, the lot of them. It finally boarded its doors up in 1911. I wondered if anyone’s ever told the College’s staff.
Eh, it was a cheap gag but it made me smile as I strolled on through the streets.
Just beyond the market stalls I found the Macbeth and put myself on a slightly stronger geographical ground. The Macbeth is a pub that’s achingly cool in a scabby sort of way; somewhere that kids in bands watch other kids with guitars strut their stuff and appraise angled haircuts and the latest post-ironic clothing trend. It never used to be. Once it was a gravely Guinness focused drinking den far enough away from the media scene to cope, but in the past decade it has sold its soul to the fashion devil.
Opposite, though, my heart was broken as I realised that the bookshop has gone. This was somewhat hypocritical of me, given that I hadn’t visited let alone exchanged money for words with the proprietor in years and yet just another book seller disappearing into yesteryear made me feel bitterly sad. It used to be a pokey stack packed place where the light didn’t quite make it through the blinds. It was a muddle of smudged lovingly devoured favourites passed on when their owner did too and editions too archaic or confusing to have ever been fully read. I think I last bought some Kafka there. Or maybe something by Burrows. I couldn’t remember exactly, but the idyll in my mind’s eye was that it was the sort of place for fiction that was a little dangerous, a little dark and a touch lost within itself. Typically, I couldn’t remember what its damn name was.
I headed on towards the belly of the chic, Hoxton Square itself.
But before I could arrive I bumped into something else not quite properly recalled. The Red Lion stood on the corner and instinctively I glanced upwards. I could see large garden umbrellas overhanging the brightly white and red window boxes along the perimeter of the roof garden. I’d been up there once, years before on a balmy summer’s evening, nowhere near as hot as it was that morning, but when it had been warm with a soft wind fluttering past. I pictured myself at the bar, buying drinks and then climbing the tightly coiled staircase, where the carpet ruffled unevenly and then, finally, stepping out into the light. There was a largish group of people; I could see their movements, but their faces are blurred and their voices spoke Latin through a distorter that left just a cackle, like a lost medium wave transmission.
‘The thing I find really annoying about her,’ said the girl with the short black hair and the southern French accent, ‘is how she’s so full of self-confidence.’
‘Whilst you,’ I replied, ‘are just full of bluff?’
She stopped, turned and looked at me for a moment and then smiled: ‘This?’ She pointed to her extroverted self. ‘Hell, yeah: Total bravado.’
‘Takes a faker to spot a fake,’ I said but wondered, in that case, what was she really thinking .
‘I see them all so excellently fair, I see, not feel, how beautiful they are,’ wrote
Coleridge in Dejection, yet I found Hoxton Square strangely deserted. On such a warm summer’s morning, I had expected it to be full of lounging glitterati; cool art kids stretched out in the rare sunshine, their brows shaded by implausible hats.
Instead, the only people present were the two blonde five year old girls skipping gleefully in the dappled shadow created by the overhanging gnarled trees whilst a young man – surely a cheekily disgraceful uncle rather than their father – in his mid twenties sat on the ground smoking a hand rolled cigarette, an unopened can of Polish lager by his bare ankle; cut tight demin shorts and a combat green vest top, deliberately matted unwashed hair, greasy to his brow and four days of cultivated stubble. He fitted a stereotype and yet didn’t. His comrades in fashion, those who I’d expected to see there, were, I realised, still asleep in their beds continuing the nocturnal cycle.
Uncle’s hand shook as it moved the burning tobacco-paper mix up to his lips; spiralling red flickers of life drifted in the turbulence. It made me think, nastily, that James Parkinson had once lived on Hoxton Square, before the gifted and the damned swanned into town, and he wrote there about the disease that took his name.
I left them to it. Them and the closed up cafes and bars, the place where I’d sat with the girl from the band and the journalist desperately passionate about the importance of the press, but without a paper to work on and the place where we’d once argued about whether you should factor the price of cool into a Sunday lunch.
I drifted away to the main road, back to the railway line again. I slid alongside the Spread Eagle popping out underneath the old bridge across the road back to Dalston. Across the street were the Catch bar and whatever the place that used to be called the Bar Under the Bridge was called that week. The types of places I used to go when wanting to feel a tad more metropolitan. I’d gone to the latter that time my sister had come down to stay, showing off a bit the supposed diversity of the big city, and that girl with the acres of uncontrollable hair had come and laughed that infectious raucously carry-on laugh all night long. It was a shame we’d lost touch after she lost the plot.
I always think that the Catch should be called Catch-22 even though it has no connection to Joseph Heller and is not infused with self-contradictions. If ever there was a novel that deserved a bar to be themed after it then it was that one. A boozers’ bar; a place where alcoholics could be trapped in the inescapable circle of existence. Catch-22.
I tired to return to the plot and realised that I couldn’t see the station. That was supposed to be the point of this journey; to track and map the locations of the new East London line stations – not to lose myself in some never-ending spiral of confused memories. I could see the bridge, but that was all. There was nothing for it, but to head back up towards Haggerston and try and catch a sight of it down some random side street.
So, off I set. Past the place where somehow I’d once stumbled through the Turner prize winners’ book launch; past the Vietnamese that was the default option for food out round Old Street at one point, until I hung a right on the corner where the old neon sign manufacturers used to be, where it used to say things like “Think Twice” and “Cheer Up” in shimmering green or blue, glowing in the deep midnight black. It was a lucky guess for no sooner had I passed the garage with the huge mural of ganja smokers on the outside wall and just the two ancient rusting mini hulks inside then the station could be seen jutting out the underside of the bridge as it arched over the road.
It was only then that I realised why the road seemed so familiar. At the far end, before it reached the Hackney Road, was the converted warehouse where she’d had one of her first exhibitions, a crazy disconnected show of fifty or maybe even more artists all crunched together as though trying to give a still birth to some kind of communal movement. I didn’t need to go and see that place again. Even if it had survived and hadn’t been resurrected as some kind of funky nu-wave office block for businesses with no function, I remembered it clearly enough. It was a good piece of art. Cutely funny. It had stayed in my head happily enough.
I smiled to myself as I thought of the bug’s impossible journey and walked back through the light industrial estate that tickled along by the arches whilst the railway line groaned steel crunches overhead, and then popped out on the Hackney Road opposite St Leonard’s. As per usual, a rag-tag collection of bristled and bustled faces clustered amongst the tombstones supping cans of super strength cider, tugging lovingly at dog-eared cigarettes and occasionally losing their gaze to the wonders of the middle distance.
St Leonard gives his patronage to the imprisoned, women in labour and horses. Join the dots there if you can, but here’s another line: No-one had really paid much attention to the sixth century French monk until his spirit apparently helped guide the release of Bohemond of Antioch from an Anatolian jail at the dawn of the twelfth century. Bohemond was a particularly brutal minor Norman noble who’d already ravaged his way through most of Southern Italy, sticking two fingers up at various Popes as he went, before chancing his luck on the slaughterhouse run that was the First Crusade and consequently became one of those bastards I became slightly obsessed with trying to understand around the age of eighteen.
The inside of the church is stripped back bare boned Anglican worship faded by the sunshine that has worked through the stains for generations. Its washed out glory suits it; makes it feel real and not artificially restored. And that time I watched a performance art evening from one of the hard backed pews, it had sparkled with life unlived.
Opposite, in a rather elegant demonstration of a nation’s fucked up moral decline (should you be looking for such a fiction) is the strip club Brown’s, complete with roman styled pillars and gas-fired flaming torches on the doors. Years ago, just as I was leaving work, I said: ‘Yeah, just going to meet a mate up Shoreditch way.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ replied my boss. ‘Going to end up in Brown’s, then?’
‘Nah, I don’t think that’s likely.’
‘While the cat’s away, David will play,’ he said alluding to my absent girlfriend doing something in the Californian foothills.
‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever,’ and I walked out the door. Strip clubs don’t really do it for me. I can see through the façade too easily. I’ve been to a couple, sure, and generally found the experience slightly odd, like the time the person wiggling inches away from my nose looked, as far as I could tell in the bizarre light, remarkably like a girl I’d been to school with. But still, I appreciated the irony of Gomorrah’s vileness being sweated out so close to a church.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Hoxton. The author of woman’s rights and mother of Mary Shelley and therefore mother-in-law to Percy and his dandified bohemian shagging spirit of life and the grandmother to that beastly combination of science of stark fear, Frankenstein’s monster. The city throws up weird alignments at times. Just down the road is the Circus Space, London’s school for clowns and trapeze artists and beyond that, on Leonard’s Street indeed, there once was a media company I used to work alongside. They balanced atop the car pound for central London where rusting hulks were dropped down into a pit, semi-submerged by an office block, and left to die. It’s all gone now of course, just another passing whiff of the city’s memory.
Around the corner is St Arnold’s circus; a raised up garden roundabout surrounded by mansion blocks from the late 19th century. Red brick structures that pushed inwards to a central point until resisted by the sloped steps and spiked shelter in the middle of the grass. I crossed the road, at the same time as a woman, three or four metres ahead. She turned and glanced at me as though I might be following her. We both joined the pavement on the far side and she glanced across again. How was I giving off menace? What was she seeing other than someone going the same way?
In the centre of the Circus, near where the school that used to host the small press festivals in August, was where we’d once watched cyclists ride around and around and around in an endurance test for charity or somesuch. The bikes soared in tight loops as the world blurred in a repeated montage for the riders. A recurrent flash of the same beaming sun soaked faces and the same open windows with the tips of lace curtains fluttering in the breeze created by their own momentum until their eyes crossed and closed and the world collapsed in upon its dizzy self.
The woman turned to look at me again. What was her problem? Did she think she recognised me? It crossed my mind that, secretly, I’d have quite liked that. Not being mistaken for someone well known, but being someone well known.
When the New Yorker and the Daily Telegraph published their respective lists of the best American and British authors under forty, I was relieved to see that only one on each was younger than me. ‘Phew,’ I almost vainly posted on Facebook, ‘there’s still time then.’ But creating something beautiful that lasts and says something about the world is not the same as being photographed just for being you nor as making lots of money. Is that why the dentists’ sigh so riled me, because it made me realise that I occasionally dream of shallow fame too?
I cringed inwardly. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. The way to be heard was to say something true not loud. Take St Leonard’s Church, for example. It was built in the 1740s by no-one famous. It has been in continual use, looks immortal and means something to its people. Its greatest claim to immortality though comes in a child’s song: ‘When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch.’