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.