This is where you came in. Sort of. Back in the beginning, if you remember, I was out in the Bedfordshire countryside being plastered by acorn-hard balls of paint whilst the new-old East London line was resurrected and…and… No. That wasn’t it.
Was it when Rob and I went out to the Big Chill bar, just further down Brick Lane from where I was standing in this semi-fictionalised recreation? That night when I couldn’t find the new Shoreditch Station? Well, kind of. That was when I decided to walk from Dalston to home, following the railway as it chomped through the East End’s skyline and uploading the new layout of the city into my head, but that wasn’t when it all started. Nor was it when we walked past Miquita Oliver looking all gauchely showbiz on the street corner outside The Golden Heart or, indeed, a decade or so before when, in the same pub, people had been so drunk they’d tried to use the basin as a toilet and it had been wrenched off the wall in a sloping mush of piss and faeces and jetting tap water.
That wasn’t me, that time. In fact, I may not have even been there. I may just be borrowing someone else’s memories. I can’t always tell anymore what’s my experience and what’s a story retold too many times, but I do know that every time I walk past The Golden Heart I hear the crack of porcelain hitting a dirty tiled floor.
No, this is a story and so I get to start, like so many of the best things in life, with a kiss as the first dawn light yawned itself across the sky. But the beginning might also be the end and I wasn’t there yet. Instead, I was in the middle. More or less. I was in Shoreditch.
The route out of Arnold Circus enabled me to skirt around the back of the old Tea Building. Its rear is less coldly designed than smooth reflective cladding front and so I’m protected from the vaguely pretentious mix of media consultants, psuedo-publishers and art spaces. The railway line was clear to see in front of me as it arched above the unfinished building site. I wondered if the reason I’d failed to find the station previously was because the new managers had deliberately hidden it away to save it from closure in advance. Stations called Shoreditch never have much luck. The first was opened in 1840 as a mainline station, although it had changed its name to Bishopsgate long before it burnt down in 1964. It then got some revenge by haunting the new line’s construction. Even as far back as 2002, when I’d sold my soul for an architectural magazine, I remember reading about Bishopsgate’s goods depot and its remarkable example of ornate gates that needed to be saved from the vandalism of regeneration.
The second existed between 1865 and 1940 and was also an overland station, but one that existed in the sky, built into the viaduct as the line headed up to join the old Haggerston station. They went down together, not from bomb damage but from lack of commuters. Most of whom were, presumably, busy dying in the sands of North Africa or the jungles of East Asia.
Shoreditch tube station, the northern most point of the old East London line, was open between 1869 and 2002 - nominally at least. As a child I had a large poster map of the tube network on my bedroom wall. Despite having rarely visited London I found the coloured lines and mysteriously named stations mesmerising, but none more than Shoreditch. I was fascinated by its disclaimer to only be open peak hours Monday to Friday and then Sunday morning. Unaware of the city’s geography I couldn’t understand why it would keep those irregular hours. What would happen to people who needed to get in or out on a Wednesday afternoon?
Perhaps it was this fascination that took me, when I arrived in London, to the other end of the short, obscure orange line? Perhaps, subconsciously, I was trying to answer a ten year old unasked question?
Nah. It was the same reason as I do most things. It was because of a girl.
This time I was determined to find the station entrance and I carefully followed the line along. It proved to be not so expertly hidden down a side street. There was nothing mysterious about it. There was even a handy pedestrian sign on the main road. All of which raised two concerns: One, a sense of vague disappointment that what I had suspected might be the biggest challenge of my quest in fact proved shockingly easy. Two, how much had I drunk that night?
Never mind. There was still the journey, after all. Still much more history to be passed through. As if to remind me that I was grounded in 2010, my stomach chose that moment to growl and gurgle and demand to be fed.
I sat on Hilly Fields late one Saturday afternoon recently with my book in my lap and the view out to the plains of Bexleyheath and beyond them Kent sprawling out in front me. A group of people in their mid-twenties, three girls and a boy, had been picnicking in the summer sunshine. The one girl, the one in the knee length denim shorts, swayed as she stood up, the empty bottle of wine dangling from her fingers.
‘Anyone want the rest of this cake?’ the boy asked.
‘Oo, no. Not me.’ Another girl in a long sweeping green and beflowered dress said. ‘I’ve only just lost all that weight.’
‘Yeah,’ shorts girl sat back down with a thump. ‘I noticed. You look fab. How did you do it?’
‘Oh, it was easy. I starved myself for two weeks. Didn’t eat a single morsel of food. Still went into work, mind. I was a bit spacey after the third day, but then that cleared and it was like walking on air.’
Her friends all nodded and mmed their approval.
Brick Lane, for many non-Londoners, may be closely associated with Monica Ali and her novel and despite the fact that the signs are in Bengali as well as English, the Bangladeshis weren’t the first immigrants to take root there. First there were the Huguenots and then the Irish and then the Ashkenazi Jews; the ghetto of Emmanuel Litvinoff’s childhood and the battles with Mosley’s fascists and then David Rodinsky, the reclusive academic who lived in a room on Princelet Street and one day locked the door and disappeared into the shadows of time. It was twenty years until access was forced and a perfectly frozen memory was discovered. The room was untouched, abandoned in a mass of scrawled papers and annotated books and moth riddled clothes and unfinished dinner, blackened and greened by the rot of life fading.
Iain Sinclair’s still following me about and he reminds me that he wrote Rodinsky’s Room with Rachel Litchtenstien. I know, I tell him, where do you think I get all this stuff from? I’m not just making it up. I read it in books.
Still, whilst Litivinoff’s childhood streets wafting with the smells of pickled herrings and the shouts of orthodox indignation may have drifted further north, more remains than the tightly packed terrace housing and litter strewn streets and improvised capitalism. There are Hot Salt Beef Bagels.
Two take away bagel joints at the northern tip of Brick Lane offer twenty-four hour service. It had never occurred to me that a bagel could be a sobering snack for the way home in the small hours until I moved to London. Of course, there is every possibility that I’d never had a bagel nor even knew what one was before I moved to London. I stood in the queue leaning across the back to basics, stainless steel counter, but the swelteringness of the day made my skin itch. I couldn’t stand the idea of eating something hot and dehydratingly salty, so I switched at the last moment to smoked salmon and cream cheese which I ate in hulking mouthfuls whilst striding on down the road feeling nauseating metropolitan with myself.
I passed the door to what may or may not have once been an arts space where I’d once been dragged to see a video piece. A slow-motion zoomed in grainy black and white film of one man inserting his penis into another’s anus on a twelve foot high screen. It was one of those times when I couldn’t work out whether I didn’t like it because of some otherwise undiscovered homophobia, or because I was a prudish philistine or because it was actually a bit crap.
A Friday morning and couple got on the train at New Cross Gate as it headed into work. She wore big shades that shielded most of her face from the excess of the new day; he a crumpled linen shirt that looked like it was more than fresh on. She slipped her arm around his waist, but tentatively as though it was still something new. She looked almost doll like next to his over-gymed frame. Her index finger chased the shape of his abdomen.
‘I can’t believe how much better I feel this morning,’ she cooed. ‘It’s like all the tension has drained away.’
‘Told you,’ he smiled smugly. ‘Best cure for any stress that is. A right royal seeing to.’ And they proceeded to reminisce all the way to London Bridge about the varied angles from which they’d fucked the night before. ‘Genius.’
‘Best not to get carried away,’ she pecked him on the cheek as the doors opened. ‘After all, it’s not like we’ll ever see each other again.’
Brick Lane has been making a land grab to become the hipster central for the vaguely trendy. It’s launched an all out assault on the dominance of neighbours Hoxton and Old Street. Places like the Vibe Bar and the Big Chill have aggressively transformed parts of the deformed Truman Brewery into something at the opposite end of the drinks industry from that which it was originally created to serve. Instead of churning hops into beer, dressed up blissed out twenties and thirties types are tightly packed into its broken lit rooms with soundtracks of twisted out samples, the inky stamps pressed onto the backs of their hands marking their tribe.
It’s seems almost a shame that the Black Eagle brewery, to use its original more imperial name, should end like that. Founded in 1683 it swamped London with ale for centuries – although not as literally as the Meux Brewery on Tottenham Court road did in 1814 when 1.4million litres of beer escaped and flooded the area drowning eight and giving one alcohol poisoning.
By day the brewery serves an even more innocuous purpose as a home from home for the artisans and purveyors of random life who were ejected by the gentrification of Spitalfield’s market. Across multiple concrete soaked floors, in rooms that once contained copper vats packed in ice and oak barrels ranked up for collection by the horse and cart, there are now uber-trendy slit cut jeans, ironic metal shirts, handmade cushions and unlistened to yet resold for the umpteenth time obscure reggae records.
Whilst browsing around this mush of culture for a Christmas gift for my sister or one of my cousins, someone attached a sticker to the small of my back. I wore an old woollen duffel coat and yet the sticker read: “I wear real fur; I am a cunt.” I felt violated, not least for the inaccuracy of the accusation. An unpleasant feeling of being wronged hung around me for a day or so, making me sneer with irritation.
Despite my continued disillusionment and disappointment with how Spitalfield’s has so enthusiastically grasped glass walls and middle class fakery to its hub, I still felt its draw. The pull of times past. On the way I’m reminded of the Water Poet, a pub I’d only been to once. It was a rustic retreat for the city types lurking just over the way, those who normally could be found clustering around Liverpool Street Station and its easy escape back West. I had semi-gatecrashed a Christmas party. My friend worked in the banking sector and this was 2008, just after they’d decided that bringing down western civilisation might be a bit of a giggle and so the party was a secret. It took place in the pub’s back room, rented out anonymously. The signage on the doors bore the name of a charitable foundation.
They covered up their guilt in plain sight yet I milled around being provocatively sarcastic. None of them took the bait. They were immune to conscience. It wasn’t their fault. It was system. It was life, get over it. It was you and me.
Letters and magazines kept arriving for the people who used to live upstairs. They’d left me their new address, another flat in Brockley, and like a dutiful neighbour I walked their post round one evening. I’d watched him write the number and street name down carefully, pausing to check he’d spelt the road correctly, and yet when I got there I found that number 67 was missing. It was occupied by a patch of grass; the gap left in the numbers in case a property was ever added. I stood in the evening sunset and wondered what to do with the Time Out and the water bill and the post card and whatever else for the people who no longer existed.
As I walked past the market itself, I noticed that the Spitz bar had been replaced by an ornately flushed brown leatherette sofa shop. I knew that, yet still it surprised me. I’d been researching gig venues earlier in the year and had struggled to understand how somewhere so identified with the rafters of the Victorian market hall could so easily up sticks to King’s Cross. Now all I had left was the live cd of bands who had never made it and the memories of Holly Golightly, despite the blackout, singing her bluegrass songs of woe in a voice that was like Americana corn twisting in a cockney breeze.
On the other side of the road is Christ Church, one of Hawksmoor’s – remember him? – icons of the city. A few years ago, I came to the end of a much grander walk around the city. One that had crisscrossed ancient monuments as it followed a path laid down in a story. As I approached the final furlongs I came along side that same church. Outside the front of which was one of those three wheeled scooters, with mobile coffee bars fitted to the back, which were briefly omnipresent. It was ridden by a girl with a thick eastern European accent. As she fixed me an espresso, I noticed a tubbaware box full of cupcakes with thick fake pink icing smeared across them.
‘Huh,’ I muttered, ‘cute.’
‘Would you like one?’ she asked ‘Only fifty pee, but it must be a secret.’
‘Yes. I make them myself. We are not allowed to sell our own cakes. Just company’s coffee. You see? But, people like them. They make sadness smile.’
How could I resist? It was a little moment of innocence in a place even now haunted by a murderer. You might have heard of him. People call him Jack.
The pub on the opposite corner is the Ten Bells; a decent enough boozer, if a little kitschly trendy and playing heavily on its possibly self-invented Ripper association. It was, allegedly, the favoured gin and porter haunt of the Whitechapel’s Victorian whores that Jack the Ripper carved his way through.
Still, me and Jack: We go a long way back. As a teenager I was almost morbidly intrigued by the unsolved romantic terror of it all. But you’d be forgiven for thinking that old Jack was just a story. I mean, he’s been reinvented and interpreted so many times and in so many ways that he’s almost become fictional.
He’s no longer an unknown person, but something more than reality. It’s starting not matter what he did and the horrific way in which he did it, but the unknown story has come to dominate. A story without end. A tale of love children, Masonic royal conspiracy, psychotic painters, depending, of course, upon which edition you’ve submerged yourself in. They’re all true and yet they’re all made up too.
Across the road there was, in amongst the rat warren of slums, once a street called Miller’s Court. Number thirteen was a single room. A room with a bed and fire and where Mary Kelly, the fifth and final canonical Ripper victim, slept. She was the only one not to be killed on the streets where he might have been disturbed and so Jack appeared to take his time with her. Probably, the first gaping slash across her throat killed her, but that was just the start. Incisions at the edges of her eyes allowed him to carve shapes and messages into her face, gauging the balls out with a pop. The removal of her right breast. Splitting her open from vagina to mouth. The extraction of her liver. Then the removal of her left breast, dropping it casually onto the soaked sheets. The churning out of chunks from her thighs. And finally, her heart was pulled out and discarded into the fire.
In Alan Moore’s From Hell, a dissection of the murders, Jack was William Gull, the Queen’s personal physician, committing ritualised murder and giving birth to the twentieth century. A hundred years of horror and gore conjured up in the bloodied guts of murdered woman. We all paid the price Jack’s crimes. But that’s just a story and we, all of us, make our own destiny.
That’s just a story and Mary Kelly was real. And what’s on the site of Miller Court now? A fucking car park.
I couldn’t think of anything else to think and so turned to walk deeper into Whitechapel.