Tuesday, 31 August 2010


At the start of the 1979 film, Manhattan, Woody Allen narrates different prospective openings to a novel the character he’s playing is supposed to be writing whilst a montage of city images rolls across the screen. Like most of Allen’s leads it’s just a variation on himself and so the film’s Woody’s novel’s Woody loves Manhattan in so many different ways, some of which are understandably affectionate, some are reflections of neurotic insecurities about anonymity, and yet he can’t find exactly the right words to express himself. Everything feels a little inadequate, insufficient as the opening to a story.

I know how he feels.

Unusually, when I started this series of blogs I had a clear idea of where I wanted it to go. But then, it was only an idea so I suppose it doesn’t matter so much that it turned out to be wrong. After all, it’s been a busy few weeks. A lot’s happened. More than I expected.

I sat at my desk one sweaty evening recently writing words about Whitechapel when my mobile rang. I glanced at the display, and one of the genius things about mobile phones is that knowing who is calling enables you to answers appropriately. In this case it was my ex-girlfriend: ‘Hey,’ I said.

We exchanged the required pleasantries, got cut off, tried to ring each other back simultaneously, and eventually established she was calling because she was on a train arriving in Brockley in a few moments. An old friend, who now lives abroad, was in town and my ex was meeting her for a drink and wondered if I’d like to join them.

‘But you don’t have to.’

‘Oh, I’d like to,’ I replied. ‘But I’m out a lot this week and was planning on writing all tonight.’

‘Well, it’s up to you.’

‘Tell you what: I’ll crack on and, if I can, I’ll pop down later.’

The call ended and I went back to my typing. I stuttered out a couple of sentences, but kept finding myself picking up and holding the phone. I quite fancied going to the bar. I didn’t particularly want to see my ex-girlfriend. The last time we’d met had been a ridiculously forced affair, although in fairness we both had other things on our minds, and I was supposed to be writing, but I really wanted to catch up with the visiting friend.

I wrote some more. I paced around the flat. A few more lines appeared on the white screen.

‘Fuck it,’ I said to myself an hour or so later and walked out of my flat.

As I walked along Wickham Road I could have been visited by any number of memories, such as the time we wheeled an old tea chest packed with crockery down the street, from the house we’d temporarily stashed it in, to our new flat, underneath a belting July sun and bickering the whole way until I said something too grouchy and she stormed off. Or any of the times I’d visited her in halls of residence. In particular, one of the first winter evenings whilst she talked on the public phone in the stairwell I rested my brow on the first floor window and looked out into the night. I saw the actor David Haigh walking down the street. I was new to London, then. I didn’t realise how it worked, that a minor celebrity could be spotted anywhere, especially if it was near where they lived. Or how it used be our route to play badminton at the school halls, or to rent videos from the much missed Homeview, or a sunny afternoon on Hilly Fields, or any number of other things that made life tick by. But these were not necessarily moments of dramatic tension worthy of note. They were just stuff. Just life.

Besides, I didn’t see any of those things. Mainly because Brockley is my home and whilst I love it from Rivolli Ball Rooms down to the Toad’s Mouth Café, from One Tree Hill church to the local butcher, I also let it slip into the background. And also because my mind was filled with thoughts of someone else. Somewhere else.

I realise that during the course of writing this series that the physical movement of the walk I was supposed to be crafting seems to have stopped several entries ago; indeed in the parts where it all got closer to home. And that’s because it didn’t happen. Well, it sort of did. I did walk from Dalston to Brockley following the stretch of the East London line, but I didn’t do it alone and rather than a soul searching historical analysis of the city, it was actually a pub crawl that effectively terminated in the Amersham Arms in New Cross. What? Did you really think my thought process followed what’s written down here? Do you think I’m totally mad? I made it up. That’s what I do. That’s kind of the point. Stuff happens and I turn it into something else.

‘Aren’t you bored of London yet?’ asked my friend Ben who now lives in Singapore, but was in town last week for a work trip. For a change we’d gone to the pub. I must have looked slightly baffled for he continued: ‘I mean, when I came to leave, I’d just had enough of it. The bustle and the thrust and endless congestion of people. Don’t you yearn for some space?’

‘Nah. The city is like an extra friend. One that’s familiar and comfortable and yet still, after a decade, surprises me.’ For example, I’ll tell you although I forgot to tell him, just the other week when I was pacing the streets and mulling over a few ideas and I decided to cut through Nunhead cemetery, just down the road from Brockley. I must have gone past the gates hundreds of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever walked through. I’ve certainly never found the charred stone remains of the chapel at its heart, half-reclaimed by the undergrowth, brittle against the gin clear sky. It was beautiful, like discovering a hidden tribe’s legacy.

‘I’ve been reading your blog. I would have thought there isn’t much left to surprise you.’

‘But that’s just a portion of East London. I’ve just discovered there’s a whole Western half of the city with its own stories and histories to blend with my own.’

I arrived in the bar to find a gaggle of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen for a long time and some I’d never met before. After the necessary cheek kissing and skirmished introductions I went for a drink. On the way, I paused just for a second and glanced around. It hadn’t changed. Pale wood panels still adorned the walls, ranks of empty wine bottles still perched on the skirting, each with a tale to tell, fairy lights still drooped across the windows, the scratched wooden tables surrounded by rickety wooden stools that shouldn’t be able to hold my weight, the Rolling Stones still played on the tapedeck. Some things are timeless.

‘All right, Steve?’ said the landlord. I was impressed that, despite the fact I hadn’t been in for almost two years, he still managed to misremember my name. ‘What can I get you?’

‘Something cold.’ And I wafted my shirt to indicate it was hot.

‘They’re all cold,’ he smiled.

‘Yeah, I guess they are. I’ll have a Budvar.’

Whilst he fixed my drink he made small talk: ‘Been some time since we’ve seen you.’

‘Uh, yeah. I guess it has.’

‘You moved away, didn’t you?’

‘Oh, only down the other end of Brockely. Down by the…down…’ but I trailed off because he had glanced, slightly confusedly, at our table and I realised that he’d the same conversation with my ex-girlfriend and that she’s told him that she now lives in Hackney. ‘Down by the station.’

‘Oh. Three pound ten, please.’

I handed over my money slightly relieved that he’d reverted to business and not forced any further explanation. But then, I guess he’d be used to discretion. I remember hearing him talk, a few years ago, about running his bar and how he liked it that people used drinking holes to fix points in their relationships. He’d seen people on first dates, proposals being made and rejected, couples fracturing apart, friends leaving and children coming home at long last. Tears and smiles for all manner of reasons, and over a drink it all seemed a little easier.

I took my beer back to the table, sat down and enjoyed myself.

Back in Dalston, I suggested that I’d developed a sense of being the star of my own movie as some kind of armour; a protective shield against being swallowed up by reality. But the more closely I look, I realise this isn’t true. It isn’t something I’ve consciously and artificially constructed. It is how I’ve grown up and I hadn’t noticed until now.

It’s just me.

And, so, yeah, in that case I guess I may be occasionally arrogant and cocky and relentlessly sarcastic and frequently prepared to find inappropriate humour. And, yes, I’ve done some bad things. I’ve told some lies I regret, I've looked the other way at the wrong time and I’ve used people. Sometimes in ways you would expect and sometimes I’ve taken people and stuck them in my writing because I am so vain and self-obsessed as to think that people will find my own life utterly fascinating. And sometimes I feel guilty about these things, but, let’s be honest, if I wasn’t fascinated by my own life I’d be a pretty fucking depressed individual. If I wasn’t convinced that people would want to know what I have to say, then what would be the point?

My new girlfriend and I lay side by side under the sunshine of Greenwich Park, deep beneath meadow curled grass, at a time when she probably wasn’t quite my girlfriend nor me her boyfriend. Just yet. For reasons I can’t remember, we were discussing random foods we’d eaten.

‘And there was this barbecued ghost,’ she said and then corrected herself: ‘Goat. Barbecued goat.’

‘I quite like idea of barbecued ghost,’ I smiled.

‘It’d be somewhat insubstantial.’

And that’s not only a good gag, but a great point. We do all have ghosts that we carry around in the backs of our minds; spirits and memories that highlight the decisions we’ve taken and where we’ve come from. “Just ghosts,” to borrow a Laura Marling lyric “that broke my heart before I met you.” Or ghosts of fictions once read, friends lost touch with, jobs you hated, songs you loved, life it all its muddled, coincidental, evil bastardised, glory. I find that mine are vividly bound to places because a physical place can swamp the senses so entirely in sight and smell and sound. Cities and landscapes have no choice other than to be emotive, but the ghosts don’t have to be a weight. They are, by their very definition, insubstantial things of thought. They help make up who we are, but it’s up to us who we become.

Tch. There, you see? Arrogance. Holding forth opinions on the big picture; encouraging layers of meaning when there needn’t be any. This blog doesn’t have a big reveal or a point. It doesn’t explain. It doesn’t need to. I could, I suppose, make something out of coincidences, such as on the way home from the day job this very evening, as the train pulled in Brockley station, I finished reading Francis Spufford’s new sort-of novel, Red Plenty. In the acknowledgements, which I’d skimmed from New Cross, Francis thanks the School of Slavic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London. A website somewhere lists the contact number for this organisation as my work direct line.

‘Uh, we’ve got a delegation of Slovenians coming to a drinks reception and wondered if you might be able to tell us how to say “Cheers!”?’

‘Kockyofski,’ I smirked, childishly.

But it is just a coincidence. It’s nothing significant. It’s just stuff happening. It’s just life. We all, occasionally, look o hard for things when in reality it’s like Edwyn Collins sang on the hidden track for his much underrated Gorgeous George album, “The music only makes you higher if you’re a moron and that’s what’s bothering me.” Or as Britpop also-rans Mansun said at the end of the fairly mediocre Attack of the Grey Lantern: “The lyrics aren’t supposed to mean that much, they’re only there to give a human touch.”

They’re only words, after all.

Later on one of those moments cropped up when someone’s at the bar, someone’s in the toilet, someone’s outside having a cigarette or trying to call their boyfriend and suddenly I realised the only ones at the table were me and my ex-girlfriend.

‘How's your work going?’ I asked.

‘I hear you’re seeing someone,’ she replied.

‘Uh, yeah,’ I tried not to instinctively smile in case it came across as smug or something rather than just an automatic reaction whenever I think about my new girlfriend. ‘I am. She’s lovely.’

At the end of Manhattan the too young girl says something that expects a response and all Woody can do is look into the camera with a half smile and a raised eyebrow and we’re left to fill in the blanks for ourselves. Because if he said anything, then it’d been an ending and only stories have endings. This isn’t a story about stories, his eyes say, but a story about real life and real life, even when it’s shrouded by a story, doesn’t have an ending and this seems as good a place as any to simply stop.

Friday, 27 August 2010

New Cross and Gate

When I was a small boy I wanted to be a soldier. Not, you understand, because I was particularly compliant in following instructions, or because I craved physicality, or even because I was in any way brave. No, it was because I believed the films I watched and the comics I read whereby the mavericks and the unruly and those who refused to do it by the book for the sake of their men won out in the end. In the same way, as the years inched by with the mind numbing grind of puberty, I wanted to be a racing car driver, a spy, to be in a band. I wanted to at the centre of attention. I wanted to be a hero in my own rebellion.

Almost ten years ago, the rickety old East London carriages – poor relations of their newly air conditioned cousins – tumbled along the tracks. I stood by the door, my body rocking uneasily as yet unused to the train’s rhythm; electric blue sparks fizzed up from the railings against the windows in the way that they always used to even when it hadn’t been raining. The rucksack on my back was heavy in a reassuringly permanent way; the bag over my arm contained my first ever suits. I felt like I was grown up, heading out into the big world. I felt as though my story was turning.

The train terminated and the doors grumbled open. It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon and so the station was what I would now describe as quiet, but then still seemed to be busy. People slouched hurriedly, the ice cream van graveyard behind the razor wire fence glinted in the summer sunlight, up above the traffic inched along the road filled with resentment. Welcome to your life, I thought. Welcome to New Cross.

That was all a long time ago, of course, and when I walked out of Surrey Quays it was many years later and half a mile further north. The Woodpecker Estate that sits along the borders is, apparently, notorious. It is the home of one of South East London’s more vicious gangs. And yet on a sunny Saturday afternoon it was hard to fathom. Low rise town houses and small apartment blocks with banks of grass and properties hidden behind trees and bushes and roads named after seventh century Frankish kings from a time before France was France, rather than spiked tower blocks and darkened gantries cornered by blind spots where the CCTV can’t stretch. It could almost be anywhere.

‘God, I didn’t mean places like that,’ chimes the memory of the man from South West London. And he’s right, I guess. It’s all about familiarity. The spaces around New Cross bring forth memories such as wandering through the park towards Deptford with a hangover split asunder by searing sunlight and the screech of kids on mini-cycles and yet the charm of a feverantly contested cricket match overrode all. As I closed my eyes I heard cheap imitation willow thwacking against a tennis ball not the rapidly fired pistol shots that cut down the Polish nurse who’d wandered into a dealer’s arguments on the same day as I started my masters at Goldsmith’s. The incessant sirens that drowned out our tutorial were a source of minor irritation or perhaps amusement, without the realisation that a woman lay on the tarmac with her life escaping. Nor do I think of the French students tortured to death for their credit card numbers by a psycho who later tried to escape this grandmother’s Brockley Edwardian townhouse through the fourth floor skylight, but of the beginning of another year and watching London be doused in glittering red, blue and green from atop Telegraph Hill.

When I exited the station a decade prior, I can’t remember which pub would have been on the opposite side of the road. Now, it’s the Hobgoblin. Another student friendly chain pub. Once upon a time, it would have been the Rose, a pub I’d studied the exterior of extensively on one of my first visits down to New Cross when my then girlfriend arranged to meet me at the station. She was almost two hours late leaving me to stand on the grey damp street corner, under the orange hue of the streetlight, letting the traffic flush up mucky rainwater. I watched people go in and out of the pub enviously. Aside from anything else I quite needed a wee. But in those pre-mobile phone days deviating from the arrangements could bring more difficulties than it solved.

It was probably a good thing I didn’t sneak in for a crafty pint. I was later to hear rumours that on match days Millwall fans would lurk by the windows, hidden by the off colour glass, and watch for opposition fans to arrive at the station. Upon spying their target they would rush out and tip the surprised supporter off the bridge and onto the tracks below, before disappearing back into the pub’s conspiracy of silence.

Typical New Cross. It’s rather fond of its fucked-up pubs and so am I. There are probably stories to tell for all of them, but, alas, I don’t really have the space. In the far west stands the madness that is the Montague Arms, a pub with almost certainly the world’s most insane décor, from the human skeleton behind the bar via the penny farthings and muskets randomly affixed to the wall and the scattered steel buckets to catch the rain seeping through the ceiling to the centrepiece of an embalmed zebra riding in the back of horse drawn carriage all under brothel red lighting. The exterior signage encourages coach parties enroute to and from Dover to drop in. Lord knows what continental visitors think, even if Paul McCartney did, accordingly to local legend, once pop in to see the mad house and end up playing some songs on the rickety stage.

Next is the establishment sometimes known as the White Hare which changes hands pretty frequently and still no-one goes in. For a while, last year, it was a lapdancing bar. Now it’s just a non-descript bar sitting on the corner where once the gate to the city was and now is deep in the centre of wider London.

Then, where the road forks into the one-way loop that I’ve spent far too many hours stuck in, there’s the holy trinity of the New Cross Inn, the Marquis of Granberry and the Goldsmith’s Tavern, once known simply as the GMT. The New Cross Inn was always the safest, blandest one of the three with the best bands playing late at night legally. The other two were never that concerned by licensing laws. Once, I was the Marquis’ first paying customer at eleven on a Monday morning, but more frequently I could be found there on a Friday night failing to hustle for the pool table, propping up the bar acting thirty years older than my twenty-two, trying to translate my midland-northern hybrid ways to the big city. The jukebox would always play Sinatra late on, and the Pogues and then White Shade of Pale giving last orders the maudalin send off it deserved before the lights went out and the music quietened down as the doors were bolted but the customers stayed inside with the pink cheeked landlord with his wrist permanently bandaged and outside the gun shots shattered the burger bar’s glass and the sirens raced down the main road and yet no-one bothered us.

The GMT was hairier. Once upon a time, it only got busy after everywhere else had closed up from exhaustion. Once you’d bustled past the bouncer in the leathers with the face tattoos and the pierced knuckles, the light inside was so appalling that you’d never be able to tell what you were drinking. The windows were ninety percent covered over by plywood and yet still a brick would sometimes come through the ten percent exposed. For a while I knew a girl who worked behind the bar who would return change more than she’d been given supported by an exaggerated wink and yet no-one gave a fuck. There were nominally three rooms. The main bar where most crammed sweatily in, a sticky floored back space with a single set of amateur disco lights and the mixdesk that played music you’d only heard in your dreams. There was a snug too, but as the only way to reach it seemed to be through the gents it only attracted a certain mix of people.

That was then, though. These days it’s clinically clean with bright windows and the world’s blandest Italian resturant upstairs. Not that I’ve ever been, but it’s just not right. It bears the name the GMT but passes no resemblance. It’s too safe.
At least the Venue is reassuringly still a cesspool. It stands imposingly on the main road with its plain concrete exterior bearing down on the cluster of drunks in the street. And at two o’clock in the morning people spill bleeding and vomiting into the path of traffic or lurch uncoordinatedly at the bus stop a white glaze to their eyes. I once met someone who thought it was the best club in London because it was the only one where “you’re guaranteed a fight.”


I do my drinking in New Cross these days in the Amersham Arms. The Amersham spruced itself up just before my Masters. Occasionally confused former locals still find themselves standing in the middle of the bar wondering where all the wrapped tight jeans, stripy tops and student haircuts appeared from. All the rest of it, despite it still being there, it all seems like a long, long time ago.

Not as long as ago as when the first V2 dropped down outside Woolworths and killed thirty-four people. I’ve always found the incidental Woolworths detail strange about that story, as though it passes some comment on the people who died. They were shopping in Woolworths. It’s an Iceland now and above it is, allegedly, a rat infested postgraduate halls of residence. An Iceland and a library that never seems to open. No, not that long ago, but long enough for me to feel old. Old and tired. And yet New Cross seems to keep on being young.

It has a youth and vigour that gets reinvented by a influx of new students determined to live up to the Britart and Blur heritage, but with each year that passes and for each umpteenth time New Cross and Deptford are touted as the new Shoreditch, the new Hoxton they seem to get a little more stale. A touch more sterile. They still look uber-cool. When I did my Masters there you could pick out the undergraduate art students from a hundred paces, but New Cross doesn’t need to be the new Hoxton. The old one’s just up the line now, anyway. Let it just be New Cross.

Back ten years ago, I walked out the station and crossed the thronging road towards my girlfriend’s student digs where I would live for the final few weeks of her tenancy. It was a flat within in a mansion block on the southern side of the Old Kent Road. It was a flat of vibrations where the front windows rattled from the continual crawl of traffic outside and the back shuddered every morning as the old routemasters in the bus depot warmed their weary engines for an hour before the day’s work began. A beautiful building hemmed in by relentless carbon monoxide.

My ex–girlfriend keeps appearing in these, doesn’t she? It’s not entirely surprising – ‘How long!’ people will often exclaim – but when I started this journey I fully expected her to be screeching loudly by the time I reached New Cross because all through these memories she lurks. From the time I staggered down the New Cross Road from Deptford at the end of my first week at work, pissed on only five pints and a youngsters inexperience of drinking on an empty stomach, to the guy who used to be always found on late night buses chewing his food so vigorously that great lumps of tinged saliva would flump out across the air or from buying cans of Stella at the old Duke’s Taxis for an outrageous price under the counter with the girl who later threw herself in the Thames, to the “skunk-weed-whiz” guys who used to lurk in the alley between the park and the main road and who appeared late night on my television screen for some fly on the wall cop doucdrama being approached by mini-skirted girls with fairy wings whom I’d last seen slurping lager off the table at the Rosemary Branch. And yet as I walked by way down from Dalston she actually became quieter. She faded somewhat into the background.

When I was a youngster I wanted to be a rebel without a cause; an outsider; the lead in the drama in my head. Perhaps I didn’t have to do it in a blaze of gunshots or a screech of tyres echoing the heroes of my childhood. Perhaps I could do it by just being me. Perhaps it would be sufficient to just save my own world, rather than everyone’s. Perhaps we’re all doing it, all the time and it just depends on how
vocal your internal monologue is.

On one of the nights when we broke up I wandered around Brockley and New Cross for hours. I wasn’t looking for anything. I just didn’t want to be the house. I wanted the perpetual motion through darkness as a distraction. As I crossed the end of the Old Kent Road that’s nowhere near Kent, near the burnt out house which isn’t the site of the racist arson attack in the eighties that killed thirteen, but could be, the only other guy abroad at that late hour was coming in the opposite direction.

‘Got any change?’ he asked even though his clothes were newer than mine.

‘Nah,’ I vacantly replied. It was true. I’d just run away, fled the house with nothing but my keys.

‘Cunt,’ he snarled as we passed.

I turned around and hit him. I punched him square in the eye and felt it squish under my knuckle. I kicked him in the testicles so hard that blood seeped through the crotch of his jeans and he crumpled over. I pulled him to the ground and pummelled his temple against the kerbside whilst my thumbs gouged at his jaw, tearing at the corners of his lips.

Except, I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. It was a thought that flashed through my mind and for a second it was a possibility, but then it broke apart as I realised no matter my anger it wasn’t worth it. Nothing would have been worth it. I may be guilty of many things, but nothing worse than where the reprimands would be solely self-administrated.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Canada Water to Surrey Quays

‘Have you ever been Westfield’s, David?’ asked the shopping obsessed and arguably slightly dim girl.

‘No,’ I replied, barely even looking up. ‘No, I haven’t.’

‘You should go. You’d really enjoy it.’

‘I doubt it,’ I muttered.

‘You would.’ Surprisingly she’d heard me and I wondered how many other people heard the things I said under my breath. ‘It’s got all the stores you could want in one place and then it’s got this luxury goods area. You know? Really nice shirts and good quality jewellery and stuff.’

‘Yeah, you see I know that and I still don’t think I’d have fun there.’

‘And when you’ve shopped yourself out you can go and get some food,’ she continued undeterred. ‘They’ve got everything all together in this international area. It’s really quick, good food. You know, Nandos and Wagamama’s and Strada and Giraffe and everyone you’ve heard of.’

‘You’re still not really selling it to me.’

‘You should go.’

‘I’d rather stab my eyes out with a rusty nail,’ I smiled. And seeing as this was a couple of months ago, I added: ‘Besides, it’s in West London. I get a rash if I spend too much time in West London.’

‘Where do you live again, David?’

Now, I knew she was a Hammersmith girl who rarely ventured further south or east than Trafalgar Square and only the most dedicated London explorers ever seem to know where the hell Brockley is hidden, so I went for the it’s marginally better known neighbour: ‘New Cross way.’ She cocked her head and looked baffled. I followed up with the slightly geographically inaccurate, but at least familiar sounding: ‘Between Peckham and Lewisham. Sort of.’

‘Oooh, Neeew Cross,’ she said as though it were somewhere entirely different. ‘There’s a big shopping centre just like Westfield’s there, isn’t there?’

‘Er, nope.’

‘Yes there is.’

‘No there isn’t.’

‘There is.’ She looked confused. ‘I’m sure there is.’

‘I’ve there nearly ten years. I think I’d have noticed.’

Except she was right and I was wrong. Well, sort of.

I stood at the crossing by the exit to Southwark Park and looked across the road at Surrey Quays. Surrey bloody Quays shopping centre. A Tescos, a knock-off camping and sports warehouse, a Frankie and Johnnie’s pizza bar, and some a eighties matchbox disaster of a shopping centre with faded vomit coloured floors and low level high street chains squeezed into surprisingly small retail units. Westfield’s, Europe’s biggest and most pretentious cathedral to the capitalism of crappy tat, it ain’t.

Not that it should aspire to be, either.

I think I’ve only ever been there once (aside from the camping gear warehouse which I go to frequently and am always disappointed by the shoddy nature of the kit) and that was when I forget to pack any t-shirts to visit Michael in Liverpool, years ago, and couldn’t stomach the fight back through the traffic. Buying something new was just easier.

But that’s the slightly odd thing. Like Westfield’s, Surrey Quays is perfectly easy to reach by tube and yet the majority of people come by car.

‘God,’ the strawberry blonde has said to me on more than one occasion, ‘why on earth do you drive in London?’

Well, obviously I’m a diesel guzzling selfish environmental terrorist, but also the reason no-one ever knows where Brockley sits is because it’s not particularly well served by public transport unless you’re happy on the bus or want to go everywhere via London Bridge. Which, if I’m honest, I usually am fine with. My nightbus treks in recent years have been extensive to say the least.

‘Aha,’ she has never said, but I’m borrowing her for the sake of convenience (sorry), ‘but now the East London line’s reopened surely that all changes?’

Hmm, but it’s still only going in one direction, although slightly more integrated it may be. The thing about driving is that it helps you understand how the whole city clips together, not just the routes dictated by the TFL’s central office. The only other way to truly discover the hidden London is to do exactly what I’ve being doing throughout the course of this blog: walk. And we don’t always have the time to walk. Besides, the traffic’s not always that bad. It took google-Steve, Steph and I less than an hour to chunter across from the M4 home. Although that was at almost midnight on a Sunday.

Keen tube map observers will have noticed that I appeared to skipped right past Canada Water. That’s because Canada Water is a bit of a non-place; somewhere that falls in-between other places. Stand on the southbound platform for the East London line and look right. You will be able to see Rotherhithe station less than a hundred metres further up the track; look left and the daylight that heralds Surrey Quays is snubbing against the tunnel’s black. It appears to only exist because the diggers for the Jubilee extension missed intersecting with either of the existing stations.

A nothing area that bears a real name, one derived from the old dockyards where the boats to and from Canada moored up, adjacent to a place that holds a fake identity. Surrey Quays didn’t exist until Thatcher’s docklands’ regeneration commission helped the shopping centre open. Before then it was always Surrey Docks, confusedly so-called not because of the region its ships came from but because it sat on the old county border with Kent. Surrey Quays, a region of London that’s Thatcher’s child. Bet the cockneys who lines the streets with their barbecues and cans of Fosters as the marathon pelts on by in April turning the area into a wholesome street party wouldn’t appreciate being reminded.

Above ground, at Canada Water, there is little to be seen except, in April, the throngs pushing their way down to catch up with the Marathon in either the City or Docklands and the Daily Mail printworks. Whilst arson is always tempting at the sight of the country’s least well and most enthusiastically bigoted daily paper, it’s also noticeable that they still haven’t taken down the sign on the exterior of the building that namechecks the LondonLite. This was one of two free evening papers launched simultaneously to prevent the other getting a market strangehold that told you absolutely nothing about people you’d rather had been chemically put to sleep several years ago. One’s usp was that the ink didn’t come off on your hands. Seriously. That’s how crappy these publications were.

They were distributed by almost violently aggressively men and women on street corners thrusting unwanted scrap paper into your hands, refusing to take ‘no thanks,’ the fact that your hands were either in your pockets or laden with goods as good reason to not want a copy of their publication. The genius that is Smoke once suggested taking copies, folding them up and setting up stall adjacent offering ‘free paper hats,’ to confused commuters.

Still, they were a feature of London street corners near stations and major bus stops for a few years, often be glowered at by Evening Standard hawkers trying to flog a barely superior publication for sixty-five times the cost. For a while, after the disappeared, I missed them. They were a convenient enemy. Like the Charity Muggers who still line the popular pavements they were an easy irritant to moan about. Although the best defence has to be the gentleman I followed along Holborn recently who when greeted with the enthusiastic ‘how are you feeling today, sir?’ responded with a curt ‘hostile.’ But now the free paper floggers are no longer there and, unsurprisingly, it’s only when I consciously try to remember them that they appear in my memory.

So. Canada Water. Don’t believe the map. Except for the occasional conserved duck nest in an artificially tarted up and maintained subsidiary of the Thames, it doesn’t exist.

Still, Surrey Quays (despite the enforced name change) does and it isn’t New Cross. There’s a whole industrial estate in the way complete with Milwall’s the New Den where the riot between Birmingham and London football fans kicked off shortly after I’d moved down. The streets burned for an evening after a Championship playoff match, cars were tipped over, bottles and bricks twisted through the summer evening’s sky and the odd fire burned inside the husk of a Nissan Micra. The evening afterwards I wandered into the pub and leant at the bar next to the battered and bloodied man with ‘hate’ and ‘love’ cut into his knuckles. ‘If a fucking Brummie walked in here now,’ he snarled ‘I’d tear his cock off.’ I ordered my drink in my poshest, most forced accent.

Then there’s the refuse plant visible from the trains and out where in the new year I saw an inflatable Father Christmas being bounced between two mini-jcbs like a complex game of season volleyball. My train was trapped at a signal as the wheeled silently and serenely past broken up fridges and through troughs of pulped household waste, the nine-foot Santa balloon bouncing ahead of them at every twist and turn. In my head some epic piece of swirled strings music played for their soundtrack.

‘Oh, come on. You’re making this up now.’

Well, not really no, but perhaps just a little bit. I mean it happened. Or at least I’m pretty certain it did, but did it really happen like that. Did I think those thoughts at that moment? It becomes difficult not to tilt the language. I get confused, sometimes, as to where the line between the fiction of my internal monologue and reality lies and which side of it I should be standing. Or writing.

In the Observer recently Robert McCrum reviewed a memoir about the Vietnam War and discussed the difference between history and fiction. The function of history, he argued, is to tell the truth whilst the moral drive of fiction is to get it right through the contrivance of invention. In other words, to borrow a phrase from Francis Spufford, to make shit up.

In that case, what is my other discipline? How does the language of sales work? Isn’t that just making up shit that you think people want to hear?

‘How do you go about writing something?’ she asked over the glass topped kitchen table and because I wanted to impress – and because I didn’t really know the answer -I told her a story she wanted to hear about structure and strife. But here’s a recipe that might be closer to the truth (for me anyway): I start with a blank white computer screen and an idea of an emotion and a sliver of a movement and I take a dollop of what’s gone before and I start to make shit up that I hope someone will want to hear. Maybe there’s no-one listening, but that’s my problem and no-one else’s.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


I found myself on the south bank at last. I had expected to feel more comfortable, more at ease, but instead I felt slight odd, as though I’d been away too long. As though the journey had taken as long as the reportage of it would do. I paused briefly and attempted to realign myself. It helped if I thought hateful thoughts of Boris who almost certainly wasn’t in the silver testicle that Saturday morning. The weather was too good. He’d be off doing something rich, wench skinning or something. The London Assembly building, that bollock shaped mess of glass and steel, cast a shadow over one of the last naturally open spaces in central London, almost obscuring its new ‘sold for development’ placards firmly implanted into the dusty ground.

I dropped down into the narrow confines of the enthusiastically cobbled streets that ran between the river and the paved road. Once these had been like everywhere else, a mix of warehouses and mills and shipping ports and then they were abandoned and then gentrified into Starbucks and boutiques and pinned up chain restaurants that feed the inevitable drudge of office worker overflow, the Thames path hikers and the tourists waylaid between Tower Bridge and the Design Museum.

I nipped down an alley to the water, reasoning that the river front would be quieter. Instead, in an indication of how long it had been since I’d last been down that way, the towpath seemed to have been widened out and someone was pretending that it was the banks of the Seine by laying out metal tables and horrifically priced inane food from any number of dulling faceless places.

In the heat I beginning to feel quite sweaty and the sudden onset of musked eating and chunky cutlery and bustling warmth made the air constrain around me. I edged away and tried to escape the corporateness.

When, I wondered, had all that boring same-old stuff appeared? The last time I remembered walking along that stretch of river the boards had been drawn across the buildings and a desolate sense had lurked. The night previously, I’d wandered into the Brockley Jack, the place I would later tend pump, for a Friday pint. Whilst waiting to be served, the bassist from the Queens of the Stone Age, bald head, weird twisted goatee and all, waved at me with a slightly confused grin on his face.

‘What’s the bassist from the Queens of the Stone Age doing here?’ I asked the person at my side.

It was only when he came over to speak that I discovered not a Californian bawl, but a Midlands drawl and I realised it was my friend Simon from university, whom I hadn’t seen for years. It was all the more odd given that he should have been at home in Thurso on the north Scottish coast. By coincidence his partner’s father lived in Brockley and was a keen patron of the Jack. The next day we’d hooked up near London Bridge and after a beer or three, had taken their new baby for a stroll along the embankment.

And then, back in 2010, the path abruptly narrowed and stopped. An inlet ran off the Thames and the only crossing was a strap of iron help up by chiselled railings.
On the far side the world was the sort of space I’d been expecting; a run of forgotten buildings that contorted into a tight maze of muddled streets.

At home, I have a book called Derelict London that catalogues the empty shells of the city’s buildings. One such is Chambers Wharf which was once the last remaining run down warehouse on the Thames, proudly used by TV execs from the Professionals to the Sweeney. Yet now even that is being reinvented as luxury flats. People will move back in and haunt what was once there. But that’s the thing with London – it just keeps on having history, on telling stories.

Two cyclists in helmets and day-glo coats wheeled idly past me, their motion hardly justifying their excessive gear.

‘Oh, look at that,’ grinned one of them as they tootled by a corner shop with racks of vegetables and distressed fruit outside. ‘It’s trying so hard to be a proper

‘Well,’ cooed the other, ‘someone’s got to try and improve the area.’

‘Twats,’ I muttered to myself hoping that they’d hear but not respond in kind.

The path cut down behind and through some more residential streets. Rows of sixties and seventies low rise council houses that had replaced the waterfront village façade and gained picturesque river views since all the bodies had been removed.
More or less.

‘We don’t all live in your blog,’ I’m worried someone will one day say, even someone badly disguised. ‘You don’t own the world.’

‘Yes, I do,’ I’ll reply, flustered. ‘I’ve got the receipt somewhere.’

‘Gah!’ They’ll explode. ‘Can’t you ever be serious?’

Well, yes and no.

‘I think,’ she ummed in the late afternoon dipping sun of Hyde Park one Saturday, ‘if there was no reference to me at all, then I might get a little offended.’

No pressure, then. Telling things the right way – that’s the trick, in the end, isn’t it? Making the stories and the ghosts work for me and not the other way around?

Eventually, my route popped out at a wide open spot. There was nothing but the breaker concrete wall at the waterside and on the city rim a wide, raised patch of green with the hint of a moat running around it. There was a public information sign surprisingly free from graffiti, but not as surprising as learning it was the one time site of a manor house built for Edward I. A holiday home for the twelfth century self-styled hammer of the Scots to jolly his way down the river to, aboard a
galley tugged along by Welsh prisoners of war.

Plague ships used to bubble down the Thames to Rotherhithe. They bought the dying to isolation hospitals until their bodies could be dragged out to Blackheath or Nunhead, to be dumped down the pits.

The Mayflower launched from Rotherhithe. It pulled out of London, her crew stumbling out the Shippe pub and up her gang plank, before snaking around the Kent nub down to Southampton to collect the Pilgrim Fathers. Her Captain, Christopher Jones, didn’t stay in America. He came to London to die and was buried in the church yard opposite the pub that some sentimental bugger decided to rename after the famous vessel that went off to help forge a nation.

Opposite, Ed’s summer residence, inside what looked like a concrete bunker, was a pub. My resistance finally faltered. The hot weather and my exertions had won. I wanted a pint.

Inside the Angel, I found classic styled wood panels complete with glass arches dividing snugs and saloons. I stood at the bar between the tattooed, jaded eyed labourers and the tweed jacketed, moustached retired gents. I was mildly shocked to discover it was a Sam Smith’s pub - one that was a far cry from their usual locale of Fitzrovia and the surrounding area. Although, of course, the whole Sam Smith’s set up refuses to make sense. Small brewer from darkest Yorkshire buys up dilapidated central London pubs restoring them to their Victoriania beauty and then by selling only their own brand booze undercuts the rest of the city. The most famous of their beers was always Man in the Box. An alpine style lager recognisable by the elaborate pump top of a old man puppet dressed in traditional German clothes inside a transparent plastic case. Despite the removal of the models years ago, ‘A pint of Man in the Box, please,’ will still get you the same beer on the counter.

If only the bitter tasted better, they’d be perfect.

Never-the-less, I took my cold pint and wandered out onto the veranda overlooking the river.

On the southern side the river felt quieter, less imposing than it had appeared from the north. It was as though that wide exposure view somehow calmed the aggressive swirl that peeked out between snipped of buildings earlier. The water was free from traffic. The pleasure cruisers only came that far east if they were heading for Greenwich and even the floating junkyards, usually a pit of rusty contagion, seemed to have gone on their summer holidays.

At the other end of the veranda a man in cycling lycra squatted on the floor and his head between his knees, a tabloid paper laid out in front of him, a half drunk lager leaving a translucent patch to the top corner of the newsprint.

‘You all right?’ I asked.

Slowly he raised his head to look at me. His eyes were bloodshot as though from tears, or a syringe into the corner. He appeared to pleading, but for what I couldn’t say. He stayed like that for a moment, trying to work each other out, trying to figure what was what, until he looked back down to his paper.

My phone bipped to itself, deep inside my pocket. I took it out and read the message. I smiled inwardly, suppressing the pleasure at her response and found myself being surprisingly pleased at being surprisingly pleased. I nodded to my distraught drinking companion, but he was having none of it, so I finished my beer and felt a little bit cool. Until I reminded myself how I was spending my day.

Once outside I cut across the bottom end of Southwark Park and past yet more people baking themselves in the pleasant glow of summer’s weekends. On the far side of the park, the Rotherhithe Tunnel sank down under the river taking a flood of cars into its bending and twisting depths. It’s not a place for the claustrophobic. Unlike its bigger cousin, the Blackwall Tunnel, the Rotherhithe is two way and refuses to follow a direct route, manoeuvring itself under some unknown river bed obstacle.
The oncoming traffic always feels as though it is about to chink the corner of the bumper at each and every tight corner. But worse, is the congestion of cyclists wearing oxygen masks to prevent asphyxiation; flimsy pieces of cloth to block out the cloying exhausts. I can’t bear to keep the windows down and I’m underneath for a shorter period of time and not exerting myself. How do they survive?

At the entrance maw, Stu and I once whooped Michael on through the early stages of his marathon whilst further down the road a dj stood on the roof of uber-cockney pub shouting out individual names for encouragement to the tune of Keep on Runnin’ and Eye of the Tiger. Michael came round the corner, waved to the bellows of his name and disappeared onwards towards docklands, back the way I’d come.

I appeared to have left Iain Sinclair and George Orwell and Joseph Conrad and all the others on the north bank. There were no writers ghosts lurking around that corner of south London. Which was odd, because it’s packed with as much history and imagination as everywhere else. From being the birthplace of Michael Caine to the home of the Norwegian government in exile during the Second World War, there’re plenty of memories to be found. Perhaps, they just had to be mine and I hadn’t formed them yet.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Once upon a time Wapping was one of the hidden sides of London. It was a haunt for pirates and navy deserters and drunkards and whores and crazies. It was where the original Mack the Knife would stab you as soon as kiss you. As time wound on, it stayed the same and yet the city evolved around it. Dockyards appeared to serve ever further flung lands and pushed the area deeper out onto the rim of the Thames. Its people became increasingly isolated from the rest of the city, buried in the gaps between the river and the thumping warehouses and twirling cranes that unloaded the first wooden and then steel ships that chugging in and out of London. The Nazis bombed the hell out it, but Wapping didn’t particularly care. Nor did it when the dockyards dried up and the warehouses fell silent and the boats stopped coming, even though it was left even further out on the periphery.

All alone.

I suspect that’s how it likes it.

But still time changes a place. Riverside apartments became trendy; narrow cobbled streets no longer automatically equalled danger, but instead exuded an old world charm. The old hydraulic pump station that had sat derelict and surly for a generation, was restored and reopened into a swanky restaurant, with dinners squeaked in around the remaining mechanics. The soft pale white of dining sheets and silver glimmer of trendy furniture were offset against the rust smudged workable green of the dynamos. Down in the basement, where the water once ebbed and flowed, in a damply dank room there is an art gallery where light and physical matter fight against legacy for dominance over the space.

Like any other east end gallery space, I’ve gone and been mesmerised by the smartness and beauty and I’ve turned up and been indifferently baffled. Space and light tend to be its preferred themes; images cranked in blackened corners, shapes contracted around golden curves underneath the darkness. Abstract and specific; vague and fixed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The Wapping Project. I find the name disturbing. Projects are brief and fleeting, defined by time boundaries. Does a gallery-restaurant combo really aim to give the whole area an finite conclusion point?

On the opposite side of the road, there stands the Prospect of Whitby, a pub which claims to be the oldest in London. Meh. So do plenty of others. Certainly, there appears to have been some venue designed for the patrons to come and get inebriated on the site as far back as when fat old Henry VIII sat on the throne. Doubt it was the same place though. Still, it’s a pretty enough place with windows like those from the stern of pirate ship overlooking the Thames. It forms a trio of boozers, along with Captain Kidd and the Town of Ramsgate that hug the river and take their characters from the myths of the oceans.

Tthe river dominates much of Wapping. Stairs snake down the side of these pubs deep into the waters. Once they provided steps to waiting flat skiffs to be punted across to the southern side or up and down the choppy, stinkingly foul waters. Then, someone hit upon the bright idea of dumping bodies into the Thames and these were the easiest, quietest, murkiest access points. Dastardly deeds to be done under the dome of darkness. These days, they’re more likely to be borrowed by film crews and tourists looking for a moody shot of London’s forbidden side.

But the river. The Thames screeches and stinks and swells for attention. This is the true docklands, where the water not the steel towers reign. It binds the people to the city as much as it acts as a conduit from west to east. The Thames flows endlessly, starting out in the rich suburbs and through the even richer centre and out, out into the east where the people live. It carries ideas of Londonness, a definition of us, and yet in Wapping it is only visible in-between the gaps. People were so desperate to be close to it they lived on the very rim. Or alternatively they put up barriers that they were then forced to inhabit, acting as a shield between the majority and its corrupting tide.

Joseph Conrad, by all accounts, used to drink in the Prospect. There’s part of me that’s slightly sceptical about that fact since I walked past a blue plaque for his house in Victoria the other day. It was a trudge, at the end of the nineteen century, from Victoria to Wapping, but in the end, this tale isn’t interested in fact. It relies on fictions, on stories to give it life. You didn’t believe that all of this could be true, did you?

Anyway, so Conrad supped ale in the Prospect with all the low down scumfucks who passed through its blood tattered doors on a nightly basis. Conrad was born in the Ukraine and English may have been his third language, but still he wrote stories with heart, with head and with something to say. His most famous, the Heart of Darkness, was nominally about the congo although a bunch of Americans made it about Vietnam for Apocalypse Now, but it could just have easily been about the Thames. The noble and honest man of Kew sails downriver, fighting the sheer humanity he fails to truly find on the way to a final conflict with a man lost within his own reflected madness in the east, perhaps even in Wapping, perhaps even in the Prospect of Whitby.

Hmm. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Isn’t that the thing about stories, about fictions, that you tell them and then retell them in a slightly different way, with a slight adjustment of the emphasis and then the one single truth can be about everything that’s ever mattered? Isn’t that the thing about life?

Wapping tube station, as it once was before the East London Line became rebranded as part of the London Overground network, juts a little spitefully out of the cobbles and soft red bricks. It marks the exit not only of the first tunnel under the Thames, but the first tunnel underneath a watermass anywhere in the world. That tophatted, cigar chomping Victorian of note, Brunel, burrowed his way from south to north, ignoring collapsing soft soil and clay; letting the Thames flood back up, drowning his men and ruining his equipment. What did he care about lives and wives and children left bereft back home, he was carving history for himself.

His stubbornness was remarkable as it took eighteen years to claw through the three-hundred-and-ninety-six metres. It was intended for horse drawn carts and carriages, but was instantly pedestrianised until the steam propelled engines, which must surely have flooded the narrow stretch with putrid choking black smoke, came followed eventually by the new air-conditioned electric beasts that silently slipped underneath my feet.

Certain north Londoners no doubt consider the fact that the tunnel was dug from the south bank outwards as further example of how desperate their southern cousins are to escape the inferior life on the far bank. I prefer to think of it as the extension of a unifying hand across the waters; a hand that is grasped, but with a slight sarcastic sneer in the doing so.

‘The problem is,’ said the girl with the French accent, ‘he’s just too clever. I’m not used to going out with someone who I don’t feel intellectually superior to.’ I let her talk. Sometimes it’s just easier. ‘God, it’s so much harder going out with someone you actually fancy.’

She had a point. Of course it’s easier to bedazzle someone of moderate intelligence with a sour and quick wit. (‘Oh babes, you totally crack me up you do.’) But in the longterm it makes it harder, not easier, despite the inevitable conflict of two strong minded individuals(‘You’re just a bully. Another bully who wants his own way all the time.’). In the end it’s easiest when the fit is utterly natural and not grounded on a fakery. When the only thing told was the truth.

I thought for a moment about getting on the train and nipping under the river to Rotherhithe. That would be acceptable, I thought. I would be continuing to follow the rails of the East London line. But, I looked over the darkened glass of my specs. It was a gorgeous summer’s day. Walking felt more appropriate. I winked at the station, knowing full well that I’d see it again some day, and headed west for the first time that day; west towards the bridge.

I walked up past Execution Dock; a small strip of water tugged land which was once the place where nautical criminals were sent to repent their sins in the maker’s purgatory. A dedicated court churned the cases, passing the almighty’s judgement down. Those sentenced to death would be hung by the neck off the shore until they were dead, dead, dead and then their stricken bodies would be pinned inside the cold embrace of irons and dangled above the river until the high tide had submerged them and washed away the last traces of their life, thrice.

The execution dock’s most famous victim was Captain Kidd, a Scotsman who made his name and his fortune in the Caribbean mainly fighting pirates and the French as a naval barrage gun and cutlass for hire to the local British administrators. He appears to have managed to get too far into bed with the Whigs who were toppled by the Tories and Kidd sent to hell as a present. Since then, his real life has been rewritten and fictionalised until a myth of high-seas piracy is all that could possibly endure. His life was reimagined to more aptly fit its end.

I briefly stepped out onto a grassy patch next to the lapping river. Boys and girls lay poleaxed by the sunshine, skins crisply turning lobster pink, eyes sharply closed underneath their oversized sunglasses. It was but a brief glimpse of a docile afternoon before I tilted further into the modernist flats cluttering around stream inlets and fortified memories of a forgotten age which dragged the whole area into a different class from the one that fought running battles in 1986 against Rupert Murdoch’s closure of the print works. The echoes of bottles crashing on stone and socialist rights chants as militant as that of the Durham miners had died away; drowned out by rebuilding schemes designed to sanitise.

As I walked, I was reminded of a time I went in the opposite direction. We hiked from Tate Modern on the southern bank across from St Paul’s out to the Mile End home of Matt’s Gallery. From nationalised heroic populist modern art all the way to sub cultural alternativeness filtered through a middle-aged middle-classed appreciatively empty wine glass and the drifting image of the scars on the girl’s forearms. I forget exactly when it was, but for some reason it felt like the world was on pause, as though there was time for lingering and dawdling because in the sunshine life would forver be a holiday, until our final breath had been taken.

And in the moment between times I popped out of a side passage and the luxurious basin of St Katherine’s dock opened out in front of me, replete with its Starbucks masquerading as a dumpy lighthouse. And in front of me, on the far side of soulless Hilton, Tower Bridge cut across the glimmering skyline.

The bridge was a mess of turquoise girders and neo-gothic turrets of plain brick. Tower Bridge arches the river confident in being taller than its surroundings, taller and more imposing that the castle crumpled into the bank from which it takes its name. There are plenty of stories surrounding Tower Bridge. Like the time the number seventy-eight jumped the gap as the ramp began to raise; or when the stockbroker being investigated for fraud buzzed it in his toy plane before flying off north until he ran out of fuel and crashed in flames across the Lake District’s fells; but this isn’t the place to tell them. Tower Bridge is too central for this tale. I was just passing through, after all.

The bridge is, however, a landmark in more than one sense. It is such a iconic symbol of London that the myth of the American millionaire who bought the old London Bridge to span the gorge on his Arizonian ranch believed he was buying Tower Bridge instead still survives despite emphatic denials from everyone involved. But it’s more than this. It’s the point where north meets south; where east meets west. The East End doesn’t want anything further west of Tower Bridge (well, perhaps Soho); the west can stick the rest.

I stood in the middle of the bridge; one foot on either side of the divide so I could look down and see the river churning muck and grime and all the wasted promise that makes it so special. Should we look for divides, I wondered. Or should we just take the city as a whole. Is it too big for that? Or is it just all the places I haven’t been to yet waiting to tell me something; something about themselves and their people and something about who I can become rather than who I have been.

I stepped fully over the gap and smiled. South London. Home again.