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.