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.