Tuesday, 29 October 2013

You do it to yourself (and that’s what really hurts).

‘Look at this,’ the plasterer said thumping the exposed wall, only through his thick Greek accent it sounded more like “lukathees”. ‘Is fucking shit.’  He hit the wall with a mallet and large chunks of plaster fell to the ground, a fluster of dust settling in their wake.

Our plasterer, despite the way his language became increasingly colourful over the weeks, is a nice guy who clearly took pride in his work.  His despair was directed at what he considered more amateur attempts to create a smooth surface.

‘Lukathees, is noa way thas straight,’ he grumbled pointing at the place where the wall met the skirting board.  Perhaps it was perfect.  Perhaps it wasn’t absolutely bang-on.  I couldn’t really tell.  ‘Fuking shet.’  He hit the wall again and more dust flecked my hair ever greyer.

Part of me was glad that he was improving our walls, but part of me wanted him to stop making it worse first.  I mean, sure it wasn’t perfect, but then, what is?

And there, I think, is my fundamental failing with DIY.  I never actually expect things to work.  I know where my limitations are.  When it comes to work that I’ve done with my hands, passable is about as good as it’s going to get.

My fiancée knew this; there were plenty examples of slipshod, impatient work around our old flat, like the time I knocked a chunk of the plaster out when putting up a picture.  That wasn’t, technically, my fault, but the repair job was pretty poor.  I filled in the hole and left it to dry, but forgot to sand it down before painting over the top.  There was a riddled lump in the wall for about nine months before I realised my mistake.

This didn’t seem to put her off when we came to buying a place.  I mean, Casslee Road didn’t even have a kitchen installed when we looked at it.  Despite our frustration at being taken for a ride by the estate agent, I was secretly quite pleased when that one fell through.  The thought of such extensive renovations were frightening me and yet she seemed blissfully optimistic that all I needed was a bit of practice, some YouTube videos and a plaid shirt with dungarees combo. 

Unfortunately, I’m a bit sensitive about my crapness in this area.  I feel a manly failure, but I just don’t seem to have the aptitude for it.  Or, to be quite honest, the interest.  It isn’t genetically built into all men.  I’d rather read a book.  My fiancé, unfortunately, has seen too many feats of extremely masculine renovation to fully believe this.  Her Dad converted their house from bedsits back to a family home (although it did take him nineteen years).  Her friend’s husband added an extra floor to his cottage in Devon.  Me, I once built some shelves.  It took two attempts because I’m bad at reading numbers and muddled seventeen and nineteen, but once the two centimetre slope was corrected and the holes in the wall filled in they were okay.

In the end though, I kind of resent it because it’s keeping me from doing something else.  Usually this: writing. 

But that’s just life, isn’t it?  Best to grow up and get on with it.

The reason we could afford a house rather than a flat was that the fusty decor must have put off the other drooling, desperate buyers.  The same knackered looking couples we saw traipsing around the same properties every Saturday morning for three months.  It wasn’t blandly neutral like so many other places we saw, but the character it did have wasn’t for us.  It was going to need completely redecorating.

‘And those artex ceiling have to go,’ she said.  ‘Straight away.’

Which meant getting a plasterer in.  Which meant we might as well strip all the wallpaper off and see whether the walls needed doing too.  Which meant my optimistic hope that, after the summer of homelessness, we might take things easy for the remainder of the year evaporated.  She was right.  It made sense, but still a bit of me wanted to spend some time with my books rescued from the store and a desk to write at.

On the weekend we finally got the keys, my fiancée went on a hen do while I moved stuff in.  Once all the essentials were in, with everything else left out the way in the store, I wondered what else I could do.  I knew she didn’t like the fitted wardrobes.  Taking them out seemed within my expertise. 

That went rather well.  I quite enjoyed that.  It seems my talents may lie in destroying stuff rather than constructing it.

Afterwards came the wallpaper, on a deadline for plasterers to quote the following weekend, we stripped the whole house in five days.  In the middle of a heat wave.  Sweat swum into my eyes as the steamer filled the rooms with fog and thirty years deep of gluey mush refused to come off the walls.  It matted to our skin and every time we thought we’d done a room, an hour later we’d see dozens of straggly strips dangling that we’d missed.  Underneath one room’s walls we inexplicably found layers of polystyrene as though they were trying to make a room where it was safe to bounce your head off the wall.  Eventually, like a dawning sun the bare plaster appeared.

‘Hmmm, is pretty sheeet.’

The disadvantage of exposing all the walls – indeed of doing any exploratory DIY - is that we now knew they needed doing.  We couldn’t just ignore it and hope it went away of its own accord.

At least we were off.  I optimistically drew up schedules for completing the work that we immediately slipped behind.  I’d spread everything out longer and we’d still slip.  In the end I gave up; I was wasting my time.  It would all take as long as it would take.

Despite my reservations I threw myself in with enthusiasm.  Or energy, perhaps if not entirely excitement.  Writing was discarded and instead I attacked each room with gusto.  I lugged the remains of the wardrobes back from out in the garden and up into the loft to act as boards between the rafters.  I was pleased with the recycling logic there.  Physical strength and mindless labour seemed within my skill set.  I took off and disposed of the lounge door which, with its ugly frosted glass panes, also had to depart.   I successfully reattached the door to the study which, for reasons that elude me, had been removed.  These were small triumphs, but each gave me a little shot of testosterone.

‘It’d be nice to put a fireplace back into the lounge.’

Okay, I thought.  No sweat.  A bit of internet research and then off to B&Q to buy a mallet, masonry chisel and crowbar.  I can open up a chimney breast.  It’s just smashing shit up.

After four hours I’d cleared an area about six inches wide, three inches high and half an inch deep.  I’d created a fairly thick layer of dust on the skirting board and had been forced to use sunglasses as substitute safety goggles after a chip of concrete hit me just above the eye.  As the evening approached everything was a bit gloomy.  And, Jesus, did my shoulder ache.  Inside, I could see breezeblocks rather than the few bricks I’d expected.  I looked at my piddly little tools.  Getting those beasts out with them was going to be impossible.  I couldn’t spend four days solid hacking at one spot.  I had to go to work.

My painting was equally erratic, but at least swift.  We planned to splash a couple of coats of white undercoat on as the plaster dried to at least cut down the constant dust cloud of new plaster that fluffed through the house.  The small bedroom, which will become a study, went up easily enough.  The master bedroom, from which we’d been relegated to sleeping in the back room for a couple of weeks, was more problematic.  Skimping on money, we hadn’t had it plastered (aside from covering up the swirly ceiling), but instead had decided to filler the cracks and line the uneven walls with paper before painting over.  My natural instinct to cut corners was not best served here and even my dedication to painting – flying home on bike immediately after work to put a full coat on before shooting over to Peckham for dinner – was clearly prioritising speed over precision.

We started to get it, in the end.  It’s coming together.  The house no longer feels like a building site.  After two months, all the walls and ceilings are plastered and covered in a base coat.  Dust no longer follows me down the road to work.  I no longer trip over buckets of water left in the middle of the room by the plasterer.  None of the upstairs doors close because they’ve absorbed the damp of the drying paint and plaster, but that’s not a complete disaster.  There isn’t an urgent need to work rather than write.  The desk isn’t being used as a pasting table.  The lounge is going to be taken apart again shortly as we paint it a more permanent colour than white and install some proper book shelves rather than the flat pack ones I’ve been carting around for a decade, but for the moment it is a calm place to read.

It is, at last, starting to feel like home. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013


I love my Blackberry.

Which is odd not because product endorsement or technical competency on this blog is unusual or even because, up for sale and forty percent of the global workforce up for redundancy, plenty of people don’t, but because, well, I just never really saw myself as the sort of person who could love a gadget.

I mean, originally, I didn’t even want a mobile.

The first person I knew to have a mobile telephonic device was a housemate back in Sheffield.  It was yellow and had a flip down mouthpiece and I thought it was ridiculous.  I thought everyone who owned a mobile a little silly.  What exactly did you need one for, other than to show off?  What was the crisis that, as a layabout student, you needed to be constantly available for?  I followed a guy down from the tram stop near the student union talking excitedly into his shiny new phone, and then it rang.  See, they were for posers. 

Of course, everyone got one and still I wondered what they needed them for.  Who were they going to ring? In Sheffield we all virtually lived on the same street.  Being cash strapped, I’d walk round rather than making a call.  There was already a telephone in the house, I mean, why did I need one in my pocket too?  I could make curmudgeonly arguments all day; I just didn’t see the point.

Time passed, as it tends to do, and we didn’t all stay living on the same street and it stopped being simply that you wandered around the pubs in Crookes until you found who you were looking for.  As we spread around the country, meeting up started to require planning.  I would, when it was unavoidable, borrow my Mother’s mobile and so for a long time, a friend kept my Mum’s number in each new phone he got.  Just in case. 

When I first moved to London, my family were fearful that the big city would swallow me up and so made me take my sister’s old phone.  She’d already moved on to something slinkier than the great big black brick of a thing which operated on BT Cellnet and required me to buy credit.  Something I rarely remembered to do, or to turn it on.  Or to charge it up so that when I needed to use it, nothing happened.  Which, of course, made me hate it even more.

Eventually, at the start of 2003, I ceded to work’s (and life’s) expectations that I have a mobile.  So, with some reluctance, I got myself kitted out with a contract and one of those little grey and black Nokias that were everywhere at the beginning of the century.  Incredibly, when I turned it on a year or so ago it still worked, although only for two minute as I’ve lost the charger in one of numerous moves.

Inevitably, I started doing all those things that pissed me off.  No, I don’t mean playing snakes, but not making proper plans.  People now vaguely arrange to meet in the vicinity of a pub at an ill-defined time and no-one too sure who is coming.  We have developed an inability to stick to arrangements.  Everyone is always late, thinking that it’s fine to just bash out a quick apologetic text.  I do it too, but it doesn’t make it right.

In 2005 my new work gave me a phone, another Nokia essentially the same as the one before only with a camera.  Even though the first Nokia still functioned fine, they insisted I have a new phone.  The other one still worked, but someone decided it needed replacing for reasons known only to fashion.

That phone lasted until sometime in 2007 when its charge port fell out.  It had one last run of battery, failing at a suitably critical time when I was talking to the plumber about the water coming through the ceiling thus becoming my first phone to actually die. 

Since then I’ve gone through two SonyEricsons both of which have lasted less time than the previous.  In fairness to the first, it only gave up the ghost when torrential rain over a day of hiking buggered the operating software.  The second lasted less than eighteen months.  Ironically, the more I put my life into the infernal devices, the more prone to critical failure they seem.

Back in the 02 shop, I had few requirements.  I wanted something I could communicate with – email, text, phone calls, Facebook, latterly Twitter – organise myself, some gentle web-browsing and occasional photo-taking.  But most of all I wanted it to last.  They sold me a Blackberry.

And I’ve been very happy with it.  It did all things I wanted perfectly well.  I have no real desire to have some crappy bit of software measure how deeply I sleep, or name the stars for me when I photograph them at night or pretty much any other wanky app you can mention.  I haven’t seen or heard of any one that I think sounds cool.  My Blackberry does exactly what I want it to do and a bit of me wonders that if they’d just concentrated on making it the devices the equivalent of tiny work laptops rather than fully integrated media devices they might not be in quite so much trouble.

Which makes it all the more a shame that I had to send my Blackberry off for some tender loving care.  The lock button was cracked and no longer worked.  Blackberry guarantees its handsets for two years and all the data on it was backed up in two places so off it went.

No problem, I thought, especially not since I was given a loan phone to use in the interim.  Except, the loan phone was, unsurprisingly, not a smart phone.  Instead they lent me a something that felt like the hick cousin of a modern phone, something which had never had the opportunities of its distant relatives because it was kept outside, barefoot, sweeping up dust with a broom lacking bristles.  Once it would have been the cooler nephew of the Nokia I’d been so pleased with ten years ago, but now it just felt like a gold medallion on a hairy chest peeking out through the open neck of a floral print shirt.  At least the battery didn’t run out.

For those two weeks I felt disconnected.  I have arrived late (too late, some might say) to the party, but I’ve become, as I sneered way back when I first saw that that “sent from my” motif at the bottom of an email, addicted to my twatberry.  Yes, social media and the internet and managing my calendar are all useful, but email is the big thing.  We can’t use personal email at work, but that hasn’t stopped me and my fiancé planning house renovations via email.  Instead, my loan phone was from the last century.  I laboriously texted her, but having become so used to a qwerty keyboard I found the whole thing tedious and considered actually using emoticons and gibberish abbreviations for the first time in my life.  It wasn’t always like that.  When we were first going out we flirted through the days by text message.  Now, we tend to use it only as a quick note to say we’re on the train home.  I’m not sure why we use text to update arrival times; there’s some sort of misconception that it’s faster or more reliable.

It was ridiculous, but I felt entirely cut off – as though I were missing out on some excitement by only being able to check my email, TwitFace and whatever other feeds I’m plugged into during the evening.  Except our evenings are packed with DIY at the moment, so in reality I just didn’t look at anything or talk to anyone so I took the opportunity to cleanse my mailing lists, to purge myself of all those emails and alerts I never actually read and just deleted.  The out of date recruitment agency services, Rightmove, someone who sounded funny on their profile but is really just a total cock.

I got the phone back last Friday.  Hurrah, I thought, time to rejoin the world. 

Or not.  Without consciously planning it the break seems to have rebalanced my relationship with it.  Without me plugging inane stuff into it, hardly anything comes back. The little red light refuses to blink.  Maybe it’s still broken or maybe no-one’s got anything to say of any importance.  Maybe we’re all just enjoying the silence for a while.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Postcards (6): Brockley

So we’re back, although still without anywhere of our own to live.  Instead, we find ourselves a couple of houses down the road from the studio flat I used to have – albeit with significantly more space.

At first it was good to be back in the general vicinity of home and with summer aggressively deciding it had time to catch up on, an afternoon hanging out on Hilly Fields, nestled between our old home and our future one, was welcome.  Due to good fortune we have this flat for several weeks and for a week or so we, mistakenly, stopped worrying.

The previous weeks had been wracked with tension and me sidling off to make harassing phone calls while at work.  For a few days we eased up and got on with life. 

But the date when everything was expected to be finally sorted out had inched closer and suddenly I re-engaged.

It immediately became apparent that we were, yet again, going to fail to get everyone in line and the right time.  While things had been dragging out down our end of the chain, the top had become disengaged.  It had more or less reattached itself, but there were issues outstanding.

The summer heat ratcheted up and the first floor flat, where not all the windows opened, became stiflingly claustrophobic.  Again, despite being back where I knew how the world worked, I found myself pining for my own space.  My fiancé tells me that she hasn’t missed any of our stuff.  I have.  I pine for my books, for the records that I haven’t added to my computer, for my bread maker, for more than one good knife. 

The anxiety returned, the nervousness that it might not all come together after all.  We were advised to consider our options, which given our situation essentially amounted to bugger all.  If everything collapsed we’d have no choice other than to go back into a rented flat.  A quick look around the market confirmed our suspicions that not only had the costs accelerated away in the past two years, but no-one seemed particularly keen to take on a cat.  Or at least not in a flat which was nice.  We remembered the battle it had been to find Tyrwhitt Road and going through that again, after the previous eight months, felt like a serious step backwards in life. 

And yet, we might not have any choice.

I was beginning to bore myself.  It felt as though I’d done nothing other than look for property for the past three quarters of a year; my conversation seemed utterly stilted unless I was explaining whatever escapade we’d found ourselves in that week.

Then suddenly, just as the despair was mounting, the pressure appeared to break.  Everyone, finally, seemed to be a position to do the necessary, according to the solicitors.

‘Do it,’ I said.

‘Okay,’ he replied.  ‘I just need to make sure all the other solicitors have spoken to their clients.’

‘That sounds fairly straightforward.’

‘I’ll call you back before the end of the day.’

Of course, I rang him well before then, only to be told that he’d let me know when he had any news.  The third time, he sounded mildly irritated.  I understood.  I had been getting rather impatient, but he should be thankful:  I thought about ringing him far more often than I actually did.

‘There’s a problem,’ he said just after five, although it felt like a month had passed.

It appeared that someone had, unexpectedly, gone to Canada and not left word of how they could be contacted.

‘So what do we do now?’ I asked as the sand draining from the hour glass in my head sped up.  We were running out of time.  Our friend would be back in a couple of weeks and want her flat back.  After which, we were back to where we were in April: a couple of surprisingly well paid hobos.

‘We try again tomorrow,’ he said with what didn’t sound like swathes of confidence.

Tomorrow came and went and neither phone calls nor emails had breached the Rocky Mountains or the frozen northern wastes or the cool corridors of Toronto or whether it was they were.

‘I feel like I’m living in a Kafka novel,’ I sighed.

‘Not the one where he turns into a fly?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I shook my head, ‘not that one.’

Bureaucracy and futile repetitiveness in the face of a system that seems both antiquated nor makes any sense for another age, as though designed solely to infuriate and no matter how much you try to reassure yourself that there must be a logical grounding, that it must all be for reason, none ever presents itself.  Instead, I feel like we’re the only ones caring that it’s all so wrong, that we’re the only ones actually trying to do something.  Everyone else just seems resigned to that being how the world works and that the illogical mess of contradictions don’t matter for they are empirically true.

It’s been a long time since I spent any time with K, the Land Surveyor in Franz Kafka’s the Castle. K spends the duration of the novel trying to persuade the shadowy oblique administrators that he has a right to be in their village.  It’s not as though he even wants to be there.  He seems to have been sent there by mistake, by some administrative error which is impossible in the flawless system and so how can it be corrected?

Frustrations like that, they’ll kill you.  That’s what Kafka knew.  The world is sent to waste our time, to throw up seemingly meaningless obstacles that you have to find a way around when you’d rather be doing something else.  K never quite made it, either of them.  Franz died far too young having never got to grips with his talent and leaving a small collection of unfinished novels – including the Castle which I’ve, coincidentally, been carrying around for the past two months, intending to reread and putting it off for easier stuff I find on other people’s bookshelves.  K the Land Surveyor, had the novel ever been finished it is believed, would have met his end just as the administrators cede to let him live, as an interim solution, in the village until his long-term residency is sorted.

Death or repetitive failures were the only options on offer.

That one.  That was where it felt like I was living.

Then, by some miracle of modern technology - which would have seemed beyond this whole farcical process - word came from Canada.  We are, against all the odds, on.

We have a date.  The 19th of July.  By the time you read this, by the time these poorly thought out words reach you, we’ll be almost there.

I’m looking forward to it.  I’m looking forward to getting my stuff back.  I’m looking forward to having space that feels like mine, that I spread out in and think.  Somewhere I can write better stuff than these quickly scribbled postcards thrown out into the internet, imperfect scrawls put together on the move.

It seems like it has taken forever, like we have been on the move for an age.  I barely remember what the cat looks like.  Muswell Hill and Brixton both feel slightly faded, as though they’re disappearing over the horizon of memory.  That’s kind of how travelling holidays are too.  You keep on the move, always caught up in the now or where you have to be next.  One eye is on what’s in front of you, the other on your watch and the train times.  It’s only when you’re on the final stretch that a sense of nostalgia sneaks up and you fondly reminisce about event barely two weeks previous at the start of your trip.

That’s kind of where we are.  We’re in the departure lounge, at the railway station, getting rid of our last few coins on coffee, trying to remember what an ordinary life feels like.  We’re going home.

I mean, what could possibly go wrong now?        

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Postcards (5): Soho

It was only for one night, but it was still strange.  I mean, who stays in a hotel in their home town?

And yet, there we were.  Right at London’s heart.  Or the centre, if not the actual heart.  Not anymore.

We got out the cab on Shaftsbury Avenue not so long before midnight.  The walk to Frith Street, up the Soho Square end, was interesting.  It was all hustle and bustle and people who should know better the worse for wear, but it felt fake.  Soho’s changed so much, even in the twelve years I’ve been living in London.  I guess it’s for the better.  The open doors and scrawled notelets blue-tacked to broken light-switches, the dark passages and broken steps leading up corridors where the paint bled with damp have mainly disappeared.  There’s still the odd one, but it stands out as an exception.  Even the less discrete neon sign that used to bellow “models” on the corner of Old Compton and Dean Street has gone dark, its shell a blister of broken plastic.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nicer.  There are less sweating nervous men doing laps of the block as they build up their nerve, being watched by people like me from what was once the Intrepid Fox and now is a joint of George Osborne’s favourite upper class burger joint.  I bet cockroaches don’t come out the soft drink spout anymore.  There are no menacing guys, not bouncer burly, but psychotically wiry muscles, the sort who won’t think twice to fuck you up.  They used to lurk in the neighbouring doorways and berate you for not heading up to see one of their lovely girls or downstairs to a strip tease.

The hotel wasn’t like that.  Yes, it’s from Soho’s past, but further back.  A Georgian townhouse that was the deathplace of an essayist and now, in the twenty-first century, refuses to let go of its history.  We wandered around, late at night, once everyone else has retired.  On every corner, on every surface was an artefact – a sculpture or painting – loudly reminding us of from whence it came.  The stairs sloped dangerously as though the whole building had lurched from one generation to the next and, despite all the effort, insisted on carrying on.  My fiancé loved it.

‘Forget the house, we could just stay here,’ she whispered outside someone else’s door.

I did a quick mental calculation.  We’d run out of money alarmingly fast, even taking into account the deposit.

Of course, Soho is better without all the nastiness old, but it was also part of its charm.  You used to feel like all of London could be found in those few streets, penned in by Shaftsbury Avenue, Regent’s Street, Old Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street.  Theatre Land, China Town, old book stores and high street fashion circling and inside, respite for anyone out of sorts.  A place for anyone who didn’t know where else to go.  If, in years gone by, society’s more unusual elements found that they could be themselves in London, then Soho was where they really meant.  Sex, yes, but also, well, just life.

Sure there was the Groucho club and the other members only black doors marked by big black guys in black suits and black ties with black ear pieces curling across their shoulder, but they were exclusively open.  Everyone could see themselves getting in there one day, if only once.  From the street market to the record shops, from the tower block to the tatty bistros, from the down at heel pubs to cheap office space, writers, musicians, artists, performers, everyone not used to wearing a tie found themselves in Soho at one time or another. 

A famous journalist or writer – whose name I forget and the book I referenced it from is in storage - used to spend most mornings in Soho Square trying to shake off the booze sweats, trying to bring himself to life for the coming day.  They used to say that when he was gone there’d be a statue of him sitting there, slumped.  There isn’t.  There wouldn’t be now.

The old Victorian tenements are going, torn down and replaced by swanky flats with tall glass fronted retail units.  The face changes, and behind that it all shifts.  Who goes and buys second hand records anymore?  Who buys second hand books anymore?  Who buys porn DVDs anymore?

It’s becoming increasingly bland.  The Italian coffee shops overshadowed by the usual suspect chains, along with the station patisseries, the burger chains, the painfully expensive noodles and sushi bars.  All the people who went to Soho looking for help are being forced out.

In the old days, at least there was a sense of camaraderie – and just occasionally it even felt friendly.  I remember once, years ago, I staggered down Berwick Street just before Christmas.  I can’t remember where I’d been.  Maybe it was the Champion, maybe somewhere else.  I was heading for the station even though I’d missed the last train and in Soho the streets were still alive.  A light dusting of snow filled the air, back before it routinely ground the city to a halt for three weeks.  It was still a novelty, especially a few days before Christmas.  A cheer went up and people swarmed, many arm in arm, a couple dancing a jig as they made their past the dirty film cinema and the alley packed with naughty mag shops.  A couple of girls lingered in doorways, having had enough for the night, one even opened the creaky old sash window on the second floor and stuck a Santa Stop Here sign in the otherwise unused window box.  It wasn’t for me, really, but you know, it had a sense of humour.  It had a heart.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Postcards (4): Queen's Park


It’s slowly getting warmer, isn’t?  It is beginning to feel as though we’re finally limping into summer.  Who knows, by the time this reaches you it might even be ice-cream and cold beer at nine in the morning because you can’t sleep weather. 

Way back, all the way back in February when we began this absurdly futile attempt to grow up, I had an image in my head of sitting in the garden, my feet up, trapped by the sun, a book and a beer to hand.

That hasn’t happened, yet, and the seasons’ refusal to shift along has helped us feel as though we’re stuck. 

Still, at least it isn’t sunny as such.  Clammy, sweaty and threatening to rain is more accurate, but then, isn’t that what constitutes an English summer?  If we’re being honest.

You might be wondering whether I’m being completely honest in these postcards.  Am I just pretending that I miss you?  Am I just trying to ensure that when we finally return it is to an embrace rather than a snooty rejection?

Yes and no.

Case in point: Queen’s Park.

Queen’s Park is delightful, it really is.  I already knew this.  I am not surprised - and nor was I really surprised about the pleasures of Muswell Hill or Brixton.  There are large swathes of London that are perfectly lovely.  Indeed, I struggle to find areas I dislike.  Chelsea, perhaps, for being too ostentatious.  I’m not really a fan of Camden, I suppose.  It’s not as cool as it likes to think it is.  Similarly, Clapham isn’t as down at heal as it pretends.  All those hooray Henrys thinking they’re roughing it south of the river.

Queen’s Park is two quick tube stops along from Maida Vale where my girlfriend lived when we first met.  It’s familiar territory, or, at the very least, just down the road from such.   And so we fill our weekend with the things we used to when she lived here.  Or we try to.  A walk to Hyde Park in-between the downpours.   Dinner with friends in a Burmese restaurant followed by the News Review comedy show in the Bridgewater. 

Sunday, I hike all the way down to Kensington to meet a friend.  We’re going to watch Brief Encounter in a roof top cinema.  On my way to meet her I walk through much of my history.  The bus stop where my girlfriend and I first kissed.  The pub we where we ate pizza on our third date.  The street she grew up on.  Notting Hill Gate which, ten years ago, was a still a scuzzily congested transport interchange and I didn’t understand why it was thought to be plush.  The WH Smiths still seems out of place.

A friend tells us that the Cypriot place around the corner from the cinema, where we had another relatively early date, has closed down.  The owner retired and none of the family were willing to take it on.  One of the final Notting Hill places that could have been there in the seventies finally limps off.  The Book and Comic Exchange on the corner, which is warily glanced at by the Prada brandishing twelve year olds, now seems the last vestige of a time when this corner of the city wasn’t a centre of affluence, but of violence.

We occupy our friend’s room on the top floor, amongst the rafters, while she’s in the Lake District.  I’m jealous.  I want to go and climb a mountain.  It’s proving impossible to schedule any sort of holiday as we keep getting trapped in the cycle of expecting to move and then being disappointed.  My girlfriend gets to go to the States on business and I stay in London making my daily phone calls to try and sort this mess out.

Queen’s Park has long been thought of by its residents as a hidden central(ish) London gem.  Filled with tall affluent houses surrounding a pleasant park, an independent focussed short high street and well regarded weekly market puts it is high the estimation of many.  All of this is true.  It has all of these things and yet it reminds me so much of you.  Nice, big houses – although many more of them kept whole rather than Brockley’s sixties fall from favour and flat conversion – centred around a park – albeit a more cultivated and tamed space than Hilly Fields and also lacking the South-East’s view.  Yes, it’s more centrally located, but the proximity of Kilburn’s traffic clogged high street with rambling crazies outside the pound shops and the high rise with the dubious reputation reminds me of both Lewisham and Peckham simultaneously.

Essentially, I could be home, but I’m not because it’s not about the location, it’s the insecurity.   We don’t appear to be any closer to getting out of this mess and I’m running out of ideas. 

Distracted one morning, I make a wrong turn on my bike.  Trying to work out the one-way side roads and avoid the oncoming bus, I am too close to the parked car when the door opens.  The next thing I know, I’m lying in the middle of the road, a car honking impatiently and the door swinger standing above me telling me I’m all right.  Life, in that sudden moment, all seems so unfair.  I’m mainly okay, just scrapes and bruises, but I think the end of my handlebars caught me in the ribs on the way down and the stiffening pain there will get a lot worse as the day drags on.  In that one brief moment, a little bloodied, I’m tempted to just give up.


Thursday, 27 June 2013

Postcards (3): Muswell Hill. Again


How’s it going?  It’s starting to feel like we’ve been away forever. 

Or maybe, seeing as we’re back in Muswell Hill again, it just seems like we’re going backwards rather than forwards.  Sometimes I wonder whether we’re trapped on some endless cycle of hope and disappointment.

This time my girlfriend’s cousin and her family are home, which is great.  We don’t see enough of them given they’re only on the other side of the city.  Although, the city feels so big at times like these and so hard to cross, they could be over the ocean. 

I worried that their house, despite its expanse across multiple floors, would feel a cramped with us all there.  After all, babies take up a disproportionate amount of space, but I was wrong – there’s plenty of space, of course there is and it’s great to get to know their daughter. 

In fact, the only possible problem is that they think I might drink too much.  It’s not like I’ve gone crazy.  It’s not like the old days.   No, we just have a little more mid-week wine with dinner than normal.  There’s something about sharing a meal with friends, you automatically reach for a bottle to open.

At least I didn’t embarrass myself by getting ill again.  I must be acclimatising to north London’s air. 

Being in better spirits, I feel obliged to explore Muswell Hill more than last time, even though we’re only here for a few weekday evenings.  I divert via the Broadway on my bike on the way home.  It seems nice enough.  The views are as mesmerising as I remember.  There are steep, sharp slopes dipping off towards distant Canary Wharf.  Its height reminds me of Ermine Road, of the place we’re still trying to buy.  There is something about being elevated above the world that gives you a sense of perspective, perhaps.

I found myself spending an hour or so in what seemed to be one of Muswell Hill’s two pubs.  Not the O’Neils in the converted church.  Even the most desperate times wouldn’t pull me into an O’Neils these days.  It was a keys thing, again.  My girlfriend had them and was stuck at work.  So I lurked, supped a pint and pretended to read while secretly listening in to other people’s conversations.

In many ways it reminded me of the pub where I was born in the West Midlands.  The clientele was generally well to do, much as it was on the edges of Birmingham, but also there was a hardened core of those who were less so hanging out close to the bar.  All the better for that prompt service.  No-one seemed afraid of those slightly odd exchanges that happen between amongst those slipping into their routine drunkenness. 

There was a gentleman sitting alone with his ale in a tankard that bore his crest, or at least a mark to showed it was his.  He wore a smart, probably tailored, city blue suit and sat with his ankle crossed over his knee.  What was left of this white hair wisped over the lip of his ears.  The heavy text book in his hands was something to do with economics.  As he read he kept tucking his thick glasses up his nose.  He wasn’t afraid to leave his possessions, brown leather briefcase and all, at his table while he went to the toilet.  He was more afraid of losing his seat that his stuff.

Meanwhile, the guy in pinstripes for which he looked too old, supped his lager and looked uncomfortable.  His face was tired, as though there had just been far too much life.  He looked like he felt as though he didn’t deserve to be there.  When his girlfriend turned up they switched to a bottle of champagne.  They were celebrating.  She’d just sold her house, the one down the road with the Farrow and Ball green door.  The one she’d lived in for twenty years, where her ex had never come home that one night and now, years later, she was finally comfortable sprucing it up in a way that didn’t feel quite right, but it was what that sort of buyer wanted.  For one night at least, she felt richer than God.  Her daughter and her boyfriend turned up.  They were vague about where they’d left the baby and took some champagne despite suffering from teenage melodrama food poisoning.  They drank until asked by the bar staff for ID which resulted in a loud fracas from which pinstripe didn’t know which was to look.

The same barmaid who dusted them off spent the rest of her time flirting with the guy whose habit was to order a pint of bitter and then go out for a cigarette.  Every time he would leave his fresh pint under supervision on the counter.  It all gave him another two excuses to speak to her.  Can I?  Thanks.  He’d clearly been there several hours already, but showed no sign of leaving.  She leant in closer and let her fingers linger a moment too long on the back of his hand.  It was a hand which could have belonged to her father.  Maybe she was hoping for and one for yourself.

A younger man sat alone typing furiously at a laptop.  He looked a little like me – glasses, crumpled hair, dishevelled hair - only more productive.  I feel like I’m writing in treacle these days.  Like any momentum I had has been lost.  Like I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say.

A group of men sat and noisily talked rubbish, mainly about cars and the enforcement of traffic regulations.  Why, I mean why, shouldn’t they be allowed to double park if they wanted to?  What sort of country was it coming to where one’s civil liberty to impede others because it was more convenient was being eroded?

It was mainly men.  I guess it was that sort of pub, in that sort of area.  Where the residents were a bit older.  Where the wives stayed at home, with the kids or the laundry.  There was one group of women I saw at the bar buying a round of three glasses of white wine even though four was a bottle and much cheaper.  They must have gone up three times to be told the same, but they didn’t want a bottle.  They didn’t want that much.  They were only staying for one.  It was the sort of place where they felt they had to lie to themselves and everyone else too.

My girlfriend rang me.  She was on the bus.   She didn’t fancy coming in. 

I slugged back the end of my cider.  There was a lot to like about Muswell Hill, but no matter how hard I tried it just wouldn’t feel like home.
Surely it won't be long now?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Postcards (2): Brixton

Dear Brockley,

You’ll no doubt be pleased to hear that not only has the weather improved, but so has my well-being.  We escaped back to South London- albeit to what I have in the past referred to as the wrong side of Elephant and Castle – and, after a weekend of further inaction, I finally managed to perk up.

Perhaps my recovery was aided by being back across the Thames again.  The air feels different down here, more diverse.  It’s all a bit more familiar than Muswell Hill.  And yet, ever since I went to that party in the closed down shop, which I think is now a Polish deli, shortly after I first moved to London, I’ve always been somewhat wary of it.

This sort of thing doesn’t help:  Years ago, staggering back from an all day drinking session in Earl’s Court and then an unnecessary late night bar in Clapham, I found myself meandering in a stumbling shuffle along Coldharbour Lane towards the P4 bus-stop.  It was late, but not outrageously so by Brixton’s standards.  Slowly through my ale soaked brain, I became aware of a presence hovering just behind me.  I sneaked a glance over my shoulder and saw a car driving very slowly with three or four shadows hulking inside.  There was no reason for them to be hovering so close to me, no turn or doorway for them to be slowing down for.  My brain sobered itself up and automatically assumed the worst.  Suddenly, like a saviour, the bus popped out of its side road ahead of me.  I sprinted for the stop, waving my arms in a retrospectively embarrassing fashion to catch the driver’s attention.

Nothing happened, of course, and maybe nothing would have, but a threat is often more real than anything actually said or done.

Brixton has smartened itself up in the intervening years.  It’ll probably never get back to its pinnacle as the Victorian gentle-lady’s shopping destination of choice, second only to Oxford Street.  Back then, the self-explanatory named Electric Avenue was the first street to be fully fitted with street lighting on its opening.   Now, the equally heralded and maligned gentrification sweeps through the area at a pace dragging in more artisan cafes, so-called pop-up restaurants and purveyors of hideously expensive craft beer than one can shake a vintage frock at. 

Which, once again, sounds like I’m complaining.  I’m not.  Well, except for the use of the term pop-up.  I mean, really it doesn’t pop up anywhere.  That’s just disappointing.

Still, gentrification is change and change is always controversial.  Some people will always like a place just as it is.  The new Brixton, I suspect, is for the couple with the bottle of pink champagne in the bar of the Ritzy.  They rest their shortly cropped heads resting against each other and take an iPod earpiece each.  Or the less comfortable couple sitting on the other side of Windrush Square, hand in hand, looking trendily gawky in their bottle top glasses.  They have to reach across the two chairs that have replaced the benches where rough sleepers used to congregate for the night. 

It isn’t for the woman who followed me down Brixton Hill screaming that I’d stolen her Oyster Card or the old man stopped for a rest on the newsagent’s windowsill, his arthritic riddled hands gripping the top of his crutch, the cuffs of both his trousers and jacket frayed in a non-deliberate fashion. 

It’s more for the American woman asking the guys on Electric Avenue to give her the narrative behind the vegetables she wanted to buy and not the shop owners shrugged and reply ‘is spinach, innit?’   Sure, no-one really misses the sort of characters I once saw outside the Dog Star who leapt on to the bonnet of a car that took the lights a little too late and booted out the windscreen, but they’ve got to live somewhere.

If Muswell Hill is nice, then Brixton is cool.  Funky with an edge that London kind of needs.  Without the occasional sense of threat it feels like you’re living somewhere artificial, a sanitised environment where nothing really counts for anything.  Not anything real anyway.

So what did I do during our week there?

Stayed in and watched Mad Men mainly.

There were three reasons for not really taking advantage of our location.  Firstly, I continued to feel rotten upon our arrival to the extent that I shunned a Saturday night with friends in Shadwell for the sofa.  Secondly, we were, temporarily at least, reunited with the cat, who is spending the whole duration of this farce in Brixton.  Thirdly, I’ve never seen Mad Men and so was curious as to what all the fuss was about.  Our host had the first season on DVD and so I started at the beginning.

I didn’t finish it, which probably tells you all you need to know.  I found it slickly put together and pretty to look at with competent acting, but what exactly is it trying to tell us?  It feels empty and shallow, like an advert for a life that no longer exists, much like the images in my head of Brixton.  Which may, it suddenly occurs to me, be the point after all.

I did finally venture out on the Thursday to meet a friend for a drink.  On my late return to Brixton – having been informed by my girlfriend that she was off to bed and stashing the keys under the wheelie bin – I was possibly a little the worse for wear.  I found it overly confusing for the high street to be closed off.  The swirling blue police lights that drifted from further towards Stockwell in the damp night gave it a hallow feel, almost like an aquarium.  I’ve no idea what was going on, but it did feel like a very Brixton moment.  Too late in the evening, big fruitless queues waited for buses that weren’t coming while the change hecklers mingled amongst them and the longer queue snaking out of KFC.  People streamed into the road filling it with random shouting and there was just a snifter of danger in the air as I weaved up the hill.

Still, it wasn’t or grime and imagined edginess.  I thoroughly enjoyed my pint in the Elm Tree Tavern, waiting for my girlfriend to bring the front door keys back from lunch with her sister.  It was nice to be so close to friends in East Dulwich and a game of ping-pong in a familiar park.  Another lazy afternoon in Brockwell Park with the paper – even if I did doze off in the sunshine, which may have been the Elm Tree Tavern’s fault – felt more like part of our usual life.  Life felt on a firmer footing.  I knew where the buses went, where the shortcuts were, routines inched their way in.  I felt grounded.

But then it hit me.  On Friday I was just a snip hung-over and, as the afternoon dragged and the sunshine prickled through the office window, this overwhelming sense of melancholy washed over me.  I wasn’t home and nor was I going home anytime soon.  There was an aching disassociation from the world.  A sort of homesickness, I suppose, or at least a frustration at everything being so temporary. 

I am dearly grateful to all our friends who have rescued us from a cardboard box under the railway arches, but I’m not convinced I’m cut out for an itinerant life.  We’re so lucky to have the support structures, unlike the poor guy with scabbed blisters at his lips who kept following us around Brixton Market asking for change, but once upon a time I imagined myself being a bit like John Broome.  Broome spent his middle-age cutting back and forth across the world, happy to be on the move, posting his writing in to his publishers and taking inspiration from restlessness.  I think I need more stability than that.  When I settled down to write on Sunday afternoon the words wouldn’t come.  I had nothing to share, perhaps because I had nothing.

Still, take care of yourself and, I guess, we’ll find our way back to you eventually.

With love,