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,


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Postcards (1): Muswell Hill

Dear Brockley,

How are you?  I hope you’re keeping well in our absence and that the weather is good for you.  Here on the other side of the Thames it has slid between sunshine and heavy cloud sprinkling drizzle.

We find ourselves in gentle Muswell Hill, a long way – both in distance and in other ways – from South East London and it does feel like we are on holiday.  Or perhaps, given that this is only the first stop on an itinerant tour of the city, like we are travelling.

‘Oh,’ a snarky voice erupts in the back of my head.  ‘And I suppose you hope to find yourself too?’

No.  I just hope to get by and to, eventually, get home.

So, Muswell Hill.  Not somewhere I’ve ever been before – except to visit our hosts and, on occasions, to bypass traffic jams on the nearby A1.  Indeed, unlike large swathes of London, I know very little about it beyond the fact that it was once thought to be the prettiest village on the city’s outskirts and, a long time later, was the birthplace of Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks. 

It is all very pleasant, full of red brick Victorian staunchly poised middle class housing now valued to make the eyes water.  Its Broadway has all the amenities one could desire, from upper chain restaurants to independent delis, from swanky clothing brands and boutique jewellers, even a bookshop and a cinema.  If one were concocting a perfect high street for those with disposable incomes, at first glance anyway, it would look somewhat like this.  It is a far cry from those perfect pop dramas the Davies brothers wrote almost fifty years ago.  Those songs could have been about anywhere in the suburban normality.  Muswell Hill is too rich now to be completely normal.  It is seeps wealth. 
We are staying at the generosity of my girlfriend’s cousin and her husband, while they are away.  Their modernist seventies house is a far cry from the sort of property we’re used to, spreading itself out across four floors, packed full of comforts and backing straight out onto Highgate woods.  It is the sort of luxury one could get used to, should one ever be able to afford it.

The wood, both in the way it fills the views from the rear of the house and the canopy of green that breaks the sudden bank holiday Monday evening sunshine gives it the impression of being rural.  In reality it is, smuggled in between urban belches of Archway, East Finchley, Alexandra Palace and places further north than I know the name of, but it’s possible to get lost under the dappled shade, amongst the heaving joggers and to the rhythm of the occasional cricket thunk. 

We wandered around this hidden corner of countryside in the aftermath of our packing epic.  I felt dusty and sweaty from three days of lugging boxes of books and records, furniture and pictures out of the flat, into a bust up van, the driver’s door of which didn’t open, and down to the storage facility.  There was a welcome tranquillity to those woods, a stillness only broken by the occasional yelp of an excitable small child or a dog happily straying from its owner.  The wood’s charm helped fool us that this is just a holiday and so it didn’t feel too indulgent to return for dinner and wine as the sun dipped into evening.

But we still have to go to work.  The only real difference during the weekly day is that my commute is inversed.  I head north to south in the mornings, like my internal settings have been tipped upside down.  The cycle ride into town is fun:  a pelt down from Highgate via Archway’s sharp hill building such momentum that I barely needed to turn the pedals again until Tufnell Park.  The return journey in the evening is, to put it mildly, more a slog.  That exciting whiz and those languid stretched views that pop out at the end of many of Muswell’s avenues seem less appealing on the slow grind back up, the regular clank of my stretched chain tripping over the gears.

And in the evening we find ourselves back in that sort of holiday state.  Not at home, the routines broken, I am more inclined to laziness.  Or maybe my lethargy is something else, something in the water.  The north is, after all, like an exotic country and one needs to be aware of the risks.  Come Wednesday evening, I feel as though I was getting a bit of a cold.  My neck aches and my throat is sore.  On Thursday morning I plummet down the hill to work, as normal, feeling tetchy but not ill enough to stay home.  On the way, a stomach bug kicks in and I spent two productive hours in the bathroom.
My energy sapped, I staggered my way back to Muswell Hill and before eleven was back in bed, not to move again for many hours.

Being ill in someone else’s home is significantly less satisfying than if you were in your own place.  Normally, when unwell, you can bed down, pull up the hatches and ride out the storm.  You can dig out old films, comfortingly light books, there are things which by their very presence bring cheer, but when you’ve only packed the essentials you find yourself mainly drifting in and out of a disturbed sleep, waiting for reality to kick back in.  It reminds me of when I got sick in Varanasi, where explorations of the Ganges were halted by my disappearance into a small hole in the ground toilet.  There too the biggest problem was not my stomach, but the accompanying drain of energy as though I’d expunged everything of use from system. 

With little else to occupy my mind, I find some DVDs of YesPrime Minister to watch – after a battle with the hugely complex television system – and hear the punch-lines in my head moments before the actors spoke them on screen.  I must have watched each episode dozens of times, all through my childhood, but with not having seen one for a decade or so I am surprised at the capacity of my deep memory to beat the gag.
Come Saturday morning I feel well enough to walk to the high street to scavenge breakfast and a newspaper.  Its niceness oozes from every paving stone.  Its inability to offend bustles to the front and refuses to back down, even when I give it my best under-class scowl.  It is filled with smiling happy people.  I see a couple of young guys coolly attired with trimmed beards and shades brandishing ice-creams, joyfully in the simplicity of life.  On the corner a girl kisses her man softly on one cheek as orange sunlight sets across them.  School kids wait at bus stops and an old woman struggles with bags of groceries, tottering slightly under the uneven weight.  Maybe it hasn’t changed so much after all from when the Davies brothers’ bristling guitars could be heard through open windows.
It is, however, a false dawn for me.  The walk is less than ten minutes in each direction and yet takes me far longer.  On the way back I am short of breath and light-headed.  I just make it through the door and slump onto the sofa for two hours. 

I have often joked that being too deep into north London makes me ill, but this time it really seems to have done so. 
Or at the very least I am getting my comeuppance for being a smug git.

I’ll write again soon.