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 fiancĂ© 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 fiancĂ© 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.