Wednesday, 10 December 2014


It’s the last week of October; the clocks have turned and the mornings are glummer than a month previously, when I’d last been in London.  My bike whips down the hill.  It feels good to be riding again, the anticipated burn in calves as I try to beat the day before’s commute is welcome.  Vietnam was wonderful, but it is good to back to the real world again, to be dealing with life after three weeks of fantasy. 
I pause at the junction, a brief glance right to check nothing is in the bike lane and I accelerate up the other side of the hill.  As I reach the crest I find myself singing under my breath, a Belle and Sebastian song of joy, a sign all is right.
‘Another sunny day, bah-bah,’ I sing to myself, forgetting the words.  It isn’t sunny, not yet and maybe it won’t be.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s the way I feel.  ‘I something in the garden.’
Ahead a bus pauses to collect passengers.  There’s a car in front of me and one just over my shoulder.  I signal and move between the two.  The three of us go around the bus and I head back to the bike lane. 
The bike surges forward; my feet lose the pedals:   A lack of traction and they skim off.  I feel the fork twist and hold on despite knowing what is going to happen.
‘Another sunny day,’ the voice in my head reiterates as I enter the air.
I haven’t been writing so much recently, not for the past five months or so. 
I tell myself that the words aren’t there, that there are a million other things to be doing, that we’ve been out the country, that I’ve been recharging my literary batteries by reading. 
All of which is true, but also I haven’t really wanted to.
And that’s much more worrying.
‘It’s all right, mate,’ the guy in the fluorescent jacket leaning in to me says.  ‘Just stay still.  An ambulance is on its way.’
I blink.  I can’t see properly.  One side of my face is wet.
‘What do you mean?  An ambulance?  I’ve got to get to work.’
I try to get to my feet and there’s a great sweeping lightness in my head, like I’m adrift in the ocean, floating out to the depths. 
‘Maybe not.’
I look down at my body.  There’s an enormous gash on my shin.  There’s quite a lot of blood on my t-shirt.  Where’s it all coming from?
Fluorescent jacket applies a bandage from a first aid kit to my shin.  In the background, I see someone else leaning my bike against the wall.  Others look on, concerned.  Someone calls the police to go with the ambulance.  People who stopped to help.  People who gave up their time on the busy rush to the office.  People who could have just walked on by.
And I didn’t even manage to say thank you.
Since we last met, dear reader, if you remember, things have been busy:   I got married.
I still can’t quite get over that statement.  Six years ago, such an idea seemed ridiculous and yet here I am.  Beringed and besotted.  Nauseatingly happily married to a wonderful woman who surprises and delights me daily.  I could not be happier.
And yet the words won’t come and, to some extent, I don’t want them to.
They demand time I could otherwise spend with my wife.  They will put me in difficult places, to imagine people and lives far removed from my own mundane existence.  I have to find some of humanity’s darkness and shine a light on it, a process which often puts me in an odd frame of mind at the very least.
And I’m not angry enough.
I pierce together a hypothesis for what happened.  I think the car behind me nudged my back tyre, the impact knocking the chain off the gears and sending me out of control.  The car didn’t stop and no-one got the licence number.  I have a concussion, a whopping black eye, surgical glue holding my shin together, missing half a toe nail and a dozen or more nasty cuts and grazes.
I spend the morning in A&E, my wife finds me sitting, miserably, holding red soaked paper towel to my face. 
People are angry on my behalf and all I manage to say is: ‘Maybe they didn’t realise.’
All writing is, ultimately, about conflict.  Not, as in fighting and war.  Not obvious conflict, but emotional conflict, both external and internal.  There has to be a pressure, a sense of jeopardy, a tension of the unknown.  The narrative form, the construct, the broader themes, the question posed can be anything, but somewhere there is conflict which requires resolution.  If nothing changes, or threatens to change, then what are we reading for?    
My fears that with a perfect life, with a lack of personal conflict, I will run out of things to say seem to be coming true.  I am stuck.  The novel remains parked, its fundamental flaw still unrecognised.  I’ve been fiddling with a couple of short stories, one of which is probably a dead end and one of which could well be something after all.  I haven’t blogged for months.  Who wants to read about happy families, about domestic bliss, about a normal, calm life pottering along?
And so I don’t write.  Or, at least, not with the same urgency.  There were a few years where it was write or finish.  There was little else keeping me upright.  Perhaps I just need to find a balance.  Perhaps I just need to understand who I have become and therefore what words will be suitable.
I was at gig recently.  Two old, good, friends are in the band.  There’s a pause between songs and the guitarist introduces the next number:  ‘We’re not normally a political band, but these aren’t normal times.’
Perhaps I need to look beyond myself to find the conflict, the impetus, but it feels hard.
Early December and the alarm goes off at five o’clock, not for the first time that week.  Next to me my wife sleeps as I clamber to my feet.  The cat stretches, yawns and looks at me as if to say, are you sure it’s breakfast time already? 
The tiles on the bathroom floor are cold.  The heating doesn’t kick in for another hour and I feel the chill biting underneath my scabs, gnawing away and digging at the bone and marrow. 
I hack up phlegm for a minute or so wondering when my cough will give up and leave, when I will get some more sleep, when life will ease up for a moment.  I am cranky and tired, there’s a hint of bloodshot to my reflection. 
Later clean and dressed, I pop my head around the bedroom door, the mug of half-drunk tea in my hand, teeth freshly scrubbed.  My wife still sleeps, quietly and full of peace.  I silently wish her luck for the day.  I have no need of same, for no matter how early it is, how much I ache, I know I couldn’t be luckier. It might be dark and frozen out in the streets, but inside my head it’s another sunny day.  

Wednesday, 16 July 2014



At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: I’m afraid.

I don’t cope with change very well.  I like things to remain the same and why wouldn’t I be?  My life is fabulous.  Who’d want to change that?

But sometimes you have to.  Endless procrastination does not cure the soul.

The blog’s good for me.  Regular deadlines are good for me.  They force me to put something out to the world even if it’s not quite perfect, otherwise I’d keep nitpicking, moving semi-colons around, making senseless, endless changes that don’t make any difference.  Not really.

I am scared of saying that my novel – or any other piece of writing – is finished because then the question is: what next?  I am scared of having to submit it for publication because if it’s rejected (again) then what am I supposed to do with myself?  At what point do I have to accept that being a full time (or even part time) writer is not possible?  When do I have to accept that this is nothing but a hobby with delusions of grandeur?

This is what usually happens, right?  You’ve probably read something like this before.  Six years ago my first novel spluttered to an unfinished end in a splatter of disappointment and life upheaval.  Just Like Falling didn’t deserve to be published.  It was so wrapped up in contradictions, full of lazy cliché and tired staged scenes that it was a mercy killing to file it away.

You’ll Never Be Joe Strummer was different.  I poured my heart – and a bottle or two of scotch – into that novel.  Over three and a half years it went from radically experimental in its use of the page, great heaving white space sloshing around and typeface tipsily piling atop itself to a more conventional layout with a self-consciously unconventional heart.    I touted it around several times, in different formats, but to no avail.  I found writing a synopsis of a novel with a fairly convoluted plot and multiple character arcs extremely difficult, which probably didn’t help the strength of my pitch.  Even so, I hoped for more than a paltry few “thanks but no thanks” replies.  A single word of encouragement would have been preferable to the metres, stacked high, of silence I accumulated.

And now I have Envy – a third novel which I’ve been working on for almost four years.  To an extent, it’s a finished article.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end.  I’ve worked through thirteen drafts of it, restructuring, fine tuning, ripping it apart and stuffing it back together.  The central thrust, the bit I’m really interested in, has stayed constant, but all the elements which swirl around that narrative have been played with until they either do what they’re supposed to and add to the words or have been, reluctantly, sent home.  It has characters which, I think, the reader will care about and a mystery which needs solving.  Multiple locations, carefully staged set pieces, moments of introspection, snippets of neatly paced action, heart-break, romance, buildings, self-lothing and bitter class war – what more does a novel want?

And yet, I know it’s not perfect.  It needs an editorial steer, I think.  I am not convinced I can, alone, help it fulfil its full potential.  But to send it out to either agents or publishers in that not quite beautified, meticulous divine state of readiness risks further rejection and disinterest.  This novel has gone through three homes and three computers.  It has been homeless with me, ignored while painting and decorating took precedence, whisked away for review in Turkey (where it enjoyed the sunshine) and the English south coast (where it sat, lifeless on my hard-drive while sudden inspiration for a short story took over). 

We’ve been through a lot together.  The first genesis of the idea came to me when I was a different person.  I know its lines so well that I can almost recite them by heart; I can’t change it any further because I can’t see its faults anymore.  Like a long standing lover who you’re still infatuated with, the cracks and flaws are covered by foundation and lust.  I forgive it its failings.

The real fear is not only that this novel proves to be yet another creative dead-end, consigned to the archives folder on my computer, but that – unlike with previous failures – there’s nothing coming up behind it.  For the first time I don’t have an idea, a theme, that pressing on my imagination, demanding for me to push the dying embers of one attempted novel aside and devote my attention to it.  As paid work takes more of my time, energy and, yes, creativity of a sort, as I recognise the need to be a responsible, home owning, income generating adult, I wonder how deep my reserves of make believe go.  I’m worried that this might be the end. 

A friend and I were waiting for Neil Young to come on stage and were discussing why a man in his late sixties still has songs which resonate.  We decided that it’s because life experience gives you the authority to talk about a range of subjects, because it helps you fit the detail into the scope of the world. 

‘It’s like a thirteen year old taking to Facebook and moaning about how much it hurts to split up with her boyfriend,’ my friend continued.  ‘What the fuck do you know?  You’re thirteen!’

I may be significantly older than thirteen, but perhaps that still encapsulates my problem.  I’m thirty-five and have a lived a relatively stable and sedate life.  While I don’t overtly write about my life experiences (away from this blog, anyway) it might that there’s only so far the ventriloquist can throw his voice.

I mean, what the fuck do I know about anything?

Wednesday, 25 June 2014



It’s Friday night and we have people coming round for dinner to celebrate my fiancée’s birthday.  I cook roast chicken legs with clementines and arak, roasted sweet potatoes with fresh figs and caramelised balsamic vinegar, aubergine baked in spices and served with bulgur wheat, yogurt and fresh mint, okra, pepper and tomatoes, a salad, asparagus simply in lemon juice and spring greens in a yogurt and tahini sauce with pine nuts.  For dessert I make a strawberry and mascarpone tart on an almond biscuit base, crushing the biscuits between my fingers lest the food mixer leave them too fine.  I get in from work at six and serve just after eight.  Everyone enjoys the food and, despite the mountain on the table, there’s hardly anything left.  I’m offered compliments which are gratefully received, but there’s a bit of me which is surprised that anyone is impressed.  I don’t find cooking difficult.  To me, it’s straightforward:  just following recipes in a book, a bit of project management in ordering the tasks, being able to keep several processes running in your head at the same time and the occasional moment of inventiveness if something isn’t quite right.  Maybe it’s the complexity of the dishes and while it was a special occasion, it’s been a long time since I served up anything as routine as spaghetti bolognaise.

It never used to be like this.

Writing in the Guardian magazine a few weeks ago, the novelist Joshua Ferris lamented his wheat intolerance which meant he was prevented from eating all the wonderful foods he’d discovered as an adult.  Ferris wrote of his childhood meals consisting of lumpen, mystery grey meat supposedly vaguely related to beef, wilted salad and mounds of fried potatoes.  Plentiful food and perfectly fine in its way, but devoid of excitement.  An ITV sitcom of a diet.

His story sounds familiar.  Growing up we always had nice, healthy food.  Lots and lots of fresh vegetables, salads in the summer, much of it grown from the garden.  The meat and fish were of a good quality; there were no chips to be had in our house.  But, like much of the country’s food in the eighties, it was quite safe.  It hadn’t been introduced to garlic or rapeseed oil or paprika.  Unlike Ferris I don’t see this as a failing, but just what was available in the suburbs during Thatcher’s decade. 

As a teenager I started to experience more diverse cuisine through curry houses and Chinese take-aways as occasional treats, but even by the time I went to university in the mid-nineties, I was still a stranger to the kitchen.  The only cooking I’d done was on a camping stove with scouts.

If there’s one thing which has changed in British society drastically over the past twenty years, leaving it almost unrecognisable from what was there before, it has been the rise of food.  From my own first, incompetent attempts at spaghetti carbonara (served with boiled vegetables on the side) to more recent efforts the transformation has been outstanding.  And it’s happened everywhere.  Even penniless undergraduate students wax lyrical out artesian pizza, artichokes and fresh avocados while sucking on tea, the leaves for which have been gently, individually folded and the water sweated to a pitch just shy of boiling by the strength of the sun alone.  Broadsheet newspapers ooze food columns, professional cooks and amateur contributors sallying forth with their solution to the perfect croissant.  Local markets, farmer or otherwise, are increasingly more about the experience and the purchasing of obscure products – unusual cuts of meat, veg last commercially grown in the fifteenth century which were recently introduced to someone’s Kentish orchard, coffee that’s harvested from raincloud refreshed hillsides and then triple filtered.  Taste, colour and invention coming at you like a screaming express train.  All so moreish, all so exciting, all so, too much.

I find myself wondering whether enough’s enough.  Yes, meat which hasn’t been inflated with water and forced to survive by eating its cousin’s eyeballs is going to taste better.  Yes, vegetables which haven’t been bred to meet supermarket aesthetic tests and still has the odd bit of dirt clinging to it is vastly superior, but it’s all going too far, isn’t it?

Pizza, burgers, pulled frickin’ pork: the conversion of rudimentary foodstuffs into something gourmet, turning the basics, even fast-food, into a gastronomical experience sustaining an industry of bloggers, writers and people with cute beards and no discernible profession. 

We went for pizza not so long ago in Honor Oak Park, at the newish place where the tired Italian Restaurant used to be.  I say newish because getting in has been nigh on impossible, with tables booked for weeks in advance so it’s been open for months.  It was nice.  I mean, it was a really good pizza in a charming environment, backed up with friendly staff (even with the beards, skinny jeans and fake glasses) and a slick business model which meant everything was fresh and quick.  But at the same time we were treated to an exposition on every product – from the plate of olives comprising three varieties chosen from hundreds across Spain and imported exclusively to the rocket grown on a city farm over towards Hackney marshes and cycled daily down to the SE23 to keep the carbon footprint low.  All very admirable, but at the end of the day it was some olives, some salad and a circle of dough with melted cheese on it, even if that cheese had been plucked from between an ancient Italian farmer’s toes using a satanic ritual.

I started to teach myself to cook at university.  Thanks to the advice of a couple of female housemates, I began to understand how it all worked.  By the time I moved to London I was vaguely competent, if somewhat over-reliant on pasta, chilli, Angliacised curries and bangers n mash.  It wasn’t until around 2003, my disposable income fully established and the food fetish really kicking off the capital that I took each meal so seriously.

When my fiancée was still my girlfriend and we first moved in together, I pulled out all the stops on the cooking front.  I’d made dinner for her several times over the previous year and I knew that she liked my food, but I headed off down a dead-end of trying to never make the same thing twice, of winding myself up in an arsenal race of bigger, better, bolder, flashier food every weekday night.  Patties, soups, broths, cassoulets, skillets, grills, baked, fried, raw, shaken and sweated. 

I enjoy cooking for her and she, I think, enjoys eating, but my point is this:  by the exceptional becoming the everyday what do we have to look forward to?  Foodies are everywhere.  It’s like a national religion whereby declaring you just fancy a tuna and mayo sandwich is tantamount to heresy and punishable by social crucifixion.  Ignoring for a moment the equal rising in diabetes and obesity which is surely just as aligned with excessive cream, butter and cheese as it is fried chicken, coke and a lack of exercise – food is not holy.  It’s a trend, and the problem with trends is that things tend to whiplash back in the opposite direction. 

Take cider.  The addition of cider to the trendsetter’s palate in recent years has seen quality stuff, like Thatcher’s and Aspall’s amongst others, become readily available over things like Woodpecker.  There are all sorts of lovely ciders, using different wood on the barrel to infuse interesting flavours, creating a smokey hue, a sharp cutting tang, rescuing poor old Perry from perpetual obscurity, but it’s also seen every commercial brewer get on the act producing unending dross.  Craft beer will be next as even McEwans and Newcastle Brown Ale seek start farting out overly flavoured piss to cash in on the market while proper breweries who have been carefully producing amazing beer for centuries without the need for hipster endorsement will be left by the wayside as the cool kids flee back the safety of Carling and Castlemaine four-x.  It’s ironic, obvs.

Food shouldn’t be a religious experience, it shouldn’t be a sensation, it shouldn’t be cool and fashionable and people shouldn’t hang around in the street on wet Peckham evenings waiting for a table at a place serving, essentially, overpriced beef patties in a bun with some salad, heavily fried potatoes and beer with an over-inflated sense of its own importance.  Food just should be.  Then it might escape the backlash.

Doesn’t mean you can get away with cooking it badly, mind.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Confessions of a stag night


No, not mine, you big silly you.

However in the run up my recent last night of boyhood bachelordom a long buried memory came bubbling to the surface.  Recollections of the very first stag night I went on when I was all of seventeen years old.

There was this guy whom I’d been friends with at school, but in the year or so since we’d left, I to college and he to work, we’d drifted in and out of each other’s orbit.  We were still friends.  Sometimes, I’d even have described us as close, but maybe not as tight as we’d once been.  It was partially living different lives, but also he was one of those unusual people who seem endlessly fascinating when you’re in constant contact, yet once a degree of distance has been established they’re just that little bit strange.  Not that I could have told you that at the time.

So seventeen years old, maybe eighteen.  Early nineteen ninety-seven, I think.  This lad had met a girl, in America, over the internet and he was leaving the country to marry her.  Back then I vaguely understood what the internet was, but had never used it.  They must have met in some chat-room, not on a slick website like the sort I ended up using years later.  Older, it seems obvious that he was desperately unhappy.  There were nights of oblivion, more frequent than most teenagers.  There were weeks of solitude.  There were fresh scabs just peeking out from his cuffs, occasionally where one hadn’t healed properly a patch of dark red turning black would show on his sleeve.  He was struggling to find a way to escape.  That’s what happens when you go to work at sixteen doing, god knows what, something mind numbingly tedious in an office in the centre of Birmingham.

We were a ragtag bunch of misfits, those of us who tended to find ourselves in his company with little else in common other than the same sort of friend in the same suburb on the edge of the same city.  I don’t think any of us quite believed it was real.  That it was a joke or another boast that’d be proved a lie.  Or maybe we thought he’d go and be back in a couple of weeks having discovered her to be a tattooed biker with a goatee and pet pythons who needed some domestic help with benefits on the sultry nights.  Whatever, it was a badly written script.  It never felt true.

Still, we did the only decent thing and threw him a stag do.

It was a basic affair.  We got a shed load of beer, maybe some pizza, probably a bit of weed and whacked some tunes on the stereo in his Mum’s flat.  It was kind of like many other Saturday nights, except someone ordered a kiss-o-gram.

That’s how old school this was: we rang up a woman advertising in the yellow pages to come and take most of her clothes off in his Mum’s lounge.

I’m struggling now to remember what she looked like.  I probably couldn’t see her properly through the cigarette smoke hanging around with us.  I remember the minder who hovered in the hall making sure we kept our hands to ourselves.  I think she arrived in a long black coat which she wriggled out of to reveal underwear, bra, knickers, suspenders and stockings.  All black, cheap and shiny they looked slick to touch, like oil.  Stretch marks to the edges of her stomach, creases and crinkles the brain tries to airbrush.  Blonde hair falling in tired dried up semi-ringlets, combustible a testament to eighties style products.  Maybe if I’d looked her in the eye I’d have seen some suggestion of why she did it, but I didn’t.  She wasn’t the first naked woman I’d seen, but there hadn’t been so many that it was yet mildly boring.  My eyes were elsewhere.  I guess she did it for the same reason everyone else does in the end:  she didn’t have much choice.

It was all rather playful rather than sleazy and certainly not sexy.  There was some messing about with a whip, the lad may have been obliged to drop his trousers and pretend to be spanked.  I think she permitted photographs.  There wasn’t any jeering or sneering or acting obnoxious, I think we all felt awkward, wanting to look, not wanting to look.  Wanting more, wanting less. 

She wasn’t young, or rather wasn’t young to me.  Maybe early thirties, which eighteen years ago felt ancient.  Now, of course, it feels like only yesterday.  She was bubbly, but clearly bored by the whole thing.  As she posed, her bra removed, her knickers dropped to her high heels, one arm draped across the lad’s should, the whip hanging from her chipped nailed fingers, she asked: ‘So, if this is a stag do why aren’t you all out on the town?’

There was a cherub-faced kid in the corner, a bit flushed from a couple of beers, his sensible hair ruffled.  Normally he was quieter than all the rest of us, one of those who just became lost to the background, but at that moment he chose to pipe up:  ‘The thing is, some of us can’t always get served.’

You know those looks that people have, the moment when everything just clicks into place and realisation doesn’t dawn but clatters, head first, smack into your mind?  She had one of those looks.  She didn’t need to ask ‘so how old are you’.  She knew.  The knickers came up and the bra went on, swiftly and efficiently.  Without another word or over-played pout she got into her coat and left with her minder muttering murderous grumbles. 

I seem to remember the evening ended with me sitting on a wall trying to control violent hiccups, halfway home, my head in my hands, watching the world swirl away in a pretty beer fog. 

A few days later the lad flew away to the other side of the world and none of us ever heard from him again.  A new life, a clean start.  I wonder what happened to him.  I wonder whether he found an American dream, chasing down the dusty old highway to nowhere in a beat up old Buick, country stations on the radio or whether he became another boring soul in a boring prairie town, pushing paper round a desk waiting for something to happen, knowing it won’t.  I wonder whether he is happy or sad, whether he found love or at least something that mattered. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Squat (Tyrwhitt Road)

Some of this happened like this, some of it didn’t.

Back when you’d often find me wandering the streets of Brockley either too late in the evening or too early in the morning, depending on your point of view, I wearily turned off Lewisham Way and headed up Tyrwhitt Road.  The Talbot hadn’t quite reinvented itself at that point and was a boarded up husk of a pub, the front forecourt scattered with debris and leftover memories.  If you had told me, that evening, of the happiness I’d find in a flat further up the road, that this would be the place where I would feel calm, I’d have laughed in your face.  I was in that kind of mood, it was that kind of night and I was that kind of drunk.

Next door to the Talbot stands what must have once be a proud, Georgian detached townhouse.  Placed at the end of the street, on sentry duty, its first owners must have been affluent indeed to have filled its double fronted, four storied rooms.  Ever since I’ve lived in London, though, its paint has been peeling, the front steps cracked and swallowed over by weeds rushing away from their roots towards the sky.  The basement windows were permanently ajar, the roof missing numerous slates; as the sun came up there would usually be a man, often with dreadlocks and his shirt off, sitting on the wall, smoking a hand rolled cigarette.  Like much of Brockley was at one time, it was a squat.

That evening the music thumped, a deep reggae beat that throbbed through your arteries, a swirling red spotlight rolled gently out the upstairs window, briefly dappling the pavement outside and then swinging back inside.  The door was open.

Why not, I thought.

Inside was a heavy, sweet cloud hanging just off the ceiling; the music growled up the walls, soloud it was barely audible, like a pulse.  People flittered in and out, lost to themselves.  I thought no-one was going to even notice me drifting in, until, in the rotten carpeted lounge, where a dozen or so people were draped across the floor, a younger lad with a blur to his face, asked:  ‘Who’re you looking for?’

‘Oh, I thought Steve was in here?’  In my experience, there’s always someone called Steve.

‘He’s out the back, I think.  Try the kitchen.’

In the kitchen there could have been someone called Steve or there might not have been.  I took one of the warm cans of Stella from the open fridge and kished it open, before continuing my explorations.

In the garden I met a girl.

Underneath the summer stars she was luminous, her brown hair scrapped back tightly into a pony tail, the stub end of a joint between her fingers, a glint of the stud in her nose. 

‘I don’t know you,’ she said, the accent faintly Liverpool.

‘No, you don’t,’ I replied swigging my beer.  ‘I was just passing through.’

‘Isn’t that what we’re doing?  In the end?  Just passing through?’

‘This garden, or life in general?’

‘Why don’t you come, sit with me?’ I sat amongst the overgrown grass and let the tips bustle against my neck.  The air was thick, sultry even.  The night promised much, which was unusual for life hadn’t seemed to provide a lot up to that point.   We didn’t say anything for a while; just sat quietly as the night inches towards morning and the galaxy tumbled above our heads.  She smoked, I drank, both letting possibilities hang.

After a while she asked: ‘Have you ever read Aldous Huxley?’

I hadn’t, but for a moment considered lying about it, before deciding to be honest in my ignorance.  She began to talk about doors of perception, about the shifting transcending nature of existence, waxing lyrically about literary and social courage.  I confess, I was more than a little drunk and began to tune out.  Besides her narrative was packed with failing similes, casting images with her words which didn’t hang quite right in the night.  Her comparisons tripped over themselves, tied each other in inconsistencies until I gave up, leant back on my elbows, closed my eyes and remembered times when this whole scenario wouldn’t have happened, and before that times when it would.  

‘Shall I tell you the secret of the universe?’ she said, after a pause.

I opened my eyes and looked at her. I could have kissed her in that moment.  The angle of her neck, the way she’d moved closer to whisper to me.  It would have been so easy.

I didn’t, but very occasionally I still wonder if I should have done.

The other day, as I rode down Tyrwhitt Road on a slightly different route to work than usual, I noticed that the last squat in Brockley had been cleared and was being renovated, no doubt to be sold on for a couple of million.  The area keeps changing, keeps ploughing through its gentrification towards who knows what end.

‘You know ,’ said my fiancée in the craft beer bar that’s just opened up by Crofton Park station, ‘you’re going to turn into one of those old Brockley bores, moaning on about how much more edgy and cool it used to be while still enjoying the new cafes.’

‘I’m fairly sure I’m one of those already.’

I don’t cope with change well.  I find it unnerving.  Walking through the centre of London, the other day, I was horrified at the amount of Oxford Street, Soho Square and further up Tottenham Court that seems to be coming down.  The streets are like the city’s fingerprints, when they change, so does my relationship with it.  Changes to Brockley I take personally.  I thought the craft beer bar was great, it was a fun night with some seriously tasty booze, but would I rather have had the old off licence back and a few less beards, trendy wool hats and, deck shoes and pale stripy trousers about?  Maybe.

I think it might be there’s a tipping point.  I shed no tears when the old Alpha Jazz Club - home of gangland violence with the only drink offered to strangers like me was gin and lime cordial (no ice) - closed down and became the more community minded Jam Circus, offering real ale and decent food.  But maybe that was because, at the time, the Brockley Jack was only marginally more welcoming than the Alpha and served ale which was likely to leave you with an upset stomach, which left Mr Lawrence’s as the only viable watering hole up that end.  These days there’s choice in abundance.

I find myself trapped between the old school working class world and the new affluent upper-middle classes sweeping through the area, not really (at least in my own head) belonging to either, wanting to take the better bits of both and discard the arrogance or the scuzz.  Maybe that’s the perfection we all want in the end – and anyway I’m kidding myself if I think that all those kids in the squat didn’t have Mums and Dads they could call up for a loan when things got desperate.

And I never have read Aldous Huxley either.


Tuesday, 27 May 2014



Shortly after first moving to London, I decided to spend a Saturday afternoon wandering around the centre of town, trying to get my bearings (and probably buying an A-Z).  For reasons which escape me, I had in my head that the centre could be defined by being bordered to the north by Oxford Street, west Bond Street, south the Mall and east Charing Cross Road.  Leaving aside that this misses out huge swathes of the city which could only be described as central, such as Covent Garden and Fitzrovia, Notting Hill, Kensington, Camden and so on, and, essentially, is just the streets which strangle Soho, all this shows is that I was a naïve bumpkin who couldn’t comprehend how big London was compared to Birmingham and Sheffield.

Anyway, my explorations would be to walk those false borders.  I didn’t get very far, about two thirds of the way up Charing Cross Road in fact when I thought:  Ooh, big book shop.

Even back then, I found it difficult to pass a bookshop I didn’t know without going in.

Inside, I found a panelled maze of rickety stairs and creaking shelves.  Books crammed into every corner, stacked up the steps, stuffed at angles across the more ordered lines.  The lighting was low and occasionally I’d bump into someone looking furtively between a scrawled list on the back of an envelope and the dishevelled displays.  It took me a moment to realise that I was hopelessly lost.  I knew where the door was, obviously, but I didn’t know where I was in terms of the books.  There seemed no rhyme nor reason as to why a swathe of jumbled literary fiction would be followed by half a dozen military history books before jumping to gardening and landscapes.

After an hour or so, still none the wiser, I popped outside, exasperated and without purchase.  I glanced up at the store sign.  It did, of course, say W&G Foyle's and this would have been at the end of their seemingly deliberate attempts to be anti-capitalist and anti-consumer by having such infuriating practices as arranging their stock by publisher rather than genre or author meaning that the customer needed a detailed understanding of the industry to track down a specific item otherwise it was just luck. 

Today, Foyle's is a smallish chain of award-winning retailers with branches cropping up around the capital (and Bristol).  They seem to be expanding when the rest of the paper-selling world is pausing to check the market’s temperature, but I spotted, a spanking new one in the refurbished Waterloo station the other day.  For the best part of the twentieth century, however, Foyle's seems to have been a byword of eccentricity.

The flagship Charing Cross store was established in 1906 after the founders, William and Gilbert, vacated their Queen’s Road Peckham store for the centre of town – their first Peckham employee absconding with the week’s takings may have been influential in them moving.  With its prime position, ramshackle interiors and enormous stock, Foyle's soon gained a strong reputation.  Even the madness reign of Christina Foyle and her refusal to adopt modern retail models couldn’t kill it off.

As late as 1999, Foyle's was known for things such as not being able to place an order by telephone, a system where for buying a book customers had to queue to collect an invoice, queue to pay the invoice, queue to collect the book.  Staff were on the equivalent of zero hours contracts with, at the end of a bad week, Christina roaming the floors firing people at random to balance the books.  Of course, the fact many staff were ripping her off can’t have endeared them to her – the ordering system, apparently, kept no record of stock due to arrive just what actually turned up.  This left plenty of opportunity, so I’m told, to simply take things out the back of the delivery van and put it straight into your own vehicle. 

Still, Foyle's was the epitome of Charing Cross Road – a street which, fifteen years ago, was packed with book shops, mainly second hand.  In 2014, Foyle's, Quinto and one or two others are the last players standing – even the specialist murder bookshop, Murder One, swallowed up by high leases and replaced by luggage stores, juice bars and sellers of gimmicky tourist t-shirts.  My mother went to London and all I got was this lousy t-shirt because the world doesn’t want anything substantial. 

Even today, despite an expensive overhauling making it less trapped in the past, the store can be charmingly random.  A few years ago, I ordered some books online and chose store collect.  The collection desk was in the basement and required me to ring a bell for attention.  When the attendant grumpily turned up, he scowled, silently took my printed out reference number and stomped off.  Ten minutes later he returned, berated me for not realising that just because I’d been emailed to say my order was ready for collection, I shouldn’t have assumed it was and why didn’t I ring to check?  Now, bugger off and come back in a couple of weeks. 

Despite this, the staff are generally knowledgeable, helpful and hopefully on better terms of employment than they once were.  The store is organised, light and well stocked.  Regular literary events, talks and book launches open to all, often free, keep it busy and exciting into the evenings.

So, obviously, it’s moving.

Foyle's has spent the past couple of years remodelling the old St Martin’s College of Art and Design.  The building, essentially the bookshop’s next door neighbours and immortalised in the lyrics to Pulp’s Common People, shut up shop sometime ago when the university realised it could make a tidy profit selling off a significant central London premises and decamping to something purpose built in the new development north of scrubbed up King’s Cross.  The old building was an industrial rat warren, pockets of concrete and belching chic pipes producing the occasional fart of compressed steam.  In the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the British Intelligence headquarters is filmed in the college, presumably between the university vacating it and Foyle's swinging in to redevelop (that was a touch I liked as, while it looked ridiculous as a base for seventies spies when the organisation’s senior management would have had one foot in the Edwardian period, the location is only a few metres away from Cambridge Circus, where John Le Carre placed them in the original novel). 

I hope Foyle's haven’t done too much remodelling.  The way I remember the college building is that it would be suitable eccentric to be their twenty-first century home without adopting the more generic, bland temperature of most retail corporate’s flagship stores.  And Foyle's has never been bland.  A little bonkers, but never bland.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

New York

Matteo Pericoli's view from Phillip Glass'

Is it possible to only ever go somewhere in your imagination?

My fiancée is in New York for work, leaving the cat and I to enjoy London’s early summer.  She travels a lot and we always have grand plans that I’ll tag along, that we’ll take advantage of a free air fare to explore a corner of the world, but unfortunately it’s never quite works out like that.  This trip was booked only a couple of days ago, making it unrealistic for me to shift myself across the Atlantic let alone afford it. 

Other ventures have coincided with work deadlines of my own, weddings, stag dos, a million other parts of real life bumping along next the glamour of business class travel.  This one is particularly disappointing, though, because I’ve always wanted to go to New York and never have done. 

I spent a lot of the tail end of last year thinking about New York.  It was around the same time Lou Reed died, and I was reading Edward St Aubyn’s Bad News set in Manhattan.  Neither of which really represent the New York of today and I wonder if that would all be a disappointment to me.  I don’t think the city in my head exists anymore – if, indeed, it ever did.

New York, to me, is the city of Reed’s scuzzy, druggy songs, the danger of seventies and eighties cinema, when the crime rate suggested it might go the way Detroit has done, graffiti splattered subway trains, oil drums burning fires for the homeless, kids sitting on the fire escapes to escape the summer heat, a mugger on every corner and an adventure down every boulevard. 

It’s not that I thought any of this would be an attractive tourist destination, but this is the dreamscape that’s pushed itself into my imagination over the years.  Obviously, if I were there, I’d be in the Guggenhiem, up the Statue of Liberty and on Ellis Island not trying to buy smack from a guy lurking behind a dumpster on one hundred and ten street.

Everything I read about the city tells me that it has cleaned itself up, just like London.  It is the playground of wealth now all the rich have moved back into cities from the suburbs.  It’s probably full of graduates on internships supported by Mom and Pop, scrubbed and shiny bars, restaurants and another artesian Deli selling truffle stuffed olives replaces a 7-11.

Which begs the question, should I even go?  Or would the changes just be a disappointment?

By coincidence, I am sitting at my desk thinking about what will go into this post.  PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is playing and it occurs to me, that the City is New York.  It always is.  Gotham, in the Batman mythos, is New York.  Whenever a City is just a city, it’s always New York underneath, or wants to be at any rate.

It’s the scenes at the beginning of Bonfire of the Vanities, the oozing wealth of Sherman McCoy, but more vividly, the subway.  You can taste the fear from the page as the characters tip over the edge and into the city’s underworld, dark, threatening, tagged, dirty and stinky.  It’s the Martini lunches of Mad Men, and the cluttered stagger along the skyscraper strangled streets.  It’s the flat rooftops of brown brick apartment blocks, tattooed by iron staircases and the teenagers hanging out amongst the old wooden planked water towers and the steaming air con units.  Yellow taxis and gumshoes, jaywalking and scotch in a brown paper bag, hip hop thronging ghetto blasters and tipped over fire hydrants with kids skipping through the spouting water, the Marvel superheroes I read in comics as a kid, Spiderman swooping from rooftop to advertising hoarding and away over the horizon, Brooklyn brownstones and never going to Harlem after dark.

These clichés remain in another time, but they also belong to the city in my head.  I know none of this really exists anymore, in the same way that London isn’t populated by cheeky cockneys, bomb damaged streets, derelict warehouses, punks in squats, eel and mash shops on every corner or pubs selling only warm bitter.  It’s an endless, timeless, place of myth which never evolves, never gentrifies; there’s a romance to the dirt, but then it is kind of made up.  It’s always Lou choking out Coney Island Baby as the ferry chugs across the Hudson and the sun setting over a grime filled skyline that promises tomorrow.    

Maybe it’s just easier to stay here after all.