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.

Thursday, 15 May 2014


Not actually Scafell Pike - it was too wet to take photos;
this is an older picture, up Great Gable in 2010 I think, but who
can tell in that mist...

It’s wet.  More than raining, moisture permeates every fabric.  My fiancée and I are hiking in the Lake District and in an otherwise temperate spring, it is miserable.  Low cloud flushes out constant drizzle, a tent fail has left all my clothes soggy, visibility is down to a dozen feet and a cold puddle just sloshed over the top of my boot.  We have already given up on the idea of tackling Scafell Pike and my inability to find the path through the murk means that Pike of Bliscoe is also looking like a washout.  Soon there will be little option but to trudge off the mountain’s shoulder, out of the valley and beat a dripping retreat to the tent.

And the next day I turned thirty-five.

My fiancée’s good spirits are remarkable.  This is not her idea of fun.  Countryside retreats, to her, mean cute cottages, tea and scones, comfy beds, sleeping in and sunshine.  Instead I keep dragging her out to sodden heathland with a wind-chill that bites the skin, breakfast crouched in the tent porch while condensation drizzles down her neck and nothing but a hard ground on which to rest her head.  And yet she doesn’t complain, or at least not out loud, so, on we walk.

Sunday’s fiasco, including the strain I managed to pull in my knee on the descent, is making me feel old.  The weekend is, perhaps, like my life.  It started off with grand aspirations, before modestly heading downwards and then, halfway round, realising that even those hopes were unachievable, before sloping off for a shower and rethink.

Monday brought significantly better weather.  The tops were clear as we trotted across the Langdale Pikes, plus High Raise for good measure; the views panned across into four different valleys and there was a serene beauty to the world.  Still, it only took a six hour drive back to London, during which my knee seized up, to remind me that I’ve hit halfway.

The mountains are beautiful.  I love living in London, but at times I pine to amongst the barren remoteness.  The scrag slapped cliff faces, the endless horizon, the reflective tarns, the way the land owns us all, it can make my breath catch on my lips, but it also drives a spike of melancholy right through me.  Its apparent robustness betrays its real fragility and I fear for the future.  As the world staggers in its electric drunk fog of confidence towards resource catastrophe, I worry about a generation I already don’t understand.  I’m too distant from it all, from the music, the hopes, a million apps I’ve never heard of, to have any idea what tomorrow holds.

Just like everyone before me.   This play’s script isn’t new.

When the interval curtain comes back up, things will change.  I can no longer consider myself a young man.  There are things I can no longer do, like stay out until two in the morning and get myself coherently into work.  Wearing jeans will eventually join the list, but already looking dishevelled is worrying rather than endearing.  I find myself concerned by things I’d never have given a second thought to, like hip-hop.  I find myself distressed by the misogynist (and several other –ists) lyrics and, despite the funkiest of tunes, feel embarrassed to be listening. 

When I was a teenager, probably shortly after Kurt Cobain took a shotgun to his mouth, music’s twenty-seven club seemed like a grand old age.  By twenty-seven, if you were going to produce anything significant, you would have already done so.  I began to nurse idle daydreams not only of creative accomplishment, but where that material was driven by the dark knowledge that time was running out.  I played out various ends for myself, drink, drugs, terminal illness, a sudden terrible accident.  None came to pass - and nor did any writerly achievements.  Instead, seven years past the age when I expected to be a spent force, I have barely begun. 

I still, occasionally, play the fantasy of success out in my head.  Usually it’s late at night, when I’m a little the worse for wear yet unable to sleep.  The dreams no longer have a macabre twist, but the age I am in them inches ever further forward as real life takes up my time.

On the first full day of my thirty-fifth year I, once again, failed to capitalise on the time gifted to me.  I took the day off, and rather than write I pissed about cleaning up the camping equipment, took my sleeping bag to the laundrette for the first time in a generation, read and failed to get to the heart of this piece.

‘It’s a bit optimistic,’ said my fiancée.  ‘We come all this way, with just the one full day and hope that the weather is kind to us.  And it never is.’  I grunted a response, mildly sulking that my hopes of climbing a Scafell for the first time in years had been beaten, again, by the country’s insistence on conforming to stereotype.  ‘Perhaps we should come for a week.  We’re more likely to have a day when the weather is clear.  We should give ourselves more of a chance.’

She was talking about the Lake District, but it could have been my writing or it could have been the environment.  It could even have been a metaphor for life.  We only get one shot at it and when the time has passed, it’s gone.  Youth, the saying goes, is wasted on the young.  Life, perhaps, is wasted on all of us.  If we had the opportunity for a dress rehearsal, wouldn’t we give a better performance?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not normally one for regrets.  I love my life.  I have a house, soon a wife, a cat, a job I enjoy and creative outlets which, if a little like yelling into the tornado at times, at least give me some satisfaction and yet, when I look back over my life, what exactly have I achieved?  If it were all over tomorrow what would be left other than dust passing on the wind? 

It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to still do, but it does feel like I’ve had lunch at the summit and am now heading back down.  Sure, there’ll be further, possibly even higher, peaks to ascend and beautiful views, jokes to tell and a sense of wonder to behold.  All these things regularly occur on the descent, but there are definitely opportunities that have been missed and can’t be captured in the future.

All that’s left for me is the second act.  And, well, maybe, an encore.