Here are some facts about London: it is old, and it is new. It is disgusting, and it is powerful. These truths are interlinked; foul industries, dirty water, a shambling stream of corpses and fire-halted epidemics give rich foundation to the quasi-religious veneration of our one true God, the golden god, and our old and all-conquering vice: Avarice. Bawd and ideal may be plentiful but the muddy, bloody swamp of a city sinks or swims on its venal lawlessness and nearly two millennia of proof can be dredged up for it.
London creates cultures like a loaf of damp bread. It generates saints. In Camden Town the long, sorrowful face of Amy Winehouse appears in smeared black on buildings like the Madonna on American toast; sheer will supersedes finger-wagging press to create her a modern, Jewish saint; “Don’t venerate an addict” and dire warnings of her moral character fall short and miss the point – Amy is an icon because of her flaws, not in spite of them or in their ignorance. Like Marilyn and Billie Holiday before her, the locality bears witness to struggle and pain paired with eloquence and skill, and raises a broken woman to the status of a divinity. It is a black paint backlash against the madonna/whore dichotomy; let her be both, let her be both.
We have hopes for George Michael, but it’s early days yet.
London makes saints of the ordinary, too; not far from my home there is a shrine. A man, 22, whose name I know but won’t share, died violently in the street in November. In a turbulent time these things go unremarked, but the shop across the street remembers, and his loved ones replenish flowers, candles, photographs, empty whisky bottles. Offerings to somewhere or something, to keep him from fraying in their minds. Devoured by the city, he becomes part of it.
Do the rules of urban sainthood cover the man I saw die this week, his vast white belly unthinkingly exposed as he lay surrounded by green-clad paramedics
and stony-faced on-lookers, spread-eagled by an unsuccessful defibrillator on a cold station floor? If he is canonised by the fleck-marks among the grey, how long for?
But it is a morbid time; it is Dead Winter. The time of year when I am quite grateful to find mould growing on my sandwiches because it proves that something can still grow in this hellish twilight. Past the dimple of midwinter and the instinctive bonfires, this frozen endless coda between the solstice and spring equinox is the time I give real and visceral consideration to the possibility of human sacrifice. At 3pm, already dark, on a night-shift week, I drag myself to he gym to treadmill the black despair into aches via the media of glowing orange numbers and participation in a nationwide detoxification – purificiation – fast-and-atonement ritual as we try to apologise the spring into happening. And I think, yeah, I’d kill a child to bring the sun back right now. Why not? Shit, let’s kill ten and have a nice summer this year.
London is a ritual city. It has no pomp nor splendour, no matter how much gilt we pour on the remaining high traditions or crenellated and NeoGothic excesses we defer to – the rituals are modern in age and pre-Enlightenment in character, private or primal: the weird, carved fish of Guild processions, the prescient and personal libations to a Bacchus tossed in the Fleet in the fourth Century, the roadkill funerals, the furtive wishing coins, knuckles to the window of the London Stone and prayers to the known monsters travelling in the eternal dark beneath the city. From the dank earth we came and shall return; we are filth, stains lapping at the feet of our unsecured glass skyscrapers – we are ugly, and let us remain pox-disfigured grasping mollies, roaring over newsprint…
One could weep for all the histories lost in the foundations of raw progress – the temples destroyed by railways, the birthplaces by bombs, the memories by meretricious, mercantile greed, but London does not stand still and it does not stop – a fossil city is a dead city. Better to build on top of our own sinking rooftops, lay roads over
rivers, and let future archaeologists marvel at our litter as we now paw over the plague-pits Pepys and Defoe’s peers did their best to cover.
Buddleia reaches for the sky, whole trees hanging out of brick cracks the size of a thumb; black mould marches over my bedroom ceiling; five mice quarrel in hypersonic territorial fury between the rails of the train to Cockfosters and somewhere in those miles of 19°C subterranean veins, rippling through clay like bands of a new composite mineral, we are evolving a new species of mosquito at light speed. The Tube Parasite. Our very own blood-sucker —
— London is a ritual city. We revisit our haunts. We pay our respects. We set our habits like heartbeats, not clockwork. Environment rules apply: the same man who moved me gently out of his path in a crowded, convivial nightclub in Vauxhall by placing the tips of his fingers on the angel tattooed on my neck kept to the etiquette of the Night Tube afterward, hunched up at the far end of a carriage with his eyes locked to his phone, a dozen empty, newspapered seats between us. Courtesy in both worlds: in the sweat and strobes the pressure of his cock on the waistband of my jeans is simple and unimpeachable neutral manners, too.
Condensed, London is a highly-charged space. Widely-spread souls mistake this hyperreal interaction for hostility instead of the hallucinogenic endgame of compressed human interaction. In the countryside I grew up in, friendliness is a two-hour chat with a grinning death’s head stranger; in this hive it is the quick smile to a bus driver from a passenger who has been on this route a decade. It is the small rituals with speed-ravaged 4am shopkeepers. It is catching the eye of the tired passenger who is watching the same pigeon fight that you are. In each of these seconds a week of intimacies unfolds in its own sweet time.
Do not be so quick to hate the ‘bubbles’ in which we dwell. They are beautiful and we have chosen them for a good reason.
A man was born in California in 1948’s closing months who was destined to make something quite, quite bonkers in London. Just off Spitalfields on Folgate, having been “drawn to London by English light” (already bonkers), Dennis Severs purchased a house and, like Jeanette Winterson and bonkers artists Gilbert & George, renovated it.
However, being magnificently bonkers, Severs didn’t politely repaint the walls and strip out some annoying 1950s fittings and whatever else it is my father is currently doing to a house he’s acquired in Dorset, nor did he simply limit himself to fixing the roof, installing some electrics, and having protracted arguments about different forms of environmentally-friendly plumbing as my mother & step-father did when they, too, bought a derelict property and turned it into something legally habitable.
No, our Dennis was a man with a vision. A glorious, batshit vision. For twenty years, until his death, he resided in this property, living in a museum. Somewhere between a set piece, a really involved one-man LARP, an exercise in time-travel, and the most elegant excuse for being a card-carrying capital-H Hoarder you could possibly devise, his house on Folgate was made into installation art history:
Not only did he turn each room into a tableaux about the mysterious Jervis family, with food left on the table and in some cases playing cards strewn on the floor (you can just about see them in this picture), not only did he live in the middle of this nutjobbery, effectively inventing an art form to justify his wacko spending habits (God bless you, sir), devising a sense of immediacy and imminence of an invisible family…
… After his death it was turned into a public attraction.
Meaning you can visit this wonderful monstrosity, which is precisely what Emma and I did last week.
We’ve tried to explain the experience to each other, standing in the suddenly-loud street afterward. The weirdness, for me, of the smells and creaking floorboards, reminiscent of so many other experiences (Installation History seems to have been an unusually vibrant museum market where I grew up); the nuttiness of the scheme; the fact that on entering a cat ran past us; the way almost all the food was real (smells, again, and the acknowledged difference in weight and visual texture and believability that results); the piped sound of voices from other rooms lending the air of having just missed real people, and above all:
You will complete this journey in silence.
After a while, holding my breath, listening to the voices of the past while peering at their goods, the enterprise began to feel grubby. I felt like a ghost of the present, haunting the past. As if I’d wandered backwards in time to gawk at the private doings of normal people. The pressure of the experience is startlingly immense in that moment. (Slightly spoiled by the necessary presence of volunteers to stop people nicking things or walking into the open candle flames).
“You’re about to begin a journey into the past,” Emma sagely mentioned, mimicking the doorman at the house, “As he stabs away at his iPad, somewhat ruining that illusion.”
“Yes,” quoth I, “but did you notice he had the same face as the portraits? I think he may have been generated by the building.”
After the better part of an hour stalking an immaculate set composed of imagined history and funded by a man who thought nothing of filling the master bedroom with china pots on tiny gold shelves (a shelf for each of them), this seemed a perfectly rational explanation.
The house is on the south side of Folgate Street, and dates from approximately 1724. It is one of a terrace of houses (Nos 6-18) built of brown brick with red brick dressings, over four storeys and with a basement.
Like many people, or indeed the whole of human society, I have a complicated relationship with being on my own. Solitude is frequently cited as the ne plus ultra of modern existence, because everything is loud and constant and I personally live in a large metropolis in a flat with thin walls and an unsafe level of overcrowding; at the same time the press will not shut the hell up about how we’re all ignoring each other because of smartphones (something I’ve experienced plenty of: the friends who beg you to come out with them then spend the entire meal, exhibition, or even, God forbid, play or film, on Facebook talking about something else) and the older generation are increasingly lonely and loneliness is more detrimental to physical health than smoking because humans are social.
It is, admittedly, hard to be genuinely alone in a city because there are people everywhere.
Also like many people I have had the joy of a programme of fairly intensive therapy over the last 18 months, because of Reasons (mental health ones, of course), and can offer the observation from the man in charge of making me a more functional human being that I “isolate myself” from feelings, a problem shared with approximately 49% of the human race.
Isolation, it seems, is bad. The press, again, and psych textbooks, talk about “isolating” people from communities or from their families (allegedly bad), about the “isolating” effect of certain experiences, about the “isolation” of mental illness; more esoterically, in medicine pathogens must be “isolated” to be destroyed. An “isolated” community is a weak one; an “isolated” individual is a vulnerable individual. “Isolation”, then, is bad; presumably this is why, when I was shipped off to school with a lot of other Disruptive, Annoying, and Otherwise Undesirable Teenagers, it was located away from anywhere else. Trying to isolate the infection.
But solitude, according to the spiritual, is good. It allows the space of contemplative thought. Reflection. Lets God into your mind (in much the same way I imagine that solitary confinement lets God and any manner of other hallucinations into the stimulus-deprived mind: tick, tick, I’ve solved the mystery of visitations to Anchorites). How do you tell the difference?
Google Image Search seems to think the answer is all in the angle of your head and the colour saturation of the landscape.
The lazy writer’s explanation for why a character is fine in their own company fails to ring true. “I was an only child,” says the character with a shrug, after fifty years in the Arctic with only a picture of Elvis for company; “I got used to making my own entertainment.” Or, “We always lived in the middle of nowhere anyway.”
Having grown up in some pain-in-the-ass places, in a household containing one other person and one very loud sewing machine, I can confidently state:
Getting used to something is not the same as enjoying it.
You will take any opportunity to catch a lift into the nearest town. Literally any. Oh, the terrible, pointless activities I have engaged in to avoid spending more time sitting in my own room staring at too-familiar posters.
Self-isolation is something the social monkey engages in when it feels threatened. You lock yourself in a toilet cubicle because the braying rugby narks outside seem like they might do a hate crime on you; you choose the hidden library carrel, the agoraphobic’s approach to living in shared accommodation; when the world is full of threats a closed door becomes a shield. Witness, if you like, the fear-riled who squeak indignantly about Britain’s insurmountable immigration, as if all of our major threats have not come from within.
A friend, living alone after a break-up, going through a hell inside his own head, used to travel to a service station cafe at night to “people-watch”; he liked the feeling of being both apart and present.
Alone, but not lonely. Apart, but not isolated.
Much is made by lazy journalists and bloggers of the London commuter’s “bubble” of personal space, which often consists of “their skin + some serious denial” during rush hour. According to people who haven’t travelled on the Underground since 1996, we never make eye contact, never come into physical contact, don’t speak to anyone, and don’t emerge from our hated bubbles of isolation.
Would that were true. A girl sat next to me once to tell me about the abortion she’d embezzled money from her dad to pay for in Nigeria. “I don’t know why I’m telling you,” she said, “I just think someone should know.” Another time, a man barged into me on a nearly-empty Northern Line carriage and shoved a condom in my face in possibly the least coherent sexual proposal I’ve ever been subjected to. I was reading at the time.
A bubble of isolation is a mutually consenting abstention from social interaction which can be breached at any moment. It is fragile, illusory, enforced by talismanic headphones, screens, and books. You cannot be alone on public transport unless you are physically alone.
I’ve never been much good at being alone in public places. Meeting up with people is hell even in the age of continual phone contact (if you are one of those people who feels the need to text people with continual updates of your progress towards a rendezvous I love you, be my friend) and was worse when I was a teenager (I was once stood up in a place that took me three hours by train to reach); I’ve spent enough time at events hiding in toilets waiting for people I knew to show up to have written at least two novels, and the stupid thing is I’m not actually shy. I’ve done stand-up, for Christ’s sake. I repeatedly climbed on stage and invited people to stare at me. Given half a chance and a single pint of cider I will dance on any podium presented to me as long as I know someone else there.
Most idiotic social anxieties are connected to childhood bullying; say the wrong thing and everyone laughs? Glue your mouth shut for thirty years. Always on your own and an easy target for bullies who never face any recriminations? Become a world-class skulker.
Lurking behind bins however does lose its appeal when you’re trying to actually live a life, and since the Great Engendering I’ve been trying to make up for lost time on many fronts. But I’m still missing out on exhibitions, gigs, movies, plays, visits to new places, and explorations of who-knows-what purely because some Safe Person can’t or won’t come with me. Not everyone, apparently, is into “I want to go here and look at a frankly horrifying number of prosthetic eyeballs“; not everyone can find the time to be there when, like some ancient Mayan calender occurrence, Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head is possible to view, or it stops raining for long enough to go to the fucking beach. And, well, sometimes your friends are too broke to indulge in trying this week’s weird food discovery, or too squeamish.
I am determined to try and retry things, now that I have a good idea of who I am, until I know what it is I do and don’t like. This “learning to like stuff you didn’t like” project has yielded progress with food: I’m cautiously capable of ingesting lamb, or I would be if I hadn’t quit meat at the beginning of the year; I got the hang of bananas in 2015 and night shift has dragged me kicking and screaming into the adult consumption of coffee. Beer still tastes filthy.
Project: Stop Being Such A Fucking Coward, Derek has begun.
Bribery with food works wonders. In case anyone wanted wonders worked: bribe me with dinner. I will put up with anything for a free meal, or even just a nice meal.
Shoryu (branches in Soho, Broadgate, and some other places I don’t care about) is a tried-and-tested locale for putting nutrients in my horrible carcass. They sell interesting sides, fun cocktails, and at every time I’ve been in there someone’s been eating alone at the counter, which means eating alone there is Normal.
Normal for me has traditionally been to “hide” in a park to eat alone, because what if I look weird otherwise; dining out, properly, by myself is not quite ground zero of “oh god help me why am I here by myself”, but it’s fairly alarming. After the test case in Solo Adventures (Tokyo Nights in Dalston in the winter) did not go entirely according to plan I’ve been leery of it.
But on Friday I aggressively wanted atsuage tofu and a warm onigiri and nothing, not hell, high water, Delightful Boyfriend’s Japanese food fatigue, nor the entire besuited population of City standing in Broadgate Circle like the most sartorially identikit obstacle course outside of a football match, was going to stop me.
I marched into Suit Hell carrying a backpack full of work-related crap, a book about Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli failing to steal the Arno river, and listening to Leonard Cohen’s The Future at an uncomfortably high volume, because I’m cool and hip and in no way a sad little nerd boy.
And it was fine.
Of course it was fine.
It’s fucking London. I went into a restaurant fully-clothed and didn’t scream abuse at anyone and I have the acknowledged privilege of being so white that I am slightly confident I could take out an actual bomb in a railway terminus and not be shot; animosity and suspicion nil. Reading at the counter? Fine. Photographing my food compulsively? Normal, hello, everyone has Instagram.
And so the spectre of another few thousand instances of muttering provincials and lobbed stones (“Why don’t you move out of London, Derek, you could afford to buy a house?” // “Have you seen The Wicker Man?”), relentless, suffocating gossip, and apparently depthless staring directed at anyone who so much as bleaches their hair has another little wobble.
Take a book. Sit next to the four other individual diners at the counter (all men in our thirties and forties wearing nearly identical shades of blue jumper, I’ll see myself out. Maybe we can start a club). Take a deep breath, and just have dinner by yourself. It will be okay.
Going to places alone isn’t the only question of “being alone”, though. While having a social crutch for handholding, performing a personality at, and avoiding potentially being targeted as a lone imbecile by a hostile world is handy, sometimes the presence of another person or persons is a desperate distraction from a brain that will not shut up.
Picture the scene: you’re on a bus. A London bus.
You’re on the top deck of a bus listening to shitty hard techno from 1995 to keep yourself awake, and rosy-tainted dawn is clawing furiously at your face as you try to whisk your aching brain towards bed. You have been up all night reading the news, which means if you met Rod Liddle on the road you would murder him without blinking, and you are so neurotic about food that you fear dust particles on the bus around you may contain too many calories to be safely inhaled.
Congratulations, you now own a brain that is fizzing. Would you like to ruminate on a lengthy blog post about your failing as a human being? Design vans that sell hot rice? Imaginary arguments with people you haven’t spoken to in upwards of ten years? Obsessive self-flagellation over mistakes you can do nothing about? Planning things you can’t actually act on or do? Run out of words? NO WORRIES WE CAN BOMBARD YOU WITH A CONTINUALLY-SHIFTING PATTERN OF REALLY INSISTENT IMAGES AND FEELINGS AT RATE OF FOUR A SECOND–
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
When you can no longer concentrate on the solitude-addict’s best friend, the book, there’s nothing between you and the raw and naked garbage heap of the unfiltered brain. Mine – over-caffeinated, over-tired, bogged down with a night of relentless news and unacknowledged worries – is especially putrid. Even in times outside this nadir of human existence, the shift-change between the vomiting drunks on the 24-hour service and the early-morning workers, even when I’m no longer stuck in the bizarre bubble of returning home as you go to work, the rot is palpable.
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
Introspection is allegedly the mark of the intelligent, but it’s possible I’ve done enough to secure my place among the neurotic.
You know what’s cool, though? This very busy city contains quite enough to distract me.
Free exhibition @ The Barbican Centre; rainbow over Stoke Newington; butterfly fish at Kew Gardens; 2300-year-old terracotta pig in the British Museum; taxidermy stag head in Camden Stables Market.
Welcome back to my continuing mission to be the unpaidtourism board for my city.
Central London has a baffling amount of places to ingest food, most of which are good, none of which are cheap, the majority of which appear these days to be in Kingly Court at the expense of, variously, the Soho Book Exchange and any kind of shop.
Yesterday I plunged into the waters of London Cuisine to bring you a report on places to eat on the fringes of Soho: covering Japan, Mexico, and India, with a small detour into Anglo-French; looking at the deli, the chain take-away, the tea room, and the informal/haute restaurant. All of the following places are within easy walking distance of both each other and the tube. No main dish will cost you more than £20, and most of them cost less than £10.
Closest Underground Station: Piccadilly Circus is less than a minute away from the entrance.
Price range: Most dishes are under £5
The Japan Centre is fundamentally a deli counter and tiny food court in the middle of an import supermarket. It is accessed via a mirror-lined escalator which is just wide enough for one person, through a kind of straits between two take-away stands selling takotaki and and buns, and a row of shelves threatening you with cheap donburi bowls and cat-glazed sake cups.
Your options on arrival are to either browse the cold shelves for pre-prepared sushi, sashimi, donburi bowls, assembled throwaway bento boxes, etc, or to go up to the deli counter and ask for food from the array there, which can be heated on request. You pay at the tills, along with the people buying from the supermarket section, and get red tape on your eat-in purchases to assure staff you’re not just arbitrarily eating things off the shelves without paying for them.
As this is a food hall, don’t expect much in the way of lavish comfort. As this is a deli, also don’t expect to pay a fortune – I took a chicken katsu onigiri from the fridges, a piece of pork tempura, and a shiso salmon stick from the counter for my brunch and the whole thing came to less than ten pounds. The onigiri wasn’t even £2. You come here for food which is quick-to-immediate, very affordable, and excellent value: everything I bought was straight-up delicious and exactly the way I wanted to start my day.
Given that you’re in the middle of a supermarket there’s also pretty much an endless array of choice if you want to supplement your hot & cold purchases with packet desserts or cold puddings: the dessert fridge contains a huge selection of fresh cheesecake pots, individual mochi, and just next to it is a freezer full of tiny ice cream tubs.
Definitely the place to go for cheap Japanese food: don’t waste time and energy trying to find a branch of Yo!Sushi (similar price range) when you can come here and have something a hundred times better and spend, often, less.
Closest Underground Station: Mid-way between Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road
Price Range: A standard burrito is about £6.50, with guac around £8.70 (who eats burrito without guac anyway)
A warning to visitors from North America (Americans, Mexicans, Canadians): this is probably not what you’re expecting when you suffer from a burrito craving and decide to go and avail yourself of one. “It costs more than two dollars!” you cry, angrily, outside the grey frontage. “Where’s the limitless soda pump? Why isn’t this fifteen tonnes of grease and corn syrup? I QUIT.”
The elements which make this Not A Real Burrito Ugh Omg according to my American informants are however the elements that make me enjoy it.The brand here appear to be committed to fresh ingredients: the lettuce certainly is crisp and the steak chunks came to me fresh out of the fryer because the servers didn’t like the look of the ones that were already waiting in the basket. The servers: not me. Another blow for the culture of complaint! Similarly, the whole thing isn’t swimming in relentless grease, doesn’t taste of HFCS, has normal rice in it, and in general looks fairly wholesome both in its assembly and consumption. Also: is a sizeable meal for the hungry without being a watermelon-sized monstrosity. For the sake of completion I’m letting these two paragraphs stand: I was given the impression by a loud, disgusted complaint of being unimpressed as we passed the TCR branch that said American was talking about the UK iteration of the US chain (as regional variants are pretty common in chain eateries), and based on my own sad experiences of American food I filled in the gaps: she’s since explained that actually it’s Chipotle in general that fails to fuel her fire. For all I know, there’s no difference at all. There’s always Wahacca!
An ethos of fresh/vaguely healthy food isn’t for everyone – indeed, if you’re suffering from the acute need for something dirty and satisfying Chipotle probably isn’t the place for you, but there is fortunately a greasy pizza stand every three metres in this part of London so you shouldn’t despair. As to the rest of us: sit down on one of the squashy-topped stools at the brushed steel counters or stroll out onto the street with your fat burrito baby and enjoy a hot meal.
Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: a pot of tea or hot chocolate will set you back £3.50, afternoon tea is more.
In terms of ambience and cheerful, friendly service Camellia’s is a solid winner, tucked away on the top floor of Kingly Court and stuffed to the rafters with pretty tea ware, attractive cakes, tins of different teas, and helpful staff. A clear winner with the Afternoon Tea crowd, we spotted two tables of separate groups of young ladies Instagramming their towers of cake and sandwiches: as well they might, because the array was highly attractive.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of going to a speciality tea house and ordering a hot chocolate, which arrived watery and badly-mixed, with the chocolate grounds lurking malignantly in the bottom of the cup no matter how hard I stirred. This was unfortunate, as the pistachio macron I ordered with it was an exercise in restrained heaven. Caveat emptor, then, and stick to what they’re good at: tea. Though I heard no complaints about the coffee, either.
Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: around £20 maximum for a main, £8-10 for a cocktail, under £10 for a starter.
No flies on Cinnamon Soho. Part of a brand which includes far more upmarket and haute cuisine offerings from the subcontinent, the Soho branch is significantly more relaxed and informal without compromising on décor (slick, black, minimal, comfortable, and intimate) or, importantly, taste.
Being somewhat full after a day of tramping around London consuming chocolate and doriyaki every three steps, the restrained portion sizes at Cinnamon were distinctly welcome, as was the unexpected two-for-ten-pounds offer on the cocktails. I opened with tandoori salmon (tender, thoroughly-cooked, crisply-spiced, served with pea purée), moved on to spinach dumplings made with paneer, in a tomato & fenugreek sauce and served with rice (crisp and delicious, with just the right amount of sauce to keep the dumplings and rice moistened but not enough to swamp them: a scientific proportion I am sure has been worked out carefully through experimentation), and finished with an excellently-poached peer served with rice kheer (which I haven’t had since I lived in the country 25+ years ago but apparently still miss) and cinnamon ice-cream, plus the mandatory smears of coulis which I can’t bring myself to mock because they genuinely did add to the flavour.
Accompanied by a long, cool Garden Martini (elderflower and cucumber, as I vainly try to guilt summer into happening), the only snag was that I’d ordered Masala mash and didn’t receive – although as by that point I didn’t have room for it and we weren’t billed for it I’d say that wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been, and certainly not worth complaining over. Great service, from affable and unintimidating waiters (certainly compared to our last dining-out experience at Wilton’s, which was frankly too frightening to write about!), and a timely and unhurried meal was just right to wrap up a long day savouring the delights of Soho.
On a sadder note, a day in Soho has made it all the clearer that the area is being blasted into nothingness. There are already gaping holes in a once-familiar skyline, blank shutters on Berwick Street, and nothing new or similar to replace the emptiness. Many moons ago, ahead of the curve, The Correspondents lamented, “Oh, no, what’s happened to Soho… oh no, where did all the reprobates go?” and now the rest of the arts fraternity have caught up:
A little under five years ago I launched myself into a year of studying for an HNC in Music Production; almost immediately after I’d finished I got a persistent ear infection which a) continues to this day and b) has definitely robbed me of my higher-frequency hearing, basically the opposite of what you want if you’re trying to work as a sound engineer.
Both before and since then I’ve worked in a number of offices, in which I’ve worn a variety of headphones (before settling, post-HNC, on AKG K271 Mkii – ironically I have been stopped several times by sound engineers because of these headphones, as they’re apparently favoured by live sound people), for the purpose of shutting out the sounds of an office and letting me concentrate.
The coal-face of employment
Typical complaints from friends in office jobs have been that they’re too quiet and no one talks to each other.
Allow me to present my counter-argument:
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to work accurately and with speed when everyone around you is gabbling meaninglessly about what they watched on TV last night?
People bellow things to each other that could be emailed. People ask inane questions for the sake of making a noise. Phones ring. Doors slam. At my last workplace, which was a university (in which for some mad reason we were required to work in the same buildings the students despite having nothing to do with them, and to work with our office door open), the fire door continually slammed; people wandered in to yell at us about where their lectures were. Four years of intermittently working at various universities will grind down your goodwill towards seekers of further education in a way that no amount of drunken rag week incursions into evening life will ever manage.
There was a window, brief and glorious, into what work could be like: I spent a month in a basement of a research and teaching hospital, archiving their samples for shipment to a less asbestos-filled, out-of-the-way location. I worked with one other person, who sat in a different room to me: my supervisor came down once a day to check if we had enough boxes. Twice a day we crawled up the stairs to a staff kitchen where we sat in silence with tea and looked out of the window at daylight.
I am sure to the kind of people who complain of offices where no one ever talks to each other, this sounds like hell, but we did also manage to discuss perfume-making, 1980s queer literature, how to learn Spanish, and the relative merits of different types of dust mask. We just didn’t do it constantly.
Now, this year, I’ve begun another job: it is in a large, open-plan office, and there are a lot of people working on the same shift. One would expect a lot of noise, barring two things:
It’s at night, and
The workload is heavy.
This means that in practice, the place is more-or-less silent. People wear headphones, or they don’t, but no one starts up endless idle chit-chat. No one lurks around your desk when you’re trying to concentrate and asks meaninglessly jovial questions about your personal life. People work, and then they go home.
Cathedrals and Temple
One of the real purposes of places of worship being open between ceremonies of worship, so that any old mug can wander in, I am sure, is so that said mug can enjoy for a moment the quiet and seclusion of a place removed from daily life and from continual conversation. There is a general social agreement that we don’t raise our voices inside large stone buildings; less so in museums and art galleries, where a normal level of conversation is permissible, but in cathedrals and churches the requirements of non-disturbance hold sway. Wandering into St Lawrence Jewry out of the rain drags the wanderer out of the noise of the city (although admittedly the the City tends to be as silent as a grave on the weekends, part of its Saturday and Sunday appeal) and into hoped-for contemplation.
Meditation rooms are characterised by their silence; prayer chapels ask that we respectfully allow others to exist without being continually reminded that everyone around them has thoughts and opinions. Libraries, the highest form of temple, preserve a quiet study room into which cheerfully chatting weekday mums and excited children armed with the latest child fantasy franchise do not enter: I agree with the consensus of librarians in this country that libraries are not for miserable silence, but I applaud the decision to allow one secluded area for those of us who don’t find silence miserable at all, too.
And so on a recent history walk out of this book, I dragged my willing accomplice through the four Inns of Court and the no-longer extant former Inns of Chancery, and discovered that there are patches of silence waiting in busy, noisy London, wherever you go.
The Inns of Court seem like tiny fiefdoms, lawyerish enclaves removed from the rest of the city by enclosing buildings and roads which frequently have large wooden or metal doors drawn across them to prevent traffic from entering. They boast some of the oldest buildings in the city, and have some of the longest continuous use of any area of the city, having begun their legal trading well before the Tudor period.
At Lincoln’s Inn you may find Old Hall and its chapel (only open on weekday lunchtimes), with beautiful vaults:
To the South of Lincoln’s Inn and New Hall there is a bizarre and elderly pub called the Seven Stars, with a window display of satirical taxidermy, a phrase I have fallen in love with and wish to have more opportunities to abuse:
South again, on the Strand, there is the bewildering and ostentatious lobby of a Lloyd’s Bank, intended only as a space to hold a couple of ATMs:
But it is with the Inns of Court of Inner, Middle, and Outer Temple that I wish to concern myself, because those are the places in which the whole presence of the city shrinks to the glimpse you catch on the far side of the river, and the slow indignant traffic crawling along Embankment towards and from Blackfriars. In Middle Temple lies Fountain Court, where there is:
And a fascinating Tudor hall replete with the requisite garish stained glass windows and massive red and white roses: having grown up a stone’s throw from Buckland Abbey (assuming you can throw a stone about five miles, and have terrific aim), which boasts an excellent quantity of Tudor remnants, the presence of Middle Temple’s hall is quietly comforting. When night falls, if you stand with your back to the fountain and face the river, the blue lights strung in the branches of the trees at Gabriel’s Wharf are visible as an icy fuzz below the Oxo tower.
Temple Church, a late 12th-century edifice built by the Knights Templar and restored after significant damage in WWII (a phrase you will get fucking sick of as soon as you start looking into the history of London with any interest: “significant damage in WWII”), presides over another nearby courtyard. In Pump Court, glimpsed here on Google Street View between the pillars of Pump Court Cloisters, from a vantage point beside Temple Church, red-berried trees rise from the paving slabs. It is blissfully, perfectly silent, especially after the sun goes down.
There is something to be said for the privilege and power accrued by hundreds of generations of lawyers beavering over precedents in the same spot: it makes for elegant, undisturbed premises ripe for clearing your head.
I’ve waxed wrath and often on the topic of requiring a comforting blanket of aggressive sound to cover up the aggressive sounds of the world: the AKG K271s are a security blanket preserving the mind from unnecessary interruptions and unwanted conversation as much as they are the delivery mechanism for iPod-borne pace-setters. Noise, particularly the rhythmic and repetitive kind, has a profound neurological importance.
But constantly looking for meaning in every bang, bump, misheard mumble and distance rumble isn’t a blueprint for problem-solving, nor for planning, nor for peace of mind. Sometimes it’s necessary for whatever lies in place of a soul or a basic sense of being individually human, to have the attendant thumps and crunches of existence whittled away to bird song, or the vacant silence of an empty stone hall.
Soon it will be spring, and time for spring cleaning both home and head, and I look forward to approaching the latter in one of London’s many silent spaces.
On Sunday night, the night of what turned out to be the supermoon, the Resident Australian and I went looking for blackberries. At dusk, because obviously the best way to gather small black fruit is to wait until it’s nearly dark and then not bring a torch.
While on our largely unsuccessful mission to the nature walk, we encountered this:
What is it? We just don’t know. Is this bowl of apples, pears, grapes, and loose grain an offering to some kind of forest god? Is it some misguided and patronising attempt at feeding the homeless? Or has it been put out for the deer by someone who doesn’t know that the deer park is at the other side of the hill? What does it mean?
A helpful round-up of ten comics dealing with mental illness. After visiting the comics exhibition at the British Library earlier in the month, I’ve found my interest in comics from roughly ten years ago is slowly rekindling and crawling out from the blanket of general disinterest in everything and dislike of the medium, being gently reminded that although I’m surrounded by people who consume comics solely as a superhero narrative medium, there are other uses, styles, and forms the medium takes. It is good to be reminded that sequential art has functions beyond the fannish.
Compiled some of London’s most celebrated independent publishers, so that I can harangue them about how much they really really want to publish me. I suspect that’s not what they intended when they made this list but that’s what it’s for now.
This bank holiday I took the Resident Australian and her very expensive camera, and went to explore the first tunnel built under the Thames with a group of other nosy buggers, care of the London Transport Museum and, in my case, a friend who’d bought tickets and couldn’t use them.
Suited up in the same blue latex gloves I used to wear when my day day job was cataloguing dusty boxes of brain samples in a windowless basement, this time to prevent Weill’s disease from the omnipresent smattering of rat whizz, we descended undramatically down the escalators, and off the platforms onto the track.
The tunnel runs from Rotherhithe to Wapping (or Wapping to Rotherhithe, if you prefer), and was finished in 1843 to great acclaim and a visit from approximately 50% of London’s then 2 million-strong populous. It was originally built as a goods tunnel, intended to relieve the pressure on the bridges and the ceaseless river traffic, but was only used as a pedestrian tunnel (with archways that quickly turned into the shagging grounds of London’s tireless hookers) before being sold to the railways, who extended it and ran the East London Line through it. Then the East London Line was incorporated into the London Underground, and later transformed into the London Overground.
It took 18 years to build, thanks to a series of disasters including: a ship that dropped anchor through the roof and drowned several workers (and nearly did in Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son of the tunnel’s creator Sir Marc, and future celebrated engineer and inventor himself); running out of money (which was resolved by holding a banquet in the half-finished tunnel to raise more cash, which at my estimation after having been down there seems like a tight squeeze!); and digging time being limited by a lack of air and pockets of methane created by seepage from the sewage-choked Thames above. We were informed that a new “super sewer” was even then being built beneath our feet, carrying water below the tunnel below the river.
Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of London you discover there’s more London underneath it.
Most of this fascinating story I’d already had thanks to a book called London Under London(which I cannot recommend enough: the front cover even features the aforementioned banquet), and to Horrible Histories, but there is something to be said for hearing it all over again, especially from a cheerful and proud man with more than a little of the late Bob Hoskins about him, down an echoing hole under the river. There were six metres of mud above our heads, he said, and the tarpaulin Sir Marc used to plug the anchor-made hole in the roof so the tunnel could be pumped was, as far as he knew, still embedded in it.
London, which in the annuls of ancient cities isn’t even very old, still has so much history in it that you could waste a pleasurable lifetime studying it even without going into much detail.
One thing I hadn’t heard about was this: when the Royal Family – at this point consisting of Albert and Victoria – came to investigate this marvel of civil engineering, the ladies of negotiable virtue hadn’t yet moved into the archways you can just see above. Those little glimpses between the twin tunnels were instead reserved for traders, sellers of knick-knacks, gew-gaws, and general “tourist tat”. Given that the tunnel was also appallingly muddy, the seller of handkerchiefs was in luck when Queen Vic slid down to the tunnel: they were all purchased to lay in front of her royal footsies.
As our guide told it: the seller was then out of handkerchiefs and needed more stock. Being an enterprising fella, he gathered up the used hankies and began selling them as souvenirs – “as trodden on by the Queen” – a trade he kept up right until someone noticed that the muddy footprint on later hankies was that of a size 10 men’s boot.
“So there was entrepreneurship, and a little bit of fraud, too,” said Not Hoskins, with some pride. Absolutely the spirit of London, both Victorian and modern.
The tunnel you see is not finished the way it was at first. The tunnel is, after all, more than 150 years old, and needs protection against wear and tear on its bricks. The story goes that the Underground surveyed the tunnel in the 00s (of the 21st, not 20th) and found it in desperate need of support. The day before a £23 million project intended to clad the tunnel in concrete was due to begin, Heritage in Parliament had the place listed as a Grade II historical building, and the whole process was set back.
What you can see is a compromise. The tunnel is clad, but the concrete conforms to the original shape of the tunnel. At the Rotherhithe end, the four arches that protrude out from under the river have been left as they were: blackened by coal smuts, crumbling like diseased wood, with a gas canister for the old lighting system still rusting in its alcove.
The history of London’s civil engineering advances is often a bittersweet one. Men died building this tunnel, and with the labour practices of Victorian England being what they were, I imagine their families were not well-compensated for it. The conditions were incredibly dangerous – even without the threat of drowning in the notoriously foul water of the 19th century Thames, the gas build-up in the later stages was so great that diggers had to be dragged out unconscious by their relieving shift.
The tunnelling shield developed by Sir Marc and Thomas Cochrane made this enterprise possible at all – several attempts had already been made to tunnel the Thames and not succeeded – and was later improved by Peter W. Barlow and James Henry Greathead; the basic idea is still in use today, with tunnel boring machines replacing the labourers. The invention of the tunnelling shield in this project is almost certainly one of the developments that allowed the Underground Railway and its imitators around the world to be created.
We returned to the platform and then to the entrance hall of Rotherhithe station where, true to form, there were souvenirs on sale – as well as some hand sanitizer, for any inadvertent contact with the rats. Both a recollection of the past, and a nice reminder of all the progress that has been made since the tunnel was built.
The time has come to let this particular manuscript into the wild! I’m very fond of this one (I’m fond of all my books, but don’t tell anyone – I hear that kind of thing comes off as arrogance in the wrong circles), and it was pretty much incredibly good fun to write from start to finish.
Hopefully it’ll be good fun to read from start to finish, too: a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar without the politics but with a chilling, ancient blood magic and feuding London gangs, replete with a diverse cast of characters and familiar places.
The King is dead: long live the King. Or so the echoes suggest. But Craig Williamson has barely murdered his way to total dominance of his London crime family when already his lieutenants are plotting against him: not greedy, just concerned. Or so they say.
One thing is for sure: whoever wins, it’s bad news for the police, who still don’t know how to prosecute or even properly investigate the gruesome, ancient blood magic used by the gun…
…even the gang themselves don’t fully understand it.
Brown Bread, Boys is available to buy in print from Amazon or Lulu, as a variety of eBook formats from Lulu (and a few other places), and as a Kindle .mobi from Amazon (UK | US) – there’s almost no end of ways you can pick up and devour this story. Except by literally picking it up and eating it, because that is a bad way to read a book.