I’m in The Harlequin behind the Sadlers Wells and on the New River Path. Folk musicians strum in the corner, authentic old guys with a fiddler. The best pint of Timothy Taylor’s I’ve had yet, I tell the landlady and she chuffed, says it’s taken her five years to get it right. There’s a real diverse mix in here, difficult to pin down. I’ve passed it several times on the way to work, the frosted Guiness windows made me think: dodgy Irish boozer, but then the freshly painted red exterior and hanging baskets in abundant bloom made me think twice. The door was open and a friendly vibe oozed out onto the pavement. Glad I went in – a new after work drop-in. This is a proper boozer. The old boys are even playing English folk and not the Irish jiggy stuff. A sign behing the bar advertises Hot Salt Beef Sandwiches for £3.50 with pickles an extra 20p. There’s a leaflet lying around on the tables appealing for cash to enable a regular to fullfill his dying wish of a trip to Lourdes in a last attempt to stave off cancer.
Down Caledonian Road, Pleasure Garden 24hr Sauna and Spa, London Taxi Social Club, Istanbul Social Club, Tattooing parlour. Rundown paint-peeling Caledonian Arms on the corner of Blundell St. The pub has stopped trading but Pentonville prison opposite is doing a roaring trade with double the number of inmates it was built to house in 1842 as a new-model prison specialising in solitary confinement. One of the first LCC estates to be built borders the prison, on the site of the old Caledonian Asylum which gave this traffic choked road its name (they used to call it Chalk Road). This street was once packed with breweries, the air pungent with the smell of hops and malt replaced by bareknuckle Irish boozers with Gaelish signage and brawling on the pavement outside.
Turning into Market Road there’s the Hayward Adventure Playground, Indoor Tennis Centre and Astroturf football pitch on the site of the old animal lairs for the Metropolitan Cattle Market moved up here from Smithfield in 1855. They could keep 6000 beasts here in commodious accommodation. The only remnants I can find are the rusting metal posts of the cattle shed and a crumbling brick wall in an overgrown ditch that runs up the back of the tennis courts and the football pitch. The only thing agricultural round here now are some of the tackles in the Islington Midweek League.
In Market Road Gardens there’s a rusting sundial topped with small metal cows. I hear a voice behind me. “Are you OK?” It’s a working girl from Market Road. I’d been warned in the bulletin put out by the Friends of Caledonian Park: “Sex Workers use the park and accost people on Market Road.” The whores have been pushed north by the development of Kings Cross. This is a red light district now. Pimps, prostitutes, kerb crawlers, undercover police surveillance twitching in the bushes, men reading their papers get approached for business. It’s a different kind of meat market now. The girls have the faces of ghosts, the spirit has departed the body for protection. The Gazette carries the gruesome story of a prostitute picked up in Market Road then pushed out of the seven and a half tonne lorry after rowing about the cost of oral sex and crushed to death under the back wheels.
In Gough Square EC4 there’s a homemade sign which reads “BEWARE DIVE-BOMBING SEAGULL IN SQUARE”, with a photo of the bird. There’s the noisy chatter of afterwork drinks in the legal chambers of Gunpowder Square. In Shoe Lane I look through the windows at suits in corporate drinking dens built into the ground-floor levels of glass and steel office blocks – cathedrals of capital with alcohol on-site. It’s 9.25pm and still light.
Turn right, still Shoe Lane, and now it’s dirty gothic and the back of a Wren-like church where I can see a bricked-in door that at this subterranean level must have been an entrance to the crypt. Cab driver sleeps in the back of his Taxi with the engine running under the viaduct.
I take the steps down into Saffron Hill from Charterhouse Street. The rule for my dérive is simple, go where it looks interesting, head for uncharted territory.
Greville Street runs east to west and looks ripe with pubs and eats. I drift on north up Saffron Hill. “THAI CAFÉ AT THE ONE TUN”, Bombardier bunting and Budweiser neon in the windows. It’s too early to hit the beer, I haven’t found familiar territory yet, the dérive is still on and this place doesn’t look so appealing. There’s a painted sign on the wall telling its history: The One Tun was patronised by Charles Dickens and is mentioned in Oliver Twist as “The Three Cripples”, a One Tun is 252 gallons or 4 hogsheads and Saffron Hill takes its name from the Saffron crops that grew here in the eighteenth century. A large white Cadillac is parked opposite advertising the Venus Table Dancing Club. There’s a stone plaque above a metal door with two crossing shields one bearing a swan with L&Co. underneath and the other a ship and the date 1726. It looks like an old warehouse (for saffron?) – there’s a sign advertising flats for rent. As I get near Clerkenwell Road loft apartments take over, familiar territory is in sight.
I hit Hatton Wall and the dérive is effectively over. I could go in the Deux Beers Café Bar but I’m no fan of the Belgian beer crowd so I duck down Eyre Street Hill to The Gunmakers where Maxim conceived the machine gun over a pint. I’ve cruised this place two or three times and been put off by its apparent clubiness but tonight it’s quiet enough to draw me in. I sit under framed photos of a young Albert Finney circa Saturday Night Sunday Morning and above is Samuel Beckett naturally enough. The sixties music is not loud enough to blot out the design-speak from a nearby table. One fella uses the word “über” a lot as in “she has this über über über cool job,” and someone says that “it’s vital we have ownership of the paradigm.” This is Clerkenwell. You could throw a crisp at the Ben Sherman offices from my comfy seat in this roughed-up Social chic pub which works in a kind of way that would make old Albert feel at home. I finish my pint of IPA.
On Amwell Street at 11pm I pass Boris Johnson Tory MP and editor of The Spectator pushing his bike yelling into his mobile phone “So much for the intellectual powerhouse of the Labour backbenches.” The sweaty crowd spilling out of Filthy McNasty’s (yes it is filthy and it is nasty)give him worried looks like he’s some kind of nutter. On Penton Street a northern TV Comedienne is debating with the guys from the Chinese take-away about who’s responsible for the bag of rubbish split open on the path. There’s more than a touch of midsummer madness around.
I pop into Borat’s for a chat and come away with can of Holstein Pils. Get home and email The Guardian Diary page with my Boris story.