Finally ventured into the 1 o’clock club, the bear pit, dragged in by my son. We stood at the door, son struck by shyness. All eyes turned towards us, conversation halted. The scary granny-childminders of my previous post were all smiles and cooes for the little fella’s curly locks. We stayed for a good hour, covering ourselves in bright pink paint. The doors were shut but the real Vera Drakes were sweetness and light; one even gave us a packet of raisins.
“Open the doors and let the kids play”, is what one Mum said to me. She was talking about the 1 O’clock club in Barnard Park but I took it on a metaphorical level. Open the doors and let the kids play, take down the barriers and unleash the little tykes’ creative energies. It seems odd that in one of our precious bits of greenspace (Islington has the least amount of greenspace of any Borough in London) the doors at the 1 o’clock club should remain closed keeping the children inside the little concrete cube with the gossiping women. I’m too intimidated to go in myself, I rely on the hearsay of others. It comes across as a tight cabal of fiercesome grannie-childminders and fag smoking baby-mums spouting Daily Mail headlines.
One source reported a conversation about Mike Leigh’s film ‘Vera Drake’ that went along the lines of “Saw that Vera Drake”, “Me too, boring…”, “Dreary,” “I walked out”. The irony being that Leigh has said in his mind the character of Vera Drake lived in Copenhagen Street, the street that runs right past the 1 o’clock club; these lovely ladies could be the real Vera Drakes.
‘Course you’d never find Mike Leigh at the 1 0’clock club, it’s far too working class.
The conversation about getting the doors open literally and metaphorically and ending the club’s status as a free coffee stop for the childless women of the area ignited my political instincts. We were still bathing in the glow of our Sure Start playgroup being taken into the hands of a parent-led management committee and had successfully changed the time of the kids’ morning snack to 11.15. “A coup d’etat”, I suggested, “a 1 o’clock club putsch”.
“Sing song time”. One of the group facilitators rounded us up and soon talk of the march on Barnard Park was drowned out by “Wind the bobbin up, wind the bobbin up…..” A song glorifying exploitative piecework labour practices of capitalist mill owners.
I cross the border into deepest darkest Hackney, a journey worthy of Conrad, taken aboard a 394 all the way from Angel to Homerton High Street. This journey should have its own blue plaque, a magical mystery tour through the fringe of the old City, through its plaque pits, burial grounds and hunting fields. White Conduit House, The Eagle, Shoreditch, London Fields. It’s a moving expo of public housing schemes from the best of the LCC 4-storey blocks built but idealists to seventies efforts fit only for crack-dens.
The purpose of my pilgrimage back to my post-Poly stomping grounds is to listen to London’s seer, Iain Sinclair sharing a platform with two other writers who use the city as their muse, Maureen Duffy and Ferdinand Dennis. The venue is a treasure, Sutton House that boasts to be the oldest dwelling in East London and I’m guessing that it’s C16/C17th. I remember it as the place I could never get into, kept impossible hours and my days back then were divided between the Job Centre, the library and Mare Street pubs.
Sinclair reads for perhaps 15 minutes but it’s long enough to deliver a few choice lines on how working in freight yards and parks he created a kind of “mythic geography” of the area; that his London is defined by invisibility and secrecy, and Mike Moorcock turned back at the river unable to cross the Thames heading south.
Duffy and Dennis offer slightly different visions of our great necropolis. Duffy has memories of the blitz and Dennis delivers fruity slices of the post-war immigrant experience. But as Duffy reminds us we’re all immigrants in London (in England I’d say).
It triggers off various thoughts. For me London is a city that dis-locates you rather than gives you a sense of location. So much is buried beneath our feet and behind the brickwork that echoes of past lives pulse up through the pavement and seep through the plaster.
When I walk to work I cross the River Fleet, “River of Wells”. Despite being beneath Kings Cross Road/ Farringdon Road there is a tangible divide when the river is crossed. Again when I emerge from Fetter Lane into Fleet Street the atmosphere alters as I enter the realm of Sweeney Todd and Samuel Johnson.
I came home from Hackney via the more prosaic No.38, one of the last surviving Routemasters and alight at the end of Essex Road. Homerton feels a million miles away, down below us on boggy ground while we swan around on the sacred Penton Mound.
Whilst hoofing it down to Soho the other night I put together a few more fragments of my autotopobiography (a fantastically unwieldy term mis-remembered from Phil Smith’s essay ‘Dread, Route and Time: An Autobiographical Walking of Everything Else’) of the area. I suppose it starts with Barnstaple Mansions on Rosebery Avenue. My parents moved to Barnstaple a few years back. Mulligans pub in the same street also serves up a decent pint of Brakespeare’s which comes from my native Thames Valley and is the brew that I cut my teeth on as a teenager.
Further down I stopped to note down the brown LCC plaque on 22 Theobalds Road to Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield who was born there in 1804. I was born in High Wycombe and Disraeli launched his political career with a disastrous speech from the balcony of the Red Lion Hotel in Wycombe High Street, he lived up the hill in Hughenden and said that there was something in the air of Bucks that leant itself to politics. I studied politics at City Poly.
Not far away at 64 Red Lion Street WC1 there’s a nondescript 60’s seven-storey block of flats called Beaconsfield (probably because of Dizzi’s birthplace round the corner) and Beaconsfield was where I got married, where my first girlfriend lived and where I spent much of my teens drinking that Brakespeare’s.
The rest of journey to the Curzon was free of associations and I spent an hourin Chinatown looking for a small white fortune kitten to replace the one my son had lost and pined for.
Coming home I get drawn off Guilford Street down a dark Doughty Mews to the Duke pub (more of that another time) which sits on the corner of John’s Mews and Roger Street – my name minus an ‘s’ on the end. A previous John Rogers was famous for printing the second complete Bible in English. He used to preach at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre-without Newgate on Holborn Viaduct and was eventually thrown in Newgate prison over the road, tried as Lollard heretic and burnt at the stake in Smithfield in 1555 (ish). All places on my daily drifts.
Lollards have a strong association with Bucks and one leader Thomas Chase was tortured to death in the village of Wooburn Green where I grew up.
I was back down that way last week interviewing this lovely old couple for a psychogeography project I’m working on connected to the area http://remappinghighwycombe.blogspot.com. This couple are practising Methodists and halfway through the evening David presents me with a book he co-authored, ‘250 Years of Chiltern Methodism’. I open it on the train home to read that John Wesley, founder of Methodism, used to worship at the Moravian chapel in Fetter Lane where I walk nearly every day. He went on to open his first Chapel just down the road from me in City Road where he lived.
Now I’m building up countless new associations with Islington and around, each day triggers off echoes of feelings from other times and experiences. My mood map of the borough already has its warm spots glowing yellow and red; the high corner of Highbury Fields where I used to go to soak up the spirit of the French clowns I saw perform there (gave me strength in my own performing days), and the house on Liverpool Road where my son was conceived. Like a lot of stuff on this blog this is a work-in-progress, it’ll change depending on my mood. Martyrs and Heretics just seem to be on my mind at the moment.
This is the possible site of Penny’s Folly or Busby’s Folly, one of Islington’s many pleasure gardens. It is now Risinghill Street. I thought this a strange name for a street 20 yards long. The etymology suggests a site of pagan worship. It sits just off Penton Street. ‘Pen’ is Celtic for hill, and ‘ton’ means spring or rising ground.
Peter Ackroyd has a hypothesis that the London mounds such as Penton Hill are the holy sites of Druid Ritual.
The presence of St Silas’ Church in the street almost confirms this hypothesis as the christ cult had a habit of appropriating Pagan sites.
Light on at the top of the Unity Church Hall. Fire engines at rest in the garage. Geezers shirts out for a big night. Florence Street ends. Zebra crossing on Upper Street seems to be invisible. Lovers, women, lads. Routemasters diverted into Theberton Street. Flowers for Sunny Cracknell. Streams of people like the West End.
Settled in The Crown. It’s 10pm, so noisy after the soft cold night air. Couldn’t have taken this 40 minutes ago. It’s what fuelled my circuit. Every pub packed to the rafters, sweaty digusting vulgar. My loop brought me back to Sainsbury’s at which point it was here or nowhere. Friday nights are desperate, violent affairs. Everyone angry, letting off steam.
My table in the pub is in fact a desk, has drawers with brass handles. Writing in my notebook I’m like a schoolboy doing homework. The swot surrounded by the naughty kids. I finish my pint of Jack Frost and go home, my book – Q – the quest for spiritual purity of the reformation in Germany and the violence it inspired too relevant to my surroundings.