Island Queen, Noel Road N1. At least they’ve kept the beautifully engraved mirrors from the Victorian interior and some wonderful wooden panelling. That aside Joe Orton who lived and was bludgeoned to death up the road might have thought he was back in Tangiers. The Belgian beer and kettle chips are a give-away. I’m supping a decent pint of Spitfire slouched on a soft stripy sofa and so I notice that the ornate ceiling has survived the trendification too.
The clientele are City Road chic and Clerkenwell refugees – American No Logo casual wear as modelled by Jude Law drinking rounds (of Belgian beer) bought on credit cards. Wine lists. Cocktails. Fans. Marinated vegetables in a large glass jar. Can’t say I totally dislike it because of the original features which have been retained almost begrudgingly. What I am doing this far south of Essex Road?
The Old Mitre just off Ely Place and I’m upstairs in the Bishops Room with pissed posh lawyers and their female co-workers they hope to fuck (and take polaroids). This all belonged to the Bishops of Ely and Ely Place is outside the jurisdiction of any London authorities. The gates at the end close at 10pm after which not even the police can enter without permission. There is a dark alley down which the pub is hidden, the other end emerges out in Hatton Garden among the jewellery traders. I drink up and head through a gate in the mystical wall at the end into Bleeding Heart Yard.
Should have blogged this ages ago but just didn’t get round to it.
They come out onto the stage of the restored Church, two living icons of English prose, and launch straight into Sinclair’s memories of St. Luke’s when it was derelict and overgrown. They instigate a tension between themselves but it appears to be largely an act for the audience. Will Self clearly loves Iain Sinclair’s prose and Sinclair is halfway through Self’s latest book. But the conflict they play with is that between the writer who carved out a living from his pen from his mid-twenties and still turns out hack columns for whoever’ll pay and the former Parks gardener, book dealer and underground writer. It also plays as Native Londoner versus Incomer. They play it well, Sinclair dodging direct references he doesn’t like. Self coming out with streams of incomprehensible Selfisms, dictionary-speak that the editor of the OED would be hard-pressed to translate.
Will Self inevitably gets on to the vexed question of ‘psychogeography’ and asks Sinclair how he defines his variety of psychogeography adding the aside that it doesn’t seem to relate much to the Guy Debord/Situationist idea. Sinclair acknowledges this and says he picked it up via Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association and it gave him a convenient brand image for his obsession with Hawksmoor and Ley Lines. He doesn’t duck it, and when Cathy asks him what parameters he sets for his walks he has none, just goes out for a wander when he has the time. It confirms my doubts that ‘London Orbital’ isn’t psychogeography in its purest form but merely a walk with lots of literary and esoteric associations. Not quite the reconnaissance mission before the city is reclaimed that Debord et al cooked up in Paris. Sinclair says as much when he talks about “nodules of energy” -and gives examples of the area around St Lukes, the place where Milton died, house where Defoe lived, Hawksmoor’s obelisks.
It’s a vibrant chat, Self is entertaining and plays to the gallery. Sinclair gets in the odd jibes: “I can see all those columns from the years stuck in your back”. “That Iain is a frankly hostile vision”, Self retorts, “Unlike you Iain, I was writing fulltime from my twenties and had to make a living”.
We walk up Old Street afterwards, Cathy telling me all the negative stuff she had thought about Self before this evening, me setting her straight, giving a potted history of his career and about to recount his reprising of Hunter S Thompson on the campaign trail for his 1992 NewStatesman election coverage, when we stop to look at a pub and Will Self virtually walked into the back of us.
Bit by bit I think that I’m locating the lost pleasure gardens of Islington. A trip to the local history centre would probably solve the riddle in a second but that wouldn’t be fun. Instead I’m using a mixture of old maps, etymology and guesswork.
White Conduit House was easier than it first appeared. The Penny Farthing pub not far from my flat still bears the name across the top just under the eves. Inside there are framed blazers from the cricket club and an old stained glass window that used to look out onto the pitch. Oliver Goldsmith was a regular in its heyday. It’s just changed hands but it’s still a bit rough round the edges, there was a big fight in there the other night, I heard the glass smashing as I went round the corner for a can of beer. But it’s still there just, a row of houses and a playground are where I imagine the cricket pitch was and Sainsbury’s car park probably occupies the rest. I saw a couple playing badminton in the street behind where once it would have been played in the pleasure garden.
Dobney’s Tea Gardens only really became clear as The Finca was becoming Moloko which has now become Clockwork, and long before it was a half-arsed nightclub it was the Belvedere Tavern and site of Dobney’s Tea Gardens. It should have been easy – there aren’t too many buildings on the corner of Pentonville Road with a view of the New River upper reservoir.
I don’t think I’ll find any traces of Busby’s Folly as I think it’s under the Elizabeth Garret Anderson School, or that’s my hunch anyway.
Islington Spa was easy enough, the Spa Green Estate was a bit of a give-away and Tunbridge Wells House drives the point home (it was also known as New Tunbridge Wells). And there’s still an Eagle Tavern on City Road with the famous lines; “Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle….” on a sign outside.
Bagnigge Wells apparently has a plaque at 63 Kings Cross Road although I’ve yet to actually see it and Copenhagen House is marked by a resplendent clocktower that once served the great cattle market that replaced the pleasure garden. In its day it saw great events: a meeting of 40,000 Chartists, a rally in support of the Tollpuddle Martyrs, and the Gordon Riots. Caledonian Park occupies the space and still hosts impromptu dog fights and prostitution in the spirit of its past.
Further across the borough is Highbury Barn which too was once a pleasure garden before seediness completely took over and was closed. Now the pub is a favourite with Arsenal fans on matchdays. And not far away The Canonbury Tavern has retained its C18th Tea Garden complete with conker trees (which I saw a group of 3 year olds removing branches from), providing a nice spot to refuel when walking the New River Path.
Where today there are dodgy boozers and council estates it’s difficult to imagine what was there until about a hundred and fifty years ago. This whole area would have been like one great resort with balloon rides, archery, races, bandstands, cricket and concerts. All we’re left with are the beer and prostitutes.
this is a work-in-progress and I hope to uncover more soon…
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.
Dérive through the night city
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.