Walk to the West End

I needed to pay a visit to Housmans to trawl for ‘research materials’, that was the excuse anyway. I had half an eye on a visit to Leather Lane to fish at the other end of the cultural spectrum at the stall of mass-market magazines at rock bottom prices. But as I started out towards the Lea Bridge Road to catch a No.55 something nagged at me, an urge, a need for a little something else to blow out the cobwebs and get the creative juices flowing. The urge to drift, in the general direction of Kings Cross but essentially “to be bound by no programme”.

I took the standard route to Leyton High Road. There was birdsong in Coronation Gardens, dark clouds over the Lea Valley, the geographical feature I had to cross one way or the other. I found verdant cottages in Dunedin Road where a side road had been blocked with piles of rubbish like Jeremy Deller had dropped by to do a re-enactment on a small scale of the Claremont Road protests. Roar of traffic on Ruckholt Road. The freshly mown pitches on Hackney Marshes whilst over the road is a knotweed wasteland framed by distant suicide tower blocks. The River Lea runs through beautiful somehow, eddying, banks overgrown with poppies and wildflowers. You could imagine the Mississippi ‘River Rat’ Kenny Sawney rhapsodising his way along catching fish and cooking them on a bankside campfire. No wonder otters have moved back in.

Along the Eastway, the eastern entrance to the City is still via woods and bandit country to be approach with trepidation after dark. On temporary metal fencing around overgrown land an ominous “London Development Agency (LDA) Compulsory Purchase Order under sections 12(2A) and 12(2A)(b) of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981″. Beside it is the “Notice of Hearing, To the Defendant, Persons Unknown, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court Claim No. 7EC03125″. These two important documents have been shoved inside plastic document wallets and loosely wedged in a fence half obscured by weeds on the side of a motorway flyover. The LDA are begrudgingly fulfilling their legal obligations. The law is a minor hurdle to these fellas, they’ve got an Olympics to stage and only £9billion to spend on it. I wonder whether Acquisition of Land Act 1981 is able to be subverted to reclaim and collectivise redundant factories as workers in Argentina have done to startling effect using that country’s compulsory purchase laws.

Over in Hackney Wick the art deco public baths with its separate entrances for Men and Women has been converted into a community centre. I duck into St. Mary of Eton with its great tower. I pick up a copy of ‘neighbourhood focus: hackney wick’ which announces that Hackney Wick is “the new Shoreditch” (that’ll account for the lower case lettering then). Heaven help them, in five years tops they’ll all be priced out by the ‘arts-led regeneration’, the community centre will be converted into loft apartments and the Costcutter will be a branch of ‘Fresh and Wild’ charging £3 for a thimble of pureed grass. If that doesn’t finish the area off, there are plans to drop the Olympic Media Centre in ‘The Wick’.

When I was living in a squat up the road in Well Street in the early nineties the idea of an Olympic Media Centre in Hackney Wick would have been too surreal a vision for even a die-hard space cadet like ‘Mad Martin’ (when he’d overdone the pharmacopia he gave the kids of the estate great entertainment by running over the rooftops of the 6-storey blocks of the estate. It was not unusual to find him on your balcony four floors up holding a geology hammer wanting to discuss the writings of William S Burroughs).

I find myself in Victoria Park. Sinclair country. Out of respect and humility I shall say little about crossing this park where I used to come of a kip and a few pages of Dirk Gently whilst on the Dole. Instead I recommend you read the early chapters of his seminal work ‘Lights Out for the Territory’. Although, I wonder how the plans to transform Victoria Park into a “21st Century Pleasure Garden” went on a water-logged Bank Holiday weekend.

‘The village’ of Victoria Park is all espresso bars, canopies, and yummy mummies pushing designer babies. It was on the way there in ‘92-’94 to be honest, aside from the shooting in the pub by the park gates in the middle of the afternoon one day.

I slope past The Albion where I got horribly drunk one night in a lock-in and ended up drinking with, by accident, the couple who had once lived in the council flat I was squatting. “Ere, he’s squatting in our old flat!” the lady gaffawed to all and sundry across the pub. They managed to wangle a nice little ground floor flat facing the Park so there were no hard feelings (for the intrepid, I wrote an article about this time in ‘Labour Left Briefing’ in 1993, ‘Sad Grads’. For film producers, I have a stonking screenplay based on some of the more colourful aspects of this era and the ‘unconventional’ approach of Hackney Housing department).

I give a nod to the old estate which is getting a long-overdue make-over, note that the launderette that was the inspiration for my screenplay and where my mate Kate lived in a flat above, has made way for a Lidl, meaning either my script was strangely prophetic or I got it all wrong when I had it making way for an amusement arcade (‘Flashing Blips’).

Round London Fields where more yuppy hutches are being erected and down the hopelessly gentrified Broadway Market (I did debate with an imaginary ‘aspirational’ friend about whether the delis and gastro-pubs were an improvement or an example of middle-class colonisation of what was once and staunchly working-class area with a very strong, now nearly extinct, culture all of its own that had no use for olives and pomegranate juice).

I join the Regent Canal here and can’t let go, my metronomic step carrying my along past the slideshow of estates with orange boarded-up windows (quite attractive actually) and on the other side, yeah more ‘luxury’ developments. I’m not going to go on and on about this, take a look at the Islington Working Class Association website instead. By the time I reach Angel at 1.10 my hip joints are reminding me that I haven’t stopped walking since I left Leytonstone at 10.20am. I rest on a bench in Colebrooke Road gardens and remember two things: 1. That Douglas Adams lived here somewhere, 2. That the residents got very upset by people defecating in the bushes.

It’ll be easy enough to drop down to Housmans from here but I have a strong urge to push on westwards, to turn this into a ‘Sandwich Man’ style odyssey. I move on in search of lunch.
I get distracted by Borders. I hear that they’ll all be gone soon, these American book warehouses and replaced by branches of Starbucks selling books. Only capitalism could come up with an arrangement like that. I sit down with a copy of Mute magazine; I’m too tight to pay a fiver for a mag so I’ll just have read the good bits here. There’s an interesting article by Kate Rich on commons, about Amy Balkin’s ‘This is Public Domain’ and the Morningstar Ranch where Lou Gottlieb signed over the deeds to God when the State tried to evict him meaning that they had to indict ‘God’ in the legal proceedings.

Down Chapel Market in full swing and lunch in Alpino. I realise that it could appear that I’m stalking Iain Sinclair as he stops here on his Regent Canal stomps but really I’m just hungry and sentimental (I enjoyed 3 years living over the road till last year).

Past the estate and on to Housman’s for a good old rummage. I emerge about 40 minutes later with Tom Vague’s ‘London Pyschogeography, Rachman Riots and Rillington Place’, the Anarchist Federation’s free leaflet on ID cards, a copy of Labour Left Briefing, a Class War poster and two badges for a friend (‘Hated by the Daily Mail’ and ‘I Am Spartacus’). Good haul for a £5.50. Technically speaking my work is done and to be frank my legs are sore despite the bacon roll and apple pie at Alpino. But I have to go on, the ‘fugue’ is in control (ref: ‘London Orbital’).

Past Camden Town Hall, Judd Street, it’s a lovely day, justification enough for staying on the move. The Aquarium Gallery in Woburn Walk and the Indian Restaurant where I celebrated the birth of my first child alone with a top class curry complete with brandy after. Through to Fitzrovia, enigmatic area this – Patrick Hamilton country and parts still feel down at heel. The old Middlesex Hospital is all boarded up prior to the inevitable ‘mixed-use redevelopment’. A film crew is taking advantage of the deserted wards and operating theatres. Cleveland Residencies has the look of the kind of place where Hamilton’s young ladies of dubious morals boarded.

Wigmore Street leaves me more convinced than ever in the need for a Class War. Strange that, because turning into Marylebone High Street I don’t feel the same level of anger, more a kind of mystification. The designer Polo shirted couples spilling out of Waitrose and making for their Chelsea Tractors don’t come across so much as hateful but stupid, “you’ve been had” I think, “blowing all that money here, just because you’ve been told it’s the place to shop”.

I carry this slightly superior air past Daunt books which nearly makes me pass it by, luckily I caught a glimpse of the glass dome at the back. I would have regretted missing it’s galleried travel room at the back stacked with pamphlets and chapbooks. I even got a phone call from bookdealer Chris Berthoud by chance.

The walk is coming to an end, but still I stop off in Paddington Street Gardens where children play amongst the tombstones. I cross over to Mayfair and see the new defences around the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. I was watching the footage of the violent, bloody 1968 anti-Vietnam War protests that happened here. The Golden Eagle hovering over the Embassy roof seems to be keeping a watchful eye over the troublesome London mob. I read a while ago that the Yanks have had enough of protestors and archaic tenancy agreements, they’re off out to the sticks to hide behind an even bigger perimeter fence. We’ll be able to have our square back.

It’s the final statement in this walk through the story of ‘property’ in London. The travellers’ site by the allotments, the LDA Compulsory Purchase Order, Hackney gentrification, Council Estates turned over to Housing Associations, flats condemned and boarded up to keep out squatters, Georgian and Victorian parks and squares, the hospital converted into executive apartments and exclusive (chain) retail outlets, the estate of the richest landowner in the realm, the foreign embassy with its fences erected to keep us out.

I make it to Oxford Circus by 6pm,a full working day spent on the move, and more accomplished than 8 hours at the desk gazing out the window looking for inspiration. Severe delays on the Central Line, I come crashing back to reality.

Writing the Great Necropolis

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.