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.
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.
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.
The farmers market has come to Chapel Market on Wednesdays. We headed down there for the first one keen to be able to buy our organic veg somewhere other than at the supermarket which somehow undermines the whole ethos. They’ve stuck the farmers down our end of the market, the grotty end. Even the guys selling dodgy plastic shoes don’t venture up this far.
Sure enough it’s deserted. The farmers look a bit disconsolate. They’re used to the well-heeled Sunday crowd who flock to their Sunday job on Islington Green – barristers and style-conscious twenty-somethings purchasing produce for Jamie Oliver recipes to impress friends with. The Chapel, or just plain ‘Chapel’ as some on our estate call it, is one of the last great bastions of working-class Islington. Duracell batteries lifted from Woolworths and Sainsburys and flogged for a quid. Designer T-shirts for a fiver. Pot-boiler romances third-hand by the box. Pot smoking paraphernalia (I regret not buying the Bin-Laden spliff-holder). The Arsenal merch stall currently bedecked with England flags and kits. And of course fruit and veg and fresh fish.
The fruit and veg sellers are the back-bone of any street market. The one outside the Alma is my favourite, they just have a few things of quality and the old fat guy (the granddad?) sat on a chair behind picking out all the grotty stuff and chucking it in a box and he usually has a pint under his chair. The fella opposite works his son like a dog so I was pleased to see him looking at the gleaming stalls of the farmers market scratching his worried brow. “Well, well…” And there it was perfectly illustrated. The rosey-cheeked country folk with their wholesome organic produce cultivated by their own hand and the traditional fruit and veg seller, son on the stall instead of at school, knackered from the dawn run to New Covent Garden to get the last cheap scraps to flog at the Chapel.
The guy selling trout also supplies The Savoy. The non-organic fella down the traditional end with his grubby fingers barely supplies the roughest estates. Y’know though at the end of the day the queues of old dears with their granny-wagons and estate Mums with prams were at the stalls they’d always gone to. You need barrister’s wives to pay £1.50 a kilo for organic broad beans (50p down the other end) and they don’t venture further up the Chapel than Marks and Spencer’s down the end.
They were emptying a flat up on one of the top floors. I was sat on the step on a hot morning watching the men bring out black bin-liners full of personal possessions. A bag full of magazines spilled out onto the ground and had to be scraped up into the skip by hand. A wood framed mirror went in. Some cushions. A mottled red rug. Someone’s life chucked into black bags and tossed into a skip in the middle of the estate. The guys doing the job make genial conversation as they go. The stillness of the forecourt is fractured by bursts of walkie-talkie chatter, “Can you get the lift guy over here, he fixed it but it’s not working again.” The skip is sat outside Bob’s front door. He was sat there with his son and someone else as he does everyday, he’s got something to watch today aside from the pigeons.
I tried to work out what was going on. An eviction? In which case it’s brutal – maybe the tenants did a runner leaving everything behind. Or a death? Lonely old person passed away and nobody to come round and sift their stuff and disperse keepsakes among the relatives.
A half-decent chair goes in the skip and some sacks the smash like crockery. I tried to remember who lived in the flat. Was it the Irish women who is always trying, and failing, to control her grandchildren? Her daughter stood out in the car park one night shouting, crying pleading to be allowed back in.
The guys smash up a chest of draws before adding to the pile in the skip.
I have a chat with Bob who tells me it’s the old fella on the top floor. Died just after Christmas and nobody found his body for 3 weeks. “Imagine the bluebottles,” Bob says. It’s taken six months for the place to be emptied. Have they been looking for relatives? Or is that how long it takes the bureaucracy to deal with things like this.