Daniel Agnew

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Broken Glass

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Norton Folgate Demolition

Picture: Inspiring City

With Soho fast becoming a corporate shopping plaza and East End pubs smashed to the bone and re-branded as microbreweries. I find myself conflicted by the changing shape of London. Like Google’s Pac-Man eating its way through the city, the shabby old London is being swept away.

Pretty quickly you’ll have nothing left but glass apartments and rich men with tattoos. It feels decadent and precious to complain about this. Like everyone else, the world you leave behind will be virtually unrecognisable to the one you were brought up in.

The Griffin

Generation Z won’t notice the difference and individually you’re powerless to resist change on this scale. But I feel immensely sad walking through Norton Folgate and Shoreditch seeing rows of Victorian warehouses earmarked for demolition. For me they are as beautiful and relevant to London’s cultural heritage as anything in Chelsea or Kensington.

Aldgate

Picture: The Urban Adventures of Keïteï

With luxury developers blinding future generations of their cultural inheritance, it feels cruel and unnecessary to see London’s rough edges destroyed. When I first moved to East London in early 2008, I remember arriving at Aldgate East tube station feeling edgy and insecure. Not ‘edgy’ the marketing term for a Netflix crime drama, but a raw, dirty sensation. I liked it immediately. I felt incredibly naive and very much alive.

Jack the Ripper

Exploring my local area at the weekends, I spotted ivy clad philanthropist mansions, rows of broken factories and scary old man pubs serving only Fosters. After dark the Gerkin would sparkle in the distance and Jack the Ripper walking tours were growing in popularity.

Ironically there is nothing to see on these Ripper tours, almost all the original sites have been knocked down or rebuilt to such an extent they are virtually unrecognisable. It’s pretty hard to ‘feel the atmosphere’ standing outside a Pret a’ manger.

The White Hart Whitechapel

Living in Whitechapel and Bow for eighteen months, my favourite Victorian free house was the White Hart, a corner pub frequented by Cockney geezers and ragtag students. Always a bear pit on Champions League nights, everyone would pack into the pub like a seventies football terrace, creating a better atmosphere than the games themselves.

The food was terrible and you wouldn’t dream of making eye contact with the West Ham fans, but it captured the ramshackle atmosphere of E2. Like many East London boozers it’s been converted into a gourmet restaurant now. Walking past the upgraded venue in 2015, the microbrewery is busier than ever before serving pan roasted sea-bass, pesto mash and tender-stem broccoli.

There is nothing inherently wrong with gourmet restaurants and demographics will inevitably shift and evolve over time. Only entering the refurbished White Hart Brew Pub™ you could literally be in any UK chain bar ordering locally sourced fish for £16.50. It’s safe, predictable and meticulously branded just like their Facebook page.

The views of the local community about the development of Spitalfields are 'cynically disregarded'

Alas, when you compare the White Hart Brew Pub to the slow destruction of East London by property developers it’s worthy of the National Trust. As its not only working-class pubs that are being gutted of their cultural heritage. Silk weavers homes, Georgian townhouses, children’s hospitals and historic trading markets have all been replaced by luxury flats over the past ten years.

Across London the grubby underbelly of alternative counter-culture is being slowly dismantled to the point there will be nothing left. Gone already are the dirty jazz clubs and bohemian squats in Soho. They are even demolishing an arthouse cinema for the financial benefit of a tiny global minority.

Madam Jojos

Destroying what made the area so attractive to visitors in the first place, global capitalism is paradoxically eating itself. Does anyone want to arrive in Spitalfields on a Sunday afternoon and discover nothing but ghastly office blocks and chain coffee shops?

Most people assume all change is growth and movement must go forward, but I am not sure this is necessarily true. Perhaps I am lucky to live here while the residue of past centuries are still visible.

London will inevitably change as buildings are not supposed to last forever. Like any other city in the Western world; fashions evolve, communities die and modernist epochs will be grafted onto any available space. But do you want to live in a smart city where everything looks the same? An urban fire forest that sparkles at night and morphs into dullness at day. Rough edges still have a role to play in my book. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.

In bed at the hospital

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Health brings a freedom very few people realise until it’s taken away from you. I have always considered myself to be fit and healthy. Hospitals are strange distant places I attended sparingly as a child. I remember falling off an older boy’s bike as a 7-year-old and having to wear a sling the following day. No bones are broken in my family. Trips to the doctors were comforting back then. If anything it was a chance to play with toys somewhere other than home.

By the time the human body has circled the sun for several decades, I take a dimmer view of hospital waiting rooms. Through human error and abnormality I found myself vulnerable to their presence today. A hapless figure lying sideways with a black pipe thrust down my throat, bereft of the independence and freedom I so often take for granted.

Choking on an innocuous piece of chicken the night before, I had been retching over my sink into the early hours. Initially I felt annoyed that I had wasted an evening to discomfort and stress. Although I was sure it would pass the following day.

Listening to the Arctic winds lacerating the beech tree behind my window, I lay motionless as the stray television aerial whipped the adjacent balcony. Storms are strangely comforting in times of stress. But after hours of choking I gave way to unflinching reality that my throat wasn’t functioning with the same lucidity it once did.

Checking into my local GP and immediately being transferred to hospital, I found myself with no toys to play with other than my smartphone. Despite not being able to swallow or eat anything, I still wanted to work and get on with my duties as normal. I even brought my laptop to the hospital with the hope of completing some articles in the waiting room.

Sitting alongside trauma victims and watching old ladies on green trolleys, I found myself passed from one expert to another. Watching each doctor strip my independence and freedom from me, it became obvious that I required an emergency operation.

The doctors even considered it a life or death scenario, as I could potentially choke to death and was unable to sip a glass of water. A large black nurse then gave me two baby wristbands and booked me an overnight bed. I politely refused the offer saying I wanted to go home after the operation.

‘Do you have anyone to pick you up after the operation, Mr Agnew?’ I politely said that I didn’t have anyone and they all agreed not to sedate me. Consent forms were thus signed and it’s getting serious now. There was a 1/1000 chance of severe bleeding and lacerations. Unlikely I know.

Placing my body on the exam table, I found myself surrounded by six medics in blue coats and green breathing masks. A fuzzy helplessness emerges when you lie down in surgery. You cease to mean anything at all.

The maternal surgeon then began discussing Greek terms such as Oesophagus and shoved a garden hose camera down my neck. Tears involuntary burst out in shock and my body’s gagging reflex was horrible. Suddenly I was nothing but a lump of breathing flesh, a vulnerable specimen entirely dependent on the skill and kindness of strangers.

Choking on an alien pipe inside my body, I started to panic and tapped my left foot to signal my discomfort to the doctors. But they kept pushing further down my neck and it took up to three expeditions before they removed the errant piece of chicken (>>5mm in length).

With my throat raw like a rusting mine shaft, I remember the machine green lights and the blind glare of the overhead lamp pouring over me. Someone’s smartphone was vibrating on the shelf opposite. I took some comfort in that. It was alive and buzzing with life. Funny how an artificial object was the only thing I could relate to in the entire room.

Afterwards I thanked all the doctors and nurses for looking after me. A nurse removed a needle from my hand and I was told I would get a confirmation letter within a few weeks. Eating properly will ensure I don’t ever have go through that operation again.

Only I realise now that my independence and freedom is a temporary facade. It can be removed without notice or care. A person’s health is entirely dependent on benign cells, organs and most importantly luck. I have been fortunate on a number of levels on my journey to adulthood.

My throat is still sore, but my body works and functions as soundly as before. That certainly gave me something to think about, as I walked home unscathed, listening to my stomach silently roar.

Goodbye to Fitzrovia

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Middlesex Hospital Fitzrovia

My first ever London job interview took place in Fitzrovia in 2007. Arriving an hour early and trembling with nerves, I rehearsed my lines at the Crown and Sceptre. England had not yet banned smoking in public places and I drank orange juice in the corner.

I remember finding Middlesex House with a Google map I printed off at Hillhead Library in Glasgow. It was a steamy hot day in mid-July and porous sweat beads were trickling down my lower back. I had to go back to Scotland with something.

Writing out verbatim what I was going to say to my trendy English bosses, I successfully got the job and returned to Glasgow a few hours later. It’s strange how these watershed moments in your life, the unwritten history of small incidents are so vivid in retrospect. How one slipped line could have eradicated my present day.

Construction pits and scaffolding herald a new era in Fitzrovia. Once a bohemian drinking hub for inter-war poets, it has now become an investment square for plutocrats. I barely recognise the place walking around today. I feel sad and unwanted in this ghost town. I have no affiliation with her streets anymore.

You move, you work and leave nothing but footprints behind.

Sounds on my pillow

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Dozing on my pillow, I wake up and have thirty minutes to spare. Outside the pneumatic groan of the 394 bus trails past on route towards Hackney Downs. My phone is buzzing with messages and the second alarm is just about to go off.

It’s noisy outside and the estate is getting ready for work.

Housewives are chattering outside my balcony and packs of kids in woolly hats are going to school. Local drivers are in the hunt for a parking spot. Downstairs a coarse man nursing a semi-circle of ill-health is effing and blinding like a complete utter cunt.

My alarm is now vibrating on a cold sheet of cotton.

Surrounded by grim tower blocks and dazzling towers of chrome and glass, I prepare for eight hours of home working. Gone are the crashing bells of Venezia and waking up to water taxis and gondola men whooshing past at dawn.

Ole! Ole! Ole!

I lived in a paradise for six months. That gives me comfort as my body swivels on a chair and switches on a bright electronic light.

Oddo’s Court

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Surrounded by old money in a Venetian town house, I was summoned upstairs by my elderly masters. An epic canvas of St. Marks Square dominated proceedings, like I needed any reminder of where I am living.

Earlier in the same street, a damp alleyway full of pot plants behind the Grand Canal, my boss explained I had to come with him: ‘I need to stay friends with them, Daniel, do you understand?’ I know this is an unfashionable thing to admit in any walk of life, but I like my boss. He’s warm, entertaining and affable. A networking hustler with an eye for a new deal.

After years of working in sterile British offices, my brief sojourn in Italy has been anything but dull. Like my meeting in Oddo’s court, where my apartment’s bills and surcharges were finally revealed. It was a naked triumph of greed and entitlement, where as a pawn without a voice, I watched Oddo and his wife deliver their demands to my boss.

Sitting opposite them at their family table, I felt the full weight of powerlessness. They were inadvertently stripping away my salary by making me responsible for their communal property debts.

Once I realised what they were doing and deducted from the paperwork that I was being charged for more than just an electricity bill. I sat silently like my boss’s errant son on remand for a crime I did not commit.

I felt enraged by their shameless greed, but I couldn’t let my boss down. Not in front of him because unlike in past I know the power of words. When to speak and in this instance when to say nothing. I am pragmatic, savvy and calculating in these situations. You play the game.

It’s important to always pick the right words, and refuse to shake hands with Oddo when I finally depart my apartment’s front door.

Slim Pickings

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Come nightfall in Venice, there is a Bolshevik disco taking place far away from the centre. Half sunk and with a beatnik charm, this underground club is gunning for billionaire yachts in Venezia.

Earlier I had been following a Lido local, an enormously handsome Chilean man and a floppy haired indie boy from Torino. It costs three euros to get in, and I will never be able to come back without a guide. Anti-navy posters are peeling in the cloakroom and dandy bohemians are loitering outside smoking cigarettes.

Pushing our way to the bar #NOFUTURE and anti-Bush posters fill up every permissible space. Vino bianco is served in lethal shot glasses, and bottles of red wine are funnelled into curvy glass caskets. That’s my abiding memory of the night.

A vintage jazz band perform Roxy Music singles and Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). The shuffling audience could be their grandchildren, but age doesn’t seem to matter here. Alongside the wide-eyed misfits and ageing lotharios looking for one last kiss, I find myself drifting between moods. Alcohol is no longer the electric force it used to be.

Watching smoke rise and body temperatures soar, I drift between rooms nursing cheap wine and it’s slim pickings for someone like myself. It’s not the same anymore. Also I have no language skills and my time here is fast running out. But for now I’m grateful for jazz music and that there isn’t a Trip Advisor sticker in sight.

Lanterns by the Sea

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Come nightfall I race past Venetian sail boats, angling my body towards the Lido. I don’t want to run after work, but for vanity reasons alone I persist on doing so. Endless daydreams seep like the waves, as I rise and fall down every beautiful crossing. A bridge for each year I am unable to match. All because someone captured my imagination during a particular moment in time.

Elderly couples in minx coats look upon me like I’m a different species. Dumbfounded afresh at that scaling leaping figurine skipping over bridges by the sea. My journey is now complete and I’m walking through St Mark’s Square with sweat glistening down my heaving chest.

Back home I switch on the heating, shower and prepare something to eat and still don’t feel complete. I eat more until I feel uncomfortable. It’s getting late now. I have no idea why I do this. This blocking urge to feel nothing and full simultaneously.

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