Daniel Agnew

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Keep it in the ground

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London

I think most people write because they don’t want to sleepwalk through life. Writing is a means of keeping memories alive. If you don’t record, paint or obsessively photograph or film every living moment then why are you even here? I write to stay alive as you forget what matters otherwise. That’s the one thing that scares me the most. Not being able to remember my stories for better or worse. I also want to keep a record of my changing. I am always changing.

School years are easy to remember if your parents keep hold of your jotters, paintings and teacher reports. Thereafter you have landmark birthdays with complementing photographs, graduation days and long hot summers doing nothing at all. Memories feel more tangible when your everyday life is administered year by year.

Only now I find months and years morph anonymously into a cloudy void. This year doesn’t feel any different than the previous four. I’m sure plenty of things have happened, but for some reason I barely notice the difference. Perhaps amnesia has set in prematurely because I’ve lived in the same flatshare for five years. Working as a freelance copywriter chasing unpaid invoices and ignoring voicemails is a repetitive trade at times.

East London Bedroom

An inconspicuous lifestyle in East London doesn’t provide much visual stimulation either. I’m sure the past few years would have been more memorable if I had gone backpacking in Chile or got married to a blonde jazz singer in Melbourne. Alas, when I wake up in the morning there is no orchestral soundtrack accompanying my footsteps to the bathroom. My laptop screensaver is the same as the year before. Pulling open my black Primark curtains I see the same tattered plastic bag swinging from the communal birch tree every day.

Grand Central Station

If it wasn’t for my WordPress blog then I wouldn’t be able to trace anything at all. Blogging provides a highly subjective recorded history, but a necessary one if you want to join up the dots. For example I can’t honestly remember when I flew over to New York for an OK Cupid date (yes that’s right).

If I scroll back I can remember arriving in Grand Central Station. It was unseasonally hot and I was jet lagged for the first time. Walking around I remember the towering sense of civilisation, meeting Nicole, queuing outside MOMA together and buying Mexican beers in a Harlem grocery store. But the timing of this otherwise memorable trip escapes me. It could have happened anytime in the last three years. Now that’s what you call experiencing life on a big scale.

Notebook

From red ochre cave paintings in southern France to tweeting rubbish about football, there is something incredibly human about keeping a record. Skipped behind my bookcase lies a collection of diaries and notebooks I have curated over the years. With literary quotes squashed in the margins justifying their existence, I keep filling them out and dumping them alongside their older colleagues. A scrapheap of memories no one will ever read.

If I am lucky enough to have a family of my own they’ll eventually be boxed and kept upstairs in an oak wooden loft. Maybe they’ll be sparingly reopened for an old quote or a nostalgic rummage through the past. Only to be put back in their place again, a written bond with a young man that no longer exists.

In addition to my dusty notebook skip, I keep shoeboxes full of old letters, gifts and Valentine’s Day cards underneath my bed. Occasionally I take a look at them, but I haven’t checked them or my ex-girlfriends emails for over a decade. I know I will never look at them again. But I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of them either. A skip or recycle bin makes no difference to me. Deep down I want someone to read my stories when I’m not here.

Aberdeenshire Pictish Symbol

Before I longed for a written legacy I remember being assigned a primary school project to recreate the standing stones of the Picts (an ancient warrior tribe in northern Scotland). The Romans called them the ‘Painted People’ because of their elaborate monstrous tattoos embroidered on their chests. On building Hadrian’s Wall in 128AD, the Romans essentially formed an ideological frontier that stated civilisation lay down south – roads, aqueducts, fortresses.

Northward bound was a land of mist, barbarians and Pictish standing stones. The same stone circles I tried to recreate with my Dad’s chisel. Looking back it was one of my all-time favourite school projects, bashing away at a lump of rock in a bitterly cold garage. I’ve resoundingly failed to experience the same sense of joy doing work ever since.

Artifical Intelligence

A large number of Pictish stone circles have survived in Scotland. Whatever messages the Picts were to trying convey I cannot fathom even now, but their recorded history remains accessible even today. Like the Picts we too express our own stories in equally vivid and complex ways, but assuming there will still be an inhabitable planet 2000 years from now, I don’t think any of my A.I descendants will be recreating my stories on an interstellar spaceship.

Electromagnetic Pulse

In some respects my skipped diaries are physical reminders of my narcissistic desire to be exhibited just like the Picts. While stone circles remain visible, our digital archives could easily be wiped out by a nuclear inspired electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Collectively we need the Internet to function as a global society.

Electrical magnetic storms have the ability to destroy our civilisation just like fire pulped the ancient scrolls of Alexandria Library. A world without Wi-Fi would be nasty, brutish and short if a magnetic dystopia were ever to take place. Don’t try and order a pizza on your iPhone when it happens.

Internet Dsytopia

Bit rot – the slow deterioration of data software such as floppy discs also renders our digital civilisation useless to future historians. Cloud based services are not worth anything if technology moves so fast that you can’t even open them. Unlike calfskin vellums and hardback books accessible in public libraries today, our collective knowledge requires constant software upgrades just to stay alive.

Augmented Reality

My stories are unlikely to be remembered by anyone and that’s assuming I’m fortunate enough to have children or grandchildren interested in genealogy. My WordPress subscription has to surely expire at some point. What happens if the software company goes bust or evolves into an augmented reality server projecting to a visually attuned audience?

Email

While it probably isn’t a tragedy if my ex-girlfriends emails are unable to be read by future generations. I still want to keep them alive somehow. By taking one glance at them you hear the voice of another person, someone still alive but lost forever. We are always changing and writing helps you capture a particular moment in time. Writing to me is one of the greatest human inventions, holding us all together, providing an emotional bond with the dead, living and unborn.

Biblioteca

Change is the one constant on a writer’s journey to the recycle bin. It doesn’t matter how eloquent and grand your thoughts are in the twenty-first century, all it takes is an epic server upgrade and your life stories will become robot.txt. You see that’s the progressive irony of our digital revolution. No amount of technology can save your words, especially anything that is stored on an electro powered server.

A memory palace is more likely to be derived from handwritten notebooks than your Facebook archives. If I want to preserve this particular record it would be wiser to print it off and laminate it for safe keeping. But even my words will fail to outlast the stone circles of an ancient Caledonian tribe. That’s real power if you ask me. All this superlative technology spinning in the sky, and the symbols that will out last us all have been carved with a chisel in the ground.

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.

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