Faded Seaside Glamour

Brighton is the undisputed liberal capital of the UK and a proverbial honeypot for decadent Londoners. The seaside town’s bohemian reputation has seen it become the equivalent of Shoreditch-On-Sea with its massive gay and lesbian scene and an increasingly left-wing population. If you want to buy the Guardian on a Saturday then don’t bother, it has already sold out.

Brighton’s liberal ascendancy peaked in May 2010 when Caroline Lucas was elected as Britain’s first ever Green MP. The Green Party’s landmark victory only further confirmed the town’s reputation as a fantasy world of boutique hedonism, vegan restaurants and G-string clubbing. More than 30,000 people live in Brighton and travel the 53 miles to work in London every day and many of them are wealthy media types.

Brighton hasn’t always been an arty liberal utopia and up until 1997, Brighton Pavilion had consistently voted for the Conservative Party. So what happened to what happened to all the Tories in that blue-rinse retirement home by the sea? Well Brighton might have become a Guardian reading refugee camp since the late 1990s but it remains a shifting city of conflicting values.

Britain’s favourite seaside town retains an affiliation with the English working-class and is still affectionately known for serving fish and chips, ice cream and lobster bellied men on the pebbled shore. Protestants of the flesh can be found wearing sunglasses and reading Rupert Murdoch’s finest on deckchairs on Brighton Beach during the long summer months.

Anyone walking along Brighton Pier will marvel at the views at sunset but the structure itself is a bona fide cultural Chernobyl. Somewhere where you go to fall in love and get stabbed simultaneously. Britons of all social classes love the seaside and wealthy playboys echo Brighton’s decadent past by chasing each other on speed boats on sunny afternoons. Trudging back over pebbles and sand, a strange dust will land on your hand as dozens of grand Edwardian hotels stare out towards the English Channel along the Marine Parade.

Such grand emblems of historic wealth are unlikely to be occupied by counter-culture hippies. These luxury hotels remain the spiritual home of Conservative Party MPs, who secretly long for a return to the 1980s, when they didn’t have to go up north to Birmingham or Manchester for their party conference season. Blue rinsed traditions still retain their historic prominence in 21st century Brighton, which remains socially diverse with different groups co-existing in relative harmony.

It appears the demographic shift towards bohemian liberalism has not stopped Brighton from becoming the drug- injecting death capital of the UK. Understandably the Golden Syringe trophy is unlikely to take centre stage on the tourist board’s website but English seaside resorts have always been pretty seedy. A haven for criminality and smuggling for centuries, novelist Peter James has suggested Brighton is one of the top favourite places for criminals to live in the UK.

With seaports on both sides and a nearby airport with no custom post, masses of unguarded coastlines and London only an hour train journey away. Brighton is easy to escape and has a massive drug market with its two universities, booming club scene and arty middle-class residents with experimental tastes.

Now one of the most exciting British cities, the seaside resort has been mentally rebuilt in a different order with many of its old Tory characteristics obliterated. Society is always changing and is forever being rebuilt and having its old assumptions challenged. The town, after all, remains the truth, and its residents the shifting fable.

Paradise City

The slippery side streets of Soho have entertained the capital’s residents for centuries and it remains one of the most seductive landmarks in Central London. Renowned for its trashy lingerie, drug dens and peep shows, the unofficial red light district is a honey pot of illegal activities. Despite frequent attempts to clean up its image in advance of the 2012 Olympics, the back alleyways of London’s West End retain a downtrodden appeal.

Blue tooth messages are sent to visitors walking past illegal brothels, and friendly Russian gangsters are fond of marching their customers to nearby cash points for bonuses. These are obviously not the type of establishments you check in on Facebook but anyone who goes for a “massage” at 5am probably does get what they deserve.

Although to dismiss Soho as a magnet for illegal vices would be extremely misleading. For while some men wander in search of foreplay with their trousers on, Soho is also home to some of the finest restaurants and bars in London. The relationship between sex and food is the belief that one tends to lead to another, irrespective of which comes first.

Soho luckily provides both in abundance and anyone caught stumbling along say Green Court will realise that Yalla Yalla is one of the finest cheap eats in London. The Beirut food court is notoriously difficult to find but one of the attractions of eating out in Soho is that you get lost every time and nothing ever feels the same.

Attending restaurants in Soho is a bit like going to the theatre, where customers find themselves auditioning to play the lead role in a make believe world. Foreign themed restaurants are fond of describing themselves as ‘authentic’ but the word is misleading. A murky back alleyway in Soho is nowhere near the Middle East and while the rural taste of Lebanon at Yalla Yalla has never been in doubt. There is nothing remotely authentic about Soho.

Whether its old men drinking in 1940s pubs, PR darlings sipping cappuccinos or film journalists scribbling inside darkened rooms; the Soho peep show continues to entrance and deceive its audience. Constantly on the run and never dull, the side streets are awash with sexual favours and androgynous ecstasy. Soho meanwhile remains as slippery as ever and will put on magic shows for its audiences longer after 2012. Whether the law authorities will continue to permit such activities remains to be seen.

Up in the Air

On writing from a rented box in the sky, I find myself staring out towards a concrete forest of tower blocks, cranes and scaffolding. With the average price of a room in London costing up to £150 a week, I like many others have found myself lured by the promise of cheaper rents in the east.

Having spent my first six months in the capital living in genteel Chiswick, I felt bound by the invisible hand when I moved to East London. Unless you have a professional job or enjoy the luxury of being subsidised by your family, the cost of housing in the capital is increasingly unaffordable. Where the majority of people now have to enter the Gumtree lottery and throw a huge portion of their income on mediocre accommodation.

After tiring of coming up for air in West London, I decided to abandon suburbia and make a radical lifestyle change in late 2007. On moving to Whitechapel in search of affordable housing, I can recall my first evening exploring the Victorian side streets and becoming acquainted with inner city life.

Whitechapel is physically unattractive and only really comes into life in black light, where it becomes a true urban menace with sirens, graffiti and encroaching cranes. There are skinhead cockney geezers sitting on broken bar stools and outside you will discover complete freaks walking past you like an abandoned crisp packet. When I refer to ‘freaks’ I don’t mean alternative middle-class people in ‘controversial’ attire.These freaks are complete fucking weirdos, who grunt aggressive noises and there was one in particular that made me want to court an instant metallic death just to avoid making eye-contact.

Whitechapel is an extremely vibrant place and ugliness is always like to have a seductive tonic. After making eyes with the barmaid the other night I almost dropped my glass in shock. It only lasted a few seconds but it just goes to show how rewarding life can be when you unearth a flower in the dustbin.

Undeniably raw, angry and glittering underneath the Gerkin, I found myself estranged in this new world order. Like those before me, I came in search of affordable accommodation and while initially I felt out of place in Whitechapel. Economic chains do ultimately bind us all and like the Bengali men selling fruit and vegetables in plastic tents, I came across another demographic earning a living on the floor.

Whitechapel regularly hosts walking tours for middle class tourists wanting to discover more about Jack the Ripper’s murder spree in the late 19th century. Although why a misogynistic killer has now become a form of street entertainment for middle-class tourists is a fascinating one. At the end of this century will Rothbury become a tourist attraction for huddled groups wanting to discover more about a sadistic Huck Finn with a sawn off shotgun?

As the Gerkin continues to shine in face of violent cuts in public spending, I find the housing situation in London virtually unbearable. With modern advancements in technology, I feel very frustrated that employees must continue to live within commuting distance of the workplace. If people could work at home on the internet like so much of our social and daily lives. Then no longer would people have to pay ridiculously high rents for rooms in squalid locations.

While you may still find yourself paying £150 a week for a double room it would no longer have to be confined to Central London. Rents in places such as Whitechapel would be able to drop down and greater diversity would be spread across the regions. If only this practice were in place now I could be writing high up in sky overlooking the Mediterranean. Something only mercenary landlords and tube station muggers could take issue with.

Pictures by kind permission of Louis Berk from his book “Walk to Work: from the City to Whitechapel”.

Under the Bridge

After living in East London for three years, I am very familiar with its urban grime, Vietnamese restaurants and crime statistics. Undeniably pretentious and never dull, the gentrification process of one of London’s poorest and most ethnically diverse regions is a fascinating one.

While still largely working-class because of its industrial past, Shoreditch and Hoxton has been completely transformed since the 1990s. With the creative sectors establishing a foothold and middle-class students always looking for cheap rents, the East now celebrates vintage clothes stalls, street artwork and independent pop-up stores.

Amid the urban deprivation and human decay, I found myself walking along one of the oldest roads in England and discovered the Bridge Coffee House. While Hiram Bingham’s legacy is unlikely to be threatened by a new coffee shop in Dalston, I felt this unexplored venue deserved further investigation. The Bridge Coffee House is more like a vintage antique shop than a coffee parlour.

By taking their inspiration from Venetian coffee shops and lining their shelves with Italian caffè, syrup and cappuccino machines. The retro cafe is like a set from an Old Vic theatre production and their first act is an imperial vision of the 1920s.

On arrival I ordered a strawberry chocolate gatteau and began to visualise Ernest Hemingway drinking himself into a stupor at the bar. Surrounding my creation is a snapshot of 20th Century memorabilia including union jacks, trinklets and an original copper till from 1886. The proud Cypriot owner provides a warm and authentic service in stark contrast to the younger bars in nearby Shoreditch. On taking eight months to complete, the downstairs interior has been decorated with French regency chairs, vintage movie posters and Tiffany lamps.

Although as I listened to 60’s Motown music, I began to question whether this vintage chic shop is any different than any other East London venture. Counter-culture shops can sometimes be as equally homogenous as the H&M wearing masses in Starbucks.

And while the upstairs decor is bordering on the ridiculous with its insanely pink chairs, I found myself seduced by the theatre downstairs. Beautiful girls drink coffee on their own in a nostalgic fantasy land that should be seen now before they receive 4 stars from Time Out.

The Bridge Coffee House
15 Kingsland Road
E2 8AA

Images used with kind permission from Tim Boddy.

Your mind is the scene of the crime

After moving to South Hackney two years ago, I have enjoyed a peaceful inner city existence and never felt in any danger. Occasionally teenagers can be seen loitering around the canal bridge and feral kids play improvised football against the recycling bins. But this if anything provides a sense of gritty character to an otherwise dull residential neighbourhood.

While the grim Stalinist appearance of the estate and being surrounded by human storage containers is depressing at times, I have never had any reason to be fearful. Well at least until the coalition government’s new crime website was launched this week. The location based website provides an interactive map of reported violent crime, burglary and anti-social behaviour on every street in England and Wales.

Almost immediately I punched in my postcode and against my better judgement, I found myself living in a crime hotspot. Everyday I walk over the canal bridge on Shepherdess Walk and feel perfectly safe. But the government website reveals a different story.

There are incidents of burglary, vehicle crime and drug dealing on what I had previously assumed to be an idyllic thoroughfare. Clearly the teenage hoods on the bridge have been up to no good. Further inspection of the website reveals there were 2134 reported incidents of crime in my postcode area in December alone.

Should I be too scared to leave the house now? The chances of me being a victim of crime appears to have increased since I discovered what goes on outside when I’m indoors. Even though I should be terrified of my crime ridden estate, I have yet to even spot a litter bug during my two-year stint in Hackney.

Such horrifying statistics are in stark contrast to what I experienced in rural Aberdeenshire as a child. After pouring over the dark side of inner city life, I initially began to reflect back upon how kids from my village would play football after school instead of drug dealing or car theft.

While times have changed since the 1980s and the rise of the internet and games consoles has probably contributed towards more kids staying indoors, I remember how my peers indulged in criminal activity of their own. Every year local school kids would construct massive hay bases in nearby fields and cause thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Most eight years old’s are unaware of the economic value of a hay bail and are unlikely to have a crisis of conscience when they turn one into a straw heap. As a result, local farmers would angrily come charging after us in their tractors once they realised their cherished field had descended into a William Golding novel. The thrill of the chase begins when you are young and I fondly remember scrambling over stone dyke walls escaping from irate Doric farmers as a school boy.

Crime like love is in the eye of the beholder and while stealing strawberries and pea-pods from an allotment patch might have seem like harmless fun to a country village boy. Is it really any different from local youths in Hackney stealing Mars Bars and Coke cans from a 24 convenience store? Enid Blyton would have loved my village escapades and my childhood experiences of crime seem incredibly idyllic in hindsight.

While urban youths are frequently demonised in the media, I can empathise with bored teenage youths loitering around shops in sub-zero temperatures. Dimly lit streets and high rise buildings judge their offspring cruelly in the absence of wide green spaces. In light of the newly publicised figures, I should perhaps tread more carefully along the streets of Hackney but likewise so is the fear of me becoming another government statistic.