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.