A grungy heap of sorrow with doe eyes asked me for some money tonight. She needed somewhere to stay. The girl must have been in her late teens or early twenties; the night’s shadow made it impossible to say.
When no is else is around, strangers become humans and harder to ignore. More often than not, the roar of city life render the most vulnerable into a passing blur.
Frost was biting my cheeks and the girl looked desperate for warmth. I had been at the cinema and was walking home along an empty concrete aisle to my friend’s apartment in Stepney Green.
I began shuffling in my pockets and found some loose change. I didn’t even know I was carrying any. Embarrassed by the meagre amount, I gave her about 37p and said that was “all I had on me” and she replied “I’ll take anything you have”. I was lying to her. My wallet was burning with greed.
As she walked across the road, I felt a pang of self-disgust and put a tenner in her hand. Her eyes widened in astonishment and she said “God bless you” in a soft cockney accent and I felt horrible for not giving it to her earlier.
The cruelty of London hit me as I entered the landing. How many times do you just walk away like I did? Say nothing or pretend you have no money on you. I couldn’t stop crying as I stepped inside the kitchen. Switching the lights on, the artificial heat smothered my cheeks and my phone vibrated with an emoji smile.
Looking out the window towards the city, I realised I should do more for people. Kindness is all we have when God wrought to make this world so sad.
City Road has a godlike spectacle after dark. Nothing ever stays still even at the strike of midnight. It has grown astronomically since I first arrived in 2008. You feel simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted just staring at the traffic.
Walking home amongst glass pyramids and pelican cranes, cycle couriers whistle past me to deliver restaurant food at breakneck speed. Food app riders fascinate me. The push, tug and hurry of modern on-demand consumerism. With their branded helmets and lime green cagoules, a new urban tribe has emerged – a brushstroke of ambition in a globalised world.
Before the skyscrapers were built, I remember Daniela and I moving here and feeling like we had both made it. Sure, the bathroom was a bit rough and the kitchen underwhelmingly small, but this could work. It was my first major foothold in London and after making a series of choices, I won’t be going back.
Freelancing in people pubs, you become convinced that London is the only place that matters. I’ve done this before when I moved to Venice and returned six months later with a thirst for knowledge. How I missed terrifying blitz of technology and energy.
Uneasy jitters are settling in now. I hope I’ve made the right decision. Shifting all my boxes next door and leaving home once again without a key.
With only three weeks left for me in Hoxton, I finally bought a studio desk in a textile factory. Arriving everyday like a laptop camel in my shorts, I love the counter-culture cliche of having my own office. Like the many regrets you have when time is running out, I wish I had done this years ago. To physically and cognitively separate my work, life and playtime into different components.
Creaking back to the mid-twentieth century, the factory will probably be demolished in 18 months time. Hackney Road is prime real estate location for developers. A debilitated aisle of pre-war housing and cheap grocery stories that connects Shoreditch with Bethnal Green.
The Hackney factory is owned by a picture frame business that no longer makes anything. They import all their goods from China. By virtue of abandoning manufacturing, Studio X was born and I bought my desk space from two Spanish artists with dark chocolate beards.
Like everyone else in the studio, the Spaniards make entertainment for a living. They produce a boutique fashion magazine that has an initial distribution run of 4,000 copies. To boost their income, they sub-let their remaining studio space to freelancers such as myself. I paid £140 a month for a desk and sit alongside a Hackney fashion stylist and her three minions:
a ginger anorexic doll
dim-witted posh girl
a blonde street urchin in a baseball cap
Jackie sources expensive clothes for a Radio 1 DJ with a glorious 1970s afro. Attending photo shoots for most of the day, she delegates the hard graft to her interns, who scurry around London collecting wares on behalf of her DJ client. When I compare it to the soul destroying office jobs I did at a similar age, I am glad they are going down a non-conformist path.
One of the benefits of working independently is the freedom to have absurd flat viewings. Like this morning when a muscly tattooed Polish chef, who couldn’t speak a distinguishable word of English, and his Irish brother-in-law came round to see my flat.
Standing together in Greg’s old bedsit, an austere collection of second-hand furniture and sunlight, I politely explained my role and responsibilities. My lips were parroting the same old lines, a puffing collection of melancholy sighs and amusing asides.
Has it really come to this?
With his industrial strength tattoos and rock warrior attire, I instinctively felt Marius’s future lay elsewhere. A skittish energy filled the room as he sat down, like a naughty child entering a doctor’s waiting room without any toys.
Immediately detecting my unease, the Irish chaperone gave bizarre assurances on how ‘sweet and clean’ his brother-in-law was. That he would be a great flatmate and I would barely notice him at all.
‘You seem like a good bloke Daniel, we just need to get him settled for a month before we find something more permanent.’
Marius’s painted biceps became more pervasive as he nodded along with his mentor’s sermon. At this point I began to feel sorry for the guy, like he was being auctioned off to anyone desperate enough to take him.
‘What a great place Daniel’s place has here…wouldn’t it be great to live so close to the canal?’
We then all shook hands at the front door and promised to get in touch the following morning to confirm. Of course, none of us did. Flat viewings oscillate from white lies to abject desperation in my experience. A mini-series of half-truths and lips sharpened from making judgements.
During rush hour you feel like you’re marching your life down the tube. Going eye to eye with a petite woman in a scarlet coat, I utter ‘excuse me, excuse me’ before heaving my way inside.
Come evening and walking home on foot, I like to claim my life back. With my blue sonic buns keeping my ears warm, I depart from nearby Palestra, a technicolour glass mountain in South London and walk back to Hoxton.
Crossing over Blackfriars Bridge, I take my first steps towards the crystal empire, one that sparkles over demolished warehouses and future proofed roads. A military helicopter drones over the river and casts a security shadow over the city. I feel strangely enthralled by its presence. It’s hard, aggressive and exciting.
Weaving past tourists in cagoule jackets, I navigate past St Paul’s Cathedral towards the Barbican Centre. Streams of scarfs and bobble hats march past me, splitting through a demolished Victorian hospital. The Georgian corner pubs are packed full of businessmen drinking pints of honey but I don’t want to go inside.
Cutting through the motorway tunnel, I navigate over pelican crossings and storm past commuters with stringy headphones. A Tinder match vibrates in my pocket (Anita, 27, 3 miles away) as I stay on course and I arrive at Old Street roundabout.
Commuters are now pouring out of the station towards the glass pyramids on City Road. My neighbourhood is a maelstrom of human energy and piercing noise, I feel exhausted just watching the traffic.
I’ve lived here for seven years now. I have nowhere else to go. The dark glitter pours over me as I complete my journey home.
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 unrecognisable to the one you were brought up in.
Generation Z won’t notice the difference and individually you’re powerless to resist. But I feel immensely sad walking through 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.
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 a raw, dirty sensation.
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.
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.
Like many East London boozers it has been converted into a microbrewery serving pan roasted sea-bass, pesto mash and tender-stem broccoli. While there is nothing wrong with gourmet restaurants and demographics will inevitably shift and change over time.
Going for a pint at the White Hart in 2015 is no different than any other UK chain bar. It’s safe, predictable and meticulously branded just like their Facebook page.
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.
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 unconvinced this is 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.
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 gondola men whooshing past at dawn.
Ole! Ole! Ole!
Only a few months ago, I lived in that strange dream across the water. This provides some comfort as my body swivels on a chair and switches on a bright electronic light.
Life is not supposed to be confined to one place and living in an N1 council estate, I sometimes long to move on and write about something new. If that turns out to be case, then it certainly won’t be in Arnold Circus, Shoreditch but you’ll have to keep reading to find out why. This place I prefer to keep to myself. I do hope this will mean something to someone one day though. Until then I hereby present a re-published story about a fairytale council estate in Shoreditch.
For most Londoners I know, the term ‘ex-council’ is a pejorative expressed with a wry shrug. Cheek by jowl people move here and live in council estates under the loving supervision of private landlords. It’s a necessity rather than a choice and if you don’t like it, then move to Leeds.
Everyone dreams about their ideal home and as a self-declared dreamer and social climber, I’d love a two-bedroom flat in Arnold Circus. Designed by Victorian philanthropists for the respectful working-classes, Arnold Circus is one of the most beautiful and fascinating council estates in Britain.
With its red brick tenements individually named after villages on the River Thames and connected by leafy boulevards that extend from a central communal bandstand, Arnold Circus is like a real-time painting fashioned from the rubble of dismantled slums.
This Victorian model village has a fairytale quality that surpasses anything you may find in London’s richer neighbourhoods. What is really inspiring is how street design and architecture can improve people’s lives. It’s like every footstep you make has been accounted for on a map. Indeed there aren’t many council estates registered by English Heritage for their special historic interest.
Still home to thousands of social tenants and a few private professionals, I will never rent, let alone, own a flat in Arnold Circus. But for while I still live in East London it will remain my favourite conduit – a gateway to better things.
With the rich green canopies sheltering bourgeois dog walkers and teen gangs, it feels like my footsteps become brush strokes whenever I walk through Arnold Circus. Like I’m subconsciously taking part in someone else’s painting. A snapshot of consciousness amidst the overgrown ferns and rising Plane trees.
Arnold Circus is a bona fide masterpiece in urban planning and all I am is a passing visitor, a solitary figure traversing on foot.
Redchurch Street is my favourite Shoreditch thoroughfare, a piss stained alley reclaimed by French cafes selling kale cupcakes and artisan toast. Unmarked galleries are everywhere and the street art is commissioned behind closed doors.
Graffiti is a hand made billboard these days – it just depends on who’s paying.
With peeling DJ stickers on lamp posts and buildings covered by scaffolding, Redchurch Street is my foremost memory of East London. Ruinenlust layered with flyers and rat droppings. The paradox that rusts continues to this day.
I love the internet as much as I love geography, it’s an infinite world of endless possibilities and one that allows me to expand my universe. From following violent revolutions in Kiev to going on a date in New York, the internet is a far cry from the banal conversations you have to endure IRL.
Cyberspace is a riotously intelligent place and massively exciting too. Only virtual networks are full of illusions and despite being able to instantaneously chat with someone 4745 miles away, we still have to live and breathe in the physical world. You need money and time to experience life on a big scale and rarely (in my experience) do you get access to both.
Hope is a temporary form of insanity and I usually immerse myself in long deep thoughts when walking through East London housing estates. My rented world of tower blocks, grocery stores and loitering teen gangs.
When I buy groceries at my local co-operative shop, I often find myself dreaming of a new life elsewhere. There is something about half-price pizzas and 30% off non-bio liquitabs that makes me feel inordinately depressed. And that’s before I make eye contact with the service assistants standing behind the till.
Last spring I was made redundant from an exhausted media company and finally escaped from my desk. After the initial shock of seeing my employer go bust, I received a handsome pay out and experienced what I had always craved – free time and lots of money.
With the virgin bloom of fresh green leaves and daffodils swaying in the mud of Anglican churchyards, I sat in nearby Hoxton cafes searching for a plan. And by sheer chance I found myself embarking upon a transatlantic journey that was foolish, romantic and utterly exhilarating. Life’s not meant to be lived in one place.
And on finding myself in an almost identical situation (minus the severance package) I am pining for a new hopeful song. As there is probably someone out there who is perfect for you but because of serendipity you’ll probably never meet or spend enough time together to make it right.
As you can stay within your postcode, or maybe travel a few miles by tube to the West End, or even take a wee trip to Brighton. But you always end up in the same place as before. Back where you first started and where is the fun in that?
Sentimentality can play tricks on you and you must look forward. But on walking through East London on a weekday afternoon, I realise we’re not as close or better connected as I once hoped. We’re the same as we always were, living our everyday lives, thousands of miles apart.