God bless

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.

Last days of the counter-culture precariat

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.

Make do and mend and ignore the naysayers.

 

 

Double room for rent near Old Street

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.

Arnold Circus

Arnold Circus Des BlenkinsoppAuthor’s Note

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, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out why. This place I prefer to keep to myself. 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 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 council estates in England.

Arnold Circus Lady Aga

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 painting fashioned from the rubble of dismantled slums.

Arnold Circus Andrea Vail

This Victorian model village has a fairytale quality that surpasses anything you may find in richer neighbourhoods. What is 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.

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.

Arnold Circus Bandstand

With the rich green canopies sheltering bourgeois dog walkers and teen gangs, it feels like my footsteps become brush strokes whenever I walk through here. 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.

Italian Hustle

Let's adore and endure each other

This is a story about an Italian hustler in Shoreditch. He broke all the rules, lied to everyone and never took any responsibilities for his actions. He cost me a huge amount of time and money, and I should hate him, but for some reason I empathise with his desire for success. He tried, tried and tried again. And he doesn’t stop trying.

Likewise, I never stopped chasing him in court for my unpaid wages. I kept on trying and trying despite having no chance of success. Everyone told me it was a waste of time. As enforcing a court order against this Shoreditch playboy would be like throwing spilt milk at a beggar.

Accepting work from Leonardo (not his real name) was a huge mistake. But when you are unemployed and looking for jobs; you try things, silly things, especially if you want to avoid working in an office. Freelancing is an extremely hard thing to do.

It’s far easier to take a salary from a big company and bank the savings. Doing your own thing offers freedom and creativity, but many people fail working on their own, and some more spectacularly than others.

By joining ‘CAN U’ in June 2013, I unwittingly signed a freelance contract with a startup company on the verge of collapse. Despite obsessively talking about #collaboration and #collaborating on their website their business model was opaque at best. Having a creative army of designers and artists on your books is impressive, but it won’t make you any money.

That’s the problem with many East London startup companies. During the first year you have a glamour launch party, new website, coke-addled staff, and a low-interest business loan to pay for it all. The second year the bills come through…and proved to be Leonardo’s downfall.

An infinitely hopeful man with zero understanding of business, Leonardo believed he was predestined to become the greatest entrepreneur in the world. Alas, on running up 10k worth of debts in unpaid wages and immersed in countless feuds, Leonardo was a bankrupt on multiple levels.

Accepting his job offer, I found myself overseeing their content strategy, writing blogs, and updating their website. Despite having nothing in common with Leonardo, I initially found him a positive and entertaining guy to work with.

Leonardo’s biggest problem was that he loved the idea of being a CEO, but didn’t have the foresight or discipline to be one. For example, he became convinced that writing in caps was a good idea.

“FROM TODAY I WANT ALL COMMUNICATIONS IN CAPS”, I was told one morning. I responded to his email straight away, and explained that from a writing perspective, caps is considered loud and aggressive, and it would upset our clients.

“THIS IS PART OF OUR NEW COMMUNICATION STRATEGY AND IS NON -NEGOTIABLE. CAPS ARE POSITIVE AND GREAT FOR BUSINESS”.

Only they are not great for business – they are annoying and irritate nearly everyone.  It soon became clear that Leonardo loved taking calls and updating his Facebook status every hour, but did precious little else.

CAN U failed to pay me for my 90+ hours work or any of their staff. Unable to remunerate his freelancers, Leonardo claimed he couldn’t pay anyone until CAN U received ten grand from an Italian restaurant in Hammersmith.

His negotiating tactics for settling this debt involved going over to West London and throwing chairs at the owner. He allegedly paid some heavies £250 (on the advice of a bogus debt collector) to bash the restaurant owner’s legs. Let’s just assume his methods were unsuccessful.

Leonardo abandons CAN U’s debts in July 2013 and tried to relaunch CAN U as a phoenix company trading under a slightly different name. We were all bitterly angry but were unable find a way to successfully challenge him.

Undeterred by his ridiculous emails, I pursued my wages in the small claims court, and won a default judgement against CAN U. It was a pyrrhic victory as his bogus company is bankrupt with no assets.

On pursuing his entrepreneurial ambitions through social media, Leonardo appears no closer to making it big. Although I hope one day his fearlessness is rewarded. Reading his bizarre updates on Twitter #alwaysbehonest #nevergiveup I find myself almost wanting him to succeed.

As for all the lies expressed by Leonardo, I don’t think he’s a bad person. He demands the impossible and keeps on making glorious mistakes. Leonardo keeps on trying and trying, and does not settle for anything less than perfection. I guess for that reason alone, I find myself a grand down, but can’t find it within myself to dislike him.

Experiments in Living

Arguably the most beautiful tribute night in the world, Future Cinema’s Casablanca pays homage to the 1940s. With queues of fur coats and dashing bibs shivering outside, there is a gorgeous moment on arrival, when the Troxy simply bursts into life. Where everyone wants to fall in love and get married in the rain.

Downstairs where the émigrés gather, guests are serenaded by a Dixieland Jazz Band playing soft, melting and ravishingly iconic tunes. Strolling down the stairs for the first time is a magical experience, one you could record a million times and never recapture.

Sparkling underneath a pink ornamental panel, Casablanca feels like a tribute to people who don’t go out during the day – those who live off the grid and make a living by their wits. A subversive experience infiltrated by actors. Remember not everyone has paid a booking fee to enter.

Future Cinema brilliantly tap into the golden age theory in what is a profound cultural shift dictated by nostalgia. Furthermore there is now a plethora of sing-a-long nights, retrospective screenings and 1950s dance hall nights taking place – we are all collectively obsessed with the past.

Whatever happened to here and now?

Sartorial fashions have not ceased to exist in the twenty-first century. There are motifs of present day society everywhere you look – baby faced beards, iPhones, electro DJ sets and memes to name just a few. There is a distinctive visual culture taking place. Eclecticism, irony and peer-to-peer fragmentation will probably form a neo-future cinema event in 2090.

And your life inside the black mirror will be mythologized as romantic as the cinematic émigrés of 1940s Morocco. What you are going through now is a truly fascinating experience. One that is completely unprecedented in human history – we are the glamour virgins of a new found century.

 “I always hear people saying ‘Oh, I’d love to live in the 60’s where everyone is dressed so glamorously’, what’s stopping them from putting on something wonderful tonight?”

– Tom Ford

Social media audiences are no longer content to passively watch an old film in silence – they now want to take part in a ‘live experience’. Everything is interactive now, even the past. By seamlessly merging real time actors with technology, unattainable worlds can now be entered like never before. And remember this is just the beginning. A new matrix is being created where the past can be endlessly revisited.

Separated from our own universe, the Troxy captures the romantic essence of Casablanca. Indeed the art deco cinemas of the 1920s and 1930s are some of the most optimistic statements ever made in stone.

By transforming London’s most beautiful inter-war venue into Rick’s Cafe Americain, dressing up for a golden era taps into a strange cinematic homesickness. It’s a gorgeous experience overall, where men are gentlemen and girls are extraordinarily pretty. Just remember what happened off camera probably didn’t seem that glamourous at the time.

Soerditch: A Diary of a Neighbourhood

On recently being interviewed by Harry Potter with a beard in an East London warehouse, I left feeling somewhat disconcerted. Start ups are invariably formed by young people and the “Creative Director” interviewing me must have been no older than twenty-two. Here I stumbled upon the modern zeitgeist and felt like a pawn in a profound demographic shift; one where age is irrelevant and children born and shaped by the internet will rule the world.

Despite living in Hoxton for nearly three years I’ve never fully embraced the East London lifestyle. Self-consciously quirky and dripping with acid, even the street art appears alien and vacant. With the big drinks and footwear corporations imitating the guerrilla artists in Great Eastern Street, I sometimes struggle to differentiate between rebellion and multi-national profit.

When young residents tweet references to themselves as “wankers” as a form of cheery endearment, it’s like we’re all permanently trapped inside a hyper-capitalist matrix where nothing will ever change. Post-modernism is a passive condition entirely dependent on technology. Ironic mocking is therefore all we have left.

By paying homage to media fashions, converts will embrace parody to demonstrate their wit and intelligence but they are born within this system and can never leave. There is no future, only a recycled past.

Satirising a contemporary urban world, Adam Dant‘s cartoon exhibition Soerditch, Diary of a Neighbourhood offers an irreverent guide to Shoreditch. Embracing an irreverent newspaper aesthetic, Dant’s sketches provide a mocking guide to the area’s post-1993 residents. And what is most striking about “Tech City” and its glitterati of Wifi-workers, street food vendors and Harry Potter capitalists is the abandonment of history.

There are no longer any relationship with the dead and the Victorian furniture factories have long been scrubbed clean of their industrial residuum. With East London’s past shucked out within a generation, the old warehouses and churches are like fumigated skulls. They are merely an interim host that will exchange hands every thirty years.

While the deceased residents of Shoreditch are ignored their buildings live on vicariously without them. Originally assembled by coarse working hands, there is a natural hierarchy with age and somehow an older building is considered more ‘real’ than something new. History provides an emotional backbone that modernity with all its superficialities and globalised rootlessness cannot.

By mapping this technological and leisure society, Dant’s cartoons provides a wry sense of character and warmth to the area. Shoreditch’s transformation from industrial workshop to a consumer paradise is just another step along the road towards our final destination as archaeology. The Roman Empire lies crushed underneath East London’s converted warehouses and over time Shoreditch will follow suit – a pop up world waiting to collapse.

Hackney through the Looking-Glass

As someone who is comfortable wearing contemporary attire, it’s hard not to feel completely invisible at Broadway Market. Decorated by the capitalist toils of the British high street, I always develop an inferiority complex amongst Hackney’s bohemian community.

Broadway Market is not just a place to sample Ghanaian pot lunches or vinyl Beatles records. It’s an artistic confederacy of like-minded educated individuals, who choose too or instinctively diverge from the moneyed paths of middle-class employment, or at least that’s how it feels.

With its extravagant visual styles and fragrant riots of colour, Broadway Market is a place where every moment feels like an Instagram snap – a grainy artistic mirage dating from 1900-1969, where everything is re-lived for post-modern audiences. Pop history has long ended so all we can do is rewind, pause and live vicariously through the memories of others.

While there is a marked difference between what is genuinely old as oppose to say ‘retro’ – a ludicrous concept. Broadway Market feels more like a pastiche than a parody of the past, as its imitations and community spirit are warmly affectionate rather than mocking in tone.

Likewise, when I go to nearby Columbia Road Flower Market, I find myself once again succumbing to my everyday clothes. Even if I am just popping down to salvage scraps of hot street food, there is an unnerving sense of invading a private party – one that I could never be invited to in real life.

Capturing the essence of this lifestyle difference is a gypsy-folk singer, Brooke Sharkey, who offers a window into another lifestyle, one more fanciful and beautiful than my own. She sings pure sweet bohemia and listening to her poetic voice accompanied by a large double bass and accordion, it’s hard not to feel utterly banal in comparison. And while I would never ordinarily listen to gypsy-folk music at home, in the right setting, her songs are vividly beautiful.

Evoking memories of a pre-war bohemian lifestyle, I can imagine her band holidaying in St Ives drinking gin and sage, while dining on freshly caught scallops. A fanciful life perhaps and it’s one that only seems possible on Broadway Market, which on examining the looking-glass, I will never obtain but can always admire from afar.

Lacking any starry-eyed garments of my own, I remain an invisible figure in London Fields, but it’s wonderful to think that songwriters such as Brooke Sharkey can survive without being coarsened by the demands of modern life.

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.