Carlito gets up around midday and spends most afternoons curled up in his hoodie watching Shakira videos on his phone. I often wonder what he does for a living or why he moved here. While he lies on the living room sofa nursing a diabetic coma from excess coca cola consumption, I suspect he expends most of his energy at the in-drawn breath of dark somewhere in Soho or Vauxhall.
I barely spoke to him during my brief tenure at Bow Towers. Having made the wrong move on returning from Lisbon, I made little effort to ingratiate myself into the flat dynamic.
At times it felt sectioned inside an old folks’ home such were the prudish rituals of Carlito’s live-in-uncle. With my resentment brewing, I made a vow of silence to get me through the remaining weeks.
Living in his mouse box drenched in cheap aftershave and wires, I never got a chance to say goodbye to Carlito. But before I set off for pastures new, I met him in the lift as we floated towards the asylum. It’s been hot recently, its been very hot indeed and after lamely bringing up my inability to sleep, we began chatting as our lives overlapped in this babel of frustrated wills.
Carrying my second large water bottle of the day, I enthusiastically approved of his fitness routine, and with the sun acting like an inferno, we chirped like finches on a telephone wire; discussing free weights, crunches, running and health-related neuroses.
But for all our friendly fitness talk, he seemed somewhat lost to me, like a child hidden in a cupboard in a far away land. I still have no idea what he does for a living or why he moved here to be with his uncle. As like a finch on a wire, it’s all the better to be seen and heard, and fly away as fast as you can.
‘You see that? She accused me of overcharging her by 50p’, said the portly kebab owner to the diamond geezer behind the counter. ‘What do you expect mate? Her son was riding a stolen bike.’ Cue laughter as we drifted into the night, walking home in the midst of a tropical heatwave. One that only becomes bearable after dark, where teenagers not much older than the artful dodger loiter around outside; pulling wheelies and grinding onto kerbs.
There’s a wild and jagged energy around here. You can feel something stirring in the air for everyone is scavenging for scraps, as the night clouds form like white whales swimming across the sea.
Watching the city turning on a light bulb at a time, I got lost on a bus diversion in a blue spectral wasteland. Some grungy Italian boy was dragging his body weight in a suitcase. Are you stopping at Bow Road? Are you stopping at Bow at all? Judging by his muted response, lost boys weren’t the driver’s concern.
As the passengers drifted one-by-one into the night, I arrived back at my latest residence, a baby boomer investment tower in Bow Quarter. Where I desperately find myself wanting to leave, but unwilling to pay for a deposit elsewhere. Make the wrong move in the London renting market, and you can find yourself boxed in at times. In my case quite literally.
When you share a place with randoms, there are lots of dynamics in place, and they only come to the surface once it’s too late. Superficially the flat is plush and modern, but that’s where the attraction ends. There is a corporate sadness from the moment you step inside, whether it’s the generic showroom decor, untouched cooking utensils to the complete absence of human love and sentimentality.
No photos, no books, no records, and certainly no magnets on the fridge.
The landlord stockpiles vitamin tablets and fake tan in the kitchen. The fridge has virtually no food beyond a few eggs, and the dishwasher is stuffed full of plastic bags. He doesn’t adhere to any recycling principles, and no visitors are allowed without his consent. Also sharing the apartment is his Portuguese nephew, who daily consumes protein milkshakes and microwaved paellas for breakfast.
They watch Sky News and Hollywood movies without paying the faintest attention to events or the storyline. Like the pills and fitness supplements they consume, the television is a substitute void to help them get through the day.
My relationship with them veers from bewildered diplomacy to barely concealed agitation. The landlord is a decent, caring man who would never harm anyone, but his innately condescending manner is sending me to the exit door.
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 discern.
When no is else is around, strangers become humans and harder to ignore. It’s funny how the pneumatic roar of traffic and pedestrians 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.
It’s cold and desolate here after Christmas, populated only by abandoned cars and stragglers in chicken shops. I can’t speak favourably of the area – it’s depressing and ugly even during the summer months.
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”, but 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 pre-hipster people pubs, you become convinced that London is the only place that matters. I’ve done this before you know and returned six months later with a thirst for knowledge. How I missed terrifying blitz of technology, roaring energy and the empty vortex of thousands upon thousands of wasted words.
Uneasy jitters are settling in now. I hope I’ve made the right decision. Shifting all my boxes next door and leaving home 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 and floral shirts.
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 small desk and sit next to a Hackney fashion stylist and her three interns. They include:
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 gophers, who scurry around London collecting wares on behalf of a minor celebrity. When I compare it to the soul destroying office jobs I did at a similar age, I actually feel relieved they are going down a non-conformist path.
For none of us have come out right in the wash, but we make do and mend in style.
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.
As I walked down to Brick Lane with my portfolio on my back, heavy with words and responsibilities. I arrived at the Kahalia Cafe and made eyes with a wandering muse. Sitting underneath the skylight with her laptop, I remembered writing about her in 2012, how she sang so beautifully alongside a bearded minstrel in London Fields.
She became a passing bohemian fancy of mine back then, with her rose petal clippings and strung bow guitar. I’ve noticed her sing a few times in local flower markets, and looking back what made her so attractive was the serene purity of her voice.
After spotting her in the coffee shop, I recalled watching her at Broadway Market with her cello partner one lazy autumnal morning. There was something tangible in the air that day, the weight and tenderness of her voice was beautifully controlled.
Her spirit was free and she appeared (maybe somewhat naively) to live an innately gifted life, one far removed from the bearded entrepreneurs and fat posh mummies sitting next to me. Someone free from the ugly necessities and masks we must wear just to survive.
Alas, I kept on tapping away in the distance, knowing that someone – someone wonderfully talented can survive and prosper by making beautiful things.
Bumping into my face every day, I walk towards Old Street station on a weekday morning. During rush hour you feel like you’re marching your life down the tube. Going eye to eye with a petit 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 brutally 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 step inside.
Cutting through the motorway tunnel, I navigate over pelican crossings and storm past commuters with stringy headphones. A Tinder match alert vibrates in my pocket (Anita, 27, 3 miles away) as I stay on course and arrive at Old Street roundabout, where I am confronted by a large inanimate object telling what ‘auld lang syne’ means.
Commuters are now pouring out of the station towards the glass pyramids on City Road. Forever 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 virtually 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 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.
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. I loved the textural grace and industrial facades of Shoreditch immediately. I remember feeling incredibly naive and very much alive.
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.
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 has 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.
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.
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.