Notes

The revolution that takes place in your head, nobody will ever see that.

Tag Archives: England

Songbird

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Lewes

Listening to a robin sing this morning, I kept looking amongst the branches until I spotted a red breast fluttering near the crown. Spring sunshine was pouring over Lewes’s suburban lawns and ruinous Abbey grounds. I hadn’t heard something so beautiful and unforced in a very long time. ‘A bird sings because it has a song’ or so the saying goes.

East Sussex is geographically far removed from my home in Aberdeenshire. Its the southern end of the green isle, but it felt familiar today only warmer, prettier and less remote.

Standing on Lewes Castle grounds, I remember being an eight-year-old boy, accompanying my mother to Aberdeen’s zoology building. I would bring along my binoculars and pack lunch box to RSPB meetings: a meal composed of ham sandwiches, crisps and two bourbon chocolate biscuits wrapped in tin foil.

We drove there in a poky blue Volvo and the conveners always had southern English accents. I always remember this because they were markedly different from the kids and teachers at my local school. Bird watching shaped my early childhood until the age of ten. But it stayed there for some reason, like many sweet things that drift away in the pursuit of conformity.

Gone are the speckled breasts of thrushes, goldfinches and robins. Living in a big city estate with no garden, birds have become crows roosting over defecated cars. Unlike my RSPB years, I don’t hear any songbirds when I leave the house in the morning. I only hear the caw-caw-cawing of scavengers and a 24/7 motorised world.

Isn’t it funny how far south you have to travel just to remember how things used to be.

Broken Glass

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Norton Folgate Demolition

Picture: Inspiring City

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.

The Griffin

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.

Aldgate

Picture: The Urban Adventures of Keïteï

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.

Jack the Ripper

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.

The White Hart Whitechapel

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.

The views of the local community about the development of Spitalfields are 'cynically disregarded'

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. They are even demolishing an arthouse cinema for the financial benefit of a tiny global minority.

Madam Jojos

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.

Old Man Lost In Shoreditch

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One balmy afternoon in Shoreditch I encountered a bald grey man in his early seventies wandering along Old Street. Unkempt with his peppercorn stubble and rotund paunch, the elder asked me for directions to London Bridge. We were standing outside a false Mexican restaurant. El Paso – whatever that means. And with the northern line only five minutes away I directed him towards Old Street station and he replied ‘thanks mate, nobody here gives a shit’. Like a Lowry matchstick he shuffled into the distance and I was immediately struck by how incongruous the old man looked.

In Shoreditch everyone is under 35 and riding a bike in the sunshine. Nobody old lives or works here. Unlike other cities or municipalities, there is no natural spreading out of decades. East London is almost entirely populated by millenials. Saplings without roots they have colonised Shoreditch to such an extent that an old man asking for directions now looks out of place.

And then I realised that his world is over: the trains, factories and pints of ale – this has gone forever and technology is now ascendant, whirling over tiny filaments invisibly beneath the soil. Wires that aren’t even wires – it breeds ambivalence among those sharing the very same air.

Hoxton Street

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Most people think Hoxton is a gentrified square near Shoreditch. A Godless plaza dominated by elitist art galleries and cow-in-a-bun chain establishments frequented by the urban middle-classes. However, if you riddle your way through the Legoland council estates, my favourite street in London emerges largely unscathed from this process. Although this being east London marinated olives are never going to be in short supply.

With phallic glass enterprises providing a glittering night drop, Hoxton Street is modest in size. London never reached for the sky during its formative years. Boxed in by social housing and state planted trees, the street is best viewed from the northern end.

Spinning off from the green fabricated leisure centre, there is a Nigerian restaurant with a 3 star rating for cleanliness and a scattered collection of refrigerators. Serving rice, beans and karaoke nights, Aso Rock is unlikely to have been reviewed by Time Out.

Chunky pit bulls march along the pavement with their gruff bloated owners with a panting smile. Nursing black and gold tins of Skol lager in broad daylight, it is clear that drinking habits are unevenly distributed at birth.

Nearby the bold Victorian philanthropy of St Leonard Hospital exclaims OFFICES FOR THE RELIEF OF THE POOR. Only now the NHS font is bubble squeak and consumer friendly just like the rest of post-war Hoxton.

Further along the street I arrive at the Hoxton Community Garden, a prim English settlement resplendent with a clock tower, excavated from a children’s hospital in 1982. No dogs are allowed. A green civilisation home to mums and babies, finches and the occasional grey squirrel, this local garden is one the few places where the drunk and crazy are able to converse without prejudice.

Full of intricate marvels and unspoken heritage, the street has hitherto survived the gentrification process. A marvellous place to draw, there is a wonderful arrangement of human storage containers interspersed with optimistic shades of tender blue.

Stirring in the long grass is a picnic from Persepolis, where I momentarily regret not being a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, if only to capture the hope amongst the melancholy.

Back on the main road, I frequent bourgeois coffee shops and craft beer establishment and I’m left with a dilemma. As by virtue of their existence the street’s character will inevitably change. Situated less than 500 years away, Hoxton Square’s commercial galleries sell artworks to well moneyed professionals that no ordinary person could possibly afford.

More importantly it’s generic and dull. Hoxton Street has somehow avoided falling into this trap. It almost feels like a throwback to the 1980s, where shops and services remain humdrum local affairs such as florists, hairdressers, butchers, shoe repairs and a Pie and Mash shop.

Despite this sentiment it feels decadent to romanticise the ordinariness of this street like it’s some Shane Meadows drama on Channel Four. Even more perverse is to feel nostalgic for a place you have no family or regional connections whatsoever.

Alas it reminds me of a small market town in Scotland, one with local shops and familiar faces, culturally miles apart but feels just like home.

Door to the River

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After graduating from Glasgow University in July 2004, I had several ambitions in life and like many arts graduates none of them involved having a career. Well at least I had absolutely no intention of retraining as a history teacher, which at the time appeared to be the only option available to me.

Instead I embraced a hazy world of denial and escapism and this involved travelling around Europe on borrowed money and giving up a £65 a week bedsit on the Great Western Road. Such an undertaking came partly as a lust for knowledge and a desire to explore new cultures and languages. Scotland for all its charms is geographically isolated, monolingual and bordered only by England.

However, I must acknowledge that one of the most compelling reasons behind my desire to travel was the chance to ditch my joke finance job at the Abbey National. So before I abandoned Glasgow for the olive fields of Andalucia, I had one ambition left in life and that involved writing my own fanzine.

Such was my love of Kelvinside and its bohemian leafy character, I came up with a pun title derived from a mediocre John Fante novel and set about producing an irreverent guide to post-graduate life in the West End of Glasgow. An inky offbeat publication capturing small town blues, film reviews, Chinese takeaways and unwise polemics against high street chuggers. Ask The Kelvin seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unknown to me in the mid-Noughties, I had set about producing a dead tree publication long before the wonders of tagging, Tumblr and all the social interactive elements that assist writers today. Unable to share my thoughts on a global scale, there was no danger of Ask The Kelvin ever going viral. Living in a make-believe world I knew at the time I couldn’t make any money out of a fanzine but for some strange reason I felt compelled to make one anyway.

On embracing the self-funded model, I produced fifty copies at the local stationary store and distributed them at Fopp, Offshore and a ragtag collection of Byres Road charity shops. Back then Facebook didn’t even exist and the audience I secretly lusted and craved for during my sleepless nights in Otago Street never quite materialised. Indeed looking back it does seem really twee and provincial, especially when I compare it to some of the sexy projects on Kickstarter.

Based in New York and providing a self-funded platform to raise funds on a global scale, Kickstarter allows random individuals to become patrons of their favourite projects. Almost like a counter-culture version of the BBC Dragons’ Den, Kickstarter involves a video pitch alongside a synopsis explaining the reasons why you should support them. Not with a lazy like you can get away with elsewhere but with hard cash.

Kickstarter is an amazing place to support new talent and my personal favourite is theNewerYork, an experimental lit mag based in Brooklyn that celebrates radical poetry, love letters and seriously weird pieces of art. Like stumbling into your favourite record shop as a 17 year old and discovering heroin tainted rock zines for the first time, if you tire of the NewerYork, you are tired of life.

Surreally decorated with unfamous quotes and the occasionally haunting story, their magazine blows my wee Glasgow fanzine out of the water. Beautifully humbled by their efforts, I must confess that on reading their e-version, some 3500 miles away in an English metropolis, I never stood a chance back in leafy Kelvinside. Alas I am now older than the 23 year old locked inside a Glasgow bedsit but still similarly way inclined.

Unlike the NewerYork I don’t think I would get $8,119 in funding for the second edition of Ask The Kelvin, even allowing for the social media tools available to young writers and artists today. However, I do take some inspiration from one of their many slogans: everything has been done before, so do it better. 

A Stateless Nation

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On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

The Madness of Bom-Banes

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There is something undeniably satisfying about being ‘in the know’. Almost everyone loves the feeling of being in possession of secret information, and whether its office gossip, pop trivia or breaking shocking news. There is a journalist within all of us that wants to keep ahead of our friends.

With boutique events guides popping up all over the internet, I followed a lead on a recent trip to East Sussex and attended a new café in Brighton. Situated in an unremarkable side street in Kemp Town, this marvellous Belgian coffee bar is unlikely to be bought out by Zizzi anytime soon. Even by Brighton’s famously bohemian standards, the madness of Bom-Banes is an offbeat delight.

Bom-Banes is run by Jane Bom-Bane and her partner Nick Pynn and their eccentric vision follows in the British music hall tradition. The upstairs dining area is liberally sprinkled with children’s drawings, spring flowers and Aesop’s tables playing 1920’s cartoons.

One of the charms of the venue is how young children turn up to do their homework and are treated with the same respect as the musicians rehearsing in the Moroccan parlour downstairs. Indeed the café possesses so many surrealist twists you would be forgiven for thinking the venue had originally been conceived in a dreamy child’s mind.

With its crazy mechanical tables, Belgian dishes and beautiful white beers, Bom-Banes is certainly not the place to go for egg and chips. In this mad bohemian café one of their most endearing qualities is how the owners and staff actually talk to you.

On living in a transaction based society that revolves around chip and pin relationships it can come as quite a shock to receive a genuinely friendly service from Jane Bom-Banes and friends.

Anyone expecting a quiet romantic dinner is advised to avoid Bom-Banes because it requires a certain kind to attend. Shy and reserved types might find Bon-Banes a bit too much when the eccentricities are in full flow. This is the price you pay for wanting to be different though. Otherwise their home made food is absolutely lovely with ostrich, salads and Mediterranean tapas available at very reasonable prices.

Even if you love the gorgeous cuisine, some people may well find Bom-Banes too garish for their tastes. However, anyone walking along the fabled road less travelled should be prepared for the unexpected.

With my untapped niche firmly in my pocket, I now possess a secret unknown to the vulgar masses. Self-satisfaction is never far away in this respect. If it’s off the beaten track, then I want to be on it.

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