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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite having no real affinity for the South East, I have never been shy of visiting its historic market towns. In recent years I have travelled to Canterbury, Dover, Brighton, Eastbourne and more recently Cambridge. On arriving at the Cambridge train station and walking a mile and half towards the city centre, I realised I had been deluded from the outset.
Deluded by my own expectations, where I always hope to find an H.V. Morton version of England but leave disappointed every time. Almost immediately on arriving in Cambridge, I was reminded of a previous trip to Canterbury, where I went in search of Geoffrey Chaucer but found myself overwhelmed by the awesome triumph of American consumerism.
Canterbury Cathedral is curtained off by medieval walls but is surrounded by a pedestrianised shopping centre full of New Labour corporate chains. Such is the grim familiarity of these stores, I often find myself dangerously nostalgic for a golden era I never knew and regretting the triumph of motorways and supermarkets. Behind the sparkling windows of discount signs and fairy lights lies the banal realisation that almost every town centre in England looks exactly the same.
Cambridge offers a gift shop experience and on exploring their beautiful university colleges, it is still possible to find a postcard moment from selective angles. While Cambridge has largely maintained its medieval architecture and religious landmarks, most of their traditional local stores appear to have disappeared and replaced by Boots, Clinton Cards and Costa Coffee.
These corporate chains represent economic growth, jobs and progress. Everybody uses them. It’s just a source of regret that you can now close your eyes in any English city and be virtually anywhere from Newcastle upon Tyne to Southend upon Sea.