New Year’s Day

With a grilled index finger from overusing What’s App, I descend upon Hoxton Street in pursuit of breakfast. My first of a calendar year and it’s driech outside (a foul and miserable day) just like the guttural Scottish adjective. The flat has become a festive zoo for the past five days – a stampede of doors, oven baking and rich Dutch chatter.

You get little privacy and my tolerance is questionable, but I do enjoy listening to unknown vowels and consonants. What on earth are they talking about? Are they talking about me?

Unable to find out I walk past hungover dwellers in grey designer coats and find myself inside a mock French cafe. Ordering a grilled ham croissant and salad, I write out a series of aspirations for 2014: run 30-35 minutes (3 times a week), 25 push ups per day, keep a diary, write for a NYC webzine, eat less chocolate, wear more fashionable clothes and immerse myself in Atlantic magazines.

Usually I want to explore the world but I can’t find any enthusiasm to go anywhere.

Writing lists is a constant of mine and one I keep throughout the year. It’s comforting and reassuring to still have goals. Maybe our desire in keeping notes is that handwriting is like simultaneously drawing.

More honest than our everyday lives shared with strangers. The pains we go to hide the truth and grudging compromises we make in the spirit of forgiveness.

Hoxton Street

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.

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.

Angel’s Delights

Situated inside a gritty 70’s warehouse that has been kindly acquired by Noble House Properties, Angel’s Delights is not going to be around for long. Serving Jamaican dishes inside a toilet-sized cafe, no one should expect to pay for their jerk chicken on a chip and pin device.

East London’s changing population rises to the surface on the towpath – angry cyclists, female joggers, junkies, estate teenagers with fishing rods and ugly blonde twins carrying bags of cider from Tesco. Many of them stop by at Angel’s to purchase a Jamaican takeaway. Time is not on their side.

Bulldozers are due to arrive in August and they will soon be constructing ‘beautifully designed 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments with the finest contemporary specification’.

A stone’s throw away from the East London line, the white arc of progress has only further gentrified a once shady and violent area. With economic progress comes bourgeois cafes and homogeneous flats that have no relationship with the twentieth century.

Traditionally the canal has possessed a feral quality, especially if you wander the towpath after dark. It’s home to wonderful variety of local wildlife, especially in the springtime, where regal swans vie for attention alongside Canada geese, grebes and water rats.

And during the breeding season, coots defend their territories by screaming, flapping their wings and pecking at intruders. Coots may well soon be only thing wild and adventurous left on the canal as luxury properties rise from the ruins of the industrial past and wipe Angel’s Delights off the map.

Angel’s Delights
Dunston Road,
London,
E8 4EA

Your mind is the scene of the crime

After moving to South Hackney two years ago, I have enjoyed a peaceful inner city existence and never felt in any danger. Occasionally teenagers can be seen loitering around the canal bridge and feral kids play improvised football against the recycling bins. But this if anything provides a sense of gritty character to an otherwise dull residential neighbourhood.

While the grim Stalinist appearance of the estate and being surrounded by human storage containers is depressing at times, I have never had any reason to be fearful. Well at least until the coalition government’s new crime website was launched this week. The location based website provides an interactive map of reported violent crime, burglary and anti-social behaviour on every street in England and Wales.

Almost immediately I punched in my postcode and against my better judgement, I found myself living in a crime hotspot. Everyday I walk over the canal bridge on Shepherdess Walk and feel perfectly safe. But the government website reveals a different story.

There are incidents of burglary, vehicle crime and drug dealing on what I had previously assumed to be an idyllic thoroughfare. Clearly the teenage hoods on the bridge have been up to no good. Further inspection of the website reveals there were 2134 reported incidents of crime in my postcode area in December alone.

Should I be too scared to leave the house now? The chances of me being a victim of crime appears to have increased since I discovered what goes on outside when I’m indoors. Even though I should be terrified of my crime ridden estate, I have yet to even spot a litter bug during my two-year stint in Hackney.

Such horrifying statistics are in stark contrast to what I experienced in rural Aberdeenshire as a child. After pouring over the dark side of inner city life, I initially began to reflect back upon how kids from my village would play football after school instead of drug dealing or car theft.

While times have changed since the 1980s and the rise of the internet and games consoles has probably contributed towards more kids staying indoors, I remember how my peers indulged in criminal activity of their own. Every year local school kids would construct massive hay bases in nearby fields and cause thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Most eight years old’s are unaware of the economic value of a hay bail and are unlikely to have a crisis of conscience when they turn one into a straw heap. As a result, local farmers would angrily come charging after us in their tractors once they realised their cherished field had descended into a William Golding novel. The thrill of the chase begins when you are young and I fondly remember scrambling over stone dyke walls escaping from irate Doric farmers as a school boy.

Crime like love is in the eye of the beholder and while stealing strawberries and pea-pods from an allotment patch might have seem like harmless fun to a country village boy. Is it really any different from local youths in Hackney stealing Mars Bars and Coke cans from a 24 convenience store? Enid Blyton would have loved my village escapades and my childhood experiences of crime seem incredibly idyllic in hindsight.

While urban youths are frequently demonised in the media, I can empathise with bored teenage youths loitering around shops in sub-zero temperatures. Dimly lit streets and high rise buildings judge their offspring cruelly in the absence of wide green spaces. In light of the newly publicised figures, I should perhaps tread more carefully along the streets of Hackney but likewise so is the fear of me becoming another government statistic.