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 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 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.
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.
Like many East London boozers it has been converted into a microbrewery serving pan roasted sea-bass, pesto mash and tender-stem broccoli. While there is nothing wrong with gourmet restaurants and demographics will inevitably shift and change over time.
Going for a pint at the White Hart in 2015 is no different than any other UK chain bar. 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.
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.
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 unconvinced this is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back in the noughties I used to maintain a Blogger diary and updated it twice a week. What struck me reading it back (now safely offline) is not so much the pretentiousness or negativity, but the extraordinary length I went to describe ordinary things.
Like all early bloggers I had no visual content to illuminate my words and unlike the multi-dimensional apps we use today, Little Earthquakes was my exclusive space on the internet. During the beta years, there were no status updates, memes or tweets to keep you entertained throughout the working day.
On reading my old diaries, it’s probably a good thing Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist. As while I’ll love dreamy quotes and literary feels until I die, I was a dreadful twentysomething.
Most people’s diaries are excruciating, but there is an unnerving sense I could have done anything and blew it through inertia and self-sabotage.
Nobody uses Blogger anymore but on re-reading my noughties blog I am surprised at the length and indeed the frequency of my updates. The paragraphs were longer, denser and wonderfully inconsiderate of modern formats that prefer reactionary images and videos.
Essentially I was a frontier blogger repeating what had gone on in the analogue era. And by writing in traditional English my diaries are likely to appear dated to future generations.
Visual means of communicating are already taking precedence with journalism reduced to using Gifs as metaphors. Like why compose a 600 word blog when you can upload a 6 second Vine instead? The English language has always been in a state of constant flux and smartphone apps are revolutionising how kids communicate with one another.
Last year’s Selfies at Funerals website was superbly funny and became an internet obsession for about a week. It was almost like the cartoon participants were an anthropological case study from another planet, but Generation Z are going to write the future and it doesn’t have to include words. As the seemingly trivial selfie has an emotional resonance amongst teens that even people in their early thirties don’t understand.
Selfies are insanely silly for the most part – a warm, funny and entertaining way to share our feelings and communicate with one another. Witnessing the birth of a visual language is a fascinating experience. Smartphones have created something innately human and more importantly new. This has never happened before and our selfie-obsessed culture is like a web born toddler taking its first steps.
Visual storytelling is what moves people now and even Twitter’s famous 140 character limit is being invaded by images. Historically pictures have always been easier and quicker for people to understand. They get the message across more vividly.
With smartphones replacing words with photos, I am already looking out of date. Indeed it’s safe to say that anyone over thirty is now irrelevant. Even those who embrace Snapchat while composing Emoji poetry are culturally obsolete
Emoji is a visual alphabet from Japan that originated in 1999 because the Japanese language is not suited to shorthand messaging. These “picture characters” are commonly misunderstood for emoticons, which is a portmanteau for emotions + icons we use to supplement our text messages and badly written emails (-:
A subtle difference, but a profound one as Emoji symbols are replacing words altogether. That’s not to say the sentiments or ideas expressed in this way are any less meaningful than writing formally.
Digital problems require new solutions and visual short cuts are inevitable if we spend all our time on smartphones. It’s an economy of scale. Only I’m unlikely to compose my thoughts using Emoji, when as a digital immigrant, I’ve been brought up to use words, sentences, and paragraphs.
Although despite not taking any selfies or writing in symbols you have to adapt to survive. Language has always evolved and mutated over time. Fitzgerald did not write like Shakespeare and millennial teenagers will be the same.
The speed of change is relentless and my noughties blog has dated like an rotary dial telephone in an Apple Store. And you know what? It isn’t even that old. But history is accelerating faster than ever before. Less than a decade can pass and your twenties read like something from a period drama.
I don’t know when it happened but I became obsessed with the future. Not what happens tomorrow, next week or even six months time, more how the next generation will perceive us. In my early twenties I didn’t care how my society would go down in history. It never even occurred to me.
Perhaps I was too busy living to realise, but the early millennium felt like a continuation of what had gone on before. Mobile phones fell into our pockets only we never ever had any credit to make a difference.
A social revolution has long since taken place and we are embracing the first wave of profound human change, and the wild promises of illusionary realities. Crackling with vitality, the internet is a counter-planet constructed in an invisible place, almost like a post-terrestrial resistance against an empty universe.
Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism – “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us” – has never been more prevalent in modern culture.
While I embrace change, I also fear becoming irrelevant to the unborn billions who will be entirely shaped by the internet. Despite immersing myself in smartphone culture, I find the potential of retinal technology absolutely terrifying. Google Glass (or its descendants) will revolutionise society in twenty years time. An augmented reality service that optimises eyesight to W3 will change everything.
The ’80s yuppies with their brick mobile phones are what marketing types call ‘early adopters’. They shaped the landscape and now they are ubiquitous. Likewise the Californian tech-hipsters with Google Glasses are just the beginning.
Even if you opt out of wearing Google Glass there will be billions of digitally subscribed eyes immersing you in their own reality. Uncomfortable? Move with the times.
When you can re-live the past there’s nothing you can hide. Our faculties are already being eroded by the internet and with retinal technology, you will no longer need to remember anything.
Memory could well become a myth like ancient Latin or Greek. A romantic illusion unable to compete with an all knowing camera. With everyone carrying a second screen in their pockets, our lives are becoming increasingly cinematic.
Hence the rise of immersive cinema and theatre events in London and New York, where audiences want to interact with events that hitherto they had passively consumed in silence.
Our post-modern universe is like being trapped midway on a celluloid reel. Sometimes I imagine myself as a frail 82-year-old in 2063, reminiscing to young people about my semi-pastoral childhood in the late 20th century. Recalling barbaric stories about ordinance survey maps, paper rounds, rotary dial telephones, and black and white televisions.
Unlike today my Mum couldn’t upload images of her 3-year old son’s birthday onto a global network. I was nobody’s profile picture. My first day at school wasn’t recorded on camera either. Neither was my younger brother and sister. Fading photographs captured my childhood in a rustic manner, but our lives are an ongoing anthology, a composite of many selves, and the young boy in those pictures doesn’t exist anymore.
One seminal moment took place in my mid-teens, when in 1996 my Dad sent his first ever e-mail on this strange invention called the internet. My brother and I gathered round his swivel black chair and watched history in the making.
We didn’t think anything of it at first but I do remember it vividly. Who were we to know that this new technology would transform our lives forever? Now that’s history worth remembering and I haven’t looked back since.
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.
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”.
If reading your Facebook page doesn’t send you into a murderous rage then obviously you don’t have any issues with the English language. Such is the eclectic range of friends in my feed, I frequently find myself laughing at some of the witty and hilariously stupid updates. One former school friend of mine ‘…wishes this abses would go awa no am nae gan 2 the dentist i hate them al burst it myself’.
Facebook inevitably provided this young Scotsman with counselling and advised him ‘Dina mean to scare u but my fiance’s cousin died from one, burst and all the poison went into his blood and into his brain. Better get it sorted!’ And while that does sound extremely painful, what I found interesting was not his abscesses but the near impenetrable use of the Scots dialect.
On wanting to discover more about phonetics, I decided to go along to the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library. The concept behind the exhibition is the historical and social origins of the English language from 5th century runes to 21st century ‘txt-speak’.
As a matter of principle I have always written text messages in proper English. Such is my aversion to typing without vowels; I regularly had to endure severe financial penalties throughout the pay as you go era. With a flush new phone contract, I can now compose long messages without having to scratch a voucher card every other day.
For nearly a decade now I have dismissed txt speak with a barely concealed contempt. Some of my prejudices were further exposed in an innocuous conversation with a womanising guy who insisted ‘all girls use LOL’ when they are texting. By doing so he unknowingly confirmed that getting a ‘LOL’ out of a girl is an essential part of the modern courting process.
Lolling along I have considered LOL to be feminine ever since. In stark contrast any self-respecting man using this abbreviation is beyond contempt in my opinion. But why I am being so open misogynistic by inferring only women can get away with such frivolous language? Modern text abbreviations are extremely open to interpretation as this heart warming tweet reveals below.
Considering that nearly two billion people speak varying forms of English, I began to question my own relationship with the language. Despite having a distinctive regional accent, I have always composed my words according to how I think rather than how I speak.
And while I love reading dialect in stories and poetry, I continue to mock ordinary people who express themselves in txt talk. Following the finest traditions of prejudice, I have always dismissed txt-shorthand as a form of illiteracy and those who use it to be ignorant and lazy.
Although this is to disregard the evolutionary nature of English and texting is just another example of the malleability of the language. Constantly changing and evolving from the 5th century, English has never remained static and while txt speak is subject to serious derision by conservative academics. It isn’t that much different than some of the ludricious office jargon I have to endure on a daily basis, where words such as ‘hyper local’, ‘granularity’ and ‘consumer facing brands’ are considered gospel.
Some of the most cultured and intelligent people I know are prone to a good LOL now and again. Indeed I have a new found affection for people who Laugh Out Loud but for reasons unknown to me I still think men who use it are idiots.
Alas despite being enlightened by the British Library, I refuse to use LOL on grounds of principle. Instead I have an alternative expression of mirth in the form of ‘haha’, which I regularly use when reading about ex-school colleague’s gum problems on Facebook.
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.