Last days of the counter-culture precariat

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.

 

 

Dark glitter

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.

Some days I walk

30th January 2014

On closing my flat door in Hoxton, I go down three flights of ex-council stairs and head towards the Regent’s Canal. I’ve left early for a change and the estate has been rinsed clean. It’s raining again and I will arrive in Farringdon with mucky wet jeans…

Walking in London gives me a sense of freedom and independence. Perhaps it’s a consequence of never learning to drive that I place an enormous faith in my legs to get me everywhere. From tramping along rustic Scottish cliffs as a teenager to commuting alongside millions in Farringdon, I walk in order to survive.

Usually I have white buds in my ears when I leave the flat, they help block out the grey streets around me. Elegiac feels are the perfect companion for a winter stroll but I put them aside for now. I’ve been listening to Harvest Moon by Neil Young on repeat – it has a romantic hazy melancholy that I like.

The old waterway has changed quite significantly since I was last here. A shrill metallic drilling breaks up the silence from across the waterway. They are constructing a new social housing estate to replace the one they flattened last year – a thirty year circle of growth, stagnation and decay.

On my way northwards I pass underneath curved Georgian bridges while listening to the lonely cry of mallards. Creeping gothic ivy spills over from millionaire homes and smoke-shacked barges bellow out charred peat. It’s a good deal romantic on the towpath.

Charging up a leaf soaked hill I arrive opposite an Islington primary school. The canal has gone now and I must get a move on. Streaming with traffic I join an invisible cast of commuters on Upper Street and increase my walking speed. A crush of red buses float past and workers run towards Angel looking for shelter.

Walking away from station towards Farringdon, I spot St Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard looking bleached and sad in the distance. My journey is nearly over now and I’m running out of time. I am lucky that I can walk to work unlike many other people. My legs take me everywhere – that’s what they do.

Just on approaching those glass revolving doors on a wet Thursday morning, I sense something is missing from my journey. It’s only taken me thirty minutes and I have everything I need, but deep down walking can only take you so far.

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.

Soerditch: A Diary of a Neighbourhood

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.

Under the Bridge

After living in East London for three years, I am very familiar with its urban grime, Vietnamese restaurants and crime statistics. Undeniably pretentious and never dull, the gentrification process of one of London’s poorest and most ethnically diverse regions is a fascinating one.

While still largely working-class because of its industrial past, Shoreditch and Hoxton has been completely transformed since the 1990s. With the creative sectors establishing a foothold and middle-class students always looking for cheap rents, the East now celebrates vintage clothes stalls, street artwork and independent pop-up stores.

Amid the urban deprivation and human decay, I found myself walking along one of the oldest roads in England and discovered the Bridge Coffee House. While Hiram Bingham’s legacy is unlikely to be threatened by a new coffee shop in Dalston, I felt this unexplored venue deserved further investigation. The Bridge Coffee House is more like a vintage antique shop than a coffee parlour.

By taking their inspiration from Venetian coffee shops and lining their shelves with Italian caffè, syrup and cappuccino machines. The retro cafe is like a set from an Old Vic theatre production and their first act is an imperial vision of the 1920s.

On arrival I ordered a strawberry chocolate gatteau and began to visualise Ernest Hemingway drinking himself into a stupor at the bar. Surrounding my creation is a snapshot of 20th Century memorabilia including union jacks, trinklets and an original copper till from 1886. The proud Cypriot owner provides a warm and authentic service in stark contrast to the younger bars in nearby Shoreditch. On taking eight months to complete, the downstairs interior has been decorated with French regency chairs, vintage movie posters and Tiffany lamps.

Although as I listened to 60’s Motown music, I began to question whether this vintage chic shop is any different than any other East London venture. Counter-culture shops can sometimes be as equally homogenous as the H&M wearing masses in Starbucks.

And while the upstairs decor is bordering on the ridiculous with its insanely pink chairs, I found myself seduced by the theatre downstairs. Beautiful girls drink coffee on their own in a nostalgic fantasy land that should be seen now before they receive 4 stars from Time Out.

The Bridge Coffee House
15 Kingsland Road
E2 8AA

Images used with kind permission from Tim Boddy.