Small talk in the cuckoo’s nest

Carlito gets up around midday and spends most afternoons curled up in his hoodie watching Shakira videos on his phone. I often wonder what he does for a living or why he moved here. While he lies on the living room sofa nursing a diabetic coma from excess coca cola consumption, I suspect he expends most of his energy at the in-drawn breath of dark somewhere in Soho or Vauxhall.

I barely spoke to him during my brief tenure at Bow Towers. Having made the wrong move on returning from Lisbon, I made little effort to ingratiate myself into the flat dynamic.

At times it felt sectioned inside an old folks’ home such were the prudish rituals of Carlito’s live-in-uncle. With my resentment brewing, I made a vow of silence to get me through the remaining weeks.

Living in his mouse box drenched in cheap aftershave and wires, I never got a chance to say goodbye to Carlito. But before I set off for pastures new, I met him in the lift as we floated towards the asylum. It’s been hot recently, its been very hot indeed and after lamely bringing up my inability to sleep, we began chatting as our lives overlapped in this babel of frustrated wills.

Carrying my second large water bottle of the day, I enthusiastically approved of his fitness routine, and with the sun acting like an inferno, we chirped like finches on a telephone wire; discussing free weights, crunches, running and health-related neuroses.

But for all our friendly fitness talk, he seemed somewhat lost to me, like a child hidden in a cupboard in a far away land. I still have no idea what he does for a living or why he moved here to be with his uncle. As like a finch on a wire, it’s all the better to be seen and heard, and fly away as fast as you can.

 

 

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Buffering in Bow

Watching the city turning on a light bulb at a time, I got lost on a bus diversion in a blue spectral wasteland. Some grungy Italian boy was dragging his body weight in a suitcase. Are you stopping at Bow Road? Are you stopping at Bow at all? Judging by his muted response, lost boys weren’t the driver’s concern.

As the passengers drifted one-by-one into the night, I arrived back at my latest residence, a baby boomer investment tower in Bow Quarter. Where I desperately find myself wanting to leave, but unwilling to pay for a deposit elsewhere. Make the wrong move in the London renting market, and you can find yourself boxed in at times. In my case quite literally.

When you share a place with randoms, there are lots of dynamics in place, and they only come to the surface once it’s too late. Superficially the flat is plush and modern, but that’s where the attraction ends. There is a corporate sadness from the moment you step inside, whether it’s the generic showroom decor, untouched cooking utensils to the complete absence of human love and sentimentality.

No photos, no books, no records, and certainly no magnets on the fridge.

The landlord stockpiles vitamin tablets and fake tan in the kitchen. The fridge has virtually no food beyond a few eggs, and the dishwasher is stuffed full of plastic bags. He doesn’t adhere to any recycling principles, and no visitors are allowed without his consent. Also sharing the apartment is his Portuguese nephew, who daily consumes protein milkshakes and microwaved paellas for breakfast.

They watch Sky News and Hollywood movies without paying the faintest attention to events or the storyline. Like the pills and fitness supplements they consume, the television is a substitute void to help them get through the day.

My relationship with them veers from bewildered diplomacy to barely concealed agitation. The landlord is a decent, caring man who would never harm anyone, but his innately condescending manner is sending me to the exit door.

One suspects I will be on the move again in July.

Rent-a-soul in Lisbon

Alfama tram

Since I moved to Rua dos Remédios last week, I’ve been questioning my right to stay here. The right for me to live wherever I want as long as I have an economic licence to do so.

My first impressions of Lisbon’s Alfama have been bittersweet in that respect. The melancholy lanes and decrepit beauty of the hilltop souk make it a wonderful place to draw. The city’s serene and crumbling tiled facades are magical in almost every shade of light.

cof

Climbing up the dilapidated streets, listening to Fado singers and rickety custard trams, is like being in Paris and Havana simultaneously. There are cranes and scaffolding in certain places, but Lisbon is not a global finance metropolis. There is no return on your investment here.

My AirBnB apartment has been a shambles from the day I moved in. The shower is like a scene from Psycho, the hallway doorknob fell off on arrival, and there’s precious little hot water in the kitchen. In many ways it’s like a horror Tinder date, where your date’s photos were taken ten years ago, but you’re too polite and sensitive to cut it short.

Like many visitors to the Alfama, I’ve been using AirBnB as a lifestyle experience without thinking of the consequences. In that my presence could do more harm than good? Of course, I spend money that goes to local businesses, but I’m not even remotely rich, so my economic impact is minimal at best. Otherwise I contribute nothing to Lisbon if I am being honest.

I decided to move to Lisbon for a couple of months because it’s a popular place with freelancers. Technology has made it easy for me to move cities as my current job can be done remotely online. With my Hoxton possessions stored in a East London warehouse, my loves, jobs and experiences are rented just like my homes.

cof

Watching old Portuguese ladies pick up their groceries alongside tourists with cameras, I’ve come to realise that I am part of an invasion. One that’s taking place in historic cities all over the world. Individually and collectively we contribute little to the local community apart from money.

Co-existence brings great benefits, but its an uneasy experience at times. The world’s population and technology is accelerating faster than local people can adapt to change.

dig

My consumption is welcomed by restaurants, cafes, shops and sub-letters, who reap the rewards of my wanderlust. But hidden amongst the decay, I uncovered graffiti calling out tourists as thieves and pricing locals out of their homes.

As a tall northern creature with urban headphones, it made me feel like a Starbucks chain taking over an independent tea shop. Am I destroying what I came looking for? The graffiti led me to question the morality of sub-letting in places such as the Alfama.

I don’t have any answers, other than it’s for governments and communities to regulate and protect their citizens from excessive rent rises, especially in culturally sensitive areas.

If there are better rules in place, the letting companies and property owners will have to respect local resident’s rights first. As a consequence, I won’t be able to sub-let so easily either, but as you’ve already deducted that’s hardly a tragedy.

In light of my ramshackle apartment and cultural awkwardness, I’m now moving to another part of the city. One that’s less culturally significant than the Alfama. It feels like the right thing to do in the circumstances. I hopefully won’t feel like a white settler with headphones when I move to Santa Catarina. I will hopefully will be able to have a proper shower there too.

All because I’m free to choose.

 

 

 

Florence sweet exile

After a decade of cramped quarters in London, I have travelled over to Italy for one month to ‘work on my novel’. Well not exactly, aside from a few letters and postcards, but you get the idea. On moving to Oltrarno, an artisan district in south Florence, I am more importantly adjusting to the concept of space.

I have become so accustomed to living in a box that I feel lost just walking down the corridor. Like I actually have to walk to retrieve my phone if I leave it on the kitchen table. Is this how normal, moderately successful people live? If so, I’m staying in Europe for as long as it remains feasible to do so.

If nothing else, it feels remarkable to no longer be confined to a glorified rabbit hutch. To live in a place that exists in the pages of scripts.

Oddo’s Court

After years of working in sterile British offices, my brief sojourn in Italy has been anything but dull. Like my meeting today in Oddo’s court, where my apartment’s bills and surcharges were finally revealed. It was a naked triumph of Venetian greed and entitlement, where as a pawn without a voice, I watched Oddo and his wife deliver their payment demands to my boss.

Surrounded by old money in a Venetian town house, I was summoned upstairs by my elderly masters. Sitting opposite them at their family table, I felt the full weight of powerlessness. They were inadvertently stripping away my salary by making me responsible for their communal property debts.

Earlier in the same street, a damp alleyway full of pot plants behind the Grand Canal, my boss explained I had to go to Oddo’s: ‘I need to stay friends with them, Daniel, do you understand?’ I know this is an unfashionable thing to admit, but I like my boss. He’s funny, entertaining and affable hustler with an eye for a new deal.

Once I realised what they were doing and that I was being charged for more than just an electricity bill. I sat silently like my boss’s errant son on remand for a crime I did not commit.

I felt enraged by their shameless greed, but I couldn’t let my boss down. Not in front of him because unlike my outbursts in the past I know the power of words. When to speak and when to say nothing. I am pragmatic, savvy and calculating in these situations. You play the game.

It’s important to always pick the right words, and I will refuse to shake hands with Oddo when I finally depart my apartment’s front door.

Notebooks

Already I am making plans for next year. Get fitter, stronger, healthier and brighter than ever before. I need to consume less sugar and run harder and longer. Make my heart beat even faster. Being marooned in a bitter cold village over Christmas makes you look forward. Travelling backwards is a melancholy street.

I’m already thinking how I can improve my East London flat. I have a new flatmate arriving in January and I want to live somewhere effervescent and colourful. Nobody visits me because I tend to socialise outside, but I want to make it perfect regardless. A glorious new mattress needs to be delivered, small book shelves ordered and freshly chilled wines nicely stacked in the fridge. Make my place look as cheerful as it can possibly be.

We live a visual age and I regret not taking more photographs. Not being in enough photographs. I wish I looked more handsome underneath a flashing bulb. I think my life would be infinitely happier if that was the case. For reasons unknown but to nature, I prefer to hide behind words and look the other way. I want everything to be perfect.

I need to learn when to omit unnecessary words and write more than I did last year. Be more open and honest. There is one love story I have always wanted to write, but I shy away every time. I romanticise far too much and decay with indecision, but I read and watch many plays.

 

Arnold Circus

Arnold Circus Des BlenkinsoppAuthor’s Note

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, Shoreditch but you’ll have to keep reading to find out why. This place I prefer to keep to myself. I do hope this will mean something to someone one day though. 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 move here and 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 and fascinating council estates in Britain.

Arnold Circus Lady Aga

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 real-time painting fashioned from the rubble of dismantled slums.

Arnold Circus Andrea Vail

This Victorian model village has a fairytale quality that surpasses anything you may find in London’s richer neighbourhoods. What is really 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. Indeed there aren’t many council estates registered by English Heritage for their special historic interest.

Still 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.

Arnold Circus Bandstand

With the rich green canopies sheltering bourgeois dog walkers and teen gangs, it feels like my footsteps become brush strokes whenever I walk through Arnold Circus. 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.

The trouble is, you think you have time

Global Warming

What would you do if you were told you only had fourteen years to live? It’s not cancer. It’s far worse than that. Floods haven’t been on the news recently but they aren’t going away and according to scientist James Lovelock climate change is going to unleash environmental devastation and by 2040 southern Europe will be a desert.

With global populations continuing to rise and third world countries developing a taste for red meat, the average British millenial is in a race to the bottom. And if James Lovelock is correct you should party like its £19.99 because you don’t have long left.

“Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.”

– James Lovelock, March 2008

James Lovelock is convinced climate change is inevitable and ethical living a scam. Recycling, wind turbines, planting nice trees – it’s a complete waste of time, the damage is already done and paying 10p for a shopping bag at Sainsbury’s won’t make a difference.

Ethical living is akin to a smoker quitting on his deathbed, it might make you feel better, but that’s all it will do. And you thought forking out for those solar panels was a good investment. Well your Dad probably thought so. But if you’re reading this you probably don’t even have a flat, let alone flash panels soaking up rays on a double garage.

If recycling pizza leaflets and beer bottles won’t save the planet, then what exactly can we do? Start paying 35p for the plastic bags we stuff underneath the sink? Grow carrots and potatoes in our back gardens and eat less meat?

Wait, statistically you live in an urbanised sprawl and don’t have a garden or any sustainable land. Your everyday survival is entirely reliant on the mass importation of food into corporate supermarkets.

Burgerthons

As a species we are tribal carnivores genetically programmed to eat everything we can. A risky gambit if you live on a small island that imports 40% of its consumed food. If Lovelock is correct and global catastrophe is only 16 years away then enjoy your burgerthon festivals and 2 for 1 pizzas while you still can. You can’t feed yourself on Twitter.

In that respect Generation Y doesn’t have much to live for and we’re the lucky ones. It’s your kids and unborn progeny, who are really going to suffer. Generation Z is fittingly apt because according to Lovelock “about 80%” of the world’s population will be wiped out by 2100.

The Trouble Is, You Think You Have Time

You see this Buddha meme reposted on social media all the time. It’s probably fake but in the context of a forthcoming global apocalypse it’s worth paying attention to. With a decaying eco-system and billions of new hungry mouths wanting a first world lifestyle, there isn’t much point saving for a mortgage.

As your dream home is either going to be flooded or raided by starving vigilantes looking for something to eat. If Lovelock is correct then you don’t have long left before pale blue dot metamorphoses into a dead planet. If you fancy a career break backpacking around South America, then enjoy the precious time you have left, or hope Lovelock is an alarmist mad scientist with nothing to lose.

If you stay at home and do nothing else, then savour every gourmet burger, chicken fillet and goats cheese salad you eat and pay virtually nothing for the privilege. Generation Z are going to pay that dividend for you.

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.

Boys

Boys is a brilliant angry piece of writing that captures the indignation and apathy of the modern era. Europe is facing the cold bloom of austerity (the history books are already been written) and in a five-man student kitchen in Edinburgh, four young boys are facing a future that has no place for them. On approaching the fag end of their final term, the party is almost over for the boys, and in the kitchen lies a Barclays sign – ‘We’ll loan you the best years of your life’ – just like Greece.

An unexplained death hovers over the student debris of spilt cereal, tea cups and celebrity posters as Benny, Mack, Timp and Cam face uncertain futures. Is being young really as good as it gets? Throughout Europe new graduates will come to realise this summer that aspiration has its melancholy consequences. Living in a neo-Thatcherite world, I think it’s probably a good thing we don’t know what the future holds. Many people quickly realise, through no fault of their own, that the age of potential is the briefest of windows.

Although it goes without saying that the vast majority of people in the UK will survive comfortably enough in the decades to come. First world problems have to be put into a global context. However, I think the sadness and anger descends from a brooding sense of unfulfillment and the searching emptiness of never being able to achieve anything.

The politics of identity have long since surpassed ideological principle and success is wearily defined by ‘timing, image and nepotism – so always try and be in the right place at the right time, suck as much cock as you can and find a way to be better looking than God intended you’. Timing, image and nepotism – it rings uncomfortably true doesn’t it?

Something wholly dependent on luck and self-confidence inherited from wealthy families and postcode approved schools. There are now almost three million people aged 20-34 still living at home and that number is only like to rise as slow economic growth, an ageing population and exploitative rents stunt any hope of renewal.

Like a revisionist version of Peter Pan there is a sadness in boys final days and the agnostic helplessness of a generation that no longer has anything to believe in. Ella Hickson captures this angst beautifully and provides a universal message  for our times, where one’s youth appears to be only commodity but as many people soon find out these years are loaned to you too.

Boys runs at the Soho Theatre until June 16th 2012