On departing Dalston Junction last Saturday, I mismanaged my packing so badly I alighted the Eurostar on the station master’s whistle. My violent, sweating omnishambles of a departure saw my finest cottons stuffed into Sainsbury’s bags and an elderly Australian couple trampled upon at the platform.
Any romantic notion I had of travelling by rail evaporated at passport control. I could barely breathe for stress and fatigue. Everything had gone smoothly until that point – freelance tasks, new clothes, storage, doctor appointments, dentist bills, direct debits, and pub-hosted goodbyes.
My packing mismanagement aside, I loved my continental train journey and miles of leg room. Going on a first-class time machine through spicy red forests, you feel part of something bigger. No longer marooned by shoals of mackerel, herring and cod. Moving over land is the best way to travel if you have the time to spare.
Before I arrived at St Pancras, I had been on standby in an AirBnB flat with bourgeois professionals I will never see again. I have no patience for fake relationships nowadays. London is like Zurich with arts and entertainment; terminally transactional with its rising rents and contactless pubs.
With Dalston now a distant din, I will keep moving forward until I am forced to come back for employment. Now deep into the orange fall, the spectre of Soviet socialism is all around me. I zigzag past the Berlin Wall every day and have frequently got lost since my arrival by train.
A grungy heap of sorrow with doe eyes asked me for some money tonight. She needed somewhere to stay. The girl must have been in her late teens or early twenties; the night’s shadow made it impossible to say.
When no is else is around, strangers become humans and harder to ignore. More often than not, the roar of city life render the most vulnerable into a passing blur.
Frost was biting my cheeks and the girl looked desperate for warmth. I had been at the cinema and was walking home along an empty concrete aisle to my friend’s apartment in Stepney Green.
I began shuffling in my pockets and found some loose change. I didn’t even know I was carrying any. Embarrassed by the meagre amount, I gave her about 37p and said that was “all I had on me” and she replied “I’ll take anything you have”. I was lying to her. My wallet was burning with greed.
As she walked across the road, I felt a pang of self-disgust and put a tenner in her hand. Her eyes widened in astonishment and she said “God bless you” in a soft cockney accent and I felt horrible for not giving it to her earlier.
The cruelty of London hit me as I entered the landing. How many times do you just walk away like I did? Say nothing or pretend you have no money on you. I couldn’t stop crying as I stepped inside the kitchen. Switching the lights on, the artificial heat smothered my cheeks and my phone vibrated with an emoji smile.
Looking out the window towards the city, I realised I should do more for people. Kindness is all we have when God wrought to make this world so sad.
City Road has a godlike spectacle after dark. Nothing ever stays still even at the strike of midnight. It has grown astronomically since I first arrived in 2008. You feel simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted just staring at the traffic.
Walking home amongst glass pyramids and pelican cranes, cycle couriers whistle past me to deliver restaurant food at breakneck speed. Food app riders fascinate me. The push, tug and hurry of modern on-demand consumerism. With their branded helmets and lime green cagoules, a new urban tribe has emerged – a brushstroke of ambition in a globalised world.
Before the skyscrapers were built, I remember Daniela and I moving here and feeling like we had both made it. Sure, the bathroom was a bit rough and the kitchen underwhelmingly small, but this could work. It was my first major foothold in London and after making a series of choices, I won’t be going back.
Freelancing in people pubs, you become convinced that London is the only place that matters. I’ve done this before when I moved to Venice and returned six months later with a thirst for knowledge. How I missed terrifying blitz of technology and energy.
Uneasy jitters are settling in now. I hope I’ve made the right decision. Shifting all my boxes next door and leaving home once again without a key.
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.
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 desk and sit alongside a Hackney fashion stylist and her three minions:
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 interns, who scurry around London collecting wares on behalf of her DJ client. When I compare it to the soul destroying office jobs I did at a similar age, I am glad they are going down a non-conformist path.
One of the benefits of working independently is the freedom to have absurd flat viewings. Like this morning when a muscly tattooed Polish chef, who couldn’t speak a distinguishable word of English, and his Irish brother-in-law came round to see my flat.
Standing together in Greg’s old bedsit, an austere collection of second-hand furniture and sunlight, I politely explained my role and responsibilities. My lips were parroting the same old lines, a puffing collection of melancholy sighs and amusing asides.
Has it really come to this?
With his industrial strength tattoos and rock warrior attire, I instinctively felt Marius’s future lay elsewhere. A skittish energy filled the room as he sat down, like a naughty child entering a doctor’s waiting room without any toys.
Immediately detecting my unease, the Irish chaperone gave bizarre assurances on how ‘sweet and clean’ his brother-in-law was. That he would be a great flatmate and I would barely notice him at all.
‘You seem like a good bloke Daniel, we just need to get him settled for a month before we find something more permanent.’
Marius’s painted biceps became more pervasive as he nodded along with his mentor’s sermon. At this point I began to feel sorry for the guy, like he was being auctioned off to anyone desperate enough to take him.
‘What a great place Daniel’s place has here…wouldn’t it be great to live so close to the canal?’
We then all shook hands at the front door and promised to get in touch the following morning to confirm. Of course, none of us did. Flat viewings oscillate from white lies to abject desperation in my experience. A mini-series of half-truths and lips sharpened from making judgements.
Sitting amongst the cheery chatter of keyboards in north London, I wonder why I’m so fixated on matters outwith my control. My mind rattles around like a broken trolley, swerving and spiraling in different directions. I feel like I don’t make any decisions of my own.
Juggling two books and a barren phone, I wake up earlier now and go on the tube. Reading about an outsider artist from Chicago and the perils of hypervigilance, I rattle past 1930s suburbs in the sunshine. Its a non-linear journey with no tangible end in sight.
Alas, change is always partial and always by degree. Like what did people do in offices before they sent emails to one another? I need to be far grander in my ambitions than merely taking up space. I want to live passionately and make huge, spectacular mistakes.
Typecast again after another audition, I looked powerful and resolute as I caught myself in the mirror. I was the man for all things. You can trust a man in a suit. He has authority and purpose.
A blonde Russian beauty made eyes with me at Bank station; a petite Indian business woman looked twice at Moorgate, and a man in his early thirties asked me directions to Aldgate East.
It was a power trip compared to my life in trainers. But the suit betrayed what I was really thinking. I don’t know what I’m doing here. Living in the centre of the empire and dressing up like I’m a king.
During rush hour you feel like you’re marching your life down the tube. Going eye to eye with a petite 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 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 go inside.
Cutting through the motorway tunnel, I navigate over pelican crossings and storm past commuters with stringy headphones. A Tinder match vibrates in my pocket (Anita, 27, 3 miles away) as I stay on course and I arrive at Old Street roundabout.
Commuters are now pouring out of the station towards the glass pyramids on City Road. My neighbourhood is 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.
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.
Dozing on my pillow, I wake up and have thirty minutes to spare. Outside the pneumatic groan of the 394 bus trails past on route towards Hackney Downs. My phone is buzzing with messages and the second alarm is just about to go off.
It’s noisy outside and the estate is getting ready for work.
Housewives are chattering outside my balcony and packs of kids in woolly hats are going to school. Local drivers are in the hunt for a parking spot. Downstairs a coarse man nursing a semi-circle of ill-health is effing and blinding like a complete utter cunt.
My alarm is now vibrating on a cold sheet of cotton.
Surrounded by grim tower blocks and dazzling towers of chrome and glass, I prepare for eight hours of home working. Gone are the crashing bells of Venezia and waking up to gondola men whooshing past at dawn.
Ole! Ole! Ole!
Only a few months ago, I lived in that strange dream across the water. This provides some comfort as my body swivels on a chair and switches on a bright electronic light.