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.

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Broken Glass

Norton Folgate Demolition
Picture: Inspiring City

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 virtually unrecognisable to the one you were brought up in.

The Griffin

Generation Z won’t notice the difference and individually you’re powerless to resist. But I feel immensely sad walking through Norton Folgate and 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.

Aldgate
Picture: The Urban Adventures of Keïteï

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. I loved the textural grace and industrial facades of Shoreditch immediately. I remember feeling incredibly naive and very much alive.

Jack the Ripper

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.

The White Hart Whitechapel

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.

The food was terrible and you wouldn’t dream of making eye contact with the West Ham fans, but it captured the ramshackle atmosphere of E2. Like many East London boozers it has been converted into a gourmet restaurant now. Walking past the upgraded venue in 2015, the microbrewery is busier than ever before serving pan roasted sea-bass, pesto mash and tender-stem broccoli.

There is nothing inherently wrong with gourmet restaurants and demographics will inevitably shift and evolve over time. Only entering the refurbished White Hart Brew Pub™ you could literally be in any UK chain bar ordering locally sourced fish for £16.50.

It’s safe, predictable and meticulously branded just like their Facebook page.

The views of the local community about the development of Spitalfields are 'cynically disregarded'

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. They are even demolishing an arthouse cinema for the financial benefit of a tiny global minority.

Madam Jojos

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 not sure this is necessarily 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.

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.

Redchurch Street

Redchurch Street

Redchurch Street is my favourite Shoreditch thoroughfare, a piss stained alley reclaimed by French cafes selling kale cupcakes and artisan toast. Unmarked galleries are everywhere and the street art is commissioned behind closed doors.

Graffiti is a hand made billboard these days – it just depends on who’s paying.

With peeling DJ stickers on lamp posts and buildings covered by scaffolding, Redchurch Street is my foremost memory of East London. Ruinenlust layered with flyers and rat droppings. The paradox that rusts continues to this day.

London Ziferblat

Ziferblat Clocks

Having lived in East London for six years, I can’t think of a more vivid and evocative snapshot of millennial life than Ziferblat. In this utopian Shoreditch cafe everything is free apart from time. De-consuming is the future and there is no better place to start than a reclaimed flat in Old Street.

You can bring your own sandwiches or last night’s pasta, enter the kitchen and drink unlimited cups of tea or coffee. The Russian coffeehouse has a rickety old piano, chess set and bookshelves full of donated literature. It’s a place for sharing just like you do online.

Costing only 5p a minute, £3.00 an hour, you receive a miniature clock on arrival and fill your name and time on a card. Essentially it’s a local community centre where people come to chat, make friends and pass away a lazy Sunday IRL.

Ziferblat

With its flowery wallpaper and random assortment of 20th century chairs, Ziferblat is like a romantic cousin of the sixties. Did twentysomethings in the 1960s hanker for bygone eras too? Or did they live in the glorious present like the startup man wired into his Macbook Pro sitting next to me.  

Skinny with a meticulously trimmed beard and slim-fit cream jumper, the angry freelancer clearly means business. I do my best not to disturb him even though I needn’t worry. His headphones are proving so absorbing I barely register a wink of indignation.

The bearded entrepreneur is writing about music’s future on Google Drive. Everyone else around me is listening to the vinyl crackle of Neil Young. He looks incongruously focused, but he captures the essence of Shoreditch’s business drive.

For all its charm and utopian spirit don’t expect to find anything new at this co-working place. It’s the twenty-first century and everything has been done already. What you should be asking is whether Ziferblat is more rewarding than what has gone on before?

I can spend hours here and unlike in Starbucks, you end striking up conversations with people sitting next to you. It’s the living room I cannot afford to have.

Ziferblat Winter

Living in a glorified world of connectivity, the pay-for-your-time movement is an opportunity to join a new world order. We must stop buying things we don’t need. And remember you have a right to be here, but at some point you must leave.

Just make sure you stay long enough to have a good time.

Ziferblat London
388 Old Street,
London,
E1 6JE

Italian Hustle

Let's adore and endure each other

This is a story about an Italian hustler in Shoreditch. He broke all the rules, lied to everyone and never took any responsibilities for his actions. He cost me a considerable amount of time and money and I should hate him but for some reason I empathise with his desire for success. He tried, tried and tried again. And he doesn’t stop trying.

Likewise I never stopped chasing him in court for my unpaid wages. I kept on trying and trying despite having no chance of success. Everyone told me it was a waste of time. As enforcing a court order against this Shoreditch playboy would be like throwing spilt milk at a beggar.

Accepting work from Leonardo (not his real name) was a huge mistake. But when you are unemployed and looking for jobs; you try things, silly things, especially if you want to avoid working in an office. Freelancing is an extremely hard thing to do. It’s far easier to take a salary from a big company and bank the savings. Doing your own thing offers freedom and creativity but many people fail working on their own and some more spectacularly than others.

By joining CAN U in June 2013 I unwittingly signed a freelance contract with a startup company on the verge of collapse. Despite obsessively talking about #collaboration and #collaborating on their website their business model was opaque at best. Having a creative army of designers, writers and artists on your books is impressive but it won’t make you any money.

That’s the problem with many East London startup companies. During the first year you have a shiny new website, glamour launch party, coke-addled staff and a low-interest business loan to pay for it all. The second year the bills come through…and this proved to be Leonardo’s downfall.

An infinitely hopeful man with zero understanding of business, Leonardo believed he was predestined to become the greatest entrepreneur in the world. On running up 10k worth of debts in unpaid wages and countless feuds, Leonardo sadly proved to be just another social media consultant in a playground full of young CEO’s.

On being hired under false pretenses, I found myself overseeing their content strategy, writing blogs and updating their ‘What’s On’ microsite. Despite having nothing in common with Leonardo, I initially found him a positive and enjoyable person to work with.

Leonardo’s biggest problem was that he loved the idea of being a CEO but didn’t have the foresight or discipline to be one. For example he became convinced that writing in caps was a good idea. “FROM TODAY I WANT ALL COMMUNICATIONS IN CAPS”, I was surreally told one morning. I responded to his email straight away and explained that from a writing perspective, caps are considered loud and aggressive and it would upset future clients.

“THIS IS PART OF OUR NEW COMMUNICATION STRATEGY AND IS NON -NEGOTIABLE. CAPS ARE POSITIVE AND GREAT FOR BUSINESS”.

Only they are not great for business – they are annoying and irritate nearly everyone.  It soon became clear that Leonardo loved taking calls and updating his Facebook status but did precious little else.

CAN U failed to pay me for my 90+ hours work or any of their staff. Unable to remunerate his freelancers, Leonardo claimed he couldn’t pay anyone until CAN U received ten grand from an Italian restaurant in Hammersmith.

His negotiating tactics for settling this debt involved going over to West London and throwing chairs at the owner. Later he is alleged to have paid some heavies £250 (on the advice of a bogus debt collector) to bash the restaurant owner’s legs. Let’s just assume his methods were unsuccessful.

Abandoning all of his debts in July 2013 he tried to relaunch CAN U as a phoenix company trading under a slightly different name. His former colleagues were bitterly angry but couldn’t find a way to challenge him. Undeterred by his ridiculous emails, I pursued my wages in the small claims court and won a default judgement against CAN U.

It was a moral victory, but a pyrrhic one. CAN U have no funds left available and I will never be compensated for my efforts. No regrets from me – someone had to try and take him down. CAN U are still officially trading but only because I have a court order to keep them superficially alive.

On pursuing his entrepreneurial ambitions through social media, Leonardo appears no closer to making it big. Although I hope one day his fearlessness is rewarded. Reading his bizarre updates on Twitter #alwaysbehonest #nevergiveup I find myself almost wanting him to succeed.

As for all the lies expressed by Leonardo since I joined CAN U, I don’t think he’s a bad person. On the surface he’s a friendly and entertaining character. He keeps on demanding the impossible and makes glorious mistakes. Playing it safe is certainly not his style. He makes me laugh even though I should want to kill him.

Leonardo keeps on trying and has never compromised unlike this blogger. I guess for that reason alone, I am a grand down but can’t find it within myself to dislike him.

Old Man Lost In Shoreditch

One balmy afternoon in Shoreditch I encountered a bald grey man in his early seventies wandering along Old Street. Unkempt with his peppercorn stubble and rotund paunch, the elder asked me for directions to London Bridge. We were standing outside a false Mexican restaurant. El Paso – whatever that means. And with the northern line only five minutes away I directed him towards Old Street station and he replied ‘thanks mate, nobody here gives a shit’. Like a Lowry matchstick he shuffled into the distance and I was immediately struck by how incongruous the old man looked.

In Shoreditch everyone is under 35 and riding a bike in the sunshine. Nobody old lives or works here. Unlike other cities or municipalities, there is no natural spreading out of decades. East London is almost entirely populated by millenials. Saplings without roots they have colonised Shoreditch to such an extent that an old man asking for directions now looks out of place.

And then I realised that his world is over: the trains, factories and pints of ale – this has gone forever and technology is now ascendant, whirling over tiny filaments invisibly beneath the soil. Wires that aren’t even wires – it breeds ambivalence among those sharing the very same air.

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.