Zigzag to Berlin

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 cotton’s stuffed into Sainsbury’s bags and an elderly Australian couple trampled upon at the platform.

Any romantic notion I had of travelling across Europe 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 craft beer goodbyes.

My packing mismanagement aside, I loved my continental train journey and miles 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 time to spare.

Before I arrived at St Pancras, I had been on standby in an AirBnB flat with bourgeois professionals I can barely remember. 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, the glittering skyline throws down light onto the roadbed below.

With Dalston now a distant din, I will keep moving forward until I am forced to come back for the bread. Now deep into the orange fall, the spectre of Soviet socialism is all around me. In the face of strangers and city lights, I zigzag past the Berlin Wall everyday and have frequently gone the wrong way since my arrival.

I have no idea how I managed to get this far.

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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.

History is speeding up all around us

Istanbul is a city where not even stray cats have time to sleep. Loitering around window sills with deprived eyes, they look menacingly hungry. Competition for space is fierce and being natural hunters, cats will do whatever they can to survive. They certainly have no time to relax.

Never in all of my European travels have I witnessed such an orgy of activity on the streets. A wailing cacophony of noise screeches in every corner from shrill boys on bicycles to a thousand fishermen angling for a hungry fix. Listening to the wailing sound of Allah call to an empty sky, I walked along Galata Bridge and felt the world colliding into one.

With the mechanised sigh of lorries ramming alongside yellow taxis, I found myself sitting in a café eating deliciously cubed baklava. Although I can’t say I was overly impressed by the hospitality. Perhaps there are far too many visitors for locals to care. I’m just another slab of white meat using excessively large notes for the smallest of purchases.

Nearby thousands pile off the ferry terminal on and off, on and off from the other continent. A deafening crescendo made all the more atmospheric by the white mist spooking the Bospherous. Forging huge new crowds in a different land mass, the city is unbearably intense and it feels like a new world order is forming. Religion still has that affect on you, even as a non-believer in love with science and nature. And how combined they will explain everything.

Eventually.

Sure if I were to walk over the Galata Bridge towards modern Beyoglu, I would find an epic shopping boulevard that could be literally anywhere in the Mediterranean. Check in to buy a new smartphone, caffè latte or the latest sweater modelled by Gerard Pique. Istanbul is definitely not an Ottoman monolith. However, most people bypass the air conditioned trappings of the twenty-first century and marvel over the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia instead.

And yet behind the imperial majesty of Sultanahmet lies the dusty squalor hidden from tourists. Never have I seen so many inner city dwellings constructed entirely out of wood and inevitably they are falling into disrepair; a romantic vision of poverty that always seem less wrong because of the heat. It’s foreign squalor of course and this feeds into the subliminal mystique you seek when travelling abroad; when walking past abandoned mosques and smashed terracotta in search of something to eat. What would be an eyesore back home suddenly evokes a raw energy in Istanbul, a place where stray cats can finally go to sleep.

Up in the Air

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”.