Sounds on my pillow

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.

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 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. It felt like I was on remand for a crime I did not commit. I felt enraged by Oddo’s shameless greed but I couldn’t let my boss down in front of him.

I am pragmatic, savvy and calculating in these situations. I know how important it is to always pick the right words.

Partly Cloudy

Rialto Bridge Nightfall

I had my photo taken again this morning. My blurry silhouette is probably filling up pixels on Instagram as I write this story. It happens every day, observing untold love stories walking over Rialto Bridge. Europe’s most famous crossing is forever swelling with tourists wanting their Facebook cover of the Grand Canal.

Every day I cross over Rialto on my way to work. I love watching little men scurry off their boats exchanging ropes for boxes; frantically unpacking wine and chocolates. Occasionally an ambulance dashes underneath like a Bond villain under siege and even the waste disposal boat is fascinating as it churns out steam.

Church bells are crashing around me every hour, but I need to make myself eligible to live in London. Make a leap back towards metropolitan life and nurse glittering bruises on even broader shoulders. I told my new Lolita-esque flatmate before I left that I have a lot of love to give. Isn’t it strange that you travel so far only to daydream about the same thing.

Super selfie love story

Venice EveningSometimes I feel unworthy of living in Venice. I don’t pay enough attention to details, especially now the numbers are slowing down. Walking back to the hotel with my headphones on, I feel guilty for not listening to bursts of opera or cutlery exchanging hands in restaurants. Spotify is a generic experience. Play, pause and repeat your songs over and over again.

Collectively we are going through the first phase of hyper acceleration, an unprecedented boom of global fertility all wanting the same photograph of the Grand Canal. Likewise I’m just a temporary EU migrant passing through the loveliest city in the world. It was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.

Gondola Couple VeniceEveryday I see newly married couples snuggle in beautifully crafted gondolas and it’s very much a case of play, pause and repeat. Same posed smile, loving tilt of the head and furrowed brow, I’ve witnessed a thousand honeymoons upload their story underneath a bridge. Seen through the prism of light, it’s a unique private moment, one shared with loved ones and marvelled over by long distance friends.

Only I see the same love story every single day.

Away from the watery parade, I remove my headphones, the plastic grooves gnashing onto my collar bone and enter an inverted baroque church. Squashed inside the Venetian back streets, I step in a chaste world of silence and reflection.

Despite being militantly secular in my global politics, I took comfort in this beautiful refuge. Photography is banned in Venetian churches and the circus of life takes a deferential pause. With my rucksack weighing on my back, I stood in silence amongst elaborately carved tombs and dead wooden benches.

It’s one of the few places in Venice where you can share a private moment, a world without flashing cameras and streamed playlists. Outside the craziness goes on oblivious, and I have to get back to my hotel; shower, get changed and go online again. My smartphone might vibrate with loving messages.

There must be something about human nature that turns everything into a routine.

No filter

Sitting in a Venetian office watching an elderly Italian couple attend their pot plants, I type into my laptop. Same tabs, same websites and streamed songs as before. No one understands why I am here. Sleep has become a luxury and I am staying in a bog ugly hotel until early November.

On boycotting the only affordable stable in Venice, I am witnessing my body metamorphosis into something leaner. Many evenings I have gone to bed hungry and longing for breakfast.

Although I must acknowledge that my diet in London was snack driven and quite frankly atrocious. Idly wandering down to Shoreditch High Street to buy a cheap Bánh Mì baguette for dinner, only to change your mind and have Jewish bagel instead is a big city luxury.

Come nightfall I go running along the quayside and this only accentuates my physical condition. Streaming past the tourist starlings at St Marks Square, I skip over ornate bridges and race passenger boats and cruise liners. It feels easier and necessary to run longer and harder over here.

Venice Night CanalVenice is like a spooky romantic ghost story after midnight, where you develop a heightened sensitivity to the elegant stroking of a Gondola’s oar. For sheer aesthetic beauty, I am simply not a gifted enough writer to handsomely describe what I see.

I have been forced to be more social than I am otherwise inclined. Ambivalent friendships have been sparked up with passing strangers and drinking Spritz cocktails is far cheaper than beer.

Venice meanwhile is virtually crime free and rats appear after dark once the selfies have gone to bed. The plague of a medieval Disneyland that nobody has paid to see.

Between the kingdom of the living and the dead

I don’t how know I get myself into these situations. A mid-summer calamity formed the genesis of my Italian journey. It pains me to think about it even now. How could I have fucked up so badly. It’s an innate part of my personality that incidents of virtually no significance throw me to the stars or plunge me into speechless depressions.

I wish I felt more nervous, it would be more fitting, or perhaps my sense of ease is a reflection of the times. English as an international language, internet on tap and a globalised workforce thriving in the city of London.

On travelling to Venice at sunset, I arrive at dusk with a milky sky sinking behind the Adriatic. Looking at the old maps in my guidebook, it’s remarkable how little the city has changed. How is electricity even possible? For now at least it’s dry and warm. Daily flooding is a hazard I could do without.

Lugging two suitcases and a rucksack on an aquatic waterway with a freshly cropped head, I sat next to Midwestern tourists talking about Becks and Peroni. Their broad Yankee accents were charming and gullible in the kindest possible way. Tourist chatter is something I’ll have to get used to and fast. Accents unlock untapped prejudices reinforced by literature and modern television.

Already my proposed accommodation has been adversely affected because an old Venetian landlady refused my tenancy as ‘English are always drunk.’ I was amused to hear this story. Xenophobia is funny when it’s a white British guy at the receiving end. And let’s face it, protesting that I’m Scottish is highly unlikely to assuage her concerns about my sobriety.

Almost immediately I felt the language barrier in Venice for English is a professional tongue not a social one. Most people here speak it competently out of necessity. Stumbling into deli stores and restaurants, I immediately realised I have to urgently learn some Italian phrases and numbers. It’s tiresome nodding, smiling and handing over excessively large notes.

In my experience, buying petty junk food alone is ruinously expensive in Venice and I don’t want to eat pizza every night because funghi is easy to pronounce. Meanwhile I have to forgive myself for being an island monoglot, I have been hired for English language skills after all.

For now at least, that’s my forte.

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.

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.

Heart Shaped Box

At the beginning it was the maddening fluidity of her walk and the way she made you breathlessly silent just by her presence alone. She never spoke to anyone. And together we felt the imprisonment of being a boy and how our job was to merely create a noise that might fascinate her.

With her soulful blue eyes and ripe, pert and desirable mouth, I felt a strange unison with my anonymous colleagues. Well I did until she turned into the kitchen and the shrill ping of the microwave crushed any lingering feeling of desire. For the anticipation lay in her walk and how with every step she took she was a heartbeat closer to my own.

As you might have already gathered by now, offices can be notoriously dull places to earn a living. If you spend the lion’s share of the Gregorian calendar sitting in front of computer, then inevitably the mind will begin to wander. Sometimes I have tried to fancy virtually anyone just to escape the menial wonders of Microsoft Excel.

Spending up to eight hours per day in the same allocated spot, usually performing the same tasks without thinking, is almost asking for you to fall in love for 16 seconds. Albeit with someone wildly out of your league, grossly inappropriate, engaged or the intern with phosphorescent eyes and probably still in her early twenties.

Spending so much time in the same place with the same people will inevitably rouse the most dangerous of human emotions – curiosity. As a result most people will develop a crush on a work colleague at some point in their lives. Even if it is someone you wouldn’t ordinarily find attractive in real life.

Never advisable and almost certainly best avoided, office liaisons usually end in disaster and whether it’s excruciatingly embarrassing or incredibly painful. The bitter ending will provide a malnourished office with juicy scraps of gossip for years to come.

Curiosity is a curse that has afflicted even some of the most intelligent men and women in the workplace. As anyone engaged in a secret romantic tryst can usually see the tsunami galloping in the distance. But like the stupid footballers who have sexual affairs with reality TV contestants, they continue to believe in the self-inflicted illusion that no one will find out. Although no one will fail to spot the tell-tail signs of you arriving together at the same time, usually late with a sheepish grin and ruffled unwashed hair.

All it takes is one perceptive mind and the keyboards will be rattling out scandal until even the cleaner finds out. Usually such childish behaviour is fueled by jealously at how their previously anonymous colleagues could be having such an exhilaratingly good time without them. The lovers inbox will be a ripe treat and they won’t give a damn about what anyone else thinks. Until it all goes wrong that is.

For silent curiosity is always more exciting than the real thing. As like the regal beauty that left her male colleagues twitching in synchronised admiration, the attraction ultimately lay in enigmatic silence and how difficult she was to attain. Expectation usually kills a party and broadening your horizons away from your desk is probably wiser than aimlessly seeking a distraction from it.

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”.