Sunday 31 May 2015

London Wanderings #6 - Secrets and Green Sheds

In 'From Hell', Alan Moore writes about landmarks in London drawing unseen patterns across the city, providing power that goes unseen by most people. In that, the landmarks are phallic spires, like Cleopatra's needle, that formed a pentacle.

For me, it's not so much the sinister implications of 'From Hell' that I'm interested in (as much as I love that book) - it's the idea of secret patterns across London.

There are networks across London that are old and mysterious. Not necessarily secretive as such, but ones that serve a specific function, and don't serve much other function. And if you're not part of that function, they're almost like gated communities. But ones that you don't see.

In Terry Pratchett's discworld series, Death makes the observation that people simply don't see things that don't make sense to them. And there's certainly an element of truth in that. I know this because of how long it took me to consciously notice the green huts.

Cabmens Shelter Wellington Place 2" by oyxman .
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
I work near Victoria, and when I walk to work, there's a small green hut that I pass. I used to work in St John's Wood, and there's one there too. You can't see into them - they're basically like sheds. But they have little serving hatches, and they usually have prices as well for teas, coffees and hot food.

This is because they're little cafes, designed for use by cabbies. And not just the kind of cabbies that drive around in black cabs either - they date back a hundred and forty years. And were designed for use by cabbies back in the days of hansom cabs. Inside, they have small benches and long tables, so a few of the drivers can have a break, a sit-down and a coffee. And so they've remained, many decades later.

There aren't many around these days. Just thirteen now. A small handful still dotted around and in use. I'd become aware about their function, but only understood their history a bit more due to this notice on the one in Embankment. They're run by the Cabmen's Shelter Fund, and still serve the same function they always have.

While you can buy teas and coffees from some of them (and fried egg sandwiches and ice creams in the summer), the insides remain secretive outside of heritage open days. Even in the days of sat-navs, they're the exclusive domain of those that have mastered the knowledge. That know the maps and streets of London in a way none of the rest of us ever do.

The people that know this city's routes, streets and roads, that meet people and connect them from one place to another, have their own beacons lit across the city. Their own secret maps, with safety and warmth dotted across London. A series of green huts, making sense of the city.

They're out in the open, and you can pass them by and interact with them a little bit.

But they're not for you.

Sunday 24 May 2015

London Wanderings #5 - Small Memories

London changes incredibly quickly. It's not just in terms of buildings and stone being replaced with glass. It's in terms of feelings as well. When I walk around London, as I do fairly regularly, I see areas that I have specific memories attached to, changed forever.

This is the case everywhere, of course. I grew up in the countryside in Ireland and moved away at 17. I visit around once a year, and it has definitely changed, partly damaged by the recession and partly rebuilt by local fundraising. But the change is slow for the most part.

With London, things change rapidly. You walk from Oxford Street to Goodge Street, or around Soho or Charing Cross Road, for the first time in a couple of months and you see entire blocks suddenly demolished. And where there was stone, there are now wooden walls, protecting the empty space, like stitches after an operation. And then, slowly, something new starts to form.

We all have our own relationship with the city, because we've all formed our own memories. They're not all important or life-forming or necessarily something that anyone else would find relevant. But they're how we navigate London - memory by memory, sense-remembering our way through. A kiss here, a drunken night there, a hideous social embarrassment to the left and a phone call you'll never forget there.

One that I miss is a small one at Piccadilly Circus.

I love Christmas, on a personal and cultural level. I love pretty much everything about it. During the darkest time of the year, we get together and drink and sing and blaze fires and lights, and we tell the long nights that we are not afraid.

I usually go back to Ireland for Christmas and spend time with my parents. I like to take the train and ferry if I have the time (not least because it may be a long trip, but it's a long trip without much hassle, during which I can spend time reading and listening to things and not have anyone expecting me to do anything for a change). It also means that carrying Christmas presents the entire way.

For years, I had something of a tradition. At some point in the week before I left, I'd head to town and buy presents. Usually, I'd look for something in the realm of music or movies or videos or DVDs. Piccadilly Circus used to have a Virgin Megastores and a HMV fairly close to each other. So, with coat, scarf and gloves, I'd search for gifts.

I've always liked shops like that. I'm a movie buff, so I've always liked browsing video and DVD stores in the same way I browse bookshops. And they were open late, so it was always a destination. And with multiple floors, I could happily wander around for a while, searching for the perfect items.

That's a memory that's very strong for me. I could wander the layout of those shops blindfolded. Of course, between iTunes, Amazon and Netflix, there's less need for shops like that, and they were early victims of the recession. Now, the Virgin Megastore is a clothing shop and the HMV sells 'London' and 'Britain' tourist tat like mobile phone covers and selfie-sticks.

I'm almost embarrassed by the way I can have such strong attachments to chain stores, but I do. For me, they were rows and rows of movies and shows I had yet to see, and a way of entering other worlds.

Now, I'm a Netflix addict, and in a lot of ways, it's better. These shops weren't cheap, by any means. But they're my memories, and my Christmas shopping. Small details that I doubt I'll ever forget, because they started off an important period to me each year.

Small, but unimportant. And now gone forever. And, realistically, that entire kind of shopping is gone, more or less.

It'd be nice to have all my memories in the small independent shops, or the beautiful tiny shops that are unique. And I have plenty of those memories too. But they don't feel gone in quite the same way.

The world changed around my memories. And the world changed around the London that I knew. The London that I know now is different, and will be different again.

Small memories. That make up a city and make up a life. What are yours?

Sunday 10 May 2015

London Wanderings #4 - Whitechapel murders and "bad boys"

I was in WH Smiths the other day, and saw their new Jack the Ripper magazine/bookazine thing (which still feels more comfortable to say than just using the term 'bookazine', which feels completely unnatural). It had a sticker on the front making it clear this was a 125th Commemorative publication.

That's stuck with me a little bit. I suspect it was the 'least bad' wording choice, if anyone had second thoughts about it. It maybe lacked the obviously disrespectful connotations of 'celebration' and added at least an element of memorial over 'anniversary'. But it was still clumsy and still stuck with me.

My feelings about it are partially influenced by the amount of media that does celebrate crime. Especially London crime.

I've seen two trailers recently that made me think about this particularly. One of them was a trailer for the new Krays movie with Tom Hardy playing both of the twins. And the other was for London Live's "Bad Boys" real crime season.

They're very different propositions. Almost purely based on the fact that Tom Hardy's involved, I expect the Krays film to be a bit more thoughtful and interesting. Whereas, based on the way it was sold, I expected the London Live series to be a bit more Danny-Dyer-style "proper naughty", and primarily looking at just how cool various gangsters were.

This glorification irritates me. I get it, to an extent. With Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper being such culturally defining points to Victorian London, it's difficult not to think about crime with London. And it's difficult, any time you discuss crime, to do so in a way that's not glorifying in any way. It's interesting, it's fascinating.

It's a fascination that I understand as well. I've been fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders from a very young age (as a natural consequence of my childhood fascination with Sherlock Holmes). But as I've grown up, I've become more interested with the society of the time, and the lives led by the murdered women than in the mystery behind the case. If you have interest in this area, I strongly recommend Philip Sugden's book, the Casebook of Jack The Ripper, which is an in-depth and utterly fascinating look at the murders, victims and London at the time (see below).

If you've ever seen the League of Gentlemen (and if you haven't, you absolutely should), you may remember the two young film fans, judging films by how many killings there are. When crime is glorified, and the victims glossed over, I think we lose something. We create a myth that is seductive and cool, but misses the deeper understanding. Rather more than the gangsters of the 50s and 60s, I find the society of the time interesting and why they gained such power.

I don't particularly believe in honour amongst thieves and murderers. I don't particularly care whether the Crays "may have been bad boys, but they loved their mum". These things make simple stories, and London is more fascinating when you look at the complexities.

Crime used as a way to explore London can be fascinating. The Whitechapel murders as a filter to view London of the time can be fascinating. The Krays and the like as a way to look at London in decades past, and understand how these things worked, is fascinating. And the psychology behind the murderers is fascinating.

Reducing it down to hard men, bad boys and cloaked men in top hats and knives isn't fascinating. It's fetishistic and simplistic. And I think there's more to the people involved, more to the city involved and more to all of us than that.


If you're interested in learning more about the Whitechapel murders, I'd recommend reading the following - and while I'm linking to Amazon, if you can pick these up at your local bookshop, it's always worth doing so.

The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden. This isn't just the best book out there on Jack the Ripper. It's also one of the best books about Victorian London. Its very in-depth, but Sugden makes it relatively easy to read. A great book.

From Hell by Alan Moore. This graphic novel is astonishing, and a completely different beast to the movie (although I enjoy the movie). It's an exploration of the murders, the victims, the nature of murder itself and an occult take on London.

Sunday 3 May 2015

London Wanderings #3 - Canals and Camden

Yesterday, I went wandering in a more literal sense. I was at King's Cross and I had a little bit of time, so I thought I'd walk to Camden. I've never walked that way before. So I walked down Caledonian Road and took the route down Regent's Canal.

One of the things that I love about London is that you always discover new things. You realise that there are connections you didn't know about between areas that you knew about. I've walked down Regent's Canal a few times, back when I worked in St Johns's Wood, but I'd never gone further than Camden. This started the opposite way, taking me round the backs of areas that I knew a bit better. Down a long, winding path and underneath dark, low bridges that caused even a short-arse like myself to have to stoop.

There's a wildlife sanctuary there. And a large canal community. They're doing work in the area, so a lot of the walk is via temporary walkways, which wobble as people walk on different sides and you get to see cyclists nervously making their way past as it wobbles. As I walked past, it dawned on me that this is a vibrant, busy area of London that I just haven't experienced before, in much the way that most of London is a vibrant, busy area that I haven't experienced yet.

My favourite point of it, other than walking past a couple of guys sat in their barge, comfortably arguing with each other while the smell of pot and alcohol wafted out, was finding a small barge cafe.

There's a small sign near King's Cross for it, and the barge is tiny. It's a small red barge and an old woman runs it and lives in it. You look down into the little kitchen window that she trades out of. She makes teas, coffees and cakes and sells them for a small amount of money. I didn't stop, as I'd just had something before walking, but what struck me about it was the sense of longevity.

This didn't look like a new venture. It looked like she had been doing this for some time. Making her mark on a small part of London and becoming part of it.

In a similar way, a little earlier, I'd seen a small nature reserve next to an estate. It was obviously a community thing, and something that people had worked to put together.

I talked in the last wandering about the sense of anonymity in London, and the exhileration and fear that I find in it. But it's also a place of small, tight communities and people make their way in it. Small, but important things as people live their entire lives in an area and both become part of it and add something new to it.

The walk ended, sadly, on a down note, as I got to the Camden Lock market (if you're walking from Camden Town station to the market, it's the bit on the right by the canal). It's been completely bulldozered and brought to the ground, with only occasional shop signs and walls with large paintings of marijuana leafs still standing.

Back in 2008, a large fire gutted part of the area. I remember going down the next day with my then-partner, to spend money in the parts of the market that were still open - we couldn't do much, but we did what we could to support. There was no electricity, and most of the stalls were lit by candle-light (which I found a little ironic). But Camden survived and thrived like it has always done.

Until now. Until a large swathe of it is bulldozered in the name of development. We'll get some nice, flashy, branded stores instead of the individuals that have kept it alive for so long. It's going to be turned into expensive private homes (of which only 14 out of 170 will be affordable) and offices, which doesn't leave much space for the markets. Sure, there'll still be some stalls, but I somehow doubt it'll be the same people who have been working there for years. Some are going to have to move on. Or just leave.

To me, this doesn't feel like development. It feels like cultural war. It feels like homogeneity destroying the unique and the counter-culture. I'm all for money being pumped into London, but a lot of these developments, to me, feel more like money being sucked out of it.

In my eyes, urban development is doing to Camden what the fire failed to.

Friday 1 May 2015

London Wanderings #2 - Anonymity City

A series of thoughts about London. Working some stuff about the city out in my head and you may find some of it interesting

One of the things I love about London is the sense of anonymity. You can walk down a street with thousands of people and be totally anonymous. Nobody cares.

I grew up in a small village. It's a lovely place, and I do love going back. But the sense of everyone knowing everyone is something that I tend to find a bit claustrophobic. Gossip tends to leave me feeling icily cold and uncomfortable. It makes me feel rather hyper-aware.

London, on the other hand, doesn't give a shit about what you do or who you are. I was told by someone who was going to an event with a Victorian funeral theme how she had to travel at rush hour in a full Victorian black dress, and felt very self-conscious. But once she was there, nobody even looked up the entire time.

I've been out to conventions and parties where I've wandered through London, in the streets or on the underground, in full costume. And, again, nobody noticed or cared.

Everyone's seen it all before.

I was recently told by someone what Soho meant to them, and I loved it. They'd grown up as a young gay man in the middle of nowhere in a country which was not always the most enlightened with these things. So, when he came to Soho for the first time, seeing gay men hold hands and even *gasp* kissing was a major point for him. London felt like freedom.

And it does feel like freedom to an extent, and that's the side of it that I love. It's a very powerful notion to not be cared about.

There's also the other side to that anonymity, though, which is more frightening. Which is that people can fall through the gaps with nobody looking out for them. Having nobody watching you also means that you have nobody looking out for you.

I've written about this notion before inspired by the documentary Dreams of a Life. And the idea that nobody is looking out for you can mean you end up being forgotten.

Maybe that's one of the things I associate with the idea of London. The idea that, when you're coming in as an outsider, you're taking on the city entirely on your terms. You're on your own for better or worse and you make what you make of the area. But you're unlikely to leave a lasting impact on it. The most you can hope for is a blue plaque.