This is the 16th article in our regular series ‘My London’.
I was born south of the river and spent my first eight years in Streatham. After a ten-year interlude balancing an acting career with exams, it was time to return to the big city to attend university. My first set of keys opened up student accommodation off the Gray’s Inn Road; the second were for a council estate flat in Euston where, as a college drop out, I’d sit in a worn-out red cardigan, chain smoking Vogue Menthols out the window of my box room. This progression north led me to a wonky but cosy flat behind the Shell station on Upper Street in Islington where I’d frequently buy my body weight in Snickers. I was nineteen, trembling sweatily in the doorway to adulthood.
A year later, I headed to Stoke Newington via Farringdon, where my acting agent took me for high tea one afternoon in Spring. Midway through my third scone, he gently asked if my gippy appendix and wheat intolerance were the reasons why I had become so fat. Regrettably, it was due to rum and kebabs. I decided not to fret, and instead obtained a personal trainer boyfriend with a yoga-teaching mother who both lived in Stokey.
I took to juicing and jogging, and got a part time job at an independent coffee shop. Inside, white walls displayed black murals, mostly indecipherable ‘right-on’ patterns. The shelves bore mini smoothies for kids, arranged as traffic lights, the most popular flavour being ‘red’. In this environment, customers relaxed, leading to a tendency to over share; gladly volunteering their thoughts on the state of the country, their marriage, their guts. Parents let their offspring make an unholy mess, somehow managing to fuse gluten-free cake to table, then generously donate a whole penny into the tip jar before breezing out. The best response was to smile, and stay on a steady drip of soya lattes until the caffeine convulsions became incapacitating. The cornerstone moment was the day someone left behind a copy of selected poems by Dorothy Parker. The precision of her observation mixed with her trademark humour unlocked something in my brain, and motivated me to start writing.
My days off were well spent wandering up and down Church Street, not opting for bargains such as fifty quid for a scented candle. Instead, I’d invariably gravitate to Clissold Park. During the colder months, the grass is a tad folorn, but there’s a deer enclosure in the middle, and it’s sentimental to me as I jogged off most of my fat around there.
A couple of dud relationships later, I left the coffee shop, packed up went East. By East I mean five minutes on the 149 towards Brick Lane, top deck and feet up like a king. When discussing my decision to relocate, I was told repeatedly that all the hipsters had gone to Peckham, as though this somehow negated my decision to move there. To date, it has not proved to be a dick in the custard.
According to Wikipedia, the neighbourhood is riddled with history, from the manufacturing of tiles and bricks in the fifteenth century, to the enabling of the nation’s favourite pastime by way of the Truman brewery. A nod to centuries past can be seen in the odd cobbled street, Georgian buildings and plaques dedicated to various dead people. Settlers have included French and Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi communities, me. Institutions such as ‘Jack the Clipper’ pay homage to old reprobates, and are ideal for when you need your beard trimmed, as I frequently do.
No-one usually likes homogeny, and a few years ago no-one wanted a Pret in Shoreditch. Subsequently there are now two, conspicuous despite their ‘edgy’ black exteriors. Every other business sells coffee, and the Old Spitalfields Market is heaving with chain restaurants and stalls selling generic trinkets. I feel like more of a resident when I’m in one of the Cash & Carry’s such as Taj superstores. Inside, the speakers pound out a Bengali drumbeat, which I find gives my grocery shopping more rhythm. Spices and incense permeate the air, and you can get a kilo of medjoul dates for 7.99. Most places to eat have cottoned onto the new wave of dietary requirements, advertising organic, free-from, veggie everything. There’s even a vegan tattoo parlour, aptly located on Bacon Street. Every consumerist need is concentrated into a square mile.
Street art is a defining feature of the area. Large black and white lions, blue and red faces and statements such as ‘art is tra$h’, ‘love is key’, and ‘yuppies out’ line the walls, ideal for a subversive Tinder profile pic. The Aldgate East end of Brick Lane displays fabric shops, cafes, newsagents, GPs; while the Bethnal Green Road end holds the majority of the endless curry houses, each one boasting ‘curry of the year 2009’. Employees tirelessly but politely attempt to get you in- apparently a few years ago their sales tactics were akin to abuse. Likewise, young progressively dressed individuals will offer you ‘10% off at Blitz vintage’ every bastard time you pass them. It’s a people pleaser’s worst nightmare.
Independent clothing labels sell gimmicky shiny things, that even at twenty-five I feel too old for. Retro clothes shops offer discounts on fake septum piercing jewellery. Tourists and nondescript Londoners merge with traditionally dressed Bengalis, and neatly barbered men in beanies hold hands with emu women, puffed out in black faux-fur coats. ‘Community arts hub’ Rich Mix holds spoken word events, for which I have no sarcastic remark; lots of brilliant writers share their work. I am yet to contribute any of mine as I find it far less excruciating to perform other people’s words.
When it comes to feeding, it’s all about Sunday. Stalls selling every kind of cuisine in existence line the whole street. The pavement becomes a graveyard for that heady mix of spilled snacks, regurgitated snacks and general detritus. It’s a relief when it rains and everything gets a good rinse. A tourist favourite is ‘Beigel Bake’, the first ever on the street, open all hours. Its salt-beefy notoriety precedes that of its rival ‘Beigel Shop’, which, at two doors down, you’re a fool if you end up in. Further up, across the road and only on the Sabbath, Columbia Road is home to a popular flower market, five lilies a paaahnd. It’s a real treat if enacting rush hour on the Central Line is your thing.
The jewel in the E1 crown is made of chocolate. With two shops in close proximity, Dark Sugars is the reason my overdraft and I are such good friends. It’s run by the charismatic Paul, who often gives out free bites of the good stuff while you browse. There’s zero stinge, and they do a chili hot chocolate that coats your throat in a sweet fiery bliss, piling as many chocolate shavings as will balance on top of the cup. There’s a bar and seating area at the bigger venue on the intersection of Hanbury St, and hand-carved wooden bowls bear piles of truffles, pearls, and everything within reason you can imagine covered in chocolate. They play everyone from Bob Marley to Frank Zappa to Rihanna, and the staff frequently hold impromptu dance offs. I’ve managed to reduce my intake by not going in unaccompanied, as twice daily didn’t seem sustainable.
Their tagline encourages customers to ‘make yourself happy’, which, living nearby, has rendered me deliriously so. It’s certainly an upgrade from the Snickers in Islington, and I hope the whole area always retains its unique flavour.
Rachel Hurd-Wood is a writer and actress living in East London. She usually writes poems about people and things she loves, prose about people and things she hates, but is young and adaptable.