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Essay | Living in London: Highgate by Jonathan Raban

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Jonathan Raban is an award-winning writer, author of among many others, 1974’s Soft City, an early classic of psychogeographical urban writing. In February 1970 he wrote the following essay for the “Living in London” essay series, of which this was the fifth instalment.

Jonathan Raban


Living in London: V

…..The best place to commit suicide in north London is from the top of the Archway Bridge, a magnificently vulgar piece of Victorian ironwork that carries Hornsey Lane high over the top of Archway Road. Your death leap will cast you from the precarious gentility of N6 into the characterless squalor of N19. All Highgate trembles on the edge of that abyss, perched, like a gentlewoman of rapidly reducing means, above the ‘vapid plains’ of that ‘hot and sickly odour of the human race which makes up London.’ Highgate was firmly behind the nineteenth century rector of Hornsey, Canon Harvey, who declared (in a letter to The Times): ‘I have tried to keep Hornsey a village but circumstances have beaten me.’ It was always a place for prospects and dreams of the city lying below it: Dick Whittington turned again on Highgate Hill; Guy Fawkes’s cronies gathered in Parliament Hill Fields to watch the Houses of Parliament blaze. Then it became an escape hatch, as the middle classes built their purple brick villas like castles on the northern heights, in defence against the cholera and typhoid germs of William Booth’s Darkest London. N6 is an embattled vantage point; it overlooks the city with a chronic mixture of anticipation and fear.

…..Highgate village still has the air of a tiny community of local gentry huffing and puffing about the encroaching council estates, the new commuters and the decline of churchgoing. The gentry have their Literary and Scientific Institute (whose president is a knight), their Highgate Society, their self-consciously ‘local’ pubs and teashop. Forget the Renault 2CV’s, the Volkswagens and the Citroens, and Pond Square could be in Wiltshire. A querulous, female upper-class voice braying ‘Colonel…’ through the elms; a Red Setter vainly pointing towards Kentish town, scenting, perhaps, some dim racial memory of pheasants ker-rumphing up from where only sparrows now cough bronchially on the washing lines of Albion Villas. But the huddled old ladies have had their day: the awfulness of N19 has got a stranglehold on Highgate Village and it won’t let go. Already there are signs. In the evenings a gang of skinheads congregates at the bus turnaround in Pond Square, scuffing their heels proprietorially. I don’t know where they come from, but their soft jeers mark them, like a crew of seedy dealers moving in on the dissolution of the Big House. They know that history’s on their side.

…..For the rest of us, Highgate is a kind of sidestep from the main current of things, an uneasy and ambiguous transit camp, a compromise. Jews who have fallen out somewhere on the great migration from the East End to Golders Green to Cricklewood just manage to maintain their synagogue and ailing delicatessens. The Irish live in a tatty group of streets off the Archway Road; their Islington from home, as it were, is a huge, fusty gin-palace of a pub called the Winchester Hall Tavern, practically next door to the synagogue. Behind the engraved glass-nouveau they do a great trade in stout and reminiscences. On Archway Road, there are moody West Indians in fluorescent shirts and mittel-Europeans in brown raincoats embarking on complicated bus rides to Swiss Cottage. The pompous villas of the 1880s and ‘90s have been split up into flats, full of admen and tv technicians with white Ford Cortinas. An interior landscape of bullrushes and green bottle glass, of stained Penguins by Elizabeth David, of stripped pine and Parker Knoll, of dinner parties that sag on the stroke of ten, of cheerless bedrooms rarely used for fun. N6 is too nervous and unconfident to have flair; dolly girls hardly ever venture further north than NW1, unless to Hampstead or the suburban dottiness of Muswell Hill. My brother, an art student, lives only a mile away in Kentish Town, NW5. There people keep broken down Bond three-wheelers under flapping tarpaulins in their front gardens. William and his friends play penny whistles and chant mantras; they drink pale coffee out of mugs that have lost their handles. The students get high on cough mixture in Lady Margaret Road and beat their gas meters with broomsticks. You can’t imagine that sort of thing going on in N6.

…..For my part of Highgate is anxious, isolated, hopeful, frightened. Hornsey Lane Gardens, where I live, is on the ragged fringe dividing Highgate-proper from Crouch End. Along the road at Saint Augustine’s they teach karate on Thursdays (‘Fast . . . Safe . . . Sensible’), and stringy men in kimonos lean on the railings outside, shrivelled Oddjobs who could deal you a death chop if they cared. They gaze mournfully down Archway Road. Or the man with the ratty moustache who runs the used-car lot; he twitches at customers on the pavement like a decayed colonel trying to interest a trout with the wrong fly on a hot day. Just after midnight once I listened to a conversation between two Irish girls outside my ground floor window. One was crying. The other said, ‘He’s only a man, for godsake, Birdie. He’s only a man.’ And last Sunday I was walking up Archway Road to the pub at half-past seven; a man stopped me, holding out a glistening cellophane package. ‘Would you . . . by any chance . . .’ his voice fled, then came back in an enthusiastic rush ‘. . . be interested in buying a shirt, sir?’ All gestures that have the resonance of impossibility about them; in vain, but still believing.

…..I’m so new to London that—I suppose inevitably—my response to it is strident. For years I’ve been circulating around distant provincial perimeters—Lymington, Hull, Aberystwyth, Norwich—growing more and more infatuated with a starry notion of London life. In Aberystwyth I read Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem The Golden and identified completely with the marvellously naive aspirations of Clara the heroine: . . . ‘What social joys are there. . .’ In Norwich, more knowingly, but still in love with a dream of a faraway city, I taught courses on literature and society in nineteenth century London. The deep swirling fog, the crowded tenements, the clerks streaming over London Bridge, the tramways and the endless alleys, each ready with a coincidence to turn the plot, in Dickens, Gissing, Wells. The ‘London’ series of prints by Gustav Doré; W. E. Henley’s resounding, mock-epic London Voluntaries. Visiting London, you can impose almost any fictional identity you want upon it, and at weekends I stayed in a city which might easily have turned up Edwin Reardon or George Ponderevo in the subway at the top of Charring Cross Road.

…..Coming to N6 last June, with the urban equipment of a reader of Tono Bungay and The Nether World, was the kind of appropriate accident that makes one really believe one is a character in the hands of the Great Fiction Writer. For Highgate is sufficiently far above, and far away from, the involving complexities of Central London, Kensington, Chelsea, to enable one to see the city itself as a sequence of perfect images. Soho is a squalid nightmare, full of men in raincoats on their way up to Françoise, 3rd Floor; South Kensington is foreign girls working at the Swiss Centre and eating huge cakes in patisseries; Belgravia is bored girls with white MGB’s waiting for sugar daddies… It’s so easy to acquire a kind of pseudo-knowledge, to feel that, from the top of Highgate Hill, the whole of London is within one’s conceptual grasp. It’s all height, distance, dreams. The best literary analogy I can think of is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: the islands of East and West Egg, places for ever-hopeful westerners like Gatsby and Carraway to gaze across towards the sparkling possibilities of New York City. The Valley of Ashes, that symbolic wasteland presided over by the rotting eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg on the giant hoarding, finds its exact correlative in the grisly acres that stretch from Archway to the northern (and so far unreclaimed) half of Camden Town.

…..And dreaming is a lonely, private occupation. Gatsby and Carraway susbsisted mysteriously; they might, from all we see of their actual work in the novel, have been freelance writers. In some sense the isolation of my own routine seems perfectly to match the landscape I’m trying to identify as N6. It’s dependent on, yet distant from, the activity of central London; it looks hopefully out towards Great Turnstile, Thurloe Place, Broadcasting House, Wood Lane; it hangs on the end of a telephone. There are days when I can feel the telegraph wires crossing the norht London escarpment, homing in a dense net to the centre; sometime in the day it’s got to be my line buzzing—a message, like in a bottle, from down there. One day I’ll pick up the phone and there’ll just be the faint sound of Bow Bells. Perhaps.

…..I don’t belong. My clock is odd; I get up late and my curtains stay publicly pulled-to. I’m not a student, nor on the Assistance, nor exactly a housewife. At lunchtimes I sometimes play snooker at the Winchester Hall Tavern. There old men, Irish mostly, talk very slowly. When they go to the billiard table their cues seem to move with a lugubrious deliberation. The man I play snooker with, an old friend, currently works part-time as a laundry delivery driver, and somehow his job shows; you can see he’s employed. But the old men watch me curiously; I’m displaced, have no badge of office. I work in the bay of an enormous five-sided window at home, a sort of announcement that I work therefore I am. Stray kids, tightroping on the low wall outside, occasionally grimace at me, but other people don’t take much notice. My work is socially unestablished, placeless; beside it, N6 becomes a tangle of contingencies that seem always to be slyly forming themselves into a sinister logic.

…..On days like this my room feels like a tethered ship, somehow afloat from the tall villas and straggly trees of the road outside. It’s cold and windy; a dog is barking in someone’s distant garden, and smoke from a chimney is flattened into a thin, transverse line across a colourless sky. Work is bits and pieces: reviews, written in single sentences and stray paragraphs on separate sheets of paper; a pile of novels to read, crisp from the publishers but mostly soggy inside; this piece, written disjunctively over the last ten days; the messed-about script of a tv play; notes to prompt me at a radio recording tomorrow. Nothing in my room relates to the street beyond the window; to work is to disconnect oneself from N6, to untie the mooring rope and drift into a geography mercifully free from postal districts.

…..Going out, for food, cigarettes or papers, can induce a kind of culture-shock. I know the people in the newsagents and the Irish couple who run the off-licence: talking to them is suddenly awkward, spluttering, full of helplessly grinning silences. One has to retrieve one’s identity as local resident, unsheathe and dust it, before speaking. I suppose this sudden inability with words is merely an occupational hazard for those who don’t live in the constant chafe of an institution; in a day you can almost forget how to talk. But for me, it’s a sensation rooted in a place. Like most suburbanities, I live in one place and work in another, but both places mysteriously have the same address. It’s like leaving home in the morning to arrive knocking on your own front door.

…..Perhaps this is why it’s so reassuring when, on a good day, work includes some appointment in London – seeing and editor, going down to the BBC, having tea with my agent. Then, living in N6 pays off. I get up early and drive euphorically down to the centre; everywhere south of Camden Town takes on the air of a party to which one is lucky enough to have received an invitation. The girl at the reception desk is suddenly beautiful, the liftman friendly, the corridors welcoming. It’d be awful if it were possible just to drop in from round the corner; the distance of N6 sustains all the best illusions of W1 and WC2.

…..But on the bad days, when the telephone’s dead and the post dull, N6 feels like a debtor’s spunging house. If nothing will go, I walk round Waterlow Park, a few hundred yards away, on the far side of Highgate Hill. There girls mind people’s children, calling, ‘Johnnie, where’s your other gumboot?’ across the ornamental lake whose bank is carpeted with duckshit. Serious-looking men read the Radio Times on benches, and retired ladies read Ruby M. Ayres up by the tennis courts. Tramps in raggy overcoats talk to the squirrels – an amazingly insolent and unafraid lot – and demented women carry religious literature across the grass in string bags. Below us all, London falls away behind the cemetery, a promise that didn’t quite work out.                        

                                                                         * * *

…..One is one’s own projectionist, making one’s environment amenable to metaphor, screening it with the complete fictional shape of a movie. A dinner party: with some fact and a measure of nightmare. It’s by candlelight; a precarious, anxious gesture, typical of my N6. The prople are proud, uncertain, but above all, innocent. They’re bunched around that slippery-sided peak of partial success, and they talk over-loudly, as if deliberately to be overheard.

…..–Oh, he’s making it in the art world–
…..–Still hard edges?–
…..–Not made it yet, mind you, but he’s going to be a big name soon–
…..–I’ve heard that disposables are the latest thing–
…..–Darling!–
…..–You won’t know him. He’s just got his divorce–
…..–Do you know Ronnie Laing–
…..–I find New York so stimulating
…..–He’s got this marvellous idea
…..–Madness is a kind of… spiritual necessity–
…..–Of course, in my job, you have to keep up with the trends–
…..–The art world does sound fascinating–
…..–The first time I turned on, nothing happened. Then–
…..–Have you read Timothy Leary?–
…..–Trends–
…..–The what’s it, . . . schizophrenic saint?–
…..–Richard Hamilton–
…..–fabulous idea–
…..–My lovers are always finding out that they knew the one-before–
…..–He’s so frightfully well-informed–
…..–God, Alison, you are lucky–
…..–It’s really because of my contacts, you see. I know all these showbiz people. . . and The Church–
…..–Really the most brilliant man I know–
…..–The latest thing. He burns them when he’s finished–
…..–Leonard Cohen–
…..–Do you think it’s valid, though?–
…..–What I don’t quite understand–
…..–But what do you think the psychology of it all is?–

…..If this sounds too like a crude Trendy Ape parody, it is, I think, because my N6 is so much more naked and yearning than the Gloucester Crescent of the Stringalongs. So many of the people I’ve met here in the last few months live on the fine blade of their aspirations, tempered on the one side by their sense of how far they have already come, and on the other by their untarnished vision of the Jerusalem of London life. They suffer from the immigrant’s classic pains of assimilation. Their habitual tone, of slightly dated knowingness, is a mark of their good faith. They’re earnest believers, dreamers, innocents; hill people. A favourite phrase is ‘in London’: someone will talk breathlessly of ‘one of the top writers/analysts/reporters/photographers in London’. Behind the expression lurks the plea that the speaker has lost all his old, clinging connections to the provinces; he’s in the know, his only world is London, he is unmarked by the humiliating stigmata of Northampton or Weston Super Mare.

…..So, guiltily, I identify with N6. At its worst it provides a kind of parodic theatre in which my own notions of coming to London, making my living by writing, sharing in an idealised metropolitan community, are played out in cruelly accurate caricature. The wording may be vulgar (Mark Boxer in Life and Times in NW1 would never have allowed his characters to be quite so direct), but the dream is real enough. So is the anxiety, the fear that there’s no further to go, that the provincial town lies in wait with its Cadena, its three cinemas, its endless talk of mortgages and gardening. Or, worse still, perhaps, we’ll stay in London; festering, unknowing and unknown, in a room without a view in N19.      

Words by Jonathan Raban.      


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My London by Tristram Fane Saunders

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Home is a box on Coppermill Lane, caught in the crosshairs of Walthamstow High Street and Blackhorse Road.

It’s a one-bed flat on two floors, too small to live alone in. Two people generate less clutter than one: with someone else about, we have a reason to live neatly. We supervise each other.

My current supervisor is Henry, a playwright tending bar at a small fringe theatre. He’s been there a week. On his first shift, the manager slapped him energetically on the rump before announcing, in a tone of reverential awe, “He’s so slim! Look at his slim hips!” The manager was, in her defence, quite drunk. That was Tuesday. Henry is a calm and benevolent presence. He keeps me sane and washes the dishes.

For a year, I didn’t live here. Instead, I sub-let the flat to Sophie. She was my ex-girlfriend at the time, and remains my ex-girlfriend to this day. I had no real objection to living with her, but chose instead to relocate to Scotland. We are still on very good terms.

Before Sophie moved in, I moved out. Before I moved out, I lived with Zoah. I haven’t mentioned Zoah yet, but I’ll tell you about her later. Until then, you’d better put on a coat.

***

In Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London (written exactly three hundred years ago, in 1716) the poet John Gay offers his advice for street- farers:

Let firm well-hammer’d soles protect thy feet
Thro’ freezing snows, and rains, and soaking sleet […]

Nor should it prove thy less important care,
To chuse a proper coat for winter’s wear.

It’s not a very good poem, but Gay does know a thing or two about coats. He goes on to explain, at length, the difference between various cuts and cloths. In short: aim for something heavy, dark and above all water-resistant. Mine is a US Navy standard issue peacoat, which does the job nicely, and keeps London from trickling down my collar. Grab your own, and we’ll head out the door.

There. The high street up ahead, and Blackhorse Road to your left. Walthamstow High Street is, as the tourist office will tell you, Europe’s longest street market. Veg aside, most things seem to cost five pounds, regardless of size or inherent value. I love it here. If you get up early enough, you can watch the white stalls bloom like mushrooms all the way up the hill and out of sight.

One of the regular weekend stalls sells cables – and only cables – in a plastic tub: unpackaged, unlabelled, a seething Gordean knot of cordage. Wires for phones, for modems, for power drills, for an electric typewriter and an electric toothbrush, all writhing together like a bucket of copulating eels.

Still thinking of eels, we cross the road to L MANZE, a real unmitigated pie’n’mash shop. The hot eels and liquor are worth noting, but today we have come for fruit pie and coffee, the latter at £1.15 a mug. I’m not sure what the L stands for. Our waitress has been working at L MANZE since the Berlin Wall fell. Catch her eye, and ask her. The newer cafes over in Walthamstow Village are trendy, tasteful and affected, but those beside the market remain unselfconsciously weird. If you’re in the mood for Louis Quatorze, there’s Ricco’s, where everything not gilded has been smothered in crushed velvet. For a solid fry-up, it has to be Jesse’s. I eat Jesse’s ‘Sunshine Special’ every other week.

From here, a 25-minute trek will take you to the Ravenswood Industrial Estate, where we find God’s Own Junkyard – a temple to electric light, complete with its own gun-toting 60 watt Jesus. It was the life’s work of Chris Bracey, London’s king of neon. His art illuminates countless Soho doorways, but he saved the best of it for this cavernous space in E17. Lorraine Mariner wrote a fine poem about the Junkyard in her most recent book, There Will Be No More Nonsense (Picador, 2014). Mariner works, as it happens, at the Southbank Centre’s poetry library, another place of beauty, strangeness and light.

If you’re not in the mood for strip-lights, a 25-minute walk in the opposite direction will bring you to the Walthamstow marshes, a national park of sorts, studded with pylons. It’s brilliantly overgrown, a plot of medieval lammas land that remains unowned and untamed. It’s home to sedge marsh, sallow scrub, and other types of indistinguishable foliage. Like many Londoners, my knowledge of botany covers only two species: ‘grass’ and ‘tree’. Anything else is probably poisonous. And yet, for some reason, the marsh keeps drawing me back. Be careful: if you follow that twisting, leafy path to the right, it’ll take you a week to find your way back out again.

We could ignore both nature and neon, and take a stroll down Blackhorse Road – but why would we? There’s nothing: a school, houses, a petrol station. When I first moved to Walthamstow, the petrol station was in limbo. A sign, written in felt-tip on cardboard, NO PETROL, was propped in the window for over a year. On the forecourt, the aging cash machine had its own version: NO CASH.

Opposite Blackhorse Road tube station is a mural – another of Chris Bracey’s works, one of his last, finished just four months before his death from cancer in 2014. It says ‘The Home Of People Who Make And Create’. I don’t know how to feel about it. It’s a lot to live up to; I can’t yet convince myself that I fall into either category.

Above the words is an enormous sequined heart. Below them, two flat men in high-vis jackets are being industrious with paint. According to the Waltham Forest Guardian, the mural has a ‘life-expectancy’ of twenty years. There’s still time.

***

It’s nice to play the role of tour-guide for a while. When I first moved to London, I played the hawker. For a few months at a time, between doses of university, I sold luxury teas to tourists from half a dozen market stalls: Portobello Road, Camden Lock, Spitalfields . . . It’s good, enjoyable work, if you don’t mind ten hours a day standing up.

The couple who hired me, Canadian Sean and Chinese Trinh, worked from a warehouse in Camden where, between them, they looked after every aspect of the tea-selling business except packaging. Packaging, Sean told me, was his mother-in-law’s job.

Dragging back a crate of unsold rooibos at night, I would occasionally see her there, stooped over hundreds of brown paper packets, humming under her breath. Did she ever get tired, I asked her once. She thought for a moment, choosing the words: No. No, because she is very proud of both Sean and Trinh. Sean is a good boy. I agreed, and she went back to packing tea.

Two summers later I found myself back in Camden, working just a minute’s walk from the tea warehouse, at the combined offices of the Camden New Journal, Islington Tribune and West End Extra. Strictly speaking, only the Journal has an office. The Tribune is a kind of immobile mobile home, wheelless in their back garden. West End Extra, if I remember correctly, is a folding plastic desk. The Journal was co-founded by Paul Foot, and his belief in dogged, campaigning journalism still drives their ethos. I spent most of my short time there looking for news, and failing to find any.

That summer ended with an emergency recall of parliament, to debate whether or not we should drop bombs on Assad’s Syria. Back then, things seemed more clear-cut.

I knew nothing at all about Syria, but I was wearing a tie, had good, strong shoes, and was only taking up much-needed space in the office, so I sent myself out to cover the demonstrations at Downing Street, texting back notes and pictures from my phone. It was a print day, and we needed something for the Tribune’s page five. As luck would have it, North Islington’s back-bench MP was leading the protest, speaking from a podium above a tower of scaffolding. Desperate for good photos, I clambered up the scaffold, nearly falling off and breaking my leg. At the time, I was more worried about breaking my borrowed camera.

A couple of national papers were still hanging around after his speech, hoping for an exclusive soundbite. Did the MP think that the – ? No, no comment. He had said all he needed to say.

I played my trump card: Islington Tribune, I yelled. Does Mr Corbyn have time to talk to his constituents? He did, and we got our page five.

***

I would never have ended up in journalism if it weren’t for Zoah. She has presence. At 5’9” she is still, somehow, always the tallest person in the room. Back at university, I started work on the student newspaper where she was Associate Editor. I was a disorganised, flustered fresher, and she took me under her wing. Zoah remains a kind of honorary uncle in my life, on hand with whisky and cigars whenever things take a turn for the worse.

After university, we spent a summer sharing the Coppermill Lane flat, alternating between her on the bed and me on the sofa, or vice versa. Zoah had night-shifts at The Times and I sold tea during the day, which worked out well: if it was my turn for the sofa, but I was planning to invite company home, she would always be around to swap over the bedsheets and tactfully disappear (and I would always return the favour).

Like most of my friends in London, I met Zoah elsewhere. A truism: it’s difficult to meet new people here, but easy to meet new kinds of people. The first two friends I actually met in London were a pair of middle-aged goths called Paul and Ian.

Paul was, at one stage, the frontman of a moderately successful new-wave band who still enjoy a degree of popularity in Denmark. They perform on the cabaret circuit as The Antipoet: Ian plays double bass while Paul recites his wickedly funny verses, occasionally accompanying himself on the triangle or cowbell. Under the warm, patient guidance of Paul’s wife, Donna, they host words-and-music nights around London. Three of the kindest people you could meet, they gave me my first ever poetry gig, and for that I will always be grateful.

***

In London, the world is full. Over the past few months I’ve been to a mime show and a fetish night, an abstract art exhibition and a chess-boxing tournament. On other nights, I’ve spent hours staring at the living-room wall, too tired to leave the flat. It’s a nice wall, a feature-wall, halfway between blood and terracotta (I painted it myself).

I have dropped out of touch with several close friends, and dropped back in touch with a few of them. I have even met someone who, inexplicably, seems to find me attractive. This city is full, over filled, weighed down with the sheer, unstable variety of life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 


Tristram Fane Saunders is a poet, journalist and director. His most recent chapbook, Postcards from Sulpicia (Tapsalteerie, 2015), is an illustrated translation of the complete surviving works of Ancient Rome’s only extant female poet. He works on the culture desk of The Telegraph. This is the 16th article in our regular series “My London”.

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