About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 30 September 2013

Was the Rev Francis Kilvert the original grumpy young man?

The Reverend Francis Kilvert (1840 - 79) has got me hooked. On page 26 of the old Penguin selection from his Diaries, (edited by William Plomer), in an entry written on Tuesday April 5 1870,  he visits Llanthony Priory, a few miles from his home in Clyro in the Brecon Beacons.

Yes, we were also tourists at
Llanthony Priory, deep in
the Black Mountains of
south Wales. What would
the Rev. Kilvert have made
of us?
Much to his horror, there are two  tourists visiting the site, identifiable by  their "staves and shoulder belts all complete, postured among the ruins in attitude of admiration..."

Kilvert had some very interestingly modern views, especially on the subject of tourists:

"Of all noxious animals too, the most noxious is a tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist."

Oh yes!



Saturday, 28 September 2013

Dub Vendor, the 2011 riots, and the death of Smiley Culture

One of last, and certainly one of the best specialist Jamaican record stores, Dub Vendor, has gone - but it lives
Not sure if it was the 2011 riots that were to blame, the recession, or the shifting tastes in music and shifting populations - or, most likely, a mix of all these factors.  All I know for sure is that the great reggae record store in Battersea, Dub Vendor, has gone from this area for good.

In fact, it went ages ago. As I began to write this I looked the store up on Google and found that the two final  Dub Vendor shops - in Ladbroke Grove and at Clapham Junction - closed a few weeks after the riots of August 2011, when its founder and owner John McGillivray decided to concentrate on the online mail order business.

For that sad fact I am indebted to an article by Ian Burrell in the Independent. When I heard about the riots, and particularly the destruction by fire  of the old Party shop on Lavender Hill, I wondered why no-one had mentioned Dub Vendor bang next door.

Read the article, it tells you all you need to know -  the way reggae went put of fashion, how Dub Vendor was always not just a shop but also a record distributor, and partners with the label Fashion Records, run by McGillivray's old schoolfriend Chris Lane, which had a studio in the basement of the Clapham Junction store.

As sales of Jamaican import dub-plates and such gradually slipped away as younger audiences moved off towards hip-hop, etc, so Dub Vendor and Fashion moved with the times, cultivating a new generation of local talent,  the toasters and MCs of south London dancehall clubs. Names like Maxi Priest were cutting records there - and in 1984 their biggest ever success arrived in the form of Smiley Culture. He cut Cockney Translation there, and then at the end of 1984 the real chart success, Police Officer. Both tracks are sheer joy, the sharp and hilarious wordplay between Smiley and the cop (played by Smiley) is timeless.

Even before major the UK chart success, Smiley attracted the attention of the ITV show Ear Say which did this special on him and Dub Vendor in 1984.

The scene  days after the 2011 riots at Clapham Junction - Dub Vendor survives, for a while.
Dub Vendor  and the burned-out
Party Superstore a few days after the riots
of August 2011
Do watch this video, it is priceless, and  extremely poignant. See the young Smiley - real name David Emmanuel, born in Stockwell 1948, pupil at Tulse Hill Comp -  just as success was hitting him, then think of how he ended, during a police raid on his home out on the rural fringes of south London back in 2011.

Stabbed himself, they said. There was an IPPC report in to all this but its findings were never made fully public, leading of course to intensified suspicion of a cover-up, which in itself - in a hideous bit of irony - was later cited as a possible contributor to the tensions that led to the 2011 riots.

Seems the truly bad riot at Clapham Junction on August  9 2011 was a final straw for owner McGillivray, who sold his shop to the the burnt-out Party store next door to allow them to re-open as a much bigger superstore.

Still, Dub Vendor keeps going, with a great online reggae store, and also a  living presence in the BM record shop in Soho. So, cutting cloth to fit, it is doing.

One step forwards, no steps backwards, please.

No more tears, just buy, buy, buy!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Sweet and sour thoughts on Open House London weekend

The 21st annual Open House London weekend has been bigger and more popular than ever, hitting the news with reports of 18,000 strong queues in Battersea  to get a first and final glimpse of the interior of the derelict power station.

Being 60 miles from the city this weekend, am feeling rather envious and sad not to be there. But then again, am beginning, in a very churlish way,  to dislike these admirable initiatives.

This year's , for example, has acted as a great piece of extra publicity for the developers of the Battersea Power Station site - offering a tantalising glimpse of what remains of the interior for two afternoons before turning the whole place into a property goldmine of luxury apartments. With or without plastic chimneys.

Surely this is just an old bugger's sour grapes? Open House London was and remains a brilliant idea, to persuade the owners of all manner of strange and wonderful buildings - from the grandest palace to the most humble council flat - to open doors to public for one weekend.


It started in 1992 and has become so popular and successful that it is an institution in itself, supported by loads of sponsors and copied in 20 or so other cities around the world.

Yes, it allows vogueish architects the chance to show off their gorgeous homes to aesthetically-avaricious audiences of Wallpaper* readers, so what?  It has also given the interested public the chnace to wander around in some of the strangest, most exclusive, most secret, most outrageous built spaces in the most arcjhticturally-bloated conurbation in the western world. Such as - the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Or the Blizard Building at Queen Mary's College in Whitechapel.

Wish it had been around in 1968!







Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Bugger! London has lost another great second-hand bookshop

My Back Pages, Balham, one of the best 2nd hand bookshops in SW London,  has closed down.
Believe it (or not) - two weeks ago I started a new post on the glories of the few remaining secondhand bookshops in South London.

As it happened, my three favourites were all located in places beginning with 'B' - Blackheath, Brixton and Balham.

Now that brave trio is down to even braver brace. The Balham  shop - My Back Pages - has gone. As I discovered to my horror and rage today, out shopping for birthday present books for my son.

I last went there less than a month ago, when it seemed its normal, glorious, ramshackle self, a wonderful labyrinth of shelving snaking through at least two former station parade shops facing Balham tube and BR station.

To my shame, I only discovered this shop about six years ago and in that time have bought a grand total of - what - about a dozen books there.

For each book I bought I probably spent three hours in the shop. It was that sort of place, where you could get lost in dark corners of the shop, find something fascinating and start reading.

It was great for  classics, art and travel, great for foreign fiction and film books, and many other things I had no interest in. Once or twice I spoke to the manager, who generally seemed more cheerful and optimistic than your average second-hand book shop owner.

In 2008 the shop received a boost from this little review in the Guardian. But evidently, this was not enough.

Now it's all gone, empty except for a few shelves.

If only I - and thousands of other book-lovers in this once bohemian part of south west London - had got behind this shop. Good God, the name of the shop alone should  have been enough to make all us middle-aged Dylanites to gather there like moths.

Note to self and everyone else who likes books and lives with five miles of Coldharbour Lane in Brixton - support Bookmongers now or collapse into a puddle of guilty tears. And to cheer yourselves up after the sad news on My Back Pages, watch the video on Vimeo!

And to find more independent bookshops, use the excellent London Bookshop Map.




Saturday, 14 September 2013

White bicycles and the death of the London cycling dream

Seeing a photo of a flower-bedecked white bicycle locked to a lamp-post in Toronto reminded me of how, about 8 years ago, I started counting the white bikes of London. Now I know that each white bike marks  the spot where a cyclist has been killed, and in London this almost invariably means killed by a truck or lorry rushing to a construction site.

The first one I saw was on Blackfriars Bridge, and although I didn't at that point know what they
A ghost bike on Blackfriars Bridge, London in 2008 - marking the spot where a cyclist was killed in a traffic accident
meant, it soon became very clear. That bridge, with its crazy sandwich of  bus, bike and car/lorry  lanes had earned itself a deadly reputation in the early 2000s. I think that concerted campaigning by LCC etc finally succeeded in changing things - but not before a few more had died.

A week or two later I saw another white bike tied to railings at the intersection of Clerkenwell Road and Goswell Road in EC1 (I put a photo of this on Flickr).  By white, I mean completely white - frame, wheels, tryres, handlebars, spokes, the lot.

These were, of course, what we now know to call  ghost bikes, marking the spot where a cyclist had been killed in a traffic accident.

I've seen at least a dozen since then - although I wonder if the practice is fading, as there have been many cyclists killed this year but no signs  of the white cycles near the scene.

Here some of the locations in central London alone:
  • The Bow Flyover  roundabout (A11/A12 junction)
  • Notting Hill Gate
  • Victoria Park
  • Angel Islington
  • Bishopsgate
  • Dalston Lane
Until 2006 I was puzzled at just how many riders were being crushed under the wheels of left-turning trucks. Then I was knocked off my bike by a right-turning car (just a broken collar bone), and I stopped being so damned complacent.

More than 30 years of riding through central London at least four times a week had taught me some things - but it never quite robbed me of the stupid notion that with a little common sense, you were fairly safe in the  mainly slow-moving traffic of London's congested streets.

Until that moment when an old fellow, utterly lost, up for the day from Portsmouth,  decided to quickly cross the Wandsworth Road into Victoria Rise on his way to visit his daughter.  Only then did I really learn that there are instants where  you can do nothing to save yourself. Apart from bracing every muscle and throwing yourself towards the least invasive parts of the car that you are crashing with.

A year after that, with the Olympic park under construction, as well as massive new buildings in the City and elsewhere, London became infested with gigantic cement-mixer trucks, mobile cranes, dumper trucks, etc, all charging around the city at ludicrous speeds, presumably to avoid late-delivery penalties.

And the number of deaths and serious injuries went on rising.  We saw a young woman with her  right leg crushed under the front wheel of a lorry yards from then work office in Dock Street, E1. Weeks later came my closest-ever near miss when a council dustcart sped past with an inch or two between us. It didn't hit me but I fell off into railings in an attempt to avoid worse.

Today - another death. A young woman killed in Aldgate. By another fucking dumper truck.

Where do they come from, these lethal vehicles? Many from a location near here, just of f Silverthorne Road in Battersea, SW8, there's a massive depot where the cement lorries go to refill. Presumable the stuff comes off barges from the Thames, and is pumped into silos which drop it into a constant stream of 6-wheel trucks. The streets around here are covered with gravel, shed by the speeding trucks as they lurch around the tight corners of these suburban streets. Just another peril for cyclists, as these stones shoot out from under car tyres straight into your eye.

Yeah, cycling is getting more dangerous in London. I am old, I don't care too much, but my son's 26, I am truly scared for him. I used to think that if you made eye contact with every driver about to occupy the boot of road in front of you, you would be OK. But with these trucks, it's different. They are too high up in their cabs for eye contact. They are under too much pressure, they do not have time to think.

This is surely a criminal tendency on our roads - it has gone too far, there have been far too many deaths at their hands, it is beyond coincidence.

So now, every time I hear news of a cyclist killed somewhere in central or north London, I freeze. My son now cycles from Islington to Bloomsbury and back every day. I freeze until the news bulletins come in with more detail: "A man, thought to be in his forties...." Relief, guilt.

Still we cycle because really, when it is good, cycling in London is as good as the best drugs, the best of any experience. Believe me!



South London's east-west divide

North of the Thames, people seem to think of South London as one great undifferentiated blot of unpleasantness (with exceptions made for Greenwich and Dulwich, while Blackheath Village always was a minor southern outpost of Hampstead).

Anyone who lives, or has ever lived in a postcode beginning with 'S' will know how wrong this view is.

The east-west divide on the sunny side of the Thames is just as strong as the rivalries that can flare up between the benighted denizens of the W,  NW,  N and E zones.

And although there is no simple "S" postcode, there certainly is a central south London zone that has no interest in knowing what goers on either side of it. Central South London stretches from London Bridge to Vauxhall Bridge, and takes in Borough, Bermondsey, the Elephant, Kennington, Vauxhalll and Stockwell, the zone tapering out in final southern glory at Brixton Hill.

Although Brixtons's codes are SW, it is just as much south London heartland as Lambeth Walk and Bermondsey Street.

Sticking strictly to inner London - roughly the same as zone 2 on the TfL map - you'd  have no trouble naming the adjoining South West and South East neighbourhoods.

SW - which of course shares a postcode prefix with some very posh neighbourhoods across the river - is simply Clapham, Battersea, Wandsworth, Balham, Putney. All of which suffer from their image as  being the not-quite-so-rich-bastards' alternatives to Fulham and Chelsea.

Similarly, for SE we have Camberwell, New Cross, Peckham, Deptford, Brockley and Lewisham. But these prickly places have no such shame, they do not need any reflected glory from north of the river.

So, what about all those other places? Tooting? That's the beginning of  outer south London, having more in common with Mitcham and Norbury.

Blackheath and Greenwich?  They are both distinctly different, they're not in the same game at all.

Blackheath, as already mentioned, is simply oh too nice to really be in the same borough as Lewisham, Eltham or Catford. Greenwich is a weird mix of historic royal Park, posh village (Crooms Hill etc)  and former naval base which also retains a hint of the scruffy Kentish estuarine resort.

Similarly out to the west, Richmond and Twickenham have more in common with the plump Thames Valley towns of Marlow or Henley than anything in London. Barnes, too, is truly Surrey-by-the-river.

So let's get back to the core SE and SW areas. What's the big difference?

The first, clinching factor is landscape. South East London is built on a Roman pattern of hills - seven of them - which lap like great waves towards the city. Rising above Brixton and its own hill, we have Tulse Hill, Herne Hill, Denmark Hill, Champions Hill, Knights Hill. Moving East gain, Telegraph Hill, then further south, Sydenham Hill, Gispy Hill, Forest Hill.

Overlooking Greenwich - providing the best view of London anywhere - we have the park and  Shooters Hill. On the southern horizon, the hills of Crystal Palace with their twin TV towers.

SW, by contrast, is unudulating plateau falling into marshland. Clapham, Wandsworth and WImbledon commons are relatively flat. Lavender Hill is a gentle bump in the road. Putney has a hill, but it's mostly tarmac and the view from the top is just not up to the amazing views you get in south east London. WImbledon has some mild hills but they tend to be associated with tennis players.

The topogrpahy means that SE London's parks are all far more interesting: contrast Greenwich Park, Brockwell Park, or Dulwich woods with the dull commons of SW4 and SW11. OK RIchmond PArk is beautiful but that's too far out to count.


The second big difference is public transport. SW has tube lines, SE does not. But SE now has the DLR as far as Lewisham and London Overground/East London line linking it with the great orbital movement of rail's version of the M25.

It's clear to me SW's tube lines are actually the bane of its life - that hideous tract of the Northern Line from Kennington down to Mordern is what attracted all the city workers to the area.

The next difference - wealth. Traditionally SW was richer, maybe because most of the money in Kensington and Chelsea tended to leach across the river to the nearest adjacent boroughs and then out down the A3 into the stockbroker belt.

But this is to oversimplify. Look at the architecture: by far the finest suburban villas of the 19th century were in SE postcodes. There's no better street of grand domestic architecture in all of London than Camberwell Grove.  The beautiful houses surrounding Blackheath and Greenwich parks are more elegant than any of that brash stuff in NW3.

Those were the days when the most successful actors and writers headed for the wooded slopes of south east London to escape the stinking wen.

The miserable clerk, meanwhile, were shunted towards the endless Victorian terraces of Clapham and Battersea. Comforting as these now seem,  they are pinched in comparison, and cynically repetitive.

Arts and entertainments is the next category, and again SE sweeps the board. Each of the centres - even including New Cross and Peckham - has internationally famous music and art venues, there's Horniman's Museum and the Dulwich art gallery, Depford's Laban Dance centre, Goldsmith's, and the joys of Camberwell.

Overall, you have to admit that SE London is the victor here: it always had the edge, to be honest.
After those vital three decades in the darkness, it has again been rising and shows no signs of falling away.  Peckham the new Dalston, etc.

Whereas SW is stale, saturated, and over-populated with the sort of recently-young couples with small kids who make you want to stay well away from all pubs on any day there's a big "rugger" game, and well away from all public spaces when the sun shines. Sorry, Clapham, but you blew it all away in about 1980 with the arrival of Foxtons and their yuppie clientele.

My advice - do the estate agent's old trick. Ditch the name, Clapham, replace it with "West Brixton".

Oh, and the last word on all this: the word is Death. We all die and need somewhere for our bodies or ashes to rest. SE London has two of London's "magnificent seven" Victorian cemeteries - Nunhead and West Norwood.  SW has none.

















Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Why won't 'pop-ups' lie down and die?

Every day, a new one, a word or phrase that has become hideous, repulsive, vomit-inducing, tedious, or just plain boring, its meaning now perverted or worn-away,  thanks to its over-use or abuse for nefarious profit-hungry motives,  or simply thanks to the objectionable way it is being used or abused:

Today's worn-out word or phrase that hit that spot: "pop-up"

Six or seven years ago, there was suddenly talk of pop-up shops. For example, a sale of street artists' work,  including Banksies, in an empty clothes shop on Oxford Street, or someone flogging pulled-pork sandwiches to hungry clubbers in Shoreditch or hand-crafted cup-cakes somewhere in Bethnal Green. Whether or not it started in East London, this was the zone that jumped on, over-supplied and over-flogged the pop-up concept.

So we had years of pop-up art galleries, pop-up theatre or cinema, and for a while it was fun.

Then, come 2009, it became stale, at exactly the point  all the advertising agencies and marketing geeks and brand-builders and media bullies realised that "pop-up" was where the money went. From being stale, pop-up quickly became rancid, it started to stink.

And now middle-aged couples in Lincolnshire are visiting pop-up coffee shops in half-empty shopping malls. BBC Radio 4  has Pop-up Ideas


Pop-up is dead, but it will not lie down.

It keeps popping up, more and more, and is now more annoyingly popping-up than any of the ghastly Punch and Judy pop-up puppets.

Please, if you are tempted to join this battalion (or shooting gallery, or fusillade?) of popping-up people, just reconsider, or think of a new and better way to describe what you are doing.

Like, temporary, or short term. Short-let, squatted, alternative, hippie, punk, slacker, occasional, one-off, etc.

Flash-in-the-fucking-pan, perhaps.

A surprise!

A Mushroom mushroom stall  - it just pops up occasionally. Shrooms all round for that.

Pop-down?

Pop-but-pop-very-softly so-as-not-to-wake-the-old-people-next-door?

Pop out to pull a nice young man with a a lovely co-star hair-do?

Pop, pops? Poppy? What, opium poppy? Is it all a drugs conspiracy?

We should be told! We must be the first to know! We will pop your bleeding weasel, mate! matey!


So  - is a pop-up an expired quantity?

Yay!

Or, Nay!

Or possibly - Neigh!

Answers on a post-it. Note.


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Walkie Talkie reflects on the harsh glare of publicity

A week ago I described the so-called Walkie Talkie block in Fenchurch Street, London, as one of the ugliest buildings in the country.

I emailed Radio London to that effect, in a drunken attempt to contribute to a discussion prompted by Building Design mag's round up of the worst  new buildings in the UK, aka the "Carbuncle Cup 2013".

I am a bit worried now that, according to the latest news, this building is not only ugly but actively malicious. Apparently it has been melting totally innocent Jaguars parked within range of its deadly sunlight-focusing concave reflective surface,  burning the paint off shop-fronts and frying eggs in the hands of fascinated pyro-maniac tourists.

That was not what I meant when I called it "a gargantuan lump which wrecks the view from almost every direction. Its shape is as moronic as its nickname."

I added: "That shape just makes me ill. It is a shape dictated by greed - more sq m of office space than the  ground level footprint. And it steals the light from a a much large area of the City than any other building.

"Best solution - demolish it now. More realistic solution - build more, bigger, better  skyscrapers around to to render it insignificant. "

Ironically, I revisited the  area earlier this week and have to admit I found the nearly completed building much less horrible at close quarters than it looks from a distance. I rather admired  Rafael Viñoly's subtle curves, and especially the tromp-l'oeil effect you get looking straight  up from the pavement of Fenchurch St - at a certain point it all seems straight, as the perspective cancels out the fattening of the soaring structure.

(And I am not just saying this because I am afraid it will turn its terror-beams in my direction).

I still think it is a blot on the City skyline - it is just so hulking, so smooth, so un-London. It might look fine on the Florida coastline, or in Doha, or perhaps even Portsmouth, where it could focus its glare on the Solent and boil up the sea. Maybe someone could then tap the solar energy and put it to good use?





Lease Lend Cottage revisited



It's a strange question. Which is worse - the destruction caused by high explosive bombs dropped from German planes in the London Blitz of 1940-41, or the new vandalism of profi-hungry property developers in the syrupy postcodes of SW4 and Sw8?

Yes, we are back with my current favourite hyper-local topic - the demolition  of the former Lease Lend Cottage that existed almost in secret in Clapham, South London, from 1947 through to 2012.

To recap, a strange and rather wonderful old house with a beautiful, crazy garden, built entirely out of materials from  bombsites in the late 1940s, has just been destroyed.

According to local legend, it was built by a family who had survived the blitz,  on a plot of bomb-ruptured land between the remains of 70-76 The Chase, part of Hannington Road, and the flats on the corner of Macaulay Road.

A large part of this plot had been returned to chaos by German bombs that blasted some big old houses off the map of SW4 one night in 1940 or 41 (see the interactive Bomb Sights map of strikes on London, October 1940 - June 1941, - although I remember seeing a simpler print version of that map, which also covered the V1 and V2 strikes in the later years of the Second World War,  in the Croydon Advertiser, way, way back in the mid-1960s. Anyone else?)

Anyway, Lease Lend Cottage has gone. In its place - and now nearly finished - are four new houses crammed in to that space - and it's now clear that whoever buys into these rather dull-looking properties will have to be fond of the shade.

For a start, as we've seen, the houses are only two storeys (that must be thanks to initial opposition to the original submission?) and will get so little direct sunlight, surely they must be a health hazard. They are steeply overlooked by flats and houses on three sides, so privacy will have to be a closely-curtained matter. The amount of spcae around them for gardens, children's play area, etc, is very limited.

As also reported earlier, the new houses are built over a deep basement excavation, forming a lower-ground floor for bedrooms etc.

Agent Pendleton's has put the houses on the market already, with prices starting at £1,750,000 for the three-bed houses and £1,999,950 for the five-bedroom "end of terrace".

Finally,  a few days ago a hoarding went up outside advertising "four prestigious homes" in "Wardell Mews". Well, it ain't a mews and heaven knows where the rather posh-sounding Wardell comes from.  Still, it's probably just as well they didn't try to cash in on the historic name, as I feel some rather bad-tempered ghosts might start rattling their chains.

Historic Lease Lend cottage was destroyed to make way for these four little houses, Hannington Road, London SW4







Monday, 2 September 2013

The deafening sound of collapsing buildings

We're not talking dearly loved Einstürzende Neubauten, we're talking complaints, that is one from London mayor Boris Johnson's sister Rachel that the ceiling of her Notting Hill pad  fell down after prolonged exposure to a Carnival sound system, two days after the carnival ended.

It doesn't surprise me, having felt each and every individual organ within my own fat stomach and rib-cage vibrate at precise moments of sonic resonance as one shimmied one's way past Studio One in Ledbury Road, or at one of forty-four other sound systems and floats.

Trouble is, I love it - and feel strongly that anyone who is lucky enough to live within that golden square mile or two has a cast-iron obligation to put up with the annual Carnival. Or shut up. Or get better insurance!

Of course some were louder than others; even the floats seemed louder to me this year and I am a deaf old mutt. There was one particular sound system that got my eyeballs vibrating - a most peculiar and not totally unpleasant sensation.

Is this sound system in Oxford Gardens London W10 enough to bring the house down?Plaster of Paris is generally quite stiff and it doesn't much like being vibrated, but in London there must be millions of tons of the stuff delicately hanging on for dear life to those flimsy Victorian laths as every new generation finds new ways of shaking the stuff free and down and down onto the always unsuspecting heads of the poor refugees, the clerks, the immigrants, the toffs and the wide-boys and the spivs and the sainted few, the rich bankers quaffing champagne and caviare beneath their gilded but dodgy ceilings, and even - oh shed your tears now, dearest readers, poor lovers, their bodies all that keep each other warm 'neath worn cotton sheets - and then....

From clomping horse-hooves to throbbing Zeppelins, rumbling Routemasters and clanking tube trains 5 metres beneath, the city has always seemed to conspire against its poorly-built living quarters.

Heavy Biblical lesson stuff was always a big feature of deep bass dub roots rock reggae, and they could surely have told us all  about the walls of Jericho and how not to build our brick and plaster houses on these quivering, shifting, blancmange-like lakes of mud we call Greater London.

Now I have to feel for poor Rachel - just a few square metres of ceiling collapse is a horrible thing, as I know in this jerry-built fire damaged servants' quarters of an abode in fucking Clapham. All that dust and soot, and how heavy plaster is!

But - no. She survived, her house has survived. Things were so much worse, esp in the 1940s. Chin up, dear! Brave face on it, innit? Stiff upper!

The deep and deadly draw of Dalston

Late August 2013, I give in to a hidden urge. At first unrecognised as such, and yet it was irresistible.

Take the tube to Bank, change onto Central Line to Bethnal Green, and start walking north up Cambridge Heath Road.

Rationally, I told myself, I was going to see if my could find my friend George's studio. I had an address, but I suspected he'd packed up and gone. I didn't want to annoy him so I thought I'd just check out for signs of life.

Cambridge Heath Road seemed remarkably unchanged at that point, apart from the tarted-up Museum Of Childhood.

There's the place selling retread tyres straight out on to the pavement, there the all-day drinkers wandering around, not-so-old battered men in big overcoats on a hot day, dragging huge suitcases of pre-wheelie vintage. For a few blocks, it all seems more 1978 than 2013.

In earlier childhood, trips up East had been extended train, tube and bus affairs, all the way to Wanstead  to visit  godparents, or later to that strange shop in Leytonstone to buy ex-government laboratory equipment and - unthinkable now - chemicals for home-made fireworks. Beck & Sons, anyone?

A few years later, as an Oz-reading mini-anarchist,  freshly expelled from grammar school, I went with friends (or compadres) to a CND concert in Victoria park -  this was Easter 1970? All I remember are (a) the sneering and snarling skinheads and (b) Allen Ginsberg, that great mass of black hair and heard and black-rimmed glasses, chanting verses about America and its atom bomb.

Then in  April '78, a revelation of sorts.  It was the era of National Front rallies in Brick Lane, the murder of Altab Ali, the rise of the anti-Nazi League and Rock against Racism and their first big free festival in Victoria Park, Bethnal Green, that Easter.

To an already defeated 24-year-old living back with his dad in staunchly lower-middle-class south Croydon,  the East End was another country. It was  sort-of fascinating but also deeply terrifying for this pusilanimous and by now ridiculously outdated long-hair with his Oz and IT-fed ideals and his wretched addiciton to the easy life. But I had a 35mm camera and I had been to see Cartier Bresson exhibits and I needed material.

More to the point I badly needed re-educating in my musical taste: a bit late to the punk-meets-root-reggae party, but what an introduction.

After those brief excursions, I didn't really go back to the East in any big way until 1980, when I moved - quite reluctantly, I remember - to an undecorated flat in St Philips Road, E8. I had no firm idea of where Dalston was when I got the amazingly generous offer from a friend of a friend. I could stay in his half-finished 2-bed flat - the top half of a typical Victorian house he'd bought with a friend for about £12,000 about five years previously - for a notional payment of £25 a month. He would have lived there but was having to look after his ageing mum at her home in Hampstead.

"Reluctantly" to Dalston? Really, you were a foolish little snob, you had lived a year in Chelsea, and E8 in 1979 was not E8 today. But you had no choice, you'd been living cheap in a lovely flat in Beaufort Street, thanks to to kindness of a friend who became a sort of lifetime best-freind/saint, or protecting angel - and you'd been kicked out, literally,  for reasons too shameful to explain for the moment.
19 St Philips Road, Dalston, London
 E8.  £12k in the late 70s, 40 years
 and a lick of paint later it's worth
 around £1m

New kitchen and bathroom units had been installed a few years previously but never quite finished; the walls were bare plaster, the floors bare boards, the main living room on the first  floor was stuffed with all the furniture from all the other rooms which were, unsurprisingly, empty. I had companions in the form of mice who liked to nibble uncooked pasta, and the occasional burglar (they took my old Akai 1720 tape recorder, my only source of music, but none of the tapes).

The ground floor flat was a total contrast, and had been turned into a beautiful, minimalist but very comfortable flat for C, who worked as a film editor for the BBC and other, and his adorable cat. My landlord had also been a film editor, but now worked at the London Film School in Covent Garden. About once a quarter, at his request, I would take rent in a bulging brown envelope to his office in Shelton St,  hand over the cash with comic gestures of subterfuge or illicit dealing, and wander out past  all the beautiful young film students.

I never really appreciated my good luck. Working near Waterloo, an easy cycle ride each day, shopping for lovely cheap fruit and veg in Ridley Road market, going to the Rio for Wim Wenders films - what a life, you might think?

Well, at the time the allure of E8 and further East simply did not figure to my very conventional imagination. I still yearned for the already dead "alternative" bohemia of Portobello Road; I wanted to be a character in a Jerry Cornelius novel.

 I write now having put in the hours reading nearly all of Iain Sinclair's work. While I was sneaking off back west to look enviously at small flats in Notting Hill, Sinclair and his friends were laying the foundations for the revival of the East End in general . As we can see now (and as Sinclair himself suggests in Hackney, that Rose Red empire) these pioneers were grinding the spices for a lovely cultural stew. And provided the essential nourishments for the real beneficiaries of their self-mythologising, the property brokers and estate agents.

I don't remember Sinclair although he was living about three blocks away. I was aware of others of the early '70s "first wave" of gentrification, clever people who'd bought houses in the De Beauvoir Town area, and then crossed the Kingsland Road into Dalston - but an area that could still be described as "East Islington"by estate agents.  A vague  memory - true or false? - of one of the Freud granddaughters running a gorgeous bohemian household, in the next road west, maybe Parkholme, my landlords invited to their parties.

London Fields was a gentle stroll away and then there was the art-squatter street, Beck Road, which I  looked and yearned for that sort of communal, useful, agit-prop life, but it was only years later I  was made aware of the work of Genesis P and co.

So I could re-write history and say I loved Dalston and immersed myself in its community but it ain't true. Now, of course, I wish I'd stayed there. I wish of course that I'd offered to buy the flat.

Strolling though London Fields, late August 2013, you can almost smell the creativity in the air. Or is that the smell of money? An acoustic band with a beautiful girl singer are performing under a tree and being filmed by someone with a Super 8 camera. I eventually find St Phillips Road and see that no 19 has been re-pained, done up, but nothing outrageous - the area retains the shabby feel, in fact it is probably written into leases that it be retained.

Or maybe not. Can't help noting that the average price of terraces in this street is now around the £1million mark. I hope C and M  sold up at the right time.

Others are now realising that Dalston is no longer a place, a bit of Hackney or East Islington, it is truly a state of mind. What is Dalston? is a damn good question and one that this rather interesting researcher asked and tried to answer.

Ridley Road seems little changed by the new hip Dalston effect, thank God, but for how long?  Dalston Lane is on the verge of change, the horrible Kingsland shopping precinct is still just as horrible but that will change too. Dalston's already far too expensive for most, and the smart money has moved on to Hackney Wick or - even smarter - to Peckham, now just a few stops south on the London Overground.

As for you, stuck in 'effin SW: Idiot!