Archive for April, 2012

To be sat in a pub off Tavistock Square that called itself “The London Pub” serving a beer of which I had neither heard nor tasted, something which I might now regard to have been a time of joyous innocence, suffice to say it was not especially palatable.  Perhaps it was not the beer’s fault, perhaps the pipes hadn’t been cleaned in years, perhaps in this sort of establishment I had been in fact the only ale drinker in years.  This was not a pub, it was more like a themed bar, the sort you might find in an airport in the far flung reaches of the old empire trying to market itself as the last bastion of Britishness in a sea of indigenous heathenism.  A metaphorical rock of Gibraltar where things were preserved in aspic so as not to dilute them with native culture.  Someone not from these collection of islands might assume this is only the same as the countless “Irish pubs” all over the world, staffed very often by people whose notion of Ireland is of the faeries and men in Enid Blyton green hats with black bands who grow up knowing how to make shoes and drink large quantities of beer.  In a way I suspect the inside is designed to be a similar sort of thing, it just doesn’t work as somewhere warm and friendly, more cold and functional.  Is it that a British-themed pub has less charm, or cannot achieve the level of homely tweeness that its Western neighbours achieve effortlessly?  That isn’t really for me to answer, Irish pubs for me often represent a place I can get a pint of ale in an otherwise lager-infused location, it also has a familiar sense of the images I grew up with being told of “the auld country” by my grandparents.  The English pub is one I am maybe even more familiar with but less of a uniform concept and more of specific people and places associated with ones in which I have been a regular or drunk occasionally, and some in which I have been regularly or occasionally drunk.  An English theme pub homogenises that concept and I can only look upon it with disdain.

I think in this case of the ‘London Pub’ it’s just as much to do with its location, would you expect to find an Irish-themed pub in Dublin?  It seemed strange, alien, embodying a sense of this being a London I didn’t know and the people in it being the sort I would not normally expect to mix with, rather those I might merely regard from a distance, be it forced or voluntary.  This was not even the seedy East of St Pancras area that I now had good reason to be wary of now, even that wariness comes with a familiarity of what the area represents, a frisson almost a lure towards looking behind the curtain to see the stains.  The knowledge of something whether good or bad still demystifies to an extent.  But  this wasn’t the London I knew, where before I might have been frequently in the area (albeit in an era in which this crass approximation of a pub would not have existed) it would have been daytime, and me less than 12 years old and accompanied by a responsible adult.  I would also have been a native then, indeed I was bought a badge more than 30 years go that said “I’m not a tourist I live here” which I saw as funny rather than what might for some have been a fledging journey into racism!

The world looks so different when all the expectations of an outing are that it will be enjoyable something one may have been looking forward to for some time, or been surprised by first thing in the morning.  Because of the nature of the things I had been here for in the past it was an area where good things happened,  I did not use the darker area of Kings X for the things with which it has become synonymous nor knew of them.  During and in fact ever since then I have had no cause to be around late at night here for any reason.  Looking back the times of day, times of life, and times of things around seemed, and in some cases were, so different.  Now as I search it is not for someone with whom to spend the night for money.  Or is it but with more random chaotic seemingly benign means, ones that are less the sure thing and more the 100-1 outside shot, the pick-up in a bar kind where money merely facilitates the talking in the hope the clothes may fall off without further cost later.

I could not have known the nature of the district in the early hours searching for a decent pint of beer and something to distract a person not yet ready for sleep.  (I use the term decent advisedly in the knowledge that there was at this time of night unlikely to be anything that would taste even remotely drinkable this side of a bottle. I don’t see this as having been that different years ago it’s just that then you probably wouldn’t have even bothered to expect there to be any chance of quenching or any other kind of sustenance other than the sweaty and pocket-emptying kind.

In this place it feels that this is the London of those who may be glad to be here, many who may not have to do so for long, shielded from the darkness of living here from day to day.  Passing their time without knowledge of the squalid and exorbitant accommodation, the lack of prospects, the deadness inside of the inhabitants.  Those forced to view all the city has to offer from afar never able to experience it for the lack of the money required to do so, money which they have spent in subsidising these self same attractions in the first place.  I can smell the thick languid cigarette smoke, that of a group of people unsullied by the financial trappings of needing to put food on the table, for nowadays it is scarcely possible to afford both.  I have done the same in my past, cities I have stayed in and enjoyed for their beauty looking at that which lies on the surface not regarding how that experience may differ from that of the permanent resident.  There are also a small number in which I have stayed in and subsequently returned to hoping that what had occurred on holiday might repeat when permanently based there.  It is yet to do so in my experience.

It put my prior musings on this area into perspective, just as visiting the homeless shelter close by had done some years ago.  I may have the option of a train elsewhere but I know the real side of things here, the side even many of the long-term inhabitants neither see nor really want to.  In my own life I had once an occasion to see just how fragile the safety net between what seems from the outside to be comfortable and safe respectability to what seems the lowest of the low and how this is viewed to be something entirely of ones own making.  When you rent your home you are never as far from destitution as you might like to think.  Once you open that box there is no unlearning of its contents.  Since that point every day has seemed always one step away from the destitute to preserve the comfortable. It is not the maintaining a pretence or the image to other people, it is staving off that falling through the net, the becoming part of the anonymous statistic that allows the invisibility society hopes will shield them from having to face the problem and glimpse under the carpet. When you are aware the demon is so close to our face it is impossible not to stare it in the eye and to feel the fear from its gaze, you may attempt to bury your head in the sand if you deny it is there in the first place but once you know you do not forget. You can then choose to ignore the consequences, pretend they couldn’t happen to you, with your good job, middle class education and nice shiny things.  You cannot eat your education nor live in your things and your job is as dependent on the patronage of others as your home may be.  Ostensibly it is mere chance whether it is you who end up there or someone else.  If you think ‘there but for the grace of God’ then you are merely adding a third party’s patronage that you now have to rely on too.

Why did I come here? To attempt to drink?  To attempt to score? With an altogether different motive?  The first seems unlikely, for though I know London to be a world city I would be surprised if, save for the suburbs and their real pubs where you are known well enough to be safely locked in after hours, you would find a good pint of ale.  The second question seems even more unlikely than the beer, I was never good riding shotgun or solo in such endeavours and age, girth and thinning mane has not given me new found confidence that things might be just about to change.  As for other motives I cant even think of any of them at the moment.  So is this simply the boredom of the certain aged man who is young enough to remember the old days but no longer young enough to have time or lack of responsibility to enjoy them as he might have done?  Am I now the lone man who stands out, on the sidelines looking in, the one that those on the inside think they will never become.  ‘Jealous of youth’s first yearning for lust as one of the finest lyricists once put it.

This is surely the action of just Mr A N Other person lost in the foreign city looking for something or someone to cling to on a dark night with no other consequence in sight for the next 8 hours. And this is indeed now just another foreign city, not merely because it has changed, I have not been around enough to properly assess that, and therein lies the crux of it, I have changed away from it whilst it has changed without me.  I am no longer at home as me here, I belong to it no more than it now does to me.  If you do not belong to the place in which you were born you are destined to walk many streets, be that a freedom or a condemnation, there are things a foreigner sees that a native does not, you see the invisible people because you are no longer accustomed to them being there, you walk streets where there could be anything around the next corner, except a pub.  But there are things only a native can see such as the way home and the smallest section of themselves encased within the vast sea of brick and concrete and there are things only a native can do such as accept and be truly accepted by that same sea.

Song Of The Day ~ The Korgis – Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime

Much of my life has been intertwined with St Pancras and its surrounds, although it might not really seem to have at first glance, being myself anchored for most of my childhood years in West London.  It was only something I was contemplating whilst sat across the road from the station in the Euston Flyer enjoying a pint.  St Pancras is a vast cathedral like structure, red and white brick and a clock tower, it is gothic and Victorian splendour, an edifice built when times were good and railways made statements about themselves and in London all met and vied for attention like preening Gods.  It’s worth googling for images for those not familiar with it. It isn’t just the external fascia of the station but the cast iron and glass canopy that stretches across the platform evokes a bygone era where it was service and comfort that held sway over cost-cutting and ambivalence.

Superlatives of the station have been said before and doubtless will continue to be but where some of London’s termini have an element of nostalgia because of their association with heritage or purely their association with personal times in my life St Pancras is I think the only one that I love for itself and still stand for a few moments when my train arrives just to take it in. The station itself was in fact the last London terminus that I had caught a train from (not until my 30s) though I’ll grant you that is not an especially sparkling item of intelligence.

Some years ago St Pancras had fallen into some disrepair, nationalisation followed by re-privatisation had robbed any thoughts of the financial in the first instance and the aesthetic in the second.  Indeed in the late 1960s it was apparently 10 days from demolition until John Betjeman led a campaign to save it.  It is strange for me to hear just how hated it once was when soulless brutalist monstrosities were thriving and in many places continue to.  Most of the main railway stations in London are but shadows of what they once commanded, eclipsed by buildings that are higher and more eye-catching (frequently for the wrong reasons) and then with added modern bits built purely for their functionality paying no heed to the original architecture or its possible significance.  In this regard the rebuild of the glass canopy at St Pancras is an absolute masterpiece, intricately planned to fulfil both function and beauty, you really do just have to be there.  There is no doubt in my mind that the great Betjeman would have sat and enjoyed it as he had the original.

Since I did not use the station until my 30s it was the area around it that had more influence on me.  Here was the place where aged 4 and in the flat of my Mother’s then boyfriend, whilst they practised music, I got bored watching the trains go in and out of St. Pancras station and decided to walk home to Chelsea (as the crow flies around 4.5 miles).  I knew the number 45 bus went past the station and also over Battersea Bridge which was near home, at that age the route and salubrity of the passing districts was of no consequence to me, I had no concept of it. Walking what I perceived to be long distances at the time did not phase me either, I did it frequently, usually when I was bored.  (I had awoken my best friend’s mother one morning at 6am having walked the mile from my house because I had woken up and wanted to play).  My excursion through the notorious King’s Cross and district  in pursuit of the 45 was stopped by a pair of traffic wardens on the Grays Inn Road, much to my annoyance. They took me back to their base and bribed me with a packet of Refreshers. At which point I divulged our home telephone number and they rang my mother who had been in a state of high panic having been informed by her distraught boyfriend of my absence. These were the days without mobile phones so the search party was not able to be called off until some time later when a by then  catatonic boyfriend rang to tell my mother that there had been no luck locating me. This was one of those times of more relief than anger and I escaped unscathed. I found out later when a parent myself why this was.

Euston the next London Terminus 500 yards down the road too has been linked to these early years, trains to Liverpool to visit family when I was young before my stepmother could drive coupled with frequent visits to the still favourite family restaurant since its opening 30 years ago.  Such a post would not be complete with a plug for the Great Nepalese Restaurant, Eversholt st, a jewel in an otherwise very grubby crown of an area!  Almost right next door to St Pancras is Kings Cross station where throughout the late 70s and early 80s we caught trains to St Neots to visit the two closest people I had to sisters, the younger of the girls being the goddaughter to my mother the older born 2 weeks before me someone I had known literally all of my life.

During these years there were regular trips to the Scala cinema, regarded now as something of a cult place when in its heyday, it had begun its life just up from Goodge Street in 1979 and moved to Kings Cross 2 years later. Looking back on it the Scala must have been a surreal experience for most children, they showed a lot of lesser seen films and childrens comic-like films. I no longer recall what I watched there but I remember the programs that promised eclectic all-night festivals back-to-back film marathons and the colours everywhere. The cinema was always quite dark and almost seedy feeling but not in an unpleasant way, more exciting. Had it been in Soho I imagine it would have seemed a fitting venue for a downmarket strip joint but here it wasn’t and I was unaware of the nature of the red light district of King’s Cross just up the road.  I had been brought up on the Kings Road, so eclectic was practically something I had been born into, the Scala didn’t seem weird to me at all. I wish now I had kept the programs of the Scala in its pomp they would have made for quite fascinating reading and shown alternative London in its true form when the term alternative meant specifically not the mainstream rather than marginally leftfield versions of the norm as it is so often now.  I lament the loss of the Scala, its present incarnation is not one I have visited for I know it cannot live up to any expectations and though hazy I would like the feeling of my memories of the place to remain intact.

The Maiden Lane estate just off York Way, up from Kings Cross was where some friends of my mothers lived whom we visited often. Their flat always interested me as these modern block were squat and stacked together, they had minimal windows on one side and big expansive ones in the sitting room through which you could look out on the whole area. 2000ad was in its early days and these were the flats and estates I imagined that Mega City One would be like. Back then such housing estates seemed innovative, and perhaps in fact were, there was for me no knowledge of crime, now I look at the estate and it is precisely the sort of place I would give a very wide berth. Camden Town has associations with Dingwalls market (now known as Camden Lock) and alternative music, the area that the real bohemians went after being priced out of the Kings Road, as they had been in the 60s from Carnaby St. (Where they have all gone now I couldn’t say, there is barely a part of London affordable these days)

I have been a participant of almost the entire life of a political party here, its fledgling conception in the Euston Friends meeting house, its founding convention in Camden Town Hall, its first congress, its finished constitution and its final capitulation into left-wing sectarianism. It was the dawn of hope and the dusk of despair and it sent me back to being an exiled activist.  That set of events almost summed up the periods of time I had been here, as the exuberant youth boundless with enthusiasm, attacking with vigour, passion and no fear.  As the adolescent with much of the verve but with more serious things on his mind, things that needed more thought and examination to fulfil dreams that remain lofty and ambitious.  Then as the middle-aged man, shaped by so much of no consequence and in realising it and the time which has been spent on it turns inward upon himself looking for something to blame having failed to find someone.  Now perhaps it is time for my brickwork to be cleaned, to be returned to the youth I was buoyed by the enjoyment of the fact that whilst so much has changed the majestic station remains as it has been, a beacon, for so many years.

Song Of The Day ~ The Strokes – Is This It