New Internationalist

London dead alive

London is a migrant city - it attracts and repels with equal force. Unlike the would-be busker seeking donations for his stringless guitar on the streets of, say, Oxford, the same figure seldom reappears in the same place on the streets of London. For the most part paved with grime, the best they usually have to offer is a strident form of anonymity.

So I was sceptical when my companion suggested to me, as we approached a Turkish restaurant in forever-downmarket-but-up-and-coming Dalston, East London, that we might find the celebrated - or notorious - artists Gilbert and George eating there. Every night, she said, at 8.00pm sharp, they took the same table in the same restaurant. She hadn't been there for a year or so, and the likelihood seemed remote; but, sure enough, there they were.

For the better part of 20 years I lived around here, beset by the fight-or-flight instincts beloved of behavioural consultants. You couldn't fight all the time, but flight would mean stalling indefinitely somewhere along the escape routes out of the city. Lying in bed at night I would sometimes imagine millions doing likewise, in serried ranks, in all directions, for miles. Cast by chicken pox into isolation in the decrepit (now demolished) Homerton Hospital, hearing the screams of a Portuguese girl presented with food that tasted only of old floor cloths, it occurred to me that I might have landed in hell.

Eventually work took me back to Oxford for the third time, and for the next 20 years I was a mere visitor to London, rarely staying for more than a day, wondering how anyone could possibly live there still - yet missing it.

Now I have retired and it is harder to avoid the sorts of things made impossible by formal work - like 'blacking' the hull of my daughter's boat, moored on the River Lea. This is a foul undertaking that involves lying beneath the precariously suspended boat, as if in a coffin - here lined with the excrement of an aggressive family of swans - while blinded by a torrent of rust, dried weeds and bitumen.

I planned to spend a couple weeks flat-sitting for a friend close by, no more than a stone's throw from the reputed Murder Mile of Clapton, where chickens are grilled behind shop fronts, furtive exchanges occupy the pavement, police sirens the roadway. Travelling in one direction past a mosque, one is promptly surrounded by the Volvos of the orthodox Jewish community of Stamford Hill; in the other, by the blue boards that enclose the low growl of the Olympic Park, regenerating a mile or so downstream. Though the River Lea, with its reservoirs and bird sanctuaries on one bank, Springfield Park on the other, can give an impression of inner-city Cotswolds, to fall in the water is to ensure a near-death encounter with the urine of rats.

Quite how was it, then, that I could idle so peacefully in sunlight on the river's towpath, baffled by an intricate show staged for no-one in particular by three very small children? Where did he spring from, the Peruvian at B&Q (Britain's DIY superstore) swathed in radiant indigenous garments and tights, silver rings hanging from his fingers, a plant sprouting from the top of his head? When will Joe catch those bicycle thieves by sitting up all night with mail-order night-vision goggles and integrated hearing aid?

In a riverside pub, near a man 'making elderberry wine', I talked vegetables, accidents, land rights and the fear of other people with old friends. I recalled why it was that I had loved this city, this part of the city - and, now, still do.  

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