March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
As with Frans Pannekoek, I’ve been meaning to write about Erik Desmazières for some time. In a way they make a neat pair, and not only because their preferred medium is etching. It’s more of a pairing of opposites: where Pannekoek’s work draws much of its magic from flaws and happy accidents, Desmazières’s is all iron precision and control. There are no mistakes or chance occurrences in his world.
I can’t recall exactly when I first encountered his work, but I do know it was in an auction catalogue, and I remember my surprise at finding in the ‘contemporary prints’ section prints that were so wilfully, defiantly old-fashioned. I don’t just mean because they’re figurative. There’s an obvious pride in craft and skill honed over decades that harkens back to another age. There’s also Desmazières’s markedly backward-looking (and I don’t mean that as an insult in this context) choice of subject matter. His early work is dominated by fantastical, often nightmarish landscapes and cityscapes that earn frequent comparisons with the work of Escher and Piranesi, but to my mind his most interesting prints are inspired by the cabinets of curiosities – the ancestors of the modern museum – that first emerged in the sixteenth century.
The objects in these printed Wunderkammers seem to have been petrified or transformed into sculptures (a reverse Pygmalion effect?) by the passage of time, or by Desmazières’s etching needle. But the longer I’ve looked at these strange images, the more paradoxically alive the objects appear.
Comparing Desmazières to Piranesi and Escher is straightforward, but there’s another, far more obscure artist with whom his work seems to have affinities – the Belgian Symbolist Xavier Mellery. Mellery wrote passionately about l’âme des choses (the souls of things) and his eerie, foreboding drawings of ordinary interiors (including his own house) give form to his words.
Whether artfully arranged in a cabinet of curiosity or scattered haphazardly in the interior of an antique shop or a printer’s atelier, I think it’s fair to say that the objects in Desmazières’s world have souls, too.
March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
We all have lists of things we’d like to do once in a lifetime, and one of the more unusual items on mine is being an extra in a period film. Why? Well, I have a serious weakness for period films (and, let’s be honest, period costume), and as I haven’t a shred of acting ability (oh… wait, that hasn’t stopped a lot of people) it is the only way I’m ever likely to be part of the making of one.
So when, last week, I stumbled across a call for extras for a banquet scene to be filmed in Ely Cathedral for the upcoming version of Macbeth, I was pinching myself with delighted disbelief. Here was a film that ticked every conceivable box on my wish list.
Set in one of the most awe-inspiring Gothic edifices on this fair isle? Check.
Shakespeare (and one of my favourite plays at that)? Check.
Medieval setting (important for practical as well as aesthetic reasons – no corsetry or towering wigs)? Check.
…oh yes, and the small matter of Macbeth being played by none other than Michael Fassbender? Check!
(In fairness I should also note that Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth, but… sorry Marion, you do happen to be one of my absolute favourite actresses, but I don’t have a massive crush on you.)
So without further ado, I clicked the link to the casting company’s website and that’s where things started to go downhill, fast. They wanted Caucasian men and women between the ages of 16-80 (okay, so far so good), and then I came to the fatal words: ‘Women should have very long hair as it will be worn in plaits.’
My hair, no matter how you look at it, could never be considered ‘very long’. In its natural state (curly) it’s shoulder-length. Straighten it and it falls to the middle of my back. I occasionally wear it in a single plait that only just makes it round my head. In short, about as far as imaginable from those dramatic knee-length tresses Ellen Terry sports in Sargent’s portrait of her as Lady Macbeth.
I weighed up my options. A wig? (Expensive, hideous and after all, the casting agents were asking for a headshot with the application, so unlikely to fool them.) Pouring Miracle-Grow on my head and waiting ten seconds for luxuriant Rapunzel-like growth? (Only works in cartoons.) Sitting in a corner and railing at the injustice of the casting requirements, as men are merely required to have full beards, which even a clean-shaven one can generally achieve in a few weeks? (Pointless.) Or…
What about extensions? They worked for David Tennant, after all (albeit not very flatteringly) so why not me?
I checked the website of my hairdresser’s salon. They didn’t do them. Nor did the posh salon round the corner from work, nor any of the more upmarket chains. Even Charles Worthington, which proudly proclaimed its status as the official salon of the BAFTAs, didn’t do them. Clearly it was a job for a specialist.
One Google search later I landed on Hair Extensions by Tatiana. This was when I began to realise that the world of hair extensions is a very alarming place indeed. Apparently the most desirable type of extension is ‘Russian Virgin’. Tatiana boasted of ‘personally sourcing’ the hair from a number of villages in deepest rural Russia. I had visions of a place on the steppes where the world of The Rite of Spring still exists, where every year the village elders sacrifice a chosen maiden by making her dance herself to death and then… sell her hair to the mysterious Tatiana.
Do I really want that on my head? I think you can guess the answer to that.
Even putting my overactive imagination aside (the other, cheaper, option was ‘European Virgin’, which, sans the Rite of Spring associations, somehow sounded slightly less gruesome), there was also the matter of the cost. All right, it’s an incredibly laborious and finicky undertaking – you are, after all, asking someone to glue a strand of hair to each of yours, one at a time – but the least expensive option for a full head of extensions was nearly £700.
I found myself imagining the conversation I would have with my landlord.
Me: I’m very sorry sir, but I can’t pay my rent this month. I had to put the money toward getting hair extensions so that I could be an extra in Macbeth.
Him: ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.* Don’t worry about the money. Your devotion to our national poet is far more important.
Him: Out, damned tenant! Out, I say! (Aside) Now I can finally raise the rent…
…Right, back to the drawing board. How about DIY hair extensions? I could ring up my hairdresser, ask him to save all his cuttings, and then attempt to stick them on myself. That sounds like a fine plan. I might end up looking like something the cat dragged in, but given that most people in the UK associate the Middle Ages with plague, rain, mud and potatoes** I should look period-appropriate.
This hurdle cleared, the only other caveat is that, as shooting starts at 6 am, you should either live in Ely or have your own transport. I don’t live in Ely, I don’t have a car (more to the point, I belong to that bizarre and extremely rare subspecies, the American who doesn’t know how to drive) and the first train from London to Ely would get me there too late.
I suppose I could… I don’t know, get there the night before and sleep in the cathedral? That would be fine as long as the caretaker or a member of the film crew didn’t stumble across me, curled up in a corner under my coat, with my homemade hair extensions, looking, no doubt, even madder than Lady Macbeth. (Or maybe I’d be mistaken for one of the witches.)
At this point I have to admit that I’m insane to be considering doing any of the above, especially given that 1. I’m not even guaranteed to be selected and 2. even then, chances are that the shots I’d be in wouldn’t make the final cut.
My career as a film extra is over before it even began. And I’m okay with that. I’m sure I’ll feel a little wistful when I eventually watch Macbeth, but as its protagonist learns (the very hard way), sometimes what you want isn’t worth the sacrifice it requires.
I’ll still keep an eye out for period films in need of extras, though… ones that take place after 1800!
*Yes, I know that’s Hamlet!
**The results of a survey conducted by the V&A during the planning stages of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Let’s not dwell too long on the fact that potatoes were unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages…
February 18, 2014 § 3 Comments
Three years ago I was in Paris for the Salon du Dessin, and as many of the museums and exhibition venues cleverly time shows of drawings and prints to coincide with the Salon, I went off in search of as many as I could find. My route took me to the Fondation Custodia, in whose basement galleries was an exhibition of etchings by a Dutch artist I’d never come across before: Frans Pannekoek.
My initial amusement at his surname (pannekoek is, as you’ll probably have guessed, Dutch for pancake) was soon replaced by a sense of quiet enchantment. He works on a small scale, with a fine, nervous line and a tremendous sensitivity both to the power of the reserve (the areas of paper left bare of ink) and to finely modulated blacks. There’s a sense of desolation, of the uncanny or the macabre rooted both his subject matter and his treatment of it – desolate landscapes dwarfed by skies that, even on such a diminutive scale, feel infinite; abandoned ships and gliders aloft over unpopulated hills; dead birds and live insects. (I’ll spare you images of the latter in case you’re sensitive, but if you’re not, they’re worth seeking out.)
Pannekoek has been working quietly but, it seems, prolifically since the 1960s. He’s mostly self-taught. He seems to have schooled himself by looking intensely at the work of his predecessors. His most obvious influence seems to be Rembrandt (indeed the exhibition I saw in Paris originated at the Rembrandthuis) but the longer I looked, the more I saw traces of more recent etchers – Whistler, Bresdin, Redon, Bracquemond.
I’ve been intending to write about Frans Pannekoek’s prints ever since I started this blog. (It looks like the old saw about the road to hell and good intentions is true in this case. Although I’ve always maintained that the road to hell is paved not with good intentions but by the same guys who pave all the roads in Chicago…) But in some ways I’m glad I waited this long – for one, because it meant that I had a chance to try my own hand at etching. And now, looking at Pannekoek’s etchings with the benefit of practical experience, what strikes me is how cleverly he turns imperfections and accidents in his plates, the etching process, even the inking and printing to his advantage.
The scratches in a too-zealously cleaned plate become swirling storm clouds.
Foul biting (areas where the acid has eaten into the plate through cracks in the ground) becomes rain, hail, a distant flock of birds.
Even the jagged edges of a damaged plate can become a startling echo to the ruined buildings they enclose.
I know now from personal experience that such mistakes can either ruin a print or be the happy accident that makes it unique and oddly perfect. Pannekoek has a marvellous way of finding virtue in imperfection.
February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments
I’ve begun working on my next exhibition, and although most of the objects going into it I know quite well, one is a new discovery (well, to me at least): a book that, more than three centuries before Mallarmé or choose-your-own-adventure, could exist in endless different configurations depending on the whim of the owner.
Antoine Lafréry was one of the leading print publishers in Renaissance Rome, a Frenchman from Besançon whose bread and butter was engravings of the monuments and antiquities of his adopted city. His shop became an essential stop for travellers and collectors who wanted a memento of their visit to pore over years later. (He would probably turn in his grave if he knew that the descendants of his prints are the postcards and souvenir guides with their gaudy, badly registered colours for sale on every corner in the Centro Storico.)
In 1573 Lafréry published a title page for a work called the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Mirror of Rome’s Magnificence). The twist was that it wasn’t for a book in the conventional sense – a set of pages bound in one set order. No, Lafréry’s customers could come to his shop, make their selection from his huge stock of prints, and have them bound in whatever order they desired, with the title page at the front. There are Specula surviving in libraries, museums and private collections the world over, but no two are the same.
Is each Speculum as much a mirror of its owner’s tastes and interests as it is a mirror of Rome? Hard to say, as many of those that survive have been altered over the centuries – prints removed or added, sometimes two or more bound together as a single book. Sometimes the prints added have nothing to do with Lafréry or the original Speculum, apart from their Roman subjects. The largest one known today, at the University of Chicago, contains nearly a thousand prints. (The one I’m working with has a more modest 153.)
Even so, it’s possible to come away with a sense – however muddled or fractured – of the person who originally compiled each Speculum. The first owner of mine, for example, seems to have been primarily interested in architecture, and he (I think we can fairly safely assume it was a man) liked to look at it reconstructed, pristine – apart from one plate showing the Colosseum as a weed-sprouting ruin, there are few of the images of dereliction that other collectors prized. (I can’t help being slightly disappointed that mine doesn’t include the garden full of crumbling sculptures that features in others.) There are others where sculpture dominates, or where present-day Rome (St Peter’s, the Castel Sant’ Angelo) has a greater presence.
Hundreds of these must have existed once, records of their owners’ journeys – whether physical or psychological – through Rome. (Was Lafréry an accidental psychogeographer, hundreds of years before the term was coined?) Today’s guidebooks are neater, cheaper, smaller and easier to carry, but, gingerly turning the enormous pages of my Speculum, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something…
February 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
(The original post is here.)
Of the three places I lived as a student, my tenure in Highbury was by far the longest – nearly four years. I suppose it’s inevitable, then, that my feelings about it are the most mixed.
I’ve already written here about my dislike of Highbury and Islington, so I won’t belabour the point now, but suffice it to say I went in with a sunnier attitude, despite the fact that my ending up there was in large part a matter of chance.
I ended up in Highbury because I wanted to move back to Stoke Newington. If that sounds odd, let me explain: I moved out of Stoke Newington at the start of the second year of my PhD and spent three lonely, cold but extremely productive months of research in Paris. Before I left, a friend and I had talked about getting a place together when I returned. I was very keen that that place should be in Stoke Newington. She was… less keen. (The main bone of contention was the lack of Tube. I could sing the praises of the bus and train until I was blue in the face, but it didn’t do a lot of good.) Finally, less than two weeks before I was due to return to London, I had an email from her: ‘Sorry, I’ve decided to move in with my boyfriend. Best of luck with the flat-hunting.’ I felt shocked (particularly as said boyfriend had only been in the picture a couple of months), upset and not a little betrayed, but there was nothing for it but to start searching on my own.
If I couldn’t share a flat with a friend, I decided the next-best thing would to put the drama and chaos of living in an overcrowded student house behind me. (My return to London meant, among other things, that I would have to start writing my thesis, and I couldn’t imagine doing so in the not-always-congenial company of seven other people.) So I started combing through online ads for flatshares in north London. There was nothing in my price range available in Stoke Newington, so I cast my net a little further west.
I somehow booked myself four different viewings in the space of an afternoon. The last was for a room in a three-bedroom maisonette just up the street from Arsenal station. The other two tenants were P, an Irishman who was doing IT consulting for the BBC, and S, a Londoner and science journalist. They were charming, welcoming and desperate to find a new flatmate; I was thrilled to find a good-sized room in a nice area with what I thought were a couple of sane, mature, interesting flatmates. A week later I was sweating and cursing under my breath in the middle of the room as I attempted to conjure my first ever flat-packs from Ikea into something resembling a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.
The fact that the room had come unfurnished was definitely one of the pluses of that flat – it meant that this was the first time since I left university that I had furniture to call my own, and even if it was just bottom-of-the-range Ikea stuff it was amazing how much more settled it made me feel. The location was another plus. I was literally a thirty-second walk (I timed it) to Arsenal station, and an only slightly longer walk to Highbury Fields. (Islington has the smallest amount of green space of any London borough, and the proximity to one of the borough’s only decent-sized parks had a lot to do with me being able to maintain my sanity during the most stressful periods of writing up.)
Several months in, though, things began to pall. I began to feel increasingly disenchanted with my flatmates. P, whom I’d initially thought was interesting and a great conversationalist, turned out merely to love the sound of his own voice. He could also be alarmingly moody and was, for reasons that eluded me, always rude to my friends whenever I invited them round (to the point that I stopped having anyone over, apart from my boyfriend whom P never spoke a word to but always stared at as if he had three heads). S, although a decent person and someone with whom I might easily have been friends had I met him in other circumstances, turned out to be not terribly well house-trained. His portion of the fridge and pantry (which was well more than a third of it) looked like a science experiment gone awry (ironic considering his profession). Neither of the two was particularly keen on doing their share of the cleaning. I came, gradually and unhappily, to realise that I was, in essence, living with two overgrown students.
The house itself had its share of problems. One of them was the location. Remember I said it was a thirty-second walk from Arsenal station? Well, that also meant it was across the street from one of the entrances to the old Arsenal Stadium. Match days were a nightmare – if I wanted to go anywhere, I’d have to leave at least two hours before and not come back until two hours after it had finished. The crowds and the noise were something to behold. My bedroom faced onto the street and I still shudder at the memory of the hours I spent at my desk, trying to grind out part of a chapter in the face of the not-at-all-distant roar of the home supporters. From feeling completely neutral about the sport, I turned, over the course of those four years, into a passionate hater of football in general and the Gunners in particular.
The other problem was the landlord – or the lack thereof. For the first two years I actually thought we didn’t have one, as whenever we had a problem in the flat we’d have to turn to the (fairly useless) management company. And things did go wrong. The boiler broke once (in mid-winter); it took two weeks to get it fixed. We had mice in the kitchen; it took even longer (and much begging and pleading) to get pest control in. But the worst was a tenacious crop of ivy that grew over the kitchen window, blocking out all the light and threatening to burst through into the flat. We would have taken matters into our own hands except that the vines were so thick that it was impossible to open the window, and so we were forced to tolerate a kitchen plunged into submarine gloom by a plant scarcely less frightening than Audrey II. (Granted, I never actually heard it whispering ‘feed me, Seymour’, but I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if it had.) The only time the actual landlord bothered to make his existence known was when, a month before I moved out, he wrote to us to tell us that he was raising the rent. As if I hadn’t already been glad to be leaving…
Unlike my two previous houses, I actually have been back to the Highbury one before – nine months after I moved out, I was back in London to speak at a conference and I went there to collect my post. I hadn’t moved out in happy circumstances – I’d stayed on in London for a year after finishing my PhD and, having spectacularly failed to find a museum job, was reduced to a miserable string of temping jobs before I admitted defeat and moved back to the States – and although I was in a much better place when I returned (I’d been offered a job at a museum in Los Angeles and was to move there a few months later) I naturally felt anxious about coming back and seeing the flatmates I’d had a fairly uneasy relationship with.
It turned out to be nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. P wasn’t home, but S was and in his usual good spirits. I hardly recognised the place – he had a new girlfriend and she’d transformed it. The kitchen was bright and cheerful and nicely decorated, the evil vine vanquished. They hadn’t found another person to take my room after I’d left, but had instead converted my former room into a lounge. Although I’m sure that vastly improved the quality of life in the flat, I couldn’t help but feel a bit weird about that, as if my departure had caused them to decide they had actually never needed a third flatmate at all.
So I chatted for a few minutes over a cup of tea, picked up my post and walked out the door for what I now knew was the last time, feeling nothing but relief.
My decision to go to Highbury on a Saturday is dictated by – what else? – an Arsenal match on the Sunday. They’re playing Crystal Palace, an irony I find delicious (my despised former neighbourhood squaring off against my much-loved current one), and although a contest doesn’t get more David-and-Goliath than that, and despite my above-mentioned hatred of football, I spare a thought for the Eagles as I head for the bus from Highbury & Islington station.
It’s a cold, sunny day, with that thin, bright, watery quality to it that I noticed when I walked through Harringay two weeks ago, and the journey up Highbury Park is much the same as I remember it – the handsome, solid-looking redbrick terraces bordering Highbury Fields, the neat row of shops around Highbury Barn, the gradual slide into slight grittiness as the bus descends the hill. As in Stoke Newington, I misremember my old stop and get off one too late, forcing me to backtrack to Gillespie Road. The off-license at the corner of Blackstock and Gillespie Roads is still there; I peek in just long enough to see whether the terminally grumpy Turkish Cypriot who used to hold court at the till is still there. (He is, and is still scowling.)
Turning into Gillespie Road is slightly disconcerting. I remember it grey and down-at-heel, the very obvious borderline between snooty Highbury and grubby Finsbury Park, and in my memory it is, for some reason, always raining as I walk along it. In reality it’s discernibly scrubbed and spruced up – the effect of the conversion of the old stadium into expensive new flats, no doubt. Even so, there are still enough reminders that I’m in Arsenal Land – the scarf and sausage stalls, shuttered today, due to be mobbed tomorrow.
Gillespie Road is longer than I remembered it, but the walk from the Tube station to my old house still takes the same length of time – thirty seconds. And here it looks as if time has stood still. I would be willing to bet that it’s still got the same landlord – it is very noticeably in the worst condition of any house in the street. Two miniature trees are sprouting from the gutters on the roof; the front garden is choked with weeds. As for the hedges, it looks as if someone has recently gone at them with an axe rather than secateurs. It’s probably a good thing I can’t see round to the back – I imagine the Ivy of Doom has probably re-conquered the kitchen window.
What I can see from the street is my old window. This is the only one of my three old houses where this is the case (my rooms in Harringay and Stoke Newington both faced onto the back garden), and gazing up at this innocuous-looking window makes me shiver with more than cold. How strange to think that on the other side of the glass is the room that contained four years’ worth of nerves, guilt and self-doubt as I first wrestled my thesis into existence, then struggled fruitlessly to find a job.
There are a number of pedestrians passing the house so I don’t linger – not wanting to look suspicious staring at it – but as I turn away and head up Highbury Hill I don’t feel a sense of peace, as I did in Harringay, or nostalgia, as I did in Stoke Newington. I feel nothing but relief, even stronger and purer than on my previous ‘last’ visit. I no longer belong here, and that is more than all right with me.
There’s a new café tucked among the Highbury Barn shops called Highness, and despite the cringeworthy name I can’t help wishing, as I sit at an old Singer sewing table with a cup of tea and a piece of orange cake, that it had existed when I was a student – it would have been an infinitely more pleasant (and warmer) place to sit and write than my old room. Then again, given the price of the cake, maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t…
Highbury Fields is as green and pleasant as I remember, apart from the laminated signs tied to the backs of all the benches that border the path warning us that the ground is waterlogged and would we kindly keep off the grass so that it can recover. It’s just as well that it’s too cold to make defying the signs a tempting prospect. I hurry past the green and the terrace of houses, past Walter Sickert’s old house at the end of the row, in the slanting late-afternoon light.
Can you go home again? Yes and no. Sometimes it’s good to make the attempt, if only to discover that you don’t actually need or want to go home again after all.
January 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
(The original post is here.)
After my unexpectedly pleasant visit to Harringay last week, I found myself facing the prospect of going back to Stoke Newington with similar anxiety, but for the opposite reason. Namely, that out of all of my student haunts, I was by far the happiest in Stoke Newington. Suppose I found that it had changed for the worse?
The reasons for my fond memories of Stoke Newington, funnily enough, rest on the same factors as my misery in Harringay – timing, setting, people.
The timing – I lived there during the first year of my PhD, which I think most people who have been through one will agree is the least stressful and guilt-ridden stage of the process. I had also just returned to London from a year as an assistante d’anglais in France, a year that had had its share of difficulties but had made me into a stronger, more confident person. (After all, once you realise that you’re going to sound like an idiot no matter what you say [in French], it becomes a lot easier to speak your mind and not worry what others think of you.)
As for the setting, well, after a year in Harringay, Stoke Newington felt like heaven on earth. Stoke Newington High Street was a larger, friendlier, cleaner and more diverse version of Green Lanes. Stoke Newington Church Street, however, felt like a village high street with all the advantages of being in London – good pubs, a bewildering array of inexpensive (and mostly excellent) ethnic restaurants, two second-hand bookshops, a very serious jazz club (I once saw Christine Tobin there), a couple of vintage clothing shops, a decent library and nary a chain in sight. I had a friend who lived round the corner from me and we made it our mission to try all the restaurants in Church Street over the course of the year. We failed, mostly because we became so enamoured of two: the original Rasa and a Turkish place rather un-creatively named Anglo Anatolian. (But who cared about names when the food was so good?)
Church Street’s other delights were rather less epicurean – at one end, abutting Clissold Park, was an ancient little church, seldom open, and its tiny churchyard filled with sagging, mossy tombstones. About midway between this and the junction of Stoke Newington High Street was the entrance to Abney Park Cemetery, one of the Magnificent Seven that encircle London. By the time I moved there, ten and a half years ago, it was no longer a working cemetery and nature had been allowed to take its course – it was overgrown and peaceful, a good place for a quiet wander among the Victorian monuments gradually being overtaken by vegetation. (My house backed onto the cemetery. My mother once asked me if this bothered me, and I said no – quite apart from its beauty, it meant that my house had an unusually long garden. What did bother me was that one of my neighbours had taken the bucolic qualities of the neighbourhood too literally and kept chickens, including a rooster with a faulty internal clock – I was awakened by its crowing well before dawn more times than I care to remember.)
The house itself, which was owned by the brother of my Harringay landlady (both of them very responsible landlords, which I took for granted until I lived in Highbury – but that’s a tale for another day), was half of a semi-detached house and rather more capacious than my house in Harringay – three storeys, two baths, that huge garden and two balconies. And a good thing it was, because…
…There were eight of us. All students, again; the rule of the odds of getting on with them increasing in proportion to number of tenants still held, but I was rather more fortunate this time. The two who lived on the ground floor I felt fairly indifferent about – a girl studying costume design with whom I had nothing in common, but shared space with harmoniously enough, and a thoroughly antisocial pharmacy student whom I rarely saw or spoke to; all I can say in his favour is that he at least did his washing up.
Then there was the exceedingly strange American boy who was studying sound engineering. I’m almost certain he had Asperger’s syndrome or some other autism-spectrum disorder – how else to explain his appalling social skills, his habit of obsessively watching single genres of films (there was only one television in the house – in the kitchen – so we were all subjected to his obsessions), or the time he decided that it would be a good idea to invite all of Stoke Newington over for a house party, and put up flyers all over Church Street to that effect? (The costume designer and I, in a rare moment of solidarity, teamed up to take them down straightaway. Thankfully we were quick enough that nobody actually turned up that evening.) I had the bad luck to share a wall with him, and was awakened on at least a couple of occasions by him playing CDs of sound effects in the small hours of the morning so loudly that I had to nearly kick his (locked) door in to get him to stop. It makes a good story now, but I could have done without such an unquiet housemate at the time.
The Unquiet American, however, had rivals for the crown of worst housemate – L and B. L was studying speech therapy, had a sweet, butter-wouldn’t-melt expression and sounded like a British version of Betty Boop. She was agreeable enough company when sober but terrifyingly over-affectionate when drunk (one pub outing ended with her trying to kiss me – I gingerly pushed her away with a hastily muttered ‘sorry, I don’t swing that way’. Thankfully she seemed to have no memory of it the next day.). She also had an unfortunate habit of bringing home a different (but usually totally unsuitable) man nearly every time she went out – I saw unfortunate not out of prudery, but because her room was right above mine and she was, well, rather loud.
B was studying classics. She was beautiful and a bitch – the classic mean girl. For some reason I’ve never been able to put my finger on, and despite my newfound confidence, when I was around her I always felt like I was back at school, trying to get the most popular girl in the playground to notice me. She tolerated me with varying degrees of good humour and condescension, but my chief value to her and L (who became best friends) was the fact that they found my pathetic tolerance for alcohol and my comparatively limited experience with men absolutely hilarious. One night the three of us went out for a drink and they managed to reduce me to tears on account of both. The next morning I woke up and decided I had had enough of feeling as if I was back in middle school. Any remnant of the spell that B had held over me was broken a few days later, when I found her crying in the kitchen – she’d bumped into an ex-boyfriend whom she’d cruelly dumped several months previously and apparently he’d told her a few home truths. L was already there playing the role of comforter, so I was saved from having to do so, but I felt sorry for her – and once you feel pity for someone, you are no longer in their thrall.
Lest this all sounds too miserable, there were also two housemates I genuinely liked. One was a shy, gentle Taiwanese computer science student who uncomplainingly lived in the tiniest room on the top floor (practically a shoebox). Her sole vice was an addiction to Charmed, and I would often join her of an evening when it was on, partly, I must admit, as a means of procrastination for my own work. (In retrospect, I’m slightly annoyed that, if she had to be obsessed with a rubbish TV show concerned with the supernatural, why couldn’t she have chosen Hex instead? I could have discovered Michael Fassbender seven years earlier! Although, truth be told, I’m rather glad I first saw him in Jane Eyre and not Hex…) The other was a Manx philosophy student who was funny, well-read and generally good company. Sadly, I lost touch with him after I moved out, but I wish him well, wherever he is.
All told, I was happy there. So naturally, part of me – the unreasonable and unrealistic part – hopes against hope that I will find Stoke Newington unchanged.
The thing about Stoke Newington that made it mildly inconvenient (and thus relatively inexpensive) when I lived there – the lack of a Tube station – now turns out to be a benefit, as it means I don’t have to tangle with weekend engineering works. Instead, I catch the 76 (the bus I used to take into college) from Moorgate.
The journey up the A10 – Kingsland Road to Stoke Newington Road to Stoke Newington High Street – is just as I remembered it, traffic-choked and noisy, the pavements seething with Saturday shoppers. Despite what I’ve heard about Dalston rapidly gentrifying over the last seven years, I notice little difference, the only notable addition to the neighbourhood (besides the Overground station) is The Vortex, that wonderful jazz club that used to be in Stoke Newington and got booted out by a developer around the time I moved away.
But how accurate is my memory of the place, really? My first indication that it isn’t comes when I alight from the bus just above Church Street. The walk to my old street, Manor Road, takes twice as long as I remember it. I remember the shops on one side of the road as it turns into Stamford Hill, but not the entrance to the cemetery on the west side of the road – yet it’s obviously not new, the faux-Egyptian pillars look to be of the same Victorian vintage as the cemetery they guard. Has Stoke Newington expanded or did my memory shrink it down to a more manageable size?
To my relief, my old house looks as if it hasn’t changed in the slightest. It’s still slightly greyer and more weather-beaten, the paint in just-noticeably worse shape than that of the adjoining house. No sign of life within; I assume it’s still a student house because the front garden is still just a concrete slab, no attempt made to beautify it. Is the current crop of denizens as chaotic as mine was? I’ll never know.
The rest of the street appears unchanged, with one egregious exception – at the top of the curve in the road before it loops around the cemetery is a new nursing home that looks like a state-of-the-art prison – there’s a high, fearsome electronic gate. And yes, it too backs onto the cemetery. Whoever decided to build it here either had no sense of irony or an overdeveloped one.
As for Church Street, it’s something of a patchwork. There are a lot more estate agents than I remember. None of them is advertising any property for under £400,000. Although I think I’ve more or less been converted to the charms of south London, I can’t help sighing inwardly as I cross Stoke Newington off my mental list of places to flat-hunt. There’s a new delicatessen at the western end of the street whose display of fruit tartlets and macarons initially tempts me until I notice the prices and lose my appetite. There are also several eye-wateringly expensive houseware boutiques of the sort that would look more at home in Upper Street. I venture into one, for the sake of thorough exploration, but am taken with a sneezing fit (I think because of the scented candles) and forced to step out. I am, it seems, literally allergic to Stoke Newington’s gentrification.
The last straw is the lot where the Vortex used to stand. It’s now… a Nando’s. A Nando’s. What was once the coolest establishment in all of Stokey is now the umpteenth outlet of a cheap chicken chain. Breathe, just breathe….
And yet – once I’ve gotten past the horror of Nando’s and overpriced candles and dish brushes, I realise that a considerable proportion of Church Street hasn’t changed at all. The ancient little church is still there, its greenish gravestones still gently leaning into each other. Next door, there’s a wedding party trooping into the town hall – I’ve come either too early or too late to see the bride, but the groomsmen, all in kilts, look jaunty enough to make up for it. The violin shop is still there, which in itself is a miracle, as are the two second-hand bookshops. (The second one is now a record-cum-bookshop and although I don’t own a turntable, it still makes for an enjoyable browse.) Rasa is also, thank goodness, still there, but Anglo Anatolian is now a cocktail club. Ah well.
The cemetery is just as lovely and overgrown as it ever was. It might not be able to boast the famous residents that Highgate does (Stoke Newington has had its share of literary and musical luminaries – Daniel Defoe, Edgar Allan Poe, Marc Bolan – but they’re all buried elsewhere) but so what? The paths are too muddy for me to attempt in the shoes I’m currently wearing, but I’m able to wander far enough in to temporarily satisfy my taste for ruins.
There are also, I must admit, a couple of new additions to Church Street I thoroughly approve of. One is a greengrocer of a quality one rarely sees in London. It would have been lost on me when I lived there (I wasn’t nearly as serious a cook then as I am now), but now it’s enough to make me nearly weep with envy. A basket heaped with blood oranges catches my eye and before I can blink I’ve scooped four into a paper bag. Some women impulse-buy jewellery or perfume, I buy citrus.
The other is a café called La Duchesse, which appears in my path at precisely the moment when coffee and cake seem like a good idea. The coffee is nothing to write home about but their lemon-polenta cake is meltingly tender and almost overpoweringly lemony (in a good way).
I have to backtrack down Church Street to catch a different bus, and a quiet melancholy creeps up on me as I pass those estate agents and their too-expensive houses, reminding me that although I can come home again, I can never – barring a calamitous plunge in housing prices – actually call it home again.
It’s been a grey afternoon, the sun unsuccessfully fighting against encroaching clouds, and as I wait for my bus a light rain begins to fall as dusk closes in. It seems poetic and right. The windows of the bus fog within minutes of my boarding, and I watch Stoke Newington fade away in a mist illuminated by streetlamps, as in a dream.
January 21, 2014 § 6 Comments
(For the original post, go here.)
Of the three former London homes I set out to revisit, the house in Harringay where I lived as an MA student thirteen years ago provoked the most anxiety. For a simple reason: I was wretchedly unhappy there.
Why was I so miserable there? An unfortunate collision of circumstances – the timing, the setting, the people.
The timing is self-explanatory when I tell you that I moved into the six-room student house in Roseberry Gardens on 7 September 2001. Four days later, when I breezed in from some errand (I no longer recall what, undoubtedly trivial) one of my housemates gave me the news. I was no stranger to London or to Britain (I had spent my junior year abroad here and resolved to return as soon as I’d finished college) but I suddenly felt dreadfully vulnerable and painfully foreign – feelings that stayed with me for the better part of the year.
The setting is also self-explanatory if you were familiar with Harringay thirteen years ago and if you take into account that during my junior year abroad, I lived in University of London housing in Bloomsbury. It was like being on holiday for six months (well, a holiday on which I had to go to lectures, write essays and sit exams, but those are minor details) and gave me a hopelessly skewed idea of what life in London was like. I had never ventured out of Zone 1 with the exceptions of Kew Gardens, Hampstead Heath and Hampton Court – none of them likely to balance my starry-eyed view. When I enrolled on the MA in history of art at the Courtauld Institute, I was at least realistic enough to understand that living in central London wasn’t an option and chose Harringay from the student accommodation notice board on the basis of cheapness and accessibility (it was just – barely! – in Zone 2), and the knowledge that it was generally popular with students. I found a room in a student house for what now seems the surreal figure of £67 per week, bills included, and moved in.
My first walk from Manor House station to the house didn’t inspire confidence. Green Lanes, the high street and the spine of the neighbourhood, was grey and dingy. My path took me past first a succession of ramshackle and vaguely threatening houses and over the section of the New River that cuts through Finsbury Park – milky green water choked with detritus like discarded shopping trolleys – then past a clutch of unsavoury-looking storefronts (a massage parlour, a truly dodgy pub and an always-shuttered storefront whose awning bore the unlikely legend ‘Johnny’s Potatoes and Melons’, which my friends and I found hilarious and were convinced was a front) and then under the railway overpass into the Grand Parade.
The Grand Parade was chockablock with greengrocers and Turkish restaurants and cafés, which would have been good if not for the fact that most of the cafés seemed positively unwelcoming to anyone not a. Turkish and b. male and the pavements outside a number of the greengrocers were littered with discarded fruit and veg in various states of rot. The worst offender was on the corner of Green Lanes and Roseberry Gardens which meant passing it at least twice a day was unavoidable; one of my housemates and I dubbed it Honest Ed’s New and Used Veg. There were no shops in Roseberry Garden’s past Honest Ed’s, but lest you think it was any more salubrious, there were at least a couple of cars burned in the street in front of my house. I should stress that I never felt unsafe there – the streets were always too well populated, day and night, to feel threatening – but leaving the house, or returning from college at the end of the day, became a steadily more dispiriting experience as the year wore on.
And – last but not least – the people. The grimness of life in Harringay didn’t stop at the threshold of the house. Living with strangers is always a massive gamble – odds increasing in proportion to numbers of tenants – but I was singularly unlucky with this house, a disappointment all the greater because I naively assumed that choosing an arty house was a recipe for paradise. Two of my housemates were doing the musical theatre course at the Royal Academy of Music; they were charming, funny and completely un-house-trained. I think they may have done the washing up once each and they constantly and shamelessly helped themselves to everyone else’s food. Another one, a northern lad who was doing a course in a subject even more recherché than mine, seemed like a kindred spirit for the first few months, then he fell into black disillusionment with academia and life and became completely unbearable company. (He quit his course and moved out a few months after that. I hope things turned out all right for him eventually.)
The fourth was a boy on my course, and I was initially thrilled until I found out that he was a sociopath, and not even ‘a high-functioning sociopath who solves crimes’ (thank you Sherlock). The night after he moved in, he professed his adoration and stole my first kiss, then the next day wanted nothing to do with me… and spent the next nine months working, tirelessly and nearly successfully, to destroy my self-confidence. (‘I’m sure the Courtauld only accepted you because you have to pay the overseas fee’ being just one of his gems.)
(Reader, in case you are worried – I survived and went on to better things, of course. He ended up going on for a PhD, but because I took a year off before doing the same, our paths never crossed again. A few days ago, before I set off on this trip, I googled him out of genuine curiosity. Apart from a single year as a visiting lecturer and two book reviews, his academic career since he finished appears to be nonexistent. I can’t say I ever believed in karma before, but maybe now I do… a bit.)
There was one saving grace among my housemates: an art student who looked like Thom Yorke’s scary younger brother. I spent the first few weeks terrified of him until I realised that, first of all, he was extremely kind-hearted, secondly, was painfully shy and thirdly, the freakshow act was simply a cover for his shyness. We became firm friends (and stayed so for several years afterward) and he helped keep me sane.
All of this overly long preamble to say that twelve years ago I left the house and the neighbourhood with palpable relief and without a backward glance, and that the prospect of going back made me wonder whether I would end up laying a ghost or dredging up bad feelings.
Ideally, I should have approached Harringay the way I always used to – a longish journey in from central London via the Piccadilly Line – but weekend engineering works intervene and the only leg of the journey I can manage on that line is the short hop from Finsbury Park to Manor House.
The moment the train pulls into Manor House I feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. It is still, bar none, the most dismal Tube station I’ve ever seen. (Not that I’ve seen all of them, but…) It’s not as run-down as it could be, but everything seems coated in a film of grey that can never be scrubbed off, from floor to the unusually high platform ceiling (with peeling paint) to the lights themselves. It’s been so long since I’ve been here that I have to consult the signs to figure out which exit was my usual one.
The feeling of time standing still deepens when I emerge on the corner of Seven Sisters Road and Green Lanes. Everything, absolutely everything, is exactly as I remember it – the Costcutter on the corner, the scruffy little kebab stand, the handful of shabby off-licenses and newsagents. The one difference is the light – it’s one of those rare sunny January days, the sunshine has a thin, limpid, almost watery quality, equal parts silver and gold, like a small stream rushing over rocks. I watch it falling over the bare trees in Finsbury Park on the opposite side of the street and wonder why I never noticed how graceful they looked. (Actually, I know why – all of the walks I remember taking in Finsbury Park were a means of procrastination/inspiration-seeking for whatever essay I was wrestling with at the moment, so trees weren’t uppermost in my mind.)
The light and the trees aside, nothing else seems to have changed. The houses on my side of the street still seem ramshackle and vaguely threatening. I pass a few other shops that I remember exactly from when I lived there. The New River is a little cleaner than I remember, but sure enough, there’s a red plastic shopping trolley lodged in it just past the bridge.
It’s only when I reach the start of the high street proper that I begin to notice differences. The massage parlour is an empty storefront, its windows soaped (it looks as if it’s been untenanted for quite a while). The really dodgy pub still looks as dodgy as ever, but Johnny’s Potatoes and Melons is now a dried fruit and nut shop whose goods actually look quite tempting.
Harringay Green Lanes station (from which I never took the train, because I could never find a reason to go to Gospel Oak or Barking) is now an Overground station, as shiny and spruce as any of its brothers. The formerly grimy and graffiti’d glass poster cases are sparkling clean, filled with adverts for 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis. The waste ground on the north side of the tracks is now a nature reserve. The gates are locked, but from what I can see, it’s well-maintained.
Amazingly, almost every shop and business on the Grand Parade is the same as it was twelve years ago. The same greengrocers, hairdressers, jewellers… the only new additions I count are a couple of restaurants and a bridal shop whose wares adhere firmly to the ‘more is more’ school of design (especially if the ‘more’ refers to rhinestones). The pavements are still packed, traffic moves at a snail’s pace.
Halfway up the Grand Parade it finally hits me what’s changed.
The pavements. They’re clean.
I don’t know what happened – a council-led crackdown on delinquent greengrocers, protests from residents in the adjacent streets, who knows – but it feels like a small miracle. Harringay hasn’t gentrified in the last decade (that alone, in London, is miraculous), it’s just been cleaned up enough to make it liveable. I find myself wondering whether I would have hated it as much as I did had it been then as it is now.
I reach Roseberry Gardens much more quickly than I remember doing when I lived there, and in fact I nearly miss it – my old landmark, Honest Ed’s, is gone, and with it the obstacle course of decaying fruit and the knot of unsavoury characters who used to gather there at all hours. In its place is a very pleasant-looking café.
My old house looks unchanged apart from a lick of paint. (In fact, I can’t for the life of me remember what colour it was – was it always that shade of crimson?) It doesn’t look as if anyone is home. I stand in front of it, hoping I don’t look suspicious for staring too long. I wonder if it’s still got the same owner, whether it’s still a student house. Is my tiny, boxy room with the narrow bed sandwiched between the wardrobe and the table at which I painfully typed out my MA dissertation the same as it was when I lived in it?
Standing there, I now remember that that house saw good times as well as tears and irritation and Sturm und Drang. The dinner parties I improvised in my room with my three closest friends from my course. The innumerable conversations my artist housemate and I had sitting on the stairs with cups of tea propped on our knees because we couldn’t stand the walls of our own rooms for a moment longer. The joint birthday/going-away party one of my friends and I threw for ourselves in the garden late in the summer (we both had August birthdays that fell before we left the country, she to go home to Denmark, I to teach English in France).
I take one quick photo and turn away, feeling as if I’ve shrugged a weight from my shoulders whose existence I’d been unaware of. I’ve made my peace with the place.
I still have one piece of unfinished business. In the Grand Parade, a few doors before the corner of my street, was a smart-looking little patisserie called Antepliler whose windows flaunted glistening trays of baklava that looked infinitely more delicious than the soggy clingfilmed versions sitting by the tills of most of the neighbouring greengrocers. I always meant to stop in and have a piece, but for some reason, in the whole year I lived there, I never did.
Thankfully, Antepliler is not only still there, it’s become a mini-empire that encompasses a restaurant and a café (the latter of which occupies the erstwhile Honest Ed’s). I reckon a twelve-year wait entitles me to an extra pastry so I order a walnut baklava and a piece of a rather outlandish-looking coiled pastry that seems to be composed of pistachio paste, kadaif, honey syrup and considerable sleight of hand.
I sit at a table in the window, with two of the best Turkish pastries in London, an espresso and The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, watching people bustle past in the cold soft light of a late winter afternoon.
Life is sweet.