Can you go home again?, part 1: Harringay
January 21, 2014 § 7 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.