Can you go home again?, part 2: Stoke Newington

January 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

Manor Road, London N16

Manor Road, London N16

(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.

Fox Reformed, Church Street

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.

Church Street Bookshop

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.

Abney Park Cemetery

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.

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