Work in progress - part of the New Lexicons London stories

Foundations

The cavernous opening to the new station on Dalston Lane inhaled and exhaled commuters. Gusts of human traffic blew out on to cracked paving, scattered, bolting for home, work, shopping. On the opposite side of the road, the Hackney Peace Mural shimmered in Indian summer heat, its bleeding colours obscured by passing buses. Dirty grey exhaust trails spelled out obscure messages in the air.

David stood by the station entrance, dirty blue jeans and a black shirt bearing some out-of-date political slogan. Leaning against the wall as a group of school children scurried by, he sipped from a soft drink can, smoked a cheap cigarette. From where he stood he could see across Dalston Junction to where it joined Balls Pond Road, crowds of vehicles streaming by. He saw a man in yellow trench coat, with the look of an ageing punk, hand a package to a young man with shaved head and DM boots. The trench-coated man said something to the young skin, smiled, and strode off into the body-mass of Kingsland High Street, pushing through Turkish vendors, lighting a fresh cigarette. He disappeared into the throng.

Finishing his own cigarette, David crushed the ember beneath his trainer, checked his watch with irritation. Andrew, as usual, was late. He imagined some excuse involving not understanding how the new East London line worked, that he’d misread the timetable. Some joke involving the City’s latest bit of ‘progress’ skewing his mental map, knocking his balance off-kilter. Part of the city’s build-up for the great disappointment of the 2012 Olympics, the new line had connected Dalston, and by association Hackney, to the gentrified docks of Wapping, to the out-of-reach kindred areas of south-east London, New Cross, Brockley, and onto the hinterlands of Croydon. Marginals no longer needed to travel through the centre. David, whilst waiting and draining his can, thought of the last time he had seen Andrew; he’d been out of the city for two weeks, family visitations in Kent and South West Wales. Leaving that green lung he had returned to the metropolis, leaving behind the stories his grandmother told of people he had never met, his mother’s tendency to drift off mid—sentence, different trains of thought colliding with each other with messy consequences. He had read some Arthur Machen short stories on the train home, listened to an old Icons of Filth album. Tried to be site specific.

He’d made plans to meet with Andrew; some mutual friends were ensconced in a squat somewhere off Mare Street in Hackney; they had promised to go down and help. Maybe even see if the place was feasible for parties, gigs, see if they could contribute to the vibrant underworld that existed in the places that others said were worthless, abandoned, no longer viable. The life that thrived in the cracks, under nightfall, between the gaps. He took a certain uncomfortable pleasure in the knowledge that his lifestyle, or at least a part of it, would be considered by some as worthless, pathetic. Took pride that he was one of the demonic, vegetarian unwashed hordes that terrorised the mental landscapes of the British Right, haunted the pages of the Mail. The people whom they said didn’t care about England, well, they were England in his view. A country in his head that he was not ashamed of.

Andrew had still not arrived. David put in his earphones, hit play on his MP3 player, and a raucous Moral Dilemma track kicked into life. ‘Our Inheritance’. It sounded good today.
e too

He remembered a party, some months ago now, somewhere around Newington Green. A place invisible to the outside world. Wandering between different rooms, assailed by the sounds of different subcultures mingling. Klezma, dubstep, punk, reggae, drum and bass, hip hop. The sounds of the other, of the real world David thought, forever and always. Maybe he was romanticising it, he pondered. He was aware of the tendency within himself. There, Andrew, his mind elevated on a mixture of uppers and psychedelics, had begun spewing all kinds of quasi-mystical shit. Stuff about Green Men, giants, ley-lines, the occult. David figured he had been reading too much Alan Moore, too many Hellblazer comics. He linked the Green Man, Robin Hood, General Ludd then made light of what he was saying by mentioning sweetcorn and the Jolly Green Giant. David had been too preoccupied by a young woman to listen, sex heavy on his mind. He’d palmed Andrew off on some friends, then failed to get laid. 

A Mahones track kicked in, a tale of Irishmen shipped out to the penal colonies. Another cigarette was lit.
David himself was immersed in the alternate-lore of the city in which he lived, felt himself a part of it in some way, was obsessed with teasing out the true stories, the real histories, the myth and legend that suffused everything, the personal biography that saturated the pavements. Blood spilled, tears shed, lives forgotten and crushed beneath the wheels of progress as the city lurched ever forward. On certain days, the revenants that hung sadly on street corners, or sat staring out of rain flecked night-bus windows, outnumbered the living. David and Andrew bonded over this shared worldview. Plus drugs, alcohol, punk rock and an aversion to working.

More commuters tumbled out onto the street. Another cigarette was smoked down to the butt, tossed among dust and crinkled crisp packets. Andrew, yet to arrive. The next track began. ‘Movin’ On’ by the Inner Terrestrials. Brief thoughts of gypsies down in Hackney Wick.

Earlier in the year there had been a craze for a legal drug, ordered dirt cheap online, a substance that made days bleed into each other with no respite. Cheap fun, they were all in it together while it had lasted, happy memories. The pressures from the right wing media had led to the inevitable banning of the substance. David was secretly thankful. Coming out the other side of it, given his head time to breathe and to recover, he could see a fact that disturbed and unsettled him. Cheap and plentiful it was, and that was great, but it had been too much – it had become commonplace, taken as a given, and was never-ending. He must have lost a week’s worth of sleep, he reckoned. No wonder Andrew had been talking of seeing Green Men in the Lea Valley. The changing weather had brought with it break-ups, violence, tears and days locked alone in bedroom prisons. The sea change was palpable; move with it or go under, thought David.

He felt a tap on his shoulder. The music still banging in his ears, he looked into Andrew’s face who mouthed something at him that he could not hear.

“What?” he half-shouted, removing the plastic headphones.

“’Ello mate! Where we going to then?” Andrew’s Essex accent, faintly annoying today.

He jutted into the street, unaware of the annoyed looks he was getting from commuters forced round his tall frame. Military green shorts, a Conflict T-shirt that may have once been black, battered canvas trainers. He clutched a slim volume in his right hand. A limited edition of Arthur Machen’s ‘N’.

“Where’d you get that?” asked David, curious, pointing to the book.

“Bookshop down the road. You recommended it to me, remember?” Andrew smiled as he said this, slightly bemused.

“Don’t remember. Anyway, we’re walking down that way.” 

David jerked his thumb to the right, toward Hackney Central.

“Can’t we get the bus?”

“You’re a fucking lazy git.”

Laughter.

More people billowed out of the station’s mouth, onto the pavement.

Manannan Weeps

An old dreadlocked punk was talking about the Scottish band Scatha. Green anarchy, eco hardcore. Songs of crying psychopomps and Celtic sea deities seemed appropriate given recent corporate oil disasters that had coated the headlines before ebbing away from public consciousness. Cliched metaphors of a bleeding Earth too much to take. Blackened and shimmering pelicans covered in earth-blood were powerful symbols, David though as he nodded a half-interested nod as he tried to listen. With Buckfast-slurred syllables, the story was something about seeing Scatha in an old squat somewhere way up North. ‘Buckfast: Brewed by monks, drunk by punks’. David smiled as he ran this little rhyme through his head.

Usually he liked to listen to these stories; it all added to the secret history in his head; some arcane defender of repositories of hidden knowledge, forgotten and mouldering. He felt it was the lifeblood of the people. Scatha, the Worm. The shadowy Scáthach, the warrior woman, was the teacher of Cu Chulainn. Hardcore. Squats. Punk rock. Green activism. It all connected in his head, a knotted tangle of fibrous information that one day, he thought, he might untangle. For now he was still out in the field, a DIY anthropologist. Partly modelled on a mad historian from Maureen Duffy’s ‘Capital’, drenched in new historicism, anarchism, punk rock, green issues. He could link a nose-breaking punch thrown in a Hackney squat to the routine of a local comedian and talk of ‘Sacred Clowns’, to Machen’s nightmare-paradise work ‘N’, to the work of Welsh-turned-Londoner Iain Sinclair, the all embracing Mother London that Moorcock so loved, the pounding drum and bass and dubstep of the warehouses in Bermondsey and the novels of China Mieville, a spider god, a TV series named ‘Neverwhere’, troglodytes that existed in the forgotten stations of the Underground, an ancient stone weapon that struck down a wealthy man on  London pavement, police batons cracking the heads of peaceful Climate Campers, Stockwell police murders, an attempt to detonate Greenwich observatory, a heart of darkness.

This man’s story, however, was doing his head in.

They had entered the new squat half an hour ago, a surprisingly intact warehouse. Andrew was chatting with a guy he knew. He had, David thought, one of those stupid made-up squatter names. Call yourself Wurzel Gummidge and be done with it.

City on a River

The city. Always the city. David’s mind always related anywhere, everywhere, to the city, the river-squatting deity who he loved without question. The amorphous changeling that he called London, an idea pinned to pages, ultimately unsuccessfully, by a thousand different scribes. The dialectic that pulled him in two directions kept him in the city, yet made him yearn for wild spaces. He read Blackwood’s ‘The Man Whom The Trees Loved’, understood the man taken by the New Forest. When he visited his mother in a seaside town on the Kentish coast, now fashionable and thronged with boutiques and olive vendors, he looked at an old photograph from those pre-digital days of his younger self, standing with his younger brother somewhere near the summit of Mount Snowdon. A cloudy day, seventeen years ago, foggy memories. A picture that twisted his insides, and he knew soon he would be back up that mountain, looking down as buzzards and ravens flew below where he stood, a sight that had always thrilled him. 

But David was here, in the city. Polluted, filthy, a crush of humanity. Constant low-level threat. A thousand words hanging in muggy air, yellowing phlegm clinging to pavements, revenants of past hopes crowding the Job Centres, the weight of history sinking England into an indifferent sea. David knows that one day the Thames Barrier will break, burst, and London will become a drowned world. 

Bring it on, he thinks.


Utopia

Echoes of the nineteen eighties reverberate through the city. An exercise in nostalgia plays out on flatscreens, people laugh at the footage of Mohawks in old Islington squats, the spirit of Greenham Common is invoked with a mixture of affection and youthful folly. The talking heads now seem to know better, have made amends with their younger selves. Times change. Billy Bragg talks about the miners struggle. Which side are you on? Gender politics, ‘man hating lesbians’ still laughed at yet no longer reviled. In certain quarters.

A Piss In The Ocean
 
David looks at his reflection, reversed image of a man out of time and out of place, and he observes the shoes he wears, the rusting badges that cling to his green army jacket, the cropped hair that is growing out and a beard that is in need of a trim, the scar by his right eye, the t-shirt sporting the name of a band perennially unfashionable. The world surges forward outside the window, yet some things never seem to change and he considers that sometimes the trends and clothes mutate but the times he lives in, the way he and his friends talk about things, they sound like a pathetic echo of the words his father spouted, perhaps less articulately, thirty years ago, and then he thinks maybe that’s alright because sometimes there is no shame in nailing your colours to the mast and he’d rather go down believing that change into someone who accepts the changes in society without ever really affecting them themselves, and yeah he does care about certain issues, and yeah that sincerity can be embarrassing at times but fuck it. Better that than the alternative, the alternative that is nothing, a gaping black hole of irony that is invincible, destructive like the Nothing, he thinks in an absurd thought taken from The Never Ending Story (the tortoise terrified him as a child) and then he thinks of a comedian who said ‘the last taboo is doing something sincerely and well’. Yes. His own image stands there in defiance, looks at him in challenge. Can he go on for ever like this? When is it time to give up, make his peace with lattes and ciabatta, the G2 and viewing life as a spectator.  David looks at an unfamiliar figure in smeared glass, and realises he can never let some things go. He realises he will go down, believing, and be damned for it. Realises that his colours were nailed to the mast before he’d even realised.