Alien in my back yard

Though the following is not really a guided walk, the geographically-challenged, like me, may like to follow on a map.

I’m sitting in my back garden for the first time this year, needing only a sweater, despite its being nearly six in the evening. I didn’t bother wiping down the chair or the table; I just picked the least muddy chair, and I’m keeping my laptop where it says. We can wipe everything down the first time we eat out here.

It doesn’t feel like my garden particularly. Partly it’s the way that the wooden decking placed on bare earth feels temporary; the rest of the garden unkempt and unturfed, so that I would feel that I’m floating on a raft were it not for the fact that the garden is itself only about four times the size of the decking, which just fits a table and four chairs, and the thing I mostly see when I look up is the fences that separate it from the gardens on the other three sides. It’s also partly that I’ve done nothing to make it mine. I’ve not gardened it; I’ve not even spent much time here. The adhān floating over the streets from the west does nothing to dispel the feeling that I’m not at home; indeed, as the weather warms it lends a rather exotic feel to the garden, and helps to release it from the bonds of its narrow bounds.

Earlier, I went for a walk from where I live, a little east of Brick Lane, along the Eastern fringe of the City, going south as far as Borough Market. Normally, when I traverse these streets, I’m walking or cycling intently or I’m paying attention to someone I’m walking with, but today I was alone, and made myself walk slower than ever, and look at what I saw. Perhaps that’s why it all made rather less sense than usual.

I emerged as ever from Woodseer Street on to Brick Lane, and turned right, almost immediately having to make my way under the hoarding that hides the scaffolding for the new rail bridge and formalises the division of the Lane into curry houses (south end) and flamboyant cafés and boutiques (north end). Walking up past Bacon Street (surely a studied insult?) I passed, as usual, only three places I ever enter: the better of the two beigel shops (the southernmost of the two), Eastside Books, a small bookshop which cleverly doesn’t stock trash, meaning that despite its lack of shelf space it still has lots of good books, and the huge coffee shop that can’t decide whether it’s a café (south) or sitting room (north), and whose lackadaisical service often perplexes customers, but whose sofas and wifi are ever tempting. Being a lazy Saturday, it was closed and shuttered.

The mostly twenty-something pedestrians seemed to be divided into roughly a third tourists and two thirds Londoners, or alternatively roughly fifty-fifty between English speakers and those who preferred other tongues. Their colourful and idiosyncratic dress suggested they might enjoy the frankly bizarre wares of the vintage and modern shops than I, alternately struck by simple incomprehension of why anyone would buy the things on offer and the thought that they probably didn’t have my size in any case.

After a quick peek round the corner into Bethnal Green Road, I retraced my steps all the way home, because it was sunny and I realised it was time to add sun cream to my bag for this year. I resisted the temptation to get a bagel, as I intended to make it to Borough Market. Having applied sun cream, I walked conscientiously back along Woodseer Street, so as not to miss anything. Specifically, so as not to miss the old Truman Brewery. At last I worked out that the mysterious glass-fronted building along the side of the courtyard opposite the main frontage to the old brewery is in fact just a facade. There are food stalls all along this part of Brick Lane on a Saturday, and I followed them behind an old warehouse, resisting the temptation to eat, but wondering at the strange sights, like the “Root-master” bus-turned-café. I looked around what was essentially become a pedestrian square, with the bus to one side, and other food stalls near it including the Laos and Thai “Laughing Buddha”, whose name on its closed shutters was written in graffiti lettering that I couldn’t seem to read directly, but somehow understood after looking at it for long enough. People were sitting on all the kerbs, mostly eating, and if not then enjoying the sun. I looked around again. It is not an attractive space. It’s friendly: there are three ways in and out, with shops around it as well as the food stalls, and touches like the converted bus give the friendly impression that people have tried to make it habitable; but overall it is still entirely man-made, with no hint of earth or greenery. Are there people unlike me for whom this is really beautiful? Or it just the best of a bad job?

Nowhere to go but in in this gallery just off Brick Lane.

Feeling distinctly foreign in my long sleeves and sun hat, with my hands in my pockets, I carried on to Commercial Street, and crossed the road into Spitalfields Market (first the new, then the old), finding quickly that Saturday is not a market day (pity) though the shops and restaurants were open as usual, albeit doing a rather more desultory trade than busy Brick Lane. Here too, there’s a strange feel: an old market completely renovated with the expensive-feeling stone and paving that seems to be common around the better sort of new development currently; but it feels too new, or perhaps it’s that one mostly sees it around expensive office buildings, and the sort of apartments that have glossy hoardings alongside the sites on which they are built, and are both unimaginably expensive and simply far too hard to the touch.

Any colour you want as long as it’s brown.

Just on the other side of Brushfield Street, around Artillery Lane, one gets back to the sort of more worn streets that look like people might actually have lived there for some time. Many of them are tiny, quite a few pedestrian, and the behemoths of nearby Bishopsgate loom, even though you can’t see them; nonetheless, it’s a comforting place to be, like the back streets of Victoria, a quick and (to my ignorance) unlooked-for escape through the cracks in the polished surface of London’s modern thoroughfares.

I emerged thence onto Bishopsgate at last, and almost immediately crossed the road to Liverpool Street. It seems odd today that the station is named for it, as, though no lane, it’s just a side street, and I’ve walked along it most often at night after getting off a bus taken after the tube closes, which terminates round the back of the station. There are places I’m pretty sure I’ve been once or twice but unaccountably forgotten, and I think the Metropolitan Arcade is one of them; although quite how I managed to forget finding Leonidas inside, I’m not sure. It’s good to be reminded that shopping at railway stations is nothing new. Walking down Old Broad Street, my eye was caught by the promising stone and pedestrianism of New Broad Street, and indeed aesthetically it was pleasing, but by now I could already feel I was into the dead zone of the weekend City.

When making a film about the apocalypse, it’s pretty much compulsory to have a scene showing a famous city centre devastated. Sometimes, when the apocalypse is not one of material destruction but, for example, a mysterious disease, the city in question is unravaged. I understand that for the dream sequence in Vanilla Sky (here the disease is mental, and affects only the protagonist), where the city in question is Manhattan, it was an expensive operation that required filming at sun-up, and paying for the streets to be cleared. No wonder that the low-budget 28 Days Later was set in London: all the crew had to do in this case, I imagine, was turn up early on a Saturday or Sunday. The artificial shade of tall buildings that confuses the sense of time adds to the unreality of knowing that you’re in a vast capital city that is thronged by tourists as you walk, and yet, apart from the unremitting murmur of traffic, you may as well be alone.

On London Wall I noticed a sign on a church, which turned out to be All-Hallows-on-the-Wall, advertising an installation made of 189 miles of wool. I went in. A group of people were having a couple of enthusiastic conversations; one was the artist and the rest appeared to have some connection with or professional interest in the exhibition; I was, it seemed, the only chance visitor. The installation was simple: a huge hank of continuous woollen thread suspended at its mid-point by a severe rope knot secured at four points to the walls, with the ends draped evenly over a large area of the floor; it was just possible to squeeze between the falling skeins. As I left I took an information sheet; it turned out that all the wool, about 55 fleeces’ worth, had been donated by one Yorkshire company and spun by another. I also accepted a toffee, which surprisingly took the edge off my now-insistent hunger pangs.

Simple enough not to be ridiculous?

As I got towards Bank, signs of life started to reappear, along with another even more desired chocolate shop, Paul A. Young, and I corrected my course towards London Bridge. I crossed Gracechurch Street, attracted by more small streets, and suddenly, and again I’m sure not for the first time, found myself facing the Monument, trying to decipher its Latin, and then, having read the translation and laughed at the anti-Catholic official graffiti that was first added in 1681 and then removed in 1830, walked the length of Pudding Lane itself, now looking much too broad for its length, despite being a cul-de-sac; it really is a pudding lane.

London Bridge is one of my favourite vantage points. My favourite views are in daytime directly south along the bridge to the ill-matched sentinels, St Olaf’s house and the extraordinary building whose name I haven’t yet found, and at night north towards the city. These are visions removed from human scale, and I find them exhilarating.

At the far end of the bridge, Southwark Cathedral is almost buried. It was about four o’clock when I reached it, and its sunny courtyard was crowded with people eating food from the adjacent Borough Market. I went inside for a couple of minutes; a service was in progress, and a mixed-voice choir was singing an early twentieth-century magnificat that I knew but couldn’t identify just well enough to cheer the Anglican in me for a couple of minutes; then I went back outside and felt a bit silly to have arrived just as the market was packing up. Nonetheless, a stall under the railway bridge still had plenty of pork, their speciality, left, so I bought a baguetteful, and finally sated my by now considerable hunger pangs, sitting on a bollard looking at a semi-abstract figure near the river.

I found my way back up to the bridge by the direct stair that I had ignored on my way down, and stopped at the bottom of Gracechurch street to try to find the advertised toilet in the subway, without success, as the London Transport employee who asked me what I was doing as I peered through the gate closing off the station told me that there wasn’t one. I checked the adjacent public toilets on the traffic island at the intersection of Eastcheap and Gracechurch Street, again more out of interest than need, and then started walking back up towards Bishopsgate, but cut off towards the Gherkin (offically, the Swiss Re Building). I remembered that there were some quotations on the top faces of the low walls-cum-seats that edge the square at its base, but I was wrong: they were in fact each an idea for things to have in an Arcadian garden. (They may of course still be quotations, but no source was given.) I walked around the building reading them on both sides (the walls on the north and south sides are higher and without inscriptions). When I’d finished a group of Italians was still occupying the last quotation, so I asked “scusa, posso lire che è scritto qui?” and having thanked them, wondered what a “classical highlight” painted on a tree would be.

I continued East, finding myself eventually at the deserted stalls of Petticoat Lane market, and walking back along Wentworth Street towards Brick Lane and home, to sit in the garden and eat a bit, and think about what I’d seen.

From the bright busy upper Brick Lane to the quiet over-neat fringes of the city, to the gloomy and deserted City, to Borough Market, bustling even as it closed, it’s as if I’ve crossed several worlds this afternoon, none of them mine. Was it because I walked alone that I felt a stranger in all these places? Because none of the people I saw seemed to be much like me? Or is it the place? I’ve never felt at home in London, wonderful and exciting as it is, and having spent an afternoon looking at the nearest parts of it closely, I began to have a better idea why. Almost all the places I visited today were either not designed for people, or had been appropriated by people with whom I have little sympathy, or both. The only moment I recognised was the music in the cathedral, but even that was just an imitation. The pork was good, though…

Last updated 2009/04/04