About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 2 September 2013

The deep and deadly draw of Dalston

Late August 2013, I give in to a hidden urge. At first unrecognised as such, and yet it was irresistible.

Take the tube to Bank, change onto Central Line to Bethnal Green, and start walking north up Cambridge Heath Road.

Rationally, I told myself, I was going to see if my could find my friend George's studio. I had an address, but I suspected he'd packed up and gone. I didn't want to annoy him so I thought I'd just check out for signs of life.

Cambridge Heath Road seemed remarkably unchanged at that point, apart from the tarted-up Museum Of Childhood.

There's the place selling retread tyres straight out on to the pavement, there the all-day drinkers wandering around, not-so-old battered men in big overcoats on a hot day, dragging huge suitcases of pre-wheelie vintage. For a few blocks, it all seems more 1978 than 2013.

In earlier childhood, trips up East had been extended train, tube and bus affairs, all the way to Wanstead  to visit  godparents, or later to that strange shop in Leytonstone to buy ex-government laboratory equipment and - unthinkable now - chemicals for home-made fireworks. Beck & Sons, anyone?

A few years later, as an Oz-reading mini-anarchist,  freshly expelled from grammar school, I went with friends (or compadres) to a CND concert in Victoria park -  this was Easter 1970? All I remember are (a) the sneering and snarling skinheads and (b) Allen Ginsberg, that great mass of black hair and heard and black-rimmed glasses, chanting verses about America and its atom bomb.

Then in  April '78, a revelation of sorts.  It was the era of National Front rallies in Brick Lane, the murder of Altab Ali, the rise of the anti-Nazi League and Rock against Racism and their first big free festival in Victoria Park, Bethnal Green, that Easter.

To an already defeated 24-year-old living back with his dad in staunchly lower-middle-class south Croydon,  the East End was another country. It was  sort-of fascinating but also deeply terrifying for this pusilanimous and by now ridiculously outdated long-hair with his Oz and IT-fed ideals and his wretched addiciton to the easy life. But I had a 35mm camera and I had been to see Cartier Bresson exhibits and I needed material.

More to the point I badly needed re-educating in my musical taste: a bit late to the punk-meets-root-reggae party, but what an introduction.

After those brief excursions, I didn't really go back to the East in any big way until 1980, when I moved - quite reluctantly, I remember - to an undecorated flat in St Philips Road, E8. I had no firm idea of where Dalston was when I got the amazingly generous offer from a friend of a friend. I could stay in his half-finished 2-bed flat - the top half of a typical Victorian house he'd bought with a friend for about £12,000 about five years previously - for a notional payment of £25 a month. He would have lived there but was having to look after his ageing mum at her home in Hampstead.

"Reluctantly" to Dalston? Really, you were a foolish little snob, you had lived a year in Chelsea, and E8 in 1979 was not E8 today. But you had no choice, you'd been living cheap in a lovely flat in Beaufort Street, thanks to to kindness of a friend who became a sort of lifetime best-freind/saint, or protecting angel - and you'd been kicked out, literally,  for reasons too shameful to explain for the moment.
19 St Philips Road, Dalston, London
 E8.  £12k in the late 70s, 40 years
 and a lick of paint later it's worth
 around £1m

New kitchen and bathroom units had been installed a few years previously but never quite finished; the walls were bare plaster, the floors bare boards, the main living room on the first  floor was stuffed with all the furniture from all the other rooms which were, unsurprisingly, empty. I had companions in the form of mice who liked to nibble uncooked pasta, and the occasional burglar (they took my old Akai 1720 tape recorder, my only source of music, but none of the tapes).

The ground floor flat was a total contrast, and had been turned into a beautiful, minimalist but very comfortable flat for C, who worked as a film editor for the BBC and other, and his adorable cat. My landlord had also been a film editor, but now worked at the London Film School in Covent Garden. About once a quarter, at his request, I would take rent in a bulging brown envelope to his office in Shelton St,  hand over the cash with comic gestures of subterfuge or illicit dealing, and wander out past  all the beautiful young film students.

I never really appreciated my good luck. Working near Waterloo, an easy cycle ride each day, shopping for lovely cheap fruit and veg in Ridley Road market, going to the Rio for Wim Wenders films - what a life, you might think?

Well, at the time the allure of E8 and further East simply did not figure to my very conventional imagination. I still yearned for the already dead "alternative" bohemia of Portobello Road; I wanted to be a character in a Jerry Cornelius novel.

 I write now having put in the hours reading nearly all of Iain Sinclair's work. While I was sneaking off back west to look enviously at small flats in Notting Hill, Sinclair and his friends were laying the foundations for the revival of the East End in general . As we can see now (and as Sinclair himself suggests in Hackney, that Rose Red empire) these pioneers were grinding the spices for a lovely cultural stew. And provided the essential nourishments for the real beneficiaries of their self-mythologising, the property brokers and estate agents.

I don't remember Sinclair although he was living about three blocks away. I was aware of others of the early '70s "first wave" of gentrification, clever people who'd bought houses in the De Beauvoir Town area, and then crossed the Kingsland Road into Dalston - but an area that could still be described as "East Islington"by estate agents.  A vague  memory - true or false? - of one of the Freud granddaughters running a gorgeous bohemian household, in the next road west, maybe Parkholme, my landlords invited to their parties.

London Fields was a gentle stroll away and then there was the art-squatter street, Beck Road, which I  looked and yearned for that sort of communal, useful, agit-prop life, but it was only years later I  was made aware of the work of Genesis P and co.

So I could re-write history and say I loved Dalston and immersed myself in its community but it ain't true. Now, of course, I wish I'd stayed there. I wish of course that I'd offered to buy the flat.

Strolling though London Fields, late August 2013, you can almost smell the creativity in the air. Or is that the smell of money? An acoustic band with a beautiful girl singer are performing under a tree and being filmed by someone with a Super 8 camera. I eventually find St Phillips Road and see that no 19 has been re-pained, done up, but nothing outrageous - the area retains the shabby feel, in fact it is probably written into leases that it be retained.

Or maybe not. Can't help noting that the average price of terraces in this street is now around the £1million mark. I hope C and M  sold up at the right time.

Others are now realising that Dalston is no longer a place, a bit of Hackney or East Islington, it is truly a state of mind. What is Dalston? is a damn good question and one that this rather interesting researcher asked and tried to answer.

Ridley Road seems little changed by the new hip Dalston effect, thank God, but for how long?  Dalston Lane is on the verge of change, the horrible Kingsland shopping precinct is still just as horrible but that will change too. Dalston's already far too expensive for most, and the smart money has moved on to Hackney Wick or - even smarter - to Peckham, now just a few stops south on the London Overground.

As for you, stuck in 'effin SW: Idiot!

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