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SKATING ON THIN EYES: THE FIRST WALK
the magus dee dreams of a stone island in force, dying in poverty,
drunk on angelspeech, which paradoxically, he has not actually heard,
the scales of music tripping upward to evade him in perpetual deferral
to create open outward the place of definition.
The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking. To walk out from Hackney to Greenwich Hill, and back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace. (I had developed this curious conceit while working on my novel Radon Daughters: that the physical movements of the characters across their territory might spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading — a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. A sorcerer's grimoire that would function as a curse or a blessing.)
Armed with a cheap notebook, and accompanied by the photographer Marc Atkins, I would transcribe all the pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route. The messages were, in truth, unimportant. Urban graffiti is alltoo often a signature without a document, an anonymous autograph. The tag is everything, as jealously defended as the Coke or Disney decals. Tags are the marginalia of corporate tribalism. Their offence is to parody the most visible aspect of high capitalist black magic. Spraycan bandits, like monks labouring on a Book of Hours, hold to their own patch, refining their art by infinite acts of repetition. The name, unnoticed except by fellow taggers, is a gesture, an assertion: it stands in place of the individual artist who, in giving up his freedom, becomes free. The public autograph is an announcement of nothingness, abdication, the swift erasure of the envelope of identity. It's like Salvador Dali in his twilight years putting his mark on hundreds of blank sheets of paper, authenticating chaos.
Serial composition: the city is the subject, a fiction that anyone can lay claim to. "We are all artists," they used to cry in the Sixties. Now, for the price of an aerosol, it's true. Pick your view and sign it. Sign events that have not yet happened. (Take a stroll down somewhere like Catherine Wheel Alley, off Bishopsgate, and see the future revealed on a wall of white tiles. Superimposed fantasies. Scarlet swastikas swimming back to the surface. The Tourette's syndrome ravings of an outwardly reformed city. A private place, a narrow passage, in which to let out all the overtly disguised racist bile. The madness has to find somewhere to run wild. Obscene formulae incubating terrorist bombs. Runnels and enclosed ditches where unwaged scribes are at last free of the surveillance cameras.) Remember postal art, Fluxus? All that European and transatlantic bumf now consigned to a bunker beneath the Tate Gallery? Graffiti is the Year Zero version.
The tagger, the specialist who leaves his mark on a wall, is a hit and run calligrapher — probably young, MTV-grazing and male. His art is nomadic, a matter of quantity not quality. As often as not, the deed is carried out on the way back from a club in the early hours of the morning; the announcement of a jagged progress across home territory. Nothing too bulky to carry, a good black felt-tip pen in the pocket of your Pucca jeans will do the trick. The pseudonymous signature is rapidly perfected: Soxi, Coe, Sub, Hemp. Standards are rather more demanding than in Bond Street. Earlier efforts, already in place, if they are deemed inadequate, will be deleted with a single stroke. White boy business. Middle-class cultural diffusionism. The walls that have been set aside as open-air galleries, sites where aerosol activity is encouraged or at least tolerated, don't cut it. "Sign Park" in an estate off Tufnell Park Road, although it features constantly evolving monster murals, is not considered a serious option. Your tag will all too soon be worked over, obliterated. Taggers can be solitaries, but, more frequently, they hang out in teams or crews. The tag represents a corporate identity; not so much a gang as a studio or "school of". Battles are not territorial; the climate here is clubbish, mildly hallucinogenic. Inner-city impressionists who have moved on from the posthumous representation of light and pleasure. Everything happens in the present tense. No history, no future. There is no interference with subject. Fragments of London are perceived as Polaroid epiphanies; signed and abandoned. The tag is the record of a fleeting instant of inspiration. "Eas-y!" The more upwardly mobile careerists might attack a tube train, but most settle for walls and doorways, customised hoardings. Sprayed messages are meaningless, having no programme beyond the announcement of a non-presence. Night scrawls, minimal adjustments to the psychic skin of the city. The grander aerosol paintings, known as "pieces", are altogether too flash, baroque, an art in decline. They draw attention to themselves, thereby neutralising their greatest strength — invisibility. They solicit photographic reproduction, a collaboration with Warhol-tendency vampires. The plain tag is a purist's form. Satisfaction is derived from getting your hit into some high risk location, a dangerous bridge climbed in heart-pumping, post-rave excitement. The clubbing tagger's E-vision is an authentic urban experience: an enforced homeward walk across a lucid wilderness from Barking or Brixton, sunrise over the industrial alps of Stratford East. That's as near as they are ever going to come to it, unsolicited satori. Hemp, an American exile, who arrived here from New York in the wake of a 500 dollar fine, enjoys a toke, a session with the chillum. In reflective mood, he meditates on the relationship between tagging and skate-boarding. He drifts backwards and forwards, enacting complicated figures, over a South London parking lot: "If you're going to be around the city all the time, you'd better put your name up."
As newspapers have atrophied into the playthings of grotesque megalomaniacs, uselessly shrill exercises in mind-control, so disenfranchised authors have been forced to adapt the walls to playful collages of argument and invective. Not the publicly displayed, and quietly absorbed, papers of the Chinese, but editorials of madness. Texts that nobody is going to stop and read. Unchallenged polemics. My own patch in Hackney has been mercilessly colonised by competing voices from elsewhere: Kurds, Peruvians, Irish, Russians, Africans. Contour lines of shorthand rhetoric asserting the borders between different areas of influence. Graffiti could, I hoped, be read like a tidemark. In the course of our walk we'd find precisely where the "Freedom" of Dursan Karatas gave way to the "Innocence" of George Davis — OK. (Yes, George is still getting a result, the benefit of the doubt from the railway bridges of East London — long after being caught in the act during a raid on the Bank of Cyprus in Seven Sisters Road, Holloway. For over twenty years Davis has woken to find himself framed by DS Mathews. Thus proving that graffiti has a half-life far in excess of the buildings on which they have been painted. Broken sentences and forgotten names wink like fossils among the ruins.)
Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy — but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything. Alignments of telephone kiosks, maps made from moss on the slopes of Victorian sepulchres, collections of prostitutes' cards, torn and defaced promotional bills for cancelled events at York Hall, visits to the homes of dead writers, bronze casts on war memorials, plaster dogs, beer mats, concentrations of used condoms, the crystalline patterns of glass shards surrounding an imploded BMW quarter-light window, meditations on the relationship between the brain damage suffered by the super-middleweight boxer Gerald McClellan (lights out in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel) and the simultaneous collapse of Barings, bankers to the Queen. Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.
Graffiti is the only constant on these fantastic journeys, random codices, part sign and part language. Recording as many of these fractured compositions as we could find along a given route from Hackney to Greenwich to Chingford would be like editing an unpredictable anthology. The walk could become a phantom biopsy, cutting out a sample of diseased tissue without an anaesthetic. But, more importantly, it would also pay homage to a series of famous Lea Valley "temperature traverses", undertaken as part of a survey of London's climate, between October 1958 and November 1959. TJ Chandler, in his book The Climate of London (1965), describes the curious set-up:
The instrumentation of the ordinal traverses consisted of electrical resistance thermometers housed in double-louvred radiation shields suspended from the roof-rack of a car so that the element in the lower shield was 4ft and that in the upper shield was 5ft above the ground and 6 in. from the side of the car. Temperatures in the first few feet above road surfaces seem, in fact, to be surprisingly uniform and the precise height of the instrument is less critical than might be supposed ...
Any warming of the elements by the car engine would naturally invalidate the readings. This problem has sometimes proved difficult (Godske, quoted by Sundborg, 1952, p. 53), but in the present investigation the position of the radiation shield and elements in relation to the engine and airflow over the car, plus a thick pad of glass fibre over the car bonnet, prevented any warming. It was sought, in general, to keep the car speed to 20 mi/hr ... Except on a few noted occasions, speeds were sufficient to secure adequate ventilation of the elements without being too great to induce dynamic warming.
This outwardly eccentric Dr Who-style progress, zigzagging by day and night from Liverpool Street and Canning Town up the Lea Valley to Ware, struck me as a paradigm for any visionary exploration of the Essex fringes. An apparently scientific excuse for a glorious clandestine folly, joyriding the trail of the cosmic serpent. As with alchemy, it's never the result that matters; it's the time spent on the process, the discipline of repetition. Enlightened boredom.
Our proposed walk was far too neat. The implication of the vulgarity of the sign I intended to inflict on East London screamed for some last moment revision. The project had nothing to do with Thomas Pynchon ("He walked; walked, he thought sometimes ... his only function to want"). Pynchon's 1963 novel, V., in any case, was always followed by an assertive period. V. (I did once toy with the idea of collecting an alphabet library: from "A" by Louis Zukofsky, through John Berger's G and The Story of O, to Z, the novelisation of the Costa-Gavras film.)
Arrangements in place, the evening before the walk, I was still worrying at the details of the scheme, hoping for some accident to bring about a final revision. Rummaging through the chaos of my desk, the bills, unanswered letters, unsolicited typescripts, fliers for last season's poetry readings, I discovered an invitation, six months out of date, to attend the inauguration, in Seminar Room 178, Technology Faculty, University of Greenwich, of seminaruim, "a permanent site-specific installation" by Richard Makin.
Makin was given complete freedom regarding the site and the nature of the piece ... The piece is textual and is condensed from the site's appellation, the artist working with the constraints of synonyms, associations and the etymology of the compounded words seminar room. These served to focus heterogeneous responses to the subject environment and its broader surroundings and were instrumental in producing a poetic constellation evoking various motifs correlational to the function of that environment. The yield is an equivocal conjunction intended to instigate a pondering and contemplation of simultaneously the presented semantic arrangement and the functions of the host space, the receiver situated within this weave of locus and stream of words that have emerged from the nominative of a particular physical domain: a transparent and resonant superimposition of word and place.
How could I resist? Makin's artwork fitted so neatly alongside the theme of the moment. I had to go for it — sponsored graffiti of the most elevated kind. This character Makin, whose name I had previously noticed in the modernist periodical Parataxis, had been invited to creatively deface the wall of a new university. Here was graffiti of a previously unrecognised sort — indoor graffiti, premeditated spontaneity. A legitimate sibling of the invitations left on the doors of public conveniences, those capital-letter jokes trailing forlornly towards a puddled floor. It was unlikely, I thought, that Makin had got out his paint can, stencil set and ruler, to do the business himself. Could he, as a sponsor of secondhand graffiti, be included in our collection? There must have been faculty meetings, proposals, justifications, budgets, costings of material and labour. Then there was the style of the lettering: had some hireling David Jones or Eric Gill been found in the borough? Makin's room would be the pivot on which our route march would swing.
The bureaucratic comedy began as soon as I picked up the telephone. Making contact with the University of Greenwich, I was passed from department to department, secretary to impersonal assistant. It was that awkward time of the afternoon when the sun skulks listlessly over the horizon. I could hear tea-cups being pointedly clinked. I felt the uncomfortable warmth of the central heating, the flickering interference of strip-lighting that reduces humans to a species of desktop cacti. All knowledge of the mysterious Richard Makin and his art project was strenuously denied. The University of Greenwich, it was implied, was not that kind of place. I persisted in my folly. The Technology Faculty did exist, the clerks would go that far. But who was I? Who did I represent? What was the name of my company? I grew peevish. I quoted the original invitation. And the fact that Makin openly admitted that he was prepared to "read and talk about his work". "All are welcome" stated an official handout that bore the letter-heading of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Scientific Computing; to say nothing of the sponsoring names of Professors Mark Cross, DSc, CMath, FIMA, Martin G Everett, DPhil, Edwin Galea, PhD, Keith Rennolls, MSc, CStat, MICFor. Four professors were up for this and the functionaries were still giving me a hard time. The tea-cups were replenished. The clerks weakened. The room might be visited, between strictly regulated hours, but there was still no Makin in the computer. The man was a freelance, a floater.
By now, of course, seminaruim had become the quest, an absolute necessity. I must have sounded crazy enough for them to act before I turned up in their openplan office with a knapsack of gelignite. Makin rang me. He would be in Seminar Room 178 between eleven-thirty and twelve-thirty on the following morning, prepared to curate his achievement. This was a double-edged blessing. We had an achievable goal for our walk but we were lumbered with an unwelcome time-base. I never like that. Time on these excursions should be allowed to unravel at its own speed, that's the whole point of the exercise. To shift away from the culture of consumption into a meandering stream. Cut those wires.
The walk had received its arbitrary revision. There was a proper target, while the second stage, the return leg, could look after itself. (At this point, I dug deeper into the tilth on the margins of my desk and uncovered the typescript of an earlier Makin text, the curve of forgetting. I dived into it at random: "duped by the record of signs upon endless walls". Makin, back in December 1992, lived in the shadow of the obelisk of St Luke's Old Street. Home territory. Our conjunction was even stranger than I had supposed: we would both be travelling, twin arms of a compass, south-east across London, to meet in a transgressed seminar room.)
Another call. (Have you noticed how these things come in clusters? Like buses. The instrument, once activated, alerts other potential communicators, triggers off a chain reaction. Call it morphic resonance, or Secret State interference in the electromagnetic field, and switch on the answer-machine.) An audibly distressed woman, a writer, enraged by a sense of her powerlessness in the face of near-demonic forces, has to protest, describe, articulate her feelings about the M11 motorway extension. The battle of Claremont Road. What to do? The things that have been going on. Things she has seen. Dawn raids. Executed trees. Why is this unreported by the media? Why doesn't someone tell the real story? There's no specific request to make of me, no demand. But. Before it's too late. She will. Get it down. Herself. The truth.
Evening sunlight was polishing the grain of my grandfather's desk, bleaching the pinks in the John Bellany watercolour. It was my turn to abuse the phone, summon Marc Atkins from his darkroom. If we were to get to the University of Greenwich by late morning, we would have to knock off Abney Park Cemetery tonight. You can't visit the dead before 9 am. Already the "purity" of the V had been despoiled. Good. That's promising. If our pilgrimage is not to disintegrate into a marathon trot we have to walk out of the door without further hesitation.
Albion Drive E8. To Abney Park Stoke Newington.
Evening of 24/10/94.
The important fact about urban living: the continued stream of second
attention awareness. Every licence plate, street sign, passing strangers,
are saying something to you.
William S. Burroughs
Easily into our stride, I'm explaining the whole insane concept to Marc: on the hoof. No time for maps and bearings. He handles these feverish speculations with practised ease. God knows what he really thinks. Or who he is. Not "Marc Atkins", this much he will admit. Another volunteer orphan, a self-invented man with an interestingly labyrinthine personal life; postal systems that require a network of dead-letter drops. He's a shavenheaded vegetarian giant, a near-Brummie. That's already more than any reasonable person would want to discover. Give him a camera to frame out the rest of the world and he's happy. Promise him a free breakfast and the chance of running into a squall of long-legged black women and he'll walk through fire.
At the end of Albion Square, beyond the clutch of houses that have been built over the Nimby battleground of a fruitlessly defended green space, is a stunted obelisk set on a carpet of stone flags. Its octagonal base serves as somewhere to sit for those who take advantage of the Duke of Wellington's barbecue night, a stand for lager cans. The concrete shield from which the obelisk rises is patterned with a network of juvenile footprints. The site is shaded by a sycamore umbrella and frisky with the dance of leaf-light. The shadow of the obelisk, in the late afternoon, falls away from the house which the sculptor Rachel Whiteread and her partner are restoring — but points in the direction we have to walk. There's a cup mark or raised weal in the soft white stone, the explanatory text has been obliterated. Memorials are a way of forgetting, reducing generational guilt to a grid of albino chess pieces, bloodless stalagmites. Shapes that are easy to ignore stand in for the trauma of remembrance. Names are edited out. Time attacks the noble profile with a syphilitic bite. These funerary spikes, unnoticed by the locals as they go about their business, operate a system of pain erasure; acupuncture needles channelling, through their random alignment, the flow of the energy field.
Every obelisk has its acolyte. The undistinguished example that fronts the Duke of Wellington pub is serviced by the pigeon man, an elderly stooped figure dressed entirely in brown; from his flat cap, through his greasy raincoat, to his worn shoes, he is the colour of Daddies Own sauce scraped from a formica table. This pensioner progresses through the borough, each and every day, by his own eccentric circuits. He empties bulging plastic shopping bags of crumbs and crusts, ensuring that his feral pigeons will continue to splatter the same patches of territory. Action painting on a grand scale, bowel art. Where does all this bread come from? The man looks as if he lives on stale crusts dipped in vinegar sauce — and yet, by the quantities he slings over privet hedges and arranges on chosen squares of pavement, he must have the clearance contract from a chain of bakeries. He is never diverted by mere conversation, there's too much to be done, ground to be covered. He scuffles through, not bothering about who might be watching him, eager to get finished before the road walker starts beating her bounds. She's a creature of twilight, a tidy, middle-aged black woman who never shifts from the white line. There's something magical about the way she survives Queensbridge Road in the rush hour (it's tough enough in a car). No deviation, straight forward between the headlight beams, a journey to nowhere, but a journey that must be made. She has been heard to mutter: "The dirt, the dog dirt". It's canine excrement that keeps her off the pavements. Leaves her competing with kamikaze traffic.
Middleton Road and the Holly Street Estate: the horror nicely disguised (along with Shrubland Road, Lavender Grove, Mapledene Road, Forest Road) in names intended to invoke imaginary avenues of trees converging on London Fields. Hackney recalled as a market garden; orchards just outside the limits of the city. The barrack blocks of flats with their colourful history in the process of being replaced by duplicates of precisely the same dimensions, better built versions that should last for years, tucked away behind a green barrier of temporary fencing. The nature of this present transaction subverted by the spectacular exhibition of a large black and white photograph, a presentation of what used to be here: the "truth" of dead bricks used to implant a false memory, an unearned inheritance.
CONTROLLED. DANGER. DEMOLITION. KEEP OUT.
Coalition against the/Criminal Justice Bill. RALLY.
Lobby of Parliament. WEDNESDAY 19 OCTOBER.
6pm Westminster Central Hall.
Socialist Worker. Build the resistance.
Big Up/Miss Bounty Killer + Hype + Sweetie N
+ Killer Tits
LAING: how that name, spread across town, reads like the announcement of a Sixties revival, Ronnie back on the rostrum like the Billy Graham of psychopolitics.
We march west: under the green and red railway bridge, once a mugger's wet dream. Escape routes into the flats, dustbin caves, or up the grass mound and over the wall onto the tracks. Handbags dumped in the hobo wilderness jungle where the elevated line used to run from Dalston Junction to Broad Street, a civilised shunt into the city for the clerical classes. A Euro-packet of loose change has hacked back the abundant growth, stamped out the campfire drinking schools, cleared the ground for future development — as car park or privatized railway. This dangerous but exhilarating walk with its views down between slats, and its secret glimpses into the backs of industrial premises, is no longer a possibility.
On the far side of the bridge, a number of haplessly optimistic survivalist operations hang on to the coat-tails of Kingsland Road. TAILOR TERZI. Silky disco waistcoats for citizens of restricted growth. Every night a Saturday fever, a blindman's wedding. SPECIAL OFFER. MADE TO MEASURE TROUSERS. £35. No viable role has been found for this, the first shop, since the bag seller and boot-repairer jacked it in. Fantastic enterprises (designer hats suitable for Ascot or bar mitzvah), written up in listings magazines, wither and die before the cuttings can be securely pasted in the window.
Removals Anywhere in UK. ACCESS, VISA. Defunct. The sour stench of dog fear from behind boarded-up windows. Ex-rental washing machines that bark and yelp. A kebab slaughterhouse where all the dead meat has come back to life on a revolving skewer. The anarchists have their number.
OR OTHERS WILL
ALF. There is a persistent rumour floated by conspiracy theorists that Special Branch (and their competitors in Five and Six) have been forced to talk up the animal liberationist fringe in order to justify their munificent budgets. Sad-eyed veal calves have to replace Belfast outrages in the news reports. Beagles with a habit are the new Soviet. Hunt saboteurs are fifth columnists. Well-intentioned cells of Middle Englanders have been ruthlessly penetrated. Staged provocations orchestrate the latent hysteria of the tender hearted. After the iniquity of factory farming there's nothing left to pay for the upkeep of those mephitic riverside palaces. The graffiti on the grey door of the dog shed is so precisely aligned that it's hard not to suspect the trained hand of Secret State forgers.
Cooked Brawns etc. QUALITY DOC TRAINING. Noise, smell. A proprietary group, perfumed against the shrill odours of their métier as canine educationalists, block the doorway — not so much keeping their unbroken charges in, but keeping dubious citizens (non-owners) out. Dog training, surveillance, security: those are the growth areas, that's where to sink your redundancy packet. Very popular with villains who have managed to stay liquid and who fancy an indoors occupation. Security is the equivalent of the old time footballer's pub. The philosophy is homeopathic, treating like with like. Take a gander down the flank of the decommissioned hospital on the far side of Kingsland Road: vans. And they're all plastered with promises of heavy duty protection — alarm systems, grilles, trip-wires, locks, chains. Everything the upwardly mobile Ecstasy broker could require.
THE LONDON DOG CENTRE. The title says it all. A copyright on negatives. This shop openly declares itself the pits. The tributary corner, where Middleton Road squirts out into the stream of the old Ermine Street, houses a coven of visionaries who are hopelessly attempting to "train" the shapes of chaos, to discipline hot-breathed things that creep and crawl between human and animal worlds. Dogs. A window of cutely traumatised puppies, given the once-over in Fairy Liquid, busk like Amsterdam prostitutes. Professionally on show. Offering it. A pal for sale. A buddy who won't talk back. A baby-sized minder. A minder for your baby. (And there's a satellite trade, living off the woof-woof biz, photographing these beauties — so that they can be remembered when they are gone, in ripe colour, just as they looked in their prime. Oval snapshots to paste on a granite gravestone.)
Various meats are advertised on a menu board. Fish food. Sacks of bird seed. Doggy treats. A tray of stitched bootees in something that looks like waxed skin. Doll's house footwear for your pooch to gum. The shop has the atmosphere of an interspecies affray waiting to happen: the noise and the pong. But the Dog Centre co-exists in evident sympathy with the adjacent property: KENNY'S, THE BEST LITTLE SHOE SHOP IN TOWN. (Kenny's? Hard to shake off sinister echoes of Frank Zappa and pod people experiments.) Ranks of burnished Doc Marten boots. STEELS, DEALERS, COMMANDO STEELS: an army waiting for the word.
We swing out into the main drag (Kingsland Road) without paying our respects to the pub on the corner, the Fox, whose former landlord, Clifford Saxe, a commercial associate of the Knight dynasty, is said to have planned the £8 million pound 1976 robbery of the Bank of America from the room upstairs. Mr Saxe is one of the Famous Five (along with Ronnie Knight, Frederick Foreman, Ronald Everett, John James Mason) who opted for early retirement in the sun. So many of the faces are out there now it's like a time-warp, like having a poodle down Kingsland Waste in the late Sixties, before it went native.
Such disreputable myths have been airbrushed from the history of the borough in a punt at a minimalist gentrification programme. The idea is to propose, with a few green and white metal signs, a sense of place, local identity: that a strip of pavement can be something more than a headsdown charge after a Kentish bus trying to find its way to Liverpool Street. Marc can't believe the tasteful semaphoring arms that try to seduce you into a detour through KINGSLAND BASIN, STONEBRIDGE GARDENS, DALSTON TOWN CENTRE.
Dalston Town Centre, I love the chutzpah of that. Can a ghost have a centre? Dalston, coming into its pomp after a railway carve-up, as an alternative for those who couldn't afford the trip "up west", has all the buzz of a JG Ballard traffic island squatted by cowboys. Everything-Under-A-Pound bazaars rub shoulders with embattled chemists, off-licences, and the famous eel and pie shop with the blood-smeared slab. LARGER LIVE EELS IN STOCK. PLEASE ENQUIRE.
Conscious of the fact that we had to keep up a decent pace to reach Abney Park before they closed the gates, we didn't have time to give Kingsland Waste the close reading it deserved. We stuck to the line of shops on the east side.
The wall glyphs come straight at you. Low down, crude; increasingly frantic variations on the same logo. Written not sprayed. The signs defy instant interpretation. The most common one might stand, we decided, for EOKA. But that made no sense. The Cypriots were much earlier immigrants: like the Lambrianou family (coming to public notice through the criminal exploits of Tony and Chris) who had settled, a few years after the war, in Belford House on Queensbridge Road — effective (red brick and flowerpot on balcony) public housing which is still very much in service.
Away from its side channels, Kingsland Road was a furious river of competing voices: West African enterprise (an optician who doubled as a copier of legal documents), Fax bureaux, exotic cake shops, a mini-cab firm with a radio beacon tall enough to endanger lowflying aircraft, Turkish football club poolrooms, schmutter merchants, and the entire range of multi-ethnic snack bars and fast food emporia.
I had to copy the EOKA glyph into my notebook, so that I could have it analysed by someone more knowledgeable in the subtleties of Turkish splinter group politics. And then, looking more closely at the letters, I realised that I had got it all wrong. TOKi. The bandit penman of Hackney was a tagger. A juvenile smoker customising the word "toke". What I had taken to be an outburst of political sloganeering was no more than the territorial flourish of a peculiarly persistent dope-freak.
TIKB. STOP DIRTY WAR IN KURDISTAN. A professionally executed red stencil. The Turkish Workers' Communist Association. One of a number of groups busking for budget, hoping to upgrade their premises (by painting out the previous occupants' affiliations). Apparently, the Turkish hard left have only recently taken up the Kurdish cause, making gestures in support of the mountain people from around Malatya; farmers and herdsmen driven off their lands by rural poverty, and threatened by both central government and the incursions of PKK guerrillas. The Kurds drifted in stages down towards the Mediterranean and then on, chasing some distant relative, to Dalston. Restaurant work, sweat-shops, endless benefit applications. Streams of moustached and stubbled men in open-necked shirts queuing politely for their turn at the photocopier. Rumours also of protection rackets, extortion, prostitute outworkers. Husbands bringing venereal diseases back to their housebound wives. Rundown auction properties crammed with statusless immigrants.
The New Country Off-Licence and Foodstore in Kingsland Road is a typically modest venture: green vegetables racked on the street, the middle classes nipping furtively across the road from De Beauvoir Town for halvah and olives. Three or four men — no women — chatting behind the counter.
A twenty-nine-year old shop-assistant, Ali Ozturk, was standing in the doorway when he was shot. The event was scarcely national news but it made a splash in the Hackney Gazette — who suggested that Mr Ozturk was the victim of a hitman, or team of hitmen, dispatched from Ankara by the secret police. The local journalist, with evident ambitions to become the next Frederick Forsyth, pictured the assassin squatting, Dallas-style, in the flats opposite, waiting for his moment. To sustain this, it was necessary to find a more significant target. The shop's owner, Mafiz Bostanci, "a vigorous campaigner on trade union rights" and a senior figure at the Halkevi Turkish Centre in Stoke Newington, was the intended martyr. No shot was heard, no gunman seen. The incident made no particular impression on drifters cruising for kebabs, curries, battered cod, rice `n' peas.
Dark sweatshop doorway leading back into unknowable regions hidden from the street. Storerooms, muscle gyms; striplight offices of lawyers paid to postpone extradition, smooth over motor frauds, front "Jewish lightning" insurance scams. As I stoop to transcribe another concrete poem, three Nigerians trundle a monster package up the stairs.
A newsagent's window: the noticeboard of the urban village. TIE AND TEASE MASSAGE. MAGIC MOMENTS, DISCREET SERVICE. TONY GETS A BUZZ FROM DEAD BEES.
Closing on the junction, the crossroads, the epicentre of the notional Dalston Town, we spot, for the first time, a quirkier intelligence at work on the flagstones beneath our feet. The message has been stencilled, like the exhortations of TIKB, in blood-red lettering: WE'RE/[B]EHAVING/LIKE/INSECTS. And then by way of variation, in blue, STOP HISTORY. No half measures, these wandering philosophers are playing for high stakes. And with no embarrassment at self-plagiarisation. A thing that is true once loses none of its veracity in repetition. The stencil behaves better on the fresh white matte of Barclays Bank PLC. The previously absent B is smudged but clearly visible. The alignment of scarlet capitals, displayed directly beneath the bank's nameplate, is an obvious foretaste of poet Richard Makin's assault on Seminar Room 178 of the University of Greenwich.
The quadrivium, or meeting place of four roads, is the spiritual centre of the area through which we are walking: it's where suicides and vampires would receive their toothpick through the heart. On the east/west axis, the hobbled spurt of Dalston Lane, labouring gamely under the burden of cultural significance imposed upon it by Patrick Wright in A Journey Through Ruins, goes head-to-head with Peter Sellers' comedic Balls Pond Road. And to the north, Ermine Street, lightly disguised as Kingsland High Street (Stoke Newington Road, Stoke Newington High Street), makes a bid for Stamford Hill, White Hart Lane, Cambridge and other inconsequential destinations. This cruciform reef of shops, stalls and small businesses, has died and returned to life more times than RL Stevenson's Master of Ballantrae. Not so much a failed shopping centre as a car boot sale in an open prison, tactfully invigilated by security guards in peaked caps.
There couldn't be a more appropriate location for Doc "Papa" Williams to have launched Dark and Light, his walk-in, neighbourhood voodoo boutique. Dark and Light (The Foremost Source of Occult Books & Supplies) is part of a multinational franchising operation with branches in New York and Haiti. It's moment has surely come around — even if the shop has been dressed after the style of Live and Let Die. The statuettes have the authentically ironed-over, Roger Moore android look: charming but dysfunctional.
The doc, a softly-spoken Haitian exile, is always ready to pose with fat Cuban cigar and skull perched on top of his electrified hair. He can heal and he can curse. He can work on your barnet or drive out demons. He can put lead in your pencil or cleanse and bless your ill-disposed accommodation. Supplicants bring their warts and tumours from as far afield as Bristol or Manchester. He has the cuttings to prove it. Local spirits willingly dance to the command of this Dr Dee of Dalston.
Dark and Light dominates the crossroads. Travellers are forced to make a choice between lefthand and righthand paths. The window facing Dalston. Junction suggests something between a clearance of surplus Vatican stock and the gnome reservation of a downmarket garden centre: runtish saints and Snow White virgins, dozens of them packed against feely pastiches of Leonardo's Last Supper, mowed out of felt. The left side of the shop, confronting the newspaper-seller's booth on Kingsland High Street, superimposes headlines of hysterical horror, reflected in the display glass, with potions, herbs, candles, chicken bones, feathers, roots, claws, cat-sized coffins. A tarot that has broken free of its box. Potential students of the dark side are encouraged to browse through the small library of books on display: The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus, White and Black Arts for Man and Beast, The Story of Solomon the King. I can never make my mind up — is this tellingly sited shop promoting the craziness, the babble, that has spilled over on to the walls? Or is it simply a focusing device, a shelter for all the unhoused definitions of the weird that stalk the streets of the borough? Dalston, twinned with downtown Port-au-Prince, has declared itself a voodoo republic.
Doc Williams' graffiti comes in the form of a quotation: a group of photographs of the healer in full spate, stogie clamped between teeth, straw hat, conducting a ceremony on his home turf. On the blue wall behind him is painted PLACE DES HOUNSSYS: reproduced words join the rest of the trumpeting exotica in the encyclopaedia of the city. That place becomes this place. If we do not cross to the west side of the street, we will be transported, trapped in the implications of an exorcism we do not understand.
In the revitalised air, the messages are coming much faster. All the special-interest groups want a piece of this. Out-patients, anarchists, cadres and weekend socialists. I have the uneasy feeling that we are pursued by a twist of Doc Williams' green smoke. Cul-de-sacs are dense with malign script.
TIKB. FUCK YOU. DHKP.
SUPPORT THE PEOPLE'S WAR IN PERU (RC MAOISTS).
IMHOTEP, a Black Man, was a multi-talented genius
of ancient Africa.
MALCOLM X ON REVOLUTION
Death to the
The occult configuration of the borough of Hackney is confirmed by an encased streetplan (one of Patrick Wright's numinous foci), a wayside shrine that has presumably failed to pay its electricity bill and had the power cut off. The map has been reversed, you'd have to stand on your head to orientate yourself. It's a Sufi meditational device that has fallen into disuse. The faster we walk past these things, the more ground we lose. There's nothing tangible for Marc to photograph; lifting his camera would be like trying to stuff fog into a bottle.
At the next turning on the road north is a young man with a barrow of paperbacks, trying to make a go of an all-weather bibliothèque. The broken leg doesn't help. He keeps his back to the wall, fending off the advances of deranged strollers who treat him as an unsalaried social worker or lay psychiatrist. (He can't walk away. He can't even hop into the caff without risking his stock.) He is forced to share the responsibility for adult literacy in the area with the Oxfam superstore and other less reliable charity bunkers. (It would be a charity to take anything away from them.)
The barrow is a canvas-covered cousin to the book vans that still ply their trade in remote rural areas. You can't be too elitist about the stock. Take what you can find and be grateful for it. Like one of the mobile libraries, the barrow is carefully, not to say obsessively, arranged in sections: science fiction/horror (no real distinction there), crime, posh Penguins, romance and her lightly-salted sister, pornography. It does what it can, this overstacked book tumbrel, to compete with the "open field" semiological excesses on the wall, which looms behind the barrow like the back projection of a middle period Godard film. The stock is unashamedly populist, but not quite popular. The hawker spends more time chatting, or struggling with his thermos, than he does putting coins in his pouch. His barrow is more of a museum than a shop; the units don't turn over, they remain on display. I toyed with a copy of Barnet Liwinoff's The Burning Bush (Antisemitism and World History) which had hung around at a fiver through spring and summer and well into autumn. Finally, I cracked. I had it in mind to write something about Barnet's less reputable half-brother, David, the much-mythologised lowlife conduit for the Nicholas Roeg/Donald Cammell film Peformance. The Burning Bush is an atypical sample of the bookman's wares (a ghost from an earlier era, when most of the broken private libraries of Hackney were Jewish — leftist, rabbinical, and in the original Middle and Eastern European languages). Hardbacks are barely tolerated on the stall, often kept in sealed plastic envelopes. They tend towards Book Club reprints of marketable crime and horror pros (I did once buck the trend by coming away with a fine first edition of The Shining by Stephen King); movie star memorabilia, militaria (especially Nazi), true crime photo shockers, and transatlantic fiction deemed too obscure to be worth remaindering. It's very unlikely that Lights Out will put itself around enough to claim a perch on the stall. Neither will any of the desktop pamphlets of modernist poetry that circulate entirely in samizdat form, unmolested by reviewers, unknown to bookshops (outside Camden Town). No place on the barrow for the disadvantaged, anything without a square spine is barred.
A nice sample of this postal art, Peter Riley's Royal Signals (Cheltenham, 1995), landed on the doormat to provide a welcome diversion from my laboured remembrance of the Kingsland High Street bookstall. In this slender composition, which I recommend, the poet tactfully edits the diary jottings of his father's North African campaign: an unexpected and effective collaboration.
Tent peppered with shrapnel
then ammo dump went up
and ½ shells and shell cases dropped on us
Had to keep under all morning.
Checking frequencies now.
Poor Jock, he was a good fellow.
Indeed he was. Jock the runner, the pornbroker and hedge scholar of the Waste. Riley's poem (along with the obituary notices for George Jeffery of Farringdon Road, received in the same post) put an elegiac bite into my musings on the vanished street-traders. George was the governor, the last of the line. There's no need to dwell on the legendary achievements of the ex-paratrooper with a fondness for recuperative breaks in Florida or the Channel Islands; it has all been spelled out in the Guardian and The Times. George was a time surfer: in his barber's blue jacket and his Three Stooges' tonsure, he oversaw the transfer of coded documents from the nineteenth century to the gutters of Camberwell. Forgeries that launched the Brotherhood of the Golden Dawn. Masonic passports. Maps of undiscovered islands. Pseudonymous novels by untraceable authors that inspired, in their turn, even more labyrinthine fictions. The mob waiting for George to unveil his first board would gossip, feed rumours, infect an entire underworld of book scouts, trash fetishists, bounty hunters. Here might be found the skeletal and preternaturally bright-eyed Martin Stone; the Corvine pedagogue Donald Weeks, who knew more about Frederick Rolfe than anyone alive or dead (including the man himself); the science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedist John Clute — a pundit who virtually invented his own field of studies (and amassed an important 20,000 volume collection in the process). And also less public eccentrics who peddled to the stall every day of their lives, gladly abdicating all other human possibilities in the quest for the cabbala of the unobtainable.
George Jeffery's chain of stalls, inherited from his father and his grandfather, was in recent times increasingly hemmed in by building work and the press of traffic, bottlenecking back from the plastic cones of the City's ring of steel. George's cash business, which belonged historically in the shadow of the dome of St Paul's, was marginalised out of existence. He had the luck, or more probably the good taste, to die at the right time. To take the whole magical enterprise with him.
I like to imagine a Viking funeral: George laid out on the barrow on a cushion of Saturday-special books, a comfortably-fleshed mound beneath the roped tarpaulin. At a signal from his son or daughter, the biblio-cannibals would be let loose, elbowing, scratching and spitting, forced to devour the great procurer, down to the last knuckle and curl. They should carry him away in their distended bellies to the obscure rooms where they have stashed their dusty treasures. George had, over the years, dispersed acres of country house libraries, Bottomley'd institutions: remorseless tides of salvage. Rare Victorian pamphlets, plump Edwardian bindings, railway fiction — he graded the lot, hemp sack or auction table. He kept the culture of print in flow. He served it like a pest controller, a water bailiff. Perched above the Fleet ditch, he shovelled the failed remnants, the picked-over dross, into the corporation's dustcarts. These Farringdon Road barrows were the court of final appeal. After the frantic ceremonies of the predators there was extinction.
But George Jeffery had his pilot fish, lesser figures creeping in from outlying districts of the city, to recirculate the scraps. Which brings us back to the Dalston bookman, Jock. There's a moody photograph by Cyril Arapoff (collected in the booklet, London in the Thirties; Nishen, 1988) that perfectly captures the atmosphere of the Caledonian Market in 1935. This is a visualised fragment of the Arcadia that still haunted Jock: alps of books, mountain ranges thrown across the old cattle yards. Pipe smokers content merely to contemplate the spilled plunder, treating the conical heaps like a visionary landscape. Scavengers icepicking a path towards some mouth-watering desideratum. The books were so much opencast slag, insultingly priced, happy to rot away amongst the spoons and rags and horse manure. Jock was spoilt for plunder. He could scarcely summon the enthusiasm to wrestle with another elephant folio, parcel up a raft of colour plates, give shelf space to a conspiracy of three-deckers. "You wouldn't believe what was there. You'd weep if I told you."
His practical erudition, which was genuine and broad ranging, had been beaten into him with a tawse. He was happy to make an early escape from the old country, while continuing to hymn the brutalities that cursed him with book knowledge. Unlettered, he might have been in clover — a butcher or a car mechanic. Instead of this eternal journeying after texts which would never be investigated beyond the title-page. He had survived sixty years on the streets. "We're both foreigners here," he used to tell me. "It'll never change, no matter how long we stick it out." Aboriginal Cockneys were an inferior species, he'd never persuade them to anything better than tits and tommy guns. Let them call him "Jock" if they wanted to, his other names had disappeared with his birth certificate.
In the war years and just after, he made a decent living, so he said, taking a loaded taxi a couple of hundred yards from the trays of Foyle's Bookshop (which were replenished on a daily basis) to the indifferent antiquarians of Cecil Court. He shifted Poetry London publications by the tea-chest. Lucian Freud and Graham Sutherland lithographs.
In later days, George Jeffery became his most reliable source of supply. (Like George he haunted the Cheshire Street market on Sunday mornings. They would pass each other with an almost imperceptible Masonic nod, a cough of acknowledgement, or a signal to indicate that something rare and strange was reserved under the table. George, in civvies, made a leisured progress, sauntering through, picking up his fruit and veg, disdainfully examining proffered bindings, anything "old"; while Jock, who had a stall to run, soaked up congeries of paperbacks. Which I happily drudged for him, being granted a preview of the items that I would soon be polishing for display in Camden Passage. The hierarchy was safely in place: the psychogeography of retail. The same books might be found in any quarter of the town, only the prices changed with the zones. In Cheshire Street I made my William Harvey discovery about the circulation of stock, like heavy oil between the gates of the heart. And it was during these early walks, before the market was in spate, burdened with carrier bags of unsorted pb dreck, that I received the benefit of Jock's philosophy, a blend of David Hume and Frank Harris. Empirical exaggeration.)
Jock the Bookman was the direct precursor of the young contemporary with his stall on Kingsland High Street. But Jock's operation was more complex, both in terms of territory and of stock. On Sundays, Cheshire Street — alongside the caves of exotic animals in the railway arches; on Saturdays, Kingsland Road; and the rest of the week in Hoxton. He never engaged in the Saturday scrum at Farringdon Road, opting instead to take a leisurely and scenic 243 bus ride on all the other days, arriving in time for the exchange of gossip that preceded the eleven o'clock scrummage. He raked over the floor of rejects, the grievously harmed veterans, the optimistically described "reading copies"; prepared to embark on a rescue operation. George's dross represented the cream of Jock's stock, the posh stuff that could be displayed in an orange crate at the back of his stall on the Waste.
|Skating on Thin Eyes: The First Walk||1|
|The Dog & the Dish||55|
|Bulls & Bears & Mithraic Misalignments: Weather in the City||89|
|X Marks the Spot||133|
|Lord Archer's Prospects||165|
|House in the Park||211|
|The Shamanism of Intent||243|
|The Cadaver Club||331|
|Acknowledgements and Select Bibliography||375|