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Toward a radical middle

a time for fear
Monday, June 23, 2003  
My mini derive

The East End of London is full of lovely roads and houses: an endless, dense, knotty maze of sandy brick and dark slate, green leaves and clumps of weed. So, I'm on the 106 bus puffing through Stoke Newington and round to Finsbury Park, to go and get groceries, and I'm noticing all these attractive roads again, and spotting new ones or seeing them in a new aspect, and thinking how you can do that with large clumps of the East End, and that this idea of bleak, concrete inner city ghettoes does not the correspond to the East End that I actually see. Go around Clapton, Stoke Newington, Hackney, Stamford Hill, for example, and you’ll see that they don't just consist of scuzzy main roads with greasy shop fronts, or 60s council flats and housing estates, but also rows and blocks of Victorian and Edwardian houses that age with a mellow, lazy elegance, and unexpected patches of nature, park, greenery and canal. If you wander from the main roads and routes you find a London hidden by habit, streets unseen except by the residents who live on them, and therefore no longer really see what surrounds them. Inner city residential areas are beautiful because they escape the stagnation and desperation of suburbia, and absorb the edgy energy and local colour of the inner city cultural tumult (although a lot of the richer young Stoke Newington residents get really nauseating about this, it's like social conscience by association, or, more accurately, proximity). The patterns of wealth are chaotic, they follow no logic. There is no reason why one road should be cheaper, dirtier and less cared for than another when the houses are pretty much the same basic standard; it's more to do with the complex layers and invisible traces of a street's microhistory, its own evolution that you can follow back through deeds, local memory, council statistics. Some are flats renovated with bohemian ingenuity and flair, some houses that share families because the tenants can't afford the rent alone, some privately owned and renovated by young media luvies who eat out on Church Street in 'Stokey' and take their kids to Victoria Park on the weekend with plastic pushchairs and all that caper. On my road in Clapton there's a rundown council block that leaks water like the Nile all night down one end, and down the other, private flats in a converted terrace with garages that are protected by alarms, lighting, and a steel gate that you have to open with a secret code. The East End is not so much a riddle, as a large and densely-woven patchwork. Its beauty resides in an act of perception that you are either born with or you acquire. (Or don't. You can see why some people just want to get out.)

So, I've got my groceries and the 106 is nowhere to be seen. There's a bus and there's Cameron Diaz surfing on the side of it, and that’s great, but, again, not the 106. So I walk down Blackstock Road, which is a really mundane road that breaks off from Seven Sisters Road, which runs right through Finsbury Park. Except that it's not a mundane road at all, if you look at it, it's fascinating. Blackstock Road starts as a Finsbury Park overspill of tandooris, off licenses and Greek grocers, new estate agents and telecommunication shops and that sort of thing, then turns into a middling-but-secretly-gorgeous residential road, and then back into another little hive of hidden pubs, bars, video shops and news agencies. Between the shops it blossoms with greenery, a lovely urban-pastoral weave of trees, weeds and grimy bricks, which is very East London, with shades and atmospheres peculiar and specific to it...

That's what I'm thinking as I stand next to a pile of rotting cardboard boxes and rubbish sacks outside the Arsenal Cafe. Highbury is like 3 roads away or something, so you can probably hear the football crowds from here on a Saturday afternoon. I'm opposite a place called Kasba, a halal meat and poultry purveyor (halal is a way of killing an animal as prescribed by Muslim law, as a noun it refers to the meat prepared in this way, in other words lawful food), and I'm thinking that this must be a unique shop, which is pretty dumb of me, to be honest. The meat looks awful, actually, but they do have a nice selection of fat, spicy sausages and salami in a fridge near the back, and some intriguing Arabic imports, like glass bottles of peach juice. There's also a nice hand-painted 'Pick Your Own' sign with lots of colourful fruit and veg on it, but I can't find any real fruit and veg to pick, except for a paltry selection on a table outside, wilting in the heat and attracting flies. Down the road there's another one called Butcher El Baraka, which has a much better name, but much worse fruit, and no attractive signs. And then opposite that there's yet another, called Interpacific Ltd. (how good is that?) and they roast chickens in the window, although I'm not sure that's strictly halal. Or, indeed, healthy. Talking of unique shops of a certain type - does that make sense? - if you go back onto Severn Sisters Road itself look out for Faros bakery, mainly because its decor has remained unchanged since the '50s or early '60s so it's a fascinating collection of antiquated and idiosyncratic detail, pale aquamarine tiles and hand-written signs (prices listed in felt-tip pen on a piece of ply-wood in the window), a blue-bar electric heater, old Pepsi and Real Dairy Cream window stickers, half-faded but eternally stuck to the glass door. And while you're there buy a cake and engage the old Greek lady behind the counter in conversation, because she's nice and the cakes are nice. All of these shops must contain great stories of personal migration, family upheavals and bonds, homelands and new lives, love, death, friction and assimilation. And in some cases crime, killing, gambling, drugs, and conspiracy. A secret source of endless stories within stories, a hub of tales.

After all the halal butchers you start to get to the residential bit of Blackstock Road which is nice and overgrown, like residential roads tend to be in the East End, which is one of their best features. People actually let their hedges grow around here. Trees are all tall and twisting and healthy, and look as if they feel appreciated. Great rushes of green weed shoot up from the pavement. Ivy and other creepers climb all over buildings and houses. Ambler Primary School is a very proud but scruffy looking Victorian schoolhouse that still retains its old wooden sash windows and has a playground that melts into a dense cluster of trees and weeds, a tiny patch of dreamy arcadia, which must be like a miniature universe to a kid's eyes. And then, if you go to the second set of shops there's a flat above Snax Sandwich Bar, and the tenants have created a little mid-air garden. The shop front juts out into the street and they've erected a fence around the flat roof, which brims with weeds, flowers, potted ferns, and they only have to climb out of their open sashes to enjoy the sun and the street (or the muggy, stormy, early evening, fat drops of rain falling through thick humid air and plopping on the pavement below). Bits of old road all over the East End like this. It's so easy to forget how green this place actually is - the old forests and marshlands break through the pavement, seep through the cracks. Look at the green rather than the brick, focus on it as the most permanent and important, solid and dominant aspect of what you can see, imagine buildings growing between the trees and so on, you can do this very effectively with some East London roads and houses. Then trace the invisible flight lines of birds, listen out for the inaudible rustle of insects. You'll be somewhere else entirely. Welcome to Finsbury Park.

11:31 AM

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