Thirty-five is a very attractive age; London society is full of women who have, of their own free choice, remained 35 for years.
– Oscar Wilde
Thank you to Mr Maguire for the book!
If you haven’t yet read London Belongs To Me, Norman Collins’ epic tale of a South London street and its inhabitants, now might be a good time to do so.
As dusk falls, the Park in the background becomes vast and mysterious, and the gas lamps that light your way along the main paths dwindle into the distance like lanterns in Illyria. But somehow or other it remains London, with the buses that cruise up Park Lane twinkling through the railings, and the air filled with the roar and rustle of innumerable wheels. Yes, it’s London all right…
How much longer that will be the case remains to be seen. The gas lights have long gone and the buses are now diesel-electric hybrids. Other, less cosmetic, changes are also afoot.
It is a given that laments such as this one and this one have been written ever since shortly after the Great Fire (‘I remember when all this was plague pits!’). But from reading such stories at a safe, half-the-globe-away distance, it appears that my old life in London – minor job in the City, nice flat with decent landlady, The Dolphin for cheap nights out, Fabric for a payday splurge – no longer exists. Sadness and some anger results.
When I first arrived in London, there were still artists living in Hoxton Square, as incredible as that seems now. They were pushed out further and further, from N1 to Hackney, some heading down to Deptford. Faced with the prospect of living in Zone 6 by the time this ends, a few brave souls have cut their losses completely, leaving London to those who think £800 pcm is reasonable for a flat where you can boil the kettle and brush your teeth without leaving the comfort of your bed. Eventually, the culture of what almost no one still calls ‘The Big Smoke’, with its feel of a hundred slightly-connected villages, will be that of Dubai, or parts of Switzerland.
I was once asked where the centre of London was and I couldn’t begin to say. Is it Trafalgar Square? No, that is for tourists. Residents usually only go there to change buses. Oxford Street? Best avoided in summer, the January sales and before Christmas. Instead of one midpoint, each former village has its own centre and characteristics, usually based upon who has settled there or what their trade was. One of my friends was surprised to learn that her entire post code was full of Portuguese expats when coming home one evening during some sporting event to find all the lampposts, stores and restaurants hung with flags. Choosing between bagels or curry on Brick Lane, seeing a quiet Bethnal Greet street come alive every Saturday with families going to the synagogue at the end of the road, dancing to the Skatalites in Finsbury Park. Talking nonsense in the open-all-night Italian cafés of Soho, my first taste of Jamaican ackee and saltfish in Lewisham, hearing of someone who went on holiday to Poland and came back with what he thought were rare treats, only to be told they were selling the same brands in the local corner shop… it was easy to track the ebb and flow of established communities and recent arrivals (often via food).
Similar renewals have always been part of London’s story. The most notorious slums in the city once stood not too far from Covent Garden. The neighbourhood of opium dens that Dorian Gray frequented are now full of yellow brick and glass buy-to-let blocks. The old City fell once to the Luftwaffe’s bombs – which just missed St Paul’s – and then again to the planners, the brutalists and futurists. The fogs and ‘pea-soupers’, so dense that they are almost another character in tales as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes stories, the debut of George Smiley (and John le Carré) and Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, have been consigned to the past. Still, hours of entertainment can be had walking around and trying to imagine what was once there. One weekend I stumbled across Cable Street – scene of the famous 1930s battle – by taking a wrong turn under a flyover.
London does encourage flights of fancy: I don’t think I ever took the bus over Waterloo Bridge without thinking of Terry and Julie and humming a little. I always expected to see some of Michael Frayn’s characters from Towards the End of the Morning as I stumbled out of a Fleet Street boozer at closing time. Despite the near constant tinkering – as Mark Woff once noted: ‘London, it’ll be great when it’s finished’ – scenes of Gordon Comstock’s Hampstead tedium, the impossible-to-escape pubs of Earl’s Court in Hangover Square and of course hints of all of the Dickens still remain, tucked away. Perhaps London changes, but Londoners rarely do. It is a broad club. I think I know one true, born and bred Londoner, everyone else being later transplants, but it doesn’t take long until you’re ‘part of the furniture‘. Then you can enjoy all the fun of going back home for a visit and playing a game of ‘Guess how much this costs in London’, with friends who think you must have lost your mind to want to live there.
Even on a fairly median wage, it always seemed possible to get a glimpse of the other London. The 1%’s town hovered at the edge of our vision like something out of China Miéville’s The City & The City: champagne bars on the client’s tab, openings at galleries, a Soho rooftop party complete with hot tubs. Once accidentally going clubbing to the kind of place the young Royals used to drink in, or the time a celebrity came over to our table at a cabaret to admire my friend’s dress, another evening at a private club that almost had a secret handshake on entry, the night we blagged into the Gaucho Club and were bought drinks by John Diamond (one of the best conversationalists, even though using pen and notepad). It is easy to write your own legends. But some of the best times were at the opposite end of the scale: £5 to get into The Ultimate Hackney Warehouse Rave with all my pals, a Friday evening at Tate Modern, weekend lazing in Regent’s or Victoria or one of the other amazing parks. London living wasn’t always out of the reach of the non-bankers.
Now though, it seems the monied classes have grown tired of their fun being invaded by the plebs. As Focus E15 and Islington Park Street have discovered, there is a cleansing going on. We poke fun at the Sixties town planners, deride and tear down their visions of the future rendered in concrete – including the playgrounds. But they understood, perhaps better than their counterparts in Paris or other segregated capitals, the vibrancy that comes from having the money and the talent in close proximity. When all the proles have been moved to the Outer Zones, when the record shops of Soho are shuttered and the street markets redeveloped – when London is essentially Singapore with worse weather – why will anyone, including the mega-rich, bother with it?
Well, perhaps it is no longer our problem. Escape to a life that doesn’t involve having to get on the Northern Line in rush hour. Head to the regional cities, with their quality of life, branches of famous department stores and exquisite cultural gems. Go wild in the country and pretend you don’t care about fast broadband anyway. Or move further away, for all that I constantly hear about how expensive Tokyo is, I used to live in the equivalent of Zone 1 in a studio flat and still had cash left over for fun and fripperies. Couldn’t make a cup of tea without getting out of bed first though. Damn.
What’s inevitable in all these ‘farewell London’ laments is that the people going are of a certain age, bringing up children or looking to move beyond flatmates and stumbling off night buses. It is entirely right that they should be moving to somewhere leafier and leaving the bright lights to the youth and eternally young. And if you are feeling like you have to leave, but are not quite ready to be put out to pasture, when you reach your new destination: make it shine. Support local arts and community groups. Grow things. Regenerate (sympathetically) and nurture. Use your London nous and contacts to develop and mentor. Then perhaps we will finally see the long-promised rebalancing of Britain as being more than its capital. Who does London belong to? As it was with the Ancient Britons, the Romans or the Huguenots, as for the West Indians, Poles and Chinese, it may belong to you. Through generations or for the blink of an eye, the true London spirit is to enjoy it while it lasts.
If there is one thing I have learnt from the last couple of weeks of reactions to the London Olympics on the social media sites, it is that you can look at event of this nature and see whatever takes your fancy. All manner of commentators from an array of political standpoints have been able to use the Games to support their previously held views. As pal and mortal bath-dweller, Mark Woff so eloquently puts it:
There seem to be thousands of humans spending hundreds of hours commenting on threads with such earnestness, glibness, vitriol, lack of self-awareness… one wonders what drives it. More crassness in people hissing comments over the Twitterfeeds at athletes, people seeing and sustaining the dark side everywhere…
And yes, there was plenty to hate, especially the grasping behaviour of some of the companies involved, the empty seats a slap in the face for everyone who had tried to get tickets in the ballot and failed – including athletes’ families – the Tory MP who deemed the celebration of British accomplishments in the opening ceremony to be ‘leftie multicultural crap’. All buzz-killers.
But also, yes, plenty to celebrate, even for those of us in parts of the world who had to experience serious sleep deprivation to follow our heroes. I don’t know if I have failed or passed the Norman Tebbit ‘cricket test’, but I have been keeping an eye on the Japanese victories as much as the TeamGB ones, if only because national broadcaster NHK seemed to have a policy of only showing events Japan was doing well at.
Japan’s women footballers – nicknamed the ‘Nadeshiko’ after the name of a flower – may have been disappointed not to stun the US again following their victory in last year’s World Cup, but showed a lot of heart to take the silver. The game could have gone their way if they had taken all their chances, but they still surpassed the men’s team and – perhaps – earned a seat in business class on the way home.
Seen from here, where gender equality lags far behind that of comparable countries, the most inspirational outcome has been the pleasure Japan has taken in the success of its female athletes, especially in wrestling, table tennis and judo. It is too soon to tell if that will be enough to overcome the workplace inequalities, lack of affordable childcare and adherence to traditional gender roles common to most of Japan. Hopefully it is a start.
In addition to this celebration of the kids at school who were really good at running and suchlike, there was good news for the ones who prefer to be nose-deep in a book too. NASA managed to land a robot the size of a small car on Mars, following a journey of eight months and a landing by way of a sky crane and parachute. Sending back pictures, communicating via Twitter – both on 100% real and verified, as well as the predictable but still funny spoof feeds – the Curiosity should be enough to get us dreaming of space again.
And so, just as every other commentator has used these events to reinforce whatever it was they already believed about something, so I choose to see them as a light in the dark, proof that so long as there are people prepared to risk it all, work harder than the self-confessed lazies like myself ever could to push their minds and bodies to achieve more than was thought possible, we might not be quite as doomed a species as previously suspected. Who knows what our future could hold?
If we can sparkle he may land tonight
– David Bowie, Starman
I am writing about James Bond and I can almost hear your groans from here. What is there that can possibly be left to be written about Britain’s favourite secret agent that hasn’t already been said a million times before, by feminists, by film reviewers, even by distinguished literary gents? I thought it had all been covered so completely that it could be taken as a given until, screening Goldfinger at Christmas with friends, someone confessed to only then understanding what the Austin Powers films were poking (ooh, baby!) fun at.
My suggestion of a Bond film after Christmas dinner was testament to how far I have travelled since my teenage days. Back then, the festive Bond would usually see me with head buried in a book, occasionally glancing up to sneer disdain at another cheesy line from Roger Moore as my family groaned and chuckled around me. I thought Bond was dreadful, so hackneyed in its clichés – the women only sassy up to a point to make the inevitable surrender greater sport for the hero, the gadgets, the comedy characters – that it was better off ignored. I thought I knew it backwards but didn’t enjoy the knowledge.
Until Casino Royale, that is.
The vow to never watch another Bond film was taken after witnessing the Brosnan incarnation waterskiing down the side of a glacier in Die Another Day. Despite the absence of anything with teeth in the scene, that was my ‘jumping the shark‘ moment. After all the incredulity I had thrilled over as a child – the human Jaws biting through a cable car’s wires, death wielded by bowler hat, spiked shoe or gold paint – I could bear no more.
But Casino Royale was intriguing. A good story well told, unlike some of the others, needing no gimmicks to distract attraction from plot holes you could drive an invisible car through. Daniel Craig’s Bond a vulnerable, often wrong, sometimes out-of-control human being rather than a wise-cracking caricature. Talk was of how this was as the author had intended, the producers returning to the source material having receiving a Jason Bourne-inspired scare. Post 9/11, it was felt, we needed more humility from our secret agents and the Broccoli family – always astute readers of an audience’s moods – delivered.
Softened up by that cinematic experience, it was perhaps inevitable that when a copy of the book came into my hands via a secondhand store in Tokyo, I would fall for Bond faster than a mini-skirted SMERSH agent sent to kill him. As ever, the rogue’s charms proved difficult to resist. So when I was offered a windfall in the shape of an almost complete set about to be thrown out, I grabbed at them. With that pleasing old book aroma and cover art calculated to have any teenage boy’s blood racing – girls! guns! rockets! – this was my chance to see if the rest of the series could live up to Casino Royale’s promise of a more appealing, albeit less charming, Bond.
What you know are to become key elements of the films already exist in the book. Bond’s love of gadgetry and the high life are evident, whether that is fine tailoring, his Ronson lighter for use on his own blend of cigarettes, or the little flat off the King’s Road. He drives a Bentley, rather than an Aston Martin, an older, classic model he takes pride in racing against foreign engineering, at least until he totals it.
Yet while aiming for effortlessness in all this acquisition, Bond is only one loss at cards away from ruin. We see him chafing at the daily routine and ploughing half-heartedly through the paperwork just like any other office worker, although in the privileged position afforded to a senior civil servant, he is no idle playboy. When away from London on operations, he has a Leica camera in one pocket and a Beretta in the other but perhaps more telling are the gadgets he lacks: having to drive to the next town to telephone allies in Scotland Yard or waiting for essential information to arrive by telegram.
Also lacking is any contact with anyone he isn’t working with or for. Perhaps this lack of companionship is compensated for by being surrounded by women, of course possessed of a beauty that mere mortals can only dream of. Whether it is the carefully selected waitresses of the gambling club M frequents, the steely Secret Service secretaries, or a ‘severely competent’ police woman, the lucky fellow rarely encounters a plain woman. Yet central female characters Gala Brand and Loelia Posonby – though crazily named – are also blessed with a quiet strength, essential to keeping the battered and broken Bond on his feet throughout the action.
Though Fleming laments that Posonby is approaching an age where:
Unless she married soon, Bond thought for the hundredth time, or had a lover, her cool air of authority might easily become spinsterish and she would join the army of women who had married a career.
Perhaps this is not the terrible fate he makes it out to be, and it is arguable if a quick tumble with 007 would be a better one, especially as he is facing a similar destiny. His own prospects for a long and happy retirement seem slim, after all. Although contemplating certain death with hopelessness after torture and near defeat, he never questions the rights and wrongs of the power the Service wields over his life. He is good at the essentials of his job, his boss is decent, that is enough. Bond is far more of a bastard than you remember, quite a lot rougher around the edges and unafraid to fight dirty if circumstances dictate. Able to pass with the Lord Basildons of this world, but not quite of them:
Bond knew that there was something alien and un-English about himself. He knew that he was a difficult man to cover up. Particularly in England.
Perhaps it is his misfortune that the exotic locations so fundamental to the films are passed over for this tale, which largely happens within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover in the usually sleepy South of England. Moonraker’s plot delivers such atomic age fears as a rogue scientists, cities laid waste by the most powerful rocket ever built and an unsettling yet impolitic mistrust of those who have gone from enemies to allies in the blink of an eye.
It is a cracking read, belting along at a great pace and lending a warmth and a human side to its characters that you would perhaps not believe existed if you had only watched the films. You may think you know all there is to know about James Bond, but you won’t until you experience him on the page.
ten minutes hate and the mortal bath are reviewing all of the James Bond novels, (sort of) in order. Track down the others here:
Casino Royale (tmb)
Live and Let Die (tmb)
Diamonds Are Forever (tmb)
From Russia With Love – COMING SOON!
One of the less fun things about clocking up another birthday is the dawning realisation that each visit to a club could be the last. As people slow down, the sofa or bar becomes more appealing, especially when weighed against the demands of an all-nighter.
Suddenly it is less certain that the weekend will be spent dancing to great music anywhere outside the confines of your own room. Another downer is the wry observation that, if – like me – your first experience of the nightlife was back in the mid-nineties, you are maybe sharing a dance floor with people who weren’t even born then. Close behind comes the realisation that dearly loved tunes are approaching their 20-year anniversary. Sobering isn’t the word.
But before I got this jaded, the first music I lost my heart to in a darkened club was probably drum ‘n’ bass, except that it wasn’t called that yet. Lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, I headed out each weekend with friends from my town and others we had barely heard of.
Although the jungle raves and clubs we frequented were usually located in unglamorous warehouses a million miles from the nearest tube station, hearing sounds like this made all the adventures in getting there and back worthwhile. That said, I advise fast-forwarding to 01:34 for the good stuff, as the intro is a little over-epic:
Again luckily, just as me and my clubbing associates were tiring of the grunginess of drum ‘n’ bass, which might have caused a premature end to the fun, along came UK garage with the perfect excuse to get glammed up and give it another go.
The soul and joy of tunes like this made it impossible to think of settling for Saturday nights in front of the TV just yet:
Later, as the age at which mortgages and nappies take many away from the joys of dancing all night approached, I instead got another ‘second’ wind.
Spend any length of time clubbing and you begin to see how the influences refresh themselves. Those earlier beats meld into something else, sounding at once familiar and brand new. Journalists like to name genres, crown scene leaders and herald yet another bold dawn for UK dance music, but for the enthusiasts all that matters is that the music delivers. When it is this good, there is little else to compete:
So instead of going gentle into that good night, I prefer to take my chances. Planning to get in as much club-time as I can before the knees give out and a glance at my ID from the bouncers declares me too old to enter, rather than the opposite.
That I resolved to do this at about 4.30 am on Saturday in the main room of Womb in Tokyo, whilst listening to this fella spin should not cause you to doubt my commitment:
Here’s to a few more years of journeys home in the dawn with ringing ears.
Anniversaries always offer good opportunities for the reinterpretation of past events according to modern sensibilities. With each passing year the memories get polished, the myths build and the truth becomes that little less easy to establish. 75 years have gone by since a diverse population of East Enders – among them dockers, Jews, trade unionists and assorted left-wing groups – gathered to stop Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts goose-stepping through the neighbourhood and ended up fighting the police sent in to clear a way for the fascists.
That is more than enough time for the stories of what happened in a now fairly anonymous street in E1 to get lost in a fog. Enough time for historians to look at the events of 4 October 1936 and question if the Battle even made things worse for the local Jewish population:
Far from signalling the demise of fascism in the East End, or bringing respite to its Jewish victims, Cable Street had quite the opposite effect. Over the following months the British Union of Fascists was able to convert defeat on the day into longer-term success and to justify a further radicalisation of its anti-Jewish campaign.
This is a dangerous argument, if seen through to its logical conclusion, that fascists are best not resisted. With the world mired in economic crisis and racists targetting areas with concentrated immigrant populations once again, it is tempting to wonder what, if anything, we have learned since the Thirties. Even this writer has indulged. And as Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti commented:
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
The truly fatal myth is the one that tries to encourage us to ignore fascism in the hope it will go away, when even a brief look at history shows this is not an effective strategy. As this excellent article argues,
it was not “objective conditions” that stopped the police forcing a way for the British Hitlerites into Jewish East London: it was a quarter of a million workers massing on the streets to tell them that they would not pass, and making good the pledge by erecting barricades and fighting the BUF-shepherding police. A year after Cable Street, it was the working class and the socialist movement which again put up barricades in Bermondsey to stop the fascists marching.
Remembering that may be the best way of marking today’s anniversary.
It feels as if it has been a long time coming, following the many steps that have brought me from there to here. Finally, barring a few administrative hurdles still to be negotiated, I will be a Tokyo resident.
The lure of the big, bad city on my doorstep has been a siren call since my plane landed. Like London Heathrow, they call it Tokyo Narita even though it is a couple of hours outside the city centre. Fitting in weekend trips to the clubs, parks and shops around work, planning sightseeing adventures and taking time for people-watching from the cafes. All enjoyable escapades ruined too soon by the intrusion of the long train ride back to the ‘burbs.
After 11 March, we all had our own decisions to make. You might have thought that 24 hours stranded in Tokyo would have soured me on it somewhat. Instead, even as I was traipsing through the freezing, crowded streets, I was reasoning that if I lived in a more central location I would have been safely home. That night I resolved, before falling into a hazy, aftershock-interrupted sleep, to make sure I did something about it.
Before I could, there was a sea of goodbyes to navigate. I believe I understand the thoughts of those who have chosen to bring their Japanese adventures to an end, even as I know there is nowhere else I would rather be at present. I am lucky to have met some incredible people before they departed and fortunate enough to have been shown their favourite corners of the city so that I can now adopt them as my own.
I have other plans for this new start. Including the locating of the perfect writing cafe, maybe to get a bike or to walk around more, not because the trains are stopped this time, but for the fun of it. There are bars to find, friends to meet and streets to explore. I can’t wait to see what Tokyo has to show me once I am a resident and no longer a visitor.
So this isn’t an end, or the beginning of the end. It is perhaps the end of the beginning.
Sayonara Kashiwa. Konnichiwa Tokyo.