Category Archives: Camden

On the buses: the first ten routes

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good stories about London bus nuts. There was one on City Metric about the nice German bloke who wants to travel every route and another in Guardian Cities about the guy who wants to ride 200 in 24 hours – though as he only has to ride one stop on each, I’m not all that convinced.

This got me thinking about my own bus travelling endeavours. It began while I was dozing through a meeting on the eighth floor at Time Out, Tottenham Court Road. We were brainstorming ideas for the section I edited, The Big Smoke, and increasingly aware of my own non-contributory silence, I suddenly found myself picking up a thread. Somebody had suggested, I think, doing a piece about the towns at the ends of every tube line, but my brain decided to take this basic concept several steps further, from the realm of the relatively sane into that frightening place where logic, stupidity and over-ambition combine.

“Why don’t I take every bus in London?”

“In numerical order.”

“End to end.”

The fear hit me straightaway. What had I just said? Why had I said it? But Gordon, our voluble editor, was the sort of man who liked to greenlight six impossible ideas before breakfast, and he was enthusiastically in favour. There was no going back on this: On The Buses was born. Every week, armed with a camera, notepad, pen, all-in-one transport map and the desperation of a man with a large hole in his flatplan, I’d leave my colleagues and trot off to some godforsaken corner of London to catch a bus that would take me to some other godforsaken corner of London, where I’d then find the only way to get back to civilisation was via the bus I’d just got off.

In the end, I chose to embrace the reality of my bus-travelling future. There were positives here, I told myself. I could get to see parts of London I’d never usually visit, and as a writer it was an interesting challenge, having to write what was essentially the same column every week while keeping it fresh and amusing. You don’t realise quite how many buses go through Trafalgar Square or Oxford Circus until you decided to write about every single one of them.

I also thought that in difficult times for the print trade this was a handy insurance against the sack: there were several hundred routes in London and surely they couldn’t get rid of me until I’d finished them all?

More fool me. A year or so later, Gordon was replaced by another editor, a man who I’d guess has never ridden a bus in his life and simply didn’t understand why anybody would be interested in such hideous things when you could simply get the BBC to hire you a cab to whisk you from the TV studio to Primrose Hill. We were rarely on the same wavelength, and in one of our first meetings he asked how many bus routes I still had to do. About 650 I told him. ‘I was worried you might say that,’ he replied. Like a man waiting for the No 68 on Herne Hill and spying the X68 coming up the road, I knew precisely what horrors lay ahead.

In a bid to shore up my position  – or possibly I was just being provocative – I then wrote a long feature about other bus enthusiasts. Early in my journeys, I’d received a letter from a woman who was also riding every bus and then during one idle afternoon in the Time Out library, I’d discovered an old bus column written by Alexei Sayle. Clearly there was both a history and a present here; it was living heritage. Exploring the internet further, I discovered there were several of us, including several retirees, plus a lovely bloke called Ben, and an artist, doing a project. Look, I was telling the editor: we are a tribe. We are on trend. People really do like buses.

It made no difference. Within weeks, the column was axed. Within months, I was too. The bus dream was over, and I’d barely made it into the 60s.

For those who care, here are the first ten On The Buses. More available on request.

no1no2no4no3no5

no6no7no8

 

no9no10

 

 

Navvies, landlords and protest

I’ve written three pieces elsewhere recently.

For Londonist, I wrote about the battle in Herne Hill between independent shops and the local landowner, Dulwich Estates, who some feel are taking more away from the community than they put in. A protest last week saw several hundred Herne Hillians march from the station to the local toy ship, which was forced out by a huge increase in rent. Several other tenants told me they feared they’d also be forced to move in the next year.

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For Apollo, I wrote about a new exhibition of posters from Berkeley in 1970, when students protested about the ongoing Vietnam War and also the deaths of four student protesters on a campus in Kent State.

 

And for Waterfront, I wrote about the life of the navvies in London. I was intrigued by the urban legend that the four pubs in Camden with castle in the title – the Edinboro, Windsor, Dublin and Pembroke – were built for the navvies, to ensure separate nationalities drank apart and didn’t scrap. It quickly became apparent that the story wasn’t true, but as I researched the life of the navvies, I began to understand how the myth was raised and also learnt a lot about this tough breed of migrant worker.

“I loved the brutality of it”: Suede and London

I wrote about Suede for the current issue of Uncut. This was something of a revelation for me, as I was able to remind myself how excited I was when I first heard Suede – I remember playing “Animal Nitrate” over and over again in my bedroom, thinking that I’d finally discovered a band I loved as much as The Smiths. Before interviewing the band, I went to see them play at the Roundhouse and all of that old energy was still there, and I was just as thrilled as I had been at 16.

One angle covered in wide-ranging interviews with Brett Anderson, Mat Osman and Neil Codling was the importance of London to the Suede aesthetic – this was a band that even renamed themselves The London Suede, albeit under duress, for their American releases.

suede.jpg

When the band were formed, Osman and Anderson shared a flat on Hilever Road in White City “on the border with Notting Hill – bohemia one way, estates the other,” Osman said, and Suede’s music came to occupy this very same sort of space, the sort of London written about by Patrick Hamilton, Dylan Thomas, Gerald Kersh and Roger Westerby in those novels about outsiders arriving in London and being instantly swallowed by vice and excitement. Doing something similar around this time was the TV version of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha Of Suburbia, with a soundtrack by David Bowie – the combination of Suede and Kureishi is what led me to Bowie.

“London was a place where you can be what you want,” says Codling. “You can disappear, you can embrace any subculture, you can reinvent yourself and glamour is a possibility inherent in that.”

Anderson didn’t deny any of this. “I romanticised what London was,” he said. “I lived in a bit of a film fantasy. I loved the brutality of it, the loneliness and the hardness of it all. I really responded to that. But this is what we were living. I was part of this world I was writing about. I’ve always tried to find the romance in any situation I’ve been in and that happened to be the situation I was in. I’ve always loved art that deals with the prosaic. The Smiths aesthetic, I found that very powerful, ‘the riches of the poor’. There’s beauty in the brutality.”

 

Anderson told me he’s still inspired by London, often cycling the towpath from his home to West London to Camden, even if it doesn’t directly appear on the band’s new album. The excellent Night Thoughts is instead preoccupied by those unnerving concerns about children and fatherhood that keep Anderson – and myself – awake at night.

“I refute the tortured artist clichés, it’s bullshit, a lazy misunderstanding of what creativity is,” he said. “It’s not expected of authors and film-makers, Michael Haneke always seems very balance and his films are genius of discomfort. For me, a writer is finding those moments of friction, and those can occur in any existence, in any relationship, no matter how stable or content. There are always misunderstandings and moments of friction and this is what I write about.”

 

London’s new invasive species, and how the Daily Mail has welcomed them to the city

This piece first featured in the April issue of Metropolitan. Interestingly, the Daily Mail had not discovered the aesculapian snakes when I wrote this piece but did so very shortly afterwards. I sincerely hope my article was not what alerted them to this harmless colony.

When workers began clearing the Hackney site that was to become the 2012 Olympic Park, one of the biggest problems they faced amid polluted soil and world war explosives came from a plant. Japanese knotweed is a scarily resilient and fast-growing weed that infested the waterway and removing it was a laborious process that began with chemical treatment before the dense root structure was dug out. Next came cutting, hand-sorting, incineration and burial of the remains inside a welded physical membrane on landfill sites in five-metre pits. Only after this was the plant, introduced by Victorians because it looked pretty, deemed safe. It cost £70m.

London is home to around 76 such ‘invasive species’, leading to the creation of the London Invasive Species Initiative, which monitors those alien invaders that have found a predator-free London life to their liking, causing serious damage to the city’s ecosystem even if they add an exotic splash to the urban landscape. Many, like the knotweed, arrived in the 19th century. “There was a flowering of ‘acclimatisation societies’, which were specifically set up to introduce new species,” says Tim Blackburn of the Zoological Society of London. “The Zoological Society envisioned a golden age where we would have herds of elands [African antelopes] roaming the south of England. But the impacts are pervasive and affect so many aspects of life.’

But not every alien species is dangerous and London is home to hundreds of non-native species that merrily co-habit with London’s longer-term residents. “There are many species we think of as part of our national heritage that were originally non-native,” points out Alex Robb, a London Wildlife Trust warden, in defence of the ring-necked parakeet, which has adapted to London life so successfully it has been adopted as the country’s first naturalised parrot. It is unlikely, however, that Japanese knotweed will ever be regarded so warmly.

Muntjac deers
Originally from: China.
Now found: Mill Hill, Barnet, Enfield, Edgware and Bethnal Green.
Daily Mail headline: Two-Foot Muntjac Deer Cause Thousands Of Crashes Every Year, Sept 2011.

bambi

For centuries, London parks have contained red and fallow deer, generally doing little other than giving dogs something to bark at. Now there’s also the muntjac deer, introduced to Britain in the 19th century. As muntjac began escaping from zoos or were deliberately released, the population expanded to today’s 2 million. The muntjac is small and shy, with stubby antlers and an unappealing call that sounds like a smoker’s cough. It can usually be seen in north London suburbs munching roses, but some have been spotted as centrally as Bethnal Green and they have an annoying habit of running into the road, causing accidents.

Japanese knotweed
Originally from: Japanese volcanoes.
Now found: Everywhere, especially alongside railways.
Daily Mail headline: The Dreaded Alien Eating Your Garden And Home, July 2013

knotwwed

Japanese knotweed was introduced by Victorians as an ornamental plant. Big mistake. The bamboo-like plant is one of the country’s most invasive species with a frightening rate of growth – up to 10cm a day to a height of three metres and with a root system (rhizome) that can expand seven metres in all directions. It’s persistent too. It can push through cracks in cement and tarmac, and has been known to grow through floorboards, wrecking houses. Knotweed is devilish to remove, requiring intensive herbicide treatment and even then, freakishly, a new plant can spring from a fragment of rhizome the size of a fingernail that’s lain dormant for 20 years. The problem is so great some banks refuse to give mortgages to properties that have knotweed within sight of the walls. The good news? A predatory insect has been shipped in from Japan that’s meant to control the triffid. Another alien species introduced from overseas – what could possibly go wrong?

Red-eared terrapins
Originally from: The Americas
Now found: Regent’s Canal and other waterways.
Daily Mail headline (after related scare in Lake District): Terrapins That Can Bite A Child’s Finger Off Are Being Dumped By Owners, August 2013

terrapins

Terrapins arrived during the brief but annoying Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle craze of the 1990s when parents bought baby terrapins for demanding children but then dumped the creatures in the nearest pond when playground tastes turned to Pokemon. These red-eared terrapins love London lakes, with meals of fish and ducklings helping them grow to around 30cm. Terrapins can live for 40 years and while it was believed London would prove too cold for them to breed, a baby terrapin was spotted in Regent’s Canal in 2013. Will warm summers may see a generation of even tougher, London-born terrapins take over our waterways? Worse still is the American signal crayfish, an armour-plated monstrosity that was introduced in the 1970s, escaped and set about annihilating the native white claw crayfish. Fortunately, the signal crayfish has one predator, “Crayfish Bob”, who has turned the epidemic into an opportunity, serving Thames-caught crustaceans at pop-up restaurants around London.

What the terrapins may look like if they discovered martial arts and were fans of the Beatles

Ring-necked parakeets
Originally from: Afro-Asian.
Now found: Originally south-west London, now widespread.
Daily Mail headline: Native British Birds Are So Scared Of Invading Parakeets That It’s Putting Them Off Their Food, April 2014.

parakeets

There are several legends about how shrieking flocks of green parakeets came to colonise south-west London. The most popular is that they are descendants of a pair released by Jimi Hendrix while he lived in Notting Hill. Another is they escaped from Shepperton while The African Queen was being filmed in 1951. Or maybe they fled from exiled King Manuel II of Portugal’s Fulwell aviary in the 1920s. The population has rocketed since the 1990s, when flocks were concentrated around Esher, Richmond and Twickenham. Mobs of noisy parakeets are everywhere, and the splendid ease with which this hardy, convivial, colourful bird has adapted to London life has made it increasingly popular among Londoners.

Oak processionary moth
Originally from: central and southern Europe.
Now found: Kew and across south-west London.
Daily Mail headline: Rise Of Poisonous Caterpillar That Can Cause Lethal Asthma Attack Is Unstoppable, May 2012

moth

It’s the caterpillars you have to watch. These hairy toxic insects arrived in London in 2006 on imported oak trees and established colonies around Kew. While the caterpillars can damage oak bark, they are also a pain for humans thanks to 60,000 poisonous hairs that irritates skin, eyes and throats, or provoke allergic reactions. Fears were raised by newspaper that the caterpillar would cause carnage during the 2012 Olympics but fortunately this came to nothing. The pest has spread from Ealing, Richmond, Brent and Hounslow to Bromley and Croydon.

Aesculapian snake
Originally from: Former Yugoslavia, now found across mainland Europe
Now found: Regent’s Park.
Daily Mail headline: London Hit By Outbreak Of Eight-Foot SNAKES That Could Kill Cats Or Small Dogs, May 2014.

snakes

While the aesculapian snake is common in mainland Europe, London only discovered its colony in around 2007, when several were found in Regent’s Park alongside the canal near the zoo. Nobody knows how the snakes got there, but they are the first examples of non-native snakes breeding successfully in the wild in London. The snake can grow to 3-4 metres and is harmless to humans – although they can bite – developing instead a fondness for rats, of which London has plenty.

Panther
Originally from: Asia, Africa, Americas
Now found: Sydenham
Daily Mail headline: The Night I Was Mauled By London’s Black Panther, March 2005

panther

Police with taser guns were called to south-east London in March 2005 when a man was attacked by a huge black beast. ‘I could see these huge teeth and the whites of its eyes just inches from my face,’ he said. ‘I believed it was trying to do some serious damage.’ The “Beast of Sydenham” was seen again in 2009, chasing a jogger through Dulwich Woods, but has since gone quiet. While such stories often turn out to be nonsense – the Essex Lion of 2012 was a large ginger cat – strange mammals, escaped from zoos, farms and private menageries, do turn up in London, most recently two wallabies in Highgate Cemetery and an American mink in Thamesmead.

Ten weird London films from Pathe: featuring leopards, scooter jousting, Willesden oil wells and Peter Cushing’s toy soldiers

1. Japes! It’s a fight between students in Brixton over a stolen stuffed owl, featuring many flour bombs. These days, this wouldn’t lead to a jaunty newsreel as much as apocalyptic headlines in the Evening Standard. 1957

2. A secretary in Kensington takes her pet leopard for a walk, 1968.

3. Jousting on scooters in Wembley, 1957.

4. Marcus the chimp cycles around London, 1940s. 

5. Dog blessing ceremony in Swiss Cottage, 1939.

6. Ever wanted to see Peter Cushing play with his collection of toy soldiers? From 1956.

7.  Some great Pathe footage comes in the form of out-takes, like this silent colour footage of a man pogo-ing into a Soho strip club in 1962.

8. An oil well in Willesden, 1947.

9. Kentish Town children hold a protest march to demand a zebra crossing, 1962.

10. A look at fashion featuring I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and a couple dressed as Bonnie & Clyde pretending to murder a man wearing an Afghan, 1969.

‘Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down’: life on London’s floating bookshop

An interview with Paddy Screech, a floating bookseller, for a piece I wrote for Time Out in June 2013.

Paddy Screech, 47, Word On The Water

‘By terms of the continuous cruising licence I have to move to a new mooring every two weeks. In the winter I try and stay around the urban bits and in the summer I stay near the parks. We try and stay north-east because my business partner has a little girl at school in Stoke Newington. We go to Paddington, Camden, Angel, Broadway Market, Mile End Park, Victoria Park and Springfield Park. We can’t go much further because our supply lines start to get stretched as we have relationships with five or six charity shops in this area. These are our friends and were we get our stock and also this is where our boating friends are. If we move to far afield we don’t have a world there.

What’s the appeal? Well, on a day when I have a carpet wrapped around a broken propeller and I have to have my boat towed in a strong wind, I can’t quite recall. Generally, I love the freedom and the less regulated life. London can be a chilly place. On the canal, people behave like they are living in the country even though you are only four metres from the road. As soon as you put a towpath there, people start talking, being friendly. It’s true of everybody, boaters and passersby. It’s very strange, like magic. On the other side of this fence there is a different culture.

It’s like a village. There are a lot of boats in London but if you put them all together you’d have a village, but a village where you can get away from people if you want to just before you start annoying each other. I have a little world in each place I stop: I usually know some of the other boats, I have a favourite coffee shop, I know how to get to the launderette. I like Springfield Park the best. Everybody makes the book barge feel welcome, whether they are permanent residents or not.

I’ve been on this boat for two years, running it as a bookshop, and I’ve been on the canal for six years. I try not to leave the canal. Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down. I lived in Upper Clapton for seven years. In all that time I met one of my seven neighbours once, as I sat rotting in front of a computer and seeing one of my dozen friends each week. Now I have about 300 friends, only look at the computer for an hour a day and never watch TV. I spend most of my time trying to stop the barge blowing away, or trying to light a fire.

The boat is called Diante, which means diamond in Italian. She’s a 1920s coal barge from Amsterdam and was converted into a houseboat in around the 1960s. She’s beautiful, but has a very thin bottom so will need replating. The engine is very old and just about clinging to existence. Every four years you need to take a boat drydock for a bigger service but if you do that properly a boat can last for decades. I’m not very practical but am much better than I was seven years ago. Anything that requires expertise or tools I need to call in favours. The fun thing about a Dutch barge is that it has no weed hatch so I have to put on a wet suit and get in the canal with all the urine and clear it with a knife.

I have a sea toilet which can’t be used on the canal so I visit the local establishments when I need the loo. There are lots of pubs and cafes that are sympathetic. It’s a simple life, I have no hot running water. I had a gas boiler but took it off because it wasn’t going to pass the safety certificate. It seemed a bit of luxury. My shower is now used for book storage. I wash with landlubber friends. Thanks to the kindness of friends I get a bath every other day. Working boats come up and down the canal delivering coal and diesel to all the moorings.

I have no mains electricity but a substantial amount of solar panelling that runs the lights and a 12v PA. There’s also an alternator on the engine, which creates electricity when you run the engine. It means there’s one less corporation in your pants. I do all my electronic stuff on my smartphone. Some boats have widescreen TVs and generators, but I’m not interested. Boats take up a lot of time and so I’m always pottering around doing something, I’m done with sitting on my arse watching bad television.

My business partner is John Privett, we started the shop about two years ago. We survive against overwhelming odds, but our costs are low and in the winter we live like feral water rats. We don’t get much custom when it is raining so in the winter we contract our horns and live on less. For our stock, we get given donations but mainly we select the best from charity shops.

The main expense is the licence and safety certificate. The business license for a trading boat is the same cost as a residential one as long as you are making less than £60k a year. There are around 15 trading books in London now, including a hat boat, a sandwich boat, a cocktail barge, a vegan cake barge, a herbal practitioner and a Slovak restaurant. We are hoping to find a permanent site for a floating market. It’s nice to move every two weeks but we might do better if we could stay in the same place.

I have absolutely no interest in going back to dry land. As long as I can borrow a friend’s bath every now and then there’s nothing about land life that appeals to me. I’m in the city now but when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be in  park underneath some trees and I’ll still have my coffee and my cats [Queenie and Skitty]  around me. To take your house and plonk it into the countryside after 24 hours is pretty special.

I don’t wish for more space. Boats change your expectation about how much space you need. I got rid of four-fifths of my items when I moved aboard and I don’t miss them. You just learn not to accumulate things. Except books. I can usually find something to read.’

The Ramones in London: What if nobody speaks English?

I have written a cover story about the Ramones in the current issue of Uncut. One element of the Ramones story is their two gigs in London in July 1976, when the band played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls before audiences of around 5,000 at a time they were drawing around 150 back in New York.

These are considered key dates for the punk revolution in the UK, giving a kickstart to the three pioneering London punk bands, the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash. The truth is a little more complex. One of the reasons the Ramones even got a record deal was because of interest in the New York scene in the UK. As Craig Leon, who produced Ramones for Sire, told me: ‘There had been inklings in the British press that something was happening and Malcolm McLaren had been over for a while managing the New York Dolls and took a lot of the scene – mainly Richard Hell’s dress sense – over to London, where it began developing in its own way. Sire felt that if we could make a cheap album and then get our money back in Europe it wasn’t a risky proposition.’

So even before the Ramones went to London, they knew the city was familiar with the CBGBs scene. For a band that loved English pop, this was quite a thrill. As Tommy Ramone explained, ‘They said the UK was interested and we’d grown up with all our favourite bands coming from the UK [Tommy told me that “Judy Is A Punk” was basically based on “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits] so we were very excited and we thought it might give us our break. We went over for a few days and played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls. We met a lot of the English bands, who came to the soundcheck at Dingwalls. We knew that we had sold out these place so we had an idea something was going on.” The success of the Camden shows did nothing for the band’s reputation back home, however. When they returned they continued playing in front of small crowds. In fact, as the Pistols gained in notoriety, being associated with English punk acts was more of a hindrance.

Nonetheless, Danny Fields, the band’s manager, felt the Ramones appearance gave London a crucial fillip. ‘To be the toast of London was incredible. There were people line up to meet them, to sleep with them, to sleep with me. All the would-be bands were there to see them. The  dressing room was full of people from the Clash, Damned and Sex Pistols. They were amazed that a band could put out a record like this, that they would even be allowed to play. We sat with Paul Simonon before the show and he said to Johnny he was in band but they weren’t good enough. Johnny said, “You’re going to see us for the first time. We suck, we can’t play. But don’t worry about it, just do it.” Johnny Rotten had to climb up knotted sheets. They took inspiration and thought the Ramones were exotic. The inspiration was, “We stink, stop rehearsing, start playing.’”

The only problem with Fields’ narrative is that the Pistols and Clash already were playing. Indeed, both bands actually missed the Ramones show at the Roundhouse because they were playing that same night, at the Black Swan in Sheffield, while the Stranglers were supporting the Ramones. The Damned made their debut a day after the Ramones show at the Dingwalls on July 6. So Rat Scabies, Damned drummer, thinks the influence of those London shows was more subtle. ‘Their influence on British punk rock is negotiable, because the London bands had already started,’ he says. ‘We were rehearsing, the Sex Pistols and Clash were doing the odd gig. But I remember listening to the Ramones debut album with Paul Simonon and we thought it was great as it was exactly what we were all about, three minute pop songs about life. We felt an immediate connection and it was confirmation: we realised we weren’t the only ones doing it. What was important isn’t ‘who came first?’ but the fact the same thing was happening in different parts of the world. It wasn’t just London frustration, it was the next generation getting angry. It made us realise we weren’t alone.’

In that sense, the Ramones shows were more like the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, when the hippies, ex-Beats, freaks and flower kids all turned up at the same place for the first time and realised they had a constituency, that the happenings they were organising in silos could be fed into a collective scene. It’s a glorious movement for any youth movement, the realisation you are part of something bigger than yourself. Even the underground wants to be popular.

The Ramones shows then have passed into punk legend, to be reinterpreted by new generations. ‘There’s a comic book called Gabba Gabba Hey that talks about the Ramones trip to London and how we were so concerned about the economic conditions, the UK depression, unemployment, children out of work,’ says Fields. ‘In truth, we were there for three days and the last thing anybody was thinking about was whether the British state was unfair to unwed mothers. They only thing they were worried about on the flight over is whether we had enough t-shirts to sell and what if nobody speaks English.’

Here’s an excerpt from the Ramones documentary End Of The Century talking about the Ramones in London.

Know London

City-lit London

This is an edited extract of an introduction I wrote for City-Lit London, a superb anthology of London writing, from 2009.

I don’t really know London. This despite having lived and worked within the collar of the M25 for my entire life, something that is simultaneously a source of great pride and creeping shame. I’ve explored it, sure. I’ve gazed down at dawn on drowsy Londoners from atop a thirteenth-century church tower in Hackney. I’ve listened to the hum of traffic passing overhead from deep within the buried Fleet River beneath Holborn Circus. I’ve walked the Thames one Sunday afternoon from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, been to the end of more than half the tube lines, sniffed Billingsgate Market’s early-morning buzz and fed the black-tongued giraffes at London Zoo. I’ve even travelled every bus from 1 to 50 in numerical order, a task that’s taken me to every point of the compass from Debden in the north-east to Fullwell in the south-west (no, I’d never heard of them before I started, either). But I still don’t know London. Not really. There are vast tracts of its urban geography that are a total mystery to me, a no-man’s land, vacant lots, blank space in my internal A-Z.

This is not an unusual condition. Indeed, it might even be a necessity for living a sane, balanced London life because most of the city’s residents seem to suffer from it, some quite contentedly, perfectly happy to stay within the few square miles where they live and the West End where they work. This could be because there is simply too much London to handle ― too many streets, too many people, too much history, too many inconsistencies. The London cabby, scientists say, has developed a larger-than-average hippocampus ― the part of the brain that processes navigation – simply to cope with all the information. One of them, Fred Housego, even won ‘Mastermind’ in 1980.

Most of us don’t even try to deal with all this geographical sludge. In Soft City, Jonathan Raban’s charismatic study of the modern city from 1974, he noted: ‘The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide; my London is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is more than seven miles from any other… I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do, I feel I’m in foreign territory, a landscape of hazard and rumour. Like any tribesman hedging himself in behind a stockade of taboos, I mark my boundaries with graveyards, terminal transportation points and wildernesses. Beyond them, nothing is to be trusted and anything might happen.’

This is a common way of behaving, retreating within self-imposed borders and putting up the fences to the darkness on the other side. It’s captured by Tarquin Hall’s passage from Salaam Brick Lane and the stark single-line confession: ‘Most of London, the city of my birth, was as foreign to me as Prague’. The bard of Cricklewood, Alan Coren, explored a related theme in typically whimsical fashion in which he imagined his intended tour of all the London landmarks he has never actually visited – the Tower of London the Monument and the Serpentine — having decided to leave that sort of thing to the tourists.

No wonder and no shame. If you’re born in Harrow, what should you understand of Harlow? If you live near Crystal Palace park, why would you need to know Hampstead Heath? How many Londoners have ever toured the Houses of Parliament or been into the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s? The greatest area of neglect is the City — if you don’t work within that glorious square mile that contains all history from the Romans to the Credit Crunch why would you ever have a reason to go there? Londoners leave it to tourists and bankers.

And then there are the contradictions. This is the city that features some of the wealthiest real estate within some of the most deprived boroughs in the United Kingdom; the city whose ships helped spread English around the world but is now home to more than 250 different languages and has schools where the native tongue is barely spoken; the city that when called upon to appoint a new mayor, replaced a left-wing, working-class, car-hating socialist with a right-wing, public-school educated, neo-Thatcherite motoring correspondent, two iconoclasts who seemed to have nothing in common bar a quick wit and mutual contempt for orthodoxy. Who can get their head round that?

So, how can you learn to master this metropolis, the first great city of the modern age and still the world leader in art and commerce? Well, you could follow in the footsteps of Phyllis Pearsall, the creator of the single greatest London book – and one that is understandably omitted from this anthology – the A-Z. In the 1930s, Pearsall claimed to have walked every one of London’s 23,000 streets – that’s around 3,000 miles of serious perambulation – in her determination to produce the most comprehensive map of London that is humanly possible. It’s almost certainly an urban myth, but the conceit is admirable.

Alternatively, you could save on leatherwear and consult some of the other classics of London literature, those writers who have made it their business to understand the city, or at least their particular patch of it. After all, will anybody ever show off Soho like Colin McInnes, or capture Camden like David Thomson? Virginia Woolf’s West End is so beautifully developed, so perfectly drawn, so hyper-real, it almost dwarfs the genuine article. And Monica Ali’s Brick Lane places it as firmly on the tourist map as Big Ben and the Wheel, so you can tell yourself that there really isn’t any need to check it out for yourself.

London books allow you to travel in time as well as space. McInnes’s Soho is the good one, the one we’ve all heard about from the 1950s, when it was still raw, neon-lit, jazz-fuelled and edgy rather than a shallow cluster of over-priced restaurants and drunken daytrippers wondering where all the loucheness has gone (it’s still there, just, in secret drinking clubs and members’ bars hidden behind nameless Georgian façades). And Thomson’s Camden is one on the verge of massive change, a working-class district of pubs and markets that is about to experience the first invasion by the middle-classes that will recondition the area beyond all recognition, setting off a chain reaction of gentrification around London’s inner suburbs from Notting Hill to Islington. For those of us who only know these places in their current incarnation, this stuff has an extraordinary archaeological value that their authors could never have intended, like the background of family photographs that show furniture and fittings everybody forgot about long ago because they never bothered to record them.

But that’s not to say things were so much better in the old says. Indeed, one of the most important things about this volume is that it emphasises the current prodigious strength of London writing. Yes, there’s Dickens and Woolf and Conrad and Wilde and Conan Doyle – as there should be – but there’s also Ackroyd and Sinclair and Self, the titanic trinity of contemporary London writing. Since the 1980s they have done more to resurrect the concept of London writing as a standalone genre than anybody since the Victorians, when London, the New Jerusalem, was seen to embody the contradictory values of Empire and became a rich source of fiction and journalism. They have encouraged the rediscovery of some of the lost classics of London literature and fostered the climate in which anthologies like this one can flourish. In their wake, modern classics have followed, from Justin Cartwright’s snappy satirical novel Look At It This Way to Sukhdev Sandhu’s invaluable nocturnal jaunts into the belly of sleeping London in Night Haunts. This regained respect for London writing also allows the voice of the new Londoner to be heard — the 27.1 per cent of the population that the 2001 census considered to be non-native-born ― through authors such as Xiaolu Guo, with her faux-naïve extracts from A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. In Rebecca Taylor’s ‘London Lives’ we even meet one of these recent arrivals in the form of a young brother and sister who travel to London from Poland to begin their new lives, part of the huge wave of Eastern European immigration that has transformed the city in recent years.

It is authors from this final category who could provide some of the finest and boldest London writing of the twenty-first century, because they will come to the city with a fresh mind and open eye, prepared to live and work in those parts of London that are closed by personal choice to most natives. None of them, of course, will ever really get on top of London, even if they choose to stay here for the rest of their lives — but every little bit helps. And if you put all the fragments together, you may one day get something close to the full picture, the London that we all love, even if it’s not the one we know.

Une saison en Camden: Rimbaud and Verlaine in Victorian London

I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you would fail to detect the least trace of any monument to superstition.

Arthur Rimbaud on London in Illuminations

Getting a face full of wet fish is usually associated with Monty Python at Teddington Lock rather than French poets in North London, but such is the warping power of Camden Town. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine were the Gallic rhymers in question. The pair enjoyed a tempestuous relationship in a variety of London addresses, which culminated in the aforementioned fish-slapping incident in Camden.

rimbverl

They had arrived in London in September 1872 after fleeing scandal in Paris. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine ten years older, married with a child. Verlaine’s brother-in-law described Rimbaud as ‘a vile, vicious, disgusting little schoolboy’, but Verlaine found him an ‘exquisite creature’ probably for much the same reasons. At first they settled in Howland Street in Fitzrovia. They became part of Soho’s expat anarchist dissident set, reportedly attending meetings helmed by Karl Marx in Old Compton Street, drinking heavily, taking hash and opium (Rimbaud advocated ‘derangement of all the senses’) and keeping warm at the British Museum, where Rimbaud’s name  – but not Verlaine’s – was later added to the Reading Room roll of honour. Neither were particularly politically motivated, but the anti-establishment environment would undoubtedly have appealed to the outlaw couple.

Drawing by Verlaine of Rimbaud in Canon Street

They both loved London. Rimbaud felt that by comparison Paris looked like nothing more than a ‘pretty provincial town’ and loved the ‘interminable docks’, while Verlaine was captivated by the ‘incessant railways on splendid cast iron bridges’ and the ‘brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets’. Together they travelled on the river, visited Hampstead Heath and rode the newly opened underground railway. They visited Hyde Park Corner, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Gallery and the Tower Subway (‘It stinks, it’s hot and it quivers like a suspension bridge, while all the while you hear the sound of the enormous volume of water,’ they reported back).

They wrote as well. Parts of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer were written in London, and his relationship with Verlaine is recorded in the latter’s lines: ‘On several nights, his demon seized me, we rolled around together, I wrestled with him!—At nights, often, drunk, he lies in wait in the streets or in the houses, to frighten me half to death… In the hovels where we used to get drunk, he would weep at the sight of those around us, miserable beasts…’ Verlaine was also influenced by the hectic modernity of the docks, and wrote a poem about Regent’s Canal.

Their sojourn in Fitzrovia was briefly commemorated with a plaque written in French and erected in 1922, although it only mentioned Verlaine – Rimbaud’s name was omitted on grounds of morality. Unfortunately, the street numbers had changed by this time, so the plaque on No 34 was almost certainly commemorating the wrong house. These defects were solved in 1938 by simple means – the house was demolished. It’s said the plaque was saved from destruction, but if so it has long since been lost.

There is a plaque for their next house however, left by ‘unknown hand’ according to Simon Callow. This is on their residence at 8 Great (now Royal) College Street, which they moved to in May 1873, living in two rooms on the top floor for three months. Here the pair’s self-destructive instincts really blossomed. They argued relentlessly, and often fought physically. This reached its nadir one July morning when Verlaine returned from Camden market carrying fresh fish and olive oil. It was a hot day and Verlaine had a hangover, but Rimbaud, watching from an upstairs window, was unsympathetic. He laughed and bellowed, ‘Ce que tu as l’air con!’ (‘What a cunt you look!’). Verlaine responded with a kipper in the face (hurt, he later wrote to a friend rather pathetically,  ‘I retaliated, because, I can assure you, I definitely did not look ridiculous’), packed his bags and fled to Brussels. Rimbaud eventually followed, only to receive two bullets in his wrist for his troubles.

Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison, which he spent in part reading Une Saison en Enfer, and that was pretty much the end of that relationship. Rimbaud returned to London in 1874, living at Stamford Street, SE1 with the poet Germain Nouveau and later taking a room at No 12 Argyll Square in 1875. He then disappeared for four months – biographers still speculate about whether he was in Scotland, Scarborough or Reading. He barely wrote another word and died, one-legged, in 1891. Verlaine also returned to England, teaching in Boston and Bournemouth, before returning to Paris where he succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1896. Camden can do that.

Photo by Dornac of Paul Verlaine in the Café François 1er in Paris on May 28, 1892