Monthly Archives: October 2006


“The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” Walter Benjamin

Officially, I hate the place. I’m as rude about it as I was about the pissy little villages that posh girls at university came from when I thought I came from somewhere big. It’s boring, it’s a desert, it’s too far out of London; it has all the multicultural mix of the inner city with none of the excitement, it’s a pit. But lately it’s become the kind of rude that only I’m allowed to be, a kind of family rudeness.

And rather rudely, my mum’s selling the house I grew up in. I go back, to fetch the last few things of mine, and then again, to help her pack books into boxes. I don’t feel much when I look at the pebbledashed front of the house for the last time, but as I go up and down the stairs to the loft, bringing piles of books down from the boxroom I remember how long ago the loft extension was built and I’m slightly amazed that the bare wooden stairs should remain so sturdy, so solid. I spend a last night in my old bedroom, now decorated more tastefully than I ever had it, and it strangely doesn’t feel like mine at all.

I go back so infrequently that changes there happen faster, like a time-lapse flower opening. On one visit, a jackhammer-tongued demolition vehicle is chewing at the steel-reinforced concrete of the bridge we used to cross to get from the end of the road to the green. A few visits later and new flats have already replaced the car parks whose up and down ramps helixed inside each other like DNA. The old tower blocks opposite the green where Vince (now dead) and Helen (last seen on Western road in Brighton, repping for Turnaround) lived the summer I was fifteen, were taken down layer by layer, brick by brick, too perilous a prospect for the Hackney-style dramatic blow-down.

Even the fabric of the little Y-shaped corner that was my own has rippled and shifted, mostly with houses built where once there were not houses. It’s a long time since the old kosher food warehouse and factory became houses, followed by my old school. The gaps are filled in: the corner just beyond where the Ruganis’ corner shop used to be, the garages at the end of the road. All now houses. Looking for links to point at, online references, I realise that one of the hardest things to find on the web is a record of the middle-distant past. If it happened five years ago and someone noted it at the time, it may well still be there. Fifteen years ago is a desert. A name changes, a school moves, and the only record left is locked up in a library, a dusty archive of local papers.

Digging out the last of my stuff I find a poster I made of photos R and I took of our mammoth graffiti mission around Enfield: all night we drove round Edmonton, Enfield, Southgate spraypainting slogans on walls and bus- shelters: against the poll tax, for freeing the Tottenham Three, even daring to add our own slogan to the A10 bridge over the railway known forever as the “Hello Auntie Jilly” bridge. The evening culminated in painting red stencilled hammer-and-sickles on the windows of the Southgate Conservative Club, then Michael Portillo’s constituency headquarters. The next morning, we got up and retraced our steps, photographing our handiwork. Alas, by the time we got there the Conservative Club had already cleaned its windows.

The paint has gone, the house is sold, a new family are moving in. It’s not just the past that’s a foreign country.

Stand up straight!

I’m at the Hayward Gallery early one Friday morning, to see the rather disappointing How to Improve the World show of the Arts Council’s permanent collection when I hear a voice coming over the invigilators’ walkie-talkies: ‘Right, this is a warning. I’ve had complaints that guards are leaning against walls or standing with their hands in their pockets. So no more of that.’ Looks like the world’s already good enough for some people as long as the plebs are still standing to attention.


At the end of the road you can stand halfway up the hill, last cigarette of the night in hand, and gaze across at the glittering towers on the Isle of Dogs. Greenwich has East London’s tongue stuck down its throat, a tongue full of massive erections. In daylight, the elegant red brick tower of the optimistically nordic interwar town hall, a single-storied lantern at its top, blends in at just the right height from the vantage point; at night it’s like a tall dark rectangle cut out of the cityscape.

The skyline is brutally impressive in the way cathedrals must once have been when nothing was taller. Where once I hated One Canada Square more than any other building, now I mildly regret that its companions aren’t similarly decked out with pyramids like Giza in the sky. R still hates to look at it because she works there, calls it the vortex of evil: looks out of her office window and sees the tower, travels in and out through hoardings of offensive financial advertising, but still laughs when she remembers the last Dr Who finale and spiralling hordes of Daleks being sucked back into that vortex at the top.

Things you can’t buy in Greenwich: a shower curtain (when I ask in Boots if there’s a pound shop nearby, the woman behind the counter says ‘I wish’); a microwave oven, or indeed any kind of white goods or consumer electronics; fresh non-English food that isn’t over-priced, over-fussed or out of a health-food shop. Things you can buy quite easily in Greenwich: scented candle sand, a substantial lunch’s worth of pie and mash for well under a fiver, and any number of books about old boats and sailors. I don’t know where poor people do their shopping: Lewisham, or Deptford perhaps. While the fat artery of multiple bus routes that connects Camberwell to Peckham to New Cross carries on to Lewisham, the 177 alone turns the corner at Deptford Bridge towards the river. Greenwich, in colour if not class, is part of the tongue of whiteness which circles around the back of Lewisham and then licks closely along the river towards Bermondsey.

I acquire some historical facts about Greenwich (Anglo-Saxon ‘green harbour’: the wich as in everywhere from Jaywick to Reykjavik) to dazzle friends and visitors with… both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born here. St Alphege’s (named after the archbishop of Canterbury kidnapped and murdered here by the Danes in 1012) has a Hawksmoor exterior; Boswell thought the place inferior to Fleet Street. Some facts I have thrust upon me, in honour of my Scottish roots: the Cutty Sark is named after a witch in Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, and indeed holds a horse’s tail in her hand. Celebrity facts, even: floppy-haired MDF-monger Laurence Llewellyn Bowen lives just down the hill in a suitably sturdy looking two-storey Victorian house set back from the road.

Contemporary signifiers litter the windows of newsagents advertising both nannies and children in need of nannies. Chelsea tractors and elaborate buggies abound, though so far the breeders seem to lack either the outright arrogance of the properly wealthy, or the desperate hipness that runs through the veins of Stoke Newington parents. On Royal Hill, Buenos Aires sells several delicious varieties of empanada, and clafoutis that more than outbalance a jog up the hill.

There are even a few personal signifiers. Unpacking my books, I find an OS paperback about the Greenwich Meridian, its purchase precisely dated to an unremembered visit to the Old Royal Observatory in May 1990. I’m happy to see that a hand-stencilled sticker of the face of Walter Benjamin, which I put on the back of a street sign two years ago is still here. I think I should take a picture from the top of the hill and photoshop Godzilla in, stomping HSBC and Citicorp (every city deserves its own Godzilla), but that would take time.