Category Archives: housing

Bombs, slums, and brightly-coloured balloons

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

It’s all the same for tourists and terrorists when it comes down to it: get downtown and do the sights. When Azam Amir Kasab and his fellow attackers arrived in Mumbai in November 2008, they could have been reading straight from the Rough Guide’s 24-hour essentials. First they took in the opulence of the Taj and the Oberoi, then the everyday hustle and bustle of Victoria Terminus before popping to slaughter the backpacker-Bombay-boho mix at Leopold’s Cafe. Truly, India is a Land of Contrasts. They even managed to blow up an ‘iconic’ Ambassador taxi, such is the literal iconoclasm of fundamentalists.

And then terrorism is swiftly recycled as tourism. The Taj maintains its grandeur even sealed behind a police cordon: a bored patrolman whistles his way along the covered arcade, while the red-carpeted steps are slowly swept. The half-deserted snack bar that looks out over VT’s station concourse has photos on the wall of the damage wreaked on its premises; select bullet-holes are still visible in the shuttered plate glass windows of Leopold’s on the Colaba Causeway. It’s hard to tell whether it’s historical preservation or everyday neglect, but if you get friendly with a waiter he might shift a picture on the wall to show you another bullethole, or gesture to the very spot where colleagues were murdered. It’s nearly as exciting as being asked to be in a Bollywood movie by one of the scouts that patrol the streets nearby.

Some battles are less obvious. Take ‘Mumbai’ vs ‘Bombay’. To a right-minded English person, the decolonisation of place names seems reasonable: re-establishing an indigenous geography warped by the British Empire. But then Bombay didn’t really exist before the Portuguese and British put it together: Surat was the trading port for this part of the Arabian sea. Mumbai is the Marathi way of saying Bombay: the definitive name-change was imposed on the city in 1995 by the right-wing Hinduist Shiv Sena government: ‘Mumbai’ also stands for an ethnic and religious exclusivism, and an antagonism towards North Indians and Muslims. The Sainiks are a nasty bunch all right, instigators of communal violence after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, but they also represent the defeat of India’s communists in their own constituency, the working class. While Bombay is the city of the middle classes comfortable with an imperial multiculturalism in which they occupied an upper berth, Mumbai is the city of the working and lower classes.

Both VS Naipaul in India: A Million Mutinies Now and Suketu Mehta in his more focused work of equal scope, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, begin with a visit to the street operators of the Sena, exhibiting a curious fascination with the troops of an unfamiliar force in Indian politics. These days the BJP has stolen the Sena’s Hindutva thunder on the national stage, and Narendra Modi’s a demon to best the superannuated Bal Thackeray. Even a Gandhi is in on the act: Indira’s grandson Varun, a BJP candidate in the elections has been jailed under security and hatespeech legislation for an inflammatory speech threatening to ‘cut off the hand’ raised against the Hindu majority. The English-language Indian press, written in a code-laden register reminiscent of Variety, talks of him as the ‘poster-boy’ for the ‘saffron party’.

The Bombay action starts in the slums. If you want to, you can see for yourself. We go through the back of a sweetshop and up the stairs to where a business centre shares the first floor with tiny living quarters: a wrong turn takes you into a kitchen. Through the door of a tiny office a man turns off a fan so that we can climb stairs which are practically a ladder; at the top of the stairs is the door to a cupboard-sized office where a representative of Reality Tours takes our booking for a walk through  the Dharavi slum, the location and source of child actors for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

The next day we meet our guide Ganesh at Churchgate station and take a forty-minute commuter train journey to Mahim Junction, where the slum begins, butted right up against the railway tracks, but clearly on the wrong side of them. Our view from the bridge above the station is a jumble of tin roofs stretching for miles. ‘Slum’ doesn’t do the place justice: an informal area of settlement for Gujarati potters and leather workers since the late nineteenth century, it houses nearly a million people. In contrast to downtown Colaba, where begging and street hassle are practised like theatre, during a two-hour tour of the entire area, not one person asks us for money.

What happens here is recycling. When you put your milk cartons and newspapers in a box outside your front door, you’re not ‘doing the recycling’. These people are doing the recycling, and it’s a dirty, disgusting, health-harming job. Rubbish from all over Mumbai is collected and brought here to be processed and then returned to the production cycle. The snaking plumes of smoke making their way up from the tin roofs come from waste paint burning off cans, so they can be beaten back into shape and reused. Aluminium is recycled in fires and moulded into ingots for use elsewhere. Ghee containers are cleaned in boiling water. Needless to say, no-one wears face masks or even gloves. Plastic of all sorts is thrown into noisily rattling chipping machines that shred it into tiny pieces; the pieces are boiled clean, dried and dyed, then melted and extruded into semi-rigid spaghetti which is finally chopped into tiny plastic beads which can be used as raw material in new plastic moulds. They also make the plastic chipping machines themselves in Dharavi. As we walk gingerly through the workshop in which they’re assembled, some of the machines, a lathe in particular, remind me of ones I once worked on.

Communal tensions ran higher in Dharavi after the riots of 1992-3; housing is now organised more along ethno-religious lines than it once was, and Muslim areas are festooned with crescent flags, but it’s far from a battleground. Ganesh proudly shows us a Muslim-owned factory where wooden Hindu shrines are made as an example of communal collaboration and co-operation. The wage of an industrial worker in Dharavi is between 100 and 150 rupees a day; monthly rent is about 1500. Where the factory areas have space between the hutments sufficient to stack and unload materials, the living areas are cramped and close together, the paths between buildings not much more than covered gutters where one person can just about pass another. Crowded rooms where families crouch and cook on the floor are visible through curtain doors. And somewhere in the middle of it all is a shop, clean and brightly-coloured packets of crisps and sweets hanging above the counter just like any other corner shop in India.

In commercial areas there are grocery shops, fresh produce, pharmacies, an ATM; even a cinema showing Slumdog in Tamil. NGOs have built and maintain schools: Reality Tours support one such venture with what they make from showing curious tourists this place. Since the 1990s, residency and building has been formalised to an extent: new construction requires consent by signature from neighbours. It’s not perfect: Ganesh shows us one towerblock where signatures were found forged. Construction was halted, but that didn’t stop people moving in to the half-finished building, barely any better than the shacks. For all that idiots like Brian Eno laud the ‘self-organising’ power of the informal market in slums, infrastructure and social justice remain crucial necessities.

Back in the city that the British built, the towers soar. The southern end of Bombay is a playground for ideas in Gothic decoration that make St Pancras look like the work of Mies van der Rohe. VT, or Victoria Terminus, is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, renamed like so many things in Mumbai, for a seventeenth century Marathi warrior king and scourge of the Mughals (in the same way that Balkan anti-Muslim sentiment often refers back to the ‘Turkish Yoke’, Hindutva uses the Mughal Empire as the past oppressor of a rightfully Hindu India). The station seems strangely familiar before we even step into it: from Slumdog, from the news footage of the attacks, and from documentation of Patrick Keiller’s incredible multimedia recreation of the station in Lille.

Colaba is a bubble, a heritage vacuum in the heart of the country’s busiest city, but it’s not just for the tourists. Though our hotel’s street is lined with handicraft shops, expensive cars pull up at night outside the swish-looking nightclub. Two streets away they eat tasty seekh kebabs from the vehicles’ hoods, served up from the smoking Bademiya stand. Backpackers are far from cool here: they spoil the vibe for the real cool Mumbaikers. We get asked to move on as soon as we’ve finished eating at hip sisha rooftop hangout Koyla. Shops and hotels have a lot of visible security: mustachioed men in interchangeable police-like khaki uniforms, their cloth-patch badges with a standard-issue space for the firm’s name above the word ‘security’. At the Gateway to India, photographers hold bulky photo-printers under their arm to produce instant pictures of you at the landmark. Hawkers carry enormous brightly-coloured balloons nearly as large as they are, thwacking them suggestively as you pass.

And then, Bombay as a whole is back to front. The Gateway, another Indo-gothic arch built to welcome George V, but best remembered for heralding the last departing British troops from Indian soil, stands facing not the Arabian Sea and Europe, but the bay and mainland beyond. To reach the open sea you have to first sail round the hook of Colaba. What they call the ‘back bay’ in fact faces the sea. At the top, at the end of Marine Drive, the backwash has deposited the sandy stretch of Chowpatty, Bombay’s urban beach. The wind whips up the sand, and the entrance smells vaguely of sewage, but for twenty rupees you can hire a mat to sit on, and for another twenty eat a plate of delicious pani puri standing up at the Badshah puri stall. A tiny big wheel is powered by hand: the crew grab hold of the bars at the top and then hang on and swing down to the bottom before climbing back up on the shaky-looking apparatus. The toys are on the correct scale for the children thronging the beach and braving the sea: plastic baubles and windmills on sticks. As the sun goes down behind the wall of buildings along the Walkeshwar Road, we look for a cab and all too soon it will be time to go home.


Fuck the Creative Industries

Fuck them first and foremost for their exclusiveness, for drawing a line between them and you and putting themselves on the creative side of it. Fuck them for saying that what they do counts and what you do doesn’t. Fuck them for the over-inflated notion of their own ‘creativity’.

Fuck them next because what they actually do create is awful. Acres of anxiety-inducing advertising, tedious dadrock and festering beehives of migrainous office blocks. Because it’s cancer before it’s even left the drawing board. Because they treat housing as sculpture, text like pictures and everything they do as an excuse to invite celebrities to a party.

Fuck them then because they really are an industry, an ugly, landscape-scarring, mind-polluting industry, treating talent like a mine and inspiration like dirty fuel. Fuck them again because of the frequency with which they demand subsidy and succour for their industry when they decide it’s an art. An entrepreneur wearing a t-shirt of a band you like is still an entrepreneur. And an entrepreneur is just a small maggot who wants to be a fat maggot.  One day, he’ll grow up to be a fly and shit in your food.

Fuck the creative industries because they promise to bring change, innovation and ‘disruption’ to the table before serving the same old bitter vinegar in impractically-shaped new bottles. People who think that product design ‘shapes the way we live’ should be permanently rehoused on a Midlands sink estate and mugged repeatedly until they develop better theories about the relationship between aesthetics and social formation.

An office with distressed plaster walls is still an office
An office full of folding bicycles is still an office
An office with a ping-pong table, pool table or football table in it is still an office
… and the people working in it are still drones.

Fuck them because they flood our eyes and ears with media like a backed-up sewer. Their whip pans, crash zooms and tedious electronics soundtracks are the vectors of a deadly, suffocating cholera of distraction. Their synchronised escalator adverts are a Nuremberg rally of the imagination.

Fuck their unshakeable faith in the importance of what they do. Talking to a graphic designer shouldn’t feel like talking to a Moonie. And fuck their “communities”, an insect-hive circle-jerk, a babbling repetition of the same meaningless cliches.

Fuck their ant-like colonisation of our intellectual culture. The only idea in the ‘business idea’ is the business of persuading people there’s an idea when there isn’t even a clue. They waste trees like an illegal Amazonian logger and  they waste our time as if it belonged to them: they are the windbags of superficial change.

When they call marketing poetry, they piss all over poetry
When they call conferences playful, they shit on play
They are lipstick on the mouth of a corpse

Fuck them because they think they are life, and they are only life’s dull echo.


I only used to come here for the Carnival. Westbourne Grove, Portobello Road and even Kensal Green were a strictly annual affair, packed streets to shuffle through, shops shut and pubs packed.

It could be a disheartening experience, too. Arriving full of energy, the first task would be to meet up with friends who were a) inevitably on the other side of the carnival and b) possessed of some kind of inexplicably degenerate musical taste. Time and again, the most beautiful sounds would boom from street corners, and I’d attempt to linger, only to be dragged forcefully along to the Ministry of Sound or Sancho Panza (if there’s anything worse than house, it’s Latin house) where I’d reluctantly shuffle around, silently hating my friends and wishing I was listening to reggae.

This tendency reached its apogee the year that I went with Rob and Sharon and we followed a techno float around the carnival route, the only float I could see whose crew and audience were entirely white (though of course hardly short of dreadlocks). It was like being the White Man in Hammersmith Palais year after year. In my mind I can still see a small, mythical static, just a few large speakers, playing roots and dub. A young man toasts while the old dreads sit around smoking collie weed and nodding slowly to the righteous riddim… of course everybody says the Carnival’s not really about reggae any more. I stopped going after the year I had to pull S out of a rowdy crowd at the Good Times system and nearly got into a fight. And that year there were only half a million people there.

If I ever ventured west out of August, the place seemed somehow naked without the floats and systems. Portobello was exotic enough for an N9 boy, with shops like Wong Singh Jones and the punky market under the Westway that wasn’t crowded with eurogoths like Camden. But visits were far and few between. Settling in Stoke Newington, Brick Lane felt more like my scene: West was even more foreign than South.

Now I find myself within spitting distance of the Westway, the top end of Portobello Road (near enough for two of us to carry a second-hand bureau home) and Maida Vale. But I’m also in a place without a name. Previously, I’ve had ‘Stoke Newington’, ‘Greenwich’ or ‘Brockley’ to put between my street address and the postcode: the true sign of a Zone 2 snob is that they live not just in London but in a place with an identity of its own, often with the imaginative help of local estate agents. Here, I simply fill in my address as ‘London…’. The A-Z says ‘West Kilburn’, but Kilburn proper is more or less due north. The bus stop says ‘Maida Hill’ and we get the Wood & Vale through the door: if you bought a house round here, the estate agent’s amenities pack would have Maida Vale tube on the map but not Queen’s Park. But it’s certainly not Maida Vale: rather than ubiquitous mansion blocks, three-storey terraced houses subdivided into flats are the norm around here.

To compensate, I learn local facts. Local Fact #1: Joe Strummer played at the pub round the corner with the 101ers, before the Clash were even formed. And if there’s a ‘here’ here, it’s the Chippenham. Grocers where you can buy a red pepper at ten o’clock at night, a hardware store and a bakers, barbers and dry cleaners even. Creole, Thai and Lebanese restaurants. A constant flow of people day and night, a school and a college, bus routes into town.

At Christmas, L bought me a handful of badges with the Trellick Tower on, Erno Goldfinger’s ‘brutalist masterpiece’ that like the Barbican complex is one of the few high-rise apartment blocks to have survived London’s apocalyptic rage at elevated living to become some kind of modernist exemplar. Of course, looking casually at the image, it could just as easily be the Balfron Tower, the nearly identical one in Poplar, which Goldfinger built first and even briefly lived in to demonstrate his confidence in the new manner of housing proles. Unlikely, though: even the new new East End hasn’t reached the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach Road yet.

You see a lot of the Trellick in Much Ado About a Minor Ting, and west London is important filmic as well as musical territory. The first black British feature film, Horace Ove’s Pressure takes place along the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal. Isaac Julien’s Territories, one of the key experimental films of the 1980s, brings Carnival, race, class and the politics of local housing together in an overlapping DJ mix. It’s all a long way from the carefully restored white terraces and shopkeepers of Notting Hill. But buying a copy of Charlie Phillips dark and intriguing book of photographs Notting Hill in the Sixties (you’ll have seen his famous portrait of a mixed-race couple in the Tate’s How We Are or on the cover of London Is the Place for Me Vol.2) in the very same bookshop still trading on its moment of Hollywood fame, you realise that even radical history eventually finds its realisation in the price of a home.

But the west is no longer what it was. Take Nathan Barley. When Charlie Brooker originally wrote the character in 1999, he had West London written all over him. ‘A twenty something wannabe director living in Westbourne Grove’, he was instantly recognisable as one of the post-Trustafarian generation of moneyed pricks who had completed the cycle of regentrification of Notting Hill, filling its bars and restaurants with their self-regarding yammer. By the time of his 2005 TV debut, however, there was clearly no place for a Cunt but Shoreditch: East London had been fully transformed into the only natural habitat of privileged, posing, talentless wankers. The Mighty Boosh are exceptional in remaining funny after moving to Shoreditch, while in some kind of weird reverse-Dorian-Gray effect, Noel Fielding becomes more and more of a twat in real life.

And it’s this, at last, that makes West London liveable. Its moment is over, its history, for the moment stalled. There are no more Napoleons in Notting Hill. No panicky Harlesden-is-the-new-Willesden Time Out specials about where to live. No mass-scale conversion of dead industry into overpriced living space. It’s not unapproachably posh: some of it you can even afford to live in. Like the rest of London, council estates and Victorian housing interlock in the same easy-uneasy jigsaw. It all feels, somehow, more like real life.

Rebuilding Britain

The National Film and Television Archive is not only a collection, but also a collection of collections. The way in which the nation’s moving image heritage is collected is often by acquiring smaller collections which have already been gathered or curated: the Mitchell and Kenyon collection, for instance, or the Joye films, which both keep their own identity and become part of the larger collection.

Some of these are company collections: many large firms historically maintained film units for the various purposes of record-keeping, internal communications and pubic relations. The Laing construction company was one such company, and on Wednesday night, at the NFT, Jez Stewart and company historian Alan Thorpe presented films from the Laing (pronounced mote like Laying than Lang, apparently) collection, which have now been donated to the NFTVA.

The audience was full of Laing workers and retirees, who seem to share some company spirit: Sir John Laing was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and a paternalistic employer who rewarded loyalty to the company with a sense of belonging and staff holiday outings. Laing Company Outing 1 from 1948 has many long shots of Laing workers, and some of Sir John himself on their annual jolly by boat from Tower Bridge to Margate, enjoying themselves by the sea.

Motorway through the Lune Valley documents the construction of the Cumbrian section of the M6 past Tebay and over Shap, through to Carlisle, in the early 70s. There’s clearly enough consciousness of the negative effect of roads on the environment that an effort is made to suggest both the harmony of the new road with its environment, and the scenic appeal of driving the motorway itself (it is actually one of the most spectacular stretches of motorway in England).

80 weeks to Touchdown feels even more sinister: beginning with Michael Heseltine’s announcement to the commons that a proper airport was to be built in the Falkland Islands, it’s a CoI film of the construction of the airport, starting with the valiant pontoon landing of JCBs, complete with characteristic 80s bright video, incidental synthesiser music and a chillingly Tory-sounding voiceover.

Coventry Cathedral shows Laing’s contribution to Basil Spence’s great modern cathedral: the struts and wires that hold up its enormous edifice. There’s a lot about stained glass and the craft of stonemasonry, but the most amazing thing revealed about the cathedral, fundamentally a medieval gothic cathedral in form, is that the roof forms its own self-supporting cantilevered vault: the tall and fine pillars of the nave were only put into position afterwards to hold up the wooden beans that echo the form but not the function of traditional vaulting. This is a mutation even beyond Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, where the nave’s columns still support the roof; but in Coventry all is illusion.

From the high art to low living, Where You Live is a paean to Laing’s programme of cottage estates system-built in concrete with ‘Easiform’ metal-shutter moulds. True to the form of this kind of film, it invokes vox pops from newly-installed residents to praise the ramped underpasses ideal for pushchairs, and pans lovingly across (unvaryingly white) children at play while their mothers shop. It makes to want to run immediately to the history books to find out when the estate was demolished. The film takes a surreal turn when it plays Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes over scenes of estate life (making you think the filmmakers might just not understand the irony) before rounding off with a forthright attack on the satire, and defence of the necessity of the estates as both essential housing and a place where individuality can flourish.

But it’s Taking Stock, a film from 1961, detailing (in great detail) Laing’s contribution to the postwar construction boom that makes you understand most the kind of unauthored vernacular architecture that Laing is responsible for. Here are secondary modern schools, factories and industrial estates, office blocks and housing blocks, all in a suburban sub-International Style, large windows, flat roofs and intermittent towers. A kind of low-rent brutalism: even as the ribbons are optimistically cut, these places contain the seeds of future melancholy. They are the everyday, invisible ugly buildings that we still live among today: the ones we don’t mention when we talk about architecture.

Photos at an exhibition

A tiny Dan Leno, no bigger than your hand (and yet every detail of his face is distinct, from mugging eyebrows to dimpled chin) is dancing like a marionette and making incomprehensible jokes about a pile of planks of wood behind his house.

Not Medusa, but another woman photographed by Madame Yevonde holds her forearm up like Madonna, or Rosie the Riveter. Suddenly colourful, she is both a refugee from 1980s freak-fashion and the cousin of a woman painted by Tamara de Lempicka: something is machine-like about her curves, something is supreme.

There is no compassion: Martin Parr just makes everyone looks like a cunt.

What are you taking pictures for? An issue of Camerawork about the Battle of Lewisham. Behind a solid wall of police stand the limp union flags on poles of a small phalanx of National Front marchers. A full-on fight involving children and police horses is photographed from behind: fragile young bodies and the flanks of stumbling horses are dangerously close.

Model food in unappetising colours: a cold palette of cold meats.

A bi-racial couple from the cover of a compact disc, his arm on her shoulder, each beautiful but neither looking at the other, both looking out, at you.

A full-length LCD portrait of Cerith Wyn Evans skinny and seductive in a black waistcoat, hair dark and shaved on one side. His face is three-quarters on and the slightest hint of flash reflection, red-eye in his right eye, contains a whole quarter-century of sadness.

Queen Victoria was very ugly indeed.

Homes that people were removed from, homes to be demolished, substandard and surplus homes. A boy in a alley so narrow that he can stand, feet wedged against both house and wall, five feet above the ground.

Auld Reekie

There’s not so much reeking these days; those who persist line up on the road out of Waverley station, just beyond the end of the covering awning where ‘inside’ officially ends. Little red and white stickers decorate every building in the city right down to bus stops, warning that smoking is no longer tolerated.

The first thing I see in Cramond on the wooded green outside the flats is a pheasant, but it never reappears. The sound of the weir on the Almond below is constant, interrupted every five minutes by the sound of a jet taking off from or landing at Turnhouse. When the sky is full of cloud you can’t see the planes, only hear the roar.

We go into town to check out the Douglas Gordon retrospective, Superhumanatural, at the Royal Scottish Academy. There’s a ramshackle pile of televisions showing nearly everything he’s ever made, and Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score from Feature Film wafts through the galleries (the material experience of multimedia art, far from the sensuous contemplation of single works, is that you’re never quite free of the work with the loudest sound) but the elephants of Play Dead; Real Time, This Way, That Way, Other Way are the most engaging. The hypermodern effect of so much video is slightly undermined by the tendency of the gallery staff to wear tartan trousers, one of those things about Scotland in which it’s difficult to discern the difference between local tradition and nationalist intent.

At the top of the Royal Mile by the castle a huge tourist cavern and polycotton tartan weaving mill is almost entirely staffed by Japanese women. It’s like moving Huis Ten Bosch to Holland.

At the other end of town, down by the fairly hideous new bamboo-slatted parliament, the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse is showing her private collection of Canalettos, the most impressive of which are the dozen-plus-two scenes of the Grand Canal, and the most intriguing of which are the capriccios: not merely rearranged but entirely imaginary cityscapes and views: fragments of a fantasy Venice.

Beyond the palace and into the park, a small street runs under a railway line: this is Croft-an-Righ, where my great-great-grandparents lived when it was the Irish part of Edinburgh. Through the park which looks up to the Salisbury Crags and around the corner is Milton Street, where my grandfather was born in 1900, at number 29. This is the first time I’ve been here. These tenement buildings are three to four stories high, containing flats with communal hallways. Being built of stone, they’re much sturdier than anything brick-built from a similar period in London. Most of Edinburgh’s pre-war housing is stone-built, mostly of a sandy-grey colour which glowers under cloud but is strangely radiant in sunshine.

I start to rediscover the way in which Edinburgh is put together. On Christmas Eve we walk from Cramond village down onto the esplanade that skirts the Firth of Forth. The tide is out and the low sandbanks close to the shore are drained of all but a few pools. Black and white oystercatchers strut and dip their bright orange beaks in the mud. Folks are out walking and cycling, and quite a few English accents are to be heard. At Granton, factories and docks push the road inland, and beyond them, new blocks of flats are naturally being built to take advantage of the views over water.

When we round the corner at Newhaven, the first thing I recognize is the Market Buffet opposite the old fish market. When I was a child, a mojot treat on our summer visits to Edinburgh was to be taken to the fish market by my Uncle David. We’d get up cold and early and drive to the market where wooden crates of fish were auctioned fresh off the boats of the small Newhaven fleet. David would slap labels with his name down on the boxes and leave them for the porters while we retired to the Market Buffet for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. Cod, haddock, herring; everything came in here. I remember seeing a shark once.

We’d load up David’s van and deliver the fish to his brothers’ shops (they took turns going to the market), stopping finally at his own, where he’d unload and begin gutting and filleting. The brothers had shops all over Edinburgh: I remember Pennywell and Gorgie. The last time I went to the market I ended up spending the day learning some rudimentary filleting and preparation skills in the West Port shop, which was also a haven of sorts for some local down-and-outs. Sandy would bank his dole at the beginning of the week with David to stop himself blowing it all on drink. Schizophrenic Keith told me about the voices he heard and cooked his lunch on a gas stove in the kitchen out the back.

Now the fish are gone. A few fishing boats linger in the harbour at Newhaven, and a small part of the market still operates, but even what was the fishing museum is being redeveloped into craft shops and café bars. David gave up the trade in the early nineties, and cleans windows now, getting up just as early to beat the yellow lines.

Further along the shore, we reach Leith, or Ocean Terminal at least. Though things are still made and traded here (what looks from a distance like an enormous block of flats is in fact the Chancelot flour mill), Leith’s waterfront is now dominated by the Ocean Terminal development, an enormous indoor mall with the added attraction of the disused Royal Yacht Britannia moored alongside.

On Boxing day we walk across the causeway to Cramond Island, something my grandmother never let my mother do. Curious pyramidal concrete posts run from the shore to the island, and we’re not sure whether they were to stymie U-boats or what. The island itself is wooded and craggy with a few shells of WWII military emplacements and occasionally plays host to a punk rock festival. We can at last see the twin Forth bridges around the corner and up the firth. On the way back we see men digging for cockles or mussels, despite signs all along the coast which warn of contamination.

The train home is old and crowded; people sit glumly on their cases by the toilets, girlfriends and boyfriends scout seats together up and down the train with their mobiles. Across the aisle from me a man holds his year-old son on his lap and explains at length to a friend on the phone how his life has fallen to pieces: the child’s mother has post-natal depression, has abandoned the child and goes out clubbing, is seeing a former boyfriend, is going back to Africa. He talks of sleepless nights, heartbreak and living hell. By the time we’re in Yorkshire it’s dark again, and I try to make fireworks out of the lights that fly by with my mobile phone.

Camberwell Chronicles

Water doesn’t go down the plughole anticlockwise when you’re south of the river, but if you’re toilet’s blocked the council will send out a plumber to sort it in hours, even when you’re a leaseholder.

There’s a heavy cigarette tax if you’re caught smoking at the busstop at the top of Camberwell New Road. I still don’t feel quite comfortable anywhere round here after dark, and I try to break it down: R’s experiences (which itself could be broken down into influence on perception, and solidarity in recognising the reality of the threat of violence); an inability to judge levels and types of threat (people who look hard; people who might cause trouble; people who might want to rob you); and perhaps an element of racism (I hope not).

When I come home at about three on Friday night, kids are still sitting on the wall opposite, outside the youth centre. R says this is what summer holidays are like, when they finish school, and she’s always reminded and amazed what a tight leash they’re on during termtime.

E who lives in the flat upstairs is beginning her cycle of madness. When I return from Shepherd’s Bush she’s playing loud music late into the night and early in the morning. She shouts at the music, loudly: her voice echoes, sounds as if it comes from outside rather than muffled through the floor above; these flats have hard floors. Sometimes there are periods of silence (R says she hears her shouting that she wants to kill herself, and the relief of silence is always tainted with anxiety). She throws things from her flat into the courtyard below: bags of rubbish and a kettle.

The same music, over and over again; R&B, hip-hop, the same phrases and hooks repeated. When I come home on Saturday evening the music has been replaced by what sounds like a piece of stuck machinery: a short cycle of hum and thud. Then the music starts again, then the humming and thudding. When I look out the window later on, her front door and several bags of rubbish have been hurled into the courtyard, but the music and howling goes on as I go to sleep and the howling continues when I wake up. Then there’s silence. When I go out to the shops on Sunday afternoon I notice that her front door is boarded up.

If she’s been taken away, it won’t be the first time. The police don’t always cover the doorway after they break in. I hope she’s OK.