There is a powerful memory of Lisson Grove in 1981. And walking along the Edgware Road having just bought the 12″ version of Joy Division’s Atmosphere. There was some inexplicable urge to repeat that walk this afternoon. Leaving work, travelling under London on Crossrail, immersed in the city, a mixture of cinematography, the inner life of novels, the avant garde, particles of historical matter, waiting to be found.
There are people who say things such as ‘I can’t stand London’, ‘I hate going there’. These are often codes for other things. They don’t like certain things, certain people, culture, sounds, movements. But they won’t say that.
There are other people who live in London and never go to the centre, they never undertake nightwalks, they never visit galleries or walk in unknown directions just to see what they might find. They live in curious bubbles, London barely registers, an urban place, it could be anywhere, it might be nowhere.
There are rich people in London too. Millionaires and billionaires, and for them, London is just part of their global playground. They fly – perhaps in private jets – from Dubai to Paris, to London and on to New York. It is a world of luxury, of apartments and houses they might spend just a few days in once or twice a year.
Most of us never see such people. Perhaps if we visit Harrods or Selfridges or Fortnum and Masons. But most of us don’t have the money that would take us to the same restaurants and bars. The topography of their London is something most of us would have very little insights into. It is a ghost city; buildings we never enter, conversations we never hear.
I leave the train at Bond Street Station and walk into Hanover Square. People are sitting on the benches eating their lunches. It feels like a rediscovery of a London that had been forgotten, as if decades had never happened. I must post something and I want to go and see the housing development at Park West. And once more experience Atmosphere in the Edgware Road, to retrace those steps, to search for my soul, to see what happened along the way. But it turns out not to be nostalgia at all. It is all of the present, of now, and what might have been is nothing but a reflection that quickly passes.
There is strong late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sense to these streets. Crawford Street and York Street and a diversion to Harcourt Street and Homer Street . The period from 1830 to 1930 appears to have been missed out and then the large apartment blocks of the 1930s and then lots of stuff from the past one hundred years.
Let’s say the bulk of the yellow brick terraced town housing is from 1760 to 1830. This is the period of the application of steam power to the textile industries and mining; the industrial revolution. It is also the age of slavery, the French Revolution, the enclosure of the land, the destruction of the last remnants of feudalism in the English countryside, Romanticism, the early days of socialist ideas, with a utopian flavour.
These houses have little ornamentation and some will describe them as boring and uniform. But the design is a clever template. They can be used as single houses, divided into flats or bedsits; they can be hotels, offices and workplaces. The ground floor can become a shop, restaurant or art gallery.
They will have an interesting trajectory into the future. Many were build as speculative ventures by small local building firms who were more concerned with immediate profits than long term use. The quality is variable.
People now spend a million or two pounds on these places. But that doesn’t buy two million pounds of modern quality. The cost is mainly in the land values. And yet the poor quality housing cannot be demolished. What are people paying for? The place? Prestige? Or something else.
The Edgware Road is just the same.
It’s not clear whether it should be a shopping parade or a motorway. The people who stare through rain stained windscreen wiper glass are looking ahead. To the M1 and their journeys into the Home Counties. The Edgware Road is just a smudge, an urban mess with poor people and vagabonds, dangerous denizens who sit and stare from their positions on the pavement.
Someone approaches me and says he has a brain injury and would I like to buy some salmon. He shows me some packets which have big yellow reduced price stickers on them. I tell him I don’t eat fish. He screws his face up and gets back on a for hire bicycle and spins around in circles in the road.
I visit the Swedish Church and sit in the silence. Walking down the stairs again and the noise of conversation in the basement cafe speaks in a hubbub of afternoon coffee and cinnamon buns. It’s a cheery discordance. I cannot work out how to open the large glass door. A voice behind me says,
‘Press the button’,
I turned around. It’s the vicar, she is smiling, almost laughing.
Ah’, I reply.
‘This one, the one that says ‘press’ in large letters’
‘That’s the one’, she says, and now she does laugh.
I’m not sure why this is so funny but I’m still smiling about it 20 minutes later. It was the look she gave me too; so warm and friendly. It lasted a moment or two, it stayed with me for the rest of the day. The quality without a name always does.
London seems to swirl around me, as if in a whirlpool, endless motion in the streets, people walking, cycling, driving at different speeds. A twin prop plane flies over. Perhaps a new war has started. It’s the last plane that left before the airfields were seized by the supporters of a military coup.
They live here in comfort and safety; the friends, family and relations of Assad, the supports of the Saudi regime which commits war crimes in Yemen, supporters of Putin, botox puffed up lips, they speak with foul breath, comforters to the Wagner group who rape children and torture their parents. It’s a grim left that supports such stuff. Perhaps more experience of war would sort out these abstractions.
A large car drives past with tinted windows. As the light changes it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the driver. He wears dark glasses and carries an automatic pistol. A dictator sits in the back seat. Paranoid, plotting games against his friends, planning violence against his enemies. He will make a phone call later. The torture of his opponents will intensify.
Park West is one of the big interwar buildings for an expanding middle class. The financing was complex, the whole development has an air of something I don’t quite understand but don’t like. It has an oscillation that might be corporate fascism. Fascists lived here that’s for sure. Cocktail cabinet Friday evening in 1936, laughing at news of the humiliation of the Jewish people in Frankfurt and Berlin.
A cold shrill English callous manner. The class war is everywhere. We need to learn how to fight it in so many places. But much of the left fights with an out of tune trumpet when much more finesse and strength is needed. Fascism is in the everyday; but anti-fascism is there too.
I hesitate to walk into Portsea Mews. It has an atmosphere of secrecy and foreboding. There are signs everywhere with shouting orders to keep out. But I think this is to keep out of the buildings rather than keep out of the mews itself. All of the buildings are empty. There are thick padlocks and steel shutters on the doors. There is an anticipation as to what sort of person might be met here. I know who I would like to meet here; a different type of person, revolutionaries for the 21st century. Where are they?
Connaught Street, Connaught Square, Connaught Village. The Blairs live here. Their presence is usually marked by two or three cops with large sub-machines. They pace around chomping on gum and grinning inanely. The armed representatives of the state. The reform of the Labour Party is absurd. A shotgun blast would immediately dissolve what slight reform they wish for.
The rain is now persistent. I’ve had enough of gawping at the rich through the windows of their luxury. Chandeliers brightly lit and art works on the walls (I like art works on the wall, but I don’t like class divisions).
I have had enough of the faint reflected sense of luxury. The two poles off opposition are both flawed. Narcissistic individual luxury is just as problematic as bombed out dereliction and poverty. Everyone needs to have just more than enough rather than some having far too much and others not having anything at all.
Just more than enough is a social relation, and a physical existence. Determining what is more than just enough is a class antagonism.
Back to the Edgware Road. Atmosphere is playing louder in my head.
I don’t know why I should remember that day so clearly. Why it’s stayed with me so long. What pulse sends me on occasion to walk along the Edgware Road and think so intently about that song.
Walk in silence
Don’t walk away, in silence
See the danger
Don’t walk away
Walk in silence
Don’t turn away, in silence
Worn like a mask of self-hate
Confronts and then dies
Don’t walk away
People like you find it easy
Naked to see
Walking on air
Hunting by the rivers through the streets, every corner
Abandoned too soon
Set down with due care
Don’t walk away, in silence
Don’t walk away
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