For ‘The Angel’ I wanted Kim to be a struggling (financially if not critically) artist based in inner London. I’d thought of Hackney as a location for her studio mainly because I’d met a real artist on a German course at the Goethe Institute a few years ago who himself had a studio in Hackney — somewhere he freely described as a ‘shit hole’ that artists flocked to solely because it was cheap.
When he heard the synopsis read, Michael B from the City course suggested that I might also consider Shoreditch as the kind of weird and wacky place where artists like Kim might hang out — and recommended a few places I might want to go to soak up the ambiance.
In the meantime, I’d bought a fantastic ‘London for Londoners’ type guidebook called ‘Secret London — An Unusual Guide’ by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash (Jonglez Publishing). Among the many fascinating sights that 99% of Londoners probably aren’t aware of was somewhere that seemed exactly the right setting for Kim.
It’s Village Underground which is, bizarrely, a huge open space that’s used for performances, fashion shoots and exhibitions and is topped by four old Jubilee Line tube train carriages — about 40ft above Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch. The tube trains have creatively been turned into office space and are used by local artists, actors, writers and creative people in general — at a relatively low cost.
The book mentioned that someone might be willing to show visitors round if they asked nicely so I called Village Underground and said I was writing a novel and I’d like to see if would be a suitable setting for my character. They were extremely friendly and accommodating and even allowed me to turn up yesterday to take a look around at short notice while the performance space was being fitted out for a fashion show (lots of designer types hanging around outside). I was allowed to take plenty of photos, some of which are interspersed in this post.
Tam took me up the spiral staircase on the outside of the building on to the roof to get a close look at the tube carriages, most of which had been grafitti’d by the graffiti artists who based themselves there. It was a miserable day in February so the roof garden wasn’t at its best but apparently it’s a very social place for the artist types to hang out in the summer. I peered into some of the carriages, which had indeed been turned into creative workshops.
As well as showing me round Tam gave me a lot of useful advice on other places in London where artists congregate in numbers. As I’d originally thought, Hackney has a real concentration — particularly Hackney Wick — somewhere else I’ll need to investigate. She told me about a few places locally in Shoreditch to have a look around and after I left I went on a very long walk around the area which took me to Brick Lane. I then set off back into the City, going through Liverpool Street and Barbican and heading back to City University for the evening’s class.
It was an odd experience to stand above Shoreditch in the Â artists’ community and look at the skyscrapers encroaching northwards from the City of London. (I took a cab up Bishopsgate to Village Underground and passed the construction site of the Heron Tower, which became the tallest building in the City a couple of months ago, as well as the big hole in the ground that will become the Pinnacle tower, which at 63 floors will overtake the Heron Tower.)
It’s staggering how the wealth of the City suddenly changes in the space of a hundred yards or so into the ‘edgy’ area of Shoreditch. Tam said the City is encroaching further into the area and the artists are being priced out — I later saw a new Crowne Plaza hotel on Shoreditch High Street.
This is all fantastic stuff for the novel as I have a good reason for James, who’s working in a financial institution, to end up pretty close to Kim in geographical terms. He could easily pop out to Shoreditch after work or even in his lunchbreak if, like me, he occasionally tends to take rather long ones.
Many thanks go to Jack and Tam at Village Underground for being so hospitable and I’m hoping to return there to enjoy the roof garden when the weather’s more clement.