Shoreditch was in the news last weekend when the organisers of the ‘Fuck Parade’ pelted the Cereal Killer Café at the hipster end of Brick Lane with ‘paint and cereal’. This must be one of the first times that Cornflakes and Rice Krispies have been drafted in as ammunition in a class war protest against gentrification and the reach of global capitalism!
For those who don’t know, Cereal Killer Café attracted notoriety in the media when it opened at the end of last year. Its unique selling proposition is simple: choose a cereal, put milk (or alternative on it) and an optional ‘topping’. Then hand over a fiver. (To be fair it’s not quite that expensive and there are some imported American cereals along with the Weetabix and Krave.)
The concept was seized upon as an example of the hubris of ironic artiness (quite possibly, even meta-irony where those responsible are making an ironic response to an ironic concept — otherwise known as ‘who’s actually taking the piss out of whom?’). ‘A bowl of Weetos? You’re havin’ a larf mate?’
It didn’t help that the two twin brothers who set up the café had the Shoreditch hipster image nailed: with their bushy beards and tattoos they looked like the archetypical ‘Shoreditch twat’ squared.
The protest’s organisers (if indeed, the protest is organised — this was Shoreditch) have been widely condemned for attacking an independent business that is, at worst, a gimmicky tourist-trap for those with more money than nutritional sense.
The real irony is that, for those who say they want to rally against gentrification and the change in the area’s character, there’s something to properly protest about within fifty yards of Cereal Killer’s doors.
I took the photograph above last week on Sclater Street, which leads from Shoreditch High Street station to Brick Lane — Cereal Killer is in the block behind the mechanical digger. Despite the street art on the hoardings, this space is being turned into a development called The Fusion. The cheapest apartment in The Fusion is a mere £757,500 (you get all of one bedroom for that plus a fitted Smeg fridge). The hipsters in Cereal Killer would need to sell a lot of Frosties to afford to move into one of those.
Not that the developers are targeting the Shoreditch arty set who have created the ‘buzz’ that makes these new apartment blocks so lucrative — if the flats are inhabited at all (rather than kept as empty investments by overseas buyers) their occupants will no doubt be making the 10 minute commute to the heart of the City rather than to some loft studio. (See previous post for more details of developments in the pipeline.)
The very deep excavations that can be viewed through the security fence show the scale of the development — is this for a garage or maybe an underground gym or swimming pool?
It’s this development and the many others like it that represent the threat to the character of the area. As soon as they’re completed, they will radically change Shoreditch in ways that go way beyond gentrification. The developers’ marketing material even contains the following: ‘Shoreditch is becoming more and more affluent and even being labelled as the ‘New Bond Street,’ plus it is a great location for City commuters’.
I took the photo below in May last year on a street art tour. We’re standing on the old car park that has been excavated in the image above — the London Clay that has been the foundation of the area dug up and dumped somewhere else, replaced with an empty void.
The walls of the adjoining building were a popular site for street artists — they’re just about visible now through the security fences but will soon be obscured by steel and concrete. The Shoreditch of my novel is fast becoming history.
The first part of my novel — and some of the later action — is set in Shoreditch. I first got to know the area when I was taking the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio). Although City University itself is about a mile or so west of Shoreditch (I know this as I walked the exact journey last week), it led me to start looking around adjacent areas of London.
I can’t remember whether I’d decided to write a novel with an artist as a main protagonist before I came across Village Underground (and its rooftop tube trains) in the Secret London guidebook. However, very shortly after reading about this artistic community space with an events venue underneath, I’d been up on the roof to visit for myself and had the start of a novel set in what was then, despite some creeping commercialism, a part of London that had a genuine alternative and bohemian feel.
What’s most fascinated about Shoreditch, as opposed to further flung artistic enclaves like Hackney Wick, is its location right on the edge of the City of London — in the novel this geographical closeness enables the two characters from completely different world to meet.
Apart from one residential block, the very unironically named Avant Garde tower at the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road, there’s been surprisingly little encroachment by property developers exploiting Shoreditch’s position on the City’s northern fringes.
The Broadgate development (seen above) was completed in 2008 and, since then, the City seems to have grown upwards with the likes of the Walkie Talkie, Heron Tower, Cheesegrater and Shard (albeit on the other side of the river).
While the character of Shoreditch has undoubtedly changed with the arrival of the Overground and Shoreditch High Street station plus associated developments like Boxpark, the physical environment has changed little from when I first got to know the area (and probably hasn’t changed that much since the area was first industrialised).
I put this hiatus in development down to the delayed effects of the 2008 credit crunch and its consequences.
This is all about to change and, sadly for the Shoreditch I’ve come to know, I feel that the last few years will come to be seen as a stay of execution for one of London’s most characterful areas. As an example, since the New Year, the car park on waste ground opposite Village Underground seen in the photo above has seen construction activity begin — and it’s deep piling work that’s being carried out — of the type required for the foundations of very tall buildings.
Those who have been on street art tours of Shoreditch will know this car park as one of the areas that featured the most frequently changing graffiti art. Now it’s fenced off and will soon be transformed into a ‘mixed use’ development called Shoreditch Village — the first part of which will be a ten storey Citizen M boutique hotel, due to open by this time next year. For an artist’s impression of the finished site, click on this story.
This development is relatively modest but it will still tower over all the buildings in the immediate area — and will change the character of Village Underground. It used to be a quirk that the tube trains were, ironically, the highest point in the local area and, counter-intuitively, looked down on everything below. Soon all the trendy guests in the hotel will spy on them from above.
For a taste of what the area around Village Underground may look like in a year or two, then take a walk a mile or so to the area to the north and west of Old Street/’Silicon Roundabout’ (known also in the media as the risibly-named Tech City).
The area around the City Road Basin on the Regent’s Canal is undergoing a dramatic change with several huge, upmarket apartment blocks currently being constructed. This is a huge change for an area that, even when I was doing the City University novel-writing course, in 2009-10, was still genuinely down-at-heel and post-industrial, unlike Shoreditch. There’s even a drive-through McDonald’s there — which would be unimaginable down the road in Shoreditch.
Construction on one or two of the tower blocks was started, and then paused, during the recession and, like Shoreditch, the areas of derelict land and waste ground were likely to have been earmarked for development that was put on hold. But no longer. The construction has restarted and the place will soon change forever.
There’s a scene in the novel based in the City Road area, near the canal, as at the start of the book Kim works in a pub that’s based on the Wenlock Arms, which has near-legendary status amongst serious beer drinkers for being one of the very few basic, spit-and-sawdust, unreconstructed back-street boozer that wasn’t too far from a central tube station. in a location.
The Wenlock itself was victim to the gentrification of the area. It was closed a few years ago and was threatened with development into flats. After a landmark local campaign to get the pub protected by Hackney council (of which I was a supporter) it has now been included in a conservation area and has since been rescued and sympathetically refurbished. The holes in floorboards and barely functioning toilets have gone to be replaced by craft beers and trendy square hand-basins but it’s now thriving again.
Shoreditch Village is nothing compared with some new developments that are either in the pipeline or currently going through the planning process. Plans for the Bishopsgate Goods Yard site around Shoreditch High Street station are so dramatic that Hackney’s mayor (Shoreditch is on the fringes of both Hackney and Tower Hamlets) has started a petition on Change.org to protest to Boris Johnson about his decision in principle to approve them.
This is a massive development site, derelict for over fifty years after a fire destroyed the old railways goods yard that previously occupied the site. Shoreditch High Street station has been built on some of the area — and the reason why the railway is enclosed in a concrete box in the station is to allow building work to commence without disrupting the railway that runs through the site.
But the developers plans are equally huge — they include seven tower blocks, with two forty-six storeys high (much bigger than those pictured on City Road above). A little of this will be affordable housing but it’s inconceivable that the character of Shoreditch (and the Brick Lane area to the east) will remain unchanged with development of such scale encroaching almost into the heart of the area.
The likes of Pret a Manger and Pizza Express are one thing but, if the development is anything like One New Change, Cardinal Place in Victoria or the many in Canary Wharf, then there will be less galleries, oddball clothes shops and organic cafes in Shoreditch and many more familiar names from any high street.
It would be somewhere that my artist character Kim would never contemplate living or working in. And so my novel might, perhaps, have captured a particular moment in the development of Shoreditch — when it had established itself as quirky, creative and fascinating and when the hipsters could enjoy the place in almost suspended animation for a few years. Now it’s in danger of the City speculators moved in to kill the goose that laid their golden egg. Let’s hope not. Sign the petition.
The point from which this view can be seen is unique — with that tremendous triangular shadow — and it’s only been open a week. I must have been very lucky to have caught a moment where the sun was almost directly to the south of the Shard and low enough in the winter sky to have thrown that needle-like shadow long enough to cross the Thames and into the heart of the City itself. While I’ve reduced the resolution of the photos for quicker downloading, it can be seen that the tip of darkness points about a hundred yards directly east of The Monument — perhaps rather symbolic from the new structure in Southwark.
So — I couldn’t resist it. I splashed out my £25 and went up the Shard on Monday this week — only the fourth day the viewing platform, The View From the Shard, had been open. Well, I had to really, after all, I’ve been following its progress while it’s been under construction and charted much of its development on this blog.
This post isn’t entirely unrelated to the novel. A significant part of The Angel’s plot happens in places photographed below, which I’ll mention, and I suspect there’s something quite writerly about enjoying a view like this from high above.
But principally, this post is an unashamed Shard-splurge and, rather appropriately, takes up a lot of vertical screen space — but, if you’re on the home page and looking for other posts, keep on scrolling as it’s all still there — just a long way down (like the River Thames above).
I’ve thumbnailed seven photographs below from in 2011 and 2012, most of which have appeared on the blog. Taken from various viewpoints (anyone want to guess where?), the photos show the rapid pace of construction.
Here’s the Shard rising in 2011.
The viewing platform is lower than might be imagined. It’s on the highest of the steel floors that were slotted around the concrete core as it rose upwards. However, The pinnacle of the building (a considerable height as can be seen from one of the photos below) was prefabricated like a 3D jigsaw and assembled in Yorkshire before being disassembled and lifted into place on the top of the building.
Here are four shots from 2012. The crane has disappeared in the May photo but the lift along the outside remains attached. I was baffled at the time about how the crane at the top would be removed but the builders ingeniously erected a temporary crane on the side of the Shard close enough to the top to be able to reach up to remove the tall crane but accessible enough from within the building to be disassembled. Cranes fascinate me.
Sp the viewing gallery is around the point where the track for the exterior lift stops in the May 2012 photo. Even so, it’s very high, as can be seen by some of the pictures below, and it’s odd to think that slightly over a year ago the viewing platform was just empty sky.
The dreadful weather in London over the last couple of years is noticeable in the series of photos — there’s barely any blue sky in any of the photos — even those taken in the summer.
By contrast, I was lucky with the weather when I was actually on top of the Shard. Monday was a bright and breezy day. Imagine pre-booking several tickets at £25 to find that the top of the Shard was shrouded in low cloud — something that will happen. Looking at the website’s terms and conditions, it appears that the management has discretion to provide a voucher in lieu of future use in these circumstances.
Although the top floor of the observation area is open to the elements, there’s still a safe wall of glass extending well above head height. The combination of glass and light entering from all directions means the viewing area, particularly the higher level, is tricky for photography (at least when it’s bright — next time I won’t wear a light-coloured coat). Half the photos that I took aren’t publishable on this blog due to smeary reflections.
As its marketing suggests, the View From The Shard is a well-organised and a friendly experience, if the chatty lift attendants are anything to go by. Unlike the London Eye, where by definition your viewing time is limited, visitors can stay all day at the top of the Shard (although entry is by timed-slot). Much attention has been paid to the detail, with an interactive map of where the four viewing platform lifts are positioned and even specially woven London sight-themed carpets. There’s also a little gift shop seventy storeys up. But as I queued in front of a large video screen for the airport style security scanners, I didn’t expect to see the scene below:
Yes — Village Underground’s facade on Great Eastern Street was entertaining the waiting tourists. (This is where Kim has her studio at the start of the novel.) It was part of a montage including Brick Lane and other ‘edgy’ urban attractions that shows how the urban street-art scene is now an established part of the London tourist experience. I asked Village Underground via Facebook if they knew their wall was being used as part of the Shard’s tribute to the capital’s culture — they didn’t but thought it was quite cool.
So, how far can you see? As this picture shows, I was able to get a hazy view as far out as Wembley, with a fuzzy glimpse of Harrow-on-the-Hill and the Chilterns beyond. The hills of Essex and the North Downs are also visible from other directions but I’d love to go up on an exceptionally clear day with a pair of binoculars and find out how far I can see.
One paradox of the view from the Shard is that it’s a high enough perspective to avoid all the buildings that normally clutter London’s sightlines. Take St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although it’s a little distant and the view is necessarily from above, in this picture it’s possible to imagine how St. Paul’s used to dominate the London skyline until the second half of the last century.
The St. Paul’s photo shows something of a parallel with narrative point-of-view. The height of the Shard gives an almost omniscient, third-person perspective — with enough information to see the big picture — how the components of the view or narrative relate to each other. And (with a camera or change in what Emma Darwin calls psychic distance) you can zoom in closer to the subject. But the trade-off of omniscience is distance and remoteness. Only by standing close to St. Paul’s can you appreciate its scale or touch the fabric of the building and feel its solidity. And to stretch the metaphor further, go inside the building and explore within.
A significant part of the plot in the London section of my novel occurs around St. Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge also features.This photograph shows the elegance and economy of its design — leaving very little impact apart from a silvery filament connecting both banks of the river.
And it serves as a great metaphor — linking the commercial Square Mile with the two cultural icons of the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank. The top of the photo also shows part of the new, incredibly long, Blackfriars station which extends right across the river. Note the solar panels that provide half the electricity for the station.
Having a camera with a (modest) zoom lens is obviously useful when you’re 300m up. Also, going back to locations in the novel, the below is a telephoto view of the bridge that takes the new Overground line across the top of Shoreditch High Street. The bus is at the end of Kingsland Road near the Geffrye Museum by a line of shops that features in a section of the novel connected with street art, although this piece might be one of the casualties of revision. I tried to spot Village Underground, with its tube trains on the roof but it appears to be hidden from the top of the Shard by the Broadgate Tower — which is at the extreme right edge of the photo.
Here’s the London Eye with St.James’s Park behind. Buckingham Palace is around ten o’clock — it’s quite a difficult place to pick out — I had to describe the location it to a family who were particularly looking for it. This shows that the London Eye is in a far better location for sightseeing, being much closer to the main tourist sites. Unfortunately for tourists, most of the view from the east and south sides of the Shard is devoid of landmarks, although I’m quite interested in looking at ‘ordinary’ London from the Shard. Even though I like the Shard, I’m glad it’s not been constructed slap bang in the centre of London — imagine how out of scale it would look next to Nelson’s Column or Big Ben.
It’s a shame the big beach volleyball stadium at Horse Guard’s Parade has gone. It would have been slap right in the middle of the photo.
The height allows you to get up close for unusually personal views of better known landmarks from a unique perspective.
Sadly the well-loved Gherkin seems to be in danger of being obscured, especially from the west, by its new neighbours under construction — the Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater. Both are seen in the photo below, although I’m not yet sure which is which.
Slightly to the west (the other side of Bishopsgate) is the building that was the tallest in the country for many years — Tower 42 (previously the NatWest Tower). The perspective from the Shard shows how much the new record holder looms so much taller.
(Tower 42’s story partly explains why the opening of the Shard gallery is such an event. When it was the Nat West building, it was severely damaged by a terrorist bomb. Terrorism was one of the reasons why other high buildings either closed to the public or never opened public observation areas at all — such as the BT Tower and Canary Wharf tower. Unlike many other cities, London had no public high level viewpoints, excepting restaurants and bars, until the Eye opened in 2000 — the Shard really is an innovation.)
The below picture also gives an idea of the Shard’s height — it looks down on the roof of Guy’s Hospital tower — which was one of the tallest buildings south of the river pre-Shard.
A sense of height is also given by the way the railway lines from London Bridge stretch out into the distance.
This view towards the north west shows how the BT Tower also stands high over Fitzrovia and Marylebone. In the bottom right there’s a good view of the Royal Courts of Justice and to the upper left the colourful, new St. Giles’s development stands out. (Maybe I should get a job as a London tour guide?)
From this high up, the Olympic Park seems relatively close to the centre of London — much nearer than Wembley, although the Shard’s position itself is skewed to the south-east of central London.
One of London’s most distinguishing characteristics is the meandering Thames — and the twists and turns of the river can be appreciating from the Shard as from no other perspective.
And yet the Shard’s summit is substantially higher than the public deck, although you’d have to have a hard hat and a remarkable head for heights to climb the pinnacle below to reach the very summit.
So, is it worth it? If you’ve got a morning or afternoon to spend and you’re interested with London’s geography already then you’ll be fascinated — but also if you just want to indulge a child-like sense of wonder of being so high above the rest of the city then it’s a unique experience. There’s something inescapably human about wanting to stand and look at a city in this sort of panorama. And, to bring it back to novel writing, think of all the many stories that are playing out down below.
This weekend I visited the latest fascinating addition to London’s skyline, a construction that would probably have attracted a lot more attention had it not opened immediately before the Olympics — an event it was partly conceived to serve.
Its official name is the rather ghastly corporate speak of ‘The Emirates Air Line’ after its sponsors — who also have their name symbiotically linked to Arsenal’s stadium. However, if taking the Emirates money was the difference between constructing this spectacular cable car ride and not then I’m glad Boris and TFL took the shilling. It’s magnificent and I’d recommend anyone to take a ride — take a look at this view of the Shard that I took from ninety metres above the Thames.
Stunning: shame I didn’t get the top of 1 Canada Water but the Shard only appears between the Canary Wharf buildings for a few seconds, such is the speed of the ride.
It’s apparently the most expensive cable car system built anywhere in the world — a legacy of the ‘cost is no object’ building frenzy in East London in the run up to the Olympics. It opened ahead of schedule a month before the games and theoretically links the ‘North Greenwich Arena’ (O2/Millennium Dome) with Excel in the Royal Docks area.
Its two boarding stations are pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which makes the cable car’s presence all the more surreal. It’s the type of structure that would probably never have been built at any other time and so, to my mind, all the more valuable for that — like many other highlights of last summer, it’s frankly a bit bonkers.
The photo above shows post-Olympic contrasts in this part of London. The stadium (now looking darker after the removal of the white decoration that clothed its circumference) and Orbit tower sit in the distance surrounded by a post-industrial landscape of squat warehouses, electricity pylons and tube lines.
Maybe in years to come large numbers of commuters will actually commute across from one regenerated side of the Thames to the next? (As hinted above, it’s an integrated part of Transport for London — you can get a discount with an Oyster or Travelcard but not fly for free.) In the meantime it brings some fun to this rather bleak and windswept part of London.
As well as Canary Wharf, the dome and the Olympic Park, the cable car gives great views of the rest of London — including the unusual perspective of the City from the East. The push to move the centre of gravity of London to the east, of which the Olympic legacy was meant to be part, is reflected in my novel. Much of the London of The AngelÂ is surveyed in the two photos below:
Apart from a brief excursion in the middle of the novel, the furthest the characters go west is the line of the hidden river Fleet (running approximately down Farringdon Road to Blackfriars Station). The characters work and play in the bohemian, unmanicured areas of Shoreditch, Old Street, Spitalfields and Brick Lane that abut the City and live further out in the likes of Dalston and Hackney Wick.
I started off my trip with a visit to a new pub brewery in the unlikely setting of the retail temple of Stratford Westfield (bibulous research for the novel) and then moved on from the southern terminus of the cable car into Greenwich.
Walking from the area of the O2 into Greenwich, I was struck by how much of this area is still post-industrial and a little down at heel — quite a contrast from the centre of Greenwich around the Cutty Sark where the pubs and bars were heaving at 6pm.
As night fell the towers of Canary Wharf illuminated like beacons in the dark — I walked through the Olympic equestrian venue of Greenwich Park and took a night-time version of the stunning vista that was featured in the horse-jumping events. But with their bankers’ logos on display, the towers across the river seemed to represent the distance and remoteness of the financial institutions from the London that surrounds them — the tension and conflict that I’m trying to tap into as the wellspring ofÂ The Angel.
…asÂ Boris Johnson inimitably saidÂ last night in Hyde Park — before his brilliant put-down of Mitt Romney. Well, my Olympomania Geiger counter has been building up to Zoink steadily over the last few weeks but Boris’s ‘Are we ready?’ speech seems to now catch what seems like a suddenly enthusiastic zeitgeist.
Last night the Olympic Torch came within a hundred yards of where I work for the ‘day job’. It was due to arrive about 6.20pm and there was no way I was going to miss it. Expecting big crowds, quite a few people buggered off out of the office early.Â In that respect there seems to be two types of people. Those that prefer to preserve their routine from disruption as much as possible and those who are intrigued by the novelty and the new experience. I’d suggest that writers, and creative people generally, would hopefully fall into the second group.
I waited on Birdcage Walk (on what a policeman disconcertingly described to me as a grassy knoll). I saw from distance the bizarre spectacle of the Secretary General of the United Nations handing over the Olympic Torch (I knew it was Ban Ki Moon as I was watching the live TV picturesÂ on my iPadÂ coming from a helicopter overhead ).
In a slight touch of serendipity the torchbearer in my photo is (I believe from the BBC
commentary) Jon Sayer, a Scout leader who rescued someone from a swollen river, who comes from Todmorden, a Â West Yorkshire town near where I was brought up that has a passing reference in my novel.
I avoided the tube and walked direct to Marylebone Station, passing by Buckingham Palace and having to detour round the torch’s route into Hyde Park — and the atmosphere was fantastic. People were standing on bollards and hanging off lampposts to get a view. A group of Brazilians were parading with their flag around Wellington Arch. Although London in the summer is normally teeming with foreign tourists, there seemed to be a huge number of overseas visitors flocking towards the parks and there were many international TV anchors in position in front of Buckingham Palace.
Perhaps because I’ve been working in Westminster in the Â writing-time-sapping ‘day job’ for most of the last year, I’ve become fascinated by the way the Olympic preparations have gradually come together — accelerating over the last monthÂ and especially over the last week or so.
It’s not so muchÂ the big symbols like the rings on Tower Bridge but the small, mundane but essential and attentive details that Â haveÂ almostÂ had me welling up. For exampleÂ the lurid bright pink venue signs in the tube stations or the direction signs back to tube stations that have been sprouting on street corners and all over the parks.
(Is that because I try to cultivate a writers’ habit of close observation or that I’m a sign-nerdÂ who did A-level Geography and interested in aspects of place and setting (see my interest in geosemiotics).
It’s also slightly touching to see the Olympic ‘pods’ with their ambassadors in Olympic T-
shirts who’ve been put in the parks and on the streets to point visitors in the right direction — although Blue Badge guides they appear not to be. Â AndÂ the incredible politeness of the soldiers drafted in for securityÂ seems fundamentally British. I chatted to some in St. James’s Park on Thursday. These people were probably in Afghanistan a few weeks ago — now they’re pointing tourists in the right direction for Big Ben.
Even though it’s been coming for seven years, when I see the signs to ‘Olympic Park’ I almost have to pinch myself, having memories of watching past Olympics from what have seemed mostly exotic and/or obscure places. I remember visiting Barcelona after their games and constantly being reminded of the Olympics and once I had a tour of the Munich Olympic stadium and a meal in the aerial revolvingÂ restaurantÂ there that still had resonance thirty years after the event.
Of course, the Olympics also fascinate as a sporting as well as cultural and symbolic festival. I was on holiday in Scotland during the Beijing games and, having had a tent wrecked by the Scottish weather, spent much of the rest of the time watching Olympic coverage, which became compulsive after a while.
It’s a shame that access to the Olympic Park itself has been so restricted. I’ve had a few glimpses of the stadium and facilities from Hackney Wick and Stratford but I’m sure that people might feel a greater sense of affinity with the Olympic Park itself had it not been cordoned off with extraordinary secrecy. But maybe that’s the point — impress us with the shock of the new?
But perhaps impatiently wanting to go and visit the area shows how the locality has been transformed â€“ would anyone have been so excited about visiting Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham or Waltham Forest seven years ago?
There have been plenty of British cock-ups to justifiably complain about — ticketing was a
hopeless fiasco. I spent years working on booking systems for airlines and it was inept to use a concert system like Ticketmaster for such a volume of traffic. And I can’t understand why I got no tickets at all on my first attempt when I’d applied for some football tickets — that haven’t even been sold now.
Bizarrely, I ended up with tickets for one of the most sought after events — not the athletics that I also applied for — but the infamous beach volleyball. (My excuse is that I was working through the list of sports alphabetically, not realising I could only apply for three the second time round. And the sessions are for both men’s and women’s volleyball, which no one mentions, of course.) I go on Sunday and I’m also hoping to see the start of the women’s cycling road race as it heads through Hyde Park Corner and Knightsbridge and then go to the London Live Event in Hyde Park.
The corporatism increasingly jars with the growing feeling of excitement, which is all the more genuine for arriving seemingly spontaneously. Why can we only pay with Visa? McDonald’s and Coke are the ‘preferred’ food and drink. The brand infringement rules are draconian. But most of these restrictions come via the IOC and we’ve had to accept them, although we police them in our assiduously British way.
And the mascots are ludicrous, although I feel their names have some uncanny personal associations for me (seeÂ post from over two years ago). But that’s also a key national characteristic — the resigned humour that comes from the absurd and ridiculous.
London 2012 has already had one real-life moment of stunning absurdity worthy of the
brilliant Twenty Twelve satire before it has officially started — when the South Korean flag was displayed against the North Korean women’s football team (and Twenty Twelve had just sent up women’s football). I can imagine the Hugh Bonneville characterâ€™s shambling attempts to defuse that row.
It’s predicted that a billion people will apparently watch the Opening Ceremony, which I’m looking forward to forÂ the musicÂ as much as anything else — rumoured to include Muse, the Clash, Queen, the Prodigy, Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, the Specials, the Doctor Who theme, bizarrely, ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols. It’s appropriate that the ceremony will also featuring the world’s greatest living songwriter, Paul McCartney, who contributed so much to London’s profile in the 60s.
I’m looking forward to see how the opening ceremony contrasts the Britain of Blake’s green and pleasant lands with the gritty, urban post-industrial Britain of some of the more contemporary artists. My novel also contains many themes derived from the differences and similarities between the two extremes (the London of the City, Shoreditch and Hackney and the rural Chilterns).
I do have a few reservations as there hasn’t been as much hype for a televised public event since, er, theÂ MillenniumÂ River of Fire.
As mentioned in previous posts, Iâ€™m kicking myself that Iâ€™ve not managed to get my novel that, in parts, out into the world by now, as in parts it certainly celebrates London â€“ and some areas close to the Olympic Park. So itâ€™s a slightly selfish hope of mine that the Olympics builds interest so readers want to know more.
What stirs the profoundest emotion in me is that the Olympics that goes beyond the corporatism and even the sport itself that shows something about the human spirit. The Olympics are a symbol of generosity and hospitality. We’re welcoming everyone else in the world to our city for our games — either in person or via television — to say â€˜this is what and who we are and we want to enjoy sharing itâ€™. Itâ€™s our London â€“ itâ€™s the city that weâ€™ve all created and weâ€™re going to throw a huge party.
The enormous global prestige of the Olympics is perhaps difficult to appreciate, even a few hours before the opening ceremony. But hearing the news in 2005 that London had been awarded the games was one of those ‘I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing’ moments. I was in a meeting conference room in Greater London House in Camden and someone got the news on their BlackBerry. Everyone in the meeting was stunned because we were so conditioned to losing — London and the UK just didn’t win anything like this. It didn’t happen. But it had — and it was literally unbelievable.
Now it’s here. As the cover of Time Out says (and I agree) it’s the greatest time to be in the greatest city in the world and I feel extraordinarily proud.
I was in London today and took the time to do a bit of novel-related research. I’m planning on setting a small part of my novel in the Tate Modern and so thought it might be in the spirit of the novel to actually write some of it there.
So, as the picture shows to the left, my netbook is out next to my TateÂ cappuccinoÂ while I wrote a few hundred words about what my characters were doing in the same place — I’m not sure if that does anything for the authenticity of the words on the page but it probably helps me feel that I have some sort of credibility in attempting to use this as a location.
I guess the photo is a bitÂ symbolicÂ in showing the subject of the writing along with the means by which it’s intended to be captured — the Word 2007 screenshot.
The floor where I was sitting is home to the current Gerhard Richter exhibition. This is an incredibly well-reviewed exhibition featuring the works of one of the world’s leading artists, who happens to be German, which fits a little with my novel.
I went to see the exhibition (it’s one of those you have to pay to go in) about five or six weeks ago and was actually very impressed with it. Richter is an incredibly versatile artist who’s created abstract art as well as fascinating landscapes and portraits and still lives — two of his works are exceptionally well known: one of his daughter turning her headÂ and another of a candle that was used on a Sonic Youth album coverÂ .
I then had a look around Daunt Books’ new Cheapside shop.
Nowadays I have to enter bookshops with a resolution of steel — I WILL NOT BUY MORE BOOKS (because I haven’t even got room for all those I currently have — let alone time to read them all). But as soon as I set foot over the threshold I’m ready to be seduced.
And seduction was on the menu for the book I found on one of the tables in the store was The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia by Mark Douglas Hill. And seeing as my novel has lots of food in it and relationships then it immediately attracted my interest.
Co-incidentally I was pleased to see this book as I’ve spent an amount of time on the web trying to see if I could get any more seriously foodie information on this subject myself and oddly enough the range of websites that come up tend to be a bit gimmicky or commercial.
I won’t reveal exactly what my intentions are for purchasing this particular volume of literature to peruse but I think some of the more unusual combinations might give me a bit of fun.
Looking through the table of contents, I initially wondered what wasn’tÂ an aphrosidiac — there were quite a few foodstuffs that are pleasant to eat but perhaps not best known for their aphrodisiac qualities — e.g. steak, honey, caviar, chocolate (although I guess a lot depends on how one might use the last three on that list).
Then there are the sensual or symbolic foods that would go on any Valentine’s night menu — oysters, asparagus, truffles, figs and maybe a few others.
I was quite puzzled over the aphrodisiac qualities of some of the book’s contents — watermelon, celery, pine nuts, quince, anchovies, cheese (which sort — presumably not Stinking Bishop, which I bought recently from Neal’s Yard). Having read some of the foods’ entries these less erotic inclusions appear to made on the strength of their vitamin and mineral content — zinc being a favourite plus various amino acids or similar, like trpytophan, which apparently triggers the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Apparently, the book says,Â eating a banana mimics in a presumably more muted way the taking of ecstasy.
The book gives a recipe (for two, obviously) for each of the ingredients — and some look rather nice. I’d guess most lovers would appreciate a well-cooked meal, even if the ingredients were fairly commonly eaten anyway — like eggs or pineapple. However, some choices seemed utterly bizarre — such as broad beans. How a food so unavoidably associated with flatulence can be considered at all sexually alluring is something of a mystery — apparently it’s all something to do with the ancient Greeks and Pythagoras and the supposed similarity in the bean’s shape to the male gonad (and it also produces dopamine, apparently — better tell the ravers).
At least broad beans are quite familiar unlike some of the aphrodisiacs. The most unusual include pufferfish, sea urchin and iguana. I’d probably rather breakfast on coldÂ pizza in the morning or a leftover kebab heated in the microwave than eat sea urchin. But, then again, in the words of 10cc, eating pufferfish might be one of the things we do for love.
As for iguana, I don’t think even the characters in my novel would go so far as serving that up in pursuit of seduction. (Apparently iguanas have some powerful glands in their inner thighs that produce powerful sexÂ pheromones, which causes them to be turned into an aphrodisiac stew in their Native Nicaragua.) It’s a shame as the book has a recipe for ‘Roast Iguana with Chipotle and Oregano Marinade’, which would have been an interesting dish to feature in my novel. Maybe I’ll go instead for symbolism and have a character with a pet iguana which the cognoscenti will know is a symbol of their hidden, raging sexual passion.
Of course, the Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia doesn’t take itself very seriously (see the link to the author bio above). This is a point that seems to be missed in a rather humourless and contradictory review of the book in the Observer — stating that the way to spot a mediocre novelist is the inevitable use of a meal as a metaphor for sensuality but then goes on to equate eating with sex and states that an intimate meal involves ‘wearing your elemental self on your sleeve’ (maybe it’s OK to use the metaphor in a review but not a novel or maybe I’ve missed some self-reflexive irony?).
Of course Â there’s not much science behind the claims for most aphrodisiacs — although the social and cultural associations of some of the better known foods in the book are enough to make the consumption of these foods in the right context a suggestive and potentially innuendo laden act. I’m sure I can put the research to good effect.
And on the way between the Tate Modern and Daunt Books where I was seduced by this volume, I walked over the Millennium Bridge, which gave me the opportunity to monitor the progress of the Shard again. This time I’ve got a smeary-lensed, city scape with what my blogging acquaintance Female PTSD describes as a giant Issey Miyake perfume bottle (that’s an analogy as a male I never would have got).
…ring the bells of Shoreditch in Oranges and Lemons, Shoreditch being where mos of the start of my novel is set, although I very much doubt the bells of St. Leonard’s are going to help me get rich by writing it. Â (The church is apparently features on current BBC series Rev, which is also set in Shoreditch.)
I’ve visited Shoreditch many times while I’ve been writing the novel, particularly recently, and I think I’ve noticed the most recent stages in its metamorphosis from run-down, working class area to the predominantly cool artists’ neighbourhood that it is today — although you don’t need to wander too far away from the Rivington Road/Shoreditch High Street area to find yourself in some very unartistic-looking, grim housing estates.
Perhaps the opening of Shoreditch High Street overground station about 18 months ago has been a catalyst as now the area is linked directly to south London and the North London Line at Dalston.
Shoreditch is surprisingly close to the City of London and its concentration of wealthy financial services workers. The photo below is taken from Shoreditch Â — the marker post on the right side of the photo shows the City of London boundary marker.
It’s an extraordinary transition point with the Broadgate development on the right along Bishopsgate and the Gherkin in the distance. The street where I stood to take the photo is a very short length of road called Norton Folgate which connects Bishopsgate with Shoreditch High Street. It’s probably no more than one or two hundred yards in length but the contrast in urban landscape between its two ends is striking.
Slightly further up the road, looking away from the City is Great Eastern Street. This very ordinary looking street is actually London’s inner ring road — connecting the end of the dual carriageway at King’s Cross with Tower Bridge via Angel and Old Street. Village Underground with its tube trains on the roof can be spotted in the middle-distance.
After our first workshopping session of the autumn at Mike B’s in Old Street, I visited Village Underground’s large warehouse space (what the trains sit on top of) for the Moniker Art Exhibition in October , which was timed to co-incide with the big London Frieze event in Regent’s Park (at Â£27 a ticket that was a bit steep for me). But there was a lot of really good at the Moniker Event — and the space at Village Underground was a good venue for it.
It’s surprising that hundreds of years after the Roman and medieval walls of London fell into disrepair that it feels as if there’s still some psychological separation between inside and outside their boundaries.
All types of disreputable activities occurred in areas like Shoreditch, just outside the City walls and, in the late sixteenth century, this included actors and playwrights, along with all the other undesirables cast outside the City walls like thieves and prostitutes. Just around the corner from Village Underground is this plaque in Curtain Road, which is a very understated memorial to the Curtain Theatre – a predecessor of the Rose and Globe Theatres in much more historically celebrated Bankside.
London’s first theatre (called The Theatre) was located somewhere around the area between Curtain Road, Village Underground and Shoreditch High Street which has had the track for the new
overground station laid right through it. It’s incredible to think that this area of Victorian warehouses, 60s office blocks and surface car parks was a crucible of the English language — whereÂ Shakespeare started his writing career.
Very close to the Shakespeare plaque is the Old Blue LastÂ — a live-music venue described by NME on its website asÂ Â ‘the world’s coolest pub’ and continuing Shoreditch’s history of alternative entertainment. A roll-call of the ‘coolest’ acts of the 2000s have appeared at the pub including Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machine, (Gordon Brown’s favourites) the Arctic Monkeys, the Vaccines and many more.
Places like the Old Blue Last won’t have deterred the arrival of trendy artist types in the area and I thought the photo below shows an appropriate clash of old and new — Ã¼ber-cool American Apparel (apparently the shop where Ruta Gedmintas bought her outfits for Frankie in Lip Service) has opened up next to a pub improbably called the Barley Mow.
Actually the Barley Mow is only a traditional looking boozer from the outside, as I found when I organised a pub crawl starting at the pub, and found that the price of a pint of their Fuller’s ale was a far from working-class Â£3.70.
A group of us did 8 pubs in all in a route from Shoreditch to Islington via Old Street and the Regent’s Canal. Second on the list was the also archaically named
Bricklayer’s Arms (thought the punctuation of the name suggests there was only one tradesman).
On the crawl was the ultimate down-at-heel boozer that’s been the unlikely beneficiary of being turned into a nationally famous ale drinkers’ destination — the Wenlock Arms on the borders of Old Street and Hoxton.
It’s in a very mixed area with new apartments being developed around the Wenlock Basin on the Regent’s Canal but also being situated in the middle of the sprawl of forbidding-looking council estates that border the trendy centres of Shoreditch and Hoxton.
It’s an almost stereotypically ‘unspoiled’ pub — almost falling to pieces in places — but it’s got a thriving clientele of ale drinkers (some of whom I know seek this place out from the USA) but it has been under threat recently of being redeveloped into a five storey block of flats.
It’s the sort of authentic place deserves to be preserved and, as an example of one aspect of pub culture, a pub very like it might find its way into my novel. And any inquisitive barmaid who might work in this sort of pub would certainly know how to keep and serve great beer.
I guess she’d quite admire the scale and audacity of the work as I did — and the vivid colours. Yet work like Twombly’s certainly encourages those who see modern, abstract art of displaying as much technical skill as a child’s painting and of suggesting those who proclaim themselves the arbiters of its undoubted quality are those who would insist that the emperor was fully clothed — as this blog entry on the Telegraph website by Harry Mount makes clear.
Kim will produce mainly abstract works — partly because it will be amusing to see James struggle to make head or tail of what they mean — but she’s be technically trained to a very high standard, something which will hold James in awe of her talent and provide a reason for his attraction to her — which is an engine of the plot. James won’t ‘get’ the likes of Cy Twombly but Kim will try and explain to him why Twomby’s work sells for millions — but perhaps she’ll question why it is that his does but her own doesn’t.
Speaking of silly money paid for art, BBC1 on Sunday featured a programme called‘The World’s Most Expensive Paintings’ in which Alistair Sooke, an art critic, did an Alan Freeman style reverse countdown of the Top Ten. As all were in the tens of millions of dollars bracket and the most expensive — one of the Picassos (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) — was $135m then it was no surprise that super-rich collectors were the owners of these amazingly valuable artefacts. Sooke’s analysis of the painting, pointing out subtle expressions of eroticism, sadism and the painter’s own hidden initials, was persuasive in asserting its value as a work of art — but $135m?
The painting is currently on display in Tate Modern, having been loaned by its Georgian owner — perhaps I’ve walked past it? The gallery would no doubt try to avoid the vulgarity of drawing attention to the value of the work. However, many of the top ten are hidden in private collections or, according to rumour, may even have been burnt.
The programme raised many of the questions about the relationship between art and money that crop up in The Angel — almost all the art works were produced when the artists were relatively penniless — although the likes of Picasso made money later on his reputation. The artworks are valuable because they are scarce and in demand as much as anything intrinsic about their artistic quality. Often a painting is purchased because it had been part of the previous famous collection — its value being acquired through provenance. There’s an interesting paradox that art, which by definition is created for the intellect or to pleasure the senses, has such a close relationship with money to the extent that at the very high end, art is potentially only appreciated because it’s expensive.
While Kim’s art work doesn’t sell for very much, she’s still chasing the moneyed-rich for what income she does get: the proximity of Shoreditch to the City underlines the symbiotic relationship between the two. James, unlike most City types, actually tries to look at art for its aesthetic, rather than monetary value — and this will be a welcome change for Kim.
The BBC1 programme had a real-life story worthy of any novel about a Picasso, La RÃªve, about to be sold for an eight figure sum in dollars by its Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn, who then accidentally stuck his elbow through the canvas, reducing its value by many millions. He said the good thing about the damage was that he did it himself, not anyone else — one wonders what might have happened if it had been a cleaner or security guard.
After the tutorial with Emily the weekend before last I decided to take a walk to see how things were around Village Underground as I’d not been there for a while. It was the first time that I’d had chance to visit the new Shoreditch station, which radically improves the transport links through the area. Only a week or two before I took a ride on the train, a new bit of line was opened between Dalston Junction (itself only re-opened for less than a year) and what used to be called the North London Line. This piece of newly re-instated line links to the old East London tube line at Shoreditch and that’s been connected to the rail network on the south of the river so that Shoreditch now has a remarkable train service Â every 5 minutes with some trains running from Highbury and Islington to West Croydon.
The station is, as you would expect, very modern and, in a short time, seeing as it’s not far at all from the top end of Bishopsgate and the Broadgate development, could transform the character of the area in a short time. I’m not sure whether this would be good for my novel or not — I guess it could be a move behind property prices shooting up and pricing artists like Kim out into the country.
I looked out from the train as it left Shoreditch station and got an unusual rooftop level view of Village Underground (see below). I posted this photo on their Facebook page and they officially ‘like’ it.
Village Underground Viewed from the new London Overground
The roof of Village Underground itself, where the tube carriages are placed, is actually part of a viaduct that carried trains into Broad Street station (which was next to Liverpool Street) until 1986. The railway bridges over Great Eastern Street and Holywell Street were only removed in the 1990s. A new viaduct was built crossing Shoreditch High Street and then joining the old track bed which runs directly north up to Dalston and this involved the demolition of an area opposite Village Underground to accommodate the curve of the track as it links the two together.
Holywell Street, which was a dead-end blocked off to traffic when I first visited Village Underground has now been re-opened as a red-route connecting the London Ring Road to Shoreditch High Street. So this area, despite looking like something of a neglected inner-city backwater, has seen a lot of change recently. Here’s the scene at ground level with the current toaster mural.
The City encroaches ever further towards Shoreditch and the Heron Tower, now the City’s tallest building, has been completed half a mile down the road. It’s the Broadgate Tower that looms most intimidatingly over Shoreditch High Street — here seen with the friendly shape of the Gherkin by its side. This photo was taken close to the church of St. Lenonard’s — famous for the line in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons — ‘when I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch’. (I’m going to have to work in a few references to this.)
I took the train from Shoreditch to Dalston Kingsland, a place I visited 20 years ago at night when it had no semblance of the gentrification that is hinted at today. From there I took the North London Line to Hackney Wick. I’ve been to Hackney before, which I’ve found nowhere near as intimidating as its reputation — there’s a good pub there called the Pembury Tavern, but never Hackney Wick.
Hackney Wick station is a desolate place, cut off by railways and road schemes, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable at all walking around there late at night — there’s just a boarded-up pub next to the station and a load of corrugated-iron motor mechanic shops of the sort you see on Eastenders. The Olympic stadium rose up quite incongrously in the background. I was told by Tam at Village Underground that Hackney Wick has the most artists per square mile (or whatever) in London (or maybe even Europe) but perhaps they were all round the corner somewhere as I didn’t see much artistic, although I could see why the rent might be cheap.
I walked around to the bus terminus, which at least had some houses and shops nearby, and got the number 30 from the start of its route all the way into central London — via Hackney, Dalston, Islington, King’s Cross and so on. I saw plenty of places on the route around Homerton which comfortably fitted the description of the flat where Kim lives at the start of the novel — they’re something of a contrast to where she’ll live at The Angel.
I was in Docklands a week or two ago and took a few photos of the sort of corporate world that James escapes from in my novel. Here’s Canary Wharf with a Waitrose he’d certainly approve of.
And here’s a photo I used in a pub quiz I set last night. It’s the symbol of Thatcherite regeneration — number one Canada Square or what everyone calls the Canary Wharf tower.
I travelled back from Canary Wharf to the London Eye by boat, which was surprisingly quick. I’ve just written something that mentions rabies and I was wondering if it’s such a big issue these days so I was pleased to see the sign below at the pier at Southwark which shows that it’s something that anyone arriving in this country will be aware of.
The skyline of the City is going through a period of rapid change. When my novel starts the Heron Tower was still half built (it’s now the tallest building in the City) and the Shard was just a hole in the ground. It’s now (I think) the tallest structure in London — it definitely will be when completed. I’m going to have a reasonable period of time elapse between the sections I set in London and reference to the Shard and others might be quite a nice way of showing passed time.
The height of the Shard can be seen on this photo. I think the Heron Tower is the tall building on the right and the Gherkin is standing immediately in front of Tower 42, the old Nat West building.
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.