The way you hate me is better than love
and I’m head over heels
The way you wanna get rid of me
makes me weak in the knees
I can see them now, the rowan berries, outside the window, the last of them hanging from the branches of the tallest of their kind that I’ve come across. The stairs round the back of the house are a carpet of red, with berries pulped by our feet on each step.
Back then they hung from much smaller trees, perhaps less than ten years old, an early attempt at greening a nondescript residential street in Holloway, north London. And I wonder now, though they are in fact edible, are those berries to be seen as London’s poison, its dosing of alienation and depression; or are they holly-berry festive, the natural equivalent of strings of light, the London of madness and joy, of sights to behold at every turn?
The answer, of course, is both. Like Julie Burchill, I was in love with the A-Z, and more or less slept with it under my pillow too. But the side of me that was filled with fiery idealism came up hard against the reality of London’s cold shoulder. And I wasn’t yet quite sure what kind of life I wanted. Or what kind of writer I wanted to be.
For three years home was a small room in a three storey house of greyed yellow London stock brick, owned by a family of Antiguan origin, whose matriarch lived there still. I fancied that she arrived into the great smog of 1952, a culture shock that must have worked at her on every level, mind and heart and guts. By the time I knew her, she rarely set foot outside her room, except to cook fish, spending her time perhaps reliving the memories of those early days and their sudden contrast with all she had known before. Towards the end of my time in the house she returned to Antigua to live and to die.
A South African, an Algerian, a Chinese, two Malaysians, a pair of Jamaican brothers, a student from Brunei, a Sudanese refugee and a bloke from Cheltenham were all at one time or another holed up with me. A microcosm of London itself. Indie competed with ragga, meditation with prayer, boiled fish with steamed rice. The odd heated argument broke out over pork cooked in a frying pan it shouldn’t have been, but for the most part we all got on fine.
Outside the gardens were minimal to non-existent before the pavement was reached but all along the street Islington Council had planted rowans, no doubt aware of the ancient belief that the mountain ash as it is also known protects against witches and wards off evil. In spring and late summer, early autumn the street had colour that was sorely lacking at other times of the year. RODEN STREET N7. A ‘T’ was regularly added in the obvious place to the signs at each end of the street. It would have been a little later that I read Georges Perec’s A man asleep documenting a not dissimilar experience of depression and roaming the streets of Paris, waiting in the place Clichy for the rain to stop, free like a rat.
Listen to the pipes
They’re singing in the night
It’s raining all the time
Listen to, listen to,
listen to the pipes
Where I lived was becoming embroiled in text and song. In Voyage in the dark Jean Rhys wrote ‘We got to Holloway and it was winter and the dark streets around the theatre made me think of murders.’ Admittedly it’s an anachronism here, but it took someone from Sweden to write one of the great London songs, one that crystallises that time for me. Despite its occasional lyrical infelicity, and though it may only be the recollection of a week or fortnight spent in one of the city’s cheaper hotels, Frida Hyvönen’s ‘London!’ captures the essence of coming to the Smoke, alone among and buffeted by the crowd; the magic and pull and sharpness of its lights and fashions on a winter evening; the exhilaration of a rainy night in Soho; and the rat-like nature of staying in, listening to the pipes and the rumble of traffic.
I was a student, and then an unemployable former student (a half-baked degree in philosophy and sociology doesn’t qualify you for much, except joining the dole queue). For all the roaming about London I did, there were fixed points. My girlfriend’s flat, a few doors up from what was once Joe Meek’s studio on Holloway Road, where ‘Telstar’ was recorded. The Falcon in Camden, epicentre of indie – to get there and back meant countless trips on a 253 or preferably a 29, which was a Routemaster. And every fortnight I paid my respects to any thought of a career at the Unemployment Benefit Office on Medina Road in Finsbury Park .
I needed a job, to lift me out of my rodent hole. Finally I got one, working for London Underground’s Lifts & Escalators department, Pumps (New Works) section (a rat-like but treeless story in itself). Then I needed a change, and left for France, and its avenues.
But when I look back, it’s with fondness rather than the mental and cardiac pain that I felt in those years. One spring day a water main burst at the head of the road, creating an impromptu house-high fountain next to the blossoming rowans. It felt like I had laid it on for the suitably impressed friend from out of town who was staying with me. I wish the photo I took had more contrast in it, preserved the memory better than it does. In its place these words will have to suffice.
Photo of rowan by ayrshireman via Panoramio.