Monthly Archives: February 2009

The midnight cat


Walking to the Barbican tonight, I noticed this huge black cat on Kingsland Road. I always see graffiti and think – I must take a photo of that – only to look for it and find that the council has scrubbed it off overnight. Three strange, ghostly white figures on a wall on Dalston Lane have now disappeared, leaving just a shadow. I used to like looking at them and always planned to get my camera out one day. Maybe someone else took a photo of them….? Anyway, at least this midnight cat won’t go unrecorded.

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Celebrity barber shop

If you’ve seen Eastern Promises, a film about the Russian Mafia starring Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen, you might think this Broadway Market barber shop looks familiar. That’s because it appears in the opening scene, where a customer gets his throat cut. Really quite unpleasant.

In the movie it’s called Azim’s Barbers, and the owner decided to keep that name on the glassfront, so it now has two names. If you peer in the window and demonstrate through your body language and facial expressions that you recognise it as a film set, the proprietor, Mr. Ismail Yesiloglu, will brandish his scissors threateninglyazims-barbershop1 to hint that his current customer is about to meet a similar fate. 

Broadway Gents Hair Studio, 54 Broadway Market, London, 020 7241 3494


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Pool etiquette. Suggestions encouraged.

Spring is on its way and the local pool is getting busy again. This restored 1930s pool is open today (rather than bulldozed back in the 90s) due to 18 years of campaigning by the local community, and every time I tiptoe into the lukewarm water, and daydream my way through twenty unhurried laps, I silently thank them. Well, actually, I don’t, but I should. We all should. I will do so now. Thank you, London Fields User Group, for all your hard work. The pool is lovely.

 However. It’s human nature to quibble, and so, with no real authority in the matter apart from a lot of time spent in assorted swimming pools, I present my ‘it’s just a suggestion’ suggestions for a happy Lido experience.

  1. Shave at home. Not in a shared outdoor shower. This isn’t because I ‘have a problem with body hair,’ as the shaver accused me when I pointed out it was neither the time nor the place. Hey, she was the one shaving, not hairy-legged moi. Some activities are best confined to a domestic bathroom, that’s all. And I would have said the same thing to that blonde girl clipping her toenails on the 242 bus a few years back, except that I had my glasses on that day (I am more assertive when the person I am ticking off is just a misty blob). 
  2. While on the subject of the showers: lads, a bit of shower gel is fine. But extended sessions of ‘lower-region’ washing, front or back, are not. Hands where we can see them!
  3. A warning to all short-sighted swimmers – although your glasses are in the locker and the world is just a pretty blur, people can still see you. Just something to bear in mind when you’re staring at someone’s transparent bikini or stunning abs or whatever (this is a reminder to myself as well.)
  4. Please don’t blow your nose in the water, or the shower. If you’ve got a cold, you probably shouldn’t be swimming anyway.
  5. Try not to swim directly under a person if you want to get somewhere in a hurry. It’s very discombobulating to suddenly kick a hairy head at the bottom of the pool (and probably not very nice for the person being kicked either). Just stay on the surface and make your way calmly around them.
  6. Avoid the pool-lane equivalent of tailgating. Yes you’re in a pool, but the usual rules about personal space still apply, and it’s not polite to headbutt someone in the bottom because you think they are going too slow.
  7. Obviously, if you are in the fast or medium lane and people are swimming past you in an agitated fashion on a regular basis, it’s probably a good idea to change lanes. A lot of those so-called fast lane swimmers crash and burn after five laps, so just move aside and come back when it’s empty again. 
  8. If the lanes are busy, don’t lurk at the end chatting with your mates. It’s really annoying. Just go to the non-lane part of the pool. 
  9. A lot of ink is being vented on that poor, ragged complaints book about People in the Wrong Queue. It’s sometimes suggested that ‘pool attendants should really control this.’ The pool attendants are paid about £6 an hour to save lives in an emergency, not to mediate disputes about who should swim where. If the person in front is swimming slowly, go past them or change lanes. If it’s really bothering you, ask them to move to a slower lane or come back when it’s quieter and the kids are at home (like all winter). Saturday afternoons in high summer are no time for Lane Fascists. Especially those hardcores in full-length wet suits (you know who you are).
  10. I think that’s all. Happy swimming. 

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Why would anyone brick up a window?

When I first moved to England I often wondered why you’d see bricked-up windows around the place. Were there light-fearing hermits living there? Did someone just get sick of cleaning their windows? The ones pictured here can be seen on Landsdowne Drive, next to London Fields, and I now know they are because a window tax that was introduced in 1696. This was an early form of income tax, because back then the idea of the government taxing, or even monitoring, people’s actual income was unthinkably meddlesome (imagine!).

Anyone with a window had to cough up, and the more windows you had the more you paid. Predictably, in an seventeenth-century example of blinging it up, some people flaunted their wealth by installing more windows than they actually needed. And those who wanted to avoid the tax simply bricked up their windows. This is also where the phrase daylight robbery is thought to originate.


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London Fields in winter

A hot day does strange things to people in this country. London Fields, for example, becomes a mass of half-naked people drinking rose wine straight from the bottle, or lying limp on blankets. Barbecue smoke hangs over the fields until people straggle home. Before they go they pile mountains of rubbish by the bins (or just leave it on the grass if they are really lazy). It’s like a festival, with that same atmosphere of sprawling abandon.

 But in winter the crowds are somewhere else. Even the park bench drunks must be holed up in warm pubs. Only the stalwarts use the park: the local kids’ football team, the odd jogger, dogs on leads and swimmers like myself in the heated Lido. It’s a beautiful time of year. The bare London plane trees wait out another winter (they’ve been there since the 1890s, they’re used to it) and the smell of wood smoke makes it easier to imagine the park’s long history. The fields were first recorded in 1540. Market porters and drovers used to graze their animals there, a resting point between Epping Forest and Essex and the final leg of the journey to the meat market at Smithfield or Slaughter Street in Brick Lane. Long before swimming pools and rose wine and budgie smugglers.

Several things cross my mind as I’m paddling up and down the near-deserted pool, manned by two lifeguards: Firstly, this is the first swim I’ve had since November, despite paying a monthly membership, so it’s a seventy-five pound swim. Secondly, it probably is worth about seventy-five pounds, because there is a lot of staff for just a handful of swimmers, not to mention all the power being generated (and where is that winter roof we were promised? Surely this pool is pumping out enough heat to keep a street of houses warm?) And finally, what on earth would those drovers think of us today, swimming down a huge, steamy bathtub on a freezing February afternoon?

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Bookworms unite at Oxfam

dscn5274  You can tell a hell of a lot about the demographics of an area by browsing its charity shop bookshelves.

Take the Oxfam on Kingsland Road, for example. An anthropologist would find no better place to start assembling a picture of East London’s bookworms than right here. My own observations, collected this morning, suggest that it’s an area brimming with:

 Humans in general – there are a lot of books.

 Journalists in particular, judging by the many review copies and ‘uncorrected bound proofs’ on sale

 Guardian readers – plenty of investigative books written by Guardian journalists, such as Polly Toynbee and Will Hutton.

Fans of Australian literature I found books by Tim Winton, Deborah Robertson and even a copy of A Fortunate Life by AB Facey. I’ve already got them so I left them on the shelves for some other lucky shopper.

Fans of Nigerian literature: Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie were both making an appearance.

Mavens  The many how-to and consumer guides make me suspect that there are a fair few Mavens in East London. For those who haven’t read The Tipping Point, these are a particularly obsessive breed of shopper. These uber-consumers are not only incredibly well-informed on everything from shoe polish to Bugaboos; they also play an important role in keeping the market honest because they happily share their findings, and so are equally feared and respected by manufacturers.

I bought six books, mostly ones I’ve vaguely had on my mental reading list anyway – among them were Alice Munro’s short stories, a collection of gothic short stories, Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, because when I started reading it I wanted to go on, and a review copy of Sally Nicholl’s book, Ways to Live Forever. I also took home Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, because the final chapter of her novel Arlington Park – a drunken middle-class dinner party with a blow-by-blow account of the most grisly cooking imaginable – made me want to read more of her writing. PS Have now read this – it’s a brilliant & very frank memoir about the reality of having a child. I’m not surprised that it generated an awful lot of controversy.

Every book costs one pound, so leave your calculators at home. And the general ambience of the place – it’s well lit, they play music (in fact, they once hosted a Jarvis Cocker gig) and there are plenty of books to go round – gives the fiction area a particularly friendly buzz.

Oxfam, 514-518 Kingsland Road, Dalston, London

Tel 020 7254 5318,

And they have a blog

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Hackney Council sees The Light

Light Bar, Shoreditch

One of the things that fascinates me most about London is what author Jeanette Winterson calls its invisible lines, where an area suddenly changes its character completely.

 The invisible line between the City, or financial district, and Shoreditch is a prime example. One minute you’ll be walking through a sterile landscape of glass and steel offices and their associated spawn – expensive wine bars, conservative shoe shops and sleek chain store food outlets – then suddenly you’re on Shoreditch High Street, walking past galleries, bars, organic food shops, an old church, a cluster of Vietnamese canteens on Kingsland road and all kinds of independent shops selling everything from bathtubs to handbags.

 Some places straddle the two worlds – namely the kebab shops and the lap-dancing clubs, but generally the divide is emphatic. The architecture also changes dramatically – Shoreditch is a hive of warehouses, old Victorian buildings and churches, and post-war council housing, while five minutes up the road you’re caged into a landscape of steel and glass, a real urban jungle that’s hard on the feet and the soul.

Interesting, then, that the point at which the two worlds meet has just been re-defined by a rejected planning application. The Light Bar in Shoreditch, a former Victorian power station built in 1893, was going to be demolished to make way for a massive Norman Foster office and housing scheme. Now, after a successful campaign by local residents, businesses and local residents, Hackney Council decided to include the building in the Shoreditch conservation area, thus saving it (for now) from the bulldozers.


More information can be found on The Victorian Society website.

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