East End Adventures and Floorsurfing
The air mattress in the apartment I’ve been couchsurfing tends to deflate a lot, so I find myself waking up on a cold London floor, staring at the ceiling, ready to start rolling and shake off the cold. On my last day in London, the need to roll wheels me up to the East End, where I find the some of the reasons I love London and some the reasons as to why I don’t move here.
In my last months as a student I lived in the East End, near Bethnal Green, down a road that eventually evolved into the Third World bazaar I spent so much of the next two years wandering through as a Lonely Planet author. Pakistanis, Bengalis, Nigerians, Egyptians; I have this constant attraction to Asia and Africa, so why not just live here, where Asia and Africa and their assorted chaos are on the doorstep? Cheap watches thrust in the face; flea market off brand clothes, belts and purses; ripped off DVDs and music videos and porn and Korans just a few fold out tables apart.
Maybe it is too chaotic, and maybe this is why I never was able to live in Asia and Africa; I missed those things that I find distinctly Western. The new and hip, music and museums and art galleries that, while present in Jakarta and Nairobi and other sweaty capitals, feels too hidden or reserved for expats and an aristocratic class I’ve always felt a little awkward around.
So then the East End steps up again, this time with the impossibly cool artists, musicians, DJs and designers who wander along Brick Lane, itself the Bengali version of Miami’s Calle Ocho, the public persona of an immigrant community that has actually integrated into its parent society to the point that said community can afford to be ironically self-referential.
One road: curry stalls and stands (including an Asian fusion place named, oddly, for Rosa Parks; just a little off-putting). Other direction: markets selling pop art, t-shirts fashioned by young, hungry designers from around the world, demo tapes by Jamaicans looking to break big.
By nighttime the brick walls by Brick Lane are the rusty brown of dried blood under the street lights. The rains have passed; it is cold and dry, and that raspy air gusts through the narrow passages, mixing with the hot salty sweat breath of thousands of milling folks.
Now everything is too new, too hip and contemporary and cutting edge. I no longer feel creative in this atmosphere, but behind the times. The pressure to be newer and more shocking than the folks around me is intense; all around is the sense these artists and artisans are more interested in making the New over the Beautiful, which has always been my beef with modern art.
At the same time, I must acknowledge my own insecurities in this environment. When it comes to stereotypically cutting edge arts scenes, maybe I am just too conservative. So I retreat a bit back into the spice and warmth of Bethnal Green and Mile End’s immigrant enclaves. I’ll probably be able to stay within these circles for a few days, until the incomprehension of all those multiple, muddy languages pushes me back into the well-heeled hipness of Hoxton, Angel and Shoreditch, seeking assurance amidst the crowds of the young and brand name booted and smart-dressed.
In short, this is all too much. The things that I love not just about London, but about the City, if we consider the City as its own universal entity, a word for any place where humans congregate, hell, humanity in general – our diversity and creativity and energy – are all cranked to 11 in the East End to such a point that I need to turn down the volume and the brightness after a few hours.
It is at these points I retreat back to Clapham Common, in South London. Clapham is busy and bustling, but she is, essentially, warm and safe, the originator of the term, ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus,’ a description of the everyman cited in so much English civil jurisprudence. Warmth and safety are what I associate with one of the most hallowed of British institutions: the pub, that home away from home, fireplace-kitted out sanctuary where a man can down a pint and feel the worries of the day and shit English weather vanish into buzzing conviviality (or admittedly, hangdog alcoholism; while finishing my Master’s degree I worked in a London pub and dealt with plenty of walking psoriasis and clinical depression cases).
My London pub is called the Bread and Roses. The name, in and of itself, it lovely; it’s an old labor slogan demanding both food and dignity, sustenance and beauty. And the pub provides both; it is hip but not pretentiously so, and cozy without being hokey.
A mate from grad school joins me here, a young, half Welsh, half Lebanese politician who I reckon is being groomed for office within his own beloved Labour party. It’s appropriate I’m meeting my buddy, the multiracial face of New Labour, at the Bread and Roses, an establishment named for an old working class slogan that has transformed into a new pub for the new London worker. We chat with a London cop; he doesn’t have a bobby cap or baton, but tracks down pedophiles via internet policing. The B&R serves warm, bitter ale that CAMRA would approve of, but they do a mean mojito too.
Somehow, we learn they serve jaeger bombs as well, and the night takes that turn for the raucous that only – I am a little embarrassed to write – six jaeger bombs, plus several pints of beer and far too many whiskeys can engender. My mate ends up couch surfing with me, as we finish the night far too drunk to get him to his place. Since he is getting my ‘couch’ (the air mattress) I end up floor surfing, but not before we have to re-inflate the mattress.
We sneak into the aparTment with the sort of exaggerated lets-be-quiet drunk ninja gesturing that is the exact opposite of being quiet. Whisper whisper, crash-dammit-man-I-told-you-to-watch-out-for-the-lamp. Okok nowshhhhh be quiet while I hook the air tube to the mattress. Just gotta flick the switch here…
I forgot the air mattress pump makes a noise somewhere between an outboard motor and a charging elephant. We both collapse on each other laughing, until the mattress pumps up. I curl up on a solitary sheet on the floor and drift off, fitfully dreaming of training in the Spartan army and wake up feeling, to put it lightly, like shit. Our hosts are not awake yet, thank God, so we go for a coffee, emerging, blearily, into the light. A jogger huffs by, and my friend pauses.
“Christ, mate, that was Polly Toynbee,” he says, naming one of the most prominent left wing newspaper columnists in Britain. I nod, impressed, but he is more star struck, the young Labour politician come (briefly) face to jogger butt with a journalistic idol.
“That may be a bloody sign,” he says.
I nod, thinking of how I am about to leave the United Kingdom for the European continent, thinking of how every random moment on the road so far has felt like a sign pointing me to some serendipitous next exit on life’s highway, thinking, basically, much the same way.
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