A Broken Record (Player)

Walking down our road I see a pile of interesting looking bits of electronic gear near to a bin. It’s an old turntable, with a wood veneer finish – possibly mid to late 70s. 1975 I’d say, at a push. It seems broken beyond compare, but maybe could be fixed up. In a reflex action I bend down to scoop up the record player then a voice in my head asks “Where, exactly, is this going to go?” and I stop myself. For many years I would find shelves at the side of the road and bring them home, sometimes as part of a meaningless and open ended DIY project. I have also brought a large amount of musical objects into the house, mostly stringed instruments but also organs and keyboards. We are running out of space, even in the ‘music’ room. Maybe I could start using the attic cupboards, except they are full of paintings, illustrations, masses of notebooks and folders, books, things, stuff. I take a deep breath and stand up, walking slowly away from The Incredibly Beautiful Old Thing That Could Be Mine If Only I Loved It Enough To Take It Home. “It’s a broken piece of junk,” I tell myself. I know I’m lying. But I head back towards the house – in the direction safety.

I manage not to turn round.


It’s the last day of January. A high pitched, instantly recognisable call comes from down in the vale amongst the trees. Possibly it's one of those new Samsung Galaxy phones, though I doubt it. It can’t be a cuckoo, can it? Surely it's too early by about four months. It's a sound that brings back memories of long early summers of childhood, of greenery and big skies. I consult one of my many gardening books and it looks like it might be a wood pigeon pretending to be a cuckoo. Why would a wood pigeon do that?

The Sadness of A Returning Ball That Came Too Late

A football has come back from next door. It’s one my eldest son lost two or three years ago and looks sad and worn, as if a family of foxes have been regularly sharpening their teeth on it. My son has pretty much gone off football since the ball disappeared - though to be fair he lost about six balls altogether, whacking them high over the fence while trying to do extravagant keepie uppies. One day those balls will probably all return. But it will be too late for my son, who now is too busy playing Shoot Smash Gore Scream 3.0 on a regular basis to worry about football.

The Portable Bouncing Playground

My youngest has become very excited at the new portable bouncing playground that's been installed at the western end of our street. Since its introduction, he's had no desire to visit the swanky modern play zone in the park. Every school morning he rushes up the road and starts to bounce up and down, shrieking and laughing. Sometimes other kids join him. I've tried to explain to him that the portable bouncing playground is actually just a temporary installation and that it won't be there for ever, but he doesn't want to listen. One afternoon last week, after I'd picked him up from school and was watching him have his regular bouncing session I overheard another parent complaining about the PBP.

"That old mattress has probably got fleas. Why doesn't someone just take it to the recycling centre?"

"In Your Days"

I'm walking through the park with my eight year old son. He's asking lots of questions at the moment. The main thrust of all this is that he can't believe how old how I am. "Dad - in your days did you ride those funny bikes?"

"What do you mean by funny bikes?"

"Those ones with the big wheel at the front and the little wheel at the back."

"Ah, Penny Farthings."


"Those are from the Victorian era."

"When things were black and white."

"Well, the photos were black and white. But I wasn't brought up in the Victorian era. That was over 100 years ago. I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s."

"Oh. But it was black and white then, wasn't it?"

"Not really, no."

"So did you have a colour TV?"

"Er, no. It was black and white."

He goes quiet and looks at me. He's thinking... "My poor dad is so very very old."

That Book Girl

Review of A London Country Diary by That Book Girl ("Reviews, vlogs, rants and a general lack of consistency.")

A walk in Clissold Park

Had a great walk out in the rain yesterday morning in Clissold Park, during which I outlined my four point plan (or is it seven?) for fully appreciating your local area. Brought along one of my sketch books and a few copies of my latest dodgy hand-drawn map. Various people did readings from my book A London Country Diary and we discussed  important topics such as how to decode discarded beer cans, when to break into parks and why magic trees talk in Yorkshire accents. stokeylitfeststoke2

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Slowboat - book review

slowboatI’m not in the habit of flagging up reviews – once a book is out there I have tended to take the view that it has a life of its own and I try to let go of it. However, I thought this write up in the Slowboat blog ‘got’ what I was doing to such an extent that I feel duty bound to mention it. See review here.

Lots of People In A Bookshop

lcd3-400x266It was great to see friends old and new at the book launch at the Stoke Newington Bookshop. I talked about some of my motivations and influences - such as Julian Cope, Iain Sinclair and the Wonderful London books. Then Stewart Lee read a very funny, subtlely pared down version of his introduction and I did a few pages from the book, before inviting friends to read out certain bits (which seemed to work better than me doing them). Thanks to everyone who came along and for injecting so much cash into the Stoke Newington pub system afterwards. Read here for a more objective and detailed view of the evening.



Plants I Don't Know the Name Of: Some Herb Seeds I Scattered Around The Place

A few years ago I read a book about medieval herbalism and, as I am wont to do, afterwards decided to make it a part of my life. I could be a herbalist! So I sent off for a load of seeds from a specialist shop and when they came, rather than sticking them in a drawer like I usually do, I scattered them all over the garden. All kinds of different seeds. Over the years various plants have come and gone but one seems to thrive but I don’t know what it is. It’s either Crimson Parsley, Herb Robert or Feverfew. Or a mixture of all three. The problem I have now is that, whereas Parsley is good for cooking, and Herb Robert is OK, Feverfew is, I think, poisonous. This is complicated further by the fact that there is no such thing as Crimson Parsley.

            I’ve got be honest. I would be a really shit herbalist. Herbseeds


Café Vintage, Mountgrove Road, Highbury

Most people, if they pray, pray for material things – cars, houses, holidays, cash – or stuff like getting
someone nice looking to love them/world peace. I’ve always prayed for one thing (and when I say prayed I mean hoped really hard with my eyes closed) – that a really good café would open up just down the end of my road. As in George Orwell’s essay The Moon Under Water, about a mythical perfect pub, there are  several key factors for it to be a good café::
1. Great coffee
2. Excellent bacon sandwiches
3. Run by cool women who are into jazz and poetry or interesting/funny blokes who like
football and/or experimental electronic music
4. Quiet/good/no music
5. Near to your house
6. A selection of interesting brown sauces for the bacon sandwich
7. They also sell tweed jackets/suits 
8. They have a few old books to read.
9. A working Wi-Fi
10.  Friends will drop in unexpectedly
11.  They have hats you can wear on sunny days.
So imagine my delight when I discovered Café Vintage had opened in the old premises vacated by
Tatran/Slovak Café  (the Expert Milky Coffee Makers), Run by two sisters who look like they might have been in a band, they sell tweedy clothes and play jazz at a decent level (how many cafés have you been to where they’re arguing about where the Miles Davis CD has gone?). The coffee is great – especially the Cafevintage Americano. You won’t be able to walk properly for several hours after the bacon sandwich. The men’s clothes are the sort of thing you used to see in your Grandad’s wardrobe when you were in his bedroom looking for pipes to nick for WWII fighter pilot games. The women’s clothes look like you’re your granny’s Sunday best. And as for hats, they have Sergeant Pepper era German military band peaked caps, to keep  the sun out of your eyes when you’re tapping away on a laptop.


Photo 169

(A Hat on a sunny day)

The Crazy Modernist Building At The End Of Our Street

For years we looked at the crazy modernist building at the end of our street and said "What a fucking dump!" (It's not exactly Nikolaus Pevsner, I know.) It was either sheltered accomodation or an athletes village for a joint East German/British Olympic bid in 1972. A few people lived in the crazy modernist building - walking past at night you'd hear crackly garage radio blaring out from an open window, or shouting coming from another window. But nobody ever went in or out.
    A few weeks ago the crazy modernist building
began gushing water like an incontinent cow. Then a wooden wall was put up around it, which usually means demolition time. I asked a hard-hat bloke what was going up in its place.
    "Dunno mate. I only started today."
    So, looks like there will soon be a crazy free improvised building at the end of our street.



A City Walk

Had to go into the City on Monday - around Mansion House - and was reminded how beautiful the old streets can be. You have to look along the curve and twist of the lanes, squint, then try to ignore many of the most modern buildings and attempt to see the City as it once was. Some new projects seem to be trying to obliterate the past with agressive bombast, like the 1990s No.1 Poultry, which was ugly (but not even good modernistly ugly) to begin with and has not improved with age, its creator perhaps obsessed with Battenburg Cake due to a moment of Prousian recollection with his sketch pad.


I worked in the City for brief periods in the late 80s, including a stints temping at Warburgs, the Financial Times, BP and a couple of others whose names I can't remember. As a computer input drone my mind was free to explore and after work I could drift anonymously around the alleyways and lanes, imagining, then sit in old pubs and try to guess which era particular people would look best in.













I love the 60s/70s building at 30 Cannon Street. Although bursting with crazy 60s humour it gives a substantial nod to medieval architecture of the past in the way it seems to get bigger the higher it gets. There's something edible, biscuity and Italian about it. (for more info see http://www.mimoa.eu/projects/United%20Kingdom/London/30%20Cannon%20Street).










The names of the streets around here are magnificent. Old Jewry. Ironmonger Lane. Poultry. Cheapside. Walbrook. Garlick Hill. They give you the sense of rapidly changing environment, something London can still offer in pockets. Old Jewry is now slabs of concrete, expanses of glass, but a vision of the past can be found in an old plaque embedded into the wall telling of the synagogue that stood until the late 13th Century around the time the Jews were expelled from England.


















And one suprising thing is the amount of small, old fashioned shops in this part of the city - tailors, cobblers, cafes, galleries, old restaurants, hats, umbrellas. Everywhere you look, fragments of the past are still woven into the fabric of the streets. Tiny churchyards. Old houses next to office blocks. Ancient coats of arms peeing out from the roof of a bank.





Workers Café, 740 Holloway Road

Workerscafe There are seven tables in the workers Café. Apart from me there is just one other customer, a little Irish lady called Mary sitting in the corner eating meat and two veg.

My coffee comes – it’s weakish and very milky. I haven’t had coffee like this since I was on an internal flight in Venezuela 20 years ago. Café con leche.  I remember nearly shitting myself when the pilot flew much too close to some mountains and that parts of the internal structure of the plane were held together with string.  So the coffee brings back exciting memories. And it is the same temperature as the molten core of the Earth.

The bacon sandwich comes and it’s your normal basic rasher in thin white sliced bread. But its USP is that it’s neither straight cut nor diagonal but a mixture of the two – is that a trapezoid?

What sets the Workers Café apart is not the grub, honest though that is, but the ambience. In the space of about 5 minutes the place is full. It’s like a little Irish village in here this evening. Next to me are two Irish lads in their late 60s/early 70s. One of them orders pork chops the other chicken curry and rice.

“I’ll do a runner now,” says the one with the massive grey beard, “and make ye pay fer the lot ha ha ha ha.”

The other bloke laughs weakly.

Another Irishwoman comes in and sits down at a table on her own.

“Alright Mary.”

“Alright Jean.”


A tall thin old man enters.

“Alright seamus,” says the bearded one.


“You’re a hardy man where you come from up in the hills ha ha ha.”


They all chat about football and the GAA and how in the 60s you only got 10 minutes for breakfast on a London building site.

“Now it’s half an hour, 40 minutes. Luxury it is.”


There’s a silence for a while then Johnny says

“We’ll never go back now.”


“It’s just misery there now.”


Before you get too excited about visiting a part of Irish culture from 40 years ago I should point out that this time last week I was in and the place was completely packed out with Eastern Europeans.