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Life in the big smoke

Back to the river

Every day stuff floats in on the tide and then out again, empty coke bottles, plastic cups, tennis balls, pieces of wood, condoms, plastic bag, the left-overs of life along the Thames. The tidal movement is called ebb and flod in my native Swedish. Not so different from the English, but those are the words that find me first. Nature is where I stumble. I know what a buzzard is in English, but I have to use wikipedia to translate it into Swedish. Ormvråk. I know what a Gös is, but a Zander means nothing.

We went back to Finland for two weeks. One day we visited my grandmother and in the afternoon we stopped by the cottage in her garden, the bagarstuga. There is a great bookshelf in the bagarstuga. The shelves look like half-smiles and the books look like unruly teeth sticking out in all directions. I went there to try to find some extra things to read during the holiday, but most of the books were in Spanish, French, German, Russian and Finnish. My grandmother learned and tried to learn many languages.

The attic at the bagarstuga smells of dry dust, a sweet grainy smell that takes me back to being seven or nine and making up adventure stories in family attics. We looked at the glass vats my grandmother used for making wine and at the old hammers and saws and the spinning wheel that must have belonged to my grandmother’s parents. We also found a few large leather folders wrapped in old newspapers, unwrapped them carefully, untied the strings holding them together and found a selection of pressed wildflowers. Next to the flowers was a tidy description of where and when they had been picked and their name in Swedish and in Latin. My grandmother’s brother’s homework over the summer. My parents also picked and pressed plants during their summer holidays, that’s how they learned the names. Today it’s different. We’ve lost the names so we look at nature without seeing it.

At the summer house I read Ryszard Kapucinski’s reportages from Africa. In one chapter he talks about the difficulty of describing and understanding the nature around him when he doesn’t know the real names of what he’s seeing. Without knowing the local name, how could he understand the essence of the tree he was sheltering underneath. It was a good book and it was a good holiday, but now I’m back in the studio next to the river, trying to remember the English names of some things and the Swedish names of others.

Settling in next to the river

I’m sorry it’s been a bit quiet here lately. The truth is I’ve been a bit unsettled, slightly more unsettled than I thought I would be, by all this change. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Of moving and getting to know a new part of London. I’m trying to prepare myself for some of the other changes that are coming. But I’m still in-between. So I’m focusing on the details, the small things.

We’ve moved to the studio next to the river. When we arrive in the morning the banks along the Thames are muddy. In the afternoon the tide flows back and the waves lap at the flood barriers. The water is silty and a muted brown. There are three ducks, two mallards and a hen living somewhere near the studio. Every time I’ve walked down to the water they’ve been there. Sometimes they jump up on the platform further out where the London Port Authority’s boats dock. Sometimes one of the mallards chases the other one and nips at his tail feathers.

On the other side of the river big ships bring sugar to the Tate & Lyle factory. The current one is flying a Maltese flag. Gangly cranes swing over it and back again with the cargo. It’s a calm and peaceful dance. Planes take off from London City Airport behind the factory. The sound lags behind the plane. I notice them when they’re already on their way. When the tail has cleared the factory and the plane is climbing steeply toward the clouds.

I spend a lot of time scanning the water, hoping to one day spot a seal. I’ve been reading about wildlife returning to the Thames. Pods of dolphins have been seen further west and seals have been spotted near the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. London is showing me its wild and industrial side.

It’s a over month since we moved to the new studio. I’m getting used to it. London twists and turns around me. Everything radiates from the places we call home, all the routes you know lead to the areas where you live and work. My center has been north and east. Slowly it is shifting to the south. London turns around me and I’m learning to see the city from a new perspective.

On March 3 we have to leave

On March 3 the developers will lock the doors and we have to leave. We found out on Saturday. The rubbish is already taking over the hallways – old chairs, shelves, books, tins of paint, plastic bags and various wooden sticks and metal bits. The people next door left this weekend. The building is quiet. The bathroom and the corridors already have that cold, slightly metallic scent of abandonment.

Soon there will be no more artist studios on Cremer Street. The developer called us an “eyesore on Hackney Road”. And perhaps he was right. This is a crumbling sixties warehouse with graffitied walls, dirty windows and family of stray cats. It doesn’t fit with the new wine bars or the brand new apartment blocks with their straight walls, small windows and box-like flats selling for £600,000.

Soon this asbestos roof will be torn open and the walls chewed to pieces by bulldozers. I’ve seen it happen to the old council blocks up the road. I watched as the front of one of the buildings came down and a bedroom or living room with bright green walls gaped out over Hoxton like in some disaster movie. That was once someone’s home. In a winter the old buildings were gone and it’s been a year since people started leaving plant pots on the balconies and bicycles outside the new apartments.

This was always going to happen to the studio building on Cremer Street. The pub with the English flags in the windows was turned into a wine bar. The boarded up one that used to stand on the corner was demolished before I came here, but is still there on Google Street View like a digital ghost. Small shops selling wholesale bags and shoes are being turned into cafes. The gay club has been shut down. The derelict Georgian terraces have been renovated and decorated to smug perfection. The old hospital is being turned into expensive apartments. The boards around the building site show photographs of the people that might one day live there. Pretty, shiny haired people hanging out on Brick Lane. Aspirational people.

I sometimes wonder if these people are the new Londoners. The politicians talk a lot about “aspirational hard working families”, although no one seems to know who or where these people can be found. London itself is aspirational. The tallest buildings are reaching for new heights, the house prices climbing upward with them. Whoever you are there will always be someone with more money than you, a car more expensive than yours and an apartment more expensively furnished than yours. In this city we’re often reminded that the ladder stretches far above us.

But this aspirational London is not the town I want to live in. I’d like to call this place transitional, always changing, always in motion. London has been burned down, bombed and demolished several times over the last 2000 years. It’s always being rebuilt, the old torn down to make way for the new. But like a magic trick, the city never changes. In the midst of all of this turmoil some buildings have managed to escape the bombs and the bulldozers. Cremer Street and Hackney Road will still be there when the studio is gone. The map will look the same. Some of these roads were built by the Romans.

When this building is gone the stray cats in the studio car park will move on to another spot where people will feed them. The people who move into the new apartments will go to the same cafe we go to for their coffees. The trains will rumble along the tracks on the bridge over Cremer Street. The huge psychedelic graffiti eye on one of the tower blocks further into Hoxton will keep looking out over it all. We will move our studio south of the river and everything changes and nothing changes at the same time.

***

But just so I remember there is a sticker next to the door that says “Do you wear enough black to be an artist?” I don’t know who put it there. Next to it is a stack of framed prints and screens and then the table which used to be used for screen-printing, but we now mainly use for eating lunches and packing web orders, although not at the same time. On the wall opposite is the fridge and the microwave that should have been cleaned four months ago.

There is a shelf with tea and mugs and the plum vodka Gerry’s brother and his wife gave us and I swigged out of the bottle, whilst sitting on the printing table, one day after we’d had some upsetting news (it’s very tasty, thank you!). There is a shelf on the floor full of water-based paint and spray cans. Underneath the table are stacks of vinyls and screens. Next to the table there are two large and solid plan chests.

Underneath the barred windows there is the Ikea sofa I accidentally broke when I bounced up and down on it after I heard that my book had been accepted by the publisher. Then there is our desk where Gerry and I face each other, it’s covered in papers, printers, random hard-drives and cables. We’ve scribbled messages on it. There is a sleeping fish that Gerry drew on a sticker and placed next to my laptop.

Behind him is the year planner from 2015 and a huge Wall Street print that was damaged when it fell in front of the door and we had to bash the frame in order to get into the studio. Next to him is the Ikea shelving system with clothes rails stacked precariously on top of it and stock hanging below. Then there is the corner crammed full of stock boxes, hiding all the stuff that’s been forgotten about and kept out of sight. Behind that there are paintings, not ours, they were left here by the previous occupant who uses the studio for storage. This is it. The studio. Soon it will be empty and all we will have left are these memories.

Finding the London Stone

I’ve been meaning to visit the London Stone for a bit over a year. This weekend I decided the time had come. On a Sunday the streets are quiet, the buses glide through normally congested areas and the financial district, where the stone can be found, is silent and empty.

Heavy clouds hung over London, the pavements had a glossy varnish of early morning rain. I took the bus south and looked up the stone on Wikipedia. No one seems to know exactly what its purpose was or how old it is. It was first written about in the 1550s and even then people seemed to think it was old. Some have speculated this was the stone King Arthur pulled Excalibur out of, as if he was a real king and Excalibur a real sword. Others think it might be an index stone, pointing to a stone circle that once stood on the site of St Paul’s Cathedral. My favourite theory is that it’s a sacred terminus stone dedicated to Jupiter. Supposedly these stones were placed in the centre of any Roman city. London started out as Londinium after all, a small outpost of the Roman empire.

The bus took me past dark and slumbering office buildings. Through the windows I sometimes spotted security guards reading morning papers or chatting to cleaners. The cafés and restaurants were quiet and ghostly, their purpose lost on a day when there are no customers and no bright lights. The streets were empty, except for a few packs of tourists in brightly coloured rain jackets.

I got off near Bank and took Walbrook Street south toward Cannon Street. I realised, as you do sometimes in this city, that I had never walked down this street before. In every area, even the ones you know well, there are always new places to explore. London unfurls and stretches out like a coastline, there are labyrinths to explore. How many miles would these London streets add up to? I tried to Google it, but couldn’t find an answer.

I couldn’t remember having walked down Cannon Street before and stopped for a moment, finding my bearings. Then I set off east, looking for 111 Cannon Street, where the stone sits today (it’s been moved a couple of times). Even though I knew it’s now placed within the foundation of a WHSmith I still managed to walk past it and had to turn around at 119 Cannon Street. The stone itself is pretty underwhelming, hidden behind metal bars and glass so murky and dark it’s almost impossible to make out what’s behind it.

I tried to muster up some feelings of respect on solemnity. This was the London Stone after all, the stone that’s been mentioned by different writers and historians over the last 500 years. It’s the mystery foundation stone that might make London crumble and fall if removed. I felt slightly self-conscious. This was clearly a forgotten and unloved landmark. I couldn’t imagine many tourists stopping at this spot or the commuters heading to their offices in the city on a weekday paying it much attention. Feeling underwhelmed I moved on.

I spent the morning exploring the alleys in and around Bank. This is one of the oldest parts of the city. The streets feel heavy, the buildings loom large and tall. They even smell heavy, of dust and stone. Between them runs a maze of alleys where unexpected smaller buildings, restaurants or offices, are crammed between giants.

london city alleys

Two street sweepers were taking break in one of the alleys. Some tourists hurried past on the roads outside. In between the buildings I was mostly on my own. I passed the Jamaica Wine Bar on St Michael’s Alley and spotted a church. The choir was practicing for the morning’s service and I snook in and listened for a while. As a few people arrived for the service I made my way out, feeling like an intruder. I continued on, got lost around Aldgate, the sun broke through the clouds, I walked in vain looking for an open coffee shop. Eventually my homing instinct took me to Spitalfields, where there is always coffee. I sat down and read and wrote for a while, making a promise to myself that I’ll spend more Sunday mornings roaming around the city.

Back in rainy London

London. It’s eight days since we landed at Heathrow. The day after we left Finland the temperature in my hometown dropped to minus 27. Cold enough to make your hair turn white with frost and your nostrils stick together when you inhale. London hovers around 7 plus. Drizzle-gray. Sunshine and showers. Mostly showers.

Today I walked past the big house and the deer at Clissold Park. The sun was out. Orange light in the puddles. Bright and early joggers rushing past. I stopped to say hello to the deer. Then I met up with Madicken and we spent the morning writing together in a café. All the other customers had brought their laptops too. Madicken spotted an actor sitting behind us. It’s very north London. I wrote some words and I was pretty happy with them. Then I came home and read about the publishing industry and suddenly everything felt impossible. I did my taxes. I downloaded Spotify again and created a radio station based on Sia. I’m clicking thumbs down on anything that isn’t Sia.

This month is one of small tasks. It’s too early for a big picture. There is one thing and then the next and maybe soon the year will start taking shape. I took me a week to shake the post-Christmas fog. I went home to Finland and didn’t turn on my phone for the first five days. A sweet, disconnected rebellion. Gerry and I went for long walks when it was light. The inlet near the house thawed and then froze over again. The ice was washed up by a storm and looked like panes of broken glass, crushed and squeezed together. I’ve never seen it like that before. I ate well and often. I spent some time in the sauna. My muscles unwound themselves. I relaxed and stopped thinking about work, the future, everything. It takes a while to resurface from that. So here I am, tensing up again, telling myself I should do more yoga, writing lists and trying to get a sense of where this year will take me.

Image by David Marcu.