Recently, I visited Hoxton and Shoreditch in East London in order to drink over-priced coffee and (earnest-middle-class-parent that I am) to visit to Nick Hornby’s admirable Ministry Of Stories and Monster Supply Store.
It’s an area I used to know quite well, since I lived in nearby Hackney when I hadn’t yet worked out quite how much I hated nightclubs and still worked on the fringes of the media*.
Back then I mainly knew Shoreditch by night. Now I was returning early on a Saturday. The smell of kebabs and beer and vomit still lingered on the streets, the urban equivalent of the fallen branches that show you a storm has passed through recently, even though everything now is empty and quiet. It emphasised that the intoxication of Friday was over – and that I wasn’t really going back at all. Visiting in the silent hour, a few years later, was visiting the place anew.
I might have fallen into nostalgia at that realisation. Looking back over those old haunts as a parent, homeowner and a reluctant, but undoubted, member of the bourgeoise, had the potential to induce wallowing. I’d spot countless small alterations, developments and collapses that would show me how much I myself must have changed and aged in the years since I’d last visited. I’d fall off into long sighing thoughts about mortality and wonder why I still hadn’t got a proper job and… Anyway. It wasn’t like that at all. I was actually pleased to note how much remained the same. The 333 club still looked like a filthy (and I’m not using the word metaphorically), squalid (ditto), hole (okay, that’s a metaphor.) The cafes still had authentically French babyfoot tables in them that no one used and still played achingly bad music. There were still posters and fliers on every blank space of wall. The graffiti probably may no longer have been authentic Banksy, but it was still shit.
Most notably, the people were all in their early 20s and trying very, very hard to make the most of those last years before responsible employment and thinning hair catastrophically limited their fashion options. The only material difference being that The Shoredtich Twats (designer architects glasses, white trainers and Hoxton finn haircut or ironic mullet) have now been replaced by hipsters (pointy shoes, skinny trousers, buzzcut hair or ironic mullet). These hipsters are undoubtedly funnier than the medieval jesters who have provided their style cues ever were. I’d recommend that anyone visits Hoxton simply for the people-watching, which is second to none. Especially on Saturday morning when those remaining on the streets are in such an advanced state of confusion and fashionable derangement. They may be wallies, but at least they brighten the place up…
… But I’m digressing again. The important thing about all those 20-somethings was the absence they implied. There were a few prams in the Nick Hornby shop, but otherwise Shoreditch remained as it had been when I knew it, a place of unfettered youth. So where had all the original Shoreditch Twats gone now they were in their 30s and 40s?
My answer came the very next day when, coincidentally, I visited Crouch End. Pretty much the first thing I noticed when I got off the bus was how much of a battle it was to get my daughter’s pram along the street. There was just no breaking through the serried ranks of three-wheelers pushed by angry-faced, greying men in architects glasses and – yes - white trainers. And that’s when it hit me. Clearly Crouch End serves as a kind of elephant’s graveyard for middle-ageing trustafarians. Those who haven’t fled for the shires have moved a few squares north to another kind of urban bubble. Which makes perfect sense. It’s all part of the cycle of life for a certain section of the middle class. The fashionable non-conformists who end up looking more like everybody else than anybody else does. If you see what I mean. Anyway. I liked Crouch End too. And, more to the point, it could definitely be a contender for the most middle class place in Britain.
I was especially impressed by all the cafes that my friends and I were unable to get into, because we hadn’t booked. (By the way, isn’t the concept of booking ahead in order to have a coffee and babycinno delightful? Only in a very certain type of British place would this be considered acceptable behaviour. People whose lives are so important that even their brief moments of flaneurship have to be timetabled. And for whom not getting in the *right* place is just too terrifying to contemplate. Once there was anxiety about Friday night guestlists at the 333. Now, you have to know the manager of the cafe with the best colouring pencils and baby chairs – and still phone him weeks in advance. Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose…) We eventually found a place that didn’t have tasteful wooden furniture or organic smoothies, but did have plenty of seats, even though it was just a few doors down from the last cafe we’d tried to get in – one that was so full that steam came out of the door and the windows were dripping with condensation. Naturally, the non-fancy cafe provided one of the best espressos I’ve had in London… Which just goes to show…. something or other…
Anyway, my visit was only brief. I took in only Waitrose, cafes, two health food shops, a gigantic expensive Italian deli, a nice little bookshop, the lovely modernist town hall and the general comfortable ambience. Luckily, my task in describing the place has been made much easier, because I don’t have to. The author Linda Grant (one of the best writers in Britain today) has been veritably bombarding this site with hilarious details about life in the borough. So the best thing I can do for your entertainment and enlightenment is to vacate the stage and let Linda do the talking. I should just note that her first comment is a response to my assertion that Waitrose might be the most important keystone of middle-class life):
“For the record, the issue of Waitrose and the middle class is a little more fissured and fractured than you sneeringly make out. Here in Crouch End we first had the opportunity to get a Waitrose back in the early 90s but it was nixed by a campaign of local busybodies who said it would bring cars into the area. They wanted to get in their cars and drive to someone else’s area. We then had to sit it out for a further 17 years with only a Budgens, until a year ago when Waitrose took over the defunct Woolworths where generations of North London children had honed their shoplifting skills.
“Once again the campaigners arose, putting out leaflets about how ‘Haterose’ was not welcome. They were perfectly happy to see the Woolworths remain a decaying and unlettable eyesore, with no proposals as to what it should become other than ‘the Council could turn it into an arts centre.’
“Fortunately Haringey Council ignored the grumbles of this small clique of malcontents and we now have our Waitrose. Though still no tube station. We like to think that makes us a bit special.”
“Actually, to be fair, I should point out that Budgens had been taken over by a new manager. Whereas before its extensive selection of Pot Noodles and plastic-wrapped Cheddar had been second to none, he had brought in locally sourced and organic products and became the subject of a profile in the Independent. So there was anxiety that Waitrose would close it down. An unfounded fear, though personally I haven’t been in there once since Waitrose opened. Causing ill-feeling between me and Becky Swift, daughter of Margaret Drabble who is resolutely boycotting Waitrose.”
And then went on:
“I don’t think you have even scratched the surface of Crouch End, to be honest.
I forgot to mention that part of the reason for the defeat of the Haterose campaign was a rumour which went around implying that if Waitrose didn’t acquire the site, Poundland was hard on its heels. I think you can all guess who was the source of THAT. (Me, in part)
Education, as you can imagine, is a big issue in our neighbourhood. Our excellent primary school, named after a Romantic poet from nearby and more expensive Highgate, was built on the site of the old Hornsey Art College, famous for its sit-ins in the 60s. Some of the art students of that era stayed on in their bedsits, eventually acquiring the whole property, and are now retired in warmer climates on the vast equity from 40 years of rising property prices.
“It’s the secondary schools that are the problem We are devoutly left-wing in Crouch End, so much so that we threw out the Tony Bliar-backed Labour MP two elections ago and replaced her with a LibDem. This hasn’t worked out quite as well as we anticipated, particularly as Jacinta and Jasper are both planning to do Oxbridge entrance.
The two state options are Hornsey School for Girls, which sounds so encouraging when you think of that marvellous letter in the Guardian from the pupils of Camden School for Girls, about their decision to bunk off to join the student protests. But it turns out that Hornsey School for Girls is populated by large frightening black girls from Finsbury Park with expensive weaves and small Muslim girls in hijabs, sent there by their protective parents so they can be removed from any proximity to the male sex. That leaves Highgate Wood which gets 32 per cent in the league tables and is an attractive option for ambitious parents from Tottenham whose local comp gets 6 per cent.
“So that leaves private education or Exodus. Up the great mountainous incline to Muswell Hill which has the highest performing comprehensive in London and a catchment area currently measured at 4.3 inches.
“They try to sneer down at us in Crouch End but in reality, we are sneering up at them. They only have a Sainsbury’s. We have a Waitrose.”
“I’ll add a little more. When the Haterose campaign was asked what they suggested should be in the closed-down Woolworths, they said, ‘Well, the council could turn it into an art gallery.’
“Unfortunately, Crouch End’s three LibDem ward councillors carry little weight with overwhelmingly Labour Haringey Council. We’re severely disappointed that the Kurdish community of Wood Green continues to vote for Tony Bliar’s party, motivated no doubt by self-interest in connection with the Iraq war.
“In all fairness to Highgate Wood, however (which isn’t in Highgate, unfortunately, if it were it wouldn’t have that Tottenham catchment area) it does have as one of its alumnae the publicist for Virago books. Oh and that woman from the X Files went to our primary school, as did Tariq Ali’s kids.”
So there you are. Anyone else got an opinion on Crouch End? Could there be anything that the incredible, eloquent Linda Grant has missed? And where should I look next?
Please do let me know!
(Oh and if you enjoyed Linda’s messages, you’ll be pleased to hear that she has a new book coming out in January, We Had It So Good. Thanks to my fortunate position as a sometime blogger on the Guardian, I’ve been lucky enough to read it and would like to take this opportunity to be one of the first critics in the UK to make a painfully weak pun based on the title. Yes, it’s good. Very good.)
A very funny** new poem has been written lamenting the death of Crouch End and loss of Prospero’s Books. You can find it all on the Hornsey Journal. Here’s a small sample to whet your appetite:
“When they came for The Creamery, I did not speak out
Because I already have too much cholesterol, and gout.
When they came for Word Play, I had a tiny blub,
But now I buy kids’ stuff from Rub A Dub
When they came for Just Natural, actually shouted hooray
At the passing of yet another overpriced cafe.”
*Rather than my current position, hanging onto the outer edges by my fingernails, living in Norwich, like Alan Partridge. I’m amazed you scrolled down for this footnote, by the way. Was it worth it?