Warning: Declaration of Suffusion_MM_Walker::start_el(&$output, $item, $depth, $args) should be compatible with Walker_Nav_Menu::start_el(&$output, $item, $depth = 0, $args = Array, $id = 0) in /var/sites/s/smokealondonpeculiar.co.uk/public_html/wp-content/themes/suffusion/library/suffusion-walkers.php on line 39
Mar 132014
 

Gary Budden

Andrew stands among racks of books and pamphlets, breathing in papery dust, clutching Magnesium Burns. He feels electrican underground zine he’s never seen before. He’s been out the scene for too long. This was a chance stop-off in a decrepit radical bookstore, squirreled away on a backstreet in a still-unfashionable part of east London. Nostalgia pinches him while he browses the shelves and spinners, happy memories of woody green-cafes in Brighton, daytime activists lounging on musty sofas in Bradford, endless roll-ups, vegan burritos and tea with soya milk. He browses pamphlets about 90s Red Action operations in Tower Hamlets, brief guides to anarcho-syndicalism, poetry anthologies inspired by Gerard Winstanley. He likes this place.

He has time to kill, an unexpected browsing opportunity thanks to today’s unusually efficient public transport. He can taste the remains of the pickled-herring bagel he bought cheap on Brick Lane, where he scowled at people in their early twenties and remembered why he rarely visited this part of town. A walk to the mural on Cable Street – no pasarán! he hums to himself – maybe that would be a good way to kill these forty-five minutes.

In the Brick Lane Bookshop, he’d toyed with the idea of buying a Yiddish phrasebook. He isn’t Jewish but finds the Hasids up in Stamford Hill fascinating. Knows a bit of the history of the area. Ultimately, he’d decided against it, an unnecessary expense. The ambience of this radical store is much more preferable, here he can wrap himself in warm cultural kudos, temporary protection against the outside world. Secretly, though, many of the books and pamphlets he flicks through he finds dry, overly academic, or – worse – poorly written and unbalanced. Magnesium Burns, however, is completely in keeping with his tastes. In a room he likes to call his study there are stacked piles of publications he’s collected, glossy full-colours and Xeroxed missives all competing for space and curling with the years.

Magnesium Burns’ cover art is a black-and-white ink sketch of the Crouch End Spriggan, a strange and thrilling sculpture that swims out of an arch in the retaining wall beside the track bed of the old railway line from Finsbury Park to Highgate. Caught in brickwork, stuck en route between worlds. Andrew had made a special trip there six months back, walking the abandoned railway snapping away on his 8-megapixel smartphone. He didn’t know when the spriggan had first appeared; why? was an even bigger question. Still, it was there, and that was enough.

Andrew thinks it a great choice of cover image; the feelings it evokes in him are many, an image of residual paganism surfacing in derelict metropolitan urban space, the city’s topographical transience exposed, a submerged counter-narrative briefly breaching for buggy-pushers and hand-in-hand couples to see. It appeals greatly to the amateur psychogeographer in him, and the spriggan is one of his favourite pieces of London-lore with which to dazzle people at parties. The spriggan, he tells mildly impressed women gripping glasses of Pinot grigio as he cuts coke on smeared mirror-glass, is a mythical being from Cornish faery lore. West Penwith, I believe. He knows, he looked it up on Google. Laughing, he tells the story (and it is a good story): how they act as heavies for the fair-folk, and are grotesquely ugly, a bit like a hobgoblin – like the drink, yeah? The question is, Andrew says to those still listening, what’s one of these things doing in London? This always raises mild curiosity, the oh yeah, weird, that’s interesting to think about reaction. Then the coke kicks in and the night continues with smoke and beer-spray, the spriggan forgotten once more.

Andrew is genuinely excited at the grimacing green man’s face adorning this latest addition to the counter-cultural canon. It feels right. He scans the list of contents. A standard vegetarian diatribe by a P. Mann, more illustrations by the cover artist (a young woman who goes by the moniker Sketch), reviews of various other zines and punk, reggae and folk records from around the globe, an esoteric piece entitled “Golem, London Kabbalah, Stamford Hill”, by Cerise Edwards, a left-wing analysis of the film works of some 60s Japanese directors, interviews with activist groups and a few bands. The usual mix.

He pays for his zine. The woman behind the till eyes him suspiciously, her black dreadlocks hanging heavy over her breasts, light glinting off a silver lip ring.

“Do I know you?” he asks. She looks like many women he’s met over the years.

“Maybe. You ever go to the Jump cafe, or Balustrade down in Peckham?”

”Yeah, I’ve been. Not for a while. That must be it. I’m Andrew.”

“Adrianna.”

“Good to meet you. Thanks.” Italian? She has the look. A lot of them in London.

Adrianna watches Andrew exit the shop, Magnesium Burns tucked under his arm in what she considers an overly conspicuous manner. His chosen look of olive Converse shoes, dark denim jeans, black T-shirt – she finds it all clichéd. She resumes her reading. Mujeres Libres struggling during the Spanish Civil War.

Andrew heads toward his destination, The Blind Beggar, where he’s agreed to meet his friend David for a few late-afternoon pints before heading to a warehouse party down Peckham way. The Balustrade, in fact. The train lines are all linked up these days, it’s not too much effort to go south of the river (bandit country, as his older brother called it). He wonders why he didn’t mention this to the girl behind the counter. Maybe he’ll see her later, they can chat Magnesium Burns. He thinks she’ll have read it.

Andrew’s aware of the criminal history The Blind Beggar possesses, but cares little for it. He didn’t want to drink here but David lives nearby. He thinks it’s an interest that belongs to the world of football fans and Eastenders enthusiasts; he’ll angrily deny any class bias when challenged on this view. Surely all history is valid, David will say to him, a broken record that tells the truth on loop. Usually Andrew ignores this, ashamed of his own painful Englishness.

He’s still a little early. He smokes a roll-up outside the pub, watching the heaving traffic on Whitechapel Road roar and rumble, pollution dulling the air. David is always late. Andrew enters, orders himself a pint of Pride, settles in a corner and opens up Magnesium Burns. The art by Sketch, it’s really something. Aside from the spriggan leering suggestively on the cover, there are four more striking pieces.

The first, accompanying the veggie propaganda, is a group of anthropoid boars, dressed as punks, assuming that classic pose from the first Clash LP. They wear Doc Martens, probably cherry-reds, smoke cigarettes; tusks on display, confrontational. The leader, hands in pockets, wears a T-shirt stating in thick white letters “MEAT IS STILL MURDER”. Andrew prides himself on his knowledge of Britain’s mythical beings, but this one eludes him. Something Celtic being mingled with more recent urban mythologies, maybe. He’ll Google it when he gets the chance. He really likes Sketch’s scratchy style.

Second up, an image of Gog and Magog, giant protectors of the City of London, running amok amongst protestors outside St Paul’s cathedral; smashing tents, a trail of crushed bleeding bodies beneath their feet, smirks on their faces. Andrew isn’t sure that was those giants’ original purpose. Aren’t they Jewish immigrants into Britain’s story? Something Biblical?

The third, accompanying “Golem, London Kabbalah, Stamford Hill”, is a large clay man, bottle in a ceramic hand, vomiting a torrent of Yiddish words into a bin that bears the legend “HACKNEY COUNCIL”. Now Andrew wishes he had bought that phrasebook.

Fourth and final is simpler, easier to interpret. It gives Andrew more hope than the previous pictures. A solitary young girl clutching a balloon with the spriggan’s face its decoration stands smiling with genuine joy. In the background, the Olympic Park is consumed by hungry flames as tattooed looters ransack a shopping centre.

Andrew swigs his ale, checks his watch, and wonders where the hell David is. He watches a man attempting to sell pirated DVDs to the pub’s patrons being ejected wearily by the barman.

David likes to consider himself a cineaste. He subscribes to monthly journals and frequents the British Film Institute while declaring his disdain for middle-class culture consumers. His shelves bristle with obscure titles on Blu-Ray. Currently, he’s undergoing a mild obsession with the Japanese New Wave, 60s and 70s, left-wing politics, Death by Hanging and Gate of Flesh. Shamefully, he admits he has a thing for petite Japanese women. He figures it’s construed as racist and he’s currently single.

He’s due to meet Andrew, a friend since they were boys splashing in the Thames Estuary, at The Blind Beggar. He’s been waylaid browsing the shelves of Brick Lane’s specialist cinema store. What a collection. Finns, Thai, Japanese, Irish, Iranians, all shoulder to shoulder. It puts him in a rhapsodic state.

Andrew is more into landscape film, the British avant-garde, psychogeographic stuff that David finds hopelessly provincial and uninspiring.

Andrew once made him sit through all of The Last of England. Andrew seems to think he’s still living under Thatcher’s regime. David found it shockingly dull. After thumbing hungrily through the latest import of a Canadian magazine (that he doesn’t buy), he heads onto the busy street, huddling down into his windbreaker, pushing through a group of young women who wear large sunglasses, despite the dull and chilly November weather. They seem comfortably aimless, Lucky Strikes dangling from cherry-red lips, leaking smoke and pouting at passing pedestrians. Admittedly, they’re attractive, but lately not David’s type.

He walks in the direction of The Blind Beggar, passing a shop he’s never noticed before. The window display proudly announces hand-reared Irish elk cutlets, peppered mammoth steak, organic auroch sausages. David wrinkles his brow in confusion. Extinct species. He’s seen an auroch skull in the Museum of London, dredged from the Thames, cracked and bone yellow. Very impressive. He’ll ask Andrew about it over a cold pint, he knows about this kind of thing, won’t shut up about it when pissed at parties. David is a vegetarian, critical of Andrew’s dietary choices. His friend likes to cloak himself in the aesthetic of the punk and activist underground, where veganism is the norm. They will, to put it mildly, disapprove of this new boutique flesh-outlet. “Forgotten Fauna” says the sign. Bohemians cram the store, gleefully picking over the fare on display, touching base with history and gourmand-culture simultaneously, two for the price of one. They ask men and women behind the counter lengthy questions about the flesh’s back-story and history. They like their meals to have context, personality, a narrative. David sighs as he catches a snippet of conversation: “… the aurochs from the banks of the Thames have a rich and heady flavour…” He carries on.

He checks the time on his smartphone. Shit. I’m twenty minutes late. He picks up his pace, winging past the curry houses and crowds of Bangladeshis, lighting a Lucky Strike as he does so, smoke trailing behind him.

Andrew is still waiting, reading “Golem, London Kabbalah, Stamford Hill”:

… you may have noticed strange occurrences in our country of late. Reality is wearing thin, becoming threadbare and tatty. Reality, our concept of it, is being battered from all sides. What were once the icons and symbols of science fiction and fantasy are becoming the norm. The touch-screen, ebooks, phones that talk back – all change our interactions with reality. You could say they’re proving the fact, long-known by Integrity, that reality is itself malleable, not concrete, subject to multiple interpretations. This is a view that Integrity adheres to. At the same time, the amount of available information has increased exponentially allowing us, as a species, to dramatically increase the amount of information we can absorb over a lifetime. Whether we put this to good use or not is entirely up to the individual; watching hundreds of hours of degrading pornography will most likely not lead to a new enlightened state, but access to thousands of differing opinions, a full plurality of voices, access to an entire global history of film, art, mythology, literature, science and music, may do. The curious teenager out in the provinces can now learn more in one afternoon than people of my generation born during the nineteen-eighties could in months of hunting.

For us it took so long, piecing together a puzzle, the slow accumulation of data and the experiences that went with such hunts. Now so much is freely available. I do not say this is a negative. Information is power. There must come a tipping point. The unused areas of our brains will be forced to spark into life. Something will happen.

A collective hallucination is taking place. If our reality, even our news, is presented to us, and constructed, as a narrative, then this can explain the many sightings of mythological – mythological no longer – beings from the various different cultures that have shaped the British Isles over the millennia. For example, I myself have witnessed, in Stamford Hill, the…

“All right Andy, sorry I’m late.” David’s voice is slightly wheezy, his breath stinking of cigarettes. Andrew smokes roll-ups, tobacco bought duty-free and under the counter from his local Alevi shopkeeper.

Andrew looks up from his reading, mildly annoyed.

“Get us a Pride while you’re up,” he says.

David nods, red of face. He darts to the bar.

Andrew quickly scans Cerise Edwards’ author bio:

Cerise Edwards (Born 1984) was one of the founding members of the Integrity, an artist/writer collective promoting a return to a sincerer form of art and expression, and social-political consciousness, in reaction to what they perceive to be an arts scene dominated by post-post-modern irony. She disappeared in January 2011 and her whereabouts are unknown; she is presumed deceased. We reprint this, her last article for the Integrity newspaper, with much thanks and respect.

He puts the magazine down and frowns. This woman was younger than him. It troubles him.

David reappears, slamming down two frothy pints of ale. A bit of foam splashes over Magnesium Burns.

“Oi, watch it, dickhead!”

“Sorry mate.” David looks insincere. A grin hovers over his face. He loves winding Andrew up. It isn’t difficult.

“So, we going to this thing tonight? It should be a good one, there’s a load of familiar faces heading down, some good bands, cheap booze, we can smoke inside, you know the drill.”

David nods. “Yeah, yes, I’m up for it. What’s the plan then? Sink a couple here before heading off?”

“Yeah, and… have a butcher’s at this.” Andrew slides Magnesium Burns over to his friend, who squints and focuses his eyes on the magazine. He picks it up and leafs through the pages. He sighs inside when he sees the goblin face on the cover – another piece of Andrew’s nonsense. He’s pleasantly surprised to see an article on the Japanese new wave. He thinks of a demon-woman, rising from reeds, and sips his pint. Then he remembers.

“What do you know about aurochs?”

Adrianna has finished for the day. The clock completes its final lap and settles at six, and now she’s off to meet friends in a local pub before a warehouse party. The Balustrade in Peckham. She picks up the magazine which that annoying man had bought, Magnesium Burns. She can’t recall receiving it into stock. Must have slipped in with all the other zines and pamphlets without her noticing; it’s hard to sort shit from gold. She likes the cover, the spriggan down on the Parkland Walk, rendered in a scratchy black and white that appeals to her tastes. She’s cycled past the grinning figure any number of times on journeys up to Highgate Woods. She scans the table of contents. Cerise Edwards. Adrianna feels she knows the name but can’t place it. Had she met this woman at that festival near Winchester? An acquaintance of Adrianna’s ex, the English performance poet known more for his white dreadlocks than for the lasting power of his work? She thinks Cerise was his friend. She recalls the maybe-Cerise as a shock of green hair, a quizzical expression; there’d been a conversation about the shop stocking pamphlets by something called “Integrity”. She’d been with another friend, a shaven head who radiated depression. Adrianna thinks they still have Integrity pamphlets in stock. She’ll check tomorrow. Right now, there’s no desire to remain in the store. Dust motes hang in the air and the promise of cold cider beckons. She’s going to recommend her book about the Mujeres Libres to Sofia. Lucia Sanchez Saornil and Mercedes Comaposada, autonomy in Catalonia, different times.

It says in the zine that Cerise is missing, presumed deceased, and Adrianna feels indifference. It doesn’t seem convincing. Perhaps some Integrity stunt. She’s met a number of their lot, they’re fond of situationist-inspired activities with the aim of, they say, creating genuine feeling from smoke and mirrors. To Adrianna, this is the tactic of toxic tabloids, cynical manipulation of an audience’s emotions. But maybe it’s true. People disappear so easily in this carcinogenic city. She slides Magnesium Burns into her bag, promises herself she’ll read the article in full later on.

She locks up. Pulls down the dirty grey shutters with a metallic shudder. She heads in the direction of Brick Lane, up through throngs of Bangladeshi men, enticed by smells of daal, dhosa and jalfrezi, towards the hipper and whiter districts. She pushes through a group of vacant women, sunglass wearers, eyes invisible, who smoke and pout in the cold. Adrianna hates women like this, calls them traitors to their gender, willing objects. They eye her with bored suspicion, grimly assessing her dirty hair, her lip piercing, the exposed tattoo on her right shoulder. She grimaces, and then they are behind her. She looks up, sees a deli she’s not noticed before. Forgotten Fauna. The tag line:

“Ethically Sourced Gourmet Meats from across the Millennia”

Adrianna frowns. She is, seemingly unaware of her own clichés, a vegan. She owns cookbooks printed on uneven recycled paper that sit proudly on a kitchen shelf next to dried lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas. She wears vegetarian boots bought on a sunny day down in Brighton. The shop piques her interest; a chance to be righteous and angry. She stops to investigate, her frown deepening. Irish elk cutlets. Auroch sausages. Peppered mammoth steak. Something’s not right.

Gourmet meat pushed to its logical conclusion. We’re nothing but consumers of the past, Adrianna thinks ruefully, but this is taking the piss. As she peers through the window, her own muddy reflection glares back at her. She watches women with moderate hairstyles, mustard-beige coats and tasteful topaz jewellery banter with the butchers. Small children stand by their sides like familiars. Tiny imps sleep in oversized prams that cram the boutique store. Adrianna wonders if this is a pop-up. She’s sceptical about the current trend for impermanence. It can’t last, she thinks, grinning. The flesh-eaters wear self-satisfied expressions on their faces as they browse this selection of archaic meat, they’re thrilled to be part of something so niche, so tied to their country’s history. This is real consumer culture. Next, they’ll be eating faun, centaur and spriggan. Adrianna shakes her head.

She’s seen the Irish elk skeleton at the Liverpool Natural History Museum, years back; that towering beast of a deer, twelve-foot antler span. Daubed in ochre in a Lascaux cave. Extinct. Maybe Sofia knows what’s going on. Later, she’ll ask.

She plugs her earphones into her smartphone, blocks the street noise, selects a track suitable to her mood.

As she reaches the end of Brick Lane her thoughts turn, as they so often do, to the Troll Church, that trip to Finland. Sofia was with her then. Her thoughts don’t have time to settle; one of London’s many intrusions presents itself to her in the form of a dishevelled old man. Facial disfigurements, a battered multi-coloured coat, he tugs at her clothing and asks something inscrutable, barely audible. Money, food maybe. It sounds like, “penny for a fool”.

“Piss off, will you?” she says, pushing the geriatric harlequin away. A group of teens laugh at the scene. Whether at her or the multi-coloured man, she isn’t sure.

Her phone buzzes. Sofia. She’s waiting for her in the pub and Adrianna is late.

“Shit,” she hisses between her teeth.

She pushes on, the city boiling, fluid, around her.

All photos were taken on the Parkland Walk between Finsbury Park and the site of Crouch End station.

About the author

Share