My Secret London Isn’t Secret At All
In my rediscovery of London, I’m learning something new every day. A visit to the beautiful new Foyles bookshop yesterday revealed a vast new raft of London books on their way for Christmas, with looks at the river, new buildings, gardens, parks, art galleries, different areas, culture, fashion, a couple of books on underground photography (i.e. pictures taken in the underground) that I cannot imagine anyone wanting to own, and volumes on hidden and secret London – but just how many secrets can there be left to explore?
What’s also missing are books on people, whether working in institutions, being at home or on the streets, London books invariably show unpopulated scenes of concrete, brick, grass and stone. I often thumb through these books looking for surprises, and if I find a few in one volume, I’ll consider buying it. I have a secret London of my own in my head – as we all do – which only matches someone else’s in the broadest brush-strokes.
But, hidden London, really? The truth is that much of it isn’t hidden at all but right in your line of sight, and it’s just that you haven’t noticed it much lately. We’re all looking at our phones.
As I live in King’s Cross I know that if you’re desperate for a burger you don’t go to a chain but head for Coffee Dog on the station forecourt, placed so visibly that nobody notices it or goes there. You avoid the new hard-to-get-into new restaurants and head for the brilliant Smithy’s, in a cobbled backstreet that’s only known to locals, because it serves the best food in the area inside a converted blacksmith’s stables.
Equally, if you’re going to the South Bank, you don’t go to the pubs or bars at ground level but head down into Udderbelly, which opens rural glades in the summer, or up to Concrete, the rooftop garden that overlooks the Thames.
Cinemas? Anyone in the know avoids the West End like the plague and goes to the Curzon chain or the beautiful new Barbican cinema, which has arthouse and experimental seasons running beside mainstream movies. And it’s perfectly centrally located.
If you really want to be among the funky and the fashionable you wouldn’t head for Soho (despite its new food markets and pop-up shops) and you wouldn’t dream of going to Camden, home of an appalling Amy Winehouse statue and clothes aimed at tourists who want to look five years out-of-date, or even Hoxton, newly filled with bridge-and-tunnel drunks at the weekends, but aim for Dalston instead, declared by Vogue Italia as far back as five years ago that it was the next hip neighbourhood (although it still has a sharp edge – if by edge you mean stepping over rubbish and avoiding illegal Turkish casinos).
I’d been on stage at Highbury’s ‘The Garage’ for readings and had been there for clubbing nights, but somehow I never realised that one street back from Highbury Tube (which is only one tube stop for where I live) are some of the most desirable houses in London, in Highbury Fields.
I know the Arsenal has one of the world’s most famous football grounds (weirdly set in the middle of residential terraces) but until two years ago I had never heard of its nearest neighbour Highbury Barn, named (typically) after a local pub, which is leafy and full of gourmet food shops.
I’ve only just started with the immediate area – now to move a little further afield and see what’s changed since I last properly opened my eyes and took a look around. This may involve raising my eyes from my walkie-phone and actually you know, talking to people and stuff.