It is Sunday morning and Dalston is at its calmest. Cans, bottles and remains of fried chicken takeaways still litter the pavement; the puddles of urine are still wet in the Rio doorways, the direction of stream revealing the lie of the land; the shops are shuttered. A few straggling clubbers are still wandering up and down Kingsland High Street, with who knows what on their poor stoned minds. Trying to remember who they were with last night? Smarting from sexual rejection or a hazy memory of being found out in some act of uncoolness? Just looking for breakfast? Soon the Council workmen in their green and yellow livery will come to start clearing up and neighbours will venture out to walk their dogs or fetch a pint of milk and a newspaper. Round the corner, no doubt, the all-night cafes will be serving comforting cups of coffee to the night’s survivors.
To tell the truth, I am feeling pretty spaced out myself, it being my first morning out of bed after my most recent anaemia treatment last week. I am already starting to feel better but staring at me out of the mirror this morning from a parchment-coloured face were two black-ringed panda eyes (something to do with the way the hit of iron affects my liver which reacts to it as to a toxin, which indeed it is). So this is as good a moment as any to reflect on my profound ambivalence to the Dalston clubbers, poisoned by other substances.
I am in many ways as entertained and charmed by the Dalston hipsters as I am by the overheard self-absorbed play of four-year-olds. There is something poignant about the fragility of the boundary between looking cool and looking ridiculous, often only upheld by an enormously brave effort of self-belief; the determination to be individual in a world of mass consumption; the diligent inventiveness of their dress.
I find myself moved by the obvious high seriousness of their artistic pretentions. One morning last summer I passed a local cafe on a Sunday morning, just like this one only warmer, and there was a group at a pavement table one of whom was reading poetry aloud to his companions – who were not mocking. And a couple of months ago I went with a friend to a club in Haggerston to attend the first gig of the daughter of a housemate of hers. What this singer/keyboard/guitar trio were performing was arrangements of 19th century poetry, including a very funny version of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen’ complete with animal sound-effects.
The atmosphere reminded me not so much of the later 60s, when most of the people I hung out with would have been a bit embarrassed by the reactionary connotions of such highbrow pursuits, but of the late 50s/early 60s, which I indirectly caught the tail end of, when jazz poetry was taken seriously in little coffee bars in Soho and Liverpool.
Surely these must be kids who were seriously bullied at secondary school for their nerdiness and one cannot but admire their stamina.
And yet… I suppose it is a characteristic of all Bohemias that they carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Artists need audiences and most of them actively seek hangers on, even if there are some who are irritated by the poseurs and plagiarists who attach themselves to them. An artist without a fan lives with the daily risk of seeming simply sad or mad. It takes colossal courage to remain convinced of one’s own originality in a crowd of others equally sure of their own genius. And I suppose too that as long as there have been Bohemias there have been rich young people who realise that attaching themselves to artistic milieux will give them access to a sort of social status (as well as sexual opportunities) that flashing their money around in more obvious ways will not buy.
Dalston is being pummeled from two directions right now. On the one hand there has been a huge influx of such rich kids, who, in the interval between boarding school and going to work in the family business or the City and/or marrying a millionaire and/or moving to Gloucestershire or Tuscany or Provence, have decided that moving to, or at least partying in Dalston will provide them with just such an attractive aura of hipness. Ten or fifteen years ago they would have moved to Shoreditch, where there was rather little in the way of a local community for them to destroy. Now they are here in their thousands. The local police estimate that 15,000 people from outside the borough come every weekend to congregate in the couple of blocks between Dalston Junction and Shacklewell Lane. It is evident from the braying public school accents that wake us up between 2 am (when most of the clubs close) and around 5 am that these well-heeled kids make up a significant proportion of them. There is something comical in the conviction of the more naive among them that they are venturing into a dangerous slum. One summer evening last year I was disturbed by a young woman, with the accents of Roedean, telling the entire street at high volume that her erstwhile friend ‘is only jealous of me because I’m a lesbian. Well I’m not really a lesbian I do go with guys too but, like, she SO obviously doesn’t get me’. She was addressing a group leaning against my front wall, most of whom had a bottle in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. I stuck my head out of the window preparatory to asking her to turn it down a bit and she looked up at me with genuine amazement, as though she had been accosted by a peasant in Ibiza, and (well-brought up as she no doubt was) asked me very slowly and clearly what my name was, as though addressing a foreigner. Everything in her manner suggested that she believed she was conferring a favour on the whole neighbourhood by gracing it with her presence. It had not crossed her empty little mind that she might be annoying anyone. On the contrary, she seemed to think she was so interesting that any listeners would be flattered to be taken into her confidence.
But, although they have by far the most irritating voices, the young English rich are not alone. The fame of the area has spread across Europe and we are also visited by large numbers of people, wealthy enough to arrive in black cabs, speaking various European languages. Again, when they are not so drunk as to be incapable of communication, they seem on the whole to be well-mannered middle class kids. About a month ago I saw one member of a Spanish-speaking group opening his flies to pee against my front gate and asked him not to. He half zipped himself up again and inquired politely if it would be all right if he peed between two cars instead. When I said that actually the people living in the street preferred it not to be used as a urinal at all and suggested he find a public lavatory he put on the injured expression of someone who is used to being found charming – a look that said ‘but i need to pee and you look like a Mamma and Mammas are supposed to LOOK AFTER nice boys who need to pee’. But, when I refused to relent, he sloped obediently off round the corner to relieve himself. Of course there are many who don’t respond in this way. One needs to be skilled at decoding the signifiers of class and race before daring to accost anyone. ‘Why don’t you just sell your property and move somewhere else’ one guy yelled venomously at me on an occasion when I hadn’t said a word, merely appeared at the window to see what was causing a ruckus. What I found so depressing about this was first the assumption that I was an owner-occupier (which surely no-one would have made thirty years ago) and second the use of that awful word ‘property’ – the assumption that a home is just an investment. ‘But I LIVE here’, the outraged cry of millions of people around the world whose lives are disrupted by development, quite beyond the comprehension of these alienated kids.
The other aspect of the double whammy is the, quite understandable, way that copycats are trying to cash in on the cool Dalston boom. Every week there are two or three new applications for planning permission or licenses to open new bars, clubs and off-licenses or extend the opening hours of existing ones. Several of us local residents are now much more familiar than we would like to be with the green leather seats and art deco furnishings of Hackney Town Hall where we have to attend endless hearings to voice our objections, most of which fail. The entrepreneurs are becoming ever more cunning. Applications rarely spell out their true intentions. We are told that premises are going to be used for the sale of organic food or for exhibitions or the showing of artistic films or ‘community meetings’. Since the success of the Efes snooker club (where the likes of Florence and the Machine play live till the small hours in what was once a snooker hall) there has even been a spate of people wanting to host ‘indoor sports’ until 5 am. Some of the local Turkish-owned cafes trying to get in on the act haven’t quite mastered the subtle art of hoodwinking Councillors – one application currently going through the committees is for a venue with the commendably honest name of ‘Tipsy’.
With the exponential growth of what the planners coyly call the ‘night-time economy’ in Dalston, the original Bohemian cachet of the area of course starts to wear thin. It seems only a matter of time before, like Shoreditch before us, we will become a destination for stag night parties, with lurching lager-louts driving out the fey hipsters. In the process a lot will have been destroyed. Dalston is a place where many different communities have muddled along together over the years: the old white East End working class (the original model for Albert Square is only a few blocks away); a large community of West Indians who arrived in the 1950s, and more recent influxes from Turkey, Vietnam, Africa and the Middle East as well as the hippies and lefties who moved here in the 1960s and 70s and the middle class public sector and media workers who followed them here later. The chaotic and happy mixture of cheap shops, street markets, cafes, Turkish restaurants and small businesses may seem resilient, but if it were to be unbalanced would be almost impossible to reproduce. Once a high street with several cinemas and a department store, Kingsland High Street has avoided the fate of most other London high streets (petrified by the Medusa glare of the chain stores) and kept its vibrancy, thanks to the cussedness of its local inhabitants and their customers. It is now in mortal danger, not so much from the planners (although some of the new developments are not helping) but from the very effects of its own vibrancy and the affection it inspires in those seeking some sort of authenticity. Like a Greek island or a Cornish fishing village, it is dying from the very consciousness of its own charm. What we love we destroy. Or, perhaps, more accurately, what we love those who copy us destroy, but we are responsible – for pointing out its loveability. (When I say ‘we’ here I mean self-referential observant intellectuals – and yes, you too Iain Sinclair).
The Hackney planners are not really to blame here. They seem to be genuinely trying quite hard to get it right. They know that the area cannot stay still and seem really to be seeking some sort of balance. Like many others around the world they are trying to encourage the ‘creative economy’ in the area. And by some sort of slippage this ‘creative economy’ has become equated with the ‘night-time economy’ (a slippage that is perhaps understandable if you focus only on places like the Cafe Oto, the Vortex Jazz Bar, the Dalston Superstore, the Arcola Theatre and the Rio Cinema but less so when you get to the Tipsy and its ilk). So when local residents start to complain about being kept awake all night and having their doorsteps used as urinals, vomitoria and worse, these local residents are cast as anti-creative. And this is the real irony. Because just about all the local residents I know who are active in the campaign to save the neighbourhood really do create things. They are architects, painters, writers, editors, designers, film-makers, publishers, singers and actors, mostly living and working from their homes, mostly having moved here partly because it was cheap and partly because they loved the racketiness and colour of the area and were tolerant of quite a bit of noise and grime. But it is precisely these people who are now cast as the killjoy NIMBYs. And the incontinent clubbers, most of whom have never done anything more artistic in their lives than choose which ear to get pierced, are now the ‘creatives’.