Balfron tower, Poplar, London, 2014Red jumper, west flank, Balfron Tower. © David Secombe 2014.

 From Urbanism and Spatial Order by Erno Goldfinger, 1931:

From the point of view of the town, the individual is a mere brick in the spatial order of the street or square.

Thus sprach Erno Goldfinger, doyen of the Modern Movement, Brutalist visionary, Marxist voluptuary, and namesake of James Bond’s most memorable antagonist. (The story goes that Ian Fleming was unimpressed by the house Goldfinger built for himself in Hampstead, whose construction required the demolition of some pretty Victorian cottages. In revenge, Fleming appropriated the architect’s name for 007’s next outing; Goldfinger is supposed to have considered legal action.)

Balfron tower, Poplar, London, 2014Service tower entrance, service corridors, Balfron Tower. © David Secombe 2014

Goldfinger’s most  conspicuous  buildings in London are Elephant and Castle’s Metro Central Heights (formerly Alexander Fleming House, no relation), West Kensington’s Trellick Tower, and Trellick’s almost-identical East End counterpart Balfron Tower in Poplar. Trellick and Balfron are often cited as inspirations for J.G. Ballard’s dystopian classic High Rise, wherein the denizens of an exclusive tower block turn feral.

To some extent, Trellick Tower saw this narrative played out in reverse. Commissioned in 1967 as social housing for the London County Council, upon completion in 1972 Trellick quickly became a ‘problem’ estate. There was talk of demolition, it became a byword for urban grit (name-checked in The Sweeney no less) – but, facilitated by the gentrification of seedy/glamorous West London and an increased appreciation of the charms of ‘mid-century modern’, the tower gradually became a suitable address for aspirational professionals, and was Grade II listed in 1998 – two years after Balfron was. 

Balfron tower, Poplar, London, 2014Balfron Tower. © David Secombe 2014

Now it is east London’s turn. Balfron appeared first, topped-out in 1967 in an environment even more forbidding than old West Kensington. The location is still uncompromising: Balfron abuts the churning A12, feeding the Blackwall Tunnel just two hundred yards to the south. This piece of civic engineering affords majestic views of Balfron from the east and south but blights the lower floors facing the motorway. Balfron’s unprecedented height, hammered concrete finish, and stand-alone service tower with flying corridors and arrow-slit windows combine to give it a distinctly pugnacious aspect. The overall impression is of an urban fortress – a building fit to shelter the last bastions of humanity against marauding zombies (a role it plays in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later).

Balfron tower, Poplar, London, 2014Balfron Tower west flank, from Chrisp St. © David Secombe 2014

Balfron and its sister block, low-rise Carradale House (also by Goldfinger), are relics of a lost civic culture. There was a time not that long ago when modernity was a form of social utopianism. The East End had been blitzed, the residual housing stock was seen as Dickensian, and a clean, futuristic solution (Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Docklands) was an irresistible prospect for the ambitious bods at the LCC.

Balfron Tower was a brave project, and it took a fearless architect to see it through. It was intended to herald a dawn of new, better housing. Its flats meander up and down different levels, and the interiors are full of sensitive detailing. Goldfinger himself spent two months living in one of its penthouse flats, to evaluate the building; this led to important technical variations at Trellick when it was built a few years later. Amongst other things, he made sure Trellick had three lists instead of just two, after finding himself waiting twenty minutes for a lift to Balfron’s 27th floor.

Faced with accusations that his building constituted social engineering, he was robust: ‘I have created nine separate streets, on nine different levels, all with their own rows of front doors. The people living here can sit on their doorsteps and chat to the people next door if they want to. A community spirit is still possible even in these tall blocks, and any criticism that it isn’t is just rubbish.’ 

Balfron tower, Poplar, London, 2014Balfron Tower from the east. © David Secombe 2014.

For all its elegance, sincerity, attention to detail, and integrity of construction, Balfron suffers from design flaws which mitigate the modernist dream: the lifts don’t serve every floor, concrete decay is an issue, and the uninsulated solid walls suffer from heat loss. However, the East End is being relentlessly gentrified, and Balfron is about to be transformed into a block fit for the well-heeled and design-conscious (let us call them hipsters). The old tenants have been decanted elsewhere for the works to begin, and before the tower gets its upscale makeover, Balfron has become a sort of temporary sink estate for artists – this in response to special cheap deals on the rent – who are softening the place up for a bourgeois and executive future.

Balfron-detailBalfron Tower east flank (in the rain). © David Secombe 2014.

The accepted rubric is that the artists ‘inject new life into communities’; and in recent times Balfron has itself become something of an installation. In 2010 it hosted an ‘empowering’ photographic project, and this year has seen, amongst other things, a site-specific production of Macbeth, not to mention a bid by a Turner-prize nominated artist to throw a piano off its roof (abandoned after protests from residents that someone could get killed).

All this corporately-licensed conceptual ‘playfulness’ masks the fact that an important piece of public housing is being very deliberately annexed by the private sector. No longer a vision of better housing for a better future, Balfron is now the deadest of things: a design icon, a beacon for those who crave tokens of retro-urbanism. Owen Hatherley has coined the term ‘Gormleyism’ to describe the use of Antony Gormley’s solitary figures as cultural embroidery in bland civic developments; perhaps ‘Balfronism’ will become shorthand for the use of artists en masse as a form of social cleansing.

Balfron-x-3iPhone triptych, Balfron Tower from traffic on the A12. © David Secombe 2014.

The patina of time makes quaint what was once brave, difficult, or merely awful. It won’t be long before ‘Ballardian’ is a term used by estate agents. D.S.


At least ten fanlights.

Doughty-St-cyclist smallerDoughty St., WC1. © David Secombe 2010.

Burned Georgian houses in Borough, London, 2010.Southwark Bridge Rd.,SE1 © David Secombe 2009.

Georgian house in Wapping, London, 2010Cable St., E1. © David Secombe 2010.

Albermarle Arcade, Mayfair, london, 2010Royal Arcade, Albemarle St., W1. © David Secombe 2011.

St Anne's Limhouse, London, 2010St. Anne’s Limehouse. © David Secombe 2010.

Jesus-Maiden-Lane smallerCorpus Christie, Maiden Lane, WC2. © David Secombe 2014.

Sidney-St-doorway smallerSidney St., Whitechapel. © David Secombe 2011.

Royal Opera House from behind the old police court on Bow St., LRoyal Opera House from Marlett Court. © David Secombe 2010.

Citroen DS, Waterloo, London, 2011.Citroen DS, Roupell St., Waterloo. © David Secombe 2012.

Edward Heath, 10 Downing St., election day, 1970Edward Heath, 10 Downing St., June 1970. © Angus Forbes 1970.

See also: Edward Heath’s Feet 


Traffic on the Lea.

River-Lea-under-flyoverRiver Lea towpath, under the East Cross Route. © David Secombe 2014.

A Sunday in May, on the towpath by the River Lea, just south of Lea Bridge Road:

Ding! … Ding! … Ding! … Ding! Ding! Ding!

The cyclist (mid-20s, jutting beard, sickly smile, deeply hittable face) steered his vintage eBay treasure inches between myself and my young son. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday outing on the first really sunny weekend of the year and I was reduced to hissing violent epithets at various types of cyclist. Hipster cyclists, as above; Spandexed cyclists, often in entire family groups; unnervingly swift and purposeful cyclists with business on their minds; kids on mountain bikes; even a brace of fancy-dress cyclists, decked out in Edwardian gear – bowlers, waistcoats, plus-fours, spats – on authentically recalcitrant machines. Whatever their costume, they were all united by their fondness for those little silver bells, their peremptory tinkle an indication of assumed moral right. As a pedestrian on the towpath, on the Lea or a London canal, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that cyclists see you as merely a car-driver deprived of your vehicle. (Suggested collective noun: an entitlement of cyclists.)

Thank-you-for-slowing-down© David Secombe 2014

Not that long ago, this stretch of the Lea was a backwater; and the landscape still offers those with a taste for brownfield-rural the opportunity to participate in an Ian Sinclair-ish topographical narrative in a lush setting. There are overgrown meadows, deserted municipal sports facilities, mysterious structures to negotiate, structures often covered in an abundance of picturesque graffiti (whilst photographing the uncharacteristically polite cyclists walking their bikes under the East Cross Route, I noticed a young man posing his girlfriend for snaps on the other side of the decorated pillars). Of course, this riverside has been ravaged in recent years by the Alphaville of the Olympic Park, and the new residential developments that line the western bank south of Lea Bridge are testament to the burgeoning popularity of East London-lite: Hipster London, Foxtons London, Fatuous London.

DSC_4375-Lea© David Secombe 2014.

Yet somehow, the houseboats remain aloof from it all; and the beauty of the Lea leads to daydreams of buying one, the idyll of having your very own piece of river within (distant) earshot of the churning city. A friend of mine has his own boat, a proper sea-going job, which he occasionally sails from Lowestoft to Limehouse Basin, where he moors it as his London base. This always struck me as simultaneously butch and civilised, an impression only slightly marred by a desperate call I once received from him en route, somewhere near Sheerness, asking if I’d heard the Shipping Forecast because his radio was broken. Several of the vessels moored on the Lea have all the appurtenances of the riverside ‘luxury apartments’ touted by Foxtons and their ilk, and it is not too exotic to imagine some of them actually sailing somewhere. A London houseboat might be the nearest thing to bucolic living anywhere within the M25; but a cursory inspection of some of the more ramshackle examples give one pause. More than a couple appear to be actually sinking, invoking thoughts of Viv Stanshall’s houseboat foundering on the Thames near Chertsey. A houseboat is not a very safe place to store a life’s work, and much of Viv’s life sank with The Searchlight. Even if your boat is watertight, there are other dangers: Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock during a drunken attempt to access his houseboat after a night out. (Eddie Mirzoeff has just pointed out to me that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Chelsea Reach-moored houseboat sank not once but twice in the early 1960s, inspiring her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.)

Longboat-&-mask© David Secombe 2014.

Still the temptations persist … walking south, we encountered a riverine barbecue-cum-jam session, two barges lassooed together, a party of expert folk musicians playing together in an atmosphere of easy familiarity and home-brewed ale. I’m generally allergic to the claims of folk music but even I was charmed and wondered whether the water offered a better way of life for those in the know … but only a few yards further south, jungle was being played at industrial-noise level from a flat in a new block, obliterating the reels from upstream and putting paid to idyllic wonderings. Any remaining notions of hippie-ish promise were soon trashed as we reached the East Cross Route, where the aggressive post-Olympic new builds proved demoralising enough for us to turn back. Perhaps there is no such thing as a backwater in London any more; a sage with a tin of spray paint helped articulate this thought by stating the obvious on a bridge …

Lea Bridge, London, May 2014© David Secombe 2014

Back at Lea Bridge, the Prince of Wales was doing brisk business as football played on the TV. A massive new development is under construction on the north of the Lea Bridge Road. For real peace, you have to go further upstream, way beyond Springfield Park and up into Tottenham Marshes; if you moored there, maybe you would have a shot at a life of tranquility. If you saw a naked cyclist, it would be someone who did it every day. And that would be fine. Just an unpretentious houseboat, not too big, easy to manage through the locks, kitted out with obsolete technology – VHS tapes, audio cassettes – and overflowing with old paperbacks you could read by paraffin lamp. You know where to find me …

houseboat-rain adj© David Secombe 2014.

… for The London Column.

See also: Before the Blue Wall.

The Riverine Strand.


RoyalAcademy Royal Society of Arts, Robert St., Adelphi. © David Secombe 2010.

David Secombe: Thirty years ago, I accepted an assignment to illustrate a book of ‘London Walks'; I might have approached this task with more enthusiasm if I hadn’t known that I was offered the brief because the publisher didn’t have the money to pay the author’s preferred photographer. I lost my own copy of the finished item long ago, but recently came across one whilst helping my girlfriend clear an elderly aunt’s house. Looking at it now, it’s obvious that it was a formative experience for me, and that my photos were terrible. In an attempt to expiate former sins, this is the first of two posts revisiting the territory in a bid to see if a grizzled hack can improve upon a callow youth.

On a wet evening last week, I traced the steps of the ‘Riverine Strand’ walk in the company of  TLC contributor and bad wine specialist CJ of the Sediment blog. We met outside  Gordon’s Wine bar at the bottom of Villiers Street, both of us soaked through and longing for a glass of anything a notch above foul. Gordon’s advertises itself as ‘London’s oldest wine bar’, and it remains an atmospheric place to drink, although it has become more of a corporate playground in recent years. On this occasion our way to the bar was barred by thronging suits, which is why this piece lacks a picture of the vaulted cellar which is Gordon’s USP. We moved on …

York Watergate, London WC2

York Watergate. © David Secombe 2014

Opposite Gordon’s is a surviving fragment of the lost, pre-Embankment riverside landscape that once constituted this area: York Watergate, landing for York House, a palazzo which bordered the river for over 500 years. York House’s final, broke, owner, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, flogged it to developers for thirty grand. As Wikipedia gelidly states: ‘He made it a condition of the sale that his name and full title should be commemorated by George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Of Alley, and Buckingham Street. Some of these streets are extant …’. For CJ’s benefit I pointed out that Samuel Pepys lived in a couple of houses on Buckingham Street, and that he also lived in the building where Gordon’s is now. CJ observed that it was still raining.


Lower Robert Street, Adelphi. © David Secombe 2014.

Lower Robert Street is an odd, subterranean thoroughfare that runs through what was once the undercroft of Adelphi Terrace, the centrepiece of the Adam Brothers’ Adelphi development. From The Encyclopedia of London:

In 1867 the Adelphi vaults were ‘in part occupied as wine cellars and coal wharves, their grim vastness, a reminder of the Etruscan Cloaca of old Rome’. Here, according to Tombs, ‘the most abandoned characters have often passed the night, nestling upon foul straw; and many a street thief escaped from his pursuers in these dismal haunts before the introduction of gaslight and a vigilant police’.

Dickens has David Copperfield wandering through this vanished maze, ‘a mysterious place with those dark arches’, which we can assume was an autobiographical reference. When I visited Lower Robert Street in the ’80s, for the purpose of illustrating the guidebook, it was still possible to see a dark courtyard beyond an iron gate: the basement of an Adam townhouse, seen from the POV of Victorian low-life … but that gate is bricked up now. (I dilated upon this factoid to an increasingly glazed CJ as drops of rainwater fell from his rimless spectacles.)

Above, the Adam houses reportedly were – as the houses that remain still are – a toy-town vision of elegance and grace. Of the Adelphi Terrace, E.V.Lucas wrote in 1916: ‘The Adelphi is still a favourite abode of men of letters, for it is central yet retired, and the brothers Adam planned rooms of peculiar comfort’. David Garrick, Richard D’Oyly Carte, Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, all lived there, making it a sort of riverside version of The Albany.

Collcutt & Hemp Adelphi building, LondonCollcutt & Hemp Adelphi, riverside frontage. © David Secombe 2014.

Adelphi Terrace was demolished by London County Council in 1936 and replaced by Collcutt and Hemp’s vast Deco block. The Adams’ Adelphi was the first neoclassical building in London, whereas Collcutt and Hemp’s edifice – grotesquely named ‘Adelphi’ – has been described by Ed Glinert (in The London Compendium) as ‘London’s most authentic example of totalitarian 1930s architecture’. Like Bush House at the other end of the Strand, it is a permanent reminder of loss, of a wrong inflicted upon the city. (NB: we are currently working on a survey of Boris Johnson’s skyscraper-nurturing programme.) In 1951, London County Council installed a plaque on one of the pillars of the ‘new’ Adelphi to commemorate the one they had connived to destroy. (The photo at the top of this post is of the Adam house which remains on Robert Street, facing Collcutt and Hemp, home to the Royal Society of Arts.)

Rear entrance, Savoy Hotel, London, 2014

Savoy Way. © David Secombe 2014

At this point, CJ wanly suggested going for a drink at the Savoy; but I reminded him that the last time we did that was five years ago, when both of us had money. Instead, we contented ourselves with a cursory inspection of the hotel’s rear quarters, a paragon of rationality, clad in the glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for only the filthiest urban environments.

At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:

PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.

GILL: More drink was offered you there?

PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.

(In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ Prior to his first trial, Wilde found himself held on remand at Holloway.)

It is tempting to imagine Oscar and Bosie hustling rent boys past the laundry bins and crates of vegetables on Savoy Way. CJ wondered whose laundry the gent in the photo might be carrying.


Savoy Chapel, Savoy Lane. © David Secombe 2014.

Adjacent to the Savoy stands one of those anomalous bits of medieval London marooned amongst anonymous offices. Savoy Palace,  a vast 13th Century manor, once sprawled across the foreshore here; the Palace was entirely destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt but the chapel was later rebuilt as part of Henry VII’s Savoy Hospital, of which it is now the only survivor.  I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to ‘cool [their] hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things’, but this happens to be the spot where another Savoy resident, the newly-electric Bob Dylan, telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera, as Allen Ginsberg and Tom Wilson loitered meaningfully in the background.

CJ and I emerged from Savoy Lane onto the Strand whereupon it started raining again, so we redoubled our efforts to find a sane place to drink. Dodging umbrellas and puddles by the corner of Waterloo Bridge, we chanced to see Peter Ackroyd alight elegantly from a cab and dive into a Tesco Express. We thought of waiting to see what the biographer of London would do when he emerged, entertaining the wistful hope that he might pop into Maplin’s for some fuses or a remote-controlled helicopter … but my boot was leaking, so we went to the Lamb and Flag, where we stood outside and drank our beers in the rain.

© David Secombe … for The London Column.

See also: A short walk down the Old Kent Road, Four streets off Hockley Hole.








Jack Robinson: 

Mirror (c) Jack Robinson

This is my father driving in the 1940s, before I was born.

He left school at fourteen to work in an iron foundry his own father had helped establish; he eventually became joint managing director. We had a comfortable life without my mother having to work; single-income households were common then. He liked cars: I remember waiting at the front-room window one afternoon, when I was four or five years old, to see him arrive home in a brand-new olive-green Riley. Fifty years on from pressing my face against that window, I know that at no time has my own income been sufficient to raise a family in similar comfort, nor will I ever own a brand-new car; and my children will, if they go to college, be already mired in debt before they even begin to earn their own money.


The ignorance of the experts concerning the financial  products they were using our money to buy is hardly new. James Buchan, in the late 1980s: ‘In London and New York I met people who invested fortunes in financial enterprises they simply could not describe or explain. No doubt quite soon, a bank would discover it had lost its capital in those obscure speculations; other banks would fail in sympathy . . .’ The politicians were even more ignorant. It’s as if for years we’ve been going with our tummy-aches to doctors who can’t tell the difference between a blister and a cancerous tumour. No wonder we’re ill.

The derivatives market conjured into existence in the 1990s was a virtual world, enabling speculation not in real assets but in the risk of speculation itself. It is addictive: the rush, the buzz, the winning streak. The opposite of which is the losing nose-dive – lose your job and you’re well on your way to losing your (real) house, marriage, health and dog.

An investment banker, quoted in the Standard: ‘In most cases they know their wives despise them for enslaving their lives to money, and they know that the moment they lose their job their wives will walk and take the kids, and their £3 million home, and divorce them.’ A lonely-hearts ad, placed on a literary website at the time the axe started to chop: ‘Ex-banker, 33 . . . Seeking woman not interested in money, fast cars, champagne, holidays, fleecing innocent hard-working gullible twats, whilst telling them you love them. Bitch.’


The above house in Mayfair, London, was squatted in January 2009 by a group that offered free workshops on welding, yurt-building, bookbinding, song-writing and de-schooling society. Hundreds of buildings are squatted; what made the press interested in this one was the stark disparity between the poshness of the building (alleged to be worth £22.5 million) and the presumed poverty of the squatters.

Bookbinding and yurt-building won’t change the world for the better overnight, but nor will sending out 400,000 repossession orders (Centre for Policy Studies estimate, February 2009) to households that have lost jobs and can’t keep up the mortgage payments.


I had a dream in which I punched the keys to withdraw money from a cash machine and it paid out in cowrie shells, rattling down a metal chute into the canvas bag I’d thoughtfully brought with me. As I walked to the supermarket the shells clacked satisfyingly in the bag by my side – I felt rich, rich. And then I woke up and went to my real bank and there was nothing there for me at all, they’d completely run out of money. Not a bean.


Ou sont les magasins d’antan? As well as the big ones, the small ones too. The place at the end of the road where I used to get my shoes re-heeled – where did that go? The café with over-priced food but a garden at the back where I could smoke? The minicab office in the next street? With the deadpan Somali driver who’d stop the car and get out and look up at the sky: he said he navigated by the stars, and I never knew whether he was taking the piss. Even with no office to return to, I hope that somewhere he’s still driving. There are very few recession-proof businesses; here is one of them.


The intensive factory farming of money makes it prone to many diseases, some of which can be transmitted to humans. There are government regulations concerning the application of biotechnology to the breeding of money, and there are also ways around them.In the last fifty years that part of the human brain dedicated to devising ways of getting money away from others and into your own hands has increased in size by 4 per cent.


He fell down the stairs. He slipped on the ice. He was coming home from work on Friday night when he got mugged – they took his money, his cards, his identity papers. They flung back his wallet, empty except for the photo of his kids – his kids to whom he’ll say, on Saturday morning, that he fell down the stairs, that he slipped on the ice


Behind this door – which is in a yard in the City of London – is the secret meeting place of a group of underground bankers. (There’s no external handle; you have to whisper the password through the grille on the right.) This group is deeply suspect: they buy books and music, not yachts and ski chalets, and their vocabulary extends beyond that of company reports. They are regarded by the rest of the banking world as heretics – because the whole point of being a banker is to speak in clichés, to have a single-track mind, to buy only the most predictable goods: that way they remain anonymous, almost invisible, and are left alone to get on with their thing.


God is dead (so can’t bail us out). Or couldn’t afford the heating bills for a place this big, or had had it up to here with the regular early-hours racket outside the lap-dancing club at the end of the street. Whatever the reason, he’s gone. But he left no forwarding address, so the mail just keeps piling up inside the door.

A selection from Recessional by Jack Robinson, published by CB Editions. © Jack Robinson 2009.

The Death of Dalston Lane.

Dalston-Lane-1Dalston Lane, May 2010. © David Secombe.

From Open Dalston, 20 December & 11 February 2014:

Hackney to demolish sixteen Georgian houses in Dalston Lane

Hackney has entered a development agreement with private contractor, Murphy, which now proposes the complete demolition, rather than restoration, of the Georgian houses at Nos 48-78 Dalston Lane. In 2005 English Heritage had declared the houses to be “remarkable survivors of Georgian architecture”, and a “conservation led” project was to be the centrepiece of the newly designated Dalston Lane (West) Conservation Area. Now, due to years of neglect and vandalism, Hackney’s plan is to demolish the houses and redevelop with front facades in “heritage likeness“.
 An independent engineer’s report by Alan Baxter, which assessed the conservation potential of Dalston Terrace’s sixteen Georgian houses, has just now been revealed. It makes grim reading – in summary, there is some potential for repairing some of the houses, but Hackney’s “conservation led” redevelopment scheme would probably require their complete demolition and rebuilding.
English Heritage once reported that the 200 year old Dalston Terrace houses were “remarkable survivors of Georgian architecture“. Sadly, since the Council acquired them in 1984, their chances of survival diminished year on year. Hackney did nothing to preserve them despite its vacuous platitudes about “championing the historic environment” and wanting a “conservation-led scheme“.

Dalston-Lane-4Dalston Lane, May 2010. © David Secombe.

From Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire* by Iain Sinclair:

Dalston Lane

Once a street is noticed it’s doomed. Endgame squatters, slogans. DALSTON! WHO ASKED U? PROTECTED BY OCCUPATION. Torched terraces. Overlapping, many-coloured tags. Aerosol signatures on silver roll-down shutters. Scrofulous rubble held up by flyers for weekend noise events. THIS WORLD IS RULED BY THOSE WHO LIE. They said, the ones who make it their business to investigate such things, that there was a direct relationship between properties that applied for conservation status and arson attacks, petrol bombs. Unexplained fires. Moscow methods arrived in town with the first sniff of post-Soviet money. Russian clubs were opening in the unlikeliest places. We no longer had much to offer in the way of oil and utilities, energy resources, but we had heritage to asset-strip: Georgian wrecks proud of their status.

* Hamish Hamilton, 2009.

Dalston-Lane-3Dalston Lane, May 2010. © David Secombe.

D.S.: The shameful saga of Dalston Lane is a microcosm of the fate of the East End as a whole: a sorry mash-up of corporate and council greed flying under the discredited banner of ‘regeneration’.  The cynical, Blairite language of contemporary urban development expressed by developers and local authorities deserves a study in itself: ‘affordable housing’ (i.e. ‘unaffordable affordable housing’);  councils ‘competing’ with other boroughs for resources (food? water? air?); ‘conservation-led schemes’ (wherein conservation is a synonym for demolition – along the lines of, ‘We had to demolish the terrace in order to conserve it.’). It is language that might have been invented by Orwell. The fact that a Labour council is responsible for such wanton cynicism towards its own residents is deeply depressing and makes one despair for the fate of the city. The death of Dalston Lane is the death of London.

For further reading on this long-festering matter, see Bill Parry-Davies’ site Open Dalston.

Dalston Lane 2Dalston Lane, May 2010. © David Secombe.


The Last Squat in Hackney.

Finsbury Park London

* © David Secombe 2011.


a short story

by Tim Turnbull.

It’s on the bastard telly. I can’t believe it. The bloody house. I’m not really paying attention to the newsreader but I see it when I look up from yesterday’s paper. It’s like a vertigo, like going over the top on a roller-coaster.

I’m staying with Alice in Deptford, just visiting. I don’t go up nawf Landan any more. She was out, I had the telly on as background noise and there it was – house collapse in Hackney; homes evacuated, search for casualties, concerned neighbour–yadda yadda, structural engineers, talking head policeman, blah-blah-blah. It was the helicopter shot of the cordoned off street and I recognised it straight away. Not that I’d ever seen it from a helicopter or even a crane. I might have had a few out-of-body experiences round there but I never got that bloody high.

Anyhow, I see it and whoosh, I think, that’s the fucking house. I’d missed the beginning of the article and I couldn’t wait for the story to come round again so I had to rush out and get a Stannaaard to check the address. Sure enough, there it is in black and white – 67 Millgrove Road. I hadn’t seen it in ten years; had tried not to think about it for as long. I thought, what the shitting heck are they going to find? When Alice comes in I say look at this and show her the paper, go to the rolling news and wait for it to come round.

She says, ‘What about it?’

I say, ‘That fucking house. I used to bloody live there, mate, sort of.’

She says, ‘And?’

I say ‘Fucking hell.’ and then I realise I’ve never told anybody because it was too bloody weird by half and the police would have got involved and you’re better off out of it and, to be frank, I couldn’t be sure. Sometimes it’s better to remember what you want to have seen instead of what you think you saw. ‘You remember Patsy?’ She says she doesn’t but from the look in her eye I know she does. She gets jealous even though she’s not my girlfriend, although, when we’ve been really out of it, we have been known, you know what I mean?

So I tell her. I mean, it was ten years ago but I still have nightmares, which could be a clue. I met Patsy in Camden at a Bored Stoats gig. She followed them for about half and hour – that’s how long they lasted. They were shit except if you’d had some acid or a very lot of booze. If you had both they went back to being shit again, and no other drugs worked. Anyway they split up because of artistic differences – they thought they were good, but their public thought otherwise and stayed away in flocks. Well, to cut a long story, during their moment in the sun, she invited me for a moment in the dark and we ended up on a 38 bus, chewing each others faces off and having a sly grope up the back seat, by way of a warm up, so to speak, and then spent a night of passion in her luxurious rooms in Clapton Pond. Room.

I was particularly taken with the decor when I surfaced in the morning. Her mattress on the floor was as comfortable as most of the mattresses on floors I’ve slept on, possibly even in the top ten. I liked the plastic sheet jammed between window frame and the brickwork, aesthetically that is, it didn’t keep out the cold or even all of the rain. The pans on the floor, positioned under each of the holes in the ceiling plaster, gave an interesting effect as well. Her clothes were mostly strewn about the place, a little pile of muddy knickers in the corner. Some the recently laundered items seemed to be trying to crawl into a bin bag to escape, possibly to die.

She brought me a mug of tea and I sat propped up against the wall and took it. There was just about enough un-chipped edge to drink from without abrading your lip and not that many white flecks of sour milk-fat whirling round in it and it was very kind of her.

‘Good night?’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ she said.

‘Stoats were alright?’

‘Mmm, not bad.’

‘Alright then, they were shit.’

‘Can’t remember.’

‘No. Neither can I.’ and then we spent the rest of the morning fucking. Alice is squirming at this and asking if it’s relevant and I say ‘Well yeah. It is in a way.’ because, you see, I started seeing quite a lot of Patsy and that’s mostly what we did and she was mad for it, but there was a sort grim determination about the way she did it. It was like she was running really fast and flapping her arms, grimly determined to take off, but not in a charming way, like a kid, more like a complete maniac. You knew, whatever it was she wanted, it wasn’t going to happen but still she kept going. We’d do it like this and then we’d do it like that, (and Alice, here, is wincing), and she’d shout out ‘Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me!’ which was bizarre because I was, actually, already fucking her.

So, I started going round there regular. We’d have tea together, cross legged on the mattress on the floor. Mixed boiled veg with rice or sometimes noodles. It was a shared kitchen which was on the landing really, not in a room and you’d have to extract the plate and pans and things that you needed for making tea from the pile of washing up in the sink and make sure you didn’t let them out of your sight until you’d finished cooking, served up and slotted them back in the pile, because if you turned your back they’d be gone.

Terry in the room next door was the worst and there was not a lot you could do about it because he was enormous. I mean built like the proverbial shithouse, and completely fucking crackers. Not the sort of, (and I put on a wacky student voice for Alice’s benefit), ‘Hey, hey, hey. I’m a wacky student,’ mad. Not ‘Look at how weird I am. I believe in a lot of fucking rubbish like astrology and I wear odd socks in lurid primary colours,’ mad. Not ‘I’m a useless, unreliable, flaky arsehole,’ mad.

No, no, no. He had really, truly lined his room with silver foil to stop the radio waves from MI5 and the CIA. He really, honestly looked at you, in ever such a calm, gentle way, as though he might rip your head off if you said something he didn’t want to hear. Like, for instance:

‘I was going to boil some rice in that pan.’ He’d just stand and stare, looking faintly quizzical, until you shut up and went away. Everyone liked him, don’t get me wrong, except when he watched Star Wars, on video, over and over again, all night, at full volume to stop the security services hearing what he was thinking. That was a bit tiresome. On the upside it did mean that he couldn’t hear me and Patsy shagging, which I was embarrassed about at first, but then you have to say, hang on a minute, does it matter if he hears her yelping like a demented fucking vixen? No, it doesn’t because he’s a complete fucking head-the-ball.

The people in the house liked Terry and they looked after him. I had a chat about it one day with Charlotte, in the kitchen/on the landing. Patsy had gone off to Art College, which she allegedly attended, and where she was learning how to not make things. I think she must have been top of her year because, while all the other little posturing tossers were drifting in late to sit about not making things, she rarely bothered going at all, unless it was about a bursary or the hardship fund or something. She was very concerned with the relationship with the body and how we do something something about the body and she wore a hat sometimes. Important, groundbreaking stuff relating to abuse and things. No, really.

Charlotte also was very concerned about the body and maintained hers, I would guess, with vans and vans of cake. I often saw her wandering out of the kitchen with a mug of powdery coffee, demolishing something in a foil wrapper, a Lyle’s Golden Syrup Cake perhaps. I wanted to say ‘Good thinking, Charlotte. Anorexia can creep up on you so fast it’s not worth risking it.’ but I thought better. She must have weighed in at about nineteen stone but she had a very pretty, plump face and a teeny-weeny cupid bow mouth. Also in her favour she was the cleanest person in the house, a fact, methinks, not unrelated to her Canadian-ness. She was an erotic dancer too, and I’m not an expert, but I think it helps not to stink like a badger’s arse in that line of work. Unless you’ve got a client who… no, let’s not go there.

So Charlotte, her ample buzoom trussed in a leather basque, was scoffing cake and telling me how she was really concerned about Terry, because he was basically a nice guy, y’know, but Lilith had him wrapped round her little finger and there was no way he’d ever get straight with her around and, Lord knows, he’s tried. They’d thought about telling his brothers, who had strong Murphia connections, were probably Murphia themselves, about Lilith, but it seemed a bit drastic. In truth, that’s as far as it was likely to get: thinking about it. Even Charlotte, who had actually finished a college course right to the end, had that disconnect. You know, it’s like you think about doing something, then there’s a vzzzzt and you’re whisked off to another, parallel dimension and vzzzzt you’re back, instantaneously, and you’ve already done it. Then the problem recurs and the same thing happens again, ad infinitum. I saw a science fiction film like that once. The protagonists were trapped in a loop forever.

Anyway, this Lilith, I’d seen her a few times hanging round in the park up the end of the road. She was ultra-goth. I thought she looked fit but when you got closer, under the velvet gear, she was dead scraggy and who knows what state her skin was in behind the smeared-on panstick. She had that wary, stupid look of someone who’s as thick as shit but’s blessed with a low exploitative cunning, I thought; and bless me, I must be a decent judge of human character, because that’s exactly what she was. Those who’d spoken to her said she thought she was a vampire. The problem was that she didn’t mean it metaphorically, otherwise it would have been an extraordinary and uncharacteristic piece of self-awareness and insight.

She knew when Terry’s dole day was and she’d wait up by the pond and watch until everyone went out, and then puff, she’d materialise like Bela fucking Lugosi on the doorstep. Early days she’d miscalculated once, rang the bell, and got Charlotte who’d bust her nose with a very tidy left jab, as demonstrated later and often in pubs and clubs. Mostly though, she’d get Terry and tell him she loved him, shag him and then whisk him off, first to the Post Office, and then on to the friendly neighbourhood smack dealer. Then, in my head at least, there’d be another puff of smoke, some echoey cackling, and she’d be gone for another fortnight.

‘What’s the problem?’ I said. ‘He gets a jump?’ This provoked pursed-lips and an irrational shouting match with my own inamorata. I forgot to say that, in between all this hot and athletic sex, it was mood swings a-go-go. Recrimination, bickering, jealousy and all those other things that make a dull life more interesting. Not all the time though, you understand.

Alice blows a ‘pff’ to say, serves you right and says: ‘Yeah, okay, but what about this house.’ I tell her I’m getting to that. I thinks she’s got a sense of the squalor, but not the whole picture. It was when Hackney Council had a purge on squats. There were loads of them all over Hackney, mostly council houses, and they decided enough’s enough and there was a massive evacuation of bohemians and deadbeats throughout the realm and a great erection of steel doors. This one, however, remained because it was privately owned but no one was quite sure by whom. It wasn’t council. Charlotte said somebody told her the owner was an Arab, or at least had an Arabic sounding name, an ‘el’ or a ‘bin’ or something. The inhabitants weren’t in a rush to find out. They’d jiggery-pokeried the electric and got that going, and they had a telephone and as long as the bills were paid it didn’t look like the utilities cared who lived there.

The neighbours can’t have been that thrilled. It’s a terraced street where all the gardens are tidy and the woodwork well-maintained. I used look at the fridges out the front, the broken telly, the cracks up the wall, the decaying guttering and think ‘Bet everybody’s delighted with this.’

Round the back was worse. It was the wildlife refuge. Mostly rodent wildlife, I suspect. It was rank with elder bushes, nettles, thistle and willowherb all growing over a mountain of spoil. Fly tippers had hoicked crap over the wall at the bottom of the garden and Terry did his bit to preserve native fauna by chucking food waste out of his window. I got a closer look at it when he decided to install Sky and we had to hack our way in. He’d been an electrician, I think it was him who jiggery-pokeried the electric, and he knew about ariels and satellites and the like. He needed, apparently, to arm himself with six hundred channels of shit to try and outwit the government, who were either feeding on his dreams or implanting messages in his brain. Probably both.

Then there was Alec and Maisie in the basement. They had one big fuck-off room that took up most of the floor. I used to take Alec some Eccies every now and then. He was a Scot with forthright opinions on everything. He knew that the revolution was just around the corner and was biding his time. He was so relaxed about the timing of the revolution, in fact, that he spent most of his days in a dressing gown, slippers and a pair of tracky bottoms. I imagined him, when the conflagration arrived, making a last brew, skinning up a fat one then sauntering up to the surface world to see how the cadres were getting on.

‘Aye, well done, lads. Yer doin’ vairy well, boys. Let me know when ye’ve sequestered me a fuckn palace and I’ll get right on the case wi runnin thengs n’ that.’

He had no time for ‘sad little nine-to-fivers’, and spent most of his days in the basement room surrounded by joss sticks, drinking coffee, and reading with the telly in the corner constantly on and, almost invariably, playing a porno tape. He had stacks of them, up to the ceiling and, while he didn’t always have the sound up, there was always one running. He had them on like I have the rolling news, as background. You’d just be chatting about what was on at the Dublin Castle next week and you’d notice somebody putting something into somebody else in the corner of the room, most disconcerting. So that was Alec’s life watching porn and waiting for the revolution. He seemed to think they were connected, revolution and sex, and that perfect sexual freedom was a prerequisite for a successful popular uprising, so he was trying to get himself as sexually liberated, down there in the basement, as was humanly possible before it all kicked off.

Maisie, however, was not so doctrinaire and had a job. This meant they were comparatively well off. When I first got there they even had a dog. It was a manky looking Alsatian called Suki with gammy back legs and every day Maisie would manhandle it up the stairs and drag it down the pond to shit on the grass. The basement stairs led down into a passage which led to their big room. In the passage there was a washing machine which worked, and a freezer which didn’t but was stacked with great tins of economy dog food. The dog’s bowls sat out here and they weren’t washed very often and they stank and the dog stank but this did help to mask the drainy stink of the house, a stink which fluctuated in intensity but never quite went away.

As it was the biggest room that’s where they held house meetings. Alec turned the telly off for house meetings but there weren’t many of them. Most problems were sorted out by shouting, crying, stamping and recrimination, or where Terry was concerned, Terry carrying on doing exactly as he pleased. Terry, of course, wasn’t invited to the house meeting to discuss the Lilith problem, which, as far as I could establish, was the only problem deemed extreme enough to require such a convocation. I was invited partly because I spent such a lot of time there. I kept my bedsit, which the state payed for, but I’d been doing a bit of bar work, evenings, for cash and it was on the 38 route, so I just went back to Patsy’s because I knew she’d be up for it most nights. Things had got interesting in that regard as well. There were experiments with hot candle wax and a length of clothesline and a straight-backed chair. Alice winces at this. ‘I don’t need to know. Way too much information,’ she says.

‘Look, I didn’t set out to be a fucking pervert. It’s just, if it’s offered, you get curious, and it’s not like I was ringing call-box dominatrixes or shuffling off down King’s Cross to get pissed on by some fucking crack addict,’ I say. I flush bright red. I can feel it, and Alice starts laughing at me.

‘I didn’t know you were a dirty deviant.’

‘I’m not. I’m bloody not, it’s just …’

‘Yeah, it’s just. I know. It’s just men,’ she says. ‘Get on with it.’

The other reason I was asked to the meetings was that I had a regular supply of some very nice skunk, which always helps any meeting along. I mean, it can make them overrun a bit, and it’s often difficult to get to the nub of the matter, but on the upside nobody minds being there, or if it’s quorate or anything.

It transpired that they thought Lilith had gotten hold of a front door key as things had started going missing and not in the usual way. Stuff was going from people’s rooms and there was no sign of a forced entry. As far as I could see, even taking into account the skunk, it was all a bit nebulous. Maisie was elected to try and ask Terry if he’d given Lilith one, matron. Charlotte would have done it because she cared about Terry’s well-being so much, but he seemed to have an irrational and deep-seated loathing of her, and she didn’t feel comfortable asking him for anything. She yabbered on about how he made her feel and that for half an hour or more until finally Alec got the proceedings back on track. Maisie would try and have a word with Big Tel and see if she could persuade him to extract the key from our night bird.

A fortnight later, a bicycle pump, lights and basket had gone from the hall and Maisie reported back that Terry denied ever having given Lilith one, matron. He then did his staring thing, which always tended to shut down the conversation anyway, but as he’d now taken to sporting a steel colander on his head, a chin strap improvised from inner tube strung between the handles, he didn’t need to do very much staring at all.

Anyway, I thought I saw Lilith in Camden one night as we were coming out of The World’s End. We were on our way to see a band, some industrial shite, upstairs somewhere, at Charlotte’s behest. We were going to love them. We didn’t but I kept my feelings to myself because it was Maisie’s birthday and even Alec had been dragged up to the surface world. He moaned and grumbled a bit, about Camden being a shit-hole, like that’s a revelation, and we were bundling out the pub on our way to the next venue. I got ahead, because there was some fannying about needed doing by everyone else, and as I turned to offer encouragement to them, I thought I saw her come out of the tube. It was difficult to say, because at the time Camden was fairly well infested with goth-clones. Alec was next out and I pointed and said, ‘Oy, isn’t that Lilith?’ but by the time I looked again she was gone.

‘Doubtful,’ he said. ‘Unless she’s eaten all the babies in Hackney.’

‘Who?’ said Maisie, following on.

‘Our resident night monster.’

‘What Lilith? She doesn’t stray far. I doubt it.’

‘Mebbes she’s seeking fresh virgins to feed on. Silly bitch.’ That was cue for a bit of surreal badinage and by the time we got to next boozer I’d forgotten about her. We got a taxi home after the gig though and I paid the driver while the others stumbled off down the road. As he drew away, I saw her again standing in the dark, among the trees by the pond. She was a long way off, just staring at me. It gave me the fucking willies, but I didn’t even bother to mention it.  Alec invited us down for a smoke and a tinny, but Patsy smirked at him and shook her head. She jerked her thumb in the direction of upstairs and dragged me off. I heard Alec, Maisie and Charlotte laughing, dirty laughs, as we went, Alec’s being the filthiest of all.

‘Yeah. I can guess what happened then,’ says Alice.

‘You’re right, but hold on, other stuff happened after that.’

‘Get on with it.’

The next thing was the dog died. There was a great wailing and gnashing, and an overflowing of cheap sentiment. It’s funny how people who look forward, eagerly, to a bloody and destructive insurrection, to the violent overthrow of civil society and all the death and suffering and mayhem that would entail, could get so upset over a manky fucking dog. Alec was in tears. Maisie was in tears. Patsy was in tears. Terry locked himself away in his room to mourn in his own special way, mostly by jacking the volume on his telly up. Charlotte wasn’t that bothered but she spent a lot of time comforting the bereaved and talking about how they felt, and how she’d felt in the aftermath of some equivalent personal fucking tragedy or other. I thought good riddance, frankly. One less smell in the place. I thought, great they’ll be slinging the stinking dog bowls out, but the dirty bastards didn’t.

We took the poor old thing out into the rodent sanctuary and buried it in the pile of spoil with an improvised marker. There was talk of a more permanent memorial in wood or stone but it never happened. This period of lamentation went on for a couple of weeks. I mostly couldn’t believe Alec. All his Glasgae hard man facade collapsed for a couple of days, and if you saw him you’d have to be very careful what you said because his eyes would well up and he’d be off again. Slowly though, the crust of cynicism formed again. There was talk of getting another dog but no one acted on it, which was a relief. I thought a cat might be better but Alec looked at me as though I was mad.

‘Fuckn cats. Fuckn parasites.’ And off he went on one about dogs, devotion, loyalty, obedience, etcetera; cats, independent, wilful, evil, etcetera, so I left it alone.

It got a bit rocky after the dog bereavement. Patsy seemed more jealous than ever and would give me the third degree, about women she imagined I’d been flirting with, or looked at the wrong way. If I stayed at my own flat she’d want to know why. It was generally because I wanted a shower with actual proper hot water. That wasn’t a good enough explanation though. It was: who have you seen and was it that cow you were talking to in x the other night. I’ll be honest, I felt like belting her sometimes or just leaving, but just as I reached breaking point she’d have a personality quick-change and we’d be rutting like beasts again and I’d forget what a bastard she’d been.

There’s another bulletin and we stop to watch it. The neighbours are saying that the place has been abandoned for three or four years now. They’ve been on to the council about it many times but got no joy. The council claim they can’t trace the owners and the environmental were in the process doing something but it all takes time. I don’t recognise any of the neighbours. The next door has had to be evacuated and there’s a brief and tearful interview with her. We get a cup of tea and a Kit Kat.

‘When did you leave, then?’ Alice asks, and I have a long think about it. It would be November, ten years ago. I know it was November because it was a few of days before my birthday. I got flu. I’d stayed the night and I woke up with the sweats and feeling like complete shit. Not just a cold or a virus, but the fucking business. Alice laughs, the cow.

Honestly, I couldn’t move and Patsy said she’d look after me. She got Lemsips and tucked me up and I sweated and sweated and shivered and wished I was somewhere else than in her shitty flat. I couldn’t even have fed myself. She got all nursey and went out for tins of soup, took my keys and went and got me clean clothes. Everyone came up to the room to see me. Charlotte pitched in with some proper, albeit vegetarian, food. Terry offered me some speed, which I suppose was him being thoughtful in his way.

On the third night I was there, it would be a Friday, Patsy went out with Charlotte and Maisie and left me on my own. Terry was off at his brother’s and the house was quiet for once. I had an electric heater and Charlotte had lent me ‘The Name of the Rose’ because I told her I’d liked the film and I propped myself up in the corner to read it and enjoy a bit of peace. I’d already got to thinking that me-and-Patsy wasn’t going anywhere so I might as well cut my losses and get out of it. Given the colourfulness of her temper though, I realised I’d have to be in pretty robust health before I told her.

All in all I was feeling quite good about things, fever broken, decisions made. I went out onto the landing/kitchen with a sleeping bag draped around me and put the kettle on for a cuppa. While that was boiling I went to the bog. I put shoes on because the toilet floor was all rotting and soaked and you didn’t really want to be standing on it. I wondered, while I was pissing, where you’d end up if it went through. Charlotte’s bedroom I supposed. She had the two rooms on the ground floor. It’d be okay if she was in to break your fall. I was chortling about this as I made my way back to the kitchen/landing when heard a rattle down stairs. It was bicycles being knocked against the wall. It was dark down in the hall. ‘Hello.’ I shouted but it was quiet. I hadn’t heard the door. ‘Alec, are you in?’ No reply. I walked down the first couple of stairs, pulled the sleeping bag around my shoulders, peered into the gloom and there was Lilith, in the shadows.

‘How did you get in?’ I asked. She didn’t reply, just stood there frozen, with her little rat claw hands hooked in front of her. She glared at me. I took another three steps down. ‘Terry’s not here. He’s at his brother’s.’ She looked like fucking Nosferatu in the half light. ‘How did you get in?’ Still she said nothing. Two more steps.

‘I’m here to see Alec.’ I looked round the corner, over the banister to the door to the basement.

‘I’m not sure he’s in.’ She looked at me suspiciously, not sure whether to believe me or not. ‘How did you get in?’

‘Just did,’ she said, all mysterious, and smiled a little know-it-all smile. I walked towards her very softly and slowly, as though she was an animal I didn’t want to frighten. She put on a coy face and said, ‘There’s something you ought to know. It’s a secret.’

‘Yeah?’ I stepped between her and the route to the basement. ‘I’d like to know how you got in.’ She laughed and stepped towards me.

‘That’s nothing,’ she said. She reached out, put her hand under the sleeping bag and stroked my bare chest. Her hand was cold and small. She moved closer, ran it up my chest, onto my shoulder and started to massage my neck. ‘Let me tell you a secret.’

She pulled me towards her. I was starting to get the horn, feeling her skinny fingers gently rubbing at my neck. She lifted her face up to mine and I bent to meet her. Her cool cheek brushed against mine and she whispered into my ear, ‘Alec is fucking evil.’ and then she drew back and sunk her teeth into my cheek. It hurt like fucking hell and I screamed and pulled away but she hung on.

I dropped the sleeping bag and punched her as hard as could on the side of the head. She let go and I fell over backwards, bounced of the banister post and landed, with a thump on the floor. There was an almighty crash as the bikes went over and another as the front door flew open and slammed into the wall. I heard the thump of footsteps coming up from below and, as I picked myself up, Alec appeared.

‘Fuckn hell’s going on?’ he said.

‘Fucking, Lilith,’ I said. ‘She bit me.’ He started to laugh.

‘Are you one o’ the undead now then, son?’

I rubbed my cheek. It was bleeding.

‘It’s not funny. It hurts.’

‘Aye. It’ll hurt even more when you realise you cannae die and you’re damned to roam the earth forever.’ He guffawed as he picked the bikes up and stacked them against the wall. ‘Listen.’ He looked out down the street. ‘Is that the music of the cheeldren of the night? Nah, it’s some cunt wi’ his drum an’ bass up too loud.’ He shut the door and put the hall light on. ‘Let’s have a look at ye.’

‘It hurts.’ I felt like kid who’s been caught fibbing.

‘C’mon. Let’s get you patched up, my wee soldier.’ He gave my good cheek a little tweak.

‘It does though, Alec. Really. She’s fucking mad, isn’t she?’

‘Aye. She’s all that.’

‘She says you’re evil.’ Some of his geniality seemed to fade away here, but he dabbed at my cheek with the corner of the sleeping bag. I pushed it a bit. ‘She said she was here to see you.’ He furrowed his brow and sighed, as though there was great weight on him, then looked me straight in the eye.

‘She’s got a slate off, right enough.’ He escorted me back upstairs, made me a cup of tea and sent me off to bed. ‘Take no notice of the silly bitch,’ he said before he left. ‘Something needs done. Oh, and get tae the doctor and get checked for Hep C as well.’

Patsy rolled in, off her head, at some point in the early hours, blundered around in the dark and passed out beside me. In the morning she was unwakeable. The best I could get out of her was a grunt. I was well enough to gather my bits and pieces together and make my way back to my own flat. It took two days to get a doctors appointment. He told me I’d to rest though or I might do myself some permanent damage. It was proper flu you see. You can knacker your heart. You can.

Anyway, Patsy turned up at mine and stayed one night. I knew it was off now, but I didn’t have the energy to tell her. Everybody, even Terry, sent their love and they were all sorry about what happened. They’d had another house meeting and decided that something had to be done to retrieve the keys from Lilith. Obviously they weren’t going to involve the law or anything like that. We spent our lives trying to stay below the radar; there was no point drawing attention unnecessarily. Patsy was actually very subdued, almost gentle, nearly affectionate. I wondered if she sensed that I’d had enough.

I was thinking about going up north to see my folks for my birthday, but I didn’t feel up to it, didn’t want to go out boozing, wasn’t really good for anything. She stroked my hair and told me I’d soon be better and when I was back on my feet we could go on a spectacular bender to celebrate. In the meantime, she’d try and sort something special for me. The following day she called me and said that she had a surprise for me and could I stay at hers tonight. It was the night before my birthday. I said I wasn’t sure I was a hundred percent yet. She said the whole house thought I’d had a rotten time and needed cheering up. I gave in, had a long shower and made my way across town.

When I got there, there was, indeed, a surprise. On the landing/in the kitchen the rubbish bin had been emptied, someone had swept the floor, the washing up had been done and all the plates cleared away. She’d set the little table with two places and there was a bottle of white wine with an actual cork and a pan of chicken curry. She’d bought some poppadoms and chutney. Terry came out of his room to get a cup of coffee while she was boiling the rice and you could tell he was trying to be considerate. He still had his colander on his head but was trying to make himself as small as possible – no mean feat when you’re six foot five.

The food was smashing, the wine was alright, and there was also Czech lager. We had After Eights to finish off. She got me to skin up and I was so chilled that I started to think maybe things weren’t so bad after all. She sat on my knee and nibbled at my ear while we saw the joint off, then she said she had another surprise for me and she didn’t want any peeping. She got a scarf out of her room and folded it over to make a blindfold. She tied it tight around my eyes so I couldn’t see a damned thing.

With what we’d been getting up to, bedroom-wise, I thought I had a pretty good idea where this was going. The old gentleman sensed it too, more so when she hooked her fingers into the belt loops of my jeans.

‘Follow me,’ she said, and tugged. I shuffled after her, reached out, found her shoulder with one hand and a wall with the other. I scraped the chair back, and away we went, very slowly. We seemed to be going in the wrong direction for the bedroom. I started to giggle and she laughed as well. ‘Careful, careful. Mind the stairs.’

She took hold of my leg and guided it down a step. I clawed out and got a hold of the banister rail. Once I’d gauged the first step we clumped down the flight of stairs.

‘Where we going?’ I said, sniggering stupidly.

‘Sshh. No peeping,’ was all she would say. We shuffled along the hall and I heard the squeak of the basement door. She tugged at the belt loops and her hand rubbed against my fly. What with the skunk and the urges, my head was spinning. She steered me round the corner and down the basement staircase. I heard a faint giggle and a shush up ahead and my heart started to pound with excitement. They must have a present for me. God, the drains are whiffy tonight. She manoeuvred me round the next corner, into Alec and Maisie’s room, with both hands and brought me to a halt. I could hear movement and breathing. There was a noise behind me and someone muttered ‘Okay’. The stench was appalling though now.

‘Are you ready for your surprise?’ she said. There was a ripple of laughter around me.

‘I suppose so,’ I said.

‘Take it off,’ a voice hissed. Maisie. Patsy reached up and whipped the scarf from my eyes. The light was blinding for a second and I blinked and tried to take it in. Maisie was kneeling on the bed, in her underwear, grinning, Alec standing there in his dressing gown and boxers, grinning and massaging his cods. Patsy was looking up at me with a savage and expectant smile. Alec was holding a riding crop and behind him there was light coming up from the floor. The rugs were all thrown back and there was a trap door, light flooding up from it, with wooden steps down.

At first, I thought it was a new dog, or an animal of some sort but, as I adjusted to the light, I realised it was a man, emaciated and grey. He was naked and crouching on all-fours, stick thin, with his face buried in a bowl of dog food. I looked at Alec, Maisie, Patsy. They laughed. Alec swished the crop, adjusted his balls through his boxers and said,

“What do you think, son?’ I took a step back and a hand clamped on my shoulder. It was Terry. I just wanted to get out but my head was whizzing and I felt nauseous. ‘Meet oor landlord.’ Alec laughed. ‘This is what happens to the boss class, son. D’ye like it?’ He gave me a conspiratorial look, as though I was supposed to approve. The man looked up from his bowl. His eyes were pitiful, pleading and his whole body was trembling but then he couldn’t stop himself from eating. Alec whacked him across the backside and they all laughed again and the hand on my shoulder relaxed just enough for me to spin out of Terry’s grip. I put my head down and charged into him. He was off balance but grabbed my shirt. I bulldozed him over and wrenched my shirt from his grasp. The material tore as he collapsed into the pile of Alec’s porno tapes, and I ran, mounted the stairs in two bounds, sent the bicycles flying on my way past, flung the door open and didn’t stop running until I was halfway home.

‘Jesus Christ,’ Alice says, ‘What did you do, then?’

‘I got home packed my things. The telephone rang but I didn’t answer it. I packed as many of my clothes as I could and headed down to King’s Cross. I never went back.’

‘And this landlord? Was it a game? Was he a masochist?’

‘I don’t know. I never saw any of them again. I didn’t ask.’

‘Shouldn’t you have called the cops?’

‘I don’t know, but that wasn’t the worst of it.’

‘Jesus wept. What?’

‘Well I couldn’t swear for certain. It could have been the light.’


‘In the cellar. I thought I saw something.’




‘I thought I saw arms and hair, hanging, upside down.’


‘I don’t. I thought it might have been her.’

‘What? Lilith?’


‘Was she alive?’

‘I don’t know. It could have been a trick of the light.’ She’s shaking her head and I’m crying and crying now. I say I was well out of it, what with the booze and the gear and the flu on top of all that. ‘I might have imagined it.’

She un-mutes the telly. New news. Bodies.

‘Think you’d better ring the cops.’

© Tim Turnbull.

* Cab drivers and locals will spot that this terrace is in Finsbury Park, not Hackney.

See also: Black Cab BluesLondon Gothic 2, Robert GravesThe Avoided House, Clown Rapture Imminent, Frankie HowerdA Thought for the Undead.


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