Friday, 23 November 2012

Soho, Streatham, Southwark

I took a little writing sojourn to London recently, a long weekend in the wilds of Streatham Hill to live with a cat named Trevor. I spent a day in central London first though, visiting various places I’d been meaning to go to for ages. Saint Paul’s Church, Covent Garden – otherwise known as ‘the Actor’s Church’ – is where many a famous thespian is remembered. I got teary-eyed before I even made it inside, as each of the benches in the churchyard carries a commemoration, from Beryl Reid (‘So much love…’) to a long-serving head librarian at the RADA. The church itself was officially closed but I snuck inside by holding open the door for a man carrying a set of bongo drums. Inside is a lovely modest sort of church with plaques everywhere for the great and good of British stage and screen. That’s one reason I wanted to go, another is that legend has it that the first of London’s plague victims is buried here, one Margaret Ponteous, 1665. And yet another is that Henrietta Street, which runs alongside Saint Paul’s, was home to the Hell Club, an early New Romantic hangout, before they were called New Romantics and before they took over the Blitz. Steve Strange tells an amazing story of how everyone was on acid one night in Hell and the club was so hot they all spilled out into the graveyard and danced around there, tripping their noodles off in their outrageous costumes. Isn’t that an amazing image? I liked it so much I've drafted an entire novel plot around the idea. 

Having soaked up these lovely pagan vibes, I emerged into the decidedly more Christmassy environs of Covent Garden looking for coffee, which I found in a state of near perfection at New Row Coffee. The coffee is incredible, go there. They’re lovely folk too. Revived, I then walked to Soho to have a nosey at the Soho Hotel where one of the scenes begins in the novel I’m working on. There’s not much to see, Dean Street turns into a little mews with a red brick and quite Mancunian-looking structure piled up the end, which is the hotel. There’s a large shiny black Buddha cat in the foyer. From there it’s a short walk to Soho Square. I make a little pilgrimage here from time to time, especially when it’s cold, to sit on a bench and play ‘Soho Square’ by Kirsty MacColl, whom I adore and miss terribly... kiss me quick, in case I die before my birthday…’

Next stop is Southwark and I decide to take a Boris bike. Opposite the bike park at Soho Square, Will Young is waiting for a cab, holding a bunch of flowers. My mother wants me to marry Will Young so I wait at least until eye contact is established, but it’s brief. I guess the flowers are not meant for me. Will gets in his cab with barely a glance and I hop up on my bike. I love Boris bikes. It only costs a pound – and almost my life at Piccadilly Circus – but before I know it I’m sailing past the Thames, over Blackfriars’s Bridge, and into deepest Southwark. (When is somebody going to put something interesting where that old sandwich shop is at the bottom of the Blackfriars’s Bridge by the way…?)

Southwark is my very favourite bit of London, even more so now that I’ve been to the Cross Bones Graveyard, which you can read about here, and also because I discovered yesterday that Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s Hit Factory was round here too, on Vine Yard. I love Borough Market of course, and Tooley Street, and I’m even coming round to the idea of The Shard. Maybe. Yes, Southwark is the place for me.

From London Bridge I catch the train to Streatham Hill, deep in the South London suburbs. Angela Carter country. I arrive in the dark, meet Trevor the enormous handsome cat, do some writing, and go to sleep early. In the morning I leap out of bed and go for a jog in the dazzling autumn sunshine. I plough into the school run for the primary school a few doors down and from there I run to Brockwell Park, run right around it, and home. It’s downhill all the way and uphill all the way back. My legs are still in considerable pain four days later. It is the last jog I am even able to do for the rest of the trip. None of this bodes well for the sponsored 10K I am meant to run in May.

After a day of writing I catch the train back to Southwark. London is steeped in a marvellous silver fog by now. I walk over Tower Bridge, which is every bit as exciting as Brooklyn Bridge tonight. I walk down Park Street which is magical and Dickensian. We are looking for The Rose Theatre, London’s oldest surviving theatre, and the very first to open on Bankside. Tonight they are performing The Winter’s Tale on a small fenced stage above the excavation site of the ancient theatre. The Rose preceded even The Globe just along the river, opening in 1587. Shakespeare performed here as an actor and staged two of his own plays here too. The layout of the theatre, the outside wall and jutting stage, is described in red lights so you can see where the building once sat. It’s thrilling. I can feel old voices and ghosts coming up through the ground. Musicians play over in the far corner of the excavation site, lit by candles. The performance is lovely too; enticing and fun and heart-breaking. Francesca De Sica’s Hermione is wonderful. I am given a flower (at last!) by guitar-playing troublemaker Autolycus, but even he reclaims it at the end of the play. I take it as a good omen though. I fall for The Rose, and they have just this week heard they will be getting a Heritage Lottery Grant to complete the excavation. If/when The Shakespeare Girl is published I want to have my launch party there. Some fine ale follows in The George, off Borough High Street. There has been a pub on this site since at least 1543 and the current building dates to the mid-seventeenth century. Yes, Southwark is the place for me.

I am then firmly holed up for the next couple of days, churning out thousands of new words and feeling the spirit of what I first planned to write all those months ago. Twenty-three thousand words in, The Shakespeare Girl is coming to life. Missing social events and getting used to solitude gets easier the longer you write. Having a terrifyingly close deadline also works wonders. Angela Carter’s last novel, Wise Children, was a large part of the original inspiration behind the story. Streatham Hill is next to Balham, where Carter grew up, and I find out her old school is not far away so I take a walk there. It proves impossible to find mention of the house she grew up in though. I expect the present tenants would like to avoid legions of bespectacled girls in maxi skirts, and me, leaving flowers at the gate. Anyway, she’s in the leafy air down there somewhere and I go home and write a scene about a famous actor who goes out into the Soho night in drag, and I think she would approve.

Angela Carter's old school.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

‘Manchester: In Residents’ … #21: Katie

'It makes me angry that we have so many boarded up buildings and shops that have stayed in that state for years, and yet rather than investing money in a homeless shelter or doing something about the situation, we get yet another up-market, trendy bar that we don’t need...'

What’s your name?

Katie Slade

What do you do?

I am the Rights, Marketing and Events Manager at independent short fiction publisher, Comma Press. I got hired in September 2011, so I’ve been there just over a year now. Before landing this awesome role I worked at the Odeon for around four years, first as a team member, then as a supervisor, and I temped a little in the admin office, to support myself through university. Now, thanks to Ra Page and Jim Hinks, I never have to say, ‘Would you like an Odeon Premiere Club Card?’ ever again.

Where do you live?

City Gate apartment blocks in Castlefield. My street is just after the little bridge, over the canal with the barges and the geese who attack anyone who tries to cross the grass.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.

I was born in an area called Sidcup in Kent, but moved to Derbyshire with my mum when I was eleven. Living in the peaks may sound nice but I lived in a small town called Chesterfield where everyone was related and lived next door to the same people for about fifty years. Entertainment and nightlife were pretty much non-existent, so when I reached the end of my A-levels in 2007, I thought, ‘Fuck this’ and decided to go to a university that was far enough away that I could be independent, but not so far so that my mum would feel abandoned. I honestly can’t remember why I picked Manchester – I guess it just made sense at the time. I just wanted to be somewhere where there were actually things to do, and I could go shopping without bumping into half the neighbourhood.
                I’d already made up my mind to stay permanently by the time I graduated, and I’d already applied to do a two-year MA course, so my boyfriend and I finally moved in together and made our own home in Manchester. I think my mum is still holding out hope that I’ll move back to Chesterfield but I’ve been slowly easing her into the reality that there is no way that will ever happen. My old room is still the way it was when I left home five years ago!
                I can’t honestly say I love Manchester but it’ll do for now. Plus my work is here, so I’ll just have to see where the future takes me.

What’s great about this city?

The literary scene is vast and varied, and everyone knows each other within these circles, so it feels like a very friendly, supportive and inclusive community. There are always literary events going on, whether it’s a poetry slam, a short story reading or a book launch, and with so many cultural venues within walking distance, you’re never too far away from something. We also have some of the top literary names living in our midst – Jeanette Winterson, MJ Hyland, Carol Ann Duffy, to name a few. There are also lots of photographers, artists and film-makers either bred or developed in Manchester, so you can usually find someone to do a top quality job on whatever it is you want making.
                Also, from my own personal perspective, there are three major theatres right on our doorstep, which means whenever a show I want to see is on tour, I don’t have to travel miles out of the city to see it. I can go enjoy the West End’s finest without having to walk more than half an hour. And the tickets are probably far cheaper than you would pay in London.
                It’s the same with touring bands. A few years ago, I got to see one of my all time favourite bands who had come all the way from California, for just £12. It was at the Academy so I easily walked there and back and got right up close to the stage. It was incredible.
                Finally – the city has a diverse, multicultural population. When I worked at the Odeon, I met people from all over the world, people who are still my friends now. Meeting people with different native tongues, experiences, cultures and backgrounds, people who can show you interesting things, introduce you to new food (and do the odd translation for me here and there!) is a wonderful thing. Especially when you grew up in such a repetitive, monotonous community where people are suspicious of anything beyond their own county.
                Oh yeah – and the Gay Village. In a lot of places you can just wear your jeans and trainers which is perfect for me.

What’s not so great?

I’m going to sound like a right asshole now, but you asked me to be honest, so three things…

The nearest bowling alley is Didsbury – what’s that all about? Even Chesterfield had a bowling alley...

It seems very corporate. Everywhere you go it’s loyalty cards and brand names and overpriced food. It’s either restaurants or trendy bars, and very few normal, down-to-earth cafes where you can just order something like toast, or pubs where you can just chill without having ciabatta with goats cheese and organic hummus, skinny jeans and TopMan cardigans shoved in your face. Even the Northern Quarter, which I thought was cool when I first moved here as a naïve eighteen-year-old, is starting to get on my nerves. I’m writing this on a train coming back from Brighton, and there you couldn’t move for independent, family-run cafes and shops. Sure, they had all the other stuff like Boots and Costa and H&M, but brands were outnumbered by an emphasis on local produce and local business. For me, Manchester is either about corporations or trendy places which try to pass themselves off as down-to-earth and independent, but are actually stupidly expensive or pretentious.

I can’t get to work or back without being bothered by someone who wants what little change I have in my pocket. I don’t mind Big Issue sellers, I regularly buy the magazine, but the amount of beggars in the city centre alone seems to have tripled in the last few years, the situation seems out of control. I know this sounds horrible, but it’s not as if I’m wealthy, and every week I lose pretty much all the change I have in my purse to get myself bread and milk and essentials, just because I feel too guilty to say no – even though these people tell you the same story every week, somehow afford new trainers and mobile phones for the next time you see them, and hurl a torrent of abuse at you if you tell them you don’t have anything to give. It makes me angry that we have so many boarded up buildings and shops that have stayed in that state for years, and yet rather than investing money in a homeless shelter or doing something about the situation, we get yet another up-market, trendy bar that we don’t need. I don’t know anything about government but I’m sick of dreading the walk to and from work, and I wish I could see evidence of someone doing something about it.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

I don’t know if I have a favourite but I’ve always liked the faded grandeur of the Palace Hotel on Oxford Road. There’s something about the clock tower and the green domes on the top that make me think of people going there to dance and court each other in the 1940s and stuff. I imagine years ago it was the height of class and glamour.

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

Emmeline Pankhurst. And Jeanette Winterson. A bit of both.

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?

The Footage. Poptastic. Baa Bar. The Lowry.

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

A bowling alley.

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

Have the Urbis building knocked down. It’s ugly.

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?

I should probably say Jim Hinks as I don’t want him to feel left out – but equally I don’t want it to look like favouritism for Comma, so I will also nominate Mike Garry.

Comma Press are publishing Adam Marek’s The Stone Thrower, Pawel Huelle’s Cold Sea Stories, David Constantine’s Tea at the Midland, Jane Rogers’ Hitting Trees with Sticks, Guy Ware’s You Have 24 Hours to Love Us, Bio-Punk: Stories from the Far Side of Research, and the BBC International Short Story Award 2012 anthology this autumn. Check out our website for more details and launch events!