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.

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