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MONDAY 29 AUGUST 2005
ALT-LONDON
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You buy ‘Smoke’ magazine. You photograph the word ‘London’ on a park bench near the Millennium Bridge. You blow it up all grainy. You post it to the ‘Londonist’ group on Flickr. When did you start to fetishise this city? You just used to live here. This is like some bitch just gave your boy the eye, and you mysteriously remember why it is you like him. That jumper you always hated dips beneath his collarbone in a most interesting fashion, and you suddenly keep sneaking peeks at the way his lower lip pokes out. Or maybe you’re just trying to remember it forever. Store up a few mental images to gorge on after you leave.

Whatever. It’s time for more Londo-porn, because you’re going out, digicam in pocket. Big out: ‘up west’, as they used to say on Eastenders, and you used to laugh, but that was before you lived in E9. *Out* out, not just to the chavvy pub at the end of the road, or silly, boring old Shoreditch, but proper, old school, centre-of-London out, to the eternally-enticing Soho; so you dress carefully; you dress Up.

The new to you pillar-box red polka-dotted secretary blouse. Pencil skirt. Boots. The scarlet coat from the shop in Madrid, with the heart-shaped buttons, and the heart-shaped pockets, and the black acrylic paintstain on the left tit, from that time you and Leee got drunk at the Klinker on the night when you were allowed to make paintings on pre-stretched canvases. That night you and Leee ended up painting a big black cock next to the words ‘Miss AMP’, which, at the time, you both thought was the best thing ever, but the next day so embarrassed were you that you left it in the street. You hoped that someone who was as wide-eyed as you used to be when you still delighted in finding things in the street would treasure this found ‘art’, though you secretly doubted that a big black cock accompanied by the words ‘Miss AMP’ were really likely to bring serendipitous joy to the provisional art appreciator / finder…

You’re bouncing along on the tube, leaning your head against the window, next to a smear of someone else’s hair product. A boy you once shared headphones with said that you listen to music too loud, and definitely your ears ring when you turn it off, so you turn it off as infrequently as possible these days. With the advent of relaxed media workplaces which encourage music-listening, it’s possible to go a whole day with your ears full of sound. Soon you’ll never have to talk directly to another human. You can’t wait.

You glide up the escalator at Oxford Circus, feed your ticket into the machine. Clump up the stairs. Ooze down Oxford St: through the piss-scented gap near Knickerbox, along the dark scary street towards Soho, deafened. You amble towards Greek Street, early for once. You find the place. You wander in but it’s scary, so you wander out again, stand on the steps, next to L’Escargot with its golden snail on the railings. The music’s so loud you can’t feel a thing. The night is navy blue and the wind blows your hair into your eyes. It’s August, but there’s a welcome chill in the air that permits the red heart coat. You whisper a ‘bye’ to summer 2005: it was a lot of things, but it wasn’t boring.

You eye the street. You’re standing opposite a bar where you once had a date with a horrible public school boy. Its sign is neon, spilling pinky-yellow brightness onto the pavement. Its tables are high. He had got you stoned in Soho Square, that boy, then taken you to a restaurant where they served ‘burnt ends’, some kind of burnt meat. You remember the horror of it: not sweets, not ice-cream, not even breakfast cereal, no: burnt meat. Over the crispy, blackened husks, he had told you he had a problem being interested in anything anyone else said to him. He had said he was only really interested in himself. He still expected you to fuck him. Worse still: you had. Whoops.

The people stroll past and your eyes eat them up. The gayboys. The straightlords. A boy comes. He’s big. So big. Not just big, he’s almost fat, he’s chunky. He’s wearing a jacket with frogging on the front, his hair is black, fluffy. He looks like he’s in a rock band, only he’s with his dad. His manager? You briefly make eye contact; then, as he moves away, he reveals the dainty form of your sister on the other side of the road, plucking her headphones from her ears like she’s tweezing eyebrows, smoothing her fringe down her brow with the flat of her other hand.

And you’re in. It’s a members’ club, but it’s having a ‘literary salon’, and you’ve secured entry by pretending to be literary editor of something, which you sort of are, but you don’t get paid, so it doesn’t count. You went to a members’ club one time before. They’re not like the clubs you’re familiar with, fag-ends on the floor, smears on the cisterns, neon scorching your corneas against a background of blacklight. They’re for rich people, these clubs, a place where they can look around them and, just by being there, know that they’ve achieved.

A published writer took you to the other Soho members’ club, a ‘proper’ writer, a creator of books with spines, books that nearly won literary prizes and everything. There were paintings on the walls, and fairy lights everywhere, and there was a slender black-haired lady with a voice like horsehair sofas and balldresses, who greeted you like old friends, and brought you gin and tonics, and served you lamb with rosemary, and it was elegant and breezy, and the air in the
room had tasted of success.

You and your sister giggle as the ‘hostess’ of this one (is that what they’re called?) a plump, warm, jolly lady called Amelia, ties ribbons round your wrists. The ribbons are embroidered with the name of the salon and the night in slanting italics. Later you will show this ribbon to your best friend admiringly, and she will roll her eyes and call them ostentatious, and you profligate, but your sister and you, you love them.

Upstairs there are chandeliers everywhere, and paintings on the walls, and chaise lounges, and burlesque girls who look like they are from the 1920s. They are wearing feathers on their heads and satin bustiers and high heels and seamed stockings, walking around selling cigarettes and hand-made artists’ books. When they walk their buttocks fold delightfully, and you gaze, transfixed, like a man, even losing your train of thought as one stalks by you to the ‘green room’, and your sister laughs.

One woman wears a skirt that is slit up to the waist, revealing white ruched knickers on healthy brown legs. She has a black net in her hair, and a flower on the other side. She is French, tall and mannish. She reminds you of the girls you used to get crushed out on, in the days before the clubs and the gigs and the guestlists; the stagy ladies (see main site for more on them!), glamorous and sophisticated and pretentious as fuck. You had forgotten them, but it seems they still exist, but not at indie gigs, just here, in posh-person members’ club land.

The people are all rich, and some of them are glamorous, and all of them are strangers. There is one you recognise from the early fanzine days, who went on to write a book about fetes, but he never used to speak to you anyway. Is that the trajectory? Fanzines --> rich posh literary salons? Can a book about fetes earn you that much? Maybe you should write a book! It could be about hate-fucking, and ketamine. Or maybe hate-fucking and ketamine are not so appealing as fetes. Something tells you this is the case, otherwise they would be more overground activities, and there would be Hatefucking and Ketamine Countrie Fayres every bank holiday, with Guess The Effect Of The Bump stalls, and a game called Bash the Slut, where a cuddly-toy slut made out of a sock stuffed with newspapers is shot down a tube and you have to hit it with a rounders bat in order to win the prize. You consider asking Fete Man’s advice, but think the better of it.

You sneak into the ‘green room’ and interview your poet, but all you can really think about are the strangers. Strangers with feathers in their hair. Strangers flashing their knickers and doing rubbish poems about sex and semen in sexy French accents. Strangers charging you an exhorbitant £9 for two glasses of house wine. Strangers in striped shirts looking you up and down, showing their ‘rah’ face. You don’t know these people. You’ve never fought with any of them. You’ve never fucked any of them. They don’t know your email address, your career trajectory, your website, the patterns of the freckles on your arms. You’re nothing. You long to pull your digicam out of your bag, and snap the strangers, the chandeliers glinting behind them, the twist of their lips as they brandish the expensive wines, the murmers that ruffle round the room as the French knicker-flashing poet utters the word ‘semen’ for the tenth time, but that would be gauche, so instead, you scribble it here, all jerky and out-of-practice.
Just when you think you know this city, that it has no more surprises, no more dark corners, no more strangers and strangeness, it does this to you. It tugs its jumper below its collarbone. It pokes out its lower lip. And you look again, startled and impressed.


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