Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Monday, November 17, 2003
East End Boy
In the eighties I lived for a long period of my life on the borders of London's East End, and the notorious London Apprentice pub late-night slut-hut up the road in Shoreditch was practically my local. Most nights I'd be down there (sometimes in more ways than one), often staying till the end. My worse-for-wear 2 a.m. zig-zag home would then take me past empty, forgotten buildings and boarded-up warehouses, as well as the local smack squad and their pimps, and through unlit, deserted streets, which hadn't changed much since Jack the Ripper indulged in his little "jollies" there a century ago.

Strangely enough, I never once felt threatened or menaced, and this wasn't just down to the Dutch courage and devil-may-care attitude you only discover after six or seven cans of Breaker. As far as I was concerned, this was my "manor", and I felt at home and safe amongst the inner-city dereliction and the disused railway yards and the predictable night-time domestics echoing from the bleak high-rises round the corner. Besides, if a latter-day Jack were to come my way then I knew each twist and turn of every alley and escape route far better than any queer-basher or serial killer wannabe.

Last weekend, I was back in the neighbourhood to catch up with a friend who manages a pub in the area. It must have been my first return visit in eleven years, and, my, but the old place has come up in the world. And I suppose it could just have been a bad night, but I hated it.

Seedy Hoxton Square, last resort for LA leather-queens who hadn't copped off by Time-Gentlemen-Please, is now the favoured haunt of the capital's arty trendies, all unmade beds and Chapman dollies. The London Apprentice itself is now a club venue (although still host to a Sunday gay night, by all accounts not half as dark and dirty as the original). And where once the best you could hope for in the food department was cod 'n' chips wrapped in the News of the World under the railway bridge, now you can max your gold Amex on top-priced Tex-Mex treats. Just about the only thing remaining from my past is Hawksmoor's splendid Christ Church, white and defiant against the iron Shoreditch sky, although I'm willing to bet some property tycoon's already got his eyes on that as an "exciting new Manhattan-style loft development". Darling.

So far, so OK-ish. It’s the new bars which I can't stand. Back when I lurked here, you had the LA for the benders, and refreshingly down-to-earth boozers for every one else. The LA excepted, these places were rarely frequented by anyone other than the locals.

Now, the area is on the up and up and fabbed-out with self-called sophisticated "style" bars on every corner, hot neon luring punters in from beyond Zone Three to see just how many Breezers Shazza can get down her gob before chucking up over Wayne's new Versace jeans. Cro-Magnons in dinner suits and earpieces patrol the entrances to these bars, picking fights with stag parties, and taking back-handers from minicab-drivers; and, come Chucking-Out Time, the mayhem resembles nothing less than Albert Square after its Christmas special. Heaven knows what the old locals think of it all, if, that is, they're still there, and haven't been forced out by sky-high rents and property prices.

Scared? When I was walking back through the area on my way home at four o'clock last Sunday morning, you bet I was, as the lads fell out of the bars and face-down into the gutters. A (straight) mate of mine got mugged round here a couple of months back by a gang of out-of-town piss-heads, something which I like to think wouldn't have happened in my day. Back then, on the rare occasions when there was a Saturday night punch-up, it was usually all kept within the local "family"; and anyway the only people who went there were puffs and genuine East End geezers, who, for some reason I've never quite figured out, have always held a grudging respect for each other.

Urban renewal? Give me Desolation Row any day. It's safer. And prettier.