Cambridge to Cambridge Heath: New Year Portents
Writing and the East End
This is a blog about the East End of London.
There is a rich seam of writing about London but a particularly rich seam concerning the East End.
Why is this? There are many answers, all of which matter. But certainly the diversity of the area, its restlessness and challenge are part of the explanation.
In short, there is an edge to the place. In fact, it may be double-edged. A large part of it is the constant presence of change. The place never settles, never ceases to stimulate.
Yet another part of it is the constant possibility of change. Even when a street is quiet, a park still, the means of transformation lie constantly at hand. Nothing acquires the permanence that might put it beyond doubt — except, perhaps, the ancestral litter.
This post begins, however, outside the East End. Specifically, just outside Cambridge. Perhaps you have to start at a distance from the East End to begin to think through such a complex place.
So we are just north of Cambridge at the edge of the fens, and it is 4AM. The very time, in fact, of a small and untimely explosion.
I woke with blood in my mouth and a vow on my lips: this year I will….
The abscess had formed in the roof of my mouth from some Christmas indulgence. Only now, in the inky first hours of the new year, it had finally given way. I suppose there was something symbolic to be read into this.
First, though, the struggle through a tangle of bedclothes and corridor-darkness. The bathroom light snapped on like a match, hissing. Vision crumpled between disheveled eyes.
I spat blood then rinsed the basin clean. It quickly gleamed again with false continuity.
The window stood ajar and a freezing wind crept in. It carried handfuls of cool stars. This was the first scene of the year, hardly elegant, and yet it had a kind of visceral grace.
I found my way downstairs and rinsed my mouth with salt water. The sharpness of it brought me awake. Soon the flavor mellowed to something almost sweet.
For a time I stood, silently swilling in the stillness. I could not remember the half-formed vow to which I had woken, as if the waking itself had broken my sleeping resolution.
Outside, the light of the new year drew closer.
New year’s day was bright and purposive. My mouth sang but was improving. By the time my family and I crossed the fields towards the next village the pain had dulled almost to nothing.
Our walk took us across the flatlands at the edge of the fens. These regions do not have the depth, the salty darkness, of the true fens. They lack especially the mystery of the wet peat, of drains and lodes ponderously crossing space like some indefinite, indeterminate thought.
Still, they have the arresting quality of openness. The horizon forms an unimpeded circle that makes you want to spin, scare-crow-like, at a leisurely pace with arms flung wide. Leafless stands of small shaws huddle in huge distance, clotted with the dark liberty of rooks. The light is proximate and immense – on this morning in limpid grey-white tones with occassional richer regions: vanilla, pale yellow.
Turning at the far point of the walk to retrace our steps down the field edge, we caught (as if slyly) the view back to our village. Amongst the young canopy of a newly planted wood — twenty years old now, a toddler in tree-time — we saw the spire of St. Andrew’s.
A vague mist clung to it. Something like the version of faith that serves in these parts — unobtrusive, supple, perhaps indispensible. A glow, too, gathered around the spire. It was after all still the feast of Christmas. The clear-headed setting-forth of Epiphany lay several days away.
We began the walk back. The benison of so much space allowed me almost to forget the coming vicissitudes of the drive home to London.
The drive from Cambridge to Cambridge Heath takes an hour and a quarter at best. Despite the names there is little connection between the places. The origins of ‘Cambridge Heath’ are obscure. It has, seemingly, nothing to do with the petite university town.
But where is Cambridge Heath? In the heart of the East End. Yes, the true East End, even on the most pedantic definition.
Chambers Gazeteer (an entry from the rather antiquated 2004 edition, but matters of this kind evolve only slowly) describes it as the scruffy north-eastern district of Bethnal Green. This is a bit tough. But so is the district.
By the afternoon my mouth sang again. The weather had drawn in. The cold brought steam off the motorway. The cars gave off mist like great beasts, straining in a landscape of acceleration and claimed distance.
Thick traffic. A great return home, now less merry than a week ago. The greyscale tones of the motorway and surrounding low hills felt right. I listened to nordic fiddle music, un-driving home for Christmas.
Car-sickness seemed to be a threat. On the hard shoulder a small girl was held by her mother as she bent over the road-edge. Poor thing — tiny and tortured in the indifferent spray from lorries wallowing down the slow lane.
The play of light temporarily gave the pair a kind of penumbra. Mum’s tenderness lingered in the mind. Her sari was bright pink. All day I remembered her attentiveness, her thoughtful presence in the moment, whilst the traffic surged and steamed.
I turned off the A12, leaving behind the realm of switching lanes and splenetic un-drivers. The Old Ford junction crashes you nearly immediately into narrow East End streets. At once you experience a thickening of life.
Space diminishes. It is filled and shaped, always working on or at you, trying perhaps to impress something. This is communication of a kind. Yet it has no way to end nor even pause. The sodium flare colouring the night sky cinnamon and tangerine might be an echo of this incessant city-chatter.
The short drive home passes Victoria Park, one of the great green London Lacunae. As I drove by it was shut in darkness. The trees and the boating lake kept close the secret of spaciousness, of spare time. A clutch of duck overflew it, crossing the tangerine empyrean in mournful silhouette.
I parked in the narrow road with the usual mutiple-pointed ballet. The cars huddled close to one another. Something about the starlight through the black glass of the cold air gave them a glamour; as of creatures with unknowable powers.
Wadeson street was silent, in waiting. But for what? The first tremor of ice on the wet cobbles? An ambulance’s hot blue scream?
No, not for any peremptory happening. The waiting was something different. It felt as if the engine of the city were turned off. A great pause had settled on windowsill, on kerbstone and shopfront. The weak yellow cones of the street lamps seemed to slow time, as if that evening they could frame no drama.
I walked to the end of Vyner Street and back to shake off the drive. The galleries were shut. The italian importer was shut. The taxi repair shop was shut, deep in its own dreaming. The coffee shop was a black-and-white film set with no cast, only upturned chairs gleaming on the tables.
Even the roadside trees — a trio, sailing by — seemed in spectral abeyance.
This quietness is so rare in Cambridge Heath it can seem eerie, uncanny. Yet here there was a peacefulness at work. The parts of the district, so often machinating and clashing against one another, were standing back to let one another be.
At the Sound of a Guitar
Let be, indeed. I stomped up the stairs to the landing. The walls were covered in ancestral markings, thick as braille on the once-cream walls.
Music was arriving in the dimness from somewhere nearby. A guitar, strummed. Humming eased over the strings like honey. I could not tell if the voice was a man’s or a woman’s. Perhaps it was neither.
Certainly it had the elegiac tone lost music always has when it wanders through a city.
In these parts someone is always trying to make music. Perhaps these parts are too. Suddenly I felt a great readiness. I remembered the open space of the fens, its challenge and consolation; the possibilities of the East Anglian light.
This year I will…..
The quiet streets were also on the verge of renewing some ancient urban vow, never abandoned and impossible to construe. I fumbled for my keys.
My mouth sang but was improving.