The passage of the Chatsworth road curves like a rainbow from Clapton Park up along the spine of Marsh Hill, past Homerton Hospital and up towards Homerton Station. Along its narrow axis thrives a row of local businesses and shops: from printers and bookstores, to French patisseries, vintage furniture outlets, second-hand clothes shops, crêperies and West Indian takeaways. Each Sunday there is a jumble sale in the car park and grounds of a lovely Victorian red-brick primary school. The newsagents and grocery stores there offer one of the best and cheapest sour dough loaves in East London.
The Chatsworth road is a well-spring of thriving local trade, creativity, and community spirit. It is an artery of life in Clapton, and could almost, on its own, be justification enough for living in this area. Ponderous and lovely signs fill the notice boards of cafes,
the backrooms of bars crumble in chic disrepair. There is a noticeable Francophone influence: small Parisian bureaus, dressers and chapeaus in the second-hand oddities shop, baguettes in the Epicerie. Yet the long street is not yet completely gentrified. Its primary purpose is still to exist for the pleasure and service of the local community; it is not yet commoditised to the point of farce like Brick Lane or parts of the Kingsland Road.
The road is crammed with unique and surprising offerings during its night-time incarnation too. It is bordered on one side by the enigmatic and anarchic venue ‘Lumiere’* and on the other by the gaudy folk glamour of Chats Palace, home to East London’s itinerant folk scene.
A lovely new, plain-fronted book and print shop has just opened opposite Glenarm road. I had a conversation with the proprietor and some friends of his in this establishment on the first weekend of its opening. Perhaps it is worth recording; it was all about the Hackney Marshes – our back garden.
The bookshop was a new business that had just opened this month. The man who bought the property had returned from Dorset, where he had tried, for a short period, to make a living with his wife.
But he was not new to the area. His father had lived on the Chatsworth Road his whole life and he was brought up here. When I began to speak about the mysterious power of the marshes, their beauty, and their silence – he paused a little to tell me what he knew of their history.
“They say that after the war ended – and you know how the East End of London was obliterated by the bombs – the authorities dumped all the rubble right in the marshes. It’s still there, just underneath the football pitches,” he explained.
“Best quality pitches in London,” another voice chipped in. The man was small, and bald. “They say it’s because of the rubble, it does something special to the pitches, absorbs the water.”
I stopped to think about this vivid proposition: that the land of the Hackney Marshes was a lodestone of rubble from the Second World War like East London’s very own sunken Atlantis or lost city. I imagined examining the cross-section of underground detritus, like the strata of the inside of a cake after it has been sliced and lifted into the air.
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked, sensing that I was in the presence of experts.
“Of course,” they replied.
“I know it must seem very obvious to you, but I never know how to spell the River Lee. I notice that on all the old fashioned signs it is spelled with an ‘a’, like a meadow, but sometimes it is spelled ‘ee’.”
“You can spell it either way,” the bald man returned. “But most spell it with an ‘a’.”
It suddenly seemed very silly to me: this tautology. Why would you name a river after a meadow?
“Used to mark a boundary line between the Saxons and the Vikings, did the Lea,” the bald man continued quickly. “It was represented the outer limit of Saxon territory, during the raids, that is. On one side it was the Saxons, on the other, the Dane men. It has a very interesting history, this part of London.”
I replied in the affirmative and then prepared to leave the shop. My heart was full of pride, inspired by the stories I had heard of the Lea Valley; that mystical kingdom, that viscose boundary-line…
* A Digression Upon Lumiere
Lumiere poses a tantalising blank on my constellation of East London landmarks. The magnetic and lurid appeal with which it exists in my mind is a product of its illusiveness. Somewhere between a public and a private space, it appears to be one of the most original and unique venues in London. The venue is owned by its namesake Lumiere himself, who refuses to conform to regular opening hours. In order to know when the ‘space’ is open, you must ‘know’ Lumiere himself or contact him. It is probably the only club-cum-bar-cum-god-knows-what in which the proprietor knows everyone who patronises his place. Perhaps that’s the point.
Amazingly, I have still not managed to visit Lumiere properly. But I have come tantalizingly close. Now and then Gideon and I will walk up to its glass door guarded by blue fairy lights and shrubbery. We peer in to see if tonight is one of ‘those’ nights when it’s open. Once we tried the door – it opened. We stepped inside. We were at the top of a stairwell by an old bar. We could see no one.
“Hello,” Gideon half-called, half-shouted.
“Hi,” the sound of footsteps climbing the stairs. She was wearing microscopic, blue-sequined hot pants and a very small corset. Psychedelic eye make-up and a ridiculous fountain of blonde hair made her face scintillate.
‘Do you know if it’s open tonight?’ we asked awkwardly.
“Oh, no, sorry, no,” she replied. “I’m just here for a photo shoot.” Pause.
“Oh no, but you must come”, she continued, looking at us. “Do you know Lumiere?”
“No,” we replied. “No, not yet.”
“Oh, you must meet him. He’s amazing.” She said, drolly.
“Have you been to Lumiere before?” she continued.
“No, no, it was our first time, that’s why we wanted to see if it was open.” We explained.
“Oh no, not tonight, but you must come,” she said. “You should meet Lumiere first. He really is an incredible person…”
Her voice trailed off downstairs beneath the creaky wooden floor boards. We had no choice but to leave.