My London: Giles Newington

 

WHEN PRINCE WILLIAM’S father got married in 1981 I was still living in west London, just a few streets away from where his bride-to-be was controversially snapped in her see-through skirt on her way to work as a kindergarten teacher.

I was naively amazed by the amount of attention Diana Spencer was attracting, and later by the crowds, the street parties and the pearly kings and queens enthusiastically celebrating the Sloane Ranger’s union with the heir to the throne. The pageantry and deference seemed out of character with the city I thought I knew, but of course this was just because I was young and my memory of the place was short. The nostalgic British package that Charles and Di represented was part of a cultural reversal, and soon everything was Chariots of Fire, Brideshead Revisited and even a retro colonial war in the Falklands, complete with flag-waving crowds at the Portsmouth docks to welcome back the victorious and the dead.

Watching the wedding on TV (yes, I admit it) I have a memory of one of the commentators describing Diana (in her long dress and endless train) as a delicious parcel to unwrap. I also recall suggesting to my fellow viewers that a royal divorce was inevitable, and being surprised how offensive and implausible they found this idea.

Anyway . . .

Like most of my generation from the leafy streets around Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road, I’m unlikely ever to be able to afford to live in that part of London again, so stratospheric and enduring was the property-price boom there. In the early 1980s I started on an eastward trajectory when I was lucky enough to get a Housing Association flat, at the amazing rent of £3 a week, right on the border of the west and east postcodes. I could walk everywhere from there, to Soho and Bloomsbury, Covent Garden and Islington. People played music, badly and worse, in the courtyard day and night; painters, later to become famous, did their work in the basement; and the roof of the block, with its views of the city, would make appearances in London-set films I watched years afterwards in Dublin. Once again the area I lived in, this time Clerkenwell, was teetering on the cusp of hyper-fashionability.

I moved a mile down the road to a basement flat in King’s Cross. This, in the 1990s, was an area of real seediness that it was hard to see ever becoming desirable property-wise. Known for drugs, prostitution, homelessness and a transient population, some of whom arrived at the station and never got any further, it was a place to stay alert in. One day someone might pull a sword out of a thigh-high boot and chase an antagonist into the Euston Road traffic; another day, more benignly, a naked couple would stroll past as I queued up for the cash machine; syringes and chip wrappers would be thrown in through the open window of my flat; and once I got home to find my front door kicked in and an extremely apologetic bloke with a backpack assuring me he’d found nothing worth nicking.

Now, however, with the Channel Tunnel operating from the refurbished St Pancras Station, the area has a different feel. Walking up from King’s Cross along Pentonville Road in the evening is no longer a threatening or speedy experience, and once you pass Jurys Hotel and head down by Chapel Market into Islington, you’re into the sociable heart of well-heeled north London. The lively half-hour stretch along Islington’s Upper Street, from the Angel to Highbury, is one full of landmarks for me, taking in the atmospheric Old Red Lion theatre pub, the antique shops of Camden Passage, the Screen on the Green cinema, where the Sex Pistols played a notorious early gig, the Almeida Theatre, and the now-too-fashionable King’s Head theatre pub, where the price of the pints was until recently still in shillings and pence.

And so on up to Highbury and Islington tube, where a right turn will lead to the huge and less cosy borough of Hackney, and beyond to the East End. It is in this direction, with the Olympic developments pitting the landscape, that London is now looking for its next new dawn.