Home Coming: Islington

In my hometown, I saw things you wouldn't believe, like the boy who lived in a gated community talking about a man who died on his "estate".

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05 January 2017, 11:53am

Homecoming is a series in which photographer Chris Bethell accompanies writers to their hometowns and learns about what they used to do, where they used to hang out and who they used to know, to see what it reveals about how the UK is changing.

In the stories, homecomings aren't like this. In the stories, the hero travels far, overcomes much, comes back with the wisdom of the world in his eyes. In my story, the hero travels three-and-a-half miles and lets himself into the house he grew up in with the keys he still keeps in the front of his bag. Though I haven't lived there for ten years, in many ways, I've never left home. 

When you're from London, you're always from two places: the city itself, and the area of the city you grew up in. Islington, a little to the north, a little less to the east, is where I'm from. In the media, it's a byword for liberal hypocrisy – a haven for olive oil-guzzling Blairites who talk about the plight of the working man from the safety of their second homes in Tuscany.   

There's some truth to the stereotypes. But your home is always going to be more than the stereotypes, even though those are undoubtedly a part of it, even though my parents begin every day with a nice cool glass of olive oil. 

All photos: Chris Bethell

The street I grew up on is one-way, and this turning bay provided us with a football pitch of our own: the railings at one end a goal, the road a pitch and the railings guarding the houses at the other end another goal. We'd stop every time a car came along, which wasn't actually that often. 

Arsenal played 15 minutes away up in Highbury, but I insisted on supporting Liverpool because a) I was a contrary little shit who wanted to be different, and b) my aunt's then-partner, a Liverpool-supporting Egyptian called Khaled, indoctrinated me. 

Even though I always wondered who Eduard Suess was, I've never looked him up and I'm not going to start now. Was he related to Dr Seuss somehow? I don't know. And I never will. 

My desire to complicate some of the stereotypes associated with Islington isn't going to be helped when I tell you that this is where Boris Johnson lives, although this gentleman with the excellent rings, an Islington man for 25 years, insisted that our foreign secretary has moved "somewhere posher". I think the truth is simply that Boris has many homes. 

As long as the Labour party has existed, it has held safe seats in the borough of Islington (Jeremy Corbyn has been the MP for Islington North since 1983). For much of the 20th century, this was because it was simply a working class area and Labour was the party of the working class. When my relatively privileged, public sector-employed parents moved to the borough at the end of the 1970s, this was changing. A form of early gentrification was going on as young white-collar professionals and half-successful artists began buying up the area's crumbling Georgian houses. 

Douglas Adams lived on our street and friends used to talk about an argument he and my dad had at a party, an egos-have-landed chest puffing exercise in which two Cambridge-educated white men lectured each other on the correct interpretation of a scientific phenomenon. "He read English," muttered my dad, who read Natural Sciences. 

Those new arrivals were, like the working class community they were joining and gently eroding, mainly Labour voters. But they paved the way for a different kind of gentrifier: the privately-owned tower builder, the banker, the member of the global elite – the kind of person who would have taken one look at Islington in the 1970s and hailed a cab back to Kensington. 

I think my earliest memory is of this canal. When I was in the buggy phase of life, my mum used to push me along it, and when it rained she would pull a clear waterproof cover over me and inside this plastic dome I would feel safe.

It used to be a desolate place, but now the waterside open-plan penthouses look down on it, and the joggers in their upscale sports brands run along it.

I remember walking home in the grey misty light of an early winter morning with my friend Max, both depressed and romantic, both drunk and high, singing "Dirty Old Town" again and again because the abandoned industrial buildings that surround bits of the canal reminded us of it. 

I remember a night when there was frost on the water and I pulled a man out of it. Weighed down by the cold and the water, weighted down by life, I took him to the Packington Estate, where he said his mum lived. He told me his wife had left him and that he couldn't see his kids. He told me I'd saved his life but that maybe I shouldn't have. 

The Packington has been redeveloped. From what I've heard, this redevelopment didn't turn into an excuse for social cleansing, and social tenants live side-by-side with private owners, but it's hard not to look at the propaganda for the new site and see the story of London, of its working class communities being shunted aside by the demands of global capital, its culture erased or co-opted. 

And yet, on Essex Road, one of Islington's two main arteries, along with Upper Street, the local, the artistic and the strange still have a home. Past Caring – which sells basically anything the owners think is interesting, from old furniture to theatrical masks to 18th century newspaper articles – has been going since 1973. Next door, Flashback Records still sells actual records, which middle-aged journalists can use as evidence in their articles about how vinyl is making a comeback. 

Steve Hatt owns the fishmonger his father and grandfather and great-grandfather owned. Get Stuffed is still full of stuffed animals that peer out at you like memories from a past you thought you'd forgotten; the Little Angel Theatre is still full of puppeteers; and Islington Music still stocks the same generic sheet music I dutifully bought as a young player of the world's sexiest instrument, the clarinet. 

On Chapel Market, the famous vegetarian Indian restaurant still does a roaring trade in saag and spirituality, while the less famous (but equally beloved) Angel Curry Centre opposite gives you the comforting masala you need. Also on the market: a McDonald's, which my parents didn't let me go to when I was kid, and which became the first in the country to introduce a No Loitering charge, aimed at discouraging gangs from congregating around a single chocolate milkshake.

There is also Frederick's, which seemed, for a long time, to be the only classy place you could eat. This can't really have been true. After all, Granita (RIP), the slick, very 90s Italian restaurant where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown met to plot out their power share, was only a few minutes away. And yet, whenever there was a family occasion that demanded some class, off we went to Frederick's. My uncle would usually order a double espresso at the end of the meal and the waiter would ask something like, "Oh what have you got planned?" To which the reply was, "Drinking gin and reading one of my many books about the Israel-Palestine conflict until 6AM."  

On Upper Street, the story is the more familiar London one: upscale chain shops and restaurants you don't really want to eat at have turned it into a place that could be in any well-heeled area across the globalised world, an expensively assembled hymn to anodyne consumerism. 

When I was a teenager and in my early twenties I used to drink at the King's Head because, at the end of the evening's performance, the theatre would stay open till 3AM and me and my friends would be able to drink there in peace, occasionally popping over to the church opposite to smoke a joint or take some drugs on the steps. On those nights I felt a connection to an Islington I could see dying around me, to the Islington of the old gay pubs and the playwright Joe Orton, who was bludgeoned to death by his boyfriend in their flat, a few streets away from me. 

As a child, Anna Scher had been a crucial part of that connection. Anna was an Irish Jew who looked like a fortune-teller and who ran an after-school theatre a ten-minute walk from my house. It became famous as the place a whole host of actors – from Kathy Burke and Phil Daniels, through the Kemp brothers and Pauline Quirke – got their start. My pals there included Zawe Ashton and Reggie Yates. They included Lucy Dawson, who you haven't heard of, but who was the best kind of Islington girl – someone who got on with everyone, someone who was always herself, someone who died last year, far too young. 

From the age of about five to 11 I would go there at least once a week, playing games, learning quotations from Anna's heroes (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa), putting on plays and doing improvisations that almost always descended into me and my partner shouting at each other, because what was acting if not shouting?  

Anna is no longer in charge of the building and it's now called the Young Actors Theatre, with a new Anna Scher Theatre nearby. There is a long, tortured and sad story behind this new state of affairs, but sitting in the room I'd done all my dramatic shouting in, I could still feel the magic of the space – reduced, but not gone. 

I think there's a point early in every British life where you become aware of class. For me, that point happened on this windswept tract of hard football pitch in Barnard Park. I was around ten years old and the rest of the lads in my football team realised that the blond guy in their midst, who lived in a big draughty house, not a council flat, was posh. 

Up until then, the ever-increasing levels of inequality present in Islington – and those levels are higher now than they were then, in the 90s – had not been fully brought to my attention. But as I came to be shunned and mocked by my teammates as I cried at how unfair it was (it wasn't my fault I was posh!), and as I tried to convince everyone Little Lord Fauntleroy was actually a violent geezer who fucking loved a scrap (I'm still an unnecessarily aggressive footballer), I began also to understand what I was getting: that because I had done nothing to deserve the bullying that came my way, I had also done nothing to deserve the many advantages I had over a lot of the people I grew up around. 

This is something I thought about at my primary school, as I looked onto what was once a playground but which is now a block of multi-coloured flats propped up by a Sainsbury's Local. Public land sold off for private gain. Like a lot of middle-class kids who initially went to state school in Islington, I ended up at a private school in another borough. This meant that Angel tube, with its long, long escalator (we were all very proud when it was built), became a daily fixture in my life, sending me out into North London to experience the wonders of things like playing fields, music departments and Latin – wonders that weren't available to my former schoolmates. 

My first school uniform involved shorts and a pink tie. Being at a private school in London also often meant experiencing a profound identity crisis that involved pretending, as hard as you could, that you were a rude boy. And so, I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. A boy who lived in a gated community talking about a man who died on his "estate". A guy who grew up with a lift in his house talking about how "mans wouldn't know how to get by where I'm from". 

A whole group of privileged people who wanted to have the one thing they could never truly have: street credibility. We knew that the original culture that came from London came out of the housing estates, from the pirate radios and the clubs where we had to keep our heads down. We wanted to belong in these places, but while I came – more or less – to accept that I couldn't pretend to be from there, couldn't pretend to be something I so obviously wasn't, a whole bunch of people committed to their new accents and new ways so hard that in the end the wind changed, and the rest of the world couldn't tell that behind the heavy flex was a posh kid who just wanted respect from the people his family's money and status had artificially elevated him above.    

Every day the tube took me out of Islington and I came to know fewer and fewer people in the area. My parents went away a lot and I had parties when they weren't there. Sometimes people from around the way would come and sometimes it wouldn't go well. I was headbutted twice on my doorstep. I came to hate my private school and I came to believe – as I still do – that private schools are deeply, terribly wrong and that they should be abolished. 

Today, as I look back on all this, I take the tube up to Rowans bowling in Finsbury Park. Back in the 90s, when I learnt to bowl there, the "American" food you got at Rowans seemed impossibly glamorous, even though it was objectively shit. Now, every other place in town sells a burger. But Rowans is still a magnet for people of all ages, all classes and all colours. It's still a place that feels as though it belongs to the community. It's not a Sainsbury's Local, even though attempts have been made to bulldoze it into flats. 

We all come from somewhere. We can't choose where we are born or really where we grow up. But we can choose what we take from these places. I'm 33 now. Writing that makes me feel ashamed in some way, just as walking out of the door to my parents' house does. Despite being given opportunities many people around me weren't given, I haven't become some great success, haven't hit the heights my privilege was meant to set me up for. 

This is what I've taken from Islington, though: a feeling that life is too unfair, too unequal; that it is better when it is lived together and that we must do what we can to stop the places we are from turning into hollowed-out markets whose souls have been ripped out. Some homes never change. Mine has. But amid that change, there is still something there, something to remember and something to cherish. 

@oscarrickettnow / @CBethell_Photo

Previously: Home Coming – Chesterfield