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Remembering East London Before You Came and Ruined It

I watched Shoreditch go from magical hinterland to the abattoir of culture it is today.

A shop in London's East End in 1978 (Photo via)

"'When will you pay me?' say the bells of Old Bailey. 'When I am rich,' say the bells of Shoreditch." So goes the rhyme from Oranges and Lemons. In the popular imagination, that's the role Shoreditch has always had: the heart of a mythical East End that is the darkness in the shadow of the City, the place the Victorians called "The Abyss" – all pea-soupers, Jack the Ripper, the Elephant Man and the Krays.

"When I am rich." The small one-bed flat downstairs from me just went for half a million. For some time now I've found myself unable to reconcile my astronomical rent with my understanding of the laws of the universe. Which tells me that the fateful day in the nursery rhyme is emphatically with us, and the transitional phase getting to that point – those loose, colourful, creative times that marked the East End during my days here – is over. The inevitable conclusion must be that this peculiar way of life I came to love is living on borrowed time, and my days here are numbered.

When I first arrived at the City Fringe it was all wasteland, all wonderful potential. I was wide-eyed and young, and Shoreditch seemed like the place where everything was possible, the pavement full of junk all the way down Sclater Street Market, a crushed up ping-pong ball with a hole in it on sale for 10p, a sign saying CHEAP BOOZE in massive hand-painted letters above a burned-out car. I couldn't believe my luck: I'd found a margin slack enough to afford the luxury of living in Zone 1 London on part-time bar job wages, a no-man's-land where the normal rules didn't apply. It was loose and shambolic enough that you could take the time thinking through how exactly how you might end up indulging your creative urges, or not – and failing that, at the very least, it was somewhere you could self-indulge in a more experimental approach to the realities of urban living.

I would wake up at lunchtime in the scruffy office with the grey acrylic astroturf carpet where I lived on Rivington Street. It took longer to stumble downstairs than to walk over the street from those provisional lodgings to my job at the Bricklayer's Arms, which in those days was Shoreditch's suitably wonky village pub. It was the sort of arrangement where you'd go out to get a pint of milk on your day off and not stagger home till noon the next day.

It was also the kind of job where I could write my first novel, in those dead mid-afternoon stretches when the trendies and the Swedish types were replaced with rag'n'bone men and sweatshop owners who looked like Sid James. Where on earth they are now that their sweatshops have become Sardinian sausage delis is anyone's guess. It took three years to write that book, and it took three years of me slacking while writing it for them to fire me from that pub. It was that kind of job.

But then, in Shoreditch in those days, no one had a proper job. They all had plans and got bits of work here and there, but I don't remember many people with 9 to 5s. That would have been impossible – nobody seemed to go to bed. Every weekend was like bank holiday in some demented resort, and I was a Yellow Coat. I remember one story about a bloke who fell off a seventh floor balcony at a party, landed on top of a soft-top sports car, dusted himself off and went back up to the party. These were not people whose priority was getting on the property ladder. They were not the breeders starting wooden-biked nuclear families who have Mumfordised the East End in the process.

It seems so strange to remember that when I first set foot here, friends in Camden or wherever didn't even know where Shoreditch was. But back then it was all below the radar – there was nothing above ground to see, just a load of dilapidated old factories, many still blitzed out and roofless. There were no Sainsbury's Locals. The 24-hour garage was the only shop, and food beyond Ginsters or Bounties was a challenge. Shoreditch in those days was not user-friendly like it is now. It was user-hostile, and that was partly the point.

As Sun Ra said about his gruelling 48-hour live sets, it "rooted out the wimps". I remember Hoxton Square actually had holes in it – big bomb craters left over from WWII that seemed especially perilous for all the drunks stumbling by of a pitch-black evening. A similar-sized hole in the terrace of warehouses on Charlotte Road became an art gallery for a while, before becoming the boutique front-of-house for a horrible multinational denim brand. The trajectory of that hole in the street is the trajectory of the area in general.

The Bricklayer's Arms as it is today (Photo via)

I walked past my old flat the other day, or at least the space where my old flat used to be. My old home has disappeared, razed to ground and replaced with the colossal leg of the Dubai-style "Ginger Line" bridge, sacrificed to the emerging infrastructure of the 21st century metropolis. It was at one end of a knackered old row of sweatshops, cut off at the neck by the new Shoreditch Overground station, a colossal concrete brut cuboid in the architectural idiom of the austere, bunker-like style bars that seemed so future-perfect when they first started sprouting up around here in the late-90s. Funny to think Cool Britannia even ended up as an architectural dogma, like Mussolini's fascist train stations.

Old Tom, the rag'n'bone man I used to serve crates of pale ale to at lunchtime in the Brickies, can still be seen scratching a living, selling bric-a-brac on a tiny remaining patch of shite in the shadow of the monorail and members' bar penthouse infinity pool. Tom was barred from the Brickies shortly after the new owners put some peanuts and olives on the bar to try and make it posher. He shat himself, put his hand down his trousers and then into the bowl, which got him barred for life. The funny bit is, he followed the trendies further east and was next seen on Broadway Market propping up the bar of the Cat & Mutton.

I'm trying not to make this a lament, but more an acceptance of the inevitable trajectory towards London's post-industrial future. Maybe Shoreditch has come into its own, become what it always hinted at – threatened. The mythical downtown landscape that was always its fate: trains now glide above the streets on the once disused and leaking bridges, steam rises to the newly skyscrapered skies, HoxDitch has become SoHo or TriBeCa.

Punters at Streetfest Shoreditch in 2012 (Photo by Joshua Haddow)

But I can't pretend it doesn't pain me to walk by places like Boxpark. Those stacked up shipping containers strike me as the ultimate cautionary tale of the cul-de-sac that culture based on coolness and consumption – which Shoreditch spearheaded – has ended up in. One big slight of hand, all these lifestyle corporations pretending, cuckoo-like, to be somehow counter-cultural: "Our other branch is at Westfield," the staff, who look like bearded trolley dollies, invariably tell you. The whole place looks like it could be next year's X-Factor set, with inescapable corporate RnB-pop piped too loudly everywhere as you jostle past the CGI'd teenagers with the directional hair.

I also can't pretend it doesn't rile me seeing that horrid generation of shit celebrities filling up the style bars. The creative bankruptcy and wanton emptiness of the age we're trapped in finds its highest, most perfect embodiment in these fuckers who fill the pages of Grazia, swanning around with their equally unsettling E4 presenter friends like they own the place. The awful fact of the matter is, they actually do, every last luxury flat of it – flats so new they resemble computer simulations, Minecraft apartments in their cleanliness and amnesia.

There's no getting round it – this scruffy old mongrel of a place has been groomed into a coiffured poodle's arsehole. I have no place in Shoreditch 2.0, and I suppose I'll just end up further out, much further out, beyond that deadening Midas touch of the Olympics that has sealed Hackney's fate, out to the shit bits no one's ever heard of. And when I walk around these shit bits – taking stock of the massive African vegetables, the Hasidic Jewish hat shops and the gorgeous proper kebabs – I remember an old feeling, the feeling that the whole world in all its messy beauty is crammed into London's bottleneck streets, all that kaleidoscopic complexity and the collisions that result, and I remember what it was I loved about the East End in the first place – a feeling I miss, and occasionally shudder at the thought of.

Michael Smith is a writer, filmmaker and broadcaster. He is the author of three works of fiction, The Giro Playboy, Shorty Loves Wing Wong and Unreal City.

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