palimpsest n. 1. a parchment or other surface in which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. 2. something bearing visible traces of an earlier form
They’ve finally closed the Foundry. It’s been on the cards for a while – to the various outrage and disbelief of London’s couriers and hipsters, Park Plaza are going to build a “hotel and retail space” on the site. But it had to happen; there was no way such a prime location was going to be passed over indefinitely. If I were in the business of building luxury hotels, I’d build one there. It’s on a major junction (with enough space around it that the building will be visible all the way from the Old Street roundabout), right in the middle of Hoxton, which has just the right trendy/arty/hipster vibe, whilst being conveniently right on the edge of the City. If I were flying in from my TriBeCa loft in New York for a breakfast meeting with my shareholders, Hotel Hoxton would make me feel perfectly at home. And, as people have been pointing out for quite a while, the artists and squatters stopped moving into Hoxton years ago. They’re all heading for Camberwell and Tottenham now, priced out by the media professionals – who will in turn be diluted by the pinstripes ebbing out from the City. A 10-minute morning stroll to Exchange Square for your Pret sandwiches and professional engagements, then a lazy cab back to Old Street in the evening, freshen up at the hotel, and cocktails and sushi in Hoxton Square. Nice, if that’s your sort of thing.
But the Foundry is such a loss. Ride past it any evening of the week, from about 6, and you’d see dozens of battered, stickered bikes (hundreds on a Friday) locked all along the railings outside, and half the city’s couriers packed onto the big wide pavement outside, whatever the weather, still bristling with radios and bags, guzzling cheap lager from the bar (or cheaper cans from the off-licence over the road), glowing with the euphoria, exhaustion and sweat of a day on the road, breaking off from conversations for a cheer or a slap on the back as someone else pulls up, stumbling or darting in and out of the crowd on a mission to round people up for an alleycat, or borrow a fiver, or find out if that rumour is really true about how…
The Foundry was home, family, our own place. After a day of being shouted at by pedestrians, cut up by cabbies, undertaken by motorbikes, ignored by controllers, patronized by receptionists and hit on by security guards, the Foundry was where people would be on your side. They’d ask how your day went, and sympathize, and understand, and care when you told them. You’d be the protagonist in your own story again, rather than just the small, soft, insignificant cyclist being hit by a car in the corner of the big picture – Like Breugel’s Icarus, tumbling unnoticed into the sea while the world carries on without him. And there’d be mutual respect and admiration, rather than the contempt, pity, and plain confusion with which most people seem to view our job. Fellow couriers judge you by the standards you want to be judged by – rather than commenting on my arse or accent, like every other receptionist and security guard in town, people at the Foundry would remark that they’d seen me going particularly fast today, or that I did well in that shouting match with the van driver on Oxford Street.
Of course, this solidarity transcends mere geography, and will just as easily alight upon the Duke, or Fullcity, or wherever else people gravitate to now the Foundry’s gone. But, as the scaffolding and tarpaulins go up, and half the junction’s blocked off, and the whole thing’s pulled to pieces, the bulldozers will be pulling up the anchor of a huge sprawling web of collective experiences and memories that, yes, will continue to exist, but without the physical underpinnings that brought them together in the first place. Perhaps they’ll be all the stronger – after all, nostalgia is a powerful and compelling thing, and the days of the Foundry will now pass into legend. One more thing to mock the newbies with: “back when we were at the Foundry… oh, sorry – before your time”.
The Foundry looked like the bastard child of a well-trodden local pub and a squatful of art students. Most of the furniture was decades old and might well have been salvaged from skips. There were strange junk sculptures and banks of old flickering TV screens around the place. People who know more than I do about such things spoke very highly of the music. But the best thing was the graffiti. Along with big names like Faile and Banksy, countless clientele had left their marks over the years, and over the top of those that went before. The women’s toilets, for example, were a riot of wit, profanity, colour and beauty, with not a single empty bit of wall – the perfect physical manifestation of how a place becomes imbued with the images and ideas and memories of those that have passed through it.
And this is one of the ways I’ve come to look at all of London, not least the Foundry. I’ve been here almost five years now, and every part of town has been written, and rewritten, and overlaid again with the memories I’ve created in that time. When I ride down a certain street, it rarely has just one association for me – there’s usually a whole cacophony of different experiences that come to mind, from very different parts of my life, with different people, in different moods. They don’t cancel each other out. They don’t obscure each other. They just continue to exist, in amusing or uneasy symphony, reminding me that life is far too complex to come in just one flavour. Take the Foundry as an example. The first time I went there – years before I was a courier, or even knew it was a courier pub – was on my second date with a girl I later fell in love with. We took the sofa in the corner, to the right of the door as you come in, and she lay with her head in my lap and asked me to tell her a story, which, awkwardly, I did. A couple of years later, on the other side of the room, I joined in with a meeting of activists (dragged along by a friend), as they planned some disruptive protest in Mayfair the following month. I was a bit out of my depth, confused by the consensus hand signals, and sceptical when they insisted on standing outside to discuss the really sensitive information, in case the room was bugged. Then I became a courier, and it started to feel like home – even though I didn’t actually go there very regularly. The room took shape around the memories I felt every time I walked in, the activists and the girl jostling with the beery post-work couriers, and each evening foreshadowed by the many that had gone before.
Every street in London is like this. I ride down them and I’m amazed at how much has changed. Here I am in 2005, in my cheap H&M shirt with a coffee stain, fresh out of university and on my way to my first temp job. Here I am six months later, in heels, at 2am, hailing a taxi with a group of someone else’s friends, and hoping I can afford my part of the fare. Here I am on my brand-new-second-hand Dawes Giro that I got for £75, getting the junction wrong and ending up going the wrong way down a one-way street. Here I am waiting for that girl outside the tube, to say goodbye before I move to India. Here I am on my pink Surly Steamroller, on the way to a lecture, spotting the same chap on the same bike I spotted two days earlier, and remembering how different this road looked when I used to walk it instead of cycling. And now here I am, riding along it several times a day, revelling in all these echoes and vestiges, and marvelling at how inextricably my life is woven in amongst these streets – and wondering what memories they hold for everyone else.
I finished today in Clerkenwell Tales, rummaging through their ‘London’ section, where I came across a couple of books by Iain Sinclair, and Necropolis: London and its Dead, by Catherine Arnold. I haven’t read anything substantial by Sinclair, but maybe now’s the time – much as I do on my bike, he walks around London and its environs and writes about them, heavily influenced by psychogeography, which is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”. But not for him the usual charming touristy ambles along medieval streets. He writes about Hackney and the M25 and the unwelcome and unpicturesque disruption of the Olympic building site: “long-established businesses closed down, travellers expelled from edgeland settlements, allotment holders turned out”. Read this article, if you have time. It’s a good representation of all the things that are, quite literally, taking place in any given location, that few people are really aware of, and which will disappear without a trace as soon as the location changes, or is removed. A few people will retain their memory, and perhaps share it – “remember that park the kids used to hang out in? the bench outside the supermarket? the path down by the canal?” – but eventually they will die, and there will be no reason for anyone to remember these pointless but poignant little traditions any more.
Catherine Arnold’s book tells us that London is one big graveyard, the foundations of the city packed with human remains dating back to its earliest days, in tombs, burial chambers, plague pits, cemeteries and charnel houses. Anyone building anything in London has to excavate down through the many layers and levels of what was built before, usually encountering several of its former inhabitants along the way. The city has been built and rebuilt countless times, each new incarnation superceding – but never quite effacing – those that went before. Its history has been rewritten so many times that, if you could see it, it would be an incomprehensible scribbled mess, so dense as to be almost black.
The physical history is easy enough to spot – there are the graveyards, the buildings, the ruins of the old walls, the crazily crooked streets in the City, where modern buildings follow medieval lines. But the other histories, of what people did and thought and said and shared, are almost invisible. There’s the odd blue plaque here and there, usually commemorating some dead white guy who “lived and worked in this house”. But what of all the other others who’ve lived and worked here? They vanish without a trace. In a hundred years time, no one will know that there was such thing as a cycle courier, and that the people who did this improbable job used to congregate at a pub called the Foundry – or at the vents on Wood Street, or on the corner of Broadwick and Poland in Soho. And if some record does survive, will anyone really care? And could they ever possibly imagine the great richness of friendship and suffering and hilarity and mythology these people shared?