The Little Shop that Shouldn’t

Every day I walk past a little shop: The Village something or other. Some whimsical misnomer that transports one’s mind to the pastoral wholesomeness of a little hamlet set into greening mountainside, far from the bustling grey of London, far from the anonymous rush and the industrial, faceless cement and plastic flimsiness of relentless commercialism, to a quaint place of smiles and bowed roofs where cows chew the cud and the smell of slow baking bread fills the valley with its hearthside scent.  

Through the windows of the shop I see great loaves and cakes and biscuits and exotic chorizo, crumbly cheese and jam jars of chutney spread out on a bare, gnarled tabletop. The table legs are painted pastel and the tops are barren and raw and unvarnished, as if the table was rescued from the kitchen of a farmer’s homestead somewhere in rural Cyprus. The floor is bare wood and were it not for the warmth dribbling up from the underfloor heating, one would feel as though they had stepped in the romantic idea of some well kept peasant’s hovel. Brown twine hangs by the window frames and tied into are cloves of garlic interspersed by little packages of delectable niceties. Their sugar coatings glisten innocently. 

The bread, rotund and fat and welcoming, looks freshly baked but there is no oven in the small room. The crusts are cracked and tanned as if they had been sprayed by an artist and they are just the right amount of imperfect, just the right amount of misshaped. Sourdough, pumpernickel, ciabatta, focaccia; loaves with seeds in them, loaves dotted with raisins, square loaves and spherical loaves; all picketed by their own twee little signs denoting the prices: £4, £5, £6 and so on. Pleasantries and trite nothings are scrawled crudely and in charming handwriting about the walls of the shop and words jump from the curated mess: “Artisanal”, “Freshly baked”, “Organic”. In the fridge humming and casting a lazy glow by the wall, cans and pop-cap bottles with unrecognisable, calligraphic labels and beautiful pictures of lemons and hops and barley, and rose-cheeked children smiling, that look to have been masterfully designed in a loft in Paris, shiver with seeping droplets of condensation.

And each day, alone in his empty little shop, the proprietor, a young man in the mire of his thirties stands clicking dolefully on a Mac upon the table top, one foot crossed over the other. He glances outside past the milk cart he has sawn in half and placed pristinely by the doorway next to two empty milk pails and sees me stroll past. I imagine him to have started his stupid little shop on the capital of a trust fund. I imagine him to have thought himself mightily clever for noticing a gap in the market for unpackaged bread that warrants being sold for quadruple what it is worth, since it is wrapped in brown grease proof paper and tied with twine. I imagine him to delude himself that he is a self-sufficient entrepreneur and happily contributing to Britain’s economic growth.

I see him, and I look into his eyes and a small, guilty, fantastical part of me wishes that one day I could walk by his shop and see its doors shut, the lights off, and just beyond the glint of the window panes, the silhouette of his feet dangling loosely, rotating, ever so gradually, North East to South East and back again. He having despaired at the ruination of his silly, silly business.

For he is a symptom of the attritional gentrification that pours like a plague over London. He moves in flogging bread that, unless its flour is harvested from the fields of Elysium, is possible only of being marginally better than whatever is on the shelves of Sainsburys. He marks up his wares so they are unaffordable to all but the slickest of City bankers. And with him come those inordinately, undeservedly wealthy bankers. And with the suits comes higher rent, higher house prices and more expensive pints. And slowly, slowly, unnoticeably withdraw the poor citizens from this little area of London further afield, kowtowed and beaten by the subterfuge of gentrification that does not push them, but gnaws its way into their being and forces them to march. With this man’s faux-wholesome bollocks – a little play at purity and rugged pastoralness in a place devoid of it – come wankers who slurp it up because “you can taste the quality, Grace” and “well, actually, Oliver won’t eat Hovis; he’s very discerning!”

That is just the way of it. Slowly the culture of London that comes only from the poor is bought by the rich for pennies on the pound and turned into a gross parody of itself; it is purchased like intellectual property and framed on the white walls of large living rooms in the penthouse suites of glass towers. And the painters are left to scrounge on the dole, the inventors and creators scrabble for the crumbs. There is no stopping the advance of Artisanal bread.

Well, today I walked by the shop. The lights were off, the doors were shut, and in the window a sign said “Shop to Let”.

It seems the invisible hand of the free market has some welly in it yet.

That is, until the next foppish young scout comes along, and just behind him waiting, his clientele. 

The Country Mouse.

I told myself when I set up this blog that I was not going to join the hordes of (mostly American) bloggers who insist on treating this medium like a public diary. The type that write twee little articles about their curious foray into the local McDonalds where the greasy pimple behind the counter shortchanged them by a dime and the blogger in question then felt the necessity to chronicle, in excruciating detail, the subsequent awkward and angst-ridden exchange; the spellbinding conclusion of which is the return of the aforementioned dime.

I was adamant that – if I must have defied my sensibility – I was going to at least stick to absurd literary vomit. I was solely about the outrageous opinions and producing a glorious mess of needlessly convoluted locution and inane, vain attempts to be funny. This blog was to be a conceited, brutishly abrasive discombobulation.

But now the spectre of hypocrisy has incessantly tapped its long spindly finger against my head and through an attritional process of self-denial, self-justification and reluctant acceptance I must melt into the anonymous multitude.

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I alighted the train at St. Pancras on the 23rd of September 2013 with an exhilarated titillation. I had, what I assume must have looked like, the most enraptured, enthralled, innocuously wide-eyed beam of trepidation and enthused euphoria since Babe pig in the City. I had a rucksack on my back, my neck was craned upwards like someone had shoved a splint down my trachea and I must’ve looked like easy pickings to any budding Romanian pick-pocket.

This is because today I was starting my Master of Laws postgraduate degree at UCL.

For the uninitiated among whomever has the time to read this, London is incomprehensibly grandiose and unceasingly fast; its a contemporary masterpiece; the concomitant of a billion generational rings that descend from ancient tribal settlements, Roman imperialism, a 17th century cesspit of Royal decadence, a Victorian centre of innovation and Hitlers very own ‘Big Yellow Storage’ for Luftwaffe bombs through to the thriving conurbation it now is. Its the throbbing, Brobdingnagian engine of the country; the vast, pulsating nucleus of this island cell. It teems with rivers of motivated, driven people – all individual, all forming a metallurgical compound that spins and clicks and meets like cogs behind the scenes of this corporate financial steamship. London is inexplicable and inexpressible.

Therefore, being as it is that I come from a sheltered, lilliputian, middle-class, predominantly caucasian town, London is like a shot of heroine into the arm of my preconceptions. All of its facets, its towering skyline, its pace, its immense architecture, its size, the roads, the cars, the permanent and simmering sense of hurried urgency swirl and whip up into a culture shock-tornado that stirs inside me, takes the breath from my lungs and replaces it with renewed, invigorated, purified, icy cold oxygen that gushes through me. The City lights a fire under your ass – it makes you want to do things, to achieve things, to work, to run, to grab life by its big dangling balls.

Well… it does me, anyway.

I walked in the besotted fashion of an infatuated teenager, reeking idolatry with every step as I strode naively down Euston Road gazing up at the biblically epic display of brick and cement.

The unmerciful ruthlessness of London inhabitants became apparent pretty soon.

At the traffic lights it is never, I repeat, never safe to go until the green LED man tells you you’re allowed. Whereas in other towns (certainly the one I’m from) you can implement common sense and walk across before Mr. Green tells you to because you can see there’s no cars on the road, in London this is not the case. Even if you think the black cab with the predatory looking driver is not moving, as soon as you set foot into the road when you are not meant to, it will rev up in impatient acrimony and surge forth with more intensity that the charge of the 600. Then 20 buses will follow suit and you are left rigid suffering mild cardiac arrest.

Walking requires a higher mental investment than it does elsewhere. It is a recommended requirement that you plan your steps at least 10 ahead – if you’re thinking that this is ridiculous because you generally walk in a straight line – No. You hop and skip and twist and slalom and wriggle your way through the human labyrinth that beams concentration from every face. And they will not move. They will not budge; they walk like intent automated robots that have had a route programmed into their circuitry and must reach destination come death or glory.

Eventually I came to Gower Road – it runs as a black river that serves to split two sides of the UCL campus. On the right hand corner of Gower Road rises an immense, swirling behemoth of turquoise glass – the UCL Hospital. It’s an architecturally apt display of immense proportion that portends a glorious structural standard.

Down past the ambulance entrance that forms the vehicular anal cavity of the aforementioned Hospital, further still past Lewis Building which guards the corner of one of the tarmac tributaries that splits from Gower Road, regally adorned with a triumphant bust (presumably of the buildings namesake), down further past the dark clay brick work of the UCL Cruciform adorned with the University’s title in thick metal signage, standing all towers and cone roofs like Hogwarts; finally I came upon one of two (what looked like) brick versions of guardhouses.

Lingering about the immediate area, salient amongst the incipient infestation of nubile freshers, were veteran students sporting purple sashes and welcoming smiles, too eager to assist. I walked past them and between the guardhouses.

‘Fu-uck-ing He-ell’. This was my syllabic exclamation as I shuffled in awestruck silence through the crowd – all bubbly chatter and inane pleasantries.

Beyond the guardhouses, erupting triumphantly in the middle distance, superiorly stupendous, silently standing in an inanimate cognisance like a concrete Greco-Roman deity – judiciously erect, surveying the mortals of flesh below – stands an impressive columnar structure adorned with a dome that could have been Christopher Wren’s own. Wilkins Building.

It is not the building only, its the way it comes so immediately into view from beyond the corner of the guardhouses. Its how it stands – almost wise – in amongst the sea of embryonic intellectuals. Its the UCL banners that sway between its columns bearing  propagandist motifs. Its the throngs of students sitting on its steps smoking roll ups and talking about the MDMA that made them feel “really up but really down and a bit inflated” or how D’Shaun stuck his fingers in Betty’s orifice.

By a quirk of serendipity my Law library rests within the hollows of this building. At the top of the spiral staircase that leads like the subject of a Led Zeppelin song to the library itself is a circular foyer centred around a massive marble statue of (what I can only assume) is a Greek hero plunging a spear into (what I can only assume) is less of a Greek hero.

Its overwhelming, its intimidating, its expectant, its all encompassing, its intoxicating.

The busts of esteemed but expired academics and intellectuals that line the corridors stare anticipatively down, their dead and empty eyes implore you to rise to the occasion and to weave yourself into the fabric of the antiquated lineage of educated prestige that encompasses every atom of this institution.

The professors – all masters in their fields are there because they want to be, because they get some kind of buzz off of teaching you. It is a thrilling feeling to know that an intellectual of the most lofty heights wants to devote his time to you.

I’m a builders son; I’ve worked on building sites and in warehouses and here I am studying in the 4th best University on PLANET EARTH. I occupy a place on this course for which (so said the lecturer) for every person accepted, four were rejected. I do not belong here I think, I’m the proverbial hick with a corn husk hanging from the corner of his mouth trying to walk and talk like the city slickers.

But I’m damned if this vague sense of inadequacy is going to hold me back. Dear God am I intent on proving myself, on showing that I can make the grade, that I can fight in the same ring as silver-spooned, privately educated, estate reared posh boys. To be given the chance to study at UCL is to be a part of something intensely special and I will wring every drop from this fortuity.

I am privileged, I am infinitely lucky, I am honoured and I am eternally grateful simply to walk in this place, let alone to be allowed to study here.