Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Venturing back into the vast metropolis that is London

Soho

Soho - Credit: Archant

UP betimes, to travel into London for the first time in almost two years. Some might be surprised that a man could avoid visiting our great metropolis for so long. Almost the whole of the arts and media world centres upon London. Authors, musicians, playwrights and painters all hope if not to actually appear in London, then at least to be acknowledged in reviews by somebody in London.

London is regarded as quite important – in London. Even the yearly Edinburgh Festival seems chiefly to consist of performers and reviewers who’ve come from London, rather than Edinburgh itself; all decamping there for a claustrophobic, expensive month, in order to display their wares.

So “important” is London deemed to be in our provinces that young rock bands will gladly pay their own expenses in order to play unpaid in some dreadful, stinky, Camden pub. Having arrived, they’ll discover that the management company rep who promised to come and see them “...if you’re ever playing up in town...” hasn’t turned up. Now they’ll find that their audience – unless they’ve brought with them a coachload of their home supporters – will stand at the bar, talking loudly, ignoring them throughout, whilst the band attempts to save face by giving a nervy and over-stated performance.

Meanwhile, the visual artist who eventually gets his or her own London exhibition will often watch the host gallery taking the lion’s share of any profits, merely by virtue of the fact that it happens to be situated in that great city.

For hopeful performers in either music or drama, auditions will be short and dismissive. Potential agents may be indifferent, and reviewers – if they deign to arrive at all – will be jaded and brutal. Venue hire is extortionate, drinks prices are conceited and venue managers will insist on taking a big rake-off from any merchandise which the performer is trying to sell, in rearguard efforts to bump up pathetic or non-existent performance fees.

London doesn’t care. London, in fact, has seen them all come and go, coldly taken the money, gone for a drink and then staggered home, ready for another day being the World’s Most Important Place.

Should the performer or artist be thick-skinned or determined enough to make headway, he’ll suddenly discover that the dressing room’s packed with complete strangers, all helping themselves to free drinks whilst clapping him on the back, as they lie “I’ve been following your progress with interest.”

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The writer William Cobbett, a champion of rural England during the 1820s, compared London to a large cyst when he rechristened it the Great Wen: “But, what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, ‘the metropolis of the empire?’” Cobbett sounds almost as twisted as your Essex correspondent here, doesn’t he? And yet...

As I walk out of Belsize Park tube station and up Haverstock Hill – a place which I probably hadn’t visited for decades, rather than years – I am struck by its cheerful elegance and I find myself liking it.

At midday, having concluded business there, I take a tube train to Oxford Circus for no other reason than to revisit Soho. Of all the parts of central London, Soho is probably the area which I know best. It’s a place of narrow bustling streets, alleyways, cut-throughs and courts. For years, I recorded music there: played, drank, plotted and met with the people in whose hands my music career (or not) would rest.

Soho, like so many places in London, once you get to know it, is actually a village. Whenever I return there, my walk speeds up, I feel an urge to spark up a fag – even though I haven’t smoked for years – and I become a part of it again. That’s not to say that I’m not still an Essex-country-boy-in-London, and yet I seem somehow to have retained dual citizenship.

Now I walk down Denmark Street. A narrow thoroughfare in the shadow of Centre Point, it runs between Charing Cross Road and St Giles High Street and is famous for its music shops. Here, in the old Giacconda Cafe, aged 17, having taken a day off from an Ardleigh pig farm, I had my first music biz audition. Over the years, I would return there many times for other meetings and other deals. London, for all of my earlier condemnation, can be the world’s zippiest place when the going gets good. Some people travel there and the city simply swallows them up. They become Londoners. In the end, however, no matter how many times I returned, I never really could.

Typically, in those days, an album’s recording or the run of work would finish. At the end of it all, there’d be a great big drink with the other musicians, the recording engineers and the tape operators. These people had become your family for the duration of the project. You’d laughed and argued and lived out of each other’s pockets for weeks. But now it was over. Time to head for grimy old Liverpool Street station and get on the train home.

Through the broken-toothed grin of East London’s skyline you’d go, past Romford, until you saw the honest open skies and flat fields of Essex again. Only then would your dull headache begin to clear and the colour green be restored to the spectrum.

To be continued...

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