H.M.P Our Room

The afternoon sunshine warmed my back as I lay squashed against the bus window. Still, of course you can see that being squashed isn’t the part of that image that sticks out. It is sunny! And we’re in London!

London is the best place to be when it is sunny. The new-ish Southbank Centre outdoor bit, put together for the Festival of Neighbourhood, I heard was designed as a mirror of the sporadic nature of the London riots – a kind of stubborn, brazenly optimistic act of positive spin – with a lot of yellow painted about. It really does work, if its purpose is to make people happy. It worked for me. Wood built vegetable gardens, which I saw being made from go to woe over my time at the Literature Festival, with pots of rhubarb growing down from the roof. The rooftop terrace with fake grass and cocktails. The dancers, costumed folk, and other buskers whose entertainment style ranged from ultra-modern and cool, sideways capped, neighbourhood-ey rap and pop with bike tricks, to the dirty and demanding greas-ohs who demand that the crowd clap and laugh ten minutes before any trick appears, and single out cross-armed fathers who aren’t participating (a bit Carney, but not ironically). Cafes with chalk boards whose writers are obsessed with font; bunting everywhere. Council morale planners have decided to make the best of things, and it’s a fun and approachable place. If you want somewhere to write in London, check out the upstairs bits in the Southbank Centre. Quiet but attached to noise and movement, cafes and drinks, power plugs and free wifi, and inspiration.

Back on the bus, and my back was squashed up against the window because I was letting my bag have the seat. I had just enough room to shove my legs, one at a time, between it and the wheel arch. But it was okay. Because we were going back to Islington. As we crossed the river and approached King’s Cross, the four storey brick buildings with their white brick window frames and rounded edges made me feel physically happy. We were late to meet Anastasia, an Australian from Melbourne, who it turns out had only gotten her keys from Andrea, the (Spanish I think) landlord the day before. Andrea is in Berlin.

It turns out that we are now living near to H.M.P Holloway – H.M.P an acronym for Her Majesty’s Prison. (Oddly, it’s one of the first time I’ve heard something referred to as ‘Her Majesty’s’ since I’ve been here – I guess it was good PR at the time it was built). It is of red brick, and the walls are covered with the same lime green leaves that line the street. It looks rather nice, actually. We found out that we were living a few doors down when we went to an office of Her Majesty’s Postal System yesterday (well, there’s another one. There’s a link there somewhere: Australia was a combination of a prison and the English Postal Service, you could say; nowadays it takes a little less time for things to arrive by boat). ‘Oh, Parkhurst Street?’ said the woman at the counter, who had patiently sat while we filled out the form for sending clothes home (it’s apparently not enough to say, ‘clothes’ on the content form – you have to list, ‘15 shirts, 3 pairs of pants,’ etc). We’d put down that address. ‘I just know that address. It’s for the prison.’ We stared for a second, almost ready to reach for our iPhones and figure out how we’d been duped on airbnb. ‘Everyone comes in here and sends things to the prison at 1 Parkhurst Street.’ An audible sigh of relief. We were at a number in the forties.

Most of the street, Parkhurst Street consists of houses smacked together from dark brown and yellow brick, which look perpetually wet. The lilacs in flower and the leaves practically leap off the branches in this weather. We are not far from Finsbury Park, where we stayed with Bert and Nectarious. I love it here.

Turning up to the house, Anastasia was about to head out for the Byance (I’ve forgotten how to spell that) concert. ‘Andrea told me to tell you that we were better friends than we actually were,’ she said, laughing. ‘I’m not doing that.’ Typical Australian. It’s not my imagination – we really are a different kind of people. Easy going, and straight up but fine about it. Perhaps it’s Melbournians. Or perhaps it’s just us three.

(Hang on – what am I talking about? I’m not easy going at all.)

Our room’s size must have been determined by someone taking a cricket bat and laying it first one way, and then at a 90 degree angle, and making a pencil mark at each measurement. It’s not quite that small, but it’s small. And the house smells like pneumonia. The lights are on a sensor that must be connected to an elderly man in a three-piece suit sitting upstairs with a pocket watch, looking through a hole in the floor. They flick off as soon as you leave the room. This startles you and you stop, and turn back your head – and they snap back on. There is a washer and drier, though. There were no sheets provided (?) and so we got some from an – gulp – op shop this afternoon. I’ve got no problems with charity shops – I bought a jacket and a shirt at the same shop – but the idea of sleeping on sheets that someone else has slept on makes me nervous. But there was only one set of sheets in the shop; they were the right size, and an optimistic shade of blue, so we got them. I’ll get over it.

 

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Somerset House. Or, the Inland Revenue, on the other side. (I think.) Don’t the English have a way of making Tax sound wonderful? That’s the issue with the bedroom tax – they either messed it up, or lost the fight over language. They should have called it the Unused Space Redistribution Through Possible (But Not Definite) Redistribution to the Homeless, or something.

Anyway. Somerset House is basically carved from stone they probably found at the Cliffs of Dover. It’s courtyard is filled with fountains, single spouts of water that shoot low and get highter, and through which kids, and fully grown men being filmed for youtube, run without umbrellas. The cafe at Somerset House has the a) best mandarin and chocolate chip cake, or in other words, the best cake, in the Universe. And b) recommended to me a strumpy, which is espresso with less milk (‘the right amount’, as they said to me), and a bit more coffee, in it. Sounds basic. Tastes super awesome.

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A Cafe called Fleet Street Press in Fleet street, which is wonderful. I sat here and wrote a piece for a Guardian competition. Fleet street is weird and gothic. The weird and gothic photos below were taken there.

 

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The English have a way of messing up punctuation and grammar in with annoying frequency. In Ireland, too – but it’s not their first language, so I’ll forgive the Irish (In Dublin, someone has gone around with a bag full of apostrophes and thrown them at anything that will stick: ‘Dave’s Car’s’ was my favourite, because the apostrophe was actually a physical thing that someone bought and put on a wall with other letters, not just an irresponsible sign writer). But anyway, does anyone think that the second ‘OR’ in this sign, which I saw on the 579 to Parkhurst, should be an ‘AND’? Am I wrong? Or is anyone else picturing whole bus full of punters groaning and getting off when there’s a wheelchaired person waiting at the stop ahead?

 

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The sheer effort, however, that the gentlemen at the Model Trains Appreciation Society put in to the punctuation on this box of magazines from the 1960s makes me a little emotional. Look at those apostrophes for the slang missing letters! I mean, the double quotation marks are non-English standard, and I would have probably put a comma in there somewhere, but those are just convention and style decisions. Well played, guys. Well played.

 

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Urban fox. Cool.

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