A Dalston miscellany – portrait of a place MMVIII — Oliver Harris

When a traveller in north-east London takes the wrong turning at the junction of Mare Street just beyond Amhurst Road, he comes upon a crowded and curious quarter.

Dalston is where it all began, and whence it will all return. Theosophists have identified it as the original Omphalos, the ‘navel of the World’, although a recent exegesis of an encyphered John Dee manuscript has suggested that ‘navel’ may be a euphemism for another circular feature located further down the human abdomen.

The district—which is defined by the appearance of its shopfronts and the particular look characteristic of the faces of its denizens rather than by any strict geographical boundaries—is neatly bisected by the A10, which follows the course of Ermine Street, the ancient Roman road from Bishopsgate in the walls of old Londinium to Lincoln and York. Tacitus, in his Life of Agricola, recounts that the area now known as Dalston was sacred to the Trinovantes, and that the epicentre of worship was a grove dedicated to a local goddess whose name is now long forgotten, but whom he equated with Demeter. Today the site is occupied by a garishly-lit off license (cheapest Dragon Stout in E8) run by a surly one-eyed Chechen named Dmitri. A few doors south along Kingsland Road one encounters the Peruvian restaurant where, rumour has it, a syncretic DMT cult holds ayahuasca ceremonies in a secret basement room every other Thursday. This is the very stuff of Dalston: a nexus of unimagined interconnections, vectors of weirdness spiralling out from an ill-defined centre, gradients of unlikeliness from the merely surreal—so commonplace in these parts as to be mundane—to vistas of dizzying postmodern transcendence. One senses this most acutely at those odd times between night and daybreak when the sign in the Overground station appears to indicate that Dalston Kingsland is in InterZone 2, and this somehow seems more real than what one rationally knows to be true, in the headspace of a couple of late nights in a row, too many cans of Tyskie and the beginnings of what one perversely half-hopes might be swine flu, but is probably just a cold. To walk through this neighbourhood in a receptive state of mind is to become, like Robert Plant, a traveller of both time and space.

In the Old Brewery Tap, just across the road from the Peruvian joint, furtive whispers are exchanged under the over-loud strains of Lady Gaga about shadowy figures imagined or half-glimpsed to emerge from the restaurant’s darkened doorway and melt into the London night in the damp, dead hours of Friday morning at the winding up of a lock-in…human in size, but in the form of softly padding jaguars, jewel-green lizards and chevroned boas with glittering obsidian eyes, birds sporting exotic polychrome plumage. Jungle fauna. A Guinness-sodden Kerryman blinks uncertainly in the diffuse haze of sodium yellow and crosses himself as he stumbles home.

Returning to the east side of the street and heading a short distance further south, one reaches the Internet café run by friendly, qat-chomping Somalis, from which so-far unsuccessful attempts to topple the Mogadishu regime are orchestrated on an almost monthly basis.

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Something in Dalston seems to exaggerate or caricature cultural memes. It was at the Sainsbury’s in Kingsland Shopping Centre that Keith Floyd appeared in person to launch the retail giant’s ‘Get Shitfaced For A Fiver’ campaign. Crossing Kingsland High Street to the west and following Balls Pond Road, one encounters an Afro-Futurist bookshop selling DVDs of revelatory lectures, ostensibly proving William Shakespeare’s authorship of the Holy Bible. I once witnessed a heated argument outside the shop between a Rasta and a Scientologist; frenzied yelling about Babylon and body thetans could just be made out above the roar of a passing 277. I left before things turned ugly. Back across Dalston Junction, past the noodle bar with the faded photographs of spring rolls and Tom Yum, then further on beyond a development of ill-planned luxury flats that will never be filled, our meandering route comes to an old Boy’s Brigade hall with a curious Latin motto newly emblazoned across the entrance. It was here that Dan Brown led a protest all of two-dozen strong against the opening by Ruth Kelly of London’s Opus Dei chapter HQ. It never made the papers: Kelly is a member of the same Lodge as Max Clifford. Just down the road is the primary school where London’s first pre-pubescent grime crew, Litl Shitz, gave their debut performance. Years later, Simon Reynolds would reminisce at length about the seminal show, although no-one else who attended would remember him being there.

It is presumably for reasons like these that the district has had such accolades of coolness heaped on it by Italian Vogue, leaving Shibuya, Friedrichshain and the Lower East Side in its fried chicken-scented wake. But Dalston also possesses that air of urban timelessness, as eternal today as when it was sensed by Charles Dickens and Arthur Morrison in another century. You can sense it still in the cryptic graffiti resembling obscure runic epitaphs or anthropomorphic petroglyphs, tags like tribal totems suggestive of animal or human forms that would seem to belong more to the rock walls of Lascaux or Tassili n’Ajjer than to a twenty-first century city; alien and yet familiar, beckoning to us out of deep Time. Anachronism in E8 runs deeper than the reproduction 1980s Casio adorning the wrist of a would-be music journalist in his mid-20s as he sips a £4 bottle of cider in a chandelier-lit pub with ‘Love Is The Drug’ playing on the juke box…he raises his spare hand in laconic greeting to an underweight girl who’s just minced in from the street wearing a paper-thin vest top that hangs off one bony shoulder. The garment gaily proclaims the phrase HIROSHIMA PORNO in pink sequins. Her male companion boasts a hairstyle best described as cubist and wears a tight-fitting T-shirt with a stencilled design depicting Osama bin Laden and George Walker Bush clinched in a passionate homosexual embrace. When cultures commit suicide by autophagy it is in the form of nuggets such as these that they inevitably vent their self-digested residues. Society’s telomeres wane ever shorter.

Even the regions on Dalston’s borders give off an air of alienage and unguessed urban mysteries. To the north lie genteel Stoke Newington and the relative high ground of Stamford Hill where sites of druidic dedication have given way to rival strains of imported Semetic monotheism: Hasidim, Sunnis, Methodists. However it would be rash to dismiss entirely the legacy of the fertility rites once enacted in these long-tarmacked groves, given N16’s famous birth rate. West lies Canonbury and beyond that, Islington, where a recent spate of murders over primary school places was hushed up by a cartel of local estate agents. Following old Ermine Street south through De Beauvoir Town and Haggerston one reaches Shoreditch, whence whole tribes of hipsters once flocked to mine the rich seams of irony ore that have lately begun to run dry—hence their northward migration into Dalston in search of fresh deposits to exploit. A jazz bar that plays no jazz seems to be a logical place to start prospecting. Finally, we look east across Hackney proper to the Olympic development site, where (it is said) psychic youths recently battled in the unfinished stadium. Which reminds me, my mate’s uncle briefly shared a squat on Shacklewell Lane with Genesis P-Orridge, but Gen moved out because it was “too grotty” and “stank of fucking mouse piss”.

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And yet the disparate conjunction of pound shops, Afro hair salons, Turkish restaurants and battered old Irish pubs gives birth to a strange synergy, an unlooked-for unity of feel and purpose that goes quite beyond the kaleidoscope of cultures and neuroses of the queer assortment of folk that inhabit it, work in it, pass through it, get drunk in it, buy their drugs in it, lose their Oyster card and/or mind in it. There are times when something approaching a genius loci seems to materialise from the flyer-strewn streets or ooze out of the stained brickwork like a Banksy you’ve stared at for too long after a couple of bad pills that failed to make your friend’s friend’s cod-Krautrock band any more interesting on a sultry summer evening at Passing Clouds. You may see him sometimes—I say “him”, it’s a “her” just as often—a shambling hooded presence, muttering in a tongue that could be Yoruba, or perhaps Old English; a black youth emitting clouds of pungent sensi fumes from a glowing stub; a bottle-blonde barmaid with round Slavic features; a fit Japanese girl who might be a fashion student before you glance away for a moment but seems to have become a squat Bengali mum laden with groceries by the time you look back. One vision that remains imprinted on my memory—although with each day that passes I come to question more and more whether it ever happened outside a dream brought on by a large lamb shish with too much chili sauce—is that of a creature that resembled simultaneously a Victorian tramp, a mediaeval costermonger, a mean-looking Ted in brothel creepers and a tattooed, cheque-shirted hipster in a Trilby, somehow oscillating between these diverse guises as it strode down the High Street, like alternate interpretations of a Rorschach pattern competing for the consciousness’s attention.

Yet what strikes me most about this phantasmagoric being, as I recall it as best I can, is the looks it garnered from other passers-by: occasional recognition, even admiration, but nothing approaching the terror and wonder it inspired in me. They probably just thought it was Noel Fielding.


Oliver Harris studied physics for a long time, came to writing at the age of around 28 and has been doing it sporadically since then. Born in Bristol (UK), grew up on the Isle of Wight, studied then worked in London, currently resides in Oxford. Has also lived in Jamaica (childhood), Switzerland (student) and more recently the Netherlands. His interest in weird fiction comes mainly from reading H. P. Lovecraft and the writers that inspired him (Poe, Machen, Blackwood, R. W. Chambers…) and that continued the weird tradition, such as Thomas Ligotti.

Image: woo, Martin Deutsch, Creative Commons