Betwixt and beyond the boundaries
Why the name?
I have lived very happily in this inner London district for many years, so Loving Dalston seemed a good title for this blog. Since the area has become fashionable enough for an article in The Guardian to dub this area “the coolest place in Britain” — and the journo, Paul Flynn, looks cool enough to judge — you may consider my choice of blog name presumptuous. Or, as you read, you may become disappointed that the blog is not only about Dalston. Good point: I run Dalston stuff, but I also ramble far beyond E8. The blog needed a name and Loving Dalston fitted with my optimistic outlook; at least, it did when the blog-server asked for one. A digressional confession: when I moved here from Stoke Newington in the 1980s Dalston was such a dreary place in the era of Margaret HildaThatcher’s government and Hilda Keane’s regime in Hackney town hall that I toyed with lobbying estate agents to rename central Dalston “Kingsland”. I later discovered that was the original name, but by then “Dalston” had become so imbued with trendiness that my snobbery was satisfied.
Shameful, eh? You can read Flynn’s reasons for hailing Dalston’s coolness at guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/27/dalston-cool-london-suburb. My reasons for loving Dalston are more prosaic because I’m older (not telling).
Here are some, not in order:
The manor is buzzing. The dude or dudette you see frantically banging a Mac in a wifi cafe may be a deluded fool but you know too that he or she may be designing the next must-have shoe or writing a feature-film script; TV and film-crew pantechnicons, with their tempting canteens and stars’ trailers, are far from a rare sight here. Flynn’s article captures the Dalston atmosphere well, so I shan’t try. He’s cool, you see; I’m still using “dude”.
- multiculti: Inuit, Sioux, Maori and no doubt some groups of which I’ve never heard are represented in the faces that file through these unquiet streets. Along with all the others, of course, including mine.
- the Arcola, stunningly frontline theatre founded by Turkey émigréMehmet Ergen and his credit card. Let’s hope the Arcola’s increasing trend towards conventional administration does not affect its adventurousness.
- the Rio cinema, an early manifestation of northeast London trendiness that still keeps the educated classes happy.
- the Vortex. If a jazz club has to be somewhere, it may as well be Dalston — even beard-stroking sandal-wearers can add to the ambiance — but it’s difficult to understand why a tailor-made venue has cramped seating, some bad sightlines and no backstage. One day the club may even be worth visiting for the downstairs bar and eventually for the food. Then again…
- the Hackney Empire is not in Dalston but is within walking distance. Thanks to its saviours, Roland and Claire Muldoon (still no state honours awarded — shame), it has helped many performers, and ignited the explosion of Afro-Caribbean theatre-going and participation, particularly as actors and writers. Extraordinarily, the Muldoons also lured high-quality opera and Shakespeare productions to the “Hempire”, filling the vast auditorium. Classy Hackney, eh? Or was it just the absence of Arthur Smith that drew audiences to evenings of tra-la-las and thees and thous? Now a financial crisis has closed the theatre.
Where the Luftwaffe failed in the Second World War, the local authorityHackney Borough Council succeeded and many of Dalston’s fine public and commercial buildings have fallen to the demolisher’s hammer. Some evaded it, among them:
- Navarino Mansions corner Navarino Road and Dalston Lane. Completed in 1905 for Jewish workers, its art-nouveau style anticipatespostmodernism. When Hunt (no “-er S.”) Thompson revamped Nathan Joseph’s design in the 1990s the contemporary architects had the taste to treat the PoMo-pioneering building with respect.
- the 1860s St Mark’s Church, designed by Chestor Cheston (some name, huh?), a borough surveyor, is said to have a capacity for 2,000 people. It also shows a capacity for swallowing money. The church’s decline is ever more evident: the richly detailed and abundant stained glass praised by the English poet John Betjeman (1906-1984) was damaged in December 2009 by the mis-kicked footballs of schoolboy morons, the large clock has not been seen since it was removed for restoration and, not long after, what was the world’s only working church-tower barometer stopped in sympathy. Crazy ideas have lately been suggested as cash-raisers: to turn the grounds into a car park and to build houses on them are two of them. As St Mark’sclergyman, the affable Rev Josh “Simba” Zvimba faces a long battle to preserve one of northeast London’s most under-valued monuments.
- the 1864-erected German Hospital, built near Ritson Road for the then-thriving Germanophone community to a design by E.A. Gruning (who was based in the City at Old Broad Street and whose buildings include the former German school in Alie Street, Aldgate) and T.L. Donaldson (1795-1885), a professor of architecture. This is another little-known London treasure, its large stained-glass windows and buildings revealing Tudor, classical Greek and Gothic influences. An unmatching yet undeniably stylish extension facing Fassett Square was added in the 1930s. Five decades later the handsome nurses’ quarters — well, to be precise, the nurses’ handsome quarters — near Dalston Lane were demolished and replaced by a terrace of a banality that would not look out of place in PoMo Hell, also known as Reading, Berkshire. Inevitably, the complex of German Hospital buildings (apart from the splendid 20th-century church) was used to turn a profit for somebody during England’s latest property boom, so the medical function ended in 1987. The respect Hackney had for the hospital’s history can be seen in the council’s renaming the street running through the complex “Madinah Road” — after the Saudi Arabian city of Islamic pilgrimage. Now, despite a powerful campaign by Open, The City and its political pals are trying to turn another profit by making Dalston Junction into a Mies van der Rohe mash-up. Croneyism — sorry, Croydonism… just what we wanted, eh?
The pancake-makers of Evin (see Food favourites listed below) face Kingsland High Street
For eating out, Dalston is not wonderful. It is wonderful for getting the ingredients to make your own meals.
- Ridley Road opposite Dalston Kingsland overground station is probably London’s most useful daily vegetable-cum-anything-saleable market. For a contrasting level of enjoyment, wander into the adjacent Kingsland Centre, which feels like The Truman Show on acid.
- Turkish Food Centre (aka TFC, Turkish Football Club). Part of a chain, the store at the south end of St Mark’s Rise and the east end of Ridley Road, is a paradise for cooks. Good value, too. Bottles of party-quality 75cl wine, sometimes Italian DOC (approved basic-quality rating), are occasionally offered at three for £5. Surly staff add Dalston edge.
- Big up (dude!) to the entrepreneurial Turks and ShoHo exiles who have created a restaurant and bar scene near the Rio, although it can’t compete with that of Stoke Newington, the quasi village a few km north. A personal favourite for lunch, at 115 Kingsland High Street, is Evin, Turkish for “home”: good food, bad English. Evin business card gives the website as www.evincafe.co.uk. Hmmm.
- Not Turkish, but uber cool, Dalston Superstore at 117 Kingsland High Street was started by Matt Tucker and two friends. They have aimed it at gays fed up with the mainstream scene and style it as a café-gallery; by night a bar and club space. Started in 2009, the Superstore has already attracted the uber cool. Recession be damned.
- the Ganges, a Bangledeshi restaurant and takeaway in Dalston Lane 50m west of Queensbridge Road. Its client base was weakened several years ago when it lost its licence to serve alcohol. The charming staff claim that a disgruntled customer snitched on them when he bought alcohol from them late one night. A bored council provocateur?
- the happily 24-hour but unfortunately named Mr Bagel in Ridley Road near Kingsland station. Several changes of ownership on since its Jewish founders left, it doesn’t offer cheesecake and other bad-for-you treats. And I’m no connoisseur but the bagels don’t seem very good. So go to Brick Lane.
- Hackney claims to have more parks (62) and open spaces than any other London borough and Dalston is close to dog-walking grassland such as Hackney Downs. I still get a thrill to think of Harold Pinter (1930-2008) as a teenager schlepping over the downs from the nearby high school, now the Mossbourne Academy, to discuss literature with his English master. (Just try taking a boy to the park today, Mr Teacher.) And it’s amusing to think of Maurice Joseph Micklewhite pondering whether Michael Caine might be a better name for a would-be actor. Mossbourne Academy is an impressive collection of buildings — but did the planners and architects really have to destroy the smoothly functioning swimming pool in the school grounds? The cost of replacing a training pool is high, so high that the academy still does not have one. Many cockneys learnt to swim there, among them my daughter.
- The Grand Union (also known as Regent’s) Canal runs east-west to the south of Dalston and its towpath is popular with amblers, especially psycho-geographers such as Hackney resident and author Iain Sinclair, and with nature-lovers, particularly in spring, when mallard, coots, moorhens and swans get jiggy. Cyclists also use the canal for gentle rides and frenetic commuting; the feeble-brained use it for mugging and worse.
More cycle routes exist than in the 1980s, even if they may end in traffic terror spots. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, keeps promising improvements but so far he has been as useful to us two-wheelers as Jules Pipe, his Hackney equivalent. (Actually, nobody’s equivalent to Bozza; I suppose that in his own way neither is Big Juley.) I can occasionally include the canal on my way to work, along with Queensbridge Road, a mostly clear north-south road, because motorists have not yet realised it is less used than the parallel A10. Duh!
What happened to the guitar-player with the under-stringed instrument who used to wail outside the bagel shop — and has anyone been begged by the irrepressible wheelchair woman lately? These we have loved. On the streets you see lots of males with that funny bow-legged walk and unfunny bow-legged dogs; cross the road is my advice, particularly if you’re walking your dog; pit bulls are bred to kill. In my street I am fortunate to be on friendly terms with more people than are folk in some rural villages. Little England, that’s Cecilia Road.
* Featured image: Ridley Road market, from a watercolour by Hilary Rosen, who has given permission for its reproduction here.
By Loving Dalston