Dalston. Friday night. How to start?
Do I start with the obvious, with how one Friday night I took the train to Dalston, feeling woefully unprepared for what I’d find in the Deep Dark Beyond of Zone Two? How, the way people went on about it you’d probably have thought I was leading my friends to the last house on the left?
Problem is, Dalston really wasn’t all that horrorshow.
It was pretty great actually. The sort of place that even as a decidedly nerdy and uncool person I felt totally at home. On a storytelling level, if it had been a nightmarish vision of London at its worst perhaps I could have started here but really it’s far too close to the beginning of the story to be interesting.
So should I kick off with a little exposition? An explanation of why I was there – The Blueswater. Eat. Drink. Boogie. Repeat. Remember that one? Some of you might. Some of you might already have experienced those heady nights whirled away in a world of opulence and jazz, of evenings twirled into mornings with the flash of a flapper fringed skirt and the lick of a guitar through the speakers.
Perhaps not. I expect the best way to tell this little story is to start with him – a friend with a crooked smile, who introduced me to Guy Ritchie movies and taught me how to do the cryptic crossword.
Let’s call him Charlie because that’s his name and everyone knows it.
“And you,” Charlie turned to me from the exuberant INKA. “Living the dream right?”
I grimaced, one of those aborted attempts at a smile. “Not exactly.”
His grin faded, brows pulling upwards the way they always have. Sceptical. Unimpressed. I’d forgotten how much it stings to see that look on someone’s face.
Don’t worry I’m not about to wax lyrical about the memory of shared, later regretted, cigarettes. Nor am I going to dwell on the way some people have a knack for making you feel uncertain and confused.
After all, as I realised on the train home the next morning, the issue his question and response highlighted has nothing to do with him as a friend or a person. It’s all – forgive the egotism – to do with me and my exceptional ability to make a massive mess of my head. Better go back, fill in some of those details. Sort it all out.
— INKA (@inkasongs) December 5, 2015
The Blueswater are an Edinburgh blues band. I met them during the Fringe a few years ago when I worked for The Space on Niddry Street.
Charlie is part of this band, in case you didn’t guess. Plays guitar – although he was on bass this time. Guess that’s a thing all girls must fall for at least once in their life: a musician, whippet thin, wearing just enough issues on his sleeve to seem interesting.
Writing for a music and arts magazine (now defunct), I compared their music to the bands I heard on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. But really their performance is more Cadillac Records. Tight rhythms with guitar riffs that bleed a grittier city sound.
They’ve improved since 2012. Before they could turn an expressionless stage into a smirk but despite having less than half of their usual twelve-piece on Friday they still transformed Dalston’s Passing Clouds into something far bigger.
Admittedly, it was bizarre to hear them with so few of their number. I missed the backing singers, the brass, particularly the trumpet and sax, but the roguishness remains, the rough passion that pulls you in tight and won’t let you go until the music stops. The whiskey-stained vocals from front man, Felipe Schrieberg, still growl over the audience, demanding they embrace the tug of the rhythm, the wrench of the harmonica. Writhing, jiving, leaping, kicking up their feet, the crowd at Clouds complied, possessed. The floor thrummed. Letting go to their sound is easy as ever.
The band that followed, whose name I couldn’t be bothered to remember, were comparatively mediocre. I couldn’t tell the songs apart and the will to dance fled.
With no sign of the Blueswater off-stage, INKA and I went to explore.
Discovering the upstairs to Clouds was like a revelation. Whoever did the decorating was definitely once a wide-eyed space cadet mooning over the double complete rainbow. The open area has a décor somewhere between a harem and a fiesta, complete with tasteful blow-up fruit, tinsel, and Moroccan drapery. It felt a tad hedonistic, a little bacchanalian, that ‘spirit of misrule’ I’d googled sliding closer to mayhem.
It was also happy. Weirdly, wonderfully, there was this very un-London sprite-like joy to the whole place.
And the people were the same. Sure there were the many Bearded Wonders who probably rocked up the road from Haggerston, and I haven’t seen that many people covered in glitter in one room since my fourteenth birthday in 2004. But they were welcoming. Friendly. Glowing faces beneath the lamps. Skin bright with a sheen of coke sweat and sparkles.
I remember thinking, I bet these are the creeps who make eye contact on the tube.
I also remember realising, Dalston. I quite like it.
Looking back, this makes it even more puzzling why friends eyed me askance when I invited them to join for a night out in not-quite-Shoreditch.
Now, I don’t know if it’s because they simply assume I’m not edgy enough for whatever scene they imagine in their head or because they expected Freddie Krueger to be lurking in the loos, dabbing metallic blue sparkles onto girls cheeks as they washed their hands, but the anxious mantra I had running in my head as I exited the station – Avoid Alibis, beware Birthdays, hit up Dalston Social for a pint and shots for six quid, don’t mention Corbynomics – was pretty much redundant.
The night began to crash relatively early. The atmosphere wound down on the dance floor. The songs droned into an indistinguishable hum. As the music failed I started to revisit the conversation with Charlie. He’d caught me out with his question, reminding me of the difference between then and now.
How far I’ve come. How little I’ve done.
Cue: pondering. Picture a little blond shadow dressed all in black on a brightly coloured background. Add blues music. Moody lighting. That’s my inner ponderer.
Back in the Jekyll and Hyde city, all I wanted was to write. I would need a job, of course, to support me as I wrote. I refuse to buy into that crap about art needing poverty and carefully curated misery (though it is interesting how many of my favourite authors used their time on benefits to pen their debuts).
Yet here I am, two years later. Living in London, working in comms, with little to show on the writing front, just bundles of paper, plans, and plots prettily laid out as spider diagrams.
What have I done with my time? Where has it gone? Maybe it’s time to leave my comfort zone (my metaphorical Zone 1) and try something new. Shake up the routine. Or maybe I just need to focus more.
Charlie pointed out my fallibility again. He’s in London, playing bigger venues, performing more of their own music than ever.
I’m in the same place just in a different city.
Time for change. Time for a challenge. And maybe time to move somewhere a bit more exciting. I wonder if Dalston has room for one more.