Author Travis Elborough knows his London. With most books including London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing and A London Year, an anthology of diarists from Tudor times to the present day, his attention turns now to film. With Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, Elborough co-wrote the script for How We Used to Live, a BFI London archive film directed by Paul Kelly.
From Dalston bedsits and magic shops to night bus eavesdropping and Micky’s Chippy, we take a tour around Elborough’s London.
What is your favourite area of London?
‘Well, I’ve lived around Stoke Newington for the last decade or so. Or perhaps more accurately, I’ve clung on against all the odds and exorbitant rent hikes in Stoke Newington for the last decade or so. And that feels like home, and has so many of the things I love about London generally: It has lots of layers of history, some of it radical. And Richard Boon, former manager of Buzzcocks, is our local librarian.
‘There’s are also a few individual and eccentric shops still clinging on here and there – a favourite is the Hat Centre toward Stamford Hill that never ever seems to be open and stocks an array of head gear that seems unchanged (and perhaps unsold) since about 1978.
‘Otherwise, I am extremely fond of Clerkenwell. There’s just such an endearing spindly-ness to its web of lanes and backstreets. It has Lubetkin’s wonderful Finsbury Heath Centre building. The Spa Green Estate. And The International Magic shop – whose walls are covered with faded photographs of heavily eye-linered magicians of yesteryear coaxing doves from thin air or rabbits from hats. Then there’s the jukebox in the Three Kings… I could go on.’
What is your most vivid London memory?
‘Probably the most vivid would be barrelling along the Balls Pond Road on the upper deck of a 38 Routemaster – not long after I’d first moved to London, and to a pretty horrible bedsit in Dalston, in the mid-’90s. I can remember it was raining and sitting there in the bus and trying to look out of the steamed up window, which felt more like a porthole on a submarine, and simply being overjoyed to be in London as a resident, however precariously then – and now for that matter.’
What would your perfect London day out involve?
‘A good walk out to somewhere, a cup of strong black coffee, later a glass of beer and a game of chess with my wife, Emily. She always wins, though.’
What would your perfect London night out involve?
‘Not coming home until dawn seems more of a rare and daring achievement than it used to. But certainly wine, the wife, friends and some song would be in there. I find listening to other people’s conversations on the night bus home can sometimes more than make up for a less than perfect London evening out.’
Where in London have you never been, but have always wanted to go?
‘The Tin Tabernacle in Kilburn has always somehow evaded me. Time to put that right and soon, I hope.’
Who is your favourite Londoner?
‘I have something of a soft spot for a character called Roy Brooks. He was self-proclaimed socialist estate agent, who combined communist sympathies with operating a profitable agency on the Kings Road. During the 1950s and 1960s he was famed for composing uniquely honest, often wilfully defamatory, descriptions of the properties on his books. He was a kind of Lucien Freud of sales and lettings, unstinting in his merciless documentation of any perceptible defect, sugaring the barbed criticism in each haiku of ad copy with an antic wit. Brooks’ ads are practically works of art. There’s one that runs: “It really must mean something socially to live in a filthy old Georgian house in Fash Islington. Liverpool Rd, N1 is one of the filthiest we have seen in a long time”.’
What do you think is London’s best-kept secret?
‘There’s the fiendishly difficult to get at pet cemetery in Hyde Park. And I remained surprised about how few people seem to have visited Sutton House, the Tudor manor house on Homerton High Street, whose spell as a squat and rave venue is memorialised with a psychedelic mural preserved on one wall.’
Which song, book or film do you think best encapsulates London?
‘One book I often return to when thinking about London is Jonathan Raban’s Soft City. It was first published in the early 1970s and in parts is very much a document of its time – and no less fascinating for that. He has a line about Notting Hill Gate being a place where only those with nowhere else to go end up, for example. But in so many other respects, particularly on what we now call gentrification and the whole business of living in a city like London, an imaginative construct as much as a physical place, it’s an astonishingly acute and prescient book and hasn’t dated at all.’
What do you miss most about London when you’re away?
‘The chips from Micky’s Chippy, N16.’
Where would you go in London to revisit your past?
‘If it were still there, The Silver Blades ice rink in Streatham. It was something of a haunt when I was a teenager and came up on the train from the south coast to visit London friends. Ditto the old Cheapo Cheapo record shop in Rupert Street, Soho. The Falcon, Camden. All ghosts of my ’80s, ’90s fun, I guess.’
What would you recommend everyone in London do at least once?
‘Eat chips from Micky’s Chippy, N16.’
Where in London do you feel most creative?
‘In my publisher’s offices in Pimlico, when explaining why another deadline has been missed.’
What makes London unique?
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
‘I have another wayward book of social history on the go at the moment, which hopefully will appear next year. And there are a few TV and film things which remain at the endlessly meeting different people for coffee in Maison Bertaux stage at the moment, unfortunately. But fingers crossed.’