Thirty Thousand Streets

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


The old Lido on Seven Sister’s Road closed in the late 70s. I think in theory the building has been condemned all this time, though the council never get around to doing anything about it. Local people are always agitating one way or another. Some of them want it pulled down, say that it’s a useless eyesore. And there’s the inevitable contingent of English Heritage nuts and Lido-fanciers who want it refurbished, who dream of haphazard Saturday afternoons, that noise of hysterical bonhomie that always seems to hover high above a swimming pool - the aggregate of shrieks, laughter and the lifeguard’s whistle, part kids’ party, part maritime disaster.

I was fascinated by it when I first moved to London in the late 90s, this crumbling art deco palace overlooking Finsbury Park, decked out in graffiti, with boarded-up windows and a central tower blackened by some long-forgotten fire. It reminded me of the sea, perhaps because there was something of the beached ocean-liner in the way its huge, wedge-shaped façade jutted above the seedy hotels and council blocks of N4. The building was enormous, a 30s leisure-palace, with two tiers of swimming pool on the roof and a heated indoor pool downstairs, all, I assumed, empty now. I used to sit in the park, consuming bagels from The Happening Bakery on the corner of Blackstock Road, and watch great flocks of seagulls wheeling above it.

This was about the time that Zoe, my then girlfriend, introduced me to a group of her friends who called themselves The Awkward Squad. They were ex-public school boys from places like Canonbury, Highgate, Hampstead proper, Gibson Square, who were playing at being anarchists. Zoe, not wealthy herself, had been invited to join them by an ex-boyfriend, Pat Sugar, identifiable by his kiss curl and a sort of reflex cringe he did whenever she walked into the room. I was well on the way to developing one of those myself.

Their leader, who called himself Jonny Wilderness, but was actually an accountant’s son from Edgware (real name Jonathan Silverstein), had this obsession with subverting kitsch comforts. Once, shortly afteer I met them, they piloted a dozen hot air balloons over Regent’s Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Everyone loves balloons. Even the word “balloon” has a sort of ingenuousness and innocence about it. But the Awkward Squad had had theirs decked out with enormous pornographic images - tumescent penises, breasts, stills from the Gentleman’s Equestrian Review blown up 20 feet fall. Zoe and I, forewarned, found a good vantage point in the park and were eating a bag of pretzels, waiting for the Squad to fly over. Just after 2 o’clock the balloons rose above the treeline one by one, like a series of thought bubbles. Families came to attention. Kids carped happily. And then a sort of collective groan rippled across the park, joy turning to dismay, as the images emblazoned on the balloons came into focus. Jonny Wilderness was piloting the first one, which was decked out in purple to resemble an enormous bell-end. He was drinking Veuve Cliquot straight from the bottle, flashing the V-sign to park-goers with his spare hand and bellowing something about how he was going to “fuck the sky.”

They were arrested, fined, made to do community service. Jonny Wilderness had to apologise in person to one traumatised little boy. But to the Squad it was all worth it. “Balloon Saturday” was one of their greatest coups.

Another thing they liked to do was to break into the Seven Sisters Lido at night.

The tradition was that they’d gather in a bar just behind King’s Cross called The Sex Dragon Aquarium. Collectively - and particularly from a distance - they made that braying sound that public school kids make en masse, like a field full of aristocratic horses. I’d hook up with Zoe there and we’d drink shots of grappa and play proper, old-fashioned billiards on a table in a back room. The bouncer, Erica Polotskaya, took a liking to me. She was a tall, wiry woman who wore a set of Gaudier-Brzeska brass knuckles under a swollen leather glove on her right hand. She had a load of scratchy Edith Piaf records she was always pestering Justine, the proprietor, to play. When business was slow she’d sit and smoke cigarettes while I circled the billiard table. She told me I had a wonderfully symmetrical face. Her grandfather had come to London from Latvia in the 1930s, changed the family name to Peterson. Sometimes she’d launch into long stories about how the city had changed. Her father had been a policeman his whole life, with a beat that took him from the bottom of Rock Street in Finsbury Park all the way up to Highbury Corner. He’d reverted to the original family name, and the locals called him Shotgun ‘Skaya because he always carried a 12-gauge in a shopping bag. He hardly ever took it out, except when the local kids lined up and pleaded for a glimpse. Just a laconic gesture with the bag was enough to silence any Turkish speak-easy or cancel a skipfight in the wasteland behind Stroud Green. Because he always carried it in his right hand the musculature on that side of his body became overdeveloped, particularly his shoulder and forearm, the way a fiddler-crab has an outsized claw.

“That’s why I’m so much stronger on the right side, see? All that walking with the shotgun he did.” Erica clenched her bicep and balled her right hand into a fist, the leather glove creaking. The Squad boys were always very polite to her, no matter how drunk they got.

“You're so wrong," I told her. “That isn’t something you can inherit.”

She thrust out her chin. “My dad passed the benefit down to me.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“So you don’t think I could knock a dent in that symmetrical face of yours?”

At around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights we’d say goodbye to Erica and Justine and catch a small fleet of taxis north to Finsbury Park. The Squad accessed the Lido via a little culvert which opened in the middle of the old animal cemetery in the park, part of a drainage system that was somehow integrated with the obsolete water pumping machinery underneath the pool. God knows how they’d found out about it. We entered by jumping over the fence at a point where lots of foliage overhung Seven Sister Road, hoping no-one on the street side would spot us.

Then we had to navigate across the park. It was officially closed at night. In actual fact, when the sun went down and the regular citizens left, the nightshift would emerge from the trees. These were a mélange of crack addicts, skipfighters, hookers and their clients, muggers, extortionists, bagmen, gangstas (real and wannabe in roughly equal proportions), black marketeers, scared-but-adventurous Japanese tourists, out of work clowns and jugglers and fire-eaters and cabaret artists, fallen civil servants, disgraced Tory politicians, itinerant artists and incompetent performance poets. The park at night had its own etiquette and economy. Hustlers in porkpie hats dealt “Find the Lady” on folding tables. A gypsy woman with a face you could fall a thousand miles down read your future in a pack of cards for £5 a throw. Crackpipes glowed like fireflies behind the tennis courts. The courts themselves played host in the darkness to a nocturnal variety of tennis called "Exasperation". A little bazaar lined the main East-West pathway, stores selling bush meat, illegally imported cigarettes and liquor, Chinese kites, chophouse chocolate, pirated videos and DVDs, stolen tamegotchis, replica martial arts weapons. I once saw two men haggling over a dead python suspended in a huge glass urn of vitriol.

The main event at weekends was a skipfight, just outside the boundaries of the park itself, on the edge of the old train-line leading from Islington to Highgate. The closing-time crowd paid £5 a head to watch a naked man fight an English Bull Terrier in a skip. There were variations on the formula: sometimes there was more than one dog, or the man had a weapon. Sometimes the skip was on fire - “a BBQ” - or the dog had been dipped in phosphorescence - a “Baskerville.” It was never an edifying spectacle. We’d keep our heads down, give the skipfight crowd a wide berth.

The culvert is hard to spot if you don’t know it’s there. You have to climb down a steep embankment to a small, weed-choked stream running through the middle of the old animal cemetery, which was founded at the northern end of the park back in the late 19th century. The grave stones tend not to be much more than a foot or so high, though one particularly aristocratic pet, “Master Jeremiah”, has his own miniature mausoleum, a replica of Pencarrow House in Cornwall that came up to my waist. Cat, dog, rabbit? I think monkey, given the references to dancing and nuts in his epitaph.

Oh little Jeremiah danced,
Ate peanuts by the pound.
Task done, a young girl’s life enhanced,
He’ll dance on underground.

It’s best not to look at the stream too closely. Zoe called it the Styx, and its surface is jelly-thick with abandoned prophylactics. Just above the level of the water there’s a small opening in the embankment, sealed with a rusty metal grill padlocked shut. Every paid-up member of the Squad had a key, and that included Zoe. We’d let ourselves in and shuffle along a low, dank tunnel which gradually gets taller and wider, until you can just about stand up straight.

After about 700 meters the tunnel goes under the road, and you can hear the muffled swish and rattle of traffic above you. Then you come to a sort of kink - the tunnel itself carries on, turning abruptly left and down, but there’s a wall in front of you, with another grill. The grill opens into a subterranean shower room, still with its original art deco tiling by Craven Dunill Jackfield. Stairs lead up to the male changing rooms, from which a further entrance opens to the indoor pool area, with stairs ascending to the outdoor pools. There’s a little empty footbath here, which must once have served as a sort of inoculation against the water proper.

The room beyond is a magnificent, palatial chamber. The tall, narrow windows overlooking the park are boarded up, but in a way this worked to the Squad’s advantage - they brought in a generator and rigged up multi-coloured spot lighting in here without having to worry that it could be seen from outside. Low music throbbed from concealed speakers mounted high on the walls. And - this is what really threw me when I first visited the Lido - the pool was actually full of water. Some biddable older brother on the council long ago found a way of arranging for it to be pumped into the building on the sly. New chemical filtration systems had been installed, so the water was fresh and clean. The Squad lay around on loungers at the edge, or languorously swam back and forth. A secret swimming pool. The first time I went they were projecting some 50s musical onto the wall - I think it was Pillow Talk. “Time of the Season” by The Zombies was drifting across the water. Someone served me an inaugural banana daiquiri from an industrial refrigerator they’d dragged in. Jonny Wilderness came running down the stairs from the roof stage right and was silhouetted for a second in profile, freeze-framed in his tousled suit, head tilted back, champaign bottle to his lips, before he crashed into the pool.

One night I went swimming and found a hole in the side of the pool, about five feet below the waterline. I felt it with my foot - my toes drifting into space when I’d expected them to strike the tiled wall. When I ducked my head under I realised I was looking at an opening, just about large enough to swim through. The thought that the pool was only an annex to some other, possibly larger body of subterranean water made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. What the hell was down there? I asked Jonny Wilderness later, but none of the Squad knew or cared.

A few nights later I decided to find out for myself. The opening was just big enough for me to slither through. The water on the other side was dark and cold. I took a last look at the illuminated pool behind me, and swam in.

Some primitive instinct guided me through the darkness. Or something in the water, equivalent to the tendril of smell the Bisto kids follow home to their mother’s kitchen. I swam down to a thermocline where the water grew smoky and chill and a large current plucked at my body and dragged me further downward, the pressure in my ears growing. I was beginning to panic now, and I twisted my body around and tried to swim back. For a moment, far away through the water, I could see the exit to the Lido, brilliantly illuminated and crowded with the impassive faces of the Awkward Squad. Jonny Wilderness seemed to be waving. I struggled back towards them, but the current was dragging me in the opposite direction. So I kicked upward instead, with all my strength, praying that I’d break the surface of the water any second. I don’t remember doing so; at some point I must have lost consciousness, and I still don’t know why I didn’t drown.

I came to on the shore of a subterranean lake. Waves lapped gently against slimy stone. I was suffused with an almost paralysing sense of unreality. I got to my feet and, stumbling now and then, made my way towards a bonfire I could see burning a few hundred yards down the coast.

What shall I tell you about the people who inhabited the caves below the Lido? Their eyes were huge and unseeing. They had an ingenious method for hunting bats. It goes like this: you wait until you can hear wings snickering in the air around you. You pluck a stone from the floor of the cave and throw it over your head. The bat’s sonar registers the small flying object as an insect, and it swoops down for a snack. You swing the tennis racket hard and if you time it just right you knock the little squeaker out of the air and then you fall on it and pull off its wings and roast it on a spit over a fire.

I spent what seemed like months with the underpeople. They told me that paraphernalia drifts down from the daylit world they’ve never known – one boy showed me his collection of sticking plasters, goggles, Becks bottle tops and a veruca sock. Not knowing when or if I would see Zoe again, I hooked up with a night girl whose name was a gloccal stop and who tilted her big blind eyes up at me when I spoke, flat and glinting in firelight like coins. Her skin was unimaginably soft. Her name, I learned, meant “moth”. When we lay down to sleep the boys took turns to sing The Numbers, a chant they used to keep track of time, slow at night and faster during the day, and fastest when they hunted. Cut off from the wider cycles, the pulse of night following day, autumn following summer, they tracked the universe by enumerating heart beats. I thought I sensed the seasons on the move too, a difference in the patterns of the fungus blooms by the lake and in the behaviour of the pale inedible blindfish that slithered half out of the water when the night people lit a fire and croaked like jackdaws. Autumn must have been turning into winter in the city.

Odours were important in the world beneath the swimming pool, and my girlfriend would carefully sniff each part of my body like a very methodical dog. She particularly liked the smell of my eyes, she said. When I asked her how they smelt she said their archaic word for “pale”. Their religion was based on smells, too, and they worshipped their dead who lived in a network of caves on the furthest bank of the lake from the ledge where they lit their fires. By which I mean their corpses were stored there, the oldest dead, the last of the seeing who had brought with them memories of the world above furthest toward the back of the cave, and the youngest dead nearer the front. Moth told me that one day the cave would be full and then the dead would have to remain with the living, presumably in the form of zombies a la George Romero’s Day of the Dead, though she wasn't specific on this point. I accompanied the immediate members of her family on a swimming pilgrimage to the caves to pay respect to their ancestors and the smell was like a god or a demon, so strong that it segued into metaphysics and almost drove me mad, and at a certain point our path was blocked by a curtain of the fungus which blooms on the skin of the ancestors. A sect of priests live here and chant a special Numbers For the Dead, the slowest of all.

Something odd happened to my sense of the passage of time after I’d been with the underpeople for a while. I’d come back to myself in the middle of the night, suddenly becoming aware of someone muttering the Numbers quietly nearby, and look at the low embers of the nearest fire. When I thought about my life in the world above, it seemed increasingly remote and drained of colour, like a dream that becomes inaccessible on waking, and I had no idea how long it had been since I swum through the hole.

But now that I'm back, the reverse is true. The details of my time with the underpeople elude me as soon as I try to put them into words. All that I can tell you is this: that as a result of some sort of terrible social transgression on my part I was sentenced to an indescribable punishment which my girlfriend suffered in my place and which left her unable to recognise my smells or my voice and that for the final months I lived in the caves as an exile, learning to eat the blindfish, and hunted by the girl’s scandalised family.

One day, when they finally had me cornered, just as I could hear their toenails scratching across the stone floor towards me, electric torchlight cut through the darkness, and a wiry figure leapt from behind a nearby rock with a wild scream. It was Erica Polotskaya from the Sex Dragon Aquarium, jabbing rebarbatively with her brass knuckles. Underperson-ribs cracked. Underperson-noses crunched. Finally they fled, and Erica leant against a wall, panting to catch her breath.

“Where the hell did you come from?” I gasped.

“You mean,” she panted, “thank you.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Jonny Wilderness and your girlfriend Zoe said you might be down here.”

“You know about this place?”

“Yep. It was part of my dad’s beat when I was a kid. These wankers couldn’t see the shopping bag, of course, so dad would have to take the 12-gauge out and pump a round into the chamber to let them know he was here. They didn’t misbehave. Come on.”

And with that she took me down a little side passage which led quite casually onto the northbound Victoria line platform at Finsbury Park tube station, only one stop from home.

No comments: