Every January, I meet two friends for brunch on the first working day back after Christmas. It is our way of showing that as freelancers that we have control. It’s also a tacit admission that none of us have any work on.
As in 2017, we meet near Old Street tube station. I have travelled up from Brighton, late after a train ride which pushed the buttons of my travel anxiety. After draining coffee and eating quickly, we soon find ourselves walking towards Moorgate. I have resolved that once we part that I will undertake my first aimless wander of 2018, the first in this year long project.
We say our farewells outside the American Car Wash on Great Eastern Street. I had planned some sales shopping, but I feel a swell of anxiety at the thought of overly warm shops and sales clerks eyeing my tired trainers with a sense of disdain and disappointment.
I always knew this was going to be a challenge. I find myself walking at a fearsome pace towards Bishopsgate. Everything here has changed in the 15 years since I first began frequenting Shoreditch’s pubs. Back then I wanted to be what I wasn't. I wanted to be admired but I can't remember what for.
I look down Curtain Road, towards the open plan warehouse space where a group of friends lived for knockdown rent which is now a block of luxury apartments. Murals for forthcoming TV shows where there was once a nightclub with a ‘can only bar’. A cocktail spot that once housed the best party in East London. And memories of not knowing my limits and falling out of now derelict pubs in a bid to impress colleagues while interning at a style magazine.
I cringe at what I remember. I cringe at what I was. This was a place I always thought that I loved, but in hindsight it has always filled me with a level of stress and anxiety that I have only learned to credit in recent years.
It is the lack of greenery, the embarrassment of younger years, the relentlessness of the new. I turn onto Bishopsgate, intending to escape onto the Central Line at Liverpool Street, but instead find myself walking over the cobbles of Folgate Street towards Commercial Street and the solace of Rough Trade East.
I have found myself retracing a well worn route, one I take whenever I am in this part of the capital. I trail around the crates of Rough Trade, search for and find a single copy of my book on the non-fiction shelves, pick out a record and pay for it, then head back out onto Commercial Street, skirting the edge of Spitalfields, careful not to get lost in the crowds of tourists, in need of space, of air, of a wider view. I emerge onto Bishopsgate, the clank of hammer on steel as the latest tower block blanks out another parcel of grey sky.
This has never been a pretty place. But as the years have passed and I have aged it feels too vertiginous, a pastiche of Lower Manhattan that makes me ache for the greenery of Regents Park. For the open sky of my Brighton home.
I pass down the steps into Liverpool Street station. The ticket office is in the process of becoming a row of shops. I miss the days when I was not cynical about London, when it held an innocent allure. I wonder, as I move through the ticket barriers and down to the Tube, whether those days even existed.
This first walk has been brief. I have looked up and around and found only existential questions and acute embarrassment. Next week I will search for joy instead.