My Dalston: Local Voices, Real People

This Week: Lionel Ebb, former firebrand Marxist poet and acclaimed author of Everybody Dies, Especially Your Mummy, widely recognised as the most depressing childrens’ book ever written. Lionel, 68, has lived in Dalston since graduating Oxford University and renouncing his peerage. I – your editor Norton Folgate – am fortunate to live next door to Lionel, and I’m sure readers will enjoy hearing his views on recent local developments as much as I do. Take it away, Lionel.


In the beginning, Dalston belonged to me.

That is to say, it belonged to me and to my fellow working man; it belonged to the storm-tossed immigrant; to the impoverished student; to every citizen of the world seeking refuge from the market-led calumnies of Thatcher’s Britain. It wasn’t off-your-face Camden Town or yummy mummy Islington or cap-in your-ass Clapton. It was Dalston. It was beautiful, and most people had never heard of it.

But then Sainsbury’s closed and moved across the street to a bigger, newer shopping centre with a Kentucky in it, and the old Sainsbury’s became a Peacock’s. This changed things. The streets were suddenly full of Bangladeshi-tailored t-shirts at two quid apiece from Peacock’s and Sainsbury’s had room, now, to sell pak choi and monk fish alongside the Pop Tarts and mango pizzas. No one wanted to buy the monkfish or the pak choi, but still. Monkfish. In Dalston.

And once-honest local retailers sniffed the air. A café on Ridley Road bought a packet of Darjeeling and some soya milk. Turkish restaurants on the Stoke Newington Road put their prices up a bit. But despite all this exciting ‘progress’ Dalston was still Dalston. Until.

Until Wednesday, March 8th, 2006. March 8th, 2006 sparked the sequence of events that was to reduce Dalston to the hellish midden of despair we all know today. [editor’s note: Lionel and I debated, at some length, the phrase ‘hellish midden of despair’. I, naturally, felt it to be a bit strong, but Lionel is a man of formidable resolve and would not be persuaded to soften his choice of words, bless him.]

What happened on March 8th was this: a travel writer from Azerbaijani Vogue, exhausted after twelve hours in an Aeroflot economy seat and having taken full advantage of the complimentary in-flight vodka, fell asleep on the tube and awoke at the Angel. He was supposed to be in Dalston. He believed himself to be in Dalston. Unable to locate the traditional London street market he had been tasked to write about (the one several stops down the line in Dalston), he simply wrote what he saw: that ‘Dalston’ was full of stylish, affluent people, its shop windows fecund with consumer durables of unimagined diversity and gorgeousness, its streets a carnival of youth, confidence and innovation (which, to be fair, is what most places must look like after a lifetime spent in Azerbaijan).

His piece, though written in error, was published in full the following month. It hailed Dalston as ‘The Coolest Place on Earth’. [editor’s note: This is true. I’ve checked.] A writer from Italian Vogue read this and, being short of both inspiration and three thousand words that week, repeated it verbatim. Other fashion magazines followed suit until eventually a writer from British Vogue, travelling deeper into east London than any other writer for British Vogue had travelled before [editor’s note: This is also true.], went to take a look at Dalston herself.

It just so happened that as her cab pulled up outside the Pound Shop (the one diagonally across the road from McDonalds), Keira Knightly rode past on a Brompton bicycle. Keira Knightly was, in fact, lost. She had never been to the area before and would not return for many years, but her presence was confirmation enough for British Vogue that the place was now ‘edgy’. The resulting article doomed poor Dalston; doomed it to the hipster apocalypse. [editor’s note: ‘hipster apocalypse’ will be viewed by some readers as an unnecessarily pejorative phrase. Again, Lionel was not to be moved.]

Three days later a red, plaid shirt buttoned all the way up to the top was spotted on the Kingsland Road. The day after that a man went into Superdrug to ask whether they stocked moustache wax. And just like that, it was over; the levee had broken and the ‘beautiful people’ flooded in like a foul tide of human putrescence. Damn you Keira Knightly. Damn you Azerbaijani Vogue.

In the year that followed, other events conspired to ensure that Dalston would never return to being simply an obscure, heroically egalitarian corner of east London. No, Keira Knightly’s passing buttocks had just been the beginning. The face of Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships, but the buttocks of Keira Knightly released something far, far worse into the world. Because, shortly after those pert orbs churned prettily past on their bicycle seat, Superdrug gave-in to the weight of customer demand and actually started selling moustache wax. Then somebody called Alexa Chung was spotted at Bar d’Artagnan. Bar d’Artagnan was an airless basement with no alcohol licence and no ladies’ toilet. It was, though, equipped with a refrigerator full of duty-free lager and a unisex urinal located behind a shower curtain in the kitchen. This kitchen – inexpertly staffed – produced only cheese toasties served on paper plates, but they were good enough for Alexa, apparently, because next week she was back, this time with Lily Allen and Madonna, whoever they are.

Dalston, by now, had forgotten its honourable proletarian origins. The place had moved on even from Keira Knightly’s bottom. It had left Keira Knightly’s bottom so far behind, in fact, that Marc Quinn felt confident enough to announce an ambitious 30-year project to construct a full sized replica of the Rio Cinema from his own toenail clippings, donated nasal mucus and plaster of paris. The local council gave him a grant.

A mad avant-garde theatre entrepreneur [editor’s note: Eccentric, undoubtedly, but not clinically mad, in my opinion.] moved his company of actors from a nice arts centre in Twickenham to a former septic tank beneath a derelict tannery near Argos. He named his new venue The Dalston People’s Playhouse. [editor’s note: It has a very nice café which is well worth checking out. Excellent locally sourced couscous.]

They threw out the elderly Irish and Caribbean stout-drinkers from the Red Lion, renamed it the Lambent Whelk and built a cycle repairshop / DJ booth in the snug.

For me, this last act was the final straw. I withdrew to my study, there to weep and stroke my rare first editions of Marx, de Beauvoir and my good friend Ian Sinclair. Dalston, the place I had loved, that once shining beacon of progressive socialism, was lost to me; all that was fine and good here crushed beneath the pitiless jackboot of capital, a jackboot worn by men with trust funds and jobs in IT and trousers three inches too short. It is all too much to bear. All is lost. All is gone, all truth and beauty cast to the winds. Desolation, a choking pall. It. Is. Over. [editor’s note: Lionel was at a particularly low ebb during the composition of this final paragraph. Strong drink may have been taken.]

So, there you have it. Strong stuff from a great man. Lionel has not yet been won round to the glories of the new, improved Dalston, but I have no doubt he will warm to his new neighbours as time goes on. Even as I write I can hear him through our shared wall, swearing at Newsnight. He really is a character!


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