Supper’s Digests: In and around Dalston

Last week, I looked at parks. I continue the ‘free Hackney’ theme this week, turning my attention (mostly) indoors.

Ridley Road Market: Opposite Dalston Kingsland station lies another Dalston. Ridley Road Market is some half a mile long. Barrows run down the middle, and the shops on either side are essentially open-fronted cubicles. The last terrifying, blotchy Cockneys shout from their stalls, while first- and second-generation immigrants browse and patter amid the salted cod, bootlegged music, and strange, strange vegetables. A cluster of North African butchers display an astonishing magnitude of slaughter, garnering their windows with plucked poultry still replete with heads and claws. Pallid lower legs of goats and cows teeter stickily on trestle tables outside, foretelling bowl after bowl of marrowy, greasy soup.

Easily the most enticing wares are the towers of plastic bowls filled with cheap fruit and vegetables, in one case stacked six feet tall. The familiar leitmotifs of a British market are, of course, in evidence too: tatty clothes; chunky jewellery; the guy who cracks phones. There’s a bored-looking lady who appears to be playing Patience with the underwear she sells, arranging them lovingly in three fanned columns, preciously straightened over her trestle table.

Hackney Museum: The council’s museum is aimed principally, but not entirely, at children. It chronicles Hackney’s history as a Saxon village, then a town, then a part of the Greater London sprawl. In this century, wave after wave of immigration has changed whole quarters of Hackney before dispersing, assimilating, or being bombed into oblivion. All have left their bric-a-brac in the museum, and there’s too much to cover in one review. A Yiddish printing press that stopped turning a century ago asks questions that Jews and poor immigrants still ask today, about Communism and Zionism and charity and life back in Eastern Europe. The arrival of war is symbolised by a static display with a gas mask, enamelware, and a cutaway diagram of the V-2 rocket. Bombs hit Hackney particularly hard, and the scars they left are still evident in Dalston.

Arguably, the slum clearances after the war damaged Hackney as much as the Nazis. The utopian planners who filled Hackney with high-rise communities lived to see their shiny vision fall to pieces, and could only cringe as their buildings were dynamited. We are still playing the high-altitude game all over London of course, but the tower blocks of tomorrow have never seen a Socialist. Commissioned by investment fund managers and bought by private landlords, they are inhabited by the nouveau riche. These new visionaries really understand human psychology, and the recent story of Hackney is, in large part, written by them.

This might be why a cute replica of a 1990 squat is particularly memorable. The Thatcher-excoriating decor and grubby domesticity might intimidate a school child, but its nostalgic comforts are almost romantic to anybody who remembers the demise of the Cold War or the Poll Tax Riots. The world may have seemed cruel and elitist then, but squatters would find fewer sympathisers in Parliament today. They’d be back on the street before their Blu Tac hit the wall.

Dalston Library: Hackney Council’s haphazardly-curated birdcage of the muses illustrates why libraries across the country are quietly closing forever. A walk through the maze-like shelves prompts questions that start ‘Is it just me … ?’ After some time, the Dewey Decimal shelves yields A-level textbooks, spin-off publications from faded TV celebrities about how to paint your house and sell it at a profit, and less fathomable choices of subject matter that (with a few exceptions) add a pitifully sparse garnish to the gestalt of human endeavour.

The Kingsland Road Oxfam Shop is both more coherent and more interesting, while the Internet promises a cheap lifetime of second-hand reading. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend a visit to the library. If only because you’ll have to tell your grandchildren one day why we sold all their libraries to Costa Coffee.

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