Hackney is gentrifying; Isla and Louis know they’re part of the problem, but can they turn the tables? By Nye Jones.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
If you walk into The Gold Star pub in Homerton and you have never listened to how Seamus, who always sits tapping his gold rings against the table in the left hand corner by the cracked window, lost his right eye in a bar fight in Dublin in 1998, or you don’t know that Clarence never says a word until halfway through his sixth pint of Guinness when he will suddenly start singing Night Nurse by Gregory Isaacs in a surprisingly soulful voice, or you aren’t aware that no one but Lorna has petted Dennis the Pitbull since an Italian tourist staggered out with one thumb less than he walked in with back in 2016, or you don’t realise you should never raise a confused eyebrow at the dichotomy between Abduls full Muslim dress and the pint of Stella permanently clasped in his right hand, if you don’t know these things then when you walk into The Gold Star a deathly silence will fall and all eyes will linger on you.
For many people this welcome will feel incredibly hostile, especially if Big Mick and his face tattoos are in that day. Many will turn and scuttle out, never to step foot on the dusty maroon carpet again. But the regulars in The Gold Star are not averse to new clientele in principle. Just ask Lauren, who staggered in with a black eye after a bust up with her fella last summer and found in the peeling booths and sagging faces the dependable family she had always been looking for. What the people of The Gold Star are averse to however, in Big Mick’s own words, are “people who take the Michael.” The new trendies who’ve flooded the area like gravy on a roast dinner, soaking into nearly every shopfront and side street until they are the dominant flavour.
Isla and Louis, both wearing wide corduroy trousers and Doc Martens, Louis in an orange beanie, are standing on the other side of the chipped front door unaware of the welcome they will receive should they muster the courage to heave it open. The young couple moved to Hackney from their respective parents’ homes in Kent a few months ago, shacking up with two friends in a former council house which a Shanghai based landlord is now letting out for five times the original price.
Since arriving in the city they have been liberally sprinkling the money they saved when living with their parents on the local economy. On their first night they slurped hand pulled noodles smothered in chilli oil from the new Chinese noodle bar, their lips tingling with Szechuan pepper, washing it down with a rare Chinese beer you would never find in the local off-licences. Later in the week they scoffed sourdough pizzas with inventive toppings like sumac roast lamb or cuttlefish ragu topped with a drizzle of a vibrant green lovage pesto. Since then, their lives have been full of long brunches, before spending their evenings sipping Aperol Spritzes and nibbling on nocellara olives at the neon-lit bar overlooking the canal.
But at a recent house party, with Louis nodding at her side, Isla declared to a man she’d just met that “What I love about London is that inner city social housing means it isn’t segregated like Paris.” And when they saw a local news story about the planned demolition of a Somali community centre in Clapton to make way for a block of luxury flats, they both signed an online petition in protest, before proudly sharing that they had done so on their Instagrams.
One night, walking back from a dinner of crispy monkfish tacos which hummed with pickled jalapeños and habanero pineapple relish, washed down with spicy margaritas at the new Mezcal bar next to Hackney Central station, Isla felt a burn in her chest and a sour feeling in her stomach. It might have been the chilli, or the hard liquor, but in her inebriated state she interpreted it as something else.
“Do you think we are part of the problem?” she said to Louis who was walking glass-eyed next to her, his long hair flowing out of his cap.
“How do you mean?” he asked.
She paused to let a woman walking two French Bulldogs pass by. “Well, I read this super interesting article in The Guardian the other day. A study found that in Hackney, 80% of money spent goes to businesses that have been here for less than twenty years. Apparently twenty years ago it was the other way around.”
Louis nodded as if he was already aware of this fact.
“I just think, maybe we need to start going to places that have been here before all this,” she said, gesturing at a row of biodynamic wine bars bursting with plants and bearded men.
Louis nodded again. Hard liquor often rendered him mute. But Isla had decided, and when Isla decided on something in the relationship then it was done.
So the next morning, rather than shuffling their hungover bodies into the new immersive vegan cafe which aims to recreate the horror of the abattoir step by step, ending in diners watching a rolling film of pigs having their throats slit while eating beetroot black pudding, Isla and Louis crept into the greasy spoon just off Well Street, squeezing into a booth behind a crew of builders with paint-flecked trousers, one of whom was boasting loudly of a recent female conquest. They made appreciative noises while eating their fry-ups, neither wanting to say that they found the scrambled eggs too hard, the sausage too oily, the beans under-seasoned and the customers even more vulgar.
Now this ethical crusade has taken them to the entrance of The Gold Star. When Isla had Googled it and read reviews like Proper old school boozer, a dying breed or Makes me remember how the East end used be! she knew it was the perfect place to offset her liberal guilt. She imagined sitting amongst the regulars after a few pints, regaling stories of the streets they now shared before stumbling out arm in arm to eat chicken kebabs ladled with garlic mayonnaise and the crunch of red cabbage, her Labour Party membership card no longer burning guiltily in her purse like spilt chilli sauce.
Isla takes a deep breath and looks at Louis. She can tell from his furrowed brow that he wants to back out. Part of her agrees. They could swan off to the new Danish Beerhouse that promised the security that comes with no pint costing less than £10. In less than half an hour they could be enjoying smørrebrøds of cured herring and mackerel, topped with sour pickled vegetables, cooled down by a silky dill mayonnaise, the juices soaked up by seeded rye bread the colour of the mahogany doors that guard the entrance to Hackney Town Hall.
No. As her socialist father once said to her: “People are defined by those they share their lives with, not the things they consume.” She looks at Louis and nods defiantly, as if they’re two soldiers going over the top into battle. Before he can protest, she heaves open the front door.
Eleven eyes, nine human and two dog, lock onto them. Isla feels her neck heat up as if someone has placed it under a grill, anxiety spitting like hot oil in her stomach. She chose a Friday night as she hoped the pub would be busy, allowing them to blend in seamlessly amongst the crowd. What she didn’t realise is that days and times don’t define the lives of The Gold Star’s regulars in the same way they do others. They are not bound by the same responsibilities. Instead the pub is a timeless zone similar to an airport, with no distinction between 11am on a Monday and 7:58pm on a Friday.
So now the two of them stand at the entrance astounded by how quiet it is for a Friday night, at how a place could remain so dark on a bright summer’s evening. Their noses twitch in reaction to the odd smell, which is somewhere between smoked mackerel and cigarette ash, before they tiptoe towards the bar, staring at the peeling floral wallpaper to avoid looking at anyone in the eye.
There is a food menu languishing on the bar at The Gold Star, covered in a film of dust so thick it resembles heavy snowfall. Behind this protective layer lies a list of pub classics. Steak and Kidney Pie, Gammon and Eggs, Irish Stew, Scampi and Chips, Lamb Hotpot. The untrained customer may allow themselves to dream of cutting into a pie to release a thick, shiny gravy and succulent pieces of beef, or a hotpot recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation. But in reality, no one has eaten anything beyond crisps or pork scratchings at The Gold Star since the salmonella outbreak of 2009 which claimed the life of Old Man Joe and hospitalised four others. The menu is purely ceremonial, like the way Michelin star chefs place gold leaf on top of a panna cotta, it exists to make the clientele feel better about themselves. To the likes of one-eyed Seamus, Lorna, Clarence, Abdul and Big Mick the menu represents the chance of redemption. It tells them they aren’t necessarily just here to drink, they could get a meal at some point. Of course they never will, but the knowledge that they could is comfort enough.
But Isla and Louis’ eyes are untrained, so as they creep to the bar, still avoiding the gaze of the regulars, Isla picks up the menu in her ringed hand, shaking off a cloud of dust.
“You hungry?” she says to Louis in the most confident voice she can muster.
“I could eat,” he replies too loudly in a bid to cover his own fear.
Jim, the small barman with a face that sags like melted mozzarella, who no one has ever heard say a word beyond the grunt he makes when you order your drink, lets out a sudden squeal.
“Could I get the Lamb Hotpot please?” says Isla, undeterred.
“Two of those,” says Louis, “and do you have any IPAs?”
But Jim is already scrabbling backwards towards the sorry excuse for a kitchen in the hope that something vaguely resembling Lamb Hotpot resides in the freezer, leaving Isla and Louis standing there perplexed.
“Do you think he’s coming back?” Louis says eventually.
“Maybe he’s gone to change the barrels,” says Isla, “let’s sit down and wait.”
They sit in silence on two rickety stools next to a splintering oval table, Louis staring at his coaster, Isla at her phone.
Unbeknownst to them, Big Mick with his mural of face tattoos rises and approaches the bar. Big Mick has a problem with the drink. He’s big enough to admit it. But he’s got a system to manage it. He arrives at The Gold Star at 7pm each evening and drinks one pint of Carling every half hour until it shuts at 11pm. Eight pints is his sweet spot, enabling him to briefly forget a childhood spent being tossed around children’s homes, but not yet entering the violent zone that has caused him so many problems over the years. Once he’s consumed his eighth pint he storms home to his bedsit in Bethnal Green without looking up, to avoid temptation. If you ever see a 6-foot-5 bald man with face tattoos marching across Cambridge Heath Road whilst staring at the floor at around 11:15pm, cars swerving around him, then that’s Big Mick keeping himself in check.
Now it’s 8:01pm and Big Mick’s first two pints have whetted his appetite. He needs his third like a child needs its mother. But Jim, who no one can remember seeing anywhere but behind the crumbling bar, is nowhere to be seen. Mick waits, drumming his fingers on the wood until it hits 8:02pm on the clock above the crisps, then he turns and scans for the culprit who has interrupted his fool proof system.
“What did you order?” he bellows at Isla and Louis from across the pub.
The couple don’t look up, hoping the question is directed at someone else.
“Oi, you in the orange hat. I asked you a question.”
Isla looks at her boyfriend and sees he’s trembling. “Lamb hotpot,” she says, her voice cracking like the top of a crème brulee.
Laughter erupts across the pub.
“You ordered what?” shouts Seamus, his glass eye staring in the opposite direction to his good one.
“You’d have better luck getting a whiskey down the mosque,” says Abdul as he drains the last of his Stella.
“If Jim’s cooking no one should be eatin’,” says Lorna, whilst stroking Dennis’ smooth head.
“Night Nuuuurse,” croons Clarence.
Big Mick shakes his head and strides over to their table. “In that case, I’ll ‘ave a pint of Carling please.”
“Sorry, what?” says Isla, still sitting down.
“By my reckonin’ those who indispose the barman must take his place,” says Mick. “One pint of Carling please love and ‘urry up with it. I ain’t got much time.”
Isla stares up at him but sees no sign of humour in his face. “But, I don’t know how,” she stammers, looking at Louis for support and seeing he is still transfixed by the coaster.
“Three minutes past now, Mick,” shouts Seamus.
Mick ignores Seamus. “Well that’s not my problem, love. What is my problem is that my schedule is being interrupted and you and John Lennon over ‘ere are the culprits,” he says pointing at Louis who is still looking at the coaster as if it were a rare painting.
“Only you alone can quench this Jah-thirst,” sings Clarence, now standing up and using his empty pint class as a microphone.
“Don’t scare the girl, Mick,” says Lorna from her vantage point next to the broken cigarette machine, before turning to Isla and lowering her voice, “he’s a big softie really, he just has some strict rules he needs to stick to.”
“Three minutes and thirty seconds past now, Mick,” shouts Seamus.
“Will you pack it in, Seamus,” says Mick before turning back to Isla. “Listen love, I don’t mean no ‘arm. I would go do it myself but I’m banned from steppin’ behind the bar because you see, because well, we won’t get in to that now, let sleeping dogs lie and all that, that’s what I say. Anyway, moral of the story is I need you or Mick Jagger over ‘ere to pour me my pint then I’ll leave you be.”
Isla looks up at Big Mick. For the first time she sees beyond the snake tattoo that winds down his left cheek. His features are soft, as if they have been child-proofed, while she sees his left hand is trembling slightly. She looks across at Lorna and Dennis the Pitbull who both nod at her in encouragement, before standing up and creeping behind the bar, grabbing a glass and chugging the Carling lever until it’s full.
“That’s right, love,” shouts Lorna in encouragement.
She passes the pint to Big Mick who gives her £3.20 exactly before doffing an imaginary cap and hauling his frame back to his seat and taking a long gulp.
Before she can sit back down Abdul hobbles towards her. “One Stella please darling,” he says, counting his money out on the wooden bar. She thinks about making a joke about a man in a full thobe ordering a Stella but decides against it, instead pouring frothy beer into the glass and accepting his £3.50.
This actually could not have gone any better, she thinks as Abdul hobbles back to his seat. She has a role, a reason to be here beyond her guilt. She can’t wait to tell her friends about how she and Louis not only had a drink at the infamous Gold Star, she even mucked in behind the bar. But when she looks around the pub from her new vantage point, the sight of the bedraggled clientele all sipping on mass produced, flavourless drinks in semi-darkness depresses her. Don’t they know there’s a whole world out there? That the streets outside fizz with food and drink from across the globe?
She hears a clang and a whimper from the kitchen behind her and knows Jim won’t be back for a while. Turning to face the drinks cabinet, she resolves that this will be the day they open their horizons. She will leave a legacy that transforms their miserable existence. At the back, as dusty as the food menu, she finds a bottle of Campari, the liquid still a vibrant red despite years of being ostracised. Next to it is a half-empty bottle of Martini and the dregs of a bottle of gin, all huddled together as if waiting for the day they will be freed into glasses together once more.
She grabs all three and in a frenzy lays a line of squat glasses along the bar. She looks across at Louis and mouths a treat for them, on us. Louis nods in encouragement and Isla starts pouring and tasting until she has the perfect Negroni mix. She can’t find any ice, and she knows there won’t be any orange peel, but it still tastes damn good; bitter, fruity and warming. She places the glasses on a tray and glides around the pub, passing one to Louis before placing one in front of each of Big Mick, Clarence, Seamus, Abdul and Lorna.
“They’re on us,” she says to the room, “give it a go, you might like it.”
Big Mick puts down his pint and looks at the blood red liquid in the short glass. He picks it up and smells how strong it is. He puts it back down and takes another sip of his beer. He looks at the door and thinks about making a run for it, before picking up the cocktail and inhaling the fumes again. It smells like lighter fluid.
Already he can feel his fist thudding into someone’s face, his knee cracking their ribs, the cold of the handcuffs around his wrists, the loneliness of his prison cell, the roughness of the pavement he will sleep on after he’s released.
He downs it in one.
Isla sees this and feels a rush of pride. To celebrate she swans over to Dennis the Pitbull, whom she reckons is probably a big softie behind his fearsome exterior, and extends her hand forwards to stroke his smooth head.