My lofty life amid the poor in the Ditch

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The Independent Online
"Write about the poor," I was told. "This loft living sounds perfectly Hogarthian." The glue-sniffing derelict who regularly kips in my doorway would totally endorse this description. "Fancy a shag darlin'?" he whimpered hopelessly at my kneecaps, as I tottered in from a trendy artisan bar last night. I slammed the door on his rake's rags. He was once a City-boy dealer in futures. Pity he couldn't foresee his own.

A more rascal-ridden, geezerish, mafia-warring, cell-phoned, ethnically melted, square mile than Shoreditch would indeed be hard to find. Not so much as a kitchen sink is missing from this urban trifle. As I exited my fashionable and filthy galvanised steel dungeon on to the filthier High Street this morning, there was one standing proud on the cracked and crazy pavement.

No one in the Ditch seems to have noticed that these last few months have seen momentous changes in our island's status quo. Elections are as irrelevant here as council tax and gardens. Anyone who believes in politicians is a mug, just as is anyone who pays the asking price for anything. This is the cash-and- carry world. The cash changes hands in the pub and the carrying is done under cover of darkness. Ditch dwellers rightly believe no government could better manage the economy.

Syd, the local psycho (he once dropped six tabs of acid in one go, no one noticed) can lay his hands on most things, "I've got this mate Keith in Transco, know wha' I'm sayin' ..." There's a stretch of the High Street where no business is transacted without his say-so. From a concrete blaster to a line of coke you call Keith on the mobile ... le's put it this way Kaz, a deal can always be done ... know wha' I'm sayin'?

I'm working on the roof-top of a once industrial building, now converted into luxury "studio" apartments. You'd think that implied live/work spaces for photographers and artists but, in fact, it's City-boy bonuses that snaffle up these jewels at exorbitant prices. Villainous 'hood estate agents Shaft and Gazump have made sure of that. This particular roof has an area of potted geraniums, climbers and Astroturf, all doing remarkably well despite the smoggy fumes that rise even this far from the traffic- choked High Street. Conan, Syd's dog - a mogrelish boxer with pugnacious tendencies and a permanently dribbling nose, not unlike Syd himself - scampers across the asphalted surface to lay a turd in the Astroturf. He is followed at a trot by Yasmin, Syd's consort, in bicycle shorts and improbably stacked heels. "Want any trainers?" she yodels. She is lugging a Prada suitcase which she opens to display a jumble of brand new Nikes and Adidases. "Size seven," she adds mysteriously. I explain to Yasmin that at the moment I have no money for any sort of shoe except the kind you boil and eat. She gives me an old-fashioned look. People in the Ditch may be poverty trapped but they can always get hold of money.

Never go to Hoxton Post Office on a Monday morning. The queue of claimant desperadoes goes round the block. Many appear to be Bosnian. Two have a bike they want to sell. They demonstrate its versatility, spinning the front wheel, balancing on the back one. Perhaps they were trick cyclists in the old country? The octogenarian leaning on her zimmer frame isn't impressed, nor is the harassed mother with three children under five in a push-chair, but the teenager sheltering from the slanting rain under a bit of card reading "homeless and hopeless, please help, thank you" exhibits mild curiosity.

Swathes of Eastern Europeans have penetrated the area, appearing with ghetto-blasters and obscure electrical goods in the local markets; giving even the ubiquitous Shaft and Gazump a few pangs in the pocket. For they too are developers and those buildings not falling to a shadowy mafia from Stamford Hill are snapped up before the boards are in place, amid rumours of unusual deals with Iraqi banks. Gordon, are you listening?

After the post office, I visit the chemist, who takes it for granted I won't be paying for my prescription, scout the market for bargains and having pounced on one or two spend the cash saved on a lottery ticket. Next to football and booze the lottery is the Ditch-dweller's greatest leisure interest.

Back to the roof. Must get on with the novel. In the Brickies last night was spurred on by three young men with screenplays tucked into their Puffa jackets. While I sit here chewing my pen ... Syd's looking out for a state-of-the-art laptop for me ... an industrial sander is working over the other side of the rustic fence and the sound of roadworks and diamond- bit drilling is deafening. When I said I was moving from Highgate to an East End loft my "Ham and High" friends were mystified. Why would I want to trade in my delightful house with terrace and garden for grim Dickensian squalor? I have to admit I've wondered myself whilst wrestling with the Laocoon electrics and Heath Robinson plumbing. Yet the view across the rooftops is bizarrely harmonious. There is St Leonards and a sweep across gothic Spitalfields to the hi-tech of the City. In the othr direction is beaming Canary Wharf. Besides, it's an adventure ... in the Ditch you never know what will happen next. Oh, excuse me my cellphone is ringing.

Carole Hayman's novel `Missing' will be published by Gollancz next March.