Street credibility: Bright, young artists are revitalising Hoxton

Click to follow
Back in 1983, when I first moved to the misbegotten and neglected area known to locals as 'Oxton, essentially a no man's land bordered with Shoreditch, the place seemed magical. Empty warehouses and dilapidated buildings appeared tailormade for an anarchic, artistic alternative to the encroaching yuppiedom of the 'civilized' London.

The locals were quaint remnants of an idyllic East End past, with a vague reputation for violence - one thought of the ' 'Oxton Heavies' who had attacked Quentin Crisp and the Krays' greater outposts. Already one-night warehouse clubs were beginning to colonise the area with youth subculture. Then came the artists, photographers, writers and designers: Alistair Thain, Malcolm Garrett, David Robilliard to name just a few. It seemed the area was set to explode into creative life.

What happened? Recession, short leases and unimaginative councils. I despaired of living in London's answer to New York's SoHo: no English Andy Warhol came to stake out a claim and estate agents withdrew plans for the 'new Battersea/Clapham/Docklands'. I kept the faith, however, and ostentatiously announced in the blurb for my first book that I lived on the ninth floor of a block of flats in Shoreditch.

Such loyalty has been rewarded. Ten years later it all seems to have sprung up again, stronger than before. The area boasts the highest concentration of active artists in town, and the new optimism was epitomised by Saturday's events in the usually sleepy Hoxton Square, formerly famous for location shots in The Crying Game and an occasional Miss Marple mystery.

Factual Nonsense, a gallery in Charlotte Road run by the eccentric Joshua Compston, was responsible for the 'Fete worse than Death', a conceptualist village fete in which the green lawns and flowerbeds of the square were overtaken by bright, young art types (of Damien Hirst vintage and younger). Here were such amusements as the Rodent Roulette, where my friend Alix, three, endured being spun on a stool with a black, bewhiskered cloth bag over her head only to win a bit of fluff in a matchbox. (She had been after the yellow mouse sunglasses.)

The sight of thousands of Birkenstocked and tight T-shirted trendies in Hoxton seemed to have sealed the area's reputation, a melange of Glastonbury-meets-Old Compton Street street culture with added art appeal. In the derelict generating station on the west side of the square - overlooked by new studio spaces for lease to affluent artists - spectators watched a four-hour Reservoir Dogs-style performance with exploding blood sacs, choreographed in slow-motion.

Elsewhere Lucian Freud model Leigh Bowery performed blatantly offensive songs clad in a grotesque outfit from which he/she gave birth to a bloody, naked woman, who sat goggled-eyed as Bowery peed in a cup and gave it to his progeny to drink. One callow youth complained it wasn't loud enough. Told that the decibels were being kept down for the benefit of nearby residents, he exhorted 'Where's the spirit of '79' (' '77, actually,' I corrected him.)

Surprisingly, there were few objections from the locals, although a few plastic cups flew Bowery's way. The owner of the corner shop professed enthusiasm, although he did not approve of the Free Drugs Tombola, which introduced youngsters to the concept of sniffing glue.

I wondered how the Augustinian community of St Monica's, on the north side of the square, would be celebrating 6.30pm mass, their hymns vying with African funk and hardcore dance. We're talking major culture clash here.

Older residents affect a resigned tolerance to the incomers; the younger ones scowl or wreak revenge by stealing car radios. Aesthetic kudos does little for them, nor does the fact that Malcolm McLaren was being led around the square by eminent art fixer Anthony Fawcett. (They would have been more impressed by the sight of Katie Puckrik, filming for The Word, being bandaged at the Anarchy Hospital.) Ambient techno stars Orbital have established their studios nearby; English Eccentrics retain their hold on Charlotte Road, accessorised by jewellers Wright & Teague and hatters Fred Bare.

Graphic designers Ian Wright and Hoskyns Associates inhabit local warehouses, along with a smattering of NME and Arena writers.

Time has turned us older colonisers into locals, we like to think; at Old Street Tube - newly crowned by arching sculpture, as if to coronate the area's ongoing revitalisation - we are as accustomed to the sight of drop-dead models, as to beggars and less socially mobile inhabitants. What is really lacking is a nocturnal nexus. Stalwarts of the Bricklayer's Arms patronise the pub fiercely, but it could do with some competition.

The square now boasts a veggie cafe, serving clientele of the doomed Bass Clef club and visitors to the refurbished RADA rehearsal space. The student accommodation being built next to Hoxton Market ensures an influx of young blood. Something big is bound to happen. Up in my eyrie, overlooking this changing world, I wonder what the next 10 years will bring.

The author's first biography, 'Serious Pleasures, about Stephen Tennant, is published by Penguin. His next, on Noel Coward, is due to be published by Sinclair-Stevenson next year.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments