25 LOVE LANE: ROBERT VAS'S Refuge England
ONE TEST OF A FOREIGNER'S love of London would be to visit the far northern neighborhoods of the city in February. There are tourists in Tottenham—mad beasts—here at this time of year, even in this faraway corner of “The World’s Most Visited City.” In early 2015 I took in the Spurs-Fiorentina Europa League Match at White Hart Lane, and the visiting supporters dodged the rain in the Spurs Shop buying scarves commemorating their away goal in the downpour, when they might have simply waited a week for ultimate victory (2–0, 3–1 aggregate) in the second leg on a 10-degree Celsius, short-sleeved night at home in a warm country with a sane national cuisine. The chanting over cold lager in the freezing drizzle of the gardens of the Tottenham home supporters’ pubs can sometimes sound crass (there’s a graceless ditty about a doll in the form of an Arsenal supporter—let’s just say that something bad happens to the doll). But nobody seems to be harassing the Italians in the Spurs Shop, and my brother-in-law (diehard Tottenham) and I (neutral UN observer for this match, my winter cap reading “Brasil”) have seats in the corner of joyful old concrete White Hart Lane with the polite families near the disabled access zones. We get to see Harry Kane warm up while wolfing down sausage rolls and coffee, watching highlight reels on a screen smaller than most third-tier American college basketball teams have in their arenas. Meanwhile, the rain that raineth every day continues to do so.
“Now let’s see what the weather is doing to us,” said a BBC presenter that week. “Pretty nasty,” replies the weather woman—they have this mournful, apologetic air about them as they officiate at the funeral of yet another weekend. This performance seems to say: Yes, yes, according to EU law we are legally entitled to live in Seville, where today the high reached twenty, and yet here we all are, still, somehow! One of the live political issues—which has endured long past the 2015 general election—involves the British conviction that, as with the weather, the country is beleaguered by outside forces. According to estimates from Oxford’s Migration Observatory reported in The Independent, the number of migrants in London rose by 200,000 from 2011 to 2014, with two thirds from EU countries. People hear just these words—migrants! asylum seekers! benefits claimants!—and react, like Bram Stoker did in writing Dracula, to the Victorian-sounding menace of blood contagion from “The East.” The Romanians are Coming, shrieks a new television show being advertised during my visit, complete with a clip of a maniacal-looking man withdrawing cash from what we presume is the rather barren cupboard of the State.
The blatant unaffordability of London and the fate of London as a city for anyone on a remotely normal income to live in, long-term, seem to be the main obsessions of everyone I encounter. As a foreign visitor, especially one who jumped from sublet to sublet in New York for five years, and who has heard this very same conversation before, it’s easy to sympathize. Even the thirty-minute train journey from Gatwick costs an insane twenty pounds, essentially making the fee a sort of pilgrim’s entrance and exit tax. Add in the Tube to get the train and you’ve spent the equivalent of a budget flight to Barcelona just to look at muddy suburban football fields and ads for virtual business meetings that depict commuting in and out of London as “The Horror,” with people in devil masks in high-visibility jackets presiding over the diesel-choked traffic.
On a lark, my friends Ben and Tom go to the sales offices of One Blackfriars, a dildo-shaped luxury tower being added to the increasingly grandiose London riverside skyline. Since the Gherkin went bankrupt, someone must have reasoned, why not build a bunch more things like it, only without the Gherkin’s touch of class? One Blackfriars, like the One Tower Bridge complex that is literally being erected over the bones of the mass graves of the city’s poor at The Potter’s Field, is part of the new Millionaire’s International Style. This is a sort of global Donald Trump fashion that makes London, New York, Dubai, and other selected cities detachable separate city-states of extended airport hotels and shopping centers where the mega-wealthy can shuttle between their empty investment properties. The saleswoman trumpets an Executive Lounge high up in One Blackfriars (is there a sadder concept bar?) and, when asked who will buy the flats, which start above a million pounds, she says, “People such as yourselves?” What they’d be purchasing is an architect’s model and a computerized vision of what the view from your flat would, in theory, look like—the building does not actually exist in the real world as yet. Could you buy and flip a flat in the time between the initial sales and the beginning of construction, my wife asks them, tongue in cheek, and profit from a wholly conceptual transaction on a nonexistent property?
Tottenham feels, refreshingly, a million miles away from this other London—in truth it might as well be another planet—although White Hart Lane is also “Under Construction” and the stadium concept (“Passionate about Tottenham”) includes both the obligatory jargon of urban revitalization as well as an artist’s depiction of admittedly killer-looking flats bordering on Spurs’ new grounds. The last time I was here, in August 2011, the area between White Hart Lane and Seven Sisters had just been burned by rioters, and the high street was cordoned off by the police near the looted Carpet Rite. I remember watching and rewatching a fascinating clip of surveillance footage showing a woman grappling with a large carpet as she traveled down the street—presumably she needed to redecorate. I had somehow been mistaken for a local by a student reporter or art student and her companion photographer as I stared up at a gutted building where a red Chinese lamp was dangling in a room exposed to the sky, as if in an image of the Blitz. “What do you think when you see that?” they asked me. “I don’t think anything,” I said. “But North London is my favorite place in the world and seeing this makes me feel sad.” When they realized I was American, they surprised me by getting more interested rather than less so, but then again that’s not so uncommon, for better and for worse, in the less well-traveled precincts of London, in Archway, Tottenham, Hackney Wick and the other places I like to ride the buses.
On this winter visit to North London, I’ve spent some quality time following the congregations of swans along the Lea River Navigation, where at Markfield Park there is a museum dedicated entirely the Victorian sewage works, and a little warm-up café serving cappuccinos to the local stroller brigades. I’ve glimpsed a little bonfire set in a park between the estates in Tottenham, with wary-looking kids keeping a look-out for the police. I’ve tried to photograph a few of the boarded-up buildings around White Hart Lane, like the railway pub next to the overground station, along the bus route that travels from Northumberland Park to Finsbury Park via the splendid city views from the grounds of Alexandra Palace.
While I’m here, I’m making a personal project out of visiting every Love Lane in the London A to Z. There is one in Tottenham, a side-road to some estates, adjacent to the White Hart Lane train station. There is one in The City, leading from the double screens of the financial traders to a park commemorating Shakespeare. Another’s in Pinner, and yet another’s in Morden. My friends and family are surprisingly interested—it’s a strangely compelling way to force ourselves to go into parts of the city we’ve never visited before, often on the periphery. Near Love Lane in Woodford Green, there are gated mansions, golf courses, even a convent. In SE25 and in Morden, there’s a tram system, painted houses, dank pedestrian rail tunnels, and, my personal favorite, a Love Lane with a Lidl (Walmart-esque discounter). There is a Love Lane Woolwich that is no longer listed in the A to Z, bordering a big-box Tesco’s.
“Why all the Love Lanes?” asks a skeptical filmmaker I’ve met at the “Suburbaret” Cabaret show in Balham, (“an evening of cabaret in celebration of all things suburban!! Burlesque—Comedy—Drag—Music—Spoken Word.”) I try explaining that I am attempting to retrace the film locations from Robert Vas’s great 1959 documentary Refuge England. I’ve become obsessed with this film, whose central conceit never gets old. A refugee arrives in postwar London from a “camp” in Hungary, knowing only one word of English. He has a couple of coins in his pocket and a touching photograph of a parent and child, with an address written on the back—25 Love Lane. He’s been told he will be welcomed by a man at this address, but first he must find the place, and in London that is a problem, since the city uses the same street names in many different neighborhoods. Without more specific location information or a postcode, his only alternative is to travel to every Love Lane in the city. But when he consults a policeman with a Greater London A to Z, he realizes that there are a long list of Love Lanes, scattered in every corner of the metropolis. The film follows him as he tries to find his own Love Lane, and, in doing so, gradually reveals London itself in its vast confusion, delightful ephemera, tangled center, endless suburbs, and horrible weather. Refuge England takes liberties with the real map of the city, mixing fiction and nonfiction in its inclusion of various places such as Waterloo Station, Waterloo Bridge, The Strand, and Piccadilly Circus, where the pop art of random nightlife washes tides of neon into the picture, joined by scowling men in bowler hats, a statue of Johnnie Walker, movie posters, a fortune-telling automaton, and shots of passing faces, footage “stolen” by the filmmakers before the age of the signed release. At one point, the narrator asks whether each person will be the one to offer him a job, finally. He wants to know when or if this city will ever adopt him or accept him, with a “bye-bye and cheerio.” He wants to know who or what is to blame for the waves of history pushing lives like his into the breakers. But he also injects notes of humor in the picture, by asking, for example, if the world situation is the fault of the Planter’s Peanut advertising mascot, with his pince-nez and cane.
Vas’s film, it seems to me, provides a pleasing key to unlock unusual views of this city.(Although it must be said that in all of my travels in search of London’s Love Lanes, over dozens of journeys and scores of miles, I only discovered one—the Love Lane in Woodford Green at the edge of Essex and the Epping Forest—that I am fairly confident actually appears as a location in the film. And that is only for an instant, in an establishing shot of a suburban street where Vas’s character is turned away, but offered a cup of tea.) I think Refuge England also contains a potential antidote to the political climate of xenophobia that has come to grip not only the UK but also Europe and the United States, with politicians climbing to prominence on rickety old ladders that have never led to a clear-eyed point of view. In the film, Vas’s protagonist eventually connects with the generous soul that has offered a stranger without any English a place to stay, despite knowing nothing about his character, his work ethic, his documentation, or the personal history that has driven him to this act of desperation, the leaving behind of one’s homeland and one’s language. Do people really think this is something undertaken lightly?
J.M. TYREE is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts and Nonfiction Editor of New England Review. This essay is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London (Stanford University Press, Fall 2016).