I started at the Angel in search of a boy, my long-lost urn, my Eros, namesake, darling. This station to the west of the borough of Islington lies next to the canals, a perfect starting point for my search. I felt sure your old street would be nearby. It was missing from the map they gave me in the hotel.
There is an angel hovering over your streets, Islington. I know, because I searched from one end of you to the next, covering all cardinal points. I felt his light spirit first in the understated foyer of the hotel where I stayed in Mount Pleasant, and around the canals, where fortunate tenants live in million-pound tenements, others in barges that course along waterways.
Chameleon-like he turns and weaves, sometimes appearing rainbow-brightly hued, at other times a cloudy figure darkly cloaked.
I lost him on the wrong side of a road, where life expectancy is ten years’ less than on the other side. I caught a glimpse of him in private parks, where London Planes tower and catch the smog in outstretched arms.
Upper Street leads north, lined with boutiques, coffee shops and English pubs with funny names. Ethnic restaurants add an aromatic flavour alongside Anglo baskets of multicoloured petunias, which adorn the street.
After crayfish sandwiches at Pret A Manger, the McDonald’s owned chain of healthy luncheon fare, I continued on for thirty minutes more; until I came to Islington-and-Highbury, certain that this would be the Islington of which you spoke. But when I looked for your street in the bus-stand map, I discovered that you were nowhere to be found in this part of the borough, either.
No-one could could tell me where the street lay until I came to Finsbury Park. Yes, around the corner from Finsbury Park I found you, my boy, an angel orphaned by Fate around the time of Victoria’s demise.
As I stood in front of 65 Evershsot Road, I heard your cries: “Mama! Mama!”
You were only a boy when you were orphaned, and brought up by Grandma Mepham and Auntie Louie in a gracious house of women. I remember the sweet letters from Auntie Louie after she sent you away. Letters in an old lady’s scrawly hand from this far-away kingdom to the north.
Islington, you were no doubt smart when he was born, before the onslought of poverty brought by horse-drawn omnibuses, mud and sewage, burst your gentility at the seams. My Angel, the plumbing was not up to the force of it, either; and so your poor Mama died: from an invisible speck that entered the lungs and no-one believed was there. Until too late.
Just around the corner from your childhood street, is another England, now, of hookahs, and gaudy satin gowns in shop fronts the size of broom cupboards; and Cypriot, Algerian, Moroccan, Ethiopian and a hundred other odd tongues wagging:
a multicultural district, with large Turkish, Kurdish, Caribbean and North African asylum seeker populations.
Auntie Louie’s letters kept us all in touch with Old England like spiders’ webs breeching the gap of time and space, from the genteel Mepham household that took you in.
I walked along the streets near Finsbury Park where once you played. Opposite Finsbury Station, I found the mosque where dark angels—refugees, along with British converts— once met, not so long ago, to pray, and to enlist as jihadists to a stark world view of Taliban Islam.
They wouldn’t let you touch her, when she died in your father’s arms. I heard your cries as I stood before the house: “Papa! Papa!” But he was gone off, too, that other Skivington; off like a bird in flight, afraid for his sanity.
Auntie Louie, though, hugged your skinny boyness to her ample breasts and said: “My Angel, everything will be alright. God is good and He knows all: what is and when and why.”
You were cosseted in this female household, clothed and fed well, and sent to the best school in the district, pampered and petted and urged to do your homework every night. And Auntie Louie, bathed in unexpected motherhood, became your Alma Mater.
But as the Victorian age ended, Grandma Mepham cried: “He’s out of control! Dear God, what shall we do?” Dear Auntie Louie, too, losing control, as he entered adolescence, feeling the lack of a male figure in his life.
You, Angel, an arrogant teenager, sliding downhill, with Islington on the skids, alongside you.
“He’ll be the death of me!” railed Grandma Mepham. “And Islington’s going to the dogs, as well. Get him out of here! He needs a goal in life! William, my son, what is to be done?”
Captain of ships going to the colonies, William Mepham knew at once.
“We’ll pack the young lad off to the Antipodes and see how he fares there!” he bawled. “I’ll put him on one of my ships as cabin boy. He’ll have to sink or swim!”
I have learnt, Islington, during my wanderings, that you were first mentioned in the Domesday Book, and are now home to wealthy politicians with names like Tony and Gordon, and rich tailors, and artists and architects; and mothers wheeling baby boys in fancy costumes and navy prams.
I am late in understanding. I took your dry wit for Old English reticence, your silence about the past as lack of imagination, or even worse, of love.
“History is a useless subject,” you said. “Don’t go back over old winding streets, of past regrets. In any case, Hitler’s bombs destroyed all evidence of my childhood days!”
Lucky, you were, to be relieved so swiftly and permanently, of past ghosts.
I am sorry for my foolish ignorance: the arrogance of youth, in not knowing until too late, Ernest, my long-lost grandfather, about your past, you who gave us your name, which rhymes with Islington.
The following photos are ones I took while going in search of my grandfather’s childhood homes and the surrounding suburbs. Although I was off the track to a great extent, it was rewarding in terms of imagining his past life in London and in opening the gates up to speculating about the circumstances surrounding his early life.