Back in London, briefly – and taking my unholy desires to a place of piety and virtue

“I wonder if I am going to be accosted and asked why I have forgotten my beard and my shtreime”.

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So it’s farewell to Penge, and the new friends I made there, but London’s maw refuses to let me go. I lasted one night at East Finchley to see if things would get any better there. They didn’t. So after putting out a distress call on a social medium I took an Uber across north London at the invitation of K— (another K—, not Penge’s K—).

I grew up in north London but this journey, cutting east, exposed me to parts of it I had never seen before. In London, if you rely on the Tube, the journeys are all in-out, not side-side. (A quick note on Uber: I expressed a certain amount of solidarity with Sadiq Khan over revoking Uber’s operating licence, due to unfair employment practice; my position has shifted somewhat since having to rely on it to carry me and two not-very-light bags across town rather regularly. Sorry.)

I passed through Crouch End, Hornsey, Harringay, West Green. Unlovely names for unlovely districts, scantily served by the Tube. And then to Stamford Hill. The name rings a bell. I knew not that I was going there. I thought I was going to N16, which I only know as a district of London called Stoke Newington. This is an area notorious throughout the capital for being inaccessible by any means of public transport whatsoever. (Residents of Stoke Newington, fiercely proud and about to fire up their laptops in indignation and tell me about the many bus routes serving the postcode: I exaggerate for comic effect.)

But here I am now in Stamford Hill, and as I struggle with my bags and a bottle of wine for my host I am passed by a Hasid, his shoulders hunched, as if in horror at the modern world. (Three bottles, the last of the Château Batailley 2000 I bought en primeur, when I was in funds, have vanished from their storage in East Finchley; their theft, if theft it is, represents a loss of some £150 at current prices – a further insult to my situation.)

Stamford Hill! It comes back to me now and, as my hostess reminds me, it is home to the third largest concentration of Hasidism in the world, after Jerusalem and New York. As I go up the stairs to her flat I am pleasantly assaulted by the smell of baking chollah, and wonder whether I have committed a floater by bringing her, along with the wine, ten slices of excellent mortadella, which, I suddenly realise, is made almost entirely of pork.

I need not have worried: although, as she says, she could pass, she is not Jewish, and we settle down to our feast – and, later on, to pepperoni pizza scored from the Sainsbury’s down the road. (Is there, we ask ourselves, any other kind?)

The next morning I go for a walk to pick up the latest Viz and New Statesman. I am struck by so much... orthodoxy. “The only living goy in New York,” I hum to myself, but I too could pass and, as I am wearing a thick black coat, black trousers and boots, and wearing glasses, I wonder if I am going to be accosted and asked why I have forgotten my beard and my shtreimel. This is a place, it seems, of piety and virtue; I, with my unholy desires, my disinclination to study sacred texts, must stand out.

Well, I think to myself. At least this is not a place in which I will get up to much mischief, so I find myself surprised, on my first evening here, to be propping up the bar of a most delightfully louche den called the Mascara, opposite the Morrisons, at one in the morning, chatting to the regulars and the landlady, a most splendidly tough Irish woman called Maggie, whom I have gathered during the course of the day is a well-known character round here.

Ten years I lived in central London and I never found a place like this. Yet here is one of the great bars, as if a chunk of New York had materialised in N16. “Do you mind if I write about you?” I ask. I get the feeling that it is wise to ask her permission. Very possibly to do anything.

Morning now: as I write these words I head off, on a bus, to the British Library. A bus! That’s how you get around town in these parts. It is another world. To think I have lived almost all of my life in this city and yet found so much of it I did not know. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief