Laura Oldfield Ford's psychogeographic walk around London's Whitechapel – on a bad hangover

By Laura Oldfield Ford

Estate collage, London, 2016.

Think maybe the hangovers are getting worse: the shrill, branching corridors, the clattering thoughts. You’re bundled under a blanket. Scan the screen with the usual fractured attention and see an email, unsolicited, from him. You can’t mention his name, thinking that if you say it out loud you might summon him, trigger the next sequence. It’s been weeks since you spoke, and you’d resolved not to get back in touch. It was like giving up smoking, everyone pleased as if you were overcoming something bad. You pause before you open it, want to suspend the moment, gauge what it is you might be hoping for.

You think maybe you should just delete it, destroy the shoots of delusion before they start to grow. You read it three times and feel the possibilities opening like winter anemones in the ruby light of the room. Another pseudonym, another address, but coded so you know it’s him.

He’s coming back to England.

The message is succinct but insistent, he needs to see you. You feel conflicted, frustrated by the way you’re lighting up, the walls shifting out of alignment as the possibilities begin to radiate. Cardboard boxes in the corridor, holly woven in jagged bunches. You glance with a momentary scattering of pleasure at the shimmering lights, the blue spruce scenting the room with pine.

He’s coming back next week. He doesn’t say for how long. He must have a new passport, somewhere to hide out. You know you shouldn’t see him, it’s taken you this long just to get used to it. All those punishing walks to banish the hectoring voices, the icy determination to get on with it. Without your mates, without Asim and Dee and all that crew, you could easily have been knocked off-kilter. But in spite of yourself, the days leading up to Christmas seem prismatic now, shimmering like opals in the greys of a London winter.

At the start, the chance encounters, the coded messages – it felt like those winter nights when subdued yards suddenly light up with bonfires, filigree patterns on walls and fences. He’d emerged in the eye of a heat- wave, 30-degree heat every day for a fortnight. London had simmered, come off its hinges.

You’d drifted in circles, long unravelling walks through the old dockyards, the lilac shadows of Whitechapel. That time indelibly marked you, the cherry blossom, the magnolia suddenly there. The way he sought you, mesmerising you in a blaze of letters, you could never step out of the circle.

Then the limbo of late summer, his disappearances, speaking of that other life, sultry August leaching into parched September. In those last days he’d alluded to walls closing in, flats getting raided, conspiracy charges. You’d always known he wasn’t really yours, that other forces eclipsed his commitment. You’d heard soon after, in the tendrils of barroom chat, that he’d left London.

You wondered how he stood it, moving across the continent between a network of squats and concealed apartments. You knew he must feel a sense of dislocation, that it couldn’t really be what he wanted. You sensed his yearning for London. Sometimes, as you retraced your steps across the city, you tuned into his longing for those tracks and hidden paths.

And now this message. In spite of yourself, you feel stupid waves of hope. You know you shouldn’t even think about meeting him, shouldn’t even give him a chance to explain, but you can’t crush the thought that maybe this Christmas will be different, you’ll be hiding out like you used to.


The days have been moving slowly, crystalline oblongs of waiting. TV property shows on repeat. Dee lying on the damask settee, Dee with her red hair, pale face, eyes shiny with drink, cobalt flaring round the pupils. You holding a shard of mirror. Gold and pink eyeshadow, three coats of mascara, kohl under the eyes. Anticipation locked in the scent of almond oil, hot in the hairdryerlike marzipan. Dee wants to walk to the pub with you, still trying to talk you out of it. Been rolling her eyes since you told her. Wants to walk with you through the terrain where the templates were cut, the old snooker hall, the derelict warehouses.

You just want to see him, let him explain.


White lights, perfect discs pulsating. One drink, rum and coke, any minute he’ll be here, off the train, Aldgate East, out of the station, along the platform where yellow lights sculpt the black. A litany of names like poetry, imagine how it will make him feel to hear them again, Stepney, Whitechapel, Aldgate East. Surging through the barriers, crush to the street, to the frozen rain. Bomber jacket, hood pulled against winter dark, lighting a cigarette. Feel the nerves sparkling beneath the ribs. Outside the window, men hanging round, eyeing you up, looking across the street, the derelict pub, the halal chicken shop. Wonder how you’ll appear when he comes – how he’ll see you. That scent Hermès, Eau des Merveilles, amber, violet, patchouli cutting through the cigarette smoke, the spilled beer. The maroon walls, the circles of light pulsing, the memory of those kisses, the ones you hadn’t allowed yourself to think about, coming now in cascades.

Separation is like a comedown, black pearlescence outlining every kerb, cornice and doorway. Last summer, the city had shown you signs and you were subsumed in it, slinking through walls, melting into bricks. He came to you like a shock, a jolt of memory. Those nights, the violet rooftops, the concrete emitting a remembered heat, it was like you’d been there before, connected in another time. And those concrete stairs, the magenta light in your room, you had hidden there, sealed in a world so intense it had become telepathic.

And now, the pavements are sparkling black, street lamps illuminating the dancing fall of heavy snowflakes. The men outside coming in, noticing, observing. TV in the corner, mute beneath the jukebox, and that Calvin Harris song – How Deep Is Your Love – always there, marking everything, capturing memories in its pale blue tendrils. London Tonight, traffic disruption on the North Circular, trains delayed at Victoria. That’s why he’s late, it’s obvious. You call Dee to tell her. Dee wants you to come home, doesn’t want you sitting there in the pub alone.

You’re on the cusp of dizziness with the drink, an unmooring sensation, trying to hold back the scuttling visions of airport security, holding cells, the seizure of that new passport. You’re drinking too fast.

You reach for the cracked Nokia, knowing you can’t even text him. You wait half an hour, feel powerless, immobilised. Dee is calling you, asking you to come back. The disappointment is heaping in drifts. Dee tells you she is coming to get you, tells you to start walking down Commercial Road towards home.

Stiletto heels scratch the icy pavement, you feel overdressed, suddenly embarrassed by the fur coat and short black dress. Dee is there on the other side of the road. You step out of the snow into your building, stop in the dusty loading area to light a cigarette.

The industrial lift with its concertina door is still broken and you climb through heaps of boxes and the zigzag whir of sewing machines to your latest hideout, on the eighth floor. 

This article first appeared in the January & February 2016 issue of ArtReview.