In Search of Number One

21 09 2010

A warm welcome

No, not the title to a compelling self-help book but an actual search for number one Essex Road.

So as I’ve set out, my plan for this project is to make my way down and back up Essex Road in Islington from number one to number 400-odd visiting every business along the way. I’ve been planning the project for a while and was excited to get moving.

You won’t be surprised to hear then that I was a bit peeved to find that my grand departure became a false start. As far as I can see there is no number one Essex Road. There’s a place where it should be. Islington Green blends into a raised pedestrian area and a row of terraced houses ends near the corner. Where number one would be there is a large, modern development of what looks like flats. It’s actually slightly difficult to tell as the ground floor is pretty much covered in chipboard with angry security signs. This development stretches for around 25 metres along Essex Road until it reaches The Diner, Islington at number 21. I groped around the building like a dyspraxic mime for a while and then gave up, setting my disgruntled purist face to one side and entering the very first business.

The Diner is an American style restaurant, part of a North London mini-chain, decked out with all the trappings you’d expect. Red leather banquette seating, lots of chrome and that crazy paving wall finish like the chalet in North by Northwest. I went in about 10:00am on a Saturday and they were open with a few tables of customers already there.

Immediately I thought about a potential problem that I’m likely to face. I have a day job so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to visit these businesses outside of my walk to and from work or at the weekends. What if one of them is only open during office hours on weekdays? In addition to that, I realised that my rule to buy something in every business could leave me with a variety of problems. What if I don’t need whatever it is they sell at that point? What if it’s really expensive? My thoughts immediately turned to the antique auction house a few doors along. Probably poor form for a self-styled local enthusiast to return items I’ve bought for a refund so that won’t work.

I’m whingeing, but this is actually the fun part of any project like this. Finding out what the rules actually mean in practice and working out how to adapt, cope and benefit from them.

I walked into the restaurant to a cheery hello from the barman. I explained that I’d like to speak to the manager or owner and immediately felt nervous. What a stupid idea, this person is probably busy and won’t appreciate some dick head interrupting the monthly accounts or whatever. I thought immediately about how quickly I could make my excuses and leave, then felt a pang of fear. This kind of attitude isn’t going to ‘unlock the magical secrets of the infraordinary’. Deep breath. I met Bryony Giboin, manageress, or at least person in charge that day.

I haltingly explained what I was doing and how I hoped she could help. Tensing up twice, once as I described myself as a writer (FRAUD! FRAUD!) and secondly as her brow furrowed whilst I explained the project, spewing verbal diarrhoea in her face. I consoled myself that the baggage I bring to the project will be part of what makes it interesting and that this is as much about my constraints as a writer as about the constraints of the project. It was fear misplaced as it turned out. She giggled and happily answered my questions.

Just before I started I wrote out a list of the things I would ask people. The goal is to keep all of these questions the same so I’ve got some kind of common record and to add new ones as appropriate. I asked the following:

  • How long has the business been there?
  • What was there before?
  • How many people work there?
  • Where do you come from to get here?

I’ll put all these at the end of the post with a record of what I bought and the cost.

As I’d hoped, the questions sparked off some interesting discussion. Pretty much everyone who works in The Diner comes in from Hackney, making their way up Essex Road on the 38. The staff exuded Shoreditch chic with blended euro accents, skinny jeans and checked shirts buttoned to the throat. This was exactly the sort of young and trendy crowd who lap up this kind of irreverent crap. This was almost certainly too easy and would give me a false sense of security. I thanked Bryony for the information and ordered my first in-project Essex Road purchase. An excellent cappuccino. Mug, long spoon, Douglas Hurd of foamed milk on top.

Purchase one - £2.25 +75p

Whilst I drank it scribbling up my notes, the barman chatted to me, intrigued about what I was doing. I apologetically rambled through the rules and plans, grateful that he didn’t ask ‘why?’ He smiled the same bemused smile Bryony had and carried on chatting. I wonder if that’s going to be a common theme. I noticed that they had Sleeman Honey Lager on tap, a beer they served in the Canadian town where I used to live. Enjoying the sense of connection I finished my coffee and left, thanking them all for their help but mostly for not making me feel like a prize twat.

  • Business has been there since June 2009
  • Previous business was La Tasca chain tapas bar
  • Around 30 people work there
  • Interviewee arrives there from Hackney on the bus
  • I bought a cappuccino for £2.25 and tipped 75p
  • Cumulative spend – £3.00

21 Essex Road, Bryony and Tom

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4 responses

22 09 2010
Alastair Humphreys

“This was exactly the sort of young and trendy crowd who lap up this kind of irreverent crap.” Perfect! 🙂

22 09 2010
Alastair Humphreys

I think the photos from this project will be fantastic, and would make a really nice project in themselves.
Why not set up a Flickr account for them so that you can easily make a book from blurb.com at the end? That’s what I did here:

Jumping into the sea at sunset. Using the self timer
22 09 2010
James Easterbrook

Nice idea, I’ll do it and pay a bit more attention to the quality!

22 09 2010
Silkakt

What a great project James! I’m really looking forward to reading how you get on with your adventure down Essex Road.

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