I have always been fascinated, having spent lots of time in, or rather through King’s Cross, mostly travelling between London and Scotland, as to the character of the people who actually live there, in what is for me one of the most transient parts of London. One of my first impressions was of the large number of Scots on the street around the station, as if they had arrived from Edinburgh and had lacked the financial means to penetrate the city further. The terminus was for them, literally that, and the Dick Whittington myth of golden streets had turned to dirt. Caledonian Road has strong Scottish links of course – it even housed a division of Scottish troops, and many of the street names point to this immigrant population. And it has continued to be a melting-pot: Turks, Kurds, Somalis, West Africans, Irish, Chinese, Bosnian, and so on and so on, fulfilling the truism that in London, “everyone comes from somewhere”.
In the initial researches, which I conducted by sitting in on pensioners groups, going to schools and conducting one-to-one interviews on the street and in various centres, I was amazed by the diversity of opinion on immigration, prostitution, politics, history, crime, the development of Kings Cross. Meeting with and working with the young people and senior citizens who live in the area was an education, and led us to boil down the show into two key areas. We discovered that everyone had an opinion about property, or construction; and secondly that everyone wanted more trees, more greenery.
Of course city dwellers always long for the countryside, or for a more exotic location: the paintings and photographs hanging in the fourteen cafes up and down the Caledonian Road bear witness to this. Indeed, you could see the Caledonian Road as a tree itself, with its roots in the dark soil of Kings Cross, spreading up towards the leafy area just before it intersects with the Holloway Road.
Many of the initial researches uncovered some very dark and violent material, stories I listened to in confidence and that we couldn’t explore outside the secrecy of the rehearsal room. But even in the darkest narratives, there was always hope, even if it was only a glimmer. Our production emphasised the positive, the human desire to be extraordinary, to survive, to be eccentric, challenging and provocative.
Caledonian Road is not a naturalistic road. It is surreal, it improvises, it has, to quote the fine artist Richard Wentworth who lives there and has made a life-long project inspired by the road, a “making do and getting by” quality. It can be extremely violent, but also very welcoming. Because it lacks any chain stores, it has its own unique character, it own pragmatism. Iits residents refer to it affectionately as “the Cally”. And even if its days of apple sellers, barrow boys, the extraordinary market and the drovers driving their cattle up and down its length, the cinemas, the laundry in the Cally pool, the Sunday dinners being roasted at the bakers, and all the stories from the Pentonville Prison, have all gone, and with it an old-fashioned sense of community, the current community there is still energetic: vibrant, struggling and jostling. The undisputed King of the Caledonian for me is Lionel, the junk shop owner, who, in his own words has “lived here, made a living here….out of rubbish.” His improvisatory spirit seems appropriate for a place whose character changes as swiftly as the crazily ascending prices of its more desirable properties.
The counterpoint to the anarchy of the Cally is the Regent’s Canal which intersects it – itself once a vibrant community of navvie’s housing, inns and stables but now a serene swathe, cutting through the urban landscape with a calm beauty. It is I think one of the most surprising and bewitching walks in London. This was the final part of a trilogy of site-specific works which the same creative team made at the Almeida over the last three years, all of which have looked at the urban space and focused on the experience of young people acting and reacting within it.