Crime novelist MH Baylis explains why this 6.3 mile stretch of the A105 is so important to him, his books, and to London.
In the 90s, I often drove up Green Lanes from Farringdon to a friend’s farm in Hertfordshire. I didn’t know then that I was making an ancient trek in reverse. Green Lanes is an old drovers’ route, taking cattle from the pastures to the meat markets at Smithfield. It was really the Lane of Greens: punctuated by patches of common land — Newington, Duckett’s, Palmers — where the beasts could graze en route to slaughter.
On those early trips, the shops bewitched me: the bright yellow gold in the Turkish jewellers, those dazzling plinths of peppers, tomatoes and herbs calling you into every mini-supermarket, even just the names over the doors. Trehantiri — The Best Greek Music Shop In The World, Ever! Zorba The Mastiff (who sold coffee, rather than mastiffs). Çiğköftem — The Sweetest Hot. I knew I wanted these places to be in my stories, long before I knew what the stories would be.
I ended up writing crime novels, set on and around the stretch of Green Lanes that runs through the borough of Haringey. That’s not because I think the area’s harder, criminal side is exciting. Crimes, for me, are a way in to understanding a place. Research is walking up and down Green Lanes, constantly, like a pilgrim seeking new visions. I am rarely disappointed.
On my last trip, I saw an abandoned photo studio, a faded portrait of a boy wearing a crown in the window. It was for the sünnet, the Turkish circumcision ceremony. That boy might be an old man now. He might even have been one of the moustachio’d pensioners I saw pacing the street, in mismatched suits, bewildered at all the changes.
That southern end of the Lanes, by Newington Green, always had a wealthier feel: live-work units, gastro-pubs, TV producers. This time, I was less sure. My old tailor, Mr Christou, had been replaced by something hip called Freak Chic Atelier, but it wasn’t open. It was surrounded by abandoned shops, too, like the photo studio, many still with the OPEN sign on the door, as if the last person out hadn’t bothered to state the obvious.
It was the mid-section, between Manor House and Turnpike Lane, the Green Lanes people think about when you say ‘Green Lanes’, that now seemed to be booming. I wondered why. This, in a way, gave me the plot for my third novel. The Turkish and Kurdish restaurants had had a mass makeover, all started knocking out gözleme patties, trios of headscarved ladies kneading away in every tinted window. Meanwhile, the departure of ‘Stephis and Xenon’, a smoky, peeling barbershop straight out of the 60s, seemed like a full-stop for another community. The Greeks and Greek Cypriots who came to the Lanes first have done well, retired, moved northwards to big semis around Palmers Green, distanced themselves with a subliminal border crossing. I crossed it, later on, on the 141 bus, sailing past ‘Arcadian Gardens’ and ‘Naxos Fashion Schoolwear’, into a new Greek Empire.
So much change. But that’s what pulls me there as a writer: Green Lanes is always changing, and change always carries with it fear and hope, loss and gain, action, drama. In tweedy Highgate (same borough!), there are inns dating back to Tudor times. But down on Green Lanes, businesses change overnight. You can tell where the latest immigrants are coming from, from the food and booze in the mini-markets, the language on the cigarette packets on the pavement.
Green Lanes is a road through time as well as space. London’s past, Britain’s journey, rural-feudal to empire to melting-pot, runs through it like the clay underneath the tarmac. The families picnicking on the greens recall those resting cowhands, the produce on the groaning trestle tables is a ghost of the Lanes’ agricultural point of origin. Clissold Park was built by Jonathan Hoare, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner. Around there, you see black-hatted, beard-wearing outriders of the Hasidic Jewish community, who escaped the pogroms at the end of the 19th century. The Cypriot, Turkish and Kurdish businesses remind us how British diplomacy (or a lack of it) has played a role in numerous conflicts, from the Mediterranean to the Balkans to Iraq.
All that trouble comes home to roost: at Ducketts Common, in April 1977, a National Front march was seen off by locals. In November 2002, Turks and Kurds fought running battles in the street. Up and down the Lanes today, you see the stern face of ‘Apo’, Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader. Ripples of tectonic collisions, far away, on a busy, grimy north London road that’s forever being dug up. A 6.3-mile stretch of the A105, and also, a corridor like the Silk Road and the Bosphorus Straits, where cultures collide, new cultures are born and history flows by like a river.
Black Day at the Bosphorus Café by MH Baylis was published on 2 June 2015. It features the returning sleuth reporter Rex Tracey, this time investigating the death of a Kurdish student activist , who plunges in flames from the top floor of Wood Green Shopping City.