The Porcelain Gentleman

A definitive guide to the land of lavatories

‘Look Mum No Hands!’ – Hackney

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The Setting:

Like some smog inhaling, urban dwelling snow leopard, one of the rarest things to spot nowadays is someone living in London, who is actually from London.

Now to avoid a guffawed dismissal at such a sweeping statement, it should always be served with a side, mixed leaf salad, of who, why and what.

The ‘who’ is ‘Londoners’ and by this I don’t mean someone brought up in Guildford, or who had a Nan that lived in Pimlico or has an Uncle who once worked on the tube until arthritis crippled his sense of self. I mean actual London inner city, as exclaimed by Goldie and romanticised by Dickens.

The ‘why’ is a result of varying factors but predominately based on the phenomenon that people who live in London hit their mid 30’s and suddenly wake up with an innate desire to have a garden and a parking space, which London property price and style simply will not allow for unless you happen to have unearthed a lucrative scratchcard and thus – exodus.

Replacing them is immigrants from foreign fields who probably head to London as it’s the only place they know to tell the bus driver, and then there is of course the native Brits who come from places such as Weston-Super-Mare and want to experience something other than the local Megabowl and smooching with their pretty but rather needy boyfriend who mistrusts things from ‘down the M4’.

The ‘what’ is the resultant dynamic and vibrant city full of all flavours of people, but what has also come from this is the loss of the indigenous population, with its chirpy and chippy outlook and constant requirement to call everyone ‘mukka’ or ‘treacle’.

Now as it turns out, and I note this is through no other reason than a decision made by my parents in the late 70’s, the Porcelain Gentleman is one of these urbane anomalies as being one dragged up within the paved sinews at the core of the nation’s capital. What this has often meant when speaking with my peers, is at first, questions on whether I lost my virginity at 9, or have mugged someone, or was born with a flatcap – but then, with age and its direct relationship with youthful nostalgia, came less questions and more statements on how I could possibly have grown up in a place that didn’t have a creek at the end of field which contained a horse that my father had tamed one idyllic summer amidst some strawberry fielded frenzy. ‘Oh the depravity of Zone 2 children!’

And indeed, putting aside the incest and cultural banality of rural England, I can see some remnant of a point. Yet I always retort with the fact that ‘I, as you, had a bike’ and bicycles are such wondrous child friendly contraptions that make the whole world, rural or urban, a blur of colour, a dash of magic, a place of fast moving adventure that they can, in that special way only two wheels and a sense of imagination can – negate the relevance of place where you grow up.

But, as with all things in life, people won’t just let something be, and bicycles have gone from the sugar coated memory of a youthful peddle to the corner shop – to a ‘lifestyle’. People now talk of their bikes as if they are exotic lovers taking them away from the barbarity of the bus and giving them a prostate massage on some badly painted cycle way. Bicycle attire is no longer the uniform of paunchy Italian holidaymakers, but the robes of bearded Roman Gods who’s ability to ride to work without stabilisers simply makes them better at life than you.

But why? And, more to the point – why? I went to the cycling and coffee Mecca ‘Look Mum No Hands!’ to find out.

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The Establishment:

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Prior to delving into a world where bicycle inner tube lining is treated like some Aztec deity during one of their well documented orgies, it must be pointed out that the real aficionados are clustered geographically. Bikes may be widespread, but your Knightsbridge dwelling oligarch or Peckham pay-as-you-go peddler view bicycles looking at the face of their value – bought from Halfords, chained to a railing and stripped for parts before the day is out. In parts of East London however (Hackney mostly), bicycles are golden gods, becoming in effect replacement for the children ‘creative’ couples will never have the money nor desire to produce.

And so – to the café:

You can enter from the side:

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But note that no bikes can be chained to the railings (er….hang on).

Or, the front way, using your feet.

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Once inside, as you stroll toward the counter to procure a beverage, the paraphernalia and ‘merch’ hits you:

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The predominance of two items becomes apparent: bike locks and hats that make you look like you are on the Tour de France. One can then start to decipher the two things that are paramount to the cycling sub culture – not getting your bike stolen/vandalised and not looking like other people who aren’t fully committed to your Pyrenees peddling plight. And suddenly they appear no different to any other sub cultural grouping (such as ‘goths’) which exhibit the contradictory desire to avoid looking like the ‘the rest’ whilst simultaneously living in fear that ‘the rest’ is somehow going to punish you for the differences you so yearn to exude.

Whilst mulling over whether cyclists are simply goths who grew tired of adolescent malevolence and fond of light cardio, I scanned the wall, which, in fairness, contained sufficient levels of cycling parody to endear, even if it did lack the expletive laden anti-Boris bike graffiti that I had naively assumed would have been commonplace in such an establishment.

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The rest of the walls were papered in homage to man’s greatest invention.

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Again, I was perhaps hoping for some sort of ‘Death to lorry drivers’ fly posters, but this was a place filled with pleasantries not angst, drawing less attention to what was wrong and more a focus on how to be better, how to share the cycling experience. They may not be planning the next Footlocker riots, but then this isn’t a place about to be raided by Trident police officers. In fact, if one has just committed a substantial crime and needed to lay low for the foreseeable, becoming an ardent cyclist might just be the best place to submerge oneself.

The Toilets:

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The bathroom habits of cyclists are strangely difficult to predict given that their svelte, lycra-clad bodies often suggest people with a perfect equilibrium between consumption and energy use that it negates the need to ever actually go to the loo. Nothing is wasted.

Alas – facilities were provided, even if the effort was decidedly token.

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Firstly, one has to vacate the premises, head up into an old council building and then enter toilets so characterless they look like a poster for some anti government cutback propaganda.

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The problems are numerous: the window that won’t open, the soap dispensers that won’t dispense soap and worst of all – the criminal blue colour, which looks to have ignored the available inspiration of sky or sea and is panelled onto the walls like the chipped nail polish of a panicked divorcee hoping to stand out during a frenzy of speed dating.

I looked in the mirror and I felt less attractive.

Upon entrance back into ‘Look Mum No Hands!’ I came to realise that the disregard for the toilets was in all honesty, probably a conscious choice. This is a place for transient people, sharing ideas and tales on running red lights, as opposed to somewhere to indulge a few beers and frequent the loo a handful of times. Indeed ‘Look Mum No Hands!’ is less a cafe and more the outline of the modern day office and the fact is, we live in an era where office space is becoming everywhere and anywhere and thus to outsource something such as the toilet, to a communal space, falls perfectly in line with how we view these places functioning as a building.

Perhaps soon the world won’t have offices, just thousands more Starbucks and places like the ‘Look Mum No Hands!’, with their free wifi and flat whites – and toilets will just be in some big communal fountain on the corner of each street – owned by no-one, abused by everyone.

God forbid.

The Porcelain Gentleman:

Were I to state, having been inside this hub of the wheel-lover, that my opinion of it had changed, I would be lying. For the Porcelain Gentleman, cycling discourse should preferably avoid debating elevated cycleways and lorry blind spot perils and revel in simple, frivolous exclamations such as ‘race you to the bottom!’.

However, I did come to appreciate that there is a certain earnest innocence within the cycling sub culture that led me to believe that behind the self-reverential nu-bike lingo remains an appreciation for its ability to bring that credulous excitement one might feel as a toddler being accosted by one of the millions of Jeffrey’s in ‘Toys R Us’.

Alas, care free youth does not good toilet maketh and the total disregard for even having it in the same building let alone decking it out with furnishings that make it palatable, is indicative of a movement that has prioritised fast moving, non-descript space over genuine comfort. And I can’t endorse this (2/10).

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This entry was posted on January 5, 2014 by in Bars, Restaurants.

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