Seventies State of Mind: The Story of Calico Casa

I love the Seventies. That’s pretty much a given for me as a writer for The Peachiest, or for you as a reader if you’ve made your way to this site. We’re a collective of people that adore everything Seventies-related in all its ochre-hued loveliness; and if you’re anything like me, have become attuned to spotting traces of the decade in most elements of modern culture.

Of all the industries that borrow from the Seventies on the regular, fashion has arguably shown itself to be the most enamoured with a retro volte-face, as new season collections periodically revert to Seventies silhouettes, crochet a-plenty and camel-brown suede. Our cultural reference points are set firmly to nostalgia, and our romanticisation of the ‘feel good’ era shows no signs of abating.

In Which I Take To The Rooftops

I’m not a native Londoner, but if you passed me in the street, I’ll bet you’d take one look at my tramping boots and stoic expression and believe that I’m a naturalised city-dweller through and through. To appropriate a somewhat well known assertion, one is not born, but rather becomes, a Londoner.

I’ve been here for four years now, each year of my life in London marked neatly: three years of university, one year of work (two jobs). And as each year passes, bookmarked by the last of the summer days, I barely recognise the girl who’s gone before. Negotiating your way through your early twenties can feel like a territorial assault course at times; there’s feelings to develop, opinions to hone, friendships to prune - and that’s without deciding what you actually want to be in the real-life grown-up world.

On top of that, there’s the question of living in the city itself. Yes, there are many essential life lessons to be picked up double-quick, such as realising that eating bargain buy pasta in bulk does not make for an especially nutritious meal, or learning the importance of a cunningly circuitous route around loiterers at Ministry of Sound.

But there’s also the sensory overload you always hear about, written into history by the Victorians, from whom we inherited and nurtured into the present day the idea that the ever-changing city and all its intense pastiche of colour, smells and voices could overwhelm a newcomer. To have your senses bombarded and your person destabilised is a theme embedded into literary canon, brewing away in pretty much any of Dickens’ varying depictions of an ever-industrialised London. The nineteenth-century industrial fervour that enveloped the city in those tales found a narrative sidekick in thick smog; and with the help of Impressionists’ like Turner, the bluish mist that blurred the edges of buildings and twinkled with golden balls of light lingered on into the present age.

In reality of course, a “pea-souper” night could never be justly construed as a romantic part of urban life, nor can losing your bearings in a big city be truthfully described as a bit of a thrill. And though forceful degenerative energies no longer seem to define the contemporary urban consciousness, city life continues to eddy and swirl for new arrivals. When Alexander Herzen came to London in 1852, an exiled stranger, he remarked that “one who knows how to live alone has nothing to fear from London…the moral lungs must be as strong as the physical lungs, whose task it is to separate oxygen from the smoky fog…”. It’s a phrase that’s stayed lodged in my mind ever since taking a seminar on London in my first year at uni; a compulsory module that my institution, planted squarely on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, felt a necessary introduction for fresh-faced undergrads.

To construct a mind map of the city streets and their wending ways is no mean feat; a task that I took up with alacrity when I moved into university halls, befriending anyone and everyone with the slightest knowledge of the city (and in particular, those who lived in the East End, an area renowned for its knotty lanes, sprawling markets and second hand shops, which I fully intended to plunder at the soonest opportunity). As the months passed, my bare black and white sketch of the city began to fill out. Every day when I left campus, I’d walk to the Western point of the famous Strand that’s folded off by Trafalgar Square, and out through Soho, pottering across Seven Dials and people-watching on the cobbles of Covent Garden. Weekends were spent roaming street markets: Leather Lane, Petticoat Lane, Roman Road, Spitalfields; as many as I could pack into one day. I took great pleasure in strolling about my new possession.

It’s a given that occasionally you’ll look skyward; pausing perhaps, to admire the glittering diamond shaped tiles of the Gherkin, the rotating capsules of the London Eye on the Southbank, or the spires of Westminster. Drifting through the hipster districts of Shoreditch and Dalston, you might get distracted by a cat napping in a shop window, food suspended from washing lines, or side-alleys daubed with political slogans, ripe for Instagramming. But most of the time, Londoners are too consumed with the cycle of commute-work-eat-sleep-repeat to spare much attention to the bigger picture.

Until recently, I was one of them. From my graduation day, I plunged knee deep into that very same daily grind, and my entire propensity for play suddenly evaporated as the pressure to shoulder adult responsibilities took hold. Flitting from two intense jobs within the space of year wore me down, not least because I wasn’t pursuing my longing to write full-time. It was enough when my best friend told me over lunch one day that I looked pretty rubbish, to know the time had come to quit, again.

It was during the first week of my newly freelance life that I discovered the vocation that would help me to, well, find me. Sitting in the top floor flat of a creaky Victorian mansion block in North London, I gazed out the window at the slanting roof and red-brick chimney pots. I’d been up on the roof once or twice before, months ago, when the occasional sunny day had permitted me to ascend an old wooden ladder out onto the tiles. It was by no means inaccessible, but I simply hadn’t developed enough of an interest to fully explore what lay above the bedroom ceiling. But now, I felt curious. Here were plains of unchartered territory that I wanted to get to know; not least because Highgate, this sequestered, well-to-do leafy borough of London had never before been in the grasp of a student living hand-to-mouth. I imagined myself watching Londoners scurrying down on the pavements below whilst I watched from my vantage point on high; accompanied, perhaps, by the occasional nosy bird. It was a prospect that I very decidedly fancied.

And so it began.

Every couple of days I’d make the pilgrimage up the ladder and out the loft hatch onto the gritty tarmacked roof, leaving behind the yellow light of the flat for rows and rows of Mary Poppins chimney pots, crooked spires and tall steeples. The city skyline extends for miles; all higgledy-piggledy tower blocks, ridges of orange brick and curlicued railings. There are landmarks and certainties dotted across the cityscape, of course; but there are far more things to pique your interest that you’d never ordinarily spot from down on the street: children making dens in back gardens, families having dinner through dining room windows, people stringing out washing on balconies.

The city, whose namesake ‘urban jungle’ has become a regular feature in the choruses of pop music, is easier to digest when you’re elevated away from the fuss and bother of city life. Even a few floors up from ground zero, it’s quite easy to see that the composite structure of the city really does have it’s own dense patches of vegetation, apart from these thickets and dens are fashioned from brick and stone, trained into being by years of construction and hard work – and not all of it on a great scale. It can be observed in little balconies patched on the edges of houses, wonky extensions and lovingly tended allotment patches.

City skylines are often looked upon as a fingerprint, unique to that particular urban space. But our perceptions of the city will also be different from what the next person sees, because our vision is reflective of our own imaginations and experiences. My eyes might root out a treehouse, perhaps, because I longed for a treetop retreat as a child; but the retro flowered curtains in an old lady’s apartment might remind another of their granny.

Recently, builders have taken up residence on the roof, which has provided me with a handy alternative route up onto the tiles. Instead of taking the rickety ladder, I shinny up the metal scaffolding, which appeared one day outside our bedroom window, taking care not to splinter myself on the wooden planks as I scale each level. They hammer and weld and I read and learn, the sky above piped with clouds like frosted icing on a fancy cake.

The clouds are part of the furniture, people always say, both in the sense that they frame the sky and provide a common talking point in many different cultures. Gavin Pretor-Pinney, in his TED talk ‘Cloudy, with a chance of joy’ claimed that the clouds are “an expression of the majestic architecture of our atmosphere” and I think he’s spot on. But there’s also something deeply satisfying about the act of cloud-watching, and not just because daydreaming is associated with having your head stuck in the clouds. It’s well-know that letting your thoughts wander helps you get in touch with your imagination, escape the confines of your surroundings, and most of all, the relieve the identity that pins you down each day. Yes, daydreamers disconnect from the outside world, but we do it with purpose: to allow our thoughts to run their own course.

Last month, I lay on the rooftop with the last of the September sunshine lightly toasting my limbs; the wide, opalescent sky floating happily above me, just out of reach. There’s a pleasant disparity between the humdrum on the streets below, and the calm enjoyed by the treetops and sky, which seem unconcerned by anything but their own pace of life. I watched the clouds shape-shift across the sky, free-spirited and borderless - a quality only really found these days in risk-taking infants, so content to uproot themselves from normal life.

Perhaps because my life was previously anchored in train carriages and lurching buses, escaping onto the rooftops has allowed me to break my daily patterns and see things from new perspectives. It’s the fact of being spatially removed from my old life when I’m a eighty feet above ground that makes me feel so completely free from all the expectations of a twenty-something year old. Here, the clouds and sky are my only company, and beautifully uncomplicated at that. One glance at sulphurous clouds will be a sure prognostic of showers; a sun the colour of pale lemon meringue, on the other hand, will indicate warm sunny spells with a bit of bluster in between. Now that autumn in unfurling before us, there's more bite in the air than there are shafts of sunshine. But that's not going to stop me roof climbing. The skyline's on the cusp of changing again, so I'll resume my spot somewhere between Highgate Hill and Hampstead Heath, and ready myself to see in a new side of the city.