I recently watched a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, east London, before cycling down the Kingsland Road to a pool party on the roof of Shoreditch House. Halfway between the two, as I passed the turning for Duke's Brew & Que, a barbecue restaurant and craft-beer pub, I thought to myself, "Am I a total cliché?"
I live in Stoke Newington in Hackney, which is officially Hackney, east London, but a tad comfier. I ride a single-speed bike, and I like my coffee in flat white form. I eat sloppy burgers in brioche buns. I wash them down with small-batch pale ale and last weekend I was at a gallery-cum-dancehall in Shoreditch until 4am nodding along to Nordic techno. I roll up my jeans.
Everything I do falls under the maligned umbrella of "the hipster". Every facet of my very being is just one trendy stereotype after another. I don't feel like Nathan Barley, but maybe I am Nathan Barley. Is my life totally fucking Mexico? The thing is, a flat white is better than other coffees. It's more satisfying than an espresso, which makes you feel cool and Italian when you order it, but just isn't big enough. Drinking a latte is like sucking on a warm udder, and cappuccinos are what your mum has for a treat. No, a flat white is obviously the best coffee.
My bike is better than other bikes, too. Its steel frame was handmade by a Belgian company called Paganini a few decades ago and it's very pretty. I've fitted it with new wheels, pedals, handlebars, chain ring, saddle, seatpost and freewheel. It rides like a dream. I only need one gear because there aren't many hills in London, plus the more gears you have, the more there is to go wrong. That makes my bike useful and beautiful, and you can't argue with William Morris.
My cycle ride continued, past the derelict pub that's actually a private members' club with meeting rooms, a cocktail bar and inexplicably excessive taxidermy throughout. Choosing to live in Hackney is a sticking point, I admit I was a late adopter. I moved there when I first came to London four years ago because it was where my girlfriend lived, but it was clear that anyone young or interesting had done the same. Where else was I supposed to go? It was either east or south, because north, west and central didn't look kindly on my salary, or lack thereof. I couldn't go south because that's where all the dickheads from school live. They still drink beer through funnels and fist pump to "Don't Stop Believin'".
The borough has been gentrified beyond recognition and few can claim their hands are clean. Well, none of the people I know can anyway. Kingsland Road, the high street of pseudo-cool, is now teaming with concept restaurants, organic food shops and vintage clothing stores. But if you were to go into any of them, approach the nearest person wearing a French-blue chore jacket and ask them what they thought about the displacement of the local working class, they'd say it was a crying shame. They'd also add that something should be done, before scooping up their dachshund and heading off in search of green juice.
Suggest they were a symptom, or even a cause, of the gentrification, though, and they'd deny it with immovable fervour. Everyone wants the ephemera — the allotment kale and the kombucha cocktails — but the hipster label is something for other, less unique people.
I pedalled on past Draughts, the board game café, in the arches near the canal and Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes, a bar that pays homage to Shoreditch's lost bag and shoe industry, but doesn't sell any bags or shoes, obviously. I thought about friends and colleagues and realised they all like the things I like. On Saturdays they go to extraneously named cafés for overpriced poached eggs. They drink locally brewed beers in grungily gentrified pubs. They cycle to work on old bikes. Some have big beards and nearly every one of them wears his hair tightly cropped on the sides and long on top, a style known as "the Shoreditch fade".
The truth is society wants all the things that hipsters personify; it just doesn't care for the wanky phrasing. That's fair enough, but just because the coleslaw is "house-made" and the avocado "smashed", it doesn't make either any less delicious. Plus, Meat Mission burgers taste better than McDonald's burgers, Boston terriers make better pets than Dobermanns, and summers weren't hotter in the Eighties.
Hipster culture does not pool in east London alone. Walk the streets of any UK city and you'll hit a queue for a food truck. Crew-cuts, beards and sleeve tattoos have been nationally legitimised by footballers. And every weekend, Shoreditch High Street morphs into a drunken hellscape as revellers from all corners of the country thunder in for a skinful of counterculture, unaware that Shoreditch is actually as alternative as milky tea.
As I arrived at the pool party, I felt mild elation. "I probably am a cliché but it's fine because I know that I'm a cliché. And I like all the things that make me a cliché." The usual mist of self-loathing was still there, but it hung a little thinner — I had transcended the hipster plane. A plane I had only realised I was on 20 minutes before. I took the lift up to the roof and preached my new doctrine. It did not go down well.
Hipster clichés: two thumbs up
The fact instant coffee is still a thing is astonishing. The best aspect about it is the papery membrane on the rim of the jar, and once that's been spooned to breaking point it's just one disappointing cup of warm brown liquid after another. Good coffee is one of the world's small mercies and a flat white beats them all. Similar to a latte, but with less milk, you can actually taste the double shot that powers the whole thing, but aren't forced to suffer the aggression you get from raw espresso. The milk itself is taken from the middle of the jug — where the bubbles are finer and the liquid therefore smoother. It sounds wanky, and probably is, but you're picky about how your steak's cooked so it's fine to be pedantic about your coffee.
Cycling purists will tell you that the only way to experience the true majesty of the bicycle is to ride fixed, which is when you have one gear and no freewheel — so no coasting. It's pedal or die. Some nutters even forego brakes and rely on the resolve of their calf muscles to lock the pedals and stop the back wheel. But a single-speed bike is the best of both worlds. It has all the ease of upkeep you get from a fixie, but you can still giddily freewheel down hills like you did when you were a kid, and stop at the bottom without your patella imploding.
Burgers in brioche buns
My mum remembers when the Wimpy burger chain came to the UK. It was seminal. A place where young people could hang out, eat American food and formulate plans for free love, folk music and hallucinogens. But over the past few decades, the umami Americana of burger bars got lost, and we were left with obesity lawsuits, chairs bolted to the floor and hot apple pies that are more WMD than dessert. Then some savvy people thought it would be good to bring the burger back, and this time do it properly. Prime beef cooked medium rare, actual cheese made from actual milk, and sweet, chewy brioche buns. Look past the terminology, the presentation on chopping boards and the roll of kitchen towel on the table, and tell me you'd rather eat a Big Mac than a Dead Hippie from Meat Mission, or a Dirty Bacon from Dirty Burger.
There's a barbershop in Shoreditch which specialises in "the fade", a hairstyle that starts skin-close short on the sides and fades up to a sharp parting and slick-backable length on top. Essentially, it's a hyper-stylised version of military short back and sides, worn by men of old. Going off its Instagram account, it seems to be the only cut the barbershop does. But boy, they do it well. Nearly every guy that pops in for a trim comes out with a perfectly sculpted fade, whether he wanted it or not. He probably looks better for it, though, because like Ray-Ban Wayfarers and a tan, a fade suits all wearers.
IT'S SPREADABLE CHORIZO FOR CHRIST'S SAKE! Great with avocado, eggs and bread.
People dislike the relentlessness of house, disco, electro etc, but that's the point. The slow progression is the art. Producers obsess over frequencies, clicks, pings, beats and synths to make music as emotive as anything you'll hear: like Luke Abbott's "Modern Driveway". Maybe it doesn't deserve the reverence afforded Tchaikovsky or Beethoven, but if you can listen to it without feeling melancholic nostalgia, you're probably soulless.
Good beer gets a hard time. We have an inherent national idea that beer is this kind of shit beverage we drink at barbecues, football matches and post-6pm on Fridays. In comparison, wine and spirits are much more erudite, glamorous creations we pair with food and use to mark special occasions. It's all booze, ultimately, so why can't beer be as revered as everything else? The reason, until recently, was that beer was shit — and generic, big-brand, pub-tap varieties will continue to be so — but now, in the wake of the "craft" movement, there are thousands of nuanced, elegant brews that are as intricate and lovingly created as any small batch whisky or standout vintage wine. Furthermore, if you can't see that craft beer has been legitimised by the big supermarkets — who've created their own craft-style pale ales‚ then you're mad. My local corner shop has a better beer offering than all of Brittany's hypermarchés put together.
There'll undoubtedly be a few duds, but still, it's all better than the stuff we used to drink.
Rolling up your jeans
The line between hipster and teen fashion vlogger is fine, down to how many folds on your jeans. One, two, maybe three is safe, more and you're in calf territory — a no-go. The jeans should taper to keep cuffs from the tops of shoes while elongating legs. Best worn with trainers and monotone socks. No patterns, please. Or just buy trousers that fit.
Granted, it may have reached its zenith, and just because you're eating something deep-fried and cheesy out of a cardboard tray near a bin fire in a burned-out glove factory, doesn't mean it's automatically good food. However, where some saw the chance to make a quick buck, others recognised an opportunity to create genuinely exciting street food, and do away with all the rigmarole of having to run an actual bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Now, the best place to eat progressive, exciting food is out the back of a restored vintage Citroën H panel van under an arch in Bermondsey.
Avocado with poached eggs
Without a doubt, avocado, poached eggs and sourdough toast is now the most common breakfast in the UK. Any café worth its arabica beans must serve some variation on it. It could include feta, goat's cheese, chilli, bacon, roasted tomatoes, even a thin slice of bresaola, so long as there's poached eggs, "smashed" avocado and hot, crusty bread, a customer will never go hungry. There isn't a single person who doesn't appreciate the rich healthiness of the avo, the gooey decadence of the egg and the satisfying heft of the toasted bread. People who say they're not into it are lying and should be ostracised from society — breakfast at the very least.
Arrive at noon, have some drinks, dance a bit, eat some odd food, walk around the site, have some more drinks, dance a lot, have some stronger drinks, dance more, possibly get more stale food, lurch home. One rendition of that is enough. (Some Esquire colleagues went to Glastonbury, where they tried to do that exact circuit four times in four days. They don't work here any more.)
Of all the social media platforms, it's obviously the best. Facebook is a weird, alternate universe populated by the racist people from school, small businesses and cat videos, while Twitter is a terrifying Tower of Babel for trolls. Instagram is a prism of your own creation through which people view your life. No one on Instagram is living the life their feed suggests, but sod it, if you want to post a picture of the sandpit at the park and say it's Tahiti, you do it, babes. Better yet, if enough people follow your account, brands will pay you to post snaps of their stuff. And it's a good place for photos of cute little dogs.
The tonic to all ills befalling modern men is clearly to construct something from scratch with your hands. Cook dinner, paint a self-portrait, realise your phallus in papier mâché for all I care, but just take the time to do something. The thing you create might (probably will) be shit (or offensive if you go for the phallus), but it's the process, not the result. Woodwork is good because wood is a cruel mistress — even when you think you've got it nailed, it will splinter, or split, or bulge, or chip and you'll have to start again. Suffer humbly and move on. It's a slow hobby that gives you time to question the very meaning of life, and at the end you get a wonky coffee table. Win-win.
Most Saturdays, the same stupid man brings the same stupid dog into my local café. He's a model/bicycle maker with long, blond hair and a penchant for Red Wing boots and selvedge denim. In light of this article, I should feel a strong affinity with him, but… He has a massive Great Dane which swaggers into the café, parks itself in the walkway and stays there drooling until its owner finishes his eggs. Then there's a guy who brings in his dachshund every day. It sits on a chair quietly and attracts coos of amorous delight when people see it. Sadly, both dogs are as much fashion accessory as they are pet, but I know which I'd rather have. Plus, little ones work better on Instagram.
Hipster clichés: two thumbs down
Growing a beard gives even the dullest, most unappealing man character. It gives him something people can comment upon and sidestep the gaping void of conversation he normally inspires. But that character is not rugged or manly: being rugged and manly makes you look rugged and manly. A club promoter with neck tattoos, a fade (see right) and a beard is not a lumberjack; he is a club promoter, and possibly a moron. But kudos on the fade. People exempt from beard abuse include: castaways, actual lumberjacks, fishermen, elderly thespians and Charles Darwin. Everyone else should trim regularly.
Cocktails in jars
Cocktails are silly. Everything that goes into them — the fussiness, the expense, the innuendo-inspired names — is annoying. They're not "sinful", they're not classy and "mixologist" shouldn't be a legitimate job title. There's a bar in London which serves one of its cocktails on a plate. You have to drink it off a plate! Only a massive idiot pays £20 for a plate of drink. Granted, a jar is more up to the task, but just because it can act as a vessel for liquid, doesn't mean it should. That's what drinking glasses are for. You wouldn't mix a cosmopolitan in an ashtray, or shake a martini in a country brogue, so put the damned negroni in a tumbler, thanks.
You decide to have a flaming eagle tattooed on your neck, its body on your throat, the wings extending around to the sides. On it goes and it looks exactly how you wanted it, coexisting neatly with all your other tattoos. People in the street stop you to say how cool it looks and street-style photographers grab you for portraits. One night, a girl comes up to you at a party and flirts, telling you how much she loves tattoos, before taking you back to her flat. Six months later, you move in together. Within two years you marry and then come the children. Life is inky bliss for a decade or so. Then it starts to unravel. She's distant, disinterested in your life together, but all the time you get more tattoos, filling even the smallest island of skin with a sparrow or a feather or a skull — hoping her lust will rekindle. Turns out she's been humping her own tattoo artist for years (in the chair no less!) and they're in love. She moves out, the kids go with her and you're left alone. You walk through the empty house to the bathroom and stare into the mirror. A lonely man in his mid-forties, thickening around the middle and sagging at the jaw. You think to yourself, "Why did I get all these silly drawings on my skin in permanent ink?" And you weep.
Exactly what is the attraction? Is it the food? Or the novelty factor? At Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium, you can have high tea surrounded by free roaming cats — but is there dander in the sandwiches? At Cereal Killer, you can choose from hundreds of cereals — but is it not better to eat a grown-up meal? And at Dans le Noir, you dine in the pitch darkness alongside complete strangers — but surely you'd rather not eat dinner in a recurring nightmare? This paragraph is mainly questions, and that's my point…
A few years ago, I went to a festival in the Yorkshire Dales. On the Sunday night, I saw a man I knew from London (through my girlfriend's brother, I'm assured he's a maths prodigy) standing atop a rise in the campsite with a crowd of teenagers collecting around him begging to be the next to buy a little bag of ketamine. Like zombies scrabbling to scale a big wall. That was in the summer of 2013 — the peak of the ketamine boom — but it's shifted down the pecking order now. I never really did it, so I'm not bothered, but every now and then you'll spot a nostalgic soul in the corner of the club bumping from a key and falling over, just for old time's sake. Nope, in line with the trend for all things Nineties (bucket hats and those little pots that held 10 Pringles), ecstasy's in vogue again, having fallen out of favour when it got to a point where people were eating 20 pills a night and wondering why they were dead by 4am. I suppose it's an improvement on snorting whizz off a dinner plate in your friend's ex-council flat. But I really wouldn't know. I stick to pale ales.
Sprayed-on skinny jeans
Congratulations. You look like the creepy teenage Parisian student who tried to have sex with your mum and sisters when he was over here on the French exchange.