Friday 11 January – Alperton, Amersham
This is where the going gets tough. This is when I’m on my own, no longer surrounded by family or friends. Not even a husky as companion. I leave Gingerbread Cottage and Forest Hill a little before noon, destination Alperton. It’s a bright sunny day but from Surrey Quays (Overground) through to Green Park (changing from Jubilee to Piccadilly line) through to where? … Barons Court? I’ll be underground and it’s a fair stretch from there to Alperton on the Uxbridge spur. What to do? …
I settle back and consume sixty or more pages of Guy Kennaway’s light comic novel Bird Brain.
Getting on for forty years living in London and I don’t think I’ve ever been in Alperton. It’s a landscape of vast islands of huge tin sheds – warehouses, distribution centres, tube-train garages, vast Sainsburys hypermarket, business centres, sheds all sheds – barely contained by straggles of older, 30s terraced houses and to one side the Grand Union Canal (which I have walked along). I arrive at Alperton at 1.10 pm. Classical music is being piped through the station. It’s vaguely familiar. The station itself is another fine example of square-cut, crittall-windowed architecture. It has guard rails on its roofs. Why?
Alperton centre is, well, random. It’s not really a High Street, but more than a parade of shops and, well, random. Opposite is a modern three storey red brick edifice with a large glass atrium shaped like an arrow pointing at the sky: The Clay Oven – Banqueting Suites. Behind it is a Fitness First. A little further on there’s the Church of God of Prophecy which also appears to be the Bethel Community Centre and perhaps also the Comunidad Latina Cristiana. On this side of the road there’s a Halal butcher’s and a fishmonger’s, the usual minicab offices and shoe repair shop. There’s the Mee-Too which makes and sells ‘eggless novelty wedding and birthday cakes’. An eggless cake shop, whatever next? Then the commercial and shopping section of the street is replaced by houses.
I cross the road. In the distance framed by the blue sky I spot a curious sand-coloured crenellated limestone structure with decorated stepped towers. Goodness gracious me! It’s a Hindu temple, the Shri Sanatan Hindu Mandir. It’s enormous. Every square inch of it is decorated with patterns, fretworks, scrollings, reliefs of Hindu gods.
I’ve never been in a Hindu temple so I go in. I take my hat and shoes off, switch my mobile off, put my camera away. I ask the old security guard if I can enter the temple. English is clearly not his first language, we only half-understand each other, but, since there is good will on both sides, we communicate after a fashion. He brings me a colour brochure of the temple. He describes to me again and again all the things I must look at including, at the end, the ‘Mee-rah’. I really musn’t miss the Mee-rah. Visiting the Shri Sanatan Hindu Mandir and missing the Mee-rah is like visiting the Tower of London and skipping the Crown Jewels.
I ascend to the first floor and follow the pilgrimage route around the 29 displays of the ‘Gods, Goddesses and spiritual preceptors’. I have seen photographs of some of the Gods before – Shri Ganeshji with his elephant trunk, Shri Radha Krishna, the black-faced Shri Tirupati Balaji, Mother Teresa. But these shiny polychrome sculptures in hyper-realist mode and confusion of detail are, simply, extraordinary. As is the decorated pink limestone on the inside of the temple’s walls and roofs. Most of the carvings were hand carved in the town of Sola in Gujarat. (Later, I will look up Sola in my Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. It’s not there, it’s too small. It’s on Google Maps, of course – some 50 miles north of Ahmedabad, 100 miles north of the Gulf of Khambhat, 300 miles north of Mumbai.) The floor is of marble. There are four Indian woman chanting. We are enclosed here in another world far from the mundane daily life outside but it doesn’t feel pious like an English country church. It doesn’t feel cold here, the marble floor under my socks is warm. And, of course, it doesn’t have the weight or mystery of centuries, it hasn’t been abandoned by history – it was completed in 2010.
I spot the ‘Mee-rah’. It is a grand bowl-shaped mirror which reflects the tiers of decoration and reliefs in the grand tower above me. I look down and down. Or rather, looking down, I look up and up and up at the infinitude of patternings. I imagine my soul detaching itself from my body and going for an eternal wander through that illusory abundance. I wrench myself away taking my soul with me. But I leave a figment of my imagination to stravaig there forever. (The Wee Professor illuminates: Stravaig, Scottish for stroll, for mooch.)
There’s an encampment of Indian gentlemen in suits behind a table. I give them a donation and am given some holy sweeties. As I leave, I thank the old security guard on the way out. He is pleased. I am pleased. We have achieved what management textbooks call a ‘Win-Win’ situation. That’s one of their holy-of-holies.
The shops start again the other side of the temple. Indian formal dress-wear shops, more eggless cake shops (clearly I’m behind the multicultural curve here), a mix of fast-food joints (curry houses, pizza places). I stop off at Asher’s Africana Vegetarian Thali House. The café has formica tables, hard-padded chairs, Christmas decorations on the ceiling, a Hindu painting on the counter, the kitchen out back. I order their £3.50 special – two rotis, rice, curry, dhal and yoghurt. The dhal is peas and the curry is liquid – not what I was expecting but the meal is light and sustaining. I sip my water. I’m the only white person in the café, one of the few men. Mainly the customers are elderly Indian ladies dressed in salwar kameez under cardigans or anoraks. There is lively but subdued chatter in, I guess, Gujarati.
It doesn’t feel exotic. It feels mundane. This is lunch. Eat it. Indeed, in some ways, the temple didn’t feel exotic. As it would, I suspect, if I had visited it in India. I don’t feel out-of-place – well, not too much. I don’t feel like a visitor from another planet, quite clearly this is the same planet that I’m used to. I don’t feel as though I’m spying or trespassing. I feel good, relaxed.
I only have just enough money to pay for the meal and leave a small tip. Two doors down, at a Barclays, I get more money out of a hole in the wall. When I get back to the tube station, an opera aria is being piped. It’s vaguely familiar.
A ‘Thought of the Day’ has been written in neat capitals on the London Underground noticeboard: ‘I never knew an early-rising, hard-working, prudent man, careful of his earnings and strictly honest, who complained of bad luck.’ Henry Ward Beecher Wikipedia records that Henry Ward Beecher was a prominent Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist and speaker in nineteenth century U.S.A.
I’m not sure what to make of it. I try to compare it with my experience. I’m trying to match the description with someone, anyone, I know. Someone early-rising and hard-working and prudent and … No, I’m stumped. But I’m pretty certain good old Henry wasn’t being ironic or flippant. No joshing for Henry. Nope. Henry was in the self-improvement game and he knew that if we set ourselves five impossible conditions for living then good luck would mysteriously follow us. Too bad for those on the night shift …
I set off for Amersham at the far northwestern end of the Metropolitan line. This involves changing at Rayner’s Lane on to the eastbound Metropolitan line from Uxbridge then changing at Harrow-on-the-Hill onto a westbound line. There’s no train listed for Amersham so I take the train to Chesham and spend a quarter of an hour at Chalfont & Latimer station waiting for the Amersham train. All told, the journey takes over an hour.
Is this still London? We’ve been rolling through countryside – fields, woods, more fields, more woods – since Rickmansworth. It definitely feels Home Counties, small town middle class striving for the twee. Not metropolitan even though it’s at the end of the Metropolitan line. Is it worth it or has the Tube gone at least one stop too far?
At least Amersham has a proper High Street – there’s a Pizza Express, an M & S Food Hall, a mini-Waitrose. It’s Friday and Friday night is pizza night in the Craig household. So I go into Waitrose. Small Pizza Express pizzas are on an offer of two for £5. Individually they’re £4.71. I look around. All the prices seem to end in ‘1’ or ‘6’ or ‘7’. Weird prices. I ask a Deputy Under Assistant Retail Manager what’s up. He imagines the prices have been cooked up by a committee of three at HQ. Each one gets to chose one of the numbers. Surely not, I joke, think of the shame, the ignominy, if you have to chose the penny number.
But the Inner Curmudgeon has been let loose and growls about the prices at the Under Assistant West Coast Checkout Assistant. It’s our way of keeping prices as low as possible for our customers, he says. There’s not a trace of irony in his voice. I search his eyes. There’s not a spark of rebellion or hidden laughter. Cynicism and sarkiness are notable by their absence. I wonder if he’s an early-riser. I know for a certainty that he’s got management potential.
A few minutes earlier as I was walking up the High Street boys from the local secondary were swarming out from school. I traipsed behind three of them. They were larking about, bashing each other with their bags, bouncing against street furniture. Sheaves of paper spilled over the pavement. They shouted and laughed and scrambled and scooped the paper back into their backpacks. I realised then that there was something out-of-place, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Later, searching the Checkout Assistant’s eyes for irony, it came to me. Though I couldn’t take an oath on it it seems to me that I didn’t hear any of those three schoolboys swearing, not a single swear-word. Not unless you count ‘bloody’.
That’s Amersham, I think, it’s in the same spatial dimensions as London but temporally it’s lost in time, in some mythological 1950s. If they’re not careful some bright TV spark will update Midsomer Murders to Amersham. With pick-me-up epithets from Henry Ward Beecher.
It takes all of two hours to get back to Forest Hill. At Harrow-on-the-Hill we’re decanted from one train to another then back to the first. I read another 80 pages or so of Bird Brain, but from Finchley Road (on the Jubilee) it’s packed all the way and I have to get home to read the last ten pages.