The Wee Professor, a Quest, a Lucky Escape and Two Fictional Detectives (6/80)

Wednesday 30 January – Arnos Grove, Arsenal, Baker Street, Balham

It’s been over two weeks since the last Tube for LOLs leg. We’ve had a week or so of snow. I’ve had a week or so of a virus which has made me woozy and out-of-kilter. My weekly visit to the Balance Clinic has knocked the stuffing out of me. Excuses, excuses.

I take the Overground to Highbury and Islington en route to Arnos Grove. The young black woman beside me is reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in between texting on her smartphone.

I think back to my years of studying philosophy in the David Hume Tower in Edinburgh. Studying philosophy and drinking coffee. Truth to tell, I’m more than a little rusty when it comes to Aristotle. What comes to mind is Monty Python’s Philosopher Song: ‘Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.’ (And Descartes’ ‘I drink, therefore I am.’) The Wee Professor helps me out …

… though I suspect even he’s a little out of his depth. For Aristotle, The Wee Professor opines, virtue was about being fit for function. An eye is only a good eye in so far as it sees. Humans are only truly human in so far as they fulfill their function of being souls directed by reason. But the soul for Aristotle isn’t the invisible no-thing that goes to heaven (or hell or limbo) after the body dies.

Oh no, continues The Wee Professor (he’s into his stride now), it’s the life-force, the animating principle behind everything we do. The optimum activity of the soul is eudaimonia – sometimes translated as ‘happiness’, sometimes as ‘well being’. But you can only be happy if you have a good character; being truly happy requires moral virtue. And eudaimonia is an activity not a goal.

Right, I reply, It’s something you slip in and out of. Something like that.

Hmm, The Wee Professor says to this.

I can tell he thinks I’m being flippant. I can tell what’s coming next.

He coughs. Let me put it simply. Set your soul so that it is directed by reason. Practise your virtue. Eudaimonia will follow.

Sanctimonious prig, I think. Actually I think something fruitier than that, but this is a PG blog. You, dear reader, can think what you like – and thank your lucky stars you don’t have to live with The Wee Professor.

Opposite me, a young woman with a nose ring is reading Kerouac’s On the Road. I wonder if the Overground is the most intellectual line on the Underground. It may be because it’s more comfortable and less noisy than other lines. I, myself, am reading Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. Enjoyable but wordy. And will it still be read in fifty, far less two thousand, years hence? How much does that matter? If it helps me, or others, to occasionally experience eudaimonia?

I realise in the nick of time that my train has terminated at Dalston Junction and is about to shuffle back south. I cross over to the next northbound Overground, change at Highbury and Islington on to the Victoria line (everyone reading the Metro apart from one woman perusing a fashion magazine) to Finsbury Park and on to the Piccadilly line. Factoid alert! The Metro’s front page headline thunders: Stiff upper lip boosts our cancer death risk. Apparently we British (British? English?) are more embarrassed about our ailments than our continental chums and put off visits to the doctor until, sometimes, too late. And there I was thinking that we were all besieging the GP surgeries at 7.30 in the morning because our cat had a cough! I arrive at Arnos Grove at 11.30, one hour after departure. The skies are blue, the wind is high and gusting.

The station itself is wonderful with a high circular vault over the booking office and entrance. It’s another thirties station with crittal windows, minimalist but not minimal. I am taking photos of it when a grey-haired bearded man stops and begins chatting. ‘They filmed an episode of Poirot here. They had to cover the area to the left [a car park with CCTV cameras] with a canvas painted with a countryside scene.’

Arnos Grove Station

Arnos Grove Station

Arnos Grove is built on the side of a hill. Downhill are heaps of thirties style houses. Uphill, there are shops with flats above. Beyond there’s more thirties and sixties housing. It’s definitely not inner-city but it’s not quite suburbia. Not echt suburbia. The shopping street itself is a larger-than-usual shopping parade and, though it has more than its fair share of fast food joints, betting shops, dental practices and funeral directors, though its pavements are wide and empty, it’s a pretty good local centre. My informant tells me that it has come up in the last two years since the Sainsburys Local opened. ‘It’s meant that the other little food markets have had to up their game.’ It’s a novel theory: the supermarket chains as agents of urban regeneration. I’m doubtful but it turns out that he’s a volunteer on the nearby New Southgate Regeneration Committee, so, despite my prejudices, I have to give his observation some credence.

Arnos Grove: Sainsbury's as an agent of urban regeneration.

Arnos Grove: Sainsbury’s as an agent of urban regeneration.

We chat about this and that. He used to travel the country on work. A colleague would ask him where he was going. Bristol. Peterborough. The colleague would purse his lips, shake his head, give him warning: ‘Be careful, there. The people there.’ It turned out his colleague was a football fan. His only experience of other towns was visiting them as a Charlton Athletic (or Millwall or whatever) supporter when the two gangs of football supporters would hurl bricks at each other. The moral? How you see a place is determined by your purpose in going there in the first place.

At the end, my companion says, ‘Good luck with your quest.’

I laugh. ‘On, it’s not a quest,’ I say. ‘That’s putting it too high.’ I’m not in search of meaning, I think.

‘No,’ he says, ‘it’s a quest.’

Well, maybe. My uneasy heart would settle for a spot or two of eudaimonia. Actually, it would settle for a moment or two of ease.

It’s mid-day, the wind is going through me, I head over to the station. I get to the Arsenal, direct on the Picaddilly line, by 12.20. There’s a long curving underground corridor from the platforms out towards the booking hall. A narrow section of the corridor is separated off with a fine-looking steel barricade.

There’s nothing much outside the station. There’s one little shop at the entrance, but no parade. This is housing territory, streets of Victorian terraces. I’m back in central London. It’s also the ex-home of Arsenal, the football club. Arsenal moved here to its Highbury home in the mists of football time, has only recently moved the few hundred yards to the Emirates Stadium. The Arsenal tube is still one of the local stations for the club.

The old stadium, with its four banks of square-rigged stands, has been converted into flats. There’s a right of way past the South stand towards the Emirates. I wander in. The flats are the usual modern, glass-fronted affair with narrow balconies cluttered with parked pushbikes. Machines for living (the flats, not the bikes), efficient, no doubt comfortable, in all likelihood without draughts, but …

There are high railings around where the pitch used to be. Inside these are squares of grass, oblong stands of hedges, thin trees in square planters, straight-as-die walkways. Curves are banished. Mondrian has a lot to answer for. The garden – if it can be called that – is landscaped to within an inch of its life. There are signs everywhere saying: Private, Private Property.

The automatic gate is open and I wander in. I fantasise about being Ian Wright or Thierry Henry. I move towards where the penalty spot may once have been … Out of the corner of my eye I see the gate beginning to close. I run like billy-oh. Well, I shamble and lurch at a fair pace. I manage to reach the gate before it completes its swing. I squeeze past before it locks me in. It’s one thing fantasising about being Thierry Henry or Theo Walcott, it’s another spending ninety minutes in a railed compound waiting for some security guard in some central control room to push a button and let me out.

Almost stuck in the middle …

Almost stuck in the middle …

A young man comes out of the West Stand. He’s pushing a buggy and carrying a toddler. I accost him. ‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘but what’s it like living in a football stadium? An ex-football stadium.’ He looks at me, bemused. ‘It’s fine,’ he says in a Scottish accent. ‘You’re not an Arsenal fan?’ He looks affronted. ‘Oh aye. Of course I’m an Arsenal supporter.’ Oops!

When I get back to the Arsenal tube I ask the station attendant about the long barricade in the corrider. It’s a crowd control system, he says. They use it on match days. The crowd of football fans use the broad part of the corridor, those going the other way use the narrow section. I ask him if he’s an Arsenal fan. He is. I ask if you have to be an Arsenal fan to work at the Arsenal tube. He laughs. ‘No. Some of the other [station attendants] aren’t [Arsenal fans]. It’s better for them. I get stick from them when we lose.’ We laugh. ‘Have a good day, boss,’ he says on parting. I take a photo of the crowd control system on my way down to the underworld.

Heavy duty crowd control.

Heavy duty crowd control.

Next stop: Baker Street. It takes only twenty minutes. Piccadilly line to Kings Cross, Metropolitan, Circle or Hammersmith & Circle Line (in my case, the H & C) to Baker Street. The Neapolitan line, as Andrew (my son) calls it, after the stripey ice cream. As always, I get lost in Baker Street tube, trying to exit. I don’t use Baker Street tube much, but I nearly always get lost. It’ll be worse getting back to the Jubilee line. It requires a Sherlock Holmes to get from one platform and underground line to the next in Baker Street. There are Sherlock Holmeses everywhere in Baker Street tube and environs. But only in the sense of the deerstalker and meerschaum pipe profile plastered everywhere. Not in the sense of actual gumshoes keeping the streets of London clear of crime. Or even clear of gum.

'Love the goggles, dear. But where's the pipe?' 'Huh! Look who's talking! Left your deerstalker behind, did you?'

‘Love the goggles, dear. But where’s the pipe?’ ‘Huh! Look who’s talking! Left your deerstalker behind, did you?’

Outside, I’m in unreality universe. Baker Street is not a real place. It’s not even air-brushed history. It’s a fiction. It’s 221b Baker Street. It’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s not London, it’s Tourist London. No, it’s not even a fiction, it’s an air-brushed take on a century-old fiction. But it’s a fine winter’s day and it’s warmer somehow here than at Arnos Grove or Arsenal – the wind has abated – and the massive ten storey dressed-stone and brick office and mansion blocks that line the Marylebone Road make a fine cinematic backdrop. The pavements bustle with crowds of teenagers from France and Italy. Groups of older tourists stroll from coffee stand to waffle emporium. Business people in sharp suits and elbows bustle past on important business. What’s not to like oh Inner Curmudgeon?

I remember a family holiday in London over fifty years ago. Mother, my brother Jim and I had persuaded Father that we didn’t need to point the caravan northwards to the Highlands for family holidays. That it could be pointed southwards. We visited London, saw the Changing of the Guards, the Tower of London and came to Baker Street where we queued at The Planetarium and Madame Tussauds. For my money (or, more correctly, my father’s money) The Planetarium was much the better of the two. The audience sat in darkness looking up at a concrete bowl studded with lights representing the planets and universe. The lights went on and off as a lecturer described the different star groups. Madame Tussaud’s was, well, Madame Tussaud’s – an extensive collection of wax dummies that looked only distantly like the ‘historic’ and famous figures they represented, most of whom I didn’t recognise.

The Planetarium is, alas, no more. Wax dummies of ‘historic’ figures and celebrities are, apparently, much more of a money-spinner than real stars and the mystery of the universe. I notice that, in a sense, even ‘Madame Tussaud’s’ is no more. Somewhere along the line it’s dropped its apostrophe. It’s now ‘Madame Tussauds’. The poor apostrophe! The trouble is we’ve never properly got to grips with the apostrophe. We’ve never celebrated our inner apostrophe. Perhaps a National Apostrophe Day would help right things? Perhaps not.

I mooch around for half an hour. I go into a Carphone Warehouse in my search for a new phone, a smartphone. I’m served by a young vivacious Asian woman. She’s called ‘Pinki’ on her name-label but ‘Purvi’ on her computer. She can do me a good deal on an iPhone 4 on a sim-only contract with Virgin. I have my doubts about the iPhone (and not because they’ve got the capital letter in the wrong place). I’m a long time Apple Mac fan but FoxConn, Apple’s main contractor for the iPhone, worries me. Specifically, FoxConn’s treatment of its workers (put at between 230,000 and 450,000 in its Longhua factory alone) seems to me to be akin to old-time slavery. There are allegations, too, of child labour and indentured labour.

And I have my doubts, too, about Virgin, specifically the Bearded Wonder who heads up the organisation. Back in the early eighties, I was one of the journalists and workers on strike at Time Out. The strike led to us forming a rival magazine, City Limits, run as a co-operative. In the meantime, the Bearded Wonder had spotted an opportunity and Virgin had launched its own title, Event. Not that it was much of an event – it went under pretty soon. But it still rankles – much more than the now completely faded animosity I once held for Time Out.

I get the Jubilee line from Baker Street to Green Park where I change on to the Victoria Line. At Stockwell I board the southbound Northern line. I’m at Balham in half-an-hour. Balham! Famed Gateway to the South!

I’ve passed through Balham many times over the year and stopped there while walking the Capital Ring with Andy and Harald. On that occasion we had coffees (bacon sandwich and hot chocolate for Andy) at the aptly-named The Fat Delicatessen. This time I choose Trinity Stores and have one of their lunch platters – an aubergine fritter, a courgette fritter, salad with cheese, nuts, brown rice and parsnips and a green leaf salad. It’s good but it doesn’t quite hit the foodie heights of The Frog on the Green in Peckham or The Hackney Pearl in Hackney Wick.

Balham Station with - joy of joys - diagonal timed pedestrian crossing: eat your heart out, Oxford Circus.

Balham Station with – joy of joys – diagonal timed pedestrian crossing: eat your heart out, Oxford Circus.

Trinity Stores is a canteen-style café with a cooking area behind a counter, ceiling fans and lamps slung down from the ceiling and a wood-framed glass counter with sliding trays under. There is little in the way of delicatessan or store-type produce. One of the trays has packets of spaghetti, another has what looks like spare till rolls. I talk with one of the woman serving. The joint is called Trinity Stores because there used to be three delicatessans-cum-teashops in the area, but now it’s the only one left standing. And, while it sells bread and spaghetti and a few other items, it’s now mainly an eaterie. So there’s only one of them, and it isn’t a store. I don’t quite get why they get from there to the name Trinity Stores. But, well, that’s their business and the food is good and the service is good and, I’ll find out later, the five-seed one-day old (and therefore half-price) sourdough loaf is good.

I wander around Balham. I like Balham. It’s got a proper High Street with Waitrose and Sainsburys and Boots and WH Smith. But it’s also got its own idiosyncratic shops – more interesting eateries, a proper butcher’s shop, a wholefood shop, As Nature Intended, where the patchouli oil of the sixties meets the chiller cabinets of the 21st Century, a ‘Casino’ arcade with one-armed bandits and other lose-money-quick machines, and a small street market.

To cap it all and as a satisfying bookend to this day’s trip, there’s a mansion block a little down the road which also featured in Poirot. And, joy of joys, the traffic lights at the crossroads features a pedestrian countdown like at Oxford Circus! I cross diagonally the Balham High Road, the A24 to Dorking and Worthing, towards Balham tube and the journey home.

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