Smokers Paradise, Two Altercations and the End to a Quest (8/80)

Wednesday 6 February – Barkingside, Barons Court, Bayswater 

It takes less than an hour to get from Forest Hill to Barkingside: Overground to Whitechapel, District line to Mile End and Central line, Hainault loop, to Barkingside. I read forty pages of Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan. Benjamin Black is the pseudonym John Banville uses when writing crime novels. For my money they are a bit literary: too much atmospheric description, too much characterisation. Still. No-one else seems to be reading anything but the Metro. Headline of the day: The day Britain said ‘I do’ to gay marriage. The Inner Curmudgeon thinks it’s the day the majority of Members of Parliament voted for gay marriage through conviction, self-interest or party loyalty – and the greatest of these is party loyalty. 

Grey skies at Barkingside, a cold wind over the Essex flatlands. To the east of the red-brick and green painted columns of the station stretch fields, a golf course and grey-brown scrubby hedgerows. The station road curves westwards past a builder’s yard. Beyond, pebble-dashed thirties semis hunker down behind front gardens just large enough to park a car. On the other side of the road there’s a Council estate of three storey brick buildings in a desert of grass.

Further on, there is a collection of some of the ugliest buildings in Britain: distressed, dirty-ribbed concrete slabs from the sixties. At least Barnardo’s, whose HQ occupy the first dirty-ribbed slab, have recognised the error of their architectural ways: a brand-new building, all glass and cladding, is being built next door. Next to it is an even uglier building which turns out to be Redbridge Magistrate’s Court. Was it designed, I wonder, to install fear and loathing into the accused? Or was that an incidental and unforeseen benefit? Opposite, there’s a large Sainsbury’s which, to be charitable, has also seen better days. But there’s a fine-looking square towered church opposite and a square of well-proportioned Victorian cottages, unprepossessingly called ‘Pert Cottages’, which would go for the best part of a million if stuck in a mews in Chelsea.

Barkingside Magistrates Court - even uglier than Barnardo's HQ down the road.

Barkingside Magistrates Court – even uglier than Barnardo’s HQ down the road.

I turn into Barkingside High Street. As I walk my mood begins to lift. It’s a long High Street, a higgledy-piggedly assortment of architectural styles most of which should never have left the architects’ drawing boards. It’s not exactly thriving but seems to be surviving the recession. There are the usual fast-food joints, charity shops (including a Barnardo’s), barbers, dental practices and estate agents, but there’s a lot more besides: Indian supermarkets, a ‘Mediterranean’ sandwich bar, an Iceland and a Co-op, a few High Street chains, banks, shoe and clothes shops, a kosher butcher, an Italian ice-cream parlour, a bright Sri Lankan jewellers, a Pie & Mash shop, another eggless cake shop and a newsagent proclaiming Smokers Paradise (no apostrophe anywhere) with an icon of a palm tree.

The wide pavements are fairly busy. I overhear two youths meeting up: ‘What’s up, mate? You OK?’ ‘Not bad. Been down the gym. Trying to keep out of trouble, stay off the drugs.’ Fifty yards further on another two youths are exchanging greetings. ‘Not seen you for ages.’ ‘Working, man. Grafting. No time to get out. You?’ ‘Same thing.’ They laugh and shake their heads.

Fifty yards further on the pavement is being dug up. On the back of the high-visibility jacket of the operative wielding the pavement-sized digger, there’s the corporate strap-line: ‘Let’s all get home safely every day.’ I keep a straight face, but it’s a near-run thing. I make a note in my notebook about the High Street: ‘scruffy charm’. I decide afterwards that ‘charm’ is pitching it too high, ‘appeal’ would be better.

At the far end of the High Street, past the swimming pool and leisure centre is a circular concrete monstrosity with aesthetic pretensions. I check it out. It’s a fully-functioning library. Hurrah! I think. So what if it looks like something the Daleks might have built? (That’s supposing the Daleks did public buildings.) A fully-functioning library. Better not tell the latest philistine in charge of the Department of Culture about that.

No apostrophe here.

No apostrophe here.

On my way back to the station I stop off at Yoshi’s Bakery for a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel and a potato latkes. Yoshi claims ‘gourmet’ status for its bagels. The shop itself is like something out of the seventies. There’s two counters at right angles, one with cakes, the other savouries and odd items like kosher candles. The working part of the bakery stretches out behind in full, gloomy view – uninviting, down-at-heel and rough-and-ready. I wonder how hygienic it is. Then I remember a radio programme about the rigours of a kosher shop inspection. And, more distantly, to my job at an Orthodox Jewish Girls’ Summer Camp in upstate New York, and the scrupulous attention given to kitchen cleanliness.

On the way back to the station I bump into a white South African guy in his thirties. His father was in diamonds, he started off in mining but with the ANC’s policy of black empowerment there was no work for him in South Africa. He came to Britain twelve years ago and now works as an engineer on the night-shift on the underground. He works three hours a night and gets paid for nine hours. He hasn’t been back to South Africa for five years. He’s in Barkingside today because he’s a witness at a trial – except that the trial has been postponed. He’ll have to turn up at the court again tomorrow. We talk about this and that until Stratford when he gets off.

Looks peaceful enough, huh?

Looks peaceful enough, huh?

It’s near 2.00 pm, and an hour from Barkingside, before I get to Barons Court. I admire the long sienna-coloured benches with their station name above. I go above-ground and cross the road to take a photo of the handsome station building. There’s some shouting going on to one side. I think at first it’s an argument, then that it’s two old acquaintances having a friendly shout. But then a middle-aged black driver jumps out of a beat-up beige Citroen Picasso in front of the station and colours the air blue at a white ruddy-cheeked grey-haired pedestrian. The pedestrian, who was about to go into the tube, turns back and gives as good as he gets. Fifty yards away the traffic lights with the dual-carriageway A4 turn green and the driver, still effing and blinding, jumps back into his car and screeches off.

Barons Court is mansion block and private rented flats country. There’s a couple of streets of terraces pretending to be semi-detacheds, complete with twee first floor bay windows and 4WDs with vanity number plates sticking their noses over the pavement. Forty years ago this was where people on tight budgets lived, retired couples or single ‘girls’ with some kind of undefined job in the West End or City. London’s rampaging house prices have long since pushed them out to the suburbs. I walk down Palliser Road and find myself at the barred gate to the Queens Club. Well, I always wondered where the Queens Club was. I find out later that it’s going to host the AEGON tennis championships later this year and that, presuming he’s not got crocked earlier in the year, Andy Murray will be playing.

I return towards the station pausing briefly at the bakery/coffee shop and the butchers: both have tempting displays as does the Italian deli in the station. A young couple, she chic, he louche and handsome, sashay past talking in energetic French. Forget gay Paree. London is the cosmopolitan city of the early 21st century.

I turn into the station. There’s a furious row going on. A young white middle-class woman is standing at an open barrier berating a black youth. ‘Hey! You’ve gone through the barrier on my ticket! You can’t do that!’ ‘Yeah? And who the fuck are you?’ The argument quickly escalates. The woman threatens the youth with the police. The youth turns back from the steps to the platform and threatens the woman. The woman tries to enlist the help of the station attendant. A train comes into the station and the youth disappears down the steps to the platform. The woman turns on the station attendant. ‘You know him, don’t you, Brian? He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he?’ The station attendant lets her through on his ticket.

Two slanging matches at one station – and I’ve got through all the ‘A’s’ without the hint of a barney. What’s up with Barons Court? Is it always like this? Or is it having the tube equivalent of a bad hair day? I scurry down to the platform and catch a Picadilly train one stop to Earl’s Court, then a District line to Bayswater.

Bayswater is another area with a rather musty reputation but which is now part of Greater Notting Hill, all new Tories, rich enough Arabs and, of course, Tony and Cherie – or have they scrabbled upwards to ever more fragrant pastures?

I come out of the tube to find that it’s sleeting and that Bayswater isn’t all nouveaux riche. Across the road from the tube two policemen are giving an old bedraggled woman a hard time. The policemen are burly under their protective jackets. I think the woman is a Big Issue sales-person. She looks like she’s from Eastern Europe with her scarf and shapeless reddish coat and battered holdall. The policemen are examining her documentation.

Another woman buts in. She’s asking for directions. One policeman restrains himself from stamping his foot and takes her to the nearest side-street. He points up the street and repeats his one syllable directions slowly in a loud impatient voice. The English, thinks The (Scottish) Inner Curmudgeon, do a good line in officious officialdom. By which time, the policeman has got shot of the interrupting foreigner.

He proceeds back to his colleague who has his notepad unfurled and is (metaphorically if not literally) licking the end of his pencil. The old woman is looking more and more bewildered. PC Impatience spots me a few yards down. He eye-balls me. I move off a few yards and look back. PC Impatience is still looking at me. I decide to move on. My rationale is that I’m on a quest, a quest for a new mobile phone.

Looks peaceful enough, officer.

Looks peaceful enough, officer.

Here’s the backstory since my enquiries at Baker Street. I return the next day. I have decided to go with Vodafone and a nearly new iphone. I am served by a lovely bloke called Theo. (Actually, everyone I talk to in all the Vodafone outlets I go to is lovely – exactly how salespeople should be but usually aren’t.) £260 for the iPhone and £10.50 a month contract for 12 months. We do the deal. My credit card flexes its muscles. But I have to wait a few minutes for the phone to charge. I go round the corner to the J D Weatherspoons and discover that J D Weatherspoons aren’t cheap at 5.30 pm in central London when you want a white wine.

I return to find that the iPhone won’t charge up. Theo and I agree that we have to cancel the deal. My credit card gets re-charged.

Saturday finds me at the London Library talking to an old friend, Nigel. Nigel is researching for an obituary he’s writing for some 98 year old radio correspondent. I tell him of my quest, that I’m thinking of going for the Virgin deal. He mutters darkly to the effect that he wouldn’t touch the Bearded Wonder with a bargepole. I decide to visit the Piccadilly branch of Vodafone. They don’t have a nearly new iPhone 4 in black. I decide I’ve done my bit for class solidarity and head for the Carphone Warehouse.

The salesman gets a new black iPhone 4 (price £305) and picks out a sim card ready to sign me up. He’s wearing a puzzled frown. He wonders where I got my information. I finger Pinky. He thinks some more. It turns out that his father went for that deal only to find that, for whatever reason, his Virgin sim worked fine with phone calls and texts on the iPhone but couldn’t get the internet. We agree there’s no point in my going with Virgin.

Later Saturday afternoon I try two other Vodafone outlets: none of them has a nearly new iPhone in black. I return home, my head aching.

But today, before leaving for Barkingside, I check the internet. There’s a Vodafone branch in Whiteleys. Thirty years ago I went to Whitelays while they were still fitting it out. A friend, Robin, had asked me to help him out with a venture selling smoked salmon. At that time the price of salmon, and smoked salmon, had nose-dived due to salmon farming coming on-stream (ahem, pardon). It was cheaper than chips. It was, in Robin’s words, the new avocado. But the only suitable units were either far too expensive or in the wrong place.

Back at Vodafone Whiteleys, Henry says he can do me the deal. He has one nearly new iPhone 4 in black. While it’s charging – and it is charging – he transfers me (sorry, ‘upgrades’ me) from my £15 monthly contract on my 19th century Nokia to the £10.50 iPhone4 contract. He debits my debit card. Meantime we watch the African Cup on an iPad. Henry is Nigerian and Nigeria are winning 3 – 0 in the semifinal. Then we do the deal on the handset … Except we don’t. Over the weekend the price has gone up from £260 to £352.50. We are both staggered. He phones his boss. She confirms the new price: presumably she’s looking at the same screen as he is.

Once again I walk away. I try Phones4U shop but they’re too busy. I try an O2 shop but the staff are too busy scoring points off each other. I spot a Carphone Warehouse. I ask the salesperson the cost of a new iPhone 4 in black. It’s still £305. He has them in stock. I flex my credit card and return to Henry.

Nigeria are still winning. (They end up 4 – 1 to the good.) I show Henry my new iPhone 4. I tell him it cost £305. We shake our heads at Vodafone’s puzzling pricing policy. He checks it’s working, fits the sim into, transfers my contract details. I wish him well and Nigeria all success in Sunday’s final.

I celebrate my purchase by having a bun and a coffee in an outfit called Pappa Roti. Pappa Roti, which is from Malaysia, claims that its bun is ‘The Father of all Buns’. It claims it’s an international success story. At £2 a bun, it’d better be. I’m served by a young guy from Peru. He came to Britain five months ago to improve his English. I wonder why: it’s as near perfect as can be – he has all the tenses, works his way around adverbs will aplomb. He explains that he still finds some British accents difficult to understand. I broaden my Scottish accent. It makes no difference.

This is the first Pappa Roti franchise in London, indeed in England, indeed in Europe.  I test the bun. It’s good – a bit of caramel, a touch of coffee. It’s got a buttery centre, so I guess it’s got the ingredients for fast-food success: saturated fat and corn syrup. (Corn syrup is the new sugar: it’s both sweeter and cheaper than sugar – what could be called a sin-sin situation.) But it’s not as good a bun as my Peruvian friend is a serving assistant. Have a pappa roti if you want to when you’re in Bayswater, but don’t go on a quest for it. It’s OK, but eating one has joined my list of the 1,001 things not to do before you die.

I head for home. No-one rings me or texts me on my new iPhone on the journey back, Circle line back to Notting Hill, Central line to Bond Street, Jubilee line to Canada Water, Overground back to Forest Hill. If it hadn’t been for The Wee Professor, who’s a complete Scottish pedant, I’d have stayed on the Circle line to Victoria and then got the Victoria to London Bridge National Rail service. But there you are, on these matters, The Wee Professor wins. Plus, I’m only on the ‘B’s’.

One thought on “Smokers Paradise, Two Altercations and the End to a Quest (8/80)

  1. Harry

    Your thrilling iphone story reminds me of American splendour. It could have been prime Harvey Pekar if you hadn’t been so happy about the hole thing. More depression when the first one failed to charge, some depressing shots of the rain outside the phone shop when the price has increased, then a big sigh of relief when deal was finally put through and you’d have it.


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