Monday 11 February – Beckton, Beckton Park, Becontree, Belsize Park, Bermondsey
I wake up to another day of snow and decide on the instant that I must be up and at Tube for LOLs. I missed a whole week of snow a few weeks back. An ‘instant’ with me means after two cups of coffee, toast and the usual ablutions. It’s a little after ten o’clock before I leave Gingerbread Cottage and cross the Albion Millennium Green on my way to Forest Hill Station. It’s snowing. I take a photo of our little patch of urban wilderness to show how intrepid the old geezer is.
There’s foxes, rats, rats with bushy tails (squirrels), magpies, pigeons, parakeets, jays here – all the non-human scavengers that feast on our leftovers. But it looks lovely, it feels lovely and the air and snow are lovely!
I reach the station with a spring in my step and board an Overground for Canada Water, then the Jubilee to Canning Town. (Where there is a wonderful scrapyard sculpture, a parody of the Anish Kapoor a mile or so away in the Olympic Park. I’ll get a photo of it when I pay my visit to Canning Town. That’s presuming, of course, that it’s still there. It may have been transfigured into scrap and sequestered in a container bound for China by the time I get to the ‘C’s – there’s an awful lot of stations beginning with ‘B’ to get through first.) A DLR for Becton dinks along the tracks as I get to the platform.
The headline in the Metro today is Big Brother spyware can even predict future crime. I’m reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. This is a difficult, hefty, radical tome on economics. Really it’s far too hefty, far too difficult for the tube, but it’s a library book and it’s been recalled: I have to give it back by Friday. And I’m a sucker for economics books. I read them and, as I read them (provided I pay attention), I understand them. Or, at least, I glow in the illusion of understanding. But ask me a few days later what they’re about and I flounder. This one mixes economics with anthropology. I’m even more of a sucker for anthropology but … There’s politics and philosophy in there too. Aristotle makes a number of appearances. ‘The poor,’ to quote from page 187, ‘together with their wives and children, were enslaved to the rich.’ (Constitution of the Athenians) Plus ça change.
I put Debt back in my day-pack. The DLR jinks past Gallions Reach, a multi-coloured slab of decorated tin shed which hosts a shopping centre. Yum! Yum! I can’t wait to visit there. We sail into Beckton. The whole journey has taken less than forty minutes. It’s my first time in Beckton. What can I say about it? Not much: there’s a bus station, a huge car park, a brash Asda, a car valeting outfit and, across the road, an undertakers. It’s a wide open expanse, windswept and chill, populated by cars and buses and a few scurrying bundled-up pedestrians. Beyond there are streets of modern (eighties? nineties?) low-lying terraces. They are the modern equivalent to the Ticcy Taccy Boxes of the New Towns and housing estates of the sixties and the seventies.
Undaunted, I cross roads and car-park, a modern day urban Ranulph Fiennes (me not the car-park). Beyond the Asda there’s a large Gymnastics Centre, a secondary school and the ‘Beckton Globe’. The last, unfortunately, has nothing to do with Shakespeare or the theatre. It’s not even a cinema. It’s a local authority outpost with a ‘Local Service Centre’, whatever that is. But at least it has a library.
I head back for the station. Behind Asda there’s a boozer, a bank, a betting shop, a chemist, a dry cleaner, a fast food outfit, a solicitors. The map calls it a ‘retail park’, but really it’s only a glorified shopping parade.
I hop on the DLR for the three stops back to Beckton Park. The stop before a woman boards pushing a buggy. Seated in the buggy is a toddler with a snowball in each gloved hand. He is beaming. His beam lights up the carriage.
It takes all of five minutes to reach Beckton Park. If all my journeys were like this, I’d be through by the end of summer. I could go on to other exploits like the A – W of National Rail in London (Abbey Wood to Worcester Park) – leaving out the stops I’ve already done. Or the A – Z of European Capitals (Andorra la Vella to Zagreb). It’s sleeting again. I’m looking forward to Beckton Park: I want to get to the Royal Albert Dock and watch the planes taking off and landing from London City Airport. But I’m thwarted. The gateway is locked. There’s no way through.
Disappointed, I walk over the bridge north to Beckton Park and I’m almost instantly rewarded. On a bare expanse of playing field there’s a scurry of birds – crows, a seagull or two, a magpie and a fleet of sociable small brown jobbies, piping and fluting. Now and then, two dance and pirouette vertically in the air, beak to beak. I take some blurred photos. I edge forward slowly and silently twelve paces. The small brown jobbies (more accurately I see now that they’re medium-small darkish-brown or maybe darkish-grey jobbies) flutter up in sociable excitement and settle twelve paces further on. I take some more blurred photos and edge forward twelve paces. The small brown jobbies flutter away a further twelve paces. You get the picture.
Later I examine my photos. They’re all out of focus. I’ve no idea what birds they are. They’re not sparrows, not starlings. I phone a friend. They could be fieldfares, perhaps, or finches. Perhaps they’re something like red caps (well, I know they’re not red caps), something migratory, fugitive, rare. I send him a photo.
He emails me back: ‘No doubt about it, they’re starlings.’ He attaches a photo of a goldfinch to ease my disappointment.
I return to the station pausing to admire another hopeless sign hung on a lamp post way above head height: CAUTION, it admonishes, FOOTWAY SUBSIDENCE UNDER OBSERVATION. There is no-one else around, no-one observing.
At the station I try again to find a way through to the dock. There’s a worried-looking Asian man on the bridge. He approaches me and asks politely if I know the way through. I say I’m looking for the way as well. He needs to get through, he says, because he’s got an appointment at a private hospital. We look at the sign on the chained gate. I suggest that he goes one stop along, to Cyprus, where I know there’s a way through. He gets his mobile phone out and, I guess, phones the hospital. I decide to go back to the platform and walk along it in case there’s another way out that I’ve missed. There isn’t. When I get back up to the bridge, the man has gone, disappeared.
I go back to the platform and get a train to Becontree: DLR to Canning Town, Jubilee to West Ham and District to Becontree. It takes only 45 minutes. It would have taken less time except that I get on the Jubilee west by mistake. I’ve got it in my mind that the next station is Belsize Park. I’m at Canary Wharf before I check the Tube map and realise the error of my ways.
Like Becton and Becton Park, I’ve never been to Becontree. It’s even further east than Barking, though there’s Dagenham, Hornchurch and Upminster beyond. It’s half past twelve when I mount the steps of Becontree station. It’s still sleeting though only half-heartedly. I am presented with the familiar set of shops that congregate around tube stations: dry cleaners, fast food joints, newsagents. There’s a Pound shop and a butchers and as I pass a young woman walking past waves to the butcher. There’s an ageing rocker with a bushy moustache sitting outside a café. He’s smoking a cigarette and wearing a cowboy hat and a gold ear-ring. His beer belly is covered by a t-shirt It’s stopped sleeting but the wind is sharp. I feel cold just looking at him.
I go to the traffic lights at the end of the parade. Around the corner, there’s more shops including a women only gym, a fish and chip shop advertising Pensioners Fish and Chips for £2.50 and a bright well-presented mini-market advertising in Cyrillic. Inside the shelves are full, clean and neatly-stacked. The whole shop sparkles. There’s Polish food and a huge display freezer with fish of all descriptions – cured, smoked and unsmoked – and packets labelled ‘African salad’. They look nothing like any salad I’ve seen before.
I ask the regal West African manager what the language is outside.
‘It’s Lithuanian,’ he says.
‘You don’t look like no Lithuanian to me,’ I reply. (Cultural reference – that’s a misquote from Bo Diddley’s Say Man: ‘What part of America you from?’ ‘South America.’ ‘You don’t look like no South American to me. What part of South America?’ ‘South Texas.’)
‘I’ve been out in the sun a long time,’ he jokes.
He’s Nigerian. I congratulate him on his football team’s victory in the Cup of Nations. He is happy but not overjoyed. ‘Nigeria has good players but they play in Europe and …’ The implication is that they become too big for their boots. ‘Football is a team game. Our players have to learn to play as a team.’
I compliment him and his Pakistani assistant on their shop.
‘Thank you. But we still need to make changes to the back. It’s a work in progress.’
Two doors down I brave myself and go into the fish and chip shop. I’m not really hungry but £2.50 for cod and chips: can that be real? ‘It is.’ says the young Asian server behind the counter. ‘I can fry you one now if you want. It’ll only take a few minutes.’
I agree. I mean, £2.50 for fish and chips in London!
As I wait he explains that they also do children’s meals: they can do chicken and chips for £1.70. ‘But the chips come in a cone.’ He holds one up for me.
Ahh! The wonders of the cone: wonderful in that it promises so many more chips than it delivers, at most only half the number.
Not that I have anything against chips. The potato, after all, is one of the most nutritious of foods. It fed the Incas and generations of peasants in Ireland and West Scotland. (I won’t mention the mid-nineteenth century Irish Potato Famine, caused by blight and the inhumanity of an absentee aristocracy.)
Weight for weight, the potato approaches the egg for quality of protein – it lacks only methionine. It’s high in Vitamin C and minerals. And, for so-called stodge, it is absurdly low in calories: 100 grams of old boiled potatoes will yield only around 80 calories. It is absurdly low in fat, approximately 0.1%. But the potato’s downfall as a health-food is that it is the champion soaker-up-of-fat. Add a knob of butter to your baked potato or to mashed potatoes and the potato is heading for 200 calories per 100 grams. Slice them into fat chips and fry them and they’re over 250 calories. Call yourself McDonald and slice your potatoes thin and they’re heading for 300 calories. But even a 250+ calorie chip, like the fat moist golden ones I am presented with here, contain a few less calories than the same weight of dry toast. And I know which I prefer with my fish. The Wee Professor coughs. ‘It is usual to recognise your sources, Mr Craig, when you quote them in public.’ He elucidates. ‘The potato facts above come from Future Food by Colin Tudge.’
The only problem I have with my fish and chips is that I have to eat them on the hoof and the sleet has started up again. I pass the ageing rocker outside the café. He’s still smoking, still seemingly oblivious to the wind, sleet and cold.
I look in at a surprisingly large park, but there doesn’t seem to be any shelter. I eat my fish and chips walking around a huge housing estate. I follow narrow street upon narrow street lined with pebble-dashed two-storey houses, the residents’ cars parked up on the pavements. There are puddles everywhere where the drains are blocked. There’s a little parade of shops here including Béké’s Kitchen. It serves African as well as English food. I see Béké herself, or at least I assume it is her, serving behind the misted-up windows. She looks like Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s first ladies’ detective. I regret, a little, my fish and chips. Perhaps Béké would have had some African salad that I could have tried.
I head back to the station and Central London.
It takes most of an hour to get from Becontree to Belsize Park, first on the District line to Whitechapel, then the Hammersmith & City to King’s Cross, then the Northern (High Barnet branch) line to Camden Town, then two stops on the Edgware branch.
Belsize Park station is instantly familiar: forty years ago I rented my first flat in London up the road towards Hampstead. Incidentally, one of my flat-mates then is the friend I ring now about the birds in Beckton Park. The stern recorded voice in the lifts, though, is new. Stern, a little forbidding, a little schoolmarmish. I learn that I am now at ‘ticket-hall level’. Surely she means ‘street level’?
But Haverstock Hill and Belsize Park itself is almost as I remember it. Updated, of course, more than a little more prosperous. And a little more, how shall I say, middle class in an intellectual sort of a way. With Hampstead, half a mile up the road, it’s the quintessential enclave of the Chattering Classes so derided by the media (most of whom, by definition, are members of the Chattering Classes). There’s a host of chain restaurants and eateries, including a new one to me, Giraffe, with the corporate strap-line: Love Eat Live. It’s still trying to sleet but I take a few moments to try and decode that. Obviously, it’s all positive. Love, it’s great to be in love, tick. Eat, well you’ve got to eat, it’s good to eat, yum yum, tick. Live, well, if it’s being here then it’s pretty good, we can imagine we’re free, imagine we’re in charge of our lives, so good, tick. But there’s no connection that I can see between the three. And what if you’re not in love? Or your love is unrequited? And is self-love included? And what if the burger we eat, and Giraffe seems to be a glorified burger joint, is not beef but horsemeat… ? I stop before I get to ‘live’ and how the other three-quarters of the world lives. I stop before the Lévi-Strauss transmogrifies into the Inner Curmudgeon.
Opposite, there’s the old Hampstead Town Hall, run by Interchange, one of the initial community arts groups, one of the tentacles of the sixties and seventies reaching across the decades. Interchange are still community activists, still mainly about putting on performing arts and similar programmes for disadvantaged young people. The old Town Hall is also a ‘resource centre’. Other groups based in the building include a South Asian dance group, the Greater London Pensioners Association, the London Gay Men’s Chorus, the London Hazards Centre, a greetings cards business and a mobile massage and beauty service.
There’s a branch of Euphorium – a high-class bakery (or up-scale if you’re feeling American: both mean expensive). Part of what I have to do today is to buy bread for later, so I go in. My glasses steam up. I buy a smallish wholemeal loaf for a largish amount of cash.
I pass by the Everyman Cinema and wonder briefly about popping in to see Lincoln. But then Gaunt Books catches my eye and half-an-hour later I’m still inside, browsing. The display on their non-fiction table is the best I’ve seen anywhere. I note down seven books that I’d like to read. (When I get back I’ll request three of them from the London Library.)
Meanwhile, an Ancient Mariner has a long list of half-remembered book titles that the long-suffering shop assistant chases down for him. I compliment the assistant on the book display. We talk about the upsurge in exciting literate non-fiction from science to economics to biography. I mention that I once lived near Belsize Park, that it’s much the same as I remember but perhaps a little more middle-class. We get talking about the neighbourhood. He tells me it’s a bit more mixed than it looks. A couple of hundred yards away towards Chalk Farm there are some rough areas. A few years back, the assistant tells me, there was an influx of Somali refugees. It was, he says, badly managed by the local authority (Camden) and, in time, some of the Somali youth began kicking up. But it’s all settled down now.
I smile and leave. I don’t disbelieve the assistant but … But, three years ago, one of my last working assignments took me to the streets he’s talking about. I remember them as fairly rough, but not as bad as some of the deprived areas of Peckham or Camberwell. I know that the friendship and protection societies of youth – their posses, crews and gangs – have their home territories with strictly defined borders that aren’t marked on any A-Z London street-map. And I know that in London two hundred yards can be as great a distance as two hundred miles. I could be wrong, but it feels to me that Belsize Park is neutral territory. Certainly, I haven’t seen any alkies or druggies or rough-looking youth – I don’t think I’ve seen a single hoodie, but it is well before school chucking-out time.
I admire the display of fruit and vegetables outside a grocery shop. I’m tempted by the quince but notice that two long red peppers cost around three times the price they would fetch in Peckham. Mind you, these are organic peppers. I check the prices of flats and houses in an Estate Agents. They are a good three times the price of their Peckham equivalent. I decide it’s time to move on.
Back to the underground and the recorded voice of the stern Headmistress informs me that I am at ‘platform level’ and I’m on my way home: Northern line, City branch, to London Bridge, then Jubilee line to Canada … Wait! We pass Bermondsey, next alphabetically, and it’s not quite four in the afternoon. Five tube stations in one day: a record!
I know Bermondsey tube station well. It’s where I left the underground when I was on my way to the Bubble Theatre. I like it. I like the station and I like this stretch of Jamaica Road. Southwark Council have tried fairly successfully to titivate the shopping parade up. At the same time the old-time Council housing has been joined by new flats for young professionals. The shops, or most of them, are pretty much the same as you’d find anywhere – fast food joints, estate agents, mini-markets, barbers, nail parlours, betting shops, chemists and dentists. (Dentists? How come there are so many dentists? Answer: There’s money in them there molars.) But, in the main, they (the shops, not the molars) are smarter than you might expect.
I make my way down to the Thames. I missed the water at Beckton Park, I’ll get a glimpse of it now. I walk down to Cherry Garden Pier. The Thames is grey, cold and forbidding. I look out over the Gherkin and assorted City skyscrapers. St Paul’s is framed in Tower Bridge. South of the river, the Shard disappears upwards into the mist. It’s trying to be awe inspiring in a monumental way. Like Canary Wharf it’s trying to say that capitalism will be here for ever. Like capitalism, it thinks it’s impersonal, it thinks it’s all calculation. But even the weird shapes of the skyscrapers embody both rationalism and the over-arching take-no-hostages need to make profit at any cost. There’s a cruel heart behind that cold brain.
I turn back and there, on the corner, of Cherry Garden Street is a winter cherry in blossom. My spirits lift. It’s a personal thing, I guess, preferring trees to office blocks and skyscrapers. Perhaps it’s an age thing. Perhaps, I think, it’s also a winter thing. But then, surely, trees are even more splendid, more alive in the spring, summer and autumn? Whatever. Give me trees any time.
I walk back to the tube. There’s an African on his first floor balcony throwing great chunks of white blotting-paper bread onto the square of grass below him where the pigeons scrabble. He’s wearing one of those loose, wonderfully patterned, short-sleeved African shirts.
I salute him. ‘It’s freezing,’ I say. ‘You must be cold.’
He laughs. ‘I am cold. I am only here for a moment. I am going back in right now, sir.’
We laugh together.
I enter the vault of Bermondsey tube station, board a Jubilee train one stop to Canada Water, then south on the Overground to Forest Hill. I walk back through the silver birches of the Albion Millennium Green.
Tuesday 12 February
I need to catch up. I need to write up my notes, download and sort and caption my photos. But some displacement activity is necessary before I get down to the real work. I make an Excel file of all the stations on the December 2012 map. I want to note down which tube stations I’ve visited before I started this alphabetical craziness, which stations I’ve never been to (or, at the most, have passed through underground en route for further-off stations) and which stations I’m not sure whether I’ve visited or not.
The first thing I find is that there aren’t 376 stations as I’d thought. Aargh!
There are 366 stations. I double-check. I’ve missed one station. There are 367. I’ve lost nine stations. I decide this is good news: that’s nine fewer stations to visit. I’ve made up a little over a week of visits in an hour and a half on the computer. That’s what I call productivity!
Fran comes through to the study. She’s had an email from Gemmima about the wedding. Somehow, Gem says, she and Johnson have found an extra fifty guests for the wedding. She’s not sure how or where they found them. I think they’re pleased she’s found an extra fifty guests. I’m pleased I’ve lost nine stations. In management-speak this is a win-win situation.
I find that I’m definite – or, at least, pretty sure – that I’ve visited 176 stations before. That’s a little under half. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t been to 152 of the other stations. I’m not sure about the remaining 39 stations. Did I once go to Arsenal tube before Wednesday 30 January 2013? Perhaps once in the seventies when I lived in Shepherd’s Bush and supported Queens Park Rangers as my local team and came to see them play at Highbury? I don’t think so, but I can’t quite be sure. Or when I came one time with Andrew (my son, who supports Arsenal)? Again, I don’t think so – much more likely that we walked up from Highbury and Islington. But there’s a smidgeon of doubt.
Or how about Blackhorse Road, the penultimate stop at the northern end of the Victoria line? Possible, probable even. For a few months I was a freelance lecturer at the North East London Polytechnic and one of my classes was at their Walthamstow campus about a mile and a half east along Forest Road. The more I think about it, the more probable I think it is. I seem to remember a crossroads with short parades of shops on at least three of the corners and a greasy spoon on the corner opposite the station. But I’ve driven along Forest Road quite a few times over the years. It’s possible that that’s where the memory comes from.
Back in my first year studying Philosophy and English Literature at Edinburgh University I fell in love with a girl called Monica. I visited her home in North London during that Christmas vacation. I say I fell in love but I was too awkward and shy to declare my love: Monica thought we were just good friends. But, for that brief visit, I was in heaven. We would take a bus to the nearest tube and then onwards to Central London. But was her home tube station Kingsbury or was it Queensbury? I lost her address a long time ago. Actually, I didn’t carry it over from one address book to the next, but I’m pretty sure it was Kingsbury. The more I think about it, the more likely it was Kingsbury. But a doubt remains.
And in almost forty years of living in London, have I ever used Latimer Road or Mansion House or Parsons Green stations? It’s possible. I’ve certainly passed through them on the tube many times. When I get to these stations will a moment of illumination come to me: ‘Yes, I have been here!’ or ‘Uh-uh, this is the first time.’ The trouble is that, even now after I have visited Barons Court and Bayswater as part of Tube for LOLs, I’m not quite sure whether I’ve used those stations before or not. I think I’ve been once to Barons Court. I think I’ve probably never got out at Bayswater. But I can’t be sure.
Ah! Memory! You disobedient dog, you!
Fran and I tried the Euphorium loaf yesterday. We both found it quite salty but otherwise rather bland. Its crumb was light-weight. Today I bought a Sainsbury ‘Taste the Difference’ sourdough for not much more than half the price of the Euphorium loaf. We conducted a completely non-scientific (and certainly not ‘blind’) tasting on the two breads. The Sainsbury loaf won hands-down. ‘Well, so it should,’ chimes in The Wee Professor. ‘It’s today’s loaf and it’s a sourdough which is inherently tastier. And,’ he continues pedantically, ‘I do not ‘chime’. I ‘state’ or ‘declare’.’
Thursday 21 February
There was a report on the BBC website yesterday headed: Why have the white British left London? In the last decade, the number of white British people in London has fallen by 620,000. White Brits now make up just 45% of London’s residents. This, so the report says, is not about ‘white flight’ or at least only partly. The author thinks that ‘the evidence suggests it is also about working class aspiration and economic success’.
The second largest decrease in white British population (by local authority area) is Barking & Dagenham: a decrease in the decade of 30.6%. (The largest decrease is in neighbouring Newham.) The article uses Barking & Dagenham, specifically Becontree, as the basis of its argument. The vast estate into which I stumbled a couple of weeks back was built after the First World War and mainly allocated to the families of ex-soldiers. Another wave of East-enders from Aldgate, Bethnal Green and points east arrived after the Second World War.
It was, the author says, ‘a real step up for many families’. And, in the 1980s, many families took advantage of the right to buy their council houses at 30% of the market value: ‘at least two-thirds of the Becontree estate was sold to the private sector.’ By the year 2000, the borough was one of the very few places in Greater London where you could buy a three-bedroom house for under £100,000. But anyone getting on the housing ladder meant that their home became a valuable investment in the first ten years of the new millennium.
That decade saw the Ford plant contract, then shut down. The number of full-time jobs in the area fell by a quarter. But many people had a sizeable chunk of capital in their home. Some also benefited from redundancy pay-outs and pension deals. This ‘was the cue for the families who had left London’s East End in the middle of the 20th Century to move on again at the start of the 21st.’ Clacton, the seaside town in Essex and now nicknamed Little Dagenham, is a favourite moving spot while towns along the railway line between Fenchurch St and Shoeburyness (east of Southend) have seen significant increases to the white British population.
It’s a story of ‘white working class families that escaped from the slums and bombed-out East End in the middle of the last century, found new opportunities in London’s outer boroughs and then, in the past decade – often having prospered from the housing boom and the capital’s economic growth – cashed in their assets and bought themselves that little cottage in the countryside or by the sea. It is a story of aspiration. It is a story of success.’
So, while London’s architectural ‘hardware’ of offices, tube lines and transport links, of schools and hospitals has been transformed over the past forty years, the ‘firmware’ of people (who have at least a hand in developing the ‘software’ of social attitudes – to politics, religion, sexuality, immigration, diversity – as well as business and government systems) has likewise undergone massive change. Like the many personae of David Bowie, or my Martin Amis moment at the Unilever Building (in Blackfriars, see next post Cover-Ups etc. [10/80]), hundreds of thousands of individuals have tried on – or moved into – new identities. Or, at the least, changed lifestyles.
Of course, some will have moved to resist change, to maintain the illusion of a ‘little England’ free of immigration, homosexuality and the other bugbears that assail them. And others will have moved through chance and contingency. There was a turning in the road and they chose to go that way …
I have a heretical thought: that what Margaret Thatcher actually did was to redistribute some of the capital accumulated over the years and lodged with the British State to the poor and the working-class. Mostly, of course, with privatisation she asset-stripped the State and redistributed the proceeds to the undeserving rich. It’s this latter course that has been followed by Brown, Cameron, Osborne and the Bank of England since the 2008 financial crisis. Over the past five years it’s been the bankers and the rich who have been bailed out. What a difference it would have made if Brown and Darling had propped up the economy with handouts to the 90% and let the bankers and the rich sail off to the Cayman Islands in a sieve.