Monday 18 February – Bethnal Green, Blackfriars, Blackhorse Road
It’s a wonderful bright crisp winter’s morning and I’m away from Gingerbread Cottage early. Well, ‘early’ is one of those wonderful vague words which brightens up the English language, that ensures that the English language is not over-cripsed. I’m at Forest Hill station a little before 10.00 am.
I’m on my way to Bethnal Green, taking the Overground to Canada Water, then the Jubilee east to Stratford, last the Central line west to Bethnal Green. It takes me three quarters of an hour. Three quarters of an hour, mind, not 45 minutes.
Today’s Metro proclaims: Red signal from train passengers. No guesses what that story’s about. I’m reading the second part of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s The Mortdecai Trilogy. Don’t worry, it’s not some hefty continental tome, though it has an enormous number of words I’ve never stumbled over before. It’s a detective trilogy. The protagonist (‘hero’ is quite the wrong word) being a lubricious politically-incorrect art-dealer constantly on the run from the British and U.S. Secret Services, plus, usually, at least two international criminal conspiracies and sometimes a gang of billionaire Amazonian women. Each novel is a kind of ornate caper story (the sub-genre of the detective thriller honed to as near perfection as possible by Elmore Leonard) and P.G. Wodehouse.
I get out on the south-west corner of the Bethnal Green crossroads. Every time I come here, which isn’t often, they’re tearing up the roads. But not this time. The traffic flows almost freely. The pavements are busy. There’s a church across the way that I’ve never visited, don’t even know the name of. I make a mental note to remedy at least the latter wrong. I stumble across a work of public art. It’s a double metal arc inlaid into the pavement with child-like (naïve? faux-naïve?) engravings. I make out, I think, aeroplanes, buses, basket-ball hoops, birds, what could be a teddy bear or a child’s view of a sheep, flower-pots. It’s labeled A.J. Bernasconi 2004. I quite like it. It’s inoffensive but puzzling. Well, slightly puzzling.
I wander west along Bethnal Green Road. There are shops of all descriptions, pubs galore, plus one-offs like Kwik-Fit, Snappy Snaps, the Providence Row Housing Association, a second-hand furniture outlet under the railway arches, Ralph Swimer Ltd: Wholesale Textiles and Trimmings. There’s a fish and chip shop advertising their OAP Special: Fish and chips for £4.90. There’s an old man staring in at the window. I almost go over and tell him to take his Freedom Pass to Becontree, save himself £2.40 and get a free outing into the bargain. Then I realise the old man is me reflected in the window.
Further on there is a street-market with cheap mobile-phone accessories, bags, trinkets, clothes and fruit and veg stalls. There are parallel universes here: a German couple stride past purposefully, two fashionable young women talking nineteen to the dozen slip out of one of the flats above the shops. A black youth stops for a chat with a light-skinned (Arabic?) friend. I catch his query, ‘You working?’ but I don’t hear the answer. Mostly, though, the area is a Bangladeshi neighbourhood and most of the Bangladeshis are women in full burqa and niqab (the part covering the head and face, protecting the woman from the gaze of others).
There’s a wonderful Bangladeshi fruit and veg stall. At the front are £1 bowls of bananas and oranges and potatoes – all the recognisable common or garden fruit and veg. At the back, though, in between the gourds and squashes are unknown vegetables. I point to one, a fist-sized discoloured ball, and ask the stall-holder what it is. He gives the Bangladeshi name, then explains, ‘It is like a cucumber.’ I point at another vegetable, again fist-sized but glossy green and dimpled, which reminds me of something familiar but I can’t put my put my finger on. I don’t quite get his answer. I think he says, ‘It’s like … Hmm-hmm same.’ There is a display of enormous runner-bean like beans, wide and glossy green with a dark purple stripe running along its edge. I buy some lovely purple pink tubers which are definitely of the aubergine family, some discoloured fist-sized balls, some green dimpled balls, a bag of Bangladeshi runner beans and a couple of bunches of coriander for nine pounds.
I make my way back to the tube. There’s a handsome Victorian terrace set back from the road to Hackney, protected by a bedraggled grass strip called Paradise Gardens. I look across the road at the church: it’s called St John on Bethnal Green. I cross the road but it looks shuttered and barred and my attention is caught by workmen tearing up a path in Bethnal Park Gardens on the south-east corner. Clearly, tearing up roads and paths is as much a tradition as furniture-making and the rag-trade in Bethnal Green. There’s a white Lexus hyrbid with a vanity registration: MO55ZZZ. I stand by a zebra crossing trying to work out what that means. The traffic stops.
I cross the Roman Road for a look at the workmen: there’s few things I enjoy more than watching other people work. A Sikh in a turban is clubbing down some new paving with a huge wooden mallet like a fairground prop. Beyond, barricaded on all sides, is a curious construction. I walk round and realise it’s a half-finished work of public art and that it will commemorate the Seventieth Anniversary of the Bethnal Green Tube disaster when 173 people, mainly woman and children, were killed.
Then, the British State behaved as the British State so often does: it went into Cover Up mode and blamed the victims. It was the victims wot done it, your honour. If they hadn’t panicked, if there hadn’t been too much of that awful pushing and shoving … (Think the 1989 Hillsborough disaster when 96 people, mainly Liverpool fans, were killed.) It took around ten years before Lord Greene, the Master of the Rolls, noted that ‘it was perfectly well known … that there had been no panic.’ He rebuked the Government for ordering that the case should be held in secret. The secret official report noted that the local Council had warned two years before the disaster that the staircase needed a crush barrier but was told that would be a waste of money. I am freighted down with misery at other people’s untimely deaths, anger at the total lack of fellow-feeling of those in power and despondency at our deficiency of empathy. Luckily for me, a notice on the wall of the Gardens jolts me out of my gloom:
It’s a twenty minute hop from Bethnal Green to Blackfriars and most of that is taken up walking underground from the Central line at Bank to the District and Circle lines at Monument. It feels like a half-mile trek: up and down stairs, along and through corridors, up a couple of escalators, more hallways, up another escalator. Perhaps I look a bit puffed out: a young woman on the District tube offers me her seat.
Blackfriars station has had a multi-million pound makeover. From the outside, the ticket hall on the north side of the Thames looks as smart and empty as a Bond Street luxury emporium. It’s the same from the inside: acres of space.
To be fair, the ticket hall probably throngs with commuters at rush-hours. And one wall is a rather intriguing concrete poem with place names such as Berlin, Brindisi, Bromley … According to the Network Rail chap I accost Blackfriars used to be a Ferry Terminus with ferries to all the places named – all the continental places that is, obviously not Bromley.
However, Blackfriars’ USP, its unique selling proposition, is that it has entrances on both the north and south banks of the Thames. You can, if you so wish, beep yourself in on the north bank, walk along the railway platform, and beep yourself out on the south bank. For instance, if you’re going to an exhibition at the Tate Modern or a performance at the Globe. In fact it is, apparently, the first station ever to span the Thames. There is more. Its roof has over 4,000 solar panels, meaning that it’s the biggest solar bridge in the world.
But I’ve come to visit the imposing building on the other side of the road junction: 100 Victoria Embankment, the Grade 11 listed, Art Deco Unilever building.
I’ve been only once before to the building, some time in the early eighties. I went with the photographer, Chris Schwarz. Chris had been before and had wangled a visit to the hallways and corridors on the upper floors. These were, apparently, stacked with art from around the world that Lord Lever, the soap magnate and founder of Unilever, had looted. Woops! Strike that out. Had collected. Chris thought that there might be a feature for a publication like the Illustrated London News but, as it happened, we couldn’t talk our way past the security guards.
Today I walk through the entrance hall into the main reception. It’s nothing like I’d expected though I don’t now what I expected – I have only the vaguest of memories. It’s been transmogrified into a huge modern atrium, the design equivalent of painting-by-numbers. Hanging from the ceiling are a series of giant ear-trumpets like something out of Heath Robinson on a dose of the sherbets. Around the atrium are serried ranks of glass-walled offices. Through the glass I spy the desk-jockeys busily attending to whatever it is they need to attend to. There’s a coffee-joint on the ground floor so you don’t need to leave the building.
I go back to the entrance foyer and talk with the doorman. He tells me that there’s still some art-works upstairs but most of it is in storage. Unfortunately, I can’t go upstairs to see what remains, that’s not a public space. Besides, some of the offices upstairs are rented out, indeed they are rented out to lawyers. Lawyers. Well, that makes all the difference. I wouldn’t want to disturb lawyers about their business, the world might stop turning.
I ask whether there’ll be an exhibition of the stuff in storage. ‘Who knows?’ the doorman replies. ‘As they say: “Watch this space”.’ That’s as clear as mud to me. But he’s happy – nay, proud – to show me the exhibits that are left downstairs: the art deco pewter-lined original lift cars, the wacky half-woman half-chicken donated by Unilever Thailand and the graceful god Shiva dancing, his foot on the demon dwarf of ignorance.
There’s a photo-shoot going on in the conference suite next to the foyer. For a second I think one of the guys being photographed is Martin Amis. I do a double-take. No, probably not, probably only some corporate bean counter. My mind switches into fantasy mode. It’s not only London, the London skyline, London buildings that are constantly being pulled down and thrown up by the creative rage of capitalism. People, too, are being transmogrified. Martin Amis is no longer Martin Amis. He’s now a corporate bean-counter. In another ten or twenty years he’ll be transmogrified into something else completely different. It’s a strangely comforting fantasy. When is Martin Amis no longer Martin Amis? When is Sandy Craig no longer Sandy Craig? Perhaps – as David Hume and the Buddha believed – the ‘I’ which connects the thirteen year old Sandy Craig with the sixty three year old Sandy Craig is only a fiction, a fiction being continually and creatively remodelled by the ever-changing Sandy Craig, by that fickle and muscular faculty called memory? Perhaps it’s time I got my skates on and headed for Blackhorse Road station?
I take myself at my word and I’m there (Circle line to Victoria, Victoria line to Blackhorse Road) in thirty five minutes. As I get off the train I’m hoping for a definite answer to the question of whether or not I’ve used this station before. I’ve definitely been to Blackhorse Road before many times. As I’ve said before for a while in the seventies I used to lecture ‘Complementary Studies’ to day-release guys up the road at the Walthamstow campus of the NELP. But I had a tiny 50cc Solex in those days. I remember phut-phutting over the Lea Valley summer and winter. But did I go then, or later, by tube?
The escalator takes me upwards to the ticket-hall. I look around. There’s nothing distinctive about the tube station. Back in the sixties, they built the Victoria line plain and simple, no embellishments. I still cannot remember whether or not I’ve visited Blackhorse Station.
I walk outside. I remember outside fine. I remember the miserable row of shops. I remember the diesel fumes, the smell of dirt, the chemical wafts of cheap perfume. I wonder: do they still make perfume in the Lea Valley? Is there still the physical and economic space for that kind of industry? Or has that long gone, scoured away by the Olympics with only the historical memory of perfume wafting through the air?
I remember the Café Rodi except that thirty-odd years ago it was a working man’s caff of the Italian persuasion. I remember they used to serve huge meat pies with towering pastry sides, enormous slabs masquerading as vanilla slices, great mugs of orange tea across whose surface an army could march without getting its boots wet. But the Café Rodi is now only a battered fascia-board above the shop (Tea & Coffee Light Refreshments – ‘Light Refreshments’, my Aunt Sally!) and a stern sans-serif sign high up. The Rodi Cafe as it’s now called is but another fast-food joint. I don’t fancy eating there. Besides I want to get back early.
I walk back to the station. There’s a ten year old Citroen with Slovakian number plates waiting at the lights. The driver’s window is down. The driver is bouncing up and down in his seat to the base boom of hip hop from his stereo which he is kindly sharing with the world. His steering wheel is covered with a lurid pink steering wheel glove. It’s time to return homewards. I head into the station. As the escalator sweeps me into the underworld, the mystery of whether I have visited the station before remains unresolved. Yes, I know that’s unsatisfactory. There’s a part of my mind tugging at the rest of me: it wants a conclusion, it needs a conclusion. Man can bear only so many loose ends.
I leave Blackhorse Road at 1.10 pm. I take the Victoria line to Green Park, then the Jubilee to Canada Water, then the Overground. It looks a longer way round but the Victoria and Jubilee lines are quicker than the Overground and the trains run more often. I’m at Forest Hill within the hour. Outside the station I take the 197 bus to Peckham. Becca, Harry, Iris and Hazel are going to Gemmima’s wedding in Manila. This is my last chance to see them before they go. I text Fran and ask her to bring some lunch.
That afternoon Iris, Fran and I spend most of the time in the garden clearing the paved areas. That is, Fran and I spend time clearing the paved areas. Iris picks snowdrops. We try to persuade her, without success, to leave the snowdrops in the ground. Becca comes out with Hazel in the sling. I smile at Hazel. She smiles back. I make a funny face. Hazel laughs. I make another funny face. Hazel chortles as though she’s never seen anything funnier then turns away because babies can only bear so much funny delight. I decide she’s the best audience in the world.