It’s 10.20 am and tiny dancing diatoms of snow are skipping haphazardly across the sky. Some, perhaps most, will eventually reach the ground. First stop for me today is Boston Manor.
Chubb’s chumps declares the front page of the Metro. This refers to the case of the bungling Islamic terrorists: apparently the leader’s nickname is ‘Chubb’. I change at Canada Water and squeeze on to the Jubilee. The young guy at my left elbow is reading a manual in German and English called Beginning to Play the Trumpet. It turns out he teaches the trumpet. The manual, he thinks, is pretty weird …
It advises that for the first two lessons the beginner doesn’t even get to blow his own trumpet. That’s no fun.
The manual is written by an East German. Well, sometimes stereotypes are there for a reason. Still, the trumpet teacher says, there are a number of good tips which he’ll be able to use. He used to be a music teacher at school and, apart from the money, he doesn’t miss it at all. He’s on his way to Baker Street where he’s going to pick up a trumpet that’s being repaired by a trumpet repairer.
To be honest, I’m not a massive fan of the trumpet but even the Inner Curmudgeon thinks that the world would be a poorer place without trumpet teachers and trumpet repairers.
There’s a spring on my step as I change to the Piccadilly at Green Park. There’s as much luggage on the tube as there are passengers though thankfully the wheels are retracted into the luggage. It’s an Arms Race, mutters the Inner Curmudgeon. No sooner do the authorities make larger tube trains or wider platforms or more spacious concourses (ticket-offices to you and me), than the people grow larger (taller and wider) and their luggage sprouts wheels and then the whole caboodle balloons to enormous proportions.
I arrive at Boston Manor (Square D1) in the far west of London at 11.20 am. The tiny diatoms of snow are about their business. I’ve visited Boston Manor twice before. It’s near a stopping-off point of the Capital Ring, London’s inner walking route. In the interests of research, I decide to head the other way from the station but really Boston Manor is much of a piece. It’s got one of those thirties stations I like, a short parade of shops and, apart from one sorry looking office block, the rest is housing. You don’t go here to work, you go home here from work.
The wind seems to have got chillier and I decide that I must put the interests of coffee before that of research. There’s a good café in Boston Manor which doubles up as a post office. When I went there with my walking chums an old gentleman was sitting eating breakfast, perfectly turned out in a dark double-breasted suit with folded handkerchief in top pocket and black polished shoes. He had an air of authority about him and looked Sicilian – well, Italian – to me. From our conversation with him it was obvious that he wasn’t someone who suffers fools gladly. Not someone, whatever his age, that you cross.
I walk the length of the shopping parade and can’t find the café. There’s the Ola Café but its shutters are down. I ask at the next-door mini-market. There’s another café a few doors down and it’s open, says the Asian shopkeeper. I spot it instantly: the Manners Café – that’s the one.
It’s as I remember it: the dainty tables, the side-counter, the Post Office further along the other side and more tables at the back. It feels like the hub of the community. Most of the tables are occupied by ladies, in ones and twos, past a certain age and from a lower but still dignified social strata. But there’s a father with a couple of young kids out back and a workman or two.
At the table next to me sits a young man in a cap, a full black beard jutting out from his chin, a black jersey, blue jeans and boots. He’s talking on his mobile. Cap, beard, jersey, jeans, boots: all are clean, combed, polished. He has an air of self-possession about him. He reminds me of the cover of The Band’s LP The Band. (You missed your chance of writing ‘eponymous’ there, says The Wee Professor. I thought I’d leave it to you, I reply.) Except Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and the rest of The Band look like fugitives or desperadoes. The young man at the next table most definitely doesn’t look like either a fugitive or a desperado. He looks like a fine young man, like an upstanding member of the community. Then I get it. He looks like an American workman would have looked, say back in the thirties, dressed in his Sunday best.
The waiter brings him a huge raspberry / blackberry smoothie which I learn later is called a Merry Berry and contains an unfeasibly large number of berries. He interrupts his phone call to get up and open the door for two of the old ladies who are leaving. Then he goes back to his call.
The waiter sits down across the table from the young man. We get talking. I ask him where he’s from. He says ‘the worst country in the world’. I ask him where’s that. He gives me three guesses. Bulgaria? (He looks kind of Bulgarian perhaps to me.) No. Russia? (A wild guess: but Russia is a pretty horrible place, the population there is declining at a rapid pace for all sorts of reasons, but it’s so bad that Putin is thinking of offering couples money to have kids.) No. Syria? Closer, he says, I give you another guess. Pakistan? I hazard, but I’ve over-shot. It’s Afghanistan.
My informant left Afghanistan some time after the Russians left. It was bad then, he says. Much worse now.
Ah, Karzai, I say, mentioning the currrent Afghanistani president (and U.S. puppet except that he’s maybe the one pulling the strings).
My informant smiles sadly and makes the international gesture – fingers rubbing thumb – for corruption.
As for Afghans as a whole, he thinks it will be a hundred years before things get sorted out. He thinks that thirty years of civil war and ceaseless fighting has damaged people irreparably. They are destroyed in their brains, he says. They think that strangers, anyone they don’t know, are automatically enemies. They reach for their Kalashnikovs.
He was in Afghanistan in November. He’s glad to be back in Britain.
The young man finishes his phone call. I ask him about his smoothie. It’s great, he says, go on, try some. My new Afghani friend gets a second straw. I try the smoothie and feel the instant rush of vitamin C and anti-oxidants and sugar.
I get talking with the young man – who later will tell me that he’s forty-four: so beware of my descriptions! It turns out that he’s a convert to Islam or, as he says: I have reverted to Islam.
Islam is there all the time, he says, but sometimes we don’t see that it’s there, sometimes we don’t hear that it’s there. So, ‘reverting’ to Islam is more truthful. Certainly, it sounds better to me.
We all, he says, have a need to understand and follow the order within the world. Various reasons, including a thousand years or so of conspiracy by the powers-that-be, sometimes prevent us from reaching that understanding.
Without knowing it he puts forward the argument for God known as Pascal’s Wager, after the the seventeenth century French mathematician, philosopher and Christian convert, Blaise Pascal. His wager states that since you don’t know what follows after this life and you don’t know whether or not there’s a God, it’s better surely to choose that there is a God since then your experience of whatever after-life there is will be better. It’s a one-way bet.
There are logical holes in the argument. Plus, I’ve never felt the force of the argument. But then, Pascal’s faith was that of Abraham and Isaac, not that of philosophers. Indeed, I’ve always felt that it’s a cynical, self-serving argument: believe in God and if you’re wrong, well, that won’t make any difference in the after-life, but if you’re right, well, you’re quids in.
My new companion, however, puts the argument more persuasively than Pascal. There is knowledge and there is faith and each brings its own certainty. (I am unsure how much certainty knowledge – supposedly more logical, more down-to-earth – actually brings. Much of our knowledge, it seems to me, is provisional and a patch-in job. But that’s by-the-bye. Perhaps faith comes from a different, older part of our brain?)
The most important thing, he concludes, is ‘to give thanks’. He lifts his Merry Berry. ‘Thanks for this.’ He indicates the café and the others in the café – another thanks. ‘There are many ways to give thanks but thanks through prayer, through our five prayers each day, is best.’
I realise then that it is Friday and that both he and the Afghani are waiting, waiting to go to prayers. I thank him for his bracing talk. They leave and, five minutes later, so do I, invigorated. Outside, the snow diatoms are continuing with their lurching polka.
I have 25 stops now, all on the Piccadilly line, to Bounds Green in the north east. (It would have been 26 if we’d stopped at Turnham Green but Piccadilly trains only do that early mornings and late evenings.) That’s the most stops I’ve done so far on a single line. It’s almost as long as from Amersham back to Forest Hill (29 stops on the Metropolitan, Jubilee and Overground lines – and it would only have been 27 stops if I’d changed to the Jubilee at Baker Street rather than Finchley). I think it may be the most stops I’ll ever travel on a single line. I’m pretty sure it will at least be a podium finish. We will see. At least these 25 stops take only 66 minutes, compared to the two hours to get back from Amersham. Though by the end of the journey – the Piccadilly line is packed with luggage and their native bearers until past Kings Cross – my headache has returned. (It’s so remarkably similar to the headache I’ve had on and off these past couple of weeks – same place, same type and strength and warble of pain – that I think of it as the same longstanding headache.)
I’m looking forward to Bounds Green (Square A6). I have no idea what to expect. I’ve never been to Bounds Green tube station and I don’t think I’ve ever driven through Bounds Green the place. My sense of expectation is heightened by the fluted art-deco lighting columns in the hallway at the bottom of the escalators at Bounds Green.
Despite being centred on a cross-roads and having a different mix of architectural styles and fewer street trees, Bounds Green feels pretty similar to Boston Manor. It’s a little less suburban and it needs a bit of a spruce-up, but both feel like ‘in-between’ places – the places one motors past as one gets from A to B. I guess that includes many London neighbourhoods.
I pick up some aspirin at a chemist and admire the courteous sign by the till: ‘Would customers kindly refrain from using their mobile phones near the counter.’ I don’t fancy any of the fast-food joints at the cross-roads so I walk down the main road. I walk past a Tesco Express with a shattered door. I go into an old-fashioned looking café a few doors down. It does breakfasts, sandwiches, baked potatoes, omelettes, soups. I order tomato soup and toast.
At the next table a young man is wolfing down a horse-sized beefburger. On the wall beside us a wide flatscreen television is reporting on the Pistorius trial in South Africa. It’s as good an excuse as any to engage him in discussion.
‘He done it,’ he says succinctly. ‘He’s guilty.’ We talk about the case and about South Africa. ‘Sure, he’s a hero in his land, but …’ We try to make sense of why or how someone as famous as him could do what he’s done. He talks about the ‘sports drugs’ that were apparently found in his house, about how they might have helped take someone as intensely competitive as Pistorius (as all top athletes) over the edge.
‘I bet Lance Armstrong is loving this,’ the young man adds, meaning that it has taken the media-focus off Armstrong and his gargantuan appetite for performance-enhancing drugs.
There’s a toilet out the back and, bearing in mind Billy Connelly’s first rule for over-60s men (never walk past an open public toilet), I head out. When I say ‘out’, I mean ‘out’ as in ‘outside’. It’s an outside toilet and the snow diatoms are there in the back yard. It’s wild mazurka time. There’s a big sign warning customers about the low ceiling. I go in. Inside there’s another sign warning about the low ceiling. I turn, I knock over the loo paper, I whack my head on the low ceiling. Buster Keaton has nothing on me.
Back in the restaurant the waitress and young man are still talking about Pistorius. I hurry back to the tube. On the pavement outside the Tesco Express a glazier is cutting a new glass door.
Bounds Green to Bow Church (Square C7) turns out easier than I’d expected: Piccadilly to Finsbury Park, change to Victoria one stop to Highbury and Islington, next Overground to Stratford and finally DLR direction Canary Wharf to Bow Church: three changes but only 13 stops and I’m there in forty minutes. There’s a young black guy reading Deleuze on the Piccadilly. Deleuze is a modern French philosopher. He’s not an easy read, not even for The Wee Professor.
(Best to stick to one easy quote, The Wee Professor says, when you talk about Deleuze: ‘An image of thought called philosophy has been formed historically and it effectively stops people from thinking.’)
Bow Church DLR station is on the south side of Bow Road, the main A11 towards Cambridge. I mount the steps from the platform and find a platoon of ticket inspectors in high-visibility jackets. I flash my Freedom Pass at them then stop to ask their ‘Commanding Officer’ (I’m not sure what’s the correct description) if I can take a photo of them. That’s fine by him. I try but find I can’t frame the whole scene from the pavement. I cross the road and snap them from there. I’ll talk more with them when I get back.
Across the road is a perfect Victorian terrace on a cobbled no-through-road. I have a Deleuzean moment: is it a Victorian terrace, perfect or otherwise, or is its name the inspiration for the well-known chocolate-covered biscuit bar? Or is there no connection? When I get back I search the internet. I find that house prices (three bedroom terraced) on KitKat Terrace are reckoned to be around the £500,000 mark. (A snip, I think.) And I find that 2,653,344, 522 KitKat fingers have already been snaffled this year. (Another 20 thousand have already been eaten as I type.)
But I do not solve my ontological problem. Well, I’m not too worried about that. It’s far too cold, the wind is too bitter and the pin-pricks of snow too pin-pricking for ontological problems to have much grabbing power on my numb and numbing intellect. I walk back to the A11, then turn east away from Bow Road underground station.
(Later, when I’m writing this up, I realise that the Terrace is ‘Kitcat’ while, of course the chocolate-covered finger-biscuits are spelt with two ‘k’s’. Another mistake! Reader emptor: mistakes and misdescriptions!)
Almost immediately I come to a battered but once imposing building. It has a massive entrance with impressive doors marked: Members Only. It’s an old Tower Hamlets Town Hall. I enter. Most of it is offices but there appears to be an exhibition space, even a coffee bar, in the Mayor’s Parlour on the first floor and in some of the corridors.
There is indeed an art exhibition. It is being organised by Plusartprojects and the artists on display include works by, amongst others, Sue Arrowsmith, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin. The Tracey Emin, a neon sign called You Love me Like a distant STAR, is selling for £55,000. I am amazed, flabbergasted.
I talk with Terry Ryan who has something to do with Plusartprojects and/or organising the exhibition. He’s also the brother of Kerry Ryan who has art-works for sale and is the guy who makes the neon-signs for Tracey Emin. He takes me down to his brother’s studio. This is the usual clutter of finished and half-finished projects and art works including a Bruce Nauman neon-work made by Kerry Ryan. Off to one side is a giant printer slowly printing out an A0-sized (or maybe larger) poster.
I think of the ‘theoroid’ called ‘Six degrees of separation’. (‘Theoroid’ is my neologism for a theory-like intellectual mush. It has a similar distance from ‘theory’ as ‘factoid’ has to ‘fact’.) ‘Six degrees’ states that everyone is six or fewer steps away from any other person in the world. And here I am talking to Terry Ryan (Step One), brother of Kerry Ryan (Step Two) who knows Tracey Emin (Step Three) who must know someone in the celebrity stratosphere (Step Four) who knows the Pope (Step Five). And I’ve still got one step to go! In fact, given that Terry Ryan probably knows Tracey Emin, I’ve got two steps in hand. Yippee!
At this, the Inner Curmudgeon rears his surly head. So you want to be six steps or less from the Pope? That’s the height of your ambition? That causes you a momentary flush of excitement? Even though you have no desire to know the Pope, nor any other ex-member of the Hitler Youth? Even though the Pope’s thinking on, for example, women, abortion, contraception and homosexuality are anethama to you?
For once, the Inner Curmudgeon is right. I make my way back to Bow Church DLR. The ticket inspectors have gone.
From here to Bow Road (Square C8) underground station by underground takes a mere twenty minutes: DLR to Stratford, Central line to Mile End, District or Hammersmith & Central (the former in my case) east to Bow Road. I admire the station’s fluted green and orange columns and the sweep of its platforms, then I head upwards.
I look back towards Bow Church DLR. Really, it’s nonsensical to take twenty minutes to travel there by underground when I could have walked it in two. I turn westwards. The wind is sharper, the day colder. There’s not even any baby snow. I take photos of buildings and building work (the Central Foundation Girls’ School is getting the full Building Schools for the Future treatment or equivalent) and details of buildings.
I take two photos of the Minnie Lansbury Memorial Clock on the side of Electric House. Minnie was a leading suffragette and a Labour alderman on Poplar Council. In 1921 she was one of five women on Poplar Council who, along with their male colleagues (including her husband George Lansbury), were jailed for refusing to levy the full rates because of the poverty in the area. She contracted pneumonia in prison and died shortly after.
As Kurt Vonnegut would have said, So it goes.
When I get home I find that both my photos of the Minnie Lansbury Memorial Clock are out-of-focus. My hands must have been shaking in the wind. That’s a shame because it’s a fine clock.
I take a number of other photos, most of them out-of-focus. One, Irate Munch, isn’t too badly out of focus. I have no idea what it means. When I get back I go on the internet. There’s an iratemunch.com. I go on to it. It’s a Home Page only. All it says is: Nothing at all just yet I really will do something with this one of these days There’s about 1,189,999 other results. There are other photos of the bridge (mostly better than the one above) and a photo of a chrome green blue and silver Munch / Irate from somewhere else. There are references to the heroine of an American ‘Munch Mancini’ crime novel. But at the end of the day I’m no further forward in my understanding.
It’s after four o’clock. I look down a side street. I find this sign.
It’s beginning to snow again, the same fine silicate snow. I decide it’s time to go home. I take a (blurred) photo of the old-fashioned Assistance & Tickets sign inside Bow Road. I catch the District line to Whitechapel, then the Overground back to Forest Hill. I’m there a little before five. It’s still snowing. Sort of.