Wednesday 27 February – Brent Cross (Square B4 on the Tube map), Brixton (F5), Brockley (E6), Bromley-by-Bow (C8), Brondesbury (B3), Brondesbury Park (B3)
I’m on a mission today: is there a footpath from Brent Cross station over and/or under both the dual-carriageway North Circular and the dual-carriageway Hendon Way (A41) in order that the tube-traveller can access Brent Cross Shopping Centre? I’ve trampled over my internal guideline about doing no research before I visit anywhere and I’ve looked at our massive London Street Atlas. It certainly doesn’t look as though there’s a pedestrian way through.
I’m walking to the station. It’s cold and my eyes tear up. A young woman dressed in regulation boots and leggings looks at me with concern. With my cross-hatch forehead wrinkles and my streaming eyes, I guess I must look like someone recently bereaved.
But there’s no bereavement. Blame too much smoking in my first forty years for the wrinkles. And there’s no emotion whatsoever behind the tearing, it is the tearing of an android.
The Metro headline today is: A nation of secret boozers. Apparently when asked we underestimate our alcohol consumption by a cool 40%. Why do we lie? Oh, come off it!
It’s half-past eleven before I surface at Brent Cross station (B4). The station is another of those fine red-brick stations with particularly fine doors and hand-rails. I am cheered. There are two exits from the station with clearly marked signs, one of which signals the way to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. I am doubly cheered. I nurse the faint hope that there may be an independent coffee shop in the Centre, not one of those loathsome chains which insists that their staff love coffee every minute of their working life. Oh! And that they don’t belong to a union.
There’s another sign outside the station pointing the way towards the shopping centre. There’s a rumble of traffic along the North Circular. But the houses are pretty enough – semi-detached thirties numbers with ground and first-floor bays, some with red shingles, some with pebbledash, some with fake tudor beams, all with red (most discoloured back to brown) roof tiling. Variations on a theme. It’s quiet, respectable, not too lah-di-dah.
As I walk down the street I realise that I have lulled myself into a false sense of security. The rumble of traffic is now a roar. The air smells of diesel fumes, dirt and salt. The colours are grey, grey and grey. The ground shudders. There is no signpost directing the pedestrian to the wonders of Brent Cross Shopping Centre. There is only a flaking metal footbridge.
For the next ten minutes I walk through a post-industrial edgeland of filth, rubbish, abandoned supermarket trolleys, lumps of broken bricks and fallen masonry, and skeletal bushes draped with torn plastic bags. It’s a world full of cars and vans and lorries but empty of people. It’s a world that belongs to no-one, is looked after by no-one. A world of trembling bridges and low subterranean passages where even a short-arse like me instinctively ducks his head. The River Brent is squeezed and culverted between path and North Circular. If a river could look desolate, unloved, forgotten, spat-upon, the River Brent with its grey-green sludgy water is that river.
I get to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. You don’t need me to describe it. It’s got zillions of opportunities for you to spend money on things you think you want. It’s bland. People walk at half-speed as though on downers. Work. Life. Balance. proclaims the NatWest and adds, unhelpfully – Helpful Banking. There is piped classical music in the Gents. Shop assistants are programmed to be helpful. I go into Currys/PC World and ask if they stock AAAA batteries for my TV’s remote control. They don’t but they do direct me to Boots. When I go into Boots they direct me to Timpsons. When I get to Timpsons I find it’s a shoe-repair stall …
My headache has come back. There’s no chance of getting an attitude-sized, union-friendly coffee here. Luckily the next stop is Brixton, where I lived for 25 years. I will treat myself to a pizza at Franco’s in the market. First, though, I have to negotiate my way back through the edgelands. There are two young skankers in hoodies mooching along in front of me. I hang back, I am seized with a sudden interest in discarded traffic cones. The skankers head off on another path under and between the maze of roads. They’re following a direction sign for Toy Supermarket. I cross back over the North Circular.
At a turning I see an abandoned briefcase resting on the top rail of the footbridge. On the ground behind are pages of memos, printed pages from the internet, printed forms. I do not remember seeing the case when I came this way less than an hour ago. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t there, though it would be difficult, even for me, to miss it. A Leonard Cohen song goes through my mind: ‘I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder.’ I feel things slide in all directions. I hurry on.
I’m in Brixton station (F5) forty minutes later (Northern line to Euston, then the Victoria). There are more of those annoying slogans as I go up the escalator in: ‘See Art. Love Art. Buy Art.’ I think that takes the biscuit.
The Inner Curmudgeon agrees. He makes up his own slogan. See Biscuit. Eat Biscuit. Excrete Biscuit.
Outside, the sun is filtering through the clouds. I find an inside seat in Franco’s in Market Row, one of Brixton’s indoor markets. I people-watch, hoping maybe to see an old neighbour or friend pass by. No luck there. I try today’s Vegetable Special pizza. It’s got broccoli leaves on it, drenched in lemon. It’s good, I decide after a few bites, but I’m not sure it quite works. A few bites more and I think maybe it does work. Though I also think I should have gone for the mozzarella and tomato. I forego a coffee. Franco is Italian and coffee here is strictly heavy-duty expresso.
I walk on through the indoor market. I buy ‘Var’ salmon from the Faero Islands, slightly smoked. There’s a puff from a foodie-critic saying it’s the next best thing to wild salmon. (Later Fran and I have it for tea: it’s excellent.) It’s been six months since I’ve been to Brixton and this part of the indoor market is being colonized by eateries, delis, bakeries and assorted foodie nearest-to-heaven shops. There’s still one of the old religious icon shops and a couple of working men’s caffs from the last century but blink and they’ll be gone.
The Granville Arcade, or Brixton Village as its now known, has completely changed. It’s now wall-to-wall eateries. Council workers are even re-doing the communal loos so that the eateries comply with licensing regulations. The wonderful African grocer’s – I think it was called Mombasa Stores – with its cornucopia of sticks, twigs, leaves, herbs, smoked-and-dried fishes, smoked-and-dried better-not-ask, unknown vegetables – has gone. Only the African dress shop, full of wonderful coloured and patterned cotton and silk kaftans, dresses, turbans, scarves and materials remains.
I get back to Brixton Station refreshed, my headache in abeyance. It’s 1.40 pm. It takes only forty minutes to reach Brockley (E6) (Victoria line to Stockwell, Northern City Branch to London Bridge, Jubilee to Canada Water, change to Overground).
When Fran and I were looking to downsize last year, we looked at a few houses in Brockley. It’s an area which has got a lot of solid Victorian houses. Most of them, alas, were around the same size as our house in West Dulwich. We could downshift (they were cheaper) but we couldn’t downsize. I liked the area, sort of. But, somehow, I could never quite see myself living in Brockley.
Maybe that’s because Brockley doesn’t really have a high street. It does have all the usual spend-your-money-here-machines (betting shops, J D Weatherspoons, fast food joints, a chemist, convenience stores, coffee shops). It also has an interesting looking shop called Sounds Around with a window displaying toys, knick-knacks, glasses, electrical goods, extruded plastic of every description. I’d never been into Sounds Around: time to find out.
But I’m too late. The owner (I think), David, has died. His funeral is on Friday. The door and one display window are covered with messages of condolence. ‘Dave, a gentle giant will be missed.’ ‘Great man, Great shop, Great shame, Happy memories.’ ‘Thank you for everything Dave you will be missed.’ I stand, sigh and wonder how many shop-keepers would be missed. Not many, I guess. Not many will have been at the heart of their community as David of Sounds Around.
I walk back to the station. The sun is shining. There’s a little garden called Brockley Common – Edible Garden. A notice reads: ‘This patch has been planted by Transition Brockley (local people aiming to reduce CO2 and preparing for a future with less oil) to show how urban spaces can be used to grow food. This is a voluntary project by the community for the community, so feel free to pick what is ready to eat.’
I’m thinking how easy it is to base a whole view of an area on a few impressions. How long does it take to find out what an area is really like? Can one really find out most everything about any area? How limited is our knowledge and understanding? This makes me sound like an old misery-clogs. But I’m not. I’m standing in the sun, musing over Brockley Common, reflecting on life. That’s all. Well, also on the way we humans so easily piece a few impressions into a pattern, that pattern into a truth, sometimes that truth into a cornerstone of how we understand life.
Brockley is only two stops on the Overground from Forest Hill and I’m tempted to go home. But the sun is shining, it isn’t quite 3.00 pm and my next station, Bromley-by-Bow (C8) is a hop, skip and jump away (Overground to Canada Water, Jubilee to West Ham, one stop back on the Hammersmith & City or District line). I’m lucky with the connections and it takes only twenty minutes.
You step out from the station on to the A12, the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach dual-carriageway. There’s a good case to be made that the A12 is even more dogsville than the North Circular. There’s the same stench of diesel, dirt, salt and assorted chemicals, the same roar of traffic, the same choking at the back of the throat, the same thud of traffic hitting pot-holes. To the west there’s a mix of new and not-so-new flats and, in the distant murk, what could be the skyscrapers of the City. To the immediate east are edgelands: derelict office blocks, gas works, vast empty yards and parking lots, a land where razor wire is king. Beyond is the picturesque oasis of Three Mills Island, London’s oldest industrial centre where once three mills ground flour, then later distilled grain for the gin trade. It’s now studios and production services for the creative industries.
Stuck in the middle of all this is a massive Tesco. I shop for red peppers, green beans and new potatoes to go with the salmon. The assistant calls up the cost wrong for the customer before me. ‘Seven four seven,’ she says, then corrects herself. ‘Sorry. Seven three four. I don’t know what I was thinking of.’
‘You were thinking of that jet plane,’ I say, ‘that’ll take you straight to the Caribbean.’
She laughs. I think the customer before me laughs but I can’t be sure: she’s wearing a burqa. ‘Oh! Wouldn’t I love to be back there now,’ the assistant says.
While I’m being served, I ask her when she was last back in the Caribbean.
‘I was back in Anguilla in May. It was lovely. I wanted to go back at Christmas. I wanted to go back for my grandmother’s funeral. She was 105. But it was Christmas and the flight cost one thousand pounds. I couldn’t afford that. I wanted to go back. I miss her, you know. I hope she don’t mind.’
I say that if you live to be 105 then surely you’ll have understanding.
The encounter cheers me. I walk back briskly through the chemical fug to the tube. I’ve got time, I decide, to do the Brondesbury double – Brondesbury and Brondesbury Park, next door stops on the Overground over in North West London. A silly rock and roll chorus lurches into my brain and I bark out at the roaring traffic: Do the Brondesbury double, the Brondesbury double, It ain’t no trouble, that Brondesbury double … No-one hears of course. A good thing.
I get a District line train east to West Ham but I’m too busy texting and miss the stop. I rush off at Plaistow and get a District line west back to West Ham, then the Jubilee line to Stratford. I’m in luck and get into an Overground west just as it’s leaving. I’ve got 14 stops before Brondesbury so I settle down to reading Ignazio Silone’s classic novel Bread and Wine. Poor Silone. He was going through a crisis of conscience. An out-and-out communist he’d realised that Stalin was a psychopath, that communism was dead in the water.
Three or four stops before my destination, a squad of ticket inspectors board the train. One young guy is chucked off the train at the next stop. The inspector eyeballs him as he goes down the stairs. I wonder whether he’ll put more money on his Oyster card or whether he’ll sneak back for the next train. No sooner have the inspectors left my compartment than an aged bearded folkster starts strumming on his guitar. He plays the Simon & Garfunkel hit, The Boxer. He’s got a light, soft, rather high-pitched voice and a chirpy delivery. It’s a recipe for disaster but comes out strangely moving. Perhaps that’s because this guy, unlike Paul Simon, is having to bum his way through life.
I see him again when I get off at Brondesbury station (B3). He’s counting his money. ‘Don’t you get a tough time from the ticket inspectors?’ I ask him. ‘No, they’re OK. As long as they’re not in the same carriage as me, they leave me alone.’ He bobbles off along the platform. I take the stairs down to see what lies in store for me at street-level, to see what Brondesbury looks like.
Blow me down with a wing-component of a bird! Brondesbury is the Kilburn High Road a little north of the Tricycle Theatre! And blow me down again! What’s wrong with the Kilburn High Road? There’s no traffic. What’s happened to the 24 hour Kilburn High Road traffic jam that’s been an endearing feature of London life since the seventies? Has Boris switched the lights to red either end of the street? Have the London Boroughs of Brent and Camden declared it an internal-combustion-free zone?
I wander around checking the prices at the fruit and veg stores. They’re old-fashioned in Brondesbury / Kilburn. Red peppers are £1.99 a kilo in one shop, £2.49 in another. None of this three red peppers in a plastic bowl for £1 nonsense. I traipse round a park, Kilburn Grange Park, I never knew existed. I walk back to the Kilburn High Road.
There’s a news-stand outside a newsagent. I count over thirty local or regional Irish newspapers. I pause outside the Small and Beautiful restaurant. It’s advertising any 12 inch pizza and a half pint of Peroni for £6.95. I’m tempted but it’s after five and I want to get to Brondesbury Park, and walk around it, before it gets dark. Besides, I’ve already had one pizza today and this isn’t a ‘Pizza Eating in London’ blog. Or only incidentally.
Beckton to Beckton Park was three stops. Bank to Barbican was two stops. But Brondesbury to Brondesbury Park is exactly one stop. My first – hopefully not my last – one stop journey. I savour the ninety seconds on the Overground.
There is more joy when I get off at Brondesbury Park (B3): it’s a pretty station. Plus, I’ve never been here before, never even driven along this road. I have a look at the local map in the station. There’s a big cemetery, the Paddington Old Cemetery, a step or two down the road. I decide I’ll head for there. I like cemeteries, particularly Victorian cemeteries, like Abney Park Cemetery and Nunhead Cemetery. I’m not too keen on the Piershill Cemetery in Edinburgh where my Father and my Auntie Ruby, my Gran and my Auntie Gretta are buried. I don’t get there often but I get truly tearful, emotional tears, tears from the heart. Not the android tearing of this morning.
There’s a small parade of shops augmented by the likes of Sri Swami Madhavanandaji Ashram’s Yoga In Daily Life. Opposite, dominating the road are the Al-Sadiq Boys’ and Al-Zahra Girls’ Schools. There’s a good looking red-brick and copper domed mosque down a tree-lined side road.
I walk down the main road, Salusbury Road. The name rings a faint bell. There’s a Furniture Depository called Green Edwards. It’s no longer a furniture depository of course. It’s now Queen’s Studios, studios and offices rented out to small businesses. It’s difficult to say from the names but some appear to be part of London’s burgeoning creative industries.
I’m looking for an entrance to the cemetery. I can see the cemetery behind its wall, I can see its trees. They’re beckoning to me. But I can’t find the entrance. I discover later that the entrance is on another road way round the other side. There’s more shops ahead. I feel it’s vaguely familiar and that when I get to the bottom of it I’ll recognise it. Suddenly I know where I am. The Salusbury Road. I’m almost at Queen’s Park. I turn back. I’ll be here later in the year when I get off at Queen’s Park tube.
I walk past an Irish pub advertising a salsa class. There’s three labourers outside drinking lager and puffing at cigarettes. They’re talking Polish. Plus ça change.
I make my way back to Brondesbury Park. Weighty moral dilemma number 37 hits me: Should I go home using the Overground via Clapham Junction or via Highbury and Islington? I ask the station attendant. ‘Let’s see what the computer says,’ he says, tapping some buttons. The computer says go via Highbury & Islington. Huh! I think, so much for moral dilemmas. Besides, what I really wanted was to go back via Clapham Junction. I mooch back to the Highbury & Islington platform and squeeze on to an eastbound train.
And the moral of this sad tale? Don’t ask questions if you don’t want to get an answer you don’t like.