Thought for the Day, Gilding the Lily, the Wild Frontier, the Wrong Demographic (15/80)

Monday 4 March – Caledonian Road & Barnsbury (Square B6), Camden Road (B5), Camden Town (B5)  

As usual after my session with the Balance physiotherapists, I have a headache and feel a little nauseous. Discombobulated. But the day promises to be spring-like and, after a spot of lunch at Gingerbread Cottage, I decide on an afternoon foray. There’s a lightness in my footsteps as I walk through the Millennium Green. Two winos are sitting on the bench by the railway path. One is drinking super-strength lager from a can. The other tips vodka from a bottle into a small shot-glass. They are conversing amicably – even philosophically – in Polish. ‘Hullo,’ I say in passing. ‘Hullo,’ they chorus back, raising can and glass in toast.

With Chris Schwarz, I visited Poland in 1981. One of the things that struck me was the way the Poles handled their drink. Or rather, handled being drunk. 

When we went out on our first morning in Poland we found drunks rolling about the streets. All of them without exception were peaceful, smiling and without a hint of aggression. It made for a striking contrast with Scottish bravehearts who, in their cups, can veer from the lachrymose to the psychopathic in an instant. (Two days later the vodka ran out and the drunks disappeared from the streets.)

I’m at Forest Hill station at 2.15 pm and on the Overground to Highbury & Islington. There’s an old copy of today’s Metro: Cardinal O’Brien to face Vatican inquiry. Cardinal O’Brien has apologised for his inappropriate behaviour. ‘Inappropriate’ is the latest weasel word for unacceptable. But the case raises wider, non-linguistic questions. First, if cardinals are sexual predators, is it any wonder that lower-level predators amongst the priesthood get off lightly? Perhaps it’s not a case of the odd ‘bad apple’? Perhaps sexual predation has become written into the values of the Catholic Church? Second, that the necessary celibacy of the priesthood is unworkable in today’s world – some priests can hack it, others can’t.

Perhaps, necessary celibacy has never been workable. Way back in the fourteenth century, Bocaccio was lampooning priestly lust in The Decameron. Perhaps, the deeper human flaw is that we squeeze ourselves into boxes. An idea invades our mind, takes it over like a virus.

Which brings me to the book I’m reading: Quiet by Susan Cain. It’s about the power of introversion in a world that values extroversion, that sees no place for its quieter, inner sibling. Business, government, the media – they all want us to be outgoing, extravert, team-playing personalities. Personality, marketing, facetime and certainty are prized over character, creativity, diffidence and doubt.

We don’t need no double-think imposed on us by government, as in the days of Orwell. We impose it on ourselves in the desire to be liked, to be part of the tribe, to scramble to the top, to be up with the latest fashion in dress, behaviour and thinking. We’re prey to the Word. The virus of capitalism, of accumulation, of greed, of status, of self-improvement has taken us over and squeezed us into a box … Oh dear, I think, if I don’t watch out, I’ll get a slot on Thought for the Day!

It’s 3.05 pm. I’m at Caledonian Road & Barnesbury station (B6). I walk out to the Caledonian Road. The sun is out and, for the first time this year, it’s warm. There’s a kitchen shop, a bath shop, two glass shops, The Cast Iron Shop selling everything cast iron for the home, a joinery shop, paint and DIY shops. There’s even a nail shop. No! Hang on! It’s a nail and beauty parlour, not a shop selling nails.

There’s all kinds of other shops, restaurants, cafes. There’s a Tibetan Buddhist centre and a tanning shop called It’s Tantastic. It’s a mixed bag of shops perhaps because the Caledonian Road separates posh Barnesbury to the east from the Cally Road estate-lands to the west.

'Posh Barnesbury? Who says we're posh?'

‘Posh Barnesbury? Who says we’re posh?’

'What's that old geezer saying about us? That we're common as muck?'
‘What’s that old geezer saying about us? That we’re common as muck?’

It’s another case of parallel universes, of the Caledonian Road as a dividing line between two territories, a convenient physical separation. Whatever. Today the mood on the Cally Road is friendly, convivial.

I peer in at the window of Leonard Villa. This is a shop whose fascia board states: Picture Framers and Guilders. It’s intriguing. It’s not like your common-or-garden neighbourhood picture-framers. There aren’t the usual prints and reproductions displayed for sale in the window. It’s much more serious than that.

Inside, there’s a middle-aged man in a brown work coat hunched over an ornate gold-leaf frame. He is rubbing it down. His motions are both vigorous and delicate. He is totally focussed on the job. I go in.

The workshop steps down beyond the shop itself and stretches far back. There are others working on frames of all sorts back there in the shadows. A whiff of aerosol paint overlays the smell of fresh-cut wood, linseed-oil and resin. There are the occasional comments from the people working back there but mainly it’s an agreeable, studious silence. It’s the silence you get when people are working at jobs that both require and reward concentration, a silence to be savoured and treasured.

The man in the brown lab-coat comes to greet me. Later, I find that this is Leonard Villa himself. I ask him what is involved in guilding. He explains patiently. It’s a painstaking process and depends on alternately laying on thin layers of gilt and then rubbing them down. I query him about the work he gets. It’s mainly contract work. Basically, it depends on what the customer wants. He explains this in a polite, neutral, self-effacing manner. I ask how long he’s been in the business. About thirty years, he replies. First he was based over towards Camden, then on Brecknock Road, now – for the last 16 or so years – here.

What does he think of the Caledonian Road, has it changed in that time? Not particularly, he says. It’s a bit mixed, it’s never really gone up like the rest of Islington. He doubts whether it ever will, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. I wonder if he’s right. The mammoth Kings Cross development is gaining pace only a little over a quarter of a mile away.

It’s only later, when I go on his website, that I find out more about Leonard Villa. I find out that this unassuming guy ‘revived the lost of art of water-gilding invented by the ancient Egyptians’; that ‘he invented the coloured perspex frame lit around its edges favoured by Andy Warhol’. I had stumbled on a star. I think he may be an introvert.

It’s one stop on the Overground to Camden Road (B5) at the crossroads of Camden Road and Royal College Street. I’ve never visited the station before though I have been to this part of the Camden Road.

Pantastic sign at the Overground Station.

Pantastic sign at the Overground Station.

For a local shopping centre, it’s got an unusual collection of shops. Besides the usual suspects there are specialist printers, outdoor emporiums, a skateboard shop, a body-building shop called Body Exchange selling ‘muscle toner’ in buckets, and a weird-looking place that may once have sold equipment for brewing beer but is now firmly shuttered-up.

And there’s a shop called Wolf’s Lair which announces itself as an ‘Airsoft Shop’ and prohibits entrance to the under 18s. The door is locked. Inside the door a mannequin dressed as a soldier is rigged out with weapons. There’s a pornucopia of armaments hung on the walls – pistols, shotguns, rifles. I think I spot a couple of submachine guns and some ancient flintlocks from the time of Davy Crockett. Unbidden a snatch of song rings through my brain: Dav-ee, Dav-ee Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier! And I’m transported to Sandy Craig the boy in Stenhousemuir, Scotland in the mid-fifties, huntin’ them darn Injuns, dodging round the stooks of barley. The Wild Frontier.

A courier buzzes at the door as I’m looking through the window. He’s let inside. I go in as he’s coming out.

I ask the owner of the shop what ‘Airsoft’ is. Is it like the air-rifles we used to have as kids? I ask, though I never did have an air-rifle. I did have a stick, however. Dav-ee, Dav-ee Crockett!. He’s horrified. ‘Oh no!’ he says. ‘It’s got to be non-lethal if you’re shooting at people.’ He explains that ‘Airsoft’ is a military simulation game like paint-balling but not so messy or painful. I look at the armaments on the walls. They look like they’re straight out of a Tarantino wet dream.

I’m not in the market for Airsoft, never will be. I need to take time out. I leave, walk uncertainly the few steps to the bridge over the Grand Union Canal and stare into its waters. Nothing happens except that the water ruffles a little. Some time later another ruffle happens by.

Recovery Time for your Special Correspondent: the Grand Union Canal near Camden Road Station.

Recovery Time for your Special Correspondent: the Grand Union Canal near Camden Road Station.

I look down the Camden Road. Camden Town tube is two, maybe three, hundred yards away. I feel the urge to stroll down thataway. No-one would know. I squash the temptation and scuttle back to Camden Road Overground station.

It takes me a mere twenty minutes to surface out of the tube at Camden Town: Overground to Highbury & Islington, Victoria line to Euston, Northern line to Camden Town (B5). I walk at least three hundred yards changing tubes. It’s 4.00 pm on a Monday in March and Camden Town is heaving. Heaving with gangs of dangerously young-looking people talking nineteen to the dozen in French, Spanish, Italian, English … Let me repeat: it’s 4.00 pm on a Monday in March. What are they doing here? It’s as busy as Piccadilly Circus. Clearly a visit to Camden Town is a must for the global youthful demographic.

I scoot off in the direction that looks the most deserted. Five minutes later I’m outside a bar called the Brew Dog. It pumps itself up as a ‘craft beer’ bar. It’s done up in punk/goth/skaters matt black. It’s clearly not aimed at the likes of me. It’s pitched at a completely different demographic – young, hip, hang-loose, creative types. Well, I used to be young, I can still pretend to be hip, I have pretensions to creativity. I go in, I hang loose.

There’s a couple of antipodean dudes, one in shorts, playing Battleships at an island unit in the centre of the bar. By the window a dude with a Fu-Manchu style beard and his waif-like girlfriend are sipping at a tasting smorgasbord of beers. Beyond the antipodeans, half-a-dozen dudes and dudesses are sipping at beers. They’ve got plates in front of them, with crumbs on the plates. Two or three of them are taking notes in large jotters. Doh! They’re having a meeting! It’s like I’m in one of those ditzy U.S. TV sitcoms.

I study the chalked-up list of brews. There’s Zeitgeist and Punk IPA and one called Hardcore IPA which has an alcoholic strength of 9.2%. I settle for something called Dead Pony Club which I understand is a rock’n’roll Californian Pale Ale. It’s only 3.8%, what we used to call a ‘session beer’. I settle myself at Battleship Island and take a sip. It’s lovely, malty, full of hops. I hang loose.

I could stay there all night or, at least, have another half, but I think I should do a little tour of Camden. It’s been some time since I’ve mooched around here. I remember a time, 35 years ago, when the socialist playwright and all-round comedian, Roland Muldoon and I were in cahoots. We almost signed a lease on an old billiards hall in Delancey Street. We were going to set up a new-style alternative theatre and comedy venue. I wonder what’s happened to it.

I toddle over there. I discover that it’s just been torn down. It’s now an empty hole in the ground behind hoardings waiting for the next excess of capitalism.

Opposite is a little coffee shop. I go in and step back in time. There are cardboard boxes stacked to one side, 70-kilo sacks of coffee from Brazil, Costa Rico and Kenya piled on the other. There’s an ancient weighing machine and an equally ancient coffee grinder on the counter. And, I’m tempted to say but am too polite, an equally ancient owner with dark rings round his eyes behind the counter. There’s a cubby-hole at the rear where there’s a scatter of cups, plates and a small octagonal Italian coffee-pot – the type where the water boils up from the lower compartment through the coffee grounds. It’s extraordinary. Archeological.

Time warp in Camden.

Time warp in Camden.

I order some light-roasted Brazilian Santos and chat with the owner. How long has he been here? ‘I started on 4 May nineteen seventy eight,’ he replies. ‘Thirty six years in May.’ Well, it’ll be thirty five years, but I’m not about to argue. He packages up my coffee and advises me to keep it in the refridgerator.

I turn right into Arlington Street. I’ve remembered the time that Chris Schwarz and I were researching the book on Down and Out. This was revisiting George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. We had tried, unsuccessfully, to stay in a hostel in Arlington Street. I wonder what has become of that.

The light is going from the afternoon. My memories of Arlington House are all negative. It was a huge dirty decaying blank-faced building, an institutional dwelling-place for around one thousand homeless men. It was a Rowton House, a chain of working-men’s hostels set up by a Victorian philanthropist. Orwell lived in a Rowton House for a few nights. In his time they were clean and had reasonable accommodation, though he objected to the strict rules. But since then, the rules had got stricter and by the seventies cleanliness was a thing of the past. I remembered the narrow entrance hall with its battered swing doors, its crackled tiles, the dirt in the corners and the rank institutional smell. In interviews inmates had told us of filthy conditions, cell-like rooms, violence between inmates, violent staff, of fines and punishments, of being searched on entry and being locked overnight into their rooms.

I walk on down Arlington Street, past Parkway, past the little outdoor market in Inverness Street. At first, I think I’ve missed the hostel. Then I think it too must have been torn down. And then I see it: it’s had a make-over. A make-over and some.

Arlington House: transformed for the 21st century.

Arlington House: transformed for the 21st century.

The bricks have been cleaned and pointed, the windows and railings renewed, the decorative details picked out. The entrance seems grander and altogether more welcoming with a bright inviting foyer. I go in. To one side there’s a long, low-level desk. I talk with the employee manning the desk. (Employee? Officer? Attendant? I’m struggling for the right label.) It’s all changed. It’s now a hostel for around one hundred homeless men. There are flats for social housing and there are private flats rented out at market rates. There’s a conference suite and studios for artists and creative types which help cross-subsidise the social housing.

I’m pleased with what has happened. It’s for the better, I think.

But the Inner Curmudgeon thinks different, he thinks I’m being taken for a ride. All this stuff about private flats and artists’ studios, he says, is the classic magician’s ploy of misdirection: we see what the magician wants us to see not what is actually happening. And that is that the hostel caters for only one hundred, not one thousand, homeless men.

Why’s that? he asks. Because there’s a stigma attached to the homeless. People think that the homeless are homeless, because they’re feckless, lazy, violent, addicted to drugs and alcohol. People don’t want to think about the homeless. They certainly don’t want to see them.

Thirty years ago Camden Town was a local town centre, a little bit hippy, a little bit punk. Now it’s one of London’s top ten tourist attractions. You can’t have homeless men lurching around between the tube station and Camden Market, downing cans of super-strength lager on the corner of Parkway and outside M & S. They’re totally the wrong demographic. So millions of money from the State, from our taxes, have gone to helping the traders at Camden Market and the shops in Camden make more money, more profit.

I head for the tube. The Inner Curmudgeon is going strong, he’s at full steam pressure. It’s not because the homeless have some character-defect, he rants as I go down the escalator. It’s because of luck, bad luck. Rotten luck. They got in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Inner Curmudgeon thinks that we under-play the importance of luck in our lives. Luck starts from the moment we are born. Lucky to be born in Britain rather than in Afghanistan or Syria. Lucky to be born to well-sorted professionals rather than miners or ship-builders watching their future go down the plug-hole. Lucky to be blessed with good genes rather than wonky ones.

I switch off the Inner Curmudgeon. I know what he’s going to start talking about next: ancient history. About welfare states and safety nets.

One thought on “Thought for the Day, Gilding the Lily, the Wild Frontier, the Wrong Demographic (15/80)

  1. Nick Hayes

    Loved your tour of Camden -brought back so many memories and ‘whatmight have beens’ A Withnail and I type flat in Regents Park Rd, the wondrous Compendium bookshop, Dr John at Dingwalls, and the Hawley Arms lately frequented by the ill-starredbut haunting Amy Winehouse. Lived worked and played here over many years, only the memories remain but thank you Sandy for rekindling them.


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