Friday 22 March – Chalk Farm (Square B5 in Tube map), Chancery Lane (C5), Charing Cross (D5), Chesham (A1), Chigwell (A8)
I’m looking out of the bathroom window at the top of Gingerbread Cottage. It’s grizzly out there and there appear to be streaky white things falling. But I can’t be sure. I’ve only just woken up and I’m not wearing my specs. Really it’s all a blur out there. Really, it’s all a blur inside what passes for my brain.
What I do know is that, whatever the weather, I’ve gotta be up and at those tube stations today. I have a goal:
I need to visit at least eight tube stations this week. Otherwise I’ll get further behind track. That means I need to visit not only Chalk Farm, Chancery Lane and Charing Cross (all in central London) but also Chesham and Chigwell. (Chesham is in the top left hand corner of the Tube map. Chigwell, 31 stations away, is in the top right hand corner.)
That’s bad enough on a good day but on a weekend with Rail Replacement Buses – well … And this weekend the dreaded Rail Replacement Buses will be out in force. So I need to bag those stations today.
I’m at Forest Hill waiting for the 9.38 Overground to Dalston Junction. It’s delayed. It’s still delayed when the 9.48 pooters in at 9.51. That’s a bad start to a long day.
I pick up a copy of the Metro. Gales, rain and snow on the way it announces. Wonderful, I think. Last year, on this very day, Fran and I were in Buxton in Derbyshire. The weather was glorious. T-shirt weather. Hosepipe bans were about to be declared across Southern England. The sun had well and truly got his hat on. Global warming was doing what it said it would do on the tin. Clichés were the new cliché. And now we have the coldest March since 1962!
I change on to the Northern line at London Bridge and head for Chalk Farm.
I’m hopping up the steps at Chalk Farm (B5) like a spring chicken escaping the battery farm when I realise what my mission is: I must visit Regent’s Park Road.
Back in the mid-seventies I worked in the basement of a florist in Regent’s Park Road as administrator for 7:84 Theatre Company (7% of the population own 84% of the wealth). Geoff, who owned the flower shop, worked as a picture framer in the other half of the basement.
Later he tried his hand at a sandwich shop. After that – we’re now into the early nineties – he set up an art gallery around the corner near Chalcot Square. I went there once to a private viewing and very nearly bought a Braque print of a dove.
So, my mission: to identify the old 7:84 office and to see if I can find Geoff.
I cross the railway bridge to Regent’s Park Road. I pause and admire the ‘familiar, wonderful three and four storey Victorian terraces’. I walk into Regents Park Road and my mood slumps. Why am I always amazed at how much London has changed? Why can’t I just get used to it? Back in the seventies Regent’s Park Road was already putting on airs but it wasn’t totally snoots-ville. There were a few ordinary shops, an almost spit-and-sawdust pub, a monkey-wrench garage. All gone. It’s now all Yoga, Bibendum, coffee shops, expensive clothes shops, upmarket tap, charity, shoe, kitchen, kids, apothecary, whatever shops.
I spot the florist. It’s dark inside as it always was, heavy with the scent of flowers. I hover around. The owner, a Chinese woman, asks if she can help. I want her to confirm that this was a flower shop back in the seventies.
She bridles at little. ‘It’s always been a florist,’ she says, ‘it’s been a florist for a hundred years.’
I explain that I used to work there, downstairs in the basement.
‘You want to go down to the basement,’ she asks.
I’d never really thought of that but suddenly I feel that, at this particular moment in time, that’s the thing I would most like. I’m about to answer when she continues.
‘No, you can’t. It’s an office. It’s for staff only.’
I’m gob-smacked. I reel out of the shop.
Sometimes I take notes in my notebook, sometimes on post-it notes. Today I’m taking notes as voice memos on my iPhone. Listening back, I’m engulfed by my disappointment, hurt and anger. Surely, I say, people should be interested in their own history? I fulminate against the fracturing of society and history. (Puzzled? No worries. It’s the radio wave – the fulmination and anger – that’s important, not the radio signal that it’s carrying.)
I talk about Regent’s Park Road oozing with wealth similar to the way that Primrose Hill now, after the rain, oozes under foot with water. You should hear the emotion I invest in that one tiny word: ‘ooze’.
I forget to turn the recorder off. When I listen back to the recording, I hear the sounds of my footsteps. I’m pounding the streets. ‘Man, you were steaming,’ interjects The Inner Curmudgeon admiringly.
A minute later I’ve recovered something approaching equanimity. ‘It’s funny the way the mind flytes,’ I say.
The Wee Professor, in his best dictionary mode, enlightens: ‘Flyte is Scottish for scold. Flyting is railing at, for instance, the world’s injustices.’
I’m standing looking out over Primrose Hill. ‘Ah! But Primrose Hill, the shape of it, the mounding of it, is just lovely!’ I say. ‘Even on a dreary day like this, even though it’s late March and the trees are still bare … Ah! … Lovely.’
I walk through the back streets looking for Geoff’s art gallery but find nothing. I ask someone who looks local if he remembers an art gallery. He decides that the gallery I’m looking for is no longer there but that there’s one on Regent’s Park Road that sells the same range of art.
I find the gallery. Unfortunately, it’s closed for renovation, but I’m too far into my search for Geoff to let a little thing like that stand in my way. I go into the café next door. A tiny scrap of a dog belonging to two customers yaps at me, eyes bulging. Apparently it’s because I’m wearing a cap. I talk with the assistant, ask if she knows anything about the gallery, about Geoff. In the kitchen behind the café owner is on the telephone but I can tell she’s listening to me. After a while she puts the phone down and comes through to talk.
She’s owned the café for a good thirty years and is very distantly, by marriage, related to Geoff. She remembers him doing his picture frames, remembers him setting up his sandwich shop, then the little gallery near Chalcot Square. The gallery next door, she says, isn’t owned by Geoff. It’s owned by someone called Monty. Geoff used to own a little gallery further along.
Her voice drops. ‘Unfortunately,’ she says, ‘you’re too late. Geoff died last year. And then, just a few days ago, his mother, who was ninety-nine, passed away. It was terrible for her, Geoff’s mother, when he died,’ she says. ‘His sister will be visiting here soon.’
I am bereft, filled with sadness, the brevity of life, the sometimes suddeness of its going, the deep chasm that is the other side of the last heart-beat. Marvell’s poem springs to mind: ‘But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.’
I ask the shop-owner to give my condolences to Geoff’s sister. As I leave the tiny dog yapps at me again. I walk back to Chalk Farm station. My earlier anger and disappointment have become will o’ the wisps. My tiny quest for Geoff has been fulfilled though the answer isn’t what I would have wanted.
‘Nae mind, nae mind,’ I say to myself.
I reach Chancery Lane (C5) at quarter to twelve. Though I’ve passed through here a number of times over the years, I’ve never snuck off through one of the alleyways to the Gray’s Inns of Court. I decide I’ll pay them a quick visit.
‘It’s absolutely splendid,’ I record, my voice muted. ‘Courtyard, gardens, lines of five storey red-bricked offices, a chapel on the south side, huge old trees … Lovely … Fabulous.’ It’s an oasis shielded from the hurly-burly of the world outside. Happy the barrister who practises from here. Privileged, too, of course, the barrister: you need a few bob to become a barrister.
I talk to a gardener. He, too, enjoys working here. He recommends that I visit the Gardens which will be opening at noon. I head thitherwards. There’s a notice on the Gate: Closed. Sorry the Walks are closed today.
I peer through the gate and admire the trees and the gardens. It’s quiet. I can see traffic moving along Theobald’s Road at the other end but I can’t hear any traffic noise. It’s lovely. The wind picks up a little, and with the wind in the trees the boughs make a low full sound, a gentle soughing like a distant sea over pebbles.
I’m at my next stop, Charing Cross (D5), in twenty minutes. I head for Trafalgar Square where I will become a tourist for a few minutes. I merge with the living sculptures, the school-kids on trips, the tourists, the people taking pictures of each other.
There’s a gull sitting on the head of George IV. George is sitting on his horse gazing in the direction of Buckingham Palace, surveying his kingdom. The horse – he’s a fine beast – has his neck arched. His head is turned towards Whitehall. His eyes are focussed on something near him on the ground. I follow the direction of his gaze …
… and spot this dandy little chap. Readers will know that, though I take great pleasure from birds, I am not what you would call an expert bird-watcher. I know this spruce little fellow is a gull and that he is not your common-or-garden herring gull (aka seagull). Could he be a tern, I think? Perhaps an arctic tern blown here by the high Arctic gales, searching for solace from the unseasonable cold up north?
Later, when I return to Gingerbread Cottage, I email the photo to my friend, Nick. He replies. The clue is in the photo: it’s a black headed gull.
There’s much more I could see at Trafalgar Square. There’s the door of the Ugandan High Commission with its flamingo door-handles. But, with that wee gull, I’ve seen the highlight of my visit here. It’ll all be downhill from here. Besides, Chesham is next, a good hour and a half away.
The journey to Chesham is relaxed. Today the skies are light grey and there are colours out there. I see the green of ivy climbing a pink brick shed, the different pink of cherry, the lighter green of grass. At North Harrow there’s a trace of my shadow on the train floor. By Pinner the sun is out. I can feel warmth, real warmth, on the back of my head. This is all so different from my journeys on Monday. There’s not a smudge in sight.
By Rickmansworth the landscape looks quite benign. This is scrub country, cluttered with the detritus of humans, everything from pylons and mobile phone masts to metre cube bags of aggregate to signs and rags of rubbish. Benign isn’t quite the right word. Tamed, perhaps? It’s a land which does the bidding of humans without us humans realising that that’s what’s happening – that the land is doing our bidding. It’s being shaped, sculpted, invaded, left alone and discarded at the beck and call of humans.
We pass through a series of deep cuttings where the trees are cut back to stumps, then under the M25. There’s half sun again, faint shadows over the rolling countryside. Winter may be forecast but Spring, if it can be said to lurk, is lurking …
I arrive at Chesham (A1) at 2.15 pm. I walk up the pedestrianised High Street with its trees, bollards, hanging baskets and pink paviours. I go past Sainsbury’s and Waitrose to The Elgiva where Showaddywaddy will be performing in a few days time.
I turn back and head past the War Memorial. There’s every kind of shop you could wish for in a High Street, many of them local, tiny, with cluttered windows. Florists, hardware shops, proper looking pubs, old-fashioned tea shops. There’s a shop called Collectors Paradise. I gaze in at the window. Well, they certainly won’t be running foul of the Trades Description Act. There are thousands of tiny collectables – toys, china, model aircraft … And thimbles. A myriad of thimbles.
But it’s cold out in the streets and time’s winged chariot is at my heels. I plunge into The Drawingroom. This styles itself an Art Gallery and Tea House. It looks like something out of Fielding or Dickens.
Inside it’s even more extraordinary. It’s busy downstairs so I head upstairs. The stairs are at all angles and the floor tilted every which way. I sit down at one table but the chair is tipping me towards the table. I try another table. I’m having a dose of the wobbles. It’s as though I’m at sea. I try a third table. That’s better.
Thirty years ago this would have been a shop for ‘Heads’. The scent of joss-sticks, patchouli oil and unwashed hair would have wafted hither and thither. Today it’s all Transition Free Press, uplifting folk-ballads, signed guitars and art-works on the walls.
There’s another room up here. It’s even more extraordinary. It’s a dark-green and dusty pink den. It’s like a Mongolian yurt.
Back at my table I see what can only be a Tracey Emin over the fireplace. It’s priced at £25,000. It’s a faded square napkin-sized textile and features a line drawing of Tracey, naked, fingering herself, facing a scrawl about Picasso. There’s no mistaking Tracey’s point, no getting away from the shock of the work.
Chesham is more down-at-heel, less straight-laced than its neighbours Amersham and Chalfont & Latimer – and all the better for it. It is Cinderella to their Not-So-Ugly Sisters. What it needs is a Prince Charming.
I catch the 3.20 pm Metropolitan service to Aldgate. I’m reading Kathleen Jamie’s collection of travel essays, Aurora, today. The first essay is about her trip to the Arctic. No narwhals, no polar bears, but glaciers upon glaciers, musk ox, gyrfalcons and the aurora borealis. And it’s cold. Freezing. She wonders exactly why she’s here. She wonders why we are so driven. A friend replies: why are we not more driven? The atoms which make our bodies have been around for five billion years. For sixty or seventy years they’re us. Together they’re self-aware. Together they have consciousness. And then? That’s it. For another five or ten billion years they fizz aimlessly around the universe again.
It’s a staggering thought.
I imagine the universe as a vast abacus shuttling that almost-infinity of atoms so that each and every atom, sooner or later, gets its chance at being alive, at consciousness. I wonder if, over the aeons, there’ll be an almost-infinity of Sandy Craigs or nearly Sandy Craigs. Me plus or minus an atom here, a few atoms there, similar but slightly different atoms back yonder. Me exactly but with a few less of the zillions of gut bacteria or throat viruses or more gall bladder polyps (I have five at present) that co-exist deep inside me … Well, there wouldn’t be an almost-infinity of Sandy Craigs. But there could be a reasonably large number of me. Is this reincarnation by another name?
The doors open at Rickmansworth and a wall of sound bursts in. It’s as though I’ve been propelled through the sound barrier. It’s school chucking-out time and a hundred or more secondary school girls and boys have barged in at every door. The noise subsides gradually. It becomes separate conversations, exclamations, shouted comments, competitive bragging. The decibels increase as we draw into Moor Park as friends yell goodbyes to departing friends.
If there are a reasonably large number of me down the vast track of eternity, will there be a smaller, but still by no means a negligible, number of these school children barging through similar transportation doors billions of years from now? Not as school-children, of course. We’ll all have evolved or gone to hell in a hand-cart long before then. But still, somehow, themselves.
I’m getting myself all shook up. The real question is not why the universe is here there and everywhere, why there’s something, but why there isn’t nothing.
The giant arc of Wembley Station curves over the horizon. The sky is now a solid grey. It’s 4.15 pm in late March but it feels as if night is drawing in.
I change on to the Central line at Liverpool Street Station and get a seat at Stratford. Outside it’s gone a darker shade of grey. Some time after Leytonstone the rain lashes down. I change at Woodford for the Roding Valley part of the Central line, the Hainault loop. The train to Chigwell draws in.
We chug through pebble dashed, nondescript suburbia. There’s a park and sports pitches off to one side. Then more sports pitches, a huge lake, some countryside proper. We clatter over the M11. The rain eases. We pass between houses. Chigwell station is next.
I’ve never been to Chigwell. I imagine it as some eighteenth century Essex market town. Probably with new bits added on, but somewhere with character. Perhaps it’s the name ‘Chigwell’. It’s the name of a town out of Henry Fielding. I imagine highwaymen returning with their booty to roadside public houses, the tails of their great-coats pulled aside, warming their buttocks in front of roaring log fires.
I arrive at Chigwell (A8) at quarter past five. It’s taken almost two hours from Chesham.
My problem, well one of my problems, is that I have an over-active imagination. There is nothing eighteenth century about Chigwell. There is not a hint of the market town about Chigwell. There is not the possibility of the ghost of a highwayman anywhere near Chigwell. (Well, there is Norman Tebbit, of course, but he’s a different sort of highwayman.)
Instead there’s a golf course, a Volvo garage, a well-presented sixties’ parade of shops with flats above, a Parish Council noticeboard and a green with play equipment. There’s a modern roadhouse, a residential road with large modern detached houses set back, and some new four storey blocks of flats. It’s not only the shops that are well-presented, everything is well-presented.
It reminds me of footballers’ wives’ country in Cheshire. Well-presented.
Back in Chigwell station I decide to go ‘the long way round’ via Hainault and Fairlop. That way I will have travelled the whole loop.
Later, a young guy gets on the train. A bit of a scruff, I think. He starts folding a piece of paper. He has stubby fingers but his gestures are delicate, precise, purposeful. He folds the paper one way, creases it another, twirls an end. I watch entranced as an origami bird comes into being.
I compliment him on his skill. I say how much I’ve enjoyed watching him make the bird.
‘Here, have it,’ he says.
I’m embarrassed. I wasn’t making a play for the bird.
‘No, no. Go on. I have hundreds of these. I’m always making them.’ He genuinely wants me to have it.
‘I tell you what,’ I say. ‘I’ll give it as a present to my grand-daughter, Iris.’
‘How old is she?’
‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘She should like it. I work with five year olds.’
I get back to Forest Hill a little before half past seven. It’s been a good day.