Toot! Toot! : Evolution, Postboxes, Bread and Meringues (19/80)

Tuesday 26 March – Chiswick Park (Square D2 in Tube map), Chorleywood (A1), Clapham Common (F4)

There’s sun out there today, but it’s cold, my eyes are tearing, with the wind-chill it must be -1 or -2 degrees. Nevertheless, perhaps, spring is in the air. As I cross the Albion Millennium Green a sociable scribble of tits chase each other from tree to scrub to tree, singing and piping. At least, I think they’re tits. I’d rather they were goldfinches (and goldfinches have been seen on the Green) because then I could write ‘a charm of goldfinches chase each other …’ But tits they are. The mud on the Green has a frosting of ice and gives a satisfying crunch under my boots.

I get to Forest Hill station in time for the 9.25 Overground but there are long delays. The train stands outside Surrey Quays for what seems to me to be geological aeons of time. Deep time. There’s another Overground train waiting on the Clapham Junction spur. I find myself hoping that we go first. Suddenly it’s a race and I want our train to win, I need our train to win … 

Our train slowly drifts towards the station. The Clapham Common train stays in its place. I feel a surge of joy, of triumph. It’s ridiculous, I know, ridiculous and juvenile but my train has won! Toot! Toot! 

There’s an announcement over the tannoy at Surrey Quays. The delay has been caused by a person taken ill at a station further up the line. My heart thumps. Oh dear, I think, I hope that, whatever happened, the paramedics got to the station in time. I hope whoever it is, is OK. We live life on a twig, we don’t realise it but we have only a fragile toe-hold keeping us in this universe.

I change to the Jubilee at Canada Water, then the District line at Westminster. It’s 10.50 by the time I get to Chiswick Park (Square D2 on the London tube map).

Little yellow train, I love you.

Little yellow train, I love you.

I’m about to descend the steps when there’s a high pitched Toot! Toot! and a little yellow train scuttles through eastwards. Toot! Toot!  I reply.

Despite its many virtues, Chiswick Park station is lackadaisically named. It is nowhere near any piece of greenery which has ‘Chiswick’ in its title. It is close to ‘Turnham Green’, much closer to that piece of greenery than Turnham Green tube station (which is closer to ‘Chiswick Common’ than Chiswick Park station).

No matter. Chiswick is a pleasant place to be. It has a proper High Street with a proper traffic jam. There’s a proper dignified church on Turnham Green which is a well turned-out piece of urban turf. Most of the action line the Green: shops, pubs, cafés, banks, a huge supermarket, furniture stores, mobile phone outlets. There’s a small open-air market. Small is the operative word, but there’s a lovely fruit and veg stall with trays and trays of lovely plump red strawberries from Spain. They are tidings of spring.

There are one or two tiny white flutterings high up in the air. I can’t decide whether they’re snow-flakes or cherry blossom. I walk to the end of Turnham Green then turn back to investigate the church. There are more flutterings. There’s some wetness on my face. It’s snow. The church is called Christ Church Turnham Green and its large glass entrance doors, though darkened, give promise of welcome. I decide to investigate. It opens. I push in. Hallelujah! It is warm!

There’s a further set of glass doors leading to the main body of the church. These are engraved with various Christian sayings  –  I am the Way and the Life, I am the Alpha and Omega, and so on. There’s a little meeting going on in the church itself. I look past the meeting at the stained glass windows. Yes, I think, it’s a very nice church. It’s lovely.

There’s a chap with a white beard, curly white hair and a pleasant open face hauling laundry from one side of the foyer to the other. He has a name tag, the corners of which are curling up like toes in front of a log fire. He’s called David.

I compliment him on the church and ask if he knows the history. He does. He’s from an architectural background, he says. The church was designed by George Gilbert Scott, the elder. There was a son, George Gilbert Scott Junior, who was also an architect, also designed churches. And a grandson, Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed Battersea Power Station. Somehow we get to talking about Edmund Gosse and his father, Philip Gosse. Edmund is most famous for his autobiographical book Father and Son. His father, though a zoologist, rejects the new evolutionary theory of his colleague, Charles Darwin. Edmund attempts to reconcile them with his own religious feelings.

It must have been difficult in those times, I say, to believe in Darwinism and also believe in a world created by God. I’m thinking of the shock of the new. I chunter on. A century and a half later, I say, it’s much easier to reconcile the two visions. There’s no fundamental or logical reason why the former negates the latter. Indeed, I conclude, the wonderful vision of Darwin, his vision of deep time, endless space and plenitude, seems to me to be an admirable under-pinning for religious belief.

‘There is grandeur in this view of life,’ wrote Darwin, ‘that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ Grandeur indeed!

David listens patiently. Then he leans slightly towards me and confides, ‘Well, of course. Someone made Darwin.’

I can’t tell if he’s being serious – that the whole pack of cards that is Darwinism is collapsed by the simple assertion that Darwin, like everyone, was made by God – or if he’s giving a gentle prod in the ribs to that view.

I’m still wondering about this when I’ve left the church. I decide he was being serious. Not everyone is like me, piling irony upon irony like a little tower of hundreds and thousands atop an ice cream.

I wander over to the other side of the Green. There’s a golden postbox standing outside a small ornate Town Hall. Which Olympian does it commemorate? I ask a young woman coming out of the Town Hall. She has no idea. I go inside the Town Hall and buttonhole a man in shirt-sleeves as he scoots from one office to another bearing folders. It’s something to do with the Olympics, he says.

Gold is the colour of my true-love's medal, in the morning, when we rise … In the morning, when we rise …

Gold is the colour of my true-love’s medal, in the morning, when we rise … In the morning, when we rise …

I end up at an estate agents, Fitzgibbon’s, on a side road. They don’t know but they look it up on the internet. It commemorates Peter Reed, one of the rowers in the Men’s coxless four. The estate agent gives further information. ‘He proposed to his girlfriend at the Olympics Closing Ceremony.’ I find out later that he tracked her down in the crowd and, dropping on to one knee, proposed in front of his gold medal-winning team-mates. She accepted. Hurrah! Toot! Toot!

I’m back at Chiswick Park station at 11.40 and catch a westbound District train one stop to Acton Town. I change to the Piccadilly line and go eight stops to Rayners Lane where I take an eastbound Metropolitan train from Uxbridge two stops to Harrow-on-the-Hill before heading west seven stops on an Amersham-bound Metropolitan train to Chorleywood. Confused? You’re in good company.

I get to Chorleywood (A1) in exactly an hour. My feet are a little cold.

This is my fourth journey on this branch of the Metropolitan. One by one I’ve picked off Amersham, Chalfont & Latimer and – only last week – Chesham. It’s country out here and it’s cold but it’s not nearly as miserable as my trip to Chalfont & Latimer. Partly that’s because Chorleywood is home to the last greatest thing that’s happened – at least in the U.K., maybe internationally – to humanity. No, I’m not talking Beyoncé. I’m talking of the 1961 invention of the white sliced loaf.

I’m talking of the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP). From a pile of flour, yeast and vitamin C through high-speed thrashing by huge mechanical mixers to the loaves’ sliced and packaged finish takes three hours. Yes, there were automated bread-making processes before. But it was CBP that transformed bread-making. CBP is to bread-making as Henry Ford’s production line was to cars a half-century before.

‘You can have any colour of car you liked,’ Henry Ford famously said, ‘as long as it’s black.’ Something similar could be said of CBP. ‘You can have your bread any taste you like – as long as it’s tasteless.’

Ideally, what I’d like to find in Chorleywood is the original CBP bread factory. Or, at least, the laboratory of the British Baking Industries Research Association where CBP was invented. Of course, not having done any research beforehand (one of the Rules of the TubeforLOLs Game), I’ve no idea where it is or even if it’s still here.

First though I have to find Chorleywood itself. I exit the station. I’m on a narrow country road. A small red single-decker is hanging around opposite. As soon as it sees me it heads off quickly, towards the hills. Toot! Toot!

Four or five people come out of the tube. They all head downhill, then they all cut left under the railway. I catch up with one of them taking a photo on his iPhone of an icicle. ‘It’s longer than it was yesterday,’ he chortles. ‘I’m sending it to my daughter. I’m showing her that we’re worse off here than she is. She lives in Lyon, in France.’

Hands frozen, icicles blurred.

Hands frozen, icicles blurred.

We talk as we walk towards the village. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the unsung virtues of the hot water-bottle, how it warms my feet and ankles during these long blogging sessions. ‘I work with the homeless,’ he says. ‘I’m always telling them, when the meter is running low, make yourselves a hot water-bottle. It’s the best way to stay warm.’

We part. I go right past a smartish parade of shops into a small residential area. There are scatterings of snow on front lawns and the north-facing roofs of the houses. There’s nothing up there. I walk back and down the small high street. I like Chorleywood. It’s got that unhurried villagey-feel and it’s not too snooty. It’s peaceful. The little high street straggles on down hill and segues into another residential area. I’m hesitating at the side of the road and a grey-haired woman tootling up in a small runabout stops to let me cross. Toot! Toot! I think. It’s that kind of day.

There’s absolutely no sign anywhere of a bread factory. That’s probably long gone. There’s no sign, either, of anything looking remotely like a Research Institution.

I go into Budgen’s. It’s bright, cheery and well-ordered in here. I walk to the bakery section at the back. I count a dozen varieties, makes and sizes of the White Sliced Loaf (WSL). There are more WSLs masquerading as Brown Sliced Loaves. Their average price is a little over a pound.

There is another, smaller display of artisan breads: Roasted Garlic Loaf, Pecan Raisin Oval, Sesame Seed Loaf. They are smaller and priced over two pounds. These are the BMWs and Audis of loaf-world – finely engineered, touches of craftsmanship about the crusts and with those lovely expensive extras, the folding mirrors masquerading as raisins, the bluetooth mobile phone link passing itself off as a pecan. Bread, like cars, is about life, love, freedom – not about such mundane activities as eating or transportation.

That’s as near as I’m going to get to the CBP. I walk back to a café, Rootz, that advertises itself as ‘a fairtrade café and ethical gift-shop’.

The Inner Curmudgeon is appalled. ‘You’re so bloody predictable, Craig,’ he snarls. ‘This is ethics as comfort snacking. There’ll be tea-pigs in there and everybody will be glowing with goodness. And will they be changing the world? No, they’ll be chatting away with each other, sitting on sofas and armchairs, eating over-priced paninis and lattes. There’ll be the usual cakes, biscuits, brownies and croissants. And when was the last time a croissant changed the world? And as for the gifts … Huh! They’ll be the usual bangles and picture frames, the usual candles and wooden sculptures of geese, ducks and angels. They’ll probably have that horrible twee wooden sculpture of open hands, palm up, where you can put your car keys in between doing your bit for global warming. What’s wrong with that other café over there?’

I ignore The Inner Curmudgeon. I go into Rootz, despite its regrettable spelling. It’s bright, warm, well-presented and, yes, there are sofas and armchairs clustered around small tables. There’s a counter piled with cakes, croissants, biscuits, brownies. And the gifts include bangles, picture frames, wooden sculptures of geese, birds, angels and open hands. I have a goats cheese, red pepper and artichoke toasted ciabatta. It’s good. I warm up. I check the shelves. There are no candles for sale.

‘That doesn’t mean diddley-squat,’ mutters the Inner Curmudgeon in a perfunctory fashion. He likes to be warm like the rest of us. Give him a roasted artichoke and he’s anyone’s.

I’m at Chorleywood station at quarter to two. I catch the Metropolitan to King’s Cross where I change on to the Victoria line. At Stockwell, I get the southbound Northern line to Clapham Common. 25 stops, an hour and a half. Not bad.

There’s a copy of today’s Metro on a seat on the Metropolitan train. I’d been thinking I’d missed it. I wish I had. Its front page headline is: Little angel killed by a gust of wind It’s the terrible story of a three year old whose buggy was caught by the wind and blown into the path of a van. Oh dear.

My mind idles back to my conversation in Christ Church with David. I think what appals some religious believers is not so much Deep Time and its implication that we, humans, are but a speck in the almost-infinity and almost-eternity that is the universe. It’s that evolution happens through chance and accident. That there is no progress. Worse, that there is no over-arching purpose.

Their minds rebel at the thought that purpose is human. While I, on the contrary, think that purpose may be the single most important innovation humankind has brought to the universe. We invest everything, or nearly everything, we do with purpose. We are manufacturies of purpose. This is what I am doing as I follow TubeforLOLs and its arbitrary rules, from Chorleywood to Clapham.

But humankind would dearly like to out-source purpose, preferably to God. We’d like the whole universe to be imbued with His purpose. It would make purpose so much easier and make life all so much, well, purposeful.

I get to Clapham Common station (Square F4) at around quarter past three. Fran and I lived in Brixton for over twenty years so I know Clapham well. It’s always fancied itself as the Hampstead of South London, with the Common standing in for Hampstead Heath, and a slightly bohemian outlook replacing Hampstead’s intellectuality. It also prides itself on its feet-on-the-ground attitude. It’s next to Brixton, after all, and for a good century its favoured son, The Man on the Clapham Omnibus, has voiced the attitudes, fears, desires and expectations of the British populace at large.

Clapham Common station. Lone bike - on loan from Canonbury Station.

Clapham Common station. Lone bike – on loan from Canonbury Station.

How come it has its feet on the ground? Partly, I suppose, because Clapham has, like so many other neighbourhoods, always been mixed. Here, the working class rub shoulders with the middle class, the middle class with the professionals, the would-be working class with the skilled and semi-skilled working class, the indigent with the indignant. It’s difficult to get above yourself for long in Clapham.

I exit Clapham Common station and am tipped into the clamour of Clapham in all its glory and seediness, its splendours and miseries. It’s surprisingly little changed, though the up-market has climbed further up-market.

I pause in front of the statue and water fountain erected in 1884 as ‘The Gift Of The United Kingdom Temperance & General Provident Institution’. In those days they believed that the working class could be saved from the demon drink if only they had access to free drinking water, to ‘Adam’s wine’. Temperance, along with cleanliness, was next to salvation. That belief has gone the way of the dodo.

I'm not sure what the lion thinks of the super-strength cider in its Temperance Fountain.

I’m not sure what the lion thinks of the super-strength cider in its Temperance Fountain.

Now, of course, alcohol – along with fast food, fizzy drinks and heart-stopping cakes – is a lynchpin to the supermarkets’ and big industry’s profits. And profit now is next to salvation.

Houston! We have low-flying meringues at two o'clock!

Houston! We have low-flying meringues at two o’clock!

You’ll be banging on next about bread and circuses, mutters The Inner Curmudgeon. He’s staring through a shop-window, gawky-eyed, at some huge meringues.

They’re a fiver a throw, I reply.

He snorts.

Yes, I think, we are manufacturies of purpose.

I leave Clapham Common a little before four o’clock, take the Northern line to London Bridge, the Jubilee to Canada Water and the Overground back to Forest Hill. I’m back at Gingerbread Cottage by five o’clock.

Toot! Toot!

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