Of Dinosaurs and Diggers, Clippers and Men (22/80)

Tuesday 2 April  – Crystal Palace (Square F6 on the Tube map), Custom House for ExCel (D9), Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich (E7), Cyprus (D9)

The sun is out but it’s cold and the gusting wind is savage. The platforms at Forest Hill, as they have been nearly every day since the far side of Christmas, are scattered with salt. The salt comes in small spherical pellets like ball-bearings. It’s gritty under foot and gives off a pungent chemical odour.

I think of other descriptions for the salt. A peppering of salt? That gets the gritty pungency but … A mixing of condiments if not of metaphors. A confetti of salt? That’s good on the drifts of salt around pillars and in corners, but it’s too up-beat, too ceremonial. I think of hundreds-and-thousands of salt. But you can’t compare a station platform with a cupcake. My mind stretches for comparisons with the pointilliste school of painting, of Georges Seurat’s famous painting, Snow and Salt at Forest Hill Station with Old Geezer.

Hmm! There’s too much to talk about fanciful descriptions of pellets of salt. It’s understandable, of course. Understandable because, today, I’m flushed with excitement. Why? …  

Of the 367 tube stations only six are south on the Overground from Forest Hill. Today – oh joy of joys! – today, I’m journeying south from Forest Hill, south from platform 2 to Crystal Palace only two stops away.

I leave Forest Hill at 10.45 am. I arrive at Crystal Palace (Square F6) at 10.50 am. Can it get any better? It sure can. Crystal Palace Station is a minor miracle of tube architecture. It’s Grade 11 listed and a wonderful building worth visiting in its own right, especially now that TfL have restored the booking hall to its original magnificence and put in lifts so that you don’t need to use the horrible modern white-painted zigzaggy metal stairs. (I should have checked them out. They may have gone along with the horrible green framed and smoked glass plastic conservatory out of a 1990s B&Q catalogue which has stood in for a ticket hall for years.) You can still use the original 19th century flights of stone steps, of course, but the lifts have only opened in the last few weeks.

Crystal Palace station from the Overground platform: lift left off-photo.

Crystal Palace station from the Overground platform: lift left off-photo.

I take the lift. Alas, it’s disappointing, it doesn’t reflect the grandeur of the station. Nevertheless, I could imagine yoyoing up and down, up and down quite happily. Except that, if you come to Crystal Palace, the day is too short to spend in the lift. There’s Crystal Palace park outside the door. This was where they moved the Great Exhibition of 1851. Alas, the Crystal Palace went up in flames in 1936.

No matter, there are more glories – the picturesque ruined Italian Terrace, the National Sports Centre, the TV transmitter towers, the maze, the wonderful views over London and Kent, the dormitory tower built for athletes in the 1960’s that is already out-of-date because athletes have grown four inches taller and the beds are too small … But they are all as nothing, compared with the dinosaurs.

'I say, old man, I do believe there are a couple of native-wallahs over there.'  'Fancy repairing to the smoking room, old chap?'

‘I say, old man, I do believe there are a couple of native-wallahs over there.’ ‘Fancy repairing to the smoking room, old chap?’

Ahh! The dinosaurs, who – like the fine chaps above – remind me more of Victorian gentlemen and (occasionally) ladies than of real prehistoric dinosaurs. That’s partly because paleontology was in its infancy then (Darwin had yet to publish The Origin of Species) and we now know that many of Crytal Palace’s sculpted dinosaurs bear only a passing resemblance to the real animals. It’s also because they’ve been anthropomorphosised, given human expressions. But so what! What’s wrong with a touch of anthropomorphosism? They’re magnificent. (I have a memory that the dinosaurs are listed, perhaps even Grade 1, but I can’t be sure.)

On my way back to the station a young Anglo-Japanese boy stops and smiles. He has a wonderful smile, not so much winsome as win-all. There is a formality as we exchange greetings and enquire after each other’s health. Then – excited, proud, full of the bounty of life – he shows me what he is clutching in his hands. ‘Stickers!’ He’s got stickers and stickers of dinosaurs. I exchange greetings with his mother. The Wee Professor nudges me in the ribs. I warn her, and the boy, that the scultped dinosaurs are 3D factoids, that enthusiasm was then the better part of knowledge. I counsel her to look for the notice-boards which point out the representational errors.

I return to Crystal Palace station at 11.25 am. I sweep down the grand stairs like a Victorian lord at the debutante party for his daughter. The next three stations I’ll visit today are all on the DLR, are all – like Crystal Palace – in the bottom right hand corner of the Tube map. (See TUBE page for further enlightenment.)

My first stop is Custom House for ExCel (D9). There’s no flurry of Stewards on the Canning Town platforms which means there’s no exhibition at ExCel. What happens at ExCel, I wonder, when there’s no exhibition? I’m there at 12.05 pm but get diverted by the railway works going on there. I ask two chaps who are hauling an office photocopier back to a van what’s up. They don’t know, they’re only here to haul an old office photocopier back to their van. Later I find out it’s Crossrail.

Digger Heaven: Crossrail at Custom House.

Digger Heaven: Crossrail at Custom House.

I decide I should give the cursory Craig once-over to the area to the north of the station before heading south through the station to Excel, the old Custom House and the docks. I walk up Freemasons Road past the usual parade of down-market shops. There’s nothing much here, a few people hanging around the bus stop. Legge’s butcher covers both ends of the market with its slogan: High Quality Cut Price meat. Even in the sun, I get faintly dispirited. It’s like an island, a working-class deprived island, which has been left to its own meagre devices, to stew in its own juices, since … since when? Since the 1980s I guess. It feels as though it’s been marooned forty years in the past. It feels like Daily Mail rent-a-scrounger territory.

Council housing near Custom House.

Council housing near Custom House.

That’s not fair, of course. The local authority, Newham, is clearly trying. The NHS is clearly trying. But it’s painfully obvious that we – the Great British Public (GBP) – are not all in this Recession / Triple Dip / Almost Triple Dip equally. I nominate this as the area where Ian Duncan Smith, the ‘Welfare’ Minister, should spend his £53 per week on benefits. They’ll do you cheap booze here, cheap meat from dubious sources, cheap blotting paper white sliced bread. Think of it, Ian, as the Strangers’ Bar at the House of Commons and you’ll do fine.

Excel is not only across – and on the right side of – the tracks from the council estate. It’s a different country, a different universe, a different configuration of atoms and elementary particles. You could find the Higgs Boson at Excel or the old Custom House. Not a chance up Freemasons Road. There’s a horrific set of Thoughts for the Day on the wide walkway to Excel from such philosopher-luminaries as Danny Kaye, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Brigitte Bardot. It’s all touchy-feely garbage about thinking ‘big’ rather than ‘small’ – big ambitions, big aspirations. Big is definitely, definitively better than small.

The Inner Curmudgeon takes up the cudgels: What a load of old ordure! Big War! Big Torture! Big Big Lies! Big Ordure! I push him back in his box.

Mixed up with this Big-boosterism, we have a Thought of the Day from Gautama Buddha: What we think we become. I can’t work out how that fits. Perhaps some pinhead on the committee at Excel’s PR agency thinking up this drivel suddenly realised they were being a tad monocultural.

I walk up to Excel. It’s dark inside. I go to peer in at the door. I’m directed to the central automatic door: it opens! I walk in.

There’s a receptionist who tells me all about Excel and what happens behind scenes. Apart from her, there’s a few people having coffee at Costa coffee, piped music over the PA system and a cleaner on an electric floor-buffer is buffing the floor. (The floor-buffer is called a Tenant T15! What a wonderful name – get your Tenant and buff that floor!)

A Tenant busy floor-buffing at Excel.

A Tenant busy floor-buffing at Excel.

I go outside and gaze over the dock. The wind plays through the banners on the flag-poles. They sound like Buddhist wind-chimes or yachts in a harbour. There is more meaning here, I think, than in the Thoughts for the Day on the walk-way. We only have to listen.

I leave Custom House at 12.40 pm and change at Poplar for the Lewisham branch of the DLR. There’s a steep narrow staircase in the centre of the platform guarded by a red gate with the sign: Staff Only. I look down, wondering where it goes, when a woman in a bright red coat ascends from the Stygian gloom below. No, not Eurydice following Orpheus.

You must be staff, I say brightly.

I am, she answers.

What’s going on down there? I ask. Is it a party?

She laughs. I wish. It’s a short cut from the Depot. And we don’t have to go in and out of security.

She indicates the modern DLR depot across the way.

As we’re talking a second figure emerges from the Underworld. A few seconds later three solid chaps in suits walk along the platform and descend. It’s busy today in Hades.

My informant and colleague are talking about the Staff Social Club. Their last effort, a Bread Making Workshop, was a great success. All the places were filled, mainly by men. One of them has given her two hot-cross buns that he made. She’s going to have them for tea. Ahh! Bread Making Workshops, I say, the modern alternative to work.

I get to Cutty Sark for Greenwich Maritime (E7) at 1.25 pm. The famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, is just around the corner. I go up to it in its blue-tinted glass and steel holding structure. I guess it’s supposed to remind visitors of the sea while they look at the keel of the clipper. It reminds me of a blouse. I can’t work out why. And it’s not even the famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark. That got burnt down a few years back. It’s a replica of the famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark. I take a couple of photos then I poke around Greenwich.

Replica of the Cutty Sark sitting on Blue Blouse.

Replica of the Cutty Sark sitting on Blue Blouse.

I visit one of the two record exchanges, peer in at restaurants, check some of the collectable stalls in the Indoor Market. Teapots, watches, bow-ties, rings, plates, more rings, photographs, beads, necklaces, cups and saucers, more teapots, tobacco tins, biscuit and cake tins, plastic toys …

I have a good time poking around but I don’t fully engage. Partly because Greenwich is a curate’s egg – some shops, stalls and restaurants aimed at tourists, a few specialist places, a few ordinary places. Partly because I’m not on top form today.

It’s only afterwards, as I’m looking up the history of the Cutty Sark that I find out that it was one of the last tea clippers to be built, in 1869. In the middle of the nineteenth century thousands of sailing clippers carried tea, wool, spices, coal and cargo of all descriptions from India, the Far East and Australia back round the Horn to Britain. They kept their romance even after they’d succumbed to steamships. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were singing of them in the late sixties: I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas, On a great big clipper ship … But now there are only three clipper ships left. Well, two and a replica.

How quickly humanity runs through artefacts from prized possession to discarded reject. One hundred and fifty years and it’s all gone. And we think that we’re going to pay attention to decommissioning nuclear power stations for the thousand of years it takes to make them safe …

I leave Greenwich at two o’clock, more or less retracing my steps. I’m off to Cyprus (D9) on the Beckton branch of the DLR, arriving at a quarter to three. On the way I’m surrounded by a group of five young people also on their way there. They’re joking, poking fun at each other, looking into each other’s eyes (two of them are in love), mock-fighting, gambolling. One of them was an undergraduate at the University of East London which is based at Cyprus. He studied economics. He really enjoyed it, he says. It was state of the art. The secret, he says, was to get on with your teachers. If you got on with them, you got more out of them. It also suited him that his family lived nearby at Forest Gate and that he could work evenings and weekends at Gallions Reach, the next stop up on the DLR.

We all get out together. The youngsters keep monkeying around, mock-squabbling, having a great time. They’re puppies, I think, puppies at their first job in the big wide world. A big wide wonderful world full of enjoyment. A wave of their enjoyment washes over me.

I walk over the bridge across to UEL. It’s pleasant, opens out on to the docks. On the windswept central piazza, there are students with film equipment, students with surveying equipment. A couple of planes take off from City Airport across the Docks. I miss taking a photo of both of them. I have a sudden ambition – a great big aspirational ambition – to fly out of City Airport one day, preferably on a turbo-prop.

University of East London: Alas, I have no information about what pharmaceuticals the architect was taking at the time.

University of East London: Alas, I have no information about what pharmaceuticals the architect was taking at the time.

Hundreds of years ago this area was famed for its forests of ancient cypress. (If I remember right, those glades get a passing wintry mention in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.) But by the nineteenth century – and the ceaseless expansion of trade and commerce – this once-marshy area had been drained and transformed into docks. For two hundred years goods of all kinds from the shores of the Levant were hoisted from holds, while tirelessly, behind the scenes so-to-speak, the well-known linguistic process known as the vowel shift transformed Cypress into Cyprus.

I talk with a student sitting on a bench listening to his ipod, smoking a cigarette. He’s a student of journalism. He wants to be a reporter and make his career in newspapers, he can’t abide television. He believes in the written word. What he can’t understand is why he’s always getting better marks for those assignments where he doesn’t have strong opinions, whereas he doesn’t do so well when writing about the things he cares about. We talk about seeing and objectivity.

I think I can truly say that, from my great depth of knowledge and experience of journalism, I don’t help him one iota. But then, wanting to be helpful and being helpful are two very different matters.

I walk back through the University. The one time I’d passed this way before I’d thought it a bit of a wasteland, at the back end of nowhere. Having talked with one student and one ex-student of UEL, I have completely revised my opinion.

OK, Wee Professor, so it’s not a statistically valid survey, but so what? I was there. I talked with them.

I’m on the DLR back home just after half past three. I change at Canning Town for the Jubilee, Canada Water for the Overground. I’m back at Forest Hill by quarter past four.

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