Thursday 11 April – Denmark Hill (Square F5 on the Tube map), Deptford Bridge (E7), Devons Road (C7), Dollis Hill (B3)
Today is special. Well, special as in ‘different’. Today I’m journeying with my friend, Nick, the mastermind behind untold Panorama and World in Action exposés. He’s got that war reporter’s glint in his eye and a Canon Powershot G7 camera festooned around his neck. He will, Cartier-Bresson-like, record my every step and comfort stop.
It will be his photos – including photos of Mr TubeforLOLs – in this post. So, special as in ‘treat’ for you, dear reader! Well, maybe not. But definitely special as in different. First photo coming up …
Nick is worried that his presence will distort my TubesforLOLing journeying. I think he is imagining it as some deep psychosocial expedition with overlays of gonzo journalism. He mutters darkly about Heisenberg, as in the German theoretical physicist and his Uncertainty Principle. Or was that the Austrian theoretical physicist Schrodinger and his famous cat in its sealed box?
These days I can take or leave quantum mechanics. As Jessie J quipped re QM, ‘Ooh-ooh-ooh-oooh!’ No, what’s worrying me is that I must be on my best behaviour. The trouble is I don’t normally do best behaviour on TubeforLOLs. I bumble along waiting for whatever’s going to happen to happen. I make mistakes. I lose concentration. I spin off into reveries and flights of the imagination. So, is that what I should be doing? It’s going to be tough remembering to do that all the time. And is deliberately making mistakes the same as making mistakes? And how can one deliberately lose concentration? It’s going to be tough for Nick to capture all that.
Still, there’s light relief on the 11.25 Overground out of Forest Hill. The Metro is in full-scale Jeremiah mode: NHS phone system ‘is a chaotic mess’. it’s about the NHS helpline and paramedics being sent out to deal with things like a cat with diarrhoea and a human with a chipped finger nail.
We change at Surrey Quays and take the Overground towards Clapham Junction. We arrive at Denmark Hill (Square F5 on the Tube map) before noon. The station, built in the Franco-Italian design (lots of decorative detail) and Grade 11 listed, is set into a deep cutting on the side of the eponymous hill. Towering over it is the forbidding zigurrat of the Salvation Army headquarters. Not for the first time do I think about Ozymandias.
To the north of the station there’s the Freudian hive of the Maudsley Hospital and the Institute of Psychiatry; to the west lies the huge health emporium known as King’s Hospital while the leafy arbors of Ruskin Park tremble to its south. To the east Camberwell’s mix of Georgian and Victorian terraces, though fading, present more than a frisson of starched-up bourgeois froideur in between chunks of Council estates. A labyrinth of semi-private and hidden passageways, snickets and back lanes run between and behind those terraces. Fertile territory, you would think, for the literary imagination – Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, all spring to mind – but, alas, I can think of only one tantalising snippet.
This is, if I remember right, from an early letter of Jorge Luis Borges, written around the time of A Universal History of Iniquity. (Alas, I cannot put my hands on that volume of Broges at present – it’s lost in store.) The erudite Argentinian librarian comments, in passing, on a letter of one of his heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson, in which ‘the Scottish romancer’ stated that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had been set partly in his (Stevenson’s) feverish imagination, partly on ‘those streets and backways that lie above the village of Camberwell, in South London’.
(In that same volume, I believe the Argentinian romancer also presented a tortuous Platonic theory about a possible ‘sequel’ to Jekyll and Hyde. But I could be wrong.)
We walk around. We chance upon a series of exhortatory slogans: CONNECT, BE ACTIVE, TAKE NOTICE, KEEP LEARNING, GIVE shouts the Maudsley Charity. This, they say, is what we’ve got to do to enjoy good health, good mental health. I think: good old Freud and good old Goebbels have a lot to answer for. I say: I’ve been connecting with you, Nick. Tick. I’ve been active in coming here. Tick. I’ve taken notice of the notice. Tick. And, with this ridiculous project, I’m keeping on learning. Tick.
But where’s the Give, eh? I need to give a coin or two before the mind-sparrows over there in Bonkersville Central give me a clean bill of health, Nick.
Nick is looking a bit confused.
By ‘Bonkersville Central’, The Wee Professor informs him, he means The Maudsley. He continues: Mr Craig’s unfortunate comment is an example of the common stereotyping of individuals with mental illness.
There’s an old man slowly mooching up the hill in a vacuous daze. He’s wearing a woolly cap and specs out of the eighties. I engage him in conversation. Has he noticed the slogans across the way? He looks over, stares at them in a vacant way, shakes his head. I explain that I’m following the slogans’ advice, that I’ve followed the first four slogans but I still need to give. I can see he’s struggling to understand me. I press a pound coin into his hand.
He looks surprised and grateful. He doesn’t take against me, I haven’t put his back up. Don’t go spending that on drink and drugs, I caution.
No, he says staring at the coin. Then he adds something like ‘I’ll buy a dog collar.’ He can’t have said that surely? I must have misheard.
A dog collar? I ask.
I’ll buy a chocolate bar.
I say nothing. A gift is only a gift if freely given. But I think: he’s spending it on drugs, on the insidious drugs of corn-syrup and saturated fats whipped into innocent-seeming confections sold openly over the counter in innumerable locations to unsuspecting children and old men.
There’s a noise beside me, something like an overactive toddler kicking over his pram. It’s The Inner Curmudgeon. You should be ashamed of yourself, Craig, he yells. Taking advantage of a poor wee old man like that! That’s not giving. That’s you showing who’s got the power. That’s not you being Dr Jekyll, that’s you being Mr Hyde. He snorts.
There is a positive correlation, says The Wee Professor helpfully, between good mental health and social power.
We take the Overground to Canada Water and the Jubilee line to Canary Wharf where we will catch the DLR to our next destination, Deptford Bridge.
Canary Wharf is always a tricky one because TubeforLOLs’ rules dictate that we must get from Jubilee to the DLR without stepping on to the privatised piazza outside. I know there’s a way through the privatised subterranean shopping mall but we get lost. To make matters worse, it’s lunchtime and the little Masters and would-be Masters and at-least-I-work-somewhere-where-there-are-Masters of the Universe are crowding the malls, forming long queues at the upmarket sushi stalls and generally walking around in an authoritatative daze. But are they putative Masters of the Universe? Or are they zombies? They’re zombies, I think, zombies who think they’re Masters of the Universe.
We get lost. I ask a Security Guard. He gives us clear, meticulous directions. Five minutes later, we’re lost again. In a completely different underground location, we come across our Security Guard again.
He’s been following us, Nick whispers to me, a conspiracy of paranoia a-glint in his eyes.
Have you been following us? I ask the Guard.
No, he replies, I have to change my station. I have a circuit of stations I must follow. That is all. Like many Africans he talks in a precise, courteous, old-fashioned English, an English that is a delight to the ears of The Wee Professor. The Guard gives us clear, meticulous directions to the DLR station. He supplements this by pointing to the entrance of the station twenty yards away.
We’re at Deptford Bridge (E7) about quarter to one and I’m hungry. I text my daughter Becca, who knows these parts, for any recommendations for fine dining in Deptford. She texts back with a rave about Panda Panda. I look across the road: we’re directly opposite Panda Panda. Is this serendipity, coincidence or fate? A collusion of ley-lines? Who cares? It’s across the road and there’s a gap in the traffic.
Inside, there’s a gang of workers from William Hill (Bookmakers to the Queen Mother; money-making fruit machines courtesy Gordon Brown) having a friendly vociferous lunch of Vietnamese baguettes, noodles and the like. Nick and I settle back and eat. It’s good.
Then we look round Deptford. Given its location – a few stops away from Canary Wharf on the DLR and next to Greenwich in the real world – it’s surely only a matter of time before Deptford gets colonised by London’s middle-class desperate for affordable houses and some kind of status. It’s already happened in Telegraph Hill to the west, it ran rampage over Greenwich (east) and Blackheath (south) generations ago, it’s happening along the river frontage (north), but it hasn’t quite got to Deptford.
Luckily. Deptford has still got atmosphere and grit – even if the Council has to wrap up the great anchor at the end of the High Street to stop drinkers hanging out there.
Opposite Panda Panda there’s a quirky curiosity shop – Abstracticus. On the pavement outside it’s mannequins – female, male; adult, child; full length, upper torso only – that dominate, along with bicycles and a huge old-fashioned machine with a large plastic bowl that was an early home hairdrier.
Inside there’s toys, knick-knacks, small items of pottery and ceramics, hats, lampshades – you name it. It’s run by an elderly couple: he’s a ringer for Bruce Forsythe, she’s straight out of Eastenders, probably from behind the bar at the Queen Vic.
They sell anything, they say, as long as they can buy it at a good price and sell it at a good price. They’ve been here for eleven years, she’s been helping her husband since she retired from the Civil Service.
A pale-faced, rather desperate-looking young man is trying to sell his bike. He looks like a cross between an elongated Charlie Chaplin and a denizen of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The bicycle is a sorry-looking hack that’s seen better days – though no-one can remember when those were. It’s the sort of bike that would lower the tone in Canonbury. Actually, it’s the sort of bike that would be immediately recycled out of Canonbury.
Charlie Chaplin is getting nowhere. Bruce Forsythe isn’t interested. Charlie’s last offer, which falls on deaf ears, is twenty pounds. He pushes off, dispirited, the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And the mannequins? I ask. How come the mannequins? Who buys them? Queen Vic laughs. They’re steady sellers. They’re bought by students, clothes shops, people with ‘a bright idea’ who will turn them into art or desk-lamps.
We part. Queen Vic wishes me well on my quest. Quest? TubeforLOLs as a quest? For what, the Holy Grail? It’s a way of structuring time, silly.
It’s time for us to move on. Devons Road (C7), a few stops up the DLR, beckons. We get there about quarter to three. There’s nothing much you can say about Devons Road. It’s bang in the middle of the old East End and has the usual motley collection of public / social housing. There’s a pub called The Widow’s Son. Every Easter for over a hundred years a giant Hot Cross Bun has been baked to commemorate a sailor, the widow’s son, who has yet to come back from sea. Each bun has the year baked into it. You can see them hanging in a net in the pub. You’d have thought the locals would have sussed out by now that that widow’s son isn’t going to come back …
There, I think I’ve said everything you need to know about Devons Road.
We leave about three o’clock, taking the DLR to Stratford, then settling in for the long journey on the Jubilee line to Dollis Hill. I read an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, The Piltdown Conspiracy. This is about the ‘discovery’ a little before the first world war by an English paleontologist, Charles Dawson, and – perhaps – others, of fragments of skull and jaw of an early humanoid, something before man, something not Neanderthal. (Neanderthal remains were common as muck over there in continental Europe, in Germany and France.) The Piltdown case, as Gould remarks, is surely the most famous and spectacular fraud of twentieth-century science. To later eyes, it looks a botched, amateurish job but, as Gould counsels, we should be wary of looking back on history with the eyes of today.
He, Gould, thinks that another budding paleontologist, a Frenchman and Jesuit priest studying nearby, a certain Teilhard de Chardin was part of Dawson’s conspiracy. The essay is Gould’s setting out of the evidence against Teilhard. He makes a plausible case but not one, I think, that would stand up in a court of law. As Gould himself says it’s easy to find a pattern where no patterns exist. Even easier than finding a pattern is falling in thrall to the patterns we ourselves have thought up – particularly when those patterns are conspiracies.
We arrive at Dollis Hill (B3) at four o’clock. We peer each way along the walkway under the station. I decide we should turn rightwards.
We exit into pleasant, tree-lined suburbia – sturdy red-brick Edwardian terraces with first floor verandahs face each other across wide streets – but there’s no sign of a hill.
We turn into a more residential street. There is little traffic here – this is a neighbourhood where learner drivers practise. It’s calm, tranquil. After the ziggurats, tension and frenetics of Denmark Hill, the Dickensian hurly-burly and traffic fumes of Deptford, the monomania of hot cross buns of Devons Road, this island of peace is both a relief and a release. We breathe easier. Our souls swell and blossom. Conviviality and fellow-feeling creep in over the edges of our psyches and stake a cautious claim for permanence.
But where is Dollis Hill – the Hill, not the station, not the neighbourhood?
There’s greenery ahead, a park rising to a hill. This must, surely, be Dollis Hill.
I accost a young man walking his dog. He looks puzzled. (The man that is. The dog looks like he wants to get on chasing tennis balls.)
No, he says, this isn’t Dollis Hill, this is Gladstone Park. He doesn’t think there is a hill called Dollis in Dollis Hill. He clearly knows his Gladstone Park – the mansion on the hill (haunted), the café beyond the football pitches (closed). But Dollis Hill? He’s clearly never encountered that particular existential problem.
I take a photo of a statue in the distance. As I’m taking it the statue turns. It’s a young shaven-headed black man built like someone who works out a lot. He glares at us, swivels as we pass watching us, then follows us. A few streets along, as Nick and I pause to admire a Hippy-era VW Campervan, he walks into the next-door front garden, folds his arms and stares at us. The streets no longer seem quite so pleasant.
We make our way back and cross under the station. Mr Statue does not follow us – he’s seen us off his patch.
Here the terraced houses are less spacious and less-cared for, the side-streets are narrower and the vibe is edgy. This is a ‘hood, not a village, not suburbia.
There’s something going down. Three policemen and one policewoman are trying to get a youngish black man into the back of a police car. The man is shouting. He’s not keen to get in the back of that particular car. It’s difficult to make out what he’s shouting about but it seems to be about some domestic incident. She’s my wife, he keeps on saying.
There are people, mainly black, hanging out in their narrow front yards, watching. The atmosphere is heavy, suppressed anger overlaid by cold suspicion of the police.
But no-one is about to do anything, everyone is keeping a distance. A white man with one leg swings past on crutches, head down. Another police car drives up.
We walk down to a main street. On the far side there’s a small business park: most of the units appear to be in the business of selling tyres. On this side there’s a long down-market shopping parade. A police Transit comes racing up, klaxon blaring, and turns down the street to the station.
The police cars leave as we walk back to the station. It’s taken four police cars and vans and half-a-dozen policemen and women quarter of an hour to makes the arrest.
We get back to Dollis Hill at ten-to-five. We haven’t found the hill. It’ll be the best part of an hour before we get back to Forest Hill. There’s no difficulty in finding the hill in Forest Hill. If anything there’s too much hill in Forest Hill.