Thursday 18 April – East Ham (Square C8 on the Tube map), East India (D8), East Putney (E3), Edgware (A4)
It’s a sad day when a man has to recycle his Tube map. Tattered and frayed though it may be, such a recyling tries the forbearance of good Christian men. I pause mid-way to the Recycling Bucket. I stay my hand and leave it on the shelf by the front door. I will recycle it with full honours on my return, commending its soul to the Lord as it returns to that great Tube Map In The Sky.
I walk out through the Albion Millennium Green a sadder but wiser man. Aristotle nailed it on the head when he talked about catharisis, about the purging effect of almost unbearable emotion, of terror and pity, and how this leads to inner renewal.
I pick up a copy of The Metro at Forest Hill station: The end, it announces. It continues: A chapter of history draws to a close as Baroness Thatcher makes her final journey. Ah! If only that was true …
If only a chapter of history had drawn to a close. If only Baroness Thatcher, that Madonna of Bother as Iain Sinclair dubbed her, had stayed well and truly dead. But I suspect she is just starting out on her next vampire life. There’s a number of swivel-eyed, sharp-toothed, younger-generation members of the Cabinet out there: George Osborne, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller, I see you. You are vampires, of the true Grantham stock.
My sprigs of garlic are tied to the door-posts. Mustard seeds are sprinkled on my roof. The crucifix in the downstairs loo has been newly sprinkled with Holy Albion Millennium Green water. My semi-automatic is armoured with silver bullets.
I get the 11.04 Overground to Canada Water, change to the Jubilee for West Ham, then the District line to East Ham. I arrive at East Ham station (Square C8) a little before 11.45 to grey skies and weak, intermittent sun.
Over the years I’ve been to East Ham a number of times. Basically, it’s a long, long High Street. Very long. It’s so long it’s got two names: High Street North and High Street South. (They’ve got no end of imagination down East Ham way.) Two or three turns from end to end would have Mo Farrah puffed.
It’s a proper shopping centre – though proper isn’t the right word for something so multifarious and wonderfully shambolic. There are more types of Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani restaurants and cafés than Sachin Tendulkar, The Little Master, has scored centuries. There are more pound shops than Margaret Thatcher had alligator-skin handbags. More £1 buckets of fruit and veg than bicycles in Canonbury …
Then, there’s Primark, Costa, WH Smith, banks, Indian gift shops, phone shops, outdoor shops, an Italian furniture shop which is definitely not selling any furniture and I suspect nothing Italian (the stuffed alligator-skin pouffe is definitely not of Mediterranean origin), temples and charitable and religious outlets, an indoor market with African and Phillipino food shops, stalls selling Bob Marley posters, a pork and ham counter guarded by a grizzled Cockney sparrer spooning sugar and heart attacks into a striped mug of tea.
I see an Indian restaurant on High Street North that advertises lunch for £1.99. And you know what? Suddenly, I’m hungry. I go in. There’s ten Indian men seated at tables eating early lunch. It’s like it used to be 40 years ago in greasy spoons: all male. That was before the discovery of women, of course.
The waiter and I have some difficulty understanding each other. The upshot is I order Number 6 Menu: set of Appam + 2 Vada. The Appam turn out to be white pancakes, a little sweet, a little moist, a little sticky. Coconut, I think. The Vada are small savoury doughnuts, not over-spiced, made, I think, from lentils. They go well together.
An Indian family – father and children – come in and sit two tables away. The table between us is occupied by workmen’s tools, bits of tubing and an extra-large open tin of ghee (which presumably contains screws, nails, rawl-plugs, etc.). There’s a huge metal cylinder lying on the floor – the sort used for air conditioning or ventilation. I eat with the sounds of drilling behind me and children’s laughter to the side. Satisfied, comforted though – it must be said – not replete, I voyage out.
Fran has texted me: I must get some Indian sweets, the white milky ones. They are available wrapped in clingfilm or plastic pouches, in most of the Indian mini-markets, but I am a choosy old codger – I’m only going to buy Indian sweets from a proper (that word again!) Indian sweet shop. My explorations bear fruit – I find the … the … what was the name of that shop …? [Blogger rushes down to the fridge mid-sentence to find the box. (Hmm, there’s one last fig sweet. Munch, munch munch! Don’t tell Fran!) Blogger rushes back to the computer.] … the Nirali. I buy a £5 selection of milky white, walnut, fig, and pistachio sweets.
I leave East Ham at 1.15.
Every seat on the train has been leafletted with yellow cards. They’re about smiling, how good it is to smile, how we should share smiles. I smile my best smile at the guy opposite. He’s young but he must have The Inner Curmudgeon as his mentor. I quail in the icy blast of his alligator gurn.
A smile is the same in every language the card reads.
Aye and so is: a loaded gun at the head, says The Inner Curmudgeon. Or a smack on the chops. Or –
I push him back in his box. Enough is enough in any language.
Clearly, I don’t push hard enough.
Roll on North Korea, he snarls. Roll on Justin Belieber.
The Wee Professor tries to restore order. You may not like Mr Bieber, he says, but the least you can do is to pay him the courtesy of calling him by his name.
I change at West Ham on to the Jubilee, change at Canning Town on to the DLR. I’m in East India station (D8) at a little after 1.30.
East India has got a Budgen’s, a dry cleaners, a kid’s nursery, a Boris bike docking station, a public art work which looks like a cross between a lightning strike and an Easter Island Moia. It’s got a partial view of the Dome of St Tony and the Blessed Memory.
And that’s it.
Apart from blocks and blocks of flats.
I’m back on the DLR skittling out of there at 1.30 pm, one stop back to Canning Town, then zipping along on the Jubilee line to Westminster, then on to the District line.
A gaggle of Oddfellows gets on. Yes, really. As in low-rent Masons. All but one of them are women, all bar none are the other side of seventy with alligator handbags and Viking helmets masquerading as white curly perms. They surge for the few available seats with the single-minded determination of Daily Mail readers bashing Rumanian scroungers. It’s fearsome.
Only the single male Oddfellow doesn’t get a seat, but I don’t think he minds. We get talking.
We’re Oddfellows, he says. We’ve come up from Richmond for a day up town. We go out on a trip once a week. Around us the Oddfemales are laughing, enjoying themselves, kicking up a storm. They’re the spitting image of Monty Python’s Hell’s Grannies. Weirdly, apart from the Grannies, our end of the carriage has suddenly become deserted.
My previous journalistic experience of war-zones comes in handy here and I ask him for more information about the Oddfellows.
You can join when you’re a week old, he says with something approaching missionary fervour. Every year until you’re 16 you get a £5 Christmas box. If you’re over 70 you get a £10 box. Members pay £23 per year. Each year everybody can claim £25 for dental expenses. Every two years you get £25 towards opticians’ costs.
Hold it, I say
I know, he replies. How can we afford it? The sums don’t match up. He shakes his head and mentions, as a possible solution to this mystery, a well-respected Italian organisation enamoured of dark suits and feeding their enemies to alligators. He’s proselytising, of course. He’s looking for converts. The whole world seems to spend most of its time looking for converts.
I escape his clutches at Earl’s Court. There’s a sudden thunder on the roof: rain. Hopefully an April shower.
A District line train to Wimbledon hoves in. I get to East Putney station (E3) at 2.40. It’s still lashing down. Actually, it’s hailing. I get under cover, put my coat on and beat a hasty retreat through the rain to Valentina, one of a small upmarket Italian chain of restaurant-delis, where I have a macchiato and watch the rain.
I get talking to a young guy. It turns out his favourite food is alligator. It tastes a little like chicken, a little like beef, he says, but it isn’t so dry as chicken and its texture is more like beef. He got through masses of alligator at High School in Louisiana. Now he’s back in Britain studying economics and business. So, not much difference there, I think. He’s not sure what he wants to do later, perhaps something in travel, something in IT. He wants to go back to the USA and work there. Everything is so possible over there. Over here it’s all doom and gloom. Then, when he retires, he’ll live in Italy, in Verona.
He’s already thinking about retirement?
I remember a story in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. It’s about how most of us have only two or three genuinely interesting moments in our lives, the rest is filler, and that at the end of our lives most of us will be lucky if any of those moments connects together to form a story. And I wonder if this conversation we’re having now is one of those moments for that young guy, one he’ll look back on from in his retirement in Verona and think: that’s as good as it got.
He’s a scarily depressing writer, is Coupland. We’re not built for free time, he says. The rain appears to be easing as I leave Valentina’s. I meet this sign.
Luckily, the sign lies.
I change at Earl’s Court, then at Victoria on to the Victoria line and at Euston on to the Northern line.
I think about the young guy on the tube up to Edgware. Will the world lie down at his feet and let its tummy be tickled? Well, I think, if he has lots of money and contacts in high places. And luck. Lots of luck. You need lots of all these things to be the apex predator in this alligator world. I imagine the Oddfellows as alligators. Difficult. They look more like prawns. And the men in the East Ham restaurant? No, not even shrimps. I imagine people as alligators all the way to Edgware. Some fit – Mrs T, naturally, makes a smashing alligator with a human-skin handbag. Boris, the apex predator, makes a lovely alligator with a blond ruff overhanging pop-out eyes.
Opposite me, a young workman – a painter to judge by his jeans – is fast asleep, his Evening Standard slowly slipping through his fingers. He wakes with a jerk then goes back to sleep. He’s still sleeping when the tube surfaces before Golders Green. He wakes again when the tube doors open and the cold air rushes in, but falls asleep again immediately. He wakes with a lurch at Brent Cross and scrambles out as the doors close. No, he doesn’t cut it as an alligator.
I’m at Edgware station (A4), the last stop on the Northern line, in a little over an hour. I find it hard to believe that I’ve never been in Edgware before but I haven’t.
It is a big centre with a High Street that goes left and right from the station, rising to the right and falling to the left. It curves pleasantly. It’s got a full range of shops, including a shopping mall with an M&S. It’s rush hour in Edgware and there’s no alligators in sight.
As I turn to walk rightwards, a police car guns up the hill with siren blaring, then swerves from the opposite carriageway on to the correct side of the road and switches off its siren. There’s a pedestrian crossing here and it’s green for pedestrians. A young woman, in her early twenties, with a pale anxious face is waiting on the island. She doesn’t seem to hear the police car and steps out in front of it … Luckily, it stops on time.
It’s difficult to interpret the driver’s expression. I think he may be exasperated, but it may be that he’s a little shaken.
The young woman retreats to the island. She certainly looks shaken. The police car takes off. The other pedestrians cross but she waits on the island. She waits until the lights turn green for pedestrians a second time, waits till other pedestrians begin to cross before she follows. She moves slowly. She is wearing an old-fashioned iron leg brace. She makes it across.
I walk down to a mini-roundabout. There’s been a shunt. A policeman in a high visibility jacket is dealing with the aftermath. Fortunately no-one is hurt. It’s only a few bits of bashed metal.
I walk back past the station. There’s an interesting little shop called Rock Around The Clock. And yes it’s a music shop specialising in guitars, bass and drums. I take a photo and turn to look up the cross street.
Good Golly Miss Molly! There’s a police car with lights flashing. It’s pulled a car over probably for some minor motoring offended. The driver of the car is black.
Three incidents. Well, I never. Edgware as a hot-bed of criminality, who would have believed it?
I catch the train a little before half past five. I scan the Evening Standard. Apparently, there are alligators in the sewers under Finchley. There are obvious public health concerns, says a Sewers for London ‘spokesperson’. Obviously someone who’s half-man, half-bike, I think.
I meditate on my old tube map. The new one is lovely, crisp and clean. It’s not falling apart or smudged with rain. But it’s not the same. I have a flash of inspiration. No recycling for the old map! I will create a TubeforLOLs’ archive. I will place it in an old family heirloom – an alligator folder my Aunt Gretta brought back from Hong Kong, Mississippi – where it will take pride of place.
I get back to Forest Hill at a quarter to seven.