Friday 19 April – Edgware Road (Bakerloo) (Square C3 on the Tube map), Edgware Road (Circle/District/H&C) (C4), Elephant and Castle (E5)
‘War is the normal occupation of man,’ Churchill told Siegfrid Sassoon towards the end of the First World War. Sassoon was surprised by this and asked Churchill whether he was really sure about this. Churchill thought and amended his statement. ‘War and gardening.’
I ponder deeply on this statement and decide that here is the Conservative world-view in three simple words. Put in grander terminology, it could also be a three word summation of the last thirty five years of ‘Western Civilisation’: Neo-liberalism and the Chelsea Flower Show.
I’m visiting one of London’s ‘war and gardening’ epicentres later today but first I’m going to the ‘dirty war’ front line known as the Edgware Road.
I’m at Forest Hill by 11.45 am. The Metro trumpets: Devastation Its sub-head is: At least 15 dead as fertiliser blast flattens town. Apparently it’s an ‘accident’ – those are my scare quotes. An ‘accident’, I wonder, ‘waiting to happen?’ Coming immediately after the atrocity of the Boston Marathon I wonder again about our differing attitudes to the sins of commission and those of omission. Of course, the bombing at the Boston Marathon exemplifies Man’s inhumanity to man. But does not the Waco blast exemplify the private sector’s slipshod attitude to safety and the laxity of our so-called regulatory authorities? If Boston pinpoints our warped capacity to become enthralled to dangerous ideas, doesn’t Waco epitomise our skewed priorities and our lack of empathy for our fellow citizens (until, alas, after the ‘accident’ when empathy flows freely)? Though even then, charity and empathy are in short supply when the said fellow citizens live some distance away. Say, in a foreign country, say Syria.
I’m at Edgware Road (Bakerloo) station (C3) for 12.25 pm.
Across the road stands the Paddington Green Police Station, a stupendously ugly 1960s building that houses the UK’s most important high-security ‘holding station’. (You have to hand it to the Security boyos, grumps The Inner Curmudgeon, the way they whip and warp the English language. But – his voice rises by twenty or thirty decibels – WE KNOW WHAT YOU’RE UP TO!)
This is where members of the IRA were held for questioning, where British nationals released from Guantanamo Bay were held for questioning, where the 2005 London bombers were held. This is one of the pointy bits in the British state’s unending war to ensure that the rich get richer … Sorry, that came out wrong … This is one of the pointy bits in the British state’s ongoing war against global terrorism. Yes, that sounds better.
Apparently some anti-terrorist officers were appalled when the high security cells got a make-over a few years back and terrorists (also known as suspects, also known as citizens who are innocent until proven guilty) held there for 28 days got a TV and a CD player.
Of course terrorism is a terrible thing. We are constantly told of the extreme dangers and threats that have been averted by the custodians of our peace, dangers and threats that must, unfortunately, remain classified and secret. The difficulty with that line though is – given the lies of politicians of all hues, media magnates and editors, leaders of industry banking and commerce, celebrities old and young major and minor – why on earth should we believe policemen? Particularly when so many were in cahoots with the aforementioned editors? Particularly when the history of our police is riddled with examples of so-called criminals being banged-up, damn the evidence or a fair trial?
Why should we believe that the Secret State is working in our interest – it didn’t and doesn’t in East Germany, the USSR, China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, etc. – and when the evidence is that Ordinary Jo(e) Citizen should beware her/his own state, not the forces of external states?
So, we’ve got the war against terrorism, the war against drugs, against crime, against Islamic fundamentalism and jihad, against chavs, the war in Afghanistan, we’ve got (or had) extraordinary rendition, the USA has drone strikes in a country that is –allegedly – its ally, meanwhile we’re shouting against our allies in the EU …
Wow, he’s gotten real angry, says The Inner Curmudgeon. It’s just like the old days, eh, Prof?
I was in the library during the seventies and eighties, remember, replies The Wee Professor. There’s a hint of impatience in his voice. May I ask why you’re using American syntactical constructions?
The Inner Curmudgeon couldn’t care less. Too many Coen Brothers films, he says.
More like Tarantino, I say. It’s Hollywoodification, Wee Prof.
The Wee Professor winces. The Inner Curmudgeon chortles.
All in all, I think, we’re a contentious lot.
And all in all, the view from Edgware Road station is pretty horrific. As well as Paddington Green Police Station, there’s the dirty noisy vile end of the Westway to the south with the ageing brutalism of the Hilton London Metropole to the south-west. Plus, of course, the dual carriageway snarl of the Edgware Road itself.
I do my TubeforLOLs bit and wander up Church Street market. The western half is cheap fruit and veg stalls, doubtful fish stalls, fabric handbags toys phones and geegaw stalls. Many of the stalls are run by Moslems, including Arabs – this is the Northern limit of the moneyed Arab street that is the Edgware Road south to Hyde Park. Moneyed, fancy-free (in London) and fundamentalist (in Arabia).
I scratch up three things worth noting about the Church Street market.
And then there’s the young Arabic woman in full chador at the perfume and beauty stall doing her snake-oil salesman routine to an old white woman. She’s holding two or three black lumps in a clear pastic pouch. ‘These are the roots,’ she is explaining. ‘They are very powerful. It is scientifically proven that …’ and she launches into her spiel about the wonders of the root. Scientifically proven my bunions, I think.
Her customer is looking doubtful but I can see that there’s a tug inside her, despite her advanced age, for self-improvement. Mind you, I think we get more, rather than less, vain with age.
I leg it back to the Edgware (Bakerloo) station, take a tube to Paddington, change on to the District and Circle line platform, wait for a good five minutes, then slowly, every so slowly, chug back east into Edgware (Circle/District/H&C) station (C4). It’s 1.20 pm and it’s taken the best part of twenty minutes to get a hundred yards.
Anyway, I’ve done my bit for the Edgware Road. I go and have lunch with my old friends, Roland and Claire Muldoon. They’re still in the flat they had forty years ago but it’s a good thirty years since I was last there.
We catch up on the past, on Roland’s epic struggles in opening and developing the Hackney Empire in the teeth of strenuous opposition from Hackney Council. (I know, I was there briefly on the other side of that table. Roland was, not to put too fine a point on it, loathed: he wasn’t arty enough, he was one of those low-down agit-prop half-brains, wasn’t he one of those SWP brigands? Worst of all, he wasn’t from Hackney. He was an incomer. It was all dressed up in the best bureaucrat-speak, of course: we had to stick to our arts strategy, money was tight and getting tighter, Mrs Thatcher was putting the screws on the Council … I’ll fill you in some more when I get to Hackney Central and Hackney Wick and when I’ve read his history of these events, Taking On The Empire (Just Press).
We chat companionably for a couple of hours then it’s time for me to leave. The Elephant and Castle calls. That’s where the original Teddy Boys starting jiving in the aisles to Rock Around The Clock, Roland says. In The Odeon. Dancing in the aisles, would you believe it, terrible, afront to public order, the Daily Mail got all steamed up.
I’m at the Elephant and Castle station (E5) Bakerloo exit at around 3.40 pm. It’s taken about twenty minutes.
Across the road is Perronet House. It’s here that Richard Reynolds documented the world-wide phenomenon: Guerrilla Gardening, in his book, On Guerilla Gardening. (It’s from that book that I got the quote from Siegfrid Sassoon.)
Guerilla gardening is another war, this time a war between gardeners usually without gardens or allotments themselves but with the desire to prettify the environment or grow food crops, and local authorities, Highway Authorities, developers, landlords who have no use for the land, but dammit it’s their land and no-one else shall touch it. These are the islands and pockets of land that are hard-scrabble wastelands, deemed too expensive or too low priority for those big important people to do anything about. But who, of course, don’t want anyone else using them to brighten local lives.
I can’t tell whether the planting outside Perronet House is Richard’s and other GG’s work or whether they’ve shamed the owners into planting.
Spotting guerilla gardening, I reckon, is rather like bird-spotting. You’ve got to get your eye in.
But I’m also here to investigate the Elephant & Castle’s very own monster roundabout, it’s very own cruel gyratory, its exemplary cyclist deathtrap.
I’m in that part of the monster roundabout known as the Marie Curie Field of Hope. Unfortunately the sign is cracked and the screws have rusted and it doesn’t look very hopeful at all. The traffic swirls and dodges, cuts in and out, on the four lane road around me. Cyclists have been killed and injured here – articulated trucks are the worst offenders.
Transport for London, Boris – and, before him, Ken – have known about this carnage for ages. The manufacturers of articulated trucks have known about the blind-spot that makes it difficult for drivers to see cyclists, particularly in situations like these, for ages. But ‘progress’, if it can be called that, has been glacial. The Arctic Ice cap is melting faster. Why has it been so slow? Why hasn’t more been done?
Partly perhaps because planners and politicians are locked in a value-system which extols the need for speedy private transport – saving costs, rushing goods to market, speed is of the essence – and which believes in the primacy of the internal combustion engine. And which not only has its priorities skewed but has had a full-scale Empathy Bypass Operation when it comes to yet another cyclist dying. Which perceives other cyclists planting white ghost cycles at the scenes of these deaths as, at best, irritating busybodies.
Is that uncaring, unempathetic attitude so different to the attitude of the owners and managers of the Waco? These aren’t accidents waiting to happen, they are the sins of omission of owners, managers, planners, bureaucrats and politicians. They are the product of a value-system and vested interests that spend many billions on the War on Terror, on extraordinary rendition, on a nuclear deterrent that we’ll never use rather than prevent the deaths of cyclists. Instead they say, What are those cyclists doing out there in the first place? Don’t they know it’s dangerous?
Ah well. I mosey off down the side-streets away from the monster roundabout and the shopping centre. I go looking for some old prefabs that used to be there until fairly recently. But they’re gone. They’ve been replaced by modern social housing. And, further away, on the skyline, someone’s Grand Design in a recycled water tower.
And, a little later on, like a time capsule from the late sixties, an immaculate Triumph Vitesse with all the desirable extras – Minilite alloys, Webasto sunroof, overdrive.
The Inner Curmudgeon sighs. He’s off again, Professor. He rants and raves about cars and then he goes all dewy-eyed when he sees one he fancies. He’ll be banging on about living with the contradictions of capitalism next. What was it Marx said, something about false consciousness?
The Wee Professor corrects him. It was Engels, actually. Engels and later thinkers in the Marxist tradition.
I walk back to the tube station, descend to the Bakerloo platform and walk underground to the Northern line. Two stations to London Bridge, change to the Jubilee for Canada Water, and change on to the Overground for Forest Hill and home. It’s rush hour and I have to wait for a second Jubilee train before I can squeeze on. I examine someone’s armpit for quarter of an hour on the Overground. It takes me three quarters of an hour. I’m back a little after five o’clock.