Monday 29 April – Farringdon (Square C6 on the Tube map), Finchley Central (A5), Finchley Road (B4), Finchley Road & Frognal (B4), Finsbury Park (B6)
It’s a lovely bright Spring day with a few puffs of cloud in a blue sky. But my mood is neither lovely, bright nor spring-like. I may have hauled myself from Saturday’s Pit of Misery but I’m stuck axle-deep in the Slough of Despond.
And unlike John Bunyan’s Christian, who most famously got bogged down in the Slough of D. back in the seventeenth century, my quest won’t end in the ‘Celestial City’ (otherwise known as Heaven). Me, I’ll wind up, in another 250+ stations, at Woolwich Arsenal.
Woolwich Arsenal? All this travelling from boring empty-headed suburb to benighted inner-city neighbourhood, most of it underground in noisy, dirty, jam-packed, shuddering, wretched, virus-breeding-ground transport-capsules, and I end up at Woolwich Arsenal? Even Richard Dawkins might consider a quick surreptitious prayer to the Almighty rather than that.
I’m tired, dog-tired, of tubes and being underground; tired of streets and streets of houses, tired of the urban. I dream of open spaces, of the aged mountains of Assynt, of the sugar-loaf of Suilven. I’m fantasising about the shepherd’s trails across the Alberes Mountains, between Spain and France, with the Mediterranean – the Mare Nostrum of Roman days – glinting in the sunlight to the east.
And what do I get? The sea of houses that’s Lewisham and Catford to the east. The mountains that are The Shard and the South East London Community Heat and Power station to the west. Ahh! Give me something with at least a taste of solitude …
I leave Forest Hill at 10.05 am. The Metro’s headline: Demand sends house prices back to peak I change at Whitechapel for the Hammersmith & City line. The H&C train creeps forward very slowly, then stops, then creeps forward once more. It has a bad fit of the shrieking and some hysterical clonking over points outside Liverpool Street station. I could swear it goes into reverse once.
It takes forty minutes to get to Farringdon station (Square C6) where there are dire warnings of severe delays on the Northern line between Kennington and Camden Town on the Bank branch, while the Overground between Willesden Junction and Highbury & Islington is completely suspended because of a signal failure at Gospel Oak. Hah!
Crossrail is everwhere at Farringdon. It’s there in improvements to the station, in the clank, screech and thunderous noise of machinery, in the ‘big is better, bigger is betterer, biggest is besterous’ straight-lines, no-decoration architecture, in the surveyors and engineers in their orange high-vis suits.
I trundle towards Smithfield. Trade has long since closed for the day. White electric floor cleaning carts and forklifts hum around busily, gentlemen in white lab coats and hard hats stroll around looking serious, porters in white boots and uniform scrub floors. I pause and admire the decorative detailing.
The old codger is feeling his age, the Inner Curmudgeon says. He thinks that fretwork means ‘thrills’, not frills.
I walk back to the station. The TfL gentleman on the tannoy is still advising of severe delays on the Northern line and no service on the Overground. He’s spot on about the Northern line. There’s a lot of creeping along, stopping, creeping, stopping again. Of brakes hissing as though the train might be setting off, but then nothing. The electric systems in the carriages are buzzing with more zest than Tory Ministers bring to cutting the NHS. It takes an hour and five minutes to get the eight stations and one change to Finchley Central station (A5).
I’ve never been to Finchley Central before and, quite frankly, I never want to come back here again. Perhaps if you live here you find it a perfectly acceptable spot in which to cool your heels. I find it a dreary, dirty over-extended shopping parade. The two sides of shops face off against each other like aged cauliflower-eared boxers. There’s added traffic snarling for those who like to mix their double-shot espresso with Red Bull.
East Finchley is preferable (see post ‘Unlikely Heroes …) and has the added bonus of being one station nearer to civilization.
Back at Finchley Central station the TfL gentleman on the tannoy is still advising of severe delays on the Northern line etc. Our Northern line train grinds to a halt at Camden Town. After a few minutes the driver comes on over the intercom. He sounds more than a little perplexed. ‘I’ve just got a green signal, but it’s for Charing Cross. That’s the wrong signal for us. We’re a Bank train. I’ll wait here till we get confirmation.’
We wait. A few minutes later he comes back on the intercom. The train is being diverted! It doesn’t matter to me. But for a large contingent of the travelling public it is bad news indeed. There is much harrumphing.
Me, I’m delighted. Not, I hasten to add, from any feelings of schadenfreude – though it’s a delight to use the word. No, it’s because it’s a first. I’m on a diverted train! I’ve never been on a diverted train before in forty years of London life. This is certainly the most exciting thing that will happen to me today.
The train stops at Mornington Crescent. My mind idles. Fancy, here I am on a supposedly Bank branch Northern line tube and I’m stopping at Mornington Crescent where only Charing Cross branch tubes visit. What better way could there be to visit Mornington Crescent …
I awaken with a start, grab my things and … the train doors close. Dammit cubed! The perfect opportunity missed. The only opportunity I’ll ever have to get to Mornington Crescent in a manner befitting its mystical, logistical and comedical nature. And would that have signalled the end to the TubesforLOLs madness? It could, it could.
The Inner Curmudgeon nudges The Wee Professor. He’s off in a strop, he says, as pleased as Punch.
It’s more of a sulk, opines The Wee Professor.
It takes fifty minutes before I arrive at Finchley Road station (B4). I used to live near here and I have fond memories of the Finchley Road. Goodness knows why. It’s better than Finchley Central in the way that five years in solitary at Wormwood Scrubs prison is better than ten years in solitary at the Guantanamo Bay ‘detainment and interrogation facility’.
For a start, the traffic snarl is spread over a dual carriageway. Plus, there’s a Waitrose and a bookshop specialising in psychoanalysis so at least you can buy semi-decent cheese and then get expensive treatment for your cheese-eating disorder. Come to think of it, that’s got to be a lot better than being a cheese-eater in Guantanamo Bay. ‘Hey, Sarge! This guy says he likes Morbier.’ ‘Morbier?’ ‘Sure, Sarge. It’s some kind of French cheese.’ ‘Sounds like manipulative self-injurious behaviour to me. Let’s help him on his way.’ ‘Sarge?’ ‘Help him get outta here, Soldier.’ ‘Sarge?’ ‘Feet first in a body bag, Soldier. Do I make myself clear?’
The Freud Museum is around the corner. Forty years in London and I’ve never been to the museum that honours the founder of a thousand schools of middle class agony uncles. I’m about to head there when I spot a poster saying that it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
I’m half-way to leaving when the iron in my soul reasserts itself. I walk down Goldhurst Terrace where, at different times, I lived in two different flats.
Goldhurst Terrace, mercifully, seems as it was – marooned in a multi-occupational seventies time-warp. I go misty-eyed thinking of the good old times we had in the good old flat with the good old bathroom half-way down the stairs that we shared with the good old tenants of the other flats. Ah! Those were the good old days!
I eat lunch at the corner cafe. Given my recent near-death experience at Guantanamo, I eschew cheese in any of the myriad forms on offer and elect for a salad nicoise. I quite enjoy it despite it being as near to an authentic salade niçoise as London is from Nice.
I trudge back to Finchley Road station. My next journey, to Finchley Road & Frognal will take me 16 stations and two changes of line (Jubilee to Bakerloo at Baker Street to Overground at Willesden Junction). And Finchley Road & Frognal is all of, oh, a quarter of a mile up the Finchley Road from Finchley Road station. This journey has to be amongst the most pointless of TubeforLOLs journeys.
The familiar TfL gentleman is on the tannoy at Baker Street. There’s still no service on the Overground between Willesden Junction and Highbury & Islington. I waver briefly. What do I do if I get to Willesden Junction and there’s still no eastbound service? I decide that, if I am forced to abort TubeforLOLs for the day, so be it, I will sail to Forest Hill via the Overground south to Clapham Junction, then east to Surrey Quays.
But, sing Hallelujah! When I arrive at the Overground platform for Highbury & Islington, service has been resumed. Well, just about: the next train will arrive in ten minutes. All my pessimistic assumptions are overturned and the fifty-five minutes it takes to get to Finchley Road & Frognal is an heroic endorsement of the human spirit! Ahh, such are the vagaries of the human mind!
As for Finchley Road & Frognal station (B4): the traffic snarl has moved a quarter of a mile further up the Finchley Road towards the M1 and Carmageddon. There’s nery a finch nor a frog in sight. The shops have given way to vast furniture emporia purveying the sort of tasteless furniture lusted after by people with more roubles than sense. No matter, the Camden Arts Gallery is across the road. I make for it, like a bee to the clover – only to find that it’s closed on Mondays.
There’s a brash new building being built opposite which proclaims that it’s the New Jewish Post Code: JW3. I talk with some workmen. Is it a Jewish Museum? I ask. No, they say, it’s a community centre. Wow, I reply, it looks big for a community centre. ‘It’s for all the community, really,’ comes the reply.
The Inner Curmudgeon snorts. Give him a piece of Political Correctness, particularly from a workman dabbing concrete while standing up to his waist in a drain, and he’ll give Melanie Phillips a run for her rant. It’s for all the community, really, he says. Oh really?
My last stop is Finsbury Park station (B6). I take the Overground to Highbury & Islington and the Victoria line one stop north. I get there in less than half an hour.
Finsbury Park is not recommended for the faint-hearted. But, should you want a glimpse of life in the raw, this is the place for you. Should you get a buzz out of bustle, hustle, all-round heaviness and rough friendliness, then ditto. If slumming it is your bag, then here is the ‘hood of your dreams. It’s a heaving, inner-city, multi-cultural, honest-to-goodness corn-syrup and saturated-fat crossroads.
Literally. The larger of the two roads, the Seven Sisters Road, is a regular finalist in the ‘Mother of All Snarl-Ups’ Championship, while the minor road crossing it, the Blackstock Road, punches above its weight in traffic fumes, grit, oxygen-deprivation, bad parking and generalised pandemonium. It’s not so much a place to see how the other half live as a place to see how the other half snarl.
I refuse the blandishments of a Turkish baklava seller. The Slough of Despond embraces me in its awful maw. The missed opportunity of Mornington Crescent gives me the Blind Willie McTells big-time. I trudge back underground. An hour later, at quarter to six, I trudge off at Forest Hill.