Wednesday 1 May – Forest Hill (Square F6 on the Tube map)
I am sitting on a bench on the Southbound platform at Forest Hill drinking a cup of Monmouth Coffee’s fine Finca Capetillo from Guatamala and munching on an Emmental and Cucumber roll, both bought from On the Hoof situated on the Northbound platform. The sun has got a veritable topper on today. This, I think as I stretch my legs out, is the life! No travelling for me today because today I visit my home station. And, as the demiurge behind TubeforLOLs’ rules (I’m not going to get too big for my sneakers and go for full-blown Divinity), I have decreed that this – entering on one platform, exiting on the other – is the cosmological solution to how I visit my home station.
Today’s post is that rara avis of the murky parallel universe known as TubeforLOLs: a post that involves no tube journeying. Hurrah! …
There’s a chap in a dark suit standing beside me holding a long narrow leather box which I’m guessing doesn’t contain fishing rods or window-cleaning equipment. He looks vaguely Italian. I’m hoping the box doesn’t contain – you know – a rifle, with or without a telescopic sight. No, that sort of thing doesn’t happen in Forest Hill. That’s the sort of thing that happens in Sydenham. Actually, he looks a little familiar …
I breathe a sigh of relief. It is, of course, Tony Drago – a top ten snooker player in the 1990s and a regular feature in the World Snooker Championships at the Sheffield Crucible. My mother was an avid snooker fan and gained immense pleasure from the battles between Tony and the likes of Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White. We get to talking. Tony is still a snooker professional though as age creeps up on him he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the lengthy and single-minded concentration demanded by the sport at the highest levels.
So how come he’s visiting Forest Hill? I ask.
It’s because his cues are handmade in Forest Hill.
I can’t believe it. We’re still making things? In Britain? Here, in Forest Hill?
Indeed, we are and, in the case of snooker cues, mighty fine ones, courtesy of John Parris – cue-maker to Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ali Carter, Judd Trump and the likes. I visit him in his small, unprepossessing workshop in a nearby backstreet and find him in earnest discussion with Michael Grainger, an extraordinarily young-looking guy who’s just turning snooker professional. (First policemen look younger, then snooker professionals …) I get a five minute informal tutorial in the intricate complexities and craft of cue-making.
Then I’m on my way to sample the delights of downtown Forest Hill before soldiering up the hill to the Horniman Museum.
Forest Hill is trying to reinvent itself, the reinvention coming courtesy of a number of small shopkeepers and businesses – mainly in the arts & crafts, fashion and coffee shops / eaterie sectors.
Back in the mid-eighties I was a founding member of the Hackney Tourism Committee. Our thesis: Hackney needed to capitalise on the burgeoning arts and creative industries scene so that it became a tourist destination. Tourism in Hackney? Wow! Was that an idea that was welcomed with open arms! I console myself with the thought that we vastly increased the sum of human laughter in Hackney. But now, twenty five years on, what’s happened? Shoreditch is desirable. Hoxton is the place to be. Dalston is happening. Hackney’s got culture. (It’s also got a Foxtons, which shows how far down the road it’s got to gentrification and sky-high property prices.)
And there’s more, much more. There’s a rare-breeds butcher (The Butchery – the meat is from rare breeds, not the butchers themselves), a French baker (down the road in Kirkdale), a remarkably fine coffee shop (St David’s) and a candlestick maker. Actually, I lie about the last, but we do have a snooker cue maker. We have a whole street of artist’s studios, though we try to keep quiet about them. And a brand new swimming pool …
Will history repeat itself? Will Forest Hill become South London’s answer to Hackney? Well, why not? It’s on the Overground and is less than 15 minutes from London Bridge. The developments there, including the Shard and the massive redevelopment of Guy’s Hospital, will generate thousands of jobs. Not all of the people filling those jobs will want to live in faraway boring places like Bexley or Bromley or Beckenham.
And, of course, we do also have the Horniman Museum – the museum that put the ‘Eck in eclectic.
I step into the Horniman for a quick shuftie at its most famous exhibit.
The Horniman Walrus is huge, he’s the number one celebrity in Forest Hill, he has almost one million followers on Twitter. It’s the first time I’ve been here this year, so I’m surprised when he cocks his tusks and says, ‘Hello, Mudgie. Long time no see, China.’
Mudgie? It takes some time for the penny to drop. Mudgie – short for Curmudgeon.
The Inner Curmudgeon clears his throat. ‘How’s it going, Wally?’
The HW flicks his whiskers. There’s a young black father and his son standing by us. The father can’t believe what’s going down, he’s an adult after all. His son is loving it.
‘It’s bad, Mudgie,’ says the HW. He’s got a deep deep bass voice that makes Leonard Cohen sound like one of the Chipmunks. ‘They’ve got a new exhibition here.’ His voice drops a few more octaves. He’s whispering now. It’s a whisper that was loud about four thousand miles ago when it originated in East Greenland. ‘They’ve got alligators in the new exhibition.’
We gasp. Alligators. Horror.
The Wee Professor comes to the rescue. ‘American or Chinese alligators?’ he asks.
‘I’ll check it out,’ says the WP. ‘Chinese alligators are much smaller. Not so vicious. Not recorded as man-eaters.’
Mudgie looks doubtful. ‘It’s too late.’ He looks left and right, then hunkers down. ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ he says. ‘Top secret. Cross your hearts.’ He stares at us.
We all, father and son included, cross our hearts.
‘They’ve had an escapee. Two. They were last seen legging it down the South Circular towards Dulwich.’ He sighs. ‘I do miss the Carpenter, though. Something dreadful. Well, I miss the oysters most.’
‘Me too, Wally,’ sighs The Inner Curmudgeon. He holds his pocket-handkerchief before his streaming eyes. ‘I weep for you, I weep for me, I deeply sympathize.’