Monday 27 May – High Barnet (Square A5 on the Tube map), Highbury & Islington (B6), Highgate (A5), High Street Kensington (D3), Hillingdon (A1), Holborn (C5)
That great randomizing machine – the TubeforLOLs alphabetic ordering of tube stations – has earned its corn today. Six stations spread across the north, west and centre of this great capital city of ours, all hailing from the upper pastures of affluence, like pats of sweet butter on the great mince pie of London.
There are differences, of course. Some pastures are more affluent than others, some have to be defended with that peculiarly English brand of snootiness rather than fistfuls of dollars, some pats of butter are sweeter than others … And, as ever, the poor are at the gate.
It’s a warm, sunny Bank Holiday Monday and the Tube is in festive, relaxed mood.
There’s no Metro today. I’m reading Basho’s prose-poems, his Haibun. One tells of two Buddhist poets: ‘They drank sake and over tea they talked of the waters of the heart – the sweet, the bitter, the astringent, the pale.’
I’m also reading Danny Dorling’s Injustice. This argues that the previous causes of injustice – ignorance, want, idleness, squalor and disease – have been replaced by elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair.
Professor Dorling is a geographer and statistician, two words that, I know, makes The Wee Professor’s heart (and, perhaps, many of my readers’ hearts) skip with delight. If not, tough – you’re past the Break!
Among the many statistics is a pie-chart which shows that 21% of us (in the U.K.) are finding it ‘difficult or very difficult to manage’ (a very British euphemism for not managing) on our present income and 48% of us are ‘only just coping’. Households in the places I’m visiting today, by and large, will be in the lucky 31% who are ‘living comfortably’.
I leave Forest Hill at quarter past nine. 24 stops and two changes of line later (Jubilee at Canada Water, Northern at London Bridge), I arrive at High Barnet (Square A5) a little before half past ten. The only other inhabitant in my carriage has been sleeping, slumped over two seats, since I got on. I wonder whether to wake him but he looks like someone who has to grab sleep wherever he can, like one of the 6% who find it, in Danny’s analysis, ‘very difficult to manage’.
You could take the main exit out of the station and walk up the hill. I don’t advise that. High Barnet is an end-of-the-line place with a half-hearted shopping centre and a misplaced condescending air.
I go out of the side exit and walk down the hill eastwards. Perhaps, I think, Low Barnet will be more to my taste.
And it is. I come to a middling-to-upmarket shopping parade braced either side of a wide road with a slip road for parking. As well as the usual fast food joints, hair salons, etcetera, it has a Poggenpohl outlet and a fully-functioning Odeon cinema already receiving its first customers of the day.
I walk back uphill to the station admiring the flotillas of lycra-clad cyclists, their Beckhams bulging, sweeping past me into a technicoloured future.
My next stop, 12 stations and one change of line (to the Victoria at Euston), is Highbury & Islington (B6). I arrive a little after half past eleven. Highbury & Islington is really a glorified traffic island on the A1 to Archway and Scotland. But it’s also home to Highbury Fields, which must surely rank as one of the most idyllic spots in central London. (For ‘idyllic’ read ‘living comfortably’.) I’m mooching around the back streets when I meet up with an Older Codger, still in his winter plumage of coat, cap and daypack, on his way for a day out at Kew. He looks like a smaller, more elderly, more bumbling Mr TubeforLOLs.
He tells me his life story. He’s called David, he’s 91, and he retired from the Bar in 1966, aged 64. (He’s got his sums wrong, it must have been 1986.) He’s got a place near Canterbury where he lives in the summer but, when his wife died suddenly eight years ago, he moved back to London and bought a flat round the corner from here to be near his daughters. He’s passed a lot of his money down to the family, he’s given a lot to charity, now he lives comfortably between Highbury and Canterbury. But his health is getting difficult. He launches into an Ancient Mariner-style account of the difficulties of getting the Health Service in Canterbury to talk to the Health Service here.
After we part, I think about how wealth is mainly inherited (another statistic from Danny Dorling) and, with the rich getting richer, how even more will be inherited, how this will help drive increasing social inequalities.
As I wander around the sun-streaked acres of Highbury Fields, I think about how I have always championed equality and yet how I want to leave whatever is left after my death to my children, Becca and Andrew. How do I reconcile these opposing principles? I chew on this but come to no resolution.
My next stop, six stations and one change (back on the Northern at Euston) is Highgate (A5). From here you could walk east along the Capital Ring walking route on the disused railway to Crouch End and Finsbury Park (recommended but beware spriggans). Or you could walk west along the Capital Ring through Highbury Woods to East Finchley (recommended). Or you could cough on the fumes of the good old A1 snarl-up while taking in the grimy, straggling shopping parade (not recommended).
I do none of these. I venture uphill to Highgate Village. It’s very uphill. I pass an obese old woman in an electric wheelchair helping it up the hill by paddling the pavement with her feet. Marauding Ocado and Waitrose vans duel in the side streets.
There’s more than a faint whiff of the Harrow-on-the-Hill aroma of privilege about Highgate Village. It’s another castle on a hill, but it’s on the tourist map of London and has the unquiet grave of Karl Marx at its gate as a constant reminder of the provisionality of privilege. I get the feeling that the residents breathe a sigh of relief each evening when the visitors depart. But, given its situation on top of its hill and that it’s a fair step from the Tube, it’s not a place to marooned in, more a place to visit.
Twenty minutes later I’m on the platform at King’s Cross. The platform is full to bursting. At one end, there are the yellow shirts of Watford supporters, at the other the red and blue of Crystal Palace – the two teams are playing each other at Wembley today for a place in the Premier League. There is raucous good-natured competitive chanting going down. Volume is all, carrying any sort of tune not even desirable.
A Metroplitan train hoves into the platform. It’s packed already with football supporters. As the doors open, the Crystal Palace fans onboard sing out lustily: Que sera, sera, Whatever will be, will be …
Aargh! There’s a terrible beefy shouting from inside my ear and it’s not from the Crystal Palace fans. It’s The Inner Curmudgeon ‘singing’ along, egging the fans on: We’re going to Wemberlee, Que sera, sera.
It’s bad enough me hearing voices, but when other people hear my voices, when they get to acting up because of my voices …
I arrive at High Street Kensington (D3) some 14 stops and two changes of line from Highgate at a little after two o’clock. I explore the back streets filled to bursting with eight storey mansion flats. No competitive chanting here; it’s all stiff-upper-lip and give offerings to the Gods of Status and Privilege.
I walk up and down Kensington High Street and Kensington Church Street with its Lebanese restaurants, chains, Barker’s fine emporium, the Derry and Toms building with its roof garden.
When I first visited London I thought Ken High Street the height of glamour and sophistication. Now I’m less impressed with its lazy, moneyed air of cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitanism is paper-thing: two dossers are panhandling at the corner of the High Street and Church Street.
I move on to pastures new, to Hillingdon (A1), via Earl’s Court, then the Piccadilly line to Rayners Lane then the Metropolitan line, 18 stops in all.
I get talking to a personable young black guy, called Deebo, who asks me if I’m a Christian. No, I reply. He urges me to ‘make the leap of faith’. He tells me he has had a ‘life-changing experience’, that being a Christian has changed him, that he is much happier now because he knows God loves him. He’s trying to convert me but not in a righteous or heavy way. He doesn’t make himself out to be superior merely by being Christian (or me to be inferior by not being a Christian, which is not at all the same thing), just lucky. I like him. He has newly taken his Finals in Chemical Engineering, hopes to go into ‘Oil or Gas’, will know his results in a few week’s time. We shake hands and wish each other God’s Speed as I leave.
Hillingdon is semi-swanky suburbia. North of the station, across the roaring A40, it’s rows and rows of detacheds and large semis – a touch of double-glazed Mock Tudor here, a dab of red-shingled New England ranch there, a smidgeon of Wimpy Edwardian over there. There’s no skimping either on the grass strips by the pavements – with a bit of trimming they’d make cricket wickets even Yorkshire would be proud of. Three Rail Replacement Buses, mostly empty, skittle past me.
I turn back and walk south back across the A40. Another two Rail Replacement Buses, mostly empty, hurtle past.
I find the local parade of shops. This is the widest parade of shops I’ve visited – I’m in dual carriageway land here and there are his-and-hers slip roads either side of the main drag for parking. The parade itself musters car dealerships as well as the usual shops, while the British equivalent of Greyhound buses stop here on the way to Oxford.
I realise that Hillingdon is a misplaced shard of U.S. suburbia. Apart that is from the Rail Replacement Buses: they don’t do railways much in the U.S.of A.
My last visit (17 stops, two changes) is Holborn (C5). I arrive at 5.40 pm. This is another well-heeled area though the fast food joints and betting shops along Kingsway are evidence that many poor people work near here. I walk around Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is gorgeous in the early evening light. I visit the public toilets. I think I may be about to be propositioned by a young scruffy gentleman but the cleaner walks in about his duties. I walk on and talk my way into the Inns of Court.
This is spectacularly beautiful. What it must be like to be a barrister in surroundings like these. I think about one of Danny Dorling’s five principles of injustice, of exclusion. Technically, during weekdays, anyone can wander through these pastures, but in reality only those with business here, or with sufficient self-confidence, actually do enjoy this beauty. You can’t ignore the many virtual ‘Keep Off Our Pasture’ notices.
I walk back through Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Years ago this was a favoured roosting place for rough sleepers. Today, amidst the gilded youth playing frisbee and picnicking, I catch sight of two or three singles in shabby clothes hunched on out-of-the-way park benches, surrounded by overflowing plastic bags filled with papers, clothes, scraps. It’s still, I think, a roosting place.
I think once more of wealth and injustice, beauty and exclusion. I ponder on the waters of the heart – the sweet, the bitter, the astringent and the pale.
I’m still pondering when I get back home at Forest Hill a little before seven o’clock.