Monday 3 June – Hoxton (Square C7 on the Tube map), Hyde Park Corner (D4), Ickenham (A1), Imperial Wharf (E3), Island Gardens (E7), Kennington (E5)
I know. It’s been bothering you almost as much as it has bothering me. We have all known for some time that, sooner or later, we are going to have to face up to it, that we are going to have to bring our secret out into the open and talk about it frankly. But, well, like all these tricky topics, it’s never the right time to talk about it, there’s always some excuse to put the dread day off.
You’re havering, man, sneers The Inner Curmudgeon, grinding his collection of ancient Norse battle-axes. Get on with it! You’ve already hinted at it in your cutsey heading up there. Your, if I may say so, cutsey and misleading heading.
I nod. You’re right, IC, I reply. I cough – I don’t seem to be able to get rid of the catarrh at the back of my throat. Let me hand over to The Wee Professor, I mumble. He’s got all the statistics to hand.
Oh thank you, Sandy, says The WP. Hmm, well … The basic statistical anomaly about the TubeforLOLs project is that, out of a total of 368 stations, there are …
WHAT! roars The Inner Curmudgeon. 368 stations? It says 367 up there! Where did that extra station pop its ugly head up from!
The WP gets flustered. Well, anyone would, with two hanging prepositions.
I miscounted, I tell The IC, I made a mistake. It happens all the time.
The WP chips in, If I may continue … Of the 368 stations, only 55 stations are located south of the Thames. That is, 15% of stations. In terms of population – based on ONS 2010 mid-year estimates – there are 2,715,277 inhabitants of London south of the Thames out of a total of 7,825,177. That is, 35% of inhabitants live south of the Thames. The question is, therefore, is the TubeforLOLs project statistically valid for London as a whole? He twitches his nose at this point, a sure sign that, at best, the jury is out on this.
The IC interrupts. What you’re saying, WP, is that we don’t need to talk about Kennington because there is a tube station at Kennington. But we do need to talk about Erith, Bexley, Sidcup, Chislehurst, Bromley, Beckenham, Orpington, Sutton, Carshalton, Dulwich, Kingston, Surbiton, Streatham …
I’ve had enough of statistics and belly-aching. Listen you two (actually I phrase it a little more demotically than that), the rules of the game are that we visit every station on the Tube map. So the Tube doesn’t venture much south of the river. So we haven’t found anywhere north of the river exactly like Catford and it’s unlikely we’ll find anywhere like Downe. Too bad!
Huh! growls The IC, siding with The WP. What you’re saying is that there’s lies, damned lies and statistics.
I bridle. No. What I’m saying is that the term ‘London’ is vague, purposefully vague. Vague in the positive sense as illuminated by Wittgenstein. Plus, I’ve lived in South London for 35 years, I’ve been to all those places …
We argue the whole half hour to Hoxton (Square C7) when we should be enjoying the sunshine, arguing when we should be discussing the Metro headline: The fight to save 2 million children This is about David Cameron’s ‘global hunger summit’. That’s the same David Cameron whose government is increasing child poverty here in the UK.
Hoxton is where you’ll find the Geffrye Museum (the ‘Museum of the Home’ as it calls itself) but I don’t fancy looking at furniture so I strike north, then east. There are still a few workshops and import / export businesses around, while east of the tracks it’s mainly social housing. There aren’t many people around – a couple of African women in wonderful head-dresses, a covered-up Muslim woman, two elderly Afro-Caribbeans talking in their front garden, a hoodie, Council dustmen, a female jogger, a rasta on a bike. I pass an adventure playground and chance upon St Mary’s Secret Garden.
This really is a secret – and wonderful – garden. It has a little of everything – a wild garden, a deep glade, bee-hives, a greenhouse, raised beds, a pond, plants for sale. There’s a group of adults with learning difficulties strolling around, looking at the plants. From my casual uninformed viewpoint, they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. A local father with his two sons pops in for a look-see.
I talk with one of the workers, Catherine. The garden is run by a local charity. They do community placements for people with learning disabilities and mental health problems, a range of gardening training, schools activities, tours, community workshops, everything …
This is one of those groups who really are part of the ‘Big Society’. (Do you remember the ‘Big Society’, Mr Cameron? It’s made up of people and groups who give something back to society rather than your MPs and Peers who like to take things out of society. Or your friends in banking, construction, the media, police and commerce who wish to exclude themselves from society while lining their capacious pockets.)
But I can’t rage for long: the garden is peaceful, calming. By the end of our visit, The Inner Curmudgeon, The Wee Professor and I are purring in harmony.
In less than half an hour (Overground to Highbury & Islington, Victoria line to Green Park, one stop west on the Piccadilly line) I’m at Hyde Park Corner (D4). The sun is out. Some soldiers, smartly turned-out, taking their horses for exercise, are overtaken by a gliding Royal Parks buggy. A female skateboarder falls over. Two Borisconi bikes swoop across a pedestrian crossing. Tourists lick outrageously priced ice creams.
I’m about to head back to the underground when a 43 gun salute booms overhead. Gracious me, I think, I didn’t know my fame had spread that widely.
It wasn’t 43 guns, growls The Inner Curmudgeon. You counted wrong. Again. It was 41.
Oh look, I say brightly, horse droppings!
There’s a whistler in the tube. He’s old, portly and wearing a Viking t-shirt, Norwegian for a guess. He’s one of those whistlers who repeats a phrase again and again. I recognise the phrase. Grieg, I think, his Peer Gynt music. (When I get back I dust off my old phonograph recording and, blow me down with an alligator, I’m right!) I move a couple of carriages up-wind of the whistler.
A couple of stations later a young woman, bottle-blond hair tucked behind an Alice band, gets on the tube with her dog. She’s got what’s called good bone structure. He looks exactly like the dog in that children’s film of the 90s, Beethoven. She talks on her iphone about her best friend’s wedding. She listens via Spotify on her ipad and helps someone out with their streaming. She’s effortlessly in command, effortlessly sociable.
A few stations later another young blond gets on and, in between eating jelly-babies, fusses over the dog. What’s it called? she asks. The first blond replies, with a little laugh beforehand to forewarn us of her limited dog-naming abilities, Beethoven.
I’m at Ickenham (A1) – way out on the Uxbridge spur of the Metropolitan line, 55 minutes after leaving Hyde Park Corner. The station is located on a country lane. Ickenham itself is a three-pub village, with a village pond and some old flint mansions stuck among the modern SDTs (semi-detacheds). It’s a London suburb pretending it’s not part of London but a village somewhere in Buckinghamshire.
It’s also fiercely anti the HS2 high speed railway. The front page of the local newspaper, the Uxbridge Gazette, is purple with rage: HS2 neighbours face seven years of construction hell! They’re right to protest. The HS2 is a complete nonsense until you realise it’s a way for the Cameroonians to funnel massive billions into the pockets of those scroungers and chums known as Big Business.
An hour after leaving Ickenham (Metropolitan to Rayners Lane, Piccadilly to Earl’s Court, District one stop to West Brompton, Overground one stop towards Clapham Junction) and I’m at what used to be known as Chelsea Harbour but has now been re-branded as Imperial Wharf (E3) – rather like Windscale being rebranded Sellafield.
This, I decide within five minutes, is quite the spookiest part of London I’ve yet visited. The blocks of ritzy waterside flats look slightly unreal, unused; the few people mincing through the landscaped piazzas look like the mannequins the architects draw on their plans. Everyone is young and fashionable. No-one is old, fat, disabled, ugly, freakish or homeless, there are no drunks in the corner. I begin to feel a little mannequin-esque myself, a little unreal, a little bit zombie.
I talk to a waiter at the upmarket Lebanese and Syrian restaurant. Seventy per cent of these flats, he says, are owned by Arabs from Dubai, that well-known outpost of Arab autocracy. He points to the penthouse flat in one of the riverside blocks. That, he says, has just been sold for nine and a half million pounds. We weep. These people, he says, only use these flats for holidays. Most of them are empty for most of the time.
I look up at the flats. It’s a lovely day today, those are lovely balconies, the sun is streaming down on the balconies. You would think there would be people on at least one out of some hundred balconies. But there’s no-one.
Basically, the very rich from abroad have flats for one of two reasons: (1) as bolt-holes against the time they may have to flee their country and (2) as investments because they know there’s a growing class of rich leeches world-wide who also need a bolt-hole. Plus, sterling’s low exchange rate helps. Peter Mandelson was, famously, extremely relaxed about the very rich. Our present regime is extremely relaxed about very rich immigrants. They have no objections to the cronies, back-slappers and hangers-on of despots, dictators and unsavoury autocrats turning areas of London into zombie-land and skewing the housing market. Could we have a politician who is ‘extremely relaxed about’ – i.e. a friend of – the poor? Or is that too much to ask for?
He’s having another of his days, mutters The Inner Curmudgeon.
It takes another hour travelling almost due east – the Overground through Clapham Junction to Canada Water, one stop to Canary Wharf, then the DLR towards Lewisham – before I make it to Island Gardens (E7).
Set on the north side of the Thames opposite Greenwich, Island Gardens is a jewel of a pocket park. The foot-tunnel to Greenwich starts here – though I decide not to go that way: I’ve seen a lot of tunnels recently. Plus, it’s the M25 for cyclists heading across river.
From here the view across the Thames is the visual equivalent of well-aged manchego: thrilling, splendid, deeply satisfying. Needless to say Island Gardens is being threatened with development: not enough rich people live here. Not yet, at least.
I hurry on to Kennington (E5) – DLR to Bank then the Northern line. Kennington can best be described as a curate’s egg – good in parts, bad in others. Or it could be a scrambled egg – Council tower blocks and housing of varying ages and ugliness mixed thoroughly with fine Victorian streets and squares housing the professional and upper-middle classes.
Now, we do need to talk about Kennington, not because it points up the lack of tube stations in South London, but because – despite part of it being within the ‘division bell’ area of the House of Commons – it has, so far, resisted the desolate flatification of Imperial Wharf and the banks of both sides of the Thames, but particularly the south side from Wandsworth in the west through Greenwich in the east. It’s prime real estate but, so far, is resisting London’s crazy, lop-sided, doomed housing market. What we need to talk about is how we make sure there’s affordable housing, how we make sure there are homes for Central London workers, poor and not-so-poor as well as rich. If we have to have capitalism, let it be productive not bent to the wish-list of the very lucky (also known as the very rich).
I’m thinking these thoughts as I sip my pint in a fine pub in a fine square, surrounded by locals, in deepest Kennington.
Huh! grunts The Inner Curmudgeon. You’re only trying to deflect attention away from the fact that this exploration of London won’t come up with the exploratory goods. Besides, all you’re doing is chatting up that Polish barmaid from Krakow.
A local comes in and asks for a pint of Orangeboom and a lager shandy. Do you want Orangeboom in the shandy, she asks. Oh no, your cheapest lager, he replies. Ahh, she says, the house lager.
I laugh: Poles moving the English language on. What next?
It’s after seven o’clock before I get back to Forest Hill. Where did the time go?