Wednesday 5 June – Kensal Green (Square B3 on the Tube map), Kensal Rise (B3), Kensington Olympia (D3), Kentish Town (B5), Kentish Town West (B5), Kenton (A3), Kew Gardens (E2)
I’m reading the notes I made while travelling on the way to Kenton. I remember thinking – the almost-empty Overground swaying in a delightfully hypnotic fashion, clockety-clock, clockety-clock – how pleasant everything was, how some days lots of stuff seemed to happen to me, some days only sporadic bits and pieces happened while on other days, like today was turning out to be, nothing much happened. I rather liked it that way. The sun was busy being sunny in the sky, the people who chanced across my path were interesting in an inoffensive way, my thoughts were the usual heap of inconsequential fluff.
My notes read: ‘So far this has been a pleasant, uneventful day. No alligators. No insights into the nature of reality.’ Alas, the important words above are ‘so far’.
The sun is coming out though there’s still an East Coast breeze as I walk through the Albion Millennium Green to Forest Hill station. I catch the 9.34. The Metro’s headline: Tulisa drug arrest. This is about a woman called Tulisa who has been arrested for possession of drugs.
Fifty minutes later, having changed at Canada Water onto the Jubilee line and Baker Street for the Bakerloo line, I arrive at Kensal Rise (square B3). The breeze has dropped, the sun is fully out.
The station sits a little to the side of the main Harrow Road, it’s a station I’ve never visited and it’s a no-shopping-parade station. It makes do with one of those cheeky three wheeler vans that sell coffee (almost always Italian, usually authentic, often ethical, never revealing its voting intentions) to hard-pressed commuters. Opposite the station that grandiloquent masterpiece of Victorian nostalgia for redemption and the life eternal, the Kensal Green Cemetery, stretches for half a mile either way.
With unerring accuracy, I walk towards the furthest entrance. They are re-making a long section of the massive perimeter wall. They’ve already put in the pilings, topped off with natty lime-green plastic stoppers. I talk to a pleasant, grizzled Glaswegian joiner. He is cutting hexagonal sections in a solid white tablet of hard polystyrene which will be fixed over the pilings with the concrete footing laid on top of that. It’s clay underneath, my Glasgow friend tells me. It heaves. This will sort out any problems with its heaving. He looks back at the massive wall that has lasted 150 years. It’s over the top, if you ask me, he volunteers without me asking. He looks through the gap at the cemetery. They don’t keep this up very well. Not like we do down our way.
Inside the equally massive entrance (a half-scale model of the Arc de Triomphe with added wings), there’s a lady of a certain age waiting. She’s dressed in an unflattering dress in a mauve shade of purple. Her eyeliner is a little ragged, her rouge a touch fifties technicolour. She’s flustered. She wants to get to the Chapel of Rest, but that’s a mile away. How am I going to get there? she says. I had such a bad day yesterday and now this! I couldn’t walk it. I’ve walked all the way from the tube already. I asked someone the way and she told me it was this way.
I commiserate. She was just trying to be helpful, I say. People often are, you know. Trying to be helpful. Except they don’t really know the way themselves.
Oh no! she replies fiercely. No, she knew!
An admin worker comes out of the nearby office. OK, he calls to her, as he walks to a nearby car. I’m ready to drive you over now. Hop in.
I wander through the cemetery. It’s a wild meadow hump-backed with gravestones, sometimes overhung with avenues and copses of trees, sometimes open country, adrift with wild flowers. I read the gravestones: Percival Fearon, Claris Morris, Ferraroni Famiglia, Carmel V Duca, Edward Frederick Wheeler, Daniel and Wilhemina Byrne, Mohamad Bahraini, Onyemahame Ekwuru, Olive Agatha Douglas (Miss Olive) … Miss Olive’s stone reads: Sunrise 8.2.1934 Sunset 1.6.2006 Aged 73 We cannot bring the old days back Her hand we cannot touch But we have beautiful memories Of the one we loved so much. R.I.P. I look up. I see a twist of smoke trailing across the sky.
Kensal Rise (B3) is a five minute walk from Kensal Green. I take twenty minutes to get there by tube – one stop to Willesden Junction, change onto the Overground eastwards one stop.
Kensal Rise is a dusty shopping parade continuing left and right on both sides of the street. It’s initially underwhelming but it grows on me – not quite to whelming status but getting there. As well as the down-market fast food joints, convenience stores and betting shops it’s got butchers and grocers and some up-market cafes, a Scandinavian Kids Store (actually The, not A, Skandinavian Kids Store) though there don’t seem to be many Scandinavian children around.
I’m feeling a mite peckish and, at a Brazilian place, buy a square savoury pastry the size of a heavyweight linen napkin. This is a mistake: the pastry is leathery and the cheese inside, which has migrated to one corner of its prison, is glutinous industrial cheddar. It’s as Brazilian as an Australian wicket-keeper.
Kensington Olympia (D3) is three stops south on the Clapham Junction branch of the Overground: a ten minute journey. I’m sat beside a buggy containing a bawling three year old. He’s got the vocal power of a Pavarotti, the tunefulness of the Chelsea Home Stand on an on-day and the talent to go from 200 to 0 decibels in an instant for a random interval of silence before returning instantly to 200 decibels.
I decide not to visit Olympia itself. Instead, I walk through plush west Kensington and turn down the fume-filled Holland Road. I head for Bristol cars one and only showroom on the corner of Kensington High Street.
Back in the fifties, Bristols were lean sporting cars known as the ‘Businessman’s Express’. Later on they gained weight, huge Chrysler engines and ‘Torqueflite’ (I love that word, ‘Torqueflite’ – there I New Yorked it so much, I said it twice) automatic transmission. I chat with a bright young salesman and look over a 1956 405 Drop-head Coupe, one of only 52 ever made. (Clearly, there weren’t many businessmen in the fifties: ah! but it was heaven to live in those times!) He presses a button in the fascia and the bonnet pops open. I peer inside. By Jove, there’s an engine in there, a recognisable engine with pistons, cylinders, a radiator, an engine without any plastic shrouding. I haven’t seen an engine like that for over twenty years. What a lovely car!
I can hear The Inner Curmudgeon muttering in the background to The Wee Professor. We’d better be careful here, Wee Prof, or we might have extra company. We might be joined by a Jeremy Toad.
I’m still ruminating on the car as I walk back to the station. One hundred and fifty thousands pounds. Well, that would be money well spent.
It’s a full hour from Kensington Olympia to Kentish Town. Much of it is spent on the Edgware Road platform waiting for a Hammersmith & City tube to take me to King’s Cross (before changing on to the Northern line, High Barnet branch). Eventually the train lurches into the station. It’s packed. A family from Somali make a space for me on top of a massive, aluminium-shelled piece of wheelie-luggage. The elderly American owner apologises, somewhat sheepishly. Apparently it contains a life-size model of the Shea Stadium, 15 August 1965 to be exact. He takes it everywhere. He gets homesick. I put my ear to the aluminium shell. I hear a roar, like the roar of the sea but more treble, hysteric. Behind it, distantly, I hear John Lennon singing ‘Twist and Shout’. The elation of my 15 year-old self, that sense of freedom, briefly raptures me.
Kentish Town (B5) is a small (but, thankfully, not perfectly formed) town centre nowhere near Kent. It’s the poor relation of both Camden Town to the south and Belsize Park to the west but it can, at least, sneer at Tufnell Park to the north – that is as long as Tufnell Park hasn’t ‘come up’ since I was last there twenty years ago. While I can’t think of any reasons why you shouldn’t visit it, and I retain a personal affection for it (Fran lived in a house here when I met her), I’m trying hard to think of reasons why I should urge you to visit, but it’s probably (unlike, say, Highgate) a neighbourhood that’s better lived in than visited.
Kentish Town West (B5) is a healthy ten minute walk but I take the Northern line back to Euston, change onto the Victoria line to Highbury & Islington and sail in on the Overground twenty five minutes later.
Until the Overground gained full Tube Status, this was a no man’s land, a ‘Here Be Dragons’ place bereft of civilization and forgotten, as much as it could be forgotten, by the rest of Kentish Town, as well as Belsize Park and Camden. True, there are (or were) some rough areas. But Camden Council spent millions doing up the Kentish Town Swimming Pools (now Centre) and Talacre Sports Centre. I mooch around, sit on a park bench in Talacre Gardens and watch the workmen putting up a brash new set of flats, shoe-horned between station and park.
Later, I almost get mown down by a four year old ASBO-trainee pedalling a gleaming Baby Mini. The tables are full outside The Grafton pub and at least half the male drinkers shout encouragement, some offering fistfuls of fivers for the Baby Mini to the Dad allegedly monitoring his son’s driving.
It takes less than forty minutes to get to Kenton (A3) – Overground to Willesden Junction, change to Bakerloo or Overground Watford branch. My notes read – well, you know what they say.
Kenton is a wide main road choked with cars and petrol fumes. It boasts a Sainsbury Superstore off to one side and a massive Beefeater to the other. There are Indian stores of all descriptions and Greek and Meditteranean food-stores. Schools are out and, though the Sixth Formers are taking (or have taken) their Reeding and Righting Alarums, and are therefore absent, there’s an enjoyable sparkle of larking about. I am mulling over the idea of a cooling orange juice when the Awful Truth is Revealed.
I’m aghast. Bob Marley, the Rastafarian revolutionary, the mystic and musician. His name ‘lent’ to a canned ‘berry’ drink ‘chillin’ in World Foods’! What are his estate thinking of? Who’s going to be next? Van Morrison fronting for Chelsea Buns? Paul Robeson plugging Potters Cataarh Pastilles? Leonard Cohen selling pamphlets for the Early Closing Time Society? Bob Dylan – no, let’s not go there …
I steady myself. Redemption Song, the last track on side two of Marley’s final LP, Uprising, comes to my mind: Won’t you help me sing, these Songs of Freedom, Cause all I ever had, Redemption Songs, All I ever had, Redemption Songs!
I make a quick Exodus to the tube. No Human, No Cry, I warble. It’s only a little after four. I decide I’ll bag another station, I’ve got to get the taste of that Bob Marley drink out of my brain.
I get to Kew Gardens (E2) in a little over half-an-hour: Bakerloo to Willesden Junction change onto Overground (Wimbledon branch). The area around the tube station is a peach, quite the best part of Kew. It has an upmarket butcher, upmarket bars, bookshop, upmarket beauty shops, upmarket wholefood store, upmarket wine shop … It’s got a green-fingered intellectuality about it, a sort of Hampstead south of the river. (Sorry, Dulwich, but you’re not on the tube.) But for civilized outdoor living, it could still learn – everywhere in London could learn – from bourgeois neighbourhoods in most cities in France.
I skirt the Royal Botanic Gardens and head for Kew Green, the site of Kew Ponds (now drained), beyond. Well before the RBG was founded, back in the seventeenth century, the alligator fishing of Kew Ponds was renowned throughout the country. As famous as the contemporaneous cormorant fishing at Sho that Basho wrote so eloquently about. I quote from the Japanese poet and Buddhist: ‘It is as fascinating as the accounts. Without wisdom and talent, I cannot possibly exhaust the scene in words, but I long to show it to those whose heart understands. As it says in the Noh Play Alligator Fishing, ‘How regrettable the parting from Kew Gardens.’’
But part I must and, after an hour’s stay, I make my way back to Forest Hill, burnished with gold in the early evening light, arriving shortly after seven o’clock.
Won’t you help me sing, these Songs of Freedom, Cause all I ever had, Redemption Songs …