Monday 10 June – Kilburn (Square B4 on the Tube map), Kilburn High Road (C5), Kilburn Park (C3), Kingsbury (B3), King’s Cross St Pancras (C5), King George V (E9)
I think I must have got a touch of the sun the other day. I feel detached, ghost-like, the world a thin smear at the edge of consciousness. I keep falling through worm-holes between present, past and future. Most of the time I’m wondering what’s happening. Half the time I’m wandering in the past. Once I see the shimmer of the future, but alas, not I think the New Jerusalem. And were those angels, The Incredibles or Mr & Mrs Tweedledum and Tweedledee?
Perhaps I’m a little bored. Perhaps the complete space-time continuum package (past, present and future) is having an off-day. Perhaps it’s that extra breakfast cup of coffee shouting ‘Drink Me’. Perhaps it’s the three tube-lines looping around Kilburn.
It’s a grey April day today. I get the 9.34 Overground out of Forest Hill and change onto the Jubilee at Canada Water. It will take me to the first of The Three Kilburns.
The Metro shouts: ‘Revenge for Rigby’ fears over school fire This is about the fire at Darul Uloom School in ‘retaliation’ for the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Clearly, fundamentalists come in different flavours, but all you need do is believe in a Red Queen for a Red Queen and let nothing come between you and your rage. You don’t even need a God who judges everything from the viewpoint of eternity.
I arrive at Kilburn (Square B4) at quarter past ten. This station is a hundred yards north from Brondesbury (see post Edgelands, I See the Future …) on the Kilburn High Road. I don’t think I can beat that post’s perceptive take on the KHR, so …
Which means, The Inner Curmudgeon grumbles, you can’t be bothered sharpening your quill.
Which means, I retort, that I’ll explore territories new.
The station itself is a notch or two above average. It has a little cluster of shops (newsagent, dry cleaners, cards/confectionery, flowers) in the station precinct and a good fruit and veg stall on the kerb. OK, so the newsagent is shuttered and the dry cleaner closed for holidays, but it hints at a more expansive past.
I scurry north and west. West of the main road that runs north towards Willesden and the M1 is a phalanx of mansion blocks and tower blocks. In between there’s a cracked concrete track with broken bollards. A notice says: Private Road. Residents Only. I pooter in and find an enclave for pensioners, the houses like modern day alms houses or brick-and-tile renditions of the post-war prefab.
There’s a staging area in the middle with bright flowers in pots and plastic buckets. It’s definitely something out of London past – the fifties, perhaps. There’s an old man pottering around behind. He’s drinking a mug of tea. The gate is locked so I call out and give a friendly wave. Perhaps he doesn’t hear me, perhaps he’s in a different time dimension: he potters off out of view.
I walk back to the public road and mosey on westwards. My! This is nothing like my idea of Kilburn. These are broad residential roads with one hundred year old arcades of plane trees either side and fine red-bricked Edwardian mansions and villas, most seemingly still in single ownership. I imagine they must have been built for middle management. Except, did they have middle management in Edwardian days? Didn’t they just have clerks and owners in those days? Admittedly my view of the Edwardian era – culled mainly from The History of Mr Polly, The Go-Between and the ilk – is distinctly sketchy. I have a blurred vision of handlebar moustaches, Royal indiscretions and the mistaken Edwardian idea that all was right with the world.
I’m back at Kilburn station and transfer to Kilburn High Road (C5), at the southern end of the eponymous road. Amazingly the half mile walk takes only twenty five minutes by tube: Jubilee to Green Park, Victoria to Euston, a scuttle-bug dash through the station to the Overground, then two stops towards Watford.
Here – the roar of the KHR pumping in your ears – you can still sense the shades of Ian Dury, The Pogues and the eighties: vast Irish pubs, backstreet hotels, greasy spoons, bustle, litter and the spectre of an edge though, these days, with more halal butchers and the added attraction of a Primark.
But, at the south end of the KHR, the developers are busy tidying up, busy increasing property values.
I time myself walking to Kilburn Park station. It takes three minutes, less if you don’t stop to take photos of hoardings with quotes from Bradley Wiggins and Zadie Smith. (The latter: ‘I’d rather walk down Kilburn High Road than the King’s Road.’ I agree with Her Zadieness, but when Her comments are selling flats, then I fear for the KHR.)
Amazingly, it takes only seven minutes to go by tube to Kilburn Park (C3) – one stop north on the Overground to Queen’s Park, one stop south on the Bakerloo. It would have taken less but there’s two Year 11’s snogging on the platform. My, they’re going it some! My glasses mist up, my mind melts with memories of Rhyl beach and the sixties. (Stop sniggering you lot in the back or I’ll have Mrs Trellis onto you!) I grin from ear to ear.
I turn right out of Kilburn Park to visit the neighbourhood around Peel Precinct. As one of the poorest 20% of neighbouhoods in England, this was a New Deal for Communities area funded directly by the New Labour Government. The aim was, through taking a holistic approach – working out the causes of poverty, poor health, poor housing, poor education, unemployment and crime and developing bewilderingly long analyses and hugely complex multi-agency solutions to these – to hoist the neighbourhood by its bootstraps into the modern thrusting resilient aspirational uber-productive affluent world.
Ten years ago I did a job here trying to help that process. At that time it was a woebegotten neighbourhood, left to rot as long as it didn’t trouble its better-off neighbours or cause too much stink in the media.
Today, well, there do seem to be some improvements. Some of the worst blocks of flats have gone to be replaced by ritzier ones – though whether their aesthetics will stand the test of time remains to be seen. Mostly, the local community centres, halls, adult education centres seem to have a brighter face. And Peel Precinct, still empty and unlovely, also seems improved.
I go into a shop selling Fruit & Veg and Computers. Inside, there are three large middle-aged people sitting on an assortment of chairs in three corners of the shop, sipping cups of tea. Their desultory chat stops when I enter. There’s some minimal fruit and veg on one side, a counter with assorted cans and stuff to the other, medieval CPUs racked up in the shelf behind. I explain why I’m there and ask them whether they think there’s been changes to the neighbourhood. Silence. Then, the one fronting the CPUs answers. It depends what you mean. The Precinct is better because there’s no empty units. Otherwise, is there a difference? I think one of the other two may be asleep. I ask about the new flats. Mr CPU gives a metaphysical shrug. Some are for locals, maybe they’ll be better than what went before. I’m not sure whether he means the flats will be better or the locals.
Thirty five minutes later, I’m back at Kilburn Park station. The southbound platform is devoid of snoggers, but there’s no train for three minutes so – on a hunch – I wander over to the northbound platform. Oh Bunga Borisconi! The kids are there, still at it – presumably they’ve moved platforms because the lunch break is almost over and they’re waiting for a train to take them back to school. I think about the modern thrusting resilient aspirational world. I hope there’s a place for snogging in it.
I’ve bagged the Kilburns, now it’s north-west – Bakerloo line to Baker Street, Metropolitan line to Wembley Park, then one hop north on the Jubilee. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack we go, past the huge brick Neasden Railway Depot.
The next time I look out we’re passing a field of buttercups rising to a wooded knoll. The yellow buttercups shudder in a breath of wind. I become a mouse and disappear into that expanse, wonder at the infinity of grass, wander the eternity of wind.
The next I know I’m at Kingsbury (B3). This is a better Kenton and without the Awful Truth (see Redemption Song). It’s a sinuous High Street, with parades of shops either side, rising to a park with wooded glades.
I have a welcoming lunch at the Rose Vegetarian Restaurant (£5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet plus a mint lassi, thick and creamy and speckled with cinnamon and spices). Many of the items are advertised as having a ‘Jain option’. I ask the restaurant owner about this. ‘Jains,’ he explains, ‘do not eat vegetables that are grown under the ground – carrots, potatoes and so on. These meals are very popular. We get people from all over North London, from Southgate, Finchley, we’re very busy at weekends. We do not skimp. We use only the best oils.’
I’d always thought that, because the Jain religion is so ascetic, it was slowly dying out. I’m pleased to hear that there are Jains in London. I hope there’s a place for them in this modern thrusting aspirational world.
Forty minutes later, one stop to Wembley Park on the Jubilee, change to the Metropolitan line, I’m at King’s Cross St Pancras (C5). I pay no heed to the fantastical attractions of platform 9¾. The allure of the International Terminus; of Blaise Cendrars and the poetry of the trans-siberian railway; of the Hegelian hurly-burly of history is raging in my blood. Once again I’m a hot and crazy teenager, my heart burning like the Temple of Ephesus or like Red Square … Twice this morning my passport had materialised in my jacket pocket. Twice I put it back in my desk drawer. Twice now I check my pockets: nothing.
To restore my psychic equilibrium, I adventure to one of my favourite spots in London: the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, an oasis of tranquillity rooted firmly in an archaic and disputed past. Here, The Beatles were photographed for The White Album. Here, Sir John Soane is buried , his tomb Grade 1 listed, a future inspiration for the – now obsolete – red telephone box. Here, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his main squeeze, Mary, planned their elopement over the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. But did Charles Lutwidge Hodgson skull down the ancient buried waterway underneath? Or John Dee, the Elizabethan occultist, satanic master and all-round eminence grise, play croquet here? We must, I believe, like Jorge Luis Borges adopt a position of studied indifference.
I move on to the Camley Street Natural Park and, as I enjoy the willow down floating around me like the ghostly evidence of a pillow-fight between two giants, I move from the Past to the Present. I walk back to the station. Here are cranes, cement lorries, construction, the bones of the new Camden Council Civic Centre. Here, beyond the fine white building dust that evenly coats the Present, stalks the fateful shimmer of the Future.
I imagine the Past and the Future as two vast ethereal eternal vessels. In cemeteries and churchyards the Bowl of the Past is slowly, silently emptying of all the purposes we have manufactured. As we forget old purposes – as they are emptied from the Bowl – meanings become lost. Who now can remember what the meaning of Valhalla is except fleetingly and touristically like some gadabout anthropologist? Meanwhile, the City urges us towards the Future, towards a clamour of stuff (goods, haircuts, holidays, university degrees, debt) without meaning or purpose.
I blame the cheese, says The Inner Curmudgeon. That second helping of paneer he had at lunch. He always goes metaphysical when he’s full of cheese.
Forty minutes later – Northern line to Bank, DLR east, one stop beyond City Airport – I’m at King George V (E9). There’s a curious illusion on the steps over the station platforms. The glass screens either side reflect the jets taking off so that they appear to go in both directions at once – to the future, to the past.
The neighbourhood is like, but worse than, Custom House (see Of Dinosaurs and Diggers …). Emptier of hope and the future, the people here forgotten castaways like Robinson Crusoe. Here Marx’s spectral reserve army of the unemployed wait out their days – smoking, drinking, begging, watching TV, scoring, darts-playing, betting, TV-watching – while they fulfill their economic function of keeping wages low.
There’s a wee runt of a Scot smoking outside the Royal Standard. He looks about seventy, is probably nearer fifty. Two huge buttery Czechs vacuum-packed into leathers draw up on a puffed-up Honda Gold Wing, she smiling angelically on pillion, he consulting his celestial satnav. They look like Mr & Mrs Tweedledee / Tweedledum crossed with The Incredibles. A barrel-chested Staffie rushes out of the pub, snarling and slavouring, Cereberus guarding the gates of the underworld. The Czechs drive off in a scramble. ‘Ach,’ says Titch, nodding at the dog. ‘He’s as soft as juice.’ The dog retreats backwards until only his snarl remains.
I ask the Scottish runt if there’s anything of interest down the street to our right. ‘There’s nothing there,’ he replies. ‘No buses go down there.’ What about to the left? He brightens. ‘No much, but you can get a bus all the way to Tesco.’ He flicks his stub onto the pavement. ‘There’s tarts inside,’ he says, disappearing back inside to his pint.
I walk into the Royal Victoria Gardens overlooking the Thames. Perhaps I’m being too gloomy. Two teenagers on a park bench are enjoying acrobatic snogging that would have had Mr K Sutra adding a volume to his well-known manual. Goodness knows what the Queen of Hearts would have said. Four men, all of a certain girth, are playing lawn bowls the other side of the wire fence. They’re snug in the knowledge that there’s more important things to life than the procreation of the species.
On my way back to the station, Mr & Mrs Tweedleedum/dee pass me on their Honda. Perhaps they’re stuck in the wrong film, in Groundhog Day? Perhaps they’re interlopers from the other side of the looking glass? Perhaps Rule 42 applies? Perhaps the lasso of the space-time continuum has tied up the past, present and future in loops? I call out and give a friendly wave but they sweep past unseeing.
The Inner Curmudgeon snorts. Perhaps you and they have both eaten too much cheese.
Despite delays on the DLR, I get back to Forest Hill (change onto Jubilee at Canning Town, onto Overground at Canada Water) before six o’clock.