Sweetly the Valley Thrushes Sing (45/80)

Thursday 20 June – Knightsbridge (Square D4 on the Tube map), Ladbroke Grove (C3), Lambeth North (E5), Lancaster Gate (C4), Langdon Park (C7)

I have reached the mid-way point in this ‘brilliant/absurd quest/challenge’ of mine. 184 stations visited, 184 stations yet to be graced by the shadow of Mr TubeforLOLs. I feel a little like the hill-walker in Norman MacCaig’s poem Descent from the Green Corrie. As well as being one of Scotland’s finest poets, MacCaig, was an enthusiastic angler and one of his favourite haunts was a lochan perched on a saddle in the middle of the ancient sugar-loaf mountains of Assynt in the far north west of Scotland. It’s become an ambition/dream of mine to get to the Green Corrie. Twice I’ve tried to get there, twice I haven’t managed it.

In his poem, MacCaig writes: ‘The climb’s all right, it’s the descent that kills you / However sweetly the valley thrushes sing’. And, as all mountaineers know, you haven’t climbed the mountain until you return to base. Will TubeforLOLs be like my attempts on the Green Corrie? Will I stumble somewhere between Penge West and Perivale? South Ruislip and South Tottenham? Will 1st January 2014 see me begin again, a second attempt, at Abbey Road?

It’s grey today, a uniform shroud of cloud. Yesterday was summer; today, well, the cloud cover could break. Or it could rain. It’s 9.45 at Forest Hill, the planter outside the station is still looking good (see end of Adventures in Yonderland for photo of planter and TubeforLOLs flash-mob).

The Metro hollers: Teachers face rise in working hours This is another wheeze of Michael ‘Pimple’ Gove to squeeze the pips of the working population and give more Buck’s Fizz to the super-rich.

The Inner Curmudgeon sighs, It’s going to be one of his ranting days, Wee Prof.

The Wee Professor coughs. There is increasing evidence, IC, he says, that the wages and salaries of all but the top three deciles of the population are declining, while the overall wealth, particularly of those individuals in the top decile, is increasing.

Changing at Canada Water onto the Jubilee line and Green Park for the westbound Piccadilly, I get to Knightsbridge (Square D4) at 10.30 am. Knightsbridge is basically the regal Harrods, that upstart priest of fashion Harvey Nichols, assorted millionaires and the cacophonous menagerie known as tourists. But I’ve found out that the Harrods sale is on and I’m looking forward to venting a full-scale Jeremiah loosely based around consumerism, confusion pricing, false consciousness, exploitation …

The Inner Curmudgeon chips in, I told you, Wee Prof, Craig’s rubbing his metaphorical hands with glee.

I think ‘metaphorical’ is a bit fruity coming from a figment of my imagination.

Harrods: If they don't sell it, they know someone who does.

Harrods: If they don’t sell it, they know someone who does.

Alas, I’m disappointed. There are no hordes battering down the doors of Harrods, no flak-jacketed doormen wielding tasers and pepper-sprays, no millionaire allotmenteers scooping up the droppings from the ranks of police horses keeping order on the Brompton Road. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful. Inside there are more shop assistants than shoppers. I am aghast. A man without a purpose in life is like a pitch-fork without a haystack. Then I have a flash of inspiration! Doesn’t Harrods boast that it sells everything? What would I do without flashes of inspiration?

In my excitement I stutter as I ask the first courteous assistant to point me towards the ‘P-p-pets’. I am ushered towards the App store. Eventually I make it to the Pet Shop. For a few minutes I ponder the etiquette of buying Diapers for Dogs (50% off in the sale) for my brother’s dog, Bonzo. Then I admire the British Bulldogs (£4,000), finally I watch enthralled as the Syrian Hamsters (£15) blow each other up with miniature sub-machine guns.

Loins girded I approach an assistant with a cock-and-bull story about being delegated by Jim, my brother, to enquire whether Harrods could sell him an alligator as a pet. I’m embarrassed to be asking, I say to the charming courteous assistant, but I promised Jim I’d ask. I mean, an alligator for a pet!

She’s completely unfazed, puts me at my ease. She’s seen everything. Lions, tigers, she says, people have everything as pets. Penguins, people have penguins in their basements. However, Harrods doesn’t sell wild animals. She pauses. Let me ask my colleague. He may know someone who’ll be able to help you.

While we wait she tells me that my brother will need to comply with the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, that he will need to ensure specialist veterinary help, that he will need to do his research thoroughly – for instance, do alligators get lonely? It may be better to buy two or more alligators. She quizzes me gently on my brother who in a matter of minutes grows hugely wealthy (Scottish estate, trout-stocked lochans, valley thrushes) and vastly eccentric. (Sorry, Jim, you know how my imagination always did run away with me.)

Her colleague completes his business and comes over. Are you sure your brother has thought the matter through? he asks. Alligators are loaded guns. They can go off at any time. Has your brother thought about a Komodo Dragon? Sure, they snap now and then, but they’ve got a lovely personality.

He volunteers to phone a contact of his who will be able to source an alligator. I back off. I’d better check back with Jim, I say, make sure he’s thought through everything. Besides, even for him they may be expensive.

Oh, you’d be surprised, the assistant says, they’re probably not as expensive as you think.

I manage to escape signing on any dotted line and wander in a daze through Harrods. Perhaps Jim could make do with the Cayago Magnum? This is an £80,000 underwater jetski described as ‘The limited edition super toy’.

I leave Knightsbridge at 11.40 am and at 12.10 pm arrive at Ladbroke Grove (C3) – Piccadilly to Green Park, Jubilee to Baker Street, then change onto the Hammersmith & City line. Here, the cacophonous parakeets known as tourists will scurry eastwards to Portobello Road. The more discerning visitors will walk north to Golborne Road where they will find upmarket Scandinavian shops, classy coffee shops, a wonderful old fruit-and-veg shop where the eighty year old owners, brother and sister, sit out front by their wares, Portuguese cafes, ironmongers and a selection of street food stalls including a wonderful Moroccan kiosk.

Ladbroke Grove: Strictly no admittance, Mr TubeforLOLs. No 'Annihilating all that's made / To a green Thought in a green Shade.'

Ladbroke Grove: Strictly no admittance, Mr TubeforLOLs. No ‘Annihilating all that’s made / To a green Thought in a green Shade.’

Foregoing these pleasures, I turn south along Ladbroke Grove itself as it rises up-hill towards Holland Park.  The weather has turned a half-hearted type of sultry. There’s the merest touch of rain. The wonderful seediness and bustle of the shopping strip of the Grove peters out. The mix of multi-occupational terraces and Council housing gives way to stuck-up streets and affluent (‘upscale’, ‘upmarket’, ‘upper-class’) single-ownership terraces and villas tricked out in pastel-coloured stucco. I try without success to get into the communal gardens between the various crescents.

I’m back at the station at 12.45 pm  and – Hammersmith & City line to Baker Street, thereafter the Bakerloo to its penultimate southerly stop – at Lambeth North (E5) by 1.15 pm. Here, I enjoy a lunch of linguine with mussels and clams in a tomato and chilli sauce at Perdonis, a neighbourhood Italian eaterie, while continuing my reading of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.

One of Defoe’s deepest convictions was that the life of man is providentially ordered down to the most trivial detail. As he writes (at the ending of Robinson Crusoe) ‘And thus I have given the first part of a life of fortune and adventure, a life of Providence’s chequer-work.’ We are but pawns.

My mind flits to those neoDarwinian champions and atheists, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, where human beings are but large-bodied robots subject to the will-less struggle-for-survival of our genes. The philosophical question I struggled most with at university was the ‘problem of free will’. Forty years later and la lotta continua. Like many I have difficulty in letting go of free will as one of the cornerstones of being a human. I can’t reconcile myself to being a pawn or a robot.

You think too much, Craig, rumbles The Inner Curmudgeon, sucking at a strip of linguine. That’s your problem. And one thing you should never do, as the Frenchie Montaigne noted, was think while you’re lunching.

Guerilla Gardening at St George's Circus.

Guerilla Gardening at St George’s Circus.

Later, I walk to St George’s Circus and admire the guerrilla gardening by Richard Reynolds and comrades. Then I walk through the Tibetan Peace Garden in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum (closed for refurbishment until July). I puzzle again at the name: Imperial? What does that mean? Only certain kinds or sizes of war curated? No guerilla warfare?

The IC lets out a belch. A one gun salute to war, he announces.

I leave Lambeth North at 2.30 pm, change at Oxford Circus onto the Central line, and I’m strolling out of Lancaster Gate (C4) at 2.50 pm. There’s nothing so vulgar at Lancaster Gate as a shop, far less a shopping parade. Instead it’s got a hotel stuck on it like a pill-box hat – unfortunately in concrete and glass rather than in leopard-skin.

I ignore the stern instructions on the tannoy in the lift about how best to get to Paddington Station. Instead I cross the road into Hyde Park and make my way to the Italian Gardens where I sit and, after a tweet or two, slowly slip into slumber to the plash of the fountains.

Heron in Hyde Park: is there nowhere a chap can stand still for half-an-hour?

Heron in Hyde Park: not singing but squawking.

I am roused from my nap at 3.45 pm by The Inner Curmudgeon kicking me in the ribs and sternly announcing that Every Craig Must Do His Duty! We arrive at Langdon Park (C7) at 4.25 pm having followed the Central line to Bank, the DLR to Poplar, then two short stops north on the Stratford branch of the DLR. The day is getting a little murkier but the rain that had briefly threatened is holding off.

Tube Trivia – Langdon Park is the most recent station on the tube: it was opened on 10 December 2007 at least partly as a result of community pressure.

Langdon Park station with part-gallimaufry of housing behind.

Langdon Park station with part-gallimaufry of housing behind.

The area next to the station is a gallimaufry of housing, past and present, 60s/70s low rise Council housing, warehouses transmogrified, metal- and granite-clad 2000s monstrosities. Langdon Park, to the east, is a pleasant though unremarkable park ringing with the chatter and banter of the mainly Bangladeshi school-children.

I’m walking in the vague direction of the Limehouse canal when I spy a fresh green oasis. I look through the gate at a small market garden with raised beds, a wild border and colourful flowerpots on sticks. A man and a woman are busy weeding and watering. They wave me in.

The Wild Border at Teviot Estate Garden.

The Wild Border at Teviot Estate Garden. ‘… Casting the Bodies Vest aside, My Soul into the boughs does glide; There like a Bird it sits, and sings, Then whets, and combs its silver Wings; And, till prepar’d for longer flight, Waves in its Plumes the various Light.’

I have chanced upon a garden on the Teviot Estate that was helped – and filmed – into existence by the BBC’s Flowerpot Gang, also known as Anneka Rice, Phil Tufnell and Joe Swift and completed last summer, 2012. But it quickly becomes clear that Anneka and Co. were but pawns or robots in the construction, that the real driving force was the woman who has waved me in, Jackie Townsend, a local community entrepreneur and all-round powerhouse. Bubbling with enthusiasm, fizzing with delight but with a steely will under the surface, Jackie is someone who gets things done.

I spend a happy quarter of an hour admiring the garden then leave on my mission to find the canal. En route, there’s a spectacularly feeble attempt by the skies to get a drizzle together, then the God of Rain departs. I’m walking back along the canal when I spy two eyes unblinking above its placid waters. I freeze in shock. Surely they can’t have got this far? There there is the mighty gape of a mouth bristling with sabre-like teeth, a swoosh of a powerful scaly tail and the Leviathan turns languidly and heads back for dinner at the millionaire flats ringing Limehouse basin.

I get back to Forest Hill (DLR to Canary Wharf, Jubilee to Canada Water, Overground south) at 6.20 pm and walk back through the Albion Millennium Green, peaceful and green. The tadpoles are rehearsing their croaks amidst the yellow flags of the pond, a pair of parakeets are screeching and battling through the trees like dive-bombers.

No valley thrushes sweetly singing. Not yet. I have a long way yet to go before I hear them. And the emotion that filled me last week beside that misty cairn – King George V station – is that lesser thing: a memory of it. It’s the descent that kills you.

6 thoughts on “Sweetly the Valley Thrushes Sing (45/80)

  1. Maurice Mandale

    Talking of Knightsbridge, does anyone remember a hoary old sci-fi BBC series of the late 1950s called Quatermass and the Pit? It was set there, at an archaeological dig. Strange findings at the dig, and loud vibrationary noises which upset everyone within hearing. Nigel Kneale was the creator, the latest in a series of Quatermass adventures that were very successful for the beeb at the time, including the beginnings of the special effects wing. We didn’t have a TV at my house at the time (Cumbria barely had any TV at all) but I caught a few of the episodes somewhere else and my ten- or twelve-year old bones were chilled.

    1. sandycraig2013 Post author

      Maurice, I’m not sure that Harrods would wish to be in the same sentence as Quatermass and the Pit. But, yes, I do remember it, sort of, and being scared to glory by it. The scare factor was increased because we (brother Jim and I) watched it on my Gran’s black and white telly, with diminutive screen, bought for the Coronation. (We were living with my Gran during those formative years.) That would have been fine, but the tuning was wonky, so you had to peer at the screen and still couldn’t really make out what was happening. There was an even scarier film, The House on the Hill, I think it may have been called – I’ve never been able to track it down – which gave me the maximum in heeby-jeebiness.

  2. Gabby West

    I’m enjoying every episode of your long journey – and learning a lot about London through your eyes. What a shame you weren’t in Ladbroke Grove on Open Squares weekend. There are several superb garden Squares near L G. – sadly only open to the public on this special weekend every June. Hope the drier warmer weather will encourage you on your travels. Keep up the good work!!

    1. sandycraig2013 Post author

      Thanks, Gabby, though I wouldn’t reckon on learning all that much about London. As for Ladbroke Grove and the garden squares: OK they are open to the hoi-polloi two days out of 365 but that’s under 0.25% maximum of the year The Wee Professor tells me – he counts total hours open against total hours in the year – in case you’re doing quick sums in your head. As for The Inner Curmudgeon he’s railing against what he sees as ‘the so-called graciousness’ of the upper class who inhabit the terraces.

  3. Nick Hayes

    Reading your blog and its reference to the green corrie the same day I saw the obit on Allan Macrae chairman of the Assynt Crofters Trust and leading light behind the repossession of the Assynt estate from the grip of absentee landlords and restoring the land to its true owners, the crofters of the wild spaces around Lochinver, including I assume the Loch at the Green Corrie. The Assynt repossession served as a model for similar initiatives to return vast tracts of the Highlands to their rightful owners as in Eigg. Perhaps the land grab by wealthy carpetbaggers that began with the Highland Clearances will begin to be reversed and the land returned to the people.
    To quote your muse Norman MacCaig: “Who owns this landscape? / The millionaire who bought it or / the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning / with a deer on his back? / Who possesses this landscape? / The man who bought it or / I who am possessed by it.”

    Apologies for straying off topic and away from the airless clattering of the Underground which doesn’t yet have an extension of the Northern Line to Ullapool. But tho’ it may be easier to get to Theydon Bois on the Central Line than the Lochan a Choire Ghuirm, I’m sure it’ll be third time lucky at your next attempt!

  4. sandycraig2013 Post author

    Many thanks, Nick. I’m sorry to hear about the death of Allan Macrae, though it comes to us all, and Allan achieved more of the good in his life than most. Moving on, my sympathies lie with the man or woman possessed by the landscape – possessed in the way that the god Pan possesses the soul – than with the man who claims to possess the landscape.
    The notion of extending the Northern line to Ullapool initially tickled my fancy. But it would only lead to the English invading the Highlands again – particularly if the pharmaceutical industry could find a profitable way of keeping the midges under control.


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