Monday 12 August – New Cross Gate (Square E6 on the Tube map), North Acton (C2), North Ealing (C2), Northfields (D1), North Greenwich (D8), North Harrow (E7)
It’s another warm, sunny day. Maria has repaired her Labyrinth on the Albion Millennium Green. The pet food manufacturer is making canned fish mush for cats. It smells disgusting. The guys at the skip depot are banging skips on top of each other – a cloud of builder’s dust shrouds the railway path. Just another normal day at Forest Hill.
My elation and sense of achievement at reaching Mornington Crescent (see last post, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue) have dissipated, disappeared, gone. They’re toast, history, late. I imagine this is how my name-sake, Alexander the Great, must have felt after conquering the Persian Empire. At least Alexander had India ahead of him. I’ve got to make do with New Cross Gate.
At least it’s only three stops and ten minutes away. I arrive at New Cross Gate (Square E6) at 10.25 am. The Metro’s headline is: Tycoon’s ‘contempt’ for victims of abuse It’s about comments made by Eddy Shah saying under-age girls should share some of the blame for having sex with adults, that there’s ‘rape’ and there’s ‘rape rape’.
The A2 through New Cross is in full-blown snarl-up mode, but there’s an interesting-looking garden-cum-organic veg-cum-second hand vinyl-cum-arts shop opposite, ‘Dig this Nursery’. Alas, I’ve missed their ‘Tomato Festival’, that was yesterday. They had English and Hungarian roots music celebrating their 72 varieties of tomatoes.
I talk with a guy called Tarzan who is loading up the PA system onto a porter’s trolley. Tarzan wears a Hawian shirt featuring ladies in swim-wear. He has that unmistakeable scent of a tough working guy who has drunk a lot of beer the night before. This is the best shop in town, he says, as I leaf through the second-hand reggae LPs. And I don’t work here, he continues, I don’t even like the people. Foolishly I tell him what I’m upto.
What you should do, he says, is go round all the swimming pools and lidos in London. Swim up and down them for an hour, do a mile’s swimming, then on to the next. To help me in this endeavour he gives me a few Ray Mears survival tips such as bathing in cold water every morning. I make my escape. I hobble along the snarled-up A2 – something’s gone wrong with my left foot. I try to admire the few interesting ‘arty’ shops and coffee places, the huge grotty music pub and back-packer’s hostel, the pots of sunflowers on the pavements to attract the bees (no bees seen), the quaint Victorian terraces either side of the main drag, the gigantic metallised ball of unravelling wool dangling over Goldsmiths College.
But my heart isn’t in it. I know what’s happening. New Cross is going the way of Kilburn. It’s being developed, sanitised, the working class and unemployed siphoned out to the country (somewhere ‘up north’ for preference), the well-behaved and well-heeled middle class decanted in. I step round the corner and find Batavia Road is barred off. It’s being developed. Portakabins are stacked on top of each other and diggers are digging. It’s too late, dear readers, for you to invest in property in New Cross. New Cross has disappeared, gone. It’s toast, history, late. It’s New New Cross now.
It’s 11.10 am and I’m waiting for the Overground north when I spot my first Silly Slogan of the day. It’s on the back of a hi-viz jacket worn by a burly John Laing worker: making infrastructure happen
I get on the Overground, change at Canada Water to the Jubilee and the Central line at Bond Street. I’ve got a lot of long journeys today and I’ve got suitably heavy reading: Enid Starkie’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud. Enid is a purest: Rimbaud’s poetry and letters are in French. Perhaps this wasn’t a wise choice for someone whose French is as rusty as mine is. Still I find out that ‘the most burning and controversial question in Rimbaud studies today, [is] that of the date of composition of Illuminations.’ Will there be any illuminations for me today?
I step out at North Acton (C2). I try to cheer myself up by admiring the floral display in the narrow forecourt. It knocks the socks off Newbury Park’s display (see last post, ISIHAC).
North of the station lies the huge industrial estate known as Park Royal with Harlesden on the far side. A hundred yards south the A40 dual-carriageway barps its way towards Oxford. The shops by the station include a bank, a giant roadhouse pub, a Holiday Inn, an Esso garage, a Domino’s pizza, a Ladbroke’s, a Tesco express (Silly Slogan #2: Love Every Mouthful). There are offices and offices to let. And there is … there is … now what exactly is this?
I quarter the building until the awful truth is revealed: it’s skyscraper student accommodation for the University of the Arts. There are exhortations on the ground floor. Silly Slogan #3: Relax Enjoy Take Time Out Indulge The Inner Curmudgeon rages, They’re students! They should have their heads buried in their books! They should be putting the ‘Great’ back in ‘Great Britain’. They can take time out when they get to our age.
Worse is to follow. There’s a huge development ahead. The hoardings say it’s for Imperial College. There are going to be hundreds more student flats. It’s going to be student-land here before too long. 15,000 students partying, cavorting, into drugs, absinthe, sodomy, the abasement of the senses – perhaps even, dread thought, poetry!
There’s a map at the station which shows that my next station is an easy dodder away. Instead I take the Central line two stops west to Ealing Broadway, the District line one stop east and the Piccadilly (Uxbridge branch) one stop north. Amazingly it takes only twenty minutes to get to North Ealing (C2). I’ve gone from industrial and student wasteland to suburbia in four stops. And as for the dinksville station set back on its own at the end of a curving drive – wow! It’s like a Hornby-Dublo station out of the 1950s!
At the end of the station drive, there’s a minute parade of shops fronted by an Italian restaurant then, opposite and up some steps crossing to another road, a big chain pub and a longer parade of shops with Middle Eastern groceries and a Musical Instrument shop. (What is it about Ealing and music instruments? See post, Of Runcible Spoons and Beach Boy Tunes.) There’s hanging baskets on every lamp-post. And even though Hangar Lane is around the next corner at least we’re some way from the snorting A40. I don’t reckon North Ealing makes it as a fully-fledged village but it has a certain bosky charm.
Next stop is Northfields (D1), two stops east on the Uxbridge branch of the Piccadilly to Acton Town, then two stops west on the Heathrow branch of the Piccadilly. I can tell immediately that I’m still in Ealing: this is hanging basket heaven. Clearly there was a 2-for-1 offer at B&Q when officers from Ealing Council went floral container shopping. Northfields is larger than North Ealing and feels more suburban but it’s as solidly middle-class.
I munch on an over-sweet chocolate brownie and sip an insipid capuccino at a local café while a florid- and stony-faced window-cleaner squeaks the windows clean. He and the café-owner joust about his payment but there are lots of needles in their jocular haystack. Behind me a tablefull of kids and mums are yelling and upbraiding each other (not necessarily in that order), while a couple of businessmen have an intense discussion about something completely unimportant. I watch the green Ealing reclying lorry meander its way up a tree-lined street. It has different steel arms to lift the different recycling buckets (glass, paper, plastic, compostables, etc.) into their different compartments. It’s like a very slow lethargic spider digesting flies, wasps, beetles, moths … I could, I reckon, be just about anywhere in middle-class suburbia.
Perhaps not quite. On my way back to the tube I spot a sign pointing down an alley. ‘Philadelphian church’ it says. I limp down the passageway but there is no sign of a church (or cheese for that matter), Philadelphian or otherwise. Not that it matters, the Philadelphians being close to pantheists. And, if the presence of God is in everything, well, He’ll be here in Ealing. Won’t He? And will He also be in Philadelphia Cream Cheese? And the variety with herbs and garlic? Is this my Rimbaudian illumination?
It takes me a mere forty minutes, Piccadilly to Green Park, Jubilee line thereafter, to reach North Greenwich (D8). Meanwhile, Rimbaud and Verlaine are living in London, lonely, enthralled by but hating the metropolis, barely scraping a living, arguing, bickering, fighting. Soon they’ll visit Brussels and then (spoiler alert: I know their story, but if you don’t, skip the rest of this paragraph and go straight to the next; go on, go on, I’m hanging fire!) and then, catastrophe – at least for Rimbaud. I’m thoroughly depressed by the prospect, my brain half seized-up with the difficulty in decoding Rimbaud’s French. (Difficulty! Huh! mutters the Inner Curmudgeon. For him, he continues meaning me, difficulty equals sheer impossibility.)
North Greenwich announces itself as it means to continue. Silly Slogan #4 Think differently. Think employability. Think St Patrick’s. And a little further on: #5 Climb an icon This is about climbing the O2. The 02 – an icon! Doesn’t anyone remember the derision that accompanied its opening barely 13 years ago? Can an entertainment venue surrounded by a doughnut-shaped mall of eateries and chains be an icon even a hundred years down the line? Would anyone be so stupid, so credulous as to pay good money to climb the O2?
North Greenwich is a splinter of Tourist London. As well as the O2 it’s got the Emirates ‘airline’, actually a cable-car (see post, Wish You Were Here). Plus it’s got one or two massive offices, Ravensbourne College (digital media and design) and the obligatory splatterings of public art.
Yes, I know. I liked it when I was here last, but then I was a tourist, I had my family with me. Now, I’m a Londoner, and it’s only me. Today, North Greenwich strikes me as soulless and soul-destroying: the brash marriage of gaudy post-modernism, consumerism and hard landscaping.
I hirple slowly towards the River Thames for solace. (The Wee Professor: ‘hirple’, Scottish for ‘hobble’.) It coils past, brown, churned up by the wind and tide. I find no solace. This isn’t just the age-old lament of the aged lamenting their youth. It’s more, much more. I feel like an exile in a strange land. The London of the seventies and eighties and nineties has disappeared, its values of community, solidarity and freedom banished, replaced by the over-weening power and spurious blandishments of money and its celebrity outriders, the only value the value of money. The Melodians’ song eases into my mind: By the rivers of Babylon, Where he sat down, And there he wept, When he remembered Zion. But the wicked carried us away captivity …
On the opposite bank, near Bow Creek, three alligators are lazing in the mud. One sees me and opens its huge maw. Its yellow canines gleam in a shaft of sunlight. Then, snapping its jaw shut, the Leviathan turns its back on me. I make my way back to the tube. I ignore the signs that say: All is right with the world. Poverty is the new noble tractor driver. Work harder for less. Your bankers need you.
I board the tube westwards (via the Jubilee) and northwards (from Baker Street via the Metropolitan) to North Harrow (A2) arriving a little after five.
The skies are clouding over. Bollywood Film posters crowd the video shop window, Asian food stores spill onto the pavement, very polite notices inform customers about parking. There are ice-cream parlour, bike, carpet and sunbed shops, a bar, a second-hand car lot. It’s a small town centre with a wide pavement, a separate cycle-lane and sporadic traffic on the high street. Two Asian men sit chatting on a bench, facing the street. Across the road guys are sweating on exercise bikes in the local gym. In the car park behind the main street learner drivers are practising their reversing manoeuvres.
I turn round and wander down a long suburban street, past the pebble-dashed, red-shingled semis. I come to the beginnings of the River Yeading. A few miles on this slips into the River Crane and thence to the Thames at Isleworth. Here it’s only a tiny stream, hardly that. But the wicked carried us away captivity …
Much later I make it back to Forest Hill. On the way Verlaine shoots Rimbaud in Brussels, Rimbaud turns him over to the police, Verlaine gets a couple of years in prison but comes out smelling of roses. Rimbaud stops writing poetry. How can we sing King Alfa song, In a strange land.