Monday 19 August – Notting Hill Gate (Square C3 on the Tube map), Oakwood (A6), Old Street (C6), Osterley (D1), Oval (F5), Oxford Circus (C4)
An action-packed trip today, one worthy of Jules Verne and Around the World in Eighty Days. Among the many delights that awaits you, dear reader, are my single-handed fight to the death with a member of the Hymenoptera order and, with my friend Alistair, my discovery and subsequent appropriation of a new island here in central London. Throw in a suburban idyll, my introduction to a new star in London’s Cultural Firmament and some over-the-top mithering from The Inner Curmudgeon: this post has it all.
I walk through the Albion Millennium Green with only the slightest of hobbles. The warm sunshine slanting through the trees on the Green delights as I make my way to catch the 8.55 am Overground out of Forest Hill.
The Metro headline sets the philosophical tone for the day: New warning over legal Twitter trap This is about a U.S. teenager charged with murder because of his tweets – he knocked over and killed a cyclist while driving. He’d boasted about speeding on Twitter beforehand, with tweets like ‘come on a death ride with me’. The authorities are thinking of increasing the manslaughter charge to murder because this could be considered intent. Meanwhile I am reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. Silver was the statistician who correctly ‘called’ 49 out of the 50 states of the United States for Obama in 2012. He’s a Bayesian statistician, believes that it’s all too easy for us to trip over our unconscious biases (e.g. our over-confidence bias) and the assumptions we bake into our statistical models.
Three quarters of an hour later (changing to the Jubilee line at Canada Water and the Central line at Bond Street), I arrive at Notting Hill (Square C3). Forty years ago I used to haunt this area. I remember a scruffy Virgin record shop before Virgin went mega and turned to trains and gyms and planes. Around the corner there was a semi-bohemian pub where people pretended to be poets – or was it poets pretending to be people?
It’s all changed now, of course. It’s warmer, glossier, even bubblier than one of those Richard Curtis comedies like Four Santas and a Tooth-Fairy. The illusion is helped by the fact that it’s still early morning and the tourist crowds haven’t yet descended in force. Instead fetching young ladies on push-bikes purchase croissants at Le Pain Quotidien or taster pots of Farrow & Ball paint from Leyland SDM. I saunter through the film-lot admiring the two cinemas, the theatre, the Jamie Oliver restaurant, Recipeas, which features 73 savoury and sweet dishes made of boiled legumes. I am particularly taken with the sweetened and chilled pease pudding made with shelled mung beans and flavoured with sweet osmanthus blossoms and dates. Sweet! Jamie, you’re a Genius!
But, being Mr TubeforLOLs, I am not here to confirm your stereotypes of Notting Hill. I head for the mean streets. That is, I head for where the mean streets used to be. But there don’t seem to be mean streets anymore. The nearest I get is this Council block (or ex-Council block). Even it has rows of balcony boxes, most neatly planted with pelargoniums and trailing vines.
It takes only fifty minutes to travel to the far north east on the Piccadilly line, changing from the Central at Chancery Lane. I arrive at Oakwood (A6) at 11.05 am. The last time I passed through here, on the way to Cockfosters in late March, it was bleak midwinter. The ground was covered in snow, icicles hung from station roofs. This time the air is balmy, the breeze zephyr-like, the sunshine a dusky honey-colour as it sashays into the station. Perhaps it’s the grandeur of the station itself, perhaps it’s the clock rivalling that of the Swiss Railways, perhaps it’s the working gentleman’s toilet – whatever, I’m struck by how civilised everything is here.
My mood continues to mellow as I limp around outside. There’s a couple of good looking cafes and a fancy shoe-shop in the gently curving station parade. Further on ‘Oakwood Shopping Centre’ beckons. But you don’t come to Oakwood to look for the local library, post office or free range butchers. I cross the road into Trent Country Park, avoiding the golf course, and head through the butterfly meadow for the oak wood. Do I find an oak wood? I spot ash, beech, silver birch, a fine plantation of Scot’s pines. There may be singleton oaks somewhere in the undergrowth but no full-scale oak wood. I search byways few have trod before.
I’m beginning to understand the suburban dream. It’s quiet and peaceful out here. No-one is worrying about a misplaced oak wood. There’s enough in the way of local amenities. And then when you want to you hop on a tube, London, with all its attractions, is on your doorstep. Oh, for the life more ordinary!
But, sooner or later, my bosky ramblings must cease. I have a date with my good friend Alistair at Old Street. He will accompany Mr TubeforLOLs for the remainder of today’s journeyings. Forty minutes later (Piccadilly to King’s Cross, Northern line Bank branch south) I surface at Old Street (C6). Surface, that is, to the underground concourse. It’s as dirty, depressing and awful as I remember if from my days thirty years ago when I worked at Shoreditch Town Hall. In the interim, Notting Hill has been transformed; Docklands has been transformed; huge swathes of London have been transformed. Not Old Street tube station. Even though it has a couple of passable cafes, a bookshop, a barbers, a convenience store and both a shoe shop and a shoe repairer’s, it’s still grim and gruff and ghastly.
I find Alistair at street level. I already know what I must do. I’ve surfaced at Old Street station hundreds of times. Not once have I set foot on the roundabout, the much-touted Silicon Roundabout.
The sun beats down mercilessly on this wilderness of cracked concrete, bent steel framework, pillbox ventilation shafts circa World War 11, bleak vegetation that lost its passport years ago and can find no way out. Clearly no-one cares about Silicon Roundabout. Not Boris or David, not George or Tony in their time, not John or Margaret before them, not the Architects Association or Alcoholics Anonymous, certainly not Transport for London or the Minister of Transport. Alistair and I take possession. We name it the Free Democratic Republic of Silicon Holm. He is Citizen One. I am Citizen Two. Readers may become Citizens by responding to this Call! All Citizens will have Equal Rights! No fee will be Levied! Exclamation Marks with be Banned! As will Capitalized Words in Mid-Sentence!
The Inner Curmudgeon explodes. Oh put a sock in it, Craig! You and your pointless pranks!
Ignoring The IC we make our way to Bunhill Fields and stroll amongst the gravestones of William Blake, Daniel Defoe, John Wesley Harding and Thomas Bayes – the English mathematician, Presybterian minister and discoverer of Bayes’s theorem, who is something of a hero to The Wee Professor.
Unfortunately, Alistair and I are too busy chatting and we forget to look out for Bayes’s headstone. The Wee Professor mopes. The Inner Curmudgeon takes up the cudgels. You knew The Wee Professor was looking forward to visiting Bayes’s headstone! It was the one thing he wanted to do today. Really wanted. Turn back, DO NOT GO DOWN INTO THAT TUBE STATION, CRAIG! Look at The Wee Prof! Huh! You’re heartless, Craig, that’s what you are, totally heartless!
Alistair and I high-tail it on the Northern and Piccadilly lines (from King’s Cross), taking the best part of an hour to reach Osterley (D1). Alas, there are no cafés at Osterley station only the rip-roaring Great West Road to Staines.
We head east and northwards towards Osterley ‘village’ – a short shopping parade with upmarket pretensions. Disaster! The Park Café is be-shuttered. Village Food & Wine where there may have been sandwiches for sale is be-shuttered. We hike onwards to Osterley House. This is a stately mansion with a very long drive built for a banker in the 16th century, remodelled for another banker by Robert Adam in the 18th century and now owned by the National Trust. Will it take two centuries for Canary Wharf to be remodelled? And another two centuries for it to be owned by the NT? Silly me. Everyone knows history is speeding up. My bet is the NT will be ensconced in Canary Whart by the late twenty-thirties.
I just hope they will have learnt to make a decent sandwich by then and changed their suppliers of free trade orange juice. Nevertheless, the latter serves some purpose. Alistair and I are being besieged by wasps. One falls into my bottle of orange juice. I put the cap back on, shake the bottle vigorously and drown the wasp. I know that’s a dastardly act, I know I shouldn’t get upset by a little wasp, I know it’s only interested in feeding off the sugar, I know that most wasps are parasitic and help keep down pests but, well, I’m that kind of a fellow.
We hitchhike back through Osterley Park and squeeze ourselves into an eastbound Piccadilly line tube. It’s hot and sweaty and it takes almost an hour (change at Green Park for the Victoria line to Stockwell, then one stop north on the Northern line) to reach Oval station (F5). There’s a long straggle of shops – fast food, barbers, betting shops, all the usual – most of them struggling to survive. The only one that looks sleek and moneyed and properous is an estate agents.
We dive into the back streets. There are douce Victorian terraces clustered around the station, next to them tower blocks undergoing a makeover and then a robust LCC thirties housing estate. The South Korean Oval hoves into view but there’s no cricket there today. We pass The Oval House, one of the centres for alternative theatre from the sixties onwards. This, apparently, is due for redevelopment but will be housed in new premises in Brixton.
Our last stop is Oxford Circus. We get on a Northern line heading north via Bank which is diverted via Charing Cross. We change at Charing Cross onto the Bakerloo line. I know Oxford Circus so well (at different times I’ve worked in Noel Street in Soho and Eastcastle Street a little northwards) that I ask Alistair to choose where we go. He takes me westwards along pavements packed with shoppers, window-shoppers, would-be shoppers, loafing shoppers, tourist shoppers and shoppers of slow, very slow and glacial varieties.
We have both forgotten how awful Oxford Street is of a late afternoon. He takes me down a snicket by Next. And there it is: The Photographers’ Gallery. Originally based near Leicester Square, it opened here in 2012. Goodness knows how I’ve missed it, I’ve snicketed down this snicket many a time, particularly of a late snickety afternoon when I want to get off Oxford Snick.
We go in. I like it instantly. It’s like the old Photographers’ Gallery, narrow and blocky and black and white, except it’s tall as well and double the size. Usually bigger doesn’t mean better but I am pleased to report that the new Gallery is better.
I particularly like an exhibition by Mark Neville called Deeds Not Words. The exhibition – though it’s more than an exhibition – is about a little part of England that will be forever Scotland: Corby in Northampton. (Three generations on, Irn-Bru still outsells Coca-Cola.) With the opening of its steel mills in the sixties, Corby boomed, attracting most of its workforce from Scotland. But the mills closed in the eighties and the mills’ toxic waste dumped, causing birth defects in children. In 2009 Corby Borough Council was found liable for negligence, the judge ruling that airborne pollution could cause birth defects – the first such ruling in the world. Neville’s photos, documentary and summary of the case are both a touching, sympathetic and angry portrait of a community and a call to arms. It took the families of those children determination, years and the solidarity of their community to get justice. Why does it take so long to get justice in this country when the criminals are local authorities or police forces or other state institutions?
An hour later we dive into Oxford Circus station, Alistair heading for Liverpool Street, Mr TubeforLOLs southwards on the Victoria line, then the Jubilee, lastly the Overground. The tubes work like clockwork and I’m at Forest Hill shortly after quarter past six.