Friday 23 August – Perivale (Square C1 on the Tube map), Piccadilly Circus (D5), Pimlico (E4), Pinner (A2), Plaistow (C8), Pontoon Dock (D9), Poplar (D7)
I see many different Londons on my travels today, many barely-overlapping Lunduns. By the time I get back to Forest Hill I’ve noted some 22 – the bankers’ couldn’t-care-less city, a splinter of downtown industrial Turkey city, the cramped paranoid behind-city-walls city of Shakespeare, the visionary heaven-and-hell city of Blake. Lunduns of suburban dog-walkers, it’s-only-a-movie tourists and absentee safe-haven investors. Lunduners living on both sides of the tracks. Betjeman’s up-dated metro-land of the zimmer and tequila sunrise. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Lundun of gypsies, genies and demonic possession. The chill-out Friday-afternoon Parklife London and the yin-yang London of the Tao. Then there’s the city of alligators and the Biblical sea-monster Leviathan. Beware all ye who enter here …
It’s a seven-station day so I’m up early. I catch the 9.04 am Overground out of Forest Hill. The Metro has the longest headline in history: He duped 7.5m bank users into paying £1.3bn for worthless insurance. Guess what he talks … The answer puzzles me. It’s ‘b******s’. He, the con-man banker, thinks it ‘b******s’ if people think they’re going to get their money back. It takes me past Canada Water (change to Jubilee) before I work out that ‘b******s’ is ‘bollocks’. Does that count as a proper s***r word these days? Did it ever? But it shows that I am living in two different cities: that of the bankers and that of the rest of us.
The City Count (CC) goes upto three when I spot a Poem on the Underground – it’s a few stanzas from Blake’s 5,000 line ‘Prophetic Book’ Jerusalem. ‘The fields from Islington to Marybone, To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood, Were builded over with pillars of gold …’
I change on to the Central line at Bond Street. I’m at Perivale (C1) at 10.10 am. This is a little north and west of the giant Tesco encamped in the wonderful Grade 11* art-deco Hoover Building by the A40. Perverse as always, I walk the opposite way. I watch women walking dogs. (CC Four.) I walk by industrial estates housing everything from a BBC outpost to repair shops and recycling centres. I pass an incongruous National Westminster Bank and a café and ‘Shisha Lounge’ called Yasmin. In the hot sun and with its awnings shading the pavement I could be in some downtown area of any industrial city in Turkey. I check inside: the clientele is one hundred per cent Middle Eastern. There’s no hookah a-bubbling, however. Maybe it’s too early. Still, CC Five.
I realise I’m at the back of Tesco. A sudden desire to impart some useful information to my readership overcomes me. (Hah! yells The Inner Curmudgeon. A first!) I walk around the filling station and through the car park. Inside, it’s like any other supersized Tesco. But the back of the building, the colonnade leading from the car park and outbuildings are as fine as the front.
10.55 am and I’m boarding an eastbound Central line. I’m reading Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street and I come on this passage: ‘By the end of the sixteenth century London was one of the largest, liveliest and most sophisticated cities in Europe, but it was overcrowded, squalid, corrupt, crime-ridden and plague-infested.’ So, no change there – just substitute ‘drugs’ or ‘MRSA’ for ‘plague-infested’. But could I add it to the CC? The Wee Professor informs me that the only tweets in Shakespeare’s day were birds’ sweet songs and that statistical theory was notable by its absence. So that’s CC Six then.
I meet CC Seven while waiting at Oxford Circus for the Bakerloo southwards. An elderly woman hauling wheelie-luggage paddles her way along the platform. She hails from Scarborough, she’s on her way to her nephew’s wedding in Fareham and she’s all a-flutter: she has ‘to cross London’, something she’s never done before. To make matters worse she has ended up with two differing sets of directions. I assure her she is on the right platform and that the next train will take her to Waterloo.
I get to Piccadilly Circus (D5) at 10.35 am. What is all this fuss about a tiny statue? Personally, I prefer the circular marble-halled ticket concourse underground to the diminutive god above ground. This is Tourist London, CC Eight. I do not dwell at Piccadilly Circus.
At 10.40 am I’m off to Pimlico (E4) – Piccadilly to Green Park then Victoria line southbound. I arrive at 10.50 am. Pimlico Station has the distinction of having a block of flats built on top of it. It used to have a library across the road but Westminster Council has closed that down. (That would be CC Nine but scientists have yet to confirm whether Westminster Council is a viable life-form or not.) Further on, there are two forgettable parades of shops. I decide to fight my way through the mansion blocks, stucco terraces and sweetie-pie mewses to the Thames. I am rewarded with a short grim semi-privatised concrete walkway. Looking across muddy banks and basking alligators, my mind is rent by the horror of riverside residential developments past present and future from Battersea Power Station to Vauxhall, built as investments, not for living in. The lost river of Tyburn empties into the Thames near here.
I remember Blake’s dire warning in Jerusalem:
They groan’d aloud on London Stone, They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook: Albion gave his deadly groan, And all the Atlantic mountains shook.
Here lies CC Nine.
I change from Victoria to Jubilee line at Green Park and from the Jubilee to the Metropolitan at Finchley Road. I’m at Pinner (A2) at 1.05 pm. I veer right and arrive at Pinner’s picturesque town-centre though these days it’s colonized by Zizzi, Prezzo, Pizza Exprezz, Carluzzio’s … Looking around I see lotz of cheery-looking old folkz moving ever-zo-zlowly. There’z more than an itzy-bitzy of the zimmer in Pinner. But then, there’s also, like, wow, like young women in heels and long legs and floaty nothings and, oh my God, eyelashes. There don’t seem to be many folks in-between.
I walk under the railway bridge and get to, well, the other side of the tracks. Handy if you need to get your shoes repaired or fancy whitening your teeth or if you’re a five year old and simply must practise wheelies on your chopper. But definitely the wrong side of the tracks. Pinner qua Pinner is definitely at least two different cities: CC 10 & 11.
It takes an hour and a quarter – Metropolitan through Baker Street towards Liverpool Street, changing onto the Hammersmith & City line east – to deepest Plaistow (C8). I’m hungry. I examine the local map in the station. It shows Plaistow High Street to my right. I look out. There’s a couple of shops down there, then the road bends. I make my way past a Costcutter advertising ‘Russian, Lithuanian, Polish & German delicatessens’, then a store with a window full of Buddhist and Christian figures and statues. Inside there’s another rack with more religious reliquaries, then a rack of tools, then magazines, more ironmongery … Opposite, there’s a Travis Perkins builder’s yard. Further on there’s a pub. And that’s it.
Plaistow High Street turns into a four lane highway running between Council estates and tower blocks. An African gentleman of about my age hails me. He’s called John and he comes from Uganda but he’s lived in London for much of his life, first in Earl’s Court and for the last 27 years here in Plaistow. He’s well spoken, articulate, reasonable. ‘Do you see that woman?’ He indicates a middle-aged Asian woman crossing the busy High Street twenty yards back rather than crossing safely here at the traffic lights. ‘She didn’t walk past me, eh. She crossed the street first. You see, she is a gypsy, she is a witch and witches can’t pass me.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Look at me. Do I look alright to you?’ Well, he doesn’t. He looks seedy. The whites of his eyes are yellow. His scalp is flaking. He looks like he’s lost weight. He looks doleful, despairing. ‘You see I have been bewitched by gypsies. Hm. You don’t believe me?’ I shake my head.
He mimes putting something in his mouth. ‘They slipped a genie inside me. She [the genie] is a woman. She is trying to corrupt my soul. Everything that leaves my body belongs to the witch. My sweat, my urine, my spit, my – excuse me – my s**t. I bathe in dettol and I mix poison into the rest of my leavings. I must poison them before they get me.
‘Do you think the Government is aware of the problem? There are many witches here. They are gypsies from Bulgaria and Romania disguised as Asians.’ He shakes his head. ‘White people are in denial about witchcraft. It’s your background, you are Christian. Well, I am a little Christian, but back in Uganda we have only been Christian since – when? – 1800? That’s no time at all.’
We talk some more then I make my excuses and head back to the station. I decide I can increase the CC by two – one for John, one for Christians – to 13. Though, later, reading Nicholl’s Silver Street, I am reminded of the demons and familiars that haunt many of Shakespeare’s characters, of Poor Tom in King Lear with his Flibbertigibbet, Smulkin, Modo … I am reminded that British Christianity until recently swarmed with incubi and succubi, with elves and ogres and faeries at the bottom of the garden.
My next station, four stops away (via the District and Jubilee lines and the DLR), is Pontoon Dock (D9). This is Tate & Lyle country and the scent of golden syrup billows in the breeze. The sun is barely filtering through the clouds. I walk through Barrier Park, enjoying its green geometry. There are young Asian women gossiping under the trees, Asian and white families in the parkland, recreational cyclists, kiddies in the playground, male teenagers playing football in the kickabout area. I eat an ice cream. All very normal, very ordinary, very relaxing. An afternoon-off-work city: CC 14.
As I get to the Thames, a red launch churns furiously through the Thames Barrier, then slows to a halt. From across the waters I hear male caterwauling: Happy Birthday to … Then the launch’s engines cut in, the prow lifts, the Thames boils and the Birthday Boy & Mates head west. That’ll be middle-class louts – CC 15.
My last station is five stops west on the DLR towards Bank, Poplar (D7). There’s a wide plastic tube of a walkway heading south that may one day connect with Canary Wharf. I turn north, pass Tower Hamlets College, and come to a small but busy park. Ahead of me is the East India Dock Road.
I hear music some distance away. It reminds me of Scottish folk music, there’s a faint skirl of bagpipes. But as I get closer, the music moves eastwards faster than the speed of sound. I find a Chinese gentleman sitting on a park bench sawing away on a curious L-shaped instrument. I stop and listen. He is playing with considerable verve and skill, complete concentration and a beatific smile on his face.
At the end of the piece, I applaud. He looks round, surprised. I bow to show my appreciation. He stands and bows. We talk. What is the instrument called, I ask. ‘It is Jinqwho’, he replies. ‘Jing as in Beijing Opera. Who …’ He says the ‘o’ as in ‘so’ except the sound swoops down then up, a lovely sound, with a slight slur to it.
After I leave, he starts on another piece, oblivious to the traffic noise, the queue at the bus-stop behind him, the other people in the park. These are mainly orthodox Muslim families but there are other Asians, both Muslim and Hindu, a posse of four cool West Indian dudes, white Eastern Europeans, a couple of old White East Enders … I’m counting the different cities present in this park, I’ve got to seven and I’m still counting. That brings the day’s CC to 22 with promise of more to come.
I leave Poplar at 5.20 pm – DLR to Canary Wharf, Jubilee to Canada Water, Overground to Forest Hill. I get back a little after six o’clock. I’m tired. As TS Eliot said, Man can bear only so much Lundun.