Wednesday 18 September – Seven Sisters (Square B7 on the Tube map), Shadwell (D7), Shepherd’s Bush (C3), Shepherd’s Bush Market (D3), Shoreditch High Street (C7), Sloane Square (D4), Snaresbrook (B8)
I pass through seven very different stations and neighbourhoods today and discover that not only humans but stations, streets and whole districts can be afflicted by psychological disorders. Of course, I’m not saying that madness lurks around every corner, only that some neighbourhoods suffer from what could be called Neighbourhood Ambiguity Disorder (NAD), ditto the sibling condition for stations – SAD. Other neighbourhoods and stations are approaching their zenith, yet others haven’t quite realised that they’re a little past their ‘Best By’ date. I’m bucked up by chancing on what may be the hippest neighbourhood in London and, perhaps, the happiest man – two very different states of being.
I’m at Forest Hill at 8.50 am. There was rain overnight but the sun is slowly making its way through the duvet of clouds. The headline in The Metro is: Cameron: The Yids are alright by me I’ll do what our Prime Minister should have done and make no comment. Instead I continue with my perusal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterful Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
My first stop, arriving at 9.40 am after journeying on the Overground and Victoria lines, is Seven Sisters (B7). Alas, though it’s been twenty years since I last passed this way, the High Road that greets me is the same old High Road. It still hasn’t resolved whether it’s a commercial area (big block of offices opposite), a shopping district (bigger block of Tesco diagonally opposite) or a housing neighbourhood (long Victorian terrace this side beyond the traffic lights). To destablize things further, the humans repairing the pavements have created more holes than you would find in Blackburn, Lancashire.
Passing a luggage emporium – a sure indication that Seven Sister-folk are always on the move and, judging by the hugest specimen of wheelie-luggagedom yet seen, that they move en masse – I turn into Green Road. There’s no ambiguity here. It’s a shopping street, a mini-Peckham with Peckham prices (five plantains for a pound). I pause to admire the Eden Store which specialises in Gospel Music, African Foods, Fashion Accessories and whose window is bedecked with French film posters and a hand-written placard advertising Portugal Foods. Inside there are neatly-stacked shelves of canned foods to one side, freezer cabinets centre shop, and, on the other side, neatly-stacked shelves of religious tracts and Praise-the-Lord CDs. Everything here, no matter how different, is firmly in its place.
I make my way through the psychologically-ambiguous High Road and head back south, again via Victoria and Overground to Shadwell (D7). Here it’s not the neighbourhood that’s ambivalent but the station itself – or rather, themselves. There are two of them, barely fifty metres apart as the Boris bikes: the made-over East London line now Overground station and the tarted-up DLR.
Each has its little coterie of minimarts and cafés which flourish on under the railway arches: Meat Bazar, Fish Bazar … This is a solidly Bangledeshi area with its own very British reductionist grip on spelling. And – except that it is 95% Bangladeshi-run – there’s an old-fashioned East End market (clothes, shoes, textiles, fruit and veg, etc.) ahead. So, perhaps, after all there is something slightly bananas.
Critics would say there is definitely something fruity, if not nutty, about the latest of Tower Hamlets’ Idea Stores found round the corner in Commercial Road. These are libraries with more computer screens than bookcases. Everything is tricked out in the scorching primary colours beloved of architects who have regressed to their Pop Art phase. In a side room there’s a class of Bangladeshi primary-school children singing Old MacDonald Had A Farm.
I’ve now got to hurry to west London, to the brace of Shepherd’s Bushes. The first of these, on the Central line, is Shepherd’s Bush (C3). I’m past Lancaster Gate, everything is going smoothly, when my heart gives a dull thump: I realise what I must do there. But then my adventuring spirit rises. Think of it as a taste of anthropology, I tell myself, a look at a new human tribe.
It’s 11.35. I turn my back on the German Sausage and Bombay Street Food stalls, I barely glance over the main road at ‘West 12’ which, forty years ago, was a tatty indoor shopping centre with an uninspiring record shop. I scurry past stacks of parked bikes. In numbers these rival Canonbury but are no match for the two-wheeled legions at Cambridge – which city I have recently visited on a short non-alphabetic tour of College libraries. I head towards Westfield.
I find it’s a bit like Oxford Street but without the bus-jams, Selfridges and those tacky shops with their forever closing down sales. It’s got everything else including a full Soho of chain eateries, an Apple store and a Foyles bookshop. I am stopped by a young Israeli Jew called Guy who buffs and polishes one of my fingernails so that it gleams and pulses with life.
Go on, shouts The Inner Curmudgeon, you like it, admit it, you like it. I have a sneaking feeling he’s right.
Guy has only been over here a week and already he’s found a job. I nod sagely and commiserate with him about the state of Israel. I understand, I say magnanimously, that you had to leave. He takes even more interest in my fingernail, buffs some more. I realise I’ve put my foot in it.
I rush off to Foyles but have little time to browse. The Inner Curmudgeon is militating. Behind him The Wee Professor is sighing wistfully. OK, OK, I say, I understand. This isn’t the gloriously-curmudgeonly Foyles, the wonderfully-professorial Foyles in Charing Cross Road. It’s a common-or-garden bookstore. It is as like the original Foyles as Tower Hamlets’ Idea Stores are to Cambridge University Library.
All in all, Westfield does a pretty good job as a cathedral to the Gods of Instant Gratification. It’s totally artificial, of course, but so what? I bet there were folk in ancient Rome who shook their heads when the Colosseum was built and said that those new-fangled Games would never catch on.
Time for the forty minute looping tube journey via Notting Hill Gate and Edgware Road – Central, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines – to Shepherd’s Bush Market (D3). It’s only 500 metres down the road but it’s a different Shepherd’s Bush: a case of Multiple Neighbourhood Ambiguity Disorder?
While workmen tear up the road outside, I repair to the Bush Theatre where I partake of a mozzarella, tomato and pesto sandwich and cappucino. Both conform to the Arts Industry Standard for edibles and drinkables. I could ponder on why arts places are so much better at food than sports centres or most parks cafés. But instead I spend a peaceful lunchtime listening in to a working lunch at the next table between a Visiting Producer and, I guess, the Bush’s General Manager. Over half an hour they discuss staging, access, audience seating, PA, lighting, back-drops, fire regulations, publicity, marketing, staffing, box office split. They calmly negotiate and agree each point. But The Wee Professor gets on his pedantic high-horse: They are not taking notes, he complains. A meeting without minutes is like Hamlet without the Prince.
I think this is a little unfair and suggest substituting Polonious for the Prince but The WP refuses to budge.
Having past through Shoreditch High Street (C7) twice on our travels – it’s two stops north of Shadwell – it is SHS’s turn to be visited. I worked round the corner thirty years ago and it’s all changed. Then, it was the end of the universe parked inconveniently somewhere near central London. Now, it is hip. There’s a hip kinda shopping mall in pretend containers with an upstairs packed with eateries selling beers and ciders with weird names from Outer Mongolia and organic yak’s milk from a polytunnel-cum-techie start-up near Swindon. Hip-type humans, of both the male and female persuasions, and from a variety of ages and outsider cultures (beats, punks, goths, mods, doomsday cultists, silicate dream-weavers, frozen-electronic trappists, Pynchon-style boggle-eyed anarchists, etc.) sashay to the station or drift past on period bicycles. This has to be as hip as the universe gets.
But, as everyone now knows, hip is fashion and where fashion leads capitalism follows: the apogee of groove is only the penultimate step in capitalism’s lust for profit. I wander past the closed-down working-man’s hostel on the corner of Quaker Street, past Calvin Street and up Commercial Street towards Hawksmoor’s Christ Church and the ex-fruit and vegetable market of Spitalfields. I’m outside the art deco Exchange Building. This used to be a tobacco works, then became a haunt of prostitutes but has since been transmuted into fancy flats. I gain admittance and talk to the concierge. He’s called Adé.
I came to London 19 years ago, he says. My father has passed away but my mother still lives in Nigeria. I visit her every year. I have a family here now, two sons. They are 18 and rising 13. I have been with The Exchange since the start, 15 years ago, when the penthouse flat was sold for £350,000. It is worth over £1 million today. We used to get all sorts then but it’s only rich people here now. They come in and out, get their things. But, he sighs and for a second the broad smile on his face dims, they are not interested in the history of the place.
I ask him if, looking back, he thought it has benefitted him moving to London.
His smile widens and brightens to its full 1,000 watts. Oh yes. I came here and I have prospered. Yes, sir, I am a happy man, a happy man.
I bask in his good humour, luxuriate in his infectious light-heartedness. Happiness, I think, is a disposition. As such it is, at least partly, a gift.
Back at the station I ask two TfL workers why there’s a heavyweight concrete roof on the station. There’s none on any of the other new Overground stations. They point at a new block of flats outside.
The roof is there, one says, because they’ll be building a skyscraper on top of the station, a skyscraper of fancy flats and offices.
The area is changing, man, says the other. In a few years, it’ll be an extension of the City.
In only half-an-hour I travel back west to Sloane Square (D4). The King’s Road used to be the hip capital of the capital. I rush out to see how it compares with SHS. It’s got a Mary Quant outlet in the Duke of York Square. And it’s got the Saatchi gallery with Charles Saatchi’s take on the state of contemporary art. But the King’s Road is no longer hip. It’s middle-class, mannered, moneyed, moderate. Sure, the young women on parade make an old man ache with nostalgia. But, hip it is not.
However, for snarl-up enthusiasts, it has a hugger-mugger to rival Finsbury Park or the Rotherhithe Tunnel. But its hanging baskets are no match for Ealing’s.
My last station – way back east on District, Jubilee, then Central lines – is Snaresbrook (B8). It has one of those neighbourhood High Streets which starts, then stops; gives a sign of life, then appears to give up the ghost; only to revive a little, then relapse a tad; and eventually make a rather good fist out of everyday shopping.
However its condition isn’t helped by that fact that it doesn’t seem able to make up its mind whether it’s in Snaresbrook or Wanstead. Is this Community Ambiguity Disorder (CAD)?
No, Craig, sighs The Inner Curmudgeon. It’s a case of Craig Over-tiredness Disorder. COD for short. He sighs again. Let’s get back home, eh?
He’s patronising me. I think I prefer him in full curmudgeon mode.
I’m in the Overground going home from Canada Water when, for some unknown reason, I find myself wishing for some kind of God-status. That would include happiness, and immortality, of course, and if possible a touch more wisdom. As for goodness, I’m going to have to accept my mixture of smooth and rough, Cain and Abel. And hip? Huh! Forget it!
The Inner Curmudgeon chips in. Immortality, Craig! That’s the first good thought you’ve come up with all year. What do you think, Wee Prof? We’d be immortal too.
The WP coughs. There’s a cosmological school of thought, he says, that each instant of ‘the present’ lasts all of eternity. Time is a fiction. Anything that can exist, exists. Forever.
That flummoxes both The IC and me. We get back at seven o’clock. As I enter Gingerbread Cottage I wonder if perhaps I’m touched with Personality Ambiguity Disorder.