Friday 20 September – South Acton (Square D2 on the Tube map), South Ealing (D1), Southfields (E3), Southgate (A6), South Hampstead (C4), South Harrow (B2), South Kensington (D4)
This is one of these days of tube-wandering when nothing much happens. I gain a glimpse of the life Mediterranean, I chance on yet another misnamed station, I attempt to resolve a dispute, there is a late disappointment. In between times I muse on inventions, gossip, evolution and civilization. Meanwhile The Wee Professor has been crunching the TubesforLOLs data – distances travelled, time spent travelling, the likelihood of Mr TubeforLOLs finishing …
The day begins overcast. I arrive at Forest Hill at 8.50 am and board the Overground that will take me anticlockwise through three quarters of the compass, via Highbury & Islington and Gospel Oak, from South London through East and North London to West London. I am visiting the first seven of the ‘Souths’ stations – though only one is actually located in South London.
I am reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. In this he tells of the ferocious, blood-drenched and fantastical war between Protestant Camisards and Catholics in that area in the early eighteenth century. A war where armies did not post lookouts outside their camps while they slept because God would act as their sentinel. A war which neither side won. One hundred and fifty years later, when RLS and his donkey, Modestine, walked that way, Protestant and Catholic lived together in peace. ‘It is a bad idea to change,’ both sides agreed, meaning that it was much better not to convert whether from Protestant to Catholic or the reverse.
I muse on this and what seems to me to be a basic asymmetry between the technological inventions of humans and our non-technological inventions. The former – as witness cheese, bicycles, containers, armalites – are always with us though they may be superseded by inventions that perform the same function better. The latter – for example religion, justice, democracy, freedom, peace – are constantly being disputed.
The Overground is sailing, rather like a plump dowager at a nineteenth-century tea-party, over the variously residential landscapes of Hackney, Camden, Hampstead and Kilburn before entering the industrial, warehousing and railway-lands of Willesden Junction and North Acton. The railway embankments are massed with greenery pin-pointed with late flowerings, berries, hips, nuts, seeds. There are lengths, some at least a carriage in length, of the hairy grey-white seed heads of the plant variously called ‘Old Man’s Beard’, because of its appearance, and ‘Traveller’s Joy’, because it signals an approach to human habitation.
Seventy five minutes after departure we reach South Acton (Square D2). This is a minimal and unmanned Overground station with narrow platforms and no shops. It is also one of those stations with two sides to the tracks – to the south, pleasant tree-lined Victorian terraces; to the north, flats. Here, behind a small well-tended allotment full of fruit cages, a between-the-wars block stolidly awaits demolition while other newer blocks of ‘luxury flats’ near completion.
A few women, mainly Muslim, push buggies towards a pocket park. A short walk away there’s a small and undistinguished parade of shops, around the corner a working man’s club displaying five proud Union Jacks.
I board the Overground one stop south, change north on the District one stop, then west two stops on the Ealing branch of the District, then one stop west on the Piccadilly. It takes half-an-hour to reach South Ealing (D1).
Oh stop rabbiting, Craig, moans The Inner Curmudgeon. It’s boring snoring. Come on, Proffie, tell us what you’ve found out about our journeyings so far.
The Wee Professor coughs. It’s a dusty cough, the sort you only hear in the back stacks of libraries. Hm-hmm, he says. First I must acknowledge the help of my researcher, Dr Heorton, who secured the distance data from TfL. Second, I must preface my remarks by stating that the findings are provisional. The TfL data is limited to the Underground and does not include either the Overground or DLR – or, inexplicably, Heathrow Terminal 5. This has necessitated taking measurements of Overground and DLR distances from maps: these are, necessarily, estimates. Plus – he clears his throat – Mr Craig’s early record-keeping leaves something to be desired.
Nevertheless as of the last post, we have visited 279 stations – some 76% of the total. It has taken a total of over 15,000 minutes or 250 hours of travelling time …
South Ealing is another local shopping centre, stretching some distance down both sides of the high road with mainly local shops and the trade-mark Ealing hanging baskets. To either side there are fine Edwardian and Victorian tree-lined streets and a conspicuous lack of flats. The sun is breaking through the clouds, there are a few people straying around, a few cars nosing both ways along the road. But when the most remarkable fact about South Ealing is that it hosts a Wickes builders yard, then there’s a limit to how many words even Mr TubeforLOLs can spin on this inoffensive local shopping centre.
Twenty minutes later we’re on a Piccadilly tube eastwards, changing at Earl’s Court for a Wimbledon branch District line tube. The Metro headline is: Sex slaves aged 8. I wish I’d missed that.
And how many hours have we spent actually visiting places, Proffie? barks The IC.
A little under 12,000 minutes or 200 hours.
The IC rubs his hands with glee. What a rubbish way to travel! he hoots in delight. Spending more time travelling than arriving. Why, if it took people two and a half weeks travelling to where they were going for their two week holiday, they would get back to work late and without having gone on holiday!
We arrive at Southfields (E3) at 12.11 pm. The train tannoy announces ‘Exit here for Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club’. Now who wants to go to Wimbledon when the tennis isn’t on? I examine Southfields village centre. This is arranged around a cross-roads with roads leading up-hill and down-dale and shops ranging along two and a half of the roads. The shop buildings are old and built to different patterns while the shops are as you would expect to find in an affluent area – a mish-mash of Italian cafés, estate agents, cake shops, chains and the usual suspects. Plus, a shop selling tennis rackets. I make a half-hearted attempt to explore, then the other half also gives up, and I return to the station.
It takes 65 minutes and 27 stops to reach our next station. In the meantime The Wee Prof informs us that we have travelled over 6,000 kilometres since 1st January and have passed through almost 5,000 stations. On average, we travel a little over one hundred kilometres each trip.
At 1.30 pm we arrive at Southgate (A6), three stations from the northern terminus of the Piccadilly line. This is a fine circular station with shops around in an arc of its perimeter facing an another arc of parade across the bus interchange. Southgate is a regional shopping centre with the numbers and variety of shops, and marks of middling affluence, that characterise, say, Edgware. I admire the sinuous curves of the main shopping street which footles up a slight incline and ends with a Bank of Cyprus UK and a sturdy red-bricked church.
I take lunch in a Greek eating-house called Wilton Patisserie which boasts an exceptional display of Greek, French and English paklavas, pastries, cup-cakes, layer-cakes, biscuits, tarts, cookies, sweetmeats, trifles, ice creams and large decorated cakes for all occasions. I have an unexceptional feta and spinach filo roll and a cappucino. The other customers are mainly Greek – some first generation immigrants, a few second generation – plus an Italian gentleman, a Muslim lady in hijab with baby and a British couple. The Greeks, an ever-changing group, joke and gossip.
I muse on the anthropological theory that it was gossip and the necessity of managing our social relations – rather than bipedalism, the invention of fire or the development of language – that was the spur to the growth of our big brains. These are all, of course, ‘hero’ stories – stories where the hero overcomes adversity through some chance discovery or inner resource. But was it because we are social animals that caused our brains to develop? Or did our big brains help us become social animals? No matter. I am happy to sit quietly, partaking at a distance in the warm, easy-going life Mediterranean; happy to consign my Protestant work ethic, at least temporarily, to the past.
As for Southgate – I overlook the empty shops, the knocked-about look, the lack of cordon bleu restaurants and cultural establishments, the closed-down police station. So what? I think. When you can sit chatting with a few friends, why bother hoisting yourself on the tube to Central London?
There’s nothing to South Hampstead (C4), 55 minutes later, at 3.25, and one stop on the Overground from Euston. It’s nowhere near Hampstead. Really, it should be called West Swiss Cottage. It’s a no-shop station with an apologetic parade of shops in an estate nearby. I haven’t much room for manoevre here – over the bridge is the café I lunched at when visiting Finchley Road, around the corner is Swiss Cottage I’ll visit later – but, quite frankly, I’m quite happy with the lack of manoevre.
I’m about to disappear into the station when two old men, sitting on a bench, each eating a banana, wave me over. They have been shopping and their shopping bags, filled with groceries, sit on the bench either side of them. They are disputing with each other about bananas – whether large ones are better than small because the proportion of flesh to covering is greater, or vice versa. They wish me to resolve the dispute. I answer that the great Japanese poet, Basho, took his name from the banana tree. In one of his prose-poems, his Haibun, he mentions that he prefers small bananas while his amanuensis, Sora, prefers large bananas. Basho and Sora agree that the size of the banana matters not – it is the pleasure given that counts. If I was hoping I could resolve the dispute in the here-and-now, I am wrong. Instead, by backing neither, I’ve put both old men’s backs up. Their hands dive into their bags. I fear they are searching for tomatoes or – worse – eggs: I beat a hasty retreat.
An hour later, via Overground, Victoria, Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines, I’m at South Harrow (B2). This is similar to Kingsbury in size, variety of shops, ethnic background and overall disposition though a little down-market and lacking hanging baskets.
The last stop, three quarter of an hour later, direct on the Piccadilly line is South Kensington (D4). This is the French area of London – the French Embassy, the French lycée, the Institut Français are all here.
But I need to buy salad for his supper and there appear to be no small supermarkets in South Kensington that sell the salads I prefer – soft or romaine lettuces. I put my head into a TescoExpress: a single iceberg lettuce glares at me balefully. I scurry out.
On the way back to Forest Hill (via Circle, Jubilee and Overground), I ask The WP what he reckons are my chances of completing my odyssey on time.
At the commencement, he replies, using Bayesian statistical forecasting, I forecast a 53% chance of success.
Now, I forecast an 87% chance.
87%? That’s all?
The WP shrugs. There remains, he says, the many residual risks: death, infections, accidents, your continuing ‘wonkiness’, weather, computer malfunction, Christmas. Plus, you now have a duty to readers to travel, and write, eighty posts. Not the 79 or 78 that were equally possible.
I hadn’t thought about that.
And I consider that, given Jules Verne published his book on the 21st of December, you also must publish Post Eighty on, or by, that date.
Before I can respond The Inner Curmudgeon jumps in, feet first. Quite right, Proffie! Quite right! I call a vote. Those in favour of last post published by 21st of December … Two! Those against … One! Vote carried. Now then, Craig. Democracy – are you going to dispute that?
It’s 7.10 pm at Forest Hill. The shadows are lengthening.