Post 70 of 80. Tuesday 29 October – Upper Holloway (Square B6 on the Tube map), Upton Park (C8), Uxbridge (A1), Vauxhall (E4), Victoria (D4)
I can’t believe it: a Tube station here! Over the past forty years I’ve passed this way countless times (as in ‘I can’t remember how many times’) mainly by car, sometimes on foot and, perhaps, a couple of times by bus. And I’ve never known there was a station here. I’m gob-smacked. Or, as I used to say when but a callow youth – my gast is flabbered.
Mind you, this particular station is stretching the definition of ‘station’ to the limits of its underpants’ elastic. It’s more a portakabin with a couple of Oyster readers attached and a vast Pergolesi structure of slopes, ramps, 180 degree switchbacks and corkscrews, a redundant foot-bridge, and railings which ascend and descend from platform-level to street-level – the platforms being sunk in a narrow, precipitous ravine many coal-mines deep below the surging snarling A1.
I’m talking about Upper Holloway station (Square B6) which I’ve reached at 9.55 am after 70 minutes on a trio of Overgrounds (to Highbury & Islington, then to Gospel Oak, finally on the Barking spur). It’s bang on the Holloway Road a couple of hundred yards south of Archway (see Post, A Sorry Little Parade of Shops etc). The good old, bad old, endlessly familiar, never-ending traffic jam popularly known as the Holloway Road. How could I not have known it was here? How could I forget it, retain not a trace memory of it?
Mind you, the stretches of shops either side of the road here are instantly forgettable. Take the battered gap-toothed lot malingering on the south-east stretch: Church of the Grace of God (battered, graceless), Century 21 (estate agents), Empty, Beauty Agents, Dry Cleaners, Converted to residential, Empty (currently being re-fitted). Next: Estate Agents, Jump In Café, SatNav Repairs, Two shop-fronts converted to residential, Mini-market & off-license, Empty, Hairdressers, Florists … It’s tempting to say any driver finding himself on this stretch of the HR is in need of repairs to his satnav.
I turn into a small linear park, Whittington Park. This has one of everything: one astroturf, one kiddies’ playground, one park-worker blowing leaves from the single path cum cycleway, one sign (‘Blind corner’ – for the cyclists), one one o’clock club and one trim trail. There’s even one person using the trim-trail – a guy in long camouflage shorts listening to his iPod. He reminds me of Chris Evans though, since I can’t remember what Chris Evans looks like, I can’t think why.
In all my TubeforLOLs’ wanderings I can’t remember having seen anyone using any of the luridly-painted exercise machines that have erupted in parks like bad cases of eczema … I wish that image hadn’t come into my head. I reel back to my teenage years and my pluke-pitted teenage face, the years of murky-brown gloop dabbed-on with cotton wool, the dietary regime that included no chocolate and no CocaCola … I decide to chat to Chris Evans, but somehow …
When I walk back, he’s migrated to the last, furthest away machine and there’s another, older geezer pumping hard at the first machine! Two open-air exercise fanatics using a trim-trail – that’s 50 points in the I-Spy TubeforLOLs London!
I make it back down the chasm of Upper Holloway station and board an Overground train towards Barking. I look out over the North, then the East, London landscape. It’s bathed in bright sunshine, there’s water from yesterday’s storm everywhere. The Metro headline, by the way, is: Drawn to the sea then lost to the storm I’m reading a collection of essays by Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? As I read Calvino’s take on the Odyssey I wonder if TubeforLOLs is a voyage of discovery or whether, like Ulysses, it’s a voyage of return, a voyage home. Except, where and what is home?
The Overground snuffles over the Lea Valley, the sun glancing silver-metallic and grey flint on the reservoirs, tufty clouds scurrying across the sky. Then it gruffaloes its way through Leytonstone. In the distance there are two desolate tower blocks – I can’t tell whether they are occupied or slated for demolition. My mind lurches back three decades to the empty block in the south-eastern banlieue of Paris where May and the other zonards returned after a day hanging out near the Pompidou Centre. The block was about to be demolished: everything inside had been ripped out – furniture, fittings, doors, loos, electrics. One floor was for sleeping, the floor upstairs was used as a communal toilet. It stank. You had to be careful where you stepped, particularly after night-fall … Still, some kind of home. A home at the end of its life. I’d never thought of homes dying, but I suppose, like everything, they must.
I make it to Upton Park (C8) a little after eleven. I’m planning to visit the West Ham ground, look at the statue of Bobby Moore, the captain of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning football team. (1966: I’m on a dolmus in Turkey with my friend Harry. Everyone – apart from Harry and I, all Turkish – cheering England on. Or rather, cheering Germany back.) But when I exit station, I realise I am on Green Street – the commercial and consumer centre of East London’s Indian community. Amongst incongruous Paddy Powers and Boots there are rows of Indian fashions shops, sari shops, fabrics shops; shops selling jewellery, gold and perfume; houseware shops, Indian gift shops, trinket shops; Halal butchers and Indian fruit and vegetable markets … And, naturally, Indian restaurants, cafés, takeaways …
It’s early for lunch but you can’t keep a good stomach empty. I choose Vijay’s Chawalla where I try their Dabeli – a toasted bread roll filled with spicy potatoes, onions, crunchy peanuts and pomegranate seeds from paradise. While waiting, I watch an Indian soap (with English sub-titles) on the flat-screen TV. I chat with a waiter. The dabeli is street-food, India-style, he assures me. But we cannot get the Indian bun here in England. This is the nearest we can get.
I board a Hammersmith & City line train through to Baker Street, then change to a Metropolitan train. It sways and shimmies from Baker Street to Finchley Road where it hurtles out into the open air like a dog chasing a ball. Somewhere around Preston Park I stop reading and gaze, rather fondly, at the Sargasso Sea of Housing. I am bound for Uxbridge (A1), the last (and first) stop on the Uxbridge branch.
Uxbridge like Ealing and Richmond is a regional centre. It’s got not one but two shopping malls – The Pavilions and The Chimes (or ‘intu Uxbridge’) – and a semi-pedestrianised High Street. It’s pleasant, bland, well-behaved, decorous. Even the High Street appears to be anaethetised. It’s hard to imagine anything unruly happening here, though a visit on a Friday or Saturday night might prove the lie to that. It’s that sort of a place: a grazing and a browsing and a marrying-the-girl-next-door sort of a place.
You’re just miffed because you ain’t got no memories here, says The Inner Curmudgeon.
Now, why is he upbraiding me in double-negative American style?
Time to move on, via Metropolitan, Jubilee and Victoria lines, to Vauxhall (E4). I arrive shortly after three. Vauxhall is the sort of place that tries to be many sorts of places – Transport interchange (the roofs on the bus station like aircraft carrier launches), Gay Village (the Royal Vauxhall Tavern etc.), Spooks’ Corner (MI6), Space Boffin Drop-Box (the British Interplanetary Society), Housing Mash-up (Inner City Estates meet Luxury Riverside Apartments) and, of course, Snarl-Up (South London) Central aka Vauxhall Cross.
But, for me Vauxhall means only one thing. For me, it is associated with a Monday morning in September thirty years ago when I was persuaded, despite all my protestations, to stop our old green Volkswagen Polo in the middle of this dingy underpass.
Fran, in the front seat, was feeling queasy, wanted to get some air. I opened the door for her, but wouldn’t let her out. I explained as gently as I could – I don’t do gentleness very well; I’m much better at impatience – that this wasn’t a good idea. After a couple of minutes I prevailed and we drove off. A couple of minutes after that I delivered Fran to the Maternity Unit at St Thomas’s Hospital. A few minutes later, the midwife delivered our lovely daughter, Becca.
My last stop of the day, five minutes and two stops north, is Victoria (D4). I get there shortly before four. I remember the first time I was here …
The Inner Curmudgeon breaks into my reverie. For Goodness Sakes, Craig, give over with the reminiscences. Isn’t there anything useful you can tell the readers?
I decide appeasement is the best policy. Besides which … Built onto the northern flank of Victoria Station, Dear Readers, is the multi-starred Grosvenor Hotel. This can be accessed direct from the station concourse near the ticket office. Now, should you ever be in need of spending a penny (or rather 30 pence which is the charge to use the station toilets to the left) enter and ascend the stairs to the ground floor of the hotel.
Do not be put off by the doors ahead. Turn left as you enter the foyer and, after briefly admiring the tiling, lighting and décor, head across it and immediately before The Brasserie turn left through the door marked with the male and female icons. This will lead you back down to a set of clean, well appointed, fully functioning water closets. Turn right on returning to the foyer; check your watch, purse your lips, frown – as though you are meeting a friend who is late – nod at the assembled doormen, concierges, flunkeys and maids-in-waiting and make your way with unhurried step back to the station concourse.
… the first time I visited Victoria Station would have been during the Easter vacation in either 1964 or 1965. I was on a School Trip to Annecy in France with twenty or so other boys. We had travelled down from Edinburgh the day before and now all our attention was focused on the long long Boat Train on Platform Two. It would be my first time abroad, to ‘Europe’; my first holiday not with my family. I remember a wonderful feeling of freedom, light-headedness and adventure; of beckoning possibilities … I remember the first breakfast the next day at the pension near Annecy – coffee in soup-bowls, the endless French bread, the never-ending supplies of butter and jam … I think I remember the train itself, the steam locomotive, the clamour and smell of the smoke … But I may have got that wrong. By 1964/65 most of British Railways had converted to diesel.
Today, there’s no sense of adventure and the night has fallen when I leave Victoria. I dive back into the Tube, take the Victoria line to Green Park, then the Jubilee, then the Overground from Canada Water.
I’m still musing on my odyssey when I arrive back in Forest Hill a little before seven o’clock. If life is a return to home, is it also a return to the idyll of childhood after the years of tedium pointlessness and diversion we know as work? Is this the terrible secret we withold from ourselves? And is this what TubeforLOLs is a metaphor for? Or are these thoughts only the kind of thoughts which arise naturally from someone reading Italo Calvino on the Tube?
For Gods Sakes, Craig, complains The Inner Curmudgeon. Hurry it up! I’ve got the second series of Downtown Abbey on DVD to watch!