Post 72 of 80. Monday 4 November – Wapping (Square D7 on the Tube map), Warren Street (C5), Warwick Avenue (C3), Waterloo (E5), Watford (A2)
The rain that’s been thumping on the roof all night stops and, in an instant, there’s bright blue sky outside: a good day for TubeforLOLs. Except I don’t want to traipse round the Tube where anything might happen but nothing does. I really don’t. There’s only thirty-odd stations to go, I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder … harder … harder … Someone is poking me in the ribs with a stick. It’s The Inner Curmudgeon. Come on, boyo, he is saying. He’s got his gruff voice on but today there’s a paternal, concerned gruffityness about it. Slowly I swim upwards from the anxious and loathsome deeps, through the world of sleep and dreams … You can’t let this TubeforLOLs’ nonsense, get to you, Sandy, The Inner Curmudgeon is saying. It’s nothing, understand, nothing! You can’t let it get into your dreams!
As I’m leaving I meet our neighbour, Mark. He’s changed careers mid-life and is in his final year training to be a doctor. He’s on study leave today and has taken his children to primary school. I remember the days when I walked Becca and Andrew to school, journeys full of joy. Mark and I are united in our good fortune. So few fathers (and, these days, some mothers) see, enjoy and occasionally guide their children growing up. We’re too busy being busy elsewhere.
And then, on the 9.17 a.m. Overground I bump into Adam from the Bubble (Adam who wanted me to be a parakeet on the Albion Millennium Green, see post The Birds and the Bees [47/80]). He asks where I’m going. Wapping, I reply. Ah, he says. Immediately, the stormy sea that is history throws us against the lea-shore that is Wapping. Only later do we steer the yacht of conversation into the gentle shoals of our early days in the theatre, Adam’s at the Young Vic, me at 7:84. We were living the dream, Adam says, as he gets off at Rotherhithe to prepare a funding application.
I arrive in Wapping (Square D7) at 9.35 a.m. Water from last night’s rain is still dripping from the station roof, still splashing on to the narrow platforms. These are decorated with enamel panels of Wapping-life; not real-life, of course, but sanitized, the thin dreams of government-sponsored propagandists. There’s no reference to the appalling poverty of the 19th, the 20th and – for many in the Bangladeshi community – the 21st centuries. No reference to the working class struggles against Oswald Mosley and his fascist Blackshirts in the thirties; to the suffragettes earlier in the 20th century; to the century-long political and trade-union struggles culminating in the 1986 News International dispute.
I’ve mentioned the part next-door St Katherine’s Docks played in recent history (see post, Accentuate The Positive! [68/80]): the Wapping dispute was another turning point.
In 1985, News International, headed by Digger Murdoch, built and equipped a new printing plant in Wapping – allegedly for a new evening newspaper. In January 1986, after months of negotiations that were getting nowhere, the print unions went on strike. News International immediately transferred the printing of their newspapers (The Times, News of the World, etc.) to Wapping and sacked everyone taking part in the strike. The unions organised demonstrations outside the Wapping plant. Some of the demostrations became violent. Adam, in our lea-shore talk earlier, contrasts the Thatcher Government’s roaring support of the police then with the stick with which the Coalition Government are belabouring the police over Plebgate.
The strike ended after a year. None of the workers were reinstated and received less than generous compensatory sums. The unions remain barred from NI to this day. The strike and new technology meant that the print industry had changed utterly. And it wasn’t many years before all the national newspapers abandoned Fleet Street and moved to Docklands.
I trail up Wapping High Street, trudge along The Highway (extra-strong snarl-ups in both directions) and double back along Pennington Street. The failed experiment of Tobacco Dock (factory outlets) is shuttered-up. ‘Fortress Wapping’, as it was called, looms barred, black and empty: it’s up for sale. Only twenty-five years on, and footloose News International has moved on.
It’s only a little over half-an-hour from Wapping to Warren Street (C5) via Overground, Hammersmith & City and Victoria lines. I sneak a look at the Metro. Its headline today is a tongue-twister: The shop scanners that scan shoppers This is Lord ‘Bully Boy’ Sugar’s rattletrap idea to scan customers at filling stations, classify them into male/female and one of three broad age-bands and then beam appropriate advertisements at them. He calls it ‘enhancing the customer experience’.
Eleven o-clock and the chill has gone from the morning. Forty years ago, Fitzrovia was part Bohemian part seedy, Warren Street a street of dodgy second-hand car dealers. There’s nothing seedy or dodgy about Warren Street today. The second-hand car lots have given way to establishments with names like ‘All Flutes Plus’ (sells flutes), ‘Black Truffle’ (sells and gives classes in ‘Accessory Making’ – bags, belts, corsetry, etc), Alec Tiranti (sells tools etc for Modelling & Ceramics etc), ‘Honey and Co’ (‘coffee shop’, sells food from the Middle East), ‘French’s Theatre Bookshop’ (sells – oh, you guessed).
I walk through to Fitzroy Square – it’s glorious in the autumn sun. Forty years ago, when working at 7:84 Theatre, I came to the bank here (now gone) to pick up the cash for the weekly wages. In those days one had to reckon out how many tenners, fivers, pounds, fifty pence pieces, pennies, etc. were needed for each pay-packet. Plus, of course, how much to be deducted for ‘subs’ already taken. I’m reminiscing when I’m approached by a well-dressed professional gentleman who asks me if I’m looking for something. He’s a doctor who was waiting for a patient who didn’t show. I explain why I’m here and add, About the only thing I’m looking for is a public toilet. Oh go to the hospital, the doctor says, waving an arm at the building from which he has newly exited. Ask the receptionist. I’m sure she’ll let you use the toilet.
I baulk at this. I don’t mind using the free toilets in shops, pubs, hotels (see post, Ah Memory – You Disobedient Dog! [70/80]), but hospitals …?
Don’t be daft, cajoles The Inner Curmudgeon. Think of The Wee Prof and me. A Craig with a full bladder is a pain in the proverbial. Besides, what are you – a man or a mouse? I thought part of the point about TubeforLOLs was that you would do things you wouldn’t normally do as Sandy Craig!
You can always say that Dr Bradley sent you, my doctor friend continues.
So that is what I do. And what a relief!
On the tube through to Warwick Avenue I muse on my life and London life over the past forty years. I have sudden vertiginous drops of spirit, plunging into deep sadness then, as suddenly, terrific surges of excitement, spiralling up with the energy and profusion of Lundun, the sheer lucky chance of being born in the first place. Then, once again, I ponder on the koan, the number one unresolvable Cosmological Question: ‘Why is there not nothing?’ Followed by the next CQ – as I leap out of the tube’s closing doors: ‘How did I get to Warwick Avenue (C3) so quickly?’ It’s only 11.45 am.
I decide not to visit Little Venice but to find out more about the Cabmen’s Shelters, one of which rickety diminutive wooden structures stands outside the station. I pop my head in at the hatch. There’s an old biddy rustling up teas and bacon sandwiches and four cab-drivers sitting round a cramped table. The biddy is busy with her teapot and toasting tray. Three of the four cabmen ostentatiously ignore me. The fourth pierces me with a long glare. I take the hint.
There’s a long line of cabs outside, the first with a driver at the wheel. I go up to his side window. He doesn’t roll it down, he doesn’t move, doesn’t bat an eyelid, twitch a muscle. This is absolute-zero cold-shoulder treatment. Fair enough, I think, they’re off-duty, they don’t want to be bothered by punters or tourists.
Nonsense, storms The IC. They’re being rude. Bloody rude. You should have shouted at them. He snorts. And you’ve found out nothing, nyet, zilch about them.
The Wee Prof looks up from his Alpine Meadows Gruyere & Swiss Shallots crisps. They derive from the era of hansom cabs, he says. There used to be 61 shelters but there are only 13 left – all Grade 11 listed. No-one but cab drivers are allowed inside them – except they open some on ‘Open House Days’. You’ve missed them for this year.
I gravitate towards Little Venice. It’s delightful as usual. There’s a working boat there, ‘Limehouse’, which has been dredging the canal. It has picked up three bikes amongst other assorted rubbish.
Back at the Bakerloo, I settle to reading Erkine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands – though it’s hard-going for a spy thriller. I reach Waterloo (E5) at 12.40 p.m. Alas, it’s a little early for its famous sunset.
I head straight for The Cut where street food stalls – Cuban, Chinese, Caribbean, Indian, Mediterranean, Thai, etc. – are hot-shouldering out the old food and tat stalls. There’s still a touch of seediness here (that’s, if you consider the Bondage shop as seedy rather than as ‘polyvalent sexuality’). Otherwise pubs with names like ‘Camel & Artichoke’ give you a steer about what to expect. I opt for Coopers, a veggie place which still has one foot in the seventies and have a butternut squash tart (with a lovely thick crust) and piled up salad for £6.20.
My last visit is the long haul on the Metropolitan to Watford (A2). A word of advice: if you want to tube it to Watford go on the Overground, this Metropolitan Watford terminates in deepest Watford suburbia. Unless you are visiting Vicarage Road, Watford Football Club’s ground which is hiding in the shrubbery somewhere around here.
I power-walk for half-an-hour to the fringes of the centre where Watford Council are digging up the pedestrianised High Street with heroic, Newham-Council-like Olympian vigour.
Then I return via Cassowary Park, the sun setting through the trees most scenically, but see no hoppers, small or large, upside-down or sunny-side-up. There are, however, two figures, bent over, rootling with sticks under a tree. She is ample and broad of beam; he is thin with narrow withers; both are my age, both ‘from peasant stock’. I ask what they are doing. ‘Chesanuts,’ mutters the female rustic in an Italian accent, pointing at two Sainsbury bags filled with sweet chestnuts. ‘Itsa bit-a late for them,’ she continues in a none-too-subtle attempt to put me off going into competition. Like synchronised swimmers the twin swains resume rootling, presenting their posteriors in my direction.
I’m back, eventually, at the station thinking about the day. Apart from Mark and Adam and, to a certain extent, Dr Bradley, I’ve had little success in the talking-to-people stakes and nil success in the things-happening stakes. But then, isn’t that what TubeforLOLs is about? Much ado about nothing? I muse on life and dreams. Were Adam and I really living the dream all those years ago? Or am I now merely dreaming the life I once lived (or may once have lived)? Am I Zhuangzi dreaming I’m a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I’m Zhuangzi? One thought leads to another and I remember this morning’s dream. What were you doing in my dream, I ask The Inner Curmudgeon, my temper rising.
I wasn’t in your dream, he replies, I was trying to get you out of your dream. Trying to wake you up.
I flare up. Listen, just stay out of my dreams, OK! It’s bad enough having you popping up in the day-time.
He laughs. Good on you, boyo! That’s the spirit. That’s #4 in The Habits of Highly Successful Curmudgeons: It’s always a good time to be angry!
An hour and a half later, it’s touching six o’clock, I’m back in Forest Hill. I’m trying to follow the Daoist principle of wu-wei, action through inaction. The art of positively doing nothing.
Note: For further details of the News International dispute, including details and future brochure of an exhibition organized by the sacked workers and veterans of the picket lines and the forthcoming website, see firstname.lastname@example.org