Post 76 of 80. Friday 22 November – West India Quay (Square D7 on the Tube map), West Kensington (D3), Westminster (D4), West Ruislip (A1)
I’ve been asked many times, Why do you do no research beforehand about the Tube stations and places you’re about to visit? Surely that’s a recipe for disaster or, at least, for missing what is important, unusual, beautiful about those places? My answer is simple – since importance, rarity and beauty are in the eyes of the beholder, I don’t want to see those places through the eyes of others. As far as is possible, I want to see them afresh, new, as though this was the very first time human eyes had been clapped upon them. And, as much as possible, I wish to leave whatever happens to chance. But how much are seeing afresh and random happenings possible?
To state the obvious my views are coloured by whatever I’m reading on the day. When I’m reading Rimbaud’s biography, I’m a tramp, a poete maudit, a gun-runner – my senses disarranged. With Cervantes I’m as hopeless and romantic as Don Quixote himself, with Voltaire I’m as wide-eyed and a-thirst for overarching systems as Candide is as he’s thrown from rock to rock. Today, it’s Homer’s turn – I’m reading his famous travelogue, The Odyssey.
Basically, I’m a chameleon. I blend in with my surroundings. Perhaps I’ve always been a chameleon? And not only in the clothes I wear, the length of my hair, my outward appearance – though these have surely changed through student-days; my days at 7:84, Time Out and City Limits; my time as a consultant. Expressions and ways of speech certainly change with the work on-hand, those with whom one is working, with the culture and values of that organisation; ways of thinking, as well as the objects of thought, also change; values shift. As Cervantes said, warning Sancho about his lust for the elusive insula, ‘Be careful, Sancho, for offices can alter behaviour.’
Join the club. Perhaps we’re all chameleons?
It’s another cold bright winter’s day. I’m at West India Quay (Square D7) at 10.00 a.m. – half-an-hour after leaving Forest Hill. The Metro’s headline is: Three women held as slaves for 30 years in a British home None of their neighbours suspected a thing. The couple enslaving the three women blended in with their surroundings.
The buildings lining the north side of West India Quay – the wind chops the water up like corrugated steel, each tiny ridge as sharp and dangerous as a saw-edge – are the original wharf buildings from the nineteenth century. They’ve been colonised by indistinguishable brands selling undistinguished fodder blands. Workers are putting up Christmas decorations that mix equal parts of Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman with Hallowe’en Horror. They should have gone for one or the other – when you’re a chameleon you can only pretend to be one thing at a time. I decide not to get sniffy about Browns, Strada, Rum + Sugar, Temple Lounge and the rest. The original purpose of these fine buildings was, after all, to make money. They are remaining true to that purpose; they remain money-making machines. Or, as they said at that time: ‘An Undertaking which, under the favour of God, shall contribute Stability, Increase and Ornament to British Commerce’.
I pass an outpost of the Museum of London, next a huddle of smokers hunched against the cold, later a Business Park squatting in something called Cannon Workshops. I return and examine the Crossrail works hammering their way through to Woolwich Arsenal and beyond. But it is too icy here – the shadows from Canary Wharf, the water below, the wind whipped up by the skyscrapers – to tarry long.
My next stop – via DLR to Bank/Monument then a District line train towards Richmond – is West Kensington (D3). I arrive at 11.10 a.m. If it’s true that one end of a High Street is always meaner than the other end, then surely it’s also true that in any area one neighbourhood is going to be meanest? That’s certainly the case with West Kensington which is one stop west of Earl’s Court. If I were you I’d stick with South Kensington – two stops east of Earl’s Court.
The Cromwell Road – the Great West Road – heaves and snarls to the immediate north of the station. Together with the snarl-ups along the road that crosses it here, North End Road, it casts a pall of grime, pallor and carcinogems over the neighbourhood. I came here a few times forty years ago when I had a flat in Brook Green. It was mean and dirty then; it’s mean and dirty now. All the usual suspects and all the usual lies are here: one outfit, Kebabish, boasts Eat Healthy. It offers a 15 inch pizza with four garlic breads and a 1.5 litre bucket of Coca-Cola for £9.99. Old white solitary males, dosed on statins and tugging collapsed faded-tartan shopping bags on wheels behind them, stotter slowly along the pavement. Surely, though, this area is ripe for development? There are stately, if a little bashed-about, Victorian terraces, a mews even, and it’s handy for ‘town’.
I look across to the north side of the Cromwell Road.
No, don’t you even start going there! yells The Inner Curmudgeon. You’ve done your bit in this miserable dump.
Maybe it’ll be a little bit more peachy over there?
And it is. It’s not yet peachy heaven you understand, far from it, but the peachy-fingered dawn of development is rising here. I stop off at a modernistic black-themed coffeeteria. It’s run by Chinese. Packets of shrimp crackers and dried bean-curds are offered amongst Kettle crisps, Italian biscotti and Belgian waffles. Dim sum is on offer for lunch. At the table next to me two elderly ladies, one English one French, are boring each other with long lists of all the countries they’ve visited. But the cities are all the same! they lament. Shanghai, Kuala Lumpa, Tokyo, Houston … All shopping malls, hotels, 12 lane highways …
I’m on the tube a little before noon and fetch up at Westminster (D4) at ten past twelve. I’m at a loss to know what to do here – I’ve visited all the public buildings from the County Hall across the water which is now an Aquarium to the fish tank this side known as the Houses of Parliament. I could go on a River Cruise – I fancy going up-river to Hampton Court. But the company that does those cruises is shut. So I walk up and down the Embankment and look out over the Thames, glinting in the sun, its ripples shading brown to blue. I’ve grown to love the Thames this year – something that I hadn’t expected, but don’t worry I’m not going to come over all psycho-geography with you – I can’t go along with all this sacred-river-twallop. But it’s lovely, it’s balm to the soul.
And the Embankment itself is – well, you couldn’t call it lovely, but it’s elegant in a non-haughty way (‘inclusive’ is the mot moderne), with its avenue of planes still mainly in leaf at the end of November. And the sun on Westminster Bridge! I agree with Wordsmith – even though he was imagining it first thing in the morning, before nearly all the present buildings were built and certainly not thronging with tourists at mid-day: ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair …’
It takes almost an hour (two stops north by Jubilee to Bond Street, then Central line to its western terminus) to reach West Ruislip (A1). It’s almost 1.30 p.m. It’s time for lunch. But West Ruislip is not like those other end-of-the-line stations – Amersham, Chesham, Cockfosters, Epping, Lewisham, Morden, Wimbledon or Uxbridge. It’s not even like Beckton which at least has a supermarket.
West Ruislip is, indeed, the end of the line: I’ve been teleported to deepest suburbia. There’s a Care Centre, and a Golf Centre, and a (closed) Met Police outpost, and plenty of modern flats and low modernish housing.
There’s a steeple off to my right, towards Eastcote. I head for that. I pass another Care Home, an Auction House and the Ruislip Conservative Club. Like the Golf Centre, it’s car park is packed. Cars hurtle past me like demonic bejewelled beetles. I realise that I’m in one of those places where I’m the only pedestrian. I walk on. I wonder where that church spire has got to, it seems to have disappeared. Never mind, there’s a pub ahead, The White Bear, that looks distinctly promising. Inside, though, there’s a piercing whiff of disinfectant, the two ales are off and the chef has gone to the bank ‘but should be back soon’. It’s quarter-to-two. One of the handful of other customers comes to the bar as I’m dithering and asks for three packets of crisps. We only have two packets left, the bar-maid replies. I leave.
I turn back and walk past the station – it has an Indian takeaway (closed) and a minimarket which will probably sell me an overpriced cheese sandwich but I spot a parade of shops on the other side of the road further west.
The Inner Curmudgeon erupts: No, no, no, no, NO! We’ve been walking for forty minutes! Turn back! Why can’t you be like everyone else? Why can’t you just GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS! He bangs his head against the nearest wall, which – being the inside of my skull – is exquisitely painful. You’ve got too high expectations of yourself, Craig, that’s your biggest problem!
But I’ve spied another pub ahead, The Soldiers Return, and a pub, I decide, is what I want. This is the country after all. Plus, ‘The Soldiers Return’! I mean – perhaps I’ll bump into Odysseus?
I have a Fish Finger Sandwich & Chips and a pint of Doom Bar (what else when you’ve crossed fish-infested seas?) in the deserted restaurant. It’s quiet, warm and the sun is golden through the window. I read Homer. Telemachus has gone off to find out news of his father; the Suitors have heard about this and have gone off to ambush him (it’s Wild West stuff this); Penelope is languishing; and the action has switched from Ithaca to Odysseus himself and his adventures – first ensnared by Calypso then his adventures back with the Cyclops, Circe … I muse and meditate. First, when following Telemachus, I am Telemachus and grieve for my father. Later, when Odysseus comes into the action, I change chameleon-like into the shade of that greatest and most complex of all Greek heroes. Beyond the pub lies the immensity and unknowability of London. Forget Dublin, I think, London is the modern equivalent of Homer’s wine-dark sea.
I’m back at the station a little after three. For some of the Central line voyage back homewards I look out over the vast Sargasso Sea of north-west London. I realise that I’ve never once travelled any tube-line from terminus to terminus. Now is my opportunity.
The Inner Curmdugeon fetches me a hefty kick up the back-side. Don’t be daft, he yells. That Circe has got you by the short-and-curlies!
He’s right. I settle back to reading. Some time later I realise I’ve missed my connection with the Jubilee. I jump out at Oxford Circus, take a tube back to Bond Street and continue my way home. I’m pretty good at being a chameleon but I’m not going to fall for the ruses that caused Odysseus so much heartache, so many wasted years. It’s getting on for a quarter to five when I get back to Ithaca.