Post 77 of 80. Thursday 28 November – West Silvertown (Square D9 on the Tube map), Whitechapel (C7), White City (C3), Willesden Green (B4)
Ignoring the final journey, which will be a purely processional affair to Mornington Crescent (via Woolwich Arsenal) for the The LOL-OSCARS Gala Awards Evening, this is the third last trek of this legendary absurd quest. Perhaps, despite the uniform-grey day, I’m touched a little by gate-fever? Perhaps I have premonitions that there could be late entries to the short-lists for the LOL-OSCAR categories of Snarliest Snarl-Up, Mankiest Manor, Gob-Smacker Neighbourhoods, The Golden Panini Award for most Lolastic Lunch-Stop and – certainly – for Unexpected Encounters? A glance at the Tube map confirms that Tedious Tubing will not feature today.
It’s 10.20 a.m. at Forest Hill. The Metro’s headline disappoints: Footballers arrested over ‘match-fixing’ I’m reading Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands – a lavishly illustrated coffee-table tome enlivened by Eco’s erudition and wit. The first legendary land is the belief that people believed the Earth is flat, a belief held until sometime around the Renaissance when mankind discovered we lived on the surface of a sphere. Except it’s this modern belief that is wrong. Most ancients, from Plato and Aristotle through to Diogenes Laertius and Ptolemy, thought the world was a sphere.
First up, though, I’m attracted by the main feature in New Scientist, ‘The Origins of Intelligence’. The commonly accepted theory is that humans were little more than ‘glorified baboons’ before the ‘great leap forward’ of the ‘creative explosion’ around 30,000 years ago in Europe, mainly southern France and Spain. But the evidence shows that this is a ‘Eurocentric’ view – humans were practising art at least 80,000 years ago in Africa, in Israel around 90,000 years ago … There is even the suggestion that Neanderthals practised art and were capable of abstract thought. That’s another sling-shot at the myth – or should I say, legend – of human exceptionalism.
I arrive at West Silvertown (Square D9) at eleven o’clock. To the north of the station lie unassuming, tidily-arranged housing and the Royal Docks. I turn south to the industrial lands that stretch towards the Thames.
There’s an enormous bang – the air jolts out of my lungs. It’s The Inner Curmudgeon hitting his head against my rib-cage. Perversity, he cries, Thy name is Craig!
I ignore him as best I can (though how on earth did he get down there?) and enter a land bereft of pedestrians. Instead it is a land inhabited by legendary beasts: huge articulated lorries, gangs of cement-mixers and squads of dirty motorway tip-up trucks carrying sand, gravel and aggregate growl past. Beneath me the ground shudders, slopping the grey/ brown paste that covers the broken pavements from gutter to choked gutter. The air is rent by hammers clanging, machinery screeching, motors rumbling, conveyor belts rattling, warning sirens sirening, reversing traffic beeping. I walk past engineering workshops, closed medical units, wastelands, the huge factories of LaFarge Tarmac and Tate & Lyle, pausing to photograph the decorative relief outside the latter: ‘Out of the strong came forth the sweeteners’. How about researching a History of Corporate Twaddle? I suggest to The Wee Professor.
He wrinkles his nose. I prefer to limit my studies to those where there is a reasonable chance that the subject has limits, he replies.
Hmm, I think, it’s good to know everyone is happy.
A sudden waft of wind envelopes me in the heady sweet smell of syrup. I follow the road round, carefully negotiating the great grey slicks of paste, patiently waiting until the street is clear of tipper trucks, their wheels hurling the paste over assembled Range Rovers up from Chelsea for the day, dowsing them so that back home their owners can proudly display their mud. On the way back I meet with the strangest of snarl-ups. A queue of tipper-trucks wait to enter a yard, some to deposit their sand and gravel, others to be filled with sand and gravel. A wee battered white van sits like a frightened rabbit between two hulkers.
I mosey up Lyle Park. It looks, feels and smells desolate. There’s a forlorn picnic bench, iron railings left over from Harland and Wolff, and litter-bins with decorative log frontages and little log roofs.
Outside the park there’s a van: Oscars Rapid Snack Response Unit. I chat with the woman running it. The business, Oscars, has been going for ages, she tells me, but she’s only been doing it for a year. A few months ago she noticed that someone was converting an old mobile home in one of the industrial yards. We’re just tarting it up, she was told. Four months ago it opened as a snack joint. It’s taken a lot of her custom away. Capitalism, I think, is red in snack and baked potato.
I get to Whitechapel (C7) at 12.20 p.m. I’ve been waiting all year, dear readers, to tell you about Whitechapel. You see, Whitechapel station is the only station on the Tube where the Overground is underground and the Underground is overground and the Overground is under the Underground and the Underground is over the Overground! Isn’t that exciting! Toot! Toot!
It’s pin-headed, complains The IC. He and The Wee Professor are busy mopping up the mud spattered over them while I was talking at the Rapid Snack Response Unit.
I am meeting with Sue (with whom I lunched in January, see Down Memory Lane [3/80]) and Fi and Andrew (lunches including at the Galicia, see Happy Talk [74/80]). We have but one agenda: lunch – lunch at an Indian caff on Brick Lane. For £5 a head you get two curries of your choice, a plateful of rice or two naan, and a (non-alcoholic) drink. Despite the lack of cheese, it’s lolastic.
Afterwards, Sue leaves us. Andrew and Fi have decided to accompany me on the remainder of today’s expedition. We take a District tube to Monument / Bank where we board a Central line tube and play at sardines. I explain to Fi about the latest archeological thinking re humans, creativity and Neanderthals. Genetically, of course, we are all – I pontificate – part human, tiny part Neanderthal and part neither human nor Neanderthal. And what’s that part, she asks. Ahh! (pause) Part Scottish! I ask her if she’s noticed that to be top-ranking in the Scottish National Party you’ve got to be named after a fish – Alex Salmon, Nicola Sturgeon, Linda Colley, Kilgore Trout, Captain Haddock, Andy Moray-eel … It’s no accident that Bertie Wooster often said of Jeeves (another Scot) that he ‘ate fish for breakfast, fish for lunch and dined off fish for supper’.
We are grilling nicely when we arrive at White City (C3). I’ve been looking forward to White City. I’ve never been here before but I know the BBC is here. I imagine cultured BBCbohos strolling from Beeb to Bistro discussing Lacan and the merits of opposing football systems (the ‘4-3-3’ versus the ‘3-4-3-1’ etc). The station itself is a big brave station with a plaque from the Festival of Britain and a Hole-in-the-Wall that dispenses euros as well as sterling. Viva la rive gauche de Londres-cité! I think in Esperanglais.
What has passed me by is that Television Centre has been closed down – I mean, completely closed down. I thought it was just the football they’d moved to Manchester. I talk with a short smiling Security Guard. They moved the iPlayer department out last week, he tells me. There’s nothing here now. We do not know what will happen to us. Fate is not in our hands. The rumour is that we will be notified [of getting our cards] at the end of next month, so it will be (he counts on his fingers) March when we lose our jobs. As I’m taking a photo of the building, he goes over to Fi and Andrew, covering his security pass with his jacket and asks whether I’m a Governor of the BBC.
Across the road is a featureless wilderness dominated by a Security Outpost out of Stalag Luft III. Beyond, there’s a shabby low-slung shed stretching towards the horizon. (Though I don’t think it’s ever actually going to achieve that laudable aim – the horizon wants nothing to do with it and keeps sidling further away.) This is where Marks & Spencer do photoshoots of their furniture for their catalogues.
An amply-upholstered sample of humanity claiming to be a Security Guard and smoking a flat-earth cigarette detaches himself from beneath an awning and accosts me. I ask him what kind of stuff they shoot in the shed. I can’t say anything specific about any part of the photoshoots, he tells me. Security, he adds as though that’s some kind of reason. Sofas? I question. Three-piece men in suits? Twiggy? He shakes his head and intones mantra-like the single word, Security. I make to go, then like Lieutenant Colombo, I turn back. Tell me, which one of the displays did you like the best? Personally? I ask. He won’t say. He could tell me any old nonsense. Instead, he rolls the word ‘Security’ round his mouth like the gobstopper from hell.
What is it about these jobsworths that litter the working landscape of Britain – that bit of the landscape that’s still working – that they can’t even spout a little nonsense about their work? Are they so scared of their jobs? Or is it because he has never seen one of the fabled M&S photoshoots?
We move on to the final station of the day, Willesden Green (B4). It’s 3.40 p.m., I’ve never been here before and I’ve no idea where I am. It’s certainly not where I think Willesden is supposed to be. (I check later and realise that I’ve been confusing Willesden with Cricklewood. Fancy that! Forty years in London and confusing Willesden with Cricklewood. London is indeed a legendary land.)
After my disappointments at White City, a drink is in order. I enquire of a young lady at Foxton’s for directions to the best wine bar in Willesden. She flounders. For some reason she thinks we’re looking for food. Ignoring her recommendation, we chance upon a place, called Mezzoroma, with a wickerwork scooter outside and a distinct lack of either sopranos or gypsies inside.
After demonstrating to the owner of Mezzorama the art and dance of processing – there’s a worrying moment, Fi tells me later, when she thinks he may turf us out. I can see him thinking, she says, Oh-oh, we’ve got a loony here. – we tuck an acceptable bottle of red wine inside us and, thus fortified, make our way back to the station.
We pause, as one does, to admire a bonsai tree in the florist at the station. A woman, about our age, suddenly presents herself in front of Fi. Hello, she says. There’s a pause such as you only find outside the Pearly Gates while St Michael examines his scrolls. Then Time starts up again. Frances, Fi exclaims, and clasps said Frances to her breast. It is Frances Lass, a colleague of ours from 1970s Time Out days, then a black-haired goth working in the music section with a way with words that brings specially-sharpened skewers to mind (£89.99 a set of six, you know where from).
It has to be thirty years since I saw her last. If it had been only she and me passing on the pavement we would never have recognised each other. It’s only because Fi is here, on this TubeforLOLs, that the encounter happens. Frances can’t believe the explanation (TubeforLOLs) I give as reason for why we are here. Surely no-one can be that swivel-eyed? It’s only at the second telling that she nods her head. Yes, I can see her thinking, that’s the kind of thing that Sandy Craig would do, still crazy after all these years. And she, too – despite the passing of years – is still wonderfully herself (though without the long black hair and startling pallor).
After parting company with Frances, Fi Andrew and I return on the Jubilee glowing with the warmth of flukish serendipity. I reach the shores of Forest Hill a little before six o’clock.
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