Posted in SHOFT on Saturday 11th January 2020 at 4:01pm

Now and then, the internet still amazes me. It's easy to sometimes dismiss any remaining capacity for surprise in this cavernous echo chamber which I've been roaming since 1996, but oddly and when least expected it can come up trumps. On Twitter today I was amazed to see someone sharing an interview I did with Daniel Johnson back in 1992. I prepared to cringe at the irritating exuberance of my youth, but it actually remained fairly interesting and aside from a perhaps not-unexpected fascination with Daniel's very personal style of composition, the answers gave a little insight into someone who was back then something of a mystery to most of us.

After a little discussion, the rest of the fanzine showed up: a six-page effort from Theme Park in Brighton, which alongside my work, included an interview with Brown Tower and reviews of a bunch of records which I'd owned and loved too. A real blast from the past. Topping it all was an ad for Traumatone which spoke of a time when I felt like I was achieving something small but significant. A time when the postman's arrival was awaited with genuine interest, and when a transatlantic communication took four working days or an inordinately expensive 'phone call. It was just what I needed to see in the midst of a gloomy and challenging month when the dark days of winter stretched ahead and there weren't any plans on the horizon. It reminded me that now, just like back then in 1992, I might be ploughing furrows which seemed to be of little interest to most people, but I did it because it made me happy and proud - feelings I don't allow myself access to nearly often enough.

Traumatone - still trucking into 1992...
Traumatone - still trucking into 1992...

So as I sail into the busy, challenging and uncertain beginnings of a new decade I'm going to share this little nugget from the past. It's a reminder that small things can feel satisfying and significant, and that the impact of what we do is often more important than its magnitude. It's also something to remind me to get off my backside and create things this coming year. If I could do it then, dogged by the social anxiety and inexperience of youth, then perhaps I have far less excuse now!

You can see the whole Theme Park fanzine in this gallery...



Posted in London on Saturday 7th December 2019 at 10:12pm

I don't believe in magic. That said, there is a strain of mysticism which seems to synchronise with the practice of walking. The ancient lines which are inscribed in the land, though buried beneath asphalt and brick, are present for reasons we'll likely never entirely know. But sometimes they are closer to the surface, and part of the reward for walking in London is the frequent sense that time is stretched and thin, uncovering these old ways. While that sense is invariably present in the ancient precincts of the City, surrounded by the remains of the Roman and Mediaeval, it is often strongest in the suburbs where it doesn't need to compete for attention. Out here on the fringe, there is a thinner layer of overlaid civilisation and the ancient tracks are closer to the surface. While I'm more accepting nowadays of the unseen and uncanny rather than the downright magical, I'm sometimes equally sceptical about the political world. That said, John Rogers has written convincingly about the revolutionary power of walking, drawing together the threads of high-minded European theory and resolutely muddy-booted British practice. While the pioneers who kept Britains' byways free for rambling and trekking were fighting a battle against ancient baronial land rights and sometimes an overbearingly elitist state, the idea of walking for leisure remains a solidly middle-class pursuit practised mostly by those of us with an excess of time and resources to spend on it. Perhaps the most eloquent proponent of the democratic value of walking was the topographical writer S P B Mais, who railed against the cry for 'distraction' and saw walking as a redemptive and recalibrating force. Today, I wondered if I could combine these two concepts, somehow uniting the political and mystical traditions in a more contemporary project? If reconnection to the land could offer health and reason - and if walking was truly an act of democratic expression - then perhaps I could devise a walk to resolve a dangerous and diseased situation in the heart of Westminster. Perhaps I could walk to exorcise Boris Johnson from the political map? If he was victorious he'd head from Uxbridge to London to resume control of the government. Perhaps if I could pre-empt this journey by uncovering the lie of the land along this ancient route, I could somehow tilt the outcome on its axis? It had to be worth a try...

Arrival at Uxbridge
Arrival at Uxbridge

I arrived in the cathedral-like terminus at Uxbridge under uncertain skies. The forecast was dull, dry and mild despite the advance of December. Uncomfortable weather for trying times. The weak winter sunshine barely illuminated Ervin Bossányi's stained glass panels in the clerestory above the lithe concrete struts of the station roof. The arms of Middlesex and Buckinghamshire cast a dull glow over the gateline as I followed a sizeable crowd out into the High Street, turning around immediately to appreciate the exterior of Charles Holden and Leonard Holcombe Bucknell's imposing entrance, flanked by the winged wheels of progress. Uxbridge felt prosperous and busy - a distinct and self-assured market-town which existed firmly outside the gravity of London. A few streets beyond the town centre the Frays River and the Colne Valley marked the edge of the metropolis, administratively at least, but the mood and tone here were already provincial. The train had been busily gathering passengers during the last few stops, and the glassy, modern shopping centres which clustered around the terminus were already busy. Uxbridge was clearly a destination, not a satellite. It had of course been a regionally significant centre for centuries: this was a Saxon market town, named for the Wixan: settlers from Lincolnshire who farmed the fertile Pinn and Colne valleys, likely establishing their settlements where Bronze Age predecessors had founded their villages before the interlopers arrived. The town became a garrison for the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, hosting a summit between King Charles and Parliament which failed to secure a resolution - reportedly due to the King's mistaken belief that military operations were already turning in his favour. As such, the Treaty of Uxbridge isn't the defining event in British constitutional history which it might have been, but the town nevertheless has a long association with the political life of the country. The Crown and Treaty inn where the opposing commissioners met still stands, a rambling red-brick building dating from 1576 but now dwarfed by modern developments which cluster impatiently around it, awaiting its eventual collapse. Uxbridge is also the administrative centre of the Borough of Hillingdon and as I sought the edge of town to begin walking along the road to London, I found myself caught amongst the various and improbable geometries of the Civic Centre. This weird, sprawling building with haphazard jutting eaves and a meandering footprint was designed by Sir Andrew Derbyshire and finished in stages by 1976. The building aims at a British neo-vernacular style, using tile and brick which echo traditional materials in the area. I walked a near-circuit of the outflung ziggurat, passing the site of the former GWR Uxbridge (Vine Street) station, now buried under tarmac and shopping arcade - a Crossrail connection opportunity missed? As a demonstration of its stature and indepdence, Uxbridge once benefited from three railway stations on separate lines - but now just one survives. Aiming for the spire of St. Andrew's church at the top of the rise, I pressed on into the gloomy morning. Uxbridge owes a great deal of its growth over the centuries to providing the first stop on the coaching route from London to Oxford. That road, once the route of the mighty A40, was now relegated to a supporting role - but it still regularly seethed and jammed with traffic pounding in and out of London. The settlements along it were supremely badly connected, mostly sitting some distance from Underground or railway stations which only nominally served them. Several bus routes remained dedicated to plying a linear course along the Uxbridge Road and avoided attempting to serve other areas, so prone is the route to snarling delays and unreliability. Topping the rise near the gold and terracotta brickwork of St. Andrew's Church, I realised I'd climbed out of the valley of the Colne and turned towards London at last. The road ahead led downhill, for now at least, as the carriageways split. On the western side of the road, a range of 1930s villas followed the gentle curve, while the eastern edge was in the process of becoming St. Andrew's Park: a vast new residential development which sprawled along a stretch of derelict light-industrial land. The quarter was slowly growing from the ground, apparently pleasant and low-rise, a modern equivalent of the kind of housing estates which crept towards Uxbridge in the middle of the last century, slowly engulfing it in the metropolis. There was little novel or attractive about this sprawl of housing - but it was at least built to a far more human scale than the clumps of stocky and anodyne new towers which dominated closer to London. Between the carriageways of the gently curving road, a broad swathe of grass hosted mature trees, indicating how this road was doubled in width long ago to cope with the growing traffic of the 20th century. The twin ribbons of asphalt twisted west and south, descending towards the valley of the River Pinn. I picked up the pace and begin my walk in earnest.

The valley bottomed out at the edge of Hillingdon Golf Course which rendered the Pinn's tangled and weed-choked banks inaccessible. The river passed beneath the road via an unremarkable bridge and headed west towards the Frays River and their nearby confluence. The road's edge described the southern limit of the grounds of Hillingdon House, formerly a grand hunting lodge built by the 3rd Duke of Schomberg in 1717, perhaps something of a retreat from his more ostentatious and notable Pall Mall pad completed some years earlier. The Duke, of German Huguenot descent, had served under his father, the 1st Duke at the Battle of The Boyne in 1690, leading the decisive river crossing which largely decided the conflict. For his efforts, he was granted British citizenship by Act of Parliament and later commanded British forces in Flanders and Portugal. While the echoes of the events in Ireland had reverberated through the centuries, Hillingdon House remained somewhat unremarked for many years until it succumbed to a catastrophic fire. Rebuilt as a grand mansion in 1844, it eventually passed into Government hands with plans to build a prisoner of war camp in the grounds during the First World War. Local opposition put paid to this scheme, and the site became a Canadian Military Hospital which remained on site until 1917 when the men of the Royal Flying Corps moved in to found their armaments training school. RAF Uxbridge and the attached RAF Hillingdon - in reality, a single large site divided by the River Pinn - provided a supply base and a tactical command post throughout the Second World War. During the increasing tensions of the 1930s, thoughts turned to how British airspace could be defended effectively, leading to the RAF adopting the Dowding System: by combining radar data and reports from the Balloon and Observer Corps with telegraphic contact to the airfields ranged along the eastern flank of the UK, it was possible to anticipate and respond to the incoming threat of the Luftwaffe. Realising that the wooden surface buildings of RAF Uxbridge were vulnerable to attack, a contract was hastily let to Sir Robert McAlpine to secretly excavate an underground control room, purpose-built to withstand attack and provide an around-the-clock response to enemy activity. The Dowding System proved remarkably successful, slowly grinding down the enemy's capacity for sustained air warfare and effectively laying the groundwork for modern air defence systems. It was following a visit to the control bunker in August 1940, watching the flickering lights which indicated squadrons engaging in combat, that Sir Winston Churchill uttered the phrase "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few" which he later repeated in the House of Commons. Following the Battle of Britain, the control bunker would go on to support defence against the Blitz and to coordinate the air support for the D-Day landings. The RAF continued to use the Uxbridge and Hillingdon sites until 2010, when the remaining logistical and administrative functions moved to nearby RAF Northolt. The site was more rececntly obtained by Hillingdon Council who now operate it as tourist attraction including a modern visitor centre opened in 2018.

Battle of Britain Club, Uxbridge
Battle of Britain Club, Uxbridge

Churchill visited RAF Uxbridge on one further occasion during the war - but that hasn't stopped the Borough from co-opting him as a local celebrity and de facto genus loci. His name appeared everywhere as I continued along the road, curving subtly northeastwards towards the suburban fringes of Hillingdon. A road named in his honour formed the spine of a housing estate, while the dilapidated twin nissen huts of the Battle of Britain club decayed nearby, closed when the Ministry of Defence billed the hostelry for rent it had neglected to charge for 16 years. Perhaps it was no accident that when choosing a safe Conservative seat on which to base his re-entrance to Parliament after two terms as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson selected Uxbridge and South Ruislip? His oft-professed hero loomed large over the sleepy edges of Middlesex, preserving a sort of sleepy post-war peacefulness which radiated along the old road towards London. This was the essence of Johnson's appeal: a return to the settled state in which much of suburban England slumbered through the decades after hostilities ceased. A time on which idealised Blitz-bonhomie memories were based. Here in the southeast, where to some extent the hardships of recession and austerity had failed to bite, the urge to leave the EU was less compelling. Those who wanted to secede didn't base their vote on the sense of inequality which triggered it further north. Instead they heard the referendum as a call back to easier, simpler times when people knew where they stood, and most importantly who their enemies were. Memories are long in the suburbs where time moves more slowly, and life is always easier with a shared foe to rally against, real or imagined. The Uxbridge Road was a parallel to this historical self-deception: superceded and no longer the main road, but still a thundering trail of tail-lights and angry metal. The businesses flanking the street looked downtrodden, broken by lack of passing trade. No-one walked here. Hillingdon - meaning the town rather than the Borough - was a place with no centre. The cluster of streets around the Underground station much further north was its nominal town centre, while this ribbon of closed shops, takeaways and newsagents was Hillingdon Heath. An absence of a community. As I trudged the familiar landscape of mid-century development and light industry, I realised that despite a year or more of tentatively walking out here I still had no words for the West. For the east, I'd developed a vocabulary of absence and deletion, much of it shamefully borrowed from brighter minds and more authentic voices. But out here I was alone. The ghosts of long-dead airmen, of fleeting presidential visits by Churchill and of the dying culture of suburbia haunted the Uxbridge Road.

Cowed by the combined forces of ubiquity and mundanity, I sought the purpose to continue east. I thought back to the reason for this strange ambulation and recalled S P B Mais again. He had urged his readers, ultimately perhaps very wisely, to 'eschew therefore any walk that entails any more than a hundred yards of high road'. This walk, in fact, many of my walks this year had been all High Road and little else. I was tired and fractious, I'd absorbed the disturbingly divided politics and was trying to walk them out in an area which felt equally split and unresolved. I sleepwalked into Hayes End - the cluster of civilization which straddles the Uxbridge Road but again isn't any kind of urban centre, requiring a long detour to the south to reach Hayes Town or the railway. In doing so I crossed the constituency boundary - from the Conservative safe seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip into the Labour stronghold of Hayes and Harlington. The boundary was unremarked at street level, but the shift in tone wasn't lost on me. This strip of retail activity could have been parachuted onto the sides of any of the major arterial routes in London: a run of Tudorbethan gabled shops housing tanning salons, hairdressers, a post office and some minor branches of national chains. Between these, light industrial units dating from the middle of the last century rubbed up against the remaining social housing stock of the Borough. Two properties stood out, both of them across the barrier-enforced central reservation: Lots of Rice - a Chinese Takeaway which set out its consumer benefits with remarkable clarity, and that other stalwart of the pre-motorway high roads: a sprawling red-brick roadhouse - closed of course. This wouldn't have struck me as unusual but for its name. Formerly The Angel, an unfortunate accident had disposed of its initial vowel, and for one dark moment I read it as 'The Nigel'. Perhaps it was the tattered, flapping St. George flags which were developing a coat of carbon, or maybe the general sense of decay of an establishment well past its prime? Disbelievingly, I scraped road-dust from my eyes and spied the vacancy for a capital letter. Thankfully things hadn't gone too far yet, and there was light at the end of this particular section of the grim tunnel as I approached the Borough boundary.

The Nigel?
The Nigel?

A branch of Premier Inn nestled into a corner of Yeading Lane, the now far less important north-south thoroughfare which led towards Hayes - the place for which the budget accomodation had been named despite its distance. The hotel had cynically added 'Heathrow' to the end of its name in the hope of scooping in a few hapless but geographically innocent travellers. Escaping Hillingdon here meant crossing The Parkway, my recurring western foe, as the Uxbridge Road descended to meet it in the valley of the Yeading Brook. The lie of the land was familiar from my walk along the progenitor of the River Crane, and as I tackled the multiple-stage road crossing via the centre of a wide roundabout which disgorged three lanes of traffic towards me, I recalled just what a confusing zone this was. The brook surfaced in two distinct branches, one which appeared to be a modern culvert providing drainage for The Parkway in its guise as The Hayes Bypass. The other clung closer to the Grand Union Canal which also shared its shallow valley, all three passing under my route to emerge either in the sprawling Lombardy Retail Park or in the tangled scrubby woodland of Minet Country Park. This relatively modern green space was dedicated to the public only in 2003, having until the middle of the twentieth-century been part of the Coldharbour Estate, owned by the Minet family. When I had passed this way in pursuit of the Yeading Brook, I stuck to the towpath of the Canal, somewhat daunted by the confusing appearances and disappearances of the waterway. Now I straddled the valley, awaiting my turn to shuffle across the traffic on the Ossie Garvin Roundabout. Garvin was a long-serving Labour councillor who, after an early move from Lancashire to Hayes to escape the mines and work at EMI, became the Leader of Hayes and Harlington Urban District Council, later serving as Mayor of Hillingdon. Garvin was reportedly never enamoured of the post-1965 borough, feeling that locals of the eastern parishes of the new sprawling authority would lose out in the process of integration. It's possible that he was right in a number of ways, not least that the long struggle to see the town bypassed and traffic gridlock reduced would not end until two years after Garvin's death in 1990. Along with John McDonnell, now elevated - sometimes seemingly to his own surprise - to the office of Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, he endlessly lobbied the GLC to build The Parkway, both politicians resorting to civil disobedience to press the case. Now the bypass he'd staked a career upon cannoned under a roundabout bearing his name, fittingly marking the extreme boundary of a Borough he served dutifully but never loved. There were however just a few more short yards of McDonnell's constituency left to walk, as it petered out beyond the Parkway at the bridge over the Canal. McDonnell would be returned to Parliament for sure - only a mammoth swing could unseat the stalwart campaigner, though this wasn't always a safe Labour seat. Prior to McDonnell's arrival, the loathsome Terry Dicks had held sway in Hayes and Harlington. Born with cerebral palsy he described himself in the house as 'a spastic'. More recently famous for an unearthed incident where he expressed disdain for the apparel of an upstart Jeremy Corbyn in 1984, he abhorred immigration and openly mocked the unfortunate and disabled, but nevertheless comfortably held this seat until retirement in 1997. Still alive and in his 80s, he sits on Runnymede Borough Council in Surrey, presumably an area which provides him with far less uncomfortable evidence of the immigration and integration which he appears to fear so greatly? The shift from right to left here was more extreme than the pendulum swings in other parts of the city. Something about these rather grey suburban avenues not far from the Heathrow flightpath provoked unease and discomfort. It was no surprise that a mace-wielding McDonnell in vigorous opposition to a third runway would inspire the voter here. However, considering the reliance of the locals on the airport economy perhaps the turkeys would be voting for an early Christmas?

The Grand Union Canal
The Grand Union Canal

Crossing the Grand Union Canal, I looked down at the spot near the Territorial Army depot where I'd zig-zagged up to street level a month back when an inconsiderate bird feeder had blocked the towpath with a flock of angry swans fighting for scraps of bread. I was now in the borough of Ealing, and walking a string of Labour-held constituencies which would take me into Central London. Uxbridge Road temporarily became The Broadway and the suburban sprawl gave way to the narrow High Street of Southall. The street vibrated with life which had been missing since the centre of Uxbridge. Hemmed into narrow single lanes between street furniture designed to quieten traffic, there were fractious scenes at junctions. Horns sounded, and an ambulance driver nudged and cajoled the traffic into letting him swing off the main road into a side-street. The coming of the Grand Union Canal and then later the Great Western Railway brought industry to Southall, seeing the rural Middlesex fields develop rapidly into a busy zone of factories and works. Martinware pottery, cereals, margarine and animal feed production required a workforce, and as such Southall was a destination for migration from the earliest years of the 20th century. First came a wave of Welsh mining families fleeing poverty in the Valleys, followed by Poles escaping unemployment and Imperial repression. From 1950 however, events would change the character and demographics of Southall entirely. Following the partition of India in 1947 and the passing of the British Nationality Act which allowed largely unrestricted movement to Commonwealth citizens, a steady flow of Indian and Pakistani families began to arrive in West London. While many of the new arrivals were highly educated and skilled, they experienced great prejudice, with their poorly spoken English mistaken for stupidity or ignorance. Many found unskilled opportunities in the factories around Southall, Hanwell and the Golden Mile of Brentford, not least in the R. Woolf and Co. rubber works, run by a former British Indian Army officer who had served in India and was sympathetic to their situation. As Southall prospered and grew, not least due to the need to support the expanding activity at Heathrow Airport, so did the South Asian community, with the area developing to meet their cultural and religious requirements. The result is 'Little India' - the dizzying collision of cultures along the Broadway which sees familiar British chain stores nestled between shops selling jewellery, Halal meats, saris and enticing trays of Indian sweets. The high street bustled in a way that few of the suburban centres around London manage. Proprietors stood outside their premises, surveying the street and calling to each other. People moved through a crush of shoppers and businessfolk, deftly weaving towards their chosen destination avoiding what appeared to be inevitable collisions. I have rarely felt such complete dissonance: tramping out east had brought me to areas built on a palimpsest of immigration, but gentrification had shifted their balance and left them contested. Southall however, was a different world - it was thrilling, enthralling and a little unsettling to find myself so completely subsumed by an entirely different culture to my own just a few steps along the greyness of the Uxbridge Road. It is of course frowned upon to suggest that anything less than integration is possible where immigration is concerned - and that very fettering of discussion is the seat of many current issues - but Southall worked on a different scale. This wasn't about individuals being subsumed into British culture - whatever that might mean in a world where Boris Johnson could be Prime Minister again soon. This was about Southall as a whole being integrated into the fabric of London. It worked, and it had rather shocked me into rethinking my map of the city.

Unsuprisingly, such cultural change has not been without incident: on the wall of the old Southall Town Hall is a plaque commemorating Blair Peach. Peach was a Special Needs teacher born in New Zealand and living in Bow, who emigrated to the UK in 1969 after visiting the country as a student. Active in the Anti-Nazi League, Socialist Worker Party and various other anti-racist causes, he was alarmed at the rise of the British National Party and the National Front, and the growing polling figures their candidates were achieving by standing on anti-immigration platforms in areas such as Southall. The killing of 18-year old Gurdip Singh Chaggar outside the Southall offices of the Indian Workers Association in June 1976 had sparked the organisation of local youth movements in the Sikh and Hindu population. The establishment response which sought to minimise the part of any racist motivation in the attack on Chaggar further stoked tensions which were rising in the area, fanned by the electoral performance of the BNP and National Front whose chairman John Kingsley Read had responded: "one down, a million to go" when commenting on events in Southall. On 23rd April 1979, the National Front organised a demonstration at Southall Town Hall in the lead-up to the General Election. An extensive petition to Ealing Council had prevented previous similar gatherings, but the Council felt unable to stop this assembly from taking place on the basis that it constituted legitimate campaign activity. This seems strange in hindsight, but there were at the time representations which went as far as Downing Street to prevent the meeting. The lack of political appetite to change legislation or to authorise the council to act outside the law as a contingency reflects the febrile political atmosphere prior to the election, with James Callahan's government on the ropes following the Winter of Discontent. Counter demonstrations were swiftly organised by local groups and anti-racist organisations, including a march and a seated protest at the Town Hall, resulting in a presence of around 3000 police officers being assigned to keep order, including officers from the Special Patrol Group. Tensions rose throughout the day, with skirmishes escalating and missiles thrown as National Front members arrived at the Town Hall for the 7:30pm meeting. The Police response was to contain the protesters along The Broadway, keeping the street open to allow access to the Town Hall. Once the meeting had begun, with a small contingent of members of the public admitted to nominally satisfy the requirements of the Representation of the People Act, the Police moved to begin dispersing the protesters outside. Accounts of the day are confused and various, but a common view is that this tactical switch from containment to dispersal precipitated a course of events which saw the SPG units deployed to round up so-called 'militant' protesters who were, in fact, heading away from the disturbances and into side-streets in an attempt to leave the area. The SPG were regarded as an 'elite' unit deployed to manage public unrest and serious disorder. Effectively a 'force within a force', they worked largely independently of the rank and file uniformed officers, travelling in their own vehicles and communicating on their own radio channel. Despite the confusion surrounding events, witnesses attest that soon after the arrival of the vehicle carrying SPG Unit 1-1 in Beachcroft Avenue, Blair Peach was struck on the head by an officer likely using an unauthorised weapon, and left on the ground incapacitated and unattended. He died early the following morning in Ealing Hospital having suffered a catastrophic brain injury. Immediately after Peach's death, an investigation commenced, headed by Commander John Cass of the Metropolitan Police Complaints Investigation Bureau. His work was completed by the Summer of 1979 and sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who while acknowledging the likelihood that one of five Police Officers from the SPG was responsible for the death of Peach, found there was insufficient evidence of reliable clarity to begin proceedings. Cass' report also noted that when these officers were investigated following the events in Southall, they were found to be in possession of numerous knives, coshes and other non-Police issued weapons, along with in once case, Nazi memorabilia. All of the officers in Unit 1-1 subsequently left the force without action or further investigation. The Cass report was not published in full until 2010, and then with only Blair Peach's name unredacted. The SPG continued to operate until 1987 but became rather symbolic of the mistrust that minority ethnic communities felt in the Police - a situation acknowledged by Chief Constable Geoffrey Dear who noted that they "might apparently solve one problem but in its wake create another of aggravated relationships between minority groups and the police in general". The policing of events such as those in Southall showed the supreme inability of an establishment dating from the colonial era to adjust to a changing society. The overriding view was that all would be well if minorities would quietly allow the protest to pass by, echoed by the Commissioner at the time of the event, Sir David McNee who told the Sikh community: "I understand the concern of your people. But if you keep off the streets of London and behave yourselves you won't have the SPG to worry about". McNee continued to hold the view beyond his retirement that the Police were unfairly blamed for the failures of government to respond to changes in the social fabric of Britain during his tenure. While that may be in essence true, the events in Southall only confirm the widespread corruption and right-wing activism within the Metropolitan Police during the 1970s and 1980s. The echoes of these attitudes are in many ways still with us, and at times of division and unrest not unlike those which led to me walking this route, they haunt the streets and the people of places like Southall.

Former Greenford Arms Hotel
Former Greenford Arms Hotel

The limits of Southall were signalled by the Iron bridge carrying the Great Western Railway above the road. Nearby was something of an iconic staging post on my journeys into Paddington: the extensive mock Tudor gables of the former Greenford Arms Hotel, now inevitably a branch of McDonalds. Spotting this building from the train is a sign of London's imminence, but here on the road it signified distance: these wayside inns on arterial routes splaying out of the capital were seen as safely far away to conduct illicit assignations and undetected business. This slightly louche reputation sealed the fate of this establishment, which served as a strip club known variously as Barbarellas and McGinty's before rallying for a final stint as an old-school boozer known as the Pig and Whistle. Nothing could stop the march of the Golden Arches, however, and since the late 1990s it has served as perhaps one of the most striking restaurants in the chain's portfolio. Beyond the railway bridge, the road began a descent into the Brent Valley which was dominated by the concrete tower of Ealing Hospital. Prior to its opening in 1979, hospital services had been distributed across a range of outdated facilities in the borough and the provision of a modern General Hospital was seen as a much-needed improvement. By the turn of the century, however, the new hospital was consistently delivering the lowest rankings for patient care and experience. The new site, on a damp corner of ill-starred land hemmed in by the Brent and the Grand Union Canal, was part of the sprawling site of the Middlesex County Asylum, opened in 1831. The changing face of mental health care is reflecting in the name of this site over the years: Hanwell Insane Asylum became the Pauper and Lunatic Asylum, and finally St. Bernard's Hospital - under which some aspects of the site still operate. From the Uxbridge Road, the presence of the site was marked by a long, solid yellow-brick wall surrounding new housing which occupied the west of the asylum's former footprint. A solid, austere gateway arch had secured the site, but now gave access only to these exclusive dwellings. Watching prospective buyers arrive to be greeted by an uncomfortably stiff-suited Estate Agent, I wondered if her patter would extend to the former use of the site? How many Londoners now occupied these sites, utterly unaware of the purpose to which their cul-de-sacs and crescents were once put? Did they even register the strangeness and disconnection of the lands, often sequestered by awkward access or administrative borders which must, at least, be experienced as a lasting inconvenience even now? In the case of the Middlesex County Asylum, assessments of its' work were far more positive that those which its successor has enjoyed. The hospital was widely seen as a flagship for then-modern standards in mental health care. Its first Superintendent, Dr William Charles Ellis was a proponent of "the great principle of therapeutic employment" and amazed sceptical colleague physicians with the recovery he demonstrated among patients who were regarded as requiring incarceration and control rather than treatment under the accepted methods of the day. Later, John Connolly, the third incumbent of the post, undertook to entirely abolish the practice of using mechanical restraint on patients. He achieved his goal within three months of taking up the role in 1839, somehow convincing an initially resistant staff who would have feared greatly for their safety. His efforts were praised by the Visiting Justices of Middlesex who somewhat uncharacteristically for the times, recognised the improvement in both wellbeing and dignity which Conolly's patients experienced. The hospital - known as the London County Asylum at this point - expanded throughout the Victorian era, and by the 1920s it was noted that beds were sufficient that no patient in need of treatment was admitted to gaol without cause. It is perhaps the sheer scale of the Asylum which led to Hanwell becoming a cypher for insanity and mental ill-health. Notably, G.K Chesterton in Orthodoxy, his second volume of Christian apologia, ruminates on how only the 'insane' are truly full of self-belief. In comparing the changing attitudes of the time to religion and sanity he concludes:

"Men deny hell, but not, as yet, Hanwell"

Orthodoxy: The Fundamentalist Argument, G.K Chesterton, 1908

There was no denying Hanwell: St. Bernard's Hospital continued to provide mental health services in Victorian buildings which felt surpringly human and decent beside the towering and somewhat grim modern monolith which sat at the bottom of the valley. I recognised this spot from walking the Brent: at this point a waterlogged path passed under the Uxbridge Road avoiding the need to ascend to street level, and I'd passed by largely unaware of the busy carriageway above. However, to the north across a field of a grass a broad and spectacular view of the Wharncliffe Viaduct opened. I recalled wandering across this field trying to find a good vantage point for a photograph of the spans as they strode across the Brent Valley. The feat of engineering remained a wonder to me, and the elegance and grace with which this huge structure strikes out for the west still arrested me in my steps. I paused and took a picture, the low afternoon sun reflecting the last bleached summer grass from the red bricks. Behind me the modern hospital buildings glowered in the gloomy dampness of the valley. This was a transitional point on the road - I felt like there might be a purpose to my walk after all. I paid silent respects to the Brent, gurgling sluggishly below the road, almost appearing unwilling to make the journey past the hospital to be unceremoniously decanted into the Canal nearby.

Wharncliffe Viaduct from the Uxbridge Road
Wharncliffe Viaduct from the Uxbridge Road

Climbing up from the Brent, I entered Hanwell - a place little known to me, save for missives I received from an old friend who lodged here during an abortive attempt to study English Literature at nearby Brunel University. I remember very little of those curious letters from the early 1990s, which mostly concerned the struggles of living with an unstable landlady and coping poorly with the lackadaisical financial freedom of student life before Loans and Tuition Fees. I do however recall how we provincials were led to believe via these bulletins that Hanwell was a thriving hub of bohemian life, something I doubted then perhaps even more than now. The town centred on a fork in the road, dividing around the fine modern clock tower unveiled to celebrate the coronation of King George VI in 1937. The clock was to be a controversially long-lived monument, with a local businessman campaigning vigorously to demolish the dreadful concrete eyesore in the 1970s when much good design from the early part of the century fell to the moderniser's hand. The clock prevailed though, and still provides a meeting point surrouned by pleasant cafés and independent shops. Perhaps Hanwell will one day become the bohemian oasis I was once promised after all? Pushing forward, the Uxbridge Road bisects what appears to be a single burial ground but which is in fact two distinct cemeteries: to the north, that of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and to the south the City of Westminster. The Westminster burial ground arrived first, consecrated in 1854 primarily to secure space for burials which could no longer be safely or hygneically accomodated by the churchyard of St. George Hanover Square. The Kensington and Chelsea Cemetery followed in 1855, occupying once fertile farmland known as the East Field, fed by a long-since culverted tributary of the Stamford Brook which ran along the edge of the plot. John Connolly, superintendent of Hanwell Insane Asylum was interred here in 1866 when local residents could still lay claim to graves in these extramural cemeteries. Somewhat segregated from the main road, the Kensington Cemetery had become something of a haunt for wild birds and woodland creatures. Indeed, both burial grounds would have slumbered peacefully into eternity had it not been for the actions of Dame Shirley Porter, Leader of Westminster City Council who in 1987 sold the southern plot to developers for the sum of five pence, along with two other cemeteries run by the Council - each for the same peppercorn. Ostensibly a means of avoiding the maintenance costs of the grounds, the sale placed the responsibility for upkeep on the buyer - but notably there was no such covenant to bind any subsequent purchaser. Inevitably, the grounds were swiftly resold to a subsidiary of the original buyer and soon fell into disrepair and overgrowth. An appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman and Audit Commission determined that the City Council had acted improperly and in 1992 the council was forced to buy back the graves at a cost to the taxpayer of around £4.25 million. The cemeteries, both now safely back in Council ownership and collectively known as Hanwell Cemetery, have been tidied and refurbishing and presented a peaceful transition from Hanwell to Ealing, marking an ancient boundary. Porter was to eventually find herself surcharged by the Audit Commission following the discovery of the secret 'Building Stable Communities' gerrymandering scheme devised in response to an unexpectedly narrow Conservative victory in the 1986 local goverment elections, with hiterhto safe seats threatened by both Labour and the Social Democratic Party. Porter's plan saw services focused on safe Conservative wards while homeless individuals and those less likely to vote for the ruling party were decanted to other Boroughs via an illegal housing policy, effectively socially cleansing troublesome wards. Following efforts to offload her considerable assets to family members and settling in Israel to avoid the payment of the surcharge, she was described by journalist Nicholas Lezard as "by a considerable margin, the most corrupt British public figure in living memory, with the possible exception of Robert Maxwell."

Hanwell Clock Tower
Hanwell Clock Tower

Beyond the cemeteries Ealing began with a marked shift towards the urban. There was something more of London than of Middlesex about Ealing, and the long strip of retail which began near West Ealing station continued unabated along the New Broadway and out to the Common. I've lingered in Ealing before and found it unremarkable but well-connected, the ideal spot for lodging on the edge of London. It had changed considerably in recent years with new developments growing from the streets around the high road, taller and more mundane than the rows of Victorian and Edwardian frontages which they towered over. One on long boarded-up shop front, grafitti urged passers-by to vote out Ealing Council to 'stop the towers' - but it was far too late for that. Buildings loomed over the odd, squat spanner-shaped block of Perceval House, Ealing Council's offices, built in 1982 for Sidney Kaye, Eric Firmin & Partners, which were soon to be redeveloped as housing. Around Ealing Broadway station in particular, regeneration remained in full swing, having seemingly been underway for years now. The little parade of shops I recalled from a previous visits had disappeared behind wooden hoardings and a new station parade was under construction. All of the posters and computer-generated views of this new Ealing were keen to remind me how The Elizabeth Line will bring amazing benefits - glossing over its increasingly indefinite opening date. Financial, political and operational failures meant the central section which would provide the swift link under the City of London which the ambitious advertised times relied upon would be delayed for years. In a few weeks the distinctive purple trains would begin plying their trade from Paddington to Reading, another disconnected arm of the grand plan with Ealing Broadway at its elbow. I didn't feel the need to linger here long: I filled my coffee cup and moved on, drinking on the hoof, eager to reach Ealing Common to briefly rest. The walk was familiar and I was soon greeted by the open, green sward ahead of me, dotted with bare trees set against blank, grey sky. I paused at a collapsing and rotten bench to watch the traffic hurtling towards the crossroads up ahead. I contemplated the crossing of the North Circular - another of the permeable layers of London burst through. My passage through this junction on another journey seemed distant and a little naïeve now. The crossing process was slow and cumbersome, skipping from island to island with the lights while regarding the hotel beyond which appeared closed and abandoned from this vantage point, though the busy car park suggested otherwise. The walk along this stretch was redolent with memory: from Ealing Broadway to Ealing Common station, an unknown walk back then which seemed unwisely risky out here in the suburbs. Passing the string of eateries in which I'd found a passable Indian meal a decade ago, I wondered which one I'd visited and if it was still in business? Amidst the neon and shaded glass of these establishments, Ealing Common station seemed unnaturally pale and white in the fading afternoon light, its Portland stone frontage seeming to emit sunlight gathered and stored during the scant brighter hours of a December morning. Above the station, the glimmer of sodium-light glowing from Charles Holden's distinctive heptagonal lantern made the idea of escaping onto a District Line train seem extremely inviting. The remainder of my walk into London from here felt impossibly long and challenging now. I wondered what I'd really let myself in for - and if it wasn't me who was being erased from London by this walk, rather than by some ludicrous magick, Boris Johnson?

The Steyne Estate, Acton
The Steyne Estate, Acton

After the comfortably familiar passage of the Common, Ealing bled into Acton with little clear idea of when the transition occurred. In one sense, the passage through Acton felt like an extension of Ealing: the long strand of retail unbroken, with change signalled only by new branches of the same banks and stores recurring to serve each new locality. The road divided at a swirling and ill-tempered roundabout in front of a huge branch of Morrisons. Shoppers jostled to enter and exit the car park near the makeshift Christmas Tree store which had set up shop nearby, leaving a resinous pine smell hanging over the junction. This was a part of old Acton known as The Steyne. The local significance of the word appears lost, but most sources are content to assume it referred to a patch of rough, stony ground north of the Church, which may have been used for impromptu public assemblies, markets and the like. The term occurs rarely in London but can be found much more commonly along the Sussex coast where it variously appears to mean rough, unadopted ground or a stony valley floor. The Steyne was certainly built upon by the end of the 19th century with an omnibus depot and a dyeing mill nearby. The latter stood close by The Warple, a stream which flowed from a nearby spring, to form one of the three headwaters of the Stamford Brook. There was a distinct rise in the road away from the junction - an area which had once be known as Acton Bottom - but no other evidence of The Warple having flowed in recent memory here. Instead, Rufford and Moreton Towers stood as unblinking sentinels at the foot of the slope, situated almost exactly at the point where two short branches of the stream merged into one before turning east and south towards the confluence with the other sources of the brook. This pair of 22-storey blocks, completed in 1968 for Acton Municipal Borough Council were by far the tallest buildings in the vicinity, but that might change. Here, as in Ealing, the developers were moving swiftly and directly against public opinion to erect clusters of tall towers. The pressure on land and the lack of good brownfield sites pushed progress upwards rather than outwards. It was an impossible bind: the Borough needed new housing badly, but the residents wanted light and space. In the meantime, the two towers of the Steyne Estate displayed a strident, striking elegance which it's unlikely any modern scheme would echo.

The climb out of the valley was long and gradual, passing the grand facade of Acton's Old Town Hall dating originally from 1910 but much extended in 1939. The arms of the former Borough still hovered above the street despite the building's conversion to luxury housing. Perhaps this gradual gentrification was a natural conclusion, an expected free market end-state based on the former Municipal Borough's motto of Floreat Actona? The blazon of Middlesex County Council was at the centre of the huge stone crest, like Acton also long ago subsumed into a hungry and ever-growing city. The Uxbridge Road became The Vale here for a long, straight stretch. A couple stopped me to ask if there was anywhere to buy a Christmas tree nearby, and I directed them back to the stall I'd seen, warning them it wouldn't be cheap. I couldn't summon any sense of festive spirit myself, the upcoming General Election had swallowed all seasonal concerns and drew all of my energy. Holding this unwanted and unexpected contest now was either sheer genius or utter folly, and we wouldn't find out until it was too late. I passed the same couple, treeless, hurrying back in the other direction soon after and wondered if perhaps they too had suffered a failure of festivity in the face of things, or just been defeated by the Uxbridge Road? Looming large on the northern side of Acton Vale, the huge rectangular facade of The Pensions Building slowly expanded to occlude the view. This stately but rather severe building was hastily constructed following the First World War to provide accommodation for civil servants operating the War Pensions system from temporary huts. The sheer scale of the building, oblong and slatted like a prone bookcase, was dizzying. It would seem considerably more comfortable as a Manhattan office block than a British public building. Now, inevitably, it was an opportunity for exclusive city living - not far from the still spectral Crossrail service and of course regarded as just 'minutes from Central London.' It felt much further to my aching feet, but I was distracted by a growing crowd through which I was being jostled. I often feel that I'm somehow going against a tide on these walks, and that the greater flow of humanity is pushing back against my progress - but today it was evidently true and the crowd into which I was attempting to walk was wearing a distinct uniform of blue and white under their winter coats. The Queens Park Rangers fans were on the march: their home ground nearby at what would have been known as Loftus Road during the short period in the mid-1970s when I briefly cared about football . Now it was known as The Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium in honour of a talented youth player who was stabbed to death in 2006 while intervening to help another boy who was being bullied. Loftus Road was a compact stadium, hemmed tightly into the backstreets of Shepherd's Bush with little scope for expansion. The club have considered a move elsewhere in West London for some years, but for now they cling to their W12 roots proudly. They were, for the most part, an even-tempered and decent crowd today as they contemplated an ultimately successful afternoon clash with Preston North End, something of a revenge for a trouncing at the start of 2019 by the same team. This was something of a relief as the exploits of the notorious Bushbabies, the firm of hooligans who follow QPR, are historic - and there are recent records of fairly serious skirmishes even recently, particularly with Chelsea's Headhunters. Having been caught up with football gangs during my years travelling extensively by train, I'd learned to expect the worst and would usually prepare to get as far away from match day as possible.

Shepherd's Bush Station from the West Cross Route

Today, however, all seemed calm as I threaded through the mix of football fans and shopping crowds milling around the entrance to Shepherd's Bush Market. The market had occupyied the same tiny sliver of land in the shadow of the Circle Line's viaduct since 1914 or thereabouts, survivng numerous plans to redevelop the area. Perhaps the market's biggest challenge though was the coming of Westfield London. Opened in 2008 and gradually extended onto adjacent sites since, there was currently around 1.6m square feet of retail space built upon what was once the White City exhbition complex and London Transport's former Central Line depot. The railway history of this area is exceptionally complex, and much that influenced how this area would grow and change was now buried forever. Westfield was safely tucked away behind a run of Victorian terraces which had survived the redevelopment, preserving the appearance of shabby continuity on the Uxbridge Road. Beyond this however, the forest of cranes indicated a zone still in flux. The site of the greyhound stadium and of the former Wood Lane BBC studios were locations of opportunity, absurdly well connected by a confusing range of Underground and Overground stations sharing some form of the name 'Shepherd's Bush' which all jostled together to serve the retail nexus. I felt like my route had reached London at last: in one of its more voracious incarnations at any rate. I navigated the crowds which were milling around the new entrance to Shepherd's Bush station, noting the Overground lines curving into the platforms deep in a cutting beneath my feet. The footpath directed me north, briefly climbing a sliproad onto the A3220 West Cross Route. I've written often about the London Ringways, those ambitious but controversial and flawed plans to encage the City in a box of high-speed, high density urban Motorways which were finally abandoned in the early 1970s. My suburban excursions have often stumbled across curious blighted zones which were developed as in-fill after the plans were shelved, or half-finished stubs of road which hint at the devastation that construction would have wrought had the carriageways crashed onwards into the suburbs. Here however, was one of the rare parts of that network which actually made the leap from drawing board to the ground. Traffic congestion on the western approaches to London was a longstanding and intractable problem, and the solutions were never subtle - but the West Cross Route, scything along the edge of exclusive Holland Park and dividing it from the less salubrious Shepherd's Bush, was a dramatic plan. Urban motorways were an acceptable evil in the post-war era of ambitious reconstruction, and it would seem perhaps unusual that Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow had pressed ahead with their plans while London was left behind. By the late 1960s, the plans were buried in a sea of bureaucracy, protest and endless Public Enquiries. The situation in West London though, was urgent and surprisingly, the Greater London Council had been given something of an easier passage for the western section of the motorway box. Perhaps it was its location, running alongside the existing division of the West London Railway, or the equally apparent psychological gulf between the communites on each side? In any case work began on a small strip of the West Cross Route on the basis that it was essential to feed traffic to and from the soon-to-be-opened Westway on its impressively bleak viaduct. Thus in 1970 a kilometre of new road was opened between Holland Park Roundabout and the Westway, with huge and over-engineered roundabouts at each end to facilitate future expansion. It wasn't the ringway that Patrick Abercrombie had specified, nor perhaps even the compromise the GLC had long sought - but it was built: a claim few sections of this infamous plan can stake. While the urban motorways of London had long been widely considered a poor solution to a growing problem, the M41 managed to persevere until 2000 when it lost its Special Road status and was handed over to Transport for London by the Highways Agency. Rechristened the A3220, it looked like an anomaly on the map - and it felt even stranger to a pedestrian on the ground. While the West Cross Route hadn't attracted much in the way of resistance when conceived or constructed, it did enjoy a moment of celebrity later. On 13th July 1996 around 6000 protesters from Reclaim The Streets blocked the motorway, laying sand for children to play on, firing up sound systems and dancing. Among the crowds of dancers were stilt-walkers wearing huge diaphanous skirts. Under the cover of these, protesters drilled holes in the carriageway and planted trees. Over this unseen act of guerilla rewilding they unfurled a banner bearing an unattributed slogan which linked them back to the Situationist International: "The Society That Abolishes Every Adventure Makes Its Own Abolition the Only Possible Adventure."

A pelican crossing halted cars accelerating away from Holland Park in the hope of a clear run onto the Westway, as a horde of Christmas shoppers poured west with me caught in their draught. Drivers snarled, their engines growling even louder as they faced the indignity not only of stopping, but stopping for mere pedestrians. As soon as the light changed, they were snapping at the heels of the last to cross, who were startled out of their phone-screen reveries by angry metal approaching their shins. Pausing on the central reservation - over what would likely have been six carriageways of road had the plans been completed - I surveyed the scenes around this nexus. To the west lay the road I'd walked, leading back from the shimmering glass blocks of Westfield into the grimy and interesting old streets of Shepherd's Bush. To the south, the Thames Water tower exposed the hidden infrastructure of the city, topping a surge outlet on the vast Ring Main providing potable water to Central London. The level of water visible in the tower responds to demand on the main, leading to many online complaints that it "wasn't working" when visitors passed by. There was no obvious activity in the cylinder today. To the west I faced a divided view: my route pressed on into the leafy, gentile avenues of Holland Park while to the north the three ominous towers of the Edward Woods Estate loomed over the road. The clearance of railway yards and sidings to create the West Cross Route provided much-needed building land to the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which needed to complete slum clearance work with very little usable land of appropriate value. The solution was to propose three of the tallest residential blocks London had then seen. Despite building Poynter, Stebbing and Norland Houses and the low-rise blocks surrounding them with their own direct labour, the Borough experienced the same issues with snagging and build quality which lower-cost system-built blocks suffered. Also, over time, many of the social issues which were commonly said to result from high-rise living settled on the estate too. But surprisingly, residents rather liked their homes and despite concerns about safety and poorly-performing lifts, wanted to see improvements and repairs rather than being removed to new dwellings. These positive changes have, gradually, arrived in recent years and despite being situated in one of the most deprived wards in the country and serving a vulnerable population heavily reliant on state benefits for income, over 75% of tenants describe their quality of life as 'good' or better and many were proud to say they lived on the estate. The Borough also offered desirable upper floor flats to teachers and other essential public employees. I've often stumbled into neglected and ill-supported housing schemes around London which appear to have negatively affected the very people they were concevied to support. Here though, where the snags and issues were in the process of being addressed, it was good to see the a challenge to the idea that it was the nature of the estate or indeed its residents which were the problem needing a solution.

Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park
Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park

Beyond the former motorway my route rose out of the unnatural valley which accomodated the road and railway dividing Shepherd's Bush and Holland Park, and climbed into a different world. The leafy avenues of grand houses and the ranks of high-end bakeries, cafés and kitchenware stores signalled a shift. The crowds here walked a little slower, shunting empty expensive prams along the pavement while sleepy-eyed children swayed on dad's Barbour-clad shoulders. Ludicrously unnecessary high-performance cars nudged around the stucco-fronted side-streets, even the fastest Lamboughini reduced to a puttering pace by the congested narrow streets and lack of parking spaces. This stretch of West London, from Holland Park to Notting Hill Gate was only vaguely known to me - but I knew it wasn't somewhere I'd comfortably fit. It was also difficult to square the inequality here - and even a dedicated capitalist walking over the divide I'd just crossed would be hard pressed to make a compelling case for this. Holland Park was a cartoon of affluence, an amusingly obvious collection of stereotypes funnelled into a tiny stretch of the Uxbridge Road. It struck me that I'd completed a circuit here: from well-to-do provincial Uxbridge to even-better-off Kensington. The bypassing of this ancient coaching road by the soaring carriageways of the Westway just made it easier for the commuters to ignore the intervening stretches of average, just-about-managing suburbia. As I surveyed the route towards Westminster, I noted substantial houses given over to use as Embassies and High Commissions which signalled the approach to the precincts of Hyde Park and with royal associations. Nearby in Campden Hill Square, the anglo-Catholic mystic and theologian Evelyn Underhill had lived and written. The first woman permitted to lecture the Church of England clergy, Underhill's writing wrestled to bring together the psychic, spiritual and occult ideas of the Medieval Catholic church with the staid and prosaic world of Anglicanism. She wrote often, especially in three early novels which used fiction to expound her ideas, of living in two worlds at the same time. Her words struck me as I progressed through the contested and divided communities of Kensington. Though the duality here was material rather than spiritual, the same rents in the fabric were apparent here in Holland Park:

She had seen, abruptly, the insecurity of those defences which protect our illusions and ward off the horrors of truth. She had found a little hole in the wall of appearances; and peeping through, had caught a glimpse of that seething pot of spiritual forces whence, now and then, a bubble rises to the surface of things.

The Column of Dust - Evelyn Underhill, 1909

As I crossed to the southern side of the Bayswater Road, I was gradually nudged against the railings of Hyde Park by the insistent crowds heading for the Winter Wonderland event, an annual and highly effective monetizing of the festive season where every attraction was ticketed and nothing was free. It was, however, proving remarkably popular and I decided to strike out across the park instead of sticking to the road. It would save time and painful steps, and would hopefully avoid the most frustrating congestion around the entrance to the temporary theme park, marked by whirling and flashing fairground rides and a pall of thin generator fume emanating from the vicinity of Speaker's Corner. In the gathering dusk, I took a diagonal route skirting The Serpentine, towards Hyde Park Corner. Despite the unexpected familiarity of the leafless, wintry trees which took me back to a comfortingly bleak visit to the park the morning after my mother died, I was in a world I'd never found comfortable. The presence of huge crowds unsettled me as I tried to process the conflict and strangeness of my walk today and my memories of prior visits. The happy family groups skittered towards me, and I felt the need to dodge them by walking on the grass. They must have been equally concerned by my shambling, sweating presence as I tramped onwards. My feet ached and I longed for this part of the walk to be finished. This had now genuinely taken on the aspect of a pilgrimage or mystical intervention and my glib and silly idea of an exorcism didn't seem either so amusing or indeed so impossible. Skirting the press of humanity around the Tube station - exit only due to overcrowding - I suffered the crowds along Constitution Hill and endured their milling around Buckingham Palace. The building shone unnaturally in the dusk, the monarch absent and the edifice required to provide a proxy for constitutional leadership in the absence of an effective government. In a few days time, an unassuming black car would be taking a new Prime Minister into the inner precincts of the Palace and it felt near impossible to predict who among a singularly unedifying field it might be at this juncture. Onwards, along the Mall into another tide of tourists and shoppers, from which I overhead someone claim with authority that 'Harrods is just a few minutes walk this way...'. I anticipated the collective groans of his group when they were still struggling through the multitudes in an hour's time, their tangled carrier bags flapping against their tired knees. Maintenance on Admiralty Arch pushed the stream of pedestrians into the normally little-used alleyway of Spring Gardens, emerging near to the grand buildings of the Department for International Development on Whitehall. I turned south, my goal in sight and marked by a cluster of tourists pressed up against the security cordon at the end of Downing Street. I initially assumed that they were trying to snap the iconic black door, which seemed unlikely given its distance from the street and the deepening twilight. When I reached the gates, however, the attraction was the six armed Police officers who were busily shoeing tourists back from the gate and asking them not to take pictures of working security forces. It felt like a highly dubious application of The Terrorism Act, but then much about these times felt unusual and unprecedented. I retreated to the median in Whitehall on which the Cenotaph sits, a stately and enduring symbol of bravery and service which was more permanent than any inhabitant of that exclusive address just across the street. It was time to turn towards Parliament, veiled in white sheets and supported by scaffolding - a powerful statement on the broken institution.

Downing Street and The Cenotaph, Whitehall
Downing Street and The Cenotaph, Whitehall

As I descended into Westminster Station, contemplating what might be a long break from walking in London, I tried to visualise the Uxbridge Road stretching back west, unravelling a route which, should he retain a majority, Boris Johnson would need to traverse. The layers of history and memory of London's people which he'd permeate as he passed would probably have little consequence for him - his conception of history was built around times more ancient and figures more stately. Could a walk which tried to uncover and foreground the difference, diversity and struggles at large in a City which he'd presided over as for two terms as Mayor and lately as Prime Minister make any difference? Of course not. It had been a fool's errand and a silly conceit for a psychogeographical ramble. But there was just the faintest hope - it was surely worth trying anything now. The idea that the resolutely human and mundane Uxbridge Road had attracted the attention of Evelyn Underhill, herself normally preoccupied with humanity's capacity to dwell within the lofty and spiritual, provided some sliver of possibility that it wasn't all about cold, hard reality in these western environs after all:

The western road goes streaming out to seek the cleanly wild,
It pours the city’s dim desires towards the undefiled,
It sweeps betwixt the huddled homes about its eddies grown
To smear the little space between the city and the sown:
The torments of that seething tide who is there that can see?
There’s one who walked with starry feet the western road by me!

Uxbridge Road - Evelyn Underhill, 1912

You can find more pictures from the walk here.

Movebook Link


Posted in Reading on Friday 8th November 2019 at 6:11pm

It's probably fair to say that I've read far more this year than for the last few. This is a strange situation for me: I've always had numerous books underway, piled haphazardly in different places and awaiting my attention. For the past several years though, life has been busy and complicated. Reading has required a special effort to be made. In some ways, I'm the poorer for it - not least in my own scribblings and projects. There's no doubt that the grist of other's unutterably superior writing is so often the jumping-off point for a ramble, both literal and metaphorical, of my own. I've often found too, that fiction is the first casualty of a reading dry-spell. While factual and historical works can be delved-into in the way of research, pulled from the shelf when required and returned for the next occasion, a novel asks for commitment. And so I embarked on The Metal Mountain in the most perfect of circumstances for committed reading: a long journey home on a quiet, evening departure from Paddington station. Leaving a gloomy, wet London which had offered a day of drab but endlessly fascinating canalside wanderings aligned almost eerily with the opening chapters of John Healy's second novel.

The Kilburn of John Healy's childhood was a few streets away from the railway which sidled west out of the capital, just an errant wrong-turn aside from the canal I'd been walking. I instantly recognised the landscape: sixty years is no time at all in the industrial hinterland of London where it remains possible to pass from the 21st century to the 19th in the turn of a corner. The immigrant Irish community which Healy describes in the opening chapters of this novel have done something similar: departing an Ireland trapped in the fall-out of 18th Century politics, they have landed in a London paralysed in a facsimile of the Victorian age. Two world wars and years of austerity have trapped the city and its people in an idealised fiction of the past: one where the Irish are as welcome as stray dogs, and prejudice is worn like a badge. As Healy's young Michael Docherty patrols the streets with his newly arrived Aunt Bridget, he is stung by the realisation that the world he's grown up in is hostile to the circumstance of his birth. The cards stacked against Healy's characters are a thread through The Metal Mountain and their largely fruitless attempts to change their fate drive the narrative.

The Metal Mountain, by John Healy
The Metal Mountain, by John Healy

The early chapters set a scene but are far from mere exposition: the Docherty family passes through a range of indignities, from the outright prejudice of exclusion from the Coronation Day celebrations to the passive indifference of the powers-that-be to their status or contribution. Séan Docherty, the embittered father wraps his frustrations into dreams of his home country, haunted by the horrors wrought upon it - indeed upon his family - by English soldiers, while his wife Mary Jane suffers through the day-to-day with dignity and faith. The arrival of Bridget adds life and colour to the family for a while, her fresh anger at the discrimination she faces highlighting the gulf between the soft-focus nationalism of the father and the hardening realism of his son. Healy's writing of these characters is exemplary: the contradictions and complications of immigrant status are wound around them, frustrating and denying them progress or due process. Healy's men snarl and sputter with uncontained rage, while his women are distant, sombre and faithful. It's sometimes hard to remember that this is Healy's second novel, written in the last decade or so, and not an unearthed mid-century masterpiece.

The Metal Mountain appears midway through the book and provides a lightning rod for some of Healy's most vivid descriptive writing. A railway-wharf scrapyard, run by a strange old farrier who breaks down the hulking metal detritus of the industrial age for onward sale and re-use provides Michael Docherty with a job, and eventually with a means to defraud the system within which he has grown embittered. While he strives to conquer the mountain of distended, buckled metal, Bridget sets out on her own mission: seeking justice for immigrants - initially via the auspices of the Catholic Church, but increasingly through political activity. Her story is the most resonant and contemporary perhaps: she tries to engage with the leftwing intelligentsia and finds a sort of derisory, superior take on equality. She then finally attains an audience with a Home Office minister's factotum, and finds only cold, polite prejudice and indifference dressed up as a political necessity. Her struggle ends with her marked as an agitator and condemned to a mysterious fate which is not explored. Healy leaves Bridget's possible martyrdom exposed to question, open to the very kind of speculation which fuels the divisions of British society today. There is, intentional or not, powerful allegory here.

The closing chapters of The Metal Mountain are urgent, coarse and sometimes coruscate with an earthy violence. They move from the warm harbour of the struggling family to the strange, bitter and lonely world of the characters as they separate and attempt to make their way in the hostile foreign land. Michael, disfigured by a horrific injury wrought on him by the mountain, pursues an amoral path - and eventually meets his comeuppance at the foot of the mountain. Healy is at his best here, letting the animate and inanimate blur in dizzying, sometimes sickeningly descriptive prose. The mountain is the genius loci of the urban wastelands of London, a vengeful spirit of place that will bite the hands which feed it without compunction. The novel ends as it begins: the surviving characters dwelling in frustration and spent vigour, the official disdain for the plight of newcomers to Britain echoing down the decades to the 'hostile environment' and the rhetoric of the modern far-right. Nothing much changes, and Healy in his long and colourful life of contrasts and contradictions has seen it all repeat in cycles. That he is able to summon such fully-realised characters which ache with their will to attain the life they have left their homeland for, is the mark of a truly wonderful writer.

You can find The Metal Mountain at Amazon, or better yet at your local bookshop.



Posted in Reading on Sunday 22nd September 2019 at 1:09pm

Imagine being known only by your least appealing attributes...

For most of us that's not a big speculative leap: there's a decidedly British ability to fall back on self-deprecation and we're all aware of those aspects of our character we regard as the least prepossessing. Often, of course, we're entirely wrong about how others see us, and it's this lack of complete self-awareness that prevents us from entirely giving up on society. For the County of Essex though, in Gillian Darley's words "England's most misunderstood County", it's a tough ask. Certainly, for the last quarter-century, the entire place has been an embarrassingly easily deployed punchline to almost any location-specific gag in the book. Over time the easy-target status has mutated unpleasantly too, expanding to embrace the social class, criminality and moral standing of the local citizens. When a County which was once a proud Saxon nation within a nascent England can be portrayed as a series of hackneyed stereotypes so generalised as to be almost ubiquitous, any attempt to salvage a reputation is going to have to work hard. In Excellent Essex, Gillian Darley lets Essex do its own heavy-lifting, leveraging the often charmingly eccentric, defiantly non-conformist and downright uncanny air of the place itself. It would take a lot of whitewash to erase the cultural memory of TOWIE, Essex man or the white stiletto - but by embracing and extending some of these tropes, Darley's essay-turned-love-letter manages to dodge apologism, circumvent denial and gets stuck into the reality of Essex. A reality which is often far odder than the myth.

How many of us trot out these tropes without any personal experience of Essex is another matter entirely of course. Essex is somewhere we're content to experience entirely by proxy in most cases, assuming we know all we need to know from veiled mentions on Eastenders, cartoon-like depictions in comedy or perhaps in the more colourful exhibits in the true-crime genre. But the County is vast, spreading from the edges of the City of London, through the traditional East End out into the eerily empty salt-flats of the east coast. A more alien pairing of liminal zones its hard to imagine. The huge tracts of farmland in between have provided fuel to the engine of London's progress for much of its first two millennia, and the industrial belt which still creeps along the Thames shore may be shifting from belching chimneys to mysterious prefabricated sheds, but it still employs and services the capital in a way unique among the counties bordering the capital. I remember my own earliest forays into Essex: crossing the River Lea and just knowing that something on this bank felt very different. The vast expanses of Epping Forest and the gated mansions of Chingford Mount rubbed shoulders with weatherboarded churches, windmills and marshland forts. Sometimes the open friendliness surprised me, while at other times I felt the dismay of prejudice in the face of trophy dogs and excessive jewellery. But once I'd finally crossed the threshold, I was hooked on the story of this odd, marginal, in someways exiled place.

Excellent Essex - Gillian Darley
Excellent Essex - Gillian Darley

Excellent Essex in many ways picks up where Jonathan Meades' Joy of Essex left off. He told us this was a weird place, and no mistake. Darley takes up the baton: it's strange, but in its eccentricity is an abundance of life, wit, invention and erudition. Through a series of loosely themed chapters, the whole sweep of the County is whirled into the mix. The stories come thick and fast at the pace of an enthusiast wanting to share. This was a little shocking at first: I was familiar with Gillian's more scholarly efforts on Iain Nairn, and the sheer ebullience of this book was surprising. But it's ridiculously easy to be swept along by her smart, playful prose. Taking the ancient borders of the County as a guide, Darley is as comfortable on the fringes of the city stalking William Morris in Walthamstow as she is on the vast, empty coastal reaches commandeered by the MOD. In between there are stories of model societies forming around charismatic leaders or well-intentioned philanthropists, there are scientist-clergymen judging the speed of sound, and there are struggles for freedom to live in ancient ways as the County feels the inexorable pull of modernity. The book is deeply honest about the relative success of the endeavours of these men and women of Essex, and never shies away from facing down some of the stereotypes born on the dancefloors of Brentwood or Basildon - but its done in a spirit which recognises the humanity of the supporting cast: from maverick parsons to TOWIE-regulars alike.

The spectre of London is never far away, and the book expresses the drag towards the capital while deftly ensuring that the edges of Essex which have more in common with East Anglia than the City get their time and space. The stories weave around the places and character, bringing folk customs, traditional products, dialects and history into something which manages to be both a whirlwind tour of facts and fancies and a bloody good read all at once. The sheer scope of Excellent Essex means it's over all too soon - there are characters you'll want to read more about, ancient customs of which you'll want to find out the fate, and both dark alleyways and tempting green lanes you'll want to explore. And perhaps that's the true joy of this book: you'll want to seek out the primary sources, visit the village greens and talk to the inhabitants of this singular part of Britain first hand. No tourist board would ever be brave enough to write something as dizzyingly smart, witty and honest about the area they meant to promote - but then only one tourist board has the challenge of selling Essex to the skeptics, and Gillian's not working for them. Well, not yet at least.

And if this works, and we all decide to throw caution to the prevailing westerly winds which have carried so many unexpected cargoes over Essex, then I'll see you outside a weatherboarded pub in the marshes, or perhaps in the churchyard nestled in the Proctor and Gamble works. There's plenty of space for all us out there in the Essex wilderness, and this is a wonderful introductory guide.

You can find Excellent Essex at Amazon, or better yet at your local bookshop.



I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.

I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.

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