Foxes of Walthamstow

The tabloids told us foxes kill babies. Or possibly kidnap them? I forget, as that particular panic was a few years ago and has been replaced by other, more urgent ones.

I was feeling quite panicky myself, today; but not because of the foxes. I find all urban creatures reassuring, for the same reason as I find the sound of a late night tube rumbling underneath reassuring. It’s a sign that life goes on.

Near to my house there is a green patch of trees and diagonal paths. Not grand enough to be a park, but a good place to sit at midnight and watch the local foxes. There were three, tonight; at least, three that I could see. They came from three different angles, with an overflowing bin their trig point. They played, they relaxed. And, eventually, they ate some chicken, spilling the bones from unguarded plastic onto the cool grass.

While I was sat in the darkness, a young, drunk man lumbered towards me, eyeing me quizzically. But he eventually grasped exactly what kind of weirdo i was, and so veered off, clutching his small, blue plastic bag full of cans.

Before this, I had been in Lloyd Park, home of the William Morris gallery. Usually, the park shuts at dusk. But due to either a relaxing of Covid-19 controls or an absent minded park keeper, all the gates were open, and I could walk freely. I was alone, almost: the telltale ghoulish light of a mobile phone indicated the presence of two teenagers enjoying the darkness and the privacy.

Giving them a wide berth, I headed into the back, more open section of the park, past a closed cafe and a BMX track, the dark turning its jumps and bumps into some toy town lunar surface.

My senses were having a fun time, alert to the relative lack of information.

I’ve been doing these sort of nighttime walks for decades. What do people make of me, if they see me? Is this behaviour stranger for a man in his forties than in his twenties? And if so, does it matter?

I’m lucky to be male, white and nondescript. I am generally left alone by men of authority or otherwise, to enjoy the privilege of luxuriating in nocturnal anonymity. There will be an age, or a time, when this perambulatory safety valve won’t be available to me any more. But that seems a long way off, and I appreciate my fortune and my freedom.

Looping back, I sat on a bench, stared at the old house lit up in defiance of the stars, and wondered quite what had happened to the day.

Review: The Word For World Is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

It starts with the title. I loved this book before I had read a single word because of it. I am happy Le Guin was talked out of calling it “The Little Green Men“, as was her initial intention.

The word for world is forest. Not earth, or rock, or soil. Or mall, or semi detached, or gated community. The root is roots, and smells, and noises, and living within and as part of the great ecosystem that once covered much of this planet.

This is a book about racism, colonialism, exploitation, and the environment. Le Guin pushes the action to the far future and a distant, forested world, but she wrote it very much with Vietnam on her mind. Or the American War, as it is known there.

This a future run as per current day trends and assumptions: the using up of all resources on earth until barren, the desire to “develop” earthlike planets across the galaxy once our own is exhausted.

With ships and communication capable only of near-light speed, our intrepid colonists are left pretty much to their own devices once settled on a new planet. Their mission: to prepare the planet for settlement, to be rapacious frontiersmen. And, most importantly of all, to keep the supply of precious wood flying back to the luxury and trinket hungry earthlings.

Le Guin’s sympathies are entirely with the inhabitants of this world, the Athsheans, a complex and sophisticated matriarchal society of waking dreamers. But there is also nuance drawn in the characters from Earth, with the exception of the necessarily stupid and evil Captain Davidson.

The colonialists come from a liberal future with the sophistication to at least euphemise their use of slavery. Among the tree fellers and engineers are scientists, who attempt to study and understand the beings they are killing while sending impotent reports back to the distant home world.

This is not a hopeful book. While intergalactic politics halts the destruction of the Forest world, and it seems that a more enlightened form of hominid may rein in the racist humans, there is no going back. Selver, the brutalised Asthean turned brutaliser, is forever changed by the experience. The dreams of his people now contain nightmares. And those nightmares, like ours, may prove impossible to escape from.

The Mystery of Mill Hill East

I’ve been visiting Woodside Park, in north Finchley, for over twenty years. It sits up near the top of the tube network, a couple of stops below High Barnet, Chipping Barnet, and the encircling M25 motorway. The station feels like a countryside halt, but walk up to the high road and it’s your usual traffic-choked drag of Starbucks and McDonalds, despite the presence of the winningly named Tally Ho corner.

In all that time of visiting these parts I had always been intrigued by the mysterious Mill Hill East, a one-stop branch of the Northern Line from Finchley Central. It always seemed an expensive mistake, like Brasilia or Premier League Football.

So it was reassuring to read that it never really took off, even after the railway came, as the service to London was indirect and slow. A pub opened; housing was built for workers at the local gasworks. But it remained a backwater.

Our route between the places mentioned in the first two paragraphs was along the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. This follows the path of Dollis Brook, a stream reduced to a mere trickle by our ongoing unusual weather times. My friend had spent years unaware of this blissful green space, which leads all the way to Hampstead Heath extension to the south. But we were heading north, and then west: to the strange almost-countryside that surrounds Mill Hill.

The Geeenwalk was a mere slither of land between semi detached housing, but it felt more than that. Once one escaped the smell of the barbecues wafting from neighbouring fences, one was free – or, at least, semi-free, which was always the promise of suburbia.

Was this path an ex-railway line, like the Parkland Walk between Finsbury Park and Highgate? Why else, I wondered, would a pocket of prime land remain so pristine, unless it was a quirk of rail history or some other kind of happy accident?

Eventually our path opened up and we found ourselves in the vicinity of Finchley Nurseries, and a queue of cars driven by those who lust after plants. But for me, a noob to the area, the main reaction was one of surprise at how countryside-ish things had become. To misquote a popular meme, is this… Barnet?

We followed a footpath past an unexpected number of cricket clubs, before finally heading back towards a main road – once the site of a significant army barracks, now questionable housing – via a gorgeous accidental meadow. Accidental in the sense that it wouldn’t exist had anyone figured out a way to develop it into not being a meadow. But we were grateful for the butterflies, the long grass and the shade of the trees.

We then passed an old chapel in the process of conversion to posh housing, new developments, a park, the suburban house of a friend of a friend, and the Waitrose / Virgin Gym development that has replaced the old gasworks.

Mill Hill East was, at this stage, confirming my arrogant assumption about it. That it was a non-place. Or, at the very best, an almost-place; with new developments that the locals feared would destroy it, but which I suspected would save it.

On the walk back to Finchley we went under the viaduct that carries trains towards this accidental terminus. A magnificent bit of engineering, almost absurd in its ingenuity just to reach a station that no one seemed to want.

But as the tubes rumbled overhead and the cars sped below, I thought – well, this is glorious. This will hopefully stand for another hundred years at least, long since these speeding Audis have turned into so much dust.

Here’s hoping.

A walk to the edgelands

Yesterday morning I headed north through Higham Hill, in search of… I wasn’t quite sure. Was I walking towards something, or was I walking away?

I passed a fire station, some 1930s housing, and a local school. Eventually I came to a main road, and a blocky new housing development. It was the new normal chunk of flats, built above and around a chain supermarket. Still, I headed in to its parking-heavy backstreets because I thought I saw a flash of green. This colour turned out to be trees, but trees trapped behind a fence. But I kept walking and eventually the fence ended, and things opens up, and I could see grass, chimneys and pylons. And immediately I felt at home. This was my kind of landscape.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts called them Edgelands. John Grindrod wrote about outskirts. Others have less polite or poetic names for the jumble of pylons, dual carriageways, business estates, and old canals that make up the liminal spaces of our cities. As someone who grew up in suburbia, and likes to walk and cycle, these spaces are important and despairing to me. I don’t know exactly what they make me feel, but they make me feel something.

Pylons are giant lattice sentinels of the edgelands. The design was chosen by architect Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1927, and according to this lovely science and industry museum blog post, Rudyard Kipling and John Maynard Keynes were among the public figures decrying these new electric behemoths as a blight on the landscape. But Blomfield responded:

“Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills—one may not like it, but the world moves on.”

And so I moved on, onto Folly Lane.

Folly Lane was silent, overgrown and had seen better days, despite the butterflies. I felt sad for it, because it might once have been beautiful, and now it was mainly being used by dozy truckers for naps and to empty out their bottles of piss.

The lane passed around the edge of Banbury Reservoir, the roar of the north circular getting ever closer. I passed a panicked notice appealing for the return of Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier, and then an extraordinary shrine to Speedy, including poetry, pictures, and an actual gravestone. Was Speedy buried here, just outside this caged and concreted parcel of land?

Folly Lane ended without ceremony and I joined Harbet Road, a service road which seems to connect a bit of the north circular with other bits of the north circular. I passed a Costco, and more resting truckers parked up after 17,000 hours at the wheel. Another feature of these edgelands is fly tipping, and I saw many signs asking me maybe not to do that. But to dump assorted shit you don’t want any more in significant quantities you need a van. As a pedestrian, I just had my body, and people would probably ask questions of me dragging a stained mattress across half of Waltham Forest.

Next up was a beautiful and crumbling monument to Victorian waterwork pride, with more pylons looking on. Just as interesting were the two houses next door, the only residential properties on this road used mainly for passing through, fenced in by reservoir land in one direction and the road to the dual carriageway in the other. Despite all this, and the presumably insane levels of air pollution, it felt like a strangely peaceful, isolated spot. You could imagine one of these houses being an excellent headquarters for an informal dogging association, with a big old map pinned to the dining room wall showing all the likely local hotspots. You could imagine that, but I have no idea why you would want to.

We now passed over the river Lea, guarded by a truly magnificent cavalcade of pylons, mighty defenders ensuring the river flows forever unharried by giant mechanical wasps or other theoretical dangers. On the other side there was a postwar industrial estate, offering some rather pretty if gone-to-seed units, baking hot portacabins, and a sign for the Golden Palace Banqueting Suite, in case you want your wedding reception to have a post-industrial wasteland theme, as many do.

I now entered the gauntlet of the pavement-parked scaffold vans. As you might imagine, this isn’t the most pedestrian-friendly of roads, and I had to run across in an eventual gap between the speeding vans piloted by furious men. My reward was a tower of used tyres – unlike the one in Springfield, it was not on fire – and an overgrown footpath, leading me to have to cross over again, joined by another, inexplicable pedestrian. What was he doing here? Can he not see that this is my own personal empire of dust?

He was walking quickly, as he had somewhere to go. I let him overtake me and disappear so I could return to my fantasies.

Harbet road was coming to an end, and I faced a tangle of concrete ramps and bridges, an inexplicable bike lane, and the world’s most dangerous bus stop. You had to pass two lanes of traffic impatiently roaring its way onto the north circular to reach this particular bad boy, with no crossing to speak of. It was a bus stop for daredevils and rebels without a cause.

My path led down under the overpass, to the Lea navigation, and gone to seed narrowboats, and rubbish thrown from moving cars.

But my eye was drawn to the path leading to the bus stop heading in the other direction, and with it the name of this area, this muddle of concrete and dirt, this strangely reassuring non-place.

This was, or once was, and is, Cooks Ferry. And we’ll take it back someday.

Keep from the path, my friends

I’m up a tree again. Climbing trees is part of my own personal brand, so I have to be seen doing it from time to time to keep the recognition up. I want people in focus groups to be all “oh yeah he’s that ginger bloke who’s always up a tree, the soppy cunt.” Until one day I slip and fall and get hung from one for wasting NHS resources in a time of national crisis. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The tree I am up is in Epping Forest. It’s a hot sunny day today so it is full of joggers and doggers. The main paths and the rim of the ponds are busy. But I’m keeping to the paths and non-paths that pass through the undergrowth, for I am on quest to find a tree I can climb in for exercise and enjoyment and sit in for leisure.

I’ve got it all planned out. My daily routine will be to rise early and cycling past Chingford’s many chip shops. In my panniers will be a rug and my bouldering shoes.

Arriving at the Forest, I head straight to my tree, in a deep spot with no obvious paths leading to it.

I climb for half an hour, building my strength. Then I sit back in its boughs, and read or write at leisure, until hunger draws me back to my Walthamstow cat.

The search for that perfect tree continues.

I’ve been neglecting this diary, but have started another one: a comic, written one. Not comic in the sense of being funny, but comic as in drawn. I’ll share some examples here, in this pseudo-private space patrolled by security guards in hi vis jackets. Metaphorically speaking.

BMW man is angry / improv

Well, here I am again, unable to sleep and wondering what an earth to do with myself.

Two big things of note happened today, and myriad tiny things also happened, most of which will be forgotten*.

The two big things bookended the day.

In the morning I got into an altercation with a BMW driver.

I was walking towards the station and he sped past me. This would be the end of the story, had he not followed this up by mounting the pavement.

As I walked past him, I said, “can you maybe not speed or mount the pavement? Children are trying to walk to school”.

He responds by shouting at me from the wheel. “I live here! That’s my flat right there!”

I’m not sure what this has to do with anything, but I shake my head at him and put my earphones in, continuing the walk across the sorry pavement towards the back entrance to the station.

A few minutes later, someone is shouting “take your fucking headphones off, you coward” at me.

It’s the man from the BMW. He has run after me to remonstrate. He doesn’t fit my stereotypical profile of a furious driver. He’s early forties, curly hair. Very well spoken. But, nevertheless, extremely angry.

I stop and turn to face him. He’s very tall, and attempts to put his face as close to mine as possible, as he says:

“How do you know I was speeding? Do you have a speed gun? Are you in the police? I wasn’t speeding, I live round here!”

I say: “look mate, you were clearly speeding, and right in front of a primary school. Maybe don’t?”

“I wasn’t speeding.”

“Yes you were.”

“I wasn’t speeding.”

“You were doing at least thirty, and that’s being generous”.

“I wasn’t doing thirty. That’s a 6 litre engine. It’s noisy. And you come over and accuse me of speeding, who are you? Where do you live?”

“I’m not telling you. Why are you asking?”

“I wasn’t speeding. You’re a liar.”

He’s right in my face now.

“Sure, sure. You were doing, what, sixteen, seventeen miles an hour were you?”

He’s totally lost it by this point, ranting in my face. I start walking towards the underpass and the train platforms.

He’s following me, calling me a coward. “Come back here, you coward. You can’t just walk away from me.”

And I turn around and say, “what, are you going to fight me?”

I start laughing and say “you could have got there at 20[mph] by now, couldn’t you?”

He’s still shouting, and I say, “are you late for work now? Do you have a job?”.

“Of course i have a fucking job!”

“Then why are you following me?”

By this point I’m half way up the stairs to the platform. He’s at the bottom, calling me a fucking liar and a coward and telling me to come back.

And I’m laughing – clearly very stressed with the situation, and therefore childish – and shout another mocking “six litre engine!” in a mock geezer voice.

I then turn and walk up the stairs and all the way to the other end of the platform, half expecting him to follow.

He doesn’t.

The second memorable thing of the day is the opposite of angry confrontation. It is my first ever improv lesson. In a room full of comedy aficionados, confidence builders, introverts and comms people, I learn that improv is mainly about giving, and not worrying too much about what you dredge up in the moment from the recesses of your soul. And not trying to be funny.

Let’s see how it goes over the next six weeks…

* Here’s three of them: I saw graduates in mortar boards massing in the royal festival hall. I joined a political party. I wrote a sketch about JK Rowling insisting the new Harry Potter movie be vividly pornographic. These three things are not related.

All the things we did and didn’t do

I cannot sleep. As soon as my head hits the pillow I think of what I need to do, what I haven’t done, and all the associated complications and fears and regrets associated with these past and future failures. It’s hard to convince yourself that tomorrow’s going to be different when you still find unsuccessful to-do lists from the mid-noughties whenever you move house.

The things I’ve done this evening and early morning aren’t, I confidently imagine, to be found in handy How To Sleep listicles. Why not play video games where strangers on the internet try to shoot you until 1am, then scroll social media being stimulated by a near-random selection of memes, confessions, and strident political opinions, said no lifestyle magazine ever. Again, I confidently imagine. It is easier to confidently imagine what is not so than what is so, and requires considerably less research.

Some scattered thoughts and memories from the past few days then, while I wait for sleep or dawn, whichever intrudes first.

A Korean film from the eighties, called The Ticket. A realist portrayal of a brothel / escort agency in a dreary fishing town, with strong female acting and performances, interspersed with the occasional, jarring soft porn sex scene with excitable synth music.

A sweaty pub in Kings Cross, filled with leftist and liberal journalists. The question of what on earth I have been up to since I left my last job batted away with humour and delusion. A nice chat with one of England’s only prominent leftie media presences. The desire to drink, ignored.

Dreams of walking at night, vocalised. I will take the last train to the hills, walk until dawn, then get a train back in the morning. Enjoy the primal excitement of woodland in darkness.

“This is the kind of thing white middle class people do because they experience no actual danger in their lives”. A paraphrased response. A very accurate paraphrased response.

Learnings: in the early nineties the Barbie Liberation Front caused a stir by swapping the voice boxes of speaking Barbie and GI Joe dolls. Barbie would shout, “vengeance is mine!” GI Joe would big up shopping.

Learnings: gut bacteria is very important, and can be synchronised with those you share a regular bed with. Move in with someone: your movements may improve. Else, there’s always a trans-poo-sion, which is a real thing and something not to google while having dinner.

Learnings: it’s hard when your parents become increasingly nationalistic and reactionary, and send you conspiracy theories.

Learnings: adulthood is when the mind and the body become separate, making it easy to forget the joy of play. I must climb all the trees I can where I am still able.

Learnings: dancing while sat on a chair hurts your neck.

Learnings: there is a lot of etiquette about what happens to one’s social media presences when one dies. I want my various blog posts from various dead blogs found on the wayback machine, tidied up, made funnier, put into a hardback book, and made a best seller. Consider this my last will and testament. Also, I leave my board games to Euan and my two copies of Japan by Rail to Ash. I also decree these two people marry, for my own posthumous amusement. Plus Geoff must write me a postcard, addressed to hell, every week from now until the end. I confirm I am of sound mind.

Learnings: there is a diaspora Asian culture podcast called Rice to Meet You.

I’ve been trying to write more sketches. I need to be better at abandoning ideas when they are clearly not working. Otherwise you write and rewrite and write and rewrite until they are dead.

I’ve been trying to write a sketch about JK Rowling insisting on rewrites to a script for a new Harry Potter film. They start fairly reasonable but by the end she wants Harry Potter to be renamed Hazza Pazza, wizards to “wizzas” and wands to be “wizzas”. Hazza, Razza and Hermazza are on a quest to find a wazza with an ancient and powerful wizza.

I don’t know what I was thinking.

I think my mouth just did a yawn so to sleep with me. Hopefully.

In which James attempts to tell himself to urgently cut down his time on Twitter

What has the internet done to my brain? It’s an interesting question, and one modern science is as of yet unable to answer fully. To do this it would need a scan of my brain from around 1996, when I first encountered the internet, and from today, when I’m spending anything between five and eight hours a day staring at it getting cross.

Perhaps once cognitive science becomes more sophisticated, and also time travel is invented, clipboard-wielding super-boffins could be sent to the nineties and confirm what I already suspect, which is that the internet has borked my attention span and has left me more anxious, more stressed, and entirely addicted to the tiny dopamine hits of phone and internet addiction.

IMG_6017

I realise I’m not alone here. When I was younger and more smug, I used to sit on trains and inwardly snark at people unable to go two minutes without phoning their wives to tell them they’re on the train. But those were quaint, noisier days: now everyone is glued to their phones instead, such as the young gentleman next to me yesterday who spent his journey silently but desperately scrolling through Top Gear videos of cars exploding and crashing and so on.

I’d like to say I took up regular commuter cycling so that there would be a couple of hours a day I wouldn’t be in front of a computer or a phone, but this wouldn’t be true. But I did become increasingly aware that it was when most of my thinking got done. Which raises the question: what was I doing the rest of the time?

Part of my old job was to be “on top of” Twitter and Facebook and all that – think of all social media as a horrible writhing pit of talking point snakes, and me (and plenty of other people like me) desperately trying to figure out which of these to report back to our editors. The old media topics of morning meetings were mainly synthesised via the Today programme’s regurgitated tabloid agenda.

To this very old fashioned groupthink was added the anarchic exciting and equally unscientific jumble of memes and trends and panics. News had become minute by minute, and my brain was full of so much stuff I probably never needed to know in the first place.

A random example: I once wrote about Emily Thornberry – remember her, wonder where she is now – getting sacked for taking a photo of a council house with an England flag on it, and immediately being accused of hating the white working class. Wild times. Early signs of the culture war that now completely engulfs us. But knowing about this is totally useless brain mulch when thrown together with the other billion things one is obsessively scrolling through.

I don’t have that job any more, and I no longer have to look at Facebook, the place where baby boomers go to read about anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. My life has been better as a result. But I’m still on Twitter, because of all the social media currently available it most reminds me of the anarchic early days of forums, blogs, and most importantly of all, a lot of people on there make me laugh and see the world differently. Also, memes.

IMG_6015

I’ve made friends through Twitter. I’ve found out about stuff I would never have found out about otherwise. Following younger and cleverer people than me has helped me better understand a range of topics, from the fight for trans rights to environmental collapse to following the money behind the Tory party’s gradual transformation into a populist, borderline far-right project dedicated to subverting democracy, crushing what remains of society, and making a few people very very rich indeed.

But.

You knew there was a but.

I don’t know what all of this is doing to my mental health. Whereas before I was at least on Twitter for a purpose, I’m now there out of force of habit. I’m not very good at it – it’s not like I often post zinging and amusing tweets that get thousands of RTs, and when I say “often” I mean “ever at all”. I interact with a few lovely people, I get tipsy and cross and write furious things about the state of the world, then wake up in a panic about them only to note they have been largely ignored, and were in fact broadly indistinguishable from the “content” I post when I am not tipsy or cross.

I have no real “voice” on Twitter, though the one that occasionally surfaces is that alter-ego I’ve been cultivating for twenty years, of a lonely man who takes everything too seriously and writes lots of letters to the local newspaper, possibly in green ink. But now all the local newspapers are dead, my letters are just a few words long and on the internet, and it’s increasingly difficult to understand where that character ends and I begin.

Twitter isn’t my medium. Blogging is my medium, as it gives me space to develop my ideas and write sentences that are too long. This is how I write, and the need for an audience is one I still struggle with, from journal entries to articles in national newspapers. Does that make me sound like an idiot? I hope so. But it’s true.

On Monday night I saw a documentary about Bill Drummond, one half of KLF, the band who released a handful of rave bangers, pretended a car wrote and released a song about Doctor Who, burned a million quid, and wrote a very important book about how to get a number one single.

Mention Bill Drummond to most people and you get blank stares. If you’re lucky you say “What Time Is Love”, and they understand. The past three conversations about them have ended with the other people getting furious about the fact they burned a million quid. “Why did they do that,” being the general answer. I explained that they weren’t sure, and went on a tour of Scottish art venues to ask people why. This made people angry.

Bill is currently in the middle of a twelve year tour, doing art in various countries around the world until he is 72, the age his dad was when he died of a heart attack. The logic being, Bill reckons he’ll do well to reach the same age, and he’ll hopefully be alive to make that final walk to Damascus, literally and metaphorically.

Drummond clearly had mixed feelings about the documentary, which followed him on two legs of his project – first in Kolkata, India, then in Lexington, North Carolina. At the book signing afterwards, I asked him what he thought of it. “I don’t know – I haven’t seen it”, he said. He’d shuffled out of the auditorium during the break, only to come back and strip off down to his pants to perform a play about his White Saviour Complex.

IMG_6018

I enjoyed the documentary, but it made me sad. Drummond wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the film, and spends half his screen time asking whether he’s being filmed. He seems like he’ll be happier to get on with his art and his writing without being bothered by the vagaries of proving the thing actually happened. His co-artist on the project, who has been following him around the world and photographing him, appears in a play at the end of the film also written by Drummond. In it, he, or another Scottish man pretending to be him, wonders whether she could maybe stop taking photographs and write plays about it with him instead.

I am not Bill Drummond, a highly successful musician and artist struggling to understand what it all means. But I do admire his ability to come up with ideas and follow them through to their logical or illogical conclusion, even if they seem like an absolute waste of time to everyone watching (if he allows them to watch). I’m going to try to be more like Bill, and I’m going to try and spend much, much less time on the internet.

But I think I might start writing more postcards. And I’d like you to write me postcards too, whoever you are.

An infinite model village

I had a crack at virtual reality this morning.

It wasn’t my first time. That was in the nineties, in Nottingham, at a VR cafe near the bowling alley. It was £3 per fifteen minutes – a fortune back then, when you could but a terraced house in Hull for £20 and still have change left over for a slap up meal. But it was worth every penny. For it was like nothing we had ever seen.

Fast forward 24 years and, after a few missteps, VR is now here for good. Though, it still takes a lot of getting used to, such is the difficult-to-fix discrepancy between what one is experiencing and what one’s senses is telling the brain one is experiencing. My friend warned me: it would make me fart. Or burp. Or shit. Or vomit. As things worked out, it wasn’t as dramatic as he predicted. I was merely on the toilet all afternoon.

After my friend strapped me in to the headset and placed the controllers on my hands, his flat disappeared and I found myself in a tech lab, surrounded by retro computer systems and a large, flying robot, designed to be half way between Tomy and Wall-E. The robot hands me a disc. I shove it in a slot. A 3D printer makes glowing cubes. They explode, and I am unexpectedly surrounded by digital butterflies. I put my hand out. One of them lands on it.

I was ready for a proper game. The one chosen was SuperHot, a balletic matrix-style affair. Men charge at you with fists and guns, but the speed of your movements controls time. The slower you move, the slower the enemies and their projectiles come at you. “Bullet time” is a lot of fun, though like all sensible people I am terrified of bullets, so avoiding them felt like a life or death affair. The immersion enabled peril. I throw an ash tray at an approaching miscreant and it hits his wrist, sending his gun arcing up into the air. I catch it and use it to dispatch his colleague, who is attempting to sneak around a pillar, the shifty sod.

After fifteen minutes of this I’m sweating. My heart rate is increased. I take a break outside with my friend and his cat, Jack, a substantial beast. I’m pretty sure all this is real.

There’s time to try out a couple more experiences after a cup of tea. The first is a hot indie release called Google Earth. I fly up above Mount Fuji, and speed down to follow the walking route up to the summit, commenting on Japan’s German-esque love of a nature that has been tamed, ordered and prettified. This I am saying to my friend, who is out there somewhere beyond the headset, as I examine what appears to be a restaurant near the summit.

I fly up and follow the edge of Tokyo bay, then head further in, navigating via rivers and the sky tree. If you zoom too close to the surface, buildings seem garbled, broken, like reality is breaking down or Godzilla has attacked recently. Once they figure out how to render 3D street level to the same detail as the view from the air, I could imagine losing days in there. You could be a travel writer without ever having to leave your house or talk to anyone (I didn’t say you’d be a very good travel writer).

The world looks like an infinite model village.

The last experience – you’d struggle to call it a game – was my favourite. AirCar sticks you in a flying vehicle over a futuristic cyberpunk city. It is, essentially, Bladerunner: the taxi years. I thrust my hands out to grab the steering wheel in my beautifully rendered cockpit, but my friend – out there, still, in that other world – explains that I have to press the physical buttons in my hands, not the imaginary buttons in my virtual space. A shame.

But still. As I edge out of my parking bay, high up above the towers, flying cars and lights of neo-nowhere, I gabble excitedly. The steering takes a little getting used to, as at this point my brain is thoroughly confused by the disparity between what it can sense and what it can see. I twist my head around to get a better view of the city and the waters that surround. A light rain has been falling steadily throughout. And there’s music, sweet relaxing music, coming from somewhere below.

“Does the rain ever stop?”, I ask the man beyond the horizon.

“No, never,” he replies.

Millwall

There’s an excellent docklands museum, an offshoot of the museum of London. In it you learn the locals fought against Thatcher’s privatisation and “redevelopment” of their home as much as they could.

They lost, and now Canary Wharf is a shiny tribute to public money paying for private gain, a place of multinational banks, chain restaurants, private security dressed up to look a bit like the met police, and blanket CCTV keeping an eye on empty plazas. Signs everywhere remind you this is private land. For the right to protest, you’ll have to go somewhere else.

We had started our walk from Limehouse, and if you walk south along the river, you eventually reach the point where the area we think of as “Canary Wharf” ends and the rest of the isle of dogs begins. I followed the river path, and soon I was in Millwall. Now there is a name with many connotations.

We headed inland to explore, first leaving the shore to take a look at an old pub turned Indian restaurant. The name was still carved into some of the building’s stonework: the Blacksmith’s Arms. A beerhouse that opened in 1895. Still had a pub football team as recently as the 1980s. Now a single Victorian building surrounded by flimsy new-builds, like the apartment block in Batteries Not Included.

We walked back to the river, passing some Polish gentlemen enjoying some relaxing tins of Stella by the entrance to an ex-pier.

From Sir John McDougal Gardens we headed back inland, over a concrete footbridge to a postwar shopping precinct. And immediately relaxed: away from the apartment blocks and luxury marketing suites, here was a recognisable and familiar landscape. A chicken shop, a community centre. Even a 1970s estate pub, the Tooke Arms, which still – just – seems to be operating*.

From here we walked in the direction of Millwall Inner Dock, past more good quality 20th century council housing and, unexpectedly, one surviving road of Victorian terraced housing.

Millwall inner dock itself was a good spot to enjoy the contrast between the community feel of the streets and estates we’d walked through, with kids playing football and locals hanging out chatting on street corners, with the ever-encroaching tide of shiny, often half-empty towers and empty, windswept plazas and private lawns. Standing, as I was, between from where we have come and where we seem to be going, I know which I prefer.

* This pub was rebuilt in 1970 and has been around in previous form since the 19th century. For excellent histories and images of all the isle of dog pubs, look no further than this blog post