Socially Distanced Soho

Remember when lockdown ended and everyone was horrified by the images of crowds drinking in Old Compton Street?

The government and client journalist communities have moved on to blaming foreigners and specifically Muslims for the ongoing pandemic. Meanwhile Soho’s independent and less independent businesses have been grappling with how to continue to exist.

The death of Soho has been announced many many times, but the Denmark Street catastrophe, the recent redevelopment at the southern end of Berwick Street and the gradual encroachment of the chain restaurants have all been taking their toll.

But with social distancing has come something that would have already have been in place for years if we were any other European city: pedestrianisation, and the reclaiming of the roads for restaurant tables, chairs, and people.

Old Compton Street is the hub of this apparently temporary car banning. You can still drive through Soho, but it’s much trickier now. And if you’re a cyclist it’s more confusing than ever, as indicated by the delivery riders trying to snake their way through. But if you’re walking, or wanting to drink or chat outside, the situation has decidedly improved.

Finchley Herons and Municipal Dreams

Back up the northern line towards High Barnet, for a meeting with a friend who had high hopes for a long walk, but wasn’t able to sleep last night. And so we changed the plan according to our collective capabilities; we had a long sit in her garden, with the noise of kids at summer camp floating over the stream and heron that defend and define the boundary of her residential block.

Before our scheduled period of hanging out, I arrived early and wandered up to the high road for needless coffee. The speeding and pavement mounting of the local traffic left me on high alert; after my recent, still-vivid collision, I might need a break from being around cars. No easy task when you live in London, on a main road.

Traffic weighing on my mind, I took the sudden decision to veer off the road and explore an interesting modernist block for a short while.

My knowledge of architecture isn’t that good, but I would date this as late seventies: the last gasp of postwar social housing. I appreciated the street in the sky, the gardens, the pseudo-buttresses at the back, and the occasional unexpected detail.

There was thought and care put into this design, with residents protected and given space and light away from the main road. A gently impressive, but not overbearing suburban fortress to live in.

On the other hand, some of those windows are tiny and, I am told, the basement flats aren’t much fun to inhabit.

After doing a tiny bit of snooping around, I headed off to Dollis Brook, found a space by the water, took a photo, put my bloody phone down, and finally sat and enjoyed my book.

The moon, the park and the stars

I have a new habit. It is to walk to the park in the late evening, in an attempt to tire myself out enough to sleep. Also, I discovered they are not locking the gates until late if at all, and I do love an amble around a late night park. My senses are heightened; there is a very tame, very suburban sense of danger. Also: what if they locked the gates while I was in there? I would be caged until morning. Or I could climb over the very low fence and walk home. One of the two. But the fence has spikes on it! I could impale myself! Like I said, suburban dangers.*

Tonight, alas, I was thwarted. Two men wearing high vis jackets, those modern uniforms of authority, were locking up the gates. It was exactly midnight, and they were shouting their way through the task like they were auditioning to be bin men. So instead of going inside, I had to walk along the side of the park, sandwiched between idling cars with reclined seats and that tauntingly low spiky iron fence.

Forced onto the main road opposite the William Morris Gallery, I noticed this rather pleasingly retro sport outfitters for the first time. I hope it still exists, as I could do with a billiards table.

I encircled the park via side roads, and passed this temple. The combination of the generic social club architecture and the magnificent Ganesh festooning the entrance like some mighty frieze made me smile.

Last night, I saw a bright moon, and stars, from the relative darkness of the unlit park. Tonight this treat was not available to me, but I at least experienced interesting buildings, steamed up Audis, and that familiar rhythm of my feet on endless pavements past all those houses I will never see inside.

* As I get older, i get increasingly worried about my devil-may-care bath exit strategy. There is the potential for disaster everywhere.

Writing Sketches

This year is more than half over but it also feels like it’s barely begun. A fairly obvious observation, with lockdown and Covid-19 messing with all of out routines and perceptions of time.

I quite like to boil down all of my frustrations into a flippant sentence, which is why I’ve been telling people that I picked a bad year to pivot to pet sitting and sketch comedy promotion.

Unfortunately, it’s true.

But! Next Level Sketch, the sketch comedy collective started by myself and one of those friends who make me actually get out of bed and do things, has been a constant source of joy over the past few weird months.

We haven’t been able to perform on stage, and like the rest of the grassroots comedy / arts / music / civilisation community, we don’t quite know when people are going to want to pack into a sweaty room above or below a pub again.

In the meantime, we’ve been putting a podcast together. A podcast full of funny sketches, weird jingles, and stupid fake adverts. We’ve just released the fifth episode, so we’re one away from having the magic number that makes a BBC style series. I will email the episodes to the corporation and see when they fancy putting them on air.

I can never work out how public this blog of mine is, or if people read it, or even if I want people to read it. But I’m writing my post to remind me of a good creative project, through which I’ve learned a lot and met many excellent people, and I’m sure I’ll look back on it with pride and fondness when I stumble upon this post from wherever I am in five years’ time.

 

We can rebuild him. We have the technology

I have four main fears: guns, cars, my teeth being smashed out, and getting electrocuted by stepping on the live rail of a suburban railway.

Unless you’re particularly unlucky, you are unlikely to face all those fears at the same time. I managed two together at the weekend, when a driver smashed out my tooth with his car – a delicate, precision manoeuvre requiring a lot of incompetence.

Thankfully, as I fell back from his windscreen, I neither was shot nor stumbled onto any train tracks, setting me back in my ongoing audition for a remake of the Naked Gun.

They say it’s good to face your fears, but I would prefer my fears remain in Dunstable where they belong, while I carry on with my life. 

The crash meant I had to visit the dentist, a place which lives in my second, slightly lower tier of existential horrors, alongside flying, wasps, and being found out.

My dentist was a wonderful, funny and no-nonsense lady. She told me stories of people walking out from the surgery with those temporary bibs and 3D glasses they give you nowadays still attached. I do like the 3D glasses; I feel like I’m about to see an underwhelming Pixar sequel, not have a complete stranger hack away at my mouth.

Dentists now have so much PPE they look like extras in a pandemic thriller – which, thinking about it, they kind of are. Mine said the conditions had been gruelling, with 30 degree temperatures and no air conditioning allowed until recently. 

Having to dress up like you’re about to dissect the Roswell aliens just because some lad wants a filling must add another element of stress to what I can see is already quite a stressful job. 

I say this just as an observation, not in a Trumpian, the virus is a scam cooked up by China, 5G operating companies and Hillary Clinton kind of way.

Half way through the procedure the dental nurse passed me a hand mirror to check out my new look. I was extremely tempted to start laughing hysterically and smash it against the table of implements, but I think the first Batman movie came out before she was born.

The tooth didn’t look quite right, so the dentist made me scroll through my photostream, past socialist memes, millions of cats and representations of furious geese, until I found a picture where I was showing my fangs. This took longer than expected; I am deadpan in photographs, and I haven’t had much to smile about lately.

Grin located, we had a bit more of a chat of how I’d like it to look, and then it was back to the 3D glasses and the moulding, and the eyes closed thinking of England.

After the procedure, I had an X-Ray and was given an explanation of what is likely to happen from here. The good news is that the root is still alive, and teeth do heal. The bad news is the binding of the first falsie is always the best, so if I accidentally bite this one out then any following ones probably won’t last as long. So no toffee bars sellotaped to the Beano for me, then, ever again.

So who knows, it might be years before I have to think about my tooth again. Unless it turns out the dentist has put a tracking device in it, as part of the lizard conspiracy against non-trackable teeth. But even if she did, I’ll let her off. She was nice.

Hello trees! Hello clouds!

There are so many moments that make up a day and so many that we forget. I’ve forgotten entire years, carelessly. I don’t want to do that any more. Think of me as a land-based salvage expert, and memories as floating and clearly abandoned vessels. I want to claim as many of these as possible, as they are enriching and make me who I am today: a man who has not gleaned that the international rules of the sea do not apply on dry land.

I was recently in an accident in which I could easily have died. A driver pulled out against the direction of traffic; my face and the car’s windscreen had an argument about which one of us had the right of way. I lost half a tooth, the windscreen was shattered. I was in the right according to the Highway Code, but that wouldn’t have been much solace if this was my last philosophical debate on earth.

I’m glad to be alive, but not in a running down the road, I will-never-waste-another-moment sort of way. Not immediately, in any case: I was too busy being taken to hospital.

I’ve already wasted plenty of time since the accident. I’ve scrolled through pointless culture wars on social media. I’ve dulled my traumatised brain with many hours of online board games against endearingly named strangers like MrEd69 or Please_Lose_To_Me17.

But I am trying to cherish more, and to cherish you have to remember. I only have one way of remembering, which is to write things down.

Sometimes I turn things into stories – into handy linear narratives where everything makes sense and everything is neatly tidied away. But sometimes that’s impossible, and one just has to write some unsatisfying paragraphs, with no structure or satisfying ending.

I’m not really sure how many of us get a satisfying ending anyway.

But what I really wanted to talk about was trees, and clouds. And herons. And awkward handymen depositing rubble by a stream, friends remote and immediate, and that guy in the phone repair shop who charged me too much but smiled while I complimented him on the card on his desk from his daughter. It suggested he was often asleep; perhaps because of the long hours working in the phone shop.

I also wanted to mention Fairuz, the Lebanese chanteuse, singing about her friend from childhood, with whom she wrote words on the wind, before the civil war came. And Japanese food, and really stupid and bawdy jokes. And calls with fellow beloved humans, and interactions with furious cats. And, and, and…

There is so much in a day, and I want to do more to bring at least some elements of each day with me into the future.

Because I am grateful that there will be more trees, and clouds, and words with which to remember them.

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.