SURPRISES IN SWEETLAND

Rose vs Danny

I’m following Dar or Danny into his back room. He’s my local newsagent. And it’s full to the rafters with boxing gloves in red and blue, punch bags, shin guards, footballs with stars on them, shorts, and tops. Yes, in true Harlesden style, this is a newsagent that sells boxing gloves. Another wonderful collision/mash up.

Not only that, but they are all hand sewn in Danny’s family factory in Sialkot, Pakistan. Sialkot, it turns out, (what I mean here is that I went home and googled it) produces the most hand sewn footballs in the world. As for the name, Danny; in the 70s, an Irish friend started calling him Danny and it stuck. His legal first name confusingly is Amjad. And the family name is Dar. The boxing gloves are made by Darco. They used to sell to the US and Danny reckons Mohammed Ali must have worn some of their gloves.

Danny is such a sweet man. And he runs a shop called Sweetland. That is not a coincidence. His brother, Max, (real name Masjud) is sweet as well. Ever smiling and gentle. Both of them. It’s a shabby shop but it’s their hearts that you notice. Always friendly and chatty. I first talked to Danny right at the beginning of my Not On Safari project, four years ago. And now I’m back. Also I first spotted Louis Theroux–who lives nearby when he’s here and not in LA – in his shop.

Danny didn’t go into the family business. At 19, he came to Harlesden, moved into a flat on the High Street – now above a halal butcher’s – and became a fork lift truck operator at McVities.

“I was a bit different,” he explains as we walk down Park Parade, “and it was easy to get work here.” That was 1970 and he was very happy with Harlesden. He’d go to the Royal Oak to hear an Irish band on Saturday nights. “All the shops would close at 6pm so then it was quiet except for the Victoria Wine shop on the corner opposite Sam’s. We’d all pop in there.”

This is a man who literally never leaves his shop – from 6 30am to 8 30pm – so a constant stream of his regular customers regale him with shocked gasps. Here was Danny in the street. They couldn’t quite believe it. And I couldn’t believe just how many of his customers we met.

Danny & Max

Danny is small, wears a woolly hat and lots of layers. He’s 64 now, and walking is difficult for him. He’s lost a couple of teeth and his face often crumples into an expression of unending kindness. He asks after an Irish woman’s husband who’s just come out of hospital. We bump into a Jamaican lady outside Peacocks, and Danny listens intently while she expounds on the painfulness of a corn on her big toe.

Oh and Danny refers to himself as ‘one of the originals’. I love this idea. What he means is that he and Johnny – who runs the hairdressers and tanning shop, Paraskevas – have been on Park Parade, the longest. “People come and go these days,” he says. But Johnny whose family are from Cyprus, and Danny are both long-stayers. Danny has been here in Harlesden for 44 years. A miracle.

To walk with Danny is to enter into another era. His version of Harlesden is set in the 70s and 80s. He used to do a double work shift first at McVities, and then running a newsagents called Midnight further down Park Parade, opposite the Royal Oak. Hence his frequent visits.

He’s also frequented most of the local religious establishments over the years. He’s a Muslim of course, but his wife, Lucy, is a Roman Catholic from the Philippines. Hence Danny sometimes goes to churches and sometimes to mosques. “I’m not very religious though,” he says. He repeatedly tells me what a good wife, Lucy, is. “She always has a meal for me when I get home,” he explains, “although she works in the City herself.”

He points out that his favourite bags of chips came from Bigger Bites, but that he can’t eat chips any more. “I’ve had a couple of heart attacks and a stroke,” he explains, “so I can’t.”

He last went back to Sailkot 17 years ago. His mum, 86, is still there in the family house. “Max’s wife is there, his daughter too, and his son now runs the sports factory,” he says. “But when my grandfather started that factory a hundred years ago, they had 200 employees, now there are only a few left.”

And then he tells me that in the 70s and 80s, there used to be an annual Irish festival in Roundwood Park. “It was amazing,” he says, “bigger than Carnival at that time with brilliant bands.”

He points out that Peacocks was Woolworths then. “We had a Macdonalds too and they closed that down. People weren’t behaving themselves,” he says intimating drugs as the reason.

From time to time, Danny mutters, “Oh my god” and I start to realise that he’s in a lot of physical pain. I suggest we go back. Later, he admits that he was feeling dizzy and couldn’t see properly. Poor Danny, this sounds awful.

the back room

Now we’re back in the mysterious ever-expanding back room and Danny is explaining that they sell to all the boxing gyms around including the famous All Stars in the Harrow Rd. “They’re even promoting boxing in schools now,” he says, “and we sell to Newman College up the road, I go in and check stocks.”

For the World Cup in Brazil, Danny has ordered lots of footballs with different flags on them. “We’re getting them to give to the community schools around here,” he says. “And all the local businesses are going to have ones too.”

I notice a pile of leather belts. Whereupon Danny starts undoing zippers on his multi-layered tops to reveal one of these very belts which seems to be holding his body together. It is not in the belt position but more around his ribs. “It helps to keep me upright,” he explains. It turns out that as soon as he hung these belts in the shop, they started selling. “One woman bought six of them,” he smiles at this incredible belt success.

Ah, but there is another back room enigma. Bags and bags of knitting wool. What on earth is he doing with all that wool? Apparently – wait for this – it’s been there for 30 years going back to the time when Danny opened briefly as a Ladies fashion emporium.

Surely, the time has come to do a cheap deal on wool…

Not everything has always been so sweet for Danny. He’s had to survive some brutal encounters in his shops. Firstly, at Midnight, which was unusual in those days, in that it stayed open late. “I was in the shop alone,” he says, “and three guys came in, they beat me up. I was covered in blood. They stole money and cigarettes. It was strange because I’d never felt scared. I knew everyone around there.”

And then at Sweetland. “There were three men but they stayed outside. Two girls came in with broken glass bottles, they stabbed me with them all over my body. They were trying to steal the till and I wouldn’t let them. A crowd gathered outside and one man persuaded me to let it go. Afterwards, he told me that the young men all had knives. They were caught afterwards because someone recognised them, but only the girls went to prison as the young men had stayed outside and the police advised me that they would be difficult to convict them. People warned me not to go ahead with charges against the girls but I did. It was the right thing to do. I had it all recorded on CCTV too.”

The best thing was how the community helped Danny out. “Johnny cleared up the glass from the front windows for me and ordered new glass. I got a lot of help from people on Park Parade. That’s what we’re here for, to help each other.”

Danny has had a hard life but he retains this infinite sweetness. If you saw him in the street, you wouldn’t notice him. But he has such a big soul…

balls

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REGGAE, REGGAE, REGGAE

ImageMr Locksley Gichie is a man with an extremely firm handshake, an air of modesty and a hat full of locks. In Harlesden – as Gerry from Hawkeye Records (the only reggae shop left) says – ‘everyone knows Locksley’. Everyone that is of a certain age who knows about reggae.

That’s because Locksley was the guitarist in the Cimarons – they got together in 1967 because they all went to the youth club at the Methodist Church in Tavistock Rd – and they became Britain’s first home-grown reggae band. As well as backing musicians for everyone from Bob Marley to John Nash and Ken Booth to Toots and the Maytals.

“I came over from Jamaica in 1962 when I was 12,” he says, “my mum came over three years earlier and got work in a factory. My dad who was a printer came over for six months then went back. Two of us were with mum, the other two kids stayed in Montego Bay. This was when the UK was doing big promotions over there to get workers. At that time, it was easy to get a job in Harlesden. You could leave one factory if they weren’t treating you right, then get work in another one the next day.”

In the 70s, NW10 was heaving with bits of the reggae business. Trojan Records – the biggest indie label that Chris Blackwell co-ran, until he went off to form Island Records – was in Neasden where  Willesden County Court is, Palmer Records was in Craven Park Rd and was a record shop and a record label, Jet Star and there were lots more. Hawkeye, of course, is still there and has the marvellously opinionated Gerry, behind the counter.

I wonder what they sell these days? Is it newer stuff by younger artists? “We sell reggae from Jamaica and the UK,” says Gerry, “but also R n’ B, Soca, Mento and some surprising CDs. Like Jim Reeves’ Christmas Songbook because old folks used to hear his songs at Xmas and they want to hear them. And Fats Waller’s ‘Write Letter Myself A Letter’ but we’ve got CDs from newer rappers like Gappy Ranks too. He used to come into the shop when he was a young boy, he tormented us and now look at him. But we also have had a staple diet of artists like Dennis Brown and Prince Buster.”

And then he has a little bit of rant. Something that is not unusual, by all accounts. About computerised music and modern musicians who take old tracks, feed them through computers and pretend they’re making new music. “There’s a track by Damian Marley called ‘Welcome To Jamaica’ and it’s a version of a Sly and Robbie-produced track called Reggae World by Ini Kamosa. You lose all the feeling when you lose the instruments,” he says with his voice at full volume.

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At this point, a gentleman wearing a fetching red, gold and green shirt with pictures of the Emperor Haile Selassie on it, wanders in. To much acclaim. Turns out it’s Vivian Jones, the lovers rock singer. ‘Sugar Loaf, Sugar Loaf,’ says Locksley trying to remind me of Mr Jones’ most well-known number.

But Gerry is already on to Bridge Park Leisure Centre, – his voice rising again – where Hawkeye promote monthly music evenings. “We get 70 year olds coming out for a bit of music, they haven’t got anywhere else that provides this,” he says, “and it was supposed to be for the community,  but now they’re charging higher and higher prices. Trying to push us out. It’s somewhere where the older members of the community can enjoy themselves away from the younger ones.”

And the monthly Apollo – in Willesden on the first Sunday of the month – night which has been going for 30 years. “It’s run by Geoffrey Palmer, one of the three Palmer brothers who used to run Jet Star records in the 70s,” says Gerry before putting on an old Mento& R n’ B CD which is on Trojan records. “Mento precedes calypso, then there was ska and reggae, but lots of those singers looked to the old R n B singers like Otis Redding.”

Somehow Bob Marley comes into the conversation. Gerry erupts. “Reggae had so many people before him. He’s not the only reggae artist. Look, look, I’ll show you a picture where he had no locks and no spliff. And play you some of the tracks before they became commercialised. When they were still roots.” And out comes the original ‘Trench Town’ with all the huge bass intact.

Gerry is on a roll. Out come more records, he rates. Black Heart Music by Bunny Wailer is one. Meanwhile Locksley is telling me about his time backing Bob. “It was 1974 before he’d got a deal with Island,” he says, “Bob was joyful person but he made us understand that we couldn’t mess around. When he got his deal he wanted our rhythm section to tour the US with him. But we loved the Cimarons and wanted to stay in the band. We were the foundation in the UK for reggae, other bands like Aswad were inspired by us.” Oh and turns out Locksley used to rehearse with Bob in his house up the road in Neasden.

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And then there is a local revelation for me. The guy – white long locks, kindly face, runs JJ’s Wine Bar over the road and the Jerk Chicken shop over the road – I met a couple of years ago with Dawn Butler when she was our MP, turns out to be a reggae star who was called King Sounds and used to play with Ken Booth. Well, well, well.

As we’re walking down Craven Park Rd and Locksley is telling me the tale of the Cimarons. “In the 70s, we played the 31 Club which was in a basement on the hill at Stonebridge. Later it became the Apollo.  There was also Burtons on Cricklewood Broadway where all the best sound systems used to meet up and all the latest music from Jamaica was played so that’s where we were inspired,” he explains.  I ask him about the shebeens in those days. “On a Saturday night we’d all get dressed up and wander around until we found a party in someone’s house. I remember the first carnival in the early 70s when it all started building up on a Thursday night.”

Locksley is a self-taught guitarist. Delroy Wilson, Arton Ellis, Ken Booth, the Heptones – they were all were formative for him.

I wonder if he’s ever looked at his genealogy?  “My grandmother was a maroon which means she  came from free slaves, those that broke away from the boats and lived freely, whilst my grandfather was from Puerto Rico and had freckles just like you. He was a boat maker, he made yachts. Jamaica gets its strong energy from all those free slaves whose spirits remained unbroken.”

Starlight was the other record shop that endured but recently it has also closed. Although Gerry maintained earlier that Popsie, the owner, would re-open. We just passed its sad shutters, when Locksley points out another shop where they used to buy their suits. “It was called Marcus’ and we used to get red, brown and yellow mohair suits for wearing on stage. They were great.” And they used to get their equipment just down the road too. As well as swordfish and ackee from the famous Mr Patty.

“On Mondays, all the musicians used to meet up at Palmer Records (now a shop called Hair Control) because they were booking agents and we all got paid. In those days, I was getting £9 an hour which was a lot, I was doing sessions for other people. I was young so I squandered it on clothes and clubs.”

The Cimarons had some momentous times. In 1969, they were the first reggae band to go to Africa. “We went to Nigeria and Ghana,” he says. “They went crazy for us. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it would explode in that way. We were so successful, all the artists like Jimmy Cliff who came over from Jamaica wanted us as their backing band. Jimmy Cliff taught us how to be disciplined. He used to say, ‘we can be friends again after 5′, in other words when the work is done.  From Toots and the Maytals, we learnt spirituality, they were on a spiritual high when they sang.”

As we pass Odeon Court, Locksley tells me that the band used to go and see Westerns there when it was a cinema. “Robert Mitchum was a favourite, and Lee Van Cleff,” he says.

The mention of ‘high’ makes me think of ‘ganga’ so I ask the question. “We didn’t start smoking until about 1974 when we were recording all day and night. It kept us awake and really helped the music flow so sweet and got us so creative. But it was proper weed not rubbish. Sometimes I’d do a guitar solo and wonder how I’d done it. At that time, we’d smoke in the street and the police wouldn’t understand what we were doing. It wasn’t banned at that time.”

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They were on Top of The Pops supporting Ken Booth, they played Belfast when no-one else would, they were the first reggae band to play Japan, a private plane was hired to fly them to do a gig in Cork one day when they had a night gig in Manchester and they managed both. Paris loved them. They were number one in Jamaica with a cover version of Talking Blues by Bob. But it was all over by 1977.

“Reggae was so big and then the music industry pulled the plugs on us. We couldn’t get radio play. Thatcher came in and closed down the venues like Top Rank where we played. Trojan Records went bust. I carried on being a session musician and we re-formed the band a few times,” he explains.

But there is news. The Cimarons are coming back in their original format – most of them live still around Harlesden. “Through the internet, we’ve discovered that we’re actually still popular in Europe so we’re setting up a tour,” he says with such hope…

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THE DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDENT WITH AN EAR FOR FAITHLESS

ROSE+SIMON

I’m unfamiliar with policing terminology but I’m learning. Today, I’m sitting

with Brent’s Detective Superintendent, Simon Rose. I’ve only just discovered that the top man in the borough, in policing lingo, is the Borough Commander and then I’m offered his deputy. I’d fancied being allowed out on a raid of some sort. Embedded with Brent TSG sort of thing. But when I spoke to Simon beforehand and suggested a walk, he declined. “Walking isn’t part of my job,” he said in a direct but friendly manner.

Lo and behold, I find myself at Wembley Police station – the last time I was here, I was trying to identify the teenage burglar who was brazenly lunchtime robbing my road – being introduced to Simon Rose. It’s the sort of situation I love – being inside an establishment that I’d normally never have access to.

No sooner have we tunnelled through the building. Not really. More corridored. Than we go outside  again to do some photos. This is one of my first impressions of Simon who resembles a smiling Rugby blue. The lift is closing its doors, so Simon runs and thrusts his foot into the gap, in the way I’ve seen TV police do on raids. Hmmm, is he showing off I wonder?

Was he vocational about joining the police? “No, I really drifted into it,” he confesses rather winsomely, “I did a chemistry degree at Essex University, then ended up working in an olive oil factory in Crete, on a kibbutz and travelling round India.” So there go my first preconceptions – here is a senior policeman who has travelled in the way I approve of. “Then I came back and thought being in the police would be interesting. I imagined being a traffic officer at the time.”

Soon afterwards, more preconceptions are ramraided. His phone goes – now we’re in his far-from-tidy office – and plays a nifty dance track. One that is totally unexpected for a Detective Superintendent. He laughs – I think, in appreciation of his own non-conformity. “That’s Insomnia by Faithless. I’m often on call at night and it’s very good at waking me up.” This has parallels with Cameron liking The Smiths. What is happening to the establishment?

“Yeah, Morissey hated Cameron liking his music, didn’t he?” he smiles and I imagine he’s reflecting on what Maxi Jazz would think.

Maxxy

Simon started off as a PC in Islington which was challenging but “not top of the table”. This Detective Superintendent is fond of football analogies. “Brent is in the top four, in terms of challenging policing,” he says, “there’s a high level of deprivation so lots of unemployment and hardship. Although at the moment, our crime figures are down here. It’s counter-intuitive because there’s a recession but we’re bucking the trend.”

Simon Rose has only been in Brent for two years. But he’s aware of its history. In 2001, Harlesden had the highest murder rate in the UK. There was a murder in May 1999 that led to 7 people being killed in the next six months. “We’ve moved away from those days,” he says, “but there was a shooting last week that was to do with the Thugs of Stonebridge and St Raphs and there were six murders in Brent last year.”

Has the change of architecture had an effect on crime, I wondered? I mean the pulling down of the tower blocks at Stonebridge, and their replacement with low-rise housing. And the same on the Church End estate. “It has changed,” he says cautiously, “the design has helped with policing like the public spaces were created with the idea of marginalising opportunities for youths to gather in secret. “

This prompts Simon to digress into strategy-talk. He’s a planner with a proclivity to philosophy. He starts talking about the Bejing Olympics and how the cyclists made a difference to their performance by increasing their break time and therefore their recovery time. Obviously, he’s comparing their methodology with how to improve crime statistics. “Aristotle said: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’, and a marginal gains’ strategy can make a significant difference. For instance, there was a low wall outside a small shop where young people used to gather, smoke and drink. We changed the design of the wall and they didn’t do that any more.” Who is responsible for this kind of strategy?  “Crime Prevention Design Advisers.” I might have known.

Police Boots

At this point, I notice a pair of black, what I take to be, operational boots under a chair. Ah ha, so Simon does take part in action. “Once in a blue moon,” he says quietly smiling, “the last time they were used was  on a cannabis farm raid. There’s a lot of crashing and bashing in that kind of job so it’s best to wear boots. It was a two bedroom maisonette and there were 80 plants. The   owners were Vietnamese.” Simon likes interesting details and now launches off into a description of the precise art of hydroponics as practised by these ‘farmers’. “It’s very sophisticated market gardening,” he says, “basically they are growing plants without soil. They take 6 to 8 weeks and it costs £1,000 to buy the kit.”

Isn’t it rather ridiculous to criminalise cannabis growers, even on this commercial level? Ever reflective, he says: “Well, society and criminality does change. Look at the 30 years ago, when gay men were prosecuted for having sex, now we police the areas that they frequent to make sure they don’t get robbed. We echo the changes in society.”

What does he think of members of the Church Road Soldiers turning up in Dorset? Last year, a 21 year old was shot in Bournemouth. Are they going down to Dorset because the policing is getting more effective in London? Or ‘going country’ as my son explains, to do their selling.   “Certainly, we’re noticing changes,” he says, “it could be new financial opportunities or better policing. Or both. I think we’ve put in some good Anti-Social Behaviour orders with exclusion zones and only being able to own one registered phone.”

Are the police  trying to create different relationships with these troubled young men? “We’re not social workers,”he says pointedly, “we focus on enforcement. Although there are ‘teachable moments’ that occur, for instance when someone has been stabbed or shot and they might re-evaluate their life choices. We work with the St Giles Trust that provides mentoring in such cases. And the community radio station Bang FM has a good new project where they are identifying up to seventy eight 14 year olds who could use support in making good choices. For instance, they might have an older sibling who is in a gang but be in a position where they can be helped before they go down that path.”

What are Brent doing about institutionalised racism? Are they getting more non-white officers into top positions? “That takes too long,” he says, “it takes 25 years to progress through the different positions so we’re trying direct-entry opportunities at detective level. This can accelerate this kind of cultural change.”

Simon leaves the room to have his photo taken with a colleague who is leaving. I gaze at his office in fascination. It’s full of random articles. A ladder lies on the floor. There are white boards with lists under unintelligible words like Smartwater, Facewatch and the more familiar, Gangs. And a beautiful deep blue Moroccan bowl.

What would his dream policing in Brent be? “A lot of projects like the Bang FM one and activities like the ones the St Giles Trust provide,” he says, “support structures that help the community so that we wouldn’t have so much crime.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

And what’s his favourite poem? “Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge,” he says, “I think he did that in a hallucinatory dream after taking lots of opium.” There’s an obvious irony here. Detective Superintendent Rose’s favourite poem was written after smoking copious amounts of opium, whilst he is going out on cannabis farm raids. It’s not lost on either of us.

The Smartwater is to do with the high rate of burglary and a device that squirts a substance that marks the burglar and makes them identifiable. The police have set up a Smartwater flat and are waiting for burglars to take the bait, and they’ve already caught a couple of burglars via a trap car that was set up in this way. “It sends out the message that we are catching burglars,”he says.

Oh yes, and then there are the methadone prescription bags – give out by local chemists to heroin users – that declare Thieves and Handlers beware and heralds the benefits of Smartwater. Simon is definitely proud of these. He’s jumping around with a kind of policing glee.

But what about that Moroccan bowl? “I took my mother to Marrakesh and bought it there,” he says as he shows me out. “Marrakesh is a bit touristy these days though, isn’t it?” Here we go again…

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DANCE HARLESDEN

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I’ll never forget the day in 2011 that my friends and I danced the walkways of Willesden Junction. The impossible happened – we did discover beauty in this hostile, industrial environment. The purple buddleia against the wire fences, the broad smile of the ticket office man as we jumped up and down to Anarchy in the UK, the deep red organza which became a wedding veil, the exquisite tenderness we shared in a dank, dark railway tunnel to the loving tones of Al Green and finally the intimacy and stillness between us as we emerged onto the Grand Union Canal. By the end, I felt as though I was part of a nomadic dancing tribe and I loved it.

So much so that I wanted to do it again. I reflected on all the different stages – from the staccato to  the madness to the stillness – of Dance Willesden Junction and thought I’d like to create another dance happening (don’t please call it a flash mob in that advert-centric way) which was focussed  solely on the gentleness of the heart. And less of a journey and more of a pilgrimage to one destination where we would dance. And I wanted to collaborate. As well as have original music this time.

Enter Duncan – physical theatre teacher, Helen – theatrically trained, and Phil – music teacher and musician. Unlike last time, I wasn’t sure where this happening would take place. I had ideas about grave yards or parks. We went for a summer’s Harlesden walk. On our way to St Mary’s churchyard (not right, too English village), we came across a bunch of Somali gentlemen gathered around a car radio blasting funky tunes. Far more like it. We had even a digression into the Longstone Avenue allotments (amazing, there’s a distinct favela flavour with bedsteads replacing hedges) where I managed to get us locked in. The man on the gate obviously mistook me for an allotment holder with a key. Phil, it turns out, is not just a brilliant bassoon player, he’s also a stalwart in a crisis. He phlegmatically carried over a wooden pallet and we managed to clamber over the wall. Into a thorny, flesh-tearing bush. But it was all part of the adventure. Old people emerging from a bush looking a little worse for wear!

None of these locations were right. It had to be Harlesden proper. And the Jubilee Clock on the traffic island seemed the confluence of what Harlesden is today. The four of us were happy.

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And so five months later, we found ourselves blessed with a sunny wintry Sunday morning. At 8 45am, the dancers arrive in wonderful sparkling evening clothes. I salute their willingness and commitment. Yes, early on a Sunday morning. The women are glorious in flowery, leafy splendour – I’d asked for late autumnal golds, reds, greens – whilst the delicious men are suited and waistcoated in the most formal of manners. They were the much-needed conformity to our anarchy.

We gather in my living room – a circle of intention and frothy excitement. I explain that I would love us to enter into a sacred space as we walk towards our destination. Most of them have no idea where we are going. You see how trusting they are. And that we are taking our gentlest hearts to the heart of Harlesden and seeing what happens. Could we have an affect on the harshness of Harlesden?

I feel like the pied piper. A merry, glamorously eclectic bunch we are. My friend, Rachel, head to foot in  late summer grass green topped off with shades. Emanating nightclub. Naturally. She is a yoga teacher and former hard house DJ. She assumes the idea is that we are coming home from a club. No, I say, it’s more that night is meeting day and seeing what happens at that liminal border. The glitter and the heart.  Between us all. And Harlesden.

And we’ve got the chair – the once rather grand chair with the red seat covering that we found on the Dance Willesden journey. I was thinking it would be the continuity. At the end, I’m not so sure. It becomes a bit of an ugly intrusion.

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Sarah – my old friend, Sarah who went to Ilkley Grammar with me and I with her – is such a star. She has specially decorated an old net curtain with autumnal leaves and words  like ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘sacred’. Spontaneously and perfectly. Because I’d been thinking – yes, the Jubilee Clock because it is the Harlesden landmark, but no, the Jubilee Clock because it’s an homage to Victoriana and the Empire. Which seems inappropriate in the now of Harlesden. So the first thing we do, is re-appropriate the Clock with Sarah’s curtain. Hurray!!

Phil starts tuning his bassoon in front of it and soon a haunting melody is floating across Sunday morning Harlesden. This traffic island is bigger than any of us expected. It seems to be just right as a performance space. Normally, there would be a preacher here or in the past, guys from the Nation of Islam. But never, I say this with confidence, has Harlesden seen the likes of us.

Before long, we walk one by one into the centre. Patrick –  looking like a tango king today – takes that space with grace and presence. He also graciously makes way for a gentleman with a multi-coloured carrier bag who walks by slowly with crutches. We’re not dancing with passers-by this time because I want to keep the energy focussed, but we are welcoming them into the space. And hoping that they will welcome us into theirs. Most of them do. They are bemused or mesmerised.

Helen has a crown of yellow vine leaves around her head and looks majestic. She also walks into the space taking her time. I go up to the far end and dance right in the middle of the cars and buses coming by on both sides. Soon all 12 – we all dance 5 rhythms regularly* except for Sarah and she’s a natural risk-taker – of us are dancing, rolling, and sometimes embracing each other. Even on the dirty concrete pavement. Slowly we become less afraid that this might be a performance and more willing to really tune into one another. To truly reveal our hearts here at this moment in this unlikely place.

Sarah and Tim greet each other by placing a precious vine leaves on each other’s hearts. One gentleman stands transfixed by a bus stop. People are wondering what we’re doing but they also seem entranced in a way. They can’t take their eyes off our flowing closeness. It seems so unlikely yet at the same time seductive. Two ladies by the pound shop stare. Duncan and Tim are now bouncing off one another and then lie down with their arms around each other. Two tall men gently wrapped around each other in the middle of Harlesden. It’s beautiful.

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Another gentleman slips into our midst. He has huge, sad eyes. He leans against the traffic lights and almost drinks us in. I stand beside him unseen. I want to be near him but not to overwhelm him. We are all taking him in indirectly. We’re with him without admitting it. We’re surging, stepping and stopping to Phil’s melody. There it is, constantly uniting us.

Jayne hugs Emily tenderly with a scarf. Caroline and I have a soft dance. Rachel leaps by. Helen is rolling over Patrick. Phill jumps up and down with Tim like young stags. Bridget twirls. And then, we stop again. The stops are almost as important as the starts. Like pauses of togetherness.

We’re in the middle of a bubble, dancing our hearts out when a police siren crescendos nearby. We hear it but somehow it doesn’t distract us. And then it happens, a woman comes by and proclaims acerbically. “How dare you impose that on us?”. Gradually, we all realise what she said. We laugh with embarrassment. We laugh as come out of the tenderness. Her comments broken up our little heartworld. But that really is life in the middle of Harlesden. And we don’t want to avoid that either.

Others come up and ask questions. They want to join in and experience that feeling of closeness. For some, it looks as though we’ve been having some kind of sensual contact. We have, but not in the way, they think. One bloke – a builder – is dying to join in. Next time…

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Dance Harlesden is coming in film format very soon.

*5 Rhythms is a dance practice created by Gabrielle Roth and there are classes all over London. You don’t have to be able to dance to do it. Just a willingness to move. More info on calltodance.com

Join Onebillionrising.org on Feb 14th and dance for a safe world for women. Initated by Eve Ensler – who wrote The Vagina Monologues – she is calling for women and men to say ‘No, now to violence against women. I’m dancing at 2pm at the London Eye in black and red.

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A BATTY NIGHT OUT AT THE WELSH HARP

ImageI found out last year that there is an annual bat walk at the Welsh Harp, and I immediately wanted to go. The idea of not having to go to the countryside, and that bats were flapping rather wonderfully right next to the A5, intrigued me. As well as the imaginings of who was going to be on this walk.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Having had cold feet at the last minute, I persuaded my son – who is as fond of British eccentrics as me – Marlon to come along.

And so at 8 45pm one Wednesday, we found ourselves in the darkness that is the evening Cool Oak Lane. I spotted a large gentleman with binoculars on the bridge and concluded wrongly that this must be Roy Beddard, our leader and avid Welsh Harp conservation expert. It wasn’t. It was Derek, a veteran birder and ‘batter’ who has been visiting the Welsh Harp since 1960. However, Roy and Derek are a bit of a comedy duo. Derek starts telling us about a birdwatcher he used to know who wore a raincoat and bicycle clips for his batting excursions. Even though he drove to the destination. “Those were the days when you had to balance your telescope on your knees and no-one carried tripods,” he smiles knowingly.

There’s an initial assessment of the night insects. “There are a lot around tonight,” says Roy. Which means it should be a good night for bats because they eat them. Apparently the common pipistrelle (our most common bat) can eat up to 3,000 insects per night. In fact seven varieties of bat have been seen at the Welsh Harp.

Gradually, a motley crew of about 12 turn up. And then, there’s the bat detector revelation. I hadn’t even considered equipment beyond the humble binoculars. But suddenly there are a gaggle of men in anoraks wielding bat detectors. They turn out to be the key ingredient of the evening. As opposed to the actual bats themselves.

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I am – no surprise here – a bat detector virgin. And intend to stay that way. We head off into the darkness and pick up the small group already on a viewing platform. They’ve already seen a common pipistrelle – the UK’s smallest bat, its body is the size of a pound coin. We make our way through the trees and I am certain I can smell wild garlic. Marlon is adamant that I can’t, and later explains that it is the man walking behind us who keeps burping up his garlicky evening meal.

As we come out into a clearing, our eyes are keenly trained on the late dusk skies. I hear a sound that I think is a woodpecker at first, it’s kind of violent knocking. Of course, it isn’t a woodpecker, it’s a bat detector picking up a noctule, one of the bigger bats.

“I’m on 45,” says Roy to another ‘batter’. This is one of the leifmotifs of the evening.

“I’m on 25,” says the other gentleman with a grey beard. The one with the garlicky breathe.

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They are talking bat frequencies, and the frequency dictates the sort of bat they will pick up. The common pip – 45, the noctule – 25.

At this point, I actually see the shadowy flicker of what I take to be a common pip. Note – I am now down with the batology. It is barely detectable against the dark moonlight. That turns out to be my sighting of the evening.

Oh, how I long for that evening last year in northern Kerala when crowds of huge fruit-eating bats flapped by us in their twilight way.

We press on down another night-drenched footpath. The woman in front of me, hangs on to her overweight partner as though she is here merely as his travelling appendage with no will of her own. We stop and stare at tall sycamore trees that may have bats abounding but we can’t see them. We are fixated by patches of the sky that might suddenly witness a battty visitor. To no avail.

There are plenty of churpings – the common pip – and low knockings – the noctule, but they are mechanical as opposed to natural. There are diversions as the detectors pick up neighbouring crickets and even someone’s keys in their pocket. Bats themselves are there obviously, but we can’t see them.

Roy is a bit of a one in his baseball cap. Derek wears one as well. The former regales us with a tale of discovery in compensation. “As recently as 1996, a new bat was discovered in this country,” Roy explains. “Scientists discovered that there were pipistrelles that operated at 55 rather than 45, and they were another sort of pip, the soprano pip. We get them here too.”

But not tonight. Well, not visibly. Although a few “I’m on 55”s can be heard amidst the 25 and 45s. It’s a funny old bat world.

We turn back. There are cars racing up the A5 nearby, a new tower of flats going up, a light that is shining far too brightly over the lake and a younger, posher man from Primrose Hill who is just back from kayaking and wildlife-visiting in Uganda.

What on earth is he doing on the Welsh Harp bat walk? “It is a bit of a poor partner,” he says jokingly, “I sometimes come bird watching down here, so I thought I’d pop over. Mostly I come if a rare bird has been seen.”

Ah, hot birds. How far would he go to see hot birds? “I’d go quite a long way,” he laughs extending the joke, “but you have to be careful because there’s a lot of scamming that that goes on in the bird world. It’s easy to be disappointed.”

Derek accompanies us down the final pathway. Has he been excited by any bird sightings recently?

“It gets harder as time goes on. I used to be excited by seeing oyster catchers but they’re  commonplace now. To be honest, I’m into orchids now,” he admits.

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He wonders if we’ve heard the urban myth about parakeets. I’d read they arrived in the 1930s but I’d always assumed they’d started multiplying in the 1980s because that is when I first noticed a flock in Syon Park. “Well, it is said,” he says in hushed tones as though he is imparting a treasured secret, “that they escaped when they were filming The Wizard of Oz.”

The others are waiting at the first viewing platform. We’ve just missed a fish owl in flight across the lake. Roy is standing still, his detector aloft. Derek makes an interesting observation. “Listen, did you hear a kind of raspberry noise, that is the pip eating an insect, they do a little loop round,” he tells us.

Now that is incredible. Experiencing a pip feeding via a frequency. Who would have thought it.

And then, he asks a brilliant question – “Do bats hear in colour?”.

I’ve no idea but if they do, does that make them synaesthetes?

I’ve learnt a lot, I tell them both, but I haven’t seen a lot!

“It’s my fault,” confesses Roy, “we should have come half an hour earlier.”

Oh well, only another year to wait.

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PATRICK OF ELMWOOD, LORD OF THE PLANTS

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Most tennis players – including me – at Elmwood Tennis Club (opened in 1898 as part of the Oxford All Souls’ dominion in Kensal Green) will have noticed the quiet, bearded man who appears with hedge cutters quite regularly and mysteriously as we attempt to send balls flying low and hard over the net. Patrick (ever reclusive, he won’t tell me his surname) ‘reigns’ over the wild flowers and trees in the amazing green space that surrounds the tennis courts. Surely, one of the unexpected wonders of West London.

Today, I’ve invited Patrick to give me a plant and tree tour. In residence – as it were – for the past fifteen years, he is ever-present and yet almost invisible. This is the day when I will try to urge him into visibility.

As we’re walking towards the Club, Sarah (the former social secretary who also runs groovy vintage online shop, mensahvintage.com) shouts across the road: “Patrick’s a legend.” And I know what she means.

I must say he sounds posh in a kind of aristo way. He could be the Marquis of Bath’s little brother but he isn’t. He admits warily to having formerly worked in ‘heritage’ as a clerk. Which seems a rather strange, lowly position for such an intelligent man. He’s probably too much of an eccentric  when it comes to employers. Which is good news for Elmwood.

ImageHe’s also a poet. As we sit down on one of the benches overlooking the tennis players in the late afternoon sun, he hands me an amusing poem, The Song of Alfred Lawn Tennison and an illustration of a horn player sitting on an emu’s back. Apparently, he has also written a children’s book.

The Song Of Alfred Lawn Tennison

Lord Tennison of yesteryear

Sat down by the Sibilantic Sea,

And he did speak of tennis there:

“Lawn tennis is,” said he,

“A game that’s played with rime-white bcll

On a straight and level court

Twixt players not too immensely tall

Nor yet absurdly short.

The spheric ball flies end to end,

Emitting soft percussant sound,

End to end in the ambient air

Some distance from the ground.

Marks are awarded fairly,

And according to the score,

One player getting sometimes less,

The other sometimes more.

And so the one who tries the most,

Nor yet betrays his natural skill.

Why, he’s the winner of the game!

Good triumphs over ill!

From tennis to philosophy

A small step to traverse.

I postulate man’s station

In an ordered universe!

The gulls boomed in that desert spot,

And the tallonned waves did cry,

But I had had a sudden thought,

“Supposing this,” said I.

Suppose one played with coloured balls

of every rainbow hue?

Or shades so intermediate

they’re almost lost to view?

“What of your model then?” he smirked.

The poet spake no more,

He faded on the sepia air

and silent fell the shore.

An awful stillness gripped the cove,

No further wave did fall.

I stooped and picked up from the shingle bright

A rime-white tennis ball.

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Why did he decide to give his valuable time to Elmwood, I wondered. “I kind of adopted the place,” he smiles, “I saw it as a bit of the country in the city. This is called Elmwood Green by the mayor’s office who have listed it as a site of importance for nature conservation, did you know?” I didn’t.

How does he see his role here? “I try to improve the biodiversity by re-introducing wild flowers into the land here. I grew up in the countryside in Herefordshire so I learnt all about them there. I’ve planted alder buckthorn here because they encourage fritillary butterflies. We have an amazing variety of butterflies and moths here. I’m rather proud of that.”

All done without any fuss. In fact, he operates so invisibly, the tennis players – if I’m anything to go by – don’t realise what this unassuming man is doing. Although I have noticed that he has tackled the privet hedges that surround the club.

“Privet is a horrible shrub,” he says unexpectedly, “you can’t compost it, it’s so poisonous. As a boy, I got to know Henry Williams who wrote Tarka The Otter. He had some strange views, notably re supporting Hitler, but he encouraged me to learn about plants.”

And off we go on our tour. There’s yellow toadflax under the hedge which I remember from walks with my grandfather in Yorkshire. It always used to grow prolifically beside the train tracks in Otley. Like petticoat frills. Delicate and intimating future pleasure.

There’s the majestic sight of verbascum which has a central stem of yellow flowers. “I can’t watch on Friday evenings when all the kids come down. The boys attack them,” says Patrick. Is that because they’re phallic? “I’d never thought of that,” he declares in a rather puritanical tone.

Then he confesses.  About the huge-leafed burdocks under the hedge.  As in the drink – dandelion and burdock. “I put them there when no-one was looking,” he laughs at his own furtiveness, “I’ve always got a few seeds in my pockets.”

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That’s what I like to hear. A man with seeds in his pockets is irresistible. Then, there’s feverfew – “listed in old herbalist books as a cure for fevers and migraines” – with their white daisy-like flowers, and yellow tansy – “a tonic for well-being” –  and the dandelion-related but nobler and taller hawks tail.  There’s something I thought was deadly nightshade but turns out to be woody nightshade, plus wild carrot and silver weed.

Then an exciting rarity. “Haresfoot clover,” declares Patrick about a bigger, hairier clover that dares to reside here.

Is it the same every year in this meadow area that is no longer mown? “No,” he says, “last year it was full of red poppies which haven’t come up at all this year.”

Less thrillingly, there are the blue, blue plastic bags brought in by foxes. And the neighbourhood dog shit which has been put in a blue plastic bag and hurled over the hedge. That is so much better than dogs shitting in the street! I don’t think so. My father had a thing about dog shit (although he would never have called it that) and I think I’m carrying it on.

The corner of this meadow triangle used to be a nightmare. Old bedsteads, the remains of the wooden shed that used to be at the end of one of the courts, any old rubbish people fancied throwing over the hedge – and the magnificent Patrick has slowly but surely (and invisibly) cleared it all away.

Has he ever observed anyone having sex or taking drugs in the grounds, I enquire provocatively? “No, never,” he says anticipating my disappointment, “I’m innocent like that, I never notice.”

Changing the subject to a more comfortable one, he points out the young chestnut tree behind me. “I noticed some kids who had these matt black conkers. Nothing like the usual ones. I managed to get one of them and plant it. This is the result,” he grins at his biodiversity cunning.

Then, there’s the sweet smelling, delicate meadow sweet, (also sewn by Patrick), the tall but not giant hog weed and the blackthorn bushes. And the pond. Patrick re-instated the pond when workers renewing the courts destroyed it. “The frogs found this area first,” he says, “then I dug a pond out.”

Whilst balls whizz back and forth, we squeeze our way down a narrow path at the back of the courts. It’s heavy with ripe, succulent blackberries. We try a few and they are almost ready. I must return with a bag. One of my playing partners, Richard, has been known to make elderflower cordial earlier in the year from the elders down here.

Patrick calls the corner next to All Souls Avenue and Buchanan Gardens, the tree corner. And there certainly are a lot. “It has awfully poor soil,” he explains, “and new trees often dry up and die. The houses opposite were bombed in the second world war and all their bricks and waste ended up being dumped here. That’s what made it such bad quality.”

I had heard that there used to be a chapel over here. “Apparently there was but I’m not sure where,” he says, “but there was a wardens’ shelter just over there, “ he says pointing at a concrete bunker that I’ve never noticed before. “Air raid wardens with rifles  and whistles would patrol the streets.”

Cherry, silver birch, plum, rowan, buddleia and elder trees abound. As do the exuberant staghorns that look as though they have strayed from Kew Gardens. With their fan-like leaves and beaky buds. Finally, we pass the noble red oak which is flamboyant in autumn like a tree bonfire.

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Our walk is coming to a close but Patrick is eager to mention a different discovery. Neither plant nor tree, this is the British 19th century composer, Algernon Ashton. Classic music is not one of my strong points but Patrick is obviously impassioned. Algernon brings the sparkle to his eye even more than those burdock seeds that he sneaked in.

“His music never received public performance in his lifetime,” he explains, “I want to change that. He lived in Maida Vale.” Patrick seems to have been inspired by an article he read online, which was originally written in 1912. Single-handedly, Patrick is attempting to bring Ashton back into the public eye.

“His work has been scattered to the winds,” he explains, “ I’ve had to search libraries for the individual scores. His work is very English. It has wonderful melodies, some of which are actually based on street sellers’ cries. A Parisian chamber music group have actually recorded some of his work now and there is a demo CD. I’m gradually listing all his compositions. Sadly, all his diaries except for one perished in a house fire but I managed to meet someone who had the remaining one and in it, Ashton wrote about the creation of the Second Piano Trio which happens to the one I’m really interested in. That seemed a strange bit of synchronicity. Now you can actually find his music in record shops.”

Patrick has also found Ashton’s grave in the Old Paddington Cemetery. He wrote a melody called Buy My Lavender so it is no surprise that the ever-sensitive Patrick has planted lavender there. That’s the sort of man he is.

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THE MAN WHO SHOCKED TONY BLAIR

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David Lawley Wakelin – film maker, protester about the war in Iraq – is a local hero. Depending on your viewpoint, obviously. He managed to find an  unguarded back entrance to the Leveson Inquiry – Lord Leveson was appalled at the slack security – simply walked in and accused Blair not only of being a war criminal but also of being paid off by the investment bank JP Morgan where he is an advisor on an annual salary of £2.5 million. Blair was rattled, he even felt he had to give a public response where he claimed never to have had that conversation with JP Morgan. David was scuffled to the ground and arrested. He had his say though…

David used to live in Harlesden with his family until he and his wife split up. Now he visits his two children up here several times a week. From Portobello Road. On his bike. Today I’ve arranged to meet him at Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown cafe by the Jubilee Clock but in the turbulent, ever-changing shop scenario – it’s the recession and they have to pay the rent – it has already transformed into a mobile phone and plastic fabric shop. So we make our way to O Tamariz, my favourite Portuguese cafe instead.

“It’s still relentlessly grim,” says David looking at the Welsh Working Men’s Club and then the decaying 60s brutally brutalist architecture along Library Parade. I point out that at least Harlesden is still gritty unlike Portobello Road which has become investment banker-friendly bland. He concedes half-heartedly.

What did his children, 11 and 13, make of his protest? “Well, I think they were a bit embarrassed,” he explains, “but my son must have been a little proud because he took the Guardian with the report about it, into school the next day.”

David is speedy. He’s already onto the next subject whilst I’m lingering on the last one. He moves verbally and thought-wise like a bat at dusk flickering across the sky in sharp angles. He’s also boyish at 49, has a shock of sandy hair and a passion for his mission to make Blair take responsibility for his actions.

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He’s full of regrets about that day. “I should have made a citizen’s arrest on Blair,” he sighs, “and I should have gone back and stood in front of the cameras afterwards. But I was emotionally and mentally exhausted.” One cannot underestimate the exhaustion of such a singular act carried out by a single person. No group back up. Just him and his lonely determination.

I love it when he admits that he phoned his mother at one point to see if she would approve of his actions. “I realised the night before that Blair was on the next day,” he says, “so I decided to go down there. I didn’t have ticket for the front door but I quickly realised that there must by another entrance where the participants come in. I went down some stairs, crossed a courtyard, went upstairs and found a door which was completely unguarded. For a moment, I lost courage, went downstairs, phoned my mum to see what she thought, she was fully behind me doing it. So I went back up the stairs and into the Inquiry. I didn’t actually look at Blair because I needed to focus on what I was saying, but I wish I had. I don’t think he can leave home these days without someone accosting him about the war in Iraq. I don’t mean because of me, I just mean that’s how people feel.“

Why did he get so angry personally about the war in Iraq? “I wasn’t working,” he says, “and I had time to reflect. When I was 19, I backpacked across all those countries like Iraq and I realised that that just would not be possible for my own children. That made me incredibly incensed. I also thought early on before the war had started, that the weapons of mass destruction was all lies. Blair is deluded by his religious beliefs, he’s as deluded as the dictators that he denunciates.”

In 2010, David went to Iraq – he wanted to ask ordinary Iraqis if they thought Blair should be indicted as a war criminal. “Ninety percent agreed that the war was about business, about construction companies and pharmaceutical companies making money from it,” he says. “It was tough being there for three months, it’s a poor country and people are not very friendly. There’s a lot of negative energy there, not surprisingly. I felt fearful but I had to challenge that fear and get over it. There are babies being born deformed in Faluja because of the effect of the fall out from depleted uranium in the bombs. In the end, the Iranian TV station Press TV bought the film and showed it there, and I  showed it at the Frontline Club off  Westbourne Grove.”

Since then, he has made similarly questioning films in Bahrain and the Yemen. “I stood up in Bahrain’s Parliament and questioned an MP about the massacre of fifty people there,” he says proving that he’s not just a protester in the UK, “that’s the sort of question that the people there would be too scared to ask. I really liked the people in the Yemen and would like to go back there. I’d also like to make a Tell The Truth About Afghanistan film to find out whether Karzai is a puppet and to examine why we really went there.”

At this point, I bring the conversation back to Harlesden. Does he use its resources at all? “I used to take my kids to the library in order to research their homework. I once bumped into Louis Theroux in one  of the kebab shops. Does that count?”

No, definitely not. We finally leave O Tamariz and it starts to rain. David is towering over me. “You could call me Lord Haw Haw of  Harlesden,” he jokes as we wander down Craven Park Road.

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And then I spot the falling-part-not-in-a-good-way drinking club, Steps. It’s got this terrifying rough exterior with hints of past grandeur. So far on these walks, I’ve been too much of a pussy to cross the threshold. Fearing a totally male presence. But it strikes me instantaneously that here I am with a man who regularly films in places like Iraq. Surely, I’m being presented with ideal situation to actually go there.

David calmly takes up the challenge. It’s 11 am and the front door opens into a black hole. Sorry, no I mean it opens into a cavernous bar of the 1960s bare basics’ tradition. Polystyrene tiles on the roof and little cohorts of men imbibing beer. This is a bit like my worst nightmare at this time in the morning, or at another time in the evening.

Both David and I burst into journalistic inquisitiveness as a response. “How long has this club been here?” we ask the barman who is taciturn to say the least. He doesn’t know. We order orange juice and water. Strangers in a strange land.

And then a man with a barrel-like, distorted body comes across and asks David for money to put in the jukebox. “For the wife,” he declares. We don’t correct him, we just wonder non-trustingly if the money is going in his pocket.

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“I wish I were a punk rocker with flowers in my hair,” laments Sandi Thom from the jukebox. I have got flowers in my hair. I guess I am a bit of an old punk rocker. In certain ways. That is so sweet. An act of magnificent kindness performed by a drunken man who I would probably avoid in the street. Scared that something untoward would happen. And here he is playing a song just for me on the Steps jukebox.

This is one of those rare human kindness in the most unexpected place moments. I am moved. And smiling.

Before David gets back on his bike, he asks me one question. “Do you agree with me?” he asks. “Do you think Blair is a war criminal.” I do. “I think most of the country agrees,” he says.

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