This was going to be a search for air raid shelters with novelist, Nick Barlay. He flunked out – a water pipe problem. Anyway, I was pissed off because he cancelled twice. Sunday, as well. I hate people who cancel. He walked the London section of the A5 for Time Out, I thought I’d get a few tips from him. Sod him, I’ll go on my own.
In the meantime, I’d been looking at an 1830s map of Harlesden, which had various more recent buildings added on. I tried to imagine where the Willesden Hippodrome – Theatre which opened grandly in 1907 – would have been. I knew it wasn’t there anymore but where had it been? I decided to refrain from consulting the internet, and try to find someone who knew. By talking to them. Novel, I know.
The Willesden/Harlesden thang is going to be eternally confusing. Harlesden used to be in the borough of Willesden (before Brent was created in 1965 and absorbed them both) hence a variety of theatre and station location confusions endure. Willesden Junction – you may not realise – is actually in Harlesden. The same with the Willesden Hippodrome. Except it doesn’t actually exist anymore. However, when it did – it was in Willesden, but now it doesn’t, its absence is in Harlesden.
Outside, the puddles have iced over, a light glaze. The skies are grey-feathered. I stand at the end of my road (is it in Kensal Green or Harlesden or Willesden?) and mull over the idea of hanging out there one day and just chatting to people about Harlesden. Three gangly young men pass me talking animatedly in Arabic.
I cross over Wrottesley Rd (on that 1830s map, it’s a marginal presence in one corner, but you can see the trees lining it, and I know it was the leafy, muddy, privately owned Green Lane at the time) and pass Leah’s flat. Before Xmas, I went on a search for Leah and found her – on Valentine’s 2009, her boyfriend stencilled our pavements with amazing heart words to her, like concrete poetry – by putting a poster up on nearby trees. Who is Leah? A writer wants to know. The wrong Leah rang, but eventually the right one rang too. Sadly, we’ve yet to meet up. I want to hear her love story. In the last text, she said she’d had a tough Xmas. I hope to get hold of her soon.
On my way to find the site of Willesden Hippodrome, I suddenly decide that I’m going to talk to people. Have conversations. Interact with strangers. I want these walks to be happenings too! Ask them what they think of Harlesden. I’m on Ancona Rd and a young man is approaching me with headphones. I ask him if I can ask him a few questions. He’s very willing. Turns out he lives in Doyle Gardens with his parents. Doyle Gardens is in Willesden postcode-wise, Kensal Green if you’re flat-hunting, and Harlesden, if you live there. He’s 24 and a police officer. The first person I encounter is a young, out of uniform policeman! In Hillingdon, he says, where it’s more affluent and easier than here. He smiles a lot. An easy smile. “My mum came over from Kenya when she was three,” he says, “my dad is Indian.”
Rav did a degree in politics and joined the police when he was 21. Loves it. How strange, I think, I would never have imagined students of politics joining the police. More the opposite. More the protesters. Maybe that says something about the contents and lecturers of politics these days. He says in the reserve TSG – the territorial support group or riot police. He seems quite liberal though, he claims he would like to see them open up their methods to public debate. “We’ve been issued with embroidered numbers now for our epaulettes,” he says innocently revealing the results of the furore around Ian Tomlinson’s death during the G20 protests, the officer who pushed him over was not wearing an identification number. The video footage filmed by an American hedge fund investor visiting London – showed this state of police undress very clearly. And apparently the ensuing publicity has had an effect. Embroidered numbers, which can’t ‘fall off’. I check later with the Met press office and it’s true.
What does he think of Harlesden? “I think it still needs more money investing here. My police friends who work here have to deal with gun crime all the time and even talking to someone at night is difficult, they have to have a few cars come out together because the threat of possible aggression is so great.”
Who will he vote for in the election? “I think I’ll be voting for Cameron,” he mutters, ”we need a change. People are worried about immigration and I think that will come out as we get nearer to the election date. The BNP have already started the debate.” Did he watch Nick Griffin on Question Time? “Yes, he was awful,” he says. It’s a relief to hear him say that. “Did you know they’re changing the boundaries in Brent, basically it will be the Labour MP, Dawn Butler who is at present in Brent South, up against the Lib Dem MP, Sarah Teather who is in Brent East at present.” I didn’t know this. I like Sarah Teather, I say. Because every time I see her on Question Time, she is so well informed and sensible. He agrees. “Yes, she’s a great local MP, she comes and talks at the Willesden HinduTemple. She even knows some Gujerati. I like her because she travels by bus too and walks around the constituency.”
“Oh, I think I will vote for Sarah,” he says finally. Phew, that was a turn-around. Lib Dems – you need me on the streets.
Ah, I pass the wall that still has ‘I love u Leah. With all my heart.’ stencilled on it. I’m envious. When’s someone going to do that for me. And then, The Rebirth Tabernacle. I’m determined to visit one of their services at a later date. As part of my church visiting. Then, there’s the green, very green Max’s Barber shop where Rav had just had his hair cut.
Before I know it, I’m walking next to a woman who is wearing a cream scarf over her head and limping. I ask her if she lives in Harlesden? She has got an incredibly open, gorgeous face. “I do,” she answers. “I’m in Ridley Rd with my two daughters. My son has left home for University.” Amran is from Somalia and has been here for 15 years.
What does she think of Harlesden? “When I was first here, my sister lived in central Harlesden,” she says, “and you didn’t dare go out at night. It was violent. But now I go out at 1am sometimes on a Saturday. I’ll go down to Sam’s on the high street and have some chicken. It feels safe. There are more police out on foot now.” At this moment, I’m amazed – I can’t imagine Amran in Sam’s chicken shop at one o’clock in the morning. To be honest, it does seem like a weird place to want to go. All strip lighting and harshness. But now I’m showing just how Kensal Green, I am.
Does she feel welcomed by us, the British? “Yes, I do. My husband was killed in Somalia when my youngest daughter was only 2, she’s 17 now, and I’m 44.” Here we are standing in Harlesden High Street and I can’t help myself asking – what about other Somali men? Fortunately, she laughs (she’s got a robust one) and responds: “It’s difficult. They might go back and get killed. And if I ask which tribe they’re from, it sounds as though I want to marry them. It’s worse in Somalia now than it was 15 years ago. It is a country that is being torn apart. I have family there who are just waiting to die. We women are strong, we’re the ones who are left to suffer, but we’re also the ones who stand up and say ‘No More.’ ”
Oh, she is so warm and open. I can’t believe how trusting she is. We’ve walked up to Harlesden House now, which is where the Job Centre is, and a number 18 bus approaches. ‘I have to get it, she says. Do you work? I ask. “I can’t,” she replies, “I have kidney failure. I’m on my way to an appointment now.”
At this juncture, I decide to walk back down the road again and see if I can find anyone who’s heard of the Willesden Hippodrome as I know it used to be somewhere near here. I see a man with grey hair who has the inherently exhausted look of someone who’s worked at this Furniture Contractor’s for a long time. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” he sighs in an Irish accent, “but I don’t know it. Let’s ask my colleagues.” It was built in 1907, I say. No, nobody has a clue about it here.
I cross the road, wander over to the top of the stairs that run down to the long walkway leading to Willesden Junction which opened in 1866. It’s one of those urban moments. I stand – I never stop here ever because I’m always in the momentum of being on my way to somewhere – and gaze across the vast tangle of railway lines, and the open skyline marked with cooling towers, and now clichéd graffiti tags. Fresh, Snag. I feel a tap on my back and look round to see Sue, a parent who has a daughter, Eileen who went to the same schools, primary and secondary, as my son, Marlon. I haven’t seen her for years. In fact, she’s a poet, who’s wonderfully eccentric and the last time I saw her she was pasting pages of Mrs Beeton’s cookbook on her ceiling. So what is she doing is this uber-normal blankety green jacket, wielding a strange machine with numbers on it?
“I’ve become a gas-meter reader,” she exclaims, “in fact, I was just reading the meter at the used car lot when I heard a woman’s voice politely asked about the availability of Somali men in this area. I didn’t realise it was you, but then I recognised your style.” We discuss the rather wonderful view from these steps at Willesden Junction. The sheer industrial openness of it. Of course, her daughter, aged 21, Eileen, has just bought a puppy – they went to the Isle of Sheppey (yes, the isle of Sheppey) last night to get it – spent all night in bed with it, so she hasn’t slept. I tell her what I’m doing with this project, and she says how much she loves beachcombing.
Beachcombing? I realise she’s talking about streetcombing. Which includes going down into strange little basements. That’s it, I’m convinced that she will be a fantastic person to walk with in Harlesden. I promise to ring her very soon.
I walk back up Harlesden High St, past Jet Set, a nightclub that is presently moribund. Except for Friday and Saturday at 2am when incredible queues snake down the road. In 2008, a Portuguese DJ was shot trying to sort out an argument. By a 17 year old. The DJ still needs round-the-clock care. It’s the kind of tragedy that Harlesden is too known for.
I walk past the Café Brazil, and closed down nightclub, The Lodge. It was groovy for a year a two, but couldn’t keep going. It’s looking very abandoned now with a closure notice pinned to the door. I have recently realised it must have been called The Lodge because in the 19th century, The Grange Lodge was nearby. A little further up, I look across the road, and there is Harlesden House, an ugly1960s brick building. It’s a Job Centre Plus now, but I can imagine the Edwardian Willesden Hippodrome being there. Was it, I wonder?
Now I’m looking for some more people to ask. I see a couple of older men, but they start speaking what sounds like Polish. Then, I see a grey-haired, bespectacled woman coming towards me. She could have lived here a long time? I ask her. “I came here, she indicates a flat at 150 Harlesden High St, just after I got married in 1969 and have been here ever since. My husband was Irish, he used to get up at 5am and travel around.”
Perfect. Does she know where Willesden Hippodrome was? “Yes,” she says faltering, “it was down there on the left, next to the bus stop. It’s a block of flats now.” That’s strange, I think, because that’s not the side of the road I’ve seen it marked on a map. But she is certain, so I try to believe her. I walk down and there is Paddy Power, the bookmaker’s with what turns out to be newbuild block of flats above it. Deeply unattractive and too small, I would have thought for such a big theatre. However, I’ve never been into a betting shop. I push open the door. All men.
I go up to the bloke in the green clothes (yes, it’s all part of Paddy’s Power) and ask him. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t know. He tells me to go and ask some of the old-time locals. A big man with a grey beard and a Rasta hat, another more Chinese-looking Jamaican and their friends. “No, I think it used to be a wine bar,” says the Chinese-looking Jamaican.
“Why do you want to know,” says the big man with the Rasta hat who turns out to be called Charlie, he’s rather good-looking with a lot of flirty sparkle. Forget, the Hippodrome. I think he might be a good lead for one of my future walks. What does he know about dancehall? Harlesden has always been big on reggae. “We used to go to Burtons in Cricklewood,” he says, “but mostly to private shabeens. I know who can help you, Roy at Hawkeye Records up the road, tell him I sent you.”
I say it’s the first time I’ve been inside a betting shop. “You’d better leave,” he roars with several twinkles, “you might get tempted.”
At home afterwards
Internet research – I look up the address of the old Willesden Hippodrome, it’s 161-163 High Street Harlesden. Ah ha, Paddy Power is at 120. My hunch was right, it’s not same place. There’s a piece in Cinema Treasures that has a picture of it – it’s huge and so grand. Wow, the photo (used at the beginning of this post) shows a different Harlesden – lots of ladies and gentlemen in their finery. It had 3,000 seats. It was when Harlesden was posh at the turn of the 19th century. Built in 1907, it was where Harlesden House is now, the home of e Job Centre Plus. The Willesden Hippodrome was opened by one Walter Gibbons as a music hall/variety theatre. Designed by the most prolific turn of the century theatre architect, Frank Matcham, (I just went to Blackpool and he designed the Grand Theatre and the Tower ballroom) it had a 30 feet stage and 8 dressing rooms! In1927 became a cine/variety theatre. It was closed in 1930 and taken over by ABC and opened as a cinema until 1938. Then it finally re-opened as music hall/variety theatre but was bombed and destroyed in 1940 by German bombs.
For many years, it was a bombsite. Former resident, Roger Hooton remembers “As a kid I broke my arm when I swung from a rope on this bombsite.”
And what was on the site of Paddy Power? Harlesden Cinema Theatre opened in 1911, turned into Grand Cinema in 1928, and re-opened with an art deco façade. It closed in 1957 and was converted into an Irish dancehall. Later it became a nightclub called Top 32 Club, then Angies. Lastly, it was a snooker club. Finally, it was demolished in 2003 and rebuilt in 2008 to contain Paddy Power and those flats!