Monthly Archives: March 2010

BEING AMUSED BY SCOUSE RACONTEUR, ALEXEI SAYLE

Ah, punctuality. Alexei – comedian and actor formerly of ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor’ fame but now acclaimed author, latest novel, Mr Roberts – is ascending the steps at Willesden Junction just as I arrive at the top from the other direction. Excellent timing.

I’d invited him to walk with me because I’d read a piece he’d written declaring that he writes in the morning, and then takes a bus or train to an unknown destination, and walks home to Bloomsbury. I thought I’d divert him to Harlesden for the afternoon.

White bearded, almost benign-looking and smaller than I imagined – I tell him later about this unexpected lack of height, to which he quips; “Oh people usually think I’m not as fat as they expect.” – I give him the choice of right along the High St into Harlesden or left and down Scrubs Lane, then along the Great Union Canal before turning right towards the main drag. “I do want to experience Harlesden,” he says, “but it would be good to see a bit of urban countryside first.”

I’d read somewhere that he was going on tour again as a stand-up? “No, that was a mistake,” he says huffing as opposed to puffing, “I’m doing a reading of my new memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework, which comes out in September and a Q & A at the South Bank in summer. That’s what the papers should have said. It was actually selling better before that stand-up stuff came out.” That’s a good sign, I suggest, in terms of his more recent career as a novelist. I guess that he gives a good reading – unlike the majority of writers who are, of course, not performers. “Yeah, I always say to them, just because this has been good, don’t expect others to be. They’ll be shit.” Ever bolshie funny – the Scouse thang. He sets the tone for this walk.

On the right, at the start of Scrubs Lane, I laughingly point out an ugly office block that calls itself somewhat hopefully the Chandelier Building. “Yeah, it reminds me of another hideous building in Camden which called itself The Red Lobster,” he observes, “and helpfully they put a picture of a red lobster on the side, as if that could remove the ugliness.”

How many copies of Mr Roberts has he sold, I wonder. “Twenty thousand,” he says, “I’m a better writer than people think. My short story collection Barcelona Plates that came out ten years ago, has sold over 75,000 copies, that’s the biggest selling short story collection in the world. And still the Guardian don’t ask me to write any fiction for them.” Has anyone told them, I say. Remember, the Guardian is edited by 30 somethings, they probably don’t know who you are. “No, probably no-one has. But I’m not sure I can be arsed. My previous career helps with my profile but I think it does prevent me being taken seriously. I haven’t even been longlisted for any of the literary awards.”

Fortunately, we’re walking slowly. I was a little afraid – I’d been playing too much tennis and am aching – beforehand that Alexei was going to be a hearty walker but he’s limping slightly and more of a flaneur today. Having spotted across the road the incredibly kitsch Cornices Centre, which boasts some gorgeously garish objects like a huge cartoon rabbit licking a multi-coloured ice-cream. It could be Jeff Koons but it’s not quite shiny enough. We’ve reached the canal bridge and Golbourne Road’s iconic Trellick Tower – built as social housing in the 1960s – looks mystifyingly close. “I had a camp mate at Chelsea School of Art,” says Alexei revealing his arty past, “ who named it Clockwork Orange Towers which seemed just right at the time.” Trellick Tower is an architectural wonder to some. Not to Alexei or me. It was designed by legendary architect, Ernio Goldfinger. But I did visit this Xmas to visit my friend Amanda’s mother, and the view from the 20th floor is spectacular.

Is the satirically inclined Stalin Ate My Homework about growing up – he’s  Lithuanian Jewish and both his parents were members of the Communist Party – in Liverpool during the 50s and 60s? “It covers from 1947 when my parents met,” he says as we find the towpath going east, “ to the end of the 60s when I was 17. It’s a heterosexual, Communist, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.” Mmm, just what I would expect from him.

As he utters the word ‘Communist’, a cyclist in a high-visibility jacket suddenly looms towards us, his eyes twinkling crazily. He stares us at both meaningfully and announces cheerily ‘God Loves You’. He couldn’t have chosen a better juncture. We burst out laughing at the synchronicity of it all. Well, that’s what I’m laughing at.

Oh, it’s peaceful down here. The willows are in bud. A couple of locksy young men with a dog and a canal boat are relaxing and enjoying the first signs of Spring. The warmth. The relief at being able to ‘be’ outside.

But I’m off again. This is turning into a walk interview. Are you a single child? It suddenly occurs to me in an intuitive manner that he must be. Working class and doted on – a recipe for success. “Yeah, he says. “my mum was 37 and dad 43 when they had me.” His mother is still alive and mentally alert in Liverpool. “She’s 94,” he guffaws, “and lives in a house bought by her son. Does she ever say ‘thank you’? I did a reading from the memoir in Crosby not long ago, she came along in her wheelchair and heckled. ‘Lies, lies’ she shouted.”

We’ve jumped onto a stone bench and are looking over a wall at the railway lines beyond. “My dad was a railway worker,” he says. “Which line is this?” The one that goes to Paddington. “Oh, I think the Eurostar maintenance yard is over there, near Northpole Road where I filmed a TV film called Sorry About Last Night.” I check later and he’s right but it’s not used by Eurostar any longer.

I’ve just heard that a high-speed link to the north is coming to near here in 2020, I say. He obviously doesn’t believe me. No, I have, I say, Harlesden is going to be the new Kings Cross.

There’s silver birch grove to our left. Silver birches, I love their grace. They’re my favourite trees. “I find them sinister,” says Alexei shocking me, “there’s a hunting plain where they grow, near my house in a village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, near Granada. They’re spooky.”

I can’t agree with that. For me, they’re more like delicate filigree lace than furtive strangers.  Tangentially and somewhat provocatively, I mention his marriage as being one of the longest in showbiz.  He’s been married to Linda since 1974, that’s 36 years. I’m agog in admiration! But Alexei immediately looks very uncomfortable at the mention of his personal life. So we divert again to the break up of Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes. “I know I was shocked,” he says as if he knows them.

Is there anywhere decent to get a cup of coffee in Harlesden, he wants to know. Like Star Bucks? No, there’s no Star Bucks. Long-term Marxist and strident non-conformist that he is, he comes out in defence of Star Bucks. “I think people like (leftwing comedian) Mark Thomas whinge too much, at least they make an ok cup of coffee available to more people. I don’t like it when people can’t admit what’s good about capitalism as well as what’s bad.”

We stumble across some drinkers’ detritus. Alexei wanders over and examines the Lech lager can. “I hate it when street drinkers are so untidy,” he protests, “they should have to put a deposit down on the cans.” As we leave the canal, there’s an office building on Oak Lane that is derelict, almost every window is broken and it stands in an ocean of litter. “Good, good,” he mumbles meaning the faster this terrible architecture is falls down, the better.”

We’re at the railway cottages (I visited with Nick Barlay on my fourth walk) and Alexei remembers filming in some similar ones. “They replicated houses up north in the 70s,” he says, “because they didn’t have double glazing or central heating.” I tell him about my recent discover. That the 60s sitcom The Likely Lads was filmed at Willesden Junction. “Exactly, what I mean,” he says.

“Look at that guerrilla gardening,” he says pointing down a communal alleyway full of yuccas. The community have got together there. It’s like that Heaven 17 song ‘We don’t need no fascist government…’

I have to admit there is a subtext to our conversation, which revolves around the 80s. I was a pop n’rock journalist for music paper, Sounds – better known for its Iron Maiden interviews than its Flock of Seagulls’ ones and guess who did the latter? – as well as seminal style magazine, The Face. Alexei wants to know if I enjoyed being able to make or break bands? I assure him that I personally did not have that kind of power. But there were those critical reviews and confrontational interviews. Not only did Frankie Goes To Hollywood pelt me with bread rolls for giving them a bad review, I got into a heated spat with the Stranglers who were provocative lads. Those were the days when journalists were expected to be opinionated and go for the jugular. Oh, those were the days, I say. Before the ubiquitous caution and PR protection.

I make a remark about his limp that I’ve been noticing for some time. “I’ve done my back in,” he admits, “I attacked the gym work outs and I’ve overdone it. I’m trying to lose a couple of stone.”

And then he asks an absurd question. One, which reveals his profound ignorance about Harlesden.

Isn’t there an organic deli where we can get a cup of coffee, he asks. I smile not only at the ludicrous nature of the question, but also because I was intending to take him to one of the Irish pubs up the road.

Alexei, it has to be said, has an interest in history and architecture in a surprisingly erudite way. As we stand at the corner of Acton Lane, he looks at All Souls Church and declares: “This Church of England one is gothic revival,” he says then turns to look up to the left, “but look at the Catholic one, it reminds me of the Tate Modern, of the power station. It’s industrial bleak and I think the Catholics could have borrowed that aesthetic.” I hadn’t thought of that, but he could well be right.

Somehow I feel a compelling urge to change the tone, and show him Wrights, my favourite Harlesden shop. We stand in front of the racy lingerie window and I hear myself saying brazenly: ”Do you think Linda would fancy anything from here?” Alexei is unusually quiet. I’ve done it again. I’ve stepped into overly personal territory. Deliberately. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that he’s embarrassed. And then, I can’t stop. Don’t want to. I find myself babbling about the sexy pirate outfits from Italy. Patently, Alexei does not do sex in public.

Or public houses in private. The Shawl is festooned in orange and green balloons. We go in. Faces are fixed on the TV racing. There’s the pervasive stench of Guinness. I run out of the door. He stares at me. Not that he wanted to stay. “Oh, the breath of death,” I find myself announcing. Next I try The Coliseum. “Do I have to come?” asks Alexei firmly weighing in against the pervasive mid-afternoon state of alcoholic stupor. I have to give up. The strains of ‘She died giving birth’ waft out of the drinking hall and I smile wryly.

Finally, we find welcome solace in the empty Os Amigos. My local Portuguese eaterie. Musician and Harlesden dweller, KT Tunstall’s favourite local restaurant. I comment that no-one seems to have recognised Alexei today. Is he surprised? “Sometimes people say ‘Hello’, but Liverpool is really the place where I’m still up there,” he says smiling. At this point, he launches into a complex story about his fascination with flying business class, having a column in the Daily Mirror during the 90s which was read by 8 million people, and the dedicated band of airline seat aficionados who not only take photos of these seats, they chat about them online. His point is being that more of them chat about seats, than post comments on his website. From 8 million to 20. “But does it matter?” he intones in half-funny tones.

One of Alexei’s core theories is that we’re all a mass of contradictions and we should be allowed to inhabit all of them fully. This is one of them. He’s a Marxist and he also loves flying business class and looking at photos of first class airline seats on the internet. Tony Blair, he reckons, needs psychotherapeutic treatment for his inability to own up to his internal contradictions. “And that is really is corrupt,” he says emphatic as ever.

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THE IRREPRESSIBLE FORCE THAT IS LABOUR MP, DAWN BUTLER

It’s raining, it’s 2pm, and I’m sheltering in the doorway of fruit machine-heaven, Casino, and I’m wondering whether local Labour MP, (the countdown is running to the election now) Dawn Butler will turn up? On her website, it says she was the first ever black woman to be elected to a British Government. Yes, but will she keep her word to walk round Harlesden with a woman she’s never met before?

I decide I’d better put myself in a more obvious position, and stand next to that landmark, the Jubilee clock which is has its own little paved area – often home to the Nation of Islam* or Jesus choirs – in the midst of a triangle of oncoming traffic. I feel somehow vulnerable, even though no-one is taking any notice of me. It is a place for performance. Instead I stare at the its date of completion – 1888 – and wonder at this arts and crafty tribute to Queen Victoria and how it’s found itself in 2010 in the heart of such a wild mixture of peoples. What a paradox, this clock, a delicately crafted acknowledgement of Vic’s successful colonialising, ends up in the middle of Harlesden, a new colony of poverty, often from the old colonised nations. They’ve just geographically shifted.

I hear a hearty voice next to me. Ah ha, Dawn has arrived. Has she brought a flunkie? No, Mat, who has come along too and is wielding a camera and carrying a host of Dawn (sorry, local Labour Party) newsletters, is a volunteer helper. This walk, of course, is a pre-election walk. And Dawn is no-shrinking violet. In fact, I was planning to take her to the new housing estates around Church Rd and talk to her about that area. Difficult but changing. But from the offset, it’s obvious that this is a High St walkabout. The electoral boundaries are changing – at the moment, there is a Brent East and a Brent South, they will become Brent Central – are changing at this election, which means Dawn (who is a present, MP for Brent South) is up against  local Lib-Dem MP, Sarah Teather (who is at present MP for Brent East). And Dawn does have a fight on her hands, because Sarah is a very popular, committed MP.

Not that you would know it today. Dawn doles out a newsletter to the Somalis at an internet shop with unforced jollity. One of the local beggars asks for a pound. I gave the same man some money last week. I gave it because I felt disturbed by him and didn’t know what else to do. He looks as though he’s a crackhead, but I’m not an expert. Dawn vacillates, and then gives him a pound coin. This is where I start to like her. She doesn’t automatically give him money because I’m there, to look good. No, she almost doesn’t give him anything, then she changes her mind. I find that more directness more appealing, than robotic goodwill. “My mindset is that I’d rather give people like that something to eat or drink,” she says.

The next moment we’re popping round the back of a fish shop. “There was a resident dispute that I got involved in,” she says, “the resident was complaining about the smelly mess in the passageway.” Lo and behold, it is tidy. Not a hint of a red snapper in sight. Does she eat much fish, I wonder? People in Harlesden eat a lot of fish. “I always eat a lot of sprats at Easter,” she says.

I ask her if she knows anything about the boarded up Park House that apparently used to be the Job Exchange. Not the Job Centre Plus, that’s much later and down the road. And whether it’s squatted? “I’m very involved with getting Brent to release more empty property for housing,” she says more on politico track, “they’ve only released 100 properties so far.”

Hawkeye Enterprises – winningly both a record shop and a bakers – is a legend in Harlesden. Dawn knows the bloke who owns it – this is the same person that Charlie(who I met on the first walk at Paddy Power) had recommended that I search out if I wanted to know about dancehall – and calls him ‘Dr’ but he’s not around today. But his mate is. He decides to give a Dawn a hard time. “I asked my niece, 20, and nephew, 18, whether they are going to vote,” he says, “but who are they going to vote for. Politics, it’s a disgrace.” Not that Dawn is one tiny bit daunted. “Get lost,” she declares with a laugh.

No, she’s already telling me how fantastic JJ’s winebar is over the road, how they grow their own vegetables out the back and how they help young people out with different projects. That’s something I love about Harlesden. Whilst the rest of London is heavily into brasserie and gastro-pub territory, Harlesden actually thinks it’s being a little adventurous with a winebar. And, in a way, it is. By bucking any trends altogether.

A 20something DJ stops to have a word. Does she know any youth projects he can get involved with? She does and tells him to email her. Next, she’s chatting to an elderly Somali gentleman. “We need to campaign in the Somali community because so many people are not registered to vote,” she says. He agrees.

Before I know it, she’s whisked us into Lords Shoe shop. Another famed Harlesden retail outlet. Dawn spots a pair of high-heeled, silver, padded boots. “Perfect campaign shoes,” she opines. Another shopper expresses her doubts about their lack of conventionality and the effects on the voters. “In Brent, we don’t do straight,” guffaws Dawn in recognisable Butler style. The shopper sells properties on the recently refurbished Stonebridge estate. How much is a two bedroom flat there now? £200,000. “Not long ago, you couldn’t give them away,” says Dawn.

Apparently local resident, Louis Theroux was out on the streets the other day promoting a Brent Council ‘Support Your Local Shops’ campaign by handing out their hessian bags. But I haven’t managed to persuade him to walk with me yet. I will. I will.

An ex-nurse – says she’s 67, she looks in her 50s – declares herself disgusted that Harlesden shops are all open on Sundays. “It’s all changed,” she says to Dawn, “years ago, they all closed at 5pm. It upsets me. Sunday should be our day of rest. Of course, Harlesden is wonderfully vibrant, it always has been.”

But here we are in Miracle Fashions, and Dawn has been drawn magnetically towards a orange and green matching pair of shoes and bag in colourful Kente material. Only £45 for both. “Wicked,” she says as she tries them on. Dawn definitely has a shoe thing going on. But being Dawn, she totally unabashed about it. She wants a pair for her mother too. “I won’t get her flowers, I buy her these shoes, she’ll love them. I’m supporting local businesses,” enthuses Ms Butler. The shop owner is delighted. She wants to have her picture taken with Dawn. For the wall.

We pop into BASES (Brent Adult &Children’s Education Service) which is being closed down and moved across the road to the new library. The receptionist wants to know what is happening about the number 18 bendy buses. “They’ll soon turn into double deckers,” says Dawn. “I hope they’ll put more on,” says the receptionist. One of Boris’ electioneering pledges was to get rid of the bendy buses. Of course, this is a ridiculous waste of money. Now everyone has got used to the bendy bus. Dawn agrees with me.

The new library – it will be officially opened tomorrow by the mayor – is a triumph. I’m not sure it has that many books, but certainly has lots of entertainment.  Re-designed, refurbished, modernised – it’s a brilliant new public facility for Harlesden. Big windows, flat screens, light lecture rooms – we have a quick look but I’ll return tomorrow for the grand event itself. Of course, Dawn will be there.

The last leg of our High Street tour consists of Dawn popping in on a few old friends. Like Mr Chaudrai who runs Zak’s Shoe Service. “It’s one of the only places in London where you can actually come and get your shoes mended still,” she says. An old Jamaican gent extols the virtues of Harlesden past. “It was so clean when I came in 1960,” he says, “all the shops and streets, you could lie down on them. Look at them now. It was mostly Jamaicans and Irish here back then. You’d have notices in Willesden newsagents saying ‘No blacks, No Irish and No dogs’”.

Next is Aston Insurance where I discover the owner has been there for 26 years. He even went to Capitol City Academy down the road in Willesden when it was a grammar school. He says Harlesden is a very friendly place. Does he know when M&S left? “1984,” I think, “there was too much stealing going on.” And where was the horsemeat shop? Dawn is horrified. “There was a horsemeat shop here, I didn’t realise we used to eat it,” she says. No, he doesn’t know. Sadly.

I don’t know when Jesse Jackson came to Harlesden but he did. Because in the next shop, the misleadingly named AvantGarde – an upscale men’s outfitter’s, trad-cool, I’d call it – the owner, George, a very hip Jamaican man, has a very large photo of himself and Jesse in this very shop. It’s a shock but a good one. Now Dawn wants to be on that wall too. So the photo is taken.

Last stop is JJ’s for patties. Dawn treats us.  JJ comes out – all beatific face, white hair and possibly the longest locks I’ve ever seen gathered together down his back in what looks like a brown knitted dreadlock bag. They fall down far below his waist. He’s got such an incredible smile, easy, warm, mischievous. Then he shows us round his wine bar. That one, the hidden gem. I’ve never even noticed it before. But it really does look like a good place to have a drink. Posh even, with an aquarium, old posh, rather than zeitgeist posh.

What’s happening to plot of land at the back? “It’s been ploughed,” laughs JJ, “ready for new crops.” Meanwhile Dawn is having her photo taken at the bar for JJ. Local MP comes to my wine bar kind of vibe. “I can’t be seen drinking alcohol,” she says being hyper-vigilant re our puritanical culture, “put a bottle of orange juice in front of me.” JJ wants to put on a party to help Dawn with her political campaign. “Let’s get Lascelles,” she says, “he’s just helped me out with events for Alan Johnson and Jack Straw.” Lascelles is a saxophone player.

By this time, Dawn has had her photo taken with an ex-nurse, the Dawn-loving owner of Miracle Fashions, a baby in the library, George and JJ at the very least. As we pass the City Challenge office, there it is another picture of her. This one has a widely smiling Dawn (she does smile very well, I’ve tried this and it’s not easy) and Prince Charles. She points it out in a winsome way. It’s not a boast, more a little joke between us. Prince Charles came to Harlesden High Street in 2007 when the Prince’s Trust was supporting a new local business initiative called Connect. Interestingly, he said at the time just after doing a little jive to Good Thing Going by Sugar Minott with local councillor, Bertha Joseph who apparently grabbed him: “I don’t think I have enjoyed myself so much for a long time going down the high street and popping into one or two shops. I’m sorry I couldn’t go into a few more of them.”

It’s not often I concur with royalty but I have to agree.

And Dawn Butler has been a revelation. Before I met her, I was going to support Sarah Teather in the election, but now I’m in a quandary. Dawn is a great mixture of laid back, warm, concerned and feisty. I like her. They are both women, which is great. I’m a traditional Labour supporter but this time, I am going to vote for change. But not the Tories. The Lib-Dems need to pay attention to getting more non-white candidates, but Sarah Teather will get my vote because I want national political change – in fact, a hung parliament (we need a new word) could be a good thing, they would have to work together – and she is a very committed local MP.

THE NEXT DAY

I go down to the new library opening. It’s been re-designed with Big Lottery money – £1.4 million of it. The old building has been modernised in a way that is light, airy and doesn’t destroy the old. Dawn is there chatting to the mayor of Brent. Irish. I’ve forgotten his name. There’s hubbub of local people in the children’s area, at the sugar decoration class upstairs and the creative writing class. Now Dawn is chatting to lithe, tall in vertiginous heels, young woman wearing what I now assume to be a glossy wig.

It must be Sabrina Washington, I surmise. Sabrina is local girl made good. She was in girl group Misteeq, and Celebrity Get Me Out of Here last year. Now I’m looking around wondering who people are. There’s a tall, elegant man near me in glasses. Who’s he? I ask someone. “That’s Shaun Wallace,” they say, “he’s a barrister, has won Mastermind and was on the steering committee for the re-development of the library.”

I go and ask the impossibly tall Sabrina what she thinks of Harlesden. “My parents still live here, “ she says, “they won’t move. It’s a vibrant neighbourhood with lots of great people. I love it here. I’m always coming back.” She’s a bit bland but she’s got luscious lips. And then, she says something significant. “I live in Hertfordshire these days,” she explains. I understand – from Harlesden to Hertfordshire – that’s where successful Harlesden girls want to go. Oh dear.

I start thinking about the meaning of words as the speeches commence. This is not just a library anymore. It’s called Harlesden Library Plus, in the same way that it’s the Job Centre Plus down the road. What is it with this PLUS?  Does it denote the failing of the idea of ‘enough’ in this age of recession realism when surely materialist maximalism is so over.  I know it’s a branding exercise, which denotes more facilities (the One Stop Shop upstairs, adult education, computers, a cheerful children’s area) but it does seem to mean LESS books.

Shaun in his speech mentions the diverse faces in the crowd. The now word – diverse. But Sabrina talks about multiculturalism. And it sounds strangely old-fashioned. But Sabrina – I wonder why? – gets the biggest cheer. “Harlesden is happening,” she declares passionately, “and it’s always been happening.”

The crowd agree. Me too.

*Headed by the infamous Louis Farrakhan and inspired by leaders like Malcolm X, the militant Nation of Islam espouses its own kind of Islam in its own black-promoting way.

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A SEA OF HAIR IN HARLESDEN

Today, I’m walking with 21 year old, June Mckenzie.  Having recently graduated from Westminster University with a degree in journalism – she’s the first one in her family to go on to further education – I met June before Xmas at my ward meeting run by the local police. I was there because of the burglaries in my road; she was there because she wanted to help stop the gun crime.  “I can’t see it stopping,” she said sounding frustrated, “black on black crime is complex. I did my dissertation on how it is portrayed in the media. I want to be involved. I know a lot of young men who are in that world. I don’t know what to do, but I want to do something.”

A few months later, I met up with June outside the famous John Line’s butcher’s shop in the Harrow Rd, which without fail has queues snaking round the corner. “We’ve always bought our meat here,” she explained, “it’s cheap and good. It’s a family tradition with us.” She lives with her grandfather round the corner. “If it wasn’t for my grandparents, my life would be very different. I might have been a single mum or in prison. In many ways, they brought me up. Sadly, my granny died nearly two years ago. I still miss her, her death has affected me physically and mentally.”

Just before we said goodbye, June asked if I’d heard of Shawn Callum? “My friend is the mother of his baby,” she explained showing me a photo of the good-looking 26 year old with shaved eyebrows, “ he was shot and killed last year leaving a private party at Stonebridge Primary School.” Why? Was he involved in drugs and gangs? “No, he wasn’t but that is how the newspapers portrayed him. He was innocent. The papers never portray black youth as innocent bystanders,” she said passionately.” The trial is very soon. My friend is nervous about whether the person who has been charged, will be prosecuted or not.”

By the time I see her this time, the 21 year old who was accused of the killing, has been found not guilty. Not enough evidence, it seems. June is upset. Her friend is beside herself. They feel that the killer has been set free and that the legal system has failed Shawn. And them.

But I don’t want to just focus on June and who she knows in that way. So I’ve had the idea of getting her to take me on a hairdressing tour. She spends a lot of time on her hair and Harlesden is big on hairdressers and barbers. Plus I really am ignorant about his secret hairworld.

We meet at the telephone box at the junction of Wrottesley Rd and the Harrow Rd. It’s 6 30pm. Bless her, June’s taking this hair tour very seriously. She’s even changed her hair for me. Last time, it was long and straight. This time, it’s back in a kind of ponytail. “I’m wearing a lace,” she explains as though I’ll understand. Oh dear, I’m already baffled.

Does she mean a wig? “No, we call it a lace, it’s stuck on to the front of my head,” she says, “it’s glossy and long. Women like Beyonce wear them. But I also wear weaves when I’m not wearing a lace.” And how much are they? “I get two packets of weaves for £60 and they last about five weeks. But laces cost between £150 and £200 for real hair and might last a month before they start getting itchy.”  Oh, the fine art of laces. I’m astonished. She spends this much money on her hair!

We cross the bridge at Willesden Junction station and pass the nightclub Jet Set on the left. A strange little club – which bizarrely has the words Dine and Dance up there too, but I’m pretty sure that there’s no dining going on – the only time I see it come to life is at the weekend at about 2am. “There was a shooting there too,” she says.  “A DJ was shot outside, he has to have round the clock care now. He was trying to be a peacemaker for another guy. I know Craig Robertson who did it. He was only 17 at the time. I grew up with him, my granny would always cook for him, he loved her mutton and rice. I was totally shocked at what happened.”


Our first stop is the renowned barber’s Faisal. Its eponymous owner featured in the  2001 BBC 2 docu-soap (mentioned in walk 4) The Heart of Harlesden. I remember  Faisal because he was a photographer as well as a barber. He had a studio downstairs and the shop upstairs. I wonder if he is still a photographer? Today, the shop is packed with assistants and customers – from toddlers to 30somethings.

I talk to Ben who is having a razor cut. How often does he come? “Every three weeks,” he says, “and I’ve been coming for 10 years. Since it started, in fact. I pay £12 for a fade.” Then, there’s a nudge from the barber. “Oh, it’s a skin fade not a fade,” he re-informs me. Faisal is not here today, he only comes in on Saturdays. back.

We wander past a Brazilian hairdresser’s, which only has one customer. It’s nearly 7pm. “I’m not being rude,” says June, “but you never see that shop full.” Then a bar and restaurant called West Coast. Does she go there? “Well, I went a few weeks ago for the after-party of a funeral, but I wouldn’t normally go. They’re not my sort of people. They’re too arrogant for me.”

As we pass the Job Centre Plus – in other words, the former site of the Edwardian Willesden Hippodrome – which is on a hill, June makes an admission. “You’re going to think I’m mad,” she says, “but I’m not. Last week, I spent an hour and a half leaning against that tree and in that time I counted 165 young women and prams going to the Job Centre Plus. They looked angry and disillusioned. But I felt enraged. So many of them are getting benefits and flats. That’s why some of them get pregnant. I felt disgusted. I don’t want to be part of a culture that is like that. Young girls can do some much with their future!! Why waste it! Babies are a blessing but I don’t believe in bringing poverty into poverty.”

Sometimes, it feels as if June is carrying this burden – that how she sees it, the boys without fathers, the girls who are obeying a certain unwritten babymother law – all herself. It’s the opposite of what she wants for herself or them. I can feel her passion and fear rising simultaneously. “In my culture, to be poor is to be bad,” she says despairingly, “that’s why ‘easy’ drugs money is so attractive.”

As if on cue, we pass the Christian bookshop fittingly called The Rock. We pop in for solace. Books like Everyday Jesus Healing Wounds with a plaster on the cover, pink prayer books for girls, a bible especially for brides, a special sort of soft mints with stripes (“You get those in Jamaica,” says June), flowery Jesus bags. It’s an old-fashioned shop, which I could imagine finding in a suburb of Kingston. Yes, Kingston, Jamaica.

Next door is what I think is a skincare and shampoo shop. But we turn a corner and there it is. A sea of hair. Hair in packets hanging everywhere. Wavy, fiercely curly, straight, startlingly blonde, brown, black. All manner of hair. Real, not real. I’ve never seen so much hair in one place. They’re called things like Remi and  Milky Way.  I knew about the hairdresser’s and barber’s in Harlesden, but I had managed to totally miss out on the hair shops. This is hair for sale en masse. Of course, real hair is more expensive. And June wants real hair.

The slight, 30something man selling the hair, is Afghan. Another customer called Edith – she’s wearing a pretty brown and blonde lace, I’m an expert now – has come from Harrow on a hair mission. “There are twelve hair shops in Harlesden,” she explains. “I might keep a lace in for three months but then it will get uncomfortable. That’s what’s happening now. I’m getting ready for the weekend with my boyfriend and I want to give my head a rest so I’m looking for a wig, a long wig.”

I can’t believe how many hair shops there are in such a small area. Again I’m stunned at the effort and money that goes into these women’s hair. I say so. Loudly. “Yeah, we put hair first and health second,” giggles Edith who works in the City, “it’s our life, and we are willing to go the extra distance. My boyfriend is English and he’s still getting used to it.”

Why? Oh Why? “It means they can have a different hairstyle every day,” explains the doe-eyed Afghan assistant who says his family have been in the UK for 15 years, and now have a lovely big house near Finsbury Park. He might work in Harlesden but he doesn’t live here. The hair business is evidently good business.

In the meantime, the ‘girls’ are admiring each other’s laces. Edith is sporting the eye-catching blonde and brown one, whilst June has a rather more demure black one. “That one is too over-the-top for me, it’s too much,” says June, “ I couldn’t wear that at work.”  It’s fascinating that she is so disapproving. Hmm, do I hear the murmurings of a hair war?

Back out on the street, the shutters are going down on the nail shop, Hollywood. However, the former The Green Man, – a pub just down from the Royal Oak, which also opened in 1839, but now a Portuguese restaurant – is thronging with people. “My granddad will be back from Jamaica in April, he goes there in the winter,” says June, ”then you’ll find him in the Misty Moon up the road at this time in the evening.”

Did she ever go to Dreams nightclub? “Yeah, I went when I was young, like 14,” she says, “but I wouldn’t go now. There’s a club there called NW10. Did you see what those girls were wearing to Dreams in The Heart Of Harlesden?” “Yep,” I reply, “almost nothing, and the camera was constantly focusing on their behinds, often barely covered behinds.” “Oh, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “The girls would arrive late at like at 4 in the morning just to make an entrance. They liked to think they were stars. It was all a status thing.”

It’s 8pm as we walk past the rest of the hair shops, hairdresser’s and barber’s. Most are closing. June just pops into one to check how much it would cost to have a ponytail. No, not that kind of ponytail. “It’s a way of grooming the hair to the side,” she says.

Evidently, I’ve still got a lot to learn…

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THE DRY WIT OF MR BARLAY

Today – rainy, the day after the earthquake in Chile, a Sunday in Harlesden – I’m walking with journalist and author, Nick Barlay. He’s finally turned up. Remember, I was meant to meet him for the first walk. I think he’ll be a fruitful ‘collaborator’ because he’s a Londonist with an arch sense of humour. Plus he’s written about his own walks. He once wrote a 10,000 word account of the London section of the A5, the old Roman Road, 30 miles and eight road changes of name for Time Out. “It was a scientific dissection of London but of course, there was a psychosexual angle in that it started with a phallic obelisk in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Brockley Hill and ended with the vaginal Marble Arch. I walked it twice. You have to walk it to feel it”. Oh la la.

Before we set off, I show him a piece entitled ‘No Evacuation From Harlesden’ – which is a memory recorded by Derek Sebbage for the BBC’s World War 2 site, the People’s War – in it he describes how his family lived in a flat in Ranelagh Rd during the war (for him, between the ages of two and seven) and his mother wouldn’t allow them (four children) to be evacuated because she wanted them to stay together. Vividly, he recalls they had their very own “ Andersen Shelter in which we sometimes had to spend days. You had to drop down into the ground, it was half out of the soil, and covered with soil. Inside I can always remember, there were blue striped mattresses and pillows, not pillowcases, just blankets. One of the treats we used to have was mum would make Cadbury’s drinking chocolate.”

I ask Nick (he knows more than I do about history) if he knows what an Andersen air raid shelter was like? “It was home-made wasn’t it?” he says, “People would get them together from scrap.”  According to wikipedia – where there is a handy photo showing one constructed from corrugated iron and in someone’s private garden – “They were designed to accommodate six people, and buried in 1.2m of soil and covered with soil too.” The earth banks, it suggested, could be planted with vegetables and flowers, “that at times could be quite an appealing sight and in this way would become the subject of competitions of the best-planted shelter among householders in the neighbourhood.” Wow, whoever would have imagined Britain In Bloom transposed to air-raid shelters!  Not only that, it adds – “The internal fitting out of the shelter was left to the owner and so there were wide variations in comfort.” Of course, there was no Ikea of air-raid interiors. It also informs us that Andersen shelters were free to all householders who earned less than £250 a year, otherwise, they were £7 each.

Thoroughly acquainted with the state of the Andersen shelter, we set off on a circular trip which will include Ranelagh Rd.  At the junction of Rucklidge Avenue and Park Parade, the very blue Workers sculpture by Kevin Harrison seems rather strangely located. Four workers in blue overalls with a triumphant flag – City Challenge, 1995 – it seems frankly more Moscow than Harlesden. “It’s what I would call Soviet-lite,” says the ever-coruscating, Mr Barlay, however, he also adds more gently, “but I can’t bring myself to hate it. It is a step up from two sad fucks sitting on a fence.”

We’re walking by the Royal Oak pub and Nick is gazing at the other side of the road. Naturally, he’s practicing observational yoga. He’s an original practitioner. “You get all the mouldings of the original buildings, you can see those painted flowers on the corner above the café were Edwardian, but on the lower parts, everything has been stuck on – like the alarm box and then the fashion shop with the missing letters. I like that kind of architectural history.”

Have you seen the docu-soap, (remember, there was a docu-soap TV era) the Heart of Harlesden, I ask? When was it on? he says. 2001. He hasn’t. Anyway, the cavernous rooms above Iceland apparently used to be Dreams nightclub where black British Harlesden girls used to shake their short and frequently diaphanous skirt-clad booty at the boys who were wont to roll full bottles of spilling-forth champagne towards the gyrating girls’ ankles. In a full-on display of peacockdom.  Now it simply says Gym in the windows. There was a tattered church sign but it’s disappeared. And I think it still operates as a club called NW10.

Turns out that Monsieur Barlay – actually he’s just finished a memoir about his Hungarian Jewish roots – has previous with the Jubilee Clock. “As a teenager, we used to meet at that clock,” he says, “I’ve always liked it, it reminds me of Little Ben outside Victoria Station.”

There’s a huge Church of England church, All Souls’, on the corner of Station Rd and the High street, I’ve never been in, but my newsagent, Dar, had mentioned that he sometimes goes there, and sometimes to the mosque. Shall we go in? The exterior is pretty grim grills over the windows, Gothic, and generally uninviting – so the interior comes as an unexpected pleasure. Instead of a dark, dank interior, there is a terrifically white, light one. I actually gasp at how much light there is. White painted walls, Victorian stained glass windows and an interesting contemporary lectern. It is more like a lecture hall than an altar and chapel actually.  A vicar passes and it turns out to be Fr Michael Moorhead who has brought in all these changes. “We refurbished it three years ago,” he says hurrying past with a what’s-she-up-to smile, at the same time as handing me a leaflet.

The Sunday morning service has just ended and musicians are milling around. Showing my profound ignorance, I ask a friendly-looking bloke who he thinks the finely carved statue with the ornate robes is. “It’s probably God and baby Jesus,” he says and admits he’s guessing! He is Gary who directs the music for the praise worship sessions. With guitars and piano rather than the amazingly grand organ built in 1903 with 2,000 pipes. “They are a more modern tradition,” he says, “than hymns and the organ. Did you know we had an EastEnders’ wedding here?  Hattie or Michelle Gayle got married here in the programme.”

Does he like the refurbishment? “It’s great,” he says, “except the covering up of  ‘The Word Was Made Flesh And Dwelt Among Us’ at the front by the modern design. That’s a shame because those words are so important to so many people.”

Meanwhile Nick is looking at the poster about a holy pilgrimage to Israel. “I went there in 1989,” he says, “and I was going to write about it, but I was searched and they confiscated the notebook where I’d got my interviews. I’d been visiting some Peace Now people and they didn’t like it. It was a situation where it was absolutely no good saying ‘Look, I’m a Jew.’” Not surprisingly, he hasn’t been back.

We’re standing in the new entrance area – think summer house – when I spot what I take to be a contemporary natural wood cross in the window. The horizontal part is definitely a branch. However the vertical section on closer inspection looks less natural. “It’s from B & Q,” pipes up Nick, “look, you can still see the price tag on the base.”

Ever an atheist, Nick brings out his packet of Marlborough Light as soon as we leave the holy place. He’s making his own connection to his soul. “I think I’ve given up,” I say half-heartedly boasting. “Oh, wasn’t it Mark Twain who said ‘Giving up is easy, I’ve given up so many times,” he smiles wryly. So I am forced to explain that I haven’t so much given up, as found myself being uncharacteristically lethargic when it comes to reaching for a cigarette. I’m slightly disappointed in myself in fact, because I like to keep my ‘bad girl’ going.

I’ve never walked down this part of Station Road before. I normally drive down here. There’s an unkempt brick Telephone Exchange. I mention that my father worked for the GPO (as it was then) for over 40 years, so I’ll probably discover he once worked at this exchange as an engineer. Suddenly, Ranelagh Rd is upon us on the left. Rows of Victorian houses that were built to house railway workers when the mighty Willesden Junction came into being in 1866.

“That battered Citroen looks as though it could have been an Andersen shelter,” quips Mr Barlay. Otherwise no sign of the corrugated wonder with the accompanying vegetable and flower potential. Instead, we’re in Honeywood Rd where Derek Sebbage recalls the VE Day celebrations included a street party. “Tables were set up near the air raid shelters,” he writes. “The Mayor and Mayoress of Willesden dressed up as a honeysuckle and a bee and sang the song ‘You are my honeysuckle and I am the bee…”

Hard to imagine on this grizzly February day, but marvellous nonetheless. We look up and the imposing Willesden Junction Hotel, which announces itself jauntily in big letters high up, with all the self-importance of its former existence. A vestige of grand. Now, of course, it’s turned itself into the very meaty Amber Grill.

Back on Station Road, there’s a Brazilian community with a beef shop, a swimwear shop Planeta Brazil, an emporium fully of colourful biscuits and a café that my friend, writer Monique Roffey raves about regularly.

The trains flit by like silver fish but the view is not as dramatic from this south side of  the Junction. It’s the conformist view. No bizarre buildings to catch our eye.

Savoir Beds – bespoke, of course – is housed in a 70s brick building but the drain covers are Victorian. Detective Barlay points this out, but I’d already noticed! We’re straying briefly out of Brent into Ealing to inspect the tiny railway cottages in Old Oak lane. Dillie Keane –she’s still a member of comedy trio, Fascinating Aida specialising in flirty satire, and now celebrating at least 25 years in show business – lived here in the 80s and mentioned in the Evening Standard that she had a wonderful sunset view of the Junction. I want to know it that view still exists.

Crewe Place has a bijoux feel to it. Lots of pots with bamboo, strange little frogs bearing succulents and an original Victorian notice announcing ‘Any person leaving the gate open will be liable to pay 40 shillings’. No view though. There is a potential view down the next little lane but it’s blocked by newer buildings. Oh, I was looking forward to revisiting a sunset.

Never mind, time for a Brazilian coffee. Funnily enough, the waiter downs pot noodles while I savour a chicken and sweetcorn delicacy in an effortless culture swap.

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