Monthly Archives: April 2010

MADAME CURLY TAKES ME ON A FOOD TOUR

This is a bit bizarre. I’m walking with a close friend for the first time. And we’re in a bit of a ‘wow’ place. Writer, Monique Roffey – has just been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction with her sensually evocative, second novel, White Woman On A Green Bicycle, which is based on her family who moved to Trinidad in 1956 just before it became independent, and as she says ‘it’s big deal, I didn’t get reviewed nationally, and now this’ – has recently moved from Harlesden to Kensal Rise. There may less than a mile between them, but  – from the noise, the mishmash of cultures, the sheer vibrancy to the quiet, middle-class and leafy – in reality, it’s a million miles away.

Monique is also my first co-walker to have planned her own walk! She’s taking me on a Jamaican and Trinidadian food tour. I disrupt her plans temporarily by suggesting we rescue some guerrilla planting that I noticed on my walk with Vince. The guerrilla gardeners – people who take digging action onto public wasteland – have planted cowslips and pansies in an area of urban deadland on Manor Park Rd. Unfortunately, they haven’t planned how they will survive and I noticed they were wilting badly. I decide we need to water them.

The staff at the Misty Moon are bemused that anyone cares enough to ask for water for this purpose. But the barman mentions he’s seen yet more recently planted spring flowers under a tree nearby. They provide a jug of water. Monique gives those thirsty pansies and cowslips temporary relief.

Our first stop is the Jam Down bakery, which I’ve never visited before. For 28 years, it’s been a traditional Jamaican bakery and takeaway. Mon used to be a regular. “If I couldn’t be bothered to cook on a Sunday,” she says, “I’d pop round for their jerk chicken and rice n’peas. It was the perfect solution. The food here is so well-cooked.”

We’ve ordered a mutton meatloaf. It’s lamb encased in bread. And it’s very tasty and very meaty. It is a sexy mixture despite there not being a vegetable in sight. And the bread is sweet. It’s delicious and very filling. “I would often come and get one, and give half to Mr Campbell who begs every day outside the HSBC bank,” she says. “I’m rather fond of him.”

The shop is pure Jamaican kitsch. Lots of biblical scenes in frames and a clock surrounded by red plastic flowers.  There’s also a handwritten notice promoting their Mannish Water. What is Mannish Water, I wonder? “Do you remember that Rolling Stones album called Goat’s Head Soup,” says Madame Caribbean Expert, “they’d just visited Jamaica and obviously had some Mannish Water, it’s great soup which is made of goat tripe.”

“And good for your daughter,” adds in the gentleman behind the counter evidently alluding to the fertility aspects to this soup.

Mon is then tempted by the callaloo. “It’s a soup made from dasheen bush, dasheen is a root vegetable with green bush, and you add okra to it,” she says referring to the Trinidadian dish, but when it appears Jamaican-style, it’s actually not soup, but the green leaves fried with salt fish. Very salty, very tasty. “In Trinidad,” she says, “we have callaloo, but it’s not like this. This isn’t dasheen either, our soup is slimy with okra, pork knuckle and cream of coconut. It’s like drinking a swamp. We also do a stewed chicken with brown sugar, you will have tasted that at my house.”

Next we’re outside the Afghan-run Bilah Hilal butchers shop and she’s feeling the avocadoes. “These are Pollack avocadoes, they’re so big. My mother wouldn’t accept anything else,” she says. “We used to have them in our garden.”

And these yams and cassavas? “In Trinidad, we call all those roots, blue food or provisions,” she says, “it’s complicated but the Africans who came to Trinidad came as slaves and they adapted their food to what was available there. But the plantains, they’re always better, the blacker they are. That means they’re ripe.”

Mon’s picked up a fresh bunch of thyme and she’s pointing out the bottles of Green Seasoning as well as all the tins of condensed milk. “Thyme and Green Seasoning are the basis of Caribbean food,” she says, “and condensed milk appears all over the place. I have a theory about cow’s milk and humans not being supposed to drink it. Why should we? Many people in Africa are lactose intolerant and I am as well.”

Whoops, I hear the voice of Mr Campbell. “Have you got a pound?” he says in the insistent tone I’ve heard so often. Which is why he is known locally as ‘Poundman’. A year or so ago, he was asking for two pounds, but as a result of the global financial collapse, Mr Campbell seems to have reduced his expectations.

Mon starts to ask him questions about his life. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years, “ he says, “I come down from Wembley on the number 18 bus. But I used to live here at Stonebridge Park,” he says. We don’t get much of the story before his ‘pounding’ starts again.

We pop into Ali Baba, that serves part Arab and part Indian food, it’s another Monique favourite. “I’d come in and have a lamb kofte kebab and watch Al Jazeera,” she admits, “I’d catch what ex Channel 4 news reporter, Ragi Omagh was up to.” The owner has apparently gone to see his family in Iraq for a holiday. What about the club over the road above Iceland? “ I’ve seen several people slumped in the doorway having been shot,” says the manager here, “we don’t really encourage those clubbers to come here.”

Norman’s, the hairdressers, was also a frequent haunt. “I’d get a cut for £10,” says Monique, “I have frizzy hair and it is tricky. There is always the danger of getting a frizz ball, which is like having a huge hairy dog on your head,” she says, always drawn to the drama of hyperbole. “You have to have a grooming routine. I plait my hair when I’ve washed it but it’s also down to hair products. I’m wearing it out today because I’ve found some good products. It’s interesting because black women probably look at my hair and wonder what the fuss is about. White women with frizzy hair are pretty much left on their own to deal with it.”

Incredibly, Mon has two close friends who have frizzy hair. They bond over hair care. In fact, I’ve never really talked to her about it because I’ve got straight hair. I’m not a part of her curly society.

Now we’re walking down Nicholl Road past the 1930s Catholic Church, Our Lady of Willesden. And Mon is talking about her Harlesden experiences. “At first, it was really exciting,” she says, “and my two flat mates and I totally embraced it. We’d have shopping expeditions to the International Supermarket in the High Street. It definitely has the best olive and feta counter in London. They also have a brilliant selection of juices too from cactus to coconut water. Matthew once went out for a pint of milk and didn’t come back for two hours. He was lost in food choice over there.” Interestingly, she says ‘at first’ here, because what she means is that at the end of three years in Wendover Road, which attracts a constant stream of street drinkers and drug-takers, she was understandably ready to move to a quieter area.

Mon also had an infamous – as in it has appeared in many Harlesden tales around the table – altercation with be-suited, militant members of the Nation of Islam who are wont to gather at the Jubilee Clock on Saturdays. “They wouldn’t sell me one of their newspapers,” she says, “they said it wasn’t for people like me. I replied: ‘You mean white? Or a woman?  How do you know I’m not black?’ We had a row. But the one who was in charge must have had a word with this particular guy, because they next time I passed, they offered me one. But it was too late.” One of her flamboyant characteristics, is that she is not afraid of conflict or defending vociferously what she thinks is right and proper.

Now we’ve arrived at our final destination – the Trinidad Roti Shop. I have to confess that I’ve never had a roti. Despite the fact, that I lived around Portobello Road for 12 years. As it happens, Mon has never made it to this shop. The Jam Down Bakery was too near to her former flat, she couldn’t quite find the motivation to make the trek up here to her homeland food shop. However, she is now getting excited at the prospect of a roti. “Boneless chicken, pumpkin, and spinach, chana, and no pepper,” she orders. “And a grape solo. In Trini, we ask for sweet drinks not soft drinks.”

She’s laughing about nature of Trini food, in that it’s often high in sugar and fat. Not to mention fried. “I only have to look at a roti,” she erupts, “and I pile on the pounds.” The roti arrives and it’s that rich mixture of chicken and vegetables wrapped in a roti skin which is like Indian nan bread. “Forty five percent of the indentured work force in Trinidad were Indian,” she explains, “while the other forty five percent were African, so that’s why we have a mixture of their cuisine. Rice n’peas is African, nan is Indian.”

In the meantime, Mon has noticed that there’s something called doubles on the menu. “Oh, we have to have one of those,” she exclaims. “When you come to Trinidad, that’s what you will have for breakfast.” What is it? It’s a fried piece of dough containing ‘chana’ or chickpeas in a curry sauce. It’s good but it is very fried and it doesn’t taste like afternoon food to me. Oh little English woman, that I am.

And there’s always the pepper question with Caribbean food. Plenty pepper or small pepper? In other words, do you want hot chilli pepper sauce with it? And Mon doesn’t. “I struggle with spicy food,” she says surprisingly.

Pig foot souse and goat curry, they’re all on there. But where do they get the goats, I wonder out loud? “From farms in Ireland,” says the gentleman behind the counter who informs us that he is actually from Grenada, “but they taste different to the ones at home. Those goats live on the rocks and don’t eat anything that grows on the ground. That makes all the difference.”

Tucking into her roti, Mon is impressed. “That’s what I know to be a roti,” she says nodding her head. “You should see the ones they serve at Notting Hill carnival, they’re tiny. I grew up on this food. The best food in Trinidad is from St James.”

The shopkeeper concurs. But where is St James? “It’s a red light district in the Port of Spain with a very lively street culture. In White Woman On A Green Bicycle, George goes to pick up a prostitute there. They have the best rotis in Trinidad.”

So at least I’ll know where to go for rotis as well as the redlight district.

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MEAN FIDDLER MOGUL, VINCE POWER RETURNS

It’s beautiful spring day and a huge, silver Lincoln is sweeping – in that hushed wide way that only old American cars can – into the Plaza car park. It contains Vince Power who was literally a powerhouse in Harlesden for many years. Well, 23 years to be exact. He used to own the Mean Fiddler – seminal music venue on the High Street now closed down – which became the Mean Fiddler Group (Jazz Café, the Forum, Reading Festival, the Grand and many more), which he sold in 2005 for £60 million. Not that he’s retired, now he runs VPMG that owns the Bloomsbury Ballroom, the Pigalle club and runs Hop Farm Festival (Ray Davies and Dylan this year, July 3rd) and Benicassim Festival in Spain.

As he gets out of his stylishly unfashionable car, I remember the reputation that goes before him. That he’s some sort of Svengali Irish gangster.  But the stocky, stubbly-chinned man who pats me on the arm in an affable gesture of friendliness seems much softer than that.

“You’re the reason I first came to Harlesden,” I say, “because I used to review people like Billy Bragg up here for Sounds.” He laughs the sort of unassuming chortle that is pleased that he should have that kind of influence.

Before I know it, Vince is opening a very green metal door to a new-to-me alleyway in the High Street. “We used to own the whole block,” he says, “but this was the box-office and entrance down here.” There is a tangible poignancy about this alleyway for Vince. It’s neglected and rundown. And it was here that his music venue empire began in 1982. On his website, he’s justifiably called The Godfather of Gigs. But here he is looking watery-eyed about the past.

“I recognise those doors,” he says pointing to the old entrance now locked and scruffy, ”we bought them from a chocolate factory in Scrubs Lane, you could still smell the chocolate on them. I know this place so well because I built it. It does make me sad looking at this building now, it had such soul and such spirit, but like the old Marquee is no more, you just have to move on. Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, John Martyn, Dr John, Christy Moore and many more all graced this stage. I had to wage a one-man war in order to get people to come to Harlesden. But I was so determined, I did manage to get them. It was the beginning of my business. The money from here paid for Subterania, the Jazz Café and all the rest to start.”

We walk a little further to the old stage door at the back. “I remember standing out here with musicians,” he says, “on summer’s evenings. One night, country musician, Dwight Yoakam was having a fit of nerves before going on, so I was out her trying to persuade him to perform. He did go on in the end.”

Vince is standing next to an old street lamp also painted green which is quite odd in the middle of this alleyway. “We restored it,” smiles Vince revealing his inner DIY spirit aglow, “it was originally from the nineteenth century.”

Apparently, it used to be a dodgy drinking club owned by boxer, Terry Downes, before Vince bought it. “It was hard for them to get a license,” he explains, “so it was illegal. There were a lot of heavy gangsters who used to come here then. A couple of bodies were found in this alleyway at one point. I bought it in 1981 because I wanted to turn it into a honky tonk bar. I used to go to Nashville so that inspired me. I loved country music.”

Back in the 8os, John Martyn was supposed to play at 10 pm one night. “He came on at 12pm and was promptly sick over the front row of people. I had to give a lot of people their fivers back,” he says.

My own strongest memory of the Mean Fiddler was going to a Sun Ra – crazy, inspired jazz singer, musician and controversial cosmic philosopher – gig. I’d never see so many people, his Arkestra – I think there were 13 – on the tiny stage. Sun Ra was wearing something on his head that resembled an extra-terrestrial hair net and I kept thinking he looked like Ena Sharples on Coronation Street. It was 1990. They played music which startled and amazed in equal measure. It was one on those extraordinary gigs, which takes you out of the present and into the improvised space of the joyful imagination. He was to die at 79 three years later. But he was truly dancing to the beat of his own drum. I even got to interview him.

Back on the High Street, Vince surprises me by saying that he actually came over from Waterford in Ireland to Harlesden when he was 16 in 1964. On his own. He was one of 11 children. He has a much longer relationship with Harlesden than I thought. “I lived in a back room of the house of a Jamaican woman who treated me like her son,” he says, “it was very unusual for someone Irish to board with someone Jamaican in those days. But I loved it.”

It turns out that he met his first wife who was also Irish when he was 18. Also in Harlesden. “At the 32 Club,” he says, “which used to be opposite the Royal Oak pub. We got married in the big Catholic Church, Our Lady of Willesden, up Acton Lane. We were very young, both 18, my mother came over from Waterford. It was just what you did. We had three children before I was 21.”

As we verbally go back and forth between the present and the past, we’re also observing the High Street. “In the 60s, it was upmarket here,” says Vince rather shockingly, “There used to be a Marks and Spencer’s here in those days. Employment was easy in the 60s, so everyone had money from working in the factories round here. But I must say it is very lively here, much more so than Kilburn High Road which is my shopping area now.”

At this point, we’re just passing plantains and Scotch Bonnets piled up high at a nearby grocers, when a guy with his long grey locks in a ponytail, shouts out to me because he sees I have a notebook. “Are you from ‘Elth and Safety?” he calls out.  “No,” I reply horrified to have been mistaken for someone from the council. For goodness sake, I have a bejewelled feather in my hair. What is the country coming to? Traditionally, a notebook in hand translated as a journalist, now it’s Health and Safety? Oh, the poverty of reference points.

We go back to talk to him and his friend. It turns out that both he and Vince have bad backs! What on earth is going on with these men? Alexei also had a painful back. They exchange supportive back care tips whilst I chat to Ronald, who says he volunteers with young people in the area and lives in Rucklidge Avenue, the same road as Sabrina Washington’s parents.

By the time we reach the newly re-opened Library, Vince has to sit down because of sciatica in his leg. Later, he tells me he has a gym in his house and a visiting yoga teacher. Evidently, he’s not using their services on a regular basis.

“First of all, my wife and I lived in a room in Bramshill Road, then we moved to a beautiful house in Stonebridge Park. In the 60s, there were some wonderful houses there but they were demolished to make way for the tower blocks. I know because I demolished some of them. At that time that’s what I was doing,” he explains. “There was nothing wrong with the original houses, but I do remember how excited people were at the idea of getting new bathrooms and kitchens, they couldn’t wait for those blocks. But those tower blocks destroyed the community. But I have been up there and had a look at the new developments and they’ve done a good job.”

Vince points in the direction of Stonebridge and explains that there was an Odeon cinema just up the road, ‘a fleapit’ which became the Roxy Club in the 70s. That the Sex Pistols rehearsed in. Oh la la. I was under the impression that the Roxy had been at the Coliseum cinema, which is now the Misty Moon pub. I was wrong.

In fact, back in the 60s and 70s, it was people moving out of their houses, sometimes to the Stonebridge tower blocks, that created work for Vince’s new business. “For 15 years, I ran a second hand furniture business,” he says giving insights into how he became so successful in the music venue business, “the main shop was in Kilburn High Road. I was good at making money. I just liked picking my wits against another human being and getting twice as much as I paid for whatever it was.”

That’s quite a contrast with today. Hasn’t he gone posh these days with his Berkley Square Ball, his Bloomsbury Ballroom and his Pigalle Club? “You can’t make me posh,” he exclaims in a jokingly serious way as we walk back, “you can’t pimp me.”

But what about his gangster image, he’s definitely got a reputation? “I think it came about because I used to do lots of support gigs for the Guildford Four and the Maguire Sisters. All of them were innocent. Because I did those gigs, people assumed I was an IRA member. I’ve always been political and left wing but I’ve always been against any kind of violence. I did a lot of the Red Wedge gigs in the early 90s, and everyone like Hank Wangford came and celebrated at the Mean Fiddler after the 1997 Labour election victory.”

It’s 5pm and we’re at the bar at the Misty Moon ordering a tea and a coffee. Very rock n’roll. At 62, Vince has eight children and seven grandchildren, he’s been married three times. “I think when I split up from Alison, my third wife, I did reassess my life and wonder what I was doing with it? It was five years ago and that’s when I sold the business. I wanted to do something new. But I’m no good at doing nothing, so I ended up finding some new venues and festivals. I’ve just announced Bob Dylan is playing at the Hop Farm, a one day festival in Kent. It’s in its third year and it’s back to basics, there are no VIP passes. Everything became too inflated. I was guilty of it too. Now I’m interested in everyone being treated in the same way.”

Briefly, he had a mid-life bachelor crisis and acquired a penthouse in Paddington, but now his feet are back on the ground and he’s back in a family house in Willesden. His youngest children – 13, 15 and 18 – visit for a couple of days a week. He’s single and he admits somewhat mistily that he definitely prefers the family unit as a way of living.

And what does he make of Harlesden these days? “Well, there was a time in the 90s when young people were shooting each other here and everyone assumed it was a terrible place. But I never thought that. For me, it was always a family place, and I think it still is.”

Fittingly for the gentleman he shows himself to be, he gives me a lift home in the Lincoln. Not since, multimillionaire publisher, Felix Dennis sent me home in his chauffer-driven silver Rolls Royce, have I arrived home in such style. But that’s another story.

At home, a friend of my son’s, on hearing who I’ve been out with, says “Oh, isn’t he that heavy gangster guy?” So the old image is till working. I get the impression he quite likes it.

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A GAS METER READER’S PERSPECTIVE

Streetcomber, poet, artist, mother, gas meter reader, Sue Saunders has been sacked since last time I met her on my first walk. So in fact, it’s an ex-gas meter reader’s perspective. Sue was reading the meter at Car City UK when she overheard me discussing the availability of Somali men with a lovely Somali woman, Amran. My son, Marlon and her daughter, Eileen, went to the same primary and secondary schools. Talking to her, I realise what a great walking companion she will be, so I invite her along. We decide to meet outside the very same used car showroom at 9am on April Fool’s Day. It’s a great portent.

She’s wearing tiny teacup earrings, striped tights, sneakers with silver laces and immediately launches into telling me about the precious street bounty she has collected in the past. “I’ve got a bird table in my garden that I found down Tubbs Lane,” she laughs. So we decide to go down Tubbs Lane. Just like that.

I hadn’t realised that Sue had been wearing her green blankety outfit (in other words, gas meter reader uniform) for three years. “Yes, I loved it,” she says wistfully, “the freedom to roam around, to investigate basements and the backs of buildings. Just me and my meter reader.”

As we gaze at a church, which announces itself as OPEN DOOR, I’m beginning to become aware exactly how much of an asset it is. To walk with an ex-gas meter reader. “I always thought Open Door was rather an ironic name, ” comments Sue dryly, “because I could never get into the building.”

So we try the door at the back. It has a bell marked ‘Please ring for attention’. “I would always look at those words,” she says in her rather wistful haughty tones, “and think ‘Oh yes please, I love attention’. If only my husband would put in a bell like that in our bedroom.” But this particular attention fails to materialise and we move on.

Only moments earlier, Sue had been telling how difficult it was for her to find a job again. Then she drops a little bombshell. “They put me on a register for professionals because I told them I have a degree from Cambridge University,” she says, “but I’ve never been a professional. I don’t want to waste their time.”

Ah ha, I think, degree from Cambridge, I’d never realised that. Sue is such an amazing mixture of contradictions. She reminds me of another era. The 70s. When students went to study what they fancied, not what career they thought they should go for. I have an ex-boyfriend, Jerry Tidy actually, who studied Latin and English and then became a car mechanic in the US, another friend, Simon Farr who became a Maoist whilst he was at art college, then worked on the Underground for eight years.

Jerry still works on cars but they are Alpha Romeos in Virginia, whilst Simon is an artist who paints portraits.

Sue’s leading me round a new corner. “It doesn’t have a sea view,” she says, “but it leads to the backs of the businesses that are on the High Street and there are some interesting alleyways.” I’m always thrilled to go somewhere totally new and I’ve never walked down here before. Clifton Road looks onto Willesden Junction from the west and there’s an impressive warehouse-type of building at the end. “You’d really like it in there,” declares Sue knowingly, “there’s a flat up there that’s rather modern and fascinating.”

We investigate the alleyway on the left, which takes us to the back of the shops. “I’d think of myself as Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs,” says Sue now leaping around as though she has a fake gun in her hand, “when I came down here. I’d be creeping around in the darkness. People don’t realise how hard it is to actually locate meters especially in businesses.” It’s true, it had never occurred to me. At that very moment, she spots an ‘inviting’ open back door which looks very dodgy indeed. The way to it is strewn with mattresses and discarded magazines plus it is decidedly waterlogged. I’m not sure I’m so keen on this particular excursion.

But Sue is enchanted. So I join her. We step into the darkness and realise we have found the downstairs club area of Jet Set, the nightclub. The notorious Jet Set. I have already mentioned the shooting of a 28 year old DJ outside here in the fifth walk. “I would sometimes wander up the road to find cigarettes at night,” says Sue, “and I’d find myself ordering a whiskey here.”

Sue obviously has a perambulatory late-night life. By the time, we’re back on Tubbs Lane, she is telling me more about her night-wandering. “There used to be an old snooker hall up the road,” she says and I think she must mean in what was the old Picardy cinema, which has been rebuilt and become Paddy Power, “one night, I had an amazing time. There was a big gypsy bloke and a black jockey who kept bursting into tears because he’d got caught up in drink and drugs and missed out on a successful career. They ended up taking me to Lakeleys, a drinking club in West Hampstead, which is where I met my husband a while later. On the way home in a mini cab, the gypsy kept telling me that we would never meet again and that he knew this because he was a gypsy. But I still didn’t give him a kiss.”

By the time we get to Station Road, Sue admits she’s been tempted by the interior of the Victorian Willesden Junction Hotel to go there and dine, but the desire has diminished since it has become recently the meaty Amber Grill. “But look at these original tiles,” she says pulling up the front mat. “they would make a great photo.”

I suddenly feel drawn towards Harley Rd, which I’ve never walked down and looks distinctly unpromising. The railway lines are on the left with a huge industrial complex. Neither of us are not sure what it is. I’m expecting endless nondescript houses, but suddenly I notice a girl’s face wearing a hijab on the railway wall. A row of faces painted in dramatic black and white. Boys, girls, serious, threatening. What do their expressions tell us? It turns out to be a 2008 art project by Brent Council called Girls and Boys (note order), which is questioning the negative stereotypes that we have about teenagers. Great idea. Shame it is hidden away down here. Although it is brilliant to discover. And the first bit of public art in Harlesden that I’ve actually liked.

Sue spots a bloke in a green uniform munching away on a park bench. “He’s probably a street cleaner,” she says going into her uniform expertise, “having his elevenses. That is one of the problems about working outside, you have to find somewhere to eat. In winter, of course, I used to seek the comfort of a cappuccino in a café. Actually I used to get given food all the time. Especially loaves, then I’d have to carry them around with me all day. But people were being so generous, I couldn’t refuse.”

We stand by some metal fencing and admire the gigantic yellow industrial equipment that looks as though it’s about to clamber across the landscape. Like a stray rollercoaster that has wandered off from the Pleasure Beach. Then I notice a discarded crutch just through the fence. “I’m such an optimist, that I would look at that and assume that a miracle had happened,” she says. “But you see that plastic ghost-like model, that’s the sort of thing I would pick up in my streetcombing. It could give meter-reading a poetic dimension. I once opened a meter and found a lion inside, I imagined I was in Narnia. I’m always writing bits of poetry. Sometimes, I  have written on the backs of maps, then forgot and thrown them away by mistake.”

As if summoned by our resident poet, the heady sweet smell of biscuits wafts over us. It’s McVities factory, which Sue has just mentioned. “I once wrote a poem about real success being about having the freedom to imbibe that smell, rather than the safety of working in a bank,” she says. A sign appears on a wall above the railway lines, it declares; ‘Prepare To Meet Thy God’. I have to admit I am unprepared.

There’s a Caribbean Cultural Centre on Minet Rd where Sue recommends the woman who works there as a good chatterer. “But not today,” she says, “otherwise, we’ll never get away. I used to go to read the meter and then she’d engage me in a lengthy discussion which I found very difficult to extricate myself from.”

On Acton Lane, Sue explains that she actually relished meter reading for businesses and that no-one else wanted to do them because they took so long to find. “We didn’t have a target because the managers knew how hard it was,” she says, “which was perfect for me because I could wander with impunity. But I was very good at it.” It seems rather tragic that they sacked her. She is obviously so ideally suited to the profession.

She strokes the lichen on top of a wall and explains that it’s called Golden Haired Lichen. We pass a shop further up called Fix Up Good, which has the mystifying sign Acc/clo/toil on it. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed it if she hadn’t pointed it out. ‘What does that mean do you think?’ asks Sue. I’ve no idea but she has already worked it out. “I think it’s accessories, clothes and toiletries but it’s not exactly the most attractive of abbreviations, is it?.”

We pass Connaught House – obviously a grand Victorian abode in its day. It has black wrought iron at the front and a veranda. “I was delighted when I found out that it’s owned by the family of one of my daughter’s friends,” she says displaying her penchant for grandeur in design at least. “Eileen has visited and she says it’s just like being in the Little House On The Prairie when you sit on the veranda.” I can’t help myself mentioning that 30 years ago, I (with Jerry, the Latin scholar and car mechanic) lived for a short time in a plantation house that was in New Orleans’ ninth ward – the place that was hit so badly by Hurricane Katrina – which had a similar veranda. And of course, a couple of rocking chairs. Is this veranda one upwomanship?  Probably. Unaware in a delightful way, Sue gasps in wonder at the thought of me in New Orleans!

I want to have a look in at the enormous Catholic church, the one Alexei Sayle thinks occupies an industrial bleak architectural genre, Our Lady Of Willesden. Where pilgrimages have been coming since 1538. And there’s a black Madonna inside. Now home to a Brazilian/Polish etc congregation, it has wooden herons on the roof. “They don’t seem to be working,” says Sue, “the pigeons are still there.” We have a quick peek inside but the cleaners are preparing for the Easter services. And all the statuary is shrouded in purple covers. To keep them respectfully away from the dirty process of cleaning.

So we stop at my favourite shop Wrights instead, to admire the skimpy lingerie and the strangely attired models. Sue, in contrast to Alexei, is unabashed in her appreciation. “I bought that classified Babydoll calendar for my 33 year old husband, Sid,” she explains, revealing her cunning housekeeping methods,  “and stuck it on the instructions that I left him, hoping that it would enthuse him into DIY action.” Would he similarly purchase a portrait of a hunky, young ‘stud muffin’ to motivate his wife? “Oh no,” she says, having spent a few minutes examining a ‘naughty’ lighter for women, “he’d never think of that.”

The Portuguese Bicafe is our final destination. I’d seen it on our dawn walk and thought it looked worth a visit. And Sue, it turns out, is already a regular from her meter-reading days. The gallaos and cakes are worth it. So is Sue. She’s been fabulous entertainment every step of the way.

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