Monthly Archives: June 2010


I’ve known for at least the past five years that the ever so quizzical and now apparently sexy – the other day, a 20 something data designer told me that the gig audience her friend had been part of the previous evening, was a sea of  Louis’ which was a very desirable thing – documentary maker, Louis Theroux was a neighbour of mine. Not close close, but I had spotted him at my local newsagents, the one where British Asian Dar (he came over from Pakistan in the 60s) calls himself Danny and sells boxing gloves as well as newspapers. And I’d heard that Louis was a member of the Neighbourhood Watch in my area.

So for the past few months, I’ve been trying to persuade him to walk with me. Via his agent and emails. At first, he declined. However, he declined in a way that made me think that he would eventually agree. He took a typically ‘Louis’ softly, softly approach. ‘I don’t think I can help you,’ he wrote indicating to me that there was at least a small part of him that thought he could.

I persisted in a slow, lightly determined manner. A few weeks ago, he relented politely. Always finishing his emails with ‘Best Regards’ as though he is deliberately adhering to a time warp. I suggested we meet down Park Parade. He had other ideas. “Dora’s Delights,” he wrote, “at 9 15am.” The delightfully named Dora’s Delights is a new café that has recently opened right next to the Jubilee Clock.

And there he is, reading The Sun. That’s a surprise. Initially, I nearly fall into a seductive trap. Louis, of course, starts to ask me questions about myself. I suddenly hear myself talking about The Face and interviewing sculptor and in the 1960s dubbed Scotland’s most violent man, Jimmy Boyle, and stop myself. Otherwise, I won’t find anything out about Louis.

It’s all a bit polite at the beginning. He’s lived here for nine years, he’d like to be even more active locally (he’s pretty active already, he was out on the streets earlier this year promoting the shop locally campaign), the negative press that Harlesden attracts, the regeneration project, (which I haven’t explored yet), the Keep Harlesden Clean campaign and the local shops.

“I do try to shop locally,” he says, “I’ve become a bit of a mango snob since living here. There are at least three different types including honey mangos.” And then, there’s his list of good local fishmongers and restaurants.  Oh dear, I’m in danger of getting bored with Louis Theroux already.

Does he get recognised here, I ask? “Less than elsewhere,” he says, “for instance, my Polish neighbour, Ryzard, has just got back from a trip home. He got really excited because he’d seen me over there on TV, he hadn’t realised what I did before that. A lot of people in Harlesden are watching their own national TV by satellite so they wouldn’t see me.”

It soon becomes clear that Louis’ head really is full of questions. He is wont – as we see in his TV documentaries on everything from medicating children to interviewing the inmates of San Quentin prison or sex workers in Nevada – to ponder possibilities endlessly. He has been accused of being faux-naïve, but I experience him as just eternally wanting to find out more. “I am curious to know,” he says uttering one of his favourite phrases, “how the demographics evolved here. It was posh wasn’t it at the turn of the century, so how did it change?”

I explain badly about the railways, then the industrialisation, for instance, McVities then the arrival of cheap housing for the workers. And the departure of the middle classes in the 1920s and 30s. Later I read that Louis has a first in history from Oxford University. Oh, the satisfaction of not even getting an O level in it and being able to lecture Louis!

But before long, we’re onto to shopping again. Louis reckons – is he right? – that Harlesden is the only place in London where you can buy black beans in a tin. I do like his quirky adherence to such little known ‘facts’. Apparently, he – he has two young boys, Albert and Frederick, and a partner called Nancy – cooked a Nigella dish last night which included one of those remarkable tins of black beans, plus Thai fish sauce and lime.

We talk about shops like Harlesden Fresh Fish – my local fish shop, which is owned by a large smiling Afghan man – opposite Iceland, when Louis demonstrates one of his most charming attributes. “I worry about the shops in the week,” he says and I think he genuinely does, “they might be busy at the weekend but they’re almost empty in the week.” There’s something deeply ok about a man who worries about the livelihood of his local shopkeepers.

I’d planned to take Louis on a walk to Stonebridge. I wanted to know what he thought of all the architectural changes. But he had a slightly different idea. “Have you ever been to that hotel up there?” he says eagerly, “I’m curious to know what goes on there. Who stays there? Why do they stay there?”

In fact, I’ve been meaning to go to this Victorian hotel. Right in the middle of Stonebridge – the estates, the towers – stands this vestige of another era. It is weird. Out-of-place. Faintly ridiculous. The Stonebridge Park  Hotel – it was built when commuters from the City stayed there in the mid 19th century.

And so we’re walking at last. Past Subway, and Wrights photography and lingerie – “What’s all that about?” he laughs – and the old Mean Fiddler. “I read your piece about Vince Power,” he says, “but he can’t really be soft can he? He runs nightclubs and music venues.” Afterwards, I think about this and decide that actually he can be soft as well as tough. Do people have to be just either one or the other? The questions are evidently infectious.

Now we’re outside another fresh fish shop window in the High Street and we witness a crab moving. It’s still alive. “Do you think that’s cruel?” he asks. I turn the question back on him. And he’s not sure. There are a lot of different fish on display here. “Can you name many of them,” he asks. I don’t think I can. These constant questions make me realise what a permanent state of inexactness I live in.

Outside the newly refurbished library, a little group have gathered waiting for it to open. Our communal gaze is immediately drawn to a couple of shaven headed men who are sitting on the steps and falling slowly and drunkenly into one another in a very intimate way for 10 o’clock in the morning. Of course, Louis, the documentary maker isn’t a teensy bit fazed by staring at them for quite a long time. Past most people’s comfort threshold. “It’s funny they look as though they are cuddling,” he says. And they are. “They’re probably Eastern European,” he adds.

He points out Odeon Court – a row of bland, 1990s houses. Like Barrett homes. Of course, it’s where the Odeon, which originally opened in 1937, once was. In fact, this is also where Vince Power meant when he was talking about the location of the famous Harlesden Roxy  where The Clash rehearsed in the 70s.

“I find myself lamenting the demise of the Odeon,” says Louis admitting a kind of longing for a lack of change, “but I do have neo-phobic tendencies so I just have to stop myself.”

I can feel his neo-phobic tendencies almost constantly. They settle in the relentless pondering and the almost comical grimace that so often appears on his face.

As we look down Hillside and onto the new Stonebridge estates, I ask him if he’s ever thought about doing a documentary on Harlesden?  “I’ve thought about it,” he says, “but it’s good to keep work and home separate. There are so many questions that I haven’t asked about Harlesden in the nine years that I’ve been here, that I would have asked in the first hour out on the street with a camera crew.”

The strangely out of place Stonebridge Park Hotel is before us now. Only it’s changed its name to the Bridge Park Hotel. Obviously because Stonebridge has too many crime, gangs and shootings connotations.  It has wrought iron balconies and a feeling of distant grandeur turned into nouveau tackiness. We push open the door and somehow Louis transforms into his documentary maker self. Newly assertive, he takes the lead.

“Can we see a room?” he asks and he won’t take ‘No’ for an answer when the blonde (maybe Slavic) receptionist informs us that the rooms have yet to be cleaned. Suddenly, I’m in a situation where Louis and I are pretending to need a room together. At least, he asks to see a twin one which would cost us £60 for the night.

In the meantime – we wait to see whether we will be allowed in – we survey the reception area. There’s a huge, Argos catalogue-type chandelier, a souvenir display case and lots of brochures about Paris and Wembley, then some decorative 19th century posters.  Louis is bizarrely impressed and incredibly enthusiastic. He’s come alive in some way that wasn’t there earlier.

“Someone has obviously spent some money on this hotel recently,” he says, “there’s a feeling of it being taken care of. It looks clean and looked after.” And he says it quite a number of times. “Am I going overboard?” he asks. He is.

Finally, we triumph. We wander down back corridors crammed with kitsch pictures of elephants, storks and crying women with peculiar little words of wisdom. For instance – To Be Happy, We Must Not Be Too Concerned With Others. “That’s odd, isn’t it,” he says and I agree it is very odd.

The room is small and unremarkable. Louis is far better than me at making small talk about this frankly unimpressive twin room. “Do you have non-smoking and smoking rooms?” he asks as though he is making a vitally important enquiry. I can tell he is enjoying himself. It’s the thrill of the chase of ‘the genuinely odd in the most ordinary setting’ that drives him.  I’m not sure how odd this is though. “I think I can smell smoke,” he observes in a detective-like manner. The receptionist concurs but adds that it probably is from a few nights ago rather than the previous evening.

On the way back, we look out of the back door on to one of the two remaining Stonebridge tower blocks. Confusingly, it has scaffolding around it. We’re fooled into thinking that they are re-furbishing the façade. My son puts me right when I get back. “That’s because they take it down bit by bit,” he explains to his ignorant mother.

As we walk away from the Bridge Park Hotel, I wonder aloud about the dramatic changes in architecture around here, and whether the low rise buildings will encourage more community and less crime. “I think Corbusier said something like ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter, they shape us’,” he says.

You were sounding rather anti-smoking back at the hotel? “No, I’m a smoker,” he smiles, “I smoke about three cigarettes a week.”

At this point, he produces a shopping list on the back of an envelope and we end up at Blue Mountain Peak Cash And Carry, the quintessentially Caribbean food shop, searching out very English ingredients for the Theroux family dinner. But Louis is unabashed. “Can you see the broccoli?” he says amid the mountains of yams and cassavas. I can. But definitely not the crème fraiche. Oh, and he has a very cute shopping bag with him!

“I’m so glad we went to that hotel,” he says seeming genuinely pleased. “Why?” I laugh. “Because now I can speak with authority about it,” he explains.

Hilarious. Why would you want to? “Well, it would make a great place to disappear in,” he adds tellingly, “haven’t you wanted to totally disappear?”

Ending on a series of questions seems only right and proper after an encounter with Louis…

PS His next BBC documentary is called Law and Disorder In Lagos. It’s about the city’s civic structure or lack of it. “I spent a month there,” he says, “it is dangerous but not as much as you would expect. Nigeria is not really far away. It’s much closer than the US, and there is so many connections with the UK.  So many Nigerians who live here, families who send money back there. I like that.”



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Ah ha, apparently, there are around five hundred Black Madonnas – a black version of the Virgin Mary, who various scholars suggest is a pre-Christian mother figure with the goddess Isis as an ancestor – scattered around Europe and three of them are in Harlesden and Neasden. The Black Madonna is also said to teach us to embrace our dark and light sides, our negative and positive characteristics. Very much my kind of woman in this case.

But instead of visiting two of these local Black Madonnas – the priest at the Catholic Our Lady of Willesden church in Harlesden is on his day off – I find myself at a shop called All Eyes On Egypt on Park Parade that has been intriguing me for some time. Is it the home of a mysterious cult? I must be following the Isis thread instead.

I’m greeted by the very spirited, Amsu Re who happens to look like Eddie Murphy.

He sparkles and crackles with preacherly zeal, but on the side, I can’t help seeing that he’s a bit of a laugh. “People are robots,” he says in an American accent, “they don’t want to know the truth or talk about the deceptions. This shop is about education.”

A few weeks ago, I saw a poster on the window of the One-Stop Jerk Chicken shop in the High Street, advertising a talk entitled The Angry Vagina, which was taking place here at this shop.  “Oh yeah,” says Amsu Re, ”the author, Queen Afua was over from the US so we launched her book Overcoming The Angry Vagina here.”

Queen Afua advocates natural remedies and the health of the womb. In other words, don’t let the medical world intervene and remove wombs when it’s not necessary. She’s also concerned that young women ‘don’t give themselves away too easily.’ Originally called Helen Robinson, she’s now an African queen. I love the idea of re-appropriating names in this grand re-positioning manner. I want one myself. Maybe not African but more appropriately Celtic. Similarly, Amsu Re was probably born with a name like Colin Walker but has become the vastly more mysterious and kingly, Amsu Re.

Queen Afua – she’s a holistic practitioner who’s worked with Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu – asks a vital question. Is your vagina happy or angry? Or more appositely, is your spouse’s vagina happy or angry?  She also makes suggestions of ways to increase vaginal contentment – to men and women. And watch out, because she has hinted that her next book could be about the Angry Penis.

There are pictures of Bob Marley, natural oils, soaps, posters of black women and men who fought against slavery and for women’s rights, then there are those of sports stars like the magnificent Usain Bolt. All Eyes On Egypt seems to be about inviting black people to become more aware of the richness of their culture. Instead of being in the media as the victim or perpetrator of a killing. A re-education.

Mercifully, Amsu – who tells me he was born in Paddington but later brought up in one of the towers at Stonebridge, “I remember us all playing outside together in an innocent way” before he and his family went to live in the US – has a sense of humour too. “You know why Usain Bolt can run so fast. It’s because Jamaica is where all the rebel slaves went,” he says, “so they had already learnt how to run away from their owners.”

And Egypt is African and the cradle of civilisation. “The word Egypt means those with brown faces, “ he explodes with passion, “and ancient Egypt included North and South America.”

Mmmm, did it? And then, he adds – “Did you know that John Hanson was the first black President of the US in 1781, forget Barack Obama?” he says in an authoritative fashion. There are photographs of this black ‘President’ around the shop but later I check out the facts around this assertion and discover that John Hanson was more probably a white merchant which is what white history recalls, and the black John Hanson was a 19th century senator who promoted the relocating of black people to Liberia. This seems to be a photo of the latter as photos weren’t around until the 1800s.

So truth takes a strange turn at All Eyes On Egypt. I agree with their premise – redress the status of black people in history – but advise caution on some of their wilder shores. Amsu Re despite being charming, committed and fun, has a conspiracy theory edge to him, which is a step too far for me personally. There are books about Jay-Z being a member of the Illuminati, the Moorish Paradigm and much more.

However, it makes me smile to see one of their posters is the pope kneeling in front of – guess who – yes, a Black Madonna in Poland in 1999. “Yeah, you see, even the pope respects the Black Madonna,” he grins.

He also shows me two photos of dignified black women from the early 19th century in the US. “This one is Harriet Tubman,” he says, “and she escaped from slavery but went back to the plantations to rescue another seventy slaves using something called the Underground Railroad which was a system of safe houses. She was an abolitionist and suffragette. The other one is Sojourner Truth who was also a slave who ran away. She was the first black woman to take a white man to court and win the case. She managed to get one of her children back from a slave-owner.”

At home, I read about these incredible women and when the text says “born into slavery” I feel instantly moved by what that actually meant. They were incredible women. And Amsu Re? “I’ve seen a lot of unjust things, “ he says finally, “you can make a choice in life and I try to be a better person.” And I believe him.

There’s a sign above a door saying ‘Hold On To The Rope’. What does it mean? “Stay firm,” he says giving one of his ever-ready smiles, “don’t give up.”

The next morning – yes, this is a walk in two parts – I’m going to find a real Black Madonna. I’m straying a little out of Harlesden into Neasden and is actually the parish of Willesden – to St Mary’s Church.

St Mary’s – C of E but high church, anglo-catholic, as they say – is an unexpected pleasure. I walk down past Roundwood Park – formerly the grounds of Victorian grandee in these parts, George Furness who had a manor house here – but now a wonderful council-run park, and up to Church Road. Over the bypass and next to a big roundabout, I come upon an unexpected vista. Suddenly, the grim urban surroundings melt away, and there is St Mary’s looking as though it is still set in a village. Yes, a village.

A place of worship – there were a series of wooden churches that burnt down – has been here since 938 and it is the ancient shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. Pilgrims came from far and wide to visit ‘The Black Virgin of Willesden’ and the well to which miraculous powers were ascribed. By 1475, it was an unusually popular and drunkenness and gambling were reported. But, in 1538, Thomas Cromwell stripped the church of its carvings and the Black Madonna was burnt in Chelsea.

I push open the heavy fourteenth century door and the scene is pure Vicar of Dibley. It’s 9 30 am on a Saturday and a couple of the ten parishioners welcome me in a very affable manner. Suddenly, the vicar sweeps in and kisses one of the alters on his way. Singing, incense, Hallelujahs and communion all follow. I try to keep up – there’s a delightful mixture of black and white stalwarts. My eye wanders over to a plaque, which commemorates Cyril Verres Davis, the first black churchwarden here from 1985 to 2000.

At the end of the service, the vicar, David Clues shakes my hand. Immediately warm, friendly, witty and urbane – he oozes confidence and obviously adores his job, his congregation and his church. He reminds me of the Cameron/Clegg tribe with a bit of Ben Bradshaw thrown in. And it turns out, that he is also a Lib-Dem counsellor, the only one in this ward to be re-elected.

“Come and have coffee with us,” he says shunting me into a backroom which takes me back in time to the 1960s in an institutional way, it reminds me of my own childhood Yorkshire village church, “you’ll have to be brave, they all like to talk a lot.” He waves me in and like a perversely young father – he’s in his 40s, they’re all older – tells them to be nice to me.

They are. Of course. There’s a lot of bustling going on – staple guns at the ready for programme work – because they are in full preparation for the annual pilgrimage next week. “Oh, it’s great fun,” says local historian, Roger Macklen, who informs me that he started off as low church and has ended up high, “pilgrims come all over the country, there is a procession and balloons.”

There’s a flurry of excitement as I ask about the oldest part of the church, and Steve, an ex-engineer who’s been a member of this church since 1972, leads me to the other end. “Look at this pillar,” he says proudly, “it’s from the 12th century and was discovered in 1872 during some renovation work. You can see this was originally the outer wall before this extension was put on to make the church bigger. In 1800, there were 200 people in Willesden, by 1872, there were 20,000, they needed more space in the church.”

Finally, David stops running around and sits down. He’s a bit of an X factor vicar. He likes the limelight and doesn’t mind admitting it. He’s theatrical in a charming way. “I’d heard about St Mary’s because of its soup kitchen,” he explains, “which was fantastic and happened every night. But last Xmas, we sat down to eight turkeys and there was only one homeless person. Other places had opened up similar provisions so we called it a day. We suffer here geographically, there used to be streets of terraced houses around here but they were all pulled down. Now we’ve got a bypass and a roundabout around us, but not so many people. But we always keep the doors open because I believe we are a valuable place of refuge and solace.”

At last we’ve come to the Black Madonna moment. We step out into the church again and there amidst all the finely carved 19th century sculptures sits the Black Madonna and Child. It is a bold, modern, primitive piece of religious sculpture.  Baby Jesus stands on his mother’s knees with his arms outstretched in a gesture that is surrendered, trusting and welcoming. Funnily enough, it reminds me of the major arcana tarot card, the Sun. In the 19th century Rider Waite pack, a child rides naked on the back of a horse – it is a powerful image, which urges you to trust the universe and not to fear it.

“I’m tremendously proud of our Black Madonna,” says David, “it was commissioned in 1972, and a woman sculptor, Catharni Stern carved it out of lime wood. They were uncertain political times and I think its solidity gives reassurance. Pilgrims do come to visit and also take holy water from the well. It’s very special to us.”

This Black Madonna looks out of place in a good way here. She’s got solid peasant woman limbs in a church that is full of slender figures. No-one knows what the original statue was like – Cromwell had it burnt in 1538 – only that it was in black wood (and some think it was candle soot-blackened) and covered in silver plate. But for hundreds of years, people came to worship her here.

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