I can’t write about this walk without mentioning my mother. I arrive to meet – philosopher, Robert Rowland Smith whose most recent book is called Breakfast With Socrates and where he emphasises that philosophy should be wise and about life, as opposed to clever and purely abstract – in a state of upset. My 83 year old mum, Nancy – a small, feisty, Yorkshire woman who lost my dad over 25 years ago, and has been a whirlwind of independence, cruising, dancing, golfing, gardening ever since – has just spent the night in hospital. She’s not ill in a big way. She had cancer of the colon when she was 54 and survived that with typical brio. But she’s ill in an alone in the world way. Suddenly, everything has got too much for her. I’ve just spoken to her and she sounds fragile, vulnerable and lonely.
Oh god, it feels terrible even going on this walk. I feel how she feels. By almost osmosis. And the funny thing is, I had a terrible relationship with mum for years. For all sorts of reasons. I hated her. And my father too. But over the last 15 years, a gradual healing – she’s helped me out with money after I spit up with my long term partner, we’ve been on lots of little English adventures together to Northumberland, to the Lake District, to Dorset and more – has taken place. She trusts me and says so. I still find it hard to believe. I was always ‘the teenager who used the house like a hotel’. Even 20 years later. However, whereas once I would have had huge difficulty imagining the possibility, now I can say clearly that I love her. In many ways, we occupy such different lands – I’m an extrovert, she’s an introvert, I’m in the inner city, she’s in the countryside, I read voraciously, she reads to get to sleep, I’m ever-curious, she’s happy not to know – but the love landscape, we share.
And so I arrive in a state of stirred anxiety. Like a puffin that is just about to fly across the North Sea and discovers one of her wings has been damaged. Initially, I don’t realise that Robert – who has a boyish way about him, despite being a father to a 22 year old daughter, as well as a 19 year old and a four year old – hasn’t arrived on the train. We meet – this is becoming something of a habit – at the top of the steps at Willesden Junction but later, it transpires he got a taxi because he is afraid he will have a panic attack if he goes on the tube. That’s too claustrophobic for him.
Despite his forever-young air, Robert is an expert self-confessed pontificator. Will he be wise or just clever, I wonder? He looks down the long, long walkway with the chilling wire fences. “Look, it’s like the narrow channel between life and death,” he says, “it must be like walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death at night. In fact, like taking your life in your hands. It must be at least 200 yards which means you have a long time to be scared.”
Ah, thanks Robert, great start. And he’s scathing about the view. “I actually like the view over Willesden Junction,” I counter, “it’s bleak but somehow magnificent. There’s something about wide industrial landscapes. The odd ugly beauty.”
“Well, I know what you mean,” he replies, “Plato said the ideal was from afar, and I love the cooling towers at Didcot Power Station from afar, whereas up close, they are horrible. There is a type of poetry to that difference.”
One of my ideas for this walk is to look at buildings afresh and see how their usage has changed over the years or even months. It sounds drier than I hope it is. For instance, I‘ve noticed that the former club, The Lodge – a funky, unusually-white- boy-cum-middle-age, post-Ibiza nightclub where house music was the thing, as well as groovy, local bands like The Trojans who play energised punk ska and are led by the alternatively royal, befeathered boho, Gaz Mayall, – which has been boarded up for a couple of years, has re-opened its doors. I’ve been observing what I assume are Somalian men leaving its premises and have started to wonder if it’s become a mosque. Which sounds ridiculous, but you never know. Remember that period in the early 90s when public toilets turned into snooker clubs (Shepherds Bush) and architects’ offices (Fulham). This could be the early 21st century equivalent – house clubs become mosques.
Robert and I hang outside until a couple of men come out. They can’t speak enough English to explain, but Mohammed, a charming, young Somalian who is running a newly opened lettings agency next door called – wait for it – Cosy Way, helps me out. “It is a leisure and social club now for men and teenage boys,” he says with a winning grin, “it’s not just for Somalians but a lot of them do go there. There are snooker tables down there and a big screen.“
We look across the road, and there is a cavernous restaurant asserting itself in a way that you can’t miss . It’s Iranian and always empty. Although that doesn’t seem to prevent the owners putting showy, garishly beflowered window boxes outside. It reminds me of the infamous Cleopatra’s in Notting Hill. A huge Greek restaurant, it was always empty. Mysteriously. There were rumours about money laundering, and eventually it became the uber-trendy but short-lived Pharmacy, a restaurant that housed Damian Hirst’s medical pieces but was ultimately so empty-hearted, it drove people away.
Robert casually drops into the conversation that his 22 year old daughter is just applying for a diplomatic job in Tehran. I erupt in surprise. Apparently, she’s already in charge of nuclear non-proliferation at the Foreign Office. At 22!!! “Well, you or I would be frightened of the job,” he laughs, “but a 22 year old just takes it in her stride.”
We’re just passing the Open Ministry Church at the top of Tubbs lane and I’m telling Robert about my walk with the ex gas meter reader and poet, Sue Saunders. She had remarked that it may say it’s ‘Open’, but it was always closed when she was trying to find the gas meter. “Did you know that gas comes from the same German root as gast which means host,” says my walking/talking philosopher, “and that gist and ghost are both related? So zeitgeist is the gist of the age and it’s no wonder that philosophers spout a lot of hot air or gas.”
I’m not sure how we launched into the next tangential topic, but it seemed apposite at the time. I think I was explaining that the boxy, unattractive 90s building on the right, Job Centre Plus, used to be the 3,000 seater Edwardian Willesden Hippodrome when Robert makes an analogy with Sydenham and suburbs on hills and good health back in the early 1900s, before telling me a story about friends of his being held up at knifepoint in LA. “They both had completely different recollections about who their muggers were. One thought they were white, the other Mexican,” he says. “I’m writing a book at the moment about how we frame things differently as individuals and what governs our way of seeing, and ultimately what is truth.”
Ken Livingstone is mentioned. Not in the truth discussion, but casually as we walk up the road. Robert is a management consultant specialising in change as well as a philosopher, and worked from time to time advising the Labour government. We both admit to being former Ken fans, but agree that he was suffering badly from blind complacency at the end of his term as mayor and we can’t see him winning again in 2012. “There was a fatigue about him,” says Robert, “and I think he’s had his time.”
The next moment, we’re outside that Christian bookshop, The Rock, staring incredulously at weirdly inappropriate unchristian tomes like ‘Getting Rich Your Own Way’ and ‘Prayer Passport To Crush Oppression’. Does he have any spiritual beliefs, I wonder? “In my 20s, Buddhism had a certain appeal,” he says, “because it wasn’t a religion. I suffer from panic attacks and I was searching for something. I started meditating and began to change and become calmer. The trouble was I felt myself losing desire and longing and I questioned what was happening. It seemed to me that Buddhism was trying to eradicate the screwed up bits of being human and I decided I didn’t want to exclude those parts of myself. I’ve been in psychoanalysis and discovered the roots of my panic attacks, and now I also teach Constellations work which is a sort of dynamic therapy.”
I am definitely all for befriending and integrating the shadow side of our characters. Rather than relegating them to a sinful position as most religions do. In fact, I confess that I am just about to help organise a 10 day camp called The Field of Love on an organic farm in Suffolk, where there is an ethos that embraces exactly this idea, as well as freeing the body into dance and bliss. Oh, how can I even say that on a walk in Harlesden. Ok, ok – I am the hippie of Harlesden.
We wander into a shop crammed full of scents, oils, materials and long black dresses. And washing powder and matches. I’ve never been in here before. A woman in a black veil and dress stares at me fiercely, as if to say ‘How dare you come in here. I know you’re not going to buy anything’. I ask her journalistically where she’s from originally and she says ‘East Africa’. Somalia, I think. There does seem to be a significant Somalian presence in this run of shops right here next to the Jam Down Bakery on the High St.
“Where are you from?” she counters.
“Yorkshire originally,” I say. One of the 20 something girls with her, pipes up that she used to live in Hull. Which is fittingly surprising. There’s a Yorkshire connection. I’m amazed in general by my Yorkshire connections in London. Doe, who is becoming one of my close friends, and lives round the corner, has a sister who lives in the same village as my mother. Where I grew up. Jake (aka Jacqueline) that I met at a Tantra Festival in Catalonia, has parents who live three miles from my mother. And there are more. It’s as though I’m reassembling my Yorkshire roots around me in London.
Over the road is the Green Man, the 18th century pub – in the mid-18th century, there were only two inns in the village of Harlesden and the Green Man was one of them – which has turned into a Portuguese restaurant, and appears to be thriving. I mention that the Clash played up the road at former fleapit, the Coliseum in 1976. “I saw them at the Lyceum when I was 15,” says Robert keenly, “it was my first concert and the best two hours of my life.”
On the spur of the moment, I decide to see if Our Lady Of Willesden, the Catholic church with the other black Madonna – actually I forget that there are two black Madonnas here and one that I’ve already seen at the C of E St Mary’s down the road – is open. It is. A 1930s building that Alexei Sayle compared with the Power Station exterior of Tate Modern; inside, it’s an excitingly jarring mixture of a favourite elderly auntie’s flat and Las Vegas casino.
“I rather like it, because I’ve got soft spot for the 30s and the optimism of that era of industrial expansion,” says Robert bewilderingly. “I like the flatness of the surfaces.”
I look up at the Art Deco organ and honestly, it looks like a beige box. An extremely boring one. “I like the simplicity of the lines,” he waxes, “there’s a formal elegance to it.”
And the altar, which is much newer, has huge pillars and the nouveau grandeur of a casino that needs to succeed. It’s gaudy in a way that could be kitsch. In a good way. But, isn’t. It’s too downright ordinary. Robert disagrees. He’s still going on about simplicity. I’m not convinced.
However, the piece de resistance, is the annex where the 19th century black Madonna is housed. In high camp extravaganza style, it is surrounded by fluffy clouds and cherubs painted on to the wall in blues, whites and pinks. Whereas the main church is Las Vegas, this fresco here is more Harlesden pound shop. It is a little strange. Like David Lachapelle is about to do a photo shoot. But the actual Madonna, herself is beautiful, finely carved and full of grace with a sparkling tiara. Strangely enough, it would go much more fittingly with the interior of St Mary’s, and was in fact orginally actually carved from an old oak tree in St Mary’s graveyard. Because before the Reformation St Mary’s was the original location for the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden going back to medieval times and there was a Black Madonna that was worshipped for hundreds of years until Cromwell destroyed it. There are many theories about what the Black Madonnas represent, or whether they were in fact blackened by the soot of candles. One theory is that they represent a transitional image of woman between the earthy and sensual pagan woman and the more sublimely-inclined Christian one. Personally, I like the idea of the latter.
But there is another artistic triumph in this annex. The stained glass window at the other end showing a contemporary version of the Sermon on the Mount. “I love the man waiting with his toolbox,” pouts Robert, “he looks Portuguese, it’s perfect. Like a Phillip Pullman book.”
Back on the High Street, Robert is enlivened by the idea that the crazy junctures and startling juxtapositions of places like Harlesden actually create that vital spark of life. “The shops with the mad mixtures, the Afghanis next to the Jamaican takeaway, the gym and the church in the same rooms as a nightclub, the community radio station over Santander,” he says, “these are the creative junctures where life really happens.”
I point out the famous Irish Meat Market where all my friends fulfil their carnivorous desires. “It could do with a new name,” asserts Robert in jokey marketing mode, “you know I could become the Gok Wan of Harlesden.”
What do you mean as in Harlesden looks good naked? Well, it’s already pretty naked.
Clever, yes, he’s definitely clever but wise is in there somewhere too.
PS My mother has turned a corner. I hate to say this but I think it was the pills. She had no psychological resources left so anti-depressants seemed the only option. I spoke to her yesterday. She’s sounding perky. Marlon went up to stay with his grandmother. He reported that she did indeed watch Big Brother with him.