A BATTY NIGHT OUT AT THE WELSH HARP

ImageI found out last year that there is an annual bat walk at the Welsh Harp, and I immediately wanted to go. The idea of not having to go to the countryside, and that bats were flapping rather wonderfully right next to the A5, intrigued me. As well as the imaginings of who was going to be on this walk.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Having had cold feet at the last minute, I persuaded my son – who is as fond of British eccentrics as me – Marlon to come along.

And so at 8 45pm one Wednesday, we found ourselves in the darkness that is the evening Cool Oak Lane. I spotted a large gentleman with binoculars on the bridge and concluded wrongly that this must be Roy Beddard, our leader and avid Welsh Harp conservation expert. It wasn’t. It was Derek, a veteran birder and ‘batter’ who has been visiting the Welsh Harp since 1960. However, Roy and Derek are a bit of a comedy duo. Derek starts telling us about a birdwatcher he used to know who wore a raincoat and bicycle clips for his batting excursions. Even though he drove to the destination. “Those were the days when you had to balance your telescope on your knees and no-one carried tripods,” he smiles knowingly.

There’s an initial assessment of the night insects. “There are a lot around tonight,” says Roy. Which means it should be a good night for bats because they eat them. Apparently the common pipistrelle (our most common bat) can eat up to 3,000 insects per night. In fact seven varieties of bat have been seen at the Welsh Harp.

Gradually, a motley crew of about 12 turn up. And then, there’s the bat detector revelation. I hadn’t even considered equipment beyond the humble binoculars. But suddenly there are a gaggle of men in anoraks wielding bat detectors. They turn out to be the key ingredient of the evening. As opposed to the actual bats themselves.

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I am – no surprise here – a bat detector virgin. And intend to stay that way. We head off into the darkness and pick up the small group already on a viewing platform. They’ve already seen a common pipistrelle – the UK’s smallest bat, its body is the size of a pound coin. We make our way through the trees and I am certain I can smell wild garlic. Marlon is adamant that I can’t, and later explains that it is the man walking behind us who keeps burping up his garlicky evening meal.

As we come out into a clearing, our eyes are keenly trained on the late dusk skies. I hear a sound that I think is a woodpecker at first, it’s kind of violent knocking. Of course, it isn’t a woodpecker, it’s a bat detector picking up a noctule, one of the bigger bats.

“I’m on 45,” says Roy to another ‘batter’. This is one of the leifmotifs of the evening.

“I’m on 25,” says the other gentleman with a grey beard. The one with the garlicky breathe.

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They are talking bat frequencies, and the frequency dictates the sort of bat they will pick up. The common pip – 45, the noctule – 25.

At this point, I actually see the shadowy flicker of what I take to be a common pip. Note – I am now down with the batology. It is barely detectable against the dark moonlight. That turns out to be my sighting of the evening.

Oh, how I long for that evening last year in northern Kerala when crowds of huge fruit-eating bats flapped by us in their twilight way.

We press on down another night-drenched footpath. The woman in front of me, hangs on to her overweight partner as though she is here merely as his travelling appendage with no will of her own. We stop and stare at tall sycamore trees that may have bats abounding but we can’t see them. We are fixated by patches of the sky that might suddenly witness a battty visitor. To no avail.

There are plenty of churpings – the common pip – and low knockings – the noctule, but they are mechanical as opposed to natural. There are diversions as the detectors pick up neighbouring crickets and even someone’s keys in their pocket. Bats themselves are there obviously, but we can’t see them.

Roy is a bit of a one in his baseball cap. Derek wears one as well. The former regales us with a tale of discovery in compensation. “As recently as 1996, a new bat was discovered in this country,” Roy explains. “Scientists discovered that there were pipistrelles that operated at 55 rather than 45, and they were another sort of pip, the soprano pip. We get them here too.”

But not tonight. Well, not visibly. Although a few “I’m on 55”s can be heard amidst the 25 and 45s. It’s a funny old bat world.

We turn back. There are cars racing up the A5 nearby, a new tower of flats going up, a light that is shining far too brightly over the lake and a younger, posher man from Primrose Hill who is just back from kayaking and wildlife-visiting in Uganda.

What on earth is he doing on the Welsh Harp bat walk? “It is a bit of a poor partner,” he says jokingly, “I sometimes come bird watching down here, so I thought I’d pop over. Mostly I come if a rare bird has been seen.”

Ah, hot birds. How far would he go to see hot birds? “I’d go quite a long way,” he laughs extending the joke, “but you have to be careful because there’s a lot of scamming that that goes on in the bird world. It’s easy to be disappointed.”

Derek accompanies us down the final pathway. Has he been excited by any bird sightings recently?

“It gets harder as time goes on. I used to be excited by seeing oyster catchers but they’re  commonplace now. To be honest, I’m into orchids now,” he admits.

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He wonders if we’ve heard the urban myth about parakeets. I’d read they arrived in the 1930s but I’d always assumed they’d started multiplying in the 1980s because that is when I first noticed a flock in Syon Park. “Well, it is said,” he says in hushed tones as though he is imparting a treasured secret, “that they escaped when they were filming The Wizard of Oz.”

The others are waiting at the first viewing platform. We’ve just missed a fish owl in flight across the lake. Roy is standing still, his detector aloft. Derek makes an interesting observation. “Listen, did you hear a kind of raspberry noise, that is the pip eating an insect, they do a little loop round,” he tells us.

Now that is incredible. Experiencing a pip feeding via a frequency. Who would have thought it.

And then, he asks a brilliant question – “Do bats hear in colour?”.

I’ve no idea but if they do, does that make them synaesthetes?

I’ve learnt a lot, I tell them both, but I haven’t seen a lot!

“It’s my fault,” confesses Roy, “we should have come half an hour earlier.”

Oh well, only another year to wait.

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PATRICK OF ELMWOOD, LORD OF THE PLANTS

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Most tennis players – including me – at Elmwood Tennis Club (opened in 1898 as part of the Oxford All Souls’ dominion in Kensal Green) will have noticed the quiet, bearded man who appears with hedge cutters quite regularly and mysteriously as we attempt to send balls flying low and hard over the net. Patrick (ever reclusive, he won’t tell me his surname) ‘reigns’ over the wild flowers and trees in the amazing green space that surrounds the tennis courts. Surely, one of the unexpected wonders of West London.

Today, I’ve invited Patrick to give me a plant and tree tour. In residence – as it were – for the past fifteen years, he is ever-present and yet almost invisible. This is the day when I will try to urge him into visibility.

As we’re walking towards the Club, Sarah (the former social secretary who also runs groovy vintage online shop, mensahvintage.com) shouts across the road: “Patrick’s a legend.” And I know what she means.

I must say he sounds posh in a kind of aristo way. He could be the Marquis of Bath’s little brother but he isn’t. He admits warily to having formerly worked in ‘heritage’ as a clerk. Which seems a rather strange, lowly position for such an intelligent man. He’s probably too much of an eccentric  when it comes to employers. Which is good news for Elmwood.

ImageHe’s also a poet. As we sit down on one of the benches overlooking the tennis players in the late afternoon sun, he hands me an amusing poem, The Song of Alfred Lawn Tennison and an illustration of a horn player sitting on an emu’s back. Apparently, he has also written a children’s book.

The Song Of Alfred Lawn Tennison

Lord Tennison of yesteryear

Sat down by the Sibilantic Sea,

And he did speak of tennis there:

“Lawn tennis is,” said he,

“A game that’s played with rime-white bcll

On a straight and level court

Twixt players not too immensely tall

Nor yet absurdly short.

The spheric ball flies end to end,

Emitting soft percussant sound,

End to end in the ambient air

Some distance from the ground.

Marks are awarded fairly,

And according to the score,

One player getting sometimes less,

The other sometimes more.

And so the one who tries the most,

Nor yet betrays his natural skill.

Why, he’s the winner of the game!

Good triumphs over ill!

From tennis to philosophy

A small step to traverse.

I postulate man’s station

In an ordered universe!

The gulls boomed in that desert spot,

And the tallonned waves did cry,

But I had had a sudden thought,

“Supposing this,” said I.

Suppose one played with coloured balls

of every rainbow hue?

Or shades so intermediate

they’re almost lost to view?

“What of your model then?” he smirked.

The poet spake no more,

He faded on the sepia air

and silent fell the shore.

An awful stillness gripped the cove,

No further wave did fall.

I stooped and picked up from the shingle bright

A rime-white tennis ball.

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Why did he decide to give his valuable time to Elmwood, I wondered. “I kind of adopted the place,” he smiles, “I saw it as a bit of the country in the city. This is called Elmwood Green by the mayor’s office who have listed it as a site of importance for nature conservation, did you know?” I didn’t.

How does he see his role here? “I try to improve the biodiversity by re-introducing wild flowers into the land here. I grew up in the countryside in Herefordshire so I learnt all about them there. I’ve planted alder buckthorn here because they encourage fritillary butterflies. We have an amazing variety of butterflies and moths here. I’m rather proud of that.”

All done without any fuss. In fact, he operates so invisibly, the tennis players – if I’m anything to go by – don’t realise what this unassuming man is doing. Although I have noticed that he has tackled the privet hedges that surround the club.

“Privet is a horrible shrub,” he says unexpectedly, “you can’t compost it, it’s so poisonous. As a boy, I got to know Henry Williams who wrote Tarka The Otter. He had some strange views, notably re supporting Hitler, but he encouraged me to learn about plants.”

And off we go on our tour. There’s yellow toadflax under the hedge which I remember from walks with my grandfather in Yorkshire. It always used to grow prolifically beside the train tracks in Otley. Like petticoat frills. Delicate and intimating future pleasure.

There’s the majestic sight of verbascum which has a central stem of yellow flowers. “I can’t watch on Friday evenings when all the kids come down. The boys attack them,” says Patrick. Is that because they’re phallic? “I’d never thought of that,” he declares in a rather puritanical tone.

Then he confesses.  About the huge-leafed burdocks under the hedge.  As in the drink – dandelion and burdock. “I put them there when no-one was looking,” he laughs at his own furtiveness, “I’ve always got a few seeds in my pockets.”

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That’s what I like to hear. A man with seeds in his pockets is irresistible. Then, there’s feverfew – “listed in old herbalist books as a cure for fevers and migraines” – with their white daisy-like flowers, and yellow tansy – “a tonic for well-being” –  and the dandelion-related but nobler and taller hawks tail.  There’s something I thought was deadly nightshade but turns out to be woody nightshade, plus wild carrot and silver weed.

Then an exciting rarity. “Haresfoot clover,” declares Patrick about a bigger, hairier clover that dares to reside here.

Is it the same every year in this meadow area that is no longer mown? “No,” he says, “last year it was full of red poppies which haven’t come up at all this year.”

Less thrillingly, there are the blue, blue plastic bags brought in by foxes. And the neighbourhood dog shit which has been put in a blue plastic bag and hurled over the hedge. That is so much better than dogs shitting in the street! I don’t think so. My father had a thing about dog shit (although he would never have called it that) and I think I’m carrying it on.

The corner of this meadow triangle used to be a nightmare. Old bedsteads, the remains of the wooden shed that used to be at the end of one of the courts, any old rubbish people fancied throwing over the hedge – and the magnificent Patrick has slowly but surely (and invisibly) cleared it all away.

Has he ever observed anyone having sex or taking drugs in the grounds, I enquire provocatively? “No, never,” he says anticipating my disappointment, “I’m innocent like that, I never notice.”

Changing the subject to a more comfortable one, he points out the young chestnut tree behind me. “I noticed some kids who had these matt black conkers. Nothing like the usual ones. I managed to get one of them and plant it. This is the result,” he grins at his biodiversity cunning.

Then, there’s the sweet smelling, delicate meadow sweet, (also sewn by Patrick), the tall but not giant hog weed and the blackthorn bushes. And the pond. Patrick re-instated the pond when workers renewing the courts destroyed it. “The frogs found this area first,” he says, “then I dug a pond out.”

Whilst balls whizz back and forth, we squeeze our way down a narrow path at the back of the courts. It’s heavy with ripe, succulent blackberries. We try a few and they are almost ready. I must return with a bag. One of my playing partners, Richard, has been known to make elderflower cordial earlier in the year from the elders down here.

Patrick calls the corner next to All Souls Avenue and Buchanan Gardens, the tree corner. And there certainly are a lot. “It has awfully poor soil,” he explains, “and new trees often dry up and die. The houses opposite were bombed in the second world war and all their bricks and waste ended up being dumped here. That’s what made it such bad quality.”

I had heard that there used to be a chapel over here. “Apparently there was but I’m not sure where,” he says, “but there was a wardens’ shelter just over there, “ he says pointing at a concrete bunker that I’ve never noticed before. “Air raid wardens with rifles  and whistles would patrol the streets.”

Cherry, silver birch, plum, rowan, buddleia and elder trees abound. As do the exuberant staghorns that look as though they have strayed from Kew Gardens. With their fan-like leaves and beaky buds. Finally, we pass the noble red oak which is flamboyant in autumn like a tree bonfire.

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Our walk is coming to a close but Patrick is eager to mention a different discovery. Neither plant nor tree, this is the British 19th century composer, Algernon Ashton. Classic music is not one of my strong points but Patrick is obviously impassioned. Algernon brings the sparkle to his eye even more than those burdock seeds that he sneaked in.

“His music never received public performance in his lifetime,” he explains, “I want to change that. He lived in Maida Vale.” Patrick seems to have been inspired by an article he read online, which was originally written in 1912. Single-handedly, Patrick is attempting to bring Ashton back into the public eye.

“His work has been scattered to the winds,” he explains, “ I’ve had to search libraries for the individual scores. His work is very English. It has wonderful melodies, some of which are actually based on street sellers’ cries. A Parisian chamber music group have actually recorded some of his work now and there is a demo CD. I’m gradually listing all his compositions. Sadly, all his diaries except for one perished in a house fire but I managed to meet someone who had the remaining one and in it, Ashton wrote about the creation of the Second Piano Trio which happens to the one I’m really interested in. That seemed a strange bit of synchronicity. Now you can actually find his music in record shops.”

Patrick has also found Ashton’s grave in the Old Paddington Cemetery. He wrote a melody called Buy My Lavender so it is no surprise that the ever-sensitive Patrick has planted lavender there. That’s the sort of man he is.

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THE MAN WHO SHOCKED TONY BLAIR

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David Lawley Wakelin – film maker, protester about the war in Iraq – is a local hero. Depending on your viewpoint, obviously. He managed to find an  unguarded back entrance to the Leveson Inquiry – Lord Leveson was appalled at the slack security – simply walked in and accused Blair not only of being a war criminal but also of being paid off by the investment bank JP Morgan where he is an advisor on an annual salary of £2.5 million. Blair was rattled, he even felt he had to give a public response where he claimed never to have had that conversation with JP Morgan. David was scuffled to the ground and arrested. He had his say though…

David used to live in Harlesden with his family until he and his wife split up. Now he visits his two children up here several times a week. From Portobello Road. On his bike. Today I’ve arranged to meet him at Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown cafe by the Jubilee Clock but in the turbulent, ever-changing shop scenario – it’s the recession and they have to pay the rent – it has already transformed into a mobile phone and plastic fabric shop. So we make our way to O Tamariz, my favourite Portuguese cafe instead.

“It’s still relentlessly grim,” says David looking at the Welsh Working Men’s Club and then the decaying 60s brutally brutalist architecture along Library Parade. I point out that at least Harlesden is still gritty unlike Portobello Road which has become investment banker-friendly bland. He concedes half-heartedly.

What did his children, 11 and 13, make of his protest? “Well, I think they were a bit embarrassed,” he explains, “but my son must have been a little proud because he took the Guardian with the report about it, into school the next day.”

David is speedy. He’s already onto the next subject whilst I’m lingering on the last one. He moves verbally and thought-wise like a bat at dusk flickering across the sky in sharp angles. He’s also boyish at 49, has a shock of sandy hair and a passion for his mission to make Blair take responsibility for his actions.

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He’s full of regrets about that day. “I should have made a citizen’s arrest on Blair,” he sighs, “and I should have gone back and stood in front of the cameras afterwards. But I was emotionally and mentally exhausted.” One cannot underestimate the exhaustion of such a singular act carried out by a single person. No group back up. Just him and his lonely determination.

I love it when he admits that he phoned his mother at one point to see if she would approve of his actions. “I realised the night before that Blair was on the next day,” he says, “so I decided to go down there. I didn’t have ticket for the front door but I quickly realised that there must by another entrance where the participants come in. I went down some stairs, crossed a courtyard, went upstairs and found a door which was completely unguarded. For a moment, I lost courage, went downstairs, phoned my mum to see what she thought, she was fully behind me doing it. So I went back up the stairs and into the Inquiry. I didn’t actually look at Blair because I needed to focus on what I was saying, but I wish I had. I don’t think he can leave home these days without someone accosting him about the war in Iraq. I don’t mean because of me, I just mean that’s how people feel.“

Why did he get so angry personally about the war in Iraq? “I wasn’t working,” he says, “and I had time to reflect. When I was 19, I backpacked across all those countries like Iraq and I realised that that just would not be possible for my own children. That made me incredibly incensed. I also thought early on before the war had started, that the weapons of mass destruction was all lies. Blair is deluded by his religious beliefs, he’s as deluded as the dictators that he denunciates.”

In 2010, David went to Iraq – he wanted to ask ordinary Iraqis if they thought Blair should be indicted as a war criminal. “Ninety percent agreed that the war was about business, about construction companies and pharmaceutical companies making money from it,” he says. “It was tough being there for three months, it’s a poor country and people are not very friendly. There’s a lot of negative energy there, not surprisingly. I felt fearful but I had to challenge that fear and get over it. There are babies being born deformed in Faluja because of the effect of the fall out from depleted uranium in the bombs. In the end, the Iranian TV station Press TV bought the film and showed it there, and I  showed it at the Frontline Club off  Westbourne Grove.”

Since then, he has made similarly questioning films in Bahrain and the Yemen. “I stood up in Bahrain’s Parliament and questioned an MP about the massacre of fifty people there,” he says proving that he’s not just a protester in the UK, “that’s the sort of question that the people there would be too scared to ask. I really liked the people in the Yemen and would like to go back there. I’d also like to make a Tell The Truth About Afghanistan film to find out whether Karzai is a puppet and to examine why we really went there.”

At this point, I bring the conversation back to Harlesden. Does he use its resources at all? “I used to take my kids to the library in order to research their homework. I once bumped into Louis Theroux in one  of the kebab shops. Does that count?”

No, definitely not. We finally leave O Tamariz and it starts to rain. David is towering over me. “You could call me Lord Haw Haw of  Harlesden,” he jokes as we wander down Craven Park Road.

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And then I spot the falling-part-not-in-a-good-way drinking club, Steps. It’s got this terrifying rough exterior with hints of past grandeur. So far on these walks, I’ve been too much of a pussy to cross the threshold. Fearing a totally male presence. But it strikes me instantaneously that here I am with a man who regularly films in places like Iraq. Surely, I’m being presented with ideal situation to actually go there.

David calmly takes up the challenge. It’s 11 am and the front door opens into a black hole. Sorry, no I mean it opens into a cavernous bar of the 1960s bare basics’ tradition. Polystyrene tiles on the roof and little cohorts of men imbibing beer. This is a bit like my worst nightmare at this time in the morning, or at another time in the evening.

Both David and I burst into journalistic inquisitiveness as a response. “How long has this club been here?” we ask the barman who is taciturn to say the least. He doesn’t know. We order orange juice and water. Strangers in a strange land.

And then a man with a barrel-like, distorted body comes across and asks David for money to put in the jukebox. “For the wife,” he declares. We don’t correct him, we just wonder non-trustingly if the money is going in his pocket.

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“I wish I were a punk rocker with flowers in my hair,” laments Sandi Thom from the jukebox. I have got flowers in my hair. I guess I am a bit of an old punk rocker. In certain ways. That is so sweet. An act of magnificent kindness performed by a drunken man who I would probably avoid in the street. Scared that something untoward would happen. And here he is playing a song just for me on the Steps jukebox.

This is one of those rare human kindness in the most unexpected place moments. I am moved. And smiling.

Before David gets back on his bike, he asks me one question. “Do you agree with me?” he asks. “Do you think Blair is a war criminal.” I do. “I think most of the country agrees,” he says.

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DON’T CALL NOVELIST, MAGGIE GEE, A DAME

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Maggie Gee – she’s on her twelfth novel, was awarded the OBE in 2012 New Year’s Honour’s List – is rather grand. In a lovely way. Despite herself. She’d never willingly put herself up there, after all she’s distinctly left-wing. But there’s something about her manner.

Today,  I see her hurrying in from the main entrance at Roundwood Park. She’s swishing –  hating being late. All blonde hair, elegant wide trousers with black and white geometrical patterns, and nervous energy.

In the middle of the night, (this was in May) workers from Brent Council stripped Kensal Rise Library of books. Maggie is furious. “They’ve even taken the plaque that commemorated Mark Twain opening it in 18, “she fulminates, “that way, they remove the evidence of history and the building is no longer a library. This is the only library that Mark Twain, the father of American Literature, ever opened. His father died when he was 11, he was self-educated in libraries. He understood what libraries mean in terms of quiet public space and learning. Unlike Brent Council. And they are Labour now. It’s outrageous.”

Maggie is late – she is so considerate, she’s sent her husband, Nick, (Rankin, also a writer but of non-fiction) along to apologise – because she’s been asking for quotes from the great and the good in the literary world re the demise of the library. We’re meeting in Roundwood Park at Maggie’s suggestion because her Orange Prize short-listed  novel, The White Family (Saqi 2003) has many creative links with the park so it makes sense to come here.

“I feel passionately about public space,” she says. A hundred years ago, the rich invested in public space like this park and the library because they didn’t want to be murdered in their beds at night. These days when the gap between the rich and the poor is growing all the time, we seem to be losing this understanding of what matters. The White Family was about that too.”

Maggie loves Roundwood Park and as we approach the bandstand – in the rose garden opposite the cafe – she starts talking about how the old bandstand (one of the weird things for me about being in a sleepy fishing village in the north of Tobago recently, was the bandstand next to the beach, a vestige of  British colonialism) used to be on the top of the hill. “People used to go there and dance during the war, “ she says, “they’d have fun up there.”

I don’t know why. Probably because I’m ignorant about OBE awards. Perhaps the ‘provocateuse’ in me. I say something like – “Aren’t you a Dame these days?” and Maggie instantly recoils. “No, I’m not,” she replies with a certain gentle hauteur, “sometimes they jokingly call me ‘Dame’ at the Save Kensal Rise Library meetings and it irritates me a little bit.”

Alfred White – one of the central characters in The White Family, the father – is a park keeper. Albion Park – the park in the book – is based on Roundwood Park. So it’s not surprising that Maggie is outraged that Roundwood Park no longer has its own park keeper. Cuts, cuts, cuts. To the fabric of our society.

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“There’s never been a serious crime here,” she says, “and much of that is down to having had a park keeper. It’s these little things that are being eaten away, bit by bit. And they make all the difference. We neglect these public spaces at our peril. Park keepers make people feel safe.”

We walk up the gentle slopes of Roundwood’s comely hill. “My husband says it must be an ancient Anglo Saxon tumulus because it hasn’t been put here,” she enthuses. Plane trees surround us and one has the plaque to Lance J E Hamilton who killed himself here.  At 35 in 1998. “His family come every year on his birthday,” says Maggie, “and put flowers on the tree where he hanged himself. It reminds me that parks are full of lonely people too, often they can find solace. Sadly he didn’t.”

Out of the blue Maggie is suddenly on her back looking up at the for once blue sky – right in the middle of the concrete topping on the hill. Revealing the proximity of her child-like self. Her spontaneity is infectious. Within minutes, I’m on my back too. “I do this every time I come here,” she declares, “it’s like looking out from the Earth’s eye to the heavens. It’s very special. My daughter, Rosie, does it every time she comes up here as well.”

And then, she’s off again. There’s huge log on the crest of the hill and it’s here that the Gee-Rankin family stand in the evening in order to relish the view. “You can see down to the cemetery, the Wembley arch and the basket ball pitches. It’s a London site,” she says proudly.

Sylph-like, it’s not a surprise to hear that Maggie likes to run. “I haven’t run for about four months, “ she laments, “I’ve had a hip injury and it does take longer to heal when you are getting older.” She’s 63 – not old at all. Apparently, her family used to play a sort of rounders in the Park, where they sprinted round an incredibly large circle of trees. A rather unorthodox game of rounders, it has to be said, because there are only three of them, and it’s a big circle of trees. “Well, we did run fast,” she exclaims incredulous at my incredulity.

Walking towards the summer youth theatre which is closed but there is a group who are working towards re-opening it, we’re discussing Kensal Rise Library and its possible return to All Soul’s College as a property. “All Soul’s have it within their power to give the building back to the community as a reading room,” she says passionately, “but at the moment, they are talking about a commercial rent which of course we can’t afford to pay. They have become rich as Croesus on the rents they’ve raised in Kensal Rise on the back of slavery. Now is a brilliant opportunity for them to give back in a philanthropic way. We have set up a charity to run the library.” It turns out that Maggie who was from a working class family in Poole, Dorset, owes her own education to spending time studying in the local library which is one reason for her feeling so incensed.

I recall that The White Family was also based on the Stephen Lawrence case. “That made me so angry. I wanted to work out how that kind of crime could happen so the park keeper’s son in the book doesn’t do very well at school, feels a failure and turns this inner violence outwards and murders someone. I wanted to write about how a race murder could happen as a way of looking why such a crime happens.”

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This was a novel before its time. Maggie wrote it in 1995 and couldn’t get it published anywhere.  “In the end, Saqi, a publisher which is run by brothers who come from the Lebanon, published it in 2003. They understood. It went on to become my successful book in terms of sales and prizes,” she explains.

Next I discover something surprising. In this era of diminishing council-supported public amenities, Roundwood Park actually has public toilets that are open. I’m not sure about their cleanliness but they are open. At this point, Maggie becomes animated again. “This is where the park keeper had a hut,” she says as we explore behind the public toilets, “it’s closed these days but this must be it.” We find a hut that has been boarded up. “I spent several hours interviewing the park keeper there. I remember he had a shock of white hair. He was very generous with his time and information. I took notes and they became the foundation of the father in the White Family, the hero of the novel.”

We reach the pond with its yellow flag irises in full bloom. “This the background for lots of wedding photos for Afro-Caribbean and Indian families,” she laughs softly, “they are saying, this is my beautiful garden, this is our beautiful park. I love that willow tree especially in spring, when I can see it’s golden branches, they seem to have shining beads running down them.”

But is the water fountain working? “Water, public water, is such a great idea,” she says, “it is a stepping stone of a civilised life.” Tragically, it is not working. The edifice behind the water fountain is supposed to honour the opening of the park in 1895 and Charles Pinkham, its benefactor. As he was for the Lexi’s original building. But it’s a bit of an abomination. Half folly, half hideousness.

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However not far away in the corner of the flower beds is a gem. It’s a 1950s statue of a girl with her arms in the air. It’s as if she is imploring us to join her in acknowledging that this park is a spiritual experience. “I had my photo taken with her, my hands were in a similar position as if to say ‘This is Heaven. Heaven is here with us,’” says Maggie. “I think it’s a very hopeful posture.”

At this point, I am slightly scathing about the planting of the flower beds in Roundwood Park. My attitude is not new. I’m convinced those responsible had a  municipal training in garish flowers. However Maggie is not having such contempt poured on her beloved flower beds. “Oh no,” she exclaims, “I think they have changed. I’ve seen birds of paradise here, I think they’ve been getting more adventurous. I always love them.”

Whereupon we survey the beds intently and discover to our dismay – there is mayhem in the beds. We are both shocked.  There are beds covered with weeds, there are beds with a few hardy perennials, but there are no begonias or marigolds to be seen. There is a dearth of flowers in these flower beds.

We march over to the gardener who is doing a little light hoeing. “Is this the result of the cuts?”asks Maggie. “Well, we’re not sure what is going on,” says the rather soft-spoken gentleman, “they keep saying they are going to send plants over but nothing comes.”

At this very moment, a man, his wife and dog start remonstrating about the very same situation. “Look at the state of these beds, it’s disgusting,” declares the man who turns out to be former resident of Harlesden, Peter Wicks, “we lived here for forty years, we come down from Bedfordshire to see the parks we love and this is what we find. The Council should hang their heads in shame.”

A little later Peter who is in his late 70s declares that he is ‘a kick arse poet’. Yes, yes, yes.

“We remember Roundwood when Billy Smarts Circus came and the Russian Ensemble. We’ve danced here many a time,” he enthuses.

Maggie and I leave determined that we will contact the Council to see what is going on. Mind you, a month later, the flowers are still absent…

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PS Paul Hutchinson is the planting man at Brent Council to complain to.

PPS Maggie Gee is working on a new novel set in New York and the heroine is a version of Virginia Wolf transposed to the 21st century who is thrown out of a museum for trying to look at her own archives. These are now kept away from the polluting gaze of the public.

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THE MAN WHO MAKES ART AND CUTS HAIR

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Frankly, I love the combination. Faisal Abdu’allah – formerly Paul Duffus – is an artist and a barber. Faisal is the grooviest barber’s in Harlesden (the cutters wear red and white checked shirts) – boxer, James De Gale and rapper, Gappy Ranks are regulars, it’s always full – and its eponymous owner, Faisal is doing really well as an artist internationally. His work (photographs, screen prints, film installations) fills three floors of a super dooper new museum, Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno in Gran Canaria at the moment, he’s also a visiting professor at Stanford University as well as a lecturer at East London University.

This man is a dude, if one can still say that. Today, he cuts a dapper figure with his spotted cravat and low key swagger. And is full of art tales, Harlesden tales and Louis Farrakhan tales. The barber’s shop –  white modernity prevails – is on the High Street near Willesden Junction and he has a work/gallery space downstairs. A local boy, he was born down Tubbs Lane – his Jamaican parents came over in the 60s, his father worked at the Heinz factory in Park Royal – and went to Furness Primary School and what was then, Willesden High School. One of the first things he says to me is – “I think the Capital City Academy is one of the most beautiful buildings in London”. Which makes me want to look at it again.

He starts showing me the brochure from his ‘mid-career’ show in Gran Canaria which is large black and white photographs of people that form a kind of wall of trust, they were taken when he was based at Stanford University for a year. “It’s called 10% of Separation,” he says, “I got a student to choose someone they totally trusted, then took their photograph, and then continued from there. One 23 year old chose his 50 something professor which was moving, then other people had dilemmas about who they would choose. That was all part of it.”

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Faisal has been in a few documentaries, and famously the 2003 docu-soap The Heart Of Harlesden. Docu-soap, there’s a pre-lumping-everything-together-as-a-reality-show kind of term. Someone is following him at present as part of a four barbers from around the world documentary. There was one in 1991 called That Day Changed My Life. That day was when he was a 20 year art old student in Boston. “My parents were Pentecostal Christians and when I was a child, I went to a church (must be the Rebirth Tabanacle) every Sunday down Leghorn Road. I had some surreal experiences there. But when I got to the US, I realised that there were gaps in my consciousness spiritually, politically and culturally. I didn’t know anything about the Harlem Renaissance or Black Power. Someone mentioned Malcolm X and I started reading. Someone mentioned Billie Holliday and I started listening. It was all about discovering my own sense of purpose and also who I was as an artist. I started listening to the radio and I thought I was hearing Martin Luther King, but it was Louis Farrakhan. A couple of weeks later, someone invited to the mosque where Farrakhan was preaching. That was the day that changed my life. The women were all in elegant white, the men all in suits and bow ties and the words were all about empowerment for young African Americans. Somehow it fitted with where I was going. I went every week after that. In fact, they sent a limo and two minders to pick me up. That was because I was English and therefore somehow special. Often people talk about the Nation of Islam as though it’s all about hate, but for me that place was nothing but love.” When he got back, Faisal became a Muslim and changed his name, although he was no longer part of the Nation of Islam. And the documentary followed him around.

As we set off on our walk, I discover Faisal has a wife, three kids and lives these days in North Harrow. Posh now? “Well, I sleep there but my community is in Harlesden, and I go out between here and the West End,” he says. He still cuts hair on Saturdays and says it keeps him real. As we walk down Tubbs Rd to number 52 where his family used to live, he says he remembers it as a friendly neighbourhood with mainly Jamaican and Irish families. He was the ‘wash belly baby’, the last of eight.

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After being inspired by lack of good barbers in Boston to start cutting hair, it was shaving palm trees into the head of his nephew that got him the job at City Barbers which was once down the High St opposite the Job Centre. “They saw him on the street and asked him where he’d had his hair cut, then they employed me for six years. That took me right through Central St Martins and the Royal School of Art, it paid for my materials. It was great, it was also bringing together of two worlds together that don’t usually meet. And cutting hair informs my work. The stories of the people I cut often become my work. At Stanford, there was exhibition of my photographs which showed the complexity of the Black British identity and I was invited to do a barber shop performance where I cut hair and they totally got it.” He even met his wife at City Barbers!

We start talking about invisible Harlesden – in that Faisal wants to find archive photos of his shop from the past. “I know it used to be a record shop at one time,” he says, “but I want to find out more.”

As we’re walking past the shops that admittedly look pretty bad generally, ie facades, general cleanliness, and arrangement of contents – I discover that Faisal has distinct potential as Harlesden’s own Mary Portas. He has opinions about the place and how it could be. He suggests dressing spaces, in fact,  a Harlesden shop makeover event. Which is a great idea. And that the shops could do with having a visit from ‘the style police’! “Brent council need to do a clean up here, look at the pavements, they are filthy,” he exclaims, “after all, Harlesden is the gateway to Wembley. Look at these facades, there needs to be a standard set and an aesthetic created. Windows are dirty, interiors are crammed with items and there’s not enough light. I know when I did the interior of Faisal, I had the first plasma TV and all the other barbers stepped up their game. Look at that shop over there, it could be a sculpture by Sue Noble and Tim Webster.”

We pass the Jam Down Bakery and Faisal has nothing but praise for their meat loaf, patties and coco bread.  I mention that I’m soon off to Trinidad where my friend, novelist, Monique Roffey’s family live. “I know Chris Offili really well,” he says of the infamous- for-using-elephant-dung    artist who now lives in Trinidad, “we were at the Royal College of Art together.”

For Faisal walking the High Street is like going back in time. “I remember this shop being a toy shop,” he says near JJ’s wine bar, “my family could never afford for me to have anything, so I did a lot of looking. I make a point of taking my own children to toy shops and letting them have what they want. I talked about my lack of toys when I opened my show recently in Gran Canaria and how it affected me. But the most important thing is sanity, and for that we have to keep our values. That means not getting distracted by the ‘success’ of peers.”

On the corner of St Mary’s Road and Craven Park Road is a new block of flats. Underneath – I’ve been told there’s squat. We arrive and there are strange curtains up at the windows but also a sign pronouncing The Citadel so we assume that the owners have agreed for this American church (I look it up afterwards) to rent it. In my mind, I’d been imagining an Occupy Harlesden, but sadly that is not the case.

Walking back, Faisal talks about the influence the Pentecostal church had on him as a child. “For years, their prophecies that the end of the world was nigh, plagued me, I was really affected by that and scared,” he says. “It also influenced my work. It’s a very one dimensional way of interpreting the world and trying to scare you into being ‘good’. I did a photographic installation called Heads of State which was photos of bodies in a morgue. At the period at the end of the 90s and beginning of 2000s, I was losing a lot of clients. They were being shot. I used one suit six times to go to funerals and then I threw it away because I decided it was bad luck.”

Does he think the situation is better now? “I think the people involved in drugs and crime are wising up,” he says, “they’re not driving flash cars and they’re not killing people that owe them money, because they’ve realised if they’re dead, they’re definitely not going to get their money back.”

At the moment, Faisal is photographing potential Team GB Olympian, triple jumper, Nadia Williams in training. “She has to jump another 36 cm to qualify so that’s what it’s called,” he says. “That’s over in Hackney and sponsored by an investment bank. I would have loved to do something in Brent.”

Brent – are you listening?

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WHAT IS IT WITH THE ART IN HARLESDEN?

“Do you know the blue sculpture of  The Workers down Park Parade?” I ask Gabriel Parfitt who runs the Harlesden Gallery (harlesdengallery.com), which is a group of 40 artists rather than a physical local location. “I certainly do,” he replies via email. It turns out as we stand beside this 1995 sculpture by Kevin Harrison – funnily enough, I sort of know him, his agent is Nicholas Treadwell, a man who is so fond of pink, he has created a Pink Prison which is in fact an art gallery in an Austrian town called Aigen where lots more of these cartoony Harrison sculptures reside – that neither of us are impressed.

“Looks very Eastern Bloc,” I say.

“Actually, it reminds me of something out of a Peter Gabriel video,” says Gabriel, “but I can see that it was made in the days of Harlesden City Challenge and that it might have been saying that we are building a new beginning.”

It seems plonked, irrelevant and out of time. Harlesden needs some good art. What on earth do a bunch of huge painted steel and aluminium workers with a flag have to do with Harlesden? I think I will have to ask Kevin Harrison.*

So what is the central philosophy of the Harlesden Gallery group of artists? “Well, they all have to be willing to put energy into projects in Harlesden,” says Gabriel, “like last year and I expect this June too, we made the posters for the Love Harlesden day. There’s a community ideal behind it, as well as our exhibitions. Recently, we had a group exhibition at the Tricycle, and we sold one piece and another artist was commissioned from it.”

Originally a sculptor using metal, Gabriel now paints. As we look at the Plaza car park, he points out that there used to be a public sculpture in the corner by Tescos. “But it was made of bronze  and someone stole it last year,” he says. “Yeah and they probably only got forty quid for it,” he adds. I’m shocked. I hadn’t realised that it had gone.

A relatively new Harlesden resident – he and his wife, Amanda have lived here for four years – he works as a technician at Latimer School,  Gabriel had given up sculpting when they came to live in London. No space. But he took up painting in the studio at his workplace and then Lorenzo Belenguer at the Willesden Gallery had helped him exhibit. “His gallery is so well organised and has a good reputation,” says Gabriel. “Lorenzo is the opposite of me, he’s a minimalist sculptor so he might produce a white slab of plaster with a red rusty screw on it. He’s always on a quest to find the perfect white cement, and recently he made a new discovery.”

We march at a pace up Manor Park Road. I want to show Gabriel the sculpture that sits on the corner of  Hillside and Brentfield Rd just down from the Stonebridge Hub. I’d felt the same way about it as The Workers’ last time I was here. A City Challenge waste of time. Ignored by passers by and inhabitants of the area. Called Sun Disc designed by Guy Paterson and Geraldine Konya, it is a steel circle that has been cut out to reveal all sorts of joyous shapes, people, animals etc. All done in 1994 when there was money to burn. However, this time Gabriel points out the newspaper articles and images – all pertaining to Harlesden – that have been etched on to the pavement around the disc. They are brilliant, textured headlines like Our Challenge To Remake Harlesden and great photographs. “Photo shop heaven,” declares Gabriel as he takes photos to add to his website. We agree that this sculpture could have been vastly improved if the artists had collaborated rather than worked separately, (as it appears they did)  if the newspaper cuttings could have been etched on to the disc itself perhaps?**

At this point, I have to include that Gabriel is the Cultural Attache (well there is another name but I’m calling him this) for Harlesden Town Team. He knows Leeroy! “He calls me Mr G,” he laughs, “but for all his extrovert exterior, Leeroy can be very sensitive. He’s not one dimensional although admittedly he is a character.”

We walk down Knatchbull Rd – all the Stonebridge tower blocks have gone now – it all looks very modern and low rise. Thank goodness they got the money for all of this development before the demise of the New Labour. I think local, very successful rapper, K Koke (who was put in prison for having something to do with the shooting of a 27 year old man at Harlesden station but was later released and cleared) lives down here and I’d love to walk with him.

Round the corner, on the corner of Acton Lane is another sculpture,*** this time unnamed. The plaque has disappeared although we find the bare earth where it probably was. It’s a two part mosaic apparently celebrating the vibrancy of Harlesden with musicians and bright colours. It’s ok, although it has barely survived. “It looks knackered,” says Gabriel, “no-one is doing anything about the upkeep of these sculptures.” Again it looks old-fashioned now and uncared for, there’s a broken toilet nearby.

Finally, we visit the most recent piece of public art called Girls and Boys in Harlesden down Harley Road. A long black and white mural on the wall adjoining Willesden Junction Station. Created in 2008, it contains images of Harlesden Primary School children who are of course diverse. And so artist – Mat Hand now based in Berlin

– wanted to make a mural that had social value. The words Bad and Good alternate next to the images and the idea is that we, the viewers, challenge ourselves around our perceptions of young people and how they look. It’s stark and startling, and at least it definitely does have something to do with Harlesden. “It’s a bit cliched now,” says Gabriel and he’s right.

What does he dream of for Harlesden Gallery? “Eventually, it would be great to have an exhibition space in Harlesden and there is going to be some more money available for public art as part of the Harlesden Town Team vision so we have to consider what will work the best for Harlesden and be inspiring and interactive at the same time.”

Watch this space.

*I do ask Kevin Harrison and he explains the joke. “These are people struggling together to put up a yellow and green spotty, joke corporate flag. The humour is that it’s like a soviet realist sculpture but in this one the workers are struggling to put to up a funny thing.” And he also explains that he did do some school visits so that it wouldn’t seem that it had just ‘landed’. Adding it probably needs some ‘TLC now’.

** I manage to find Guy Paterson too who says it was meant to last ten years so is doing well if it has survived, he also mentions a painted piece by Julia Bird on a roundabout in Park Royal that he doubts is still there. “My imagery was taken from the local library archives and arranged in such a way that it’s reminiscent of a scrapbook. Geraldine’s part is more symbolic and the idea was that shapes from her disc would interact with the images etched on the pavement. As the sun moved constantly so the sculpture would change.” Ah ha, so they did collaborate more than we had imagined and there was a ‘sun disc’ at the heart of it. Sadly, it doesn’t quite translate in the actuality.

*** Guy Paterson mentions that this sculpture was probably by someone called Arik.

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OH LORDY, HERE COMES LEEROY…

Leeroy Simpson – a winsome mixture of bolshieness, humour and missing teeth – is the unexpected chair of Harlesden Town Team. The first time I met him at the Salvation Army service for Mother’s Day, I mistook him for a vagrant. But looks are so often deceptive! The second time I met him, he was chairing a Harlesden Town Team monthly meeting and he was a revelation. Mr Dynamo Simpson did not allow for circumlocution. Oh no, Leroy is all for action.

Today, he is sitting in the cafe opposite the Jubilee Clock – used to be Dora’s Delights but within months, as is the way in Harlesden, it had become Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown – bemoaning the mythology surrounding his chairman status. Harlesden Town Team consist of sixteen volunteers and Louis Theroux ( who is in fact the marvellously termed town champion) is one of them. Leeroy would like Harlesden residents to know that he does not drive a Merc. In fact, he is working his socks off for no remuneration at present.

The Town Team have created a vision for a future Harlesden that could decrease the traffic levels, and wait for it, has the possibility of pedestrianisation or shared space as they like to call it. Where it also is cared for, thriving and welcoming. Community space, trees, market stalls, more street furniture – they’re all in there. But there are a few problems at present. “We’re finding ourselves in a them and us situation,” explains Leeroy with a look of pure frustration, “the shopkeepers don’t really have the energy to look into what is possible. We’re trying to have a conversation with them about Option A which is refurbishing the streets and Option B which is pedestrianisation but they don’t want to find out about the different options. That’s our struggle, we want to involve them in consultation but they don’t want to.”

There’s a lot of Option A and Option Bing going down. And although HTT are impartial, I’m getting the significant impression that Option A is the minor cowardly choice, and Option B is the brave way forward – pedestrianisation of the High St from the Jubilee Clock to Tavistock Road, with traffic becoming two way again along the bottom part of the High St. However there’s a long way to go in terms of shopkeeper education.

“Tomorrow we doing a drive in the Harlesden,” he says, “Louis is going to be down here with posters and we’ll be explaining what we’re talking about to the shopkeepers and passers-by. We do have to be neutral and we really want them to understand the options. There’s a lot of resistance, they just want us to decide and we don’t want that. We want to consult with them.”

I’ve had my own problems consulting with Leeroy today.  I turned up at the Jubilee Clock and he wasn’t there. I then decided to see if the Royal Oak barmaid knew his mobile no. It sounds like a red herring but the Royal Oak is involved. She didn’t but sent me to visit a ‘Julia’ down the road. I thought this must be Harlesden Town Team vice secretary and incredibly internet message-prolific Julia Straker but it turned out to be another Julia – Julia Marcus – that I’d never met before but who knew my name because she was a press officer at Chrysalis in the 80s. It was wild goose hunt that turned up Eugene Manzie (former London Records press officer who lives in Kensal Rise) as a mutual friend. But no Leeroy.

I have to go home again to locate him. I’m ready to cause a fire storm – I’m not known for withholding anger – but it turns out that there’s been a misunderstanding. I can’t blame him after all. We re-meet an hour later.

There’s a misconception, claims Leeroy in Town Team mode, about shoppers coming from out of town. “Shopkeepers think their customers arrive by car from outside Harlesden by car,” he says, “but 45% are local and walk in, and then another 25% come by bus.”

Can anything be done about having to pay at the Plaza car park when at Asda and Sainsburys, it’s free? Whoops, there’s a weary sigh from Leeroy. The sort of sigh that is not going to turn into a battle cry, more a surrender. “The trouble is those supermarkets own their car parks,” he says, “whereas Tescos leases  this one. So there’s not much that can be done. But there is a plan for an hour’s free parking in the streets nearby.”

For a war-weary commander, Leeroy still ebbs and flows with ideas for Harlesden and bringing the community together. “We’re going to have a Love Harlesden Day on June 17th, and a Clean Up Harlesden Day on April 14th, and I want to organise a concert that includes pupils from all the  Harlesden schools so that the school children get involved too with raising Harlesden’s profile and self-love,” he says.

Oh and Harlesden Town Team need an office space. “We’d like to procure a pop-up situation,” says Leeroy, “but strangely, there isn’t much of that kind of shop space around.”

According to Leeroy, Sir Frank Lowe – advertising exec of mucho casho, and chief provider for the Capital City Academy – is planning a Harlesden Hub which is to be a focus for activities from classes by celebrity chefs to sporting challenges. And apparently, it’s going to be organised by one Serena Balfour, a ‘society’ benefactor who has been involved with this kind of thing before. Although she sounds distinctly un-Harlesden, it’s an interesting idea. And they have been considering the huge space above Iceland for their Hub. Who would have thought it? Certainly, I would never have guessed.

We’re finally on our feet.  And there’s the Royal Oak which is an integral part of the Town Team’s regeneration ideas for Harlesden. Oh yes, the Renaissance of Harlesden is much bandied around. “They’ve got a brilliant space upstairs,” he says, “we’re going to put comedy nights on there, we need more activities like that. There’s too many betting shops and chicken and chip takeaways. I want somewhere with waiters apart from the Amber Grill. I want more places that look like Way 2 Save these days.”

That makes me laugh. Leroy dreams of a bistrot in Harlesden. Somewhere where waiters deliver food! Ah, lovely idea.

What will happen if the area from the Clock to Tavistock Rd is pedestrianised? “There’ll be room for more seats, it’ll become more of a place to hang out, also perhaps there’ll be little market stalls running down the middle,” he says, “it’ll be an attractive place to be.”

There are posters about the consultation process that is going on right now, about Option A and Option B. You can get involved (brent.gov.uk/harlesdentown). Leeroy is not happy. One day shopkeepers put up the posters, the next day, they take them down. With notable exceptions like Lords shoe shop and a few more.

Come on we’re going to have to cheer up Leeroy and do something…

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