Tag Archives: Architecture

THE PUBS OF HARLESDEN (WELL, A FEW OLD ONES)

There are a couple of asides to this tale. Firstly, a minor miracle that happened to me last week. I was in a rush. I went to the Santander cash machine, performed the usual card thing, and crossed Manor Park Road to go home. Three minutes later, it dawned on me that I’d left the cash behind. YES! LEFT THE CASH LYING THERE READY TO BE PICKED UP BY ALL AND SUNDRY. I didn’t even have time to panic. I turned back and there was a woman with a huge smile approaching me with £40 in her hands. Gasps all round. Of thanks and incredulity. A singular act of doing the right thing. In Harlesden. I glowed for the rest of the day.

The second aside is more apposite to the story. I invited Malcolm Barres-Baker, a rather grand, booming gentleman from Brent Archives to look at pubs with me. He’s rather charmingly of another era. When manners and politesse were uppermost in the ‘English’ way of being. Anyway, Malcolm – this is typical, I’m sure – sent me a tract from the nineteenth century author, Arthur Machen’s supernatural short story, The Inmost Light, written in 1894, to read beforehand. Because it mentions Harlesden. Oh, what an arcane delight this is.

Of course, at the time, Harlesden was in fact a prosperous middle-class suburb, so it’s slightly shocking to read Machen as he points out its less salubrious side. “A place of no character,” he writes caustically, “it’s too new to have any character as yet. There are rows of red houses and rows of white houses and the bright green Venetians, and the blistering doorways, and the little backyards they call gardens, and a few feeble shops, and then, just as you think you’re going to grasp the physiognomy of the settlement, it all melts away.”

Dear me! He goes on to describe Harlesden as “like a city of the dead”. Even at midday. The polar opposite is true now, of course. It’s hard to think of anywhere more animated. And I forgot, Machen goes on to set the scene for a certain Dr Black who was suspected of murdering his wife. “I dare say that you have never heard of the Harlesden case?” No, I hadn’t either.

Malcolm Barres-Baker and I had arranged to meet inside the Royal Oak. I’ve only been inside once before. Searching for an alcoholic boyfriend who had escaped from my alcohol-free home to pursue his own vision of how life should be. It was 5pm and this charismatic drunk was on a bender. His focus on beer was unwavering. I couldn’t persuade him to leave.

Today, Malcolm is already ensconced  with his half pint, and his archive photos.There’s a great, quite well-known (it adorns the cover of Traditional Pubs of Brent by Cliff Wadsworth) photo of The Royal Oak Tavern and  Railway Hotel (as it was known then) circa 1880 (but there was a building here before as long ago as 1757) when it was a two storey building with Venetian blinds and a huge, classy gaslight outside, there’s a horse and cart delivery in mid-action. The pub looks distinctly posh. Today’s building is a 1892 re-build. “The irony is,” says Malcolm, “the older pub looks more modern.” Now with its baroque-style – in other words, its got lots of fiddly architectural bits – 4 storeys, and red brick, there are always Irish bands playing there, but at 2pm today, it’s a little bit sad in here. Drinkers who’ve seen better days. Health-wise.

Just how upscale Harlesden was in 1900, Malcolm illustrates with a photo of a garden party in Roundwood Park showing the women in flouncy long dresses and the men in top hats and tails.

He also mentions the ‘original’ (ie 1892) tiles in the hallway, so we venture out there to admire the scene – a Parliamentarian trooper hunting for King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles hid in an oak tree, hence the name Royal Oark (see first picture)  enshrined in these colourfully painted ceramics. “They’re excellent quality,” intones Malcolm in his own unmistakable way. Posh too.

On the subject of ‘poshness’, Malcolm remarks that there are oodles of old photos and photo postcards of Harlesden in existence. Many more than Willesden. I’m surprised. I’d always assumed that Willesden was richer than Harlesden because there is so much printed coverage of Willesden.  “Harlesden was actually posher than Willesden,” says Malcolm getting into the vernacular.

Ah ha, I really didn’t know that.

And these picture postcards, why are there so many of them? Because the ladies and gents of the area would send them as a way of thanking their recent hosts for tea. “Remember in those days,” says Malcolm, “you could send a card in the morning and it would arrive in the afternoon, there were two post deliveries a day.” Postcards, letters – they were the texts ‘de leurs jours’. Instantly, I want to re-create the sending of postcards and letters in this way. The romance of the postal delivery. And, of course, there were no phones.

Before stepping out on to the High Street – which is rather a daylight shock for Malcolm who is used to being hidden away in  bookish archives – we discuss the contemporary( this being entirely the wrong word for the Royal Oak style) open plan bar. “In many ways, it’s not helping pub trade,” says Malcolm, “because before with a public bar and a lounge one, at least pubs could attract different sorts of drinkers. These days, it’s all-in-one and much more limited.”

We stare up at the sign outside. “What’s wrong with that?” says Malcolm who has a degree in history, and a post-degree in Greek classical archeology. I haven’t a clue. “Well, they’ve put an image of Charles I in the middle of the oak tree, when the king who is remembered for hiding in an oak tree is Charles II.”

We appreciate the mosaic of an oak tree on the side of the building. All gold and green – it is artfully constructed and also from 1892. Looking up is a vital constituent of urban anthropology. “Gladstone said always travel upstairs on a bus if you really want to see London,” says Malcolm helpfully.

This block of buildings including this version of the Green Man – the first one was built before 1778  and was a useful stopping place for stage coaches on their way from Harrow to the City of London – was constructed in 1907. And is pseudo-Dutch. Which I’ve never noticed before. The Green Man has curved gables and even a turret at the side. Malcolm is keen on the architecture and distinctly excited at the turret which he didn’t notice on the plans.

But why Dutch? “It’s in a style called Anglo-Dutch, or sometimes ‘Pont Street Dutch’,” he explains. “Starting in the 1870s, some young British architects wanted to break free from the competing Classical and Gothic styles. They began imitating late seventeenth and early eighteenth century domestic architecture, which in some cases was strongly influenced by the Low Countries, partly because King William III was Dutch. This Anglo-Dutch and pseudo-Queen Anne style was very popular around the time the pub was built. It also turns up in Australia, where it’s called Federation Anglo-Dutch because it was popular around 1901, when Australia became a single Commonwealth.”

Now, the Green Man has become the Portuguese Bi-cafe. Another take over. Or rather a flow from English pubdom to Portuguese eating and drinking location. In the incessant wave of building-use changes.

He stares across the road and declares that the various Somali shops over there had once been a pub too. The Elm Tree. I’m astonished. Again, I hadn’t realised there had ever been a pub there. Afterwards, I find a photo of it, and the building looks Edwardian.

We walk back along the High Street and Malcolm points out a blue sign on the buildings opposite Iceland, it says You May Telephone Here. Not any longer, of course.

We arrive at the newly refurbished Way 2 Save (so much better and cheaper than Tesco’s)  and focus our attention on the other side of the road. “A pub called the Anchor & Cable used to be there,” says Malcolm forever flummoxing me with new information, “which existed in 1670 and it was rebuilt in 1888 and called The Crown.” This building has flounces and flourishes, it almost thinks it’s in a gothic horror story. The more I look at it, the more I see. Additions. Balustrades, terracotta rosettes, grotesque heads, mock tudor black stripes. There’s quite a lot going on. Earlier during archive picture time, Malcolm has shown me a photo of the trade token used at the original pub. “There wasn’t enough small change in 17th century England so tokens helped,” he explained. “On the back you can see the initials of the husband and wife who ran it.”

The last word has to go to the incisive words of Cliff Wadsworth – local history supremo – he writes –’ in the 1990s, the Crown suffered on of the worst examples of re-naming: someone felt it would do better under the title The Rat And Carrot’. Not surprisingly, it didn’t.

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TALKING STONEBRIDGE, EX-NOTORIOUS ESTATE

I haven’t been up to Stonebridge Estate – formerly known as ‘a festering sore’, ‘third world’, and notorious for problems with crack, guns, gangs and fear, now the scene of a £225 million New Labour, award-winning regeneration scheme – for a couple of months. And finally, the last of the ghost-like 1970s tower blocks is down. I’m here to meet anti-gun and knife crime activist, Michael Saunders at the Hub, part community and part medical centre.

Have you heard about the shooting of that 27 year old man at Harlesden station this week? “I was at the station soon afterwards,” he says as we walk past the strange-in-the-landscape, Victorian (remember my visit with Louis Theroux) Bridge Park Hotel, towards the modernist, Will Alsop-designed, Fawood Children’s Centre, “and forensics were there. I suppose it was a black on black crime and Trident will be investigating.” Since then, two 16 year olds have been charged with attempted murder, three others, including a 16 year old girl (all from Brent according to the Harrow Observer) have been released on bail, whilst the 27 year old survived and has been released from hospital.

Michael – known locally as ‘uncle’ – founded the British Londoners’ Business Community (which is a curious name but I assume they didn’t want to focus on black or white, and did want to sound business-like, although confusingly it has nothing to do with business) in 2009 in order to tackle gangs, gun and knife crime with ‘community unity’ meetings. The idea is to get the mothers, fathers and grandparents involved with each other, as well as with their young people. And if for instance, the mother of someone who is in prison for a stabbing, sits next to the mother of a young man who has been injured or even killed – then the community can actually witness what is happening in a personal way with each other, and work together. That’s the theory. And Michael reports that comings together of this sort have happened.

In fact, two years ago, Michael (far right in photo) found himself being challenged to do something by a friend’s then 12 year old son, TJ, whose mother was stopping him going out to the park because she was frightened that he would get stabbed. “He’d already watched his elder brother get depressed when one of his friends was shot dead,” says Michael. “So TJ wanted to know when we, the older people, who were moaning about it all the time, were going to do something. So four of us, my old friend, Lasana Fulu, TJ and his 13 year old sister, Sheneisha founded BLBC. I was aware that the mothers had already been active with marches like ‘Not Another Drop’* and we, the men, needed to get up off the sofas and be more proactive.”

Michael – who was born in Kilburn, is back there now, but lived in New York for 30 years and says he learnt what not to do around these problems from the US, as well as what to do – blames MTV and the influence of rap culture on the behaviour of young people here. “Whether they are black or white, they all want to be like Jay-Z or 50 Cents,” he says, “and that is giving them distorted ideas.”

Surely, it’s not that simple. Obviously a middle-aged, white (or Caucasian, as Michael would say) woman who was brought up in a Yorkshire village may not have all the answers but a lack of firm parenting, the failure of schools, the poverty of aspirations as a society would seem to me to be part of the problem. We agree eventually that education, discipline through sports, and community action can help change the situation.

Has the new Stonebridge – old towers down, low rise and family terraces in place – helped? “Yes,  yes, yes, now it is like a community here. It’s not institutionalised any more. Look, he says pointing to a woman planting out primroses,” now people see each other in the garden, it’s not anonymous-living any more. It’s made a hugely positive difference.”

And they’re no longer a no-go zone for the police? “I lived in this estate in ’77,” he explains, “and they were big flats with great views, but the buildings were all interlinked which meant young people could evade the police very easily. That doesn’t happen now.”

Two teenage boys go into a house nearby. Michael shouts ‘hey’ to them in that ‘we hang out together sometimes, but you know I’m on your case’ kind of way. BLBC has a slogan which is FUBU – ‘For You, By You’ – which is about individuals in the community becoming aware of the power they have in their own hands. “The estate has changed over the last ten years,” he says, “but there is still a problem with young people. Right now, there’s trouble between Stonebridge and the estate over the A406 called St Raphaels. It’s so bad because there are families who have relations in both areas. Potentially, that means there is the chance that one family member might unknowingly injure another family member by mistake, just because they live at the other place. These children are running in packs. The BBC won’t run stories on them, so we use the community radio stations to calm things down.”

That’s madness, I opine, meaning the possibility of families actually attacking each other because they live on estates at war with one another. “That’s the reality,” he says in his forthright way, as we walk towards a football pitch. “Young people are influenced by their peer group. But we hope that getting the parents and young people in one room together will have an effect. Parents and relatives can pass on positive moral messages to their children. Mothers often know their son’s friends, and they can influence them if they’re altogether in the same sitting room having a conversation. They respect people they know well. Not outsiders. Family is the first port of call.”

In front of us, there is a lot of football action going on. Training at the Pavilion with small kids up to teenagers. Meanwhile, Michael admits that there is a lot of resentment amongst young people, towards the Somalis who have arrived over the last decade. “Young people who were born here, don’t like that Somalis are getting given flats,” he says. “There is a perception that the Caribbean community came here because they were needed to do jobs and so they paid their taxes, and their children and grandchildren, should be looked after. Whereas the Somalis are refugees. It’s all very well, the UK being liberal but you have to watch your backs.”

I’d heard from my son, that there was trouble with Somalis, but I didn’t understand what was going on. Now, I’m shocked, but not shocked. This is why you can see black faces in the English Defence League. As well as the myriad of white ones. And this is the vicious circle of ‘not enough for us’ that comes out of Britain, every time we have rising unemployment, rising cuts.

“We teach them what respect really is,” he says as we reach the sports club entrance. A hundred or so, young children are playing football with older mentors. “Super is the man here,” he says introducing me to an avuncular, kind-faced gentleman who’s hiding a bundle of locks under his hat, “he can tell you on another occasion about what else is going on with the young people here. It’s important that we get to the young kids, so then they form a network where potentially others will step in if they start falling off the tracks.”

Michael says BLBC identify the alpha males and females in the community and work with them. “They are often older and have the influence, they’re the leaders and they persuade the others. So it’s important to have their ears. They influence the peer group. And peer groups are so significant to teenagers.”

And parents? “Parents only have so much influence,” he says, “they might be on your ass from time to time but they don’t see everything.” Hmm… I disagree, I think parents can play a bigger role and should. I know I have with my own son.

I wonder how he formed his ideas on youth and crime? “When I was in New York, there was this young boy with an AK45 on the street,” he explains, “I asked him what he was doing and why. He said it was my fault. I was in my late 30s. He said that my generation hadn’t put the structures in place to look after that age group. I remembered that. I’m trying to help but I know it’s not going to change completely in my life time. We’re just sewing the seeds.”

By this time, we are walking up Hillside and then right down Knatchbull Road. Michael says he’s walking me out of Stonebridge, but we seem to be walking back in again. I sneak a look at lack of tower behind St Michael’s nursery. Last time, I was here it was still wrapped up and be-scaffolded. Now, there is bare terrain. It feels exciting, even though these changes have been going on for a decade. And I’m not in favour of pulling down all the brutalist 70s housing estates, some can be refurbished. But these had to go.

I’m not quite sure how we managed to get on to the subject of Obama, it was probably the lack of positive male black role models in the UK. But I couldn’t help myself. “Shouldn’t he be called mixed race rather than black?” I comment, a little cheekily, it has to be said.

Michael makes a sort of whooping noise like a wild dog caught in a trap. “No,” he cries, “Obama is black, if he went anywhere in the world, they’d say he was black. The US constitution says that anyone with an eighth black genes is black.”

But, he is mixed race, I insist. “That’s just being politically correct,” he counters. “And it’s different in the UK. Here I grew up with white kids in Kilburn listening to Manfred Mann, over in the US all my neighbours were black.”

Manfred Mann!!! So you mean it took moving to New York for you to feel black? He laughs. I like to think he’s admitting I’m right.

Apparently, we’re looking for a teenager, he calls ‘Ginger’ who is a cousin of the very up and coming Stonebridge rapper, Koke. K. Koke. K’s music videos get up to a million hits. He raps in a very personal way about the trials and emotional terrors of existence, and there is a reassuringly black and white thing going on. Although a cliched gang thing too. We can’t find Ginger – Michael wants him to do some recording for him – so we turn back.

As we walk down into Craven Park Rd, Michael’s mind turns to his supper. Red snapper, it seems. And mine turns to his hairwear. A blue cloth that reaches down his neck. “It’s a do rag,” he says in that US do-dew way,(thanks Fifi Dennison on Facebook) “I wear it because I don’t want to comb my hair, and if I take it off, my hair will be fine. It’s a black hair thing.”

*’Not Another Drop’ was set up in 2001 as a joint community, police and council response to a spate of fatal shootings in NW10.

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HOW MY MOTHER COMES INTO THE MEANING OF HARLESDEN

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.

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A GAS METER READER’S PERSPECTIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NEW TOURISM

I feel like a tourist guide today. Something I hadn’t expected to happen. My French friends, Odile, independent midwife and beautiful intellectual, plus her 15 year old son, the gentle and philosophical Seirigne have come on a flying, unplanned visit to London from Marseille. I admit it, in the past, we (Marlon is with us too) would have gone to Portobello Road with them but now I realise that Harlesden has its own nitty gritty temptations. In a strange way, it is ready for new tourism.

As we walk down Wrottesley Rd, I explain that Harlesden is one of the top ten most deprived areas in the UK. Odile is shocked. “It doesn’t look poor,” she says, “the streets are clean. In Marseille, a poor area is much more run down and dirty. Poverty for me is when there is not a piece of wall free of tags and the public space is destroyed, here I see that it is respected.” Deprived? The translation? Perhaps deprivation in the UK, is more behind closed doors than in France? Not as visible but still as pervasive in terms of lack of education and work opportunities, healthy parenting, balanced diet, work opportunities, facilities for the elderly and mentally ill? How do we define deprivation?

At the end of Park Parade, I point out the Royal Oak pub because it’s (well, the pub but not this building) been here since 1839 according to the Brent archives and from 1855, an omnibus was running from here into London. “On le croyerait pas,” says Odile startled again.  Today, it’s a noisy (in a good way) Irish pub with all manner of live bands that pop over from the home country to entertain the locals.

We look up – like an observational form of yoga, looking up is becoming a practice on these walks. Of course, I’m working on a deeper, more significant relationship with Harlesden – at the Edwardian facades on the High St and a few of them are sprouting buddleia bushes. Known as incredibly effective butterfly attractors in primary school wildlife gardens, this is obviously not what is happening here. “Ah, I can see that here is poor now,” acknowledges Odile.

Meanwhile Seirigne eyes up the Iceland sign with wonderment in his face. Lost in the idea of the country, he doesn’t realise that this is in fact a mundane frozen food-orientated supermarket. Ah, the joys of being innocently French.

Enjoying the notion of this new tourism, I decide to take their photo (with my deliberately non-digital Canon camera) at the Jubilee clock. A few weeks ago, I have to confess that I was shopping down here when I spotted something completely unexpected. Something never seen before by me in Harlesden.  A couple – maybe Eastern European – were taking each other’s photos at this NW10 Victorian landmark. Somehow before this event, it wasn’t possible for me to put tourists and Harlesden in the same sentence. But actually observing this act of tourism, made it possible to imagine it being true. And so, as if to confirm this newly emergent perspective, I record this Marseille/Harlesden (Odile, Seirigne and Marlon) moment on film.

Seirigne wants to see inside a pub. I haven’t quite understood how much Odile wants this to happen. She has been asking if Marlon is going to take Seirigne out, but I didn’t quite get it. I kept saying that Marlon doesn’t really go to pubs. But that wasn’t the point, I’m being a negligent host. “We have nothing like this in France,” she says, “the atmosphere, the decoration, they are so special.”

It’s only 11 30am but I spot someone who looks like an employee standing outside The Shawl, which is at the entrance to the Shopping Plaza. Obviously, Harlesden had pretensions to a future in shopping heaven, when that sign was put up! The Shawl is another Irish pub – there’s a big Guinness sign outside and it’s housed in what looks like an old chapel. The man outside having a cigarette, turns out to be the barman and he kindly invites us in.

Inside – it’s incredible. An ocean of football scarves, flags (Cork is a clue)  and photos everywhere of the customers in full-on party mode. Mad hats, big smiles, lots of booze. And more photos of Ireland – the land that they’ve never left. “You wouldn’t believe how crazy it gets in here,” says the barman. I would. I would. The gaudily patterned carpet reverberates with the thousands of pints of Guinness that it has absorbed. One jolly elderly customer (there is only one) enquires if I would like to pole dance for him. Ah, my first pole dancing request of the day!

We pass one of the many fish shops – I have an unproven theory that Harlesden has the most fresh fish shops within a square mile in the UK – and there are razor fish piled up, still in those barberesque shells. We stare in amazement. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live one before, but I remember the shells from childhood holidays at Lytham St Ann’s in Lancashire. And then, (to continue the holiday sidetrack) as if part of a Blackpool sideshow circa 1962, the male assistant gives them a provocative tickle. They wriggle in a most erotic way. Or as Odile put it afterwards in an email – “A young man mocks us in exciting a razor fish leading to a very suggestive movement.” Quite.

Another rude display of fish stops us in our tracks a little further on. Mackerel, barracuda, spine fish  – smoked and wierd. Fascinating but also uninviting. “It looks like a Soutine painting. The fish are flat and exposed without a trace of decency, their interiors are cut open, ” writes Odile. And spices, spices, so many spices. This fish shop manager is layered in sweatshirts against the bitter fridge cold as well as the chilly weather. He is surprisingly keen to enchant us with his fish. Michael Brown tells us he comes from Kenya, but he’s been here for 40 years. I’ll have to come back and find out more.

We look up again this time at the contrasts in architecture – the crazy 60s ugliness of Library Parade with all its linear shop fronts and falling apartness, set against the soon-to-be-re-opened Edwardian Library with all its old curves. I try to blame le Corbusier for the ugliness. Odile agrees that philosophically he is responsible. We laugh.

I point out – back in my tour leader role – that the RBS is housed the Greek revival (those pillars!) former National Bank. There’s even a plaque on the side declaring it opened on 17th July 1882 (just before the Blackpool Tower –continuing the leitmotif, I’ve just come back). Not to mention, the gargoyle type faces in the upper half. It looks out of place here.  Like a gathering of garden gnomes have landed on the Acropolis.

There are hotels in Craven Park Road called things like The Hollingbury Hotel and Helen’s Hotel. This is tourist information that this tour leader is ignorant of. Until now. It’s another new tourism moment. Who stays at them? Why do they come to Harlesden? Marlon has an answer. “People who are coming to Wembley to see the football,” he says. Stupidly, I’d never thought of that.

We stand and look down Hillside, it’s a dramatically changed landscape. We’re looking onto Stonebridge. The notorious Stonebridge estate. Gun crime – between 1999 and 2002, there were 24 people were shot here, 12 died – crack cocaine, and poverty. This is where the area turned into the Bronx. Gangs of young men, mostly young British black men, out of control. Convinced that the ‘easy’ money from selling drugs was the way to go. The escape from deprivation. The worship of Mammon beamed down from the banks and from Parliament to the estates.

In 2009, 26 year old Shawn Callum was shot outside the Stonebridge Primary School, at a private party one Saturday night in February. He was leaving and was shot in the back at 2am.  His friends say he had no direct connection with the gangs or the drugs. He was a beautiful-looking young man who was also a father. His only ‘crime’ may have been to have a cousin who was connected to the drugs and gang world. On such absurdities, turn life and death here. But is this culture changing with the family-friendly new architecture?

“There used to be six tower blocks here,” says Marlon who has taken over as tour leader, “but now almost all of them have been knocked down and replaced with low-rise housing.” It’s been a £225 million project which has happened over the last decade – the go ahead was given early in the New Labour reign and is now almost complete. The deluded idealism of the 60s has been bulldozed by the knowing pragmatism of the noughties.

“I’m amazed,” says Odile, “this is not happening in France in fact. You are ahead of us. We still have high-rise social housing, which is cut off from the rest of society. It’s very bad, very divisive. I am interested to hear whether this new housing has had an effect on the gun, drugs and gang culture?” Me too.

ONE DEFINITION OF DEPRIVATION

According to Longman’s Contemporary English Dictionary, deprivation means the lack of something that you need in order to be healthy, comfortable and happy.

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