Tag Archives: Art

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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WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I SAT UNDERNEATH A SIGN SAYING ‘TALK TO ME’

A long time coming…

Well, not years and years, but for at least one year, I was thinking about it. Sophie Calle was an inspiration. A French artist who often interacts with members of the community in her installations, she once customised a phone box in New York, made it personal, cosy even, then left a notebook for people to write in. They responded by writing about their love lives, their anger, their fears. More recently, she sent a painful break up letter – which had been written to her by an ex – to all sorts of people from a graphic designer to her mother, from a psychoanalyst to a children’s story teller and garnered their responses for an installation called ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ that I saw at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2009. Her work affected me in an emotional way. I liked that.

So did the promenade performance of ‘Living Costs’ by physical theatre group, DV8 at the Tate Modern in 2003. There was one particular part which really touched me. An elderly woman – I’d seen her before in their shows – sat naked in a corner just as we arrived the top of an escalator, she had a sign saying ‘Please Touch’. It was shocking. It seemed morally reprehensible and dangerous. For her. She looked so fragile, so vulnerable. Tiny, bird-like and defenceless. At first, I felt afraid for her. And then, I felt afraid of touching her. What would happen? Would I like it? Would I feel repulsed in some way? Would I be sensitive enough towards her?

Some people avoided her, others stroked her arm. I decided it would be a failure of my own courage not to touch her. So I went and gently, ever so gently stroked her back and her arms. It was exquisite. She remained passive. No-one touched her breasts – little bags on her chest. Somehow it was an intensely beautiful experience. Who else am I not touching out of fear?

I’m not a performer but…

Doesn’t everyone have an artist/writer/performer inside them? All that stuff about everyone has a book inside them. Yes, but what kind of book? What kind of art? I don’t want Not On Safari In Harlesden to be only walking and talking, I want some departures to other lands. On this occasion, I wanted Harlesden to talk to me, as opposed to me talking to Harlesden.

I talked about it for quite a while. And did nothing. It required more verve and bravery, than the walks. It was scary. Maybe no-one would talk to me. Maybe I would feel a fool. Maybe some people wouldn’t like me being there and tell me so. After all, I was asking to be talked to…

The idea was to uncover Harlesden in a different way…

The trigger for action was a friend of mine. She mentioned that she thought I was muddling along in life. I nearly died of shock and insult. I do not perceive myself as a muddler. But, it did get me going.

SATURDAY JUNE 25TH 2011

The day before I was terrified. Of exposing myself in this way. But today, I’m sanguine and Marlon has arrived with his camera to film whatever happens. Oh, and to make my sign. What’s son for, if not to make a mother her sign? And tie the sign to the chair. The practicalities.

There is one rule:

a) Marlon must not engage with people, that will distract them from the focus ie talking to me. Also I don’t want them to know what I’m doing.

I have a small plan:

a) I will be passive at first and not engage with people.

b) Then I will see what happens when I do have eye contact with them.

Ah, ah, but will anyone talk to me?

We leave the house musing about us as a mother and son team. The last time was when Marlon was in his foundation year at London College Of Communication and he made a short film ‘Mummy’s Boy’. It involved a son killing his mother. Oedipal separation anxiety. I played the mother. Need I say more?

We struggle down Park Parade with the chair and the sign. Marlon is embarrassed. Poor son. He doesn’t do making a spectacle of himself. I do. Of course. He gives me the sign to carry. That’s the worst bit for him. It is a placard with Talk To Me in very loud black letters. I feel as though I’m on a demonstration. It’s a sunny day and people strain their heads to read the sign and then, smile.

I think this is a good portent.

I feel like the circus that has come to town. In a small way. I quite like being the circus that has come to town.

There’s a lot of staring at me going on. Oh, and I do have two big roses instead of horns on my head. I’m slightly Frida Kahlo – but no mono-brow, sadly – with a smattering of Carmen Miranda.

There are discreet looks from the laundretteers opposite the new Le Bombeiro, the Portuguese restaurant that has replaced Os Amigos. A restaurant called Fireman. Interesting. There’s a strong whiff of  ‘what are they doing?’ emanating from the bus stop, and naked fascination from the Brazilians at the also newly named Kactus bar and restaurant.

I’m marching now. Unabashed. With the sign high in the air. Proud. Marlon is carrying the chair in a way that signals that he hasn’t got anything to do with that  strutting woman behind him.

People mutter ‘Talk to me’ in a bemused, bewildered, mulling over way. I feel as though the sign is expected to say something like ‘Fuck The Cuts’ or ‘I’m So Angry I Can’t Fit Everything On To This Banner’. But I’m glad it doesn’t. That it’s more unexpected.

The destination is in sight. The Jubilee Clock. Harlesden landmark. It’s on a paved island where people cross the road, where the Nation of Islam often appear, where gospel singers proclaim. At this moment, I’m a little worried that it’s too far away from people, that they won’t venture anywhere near me.

And it is already occupied. By Gloria, a preacher. She’s got her speaker, her microphone and her leaflets. And her voice. Meanwhile we try to fix the sign so that it doesn’t collapse. The wind is the enemy of a home-made sign. Gloria stops talking and wanders over.

“What you doing,” she asks more as a demand than a question.

I explain that I’m writing about Harlesden. My small plan is discarded already, I am engaging.

“What you know about Harlesden?” she proclaims pursing her lips in disgust. Then she takes in my lurid pink skirt and orange blouse and instead of going down the ‘cussing’ route, she changes course in mid-breath. “Nice colours,” she pronounces instead.

Gloria is talking to me. Non-stop. I’ve got my first talker and I’ve only just arrived. She’s a twice a week preacher, it turns out, and has been in the UK- she was born in Jamaica – for 43 years. Harlesden, 39 of them. I’ve only been here 15 years. A spring chicken.

I start off by writing our conversation down but she doesn’t like that. Threatens to sue. I decide to abandon my notebook. It’s interfering with simply relating. She tells me about her church, it’s a pentecostal one, the Beulah Apostolic Church of God, in Church Road. I’ve been meaning to go there, I say. “Is it okay for me to come?”  Of course, she’s outraged that I would think otherwise.

Somehow we end up mentioning dancing. I say I’m always up for a bit of dancing. And then she gets very stern and says the dancing that happens at her church, comes from the spirit that moves them. Not the other way round. I acknowledge the difference.

I ask what reactions she gets to her preaching? And she says some people tell her to go away, but for others, it makes their day.

In the midst of all this, Gloria eyes me up and down, especially the roses on my head, and announces: “You gipsy woman,” in a way that makes me think she genuinely thinks that I am. I love that mistake. I love that, for her, I can be something so different. And, that it’s OK. We still get on like a house on fire. Well, two houses burning side by side.

Turns out she’s starting up her own church and there are services at Willesden Library on Sundays.

Oh yes, and the man and the yams. She tells me about a man who came up to her whilst she was preaching, and he had a couple of yams under his jacket. “Would you like to come home and cook me yams,” he declared apparently. “I told him,” she says as she raises her arms into the air in a declamatory manner, “there is more to life than yams.”

Warm, feisty, hilarious – Gloria is my kind of woman. She’s off to the cafe now to have some breakfast, then, she tells me she’ll be buying some oxtail to put in a stew. “If you lived next door to me,” she laughs, “I’d be in your house all the time.” Then, she comes up and gives me a mammoth hug. A moment of melting under the Jubilee Clock. A moment I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t come out with my sign.

Seeing my sign seems to make people feel jolly. It’s as though I’m reaching out to them in some way that they don’t expect. And they appreciate the gesture. Two Somali teenage girls pass and give a sly smile. Ah, I’d like to talk to them. Men mutter as they pass, and I wonder if they think this is a ruse to get a date. Briefly, I wonder what would happen if I sat under a sign saying: ‘I Want A Date’.

Families crossing the road suddenly notice that I’m not the usual-Jubilee-Clock-island fare. Children wave at me. Teenage boys ignore me altogether. This is a step too far for them.

Suddenly, a rather plump gentleman in a yellow T-Shirt stumbles towards me me. His mouth is open, and he has a strand of spittle tumbling from it. My immediate thought is that he’s on medication. I notice his shoelaces are undone. He has difficulty speaking. I get up so that I can hear him. I want to hear him. Although I’m daunted slightly. What will happen? I want to really appreciate everyone that comes up to me. “Can I talk to you about politics?” he says in a very polite, friendly way.

“Yes, yes, please do,” I say. He starts off telling me how much he knows about maths and politics, and then he drops in the stunner. At first, I don’t quite catch what he says. He starts talking about 1963 and the car in Dallas. “I’m him,” he says, “I’m J F Kennedy.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Has he been re-born? In a very different body. I don’t want to offend him. I say something about being re-incarnated. But before I know it, he is also telling me that he wrote Tony Blair’s speeches. Now I understand what went wrong for New Labour. They had J F Kennedy writing their leader’s speeches.

Anyway, what I was worried about by this time, was that J F Kennedy might want to stay talking all day. And that I will have to devise a way of subtly moving him on. Fortunately, he decides himself that it’s time to go. He also gives me a big hug before he departs. My second hug of the day. The sign is working.

At this point, Marlon and I have a short discussion about the location. Should I try somewhere else? So off I go to sit outside All Souls Church on the corner of Station Road. This is a much lonelier spot. And strangely windy. People on their own pass by, and they’re a lot more reluctant to get involved. They spot me, lower their eyes and rush by. People in cars gaze with interest, but most people want escape as soon as possible. I feel like I’m one of those street charity sellers. A pariah. And then a jogger shouts out, “I would talk but I’m in a hurry”, and makes me laugh.

I realise that the good thing about the Jubilee Clock island is that it is an intersection, and lots of people pass by. They give each other the confidence to look and speak. They’re more relaxed because they’re in a crowd. We go back to the original location. Frankly, it’s a relief to be back. People are so much readier for me here!

I like the atmosphere. Most people don’t come up and talk, but they obviously like that I’m here making a little spectacle of myself. It appeals to their someone-is-not-afraid-of-making-a-fool-of-themselves sides. I’m doing my own version of Red Nose afternoon.  A small gentleman with a small moustache walks up to me and starts talking about Jesus.

He’s smiling in that heavenly beatific way. ‘Jesus is someone to depend on, he is a saviour, a joy, a refuge.’ A refuge, I like the idea of someone creating a refuge for people. A quiet hiding place. This man is not imposing his Jesus information on me. He’s just delighted to share his information about Jesus with me. ‘Jesus’ has obviously helped him out of a few scrapes. I ask him if we can’t help ourselves? Do we need Jesus to do it? But he’s an unassuming man who’s trying to help the world through Jesus so I can’t get angry about it. He’s trying to give in his own way.

There’s a man who is often around with a book and a can of special brew. He wears a hat, has grey dreadlocks, sometimes a kilt, and has the air of errant nobility about him. He’s standing by the HSBC now, and I’m wondering whether he will stroll over. I always wonder about him – his story, who he is, why he’s on the streets in this way. But he keeps his distance.

Instead a couple of Community Support Officers – “the plastic police” as Leeroy Simpson, Mr Harlesden Town Team, comments later – come over. Wayne and Richard. “I’ve never seen anyone like you here,” says Wayne observantly, “you’re unusual. It’s usually religious people.”

There’s a lot less going on in terms of crime than people think, they say. “Brent is just like any other London borough,” says Wayne. “There is no more crime or less. We go around talking to people, creating relationships, so that there will hopefully be less mishaps.”

I notice a plastic bottle in Wayne’s pocket. “Is it spray of some kind?” I ask imagining he must use it if attacked. “No, it’s sanitiser,” he says, “I’m a bit obsessive about hygiene.” I can’t helping smiling at the Community Support Officer and his sanitiser!

Finally, I notice a blonde middle-aged man with his supermarket bags staring at me as he passed. Ten minutes later, he’s back asking me what I’m up to. Clive, he’s called. The same as my brother. I explain about my mission. And he’s thrilled. “I love it that you’ve taken the time to come here and do this,” he says, “you’ve made my day.”

He’s grinning from ear to ear. I guess it’s the – I’m not here to sell you anything material or spiritual, I’m just here to listen to you – aspect of my being here.

It turns out that Clive works here, but has 18 year old twins in Kenya. “I was married to a Kenyan woman who died,” he tells me, “now I’ve got another girlfriend out there. I spend my time between here and there.” He has a travelling spirit.  “Somehow  you being here, reminds me of that travelling spirit,” he says. I know what he means. That freedom we all feel when away from the daily grind. And the way that freedom allows you talk to different people, all sorts of people, in a much open, less culturally restricted way.

Exactly. Clive is chuffed. Me too.

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THE TATTOOIST’S TALE

Today, I’m in pursuit of ‘Hanging In Harlesden’. When I first began tracking down my neighbourhood, I came across a film on You tube – which came with the warning ‘If you have an aversion to hooks, blood and heavy French accents, do not watch’. I definitely have a squeamish – I have been known to faint when injected – response to hooks and blood, but I watched anyway. It involved a tattooed, pierced young man being hung up on huge hooks, which penetrated his skin. For pleasure. It was scary, incomprehensible and compelling all at the same time.

It’s been in the back of mind to find out what was going on and why? And I’ve walked past Krazie Needles, a tattoo studio in Station Road, a few times now. So I decide to start there. I was half-thinking, that these ‘hangings’ must be going on there. It’s the middle of the afternoon, a safe time to visit!  I enter the shop part, stroll past the dozens of possible body illustrations – from comic book, voluptuous women to praying hands and cars – and enquire at the counter.

‘Do you know anything about ‘Hanging In Harlesden’?’ I ask as casually as I can muster. They – there are three male tattooists in attendance – shake their heads in unison. We don’t do anything like that here, just tattoos and piercings,” smiles the first one, who I later realise has quite a large tattoo of a bee on the side of his bald head and is called Kris. “I know they go on though, but it’s more underground.”

What is it all about? “Technically, they’re called body suspensions,” says Danny who is actually in the middle of working out how to transfer a pink-haired beauty he’s found on the internet, onto the other one’s arm, “the insertion of the hooks causes a rush of endorphins, the participant gets high and possibly has an out of body experience. It’s a spiritual thing, a very personal experience. I’ve heard people say that it’s about being on your own in that state with nothing else going on, you get into a meditative state. At that moment, nothing else matters. Fakirs used to do it, and it was part of an important ritual for Native American Indians.”

In the meantime, my gaze is wandering around their studio. Of course, there are the gothic fake skulls and bones imbedded in black on the welcoming wall and the metal bands roaring in the background, but suddenly I notice that one of their display cases is actually a coffin. “Yes, it’s a real coffin with glass instead of a lid, and we’ve got corn snakes living inside,” says Kris ever friendly and informative. I wander over to take a look, and there they are one red one, and one beige one curled up together, with naturally, a skull just below.

Tattoos, these days, are boringly de rigeur. Not just Beckham, even Sam Cam has got a swallow one. “Yeah, they’re like fashion accessories,” says Danny, “people don’t think enough before they have them. They forget that they are permanent.”

What about the old-fashioned ones like hearts and daggers? “Well, there was the trend for Celtic ones, then tribal ones, then all the Sanskrit writing, but funnily enough the old-fashioned hearts and daggers are making a come back. But the colours are much better these days so they are improved. There is a lot more information out there now so people can make more informed choices. We get people coming in and wanting portraits of their children on their skin,” says Danny.

Now I ask a stupid question. I realise that in my head – I think of tattoos and white rather than black skin. So who are their customers? “Ninety five percent of our customers are black. This is Harlesden. Everyone thinks that tattoos don’t show up on black skin but of course, they do. All the rappers like 50 Cents are covered in them.”

Down at the far end of the studio, there’s a sign that says ‘Don’t ask me for fucking stars’. The Krazie trinity are a bunch of comedians. They’re referring to Rihanna and her star tattoos. “They come in and want exactly what celebrities have,” laughs Danny, “and that’s our response.” I laugh because I noticed recently that artist, Douglas Gordon has also got stars. But I suppose his are bigger, more arty, or something. Anyway, they do do stars, they just enjoying complaining about that lack of imagination.

How many tattoos does Kris have, I wonder? “I started when I was 14 and I’m 43 now,” he says, “so I must have over a hundred. They were old-fashioned but now they’re panthers, spark plugs and women.” Not forgetting the worker bee, which happens to have a syringe, which is injecting one half of his shiny head. “That’s me injecting art into myself,” he explains wittily aware of his artiness.

Hovering over our heads is a framed photo of a tattooed arm, which announces Misfit. And there’s a lot of banter flying around about exactly this notion. So although I think tattoos are so fashionable, they’re conventional; Danny and Kris still seem to consider themselves tattooed outsiders. “Employers still think as though they’re in the Dark Ages,” says Danny, “to them, tattoos mean trouble-maker or cheap. When in fact, tattoos don’t make you a different sort of human being.”

What do people spend? “Well, the cheapest one is £20 and then you might get people who want Beckham sleeves and that will take much longer and cost hundreds of pounds. A body suit is the most comprehensive piece of work,” says Kris, “that might take 40 hours and they’d have to keep coming back, but we don’t get many of them.”

And what about women tattooists? I’m surprised in a good way at the ferocity of Danny’s reply. “There are not enough,” he exclaims, “they don’t get enough opportunities, and they don’t get enough credit. We need more women. Sometimes women customers come in here and you can see they’re uncomfortable around all these men. It would be great to have a studio of all women tattooists where they would feel at ease.”

Forty minutes ago, they had no idea I was on my way to meet them. They have been unbelievably accommodating, kind and humorous. As I leave Kris says he has a mate who’s been suspended on hooks – large fish hooks, as it happens – and he’s going to ask him if he’s heard about anyone doing suspensions in Harlesden. So the puzzle of the ‘Hanging In Harlesden’ may still be solved.

As I leave I have a look at their photo books crammed full of arms with gentians, shoulders with horses, backs with whole scenes from the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Tattooing is changing. Last time, I was close to the tattooing scene was when poet and novelist, Joolz Denby – married to New Model Army’s lead singer, Justin – took me on a tour of Birmingham tattoo studios and showed me her own Celtic decorations. At least, they weren’t stars!

I’m standing outside taking photographs of the window when a bloke appears at my side. “I like that,” he says pointing at a display photo of a woman’s back covered in tattooed exotic black hibiscus, “but I always wonder what happens when you’re seventy?”

A conversation ensues that includes the pros and cons of body modifications. Chris – he’s called Chris with a C – and I agree that cosmetic surgery and botox are wrong, and indicative of a narcissistic society hell-bent on the search for eternal youth. But we beg to differ on tattoos. I’m not against them – as opposed as being actively for them – because there’s such a long history of body ornamentation, and tattoos seem to be on that aesthetic continuum. They are not a youth-seeking modification, rather an aesthetic one. However, Chris is not convinced.

We then turn to the election, the coalition and the fact that Labour MP, Dawn Butler has been voted out. By a couple of thousand votes. Sarah Teather is now our incoming Brent Central MP. I watched the announcement on the morning of Friday, May 7th – one of the last counts to come in – and felt emotional. I had voted Lib Dem, partly as a protest about what had happened to Labour values, partly because I wanted a hung parliament (I’d like all the parties to start working together and get rid of the anachronistic adversarial nature of the repeated duopoly) but partly also because Sarah Teather seemed to be the most dedicated local MP. However, I felt for Dawn Butler. It was a shame two good women MPs had to be up against one another. Chris says his mother who is a staunch Labour supporter, had also voted Lib-Dem this time.

But the best bit is when I discover what Chris is attempting to do. Yes, folks, Chris – in his office in the Acton Business Centre – is re-inventing the trifle! “The first one is called Oh George,” he says, “and with layers of cream, chocolate and raspberry coulis, I’m trying to make an ironic version St George’s flag.”

A trifle representing modern Britain. And the inventor is black. Outside a tattoo studio. This could only happen in Harlesden.

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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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THE DRY WIT OF MR BARLAY

Today – rainy, the day after the earthquake in Chile, a Sunday in Harlesden – I’m walking with journalist and author, Nick Barlay. He’s finally turned up. Remember, I was meant to meet him for the first walk. I think he’ll be a fruitful ‘collaborator’ because he’s a Londonist with an arch sense of humour. Plus he’s written about his own walks. He once wrote a 10,000 word account of the London section of the A5, the old Roman Road, 30 miles and eight road changes of name for Time Out. “It was a scientific dissection of London but of course, there was a psychosexual angle in that it started with a phallic obelisk in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Brockley Hill and ended with the vaginal Marble Arch. I walked it twice. You have to walk it to feel it”. Oh la la.

Before we set off, I show him a piece entitled ‘No Evacuation From Harlesden’ – which is a memory recorded by Derek Sebbage for the BBC’s World War 2 site, the People’s War – in it he describes how his family lived in a flat in Ranelagh Rd during the war (for him, between the ages of two and seven) and his mother wouldn’t allow them (four children) to be evacuated because she wanted them to stay together. Vividly, he recalls they had their very own “ Andersen Shelter in which we sometimes had to spend days. You had to drop down into the ground, it was half out of the soil, and covered with soil. Inside I can always remember, there were blue striped mattresses and pillows, not pillowcases, just blankets. One of the treats we used to have was mum would make Cadbury’s drinking chocolate.”

I ask Nick (he knows more than I do about history) if he knows what an Andersen air raid shelter was like? “It was home-made wasn’t it?” he says, “People would get them together from scrap.”  According to wikipedia – where there is a handy photo showing one constructed from corrugated iron and in someone’s private garden – “They were designed to accommodate six people, and buried in 1.2m of soil and covered with soil too.” The earth banks, it suggested, could be planted with vegetables and flowers, “that at times could be quite an appealing sight and in this way would become the subject of competitions of the best-planted shelter among householders in the neighbourhood.” Wow, whoever would have imagined Britain In Bloom transposed to air-raid shelters!  Not only that, it adds – “The internal fitting out of the shelter was left to the owner and so there were wide variations in comfort.” Of course, there was no Ikea of air-raid interiors. It also informs us that Andersen shelters were free to all householders who earned less than £250 a year, otherwise, they were £7 each.

Thoroughly acquainted with the state of the Andersen shelter, we set off on a circular trip which will include Ranelagh Rd.  At the junction of Rucklidge Avenue and Park Parade, the very blue Workers sculpture by Kevin Harrison seems rather strangely located. Four workers in blue overalls with a triumphant flag – City Challenge, 1995 – it seems frankly more Moscow than Harlesden. “It’s what I would call Soviet-lite,” says the ever-coruscating, Mr Barlay, however, he also adds more gently, “but I can’t bring myself to hate it. It is a step up from two sad fucks sitting on a fence.”

We’re walking by the Royal Oak pub and Nick is gazing at the other side of the road. Naturally, he’s practicing observational yoga. He’s an original practitioner. “You get all the mouldings of the original buildings, you can see those painted flowers on the corner above the café were Edwardian, but on the lower parts, everything has been stuck on – like the alarm box and then the fashion shop with the missing letters. I like that kind of architectural history.”

Have you seen the docu-soap, (remember, there was a docu-soap TV era) the Heart of Harlesden, I ask? When was it on? he says. 2001. He hasn’t. Anyway, the cavernous rooms above Iceland apparently used to be Dreams nightclub where black British Harlesden girls used to shake their short and frequently diaphanous skirt-clad booty at the boys who were wont to roll full bottles of spilling-forth champagne towards the gyrating girls’ ankles. In a full-on display of peacockdom.  Now it simply says Gym in the windows. There was a tattered church sign but it’s disappeared. And I think it still operates as a club called NW10.

Turns out that Monsieur Barlay – actually he’s just finished a memoir about his Hungarian Jewish roots – has previous with the Jubilee Clock. “As a teenager, we used to meet at that clock,” he says, “I’ve always liked it, it reminds me of Little Ben outside Victoria Station.”

There’s a huge Church of England church, All Souls’, on the corner of Station Rd and the High street, I’ve never been in, but my newsagent, Dar, had mentioned that he sometimes goes there, and sometimes to the mosque. Shall we go in? The exterior is pretty grim grills over the windows, Gothic, and generally uninviting – so the interior comes as an unexpected pleasure. Instead of a dark, dank interior, there is a terrifically white, light one. I actually gasp at how much light there is. White painted walls, Victorian stained glass windows and an interesting contemporary lectern. It is more like a lecture hall than an altar and chapel actually.  A vicar passes and it turns out to be Fr Michael Moorhead who has brought in all these changes. “We refurbished it three years ago,” he says hurrying past with a what’s-she-up-to smile, at the same time as handing me a leaflet.

The Sunday morning service has just ended and musicians are milling around. Showing my profound ignorance, I ask a friendly-looking bloke who he thinks the finely carved statue with the ornate robes is. “It’s probably God and baby Jesus,” he says and admits he’s guessing! He is Gary who directs the music for the praise worship sessions. With guitars and piano rather than the amazingly grand organ built in 1903 with 2,000 pipes. “They are a more modern tradition,” he says, “than hymns and the organ. Did you know we had an EastEnders’ wedding here?  Hattie or Michelle Gayle got married here in the programme.”

Does he like the refurbishment? “It’s great,” he says, “except the covering up of  ‘The Word Was Made Flesh And Dwelt Among Us’ at the front by the modern design. That’s a shame because those words are so important to so many people.”

Meanwhile Nick is looking at the poster about a holy pilgrimage to Israel. “I went there in 1989,” he says, “and I was going to write about it, but I was searched and they confiscated the notebook where I’d got my interviews. I’d been visiting some Peace Now people and they didn’t like it. It was a situation where it was absolutely no good saying ‘Look, I’m a Jew.’” Not surprisingly, he hasn’t been back.

We’re standing in the new entrance area – think summer house – when I spot what I take to be a contemporary natural wood cross in the window. The horizontal part is definitely a branch. However the vertical section on closer inspection looks less natural. “It’s from B & Q,” pipes up Nick, “look, you can still see the price tag on the base.”

Ever an atheist, Nick brings out his packet of Marlborough Light as soon as we leave the holy place. He’s making his own connection to his soul. “I think I’ve given up,” I say half-heartedly boasting. “Oh, wasn’t it Mark Twain who said ‘Giving up is easy, I’ve given up so many times,” he smiles wryly. So I am forced to explain that I haven’t so much given up, as found myself being uncharacteristically lethargic when it comes to reaching for a cigarette. I’m slightly disappointed in myself in fact, because I like to keep my ‘bad girl’ going.

I’ve never walked down this part of Station Road before. I normally drive down here. There’s an unkempt brick Telephone Exchange. I mention that my father worked for the GPO (as it was then) for over 40 years, so I’ll probably discover he once worked at this exchange as an engineer. Suddenly, Ranelagh Rd is upon us on the left. Rows of Victorian houses that were built to house railway workers when the mighty Willesden Junction came into being in 1866.

“That battered Citroen looks as though it could have been an Andersen shelter,” quips Mr Barlay. Otherwise no sign of the corrugated wonder with the accompanying vegetable and flower potential. Instead, we’re in Honeywood Rd where Derek Sebbage recalls the VE Day celebrations included a street party. “Tables were set up near the air raid shelters,” he writes. “The Mayor and Mayoress of Willesden dressed up as a honeysuckle and a bee and sang the song ‘You are my honeysuckle and I am the bee…”

Hard to imagine on this grizzly February day, but marvellous nonetheless. We look up and the imposing Willesden Junction Hotel, which announces itself jauntily in big letters high up, with all the self-importance of its former existence. A vestige of grand. Now, of course, it’s turned itself into the very meaty Amber Grill.

Back on Station Road, there’s a Brazilian community with a beef shop, a swimwear shop Planeta Brazil, an emporium fully of colourful biscuits and a café that my friend, writer Monique Roffey raves about regularly.

The trains flit by like silver fish but the view is not as dramatic from this south side of  the Junction. It’s the conformist view. No bizarre buildings to catch our eye.

Savoir Beds – bespoke, of course – is housed in a 70s brick building but the drain covers are Victorian. Detective Barlay points this out, but I’d already noticed! We’re straying briefly out of Brent into Ealing to inspect the tiny railway cottages in Old Oak lane. Dillie Keane –she’s still a member of comedy trio, Fascinating Aida specialising in flirty satire, and now celebrating at least 25 years in show business – lived here in the 80s and mentioned in the Evening Standard that she had a wonderful sunset view of the Junction. I want to know it that view still exists.

Crewe Place has a bijoux feel to it. Lots of pots with bamboo, strange little frogs bearing succulents and an original Victorian notice announcing ‘Any person leaving the gate open will be liable to pay 40 shillings’. No view though. There is a potential view down the next little lane but it’s blocked by newer buildings. Oh, I was looking forward to revisiting a sunset.

Never mind, time for a Brazilian coffee. Funnily enough, the waiter downs pot noodles while I savour a chicken and sweetcorn delicacy in an effortless culture swap.

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