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THE HEADY DELIGHTS OF WILLESDEN JUNCTION STATION


Delight and Willesden Junction station do not sit easily in the same sentence. Terrifying and bleak might spring more naturally from the tongue. Especially after midnight when I have to embark on the long, long, lonely walkway – used to be rat-infested, has improved – towards Harrow Road. It is frightening. I have been known to run the entire distance. In the daytime, it’s more urban desolate. Ugly graffiti, derelict buildings, imposing wire fences, detritus…

However, since I’ve been visiting more often as part of this project, something unexpected has happened. I’ve started to see beauty and intrigue where once I only saw an onerous means to a transport (hopefully) end. Taking the time to look more closely has widened my vision. Literally and aesthetically.

And Willesden Junction station is hugely significant in the development of Harlesden. Demographically and historically. Initially as a station in the 1830s, it allowed City workers to travel into town and then build their rather grand villas in the countryside (yes, Harlesden). There were also trains going to Birmingham on the London and Birmingham Railway and trains going to Bristol on the Great Western Railway, which was built by none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It became a junction in 1844, and gradually trains transported more and more immigrant workers (especially Irish) to the area, which slowly became more industrialised.

Willesden Junction station is big. And I don’t – this is an understatement – understand railways so I have found (through http://gallery62603.fotopic.net/ and Mike Morant) Ian Bull to guide me. He has kindly informed me via email that he has a nose stud, long hair and has a bit of a Goth thing going on, so when I see an elfin-looking man/boy (he’s actually middle-aged but that adjective seems completely wrong) quaffing water on the Harrow Road railway bridge, I assume it is Ian. It is.

He is immediately eager to point out the distinguishing characteristics between the train-spotter and the railway enthusiast. Train-spotters collect train numbers whereas railway enthusiasts are keen on research, taking photographs and history. Naturally, Ian is the latter. Although neither is he a stereotypical railway enthusiast, because apparently they wear grey raincoats and horn-rimmed glasses. And Ian is definitely sporting neither.

“I think I was born with it,” he says intriguingly, “I remember being in the garden when I was about 3 and seeing a steam engine in blue and yellow going by. It was a prototype Deltic and it is very powerful. That was 1962 and it was doing 100mph. I’ve never forgotten.” I had never before contemplated the idea that people could be born as railway enthusiasts but no doubt the Daily Mail has already recorded scientists working on identifying the railway enthusiast gene.

Interestingly, he also mentions that many railway enthusiasts have a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome about them although he omits himself from that category. Rather too quickly, me thinks.

“Willesden Junction used to be a far grander station,” declares Ian passionately as we descend the steps at the entrance, “it used to have an overall roof but there’s not a lot of old stuff left. It’s been re-built so much over the years.”

Ah, first of all, there’s the mysterious metal building on stilt legs that a train-spotter (I say this with new authority) informed me was a water tower where water was stored for the steam trains possibly going back to the 1860s. But Ian disagrees. He looks across at the odd little edifice and gradually as he ponders its enigma, I can hear the mounting excitement in his voice. It starts off slowly and then gains momentum. It’s the thrill of potential triumph that I’m witnessing. “It’s too small to house the water for a steam locomotive and the building is quite modern. I think it’s 1930s because it has rolled steel joints,” he says his voice speeding up not unlike a head of steam, “I suspect that it’s a carriage washing plant.”*

Ian, I will discover, is a bit of a one for inspired guesses.

And then, there’s the disused stone building at the back of it with its broken windows and rows of pigeons. Ian stares up at the windows. “Pure 1904*,” he says with what I can only describe as unadorned joy in his voice, “that’s a transformer station. When the lines were electrified in 1914/15, transformers were needed to change the wattage of the electricity coming in from the power station according to the needs of the railway line. They had to have windows because they were manually operated and the operators needed to be able to see what they were doing with the large levers that they had to use.”

I so enjoy finding out these tasty morsels of information, which otherwise I’d never, never have known. In fact, never have known that I wanted to know.

The graffiti-covered (it’s not very high quality) brick building in front of the old transformer station, is a modern transformer station. No lovely windows, only vents. No people needed to operate them. Much less appealing to the eye. How the means effect the end result!

Blackberry brambles, pink willow herb, deep purple blossoming buddleia trees all scramble together besides the tracks. Nature versus industry. Railway sidings are often prolific in terms of wild life. “Buddleia originally grew in the Himalayas,” says Ian easily stepping out of trainland into plantland, “naturalists think the seeds arrived in the docks with goods from the Far East and got there on axel grease on trains.”

There’s lots of maintenance going on here today. A Sunday. Orange-bedecked labourers “are adding ballast to the tracks to support the rails”. Obviously something I would never have noticed if Ian hadn’t been here. I’m not sure I even knew that ballast was broken up stone. I certainly didn’t realise that railway lines need ballast shoulders. “This is a very good shoulder of six inches,” says Ian approvingly implying that this is well looked after station, “these rails carry a lot of heavy freight and high speed trains.”

The underground system is not working today because of building work. The platforms are being extended, a new footpath is going in, there are new steps being built. The booking office is housed in an almost rural-looking cottage brick building. We walk up a pathway  – that I’ve never been up before – behind it. “It was built at the end of the 19th century, look at the lead in those windows,” says Ian in one of his favourite refrains, “it’s pure Arts and Crafts movement, look how they’ve used lots of different terra cotta mouldings and brick in different patterns to make it look complex.”

On our right, are the tracks for the North London Line to Stratford and the South Western Railway to Richmond. Unfortunately, the buildings are 1960s. Ian is more interested in a buried entrance to our right. “This footpath has only been here about 10 years,” he says, “that’s when they buried the entrance to this covered walkway.”  Now we’ve emerged near the Station Road exit to Willesden Junction but there seems to be an opening to our left where it is possible to walk. Men in orange jackets are leaving via this route.

Ian is distinctly hesitant at this juncture. “The public never used to be allowed down there,” he says.

“Come on,” I say encouragingly, “let’s go.”  This is what I like – a bit of forbidden adventuring. We wander down and find ourselves in deep Willesden Junction railway wilderness. In fact, later I read that it used to be nicknamed ‘Bewildering Junction’. A high-speed train bolts past. “That was the Birmingham express,” says Ian.

We gaze across the lines – a Virgin express to Glasgow whizzes by – and there over on the other side is something that could be an Anish Kapoor tubular sculpture amid gigantic mounds of earth. It transpires that it is the European Metal Recycling centre.

There are steps to climb and I look back on a bevy of yellow and blue trains, which look like exotic beetles just about to rampage across this urban wasteland. “They are Class 378 engines which have just been built in Derby,” announces Ian, “they travel between Euston and Watford.”

Now we’re crossing a footbridge – steel, 1960s – which Ian has never been over before. Let alone me. I’m feeling the excitement of previously uncharted (to us anyway) landscape. And on our right is a wooden signal box, which is still used and goes back to the 1860s. “Look at the distinctive finials on the ends,” says Ian pointing to wooden decorative pieces that look almost like could spin wool or at the very least, appear in a gothic church. He’s right they are remarkable.

We’re getting nearer to the huge mounds, which Ian has guessed might be crushed cars. After passing a couple of noble Spruce trees, we see dozens of white bags full of some sort of mechanical parts. “Oh, they are fridge compressors,” says Ian his voice ascending towards the highlands of an inspired guess, “ so those mounds of rusty metal must be old fridges.”

Fridges. Whoever would have thought it? But it’s true, the mounds are not earth but rusty metal. Wow, I’m impressed. “Can you smell that oil in the air?” says Ian.

I couldn’t but now I can. On this hot sunny day, it’s like a weird garage extra. The wire fences are covered with over-active morning glory or more prosaically, bindweed, and bushy horsetails burst out of the poor soil beside them. Suddenly – we’ve been totally alone so far – a denimed man is approaching us. “Where have you been?” I ask him cheekily. “Car Giant,” he says somewhat disappointingly. I was imagining something more industrially romantic like a tryst in the railway wilderness.

The path ends and we find ourselves near Scrubs Lane, but we turn right into more of the industrial heartlands. There’s a Portuguese Bi-café with fake pink flowers outside and gingham, there’s a Lebanese foodstuff warehouse, the Icehouse, an ice cream centre and another footpath that leads to the Grand Union Canal.

“I wonder if there’ll be a footbridge,” says Ian. And there is. It looks straight onto the disused Old Oak Common locomotive shed. “Cross Rail should emerge here in the future,” says Ian, “which I think is a good idea. There’s even a railway turn-table over there on the right which is still used.”

Fascinatingly, he then reveals a little of the inner sanctum railway bitchery that goes on. “This is Great Western Railway and it’s a very self-important railway. Magnificent steam trains ran along it from 1900 to 1922 and somehow the people connected to the GWR think they are superior. I don’t get on with it.” Somehow the railway has become imbued with the attitude of its employees. This must be a railway enthusiast thing.

We’re walking beside the canal now but before we know it, there are two railway bridges. The first is the London and North West Railway to Acton, and then there’s the South Western Railway to Richmond. Normally, I wouldn’t even have registered that they are railway bridges. We exit at Oak Lane because there are railway cottages up the road, however, I know Ian is going to be interested in the derelict tower block over the road. Broken glass, gas cylinders, plastic bags, every imaginable bit of rubbish has gathered like a polluted sea around it.  Blot on the landscape totally underestimates the power of this eyesore. Probably an office block – I’ll look it up later – it has been attacked by urban marauders. Burnt, broken, covered in graffiti – it is nevertheless somehow amazing.

When something or someone is broken open, there is always the opportunity for beauty. As Lenard Cohen sings; ‘The crack that lets the light in.’ It’s hideous, dystopian and falling apart but there’s something gloriously wonderful about it. Like Detroit now. Like The Road. Like me when I was breaking up with the father of my son. The decay almost radiates in its slow dying.

On the other side of the road, there’s a 70s concrete building that Ian thinks – wrongly this time – used to be a pub. In fact, it’s Willesden Junction Maintenance Depot. Ah ha, more railway stuff. We peek around the corners, find an overgrown garden – the out of control limbs of honeysuckle, sedum and traveller’s joy tangle together – beside the Richmond line. The lights are on, but I can’t get them to answer the door. I was going to ask them about the derelict building over the road.

Even Ian doesn’t have an answer, and even more surprisingly, no inspired guesses. Huge concrete blocks have been dropped at the entrance. “To stop gypsies moving their vehicles in,” says Ian. We spot a canal-viewing ledge where evidently itinerant drinkers – there’s quite a few of them who frequent the canal – repose on a regular basis. Although not today. There’s a brown velveteen sofa and a wooden crate, presumably where they put the TV when the world cup was on

Oak Lane railway cottages have become quite gentrified. Window boxes and sometimes BMWs. However, Ian is more interested in the bricks. “They would have housed workers in the 19th century or lodgings for travelling engine men,” he announces, the pace of his words quickening,  “but what’s fascinating are all the different sorts of brick that they are made out of. London brick over there is yellow and stains really easily, but these ones are from Staffordshire and much smoother and redder. These cottages are made from so many different types of brick, I think the railway could have been using them as part of an exhibition which would demonstrate how many places their trains visited.”

I have a feeling Ian is off again into inspired guessland. He has been a very entertaining, not to mention, railway host. And I have to admit my feelings about Willesden Junction station have changed. I’m actually feeling inspired by everything that I didn’t know. Knowledge!

*Afterwards Ian contacts me to say that those windows are actually from 1909.

* New inspired guess arrives by email two weeks after the walk. Ian believes it could have been used by British Railway’s laundry.

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BEING AMUSED BY SCOUSE RACONTEUR, ALEXEI SAYLE

Ah, punctuality. Alexei – comedian and actor formerly of ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor’ fame but now acclaimed author, latest novel, Mr Roberts – is ascending the steps at Willesden Junction just as I arrive at the top from the other direction. Excellent timing.

I’d invited him to walk with me because I’d read a piece he’d written declaring that he writes in the morning, and then takes a bus or train to an unknown destination, and walks home to Bloomsbury. I thought I’d divert him to Harlesden for the afternoon.

White bearded, almost benign-looking and smaller than I imagined – I tell him later about this unexpected lack of height, to which he quips; “Oh people usually think I’m not as fat as they expect.” – I give him the choice of right along the High St into Harlesden or left and down Scrubs Lane, then along the Great Union Canal before turning right towards the main drag. “I do want to experience Harlesden,” he says, “but it would be good to see a bit of urban countryside first.”

I’d read somewhere that he was going on tour again as a stand-up? “No, that was a mistake,” he says huffing as opposed to puffing, “I’m doing a reading of my new memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework, which comes out in September and a Q & A at the South Bank in summer. That’s what the papers should have said. It was actually selling better before that stand-up stuff came out.” That’s a good sign, I suggest, in terms of his more recent career as a novelist. I guess that he gives a good reading – unlike the majority of writers who are, of course, not performers. “Yeah, I always say to them, just because this has been good, don’t expect others to be. They’ll be shit.” Ever bolshie funny – the Scouse thang. He sets the tone for this walk.

On the right, at the start of Scrubs Lane, I laughingly point out an ugly office block that calls itself somewhat hopefully the Chandelier Building. “Yeah, it reminds me of another hideous building in Camden which called itself The Red Lobster,” he observes, “and helpfully they put a picture of a red lobster on the side, as if that could remove the ugliness.”

How many copies of Mr Roberts has he sold, I wonder. “Twenty thousand,” he says, “I’m a better writer than people think. My short story collection Barcelona Plates that came out ten years ago, has sold over 75,000 copies, that’s the biggest selling short story collection in the world. And still the Guardian don’t ask me to write any fiction for them.” Has anyone told them, I say. Remember, the Guardian is edited by 30 somethings, they probably don’t know who you are. “No, probably no-one has. But I’m not sure I can be arsed. My previous career helps with my profile but I think it does prevent me being taken seriously. I haven’t even been longlisted for any of the literary awards.”

Fortunately, we’re walking slowly. I was a little afraid – I’d been playing too much tennis and am aching – beforehand that Alexei was going to be a hearty walker but he’s limping slightly and more of a flaneur today. Having spotted across the road the incredibly kitsch Cornices Centre, which boasts some gorgeously garish objects like a huge cartoon rabbit licking a multi-coloured ice-cream. It could be Jeff Koons but it’s not quite shiny enough. We’ve reached the canal bridge and Golbourne Road’s iconic Trellick Tower – built as social housing in the 1960s – looks mystifyingly close. “I had a camp mate at Chelsea School of Art,” says Alexei revealing his arty past, “ who named it Clockwork Orange Towers which seemed just right at the time.” Trellick Tower is an architectural wonder to some. Not to Alexei or me. It was designed by legendary architect, Ernio Goldfinger. But I did visit this Xmas to visit my friend Amanda’s mother, and the view from the 20th floor is spectacular.

Is the satirically inclined Stalin Ate My Homework about growing up – he’s  Lithuanian Jewish and both his parents were members of the Communist Party – in Liverpool during the 50s and 60s? “It covers from 1947 when my parents met,” he says as we find the towpath going east, “ to the end of the 60s when I was 17. It’s a heterosexual, Communist, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.” Mmm, just what I would expect from him.

As he utters the word ‘Communist’, a cyclist in a high-visibility jacket suddenly looms towards us, his eyes twinkling crazily. He stares us at both meaningfully and announces cheerily ‘God Loves You’. He couldn’t have chosen a better juncture. We burst out laughing at the synchronicity of it all. Well, that’s what I’m laughing at.

Oh, it’s peaceful down here. The willows are in bud. A couple of locksy young men with a dog and a canal boat are relaxing and enjoying the first signs of Spring. The warmth. The relief at being able to ‘be’ outside.

But I’m off again. This is turning into a walk interview. Are you a single child? It suddenly occurs to me in an intuitive manner that he must be. Working class and doted on – a recipe for success. “Yeah, he says. “my mum was 37 and dad 43 when they had me.” His mother is still alive and mentally alert in Liverpool. “She’s 94,” he guffaws, “and lives in a house bought by her son. Does she ever say ‘thank you’? I did a reading from the memoir in Crosby not long ago, she came along in her wheelchair and heckled. ‘Lies, lies’ she shouted.”

We’ve jumped onto a stone bench and are looking over a wall at the railway lines beyond. “My dad was a railway worker,” he says. “Which line is this?” The one that goes to Paddington. “Oh, I think the Eurostar maintenance yard is over there, near Northpole Road where I filmed a TV film called Sorry About Last Night.” I check later and he’s right but it’s not used by Eurostar any longer.

I’ve just heard that a high-speed link to the north is coming to near here in 2020, I say. He obviously doesn’t believe me. No, I have, I say, Harlesden is going to be the new Kings Cross.

There’s silver birch grove to our left. Silver birches, I love their grace. They’re my favourite trees. “I find them sinister,” says Alexei shocking me, “there’s a hunting plain where they grow, near my house in a village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, near Granada. They’re spooky.”

I can’t agree with that. For me, they’re more like delicate filigree lace than furtive strangers.  Tangentially and somewhat provocatively, I mention his marriage as being one of the longest in showbiz.  He’s been married to Linda since 1974, that’s 36 years. I’m agog in admiration! But Alexei immediately looks very uncomfortable at the mention of his personal life. So we divert again to the break up of Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes. “I know I was shocked,” he says as if he knows them.

Is there anywhere decent to get a cup of coffee in Harlesden, he wants to know. Like Star Bucks? No, there’s no Star Bucks. Long-term Marxist and strident non-conformist that he is, he comes out in defence of Star Bucks. “I think people like (leftwing comedian) Mark Thomas whinge too much, at least they make an ok cup of coffee available to more people. I don’t like it when people can’t admit what’s good about capitalism as well as what’s bad.”

We stumble across some drinkers’ detritus. Alexei wanders over and examines the Lech lager can. “I hate it when street drinkers are so untidy,” he protests, “they should have to put a deposit down on the cans.” As we leave the canal, there’s an office building on Oak Lane that is derelict, almost every window is broken and it stands in an ocean of litter. “Good, good,” he mumbles meaning the faster this terrible architecture is falls down, the better.”

We’re at the railway cottages (I visited with Nick Barlay on my fourth walk) and Alexei remembers filming in some similar ones. “They replicated houses up north in the 70s,” he says, “because they didn’t have double glazing or central heating.” I tell him about my recent discover. That the 60s sitcom The Likely Lads was filmed at Willesden Junction. “Exactly, what I mean,” he says.

“Look at that guerrilla gardening,” he says pointing down a communal alleyway full of yuccas. The community have got together there. It’s like that Heaven 17 song ‘We don’t need no fascist government…’

I have to admit there is a subtext to our conversation, which revolves around the 80s. I was a pop n’rock journalist for music paper, Sounds – better known for its Iron Maiden interviews than its Flock of Seagulls’ ones and guess who did the latter? – as well as seminal style magazine, The Face. Alexei wants to know if I enjoyed being able to make or break bands? I assure him that I personally did not have that kind of power. But there were those critical reviews and confrontational interviews. Not only did Frankie Goes To Hollywood pelt me with bread rolls for giving them a bad review, I got into a heated spat with the Stranglers who were provocative lads. Those were the days when journalists were expected to be opinionated and go for the jugular. Oh, those were the days, I say. Before the ubiquitous caution and PR protection.

I make a remark about his limp that I’ve been noticing for some time. “I’ve done my back in,” he admits, “I attacked the gym work outs and I’ve overdone it. I’m trying to lose a couple of stone.”

And then he asks an absurd question. One, which reveals his profound ignorance about Harlesden.

Isn’t there an organic deli where we can get a cup of coffee, he asks. I smile not only at the ludicrous nature of the question, but also because I was intending to take him to one of the Irish pubs up the road.

Alexei, it has to be said, has an interest in history and architecture in a surprisingly erudite way. As we stand at the corner of Acton Lane, he looks at All Souls Church and declares: “This Church of England one is gothic revival,” he says then turns to look up to the left, “but look at the Catholic one, it reminds me of the Tate Modern, of the power station. It’s industrial bleak and I think the Catholics could have borrowed that aesthetic.” I hadn’t thought of that, but he could well be right.

Somehow I feel a compelling urge to change the tone, and show him Wrights, my favourite Harlesden shop. We stand in front of the racy lingerie window and I hear myself saying brazenly: ”Do you think Linda would fancy anything from here?” Alexei is unusually quiet. I’ve done it again. I’ve stepped into overly personal territory. Deliberately. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that he’s embarrassed. And then, I can’t stop. Don’t want to. I find myself babbling about the sexy pirate outfits from Italy. Patently, Alexei does not do sex in public.

Or public houses in private. The Shawl is festooned in orange and green balloons. We go in. Faces are fixed on the TV racing. There’s the pervasive stench of Guinness. I run out of the door. He stares at me. Not that he wanted to stay. “Oh, the breath of death,” I find myself announcing. Next I try The Coliseum. “Do I have to come?” asks Alexei firmly weighing in against the pervasive mid-afternoon state of alcoholic stupor. I have to give up. The strains of ‘She died giving birth’ waft out of the drinking hall and I smile wryly.

Finally, we find welcome solace in the empty Os Amigos. My local Portuguese eaterie. Musician and Harlesden dweller, KT Tunstall’s favourite local restaurant. I comment that no-one seems to have recognised Alexei today. Is he surprised? “Sometimes people say ‘Hello’, but Liverpool is really the place where I’m still up there,” he says smiling. At this point, he launches into a complex story about his fascination with flying business class, having a column in the Daily Mirror during the 90s which was read by 8 million people, and the dedicated band of airline seat aficionados who not only take photos of these seats, they chat about them online. His point is being that more of them chat about seats, than post comments on his website. From 8 million to 20. “But does it matter?” he intones in half-funny tones.

One of Alexei’s core theories is that we’re all a mass of contradictions and we should be allowed to inhabit all of them fully. This is one of them. He’s a Marxist and he also loves flying business class and looking at photos of first class airline seats on the internet. Tony Blair, he reckons, needs psychotherapeutic treatment for his inability to own up to his internal contradictions. “And that is really is corrupt,” he says emphatic as ever.

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