I’ve known for at least the past five years that the ever so quizzical and now apparently sexy – the other day, a 20 something data designer told me that the gig audience her friend had been part of the previous evening, was a sea of Louis’ which was a very desirable thing – documentary maker, Louis Theroux was a neighbour of mine. Not close close, but I had spotted him at my local newsagents, the one where British Asian Dar (he came over from Pakistan in the 60s) calls himself Danny and sells boxing gloves as well as newspapers. And I’d heard that Louis was a member of the Neighbourhood Watch in my area.
So for the past few months, I’ve been trying to persuade him to walk with me. Via his agent and emails. At first, he declined. However, he declined in a way that made me think that he would eventually agree. He took a typically ‘Louis’ softly, softly approach. ‘I don’t think I can help you,’ he wrote indicating to me that there was at least a small part of him that thought he could.
I persisted in a slow, lightly determined manner. A few weeks ago, he relented politely. Always finishing his emails with ‘Best Regards’ as though he is deliberately adhering to a time warp. I suggested we meet down Park Parade. He had other ideas. “Dora’s Delights,” he wrote, “at 9 15am.” The delightfully named Dora’s Delights is a new café that has recently opened right next to the Jubilee Clock.
And there he is, reading The Sun. That’s a surprise. Initially, I nearly fall into a seductive trap. Louis, of course, starts to ask me questions about myself. I suddenly hear myself talking about The Face and interviewing sculptor and in the 1960s dubbed Scotland’s most violent man, Jimmy Boyle, and stop myself. Otherwise, I won’t find anything out about Louis.
It’s all a bit polite at the beginning. He’s lived here for nine years, he’d like to be even more active locally (he’s pretty active already, he was out on the streets earlier this year promoting the shop locally campaign), the negative press that Harlesden attracts, the regeneration project, (which I haven’t explored yet), the Keep Harlesden Clean campaign and the local shops.
“I do try to shop locally,” he says, “I’ve become a bit of a mango snob since living here. There are at least three different types including honey mangos.” And then, there’s his list of good local fishmongers and restaurants. Oh dear, I’m in danger of getting bored with Louis Theroux already.
Does he get recognised here, I ask? “Less than elsewhere,” he says, “for instance, my Polish neighbour, Ryzard, has just got back from a trip home. He got really excited because he’d seen me over there on TV, he hadn’t realised what I did before that. A lot of people in Harlesden are watching their own national TV by satellite so they wouldn’t see me.”
It soon becomes clear that Louis’ head really is full of questions. He is wont – as we see in his TV documentaries on everything from medicating children to interviewing the inmates of San Quentin prison or sex workers in Nevada – to ponder possibilities endlessly. He has been accused of being faux-naïve, but I experience him as just eternally wanting to find out more. “I am curious to know,” he says uttering one of his favourite phrases, “how the demographics evolved here. It was posh wasn’t it at the turn of the century, so how did it change?”
I explain badly about the railways, then the industrialisation, for instance, McVities then the arrival of cheap housing for the workers. And the departure of the middle classes in the 1920s and 30s. Later I read that Louis has a first in history from Oxford University. Oh, the satisfaction of not even getting an O level in it and being able to lecture Louis!
But before long, we’re onto to shopping again. Louis reckons – is he right? – that Harlesden is the only place in London where you can buy black beans in a tin. I do like his quirky adherence to such little known ‘facts’. Apparently, he – he has two young boys, Albert and Frederick, and a partner called Nancy – cooked a Nigella dish last night which included one of those remarkable tins of black beans, plus Thai fish sauce and lime.
We talk about shops like Harlesden Fresh Fish – my local fish shop, which is owned by a large smiling Afghan man – opposite Iceland, when Louis demonstrates one of his most charming attributes. “I worry about the shops in the week,” he says and I think he genuinely does, “they might be busy at the weekend but they’re almost empty in the week.” There’s something deeply ok about a man who worries about the livelihood of his local shopkeepers.
I’d planned to take Louis on a walk to Stonebridge. I wanted to know what he thought of all the architectural changes. But he had a slightly different idea. “Have you ever been to that hotel up there?” he says eagerly, “I’m curious to know what goes on there. Who stays there? Why do they stay there?”
In fact, I’ve been meaning to go to this Victorian hotel. Right in the middle of Stonebridge – the estates, the towers – stands this vestige of another era. It is weird. Out-of-place. Faintly ridiculous. The Stonebridge Park Hotel – it was built when commuters from the City stayed there in the mid 19th century.
And so we’re walking at last. Past Subway, and Wrights photography and lingerie – “What’s all that about?” he laughs – and the old Mean Fiddler. “I read your piece about Vince Power,” he says, “but he can’t really be soft can he? He runs nightclubs and music venues.” Afterwards, I think about this and decide that actually he can be soft as well as tough. Do people have to be just either one or the other? The questions are evidently infectious.
Now we’re outside another fresh fish shop window in the High Street and we witness a crab moving. It’s still alive. “Do you think that’s cruel?” he asks. I turn the question back on him. And he’s not sure. There are a lot of different fish on display here. “Can you name many of them,” he asks. I don’t think I can. These constant questions make me realise what a permanent state of inexactness I live in.
Outside the newly refurbished library, a little group have gathered waiting for it to open. Our communal gaze is immediately drawn to a couple of shaven headed men who are sitting on the steps and falling slowly and drunkenly into one another in a very intimate way for 10 o’clock in the morning. Of course, Louis, the documentary maker isn’t a teensy bit fazed by staring at them for quite a long time. Past most people’s comfort threshold. “It’s funny they look as though they are cuddling,” he says. And they are. “They’re probably Eastern European,” he adds.
He points out Odeon Court – a row of bland, 1990s houses. Like Barrett homes. Of course, it’s where the Odeon, which originally opened in 1937, once was. In fact, this is also where Vince Power meant when he was talking about the location of the famous Harlesden Roxy where The Clash rehearsed in the 70s.
“I find myself lamenting the demise of the Odeon,” says Louis admitting a kind of longing for a lack of change, “but I do have neo-phobic tendencies so I just have to stop myself.”
I can feel his neo-phobic tendencies almost constantly. They settle in the relentless pondering and the almost comical grimace that so often appears on his face.
As we look down Hillside and onto the new Stonebridge estates, I ask him if he’s ever thought about doing a documentary on Harlesden? “I’ve thought about it,” he says, “but it’s good to keep work and home separate. There are so many questions that I haven’t asked about Harlesden in the nine years that I’ve been here, that I would have asked in the first hour out on the street with a camera crew.”
The strangely out of place Stonebridge Park Hotel is before us now. Only it’s changed its name to the Bridge Park Hotel. Obviously because Stonebridge has too many crime, gangs and shootings connotations. It has wrought iron balconies and a feeling of distant grandeur turned into nouveau tackiness. We push open the door and somehow Louis transforms into his documentary maker self. Newly assertive, he takes the lead.
“Can we see a room?” he asks and he won’t take ‘No’ for an answer when the blonde (maybe Slavic) receptionist informs us that the rooms have yet to be cleaned. Suddenly, I’m in a situation where Louis and I are pretending to need a room together. At least, he asks to see a twin one which would cost us £60 for the night.
In the meantime – we wait to see whether we will be allowed in – we survey the reception area. There’s a huge, Argos catalogue-type chandelier, a souvenir display case and lots of brochures about Paris and Wembley, then some decorative 19th century posters. Louis is bizarrely impressed and incredibly enthusiastic. He’s come alive in some way that wasn’t there earlier.
“Someone has obviously spent some money on this hotel recently,” he says, “there’s a feeling of it being taken care of. It looks clean and looked after.” And he says it quite a number of times. “Am I going overboard?” he asks. He is.
Finally, we triumph. We wander down back corridors crammed with kitsch pictures of elephants, storks and crying women with peculiar little words of wisdom. For instance – To Be Happy, We Must Not Be Too Concerned With Others. “That’s odd, isn’t it,” he says and I agree it is very odd.
The room is small and unremarkable. Louis is far better than me at making small talk about this frankly unimpressive twin room. “Do you have non-smoking and smoking rooms?” he asks as though he is making a vitally important enquiry. I can tell he is enjoying himself. It’s the thrill of the chase of ‘the genuinely odd in the most ordinary setting’ that drives him. I’m not sure how odd this is though. “I think I can smell smoke,” he observes in a detective-like manner. The receptionist concurs but adds that it probably is from a few nights ago rather than the previous evening.
On the way back, we look out of the back door on to one of the two remaining Stonebridge tower blocks. Confusingly, it has scaffolding around it. We’re fooled into thinking that they are re-furbishing the façade. My son puts me right when I get back. “That’s because they take it down bit by bit,” he explains to his ignorant mother.
As we walk away from the Bridge Park Hotel, I wonder aloud about the dramatic changes in architecture around here, and whether the low rise buildings will encourage more community and less crime. “I think Corbusier said something like ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter, they shape us’,” he says.
You were sounding rather anti-smoking back at the hotel? “No, I’m a smoker,” he smiles, “I smoke about three cigarettes a week.”
At this point, he produces a shopping list on the back of an envelope and we end up at Blue Mountain Peak Cash And Carry, the quintessentially Caribbean food shop, searching out very English ingredients for the Theroux family dinner. But Louis is unabashed. “Can you see the broccoli?” he says amid the mountains of yams and cassavas. I can. But definitely not the crème fraiche. Oh, and he has a very cute shopping bag with him!
“I’m so glad we went to that hotel,” he says seeming genuinely pleased. “Why?” I laugh. “Because now I can speak with authority about it,” he explains.
Hilarious. Why would you want to? “Well, it would make a great place to disappear in,” he adds tellingly, “haven’t you wanted to totally disappear?”
Ending on a series of questions seems only right and proper after an encounter with Louis…
PS His next BBC documentary is called Law and Disorder In Lagos. It’s about the city’s civic structure or lack of it. “I spent a month there,” he says, “it is dangerous but not as much as you would expect. Nigeria is not really far away. It’s much closer than the US, and there is so many connections with the UK. So many Nigerians who live here, families who send money back there. I like that.”