Three walkers today – me, my 23 year old son, Marlon, who’s a filmmaker, and his girlfriend, Tania, who’s also 23 and an animator. They got excited when they heard me talking about my first walk, so they want to come. We leave at 6 am. The sun rises today at 6 58 am.
Why go at this time? To see what’s happening in Harlesden at this time in the morning? Who’s around? What are they up to? Mario, my ex and Marlon’s father, says later. “What you went out before the criminals get up?” It’s teetering on the edge of bad taste, not to mention safari-ism. I can’t help laughing.
It’s still dark, but illuminated. Street lights. The sounds – oh, so loud – are the birds. I think they must be blackbirds and I get irrationally disappointed when I see pigeons later on sitting in a row and making similar sounds. Pigeons – can this be true? Somehow, there’s no romance in a pigeon singing. If a blackbird is Frank Sinatra, then the pigeon is that bloke on X Factor who used to be a dustbin man. “It reminds me of coming home from nightclubs,” says Tania already seeming to put nightclub in the past tense. Surely not.
I’m surprised at just how many people and cars are around. At the bus stop in Wrottesley Rd, I go up to a woman and ask her where she’s going. She looks alarmed and on the verge of ignoring me. This almost darkness signifies possible ill intent. By me, a middle-aged white woman. This is a new role for me. “I’m a pastry chef,” she says eventually, “ I’m going to Liverpool St.”
I notice how I see differently in this semi-darkness with neon moments. As if my eyes become attuned to the world differently. I see a strange house with a little balcony in Park Parade that I’ve never noticed before. It’s out of keeping with the rest. Is it where a bomb dropped? Further down, the words dollar in red lights circulate round the front of the pawn shop like a poor taste version of the one of the many Tracey Emin look-a-likes that still litter art galleries.
Over the road, Saj’s Supermarket is open but I’m not sure if it’s just opened or has been open all night. I ask one of the young men who is bringing out yams and plantains. “We’re open 24 hours,” he says. A man wearing what looks like a piece of clothe round his waist hurries by. Where are you going? I say to him trying not to be too aggressive. My new pre-dawn etiquette.
“To the mosque,” he says. We guess that he’s Somali. I didn’t realise that there were any mosques here until I spoke to my newsagent, Danny, (he’s anglicised his Pakistani name, Dar) a few weeks ago. He mentioned that he sometimes pops into the mosque on the high street. I couldn’t envisage where it could be. “Shall we follow that man and find out?” says Tania half-jokingly.
A few days ago, Marlon and Tania observed what they thought were Maori women (this is getting a bit far-fetched even for Harlesden) coming out of a boarded up building, Park House, in Manor House Rd. We go and have a look. There is a tangle of satellite dishes on the second floor and a light at one window. We surmise that someone is squatting there. I wonder who? I’ll have to find out on a different occasion.
“Weren’t you talking about there being a church in the rooms above Iceland?” asks Marlon. I was. I’ve seen a tatty banner declaring its mission. I think Iceland used to be the location for M &S, which was bombed during the Second World War. M&S eventually moved out of Harlesden in the early 80s and they never came back. The huge rooms above all those frozen burgers and chicken nuggets – get used in eclectic ways. Ten years ago, there was a club called Dreams, now there’s one called NW10, and a church too. Just recently, I’ve seen a sign for a gym and a karate club go up.
Just round the corner, I can’t help smiling at an unusual sign in a shop window. It announces boldly – Here photos come alive, here legs come to dress – and they do. This is Wrights, the fantastic shop that sells Italian lingerie (Sexy pirate outfits by Donna, not to mention baby doll Santa costumes all year round) and photographic equipment. Oh, it’s such an Irish concept. Except, it’s not Irish. I think the family who own it are from Uganda. But perhaps it’s the powerful influence of The Shawl nearby, a very Irish pub. I’m recalling the story about Salpetriere Hospital in Paris where a famous neurologist called Jean-Martin Charcot conducted experiments on women suffering from hysteria. At one point they were put in wards near epileptics, and they too started experiencing fits. I’m putting forward a similar theory. The Irish who came over to work here from the 1840s onwards on Willesden Junction, they brought with them the expectancy of their own madly eclectic shops. Not for them the one-dimensional. And lo and behold many years later, Wrights has fulfilled this dream.
As if in harmony with my thoughts, deliveries of Guinness are just arriving at The Shawl. Meanwhile Craven Park Road is heaving with huge lorries carrying waste plastic, and highway maintenance equipment. Unbeknownst to me, this is very much the hour of industrial passage. This secret ritual has obviously been going on for years, as I hunkered down under my duvet.
Suddenly, another man appears in a piece of skirt-like material. We turn off the main road down a back alley. Now, it really is dark for the first time. And quite scary. We could quite easily be in Delhi back street without a map. The buildings are grimy, there are bits of newspaper blowing about and we’re tentatively following this gentleman. Finally, at the end of alleyway, we turn a corner in silence. We’re hiding our anxiety with a blanket of quiet. And there it is. What looks like a garage. There are rows of shoes at the doorway and all we can see are disappearing heads and a row of clocks showing the different times for prayer.
We’ve made our discovery so we scurry back to the main road. A cleaning machine – one with two swirling brushes and an East European man (another guess) in the driving seat – is nudging us off the pavement. Bus stops and cafes are filling up. It’s getting lighter. We realise we’ve missed dawn. The sun rising over Willesden Junction is not our lot today. It’s wet and cloudy and it’s time for us to go back to bed.
Additional information – a few days later, I’m reading the Daily Mail, my excuse is that I’m a journalist – and it mentions that The Likely Lads, incredibly feted 1960s comedy with James Bolam and Rodney Bewes was filmed at Willesden Junction.