Tag Archives: Music

PATRICK OF ELMWOOD, LORD OF THE PLANTS

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Most tennis players – including me – at Elmwood Tennis Club (opened in 1898 as part of the Oxford All Souls’ dominion in Kensal Green) will have noticed the quiet, bearded man who appears with hedge cutters quite regularly and mysteriously as we attempt to send balls flying low and hard over the net. Patrick (ever reclusive, he won’t tell me his surname) ‘reigns’ over the wild flowers and trees in the amazing green space that surrounds the tennis courts. Surely, one of the unexpected wonders of West London.

Today, I’ve invited Patrick to give me a plant and tree tour. In residence – as it were – for the past fifteen years, he is ever-present and yet almost invisible. This is the day when I will try to urge him into visibility.

As we’re walking towards the Club, Sarah (the former social secretary who also runs groovy vintage online shop, mensahvintage.com) shouts across the road: “Patrick’s a legend.” And I know what she means.

I must say he sounds posh in a kind of aristo way. He could be the Marquis of Bath’s little brother but he isn’t. He admits warily to having formerly worked in ‘heritage’ as a clerk. Which seems a rather strange, lowly position for such an intelligent man. He’s probably too much of an eccentric  when it comes to employers. Which is good news for Elmwood.

ImageHe’s also a poet. As we sit down on one of the benches overlooking the tennis players in the late afternoon sun, he hands me an amusing poem, The Song of Alfred Lawn Tennison and an illustration of a horn player sitting on an emu’s back. Apparently, he has also written a children’s book.

The Song Of Alfred Lawn Tennison

Lord Tennison of yesteryear

Sat down by the Sibilantic Sea,

And he did speak of tennis there:

“Lawn tennis is,” said he,

“A game that’s played with rime-white bcll

On a straight and level court

Twixt players not too immensely tall

Nor yet absurdly short.

The spheric ball flies end to end,

Emitting soft percussant sound,

End to end in the ambient air

Some distance from the ground.

Marks are awarded fairly,

And according to the score,

One player getting sometimes less,

The other sometimes more.

And so the one who tries the most,

Nor yet betrays his natural skill.

Why, he’s the winner of the game!

Good triumphs over ill!

From tennis to philosophy

A small step to traverse.

I postulate man’s station

In an ordered universe!

The gulls boomed in that desert spot,

And the tallonned waves did cry,

But I had had a sudden thought,

“Supposing this,” said I.

Suppose one played with coloured balls

of every rainbow hue?

Or shades so intermediate

they’re almost lost to view?

“What of your model then?” he smirked.

The poet spake no more,

He faded on the sepia air

and silent fell the shore.

An awful stillness gripped the cove,

No further wave did fall.

I stooped and picked up from the shingle bright

A rime-white tennis ball.

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Why did he decide to give his valuable time to Elmwood, I wondered. “I kind of adopted the place,” he smiles, “I saw it as a bit of the country in the city. This is called Elmwood Green by the mayor’s office who have listed it as a site of importance for nature conservation, did you know?” I didn’t.

How does he see his role here? “I try to improve the biodiversity by re-introducing wild flowers into the land here. I grew up in the countryside in Herefordshire so I learnt all about them there. I’ve planted alder buckthorn here because they encourage fritillary butterflies. We have an amazing variety of butterflies and moths here. I’m rather proud of that.”

All done without any fuss. In fact, he operates so invisibly, the tennis players – if I’m anything to go by – don’t realise what this unassuming man is doing. Although I have noticed that he has tackled the privet hedges that surround the club.

“Privet is a horrible shrub,” he says unexpectedly, “you can’t compost it, it’s so poisonous. As a boy, I got to know Henry Williams who wrote Tarka The Otter. He had some strange views, notably re supporting Hitler, but he encouraged me to learn about plants.”

And off we go on our tour. There’s yellow toadflax under the hedge which I remember from walks with my grandfather in Yorkshire. It always used to grow prolifically beside the train tracks in Otley. Like petticoat frills. Delicate and intimating future pleasure.

There’s the majestic sight of verbascum which has a central stem of yellow flowers. “I can’t watch on Friday evenings when all the kids come down. The boys attack them,” says Patrick. Is that because they’re phallic? “I’d never thought of that,” he declares in a rather puritanical tone.

Then he confesses.  About the huge-leafed burdocks under the hedge.  As in the drink – dandelion and burdock. “I put them there when no-one was looking,” he laughs at his own furtiveness, “I’ve always got a few seeds in my pockets.”

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That’s what I like to hear. A man with seeds in his pockets is irresistible. Then, there’s feverfew – “listed in old herbalist books as a cure for fevers and migraines” – with their white daisy-like flowers, and yellow tansy – “a tonic for well-being” –  and the dandelion-related but nobler and taller hawks tail.  There’s something I thought was deadly nightshade but turns out to be woody nightshade, plus wild carrot and silver weed.

Then an exciting rarity. “Haresfoot clover,” declares Patrick about a bigger, hairier clover that dares to reside here.

Is it the same every year in this meadow area that is no longer mown? “No,” he says, “last year it was full of red poppies which haven’t come up at all this year.”

Less thrillingly, there are the blue, blue plastic bags brought in by foxes. And the neighbourhood dog shit which has been put in a blue plastic bag and hurled over the hedge. That is so much better than dogs shitting in the street! I don’t think so. My father had a thing about dog shit (although he would never have called it that) and I think I’m carrying it on.

The corner of this meadow triangle used to be a nightmare. Old bedsteads, the remains of the wooden shed that used to be at the end of one of the courts, any old rubbish people fancied throwing over the hedge – and the magnificent Patrick has slowly but surely (and invisibly) cleared it all away.

Has he ever observed anyone having sex or taking drugs in the grounds, I enquire provocatively? “No, never,” he says anticipating my disappointment, “I’m innocent like that, I never notice.”

Changing the subject to a more comfortable one, he points out the young chestnut tree behind me. “I noticed some kids who had these matt black conkers. Nothing like the usual ones. I managed to get one of them and plant it. This is the result,” he grins at his biodiversity cunning.

Then, there’s the sweet smelling, delicate meadow sweet, (also sewn by Patrick), the tall but not giant hog weed and the blackthorn bushes. And the pond. Patrick re-instated the pond when workers renewing the courts destroyed it. “The frogs found this area first,” he says, “then I dug a pond out.”

Whilst balls whizz back and forth, we squeeze our way down a narrow path at the back of the courts. It’s heavy with ripe, succulent blackberries. We try a few and they are almost ready. I must return with a bag. One of my playing partners, Richard, has been known to make elderflower cordial earlier in the year from the elders down here.

Patrick calls the corner next to All Souls Avenue and Buchanan Gardens, the tree corner. And there certainly are a lot. “It has awfully poor soil,” he explains, “and new trees often dry up and die. The houses opposite were bombed in the second world war and all their bricks and waste ended up being dumped here. That’s what made it such bad quality.”

I had heard that there used to be a chapel over here. “Apparently there was but I’m not sure where,” he says, “but there was a wardens’ shelter just over there, “ he says pointing at a concrete bunker that I’ve never noticed before. “Air raid wardens with rifles  and whistles would patrol the streets.”

Cherry, silver birch, plum, rowan, buddleia and elder trees abound. As do the exuberant staghorns that look as though they have strayed from Kew Gardens. With their fan-like leaves and beaky buds. Finally, we pass the noble red oak which is flamboyant in autumn like a tree bonfire.

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Our walk is coming to a close but Patrick is eager to mention a different discovery. Neither plant nor tree, this is the British 19th century composer, Algernon Ashton. Classic music is not one of my strong points but Patrick is obviously impassioned. Algernon brings the sparkle to his eye even more than those burdock seeds that he sneaked in.

“His music never received public performance in his lifetime,” he explains, “I want to change that. He lived in Maida Vale.” Patrick seems to have been inspired by an article he read online, which was originally written in 1912. Single-handedly, Patrick is attempting to bring Ashton back into the public eye.

“His work has been scattered to the winds,” he explains, “ I’ve had to search libraries for the individual scores. His work is very English. It has wonderful melodies, some of which are actually based on street sellers’ cries. A Parisian chamber music group have actually recorded some of his work now and there is a demo CD. I’m gradually listing all his compositions. Sadly, all his diaries except for one perished in a house fire but I managed to meet someone who had the remaining one and in it, Ashton wrote about the creation of the Second Piano Trio which happens to the one I’m really interested in. That seemed a strange bit of synchronicity. Now you can actually find his music in record shops.”

Patrick has also found Ashton’s grave in the Old Paddington Cemetery. He wrote a melody called Buy My Lavender so it is no surprise that the ever-sensitive Patrick has planted lavender there. That’s the sort of man he is.

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DANCE WILLESDEN JUNCTION

“It does look like a wedding party, a strange one, but it does have that feeling,” says Tania, my son’s girlfriend, after she’d looked at some of the footage of myself and eight friends whirling/jigging/funking/floating around the grim industrial walkways of that sprawling railway monster that is Willesden Junction. Nov 2011

Where to start?

With the raw delight of seeing Sarah – we went to Ilkley (West Yorkshire) Grammar School together, she’s my oldest close friend – standing on my doorstep at 1 15pm one glorious autumnal Saturday afternoon, dressed entirely in scarlet. Statuesque, bold, Frida Kahloesque. Long skirt and a wonderful net wrap. Oh, the potential of that wrap!

Or Jayne’s – a newer friend – suggestion that she’d like to come for a Harlesden walk with me. With Tim, her partner, and also 5 Rhythms’ (dance created by New Yorker, Gabrielle Roth where you dance your own steps through five different rhythms – strong and flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness) teacher. And me thinking ‘yes, but why don’t we dance’. After all that’s what we do together so often and I haven’t done it in Harlesden yet. 5 Rhythms is not about showing off although it can be, it’s about dancing with an open heart.

And gradually, as the summer wended through our midst, a few more friends were invited and accepted, or even invited themselves. Others understandably couldn’t bring themselves to expose themselves in this way. This dancing-in-public-way. In fact, only that morning, I received an email from a lovely friend called Howard saying: “I feel as though I’m letting you down. Please ask me to do anything except dancing in the streets on a Saturday afternoon.” I laughed out loud.

The door bell keeps going. Helen is in a sexy, maroon dress with a red flower in her hair, Tim is in a quiet red shirt and dazzling white trousers, Abigail changes into a elegant more muted red number, and Claire too. Jayne dons a lipstick pink-red, short dress with boots. Matt is rather lumberjack shirt young with jeans. And I have a flowery flamenco dress with a suitably rose mini-headdress.  Of course, I want so be some sort of Queen. And so I cut the last blood red rose from my garden and add it to the headdress.

Even as we set off, we feel like a tribe.

Initially we gather in Furness Road. For a hand-holding pow wow. I explain gently (I hope) that this is one of my Harlesden happenings* but they don’t have to feel as though it is a performance. I know some of them are feeling nervous and it’s more important that we do what comes naturally to us.That we allow ourselves to dance with each other and alone. I suggest that we relate to passers-by too if that’s what happens, and that I hope they will be able to appreciate the landscape that we are about to enter as well. And thank them, of course, for their willingness.  Such huge willingness. To turn up. To trust me. I feel honoured.

And then we find Duncan in a white shirt on a bench. The last dancer to appear. He looks bewildered and exhausted.  He joins us anyway. After a little encouragement from us.

These fellow dancers do not know what soundtrack I have created for them! We arrive at that Not On Safari hot spot, the top of the stairs at the Harrow Road exit of Willesden Junction. Oh, what a delight. I put on ‘We Are Family’ ( the Dusty Springfield version) and we break into flamboyant dancing. Some of us are less inhibited than others. I wave at passengers on the No 18 bus, people at the bus stop look shocked in a good way. Matt, Jayne and Claire are looking embarrassed about what they’ve let me persuade them to do. Later, Jayne says she loved the realness of their awkwardness in that situation. And into our midst comes a man in shorts with a bicycle, he’s grinning widely, and the next moment, he’s joining in. He’s got the spirit, his hips are waggling like a belly dancer.

It’s the beginning of something. I can feel the air around us lifting up as if it’s welcoming our exalted intrusion. Happenings can have the spontaneous effect of raising spirits and somehow increasing the possibility of people coming together and really being together.

By the time, we get to dance down the stairs – to Bjork’s ‘Big Time Sensuality’ – my fellow dancers are realising the potential of strange objects like the alien wire fences in the narrow ratboxed walkway. And the steps – ah, yes, travelling up and down them. Avoiding passers by, welcoming them, waving them past. Some lower their eyes and rush through, others smile and want to engage. I love Bjork’s haunting voice and the way this track is so funkily nutty and sensuous. The latter feels like a contradiction here in this railway wasteland, in this industrial bleakland.

Can we be sensual here? And loving? We can, we can. We are.

Have I mentioned that my 25 year old son Marlon, his girlfriend, Tania and  friend, Paul are filming us… Another kind of contradiction – the young observing the old for a change through the eye of a camera. It adds another dimension to the dance. A less immersive one. The challenge of moving in and out of totally being in it. For another take. Plus although we are being spontaneous, we are also at times being directed.

Outside the ticket office, I have a musical shock to the senses of the dancers. ‘Anarchy In The UK’. For some of us a significant part of our history. A part of who we are – still hanging on to our tendency to rebel against authority – and a recognition of how important that questioning attitude to the establishment always is. For society. For individuals.

For others of us, they just about recognise it and nothing else. We jump up on walls, throw our fists in the air, howl with derision and relish the aggression of the spiky destructiveness the Sex Pistols brought with them. The storm before the birth. There’s a central circular wall here – it becomes a go go dancer’s dream. I’m up there, and Abigail joins me for a bizarre tango. Matt jumps ridiculously high in the air, Helen  snarls into the camera, Jayne who had initially been bemused by this track,  is shaking her head violently, Duncan  dances more slowly next to the entrance to the station, Tim  runs along walls, and Clare is still her graceful self in our midst. Meanwhile two ticket office workers stand and stare. Fixed grins on their faces.

The next stage is less public. We don’t see passers by any more.  A transition in terms of how we are with each other. The pathway wends up behind the 1960s ticket office to the other side of the station. Whoops, we’re going too fast. Our director asks us to go back and walk the last bit again. No-one complains. We find Willesden Junction blackberries to feed us, grimacing at their bitterness. Abigail puts on Sarah’s scarlet net wrap as a veil and becomes a bride. She’s picked a little bouquet-bunch of buttercups and buddleia. We become a wedding procession inadvertently.

And find ourselves wandering down an unplanned tunnel. Dark, dank and stinking of urine. We don’t notice the ‘No Pedestrian Access’ signs. I turn on the exquisite juiciness of Al Green singing ‘I’m still In Love With You’. Can we be this tender in this tunnel? We’re dancing alongside each other softly. I notice Sarah – who has recently lost her darling mother, Stella – has tears just held on the rim of her eyes. She looks so fragile and so broken open in love. I go over to dance with her, a sister in support. Tim and Abigail are holding hands like a couple in love.

When suddenly everything changes.

Our attention is diverted to a single figure two hundred yards away. In high visibility wear – he’s funking out on his own by the buses. He’s going for it. Totally.  An echo of us. Inspired by the great reverend. Helen who has Boudicca tendencies, lays chase. He runs away. The dance takes on a farce-like quality. Caught by the idea of a chase, we all run over the the buses and find ourselves dancing in the aisles of one of them. The driver simply turns on the hazard warning lights. Sarah hangs upside down and Abigail cradles her as if she’s in a cocoon. Tim lies down and four of us lay across him. There are poles and seats to play with. The driver waves. We can’t believe no-one is telling us to leave. It feels like a surprise gift.

We stop again. Waiting for our camera crew. “It is undeniably ugly this landscape,” says Helen, “but walking and dancing it like this, is making me think and feel differently about it. Like I can find the beauty in it. Or at least textures that are fascinating.”

We go up more steps to a narrow nineteenth century iron bridge. It’s a strange little channel over a wide, wide vista of railway lines and  the almighty Powerday recycling plant. Marlon shows us the small stretch of it that we are allowed to dance in. ‘Precious’ by Annie Lennox is playing, and suddenly we’re crawling over each other. There’s no room, so we find a closeness with each other. The red wrap which became a veil is now something that moves from hand to hand, that both unties us and ties us up. That unites us and individualises us. In my hands, it becomes a man net. I have Matt’s head twisted in it, caught, distorted and oddly exciting. Then I cast it over both Tim’s head and mine. The space changes and we have a hidden place to have a quieter moment.

The view is spectacular in the opposite to an undulating hills kind of way. Trellick Tower is in the distance to our left, and Old Oak Common to our right. The signal box which was here when I came with railway expert, Ian Hunt, has disappeared. Dismantled, probably. I remember the Victorian wooden adornments that looked as though they belonged to a spinning wheel.

“Oh, the pleasure of restraint,” I declare as we sit down for a mini-picnic of water melon and fruit bars. I mean that sublime freedom that comes confinement, rules, restraints, structure. The bus aisles with the poles and the narrowness of the bridge pushed us to use our imagination more. We felt the momentum of restriction giving a boost to our creativity. An excitement.

Now there’s a little walk along a path I wouldn’t walk alone even in the daylight. I just wouldn’t want to feel trapped there. The piles of refrigerator rusty bits accompany it. “Oh, I would walk here,” says Jayne and she probably would, because she runs in dark, lonely places that I’m afraid of. “No, I agree with you,” says Claire to me. And I’m aware of my own fears around personal safety and where I would and wouldn’t walk as a woman.

I lead them into the nearby industrial estate – Bi-cafe with plastic orange gerba outside, Lebanese nuts in a warehouse, an ice-cream factory – and we spot a three-legged regal chair that is looking distinctly abandonned. Helen sits on it and I realise that we have to adopt it, take it with us. It has a faded red seat and the right attitude.

And at this very moment, we feel like a nomadic travelling dance company, that will carry on. I like that feeling.

Just ahead of us is the Grand Union canal and another bridge. The film crew run ahead to set up. There’s something about this scene that speaks of another world, one where nature is managing to survive, to struggle through the concrete barriers. Where wilderness confronts the man-made.  I put on the melancholic strains of ‘Autumn Leaves’ that is sung by urban ‘castrato’ Martyn Jacques from the Tiger Lillies. And there is a serenity and sadness and fragility that manifests spontaneously amongst us. We move slowly and tenderly. Abigail embraces Matt as softly as a mother. I stretch and float with Claire in an elegant physical conversation. Duncan has the wrap that has turned into his objet de danse.  At the end, there is a silence that joins us together as one. It’s a profound stillness and I personally at that moment want to stay there quietly looking at the water forever.

We dance some more at the other side. A passing family on bikes are fascinated by us. We even do a jubilant salsa outside my flat finally. But for me, the end was on the bridge. I know I want to do it again. To dance Harlesden again. Differently. That was one of the most bountiful days of my life.


*Someone said – ‘You mean like a flash mob’ – but I don’t. Happening is more my generation of word  and has a pre-social networking meaning. Allan Kapow first used the term ‘happening’ in the spring of 1957 at an art picnic at George Segal’s farm. The key components for me are the combination of structure (the music, the route, the red, the friends) and spontaneity or improvisation with regards to contents. Happening also has more of an art precedent whereas flash mob relies entirely on the spontaneity. And I like the idea that in my case the ‘audience’ were the passers-by or the ticket office workers, the bus maintenance man and the drivers, and that they were also participants. Also that breaking down the wall between participants and audience dissolves the wall of criticism.

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NOT DONALD THE DUCK!

Before I met Don Letts – calls himself ‘the Don’, legendary punk film-maker,  member of Mick Jones’ post Clash, Big Audio Dynamite and DJ, he has a show called Culture Clash on the BBC’s Radio 6 and noted big mouth – we had a few bantering email exchanges. I dared to call him Donald. I was winding him up. He sent me an email back titled ‘Donald is a duck’. Apparently, he’s a Donovan but ‘the Don’ will do.

So we find ourselves in the road where I live and he is insisting – goodness gracious, this man is more insistent than me and that’s saying something – that Bramston Road is not Harlesden. ‘Nah, nah, this isn’t Harlesden,’ he says while admitting hilariously that he used his Sat Nav to get here. From Kensal Rise. Five minutes away. He is also emphatic that he’s never been to Harlesden. Which isn’t true. Of course. However, it’s less untrue than I think.

According to Lloyd Bradley, renowned music journalist, and old friend of ‘the Don’, in his book Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King – Don Letts ‘used to operate his dad’s system at The Roxy, a big Harlesden dancehall – where punk and reggae came together’.

However, according to ‘the Don’, and I believe him, this is a  mix up between The Roxy which was the Covent Garden punk venue in the mid-70s, and The Roxy in Harlesden which was the former Odeon cinema and rehearsal space for bands. And’ the Don’ played the one in Covent Garden but he hasn’t actually corrected Bradley because he’s an old friend!

And what about The Clash video ‘Tommy Gun’ which apparently Don filmed at the Harlesden Roxy in 1978? “It’s all lies,” he says,”I didn’t even make that video.”

Ah, but I do think I have some concrete proof of his previous in Harlesden. What about March 11th 1977 at The Coliseum (now The Misty Moon) when fabulously feisty female band, The Slits played their first gig in support of The Clash – the Don was filming them on super 8 which eventually turned up as The Punk Rock Movie? He’s a bit vague about it, but concedes that this is true. At last!

He starts telling me that he and his family – his second family, wife, Grace, and girls, Honour and Liberty, who are six and ten – are growing out of their flat in Kensal Rise and are thinking about moving over here. And that Louis Theroux was chatting to him in Queens Park about how good it is in Harlesden. Then, I spot All Eyes On Egypt – Park Parade’s ‘blackist’ shop – and take him in there to have a look. One of the ‘bredren’ as ‘the Don’ likes to say, kind of recognises him. He knows he’s something to do with music and then ‘the Don’ explains, whereupon there is much photographing and  friending up. Amid the murals of ancient Egyptian gods.

‘The Don’ is a man on the run. He doesn’t like to hang around. Despite saying that the only exercise he does is at the behest of the remote control and that he can’t believe that I’ve got him out here on a two hour walk, he’s got very speedy energy. Like a natty bee in his big trademark woolly hat and sunglasses.

Suddenly, he recognises the High Street. “I’ve seen all of this in my rear mirror,” he asserts, “the traffic is horrible. I can’t move here with this traffic.”

I ask him about his Radio 6 show, Culture Clash? “Yeah, the BBC let me do what I like,” he proclaims, “I’m not just a two dimensional punk and reggae Don Letts. I can be all of myself and play what I like. I’m really happy with it.” Typically, a few seconds later, he declares: “Not that I was ever treated as two dimensional.”

This is pure self-confessed Donism. He proclaims with one mouthful, and withdraws it with the next. Because the aim is to be provocative. His philosophy being – I’m a cunt, but interesting people are cunts. “When did nice people have good ideas?” he asks later.

I’d heard he was arrogant, but actually I like him. He’s straightforward and full of himself. But aware of what he’s doing. He likes playing the prankster, the mix it up person, the catalyst.

“I look more like London than a beefeater,” he says, “but it wasn’t like that in the 70s, then we Black British didn’t know what to call ourselves.” But he is very much an ‘all tribes should be represented’ kind of man.

The recent riots did hit this bit of the High Street – the jewellery shop was looted – but it was contained. I heard local elders came down and persuaded the young men to stop. “Those riots were not good,” he declares, “all I saw was young men seeing sneakers at the end of the street. I was in the Brixton riots in the 80s, and the Notting Hill ones in the 70s, they had a point. I was disturbed by these ones.”

There was no political heart, you mean? “There was a lack of humanity,” he says.

Has he ever bought his records up here? Like at Hawkeye? “No, I used to get all my records at the Dub Vendor in Ladbroke Grove,” he says, and he used to live off the Grove for years.

He grew up around Brixton – “My dad was a DJ, he was old school, they had bibles under their arms not ganja”- so it was Afro-Caribbeans like ‘the Don’s’ family who were from Jamaica (his everlasting anecdote is that he didn’t actually visit until he went with John Lydon just after the Sex Pistols split up), Irish and Greeks. “Why did the Greeks always have chip shops?” he laughs.

I take him to meet Harlesden’s gorgeous George who has been running Avant Garde – a really traditional and very funky men’s clothes shop – for the past 30 years. There’s a photograph I want to show the Don of Jesse Jackson and George in 1995 at the shop. George’s friend recognises ‘the Don’ as the video director of the Musical Youth track Pass The Dutchie that topped the charts in 1982.

“I’ve got my own Jesse Jackson story in Namibia,” says the Don. While George is bemoaning the blandness of the High Street these days and how it’s impacting on his business. “It’s all food and hair shops,” he says, “and no-one can park outside my shop.” He says he will be retiring soon and going back to Clarendon in Jamaica where he has a farm and he’ll get involved with the community here and it’ll be a much better life than the one he has here now.

‘The Don’s’ Jesse Jackson tale is a funny one. Basically ‘the Don’ was there for Independence Day, March 21 1990, and thought he’d get a sound bite from Jesse. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. “He went into a political rant and he wouldn’t stop. I really learnt how to keep the camera still. After fifteen minutes, I was  like ‘ please shut the fuck up’ in my mind.”

Photo taken by Will Berridge

Scandal Takeaway is a famous Harlesden Jamaican food shop so ‘the Don’ pops in for some cornmeal porridge.  Here we meet Will, an MA photographic student who has contacted me and asked if he can take photos as part of the Not On Safari project. “You didn’t tell me I was going to have my photograph taken,” complains ‘the Don’, meaning he’s not wearing his superdread togs, before taking charge of direction himself. Of course, he knows what he’s doing. Will has failed to get the ‘Scandal’ sign into the frame, and the Don insists on a re-shoot.

Was he a full-blown Rasta in the past? “Yes, I used to go to St Agnes in Kennington for a long time and I defined myself as a Rastafarian but as I got older, I realised  I didn’t want to be told how to think. Now I’m open to everything.”

And you met Bob Marley? “I went to his concert at the Lyceum in 1975 and it was a live-changing experience for me. I met up with afterwards and we became friends. In fact, we had an argument one evening about punk rock, he really didn’t get it, and I was in that scene. I was wearing bondage trousers and he took the piss and said I looked like a ‘bloodclaat mountaineer’. I walked out in a huff. I was nineteen back then. But he got there in the end and wrote his song ‘Punky Reggae’”.

As you can see ‘the Don’ is not short of ripostes so I’m surprised when I ask him where he gets his feistiness from, and he seems at a loss for an answer. A very rare event. It seems to be something he hasn’t considered. In fact self-reflection is not one of his big features. He’s too busy getting to the next activity. He flounders for a few minutes as though this is a new question, and finally settles on: “Well, being the only black boy in an otherwise white grammar school helped me get my shit together.”

Although he then adds in a characteristic Don manoeuvre that n fact there wasn’t an issue for race with him until Enoch Powell made his anti-immigrant ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

By this time, we’ve walked by Odeon Court – the flats where the cinema used to be and the Harlesden Roxy where ‘the Don’ did not perform – and up to Stonebridge. ‘The Don’ hasn’t realised that the 60s tower blocks have actually gone from up here. And they have.

Only this morning, I was looking at a great photo of the young Don and Jeanette Lee who went on to run Rough Trade,  in their zeitgeisty clothes shop Acme Attractions – 1975 The Kings Road – and there is a scooter adorned with the Union Jack. It reminded me, I say, that the Union Jack has been used again and again to re-define Britain. “Exactly,” he says. “They used to say there was no black in the Union Jack but there is now.”

On the way back, we start talking about Malcolm McLaren, the maverick, the ideas man, the Sex Pistols’ manager. “I met him at his (and Vivienne Westwood’s) shop Sex, in those days. He influenced me. I might not be the man I am if it wasn’t for him,” he says, “he showed me how to join up the cultural dots. I’m sure he was ruthless and all the things people say, but he was also brilliant. It’s like I said, nice people don’t have great ideas.”

And so of course, ‘the Don’ has to declare. “People either love or hate me,”he says, “that’s how it is.”

Otherwise, it would appear he was the holder of bad ideas.

He’s just been on a six month world tour with Big Audio Dynamite – four men including Mick Jones in their 50s on the road – how was it? “It was like revisiting our youth,” he says, “I’m 56 and I’m loving it. I’m as old as rock n’roll. I’ve been through punk, rave, rock, reggae. I’ve done it all and I’m still doing it all. It hasn’t stopped. I’m a product of youth culture before it all went pear-shaped with X Factor. Music here is in crisis but in other parts of the world, it’s flourishing and is still about social change.”

Now we’re sitting down in the Tamariz Portuguese cafe. He’s talking about being on tour recently in New York and Tokyo. “People say to me – ‘Wasn’t it exhausting?’ – I say how exhausting can it, we’re being flown around the world, staying in great hotels, I’m with people I still hang out with, it’s not like we’re strangers re-forming a band. Women throwing themselves at us. Get real, it’s fantastic. And I still can’t play. I still have stickers on the keyboard but I’ve co-written half the songs so I think justifies my space.”

He also goes out Djing – the history and legacy of Jamaican music, from dancehall to dub step – on his own. Here and abroad. No fanfare. “I really enjoy it,” he says. “I like hanging around with funky, ordinary people and hearing their views.”

‘The Don’ hates a lot of different things, but equally he loves a lot too. On our way back, he’s opening up and telling me he was a tubby teenager. Which I can’t imagine and guffaw. “Stop, laughing,” he says, “I’m trying to tell you something serious. I couldn’t use my body to attract girls, so I had to start getting my mind together. I can’t stand pubs, football  or playing games. I’ve never been a man’s man, I’ve always hung out with women.”

That is the truth…

I forgot to mention, the dreadlocked gentleman who approached the Don down the road. He recognises him and wants to talk music. Don is impatient but gives him his email address. “That’s another reason I don’t want to walk the streets,” he says in grandiose mode.

I say with understatement: “Hey, it hasn’t been that bad.” In other words, hardly anyone has recognised him.

“Yeah, there should be a fuck of a lot more people that know me in Harlesden,” he says with Donist brio.

Don Letts’ show Culture Clash in on Radio 6 every weekend. He’s also Djing nationallyand internationally as well as still making films.

PS He points out later that it was people like John Lydon and Joe Strummer that started called him ‘the don’.

 

 

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WHEN ROSE MET LOUIS THEROUX FINALLY

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.”

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MEAN FIDDLER MOGUL, VINCE POWER RETURNS

It’s beautiful spring day and a huge, silver Lincoln is sweeping – in that hushed wide way that only old American cars can – into the Plaza car park. It contains Vince Power who was literally a powerhouse in Harlesden for many years. Well, 23 years to be exact. He used to own the Mean Fiddler – seminal music venue on the High Street now closed down – which became the Mean Fiddler Group (Jazz Café, the Forum, Reading Festival, the Grand and many more), which he sold in 2005 for £60 million. Not that he’s retired, now he runs VPMG that owns the Bloomsbury Ballroom, the Pigalle club and runs Hop Farm Festival (Ray Davies and Dylan this year, July 3rd) and Benicassim Festival in Spain.

As he gets out of his stylishly unfashionable car, I remember the reputation that goes before him. That he’s some sort of Svengali Irish gangster.  But the stocky, stubbly-chinned man who pats me on the arm in an affable gesture of friendliness seems much softer than that.

“You’re the reason I first came to Harlesden,” I say, “because I used to review people like Billy Bragg up here for Sounds.” He laughs the sort of unassuming chortle that is pleased that he should have that kind of influence.

Before I know it, Vince is opening a very green metal door to a new-to-me alleyway in the High Street. “We used to own the whole block,” he says, “but this was the box-office and entrance down here.” There is a tangible poignancy about this alleyway for Vince. It’s neglected and rundown. And it was here that his music venue empire began in 1982. On his website, he’s justifiably called The Godfather of Gigs. But here he is looking watery-eyed about the past.

“I recognise those doors,” he says pointing to the old entrance now locked and scruffy, ”we bought them from a chocolate factory in Scrubs Lane, you could still smell the chocolate on them. I know this place so well because I built it. It does make me sad looking at this building now, it had such soul and such spirit, but like the old Marquee is no more, you just have to move on. Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, John Martyn, Dr John, Christy Moore and many more all graced this stage. I had to wage a one-man war in order to get people to come to Harlesden. But I was so determined, I did manage to get them. It was the beginning of my business. The money from here paid for Subterania, the Jazz Café and all the rest to start.”

We walk a little further to the old stage door at the back. “I remember standing out here with musicians,” he says, “on summer’s evenings. One night, country musician, Dwight Yoakam was having a fit of nerves before going on, so I was out her trying to persuade him to perform. He did go on in the end.”

Vince is standing next to an old street lamp also painted green which is quite odd in the middle of this alleyway. “We restored it,” smiles Vince revealing his inner DIY spirit aglow, “it was originally from the nineteenth century.”

Apparently, it used to be a dodgy drinking club owned by boxer, Terry Downes, before Vince bought it. “It was hard for them to get a license,” he explains, “so it was illegal. There were a lot of heavy gangsters who used to come here then. A couple of bodies were found in this alleyway at one point. I bought it in 1981 because I wanted to turn it into a honky tonk bar. I used to go to Nashville so that inspired me. I loved country music.”

Back in the 8os, John Martyn was supposed to play at 10 pm one night. “He came on at 12pm and was promptly sick over the front row of people. I had to give a lot of people their fivers back,” he says.

My own strongest memory of the Mean Fiddler was going to a Sun Ra – crazy, inspired jazz singer, musician and controversial cosmic philosopher – gig. I’d never see so many people, his Arkestra – I think there were 13 – on the tiny stage. Sun Ra was wearing something on his head that resembled an extra-terrestrial hair net and I kept thinking he looked like Ena Sharples on Coronation Street. It was 1990. They played music which startled and amazed in equal measure. It was one on those extraordinary gigs, which takes you out of the present and into the improvised space of the joyful imagination. He was to die at 79 three years later. But he was truly dancing to the beat of his own drum. I even got to interview him.

Back on the High Street, Vince surprises me by saying that he actually came over from Waterford in Ireland to Harlesden when he was 16 in 1964. On his own. He was one of 11 children. He has a much longer relationship with Harlesden than I thought. “I lived in a back room of the house of a Jamaican woman who treated me like her son,” he says, “it was very unusual for someone Irish to board with someone Jamaican in those days. But I loved it.”

It turns out that he met his first wife who was also Irish when he was 18. Also in Harlesden. “At the 32 Club,” he says, “which used to be opposite the Royal Oak pub. We got married in the big Catholic Church, Our Lady of Willesden, up Acton Lane. We were very young, both 18, my mother came over from Waterford. It was just what you did. We had three children before I was 21.”

As we verbally go back and forth between the present and the past, we’re also observing the High Street. “In the 60s, it was upmarket here,” says Vince rather shockingly, “There used to be a Marks and Spencer’s here in those days. Employment was easy in the 60s, so everyone had money from working in the factories round here. But I must say it is very lively here, much more so than Kilburn High Road which is my shopping area now.”

At this point, we’re just passing plantains and Scotch Bonnets piled up high at a nearby grocers, when a guy with his long grey locks in a ponytail, shouts out to me because he sees I have a notebook. “Are you from ‘Elth and Safety?” he calls out.  “No,” I reply horrified to have been mistaken for someone from the council. For goodness sake, I have a bejewelled feather in my hair. What is the country coming to? Traditionally, a notebook in hand translated as a journalist, now it’s Health and Safety? Oh, the poverty of reference points.

We go back to talk to him and his friend. It turns out that both he and Vince have bad backs! What on earth is going on with these men? Alexei also had a painful back. They exchange supportive back care tips whilst I chat to Ronald, who says he volunteers with young people in the area and lives in Rucklidge Avenue, the same road as Sabrina Washington’s parents.

By the time we reach the newly re-opened Library, Vince has to sit down because of sciatica in his leg. Later, he tells me he has a gym in his house and a visiting yoga teacher. Evidently, he’s not using their services on a regular basis.

“First of all, my wife and I lived in a room in Bramshill Road, then we moved to a beautiful house in Stonebridge Park. In the 60s, there were some wonderful houses there but they were demolished to make way for the tower blocks. I know because I demolished some of them. At that time that’s what I was doing,” he explains. “There was nothing wrong with the original houses, but I do remember how excited people were at the idea of getting new bathrooms and kitchens, they couldn’t wait for those blocks. But those tower blocks destroyed the community. But I have been up there and had a look at the new developments and they’ve done a good job.”

Vince points in the direction of Stonebridge and explains that there was an Odeon cinema just up the road, ‘a fleapit’ which became the Roxy Club in the 70s. That the Sex Pistols rehearsed in. Oh la la. I was under the impression that the Roxy had been at the Coliseum cinema, which is now the Misty Moon pub. I was wrong.

In fact, back in the 60s and 70s, it was people moving out of their houses, sometimes to the Stonebridge tower blocks, that created work for Vince’s new business. “For 15 years, I ran a second hand furniture business,” he says giving insights into how he became so successful in the music venue business, “the main shop was in Kilburn High Road. I was good at making money. I just liked picking my wits against another human being and getting twice as much as I paid for whatever it was.”

That’s quite a contrast with today. Hasn’t he gone posh these days with his Berkley Square Ball, his Bloomsbury Ballroom and his Pigalle Club? “You can’t make me posh,” he exclaims in a jokingly serious way as we walk back, “you can’t pimp me.”

But what about his gangster image, he’s definitely got a reputation? “I think it came about because I used to do lots of support gigs for the Guildford Four and the Maguire Sisters. All of them were innocent. Because I did those gigs, people assumed I was an IRA member. I’ve always been political and left wing but I’ve always been against any kind of violence. I did a lot of the Red Wedge gigs in the early 90s, and everyone like Hank Wangford came and celebrated at the Mean Fiddler after the 1997 Labour election victory.”

It’s 5pm and we’re at the bar at the Misty Moon ordering a tea and a coffee. Very rock n’roll. At 62, Vince has eight children and seven grandchildren, he’s been married three times. “I think when I split up from Alison, my third wife, I did reassess my life and wonder what I was doing with it? It was five years ago and that’s when I sold the business. I wanted to do something new. But I’m no good at doing nothing, so I ended up finding some new venues and festivals. I’ve just announced Bob Dylan is playing at the Hop Farm, a one day festival in Kent. It’s in its third year and it’s back to basics, there are no VIP passes. Everything became too inflated. I was guilty of it too. Now I’m interested in everyone being treated in the same way.”

Briefly, he had a mid-life bachelor crisis and acquired a penthouse in Paddington, but now his feet are back on the ground and he’s back in a family house in Willesden. His youngest children – 13, 15 and 18 – visit for a couple of days a week. He’s single and he admits somewhat mistily that he definitely prefers the family unit as a way of living.

And what does he make of Harlesden these days? “Well, there was a time in the 90s when young people were shooting each other here and everyone assumed it was a terrible place. But I never thought that. For me, it was always a family place, and I think it still is.”

Fittingly for the gentleman he shows himself to be, he gives me a lift home in the Lincoln. Not since, multimillionaire publisher, Felix Dennis sent me home in his chauffer-driven silver Rolls Royce, have I arrived home in such style. But that’s another story.

At home, a friend of my son’s, on hearing who I’ve been out with, says “Oh, isn’t he that heavy gangster guy?” So the old image is till working. I get the impression he quite likes it.

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