La verite, c’est plus etrange que la fiction. Six months ago, I bumped into an old friend of mine, Sandra Kane, artist and art director, at a dinner she was organising – only for her to tell me that she had just taken over the lease to the wonderful Roundwood Lodge Cafe.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. As far as I knew, Marianne – a buxom blonde with a charismatic personality and a slightly stretched face, who had heroically transformed this battered, little space into a thriving enterprise for local families, having survived numerous vandal attacks along the way – otherwise known as ‘Countess Romanov’ and a well-respected, local primary school governor, was still in charge.
“Haven’t you heard about Marianne?” asked Sandra incredulous that I hadn’t. “She’s in prison.” Again I was stunned. It was one of those ricocheting moments. The last time, I saw Marianne was during the ‘Save The Cafe’ campaign two years ago (her story was that the council were about to evict her, although this apparently was not true) where I’d been videoed saying how brilliant I thought the cafe was. Monsieur Theroux had also joined in the campaign and been photographed with the Countess herself in the local press. One of her fortes was rallying the troops.
Having seen Sandra, I scoured the internet for all the news I had missed. It turned out that not only is Marianne in prison for fraud, she ia a transexual – (ok, I know this is non-pc to say this, but it does add another kick to the story) born as Robert Duxbury – who had most incredibly been pretending that she was a paraplegic confined to her bed and apparently claimed £197,000 since 1996 in benefits.
Incredible is too restrained a word for it. Phew. This is obviously vying for storyline status in the increasingly tabloid East Enders.
I’m going to have to repeat myself. Marianne (only one of a whole raft of names) was a very public figure running a prominent local cafe, whilst at the same time, maintaining this insane pretence. For twelve years. Brazen or just in la la land or both? Anyway, she managed it – obfuscation was one of her many talents – for a very long time. Finally in 2008, a Brent Social Services Officer recognised her walking her dogs. Every time, the Social Services visited her at home in Wembley, she apparently had the curtains closed, was wearing a head wrap plus sunglasses as well as being obscured by bedclothes. She also claimed forcefully – she has a fecund and almighty imagination – that she had a twin sister who was out there running the cafe.
After much more fantastical ado in the court, she was sent to prison for four and a half years in March 2010. Hence the opening for Sandra who had already been managing the cafe.
Originally termed a refreshment chalet – wait for it – with a verandah which was built in 1900, it was rebuilt – think scout hut – in 1958. Now there have been various additions like a kiosk, and play areas outside. Even a massage table in the summer. (Now, of course, I’m writing about it in snow-bedecked December.)
In the early 19th century, this area was known as Hunger Hill Common Field. Its distinguishing feature was the (still remaining) hillock where there used to be a rifle range. No more, of course. By the mid-1800s, Roundwood House had been built – apparently a magnificent, Elizabethan-style mansion – which later was owned by ‘legendary'(ie rich and powerful), local figure, George Furness, a civil engineering contractor whose international contracts later became our road names. Ancona, Paloma, Furness – all tributes to his work. And of course, seriously flawed.
However, Willesden Council (because then it wasn’t Brent) took out a compulsory purchase order on Roundwood House, and it was demolished in 1937. “An act of civil vandalism,” declares local historian, Cliff Wadsworth in his booklet on the park. I have to agree.
The park was opened in the early 1890s. Although Sandra didn’t arrive until the late 1990s, when Marianne was in charge. “She was always very determined and full of energy,”says Sandra. “In those days, she was in a wheelchair. The official story was that she’d fallen down an elevator shaft. I’m not sure what the reality was. But she did do a lot for the community. And in many ways was very generous. I have been to see her in prison but only in a formal way for the signing over of the lease. It is a new era for the cafe now. I’ve got new ideas like the massages in summer and holding art exhibitions here but it will always be a community cafe.”
Sandra, it has to be said, loves the people that come to Roundwood Park. The different ages and the different nationalities, the families, the teenagers. Everyone. “I also really feel so lucky to work in this environment, “ she declares, “ I see the dew on the plane tree burnished leaves on autumn mornings, and hear the first thrushes in spring. I see all the seasons in. And all the different people, the older ones with their dogs, the toddlers, the teenagers letting off steam. Parks are so needed for school children to hang out and be independent. I’m a strong supporter of parks for teenagers.”
And then, there are the old men who frequent the Bowling Green and their little wooden hut. Like a vestige from the 1920s – it was built by the unemployed – in their whites and their whiteness. Louis (Theroux, we’re on first name terms now post-walk) was keen for me to interview these players as an example, I assume, of particularly old-fashioned Harlesden dwellers. Perhaps, I will. Although I’m getting the distinct impression that it might entail entering a viper’s nest of right-wing opinions.
Sandra and I take a walk down to the main entrance. I have to confess that I always feel amused by the flowerbeds here. Yes, in a snotty way. As a sort of perverse bohemian superiority. To me, these flowerbeds are a little garish. Oh, the jolt and the jab of it. Red, oranges, purples, yellows – all tipped together like the former Paul Grady Show. They remind me of the seaside town flowerbed aesthetic. Bournemouth, in fact.
As Sandra and I gaze at these beds bursting with yellow and orange marigolds, red begonias and purple verbena. I feel mean. To Sandra, who is so obviously a seaside flowerbed fan. I confess to my ugly thoughts. She is politely aghast.
“Look at those beautiful, orange cana lilies,” she says defending her park, “and we have a quite famous tulip tree. The flowerbeds here have always been an award-winning feature right from the beginning. Now we get couples coming to have their wedding photos taken here.”
Aptly chastised, I follow her to the stunning wrought iron gates which were created in 1895 at Vulcan Works in the Harrow Road. Are they still there, I wonder? And then, there’s the surprisingly grand, faux Elizabethan lodge where apparently Brent park workers now reside. “It’s a great house,” says Sandra, “look at those chimneys and the sun and the plough on the other side, they were Willesden Council’s emblems at the time.”
There is the most hideous water fountain just nearby. Sorry, Sandra. Gothic, over-follied, ridiculously unattractive, unused (no water spurts sally forth, probably because of Health and Safety regulations). Created (I employ the term ill-advisedly) to mark the opening of the park, it really should go immediately to that imaginary, but much-needed museum devoted to the most grotesque of Victorian inventions.
And then, there’s the aviary. Here I go again. It is small and unadventurous. Anachronistic, even. Full of canaries and zebra finches, it lacks space and cleanliness. It doesn’t even have a whiff of the worst of London Zoo. Maybe the children love seeing these little birds, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.
I can feel Sandra’s disapproval from here. I am not, of course, speaking for her.
Another enigma on the right, is the distinctly 1960s, brutalist Open Theatre. Except I’ve never seen it open. It seems like a great idea to have a theatre in this park. Shakespeare has visited especially in summer, I hear. But, it remains firmly closed at the moment and unsupported. Come on, Brent Council, this theatre is an opportunity for youth theatre to happen in the summer months. It needs your support.
Oh goodness, I’ve just read – post-walk – that after World War 1, a German Bomber plane was almost fixed to the bandstand in the park as a decoration. Now that would have almost outdone Damien. There used to be a bandstand on the defining hillock. No more. Now there’s just a flat area which could also easily be for performance. And it overlooks Wembley Stadium with its football halo. “When the park was built, this looked out on woods and trees,” says Sandra. “Look, you can see the church steeple in Harrow.”
As we’re walking back down towards the cafe, I notice a plaque on one of the oak trees that I’ve never seen before. It says simply that Lance Hamilton died here in 1998. Who was he? What happened? Even Sandra doesn’t know. The internet doesn’t mention him. It’s an enigma.
“Actually, at times of trouble, I have come to sit between these oaks and wept,” says Sandra, “and I have found the solace of nature here in Roundwood park. It really has meant so much to me over the years.”