Tag Archives: Politics



David Lawley Wakelin – film maker, protester about the war in Iraq – is a local hero. Depending on your viewpoint, obviously. He managed to find an  unguarded back entrance to the Leveson Inquiry – Lord Leveson was appalled at the slack security – simply walked in and accused Blair not only of being a war criminal but also of being paid off by the investment bank JP Morgan where he is an advisor on an annual salary of £2.5 million. Blair was rattled, he even felt he had to give a public response where he claimed never to have had that conversation with JP Morgan. David was scuffled to the ground and arrested. He had his say though…

David used to live in Harlesden with his family until he and his wife split up. Now he visits his two children up here several times a week. From Portobello Road. On his bike. Today I’ve arranged to meet him at Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown cafe by the Jubilee Clock but in the turbulent, ever-changing shop scenario – it’s the recession and they have to pay the rent – it has already transformed into a mobile phone and plastic fabric shop. So we make our way to O Tamariz, my favourite Portuguese cafe instead.

“It’s still relentlessly grim,” says David looking at the Welsh Working Men’s Club and then the decaying 60s brutally brutalist architecture along Library Parade. I point out that at least Harlesden is still gritty unlike Portobello Road which has become investment banker-friendly bland. He concedes half-heartedly.

What did his children, 11 and 13, make of his protest? “Well, I think they were a bit embarrassed,” he explains, “but my son must have been a little proud because he took the Guardian with the report about it, into school the next day.”

David is speedy. He’s already onto the next subject whilst I’m lingering on the last one. He moves verbally and thought-wise like a bat at dusk flickering across the sky in sharp angles. He’s also boyish at 49, has a shock of sandy hair and a passion for his mission to make Blair take responsibility for his actions.


He’s full of regrets about that day. “I should have made a citizen’s arrest on Blair,” he sighs, “and I should have gone back and stood in front of the cameras afterwards. But I was emotionally and mentally exhausted.” One cannot underestimate the exhaustion of such a singular act carried out by a single person. No group back up. Just him and his lonely determination.

I love it when he admits that he phoned his mother at one point to see if she would approve of his actions. “I realised the night before that Blair was on the next day,” he says, “so I decided to go down there. I didn’t have ticket for the front door but I quickly realised that there must by another entrance where the participants come in. I went down some stairs, crossed a courtyard, went upstairs and found a door which was completely unguarded. For a moment, I lost courage, went downstairs, phoned my mum to see what she thought, she was fully behind me doing it. So I went back up the stairs and into the Inquiry. I didn’t actually look at Blair because I needed to focus on what I was saying, but I wish I had. I don’t think he can leave home these days without someone accosting him about the war in Iraq. I don’t mean because of me, I just mean that’s how people feel.“

Why did he get so angry personally about the war in Iraq? “I wasn’t working,” he says, “and I had time to reflect. When I was 19, I backpacked across all those countries like Iraq and I realised that that just would not be possible for my own children. That made me incredibly incensed. I also thought early on before the war had started, that the weapons of mass destruction was all lies. Blair is deluded by his religious beliefs, he’s as deluded as the dictators that he denunciates.”

In 2010, David went to Iraq – he wanted to ask ordinary Iraqis if they thought Blair should be indicted as a war criminal. “Ninety percent agreed that the war was about business, about construction companies and pharmaceutical companies making money from it,” he says. “It was tough being there for three months, it’s a poor country and people are not very friendly. There’s a lot of negative energy there, not surprisingly. I felt fearful but I had to challenge that fear and get over it. There are babies being born deformed in Faluja because of the effect of the fall out from depleted uranium in the bombs. In the end, the Iranian TV station Press TV bought the film and showed it there, and I  showed it at the Frontline Club off  Westbourne Grove.”

Since then, he has made similarly questioning films in Bahrain and the Yemen. “I stood up in Bahrain’s Parliament and questioned an MP about the massacre of fifty people there,” he says proving that he’s not just a protester in the UK, “that’s the sort of question that the people there would be too scared to ask. I really liked the people in the Yemen and would like to go back there. I’d also like to make a Tell The Truth About Afghanistan film to find out whether Karzai is a puppet and to examine why we really went there.”

At this point, I bring the conversation back to Harlesden. Does he use its resources at all? “I used to take my kids to the library in order to research their homework. I once bumped into Louis Theroux in one  of the kebab shops. Does that count?”

No, definitely not. We finally leave O Tamariz and it starts to rain. David is towering over me. “You could call me Lord Haw Haw of  Harlesden,” he jokes as we wander down Craven Park Road.


And then I spot the falling-part-not-in-a-good-way drinking club, Steps. It’s got this terrifying rough exterior with hints of past grandeur. So far on these walks, I’ve been too much of a pussy to cross the threshold. Fearing a totally male presence. But it strikes me instantaneously that here I am with a man who regularly films in places like Iraq. Surely, I’m being presented with ideal situation to actually go there.

David calmly takes up the challenge. It’s 11 am and the front door opens into a black hole. Sorry, no I mean it opens into a cavernous bar of the 1960s bare basics’ tradition. Polystyrene tiles on the roof and little cohorts of men imbibing beer. This is a bit like my worst nightmare at this time in the morning, or at another time in the evening.

Both David and I burst into journalistic inquisitiveness as a response. “How long has this club been here?” we ask the barman who is taciturn to say the least. He doesn’t know. We order orange juice and water. Strangers in a strange land.

And then a man with a barrel-like, distorted body comes across and asks David for money to put in the jukebox. “For the wife,” he declares. We don’t correct him, we just wonder non-trustingly if the money is going in his pocket.


“I wish I were a punk rocker with flowers in my hair,” laments Sandi Thom from the jukebox. I have got flowers in my hair. I guess I am a bit of an old punk rocker. In certain ways. That is so sweet. An act of magnificent kindness performed by a drunken man who I would probably avoid in the street. Scared that something untoward would happen. And here he is playing a song just for me on the Steps jukebox.

This is one of those rare human kindness in the most unexpected place moments. I am moved. And smiling.

Before David gets back on his bike, he asks me one question. “Do you agree with me?” he asks. “Do you think Blair is a war criminal.” I do. “I think most of the country agrees,” he says.


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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’.




Filed under Walks


I haven’t been up to Stonebridge Estate – formerly known as ‘a festering sore’, ‘third world’, and notorious for problems with crack, guns, gangs and fear, now the scene of a £225 million New Labour, award-winning regeneration scheme – for a couple of months. And finally, the last of the ghost-like 1970s tower blocks is down. I’m here to meet anti-gun and knife crime activist, Michael Saunders at the Hub, part community and part medical centre.

Have you heard about the shooting of that 27 year old man at Harlesden station this week? “I was at the station soon afterwards,” he says as we walk past the strange-in-the-landscape, Victorian (remember my visit with Louis Theroux) Bridge Park Hotel, towards the modernist, Will Alsop-designed, Fawood Children’s Centre, “and forensics were there. I suppose it was a black on black crime and Trident will be investigating.” Since then, two 16 year olds have been charged with attempted murder, three others, including a 16 year old girl (all from Brent according to the Harrow Observer) have been released on bail, whilst the 27 year old survived and has been released from hospital.

Michael – known locally as ‘uncle’ – founded the British Londoners’ Business Community (which is a curious name but I assume they didn’t want to focus on black or white, and did want to sound business-like, although confusingly it has nothing to do with business) in 2009 in order to tackle gangs, gun and knife crime with ‘community unity’ meetings. The idea is to get the mothers, fathers and grandparents involved with each other, as well as with their young people. And if for instance, the mother of someone who is in prison for a stabbing, sits next to the mother of a young man who has been injured or even killed – then the community can actually witness what is happening in a personal way with each other, and work together. That’s the theory. And Michael reports that comings together of this sort have happened.

In fact, two years ago, Michael (far right in photo) found himself being challenged to do something by a friend’s then 12 year old son, TJ, whose mother was stopping him going out to the park because she was frightened that he would get stabbed. “He’d already watched his elder brother get depressed when one of his friends was shot dead,” says Michael. “So TJ wanted to know when we, the older people, who were moaning about it all the time, were going to do something. So four of us, my old friend, Lasana Fulu, TJ and his 13 year old sister, Sheneisha founded BLBC. I was aware that the mothers had already been active with marches like ‘Not Another Drop’* and we, the men, needed to get up off the sofas and be more proactive.”

Michael – who was born in Kilburn, is back there now, but lived in New York for 30 years and says he learnt what not to do around these problems from the US, as well as what to do – blames MTV and the influence of rap culture on the behaviour of young people here. “Whether they are black or white, they all want to be like Jay-Z or 50 Cents,” he says, “and that is giving them distorted ideas.”

Surely, it’s not that simple. Obviously a middle-aged, white (or Caucasian, as Michael would say) woman who was brought up in a Yorkshire village may not have all the answers but a lack of firm parenting, the failure of schools, the poverty of aspirations as a society would seem to me to be part of the problem. We agree eventually that education, discipline through sports, and community action can help change the situation.

Has the new Stonebridge – old towers down, low rise and family terraces in place – helped? “Yes,  yes, yes, now it is like a community here. It’s not institutionalised any more. Look, he says pointing to a woman planting out primroses,” now people see each other in the garden, it’s not anonymous-living any more. It’s made a hugely positive difference.”

And they’re no longer a no-go zone for the police? “I lived in this estate in ’77,” he explains, “and they were big flats with great views, but the buildings were all interlinked which meant young people could evade the police very easily. That doesn’t happen now.”

Two teenage boys go into a house nearby. Michael shouts ‘hey’ to them in that ‘we hang out together sometimes, but you know I’m on your case’ kind of way. BLBC has a slogan which is FUBU – ‘For You, By You’ – which is about individuals in the community becoming aware of the power they have in their own hands. “The estate has changed over the last ten years,” he says, “but there is still a problem with young people. Right now, there’s trouble between Stonebridge and the estate over the A406 called St Raphaels. It’s so bad because there are families who have relations in both areas. Potentially, that means there is the chance that one family member might unknowingly injure another family member by mistake, just because they live at the other place. These children are running in packs. The BBC won’t run stories on them, so we use the community radio stations to calm things down.”

That’s madness, I opine, meaning the possibility of families actually attacking each other because they live on estates at war with one another. “That’s the reality,” he says in his forthright way, as we walk towards a football pitch. “Young people are influenced by their peer group. But we hope that getting the parents and young people in one room together will have an effect. Parents and relatives can pass on positive moral messages to their children. Mothers often know their son’s friends, and they can influence them if they’re altogether in the same sitting room having a conversation. They respect people they know well. Not outsiders. Family is the first port of call.”

In front of us, there is a lot of football action going on. Training at the Pavilion with small kids up to teenagers. Meanwhile, Michael admits that there is a lot of resentment amongst young people, towards the Somalis who have arrived over the last decade. “Young people who were born here, don’t like that Somalis are getting given flats,” he says. “There is a perception that the Caribbean community came here because they were needed to do jobs and so they paid their taxes, and their children and grandchildren, should be looked after. Whereas the Somalis are refugees. It’s all very well, the UK being liberal but you have to watch your backs.”

I’d heard from my son, that there was trouble with Somalis, but I didn’t understand what was going on. Now, I’m shocked, but not shocked. This is why you can see black faces in the English Defence League. As well as the myriad of white ones. And this is the vicious circle of ‘not enough for us’ that comes out of Britain, every time we have rising unemployment, rising cuts.

“We teach them what respect really is,” he says as we reach the sports club entrance. A hundred or so, young children are playing football with older mentors. “Super is the man here,” he says introducing me to an avuncular, kind-faced gentleman who’s hiding a bundle of locks under his hat, “he can tell you on another occasion about what else is going on with the young people here. It’s important that we get to the young kids, so then they form a network where potentially others will step in if they start falling off the tracks.”

Michael says BLBC identify the alpha males and females in the community and work with them. “They are often older and have the influence, they’re the leaders and they persuade the others. So it’s important to have their ears. They influence the peer group. And peer groups are so significant to teenagers.”

And parents? “Parents only have so much influence,” he says, “they might be on your ass from time to time but they don’t see everything.” Hmm… I disagree, I think parents can play a bigger role and should. I know I have with my own son.

I wonder how he formed his ideas on youth and crime? “When I was in New York, there was this young boy with an AK45 on the street,” he explains, “I asked him what he was doing and why. He said it was my fault. I was in my late 30s. He said that my generation hadn’t put the structures in place to look after that age group. I remembered that. I’m trying to help but I know it’s not going to change completely in my life time. We’re just sewing the seeds.”

By this time, we are walking up Hillside and then right down Knatchbull Road. Michael says he’s walking me out of Stonebridge, but we seem to be walking back in again. I sneak a look at lack of tower behind St Michael’s nursery. Last time, I was here it was still wrapped up and be-scaffolded. Now, there is bare terrain. It feels exciting, even though these changes have been going on for a decade. And I’m not in favour of pulling down all the brutalist 70s housing estates, some can be refurbished. But these had to go.

I’m not quite sure how we managed to get on to the subject of Obama, it was probably the lack of positive male black role models in the UK. But I couldn’t help myself. “Shouldn’t he be called mixed race rather than black?” I comment, a little cheekily, it has to be said.

Michael makes a sort of whooping noise like a wild dog caught in a trap. “No,” he cries, “Obama is black, if he went anywhere in the world, they’d say he was black. The US constitution says that anyone with an eighth black genes is black.”

But, he is mixed race, I insist. “That’s just being politically correct,” he counters. “And it’s different in the UK. Here I grew up with white kids in Kilburn listening to Manfred Mann, over in the US all my neighbours were black.”

Manfred Mann!!! So you mean it took moving to New York for you to feel black? He laughs. I like to think he’s admitting I’m right.

Apparently, we’re looking for a teenager, he calls ‘Ginger’ who is a cousin of the very up and coming Stonebridge rapper, Koke. K. Koke. K’s music videos get up to a million hits. He raps in a very personal way about the trials and emotional terrors of existence, and there is a reassuringly black and white thing going on. Although a cliched gang thing too. We can’t find Ginger – Michael wants him to do some recording for him – so we turn back.

As we walk down into Craven Park Rd, Michael’s mind turns to his supper. Red snapper, it seems. And mine turns to his hairwear. A blue cloth that reaches down his neck. “It’s a do rag,” he says in that US do-dew way,(thanks Fifi Dennison on Facebook) “I wear it because I don’t want to comb my hair, and if I take it off, my hair will be fine. It’s a black hair thing.”

*’Not Another Drop’ was set up in 2001 as a joint community, police and council response to a spate of fatal shootings in NW10.


Filed under Walks


Today, I’m in pursuit of ‘Hanging In Harlesden’. When I first began tracking down my neighbourhood, I came across a film on You tube – which came with the warning ‘If you have an aversion to hooks, blood and heavy French accents, do not watch’. I definitely have a squeamish – I have been known to faint when injected – response to hooks and blood, but I watched anyway. It involved a tattooed, pierced young man being hung up on huge hooks, which penetrated his skin. For pleasure. It was scary, incomprehensible and compelling all at the same time.

It’s been in the back of mind to find out what was going on and why? And I’ve walked past Krazie Needles, a tattoo studio in Station Road, a few times now. So I decide to start there. I was half-thinking, that these ‘hangings’ must be going on there. It’s the middle of the afternoon, a safe time to visit!  I enter the shop part, stroll past the dozens of possible body illustrations – from comic book, voluptuous women to praying hands and cars – and enquire at the counter.

‘Do you know anything about ‘Hanging In Harlesden’?’ I ask as casually as I can muster. They – there are three male tattooists in attendance – shake their heads in unison. We don’t do anything like that here, just tattoos and piercings,” smiles the first one, who I later realise has quite a large tattoo of a bee on the side of his bald head and is called Kris. “I know they go on though, but it’s more underground.”

What is it all about? “Technically, they’re called body suspensions,” says Danny who is actually in the middle of working out how to transfer a pink-haired beauty he’s found on the internet, onto the other one’s arm, “the insertion of the hooks causes a rush of endorphins, the participant gets high and possibly has an out of body experience. It’s a spiritual thing, a very personal experience. I’ve heard people say that it’s about being on your own in that state with nothing else going on, you get into a meditative state. At that moment, nothing else matters. Fakirs used to do it, and it was part of an important ritual for Native American Indians.”

In the meantime, my gaze is wandering around their studio. Of course, there are the gothic fake skulls and bones imbedded in black on the welcoming wall and the metal bands roaring in the background, but suddenly I notice that one of their display cases is actually a coffin. “Yes, it’s a real coffin with glass instead of a lid, and we’ve got corn snakes living inside,” says Kris ever friendly and informative. I wander over to take a look, and there they are one red one, and one beige one curled up together, with naturally, a skull just below.

Tattoos, these days, are boringly de rigeur. Not just Beckham, even Sam Cam has got a swallow one. “Yeah, they’re like fashion accessories,” says Danny, “people don’t think enough before they have them. They forget that they are permanent.”

What about the old-fashioned ones like hearts and daggers? “Well, there was the trend for Celtic ones, then tribal ones, then all the Sanskrit writing, but funnily enough the old-fashioned hearts and daggers are making a come back. But the colours are much better these days so they are improved. There is a lot more information out there now so people can make more informed choices. We get people coming in and wanting portraits of their children on their skin,” says Danny.

Now I ask a stupid question. I realise that in my head – I think of tattoos and white rather than black skin. So who are their customers? “Ninety five percent of our customers are black. This is Harlesden. Everyone thinks that tattoos don’t show up on black skin but of course, they do. All the rappers like 50 Cents are covered in them.”

Down at the far end of the studio, there’s a sign that says ‘Don’t ask me for fucking stars’. The Krazie trinity are a bunch of comedians. They’re referring to Rihanna and her star tattoos. “They come in and want exactly what celebrities have,” laughs Danny, “and that’s our response.” I laugh because I noticed recently that artist, Douglas Gordon has also got stars. But I suppose his are bigger, more arty, or something. Anyway, they do do stars, they just enjoying complaining about that lack of imagination.

How many tattoos does Kris have, I wonder? “I started when I was 14 and I’m 43 now,” he says, “so I must have over a hundred. They were old-fashioned but now they’re panthers, spark plugs and women.” Not forgetting the worker bee, which happens to have a syringe, which is injecting one half of his shiny head. “That’s me injecting art into myself,” he explains wittily aware of his artiness.

Hovering over our heads is a framed photo of a tattooed arm, which announces Misfit. And there’s a lot of banter flying around about exactly this notion. So although I think tattoos are so fashionable, they’re conventional; Danny and Kris still seem to consider themselves tattooed outsiders. “Employers still think as though they’re in the Dark Ages,” says Danny, “to them, tattoos mean trouble-maker or cheap. When in fact, tattoos don’t make you a different sort of human being.”

What do people spend? “Well, the cheapest one is £20 and then you might get people who want Beckham sleeves and that will take much longer and cost hundreds of pounds. A body suit is the most comprehensive piece of work,” says Kris, “that might take 40 hours and they’d have to keep coming back, but we don’t get many of them.”

And what about women tattooists? I’m surprised in a good way at the ferocity of Danny’s reply. “There are not enough,” he exclaims, “they don’t get enough opportunities, and they don’t get enough credit. We need more women. Sometimes women customers come in here and you can see they’re uncomfortable around all these men. It would be great to have a studio of all women tattooists where they would feel at ease.”

Forty minutes ago, they had no idea I was on my way to meet them. They have been unbelievably accommodating, kind and humorous. As I leave Kris says he has a mate who’s been suspended on hooks – large fish hooks, as it happens – and he’s going to ask him if he’s heard about anyone doing suspensions in Harlesden. So the puzzle of the ‘Hanging In Harlesden’ may still be solved.

As I leave I have a look at their photo books crammed full of arms with gentians, shoulders with horses, backs with whole scenes from the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Tattooing is changing. Last time, I was close to the tattooing scene was when poet and novelist, Joolz Denby – married to New Model Army’s lead singer, Justin – took me on a tour of Birmingham tattoo studios and showed me her own Celtic decorations. At least, they weren’t stars!

I’m standing outside taking photographs of the window when a bloke appears at my side. “I like that,” he says pointing at a display photo of a woman’s back covered in tattooed exotic black hibiscus, “but I always wonder what happens when you’re seventy?”

A conversation ensues that includes the pros and cons of body modifications. Chris – he’s called Chris with a C – and I agree that cosmetic surgery and botox are wrong, and indicative of a narcissistic society hell-bent on the search for eternal youth. But we beg to differ on tattoos. I’m not against them – as opposed as being actively for them – because there’s such a long history of body ornamentation, and tattoos seem to be on that aesthetic continuum. They are not a youth-seeking modification, rather an aesthetic one. However, Chris is not convinced.

We then turn to the election, the coalition and the fact that Labour MP, Dawn Butler has been voted out. By a couple of thousand votes. Sarah Teather is now our incoming Brent Central MP. I watched the announcement on the morning of Friday, May 7th – one of the last counts to come in – and felt emotional. I had voted Lib Dem, partly as a protest about what had happened to Labour values, partly because I wanted a hung parliament (I’d like all the parties to start working together and get rid of the anachronistic adversarial nature of the repeated duopoly) but partly also because Sarah Teather seemed to be the most dedicated local MP. However, I felt for Dawn Butler. It was a shame two good women MPs had to be up against one another. Chris says his mother who is a staunch Labour supporter, had also voted Lib-Dem this time.

But the best bit is when I discover what Chris is attempting to do. Yes, folks, Chris – in his office in the Acton Business Centre – is re-inventing the trifle! “The first one is called Oh George,” he says, “and with layers of cream, chocolate and raspberry coulis, I’m trying to make an ironic version St George’s flag.”

A trifle representing modern Britain. And the inventor is black. Outside a tattoo studio. This could only happen in Harlesden.

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It’s raining, it’s 2pm, and I’m sheltering in the doorway of fruit machine-heaven, Casino, and I’m wondering whether local Labour MP, (the countdown is running to the election now) Dawn Butler will turn up? On her website, it says she was the first ever black woman to be elected to a British Government. Yes, but will she keep her word to walk round Harlesden with a woman she’s never met before?

I decide I’d better put myself in a more obvious position, and stand next to that landmark, the Jubilee clock which is has its own little paved area – often home to the Nation of Islam* or Jesus choirs – in the midst of a triangle of oncoming traffic. I feel somehow vulnerable, even though no-one is taking any notice of me. It is a place for performance. Instead I stare at the its date of completion – 1888 – and wonder at this arts and crafty tribute to Queen Victoria and how it’s found itself in 2010 in the heart of such a wild mixture of peoples. What a paradox, this clock, a delicately crafted acknowledgement of Vic’s successful colonialising, ends up in the middle of Harlesden, a new colony of poverty, often from the old colonised nations. They’ve just geographically shifted.

I hear a hearty voice next to me. Ah ha, Dawn has arrived. Has she brought a flunkie? No, Mat, who has come along too and is wielding a camera and carrying a host of Dawn (sorry, local Labour Party) newsletters, is a volunteer helper. This walk, of course, is a pre-election walk. And Dawn is no-shrinking violet. In fact, I was planning to take her to the new housing estates around Church Rd and talk to her about that area. Difficult but changing. But from the offset, it’s obvious that this is a High St walkabout. The electoral boundaries are changing – at the moment, there is a Brent East and a Brent South, they will become Brent Central – are changing at this election, which means Dawn (who is a present, MP for Brent South) is up against  local Lib-Dem MP, Sarah Teather (who is at present MP for Brent East). And Dawn does have a fight on her hands, because Sarah is a very popular, committed MP.

Not that you would know it today. Dawn doles out a newsletter to the Somalis at an internet shop with unforced jollity. One of the local beggars asks for a pound. I gave the same man some money last week. I gave it because I felt disturbed by him and didn’t know what else to do. He looks as though he’s a crackhead, but I’m not an expert. Dawn vacillates, and then gives him a pound coin. This is where I start to like her. She doesn’t automatically give him money because I’m there, to look good. No, she almost doesn’t give him anything, then she changes her mind. I find that more directness more appealing, than robotic goodwill. “My mindset is that I’d rather give people like that something to eat or drink,” she says.

The next moment we’re popping round the back of a fish shop. “There was a resident dispute that I got involved in,” she says, “the resident was complaining about the smelly mess in the passageway.” Lo and behold, it is tidy. Not a hint of a red snapper in sight. Does she eat much fish, I wonder? People in Harlesden eat a lot of fish. “I always eat a lot of sprats at Easter,” she says.

I ask her if she knows anything about the boarded up Park House that apparently used to be the Job Exchange. Not the Job Centre Plus, that’s much later and down the road. And whether it’s squatted? “I’m very involved with getting Brent to release more empty property for housing,” she says more on politico track, “they’ve only released 100 properties so far.”

Hawkeye Enterprises – winningly both a record shop and a bakers – is a legend in Harlesden. Dawn knows the bloke who owns it – this is the same person that Charlie(who I met on the first walk at Paddy Power) had recommended that I search out if I wanted to know about dancehall – and calls him ‘Dr’ but he’s not around today. But his mate is. He decides to give a Dawn a hard time. “I asked my niece, 20, and nephew, 18, whether they are going to vote,” he says, “but who are they going to vote for. Politics, it’s a disgrace.” Not that Dawn is one tiny bit daunted. “Get lost,” she declares with a laugh.

No, she’s already telling me how fantastic JJ’s winebar is over the road, how they grow their own vegetables out the back and how they help young people out with different projects. That’s something I love about Harlesden. Whilst the rest of London is heavily into brasserie and gastro-pub territory, Harlesden actually thinks it’s being a little adventurous with a winebar. And, in a way, it is. By bucking any trends altogether.

A 20something DJ stops to have a word. Does she know any youth projects he can get involved with? She does and tells him to email her. Next, she’s chatting to an elderly Somali gentleman. “We need to campaign in the Somali community because so many people are not registered to vote,” she says. He agrees.

Before I know it, she’s whisked us into Lords Shoe shop. Another famed Harlesden retail outlet. Dawn spots a pair of high-heeled, silver, padded boots. “Perfect campaign shoes,” she opines. Another shopper expresses her doubts about their lack of conventionality and the effects on the voters. “In Brent, we don’t do straight,” guffaws Dawn in recognisable Butler style. The shopper sells properties on the recently refurbished Stonebridge estate. How much is a two bedroom flat there now? £200,000. “Not long ago, you couldn’t give them away,” says Dawn.

Apparently local resident, Louis Theroux was out on the streets the other day promoting a Brent Council ‘Support Your Local Shops’ campaign by handing out their hessian bags. But I haven’t managed to persuade him to walk with me yet. I will. I will.

An ex-nurse – says she’s 67, she looks in her 50s – declares herself disgusted that Harlesden shops are all open on Sundays. “It’s all changed,” she says to Dawn, “years ago, they all closed at 5pm. It upsets me. Sunday should be our day of rest. Of course, Harlesden is wonderfully vibrant, it always has been.”

But here we are in Miracle Fashions, and Dawn has been drawn magnetically towards a orange and green matching pair of shoes and bag in colourful Kente material. Only £45 for both. “Wicked,” she says as she tries them on. Dawn definitely has a shoe thing going on. But being Dawn, she totally unabashed about it. She wants a pair for her mother too. “I won’t get her flowers, I buy her these shoes, she’ll love them. I’m supporting local businesses,” enthuses Ms Butler. The shop owner is delighted. She wants to have her picture taken with Dawn. For the wall.

We pop into BASES (Brent Adult &Children’s Education Service) which is being closed down and moved across the road to the new library. The receptionist wants to know what is happening about the number 18 bendy buses. “They’ll soon turn into double deckers,” says Dawn. “I hope they’ll put more on,” says the receptionist. One of Boris’ electioneering pledges was to get rid of the bendy buses. Of course, this is a ridiculous waste of money. Now everyone has got used to the bendy bus. Dawn agrees with me.

The new library – it will be officially opened tomorrow by the mayor – is a triumph. I’m not sure it has that many books, but certainly has lots of entertainment.  Re-designed, refurbished, modernised – it’s a brilliant new public facility for Harlesden. Big windows, flat screens, light lecture rooms – we have a quick look but I’ll return tomorrow for the grand event itself. Of course, Dawn will be there.

The last leg of our High Street tour consists of Dawn popping in on a few old friends. Like Mr Chaudrai who runs Zak’s Shoe Service. “It’s one of the only places in London where you can actually come and get your shoes mended still,” she says. An old Jamaican gent extols the virtues of Harlesden past. “It was so clean when I came in 1960,” he says, “all the shops and streets, you could lie down on them. Look at them now. It was mostly Jamaicans and Irish here back then. You’d have notices in Willesden newsagents saying ‘No blacks, No Irish and No dogs’”.

Next is Aston Insurance where I discover the owner has been there for 26 years. He even went to Capitol City Academy down the road in Willesden when it was a grammar school. He says Harlesden is a very friendly place. Does he know when M&S left? “1984,” I think, “there was too much stealing going on.” And where was the horsemeat shop? Dawn is horrified. “There was a horsemeat shop here, I didn’t realise we used to eat it,” she says. No, he doesn’t know. Sadly.

I don’t know when Jesse Jackson came to Harlesden but he did. Because in the next shop, the misleadingly named AvantGarde – an upscale men’s outfitter’s, trad-cool, I’d call it – the owner, George, a very hip Jamaican man, has a very large photo of himself and Jesse in this very shop. It’s a shock but a good one. Now Dawn wants to be on that wall too. So the photo is taken.

Last stop is JJ’s for patties. Dawn treats us.  JJ comes out – all beatific face, white hair and possibly the longest locks I’ve ever seen gathered together down his back in what looks like a brown knitted dreadlock bag. They fall down far below his waist. He’s got such an incredible smile, easy, warm, mischievous. Then he shows us round his wine bar. That one, the hidden gem. I’ve never even noticed it before. But it really does look like a good place to have a drink. Posh even, with an aquarium, old posh, rather than zeitgeist posh.

What’s happening to plot of land at the back? “It’s been ploughed,” laughs JJ, “ready for new crops.” Meanwhile Dawn is having her photo taken at the bar for JJ. Local MP comes to my wine bar kind of vibe. “I can’t be seen drinking alcohol,” she says being hyper-vigilant re our puritanical culture, “put a bottle of orange juice in front of me.” JJ wants to put on a party to help Dawn with her political campaign. “Let’s get Lascelles,” she says, “he’s just helped me out with events for Alan Johnson and Jack Straw.” Lascelles is a saxophone player.

By this time, Dawn has had her photo taken with an ex-nurse, the Dawn-loving owner of Miracle Fashions, a baby in the library, George and JJ at the very least. As we pass the City Challenge office, there it is another picture of her. This one has a widely smiling Dawn (she does smile very well, I’ve tried this and it’s not easy) and Prince Charles. She points it out in a winsome way. It’s not a boast, more a little joke between us. Prince Charles came to Harlesden High Street in 2007 when the Prince’s Trust was supporting a new local business initiative called Connect. Interestingly, he said at the time just after doing a little jive to Good Thing Going by Sugar Minott with local councillor, Bertha Joseph who apparently grabbed him: “I don’t think I have enjoyed myself so much for a long time going down the high street and popping into one or two shops. I’m sorry I couldn’t go into a few more of them.”

It’s not often I concur with royalty but I have to agree.

And Dawn Butler has been a revelation. Before I met her, I was going to support Sarah Teather in the election, but now I’m in a quandary. Dawn is a great mixture of laid back, warm, concerned and feisty. I like her. They are both women, which is great. I’m a traditional Labour supporter but this time, I am going to vote for change. But not the Tories. The Lib-Dems need to pay attention to getting more non-white candidates, but Sarah Teather will get my vote because I want national political change – in fact, a hung parliament (we need a new word) could be a good thing, they would have to work together – and she is a very committed local MP.


I go down to the new library opening. It’s been re-designed with Big Lottery money – £1.4 million of it. The old building has been modernised in a way that is light, airy and doesn’t destroy the old. Dawn is there chatting to the mayor of Brent. Irish. I’ve forgotten his name. There’s hubbub of local people in the children’s area, at the sugar decoration class upstairs and the creative writing class. Now Dawn is chatting to lithe, tall in vertiginous heels, young woman wearing what I now assume to be a glossy wig.

It must be Sabrina Washington, I surmise. Sabrina is local girl made good. She was in girl group Misteeq, and Celebrity Get Me Out of Here last year. Now I’m looking around wondering who people are. There’s a tall, elegant man near me in glasses. Who’s he? I ask someone. “That’s Shaun Wallace,” they say, “he’s a barrister, has won Mastermind and was on the steering committee for the re-development of the library.”

I go and ask the impossibly tall Sabrina what she thinks of Harlesden. “My parents still live here, “ she says, “they won’t move. It’s a vibrant neighbourhood with lots of great people. I love it here. I’m always coming back.” She’s a bit bland but she’s got luscious lips. And then, she says something significant. “I live in Hertfordshire these days,” she explains. I understand – from Harlesden to Hertfordshire – that’s where successful Harlesden girls want to go. Oh dear.

I start thinking about the meaning of words as the speeches commence. This is not just a library anymore. It’s called Harlesden Library Plus, in the same way that it’s the Job Centre Plus down the road. What is it with this PLUS?  Does it denote the failing of the idea of ‘enough’ in this age of recession realism when surely materialist maximalism is so over.  I know it’s a branding exercise, which denotes more facilities (the One Stop Shop upstairs, adult education, computers, a cheerful children’s area) but it does seem to mean LESS books.

Shaun in his speech mentions the diverse faces in the crowd. The now word – diverse. But Sabrina talks about multiculturalism. And it sounds strangely old-fashioned. But Sabrina – I wonder why? – gets the biggest cheer. “Harlesden is happening,” she declares passionately, “and it’s always been happening.”

The crowd agree. Me too.

*Headed by the infamous Louis Farrakhan and inspired by leaders like Malcolm X, the militant Nation of Islam espouses its own kind of Islam in its own black-promoting way.

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This was going to be a search for air raid shelters with novelist, Nick Barlay. He flunked out – a water pipe problem. Anyway, I was pissed off because he cancelled twice. Sunday, as well. I hate people who cancel. He walked the London section of the A5 for Time Out, I thought I’d get a few tips from him. Sod him, I’ll go on my own.

In the meantime, I’d been looking at an 1830s map of Harlesden, which had various more recent buildings added on. I tried to imagine where the Willesden Hippodrome – Theatre which opened grandly in 1907 – would have been. I knew it wasn’t there anymore but where had it been? I decided to refrain from consulting the internet, and try to find someone who knew. By talking to them. Novel, I know.

The Willesden/Harlesden thang is going to be eternally confusing. Harlesden used to be in the borough of Willesden (before Brent was created in 1965 and absorbed them both) hence a variety of theatre and station location confusions endure. Willesden Junction – you may not realise – is actually in Harlesden. The same with the Willesden Hippodrome. Except it doesn’t actually exist anymore. However, when it did – it was in Willesden, but now it doesn’t, its absence is in Harlesden.

Outside, the puddles have iced over, a light glaze. The skies are grey-feathered. I stand at the end of my road (is it in Kensal Green or Harlesden or Willesden?) and mull over the idea of hanging out there one day and just chatting to people about Harlesden. Three gangly young men pass me talking animatedly in Arabic.

I cross over Wrottesley Rd (on that 1830s map, it’s a marginal presence in one corner, but you can see the trees lining it, and I know it was the leafy, muddy, privately owned Green Lane at the time) and pass Leah’s flat. Before Xmas, I went on a search for Leah and found her – on Valentine’s 2009, her boyfriend stencilled our pavements with amazing heart words to her, like concrete poetry – by putting a poster up on nearby trees. Who is Leah? A writer wants to know. The wrong Leah rang, but eventually the right one rang too. Sadly, we’ve yet to meet up. I want to hear her love story. In the last text, she said she’d had a tough Xmas. I hope to get hold of her soon.

On my way to find the site of Willesden Hippodrome, I suddenly decide that I’m going to talk to people. Have conversations. Interact with strangers. I want these walks to be happenings too! Ask them what they think of Harlesden. I’m on Ancona Rd and a young man is approaching me with headphones. I ask him if I can ask him a few questions. He’s very willing. Turns out he lives in Doyle Gardens with his parents. Doyle Gardens is in Willesden postcode-wise, Kensal Green if you’re flat-hunting, and Harlesden, if you live there.  He’s 24 and a police officer. The first person I encounter is a young, out of uniform policeman! In Hillingdon, he says, where it’s more affluent and easier than here. He smiles a lot. An easy smile. “My mum came over from Kenya when she was three,” he says, “my dad is Indian.”

Rav did a degree in politics and joined the police when he was 21. Loves it. How strange, I think, I would never have imagined students of politics joining the police. More the opposite. More the protesters. Maybe that says something about the contents and lecturers of politics these days. He says in the reserve TSG – the territorial support group or riot police. He seems quite liberal though, he claims he would like to see them open up their methods to public debate. “We’ve been issued with embroidered numbers now for our epaulettes,” he says innocently revealing the results of the furore around Ian Tomlinson’s death during the G20 protests, the officer who pushed him over was not wearing an identification number. The video footage filmed by an American hedge fund investor visiting London – showed this state of police undress very clearly. And apparently the ensuing publicity has had an effect. Embroidered numbers, which can’t ‘fall off’. I check later with the Met press office and it’s true.

What does he think of Harlesden? “I think it still needs more money investing here. My police friends who work here have to deal with gun crime all the time and even talking to someone at night is difficult, they have to have a few cars come out together because the threat of possible aggression is so great.”

Who will he vote for in the election? “I think I’ll be voting for Cameron,” he mutters, ”we need a change. People are worried about immigration and I think that will come out as we get nearer to the election date. The BNP have already started the debate.” Did he watch Nick Griffin on Question Time? “Yes, he was awful,” he says. It’s a relief to hear him say that. “Did you know they’re changing the boundaries in Brent, basically it will be the Labour MP, Dawn Butler who is at present in Brent South, up against the Lib Dem MP, Sarah Teather who is in Brent East at present.” I didn’t know this. I like Sarah Teather, I say. Because every time I see her on Question Time, she is so well informed and sensible. He agrees. “Yes, she’s a great local MP, she comes and talks at the Willesden HinduTemple. She even knows some Gujerati. I like her because she travels by bus too and walks around the constituency.”

“Oh, I think I will vote for Sarah,” he says finally. Phew, that was a turn-around. Lib Dems – you need me on the streets.

Ah, I pass the wall that still has ‘I love u Leah. With all my heart.’ stencilled on it. I’m envious. When’s someone going to do that for me. And then, The Rebirth Tabernacle. I’m determined to visit one of their services at a later date. As part of my church visiting. Then, there’s the green, very green Max’s Barber shop where Rav had just had his hair cut.

Before I know it, I’m walking next to a woman who is wearing a cream scarf over her head and limping. I ask her if she lives in Harlesden?  She has got an incredibly open, gorgeous face. “I do,” she answers. “I’m in Ridley Rd with my two daughters. My son has left home for University.” Amran is from Somalia and has been here for 15 years.

What does she think of Harlesden? “When I was first here, my sister lived in central Harlesden,” she says, “and you didn’t dare go out at night. It was violent. But now I go out at 1am sometimes on a Saturday. I’ll go down to Sam’s on the high street and have some chicken. It feels safe. There are more police out on foot now.” At this moment, I’m amazed – I can’t imagine Amran in Sam’s chicken shop at one o’clock in the morning. To be honest, it does seem like a weird place to want to go. All strip lighting and harshness. But now I’m showing just how Kensal Green, I am.

Does she feel welcomed by us, the British? “Yes, I do. My husband was killed in Somalia when my youngest daughter was only 2, she’s 17 now, and I’m 44.” Here we are standing in Harlesden High Street and I can’t help myself asking – what about other Somali men? Fortunately, she laughs (she’s got a robust one) and responds: “It’s difficult. They might go back and get killed. And if I ask which tribe they’re from, it sounds as though I want to marry them. It’s worse in Somalia now than it was 15 years ago. It is a country that is being torn apart. I have family there who are just waiting to die. We women are strong, we’re the ones who are left to suffer, but we’re also the ones who stand up and say ‘No More.’ ”

Oh, she is so warm and open. I can’t believe how trusting she is. We’ve walked up to Harlesden House now, which is where the Job Centre is, and a number 18 bus approaches. ‘I have to get it, she says. Do you work? I ask. “I can’t,” she replies, “I have kidney failure. I’m on my way to an appointment now.”

At this juncture, I decide to walk back down the road again and see if I can find anyone who’s heard of the Willesden Hippodrome as I know it used to be somewhere near here. I see a man with grey hair who has the inherently exhausted look of someone who’s worked at this Furniture Contractor’s for a long time. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” he sighs in an Irish accent, “but I don’t know it. Let’s ask my colleagues.” It was built in 1907, I say. No, nobody has a clue about it here.

I cross the road, wander over to the top of the stairs that run down to the long walkway leading to Willesden Junction which opened in 1866. It’s one of those urban moments. I stand  – I never stop here ever because I’m always in the momentum of being on my way to somewhere – and gaze across the vast tangle of railway lines, and the open skyline marked with cooling towers, and now clichéd graffiti tags. Fresh, Snag. I feel a tap on my back and look round to see Sue, a parent who has a daughter, Eileen who went to the same schools, primary and secondary, as my son, Marlon. I haven’t seen her for years. In fact, she’s a poet, who’s wonderfully eccentric and the last time I saw her she was pasting pages of Mrs Beeton’s cookbook on her ceiling. So what is she doing is this uber-normal blankety green jacket, wielding a strange machine with numbers on it?

“I’ve become a gas-meter reader,” she exclaims, “in fact, I was just reading the meter at the used car lot when I heard a woman’s voice politely asked about the availability of Somali men in this area. I didn’t realise it was you, but then I recognised your style.” We discuss the rather wonderful view from these steps at Willesden Junction. The sheer industrial openness of it. Of course, her daughter, aged 21, Eileen, has just bought a puppy – they went to the Isle of Sheppey (yes, the isle of Sheppey) last night to get it – spent all night in bed with it, so she hasn’t slept. I tell her what I’m doing with this project, and she says how much she loves beachcombing.

Beachcombing? I realise she’s talking about streetcombing. Which includes going down into strange little basements. That’s it, I’m convinced that she will be a fantastic person to walk with in Harlesden. I promise to ring her very soon.

I walk back up Harlesden High St, past Jet Set, a nightclub that is presently moribund. Except for Friday and Saturday at 2am when incredible queues snake down the road. In 2008, a Portuguese DJ was shot trying to sort out an argument. By a 17 year old. The DJ still needs round-the-clock care. It’s the kind of tragedy that Harlesden is too known for.

I walk past the Café Brazil, and closed down nightclub, The Lodge. It was groovy for a year a two, but couldn’t keep going. It’s looking very abandoned now with a closure notice pinned to the door. I have recently realised it must have been called The Lodge because in the 19th century, The Grange Lodge was nearby. A little further up, I look across the road, and there is Harlesden House, an ugly1960s brick building. It’s a Job Centre Plus now, but I can imagine the Edwardian Willesden Hippodrome being there. Was it, I wonder?

Now I’m looking for some more people to ask. I see a couple of older men, but they start speaking what sounds like Polish. Then, I see a grey-haired, bespectacled woman coming towards me. She could have lived here a long time? I ask her. “I came here, she indicates a flat at 150 Harlesden High St, just after I got married in 1969 and have been here ever since. My husband was Irish, he used to get up at 5am and travel around.”

Perfect. Does she know where Willesden Hippodrome was? “Yes,” she says faltering, “it was down there on the left, next to the bus stop. It’s a block of flats now.” That’s strange, I think, because that’s not the side of the road I’ve seen it marked on a map. But she is certain, so I try to believe her. I walk down and there is Paddy Power, the bookmaker’s with what turns out to be newbuild block of flats above it. Deeply unattractive and too small, I would have thought for such a big theatre. However, I’ve never been into a betting shop. I push open the door. All men.

I go up to the bloke in the green clothes (yes, it’s all part of Paddy’s Power) and ask him. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t know. He tells me to go and ask some of the old-time locals. A big man with a grey beard and a Rasta hat, another more Chinese-looking Jamaican and their friends. “No, I think it used to be a wine bar,” says the Chinese-looking Jamaican.

“Why do you want to know,” says the big man with the Rasta hat who turns out to be called Charlie, he’s rather good-looking with a lot of flirty sparkle. Forget, the Hippodrome. I think he might be a good lead for one of my future walks. What does he know about dancehall? Harlesden has always been big on reggae. “We used to go to Burtons in Cricklewood,” he says, “but mostly to private shabeens. I know who can help you, Roy at Hawkeye Records up the road, tell him I sent you.”

I say it’s the first time I’ve been inside a betting shop. “You’d better leave,” he roars with several twinkles, “you might get tempted.”

At home afterwards

Internet research – I look up the address of the old Willesden Hippodrome, it’s 161-163 High Street Harlesden. Ah ha, Paddy Power is at 120. My hunch was right, it’s not same place. There’s a piece in Cinema Treasures that has a picture of it – it’s huge and so grand. Wow, the photo (used at the beginning of this post) shows a different Harlesden – lots of ladies and gentlemen in their finery. It had 3,000 seats. It was when Harlesden was posh at the turn of the 19th century. Built in 1907, it was where Harlesden House is now, the home of e Job Centre Plus. The Willesden Hippodrome was opened by one Walter Gibbons as a music hall/variety theatre. Designed by the most prolific turn of the century theatre architect, Frank Matcham, (I just went to Blackpool and he designed the Grand Theatre and the Tower ballroom) it had a 30 feet stage and 8 dressing rooms! In1927 became a cine/variety theatre. It was closed in 1930 and taken over by ABC and opened as a cinema until 1938. Then it finally re-opened as music hall/variety theatre but was bombed and destroyed in 1940 by German bombs.

For many years, it was a bombsite. Former resident, Roger Hooton remembers “As a kid I broke my arm when I swung from a rope on this bombsite.”

And what was on the site of Paddy Power? Harlesden Cinema Theatre opened in 1911, turned into Grand Cinema in 1928, and re-opened with an art deco façade. It closed in 1957 and was converted into an Irish dancehall. Later it became a nightclub called Top 32 Club, then Angies. Lastly, it was a snooker club. Finally, it was demolished in 2003 and rebuilt in 2008 to contain Paddy Power and those flats!


Filed under Walks