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Kate Monro – author of The First Time; True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found – was on Woman’s Hour not long ago. She was talking about www.virginityproject.typepad.com where she has been gathering all sorts of peoples’ (ages, nationalities, religions) first experiences of sex. And she emanated a grand passion for the extraordinary stories that she has been told over the last five years. I was so intrigued – I almost (key word) started a magazine called Bitch in the 80s where the back page was a first person account of someone having sex for the first time, I interviewed broadcaster, Andy Kershaw and I think his ‘dawning of a new age’ happened in the back of a car – I invited her to walk with me.

One Sunday afternoon, I opened my door to a sea of  leopardskin, prettiness, blonde hair, fetching straw hat and jeans. “Look, we’re matching,” she exclaims in a cheery way. And yes, I am wearing almost entirely leopardskin print myself. Both cardigan and skirt. Perhaps inadvertently we are paying tribute to  Jackie Collins. Anyway we enjoy our sartorial elision and take it as a good portent.

I comment that ‘losing your virginity’ seems like an anomaly as an expression. Anachronistic. Ridiculous. “Yes, all that patriarchal shit,” she agrees.“Really this project has been all about people’s personal stories. It’s been so much more that first time sex. I interviewed one woman who is 91 and it was so thrilling to find out how sexuality was treated in her time. In many ways, what I’ve been interested in is how attitudes to sexuality have changed over the years.”

What worries me, I say, is that being constantly invaded by superficial, airbrushed over-sexual imagery in videos/ads/TV – has undermined the value and vocabulary of sexuality. “You mean the ‘If I give you a blow job, will you like me more?’ attitude of some girls,” says Kate. “Interestingly, I’ve had quite a lot of young women tell me that they want to lose their virginity at their own pace.”

Great to hear, but I’m not convinced how widespread that is. I remember the documentary, Let’s Talk Sex, that Davina McCall – yes, Davina – made a few years ago on sex education in schools here and in Holland. No contest. In Holland, they actually start talking about love, relationships and sexuality at primary school whereas most of our kids get something short and unsatisfactory that is focussed on the biology. At secondary school. Not nearly enough. Not wide-ranging enough in discussion. Don’t make sexuality a tiny part of science and the PCHEE curriculum. Treat it as something vital and serious and part of relationship education. And make it compulsory.

I’m paying such a lot of attention to our conversation, I almost forget we’re in Harlesden. But I do notice that shops are changing. Ali Baba’s has turned into Lahori Bites. And Dora’s Delights has turned into Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown. Wrights, of course, the late oft lamented Wrights, has been replaced by the hideously graphic Cash Converters.

How did she start doing this project? “I was on holiday with an old boyfriend and we started discussing what happened to us the first time we had sex,” she explains, “and then, it just seemed like a great idea. One that would totally preoccupy me. My friends had always said I would find one thing and then, I’d be off and I was.”

I’m wondering now what happened when she first had sex? I can feel myself avoiding ‘losing her virginity’ in the same way as I avoid ‘committing suicide’. The religious, sinful undertones. “Well, when I was being interviewed on the radio recently, a presenter commented that it seemed very business-like,” she says. “and I suppose I was eager to get to the next stage. The virgin status was something I wanted to move on from. I was 15, on holiday in Spain with a friend’s parents. He was a charismatic, French guy. But I don’t think I did it in a great way. I’d rather have concentrated on really caring about the other person, than achieving something as I saw it then.”

I have to say here – I’m not smug, more surprised – that I did manage to have sex for the first time with a boyfriend that was more experienced than me in the techniques of physical love, and also     I went on to have a 9 year relationship with him. Blimey, a small success in an ocean of difficulty. And it was a good experience.

By this time, we’ve meandered up Manor Park Road and are about to embark on the non-scenic Church Road. We’re both aware that we’ve been oblivious to our surroundings. We’ve even managed to find a male friend that we both know. “This is proper urban jungle,” declares Kate who had thought Harlesden was the bit of the Harrow Road before Scrubs Lane. The Kensal Green side. So this is all a revelation for her.

“Telling my parents about the virginity project was like telling them I was pregnant,” she laughs, “but in fact, they responded very well. They’re very interested in history so they saw that it would make great social history.”

Has she asked her parents about the first time they had sex? “We’ve never spoken about,” she says, “I’m sure my mother probably would tell me. But I’ve never gone there.”

At this point, we pass a Somali wedding that is taking place at the Unity Centre. Three older gentleman have ornate, embroidered head wear that looks marvellously ornate and dramatic. “They would make a great photo,” exclaims Kate. Whereupon I exclaim that I can’t take photos of people without feeling I have some sort of relationship with them, it would feel too exploitative. Especially if they are from an ethnic minority.

It turns out that Kate has another project – www.bigguysmalldogblog.typepad.com – where she takes photographs. “It’s a social phenomenon that would never have happened ten years ago, “ she grins, “these huge men with tiny, fluffy dogs. At first, I was scared to actually use my camera but now I have been known to chase them down the street.”

Somehow we leapfrog into a discussion about the oldest person that Kate interviewed for her virginity project. “She’s a 101,” says Kate, “and she knew she’d had sex before she got married but she couldn’t quite remember the details. I love talking to older generations because it tells you so much about about their era. Because sex was more hidden in those days, and more taboo. I sometimes think they had so much better foreplay. They were creative about the way they pleasured each other.”

Bring back courting, I declare. And mean it. The delights of getting to know one another. Slowly.

“Older men were in general difficult to talk to about sex,” she says, “they didn’t have the vocabulary but women were dying to tell me all about it. Some were sad about the opportunities they’d missed. They would have loved to have been sexually active in this era. But I did find one 80 year old man who loved talking about his sex life. He was stationed in Austria as a soldier during the second world war, and he had a lot of sex.”

We reach Roundwood Park and Kate is telling me she has 250 stories. “I wanted to make the stories a patchwork quilt of the UK today with lots of different nationalities and religions included.”

So what stories did she want that she didn’t get? “I really wanted to find a black homosexual who would tell his virginity loss story,” she says enthusiastically, “and a traditional Muslim story. This sounds bad, but I did get this Thalidomide guy to tell me his amazing story. It’s one of the best stories in the book.”

As we part, Kate is off to meet the no doubt irrepressible American, Cindy Gallop, who has a website http://www.makelovenotporn.com which is about the effect of hard core porn on young people. Yes! Finally, Kate expresses her continuing fascination with men and how they are changing around their sexuality and their emotions. “Yeah, I’d really like to do some more research into that area,” she says. Me too.

The First Time – True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found (including her own) is by Kate Monro and out on Icon Books at £11 99.


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The Welsh Harp had been intriguing me for a while. I’d never been been before. Not long ago, I was coming down the stairs at Willesden Library when I saw inscribed on the wall ‘Bear escapes from The Welsh Harp in 1871’.


So, unusually for me, I looked up the history beforehand. More mundanely the Brent reservoir, it was built in 1835 to supply the Grand Union Canal. The Old Welsh Harp Tavern was the name of the inn on the A5 side of the area – a pub is still there – and apparently, it was so opulent with ornate pleasure gardens that the Prince of Wales used to pop down and do a little pigeon shooting. My dear. It was the height of fashion.

Ah, the bear? The bear escaped from the Welsh Harp menagerie in 1871. Menagerie, a little zoo type affair. So underused as a word these days. I remember my father in the 1960s referring to our household – a 3 storey terrace house in Yorkshire – as a menagerie meaning we were chaotic. We had tortoises, a goldfish and guinea pigs, but I think he was talking about us, the children, rather than the actual animals.

Karen Liebenguth is a Green Space life coach who has offered me a session. Usually, she would choose a green space – park, woods, heath  – in London and you would both meet up there. This time, I have chosen this site of special scientific interest – it’s 17o hectares of open water, marshes, trees and grassland apparently – because I want to know what it’s like. The Welsh Harp, that is.

The idea of life coaching in a green space? “I love the outside,” says Karen, “and people relax and open up more easily when surrounded by trees, grass, water. It also de-intensifies the session. We can stop and breath at times, and appreciate the landscape. It’s good to come to coaching when you are at a point where you want to move on. Often people will have traced the background of the problem, but now they are ready to move on. Life coaching can give you a blueprint for your future. Whereas counselling and therapy focus more on delving into the roots of the difficulty.”

Sorry, but we arrive by car. We park at the Youth Sailing Club on Cool Oak lane. It has the air of having seen better days. Bits of litter, information boards covered in grafitti, but a wonderful view of the reservoir. And no-one around. Karen is looking for somewhere to have a pee. Will she go wild or not?

“I was walking with a group of clients once,” she says, “and they wanted to go to the toilet and there were no facilities. I suggested the bushes and they were shocked and a bit scared. I showed them where to go, and they were fine. It made me realise that there are people who are frightened of green spaces in that way.”

She emerges from a wooded corner, and we set off towards the reservoir. Somewhere here there is a breeding colony of Great Crested Grebes but I have feeling we are not going to find it today. There are weeping willows instead – so deliciously green – and she asks me what my area of focus is today.

I decide to take a risk, and tell Karen, I am having difficulty opening my heart to men. And that’s what I want to change. I’m single. I’m happy and single. But I’d like to be happy and in a relationship with a man, so I want to address whatever it takes in order to allow that to happen.

As we’re passing a noble swan paddles across the reservoir, and a Polish family wander over to feed  him with bread. At that point, Karen asks me what it would feel like if my heart was open. In a quiet, caring voice. She has a very graceful, compassionate presence.

I’m usually good at answering questions, but this is quite difficult. And the start of many similar ones. “Expanded,” I say feeling that is a very limited reply, so I continue, “when I’m camping in summer with a group of friends doing emotional work, I always feel expanded, and because I’ve just done lots of crying and laughing with others, my heart is more open than it normally is.”

I’m circumnavigating her question. She persists. “What would that feel like?” she asks as we notice a sign saying ‘Beware Blue Algae’. Oh dear, not so green after all. The Blue Algae is reflecting my fear of answering that question. I could have said ‘like ice melting’ or ‘like wood disintegrating’, but I can’t quite feel it.

And then we come across the most inspiring sight. A meadow of blue and white vetch. It’s almost unreal, it looks so untouched by fertiliser or gardener. We stand and take it all in – in silence.

This is the point. Difficult questions followed by enough space to reflect a little. We walk on, and talk about what has happened to me in relationships with men. “I’ve been hurt,” I explain, “so I closed my heart to protect myself. I needed to have time to recover and also for my heart to beat gently on its own, without needing another to relate to.”

“What is stopping your heart opening around men now?” she asks. I reply:”Fear and a fierce critic that can find fault with men.”

Are you afraid you are a little too independent now? “Well,”I say, “I know what I want and it doesn’t have to be conventional in terms of a relationship. I don’t need a man to move in. I would be content with someone who has their own projects and passions, but wants to spend some special times with me. I’m at a time in my life where I don’t need to have a relationship but I would like to.”

“So you sound like you know what you want,” she says. And I do.

We stare across the water as moor hens and mallard ducks pootle around. I like that word. It’s an idyllic afternoon.

I wonder where around here the naturists used to gather in their glorious nudity between 1921 and 1930 when some puritanical locals objected vociferously? 200 angry anti-naked voices. This was known as the Sun-Bathing Riot of 1930.

We turn back on ourselves now but via a different route away from the water. We see a group of ancient oak trees and allow ourselves to be truly fascinated by them. In that innocent, wondrous way.

I start to tell Karen about my last true love affair which lasted 5 years, which was torturous and extremely painful. He really couldn’t give in the way that I longed for. “It sounds as though you opened your heart too much to this man,” she says, “and it was wounded for a while, but now you are ready to try again.”

Exactly, I agree. At this moment, we’re walking very slowly and we stop.

Well, I do have a date with an artist this weekend.

This was like manna to a life coach who is eager to give to her clients.

“I’d like you to imagine how your heart would feel if it were really open to this artist?” she says.

I have to close my eyes and really let myself into a situation where my heart is soft. “What does your heart look like?” she continues, refusing to let me off the hook.

“My heart feels like a rose where the red petals are falling off to reveal its centre, and it smells very fragrant,” I say as I sort of sway in an involuntary swoon. Oh gosh, I’m really getting the Mills and Boon of this now.

Will this satisfy her, I wonder. No, no, not quite.

“And how will you know if your heart is open when you meet this artist?” she says.

I have to stop again and really allow myself to feel. “I’ll feel a golden, warm feeling flowing from my heart to his, “ I reply like a true heroine.

Now she seems content. She remarks that I was doing a little dance at the end, and she likes that.

But back to my critic. “What will I do if I feel critical about something to do with him?” she asks.

“I do feel a little critical already,” I say laughing. “because he smokes. And I do smoke but only occasionally when I’m at a party.”

This throws her a little. “Ah, well, there’s criticism and there are value judgements,” she says, “for me, personally, I couldn’t go out with a smoker.”

Ah ha, well, we’ll have to see.

By this time, I can see the Sailing Club car park appearing amongst the trees. “How will you deal with your critic if she raises her head whilst your on the date?” she asks. I suggest I have an internal dialogue to ascertain  how worthy the criticism is, whether it’s coming from a value I hold dear, or is arising from my fear that I will get hurt if I get close to this person.”

Oh good, she’s OK with that. “Yes, remember, an internal dialogue is a great resource,” she says finally.

I want to come back to the Welsh Harp, there are butterfly and moth walks that I’d like to go on. I feel as though that was just the beginning.

And as for Karen’s coaching, I loved being asked lots of questions. Usually, I ask the questions. I revelled in having to reflect, and go through a mini-process with her.

PSThe date was cancelled because the artist injured his back whilst pruning errant roses! So you’ll just have to watch this heart space.

PPS Heard Robert Elms’ on Radio London today declare that he had one of his first jobs cutting grass at the Welsh Harp!

Green Space Life Coaching was set up by Karen Liebenguth. Karen offers life coaching while walking in London’s parks and green spaces, indoor coaching and group workshops to reconnect with nature. The next nature connection country walk will take place on Sunday 16th October in Kent, meeting point at Charing Cross Station. See website for details http://www.greenspacecoaching.com or contact Karen 07815 591 279 karen@greenspacecoaching.com

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Not enough sex on these walks, I decided. I’ll have to invite the leonine and totally outrageous, Kavida Rei along. Kavida – who organises monthly sensual soirees in Convent Garden and has written books on tantric massage and sex – describes herself on her website as a Tantric Goddess. Are you getting the picture? Yep, she’s a force of nature. Her latest blog features her own long sought after, and recently achieved ejaculation.

The day before we meet, I sent her an email asking her to dress discreetly because we were going to visit a religious establishment. I didn’t want to reveal where we were going. “Be direct darling,” she replied, “do you mean I have to wear underwear?”

“I don’t care about your underwear,” I shot back, “but no shorts, probably a below the knee skirt and bring a wrap around.”

“I’m getting my Amish look together,” she said. I told her I was very much looking forward to seeing her attire.

And so I’m waiting for her one sunny Wednesday afternoon at the top of the stone steps at the Harrow Road end of Willesden Junction. I look across and see that my favourite strange railway building – the metal building on the stilts which looks like it has travelled here from Bangladesh or somewhere else where the amount of water forces the architecture – is immersed now in sycamore leaves. Almost hidden.

Before I get to hum ‘You’re so sexy”, there she is sunglasses, muted colours, mad hair, big smile. But hold on. Whoops, up goes the skirt, and the naughty Ms Rei is posing at the bottom of the steps demonstrating her lack of knicker-wearing! Willesden Junction may not recover. Sadly, there are no train-spotters around to share this unusual moment.

Our Tantric – it really (as opposed to the reductive media Sting version) is a Hindu philosophy, which says you can find sensual and spiritual delight in everything from breathing to dancing to putting out the rubbish – Queen is from rural Hertfordshire and Harlesden is a bit of a shock to her system. “I don’t recognise this produce,” she says as we pass bowls of little green chillies outside one of the many High Street butchers and grocers combined.

Her own neighbours, she insists, are completely au fait and comfortable with her activities. In other words, one week she is collecting one of her sons from school (he is 16, the other is 20 and studying History of Art) in appropriately low-key school-run clothes and the next week when her son is with his father, she might be going out with her new partner sporting full-on PVC fetish wear.

“Oh, the hair shops are fantastic,” she shrieks as we peer into one of the amazing emporiums of hair. “I needed one of those when I dressed up as Cher recently.”

I know Kavida will love my favourite shop – as you know by now – Wrights, that marvellous mixture of photographic equipment and lingerie. And especially the sexy tights and stockings. In fact, I bought some brilliant black stockings with beautiful ties all the way up the back for our mutual friend, Jake (another, tantrica, Jacqueline that I met at an International Tantra festival in Catalonia but that’s another story) on her hen weekend.

“That’s so cheap,” exclaims Kavida pointing at a black basque with red ribbons. “In Coco de Mer, it would cost a fortune.” I point out the Nueva Donna nurse’s outfit, but she says her partner, Roland would go for the policewoman’s costume.. Especially the handcuffs. They’re both into the dark side of tantra as well as the light. “We love BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sado-Masochism),” she laughs proudly, “we often sort out our differences by doing some sub and dom role play. It’s about surrender. You receive more, the more you let go. There’s no space for the mind to sabotage you and so you really can reach an altered state. I’m very passionate about it because it is very healing for both men and women. But we also like the theatricality of dressing up. We had fun shopping at Sh, the sex shop for women, they’ve got a great dressing room which is quite private downstairs and Roland would test out the outfits with me. I bought a great waitress’ uniform with apron and cap. But Ro has got a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. They all add to the fun.”

One of Kavida’s many activities is offering sex therapy and tantric healing. As I stand outside Wright’s dazzling display, I wonder how she feels about tantric massages being offered in such a prolific and tawdry way everywhere? If you look in the back of Time Out, every masseuse is selling supposedly tantric massage experiences. Does she get pissed off? “Oh yes, “ she snorts more like a horse than a lioness at this point, “they all think wafting a few rose petals around and a feather is giving a tantric massage. It’s ridiculous. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A healing tantric massage is really about creating an intimate space between you and allowing vulnerability. The tears are the healing, as well as the orgasm.”

At this very moment, Lloyd (not his real name because he’s married), the muscle-bound and very sexy 40 something that goes to my local gym and is wont to turn up on my doorstep occasionally expecting a sexual greeting. He hasn’t had one so far. But what synchronicity that he should appear in the middle of Harlesden High St just as the conversation is turning to sexual healing. All in red, he looks hot today. I wave. He won’t have a clue what we’re discussing which is probably quite fortunate.

Inside the shop, Kavida makes a beeline for the tights. I find myself talking to Sonia Uttam who came over from Kenya  – her family is originally from East India – thirty five years ago. She’s a gorgeous 60something. “The Irish used to buy so much from us,” she says confirming my previous theory about this being a quintessentially Irish shop. “But the Somalians and Afghanis don’t buy so much. The Polish do though. And the Portuguese and Jamaicans. “

Meanwhile Kavida is striding over to Ben Uttam – who came originally from Mumbai – and asking him if he tells his wife she is beautiful. “I tell her that marrying her was the best decision I ever made,” he says. There’s a communal ‘ah’ from us two at the longevity of their love. At which Sonia strolls over and insists that they have a photo taken together. But Kavida is still not quite satisfied. “I hope you’re still enjoying yourselves sexually,” she interjects cheekily. Ben is unfazed.

“I still get excited when I see her bare thighs,” he says ever so sweetly. Tantric Goddess and I have tears in our eyes at this moment. We have found that rare jewel of lasting, sexy love in the lingerie shop. Oh, it’s one of those rare touching moments.

But Tantric Goddess is unstoppable in her shopping. Now it’s a flame-coloured thong. “Because normally I don’t wear underwear,” she explains, “Roland gets excited when I do.” As we leave, Ben rushes up to Kavida with a present for being such a good customer. It’s a pair of pink furry handcuffs. He doesn’t realise what a perfect present this is.

Spotting the Shawl across the road, Kavida suggests we share a Guinness. To a pub at 3pm! Both of us profess we hardly ever go to pubs these days. This one is half-full of  Irish gentlemen nursing pints. She’s just telling me proudly about her 20 year old son being in New York at the moment as a DJ, when the Guinness brings on sex memory. In typical Kavida style.

“I had sex with this bloke in a synagogue in New Orleans,” she says, “in front of the  Torah ark which is considered the most holy place. I consider sex to be the holiest of holy activities so for me, it was entirely appropriate.”  Kavida is Jewish and obviously has a history of fruity rebellion. “There was a time when I loved having sex in churches,” she giggles, “I loved pulpits. In fact, if boyfriends wouldn’t shag in a church, they were out.”

Walking down Craven Park Road afterwards she just telling me about an idyllic naturist island off the South of France, when Starlight Records catches our attention. “It’s such an old fashioned record shop,” she says enthusiastically because she’s also a singer/songwriter, “with great reggae vinyl.”

The owner ‘Popsy’  -a white-bearded, gentle-looking Jamaican; there are three similar men in this parade of shops, there’s JJ at the wine bar and jerk chicken shop, and George at the cool clothes shop, Avant Garde next door – is chilling out with a cigarette and his two huge dogs are lying next to him. It’s like going back in time. And place. He tells us he’s been here for thirty years.

But can he survive? There are very few record shops left. “Our main distributor went out of business last year which was down the road, now I have to get records from New York,” he says managing to emanate total chilled ‘outness’. “I am thinking of dividing up the shop and having an internet provision here too.” Hawkeye Records over the road have done something similar, now they’ve got a bakery and take away as well as records.

“I feel as though I’m holiday in Harlesden,” says Kavida. She admits that Roland had told her she was wearing too much jewellery for Harlesden so she’d taken some pieces off. But now she’s seeing an unexpected side to our NW10 neighbourhood.

I’ve got another surprise in store for her. I can tell she’s thinking where on earth are we going? But she’s being bubbly to cover her doubt. The route – Craven Park Rd, then right before Hillside down Brentfield Road – is urban desolate. So I ask her how she’s changed since she’s been – 18 months – with Roland, to distract her from the concrete. “I’m much more feminine,” she says, “because he is so in his masculine energy. He is very sensitive but he still takes charge in that male way. That has meant I can be softer.”

Eventually, I’m able to stop her talking for a second and direct her attention to the left. There it is – the magnificent Neasden Hindu Temple. It really is an amazing sight. So unexpectedly decorative in this industrial landscape. Kavida is ecstatic. She hadn’t guessed that this was the religious establishment that we were visiting. “It’s the perfect heart-centred place to take a tantric goddess to,” she exclaims.

We’re lucky, we’ve arrived at one of the prayer times when the sacred shrines are open. Ironically, it’s me who is handed pieces of material to cover my legs and arms. We’re directed outside once we’ve removed our shoes. The craftsmanship – 2,820 tons of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tons of Italian Carrara marble were sent to India and carved into these ornate pinnacles by over 1,500 artisans and finished in 1995 – is spectacular. We’re drawn to the voluptuous statues of dancing goddesses on the outside of the temple. They are flexing their barely clad bodies in all sorts of joyous, celebratory ways. They are incredibly sensual. “So these goddesses are allowed to be this sexy and undressed,” says Kavida, “and we have to cover up. What’s that all about. Look they’ve even carved their nipples in. No doubt it’s men who are scared of women’s sexuality and ultimately their power, and so want them to  hide their bodies away. It’s not right. That’s so non-tantra.”

We enter the sacred space and a few Indian families are in prayer. One of the men lays prostrate on the floor. They touch the shrine and kiss the hand that touches it in a time-honoured fashion. We stare at Rama and Parvati– the heroic prince and princess from the Ramayana – who are fetchingly bedecked in pink and blue. There’s an atmosphere of spiritual reverence but also a crazy sound of beating in the background.

“There isn’t an S&M party going on behind the scenes,” says Kavida with characteristic irreverence.

I burst out laughing but smother it with my hand. “I think they are feather-dusting the deities,” I say equally ignorantly.

As we walk away our heads back and transfixed by the marble lotus flower ceilings, Kavida tells me about a 25 year old British Asian man she knows. “Often Indian families are so repressed when it comes to sexualty,” she says, “he is a virgin and very shame-filled. But I got him to come to one of our sensual soirees and he ended up kissing someone. He felt ashamed at first, but came back and now has started getting rid of those layers of repression. I’m really happy for him.”

I decide to ask one of the information assistants why we have to cover up when the  goddesses on the temple depict such an overt pleasure in their bodies. “Because we are ordinary people,” he says, “and they are not. They are on another planet so they can do what they want. They have attained that right, we have not.”

Ah yes, they are ‘in heaven’ so they can take their clothes off and act erotically. We mere mortals must wait until we die before we are allowed such unabashed pleasure. “An enticement to death? wonders Kavida.

In the temple shop – truly fabulous tat from sparkly garlands to ayurvedic remedies – we hear a family discussing the stock. “Why have they got an Eiffel tower key ring here?” asks the young father. His wife cannot explain. Neither can we but we can’t help loving the idea of it anyway.

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Ah, punctuality. Alexei – comedian and actor formerly of ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor’ fame but now acclaimed author, latest novel, Mr Roberts – is ascending the steps at Willesden Junction just as I arrive at the top from the other direction. Excellent timing.

I’d invited him to walk with me because I’d read a piece he’d written declaring that he writes in the morning, and then takes a bus or train to an unknown destination, and walks home to Bloomsbury. I thought I’d divert him to Harlesden for the afternoon.

White bearded, almost benign-looking and smaller than I imagined – I tell him later about this unexpected lack of height, to which he quips; “Oh people usually think I’m not as fat as they expect.” – I give him the choice of right along the High St into Harlesden or left and down Scrubs Lane, then along the Great Union Canal before turning right towards the main drag. “I do want to experience Harlesden,” he says, “but it would be good to see a bit of urban countryside first.”

I’d read somewhere that he was going on tour again as a stand-up? “No, that was a mistake,” he says huffing as opposed to puffing, “I’m doing a reading of my new memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework, which comes out in September and a Q & A at the South Bank in summer. That’s what the papers should have said. It was actually selling better before that stand-up stuff came out.” That’s a good sign, I suggest, in terms of his more recent career as a novelist. I guess that he gives a good reading – unlike the majority of writers who are, of course, not performers. “Yeah, I always say to them, just because this has been good, don’t expect others to be. They’ll be shit.” Ever bolshie funny – the Scouse thang. He sets the tone for this walk.

On the right, at the start of Scrubs Lane, I laughingly point out an ugly office block that calls itself somewhat hopefully the Chandelier Building. “Yeah, it reminds me of another hideous building in Camden which called itself The Red Lobster,” he observes, “and helpfully they put a picture of a red lobster on the side, as if that could remove the ugliness.”

How many copies of Mr Roberts has he sold, I wonder. “Twenty thousand,” he says, “I’m a better writer than people think. My short story collection Barcelona Plates that came out ten years ago, has sold over 75,000 copies, that’s the biggest selling short story collection in the world. And still the Guardian don’t ask me to write any fiction for them.” Has anyone told them, I say. Remember, the Guardian is edited by 30 somethings, they probably don’t know who you are. “No, probably no-one has. But I’m not sure I can be arsed. My previous career helps with my profile but I think it does prevent me being taken seriously. I haven’t even been longlisted for any of the literary awards.”

Fortunately, we’re walking slowly. I was a little afraid – I’d been playing too much tennis and am aching – beforehand that Alexei was going to be a hearty walker but he’s limping slightly and more of a flaneur today. Having spotted across the road the incredibly kitsch Cornices Centre, which boasts some gorgeously garish objects like a huge cartoon rabbit licking a multi-coloured ice-cream. It could be Jeff Koons but it’s not quite shiny enough. We’ve reached the canal bridge and Golbourne Road’s iconic Trellick Tower – built as social housing in the 1960s – looks mystifyingly close. “I had a camp mate at Chelsea School of Art,” says Alexei revealing his arty past, “ who named it Clockwork Orange Towers which seemed just right at the time.” Trellick Tower is an architectural wonder to some. Not to Alexei or me. It was designed by legendary architect, Ernio Goldfinger. But I did visit this Xmas to visit my friend Amanda’s mother, and the view from the 20th floor is spectacular.

Is the satirically inclined Stalin Ate My Homework about growing up – he’s  Lithuanian Jewish and both his parents were members of the Communist Party – in Liverpool during the 50s and 60s? “It covers from 1947 when my parents met,” he says as we find the towpath going east, “ to the end of the 60s when I was 17. It’s a heterosexual, Communist, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.” Mmm, just what I would expect from him.

As he utters the word ‘Communist’, a cyclist in a high-visibility jacket suddenly looms towards us, his eyes twinkling crazily. He stares us at both meaningfully and announces cheerily ‘God Loves You’. He couldn’t have chosen a better juncture. We burst out laughing at the synchronicity of it all. Well, that’s what I’m laughing at.

Oh, it’s peaceful down here. The willows are in bud. A couple of locksy young men with a dog and a canal boat are relaxing and enjoying the first signs of Spring. The warmth. The relief at being able to ‘be’ outside.

But I’m off again. This is turning into a walk interview. Are you a single child? It suddenly occurs to me in an intuitive manner that he must be. Working class and doted on – a recipe for success. “Yeah, he says. “my mum was 37 and dad 43 when they had me.” His mother is still alive and mentally alert in Liverpool. “She’s 94,” he guffaws, “and lives in a house bought by her son. Does she ever say ‘thank you’? I did a reading from the memoir in Crosby not long ago, she came along in her wheelchair and heckled. ‘Lies, lies’ she shouted.”

We’ve jumped onto a stone bench and are looking over a wall at the railway lines beyond. “My dad was a railway worker,” he says. “Which line is this?” The one that goes to Paddington. “Oh, I think the Eurostar maintenance yard is over there, near Northpole Road where I filmed a TV film called Sorry About Last Night.” I check later and he’s right but it’s not used by Eurostar any longer.

I’ve just heard that a high-speed link to the north is coming to near here in 2020, I say. He obviously doesn’t believe me. No, I have, I say, Harlesden is going to be the new Kings Cross.

There’s silver birch grove to our left. Silver birches, I love their grace. They’re my favourite trees. “I find them sinister,” says Alexei shocking me, “there’s a hunting plain where they grow, near my house in a village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, near Granada. They’re spooky.”

I can’t agree with that. For me, they’re more like delicate filigree lace than furtive strangers.  Tangentially and somewhat provocatively, I mention his marriage as being one of the longest in showbiz.  He’s been married to Linda since 1974, that’s 36 years. I’m agog in admiration! But Alexei immediately looks very uncomfortable at the mention of his personal life. So we divert again to the break up of Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes. “I know I was shocked,” he says as if he knows them.

Is there anywhere decent to get a cup of coffee in Harlesden, he wants to know. Like Star Bucks? No, there’s no Star Bucks. Long-term Marxist and strident non-conformist that he is, he comes out in defence of Star Bucks. “I think people like (leftwing comedian) Mark Thomas whinge too much, at least they make an ok cup of coffee available to more people. I don’t like it when people can’t admit what’s good about capitalism as well as what’s bad.”

We stumble across some drinkers’ detritus. Alexei wanders over and examines the Lech lager can. “I hate it when street drinkers are so untidy,” he protests, “they should have to put a deposit down on the cans.” As we leave the canal, there’s an office building on Oak Lane that is derelict, almost every window is broken and it stands in an ocean of litter. “Good, good,” he mumbles meaning the faster this terrible architecture is falls down, the better.”

We’re at the railway cottages (I visited with Nick Barlay on my fourth walk) and Alexei remembers filming in some similar ones. “They replicated houses up north in the 70s,” he says, “because they didn’t have double glazing or central heating.” I tell him about my recent discover. That the 60s sitcom The Likely Lads was filmed at Willesden Junction. “Exactly, what I mean,” he says.

“Look at that guerrilla gardening,” he says pointing down a communal alleyway full of yuccas. The community have got together there. It’s like that Heaven 17 song ‘We don’t need no fascist government…’

I have to admit there is a subtext to our conversation, which revolves around the 80s. I was a pop n’rock journalist for music paper, Sounds – better known for its Iron Maiden interviews than its Flock of Seagulls’ ones and guess who did the latter? – as well as seminal style magazine, The Face. Alexei wants to know if I enjoyed being able to make or break bands? I assure him that I personally did not have that kind of power. But there were those critical reviews and confrontational interviews. Not only did Frankie Goes To Hollywood pelt me with bread rolls for giving them a bad review, I got into a heated spat with the Stranglers who were provocative lads. Those were the days when journalists were expected to be opinionated and go for the jugular. Oh, those were the days, I say. Before the ubiquitous caution and PR protection.

I make a remark about his limp that I’ve been noticing for some time. “I’ve done my back in,” he admits, “I attacked the gym work outs and I’ve overdone it. I’m trying to lose a couple of stone.”

And then he asks an absurd question. One, which reveals his profound ignorance about Harlesden.

Isn’t there an organic deli where we can get a cup of coffee, he asks. I smile not only at the ludicrous nature of the question, but also because I was intending to take him to one of the Irish pubs up the road.

Alexei, it has to be said, has an interest in history and architecture in a surprisingly erudite way. As we stand at the corner of Acton Lane, he looks at All Souls Church and declares: “This Church of England one is gothic revival,” he says then turns to look up to the left, “but look at the Catholic one, it reminds me of the Tate Modern, of the power station. It’s industrial bleak and I think the Catholics could have borrowed that aesthetic.” I hadn’t thought of that, but he could well be right.

Somehow I feel a compelling urge to change the tone, and show him Wrights, my favourite Harlesden shop. We stand in front of the racy lingerie window and I hear myself saying brazenly: ”Do you think Linda would fancy anything from here?” Alexei is unusually quiet. I’ve done it again. I’ve stepped into overly personal territory. Deliberately. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that he’s embarrassed. And then, I can’t stop. Don’t want to. I find myself babbling about the sexy pirate outfits from Italy. Patently, Alexei does not do sex in public.

Or public houses in private. The Shawl is festooned in orange and green balloons. We go in. Faces are fixed on the TV racing. There’s the pervasive stench of Guinness. I run out of the door. He stares at me. Not that he wanted to stay. “Oh, the breath of death,” I find myself announcing. Next I try The Coliseum. “Do I have to come?” asks Alexei firmly weighing in against the pervasive mid-afternoon state of alcoholic stupor. I have to give up. The strains of ‘She died giving birth’ waft out of the drinking hall and I smile wryly.

Finally, we find welcome solace in the empty Os Amigos. My local Portuguese eaterie. Musician and Harlesden dweller, KT Tunstall’s favourite local restaurant. I comment that no-one seems to have recognised Alexei today. Is he surprised? “Sometimes people say ‘Hello’, but Liverpool is really the place where I’m still up there,” he says smiling. At this point, he launches into a complex story about his fascination with flying business class, having a column in the Daily Mirror during the 90s which was read by 8 million people, and the dedicated band of airline seat aficionados who not only take photos of these seats, they chat about them online. His point is being that more of them chat about seats, than post comments on his website. From 8 million to 20. “But does it matter?” he intones in half-funny tones.

One of Alexei’s core theories is that we’re all a mass of contradictions and we should be allowed to inhabit all of them fully. This is one of them. He’s a Marxist and he also loves flying business class and looking at photos of first class airline seats on the internet. Tony Blair, he reckons, needs psychotherapeutic treatment for his inability to own up to his internal contradictions. “And that is really is corrupt,” he says emphatic as ever.


Filed under Walks