Streetcomber, poet, artist, mother, gas meter reader, Sue Saunders has been sacked since last time I met her on my first walk. So in fact, it’s an ex-gas meter reader’s perspective. Sue was reading the meter at Car City UK when she overheard me discussing the availability of Somali men with a lovely Somali woman, Amran. My son, Marlon and her daughter, Eileen, went to the same primary and secondary schools. Talking to her, I realise what a great walking companion she will be, so I invite her along. We decide to meet outside the very same used car showroom at 9am on April Fool’s Day. It’s a great portent.
She’s wearing tiny teacup earrings, striped tights, sneakers with silver laces and immediately launches into telling me about the precious street bounty she has collected in the past. “I’ve got a bird table in my garden that I found down Tubbs Lane,” she laughs. So we decide to go down Tubbs Lane. Just like that.
I hadn’t realised that Sue had been wearing her green blankety outfit (in other words, gas meter reader uniform) for three years. “Yes, I loved it,” she says wistfully, “the freedom to roam around, to investigate basements and the backs of buildings. Just me and my meter reader.”
As we gaze at a church, which announces itself as OPEN DOOR, I’m beginning to become aware exactly how much of an asset it is. To walk with an ex-gas meter reader. “I always thought Open Door was rather an ironic name, ” comments Sue dryly, “because I could never get into the building.”
So we try the door at the back. It has a bell marked ‘Please ring for attention’. “I would always look at those words,” she says in her rather wistful haughty tones, “and think ‘Oh yes please, I love attention’. If only my husband would put in a bell like that in our bedroom.” But this particular attention fails to materialise and we move on.
Only moments earlier, Sue had been telling how difficult it was for her to find a job again. Then she drops a little bombshell. “They put me on a register for professionals because I told them I have a degree from Cambridge University,” she says, “but I’ve never been a professional. I don’t want to waste their time.”
Ah ha, I think, degree from Cambridge, I’d never realised that. Sue is such an amazing mixture of contradictions. She reminds me of another era. The 70s. When students went to study what they fancied, not what career they thought they should go for. I have an ex-boyfriend, Jerry Tidy actually, who studied Latin and English and then became a car mechanic in the US, another friend, Simon Farr who became a Maoist whilst he was at art college, then worked on the Underground for eight years.
Jerry still works on cars but they are Alpha Romeos in Virginia, whilst Simon is an artist who paints portraits.
Sue’s leading me round a new corner. “It doesn’t have a sea view,” she says, “but it leads to the backs of the businesses that are on the High Street and there are some interesting alleyways.” I’m always thrilled to go somewhere totally new and I’ve never walked down here before. Clifton Road looks onto Willesden Junction from the west and there’s an impressive warehouse-type of building at the end. “You’d really like it in there,” declares Sue knowingly, “there’s a flat up there that’s rather modern and fascinating.”
We investigate the alleyway on the left, which takes us to the back of the shops. “I’d think of myself as Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs,” says Sue now leaping around as though she has a fake gun in her hand, “when I came down here. I’d be creeping around in the darkness. People don’t realise how hard it is to actually locate meters especially in businesses.” It’s true, it had never occurred to me. At that very moment, she spots an ‘inviting’ open back door which looks very dodgy indeed. The way to it is strewn with mattresses and discarded magazines plus it is decidedly waterlogged. I’m not sure I’m so keen on this particular excursion.
But Sue is enchanted. So I join her. We step into the darkness and realise we have found the downstairs club area of Jet Set, the nightclub. The notorious Jet Set. I have already mentioned the shooting of a 28 year old DJ outside here in the fifth walk. “I would sometimes wander up the road to find cigarettes at night,” says Sue, “and I’d find myself ordering a whiskey here.”
Sue obviously has a perambulatory late-night life. By the time, we’re back on Tubbs Lane, she is telling me more about her night-wandering. “There used to be an old snooker hall up the road,” she says and I think she must mean in what was the old Picardy cinema, which has been rebuilt and become Paddy Power, “one night, I had an amazing time. There was a big gypsy bloke and a black jockey who kept bursting into tears because he’d got caught up in drink and drugs and missed out on a successful career. They ended up taking me to Lakeleys, a drinking club in West Hampstead, which is where I met my husband a while later. On the way home in a mini cab, the gypsy kept telling me that we would never meet again and that he knew this because he was a gypsy. But I still didn’t give him a kiss.”
By the time we get to Station Road, Sue admits she’s been tempted by the interior of the Victorian Willesden Junction Hotel to go there and dine, but the desire has diminished since it has become recently the meaty Amber Grill. “But look at these original tiles,” she says pulling up the front mat. “they would make a great photo.”
I suddenly feel drawn towards Harley Rd, which I’ve never walked down and looks distinctly unpromising. The railway lines are on the left with a huge industrial complex. Neither of us are not sure what it is. I’m expecting endless nondescript houses, but suddenly I notice a girl’s face wearing a hijab on the railway wall. A row of faces painted in dramatic black and white. Boys, girls, serious, threatening. What do their expressions tell us? It turns out to be a 2008 art project by Brent Council called Girls and Boys (note order), which is questioning the negative stereotypes that we have about teenagers. Great idea. Shame it is hidden away down here. Although it is brilliant to discover. And the first bit of public art in Harlesden that I’ve actually liked.
Sue spots a bloke in a green uniform munching away on a park bench. “He’s probably a street cleaner,” she says going into her uniform expertise, “having his elevenses. That is one of the problems about working outside, you have to find somewhere to eat. In winter, of course, I used to seek the comfort of a cappuccino in a café. Actually I used to get given food all the time. Especially loaves, then I’d have to carry them around with me all day. But people were being so generous, I couldn’t refuse.”
We stand by some metal fencing and admire the gigantic yellow industrial equipment that looks as though it’s about to clamber across the landscape. Like a stray rollercoaster that has wandered off from the Pleasure Beach. Then I notice a discarded crutch just through the fence. “I’m such an optimist, that I would look at that and assume that a miracle had happened,” she says. “But you see that plastic ghost-like model, that’s the sort of thing I would pick up in my streetcombing. It could give meter-reading a poetic dimension. I once opened a meter and found a lion inside, I imagined I was in Narnia. I’m always writing bits of poetry. Sometimes, I have written on the backs of maps, then forgot and thrown them away by mistake.”
As if summoned by our resident poet, the heady sweet smell of biscuits wafts over us. It’s McVities factory, which Sue has just mentioned. “I once wrote a poem about real success being about having the freedom to imbibe that smell, rather than the safety of working in a bank,” she says. A sign appears on a wall above the railway lines, it declares; ‘Prepare To Meet Thy God’. I have to admit I am unprepared.
There’s a Caribbean Cultural Centre on Minet Rd where Sue recommends the woman who works there as a good chatterer. “But not today,” she says, “otherwise, we’ll never get away. I used to go to read the meter and then she’d engage me in a lengthy discussion which I found very difficult to extricate myself from.”
On Acton Lane, Sue explains that she actually relished meter reading for businesses and that no-one else wanted to do them because they took so long to find. “We didn’t have a target because the managers knew how hard it was,” she says, “which was perfect for me because I could wander with impunity. But I was very good at it.” It seems rather tragic that they sacked her. She is obviously so ideally suited to the profession.
She strokes the lichen on top of a wall and explains that it’s called Golden Haired Lichen. We pass a shop further up called Fix Up Good, which has the mystifying sign Acc/clo/toil on it. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed it if she hadn’t pointed it out. ‘What does that mean do you think?’ asks Sue. I’ve no idea but she has already worked it out. “I think it’s accessories, clothes and toiletries but it’s not exactly the most attractive of abbreviations, is it?.”
We pass Connaught House – obviously a grand Victorian abode in its day. It has black wrought iron at the front and a veranda. “I was delighted when I found out that it’s owned by the family of one of my daughter’s friends,” she says displaying her penchant for grandeur in design at least. “Eileen has visited and she says it’s just like being in the Little House On The Prairie when you sit on the veranda.” I can’t help myself mentioning that 30 years ago, I (with Jerry, the Latin scholar and car mechanic) lived for a short time in a plantation house that was in New Orleans’ ninth ward – the place that was hit so badly by Hurricane Katrina – which had a similar veranda. And of course, a couple of rocking chairs. Is this veranda one upwomanship? Probably. Unaware in a delightful way, Sue gasps in wonder at the thought of me in New Orleans!
I want to have a look in at the enormous Catholic church, the one Alexei Sayle thinks occupies an industrial bleak architectural genre, Our Lady Of Willesden. Where pilgrimages have been coming since 1538. And there’s a black Madonna inside. Now home to a Brazilian/Polish etc congregation, it has wooden herons on the roof. “They don’t seem to be working,” says Sue, “the pigeons are still there.” We have a quick peek inside but the cleaners are preparing for the Easter services. And all the statuary is shrouded in purple covers. To keep them respectfully away from the dirty process of cleaning.
So we stop at my favourite shop Wrights instead, to admire the skimpy lingerie and the strangely attired models. Sue, in contrast to Alexei, is unabashed in her appreciation. “I bought that classified Babydoll calendar for my 33 year old husband, Sid,” she explains, revealing her cunning housekeeping methods, “and stuck it on the instructions that I left him, hoping that it would enthuse him into DIY action.” Would he similarly purchase a portrait of a hunky, young ‘stud muffin’ to motivate his wife? “Oh no,” she says, having spent a few minutes examining a ‘naughty’ lighter for women, “he’d never think of that.”
The Portuguese Bicafe is our final destination. I’d seen it on our dawn walk and thought it looked worth a visit. And Sue, it turns out, is already a regular from her meter-reading days. The gallaos and cakes are worth it. So is Sue. She’s been fabulous entertainment every step of the way.