Queen’s Park to the Elephant

Bright lights shining off the river, tall buildings of the financial centre in the background, an old domed church making the skyline instantly recognisable. A man sitting hunched up against the side of the bridge, a piece of paper asking you to take pity and give him some money for a cup of coffee. He stares down at the floor, eyes dead, filthy hands visible. The tourists ignore him as they snap away on their cameras, posing, taking selfies, some discreetly trying to fit him in, give their self-indulgence some character, make it a bit more edgy. Make it a bit different to the thousands of pictures they beg their friends to like. A homeless man will do the trick, won’t he?

Edgy’s the thing these days ain’t it? Move to that part of town that your mate who went to buy a gram of Charlie in once said is a bit rough. The one where people have lived for generations, built communities, shops, cafes. Ask them if it’s a bit rough, they’ll tell you ain’t rough, it’s home to them, much like your little Buckinghamshire village. Life’s boring if you don’t live a little bit on the edge though, I mean, you’ll have to live in one of them nice new flats they built after knocking down a block that had been there for years. Need some home comforts, can live amongst them but you don’t want to become them. I heard Starbuck’s were opening up down there too.

A river that divides a city defines where you are from. Don’t go south of the river mate. It’s just a mirror image of itself. People on both sides going about what they have to do. Shiny new buildings slowly taking over the sprawling housing estates. History on both sides, but still we’re just a little bit different from each other ain’t we? Not quite the same. Where are you from? North, south, east, west, you have to prefix it. Unless you live in Mayfair, but if you live in Mayfair you’re probably Russian who’s on the run from the state. Wouldn’t drink any cups of tea if I were you, never know what might happen.

The view from the other side of the bridge, where the power is. The building a Catholic geezer tried to blow up 400 years ago. The people that make the decisions, change your life. The reason I’m dropping 700 bar a month to live in a room. Where else am I going to go? I don’t want to go anywhere else, this place, this city is my home. Faults? There are so many faults. Do I care? Of course I care. But I love it here. Big Ben, strikes 10 o clock. I smile to myself, one of the most famous sites in the world is a clock with a big bell. A kid looks at it in wonder, I rebuke myself for my cynicism, is it this place that has made me cynical?

As I stroll off the bridge, walking back towards the centre of town I pass people falling out of pubs, pissed, laughing and singing. They mingle with the crowds coming out of the theatre, clutching their bags close to them, nervous eyes darting backwards and forwards. Memories of my mother holding my hand as we walked through Piccadilly, so many people. It seemed a world away, yet it was only 15 minutes on a bus. Stories of runaway kids and people looking to kidnap young children. China town with stories at school of triads and Asian looking geezers running around with butcher knives looking to cut people up. Your imagination doesn’t half run wild as a kid.

Watching people as you walk up Regent’s Street. Wondering who they are? What do they do? The half cut man in a suit crumpled against the wall of a side street, crying. Why’s he crying? No one looks at him as they pass, avoid eye contact, avoid any contact, cross the road, please don’t say anything to me, I can’t help you. Then he starts laughing to himself, stands up, brushes himself down and walks off. If I only just saw him I’d think he worked in the city, nice suit, good job, probably loaded, a couple of kids and a wife at home, happy families. Just a passing glimpse is never enough.

A man handing out fliers on Oxford Street, only God can save me, I’m a sinner who’s led a life of debauchery and sin and only by turning away from those evil paths can I spare myself from the wrath of God. The leaflet goes straight in the bin. Smite me if you will I say to myself as I look up at the sky, a drop of rain falls on my head and I smile to myself. Down to the cover of the underground, the heavy air, harried people who rush along old tunnels, desperate to get to their destination, a man playing a saxophone, pennies filling his hat. I throw him a pound lest I be smitten again.

The train pulls into the station, I sit and read the advertisements above the head of the man opposite me. Can’t look at him in the eye, he’ll think I’m crazy. He gets up as his stop approaches, I can relax, I can gaze contentedly at the black walls as they pass between each stop. The man gets off. Warwick Avenue. What the fuck is even in Warwick Avenue? I bet he lives an exciting life. That cynicism again. How am I to know what kind of life he has? I look up at the map of the Bakerloo line. A straight, brown line from north west to south east London. Every station, every person who gets off there has a story, defines this city better than any building or place. Queen’s Park to the Elephant, London without the clichés.

 

 

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Going Home

 

A couple of days ago I took a trip back to the area I grew up in North West London, it was the first time I’d been back in 9 years.

Getting off the tube today at Queen’s Park felt like I was going home. Even though I have no home to go to there, my legs were taking me where I wanted to go; back along the streets and across the roads I know so well. It’s taken me nine years to go back on my own, the feelings and emotions of being in the place I grew up a suppressed fear; the good memories and the bad ones too, all coming back as I walked.

Walking through Queen’s Park, a kid again, being with my dad as we strolled from Kilburn Park through the back roads to go and play pitch and putt. Crossing the small park next to where I lived for years I could see myself playing football. The cold, rainy days kicking a ball around the park, the long and hot summer nights playing headers and volleys until it got dark and then sitting on the wall and chatting shit with friends, laughing, joking.

The flat that holds so many memories. Nights spent with good friends, drinking, getting stoned. It was all innocent then, there weren’t any consequences yet. Staying up all night and then climbing up onto the roof of the flat to watch the sun rise above London. No cares, no thoughts as to what the future held, just enjoying that summer, a summer I’ll never forget, one I’d love to live again. There were bad times too, but today wasn’t about that. The bad times have had their moment, they’re not going to spoil my memories anymore.

Past Brondesbury station and that smell hit me. When I used to reach the platform, a wide eyed kid, the smell of the old trains meant I was going somewhere exotic, some place far away on the train. Back then Richmond and Kew were exotic, going to see the deer or those big, hot houses with all the plants in it. Peering out the window of the train trying to catch a glimpse of an unkown part of the city that you’d seen on the map, another world to a young child.

Down the High Road, the old Sainsbury’s, the butchers next to it that had sawdust on the floor. The walk up to school every morning, the clock that has now gone telling you how much time you had left until the bell rang. Sunday afternoons leaving the church, 45 minutes that had seemed like a life time, the smell of the Sunday papers, the high street deserted, the shops closed, men in suits sneaking into the pubs for a quick pint before Sunday dinner.

The homeless man that used to sit outside The Old Bell, his old black dog. The Old Bell, the pub that people spoke about with a whisper and a tut. Mum giving the homeless man money to buy the dog some food. Me wondering how he ended up like that, where had he come from? When he dissappeared where did he go?

Past Kilburn Park station and looking up at the flat I spent my earliest years in, I can see myself looking down out of the window. Watching the buses, wondering where all the mysterious places on the front of them were, what was there? One of the old red buses passing, number 31, the conductor looking out from the opening at the back. Is World’s End really the end of the world? Saturday mornings, watching waiting excitedly for my dad to appear, off to the Rec to play football.

Sunday evening, summer of 1990; my dad buys me a Coca Cola ball, the World Cup final about to start. Walking up to the Drum and Monkey in St John’s Wood, imagining I am Maradona with my new, small, red ball. The old man that was always there. Slowly drinking his pint, nodding at people as they came through the door. The walk back home to Kilburn Park, still warm, West Germany world champions, me tired from excitement.

The pub has gone now, a lot of the places I remembered as a child aren’t there anymore, but walking that route today I was a kid again. It’s been an emotional few days; old friends, old places, memories that will stay with me forever. Goodbye London, I’ll be back soon; the only city in the world where my heart rests easy.