Oh London, my London

We’ve just got back from four days visiting London and the Olypmic games.  I had my misgivings about going.  I had dreadful thoughts of over-crowded trains, losing a child or just getting the buggy stuck at the top of an escalator.  Thankfully, my expectations were utterly confounded.  None of the transport we used was over-crowded.  We caught up with friends, went to the Olympics and discovered how child-friendly London can be.

It was like meeting up with an old friend and catching up from where we left off.  Sure, some things were different: we now have two children and she had definitely smartened up a bit (wider pavements, more lifts, cleaner stations). It was a great reminder that my former life and my present life are not so far apart as sometimes I imagine.

Still my London?  Well not strictly speaking, but it does belong to us all, doesn’t it, this capital city?  Yes, my London, and just as lovely.

So long, Kingston Road

Kingston Road stretches from South Wimbledon tube stop all the way to Raynes Park station (about 1 1/2 miles).  Its one of those funny roads that are horrible to find if you don’t know the area: you have to make a left turn at traffic lights in order to stay on it and then as you get towards the station at Raynes Park it turns into Approach Road.  We live at the Raynes Park end. Further down, the street is mainly Edwardian terraces and Blay houses but after our row, the terraces are old Victorian buildings with shops below and flats perched above (many of the shops are now offices).   On the opposite side from us are some low 1930’s factory buildings, one of which is just now being prepared for demolition.  Now that we are leaving, I find myself feeling nostalgic as I walk along the road: I don’t think its just because we will not be here for much longer.  I get the feeling that Kingston Road itself with its eclectic mix of shops, cafes, bizarre small businesses and ‘light industry’ will not survive. So, just for the record, here is my list of places to remember on Kingston Road:

Cunninghams – a builders’ merchant where you can buy any size or shape of screw or hook or nail as long as you ask for it in imperial measurements.  Mr Cunningham does not do metric which he regards as something imposed on us by the French, around the time of Napoleon (at least, I think thats what he told me when I asked for 60cm of dowling rod).  Every morning, he moves his display of goods out of the shop onto the pavement under a red striped awning and every evening he packs them away.

Wells Motors – the garage that we have used for all repairs to our car while we have lived here, housed in a low shed with a a folding glass and wooden front that opens right up.  In winter, when the lights are on and you can see men in dungarees working on cars, it could be a scene from a Edward Hopper painting.

Mr Patel, the newsagent – he came here from Kenya and reuses, with a smile, any plastic bags you hand in

Cocum – winner of the best Indian restaurant in London, a little green place making authentic Keralan cuisine

Spink and Son – one of the factories on the other side of the road, with a name straight out of Dickens.  No-one knows what they actually do

Terry Gregory, Metal Fabrications – love the name, so close to ‘mental fabrications’, you know, such stuff as dreams are made of

The Upholstery Shop – the whole shop is stacked with old chairs from floor to ceiling. It seems to open once a year.

The Stainless Steel Fasteners and Fixings Company – does what it says on the tin (presumably)

Spanair – a shop that looks like a front for some illegal operation but in reality is, I think, a air cargo shipping company

Enough already – and I haven’t even mentioned The Red Rose Takeaway, the House of Spice or The Cinnamon Tree; Jalapenos and Coriander, or the sushi place; Cafe Rossano or the Kings Cafe.  I haven’t got time to write about Palladium Pictures or Universal Flooring; our Dentist, Results Health and Fitness or the little dogs that frequent Top Dog Grooming;  I won’t say anything about Lighter Life, Zest Financial Consultants or Sunbed City.  I’ll leave for later the the Apostles Bar (for the young and upwardly mobile) and the Junction Tavern (for the old and back-sliding) and the three churches (the Shofar Christian Church, Dundonald Church and the Kingston Episcopal Office for the Southwark Diocese).

I hope I’ve not given the impression that Kingston Road is fashionably unfashionable. Cool it is not and never will be. But, as we have discovered in the last three years, you can find pretty much everything you need for health and happiness here.

What, no posts?

Mr Strong!Its been a while (you may have noticed) since I wrote anything.  Blame it all on the erratic sleep patterns of my baby boy.  The days when I could count on that after lunch peace and a cup of coffee are long gone.  Daniel no longer reliably sleeps for an hour in the morning and an hour after lunch.  In the evenings, he takes longer and longer to go to sleep.  I was going to write about all of this and explore theories about what to do; I got ‘Sleepeasy Solution’ out of the library but I haven’t read it and I’ve realised just thinking about it all makes me feel too exhausted to put fingers to keyboard.

Fun!Fun!So I’m laying that aside for now and focussing instead on the high points, the delights. Saturday morning with Ross, we took Daniel for his first swim in his star-spangled trunks. He was bemused, then pleased, splashing and smiling as we whooshed him through the water like a baby walrus. Yesterday, at the swings, he laughed with pleasure, smiling at everyone as if to say: see what an amazing fun thing this is you should try it too, its quite easy.

Today, I bought him his first proper ball: we came up to the basket of balls in the toy department of Debenhams.  I poked around, choosing a colour I liked then turned to him with the ball I’d chosen.  As I handed it to him, his eyes widened and his mouth split in a smile of pure wonder.  He held it in both hands all the way home. My first experience of making my child happy with a very simple present.

(I have just now turned the lights on – its after ten o’clock at night.  From the window, the roofs and treetops and chimneys are black against a strip of pale yellow, fading to duck-egg green and pale blue.  Today was hot.  The first day of Wimbledon.)

Holland Garden II

Daniel and I were back in Holland Garden this afternoon.  He was sleeping in his buggy, I was reading on the grass.  Holland Garden was a gift to the people of Merton from Lady Holland in 1928 as a memorial to her late husband, Sir Arthur who was ‘well known for the tireless service to the local community’.  The square of grass tilts up the hill and is surrounded by trees and thick hedges.  A row of old pines shade the east side of the gardens.  Above the grass there are three clay tennis courts, out of use now but still surrounded by tall fences.  In front of the tennis courts, pink and white rose bushes climb poles, well over two metres high.

Franz ToveyOn a sunny afternoon when school is over, it is full of boys in shorts and girls in blue gingham dresses.  Today, they were running and chasing each other over the grass; one boy had managed to climb a tree and two others were trying to poke him with a long stick; another group were hanging through the iron railings, trying to squeeze through the gaps; one little boy was shouting to three litle girls to ‘Come, I want to show you something, over here!’  Two tiny boys on scooters guarded the gate, counting people in and out.

But at five o’ clock the Garden emptied.  Suddenly, there was only Daniel and me left on the grass.  I felt like Franz Tovey (hero of a wonderfully surreal book published in 1968, illustrated with beautiful black and white photographs).  He lived in a castle all his own in the middle of a great park.    During the day, he played with the children who came to the park.  But, later when the sun went down and everyone had left, the park became his again.  And Franz Tovey was Prince of the Night.   The hills were his, and the meadows, and the lakes.  The trees were his, and all the beautiful flowers.  Everything was his … except for the Rare Animals.  And they didn’t belong to him at all.

Walking on sunshine

Yesterday was the kind of hot day that makes London feel like a city in a different century, a day from the summers E. M. Forster wrote about in A Room with a View.  I walked with Daniel up to Holland Gardens.  The red brick houses were baking in sun in a particularly English way: gardens still and abandoned in the early afternoon, the grass vivid and green, slowly drying out, red roses and purple lavender bright and fragrant in the hot sun.  

I met two friends with babies of similar age in the park.  We sat on rugs in the shade.  Daniel overcame his dislike of the itchy grass and started crawling away.  He looked back for a minute and then kept going.  Would he stop?  It didn’t seem like it: on he went, arms and legs like little pistons, heading out of the shade into the bright sun.  My baby: looking so small against the expanse of grass, so determined, so independent, so delighted with his mini-adventure.

Homecoming 2009

If I should become a stranger...

Have you seen the advert Homecoming 2009?  Its time to go back home to Scotland.  We’ve heeded the call and by the beginning of September will have washed the dust of London out of our clothes for the last time and will be settling into life in the hills and fields of Angus or on the shores of the Firth of Tay. ‘Caledonia, you’re calling me, now I’m going home…’

The truth is, though, I feel very ambivalent about moving back to Scotland.  For the last eight years, I have loved living here in London.  I love being part of such a diverse, multi-cultural city where everyone is from somewhere else so it doesn’t matter if you don’t ‘belong’.  I love travelling around on the tube where every place you stop, you feel like you know it already from a book or a film.  I love the self-confidence and the irony of the city and the people.  I love feeling like this is a place where things happen.  And I love the fact that Ross and I fit the profile of people in our streets: youngish, professional, educated, well-travelled, Guardian readers.  I love feeling like we’re the norm.

I don’t really know how I’m going to feel about living in Scotland again.  My biggest fear is, I think, that Scotland won’t let me, be me. I’m worried that Caledonia won’t be able to see the changes that have come over me since I last lived there.  I don’t want to hear Scottish voices saying: don’t move to fast, act too big, dream too large, want too much, talk too different.  I don’t want to hear those voices saying: stay small, live safe.

I know these Scottish voices may just be monsters in my head: my own Cyclops and angry Poisedon.   Maybe I won’t encounter them, unless, in the words of Cavafy, I bring them along inside my soul, unless my soul sets them up in front of me.  Maybe I won’t encounter them if I keep my thoughts raised high.  Maybe I won’t, Cavafy. We’ll see.

(You can read Cavafy’s poem Ithaca here.  Its on my list of poems to get you through the night).

Reading group

I got onto the train today and looked around.  Four teenage boys in blue blazers were sitting in the seats nearest the door.  Nothing unusual in that.  Their black school shoes were scuffed and their grey trousers were all a little too short: uniform at the end of the school year.  What was unusual was that each one had a open book in their hands and they were reading.   I looked further up the carriage – I could see the backs of another two boys, heads down, reading and a man in white trainers, socks, smart shorts and a navy v-neck, also reading.  

I know people read on trains, but school boys are normally only pointing at the headlines in an old copy of the Metro. It felt like I’d stumbled into something slightly strange, something being staged for a film perhaps: I liked the sight of the boys with their heads down in a book (yes, they were giggling and pointing at each other, and peeking over the seat backs at some girls in tight jeans, but essentially, they were reading.)  There was something innocent and old-fashioned and not completely natural about it.  And I was right.  The train stopped, the man in shorts stood up and said something stern to the four of them (I couldn’t hear what), one boy moved obediently to another seat.  The three remaining, settled down.

One was reading ‘Foul Play’, one ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’.  I couldn’t see the third boy’s book – he kept it flat on his knees and was more interested in reading the four lines of instructions about what to do in case of an emergency (1: ‘Stay on the train’.)   What was going on?  A punishment from the PE teacher for forgetting their kit – reading from Kingston to Clapham Junction?  A Merton Council literacy initiative – supervised reading on public transport, effectively preparing them for years of commuting?  A sponsored read and ride by South West Trains? Who knows.  Whatever the explanation, it was good to see.  Give your child the gift of reading.  Or else.

Not a big issue

That last post was a bit long, so this one is going to be short and sweet.  I bought a Big Issue yesterday from the lady who sits outside the station.  Taking my money, she put the magazine in the buggy.  Looking at the baby who was looking at her, she reached into a pocket of her floor-length black skirt and took out a pack of tissues.  She handed me one and gestured that I should wipe Daniel’s nose.  ‘Thank-you,’ I said.  As I left, I realised I had been expecting my change, not a tissue.  I didn’t get it.

100 years of Sydney Road

Well almost. I parked the car on our street yesterday and was just unloading the shopping from the boot, when a little old lady pulling a tartan shopping bag on wheels stopped and said something about how there were too many cars on our road now. She was short and stout and wearing a smart black fur jacket over a red cardigan and a black and white scarf over her hair, tied under her chin.

Memory laneI paused, she kept talking about her dog.  ‘We used to take her for a walk, four times a day, down our street, round the block and back, then Wimbledon Common at the weekends. But she didn’t walk on the pavement, oh no, out in the middle of the road, head up, if there was a car coming, it just had to wait. Nobody minded. Off she’d go to the newsagent and carry the newspaper back in her mouth – down the middle of the road. She’d go to the chemist to be weighed and he’d give her a barley sugar. Then back home. She’d dance for the children and beg. Her name was Sue.’

Sue used to bark goodbye to the bus, when her sisters came to visit from Croydon: ‘Bark, bark.’ One day the bus conductor and the driver both got off the bus to admire the cleverness of the dog.  ”What did that dog just say?” asked the conductor. And none of the passengers minded, no-one said ‘hurry up, lets go.’  They were looking out the windows at the dog’. That was in the forties. She died in the sixties.’ Quite a life for a dog.

I asked her if she’d lived here all her life – yes, she was born in the Nelson Hospital. ‘You must have seen a lot of changes,’ I said.

‘Oh yes, and not for the better. There used to be an army camp, where the gym is now. One day, they were sounding the ‘all clear’ and everyone was out in their gardens, but there was another plane coming over, so low we could see the pilot and he waved at us. He was just a young man, like ours, didn’t want to be fighting. We’d come out of our Anderson shelter but there was still a plane up there.’

She kept talking, about her sister who had raised money for the soldiers.  She still has the letter written to say thank-you – the soldiers had bought themselves beer and cigarettes.

So much history, so easy to lose it all. Maybe I should have introduced myself.  Maybe I could have gone round for tea.  Instead, I picked up my bags, she started walking.  I wanted a camera and a microphone, but these words from memory are all I can do.  Respect to you, old lady.  Many blessings in your last years. May you have time to talk and people to listen, may there still be good days with old friends, may you come, at last, to a happy ending. Amen.

A green thought

For the first time yesterday afternoon, Daniel was crawling around our garden, examining blades of grass and nasturtium petals that come up to his nose.

The garden is a length of very scraggy grass, dotted with dandelions. Down the centre is an old brick path. The grass on the left hand side of the path is ours, the grass on the other side is our neighbours’. We both have a strip oA lovely garden on the other side of the worldf flowerbed running down each fence. The neighbours’ side is low maintenance: the soil is covered in bark out of which grow three tall rose bushes, two low shrubs with mottled leaves and a Japanese maple. They also have some very colourful flowers in pots.

For the last two years I’ve planted nasturtiums on our side which have flourished, climbing over the fence and creeping out into the grass. They move so fast I’m sure you could watch them grow if you sat for an hour. Even this year, when I haven’t planted any, the little round leaves are appearing all over the place. We also have jasmine, lavender, oregano, mint and rosemary in pots, flowering stock, lambs lugs, a climbing rose and a green bush. Last year we grew tomatoes. Its a sunny, south facing place and plants seem to enjoy being there.

Like others before me, I’ve learnt some things in my garden:

1)  Planning in November what you want to see in June is a good idea (planning, even what I do next week, is not one of my natural abilities). 

2)  Believing that that stick will one day become a rose bush and that speck a mass of orange flowers is not crazy.

3)  Plants need watered – often.  

4)  If one day we all stop gardening and stay inside and watch TV, the walls and streets and houses of London will disappear under the weight of Japanese bindweed – and that will take less time than you think.