A Sunday in May, on the towpath by the River Lea, just south of Lea Bridge Road:
Ding! … Ding! … Ding! … Ding! Ding! Ding!
The cyclist (mid-20s, jutting beard, sickly smile, deeply hittable face) steered his vintage eBay treasure inches between myself and my young son. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday outing on the first really sunny weekend of the year and I was reduced to hissing violent epithets at various types of cyclist. Hipster cyclists, as above; Spandexed cyclists, often in entire family groups; unnervingly swift and purposeful cyclists with business on their minds; kids on mountain bikes; even a brace of fancy-dress cyclists, decked out in Edwardian gear – bowlers, waistcoats, plus-fours, spats – on authentically recalcitrant machines. Whatever their costume, they were all united by their fondness for those little silver bells, their peremptory tinkle an indication of assumed moral right. As a pedestrian on the towpath, on the Lea or a London canal, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that cyclists see you as merely a car-driver deprived of your vehicle. (Suggested collective noun: an entitlement of cyclists.)
Not that long ago, this stretch of the Lea was a backwater; and the landscape still offers those with a taste for brownfield-rural the opportunity to participate in an Ian Sinclair-ish topographical narrative in a lush setting. There are overgrown meadows, deserted municipal sports facilities, mysterious structures to negotiate, structures often covered in an abundance of picturesque graffiti (whilst photographing the uncharacteristically polite cyclists walking their bikes under the East Cross Route, I noticed a young man posing his girlfriend for snaps on the other side of the decorated pillars). Of course, this riverside has been ravaged in recent years by the Alphaville of the Olympic Park, and the new residential developments that line the western bank south of Lea Bridge are testament to the burgeoning popularity of East London-lite: Hipster London, Foxtons London, Fatuous London.
Yet somehow, the houseboats remain aloof from it all; and the beauty of the Lea leads to daydreams of buying one, the idyll of having your very own piece of river within (distant) earshot of the churning city. A friend of mine has his own boat, a proper sea-going job, which he occasionally sails from Lowestoft to Limehouse Basin, where he moors it as his London base. This always struck me as simultaneously butch and civilised, an impression only slightly marred by a desperate call I once received from him en route, somewhere near Sheerness, asking if I’d heard the Shipping Forecast because his radio was broken. Several of the vessels moored on the Lea have all the appurtenances of the riverside ‘luxury apartments’ touted by Foxtons and their ilk, and it is not too exotic to imagine some of them actually sailing somewhere. A London houseboat might be the nearest thing to bucolic living anywhere within the M25; but a cursory inspection of some of the more ramshackle examples give one pause. More than a couple appear to be actually sinking, invoking thoughts of Viv Stanshall’s houseboat foundering on the Thames near Chertsey. A houseboat is not a very safe place to store a life’s work, and much of Viv’s life sank with The Searchlight. Even if your boat is watertight, there are other dangers: Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock during a drunken attempt to access his houseboat after a night out. (Eddie Mirzoeff has just pointed out to me that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Chelsea Reach-moored houseboat sank not once but twice in the early 1960s, inspiring her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.)
Still the temptations persist … walking south, we encountered a riverine barbecue-cum-jam session, two barges lassooed together, a party of expert folk musicians playing together in an atmosphere of easy familiarity and home-brewed ale. I’m generally allergic to the claims of folk music but even I was charmed and wondered whether the water offered a better way of life for those in the know … but only a few yards further south, jungle was being played at industrial-noise level from a flat in a new block, obliterating the reels from upstream and putting paid to idyllic wonderings. Any remaining notions of hippie-ish promise were soon trashed as we reached the East Cross Route, where the aggressive post-Olympic new builds proved demoralising enough for us to turn back. Perhaps there is no such thing as a backwater in London any more; a sage with a tin of spray paint helped articulate this thought by stating the obvious on a bridge …
Back at Lea Bridge, the Prince of Wales was doing brisk business as football played on the TV. A massive new development is under construction on the north of the Lea Bridge Road. For real peace, you have to go further upstream, way beyond Springfield Park and up into Tottenham Marshes; if you moored there, maybe you would have a shot at a life of tranquility. If you saw a naked cyclist, it would be someone who did it every day. And that would be fine. Just an unpretentious houseboat, not too big, easy to manage through the locks, kitted out with obsolete technology – VHS tapes, audio cassettes – and overflowing with old paperbacks you could read by paraffin lamp. You know where to find me …
… for The London Column.
See also: Before the Blue Wall.
* The above photo and the following text were found on the top deck of a 243 bus travelling through Dalston. The top of the A4 sheet was torn and the artist’s name was missing.
I make images because I am driven to commit a feeling to something visual. My work is endowed with a narrative quality. Through a personally charged perception I explore a range of issues relating to the formlessness of both individual and social reality. This evolves from a close reading of discourse and neuroses surrounding the condition of human existence. I translate the incoherence of lived experience into elements accomplished by a distortion of what is known. The real thus becomes charged with imagined specificity. By describing the world as I imagine, perceive and exist within it, this element of personal mirroring may also act as a reflective process for the viewer.
Precious Fragments, Café Oto 2011
The Interrupted Onanist, Camberwell Space 2012
This, Again, Is What I Saw, The Agency 2013
The Solomon Grouper Foundation Tablet (nominee)
Dilys Trend Memorial Beaker (runner-up)
Hackney Gazette Pop-Up Of The Week (finalist)
Playground, Rotherhithe. © David Secombe 2003.
Giant Edible Caterpillars Seized at Gatwick*
Customs officers at Gatwick Airport got more than they bargained for when they searched the luggage of a passenger arriving from Nigeria: inside his suitcase they found more than ninety kilograms of giant caterpillars swarming inside a bubble wrap cocoon.
The man told the customs officials that they were for his personal consumption during his stay in Britain. However, the caterpillars are a popular delicacy across Africa and, as such, represent a valuable trading commodity. Customs official Bridget Fumes commented: ‘We get a lot of people trying to smuggle animals into the country – last month we had someone wearing a lizard as a hat and a man with a pair of monkeys down his trousers, but to my knowledge this is the first time we have had giant caterpillars.’
Stavros Wilt, an insect expert at the Natural History Museum, commented: ‘These are likely to be mopane worms, the larvae of emperor moths, which are commonly eaten in Africa. A favoured method of consumption is to pinch the caterpillar at the tail to rupture its innards, followed by a sharp flick to liberate the guts via the burst carapace. The resulting matter may be fried until crisp with onion, tomatoes and chillis. Alternatively, they may be dried and eaten raw as a crunchy snack.’
‘This was an unusual seizure but the vigilance of our officers prevented this consignment of rogue insects from entering the UK, and possibly posing a risk to the health and wellbeing of the populace,’ proclaimed Ms Fumes. ‘I would warn travellers not to attempt to bring any products of animal origin into the UK without a permit, as they may not have been inspected to appropriate standards and may contain diseases. These caterpillars are not something I expect to see in the Gatwick staff canteen any time soon!’
An increasing number of British outlets offer mopane worms for ‘own consumption only’. The online retailer Planet Nosh sells 40g bags for £16.99, saying that the insects are a tasty and nutritious alternative to traditional meat products, and describes them as ‘the ultimate barbecue novelty’. Experts estimate that the caterpillars seized at Gatwick had a street value of £40,000.
The caterpillars are being cared for at an animal rescue shelter in Kent.
* NB: A mostly, if not entirely, genuine news item: a mash-up of reports from International Business Times, The Independent, lepidoptera.pro, etc. The second in an occasional series. See also: The Supermarket Spider (http://wp.me/p1twhU-33W)
Pinner Station at dusk. © David Secombe 2011.
From Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin*:
‘Londoner,’ said Bowman, shaking his head, ‘born in some tedious spot like … I don’t know… Pinner’.
From Pennies from Heaven by Dennis Potter:
ACCORDION MAN: We’re all going to hell. We’re all going to burn in hell. Thank you very, very much, sir. Thank you very, very much, madam. Thank you very, very much, sir.
Today marks the 150th birthday of The Tube – and for The London Column’s modest contribution to this anniversary I would like to draw our readers’ attention to the BBC4 repeat at 10 pm tonight of TLC contributor Edward Mirzoeff’s classic 1973 documentary Metro-Land, written and presented by John Betjeman. For anyone that hasn’t seen it, this film is a glorious relic of the golden age of the British television documentary, and takes as its subject the early 20th Century suburbs that grew up alongside the Metropolitan Line as it extended deep into rural Middlesex. As the poet laureate of inter-war suburbia and the Met line in particular, Betjeman is the ideal tour guide for this trip from Baker Street to Neasden, Wembley, Harrow, Pinner and beyond.
Pinner is the quintessence of inter-war residential development: serried rows of polite, cheerful villas and semi-detached houses spreading outwards from the remnants of an ancient hamlet. So whilst Pinner Village contains some very old houses indeed, the Metropolitan Line is the reason we are here: Met Line trains from Pinner station take just 25 minutes to reach Baker Street. Pinner’s tidy crescents and avenues were intended as havens from the dirt and clamour of the city – with desirable residences, clean air, the Met Line to take you into town, and the shops and cinema of the new parade just a few steps away, what more could life offer? Naturally, Metro-Land’s quasi-rural calm came at the expense of Middlesex’s actual rural landscape, which entirely disappeared beneath the streamlined semis, but this is a very English approach to Moderne living (as opposed to Modernism, which the British didn’t exactly take to their hearts) – tidy, domesticated, and hungry for acreage. Metro-Land is not so much a place as a state of mind, a dream of what life might be; a bucolic idyll with all the benefits that the Tube, the ring roads, the wireless and state-of-the-art plumbing could bring.
But the near-identical streets of Pinner, Eastcote, Ruislip, Rayners Lane and their neighbours are also an expression of a state of unease. The cosy, complacent sprawl of these suburbs comes at a price. The new suburban landscape goaded and inspired Betjeman (‘Your lives were good and more secure/Than ours at cocktail time in Pinner’), as it did George Orwell (Coming up for Air), Louis MacNeice ( ‘But the home is still a sanctum under the pelmets’), Graham Greene (‘a sinless, empty, graceless, chromium world’), Patrick Hamilton (The Plains of Cement) and other writers of the period. They saw fear behind the Deco stained glass. In Dennis Potter’s 1930s-set masterpiece Pennies from Heaven, his doomed travelling-salesman hero Arthur Parker lives in just such a suburb, and oscillates between a joyous fantasy life and an actual life of frustration and anguish. Metro-Land is a perennially vanishing landscape of promise. Close the windows and draw the curtains, a storm is coming.
… for The London Column.
Strand, looking towards Temple Bar. © David Secombe 2010.
An attempt at Putting on a Brave Face
In A Visitor from Down Under by L.P. Hartley, which was published in a collection called The Ghost Book, edited by Walter de la Mare in 1932, we are on the top decl of an open-topped bus ‘making its last journey through the heart of London before turning in for the night’. The loquacious bus conductor encounters a silent, pale passenger with hat pulled down and collar up. ‘Jolly evening,’ says the conductor. (He is being ironic; it is wet and foggy.) There is no reply from the passenger, who holds up his fare between the fingers of stiff, apparently immobile fingers. The conductor takes the money and goes back downstairs. Later, the mysterious passenger is not there. The conductor never saw him come down the stairs, but he rationalises the situation with a very good example of sceptical wishful thinking: ‘He must have got off with that cup-tie crowd’.
From Ghoul Britannia by Andrew Martin, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.