I took my daughter on a little walking tour back through time, yesterday: it was essentially to let her see where I had grown up as a boy. I arrived in London from Jamaica in September 1961; it was cold and damp. My parents went to live in Shepherd’s Bush, and I went to St. Stephens’s Church of England School. I was a fan of QPR from early days, as they were 10 minutes walk from me. I played on Shepherd’s Bush Green, just 10 minutes away. I got to know most of the area in a short radius, especially the market. I was a frequent user of the library. My father and I used to go to the public baths and washhouse; our basement flat had no bath. I ate in several places, including Cooke’s pie and mash shop. All of that, and more, I showed my 10 year-old yesterday. But, I got some surprises along the way. I had arranged to have lunch with a man who, as a boy had been my best friend from age 6. He now lived outside London, but would make the trip down specially.
Much of London is made up of 19th century buildings; Shepherd’s Bush is just that way, with lots of structures dating from the late-1880s. Immigrants, like my family, were just one of the many waves of people going there to live and work. It became home for many West Indians in part because it was close to hospitals that were taking in migrants, and its having easy access to public transport. I used to live on the Tube and buses. Exiting a station was no special thing for me. But…
My first surprise was what had happened to Shepherd’s Bush Green. Of course, change happens. But, I was shocked to see all the development of shops and multistory buildings near the Central Line station, which I had visited just a few years ago. I took that in with a sigh. We walked on the green. I pointed out the disused public lavatories, with their large ornate gates.
No use had yet been found for their underground spaces. Maybe, none ever would be. We walked to see an intriguing moving play space. Where had the tennis courts gone? We crossed to where the cinema used to be. It was now an Australian restaurant. I showed my child the etched marking on the walls. I explained that they showed the prices, back from the days before decimal money, when pounds, shillings and pence ruled.
They seemed like hieroglyphics.
We went on to the public library and I walked proudly up the front steps. What! A bar and taps faced me. I blinked. I asked the young server what had happened. “It’s a theatre, now,” she told me. The new home of the Bush Theatre.
I took that in. I read that the change had happened in 2011; I was last there in 2010. We wandered around, and I showed my daughter pictures of the library that were part of the decor. A young lady was doing some research, using the wi-fi service, and she asked me a few questions. She had also gone to school nearby, and we talked about using another library a few miles away, in Hammersmith, when we were schoolchildren. She shared my amusement at the changes. Buildings grow out of their uses and create new homes. Better that, than they stay derelict. My mind went to Jamaica’s downtown, where dereliction was more the order of the day. Even the theatre had not found use in its original form. Where were the visionaries to take those buildings and make them useful again?
We walked on, and I showed my daughter a pub, that was now partly a supermarket; again, new uses. We stopped in front of my old primary school.
I showed her the small playground, placed adjacent to the church. I told her a short story of a fight I had once. “You were a naughty boy?” Someone let us into the school, which was still running (till mid-July), and I explained my visit. I made the trip brief, but not before a young schoolgirl had let her jaw drop to the floor as I talked about being there 50 years ago. We moved on. We crossed the road, to the street where I used to live. The roads were always neat and clean, and that has not changed much; they were also wide by London standards.
I’d noticed years ago that the area was being gentrified, and that feature has just been getting more notice, as shown in a FT piece last week. Many houses go for cool million pounds, these days. I showed my daughter the basement flat where we used to live. “Why did you live in the basement?” I explained a little social history. The houses still looked solid and neat, with blinds and signs of European chic now dressing windows. I took her on a mazy walk through some nearby streets, stopping to admire a Victorian era post box, that looked as good as new. We arrived at Mecca.
I showed her Loftus Road Stadium, home of Queens Park Rangers Football Club, freshly promoted to the English Premier League. I explained what ‘The Loft’ was, and how I used to trek to stand there and look forward to a hot cup of tea at half time and maybe a hamburger.
We walked around three sides of the stadium, nestled with the houses. We went to the reception and I explained my journey, with a few reminiscences. I mentioned names from the 1960s, some of whom still visit the club. I had not expected to be able to show my daughter the inside of the stadium when no games were on. The club is also running to meet the higher standards of the premier league. We walked back the club shop and I bought her a jersey, which she can wear forever. I explained that back then, hardly anyone wore team kit to watch a match: that was for the players. Scarves, hats, and rattles were all we needed. Homage duly paid, we moved on.
We walked along Uxbridge Road, part of London’s former Roman roadways. My daughter did not ask about the Romans. I noted how the ethnic flavour had changed even in the few years since I was last there.
Then, I noted how Somalis were evident. Now, many places had a Lebanese taste, and men sitting outside cafes drinking coffee were everywhere. I also heard Slavic tongues, often trying to tease a reaction from some passing young lady. I hissed “Boring” at one group and got a glare. I glared back. I traced aloud the changes: English, West Indian, African, Somalis, Lebanese…. “What about the f***ing Irish?” came a shrill question, as a half drunk man overheard me. And…the Irish, I added aloud. We came back past my school and church, and went on toward the market. I explained about Lime Grove, and where the BBC Studios used to be. My encounter with aliens, the day I played in a friend’s garden and saw Cybermen walking across the studio gangway. I must have been about 9-10 when that happened. Frightening! My daughter told me how much she loves Dr. Who. I did too. So, we reached the market. I asked her which way in she wanted to try. We opted to go via the hanging clothes. She’d already spied the fruit and vegetables stalls when we’d come by earlier.
The market has always been a bustling mess. Now, it is more bazaar than bizarre. Clothes and shoes and knick-knacks all over the place.
We heard strains of Jamaican accents, tinged with a strong London trait. We exited to the main roadway. We saw a fish seller, arguing with a man from Portland about the small kingfish tail he wanted to buy. “Is weh you cum fram?” He asked. We argued about our ethnic roots. A non-conversation. Walking on, we saw that mobile phones and their accessories were the main offering apart from clothes and fruit. Everyone seems to be giving away free SIM cards with a little credit. I wondered if people just took those and made a few calls, then repeated the process. I thought about how useful that would be for criminals. The villain in me? I got a seller to let me have a screen protector. He cut it to size and ‘fitted’ it, while a lady bought a cheap smart phone (ten pounds) and got a free SIM. The guy tried to up sell and offered me a case. No deal. Then, to the end of the market and another Mecca, though of different order. Cooke’s.
Pie and mash is a dish more found in East London, but I just happened to live close to two shops that happened to be in West London, and I got to love the meal from early childhood. One shop is by the market.
Like a fish and chips meal, this is one of my ‘must have’ things when I visit London. My older daughter got her initiation a few years ago; her sister was due for hers. She asked about eels, the traditional dish. I explained. “I don’t like snakes!” Me, neither. The server asked what she wanted. She went conservative and took pie and mash, gravy and liquor (sauce made from the boiling of eels and parsley) on the side. She nibbled the pie; she loves mashed potatoes. She dipped the pie in liquor then tried the gravy; success. She nibbled on. We were hungry. I went smoothly through my plateful. She licked her lips. “Not bad,” she declared. We sat for a while. We were an hour ahead of my lunch buddy. We decided to take a walk then come back.
She was fascinated by where the BBC used to be. I told her it was just where people worked and that they only seemed different because we lap up television material like it’s nectar. She giggled. She saw an art college and wanted to go in. The building has been there for a hundred years and its style is clearly old, with lots of tiled steps. She adored being inside. I had visions of her at an old English college. We went back to meet my old friend.
Nearly fifty years between meetings is an incredible amount of time. We hugged and smiled at each other. We were no longer 11 year olds. We ordered food and started to recall. My daughter was going for her second meal, too. Impressive, I thought. We talked and talked, about old times. My friend’s memory was amazing. Many people from our class were still living close by. I told of times when I had crossed their paths later in life; very odd. We recalled some of the girls–all were beautiful. He told of his first kiss. My daughter smiled. We remembered how he had been assigned to ‘look after me’. How I was a fast runner; he was a great footballer. Together, we did a lot of damage on the football pitch–a cinder area, back then, not kind on the legs. Our teacher was a stolid man, who picked his team based on functional suitability: fast boys on the wings; big, strong boys in goal and defence. Oh, Mr. Cook! He also loved to use that ruler on your hands. We learned well, though, and were both good with both feet, a rare skill. We talked of races run and won; how he’d cheered. I soaked up the image of my running at White City. New boys and girls coming from the West Indies: Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guyana. Our friendships seemed unreal. It was so easy to get along? He remembered my parents, well. I remembered his, living just two minutes away. His uncle was the projectionist at the cinema and would let him in for free; he, in turn, would let friends sneak in through the side door. He got caught; we escaped. Naughty boys! Now, married with children. Working lives different; he’d worked for the Post Office for over 35 years (ironically, he might crossed my father’s path again). Education different, after primary school; he went to a good secondary school, but not university. Sporting lives different: he played for Chelsea FC as a boy and did well but was not kept; we’d both played football into our 40s, though.
I told him he had to visit Jamaica. We walked back to the Underground station. He had to head north. His wife suffers from MS. He gave my daughter a little gift and told her to spend it wisely. She gave a lovely thank you and they hugged. We hugged again. We didn’t cry, just parted simply.
The day didn’t end there, because we went on to Covent Garden, and enjoyed its usual offering of entertainment and people watching. But, a special stroll along Memory Lane had come to an end. Fifty years from now, what?