The Lea! The Lea!

Like most Londoners I am intrigued by its lost rivers. I like to show people who don’t know the Westbourne as it crosses above the platform at Sloane Square Tube station in its cast-iron tunnel, and when we lived in Clerkenwell I liked to follow the course of the Fleet River down from King’s Cross. It’s easy to see the old valley, and it is not, as Peter Ackroyd solemnly assures us somewhere, running along half way up a hill. Rivers tend not to do that, even lost ones.

(What a lot of nonsense that London book of his is, by the way. Half the facts are wrong, and where you might reasonably expect original information, such as the course of the Fleet, he fails you. For instance, I wanted to know exactly where the Tyburn gallows stood. The code for the A to Z would do; I didn’t need a special map. I was prepared to dig through a lot of his vamp-till-ready stuff about how beastly it was in the olden times. But not a clue. I guess he couldn’t be arsed to find out. Or his researcher couldn’t.)

Anyway this isn’t about Peter Ackroyd, although I haven’t quite finished with the Fleet.

When I came to London to work in 1966, before I went to University, I was in an office building in Kingsway. One day for a treat I was taken to the basement to see George Bernard Shaw’s death mask, which they kept there. Either there was limited storage space or they were hoping to be able to use it to call his spirit from the nether world if ever London were in mortal danger: one or the other. Anyway, when I had gazed respectfully on the old man’s hairy and rather cross-grained features my guide took me by the arm and led me to the edge of the little subterranean room.

“Put your ear to the wall.”

I heard the very faint sound of rushing water, muffled by ancient brick.

“It’s the Fleet,” said my Virgil, “one of the Lost Rivers of London.”

It was of course no such thing. The Fleet is a good half mile to the west, and there are no other watercourses round there. I can only think that it was the office sewer. But I worked that out later, and in the meantime it fired my imagination.

The one London river that is not lost, apart of course from the Thames, is the Lea. Living in west and central London as I had for all my time here I had never had to reckon with the Lea. I knew it was there and that it had a valley. I thought of it in the context of Waltham Abbey, whatever that was, and that was probably due to Iain Sinclair who I am sure has gone into print on the subject of both. He too I have never been able to read with ease, although what he writes about would have been fascinating in the hands of someone else, unlike Ackroyd’s dreary litany of beastliness in the olden times. Sometimes the sentences go on for ever: sometimes, verbless, they cut you off at the knee.

Anyway it has become, now that we live in E13, necessary to engage with the Lea River.

Our friend George, who is one of life’s volunteers, takes parties on rambles further up the Valley. He says that it’s beautiful and I mean to find out. There is a website, but it commoditises everything in the infuriating way that they do today. You want it to tell you where you can walk and how to get in, preferably with the aid of a map. Instead it gives you the names that they have given the different permitted walks; possibly – I forget – their sponsors; and how to join.

(Join? How do you become a member of a valley? Do you think that Samuel Palmer got a gold membership card for his Golden Valley in Shoreham; loyalty points every time he felt the breath of God on his shoulder?)

Obviously there was to be no help there, so I resolved to fend for myself. I decided to start with the blunt end, and on Sunday afternoon I took the Tube to Canning Town and walked down to where the Lea flows into the Thames. This is overlooked by one of those roads that goes everywhere. I have often looked out of the car window and wondered what particular bits of water were: whether they might be the Lea or a canal or an inlet from the Thames. The Thames itself makes extravagant curves round here and you can never quite tell. To get by Tube to Westminster, both north of the river, you cross it four times.

When you are on the ground, however, you can sort out the various muddy spits of land. Some are devoted to industrial activity, some are clearly waiting to be developed and some have nature. One spit is called the Bow Creek Ecopark. I thought that on a nice Sunday afternoon it might be crowded but I was the only person there. There are osiers growing and birds wading and seats to watch them doing both from and occasionally the DLR trundles overhead on its way to Lewisham.

I walked further down towards the Thames and came to the old East India Dock, now also a nature reserve, but with more in the way of picturesque brickwork than Bow Creek. This was where the ships of the East India Company came and went, and out of the East India Company grew the British Empire. Now it is very quiet and you think how small the mighty ships must have been to dock there.

Signs send you on to Trinity Buoy Wharf, which is actually at the point where the Lea debouches into the Thames. Despite a certain Hacknification in its approaches (wall art, a large white fish) this is full of wonders, musical wonders indeed, and I shall write about them separately.


Immigrants in Love

Not many Londoners are native. That’s even more the case with New York or Los Angeles, but London I know personally. When I was a child my parents, my brother and sister and I lived in the Surrey hills and would engage in Ivy Compton Burnett-like bombing raids on the capital, “up to Town”, always in our best clothes; I was nearly in my twenties before I attempted London without a tie.

Sometimes it was for a Test Match at the Oval. My father preferred the Oval to Lords as it was closer to home and I preferred it because I was a Surrey supporter during the county’s glory days of the 1950s. Just as my father retained his childhood loyalty to Kent, having been born there – well, Deptford was in Kent once – so have I retained my preference for Surrey CCC and the Oval, even though both have been transformed utterly from the gruff, pipe-smoking geniality of my youth.

Sometimes it was a play. My parents reckoned to see everything that they put on at the National Theatre, which in those days was still located at the Old Vic and nearly every play seemed to star the young Maggie Smith. I remember Shaw’s St Joan, where in the last act Joan herself (not, I think, played by Dame Maggie) reappears on stage, long after her iconic death, to general admiration in which I was unable to share as there was a pillar in the way.

Shaw always reduces me to tears. It’s not just the clunky lines he gave his actors to speak but the fact that he was a music critic and he still didn’t realise what clunky lines they were. Star Trek has the same effect.

At the end of the day we would go and eat: always in that Chinese place just off Piccadilly Circus. It lasted for decades and disappeared only recently. There was a principled absence of chopsticks, or indeed anything that an unbiased observer would class as Chinese food, which it must have taken a heroic effort to maintain, with Chinatown so close.

The first time I went to London without my parents was with my friend Sidney to see Ben Hur on an enormous screen (I was only half-size myself then, so it was even bigger, relatively) in a first-run cinema in Leicester Square. I have seen Ben Hur many times since, in different flea-pits including my own front rooms over the years, but nothing equals the original experience. It had a profound effect on me. For years afterwards, when either Sidney or I emerged from the school locker rooms the other would put on a deep portentous voice and intone:

You’ve changed, Judah Ben Hur.

The other memorable thing about that adventure was the train journey up. We were two school boys with ties and across us in the little carriage were three mathematicians. All the way to Waterloo they talked entirely in mathematics, for forty minutes and with passion and hand gestures. It was a path not to be taken, but a one vividly indicated nonetheless.

Although I was brought up away from London in the Surrey hills, my ancestors had lived in the city. My grandfather moved to London from Barbados in the Nineteenth Century with his widowed mother and his brothers and sisters. They clung together for warmth with two other Bajan families, thirty of them altogether if the 1901 Census is anything to go by, in a house north of Euston, furiously marrying each other. After a generation they spread their wings, thus enabling my father to be born in Deptford and in due course to move to the country and me to become the second wave of immigration. I too spent my first five years or so in London living in various flats but all on the same page of the A to Z. So it’s easy to understand why people newly arrived in our capital want to stick to the haunts that they are comfortable with, like the shy creatures you sometimes see scuttling from One Hyde Park to Harrods and back.

I know that it is a challenge coming to a strange city but it is a challenge that it is easier to face if one finds love. That was why I was so much uplifted to overhear the telephone conversation of the young Chinese man that I related earlier. Unsurprisingly I never saw him again so I don’t know if he found his experiments with sodomy reassuring, but I do hope so.

Curiously enough there was a similar episode the other day, again on the bus but this time downstairs. A man sat opposite me. His legs were wide apart, which is often a sign of self-confidence. He telephoned a succession of women, most of whom appeared not to want to pass the time of day on the phone with him. One however did.

You meet me at my work, he said, after some preliminaries. Where I work. I work at Oxford Circus. You know Oxford Circus?

Apparently this location was unknown to her.

It is by the Regent Street. You know the Regent Street?

This also appeared to be drawing a blank. I thought fondly back to my early days. Central London, I then worked out in my mind, is a circle described by the Circle Line. It is bisected laterally by the Central Line. The Central Line corresponds to a street that runs east to west. It has various names but it is the same street. Oxford Circus is right in the middle. It is on the Central Line and it is also on the Bakerloo Line, which goes north and south, as does Regent Street. London, therefore, is a hot cross bun and Oxford Circus is where the cherry would be if cherries were permitted in Lent.

I might have imparted this valuable information to him, but it had became apparent that he had a different solution.

Not know Oxford Circus. Not know the Regent Street. Is very difficult, very difficult.

His voice took on a tone of infinite lubricity.

Is best you come my house then.

He settled back in his seat and spread his legs even further apart. Then he embarked on a lengthy description of how to find where he lived. When it became obvious that it wasn’t One Hyde Park, I returned to my book.

perpignan airport

It seems very dark here.

One minute we are at Perpignan airport, sitting in the car park, sheltered from the sun under an olive tree, or if not an olive tree a tree that ought to be an olive tree, having a picnic of Roquefort cheese, fromage de tete and pink wine and putting off the encounter with Ryan Air.  The next, Ryan Air having actually been not bad at all, we are peering through the London gloom.  The better half takes a black and white view of these things, direct sunlight being good and anything else an unacceptable compromise.  I’m not so sure.  The late summer in the Essex fields on the train back from Stansted was beguiling enough.  English people, though, en masse, are boorish.  Especially the cyclists.

So we plot how to get back again.  First the French language has to be mastered.  Then a way of earning a living has to be found.  A friend at work tells me that I would be the perfect host of a B&B.  I can’t help thinking that there is a subtle balance available to be struck here.

Do they have broadband in France?

If we could be out in time to avoid the Olympics that would be nice.

In the meantime there are all the emails to be disposed of.  Nearly a thousand can be trashed unread.  They have all been seen, at least cursorily, on the blackberry, in France, but a worrying number ring no bells at all, plaintive appeals for help or just for a response.  As I trawl through them the phone rings continually.  I ignore it.  The callers add to the pile of emails.  ‘No signs of life,’ they comment wittily.

Lunch on the first day back with my friend J.  J should have been a country rector.  He is immensely erudite, unfailingly courteous and not of this century.  His best century would be the Eighteenth.  He could have ridden his horse around his parish and talked classical Greek with his particular friends.  I say that I am reading Wallace Stegner and mention his environmentalist views about the American West.  A shadow crosses J’s face.  He has a sheaf of American environmentalists at his fingertips but he has not heard of Wallace Stegner.  When I get back to the office there is a lengthy email from him.  It rehearses Stegner’s life story; his political views; other Western environmentalists; Teddy Roosevelt: his legacy: betrayed; corruption in State politics; whither the Tea Party.  It is all very cogent.  I reply mentioning Larry McMurtry; I am fairly certain that J has not read him either.

I remember in early 2008, when our fools’ paradise still prevailed, J coming into my office – he then worked with us – and telling me why a banking crisis was inevitable and the form it would take.  He was exactly right.  I remember telling him not to worry; it would never happen.

So what does the future hold, we ask him.  Twenty years depression, like Japan, apparently.  No fun, but not cardboard box time.


Wallace Stegner: A Shooting Star.  By no means his best.  Novelettish at times.  But still only half way through.

Listened to

Petr Eben lunatic organ music

Simon Mayor Second Mandolin Record


Quail with squash.  Minervois pink wine.