I came this way looking for a northwest passage of sorts. A next place, an escape from the concrete marshland, where the villagers are revolting. I’m washing my hands of all their silly art school protest projects. The rent increase is enough for me to turn my back on the place and look towards a new chapter. There is another doomed sink estate in the inner north west suburbs, nestled between attractive high streets, typically grey, bleak, unloved. Another cluster of streets in mid-transformation, through routes boarded off, old and new buildings juxtaposed uncomfortably close. The new don’t look better necessarily, just new. Different materials, bright orange plastic brick cladding is the current vogue. Packed in to awkwardly shaped space, no gardens, inhumane in scale. In twenty years time they will look as tired, dated and dirty as those they are replacing.
The old flats seem to have communal heating, there are boiler rooms on the ground floors with pipes actively venting steam. That’s something to look forward to. I could make a studio cosy downsizing and minimalising feels like a healthy and necessary act right now. A balcony would be nice, although they look tiny and precarious. White walls, plants, a futon, Syd Barrett style floor. If I was on a high up floor I might snatch a view of the West Coast main line. It could be nice, I don’t need much. I’ll get new plates too, the stolen ones have had their time.
A different option for housing presented itself last evening. Old friends in the nicer part of south London are in transition, and have property transactions in the pipeline. The suggestion was unformed, would need refining, and still may not amount to what I expect or imagine, but it may constitute roots and a future.
I don’t have roots in the north west quarter at all, I feel out of place whenever I go west of Regent Street, like a tourist. It looks like London, has all the classic markers, red buses, Leslie Green tiling, Victorian town houses divided into flats. The quintessential London of gritty 1980s films, in fact, but I don’t know where I am. I can’t follow a main road and know with certainty where it will lead. When my family moved to the outer edge of London when I was about 12 I expected London to be just like that. Our move coincided with Eastenders beginning on BBC One, and I expected to encounter jolly market traders. Instead, we lived in a fairly average suburb on the Essex border, with a tube station, but the trains were above ground. There was a brick arch on the main shopping street which led to a car park. That was the most metropolitan thing I ever found there.
I’m thinking of returning to my A-Z maps from past decades and letting them guide me around the unknown streets. Kilburn High Road has plenty of former retail grandeur, and modern bastardry. I’ve had a camera with me today, loaded with PAN F, although it is a little too dark really. I have so many rolls of film to be developed, dating back years. I wonder how much I will recognise of their images now, as my memory is less reliable. There were streets I walked this afternoon which I feel I’ve been to before, but I cannot be sure. I know I’ve trespassed those houses by South Hampstead station, when they were empty and derelict. Prior to their emptiness they contained basic, sordid but probably comfortable lives. Surviving relics of the Patrick Hamilton style bedsitter era of West London. It used to be edgy, poor, dusty, vibrant, exciting, sexy, sordid. I wonder if other large cities are as tribally divided as London, just by virtue of their size. New York has it’s four boroughs, each with their own identity. I’d have to live there more, to soak up the vibes, ask people about identity and place. I’d like to go back one day. Harry’s going next week, mainly for the theatres.
I cycled once from West Hampstead to Finchley Road. I’d brought a bike home from Luton on the train, had to get off, and thought I’d give it a go on the streets. I probably wouldn’t do that now. The chain came off. The pavement on the west side of the Finchley Road is below the road level, an unsatisfactory result of a widening scheme in the 1970s. There was a Sainsburys store with odd diagonal aisles, a narrow frontage, and two layers of checkouts with diagonal queueing arrangements. At the back of the store were several basement levels of storage space, due to the hilly terrain, an escarpment ridge, one might say. I believe it was the first Sainsburys to stock kosher products for the Jewish community living in the Mansion blocks towering over the Finchley Road, commanding all they see. The road is also the route that the megabus from northern towns arrives into the capital. A northwest passage in reverse, for young idealistic art students like me seeking a bright new future.
The Sainsburys later turned into an Iceland, and is now boarded up, empty. High street retail is changing again. Independent bougie outlets, florists, cafes, upcycled homeware curators are the future, apparently. I can’t see the dual carriageway creating the ambience for them though. And how will huge empty units like the old diagonal Sainsburys be adapted for that sort of use? The old notion of a shop being the front room of a private house may be more appropriate. I still like the idea of misusing empty spaces though. A supermarket could make a nice art gallery. I peered in through a gap in the boards, tiling and pillars are still evident. I tried to find the back entrance but that memory is gone now.