For the past four weeks I’ve been learning how to teach English as a foreign language in London, where despite UKIP’s opinion, it isn’t even vaguely. But London was foreign to me and I used to live there.
I lived there once for six months when I left university and it was crap. You could still smoke on the Tube in those days and people did. Entering a Tube carriage on a damp, dark November evening with your shoes soaked through to inhale 20 stranger’s Picadilly smoke was a budget version of Hell. A car I was trying to repair in the street fell of the jacks I had put it on and nearly fell on top of me. I helped save someone’s life when they walked straight off a station platform and fell onto the tracks one boiling afternoon when three trains had been cancelled trapping hundreds of us all trying to go home. It’s a lot further down to the tracks at a railway station than you think it is. Or rather it’s a much longer way back up, especially when you’ve got someone’s legs end and you’re trying to heave her back up to the platform while someone else you don’t know does the shoulders end, hopefully before the train gets there. Obviously as I’m writing this, we did. The other person was wearing a suit; I was wearing a leather jacket. He got thanked by the crowd. I got ignored.
I had a crappy flat off Westbourne Grove where one night a woman I’d never seen before knocked on the door and asked me to take her to hospital. She said she’d been in an accident. I’d just been to the launderette, so I was free. I called an ambulance because she was talking in a strange way. Within 20 minutes of meeting her I was seeing the X-Rays of her fillings and the size of her brain; they assumed I was something to do with her. I sort-of was a bit, after that. For a week or so, the way things went then.
I left, then I came back again, then twenty years ago I left for good. And I don’t recognise huge chunks of the London that was there then.
The boxy big cars chased each other into the disused place. Something was burning in an oil drum. A man in a vest looked out of the window of a caravan as the bonnet of the Jag flew up and the back end of the Granada slid out sideways on the oily ground. Parts of London like this you couldn’t tell if the Luftwaffe did it or the LCC. Certainly the second one did more damage. In black and white the men with the big tie knots and lapels hit the men with half a pair of tights off her indoors over their faces, flattening flattened noses. Iron jemmies slid from parka sleeves and someone shouted about a shooter but we knew who would win long before Reagan sneered “Shut it” and “Tell him, George” and the man with longer hair glanced sideways before he said “You do not have to say anything. If you do say anything it may be taken down and used in evidence” before he was faded out into something more interesting. Cuff him. Get in the car. They want us back in the office.
Last time I went to Paddington Basin that’s what it was like. Well, not really, but it looked like that. Derelict, like a lot of London when I first went there and for a long, long time after that. What the bombers had missed (most of it) economics and the paid, trained planners had finished off. The docks were derelict apart from St Katherine’s toy boat harbour and they filmed huge parts of The Sweeney film there. You can see exactly where, just by the bridge.
I went for a job interview. The train was late coming out of Wickham Market. The Tube got stuck in a tunnel. When I got to the interview the girl on Reception told me the company had moved, although this was the address the recruitment agency gave me. I Googled them on my phone and called the company. I tracked them down on Google maps and found that if you type in their address the GIS thinks they’re in East London, seven miles away, but if you give it the postcode it tells you they’re less than five minutes walk. For a company that’s been here in the UK for ten years I don’t understand why their website is all American references and hardly anything at all about London or the UK.
There wasn’t time for the one hour interview when I got there. They asked if I wanted to come back and do it again but I told them things happen, that it’s how you deal with them that makes the difference. That if they were happy to do the interview then I was. In fifteen minutes they asked me back for a second interview and asked me if I was happy with that. I said I’d be happier if they just gave me the job now but that’s what I’d come to get as an outcome.
The agency said they’d asked for confirmation of the meeting and hadn’t been told the office had moved. In the middle of the week I had a phone call to tell me there was a test for the second interview and that would be next week. I got the text emailed to me at 17:26 on the Friday, with a deadline of 11pm Sunday.
I very seriously thought of simply not doing it. At least I’d have one when they said in the interview, “Do you have any questions for us?”
Well yes, I do actually. What did I have to cancel this weekend? What arrangements had I already made? Oh sorry, you can’t answer that, can you? And you don’t care either.
They were using a version of Word my version couldn’t understand, because the whole point of Microsoft is to keep you buying things you don’t need at £300 a go every time Bill Gates fancies another one of his secretaries. It took hours finding free software to convert one version into another before I could even read what the test actually was. That took me to 01:00 Saturday and I had a course booked all day Saturday starting at 08:00 and running through till six that I couldn’t get out of and didn’t want to anyway. I’d booked it weeks previously.
I got the test mostly finished around half-past one Sunday morning. I didn’t have time to do anything to it that morning because the course started again at 08:00 and ran through till lunchtime. Then I had to be on a train to London to do something on Monday I’d also arranged, another job. One that hadn’t messed me around. I had time to do a little editing on Sunday night before the deadline but I couldn’t get the bullet points to line up whatever I did.
I wasn’t happy with the flow of the piece but given I didn’t know what it was about anyway I didn’t entirely see what I could do about that. We talked about all of this at the interview on Tuesday. They said the email should have been sent earlier in the week. They apologised it had been sent so late. They said that wasn’t part of the test. I think they lied.
I didn’t get the job because they wanted a typist. They said I should do more than this, but not for them. And I agree. As I left the interview I accidentally took the picture at the top of these words on my phone. I’d thought I was in a good mood. See my face? That’s my face, that is. I think I wasn’t happy.
Wild West End
Then I saw the sandwich stall being trundled away by two men. Argentinian pampas-raised beef in a wrap £6.50. And £650 for a no-cooker bedsit one room halfway to Heathrow. It wouldn’t have taken long to get tired of this. As the train took me back to Suffolk I remembered the Sweeney, the grime and the sense of things abandoned that used to be London and the glass and chrome and chip wrappers that it is now, with TK Max standing proudly where there used to be a music gear shop in the Charing Cross Road. It’s not quite the same, somehow.
On your left as you pass down the street you can see, ladies and gentlemen, the site of the place where in the song Wild West End, Mark Knopfler got a pickup for his steel guitar. Now you can buy last season’s Ralph Lauren in a peculiar colour and something a bit wrong with the zip in the very same place.
About a million years ago one August I cycled through the back streets of Kings Cross, through piles of rubble. A kestrel hovered overhead in London’s hot diesel sky. There was nobody around as far as I could see. I don’t even know where that is now. You can’t go back. The past is another country. They do things differently there. And I’m not doing this again.
According to the papers, TFL or Transport for London (quite spectacularly a better, different, more millenial, utterly happening name than London Transport, with all it’s Ian Drury/Reg Varney gertcha ChipsnChippies associations, and that’ll be ooh, what, call it £150,000 in consultancy, no, no, not at all, but into the offshore account if you don’t mind. No VAT for cash, obviously) started closing ticket offices in London’s Tube stations.
It doesn’t matter that Boris Johnson has categorically said no Tube stations will lose their staff. Until the people who could do something about it can be bothered to get off their arses and go and vote then there’s no reason for a politician to keep to his word.
If the people it directly affects can’t be bothered, why should he? It doesn’t matter for so many reasons, like nobody expects a politician to keep to their word, or nobody expects many newspapers or TV or interviewers to remember the lie, or if you bring it up in press conference you’re ‘aggressive’ or ‘difficult’ or ‘confrontational’ and as we all know now, that’s about half a step away from being a terrorist, going round contradicting your betters like that, with stuff they’ve actually said. It’s not big, nor clever, and they know where you live. And your credit card number, along with your passport details.
So there won’t be anybody at the Tube to sell you a ticket. The machines will always work. If they don’t, nobody will get a penalty fare. Nobody will get mugged or fall ill on a train. And nobody will ever, ever, ever, become a victim of crime in a totally unmanned station. This is the new London. The one you can’t afford to live in. Rich people buying portfolio properties don’t go on the Tube anyway, so who cares what happens down there?
But I remember a different London, not a very, very long time ago. One where Angel Tube had a wooden lift shuttered with a steel lattice of doors and like something out of a film you can’t quite remember, or maybe it was a dream or something, it didn’t just have a lift. It had a lift man as well.
He had a voice quite like mine and he sounded as if he’d drunk a lot in his time. I’m not sure that had stopped. He gave a running commentary of the passengers, the weather, the news, pretty female customers and anything else he thought of as he ran the lift up and down between the surface and the platforms.
Back in those days the platforms at Angel were something to be sensibly wary about. Nowadays it looks like any other Tube station platform; back then it had just one platform and tracks either side of it. Down at the far end they seemed to tail off and gave the impression it would be easy to find yourself on the tracks. I think someone did once, down there. It wasn’t a happy place at the far end of the platform.
It wasn’t a dream. I don’t like the new Angel Tube, but the past is another country and all that. And besides, London Transport got rid of the manned lift at Angel and probably got rid of the man as well over twenty-five years ago. He’s probably dead now, I think. I can remember his words as the steel doors screeched shut each night on my way home.
“Customer service, we’re supposed to provide. Customer disservice, I call it. Goodnight ladies and gentlemen. Goodnight.”
I grew up a long way from here, not just in terms of years but in distance. Over two hundred miles, a long way in England, anyway. It seems so. I lived in a small town of about 20,000 people but I never felt I knew everybody; I never have. Life started to change when I was about 18. There had been changes before that, but these were changes I was excited about, leaving home. Discovering things. Differences. The idea that not everywhere was like the little town I lived in. That other people had other ideas and some of them had ideas like me. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was just how old I was, but I felt change coming, an idea that things were going to change in a progressively better way. I don’t know people who think that way now.
At the same time as this idea of some non-specific progress I was becoming more aware of the past, from the grass mound at Avebury I’d drive past on the A4 going up to London to the fantastic vision of Brunel’s Paddington station, giving the ultimate lie to the gimcrackery of steampunk. Some of the trains I got back home were ancient, especially on the Sunday service to Westbury, but all of them had a certain feel about them, that they were taking me somewhere special. Not to Trowbridge where I lived, not to Westbury where the fast train junction was. But to the future, by way of the past. I wrote this a couple of years ago, mostly. But it speaks with the same voice I think I had back then.
Late Train Out of Paddington
When I’d been to an interview for university
One year or another a long time ago,
I’d stay with my step-sister in Notting Hill.
She was ten years older than me
Doing Law after her PhD and going back
I’d get a late train out of Paddington.
I’d come up on the Thursday and wait for them to get home.
They had a light for burglars that came on by itself
So I could never tell if they were at home or not.
Often I hoped they were out so I could drink
In the Sun In Splendour, me with a book,
An actor from a TV cop show with his book too.
One night a woman came in asking about her friend
Who’d killed himself; No-one said they knew
Who she was talking about until she’d gone.
I’d smoked strong cigarettes and gone to a Russian bistro
Or we’d go to Geales’s for fish just around the corner,
Like everything else worth doing in London then.
I put my brass Zippo lighter on top of my cigarettes on the table.
I’d eaten broccoli quiche and good bread and butter
Cut with a razorlike old knife on thin antique plates.
I’d done my interview on Friday at UCL or Brighton or City
Or somewhere. I didn’t really care;
But I wanted to be in Notting Hill back then.
I didn’t buy any henna for my hair in Portobello.
I didn’t buy a yak hair coat or a broken Anglepoise lamp
I could fix or 1940s French cordorouy trousers with braces off the stalls
But I saw a woman naked when I walked past her bedroom door.
Ten years older than me, an actress in a film
I hadn’t seen. My bare feet silent on the wooden floor.
I couldn’t mention it then. I still can’t now.
I’d drunk red wine and wondered how I was going to live here,
Before the Tube to Paddington, haunted with the ghosts of steam trains
Under Brunel’s airy iron roof, my train on the platform past the sign
Advertising Harlech Television, “Your Station Back Home.”
Sometimes the carriages were so old they had
Wooden windows pulled up by a leather strap.
After I’d found my seat and stowed my bag
And found out where the loo was
I opened my New Musical Express,
Or Sounds, spreading it out on the table
So people could see but really
I watched the white of the tall old houses
Backing on to the tracks.
I remember the hum of the big train flexing,
Then coasting over the points, gathering itself
While it tugged at the skirts of Georgian London,
Then the big quiet push of the diesel when it
Got the scent of open country,
Settling me into my seat
With a bottle of Special Brew from the buffet car.
Actually, better make that two.
Rain slashed the trees as the sun set around Reading;
I got glimpses of strangers’s lives and tried to remember
The two abandoned farmhouses near the tracks.
You and I could have lived in either of them
If I’d ever known where they were.
First I needed to do university, then when I had a job
Whatever it was, when I got paid and when
I’d learned how to fix-up houses,
When there was a different you
And the you I knew then had become someone else
And you were just an infrequent memory;
When I knew you would be. And anyway
Nothing really happened to go that way.
I can still see out of the window and hear the boom
Of the engine as it winds out towards Swindon.
I can see the naked white backs of Georgian houses
From the tracks that carry the late train out of Paddington
In an hour, the first people are coming to look at buying my house. And if I’m selling the house, downsizing, I might as well sell the furniture as well. Some of it or all of it. There isn’t anything really valuable. The most we ever paid for anything was probably the sofa, which was about £800 and that was a mistake. Next most was my red Bauhaus wardrobe, which was about half that, along with the church pew. The wardrobe lives near Ampthill and seems at home there. The pew, well like some other bits of furniture here, that’s a long and different story.
My partner, significant other, my girlfriend, my ex, my whichever and all of these, lives in flat in a converted church in a Glasgow suburb. We bought the pew together, along with a dainty little chest of drawers and a nice little table. Both of them were pine, nineteenth century, not very valuable but rather nicely, finely done.
I still have the big pine cupboard, the pot cupboard and the mahogany table I bought for my first flat in 1986, twenty-seven years ago. The mortgage would have been all paid off now. It seems like almost a lifetime ago and for some people I supposed it is. It’s enough time to be a grandparent, without any unseemly haste. I bought all three of these things in a tiny shop on the north side of Upper Street in Islington, a bit east of the Slug & Lettuce, where I always meant to have breakfast on a Sunday but couldn’t afford it. It was the kind of shop you’d never see there now, but all of Islington was a different place in those days. I think they had a single light bulb to light the whole shop, the single left-over tiny room crammed full of solid old furniture, all of it exactly what I needed. A pine cupboard that looked as if it came from a French farmhouse and maybe it did. A solid Victorian table, a little on the small side that was my kitchen table once and my computer table now. A pot cupboard that never really worked out, just a little bit not deep enough to work as a set of shelves with doors to hide them.
The thing is, these things are mine. It’s not just I’ve had them for years. I found these things. I went to the shop, the little lock-up that was squatting in Upper Street before the rents went sky-high, when impossibly enough the landlord couldn’t get anyone to take the retail space near the King’s Head. I’ve moved them around from my flat to north of the park, to Abbots Langley, to Yoxford and now to here in Tunstall. I think I’ll sell the pot cupboard, not before time. Truthfully, the pine cupboard has always been too big for anywhere I’ve ever lived. I’ve never had a French farmhouse. I don’t think I ever will and I certainly don’t have a big van to get it there. It would look better painted, a deep flat red, off-white for the top, rubbed back with steel wool and furniture wax. But that might be for someone else’s life, someone else’s kitchen. I hope they love it too.
That kind of Islington is long gone, the same way I’m long gone from there. I don’t know what happened to those two guys selling really nice furniture, cash only, under their single lightbulb, without a till or even a heater in that tiny windowless shop on Upper Street. Except actually, I do.