I love Saturday mornings. Quoting freely from Stephen King, they have an air of unexpressed potential, something close to the first day of the summer school holidays: the working week is just gone and all that unfolds ahead is two days of utter, complete liberty. Things will get worse as the weekend progresses, with chores and the usual, inevitable, preparations for the looming week – ironing shirts, doing the laundry, that sort of things – but Saturday mornings – the earlier the better – are just pure gold.
In the past few weeks I made a concerted effort to make the most out of them. Whenever the weather allows it, I’m normally out and about at as early as 7:30 AM, bound for somewhere in West London. I might not like the city, but I’ve found out that at this early hour even London seems to be somewhere less crowded, less franchised, its spirit – whatever of it that hasn’t been sold off – more visible.
London isn’t a city of early birds. Only by the time I’m on my way back I start encountering more people than the odd jogger or dog walker; in the meantime, the streets are pretty much mine to roam. In my last outing I set off from my house, following in reverse the route of the planes coming to land at Heathrow, hearing nothing but the tap of my feet and the occasional whirl of the jets above.
I followed the main arteries, even though they are nothing but a dual carriageway, towards Shepherd’s Bush, crossing the road whenever I felt, safe in the knowledge that no British cop would arrest me for jaywalking. Before me, the opulence of Chiswick, with its Porsches and shops advertising artisanal lattes, gave way to the grittier, more human surroundings of Shepherd’s Bush, but for a brief interlude made of new apartment buildings being erected where council housing used to be. I guessed how many of the former tenants would be buying one of the überhaus on sale, replied myself – none – and pressed on.
Shepherd’s Bush looked exactly as it was when I lived there. The market by the Tube was opening, still escaping the orgy of redevelopment that wanted the East Indians and Punjabis out, replaced by more ‘artisanal’ franchises. Posters advertising sound systems and MC battles still crowded the boarded-up windows of pubs that were forced shut by tax hikes. I liked the fact that roughly half of the slogans and of the phrases made little or no sense to me: something, in this city where everything is becoming sanitized, packaged and sold to the mainstream, is still reserved to a small community of its dwellers and reads foreign, exotic, to everyone else.
Saturday and Sunday mornings, in Shepherd’s Bush, are animated by the timeless figures of Ethiopian Coptic Christians – faithful and clergymen alike – en route to somewhere, and this time it was no difference. I’ve seen them many times, looking irresistibly alien in their colourful robes, white shawls and saffron cloaks, walking besides the signs of Vue cinema, the Foxtons real estate agency and the M&S shop by the petrol station. Somewhere there must be an Ethiopian church, a place I’m yet to find and visit: another small mystery in this corner of the city.
A roundabout is all that separates Shepherd’s Bush to Holland Park, but it could be a different country. Here are mansions, diplomatic missions and cobbled mews where you’d expect young Beckham to be shooting other Beckhams for the next, inevitable, Burberry collection. Holland Park avenue is one of my favourites in the morning, with its tall trees that remind me of the wide corsi of the Juvarran Turin, only without trams but with a hell of a lot more Range Rovers.
I originally intended to continue onwards to Notting Hill, but then decided to change, turning right to visit the park that gives the name to the neighbourhood. I had memories of a quaint affair, muddy at times, where expensive dogs roamed and joggers strolled in their base layers.
No pedigreed quadrupeds were about, and I found myself staring at a bronze stele adorned with delicate, oriental characters: the entrance of the Kyoto garden, financed by a plethora of Japanese companies. A small addendum, called the Fukushima garden, was created as a token of gratitude to Britain for its assistance to Japan in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake of 2011 and dedicated to meditation.
I continued onwards, thinking with affection to that country that creates gardens to thank friends, and I was in this state of blissful meditation when a peacock appeared next to a pen, strolled past is opening as if it was the most natural thing to do, and went through the pergola of the orangery of Holland House, its beautiful tale trailing behind like the train of a bride’s dress. I snapped a picture with my old phone and then rubbed my eyes. Yes, this is London.