Training for a trekking in the Tian Shan doesn’t come easily in London. It’s flat and almost wholly urban, something, I am told, that is at odd with walking for days through woods, moraines, rock fields and the occasional glacier. But, if London is where you live, and you can’t afford a trip out to Scotland every weekend, that’ll have to do.
So it happens that, whenever time and weather allow it, I’m out and about, clocking mile after mile on London’s omnipresent concrete-slab pavement, getting my feet and legs re-acquainted with the feeling of doing 14 km’s at the same speed of the Grande Armée en route to Moscow (only, I hope, with more auspicious results). The missions always start early, at 7AM or thereabouts, so that I can be back home before the latte-and-strollers posse wriggles out of bed and into the nearest organic café.
Somebody, God knows who, said that you should never meet your childhood hero, a lesson I’ve scrupulously adhered to (sorry Neil Armstrong), applying it even to to housing: never return to where you lived before, unless forced by work or by the lure of alcohol. Until today, that is.
You see, doing 14k a week, every weekend, comes with a problem, and that problem is where the hell to go. I get bored easily, so doing the same route time and time again is no good; and, to complicate matters further, I need to obey to the unwritten code of behaviour of the Londoner, real or fake as he/she might be. Imagine a big, leather-bound volume whose rule no. 1 is Thou shalt not cross the river. North Londoners stay north, and those who mysteriously chose (or were born) on the wrong bank will remain down there. Granted, I’ve been to Richmond a couple of times, and I’ve got a hunch that somebody from Putney sneaks into Fulham every day, but the rule is largely respected. All this goes to say that, one fine day, I stepped out the door, ready for my walk, contemplated the options – or lack thereof – and thought Screw it, I’m going to Kensal Rise.
Kensal Rise is where I first stayed when I moved to London to study. It was meant to be a semester, it turned out to last 5 years – and counting. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was a great time, though I didn’t return to the Rise anymore, faithful to my own predicament.
Between my doorstep and Kensal Rise lies Acton. Now, Acton always sounded, to me, a little rough. When my Enlightened Employer deemed wise to give me shift work I cycled through Acton pretty much every night, peddling to the sound of my own breath as I rode towards another 4.45 AM start. During the week only foxes would witness my passing, registering the blur of yellow Lycra and flashing LED lights with radar-like movements of their ears. Weekends, though, were a completely different spectacle. I paraded past a palisade of slutty nightclubs, outside of which would be parked riot vans, their blue lights so bright that I could read my Garmin without effort, serenaded by choirs of profanities and curses as the cops were busy arresting, Mace-ing and shoving intoxicated revellers into the awaiting vans.
Today was no different. It was a tad too late for the swearing-and-cuffing business, but, still, I could follow a path of vandalism and anti-social behaviour quite clearly, much like Crocodile Dundee would follow a reptile through the bush. It started outside the Piri-Piri chicken corner shop, its window smashed in three points and summarily held together with gaffer tape; it continued across the junction and on the pavement where I was standing (more shattered glass, bottles and cans) and ended – like an unwanted baby – on the doorstep of a smart condo, where the stabbing had taken place. The area was still cordoned with blue-and-white tape, and a patrol car stood on the kerb, the ribbon knotted to its roof. I wondered how many cops had the task to stand guard to a Friday night crime scene, answered (many) and moved on.
The aftermath of yet another night of urban warfare gave way to someplace I’d never seen in London: a real industrial estate, with workshops that hadn’t been converted yet in hipster pads, but where it was still possible to see working men in overalls, having the first brew of the day. Somewhere, in this city, stuff is still being manufactured.
Kensal rise followed hot on the heels of sprawling Willesden Junction, and it arrived with its leafy streets and acute pangs of nostalgia. To you and anyone else, Kensal Rise is a nondescript North-west London suburb, an Overground station, and a high street 400 meters long. But what made it interesting to me were its demographics.
Whilst other areas had some specific peculiarities, Kensal Rise was as shape-shifting as a chameleon. It borrowed from Acton and Ealing’s central European matter-of-factness; from Ladbroke grove came the Caribbean vibes, and from Hampstead came nothing, thank God for that. It mixed all this with a lively Brazilian community and a substrate of autochthones that, by far and large, were amongst the best specimen of white Brits I’d ever seen. It might’ve been the proximity of the Grand Union Canal and its houseboats, but none of that parochialism that rose to prominence with the recent Brexit vote – Daily Mail, UKIP and all that garbage – was visible, and neither were the pink trousers and SUVs that are the ID card of the posh. The Kensal Rise Anglo-Saxons were almost always humorous, respectful, well travelled and open-minded; they applied to politics and religion the same concept they used for genitals: everyone have them, but there’s no need to show them around.
I lived in a terraced house that was the quintessence of London’s migration: ground floor hosted a well-off Milanese-Ethiopian girl on university exchange and a Polish-Nigerian couple. Upstairs were a secluded Czech guy and yet another married couple, this time Albanian-Latvian. Finally, in the attic, was me. The crew was foreign, but the house was exquisitely British: the kitchen was minuscule, carpets covered every possible surface, insulation was patchy at best and water pressure in the only bathroom (well, the Pole-Nigerians had their ensuite) was non-existent. My attic was illegal, had a small window covered in Plexiglas, cost £400 a month and had no heating. Still, I loved it.
We were a ship governed by women: the Polish girl was the absolute leader of her mixed couple (and of her husband’s group of friends, whom she often put in line whenever the Nigerian Guinness bottles spilled on the floor). But the true master of the whole house was the Latvian girl. Her husband was a polite, soft-spoken Albanian plumber who, like most of his generation, Zodiac’ed across the channel to Otranto, spoke good Italian and moved to London when he met his wife-to-be, and had a quiet adoration for her, our very own Mrs Thatcher. She led from the front the charge to keep the house in order, running the weekly cleaning rota, ensuring that everyone had access to the shower and repairing faulty equipment, all whilst pursuing a degree in Psychology and working in a café at the BBC offices. They made an unlikely match, but I adored them and they made my permanence enjoyable.
I left 5 years ago, and never returned. I lost contact with everyone in the house, something that didn’t happen on purpose but was, instead, a by-product of the transient life in London’s shared accommodation. I turned the corner of my street, and looked out for my old house. Everything in the street was how I’d left it – immaculate, squeaky clean – until I saw a sagging, blackened roof, covered in moss, and a patch of garden so overgrown that it blocked the entrance and peeped from behind the Beemer parked outside it. I checked the door numbers around and, yes, it was 41. My home. Abandoned.
I sought refuge in the high street café I once stopped at every day, unchanged for the pricier espressos, and sat in bewilderment. I knew the Milanese girl left for home soon after I went, but what about the Polish-Nigerian couple? What about the Czech guy? And, more importantly, what about my Albanian-Latvian friends? What happened to them? I sat outside, in the cool breeze, and Johnny Cash filtered through the open doors and windows. ’Cause life goes on and so will I Johnny said. I got up, paid and went on.