Thanks to the sum total of Aer Lingus and the BBC, I’ve seen London from the skies and London from subterranean basements this week. One of the strange things about flying in to London from the West is that the Heathrow flight path double backs on itself, sending aeroplanes way over East London, before turning a tourist-friendly loop which flips back over Canary Wharf, over the Thames, through the City of London and then onto West London and down into Heathrow.
The worst thing about this is realising how ugly the O2 Arena looks, and how it sticks up like a municipal sore thumb on the Thames’s bruised south side, a vast cereal bowl which a petulant child has overturned at breakfast. The only other eyesore on the cloudy horizon is the Millenium Wheel, which looks like a big Hula Hoop. Apart from that it was just like the opening credits to Eastenders. You know when you’re moving towards West London, though. You can tell because you start spotting tennis courts, and sandy-coloured chaps with receding airlines who work for estate agents, and can hear the jaunty clink of Lobbs shoe on Holland Park stone.
In the cabin, it was as if no one had ever travelled in an aeroplane before. “Oh LOOK! I can see SKY!! I think that is the GROUND! THE GROUND!!!! Wembley? Is that Wembley? Frank – WAKE up – look! – it’s Wembley!” and similar enthusiasms reverberated around the aircraft’s shoddy interior. I often have fantasies where I would run out onto the wing before landing, you know, just to see if I could actually hold on and swerve down with the plane as it lands. It would be a bit of a laugh but, then again, it was threatening to do that aged 8 that was probably a contributing factor to my lifelong ban from the British Airways Junior Jet Club. I loved the British Airways Junior Jet Club. Before people worried about nutters flying planes into buildings, British Airways thought it a good idea to get youngsters touring the aeroplane facilities during flights. You could look at life jackets and find out how to use them so you didn’t die in them. You were able to go through the hallowed portal of swish curtain and into the cockpit for the sheer glamour of meeting the captain. He was almost always called Richard or Gregory. Then he would sign your Junior Jet Flying Pass, which was mocked up like a pretend RAF flight book, pat you on the head, wink at milady trolley dolly for a G&T and return back to trying to get us to Majorca for our hols. Those were the days. I used to love it – I’d go into the cockpit and shout “My Grandfather DIED flying one of these! Can I press the buttons?”
Back on land, we went underground on BBC 2 and ended up watching “The Secret History of Our Streets”, a wonderful series which is part of BBC’s London-themed programmes designed to coincide with the Olympics. Each week Charles Booth’s infamous map – so important to late-Victorian sociologists – of 1886 is picked apart, assessed and put back together again, bringing the street up to the present day. All of this is done with a strangely sinister voiceover from actor Steven Mackintosh.
Last night it was the turn of the Caledonian Road, or the Cally as it is known to my husband who grew up there, and who kept pausing the programme every five minutes to show me where various episodes of his colourful youth had played out in the back streets of Kings Cross. He is a constantly renewable source of anecdotage. He’ll always say that Kings Cross was never so bad as everyone said at all, that the prostitutes were quite nice ladies who never bothered him on an evening constitutional and then he’ll tell you something that would make your eyes pop out of your head and make you glad you were raised in Hertfordshire. The Caledonian Road appears to be currently in the hands of a profiteer called Andrew who has bought up a vast portfolio by snapping up shops and building weird storeys on top of the Co-op, only to ask for planning permission about three years later. One of the oddest things Andrew has done is to build flatlets into a 3,500 sq ft area beneath the Caledonian Road, which he rents out to hapless Australians and desperate waiters for £300 a week. These strange subterranean shitholes are a mixture of bedsit squalor and Victorian working class chic.
According to Andrew, who has dark Cypriot hair that never moves, local authority planning law dictates that whilst a kitchen need not have any windows, the bedrooms and living rooms must have enough light “to read a newspaper by”. Andrew looks as if the only paper he has ever read was the “Racing Post” and it is hard to imagine some noble, Islington Council clerk sidling up to any of the windows in these flats to take in a reading of the “Islington Tribunal” of an evening. Because they are peculiar, damp-ridden subterranean hell holes, with horizontal slats of filthy window at the tops of the walls and a bathroom which looks as if half the wall has entirely given up the ghost and is trying to leave the building. Andrew, though, is alarmingly chipper. Well, he would be – he is astonishingly rich – but he is also keen for the British public to see that he is a total twat. He conducted most of his interviews whilst weight-lifting in his blue vest showing off his fab moobs and parading down the Caledonian Road like a nonce. Anyone who walked down the Caledonian Road that camply would usually get beaten up but the rules are different for Andrew; he owns most of it after all, not forgetting that he is entirely surrounded by an evil aura which leaves a wake of black slime behind his Bond Street loafers. When he wasn’t walking up and down the Cally like a tart, he was popping in to see his effusive, overly-giggly “agent” who procures suckers to pay vast rents to live like dormice. “We like people who are happy!” said his agent, stupidly. “We like people who aren’t going to be trouble and who are going to wait for things!”
Yes. Like – the law, or a washing machine – or a well overdue visit from the Council’s environmental department. Surely, it is not legal to build a mini-village under the Caledonian Road and then, perhaps, a year or two down the line ask for planning permission? Surely Islington Council aren’t that remedial. Oh, hang on. I used to work for them – they are. In my day, a bag of sweets was permanently left in the Chief Executive’s kitchen at the Town Hall, in case the increasingly loopy Deputy Leader of the Council started crying or felt weak. There’s no saying of the idiocy of those people. What does it feel like to have the Piccadilly Line zoom close to your head when you are asleep at night? How magnificently stupid is it to build a kitchen with low quality plumbing close to rat infestations? “We just want to fill them! We just want to rent them!” said the monochrome Andrew, stopping short of actually rubbing his hands together with glee and salivating. Yes, dear, I felt like saying. I am very impressed by your rabbit hutches full of poor people paying twice as much for buildings that are only half-domesticated. But I have to go now because I’m due back in the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.
What next for Andrew? Is he going to turn all of North London’s A roads into 1836-style housing? Is he going to start wearing a bonnet and a Victorian shawl and inject some cholera for a really genuine experience? I suppose it puts the social back into social housing if you open you bathroom door and find your neighbour from the flat next door on the loo. But this is unregulated, slightly-decriminalised, private renting. This man makes Peter Rachman looks like Bob Geldof. Is he going to burrow further south west and build a massive car-park-and-bedsit complex under Buckingham Palace? Will I, the next time I go to the Underground station, find that instead of a train to Morden, Andrew is sitting there, all dreadful white teeth and camp velvet jackets, renting out tube seats at £20 a pop?
As the Caledonian Road smartens up its southern end into European-friendly touches of coffee bars and high-end hairdressers, will the eyes of any of the visitors from Paris or Brussels end up seeing the mawkish horror of what Andrew is creating below? Is this the right time for one of my clumsy late-Victorian parallels (of course it is) : is this another Wellsian dystopia, with Morlocks cramped downstairs (thank you Andrew) and the mad, vegan Elois of Caledonian Road hovering above and flinging flowers about? I think it might be. I am going to post Andrew a copy of The Time Machine so he can see by himself what he’s creating and he’ll poo his velvet britches. All I’ve got to do is put it in an envelope and address it to : “1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 ,16, 17, 18 ,19, 20, 21 & 22 Caledonian Road”.
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