Metroland – the departure for 1953 leaves from Platform 4


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Dear Readers, I did not feel like writing a review of the Drury Lane production of 42nd Street as that day there was a terrorist attack in London, and then there was a terrible General Election and then, just at the moment I was preparing to write a review of the excellent Ray Gelato & Claire Martin at Pizza Express Dean Street, the Grenfell Tower fire happened.  Everything felt rather serious and depressed in London, and writing about musicals and jazz felt a flippant frippery so I decided to not write about it and instead I decided to make a break for the border and basically I’ve been and gone and bought a house in Zone 9.

Zone 9?

Yes.  Up until now a fictional land, it turns out that Zone 9 is an actual place and no, you do not need a passport to get there you need £7.00 from Baker Street at peak times, a strong coffee and a good book.   This is what happens when you are two adults and have two children and two bedrooms in a flat and someone turns to you and tells you to get your flat valued and you think why not and then a man comes round with a receding hairline and a red tie and gives you a valuation and your jaw drops to the (cheaply laminated) floor and you realise that in five years it nearly doubled and how could it nearly double when you’ve not replaced the bathroom or painted the kitchen and why not get a house somewhere else  with double the square footage for the same money somewhere like ZONE 9.

In Zone 9 they have flower bloom contests in the high street.  No one steals the flowers.

In Zone 9 a man raised his hat yesterday and said “Good Morning” and I nearly tipped the double buggy off the pavement in shock.

In Zone 9 you must make realistic preparations.  Remember those old friends who moved out of Highbury to Bishops Stortford and who would send faux-cheery texts to London friends exclaiming “Come and see us – we’re only 35 minutes from King Cross!” or similar, inviting you to chilly barbecues in cul-de-sacs? Then you realised it was in fact 45 minutes and it was from Liverpool Street, and you’d have to drive because the journey was too long, and that would mean drinking lime juice cordial for five hours at a barbecue with people you don’t know because you had the car.  If you move to Zone 9, don’t be like them.  It’s one of the truisms of leaving London: no one will visit you.  They’re too busy.  Don’t pretend you’re “just round the corner!”.  Your friends aren’t idiots.  They would probably not be your friends if they were.  No Londoner will visit.  EVER.  Get used to it.  In Zone 9, don’t be like those people who moved to Bishops Stortford.  Go in twice a week and drink gin until you fall over somewhere near the Old Street roundabout, because that is London at her finest.  Then return to bucolic pathways in Buckinghamshire via the 10.35 from Baker Street.  Be like that person.

In Zone 9 the tube tannoy tells you that the “train will be here in a minute ladies and gentlemen just a minute ladies and gentlemen she’s just coming out of the sidings”. In Zone 9 tube trains are gendered.

In Zone 9 kids ride bicycles up and down and up and down and up and down on the road outside our house and I fear they may be run over but then they aren’t run over because there are hardly any cars.

In Zone 9 I walk through a series of primrose covered and blackberry bush-lined tiny grassed pedestrian lanes to get to the station to get the train that is gendered.

We have stairs.  I’ve never had stairs as have lived in flats since 1994.  How do you hoover them?

But in Zone 9, they’re going backwards; the Metropolitan line runs vintage steam days on our section of the line, so patrons can suck up the air of yesteryear Metroland and eat cake on the way to Harrow-on-the-Hill on occasional Sundays.  If you don’t behave they make you listen to 1940s lady singing groups.     The past hasn’t changed, in case you were wondering.  The old locomotives don’t have access for disabled people or the blind.   You get on the train with a bowler hat on and don’t grumble.  You get all the way into Baker Street wondering whether they’ll ever invent the pill or cure smallpox.  You can live in 1953 for about 45 minutes (TFL timetable permitting).  The stock is old, brushed mahogany, British Rail red seats.  You can pretend you’re being evacuated! (Extra £5.59 inc cake).  Truly, you can.  One of the biggest jokes in our family was that Dad was evacuated in the first few days of war and didn’t even get sent anywhere off the tube map because they dumped him in Moor Park (Krap Room backwards) for 6 weeks.  Heritage trips are marvellously popular with the under-3’s, particularly as they zoom into the Thomas the Tank Engine phase.  There will be “enticing” tea and cake supplied by a lady called “Mrs Jones” and a series of costumed characters which will be worth turning up for alone as nothing is more pleasurable than seeing a modern day ticket inspector dressed up as a wartime Underground worker ferrying around gas masks and bleating out worrisome data on whether or not we’re all going to get bombed next Thursday.  The pop up shop will be selling a selection of Metropolitan Line gifts!  These will include : a bag full of rush hour halitosis, a delay in the rain due to a person under a train at Preston Road, and getting flashed at by an old fella at Croxley.  But the past – the past is what they’re really selling at modern day prices (£25 for adult ticket, including tea from the illustrious Mrs Jones ) and last time I looked luring people back to the 1950s is not advised, because the Leave Campaign tried to sell us that bunkum last summer and just look what happened.

Am I going forwards or backwards?  Do we move further into modernity the closer we get to Zone 1 or, with its plethora of young children and educational facilities and spaces, further into the future when we head out of town?  Will London be left with the children of the very rich and the very poor and not a lot in between?  30 miles from Marylebone, Metroland has a key truth ringing through it : it has consistently lived up to its social and cultural promises.  The air is cleaner, the schools better, the gardens a little slice of suburban utopia that Zone 3 flat dwellers may only dream of.  How long can we continue to say any of this of Central London?  How it has failed us; the average earners, the key workers with the shoes that need re-heeling every 3 months from walking city streets, the Pret a Manger lunchers, and their children, with scuffed knee caps running and shouting in the street. Arriving at Baker Street, one is aware of the pulse of life picking up, of the rhythms of the city strumming through us again – for many of us it is returning to our old homes and haunts, catching glimpses of our twenty-something years through the sidings and the signs.   Yet, we don’t live in the centre any more, and even if we could try to go back at £25 a pop with tea and cake on the way, wouldn’t we be remembering it wrongly? Wouldn’t we find new, convenient ways to remember an antiseptic, anodyne version of it? Almost certainly, because if one thing’s clear it’s that in Brexit Britain nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.