Kentonians know that Kenton is in Harrow and that Harrow is in Middlesex. And Middlesex is in the "Home Counties" - though no one is daft enough to write "Home Counties" on an envelope or to use up valuable characters and squeeze "Home Counties" into the address boxes on ebay and PayPal. We knew this because Kenton has an HA postal code.
Real London places have compass points at the start of their postal codes.
For example. NW, N, SW, E, S, W1, NW9, N5, SW9.
I think you have the idea. I don't think I need to go on. This postal code thing is so efficient that if you just wrote a full post code on a letter the people sorting the mail would know which five households it referred to. Just five households! All 18 million households across the UK postcoded using six alphanumerics into cosy bundles of five.
Back in the day, if a space alien, or even Sigourney Weaver for that matter, popped my name followed by HA3 9PS onto a Alpha Centuri postcard and then gave it to the folk at a General Post Office then that post card was guaranteed to reach me generating a smile and a chortle at their short interplanetary holiday greeting. The outer spacers wouldn't even have needed to have broken their biological quarantine to lick a stamp and stick it on, as long as I paid the postman when he asked for the delivery money.
Crikey, how good is that? What happens these days when I type a dot com instead of a dot co into the search / menu bar is that google chucks a hissy fit and automatically runs a "program update - so piss off why don't you" for twenty five minutes.
This geographical precision in knowing where you're at meant that when I lived in Kenton I knew I did not live in London, even though London started less than 600 yards away from my dad's greenhouse (behind Ruskin Gardens). I had to travel to London. On the tube. In fact I went “into London” on the tube. This now seems as bonkers as English families saying they “going over to Europe this year” for their holidays.
In short, I've never lived in London. Yet, I'm a Londoner.
County Hall and Westminster
For a few post graduate summer months I did attend work in London. I commuted in and out to County Hall when the Greater London Council was a tenant and holding on by its fingernails against a budget slashing Conservative Government. My communal socialist office was high up above the river's South Bank and oh oh oh did that room provide a splendid view of Westminster! Although the junior soicalists, like me, had a better view of the corridor than the sweeping Thames vistas reserved for the senior socialists with the best seats. I was part of the Population Studies Group in Room 603, in the first storey of dormer (roofline) windows, third and fourth windows in from the Westminster Bridge corner. At lunchtime I sometimes ate a packed lunch where the entry queues to the London Eye now trail. After lunch we would run statistics on big clunky computer things and assess the thickness of electricity cables needed in Battersea, or pipe diameters in Dagenham, the number of French text books in Bermondsey, twenty, forty, sixty years in the future.
Now I live four thousand miles away. I catch a 747 to get in and out. My lived on the edge and worked in the centre years have passed. I now see and feel London differently, with nostalgic middle aged bloke's eyes.
These days when I'm in London I stay at hotels. It happens. After two decades of it I have had enough. I can't be doing with being polite to my old school, uni and work pals, staying with them why don't I? Eat and drink and leave them is the best policy. Sanity for all. Give me a power shower, endless litres of immediately steaming hot water and the recently released Nelson Mandala-esque freedom to wander naked, beer belly and balls swinging majestically as I trot between the bedroom and bathroom, singing Paul Weller lyrics and while doing so knowing that I am not going to bump into my mate's nineteen year old daughter on the landing, the one I remembered last as a toddler in a Christmas family update email.
However, in any hotel wherever I am in the world, when not in there on work, come the next morning I tend to wake up excited at the coming day's events and the potential sightseeing.
Before the room service breakfast trolley rattles up the corridor my adrenalin starts to flow. Often, I can't get back to sleep (even though I've grown out of hangovers). So I listen to the soothing early morning radio voices and wait for my holiday egg, pork sausage, bacon with horsemeat DNA, beans, toast with more horsemeat DNA and marmalade. And there is no fucking way that I let the twats on the telly disrupt the atmosphere.
The BBC’s Radio Four style newscasts are still preceded by a time check embellished on the hour with the Ding dong ding dong… Ding ding ding ding ding… time thing as smashed out by Big Ben, his family and friends.
After the first dings there's that pregnant pause, that wonderful silence. A whale watching silence. A womb like silence. A nothingness of the cave. In here and I can visualize a hammer coming down Ben's deep baritone shell releasing him from slumber, thwhacked so hard that he sounds out across the world...
Dong... ...Dong... ...Dong...
I am not sure a D, an o, an n, and a g, grouped together to create the word 'Dong' on a computer screen quite does that Big Ben Dong justice. But that dong... oh yes. Big Ben. The sound of London. Ben brings to life the sketch of the Houses of Parliament on the label of the breakfast brown sauce bottle.
Even if I hear a carriage clock tinkling the hours in some back track East African village my mind drifts to the dobbing bells suspended over the home of my British Democracy.
The history of the tune is delightful. In the 1850s the Members of Parliament were getting a new bell tower and office, or something. The head designer took the striking rhyme for their clock bells from a tune created by one William Crotch in 1793. Mr. Crotch was an organ student at Cambridge. (An unfortunate degree to read for a lad with a name as his. You can't make this stuff up.) Ever since the Parliamentary donging has been known as the “Westminster Quarters.” I was told that the Westminster Quarters are chimed with just four bells - an E, a D, a C and a G.
I wonder what they would do if they rebuilt the tower and redid the clock tomorrow.
I think The Clash's “London Calling'” could be a smashing alternative to Big Ben's clanging opener for yesterday’s news. London Calling's got a rich, heavy bass rift and angry young lads chanting,
"London calling to the faraway towns.. The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in, engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin. A nuclear error, but I have no fear, 'cause London is drowning and I, I live by the riveeeerrrrrrrr."
We now know The Clash got the ice age part wrong, because we are supposedly heating up and getting flooded, but yes, London is indeed by the riveeeeeerrrr. Just as was my old office.
Smells Tastes and Book Covers
I believe that it is smells and tastes that evoke the strongest memories, but I've yet to meet anyone who can do odours on the internet. As a second best I can do internet visuals. The picture here below is one of my favourite scenes, Christopher Wren's seventeenth century Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
Saint Pauls is indeed an ecclesiastical gob smacker. It is king marvelous. What happened was that a few years after the city of London people had died from a dodgy dose of Black Death, the survivors then got roasted by the Great Fire. Our special architect, Christopher Wren, wearing his curly white wig, was thus commissioned by London's forefathers, wearing their expensive, yet slightly impractical, silk white stockings, to "do something with that space there, and make it look good this time, pal".
Christopher Wren was the Norman Foster of his day and was finally okayed to build his Cathedral Design v2.3. The one that was not too pagan looking and appropriate to us British Christians.
In the 1940 Bill Brandt shot a black and white photo of St Paul’s rising over the Henkel blitzed ruins and smoke and ash of London. That photo is a classic. It's also copyrighted. So I can't post it here. (Though I might try and sneak a photo of a photo of it in my Bill Brandt exhibition book in.... give me a day or so to dig it up...) But what you can look at is my favourite view of London as painted on a London guide book of 1942. This book was published when London was still up to her eyes in it and the middle classes needed a reminder of what “England” meant. Brian Cook’s the illustrator of that pic.
Brian Cook is now quite a famous chap for those that follow book binding and cover art. Brian took book covering art three steps further than those that book covered before him. Brian pushed wrappers to their limits.
First, he drew pictures that began on the front cover, and the same picture then drifted over the spine, and finished complete and resplendent on the back cover. This was revolutionary in his day. Just one massive picture. (The picture really starts on the back and ends up on the front if you open the book and lay it flat on your table and scan your eyes left to right. Back-spine-front. However, if you’re a gowned person from Arabia, then front-spine-back may match your right to left text reading convention.) Anyhow, Cook’s topographical covers were meant to be a single picture used to cuddle and protect the words within. Quite a new thing in its time.
Second, Brian Cook bled his pictures off the book’s ends and sides. He drew no restricting frames or margins. Not a border in sight and that was a good decade or two before Jackson Pollack was wittering on "There are no borders in my art, there are only edges" on the opening night of his retrospective at the Guggenheim.
The third dust covering ground breaker was that (at least I would like to think that) Brian Cook was on something when he had his crayons out.
Brian captured St Paul’s using vivid yellows, pinks and oranges. Pinks. Oranges. What a trip! Eat your heart out you Fijian Gaugins. We've got Brian in London!
When Brian did the cover for "Chiltern Country" he coloured the roofs on the high street… purple. What's more, no one muttered a single “that's pants that is, it has been PhotoShopped, when I paint I do all my art on the easel” type of complaint. If Brian Cook had used purple in Sir Christopher Wren's day there would have been an artistic outcry, accusations of witchery, hangings at Tyburn, bishops buggering him up the banger in the bursary. Maybe Brian's World War Two contemporaries were more worried about how blitz dust was getting everywhere than they were with having with a bright yellow St Paul’s on the front of their book.
Inside Cohen Porter's don’t 'judge a London guidebook by its Brian Cook dustcover' there is a chapter on St Pauls and St Aldgates and St Everyother Person reads; "St Pauls, with its soaring dome – a striking and widely recognised feature of the London skyline - has arrived in our current troubled times as a symbol of hope and inspiration, of enduring architectural prowess."
What a pretentious git. Down to earth 'sixites kids like me recognise St Pauls as the cathedral we could climb up and into, the one with the gallery running around the inside of the false skin under the famous dome. The Whispering Gallery in the day before global tourist security guard cavity searches meant we could enter a place of worship unmolested and drop sweet wrappers onto the visitors below without getting tasered and put into care. Back then we'd lean right over the handrail, no knowledge of health and safety, and look down onto the altar. While Mrs. Russell next door suffered the onset of vertigo and told us to “be careful” we'd mutter rude phrases onto the wall, while our sisters on the other side of the gallery, with their ears slammed against the cold Portland Stone could listen in to what was said. "Whisper, whisper, we're going to Hamleys next."
Plus St. Paul’s had a crypt. A cracking cathedral. A cathedral kids could “do” things in. Brilliant.
London. Bells and classic sounds. Domes and classic views. Should you stay or should you go? I now do both. I stay in London and listen to The Clash on your iPod. Go to St Paul’s and whisper onto the walls "HA3 9PS"... because HA3 9PS that was my house that was; 62 St Pauls Avenue, Kenton, Harrow, Middlesex. And I had the room at the back, no river view.