Late afternoon, early April, London, I have just been decanted from the 52 bus outside Willesden library. I am wearing what has become my second skin of late since coming back from India, a puffer jacket, it keeps off the April chill & the wind blowing across the concrete & paving stones and tarmac as I walk. I also sport a blue wooly hat, as I pass the library I check my reflection in the tall glass of the library windows, I think I look rather cool in that hat, rakish even, or so I imagine, wooly hat tilted back, forehead tanned, a healthy tuft of grey hair protrudes from under the front of my hat, for some reason I feel the need to demonstrate to any potential passer by that my hat doesn’t hide a bald pate, but instead a healthy scalp, but then it’s absurd of course, ( who really looks? ) busy lives, busy people, wrapped up in their own stories as much as I am in my own. My moment of feeling cool is rudely brought to a close by a remembrance, that would be lost on anyone under fifty & not a Brit, I think of Benny from the seventies soap, Crossroads*. Maybe I look more like Benny, the bumbling simpleton than a rakish urban silver fox. Oh well, fuck it, who really cares, other than me?
I continue walking along the High Road, past fast food joints, down at heel local stores, past an old Irish bar, with the de rigueur old Irish fella standing at the doorway, drawing on his cigarette, a fag break between pints of Guinness. In a momentary glance I notice his glassy eyed stare, his tired eyes and imagine him daydreaming of far away days in the Emerald Isle.
My stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten, just ahead is a Caribbean takeaway, whilst six months in India have cured me for the foreseeable future of any desire for Indian curry a West Indian curry is all together a different and alluring prospect. I open the door and step in.
Behind the counter stands a West Indian chap, probably in his sixties. We face each other, he looks towards me, I look back to him, I glance up at the menu pinned to the wall. I settle on Goat Curry*, rice & peas*, and for good measure and to nibble on the way home a lamb patty*.
Behind the counter he passes my order hastily scribbled on a scrap of paper through a serving hatch, an arm grabs it and in moments I hear the clatter of pans in the kitchen. As I fix my gaze through the serving hatch I can see a lady, of similar years to the gentleman, sporting a nylon housecoat, a hairnet. These two are clearly a team, husband front of house, wife in the engine room. Cooking up the Caribbean, in a little take away joint sandwiched between the Irish bar & a mini cab office.
As I wait for my food I survey the cafe, aged formica, glass food cabinet, old notices pinned to older walls. An autographed publicity shot of a once was boxer, faded, curled at the edges, West Indian roots pinned to a London wall, hanging on in there.
To break the quietness and to engage this man who I find something gentle and sweet in I pipe up, How long have you had this place for? He looks up into the distance, as though looking backwards in time, and its a long way to look, “Mmmmmm………….. its twenty six years he says. But its not the same anymore. Once it was busy, lots of people, lots of customers, but they’ve gone now, moved away”. Wistfully he continues that look into empty air, to long ago. Not the same he repeats. I look into those Caribbean eyes, a little cloudy now, looking far and feel a little sadness for him, his thoughts in a yesterday.
A few minutes later an arm appears through the hatch holding out a plastic bag with my dinner. I pay, say thank you and trundle off down the road. As I step through the rain splattered pavements I pass a now closed bar “The Crazy Cock” an east European joint, I notice beneath the fading signage and the bill posters that underneath are the remains of the previous incarnation, on a green, background in Gaelic script, Pog Mo Thoin, Kiss my Arse in Gaelic, this bar moves from Irish to East European, it will be reincarnated no doubt as something else in the near future.
London even here in these un glam streets is a rather wonderful City, a City at its best. For me its not the capital of Brexit Britain but instead somewhere very different. It is a melting pot, a home to all and sundry from everywhere, it has been home to Irish, to East Europeans, to countless waves of immigrants from all the corners of the World for ever, that’s what I love about the place, its diversity, its possibility, each wave brings new blood and new colour, it takes them in and whilst it may not always be the friendliest of places it nevertheless becomes a place to reinvent yourself, it continues to move, and you can move with it. But it is not a place to remain rooted in the past. Stay with the past and you become lost there, out of time.
And as my feet continue to trudge along the wet April pavements of NW2 I come to the conclusion that those memories we all have, nostalgia, for yesterdays are best viewed for what they were, moments in time. That it’s good to think of them like walking along the street & unexpectedly bumping in to an old lost friend or a lover you haven’t seen in a long while. That when you meet them you greet them with a smile, an embrace, most of all with warmth, for sweet memories shared, and that then when you part as old friends or lovers must at some point, you head in separate directions, off you go, warmed just a little by what was, happy for being here in the present, and with an endless curiosity for what is to be discovered on the journey ahead.
*Benny from Crossroads
*Rice an Peas