Following on from the "Reminisce" entry I did recently, I realised that I actually started keeping a diary exactly ten years ago. This has been a brilliant thing to crack open again - revealing a lot of embarrassing truths about myself I probably wouldn't have been comfortable being made aware of at the time, such as that I was an ungrateful sod who was actually having an astonishingly platinum streak in my life without being aware of it. True, I didn't have much money, but I was at the start of a great relationship, was socially very active with a lot of friends, and I had freedom to consider all kinds of options which would be riskier now. Youth is wasted on the young.
This extract from almost exactly ten years ago today highlights an unreal little moment for me, on the way home from a book launch in Central London:
"On the Number 73 bus home, we are treated to Duke Baysie working as the bus conductor, checking our tickets and honking and wheezing with style and aplomb on his mouth organ. I assure you this actually happened, and that he has to pay his rent just like the rest of us in London. Or maybe I dreamt it, or it was a figment of my tired imagination. We get off the bus to the sound of “Killing Me Softly” wailing bluesily in the background."
For a long while now I assumed that this memory - which has stayed with me - must have been exaggerated over the years, but it's there in black and white much as I remember it. I know Duke Baysee regularly worked as a bus conductor to fund his records, but just having him on the bus rasping his harmonica into the dark of the East London night always felt great.
A better find is an entry talking about visiting my birthplace for a last look around before I leave the country, as at that point I was unsure if I would ever return or not. I reproduce that below - it's not an amazing piece of writing, and it was produced incredibly quickly, but it's faithful. It describes a lot of things about my home town I might not think to include if I was asked to do a quick entry now. And it almost tempts me into the idea of keeping a written journal again, but I stopped because it got repetitive and I complained too much and too often. All the entires about undelivered packages and unexpected bills or replacement bus services made me realise that sometimes we only pick up the pen to write in our diaries when nobody else wants to listen. Including our future selves. Also, I fear that if I began again now I couldn't compete with my youth. Better to keep a record when ten thousand possibilities seem to be orbiting you at once.
Yesterday we both travelled back to the house I grew up in (and left at the age of 10) for “one last look”. I’ve yet to really decide in my head why I wanted to do it. What might have helped, however, was the fact that the weekend was drawing to a close, and we both had precious little money (a problem that’s been dragging on for some time as we desperately try to save funds for Australia and live in London at the same time).
Taking the Central Line outbound through East London for Hainault, the tube train dips underground and rises overground numerous times, before finally surfacing for good at Newbury Park. Pebbledashed terraced houses suddenly become part of the landscape, the dirty brown brick Victorian terraces banished to the city. The train even runs through a golf course at Fairlop –though as I pointed out to Amanda, when I was growing up it was just a plain nobody ever used for anything much apart from flying kites and walking dogs. These days you can sometimes see golfers shading their eyes from the sun and whacking golf balls into the far distance while you’re sat on the tube, a sight I’m sure has confused plenty of people who have fallen asleep and woken up at the far end of the line.
Hainault itself always seems bizarrely twee and slightly out of time, dominated as it is by World War II prefabs and houses that have been smeared in pebble dash but otherwise appear to have no common unified design. It’s made few concessions to modernisation at all. It doesn’t have a supermarket, but it does have a Spar, a Dewhurst’s butchers, and a greengrocers, as well as a nice parade of box-shaped neighbourhood shops with permanent marker graffiti all over them. The churches all appear to have been built in the sixties and are the shape of upturned skips with spires sticking out. The planners who decided upon Hainault’s surrounds also obviously liked the idea of dotting little green squares of land here and there which were too small to be used as parks, too big to be considered mere verges. Erected on them still are the familiar “No Ball Games Please” plaques, last seen on a St Etienne album sleeve near you, and last ignored by any right-thinking child with a football.
Disappointingly, however, Hainault also used to look more like Reykjavik than any suburb of London in my youth, largely because many of the buildings were constructed out of corrugated iron, much like the design of Iceland’s brilliant city. Some planner, however (who will now forever be in my bad books) has obviously decided that this just wasn’t good enough, and the corrugated steel on all the council houses has now had brick placed around it on the outside. So now the council estates look like every other in the suburbs across the land, rather than anything remotely foreign or exotic. Somebody obviously deserves to die for this decision, though to be fair it might have been undertaken for structural reasons. Most of the prefabs were only supposed to be inhabited for a few years, and few were built to last for long.
We finally reach my old house in Dryden Close. I note with disappointment the fact that, unlike my childhood memories of the place, no children are playing on the street. Little has changed around the front of the house, though. It’s (as I already knew) a very bog-standard terraced house. What’s striking, though, is just how small it really is. A slither of pebbledashed wall between two other houses, some semi-circular bay windows jutting out. The crazy paving my Dad laid down when I was a child is still present and correct in the front garden, with a small circle of earth in the centre where a miniscule bush now grows.
Amanda stares at the house with a puzzled expression. I don’t know what she was expecting, but it does admittedly seem perplexing that a family with four children could have lived here, even sharing bedrooms. We sneak around to the back alley to see if we can peek into the garden. Everything’s changed. The swing I used as a child has gone, and the new owner has a compost heap and has planted some fir trees there instead. He or she has also erected a higher fence so it’s harder to see in. Over the back of the alley where there used to be playing fields for Saturday football teams, there’s now a housing estate.
We retreat to the local pub (which I never got old enough in Hainault to ever actually use) to have a quick drink so I can pointlessly wallow in nostalgia.
“What do you think of it?” I ask Amanda.
“It’s like every other London suburb, it’s probably like Pinner or Hounslow”, she replies.
“No… no, it’s different, look, everyone in this pub knows each other”, I retort. And indeed they do, though that may have a lot to do with the fact that it’s the only pub for some distance. “What do you reckon would have happened if my family had stayed here?”, I ask, dreaming of some sort of non-city styled neighbourhood community.
“I reckon you’d never have gone to university,” she replies, which is a fair comment given that the local comprehensive here has an appalling track record, compared to the slightly-below average one of the school I ended up in. We drink up and go, catching the next London bound train just as a cold, wintry downpour starts.
We arrive home to find that a band from Manchester (whose name presently escapes me) are gigging in London for the next few days and also using the recording studio downstairs, produced and catered for by my housemate Jon. A flock of Mancs with indie haircuts clutter around the kitchen and the lounge, one of them arguing loudly with his girlfriend on the mobile phone. Amanda falls asleep way before I do.