Saturday, 16 September 2017

London Calling

For reasons that neither Gill nor I can understand all three of our children have opted to live in London. It's a decision guaranteed to result in outbursts of irrational parental anxiety. Are our concerns entirely unjustified? A couple of weeks ago our youngest's drink was spiked on a night out with friends. She got home in one piece thanks to the kindness of a passing cyclist who called a taxi on her behalf after she collapsed at a bustop. 

The morning after the five of us had enjoyed a lovely meal together at a pub in Brockley, we woke to the news that an incendiary device had just exploded on a train on the district line. We immediately phoned Laura as that's the line she commutes on. She expressed surprise, explained that she was running late, then mused that the incident would provide a handy excuse to explain her tardiness! We are going to have to toughen-up, there is no way our off-spring are going to re-locate to Frinton-on-Sea or Stranraer on the basis that it's safer.

So, can we find some positives about our apparent fate to be regular visitors to the world capital of diesel particulates? Few spring to mind. However, we have become inadvertent experts on London campsites; I suppose for a capital city it's quite well provided with them. The two in the north situated in Lea Valley have little to choose between them; both are good, have a semi-rural ambiance, and are well connected to Central by public transport. From our perspective the site at Ponders End edges it simply because the bus interchange at Walthamstowe feels a tad safer after dark than the one at Edmonton Green which connects to the other site. When Laura was living in Greenwich we used the Caravan Club's Abbey Wood site. It too is well managed and situated in a pleasant wooded area, made somewhat unique by being home to a flock of rowdy escaped parakeets. This time, however, we have used the Crystal Palace site, probably the most picturesque so far, and having the advantage that Crystal Palace is a stylish suburb and its eponymous park both beautiful and historically interesting

The slender grid of the Crystal Palace radio mast towers over the site. At 717 feet it is the fifth tallest structure in the city. Though built in the mid 1950s it looks older, like a leftover from a set for H G Wells 'War of the Worlds'. To reach Crystal Palace station from the campsite you need to cross the park. There are spectacular views towards the Kentish countryside beyond the four tall floodlight arrays of Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace F.C. The local station was built to serve the pleasure ground developed around Paxton's relocated 'Crystal Palace' which moved here from Hyde Park after the Great Exhibition closed in October 1851. The station is an interesting example of early railway architecture having a certain neo-Romanesque chunkiness rather than the soaring cast-iron Gothic cathedrals we you get in the main London stations built a decade or two later.

As for the park itself, it had a slightly melancholic atmosphere, a place of ghosts, where absence predominates. Standing on top of Sydenham hill overlooking the empty, half ruined terraces it is impossible not to reconstruct in your mind's eye how this evening's silvery, thunderous cloudscape might have shimmered across Paxton's gigantic glass roofed pavilion. Little of the astonishing structure remains now following its destruction by fire in 1936 other than a couple of stone sphinxes and a somewhat decrepit statue of a man in a turban. It is as if it never existed.

Yet the building and the exhibition it once hosted represents an important turning point in our history, - the decade in which Britain transformed itself from a leading mercantile nation into a global imperial power. Somehow it felt fitting that hardly anything survives now other than the forlorn figure of a man in a turban - an inadvertent metonym for the unjustly colonised.

Perhaps one positive effect of being fated to be regular visitors to London is it jolts me out of the parochial torpor that tends to descend when trapped for months at home. For people more used to small town culture, London imposes itself upon you leaving a nagging suspicion that not only is 'all life is out there' but it has taken to stalking you personally. The simple act of hopping onto a train immerses you in a series of parallel scripts where strangers' lives are performed before you without interacting, like watching half a dozen film clips simultaneously.

So, during the ten minutes ride from Crystal Palace to Brockley we were entertained by a one-sided high decibel mobile phone conversation between an insufferable 'rah' sitting about three seats up the carriage from us and her friend who really was called 'Bunny'. It's more or less a given that anyone with a friend called Bunny is going to be an upper class twit, like some latter day reincarnation of character from Wodehouse. Bunny's confidante entertained the entire carriage with in-depth resumé of the vicissitudes of her day which she characterised repeatedly as having been 'intense'. Her challenges were manifold, including an intense outbreak of buyer's regret concerning a necklace purchased the previous week at Bloomingdale's, intense irritation at a young man called Henry who had the temerity to cancel two dates within a week at short notice, and an intense today involving a job interview and intricate (intense) travel arrangements. All this she emoted breathlessly in an accent so posh it serrated your brain with interpolations of 'yah', 'cool' and 'omgs'. I managed a sideways glance at the girl as we exited the train. She looked unremarkably beautiful, apart from her expression which managed to pout and scowl simultaneously, like Helena Bonham-Carter with constipation.

It is tempting to engage with London as a human zoo, to observe the absurdities which confront you moment by moment with wry humour. However the city is not benign, often it's edgy; sometimes down right menacing. With the military drafted in to guard public spaces and the 'Met's' detectives reassigned to hunt down an active terrorist cell we were glad to be leaving the place, but unhappy that all three of our off-spring had adopted it as home.

A quick getaway was not an option. Many of South London's arterial roads have been designated 20mph zones, the traffic is nose to tail and the traffic lights seemingly default to red. Progress was so slow, that when a funeral cortege pulled out directly in front of us we actually speeded up, inadvertently benefiting from other road users' tendency to give-way as a mark of respect. The flower-decked hearse and four black limousines swept imperiously through the streets of Lewisham, closely followed by Maisy.

After a little over an hour we reached the M20 and soon we were installed in the Drum Inn's camping field. It looks peaceful, however the village of Stanford is less than half a mile from the M20, which makes it ideal for a stop before a morning tunnel crossing or the ferry, but it does suffer somewhat from road noise. Nevertheless, we pronounced the place a welcome relief from the stress of London.

In the event the assertion proved over-optimistic; halfway across the Channel Gill's Guardian app buzzed, informing her that the main suspect for yesterday's Tube bomb had been apprehended at Dover docks less than an hour before we had arrived. In truth, nowhere in Western Europe is wholly immune from the threat of terrorism. Given there is little as an individual you can do about it, there is no point in becoming anxious....but then there's the kids...

Dover looked peaceful enough,.....

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