by Jude Rogers.
6. Time Lines
Back to London, and spring keeps bedding in. This is the time of year when my birthday arrives too, popping out of the ground like a ceremonial flower, reminding me gently of how time moves on. These days, I’m too old for treasure hunts, party hats, jelly and blancmange, although I still love the childish chance to do something fun, to make a day of it when the year rolls around.
This year, I catch a canal boat with ten friends from Camden Lock to Little Venice. We watch London Zoo’s screeching birds and wild boars, sunburned cyclists and joggers, stuttering power stations and moored homes, as we potter along the water. We return to NW1’s loud colours and sounds an hour and a half later, and walk from there to Hampstead Heath, the green hill to the north as our grassy Pied Piper.
a. I have been to Camden Lock on a Sunday before, but never on a Saturday. I feel as old as the canal. In full rowdy flow, it is like a theme park for ever-so-conservative counterculture, like the West End in rush hour with more dreadlocks and Doc Martens. Goggle-eyed tourists of all ages look around themselves, gawping, as if they were guests at a Victorian freak show, while the eleven of us try and weave our way around the motionlessness. Going past the noodle stalls and tattoo parlours, I remember being seventeen at Glastonbury, wide-eyed at the existence of hippy skirts and tempura, and so my world-weary cynicism softens a little. For a moment, the memory of the magic of other worlds, when yours was once so small, returns.
Past Hawley Street, a chisel-jawed mannequin dressed as St George pouts at us. The sillier substance of the gargoyle masks next to him seems much more at home than his swaggering style.
b. As Camden High Street stretches north, the crowds start to thin, and frayed edges start to show – roughly painted parking signs and awkward graffiti tags that look like signs of frustration rather than fashion. We turn right at Ferdinand Street, and walk through the backstreets. There is where Camden starts to show its different sides – the sleek houses to one flank, crumbling flats on the other.
c. It is strangely quiet off the main drag, even the 24 regularly putters along. A little hexagon corner pub, The Fiddlers Elbow, is peculiarly closed to Saturday drinkers, while huge council estates sit silent behind their scaffolding. Our gaggle of grown-ups, chatting and laughing and making noise on the pavements, feel like a malevolent mob in the heart of the peacefulness.
d. My friends start to laugh at me for taking strange pictures. Andrew laughs at a Dental Prosthetic Centre on Malden Road, my Dan points out the bowls of sprouts sunbathing in front of a corner shop, while Welsh Dan finds an odd rusty post at the end of a market. It intrigues me that I’ve never heard of this market before – Queen’s Crescent Market – and I find out on my phone that it’s one of London’s oldest, serving local people away from the bustle. It is busy, too. Car doors close and open, plane lines streak the sky above, and a long mirror propped against a clothes rail catches my nosy reflection. I resist my love of a bargain, think of my hungry stomach, and follow my friends on.
e. We past a bright pink skip full of rubble and rubbish, and a bright pink poster on a pet shop screaming KITTENS IN NOW, surrounded by tiny guillotined cut-outs of happy dogs’ heads. Further up, their polar opposite glowers from a murky corner. Two plastic signs outside announce that Stanley’s Fish Tackle is open, but inside, all is dark, barricaded by window grids, layers of dust, the absence of a light on. We peer through the squares, give up hope of catching the bait, we move on from the shadows to the promise of sun.
f. As Hampstead Heath approaches, the roads are named after battlegrounds. Cressy Street and Agincourt Road lead us to Constantine Road, and the whiff of empire surges in the fancy bricks and posh houses. Freesias glare brightly out of window boxes, and the air is heavy with pollen, cloying with scent.
We reach the food shops warm-headed and sleepy. We buy fizzy wine and cheap plastic glasses. Then our older limbs collapse onto hot grass, toast the day, toast the years.