Thursday, 1 March 2007

The road to 2012

Published 07 July, 2005

What a day it was for Tones yesterday - he's on a roll and so is England. What a coup - Olympics 2012 for London, exactly what the country needs. If you're not familiar with London you are probably visualising palaces and princes and, with Princess Ann on the bid team, I think we can be assured of lots of royal waves during the event.

But forget the royals and think Hackney - the poorest borough in Britain - source I presume of the "hackney cab" and "hackneyed" conversations. It's my favourite place in London, my second home for a number of years and where I made many lifelong friends - I even met himself there.

My favourite approach to Hackney is to take the 253 bus through the windy streets of the City, via the smells, colour and chaos of Whitechapel market, and finally up Cambridge Heath Road towards Hackney. Along the Whitechapel Road you pass the Jolly Beggars pub where one of the Kray brothers is reputed to have nailed a guy's hands to the floor! The side streets were the hunting ground of Jack the Ripper and small wonder really. For centuries Whitechapel has been the first port of call for immigrants to England - a vast, seething, melting pot of cultures, ideas, languages (and potential victims for murderers and gangsters) . . . They reckon there are 252 languages spoken in London (there are fewer than 250 ISO country codes).

I like to get off the bus at Bethnal Green, the southern point of Hackney where there's a lovely Museum of Childhood (in Hackney!) if you have time on your hands. Alternatively, the Rose and Crown pub right by the bus stop can often be more tempting. To the right, the Victoria Park Road leads to one of London's finest public parks and straight on is the grime and bustle of Mare Street - main street Hackney. The far side of Victoria Park is our goal - the wasteland that is set to be transformed into a 21st century dream.

London's amazing network of canals runs through Victoria Park - you can traverse north and east London along the canal paths without seeing a car or a bus. You do, however, encounter the occasional fisherman, thousands of pounds worth of kit, ice-bag stocked with beer, large dog lounging around and mouth full of squirming worms. I kid you not. The worms wiggle more effectively if they are warm. It's an ancient Cockney tradition.

Ali, my flatmate, introduced his 4 year old son to cycling by taking him on a ride north westwards along the canal path through Islington, and King's Cross and right up to Camden Lock - the poor lad slept for a week after his ordeal. Ali was a 40+ bicycle courier - usually a young man's game but Ali had boundless energy.

If you travel north east on the canal from Victoria Park, it takes you past the Top of the Morning Pub where a pit stop could be in order. It's a pretty typical pub for the area - like many places near the park it has an air of faded gentility, a bit run down, a bit rough and ready, but noisy and lively and friendly. And they come in every imaginable size, shape, colour and sexual persuasion.

Onwards from the pub and you arrive at our destination - Hackney Wick (drop the H if you want to sound local), gateway to Hackney marshes and London 2012. Acres and acres of space lost to the dog walkers and local football clubs. They never built a tube line to Hackney - because it was too poor and now an ongoing reason for its poverty. People thought I was insane to live there because of its cruddy transport links. But if you get into life in Hackney, you only leave when you have to. And with a 38 bus running door to door from home through Holborn, Covent Garden and onto Picadilly, what need had I for a smelly tube?

With no tube Hackney is a foreign country to most Londoners. It has so many hidden secrets - the marshes, the canals, the parks, the music, the markets, the pubs and some very cool people. Hackney usually makes it to the news for bad reasons - drug crime, bad schools that sort of thing. And it has its grim side, no doubt about it. But there's a common ground in poverty and there's a "we're all in the same boat together, man" attitude that is easy and relaxed.

A bloke I knew wandered, blind-drunk, into a Supermarket by Ridley Road market one evening, filled a basket with goods including more beer, staggered outside without paying and sat down for a little rest. When he was awoken by the security man he spotted that his beers had been nicked from his basket. They immediately replaced the beers at no charge and sent him on his way! It was only when he got home he discovered he had spent no money.

Ali used to go to Tesco's in Well Street late on Saturday afternoons to buy up the goodies on knock down pricing. He witnessed an incident where a staff member on the butchery counter spotted somebody eating the goods and accosted him. The hungry customer broke into a run down the aisles, chased by a growing number of the staff. Cornered finally in the back of the crowded store, six members of staff hoisted him up on their shoulders like a corpse, transported him thus from the premises before dumping him on the pavement outside to the amazement of onlookers. I don't see that happening in Kensington.

At 8.50 this morning a power surge occured at Liverpool street station - several people injured - other stations affected - walking wounded leaving King's Cross - now described as a major incident and entire system is being shut down. Initial reports of a bomb/terrorist incident have been discounted. Must turn on the TV.

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