Wednesday, 8 November 2006
No.10: United Kingdom
Alex Horne - 8th November 2006
Two days after getting married on New Year's Day 2005, my wife and I moved in to our ground floor flat halfway down Ashburnham Road, Kensal Green in the Borough of Brent, Greater London. Almost two years later, it feels now like we've lived there forever.
During the course of our first door-to-door expedition, Owen (writing partner, not wife) and I met a friendly lady called Iris ten doors up the road from me. I'd never met her before but we had a nice chat about the project and when her husband turned up a few minutes later, Iris excitedly introduced him to the two of us. George has been living in the same house on Ashburnham Road for the last 74 years. We all decided he'd be the perfect United Kingdom representative for London.
Kensal Green is not one of London's top tourist destinations but it does possess a history fascinating to someone like me – i.e. someone who now considers it home. The name first cropped up in England's written history in 1253 and is commonly translated as 'Kings Holt'. Holt? Yes, Holt. Apparently, it's a type of woodland. Fine. And which King? No-one knows. It's just some sort of wood that once belonged to some sort of king.
It was not until the 19th century that the area began to develop from this unspecified regal forest land into something approaching a city district. In fact until as late as 1851 the area was still thought of as decidedly rural with only 800 people living there during that particular census (just eighty years before George was to arrive).
But in 1832 the grand Kensal Green Cemetery had been opened to solve the problem of London's scant burial grounds and the many workers needed to maintain what was to become one of the largest graveyards in London started to move into the area.
Unfortunately, while the cemetery quickly became fashionable amongst prominent dead Victorians such as Thackeray and Trollope, the area for living people did not. At the turn of the century many houses still used ancient privies draining into decrepit pipes instead of regular sewers. Residents often kept pigs, the slaughter of which at the local (and appropriately rustic) inn, 'The Plough', provided the cultural highlight of the week. Whether or not that's any worse than Karaoke Night or Pub Quiz and Curry Evening, there's definitely something agricultural about an area where people had to clean up after their swines.
So when George moved into the area at the age of seven, Kensal Green was thought of as a near slum. Like so many nooks of London, it rubbed shoulders with respectable types like Queens Park and Maida Vale but Kensal Green knew its place as a dwelling for the less privileged, harder working class.
Even as late as 1971, a quarter of the housing lacked full amenities - a fact that I'm sure would have delighted Charles Dickens, himself a regular visitor to Kensal Manor House a century before. But, to quote the famously gritty London author, the area was soon to 'turn my silver lining outward like Milton's cloud,' (i.e. every cloud…). For the lack of redevelopment from the 1950s to 1970s meant that the area's many Victorian houses were eventually saved and buildings such as George's home have now been restored to their full historic glory.
George himself has watched the area grow and change with mixed feelings. He remembers when the current West Indian barber shop opposite his house was a traditional grocers with hams hung from the ceiling and fresh fruit and veg spilling on to the street. The two buildings boarded up round the corner used to be a thriving community supplies shop and a chemist where locals would routinely write out their own prescriptions. In those days the residents of Ashburnham Road had everything they needed on their doorstep and rarely travelled further a field, becoming instead one close-knit all-knowing community where everybody knew everybody was just like everybody else.
As time wore on, however, its cosy position, nestled in between prosperity and degradation, attracted an eclectic mix of residents with Irish and Afro-Caribbean immigrants first arriving in great numbers during the 1960s. A couple of decades later, many of the Irish moved on (with the exception of my wife – she's not in her forties, but she is Irish and still here) leaving behind a trail of colourful pubs and Celtic signs, and Indians, Africans, Portuguese, Italians, Brazilians and, more recently, Eastern Europeans started taking their place. People no longer shop in the same three shops and talk about the same things and George no longer knows all his neighbours.
And it's not just immigrants from overseas that are changing the face of the town. Phrases like 'up and coming' and 'renaissance' have recently been bandied around the area, with the explosion of London's property market and Kensal Green's excellent transport links causing large numbers of young British professionals to migrate to the area, bringing with them pricey delicatessens, luxury gift shops and gastropubs that once more leave some residents feeling cut off from and priced out of the area they grew up in. Of course if you tell many of these new arrivals that George bought his house from his father in 1968 for just £1100 they probably wouldn't be all that happy either.
As we shuffled from door to door I couldn't quite make up my mind how I personally felt about the ever-changing area. I like the fact that it's almost impossible to get 'Three In A Row' when you play 'Nationality Neighbours', but a lot of people like George do seem slightly unsure about the new cosmopolitan atmosphere. Having said that, nearly everyone we met was keen to share their own relative memories of the area and while it's true that people no longer know everyone else on the street, there was still enough camaraderie and community spirit on display to convince me that change is not all bad; our local friendly vicar promised to spread the word in Church the following Sunday (his congregation includes many people from Ghana whom we would love to meet as soon as possible), several people fondly recommended 'Jim from next door' or 'Greek Nick' from down the road, and everybody knew my lovely Italian neighbours.
I understand how bewildering it must be for George to have seen his home change so much in the course of his life, with almost every different culture thrown into the mix in recent years. He remembers an utterly different London – a street with no cars*, let alone the parking meters, satellite dishes and green recycling bins that now adorn the still simple terraced houses.
One resident told us that 80% of people in the Borough of Brent were born outside of the UK which is, I think, a telling statistic. Especially because it's not true. The borough does have the country's highest percentage of people who've come from overseas (46.3%) but the fact that people here think it could be as high as four fifths just goes to show how conscious they are of the blend.
Despite feeling so settled here, I only really knew a handful of my neighbours before our street-long search. Now, at the calculated risk of sounding sentimental, I'm looking forward to at least waving at a good few more (although I realise they'll probably wave back with a 'there's that man who asked us odd questions' look on their face). I also didn't know that London boroughs have mottoes before researching our little community. But they do. Because they are little communities. Appropriately enough, Brent's is Forward Together. I very much hope it's prophetic.
*The day after our expedition Brent Council took the unusual step of cleaning Ashburnham Road. Leaflets were posted through our doors explaining the procedure and advance warning was given that there would be no parking between 9am and noon. As I walked down the street at eleven o'clock (ignoring the two cars, forgotten by their owners and now sporting bright yellow parking fine rosettes), I pretended that it was 1932 again. It was odd to walk down a street with no motor vehicles. It struck me how wide the street was and I tried to work out why they built it so – Was it aesthetic? Did they know there'd need to be enough room for three lanes of traffic (parking on either side and a one way street in the middle)? Or did horses and pigs need enormously wide lanes? More pressingly for me, when did the pavements appear? Did pedestrians just wander all over the street? Was there a system for fast and slow walkers? I've been trying to find old photos of Ashburnham Road ever since but have so far drawn blanks. I'll keep trying. These are important questions.