Wednesday 5 June 2024

Willesden Green Tales

 For almost the last ten years I’ve lived in a little garret opposite Willesden Green Station. Out of my window, I’ve seen the green minaret of the Brent Central Mosque, gently glowing in the sunlight (or not, if it’s not). The garden is part of a row of gardens and has been the home to a surprising variety of birds, from parakeets and pigeons to jays, waxwings and a woodpecker. Like a lot of places in London, it has an insular feel, like a little pocket within the greater whole - and there have also been some unusual people, events and sights. I thought I’d record them for posterity.

Where I lived

When I went to see my little bedsit, it was always around 5pm. This is always a golden time, as the windows face west and the golden sunshine hits the edges of the mirrors and cause rainbows to drift around the room. 

The place is in the attic of my landlord, a former film editor who worked on film’s as diverse as Branagh’s Hamlet and Zombies Vs Cockneys. His brother was an assistant to George Michael, lately turned undertaker and author of Dead Ahead. He and his wife have always been good to me and when I caught covid, I was the lucky recipient of some brilliant meals.

The day I moved in, some police turned up at the house to ask questions of someone who had been a witness. A next door neighbour also came round, he’d seen the police car and decided to tell them that he’d found something in his garden he suspected to be an unexploded WWII German bomb. However, the police were busy, so he told me. I’m not sure if he ever told the police. I don’t know if he did find an unexploded bomb and, if he did, I don’t know if it’s still there.

Guard Dog Man

My little garret faces the back garden. There are a row of back gardens from the street, but the houses in the street behind also have their back gardens touching ours - this means there’s a surprisingly diverse range of birds and insects that make their homes there.

It also means that it’s a safe place for urban foxes to romance and later raise their cubs. Many evenings I’ve watched cubs play in the garden and it’s always a sweet and magical experience. Many times I’ve also heard foxes making love, that isn’t. The fox’s cry is a terrible sound at the best of time, part death-scream, part otherworldly abomination but sex cries of a fox are something else.

Somewhere in the road behind us there lived a man I designated ‘Guard Dog Man’. Whenever the foxes made noises, so did he. Presumably, he hoped the noise of him would scare them off but they never did. The sound he made was gruff, like a barking dog and he made it every time the foxes did. This meant that when I heard the foxes, it was less their noise I was concerned about, but the fact they’d set off Guard Dog Man. They’d squeal and squall and he’d bark pointlessly and that was their cycle, for years and years.

The Denim Twitcher

The next character steers me onto more delicate territory. There’s a man who haunts Willesden Green tube station every weekday morning who clearly has some difficulty or another. I’ve only spoken to him once, he’d fallen over and I helped him stand up but I don’t know his name or story. He always wears a checked rag round his head and an outfit that consists of a range of faded denim clothes. He also always wears a Lynard Skynard t-shirt. I don’t know if he always wears the same outfit exactly, but it’s always the same kind of thing.

He moves in the most extraordinary way. He twitches and lurches. He stands still and robotically strikes his hand up and down. He jolts and jerks, his walk stiff and sudden and alarming - it certainly helps me imagine what it must have seemed like to people meeting Samuel Johnson for the first time. He sometimes speaks, usually bellowed swear words but mainly he howls. I’ve heard him making sex-noises at women as they pass though. 

Like clockwork, he emerges from his house, he makes his erratic way up the street, he goes into Gails or Costa and then he goes to Willesden Green tube to shout and wail before catching a bus somewhere. If he needs a wee, he doesn’t go back to the house he emerges from but instead pisses on the street corner, his jerking body sending splashes everywhere.

I have no desire to laugh at this man, I have no knowledge of whatever it is he labours under, but he is a noticeable and fascinating feature of the environment and seems worth recording.

Mr Pimp-Tortoise

In the early years of moving in, there was another man who stood out who I designated in my head, ‘Mr Pimp-Tortoise’. 

He was an elderly man who wore a 1970s pimp suit in yellows and browns and oranges. It had huge pointed lapels, flared trousers, a hat and can - the whole shebang. This man must have been something in the 70s (or at the least, must have looked like he was). Now, however, he’d wizened and shrunk, his little head and small neck poking out of the already huge collar like a little tortoise. I always wondered about his story, who he had been and who he was now. I never saw him after covid.

Neils’ Photo Agency

Willesden Green’s biggest mystery. A photographers, presumably owned by two people called Neil. Neither Neil has ever been spotted. No one has ever entered the shop and no one has ever left it. 

What’s more, the photos that are stuck all over the windows, unmounted and frequently wonky, are always faded. Even on the rare occasion that a new photo is put up, it’s already faded. They aren’t even the kind of photo that would be taken by a photographers - there are no school photos, no portraits against a blank backdrop - instead there are holiday camera shots, photos of people a long way away, photos of people in their houses or against a bush. Many of the photos clearly date back years, most of them are poorly focused or badly framed. Why would a photographers only show off bad photos? It must be a front… for something. 

West Sussex Charcoal

There’s an Irish butchers on Willesden High Street. It’s got a good reputation and always looks very clean and appealing (if meat is your thing). There are two windows in the shop. One allows potential customers to peer at the meat counter, the other is stacked up with charcoal briquettes. These aren’t the outside-a-petrol-station kind, these look like premium charcoal. The most premium must be the ones labelled ‘West Sussex Charcoal’.

I’ve often found the attribution of place-names on products pretty funny. Is there really better quality in a Norfolk turkey to a different turkey? Would a Suffolk turkey be okay? The charcoal really tickled me, because surely, once charcoal is made, it lasts a long time and can be transported a long way. I understand why a product may seem better with British cream, you don’t really want cream that’s travelled half of Europe… but charcoal?

Even better, it has to be West Sussex charcoal, none of that East Sussex rubbish. I’d walk to work imagining a man (and it would definitely be a man) who lives out in Essex but gets a train every now and then to Willesden, just because the shop sold the West Sussex charcoal he so craved. Other places might sell East Sussex charcoal, or even worse, charcoal with no known providence at all. 

The West Sussex charcoal must be pretty popular because there are big gaps in time when the shop have run out and just display other charcoals. I imagine the man coming all the way from Essex, getting to the window of the butcher’s shop and being bitterly disappointed. 

The Book-swipe

Just inside Willesden Green Station there are is a small bookcase. On this bookcase people bring and take books. It’s called a book-swap, but for me (and it seems many others) it’s principally a book-swipe. I’ve grabbed some wonderful books from this place, discovered new authors and generally had my reading life greatly improved. I might miss it most of all.

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