Tree of Lights

If, in early evening, you head down the hill towards Ladbroke Grove from Westbourne Park tube station, when you reach the bottom, at either end of a square just large enough to hold a pair of tapas bars spilling light, music and customers onto pavement tables stand two trees with bright, white lights strewn across their branches, interspersed with wire and paper stars. The effect is quite magical and, for a while, it is enough to perch on a bollard and stare up at it taking in the peace. If you are waiting for the love of your life – as I was – there is something transcendent about it.

At one time there was a bench underneath – which would have made it even more romantic had it not also been the place where the local smack heads would gather, so their surroundings somehow reflected their internal high – which meant that everyone else called it the “heroin bench” and avoided it.

So, the council, sadly, took it away.

In 1979 the same streets looked like a very different place. The same bone structure – magnificent Georgian terraces – but before they’d had face lifts and scrub ups – when they were still coal blackened, crumbling and run down, heavily squatted with some derelict. In preparation for an overland trip to India I was in search of a publication called the BIT guide. This was a travel guide written for travelers by travelers. A sort of rough guide before these became commercial standardised products.

People who went on the hippy trail east would write down information about where to go to get buses, which hotels were cheap but decent, inspiring places to see, what the exchange rates for currencies were (three years previously) where the bazaars were, where to get drugs and how to avoid them, which hotels were busted regularly in Quetta; and to be wary of the border official at the Lahore to Amritsar crossing who seemed to enjoy frisking people a little too much. These reports from the trail were typed up and duplicated and stapled together to make a fat blue paper covered booklet.

This was wonderfully idiosyncratic, quirky, completely unregulated, massively out of date in detail; no one was “on the same page” or used a “house style”, no one was paid for it, no one was advertising or spinning, nor would anyone expect to be sued for inaccuracy because everyone was stating their own point of view, which you could either take or leave at your own risk. As a labour of love it was remarkably accurate and I’d have been completely lost without it.

Finding it wasn’t easy though. The address I’d been given was a huge old edifice with wide crumbling steps and a heavy front door that was wedged half open. No one seemed to be in. Either that or they were in the process of moving out. Inside there was no sign of people living there. Corridors and stair cases were bare. Piles of junk strewn rubble lay in odd corners. A tall, thin, silent guy with a huge beard – who looked as though he’d fallen asleep at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 and only just woken up – seemed bemused by me asking him for a BIT guide – as though the time for that had been and gone – but led me to a room in which there was a small pile of them laying about casually on top of another heap of rubble. He didn’t bother with the 50p it was supposed to cost. I suspect that I was the last person ever to get hold of one of the final ever edition.

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