Grumpy old men at bus stops

After the drought in the Summer turned the local park into a dustbowl, the grass bleached to straw ghosts, the ground rock hard, the air hazy, the Autumn monsoons that we have had for the past few weeks have turned it back into lush water meadows almost to marshland in places. It hasn’t quite got to the swamp quality we’ve had in previous autumns, with geese wading through puddles that have merged into small lakes, a testament to just how dry it got, but it’s on the way. I now stay on the paths when I walk through, so as not to plash.

A grumpy old bloke in the bus queue outside the Magistrates Court, perhaps ground down a bit by the almost constant rain, turns to the woman next to him and complains about the new Highway Code giving cyclists preference over cars in a tone that implies that this is a sign we are being driven to go to the dogs by a conspiracy of elitists with a thing about Lycra. It is so evident to him that this is a bad thing, and so evident to me that it’s a good thing that I say so. He ignores my comment. or, possibly, doesn’t hear it because I seem to be one of the last people in Northwest London still wearing a mask on the buses. It seems odd that he’s so defensive of cars when he’s queuing for the bus. Perhaps he’s more anti cyclist than pro car.

On the side of a bus outside Willesden Health Centre, “Come for our affordable premier dental care in Turkey”. The shortage of NHS dentists laid bare by an advert.

Outside a fruit and veg shop on Willesden High Road a sign reading “Polski, Irani, Arabi”. Fusion Grocery. Up the street a succession of shops with Brazilian or Portuguese flags. We duck into a cafe that’s a little gem of a place, panettones hanging from the ceiling, dark wood shelves all the way up displaying gleaming bottles of mysterious dark alcohols, a coffee machine that looks well used, a TV in the corner showing Joe Biden speaking grim faced in Indonesia with Portuguese subtitles, everyone else in the place speaking Portuguese and the guy at the counter just about understanding me. We sit at a tiny table next to a freezer cabinet and shelves full of the Iberian equivalent of chocolate frosted sugar bomb cereals drinking an almost perfect Capuchino, just smoky enough, not too sweet, not too much and the best one of those tiny custard tarts I have ever eaten, the pastry flakier than flaky and the custard full of creamy dimensions; positively mindful. J agrees that its better than Costa carrot cake, in more ways than one.

Coming back up the road, a pair of houses are being renovated by a hard working squad of, mostly Sikh, builders. Every day a different smell. Some almost poisonous, the reek of araldite. Some fresh and spring like, newly sawn wood. Outside on the scaffolding, a large stuffed rainbow unicorn is suspended like a hunting trophy with that awful pathos abandoned soft toys always have. “Jackie Paper came no more…”

Sketches of Pakistan 2 – Karachi

Karachi airport was all cool, swish, green plants, white paint, shiny floor. Security guards with black berets, military sweaters, neat black machine pistols and seriously psycho stares patrol the immaculate corridors.  Green tailed PIA Jumbos slumber on the tarmac in the shimmering heat.

All of us pile into a tiny car. Seven people in a car designed to fit four at a squash. The luggage is jammed into between us in a masterpiece of spatial improvisation worthy of a Timelord. There are no seat belts of course. R relaxes in the open boot space in the rear like a Khan on a cushion.”Welcome to Pakistan” says J.

Karachi cool dude
“Cool Dude” with wheels, shades and astrakhan hat.

On the road, buses and auto-rickshaws, tingling with dangling mirrors, brightly reflective with polished chrome, fluttering and flaunting with plumes, flags and tassels, honk and shriek. Mopeds weave wildly carrying stick backed men trying to look like film stars, pop popping along at about ten miles an hour, or whole families, father in front, son in the middle, mother and baby on the back horns honking with a wildness that is at the same time completely routine. Pedestrians walking blithely into lines of oncoming traffic with complete faith in divine protection. They will get to the far side, inshallah.

The sides of the road look quite desperate but full of life. Crowds of people exuding an electric energy, half wrecked buildings in a state of constant make do and mend piled full of dusty merchandise, street stalls, a children’s playground with a manually operated wooden big dipper that wasn’t so big but was heavy enough and full of laughing children, piles of junk, piles of goods, adverts high over shops on dizzying piles of scaffolding.

Karachi family bike
All aboard – En famille en route a des aventures nouvelles.

Karachi is under martial law, so at junctions and in the middle of roundabouts we zip past pill boxes with light machine guns poking out, oiled, manned and ready to be used; the soldiers in WW2 era steel helmets and light khaki uniforms. Big houses belonging to society’s higher ups are barricaded off and guarded by more soldiers, standing with a relaxed aggression and casual arrogance; confident in their control of superior weaponry to any potential challengers.

We pass a grimy industrial waste land with no industry full of shanties – all wriggly tin and flapping canvas.

Journey’s end – a cool oasis – R’s family house – huge white building with three generations of the family living in it; both elderly grandparents, two married sons with their wives and children, three unmarried daughters and two more unmarried sons: over ten adults and several children under five. Nevertheless, it is calm and peaceful. The noise outside is somehow in a different dimension, as though its an echo from somewhere else that is far, far away that you can choose to heed or not – the calls of fruit sellers, the honking of horns.



Death to Rat Runs.

When Waltham Forest Council proposed to bar through traffic between the shops in Walthamstow village there was a vocal and lively resistance. Believing that preventing cars driving through would finish the shops off, over 100 people demonstrated, complete with a coffin symbolising the death of the shops.

The effect was the opposite. The absence of cars made the space between the shops quieter, safer, more peaceful , more pleasant. It even made the air fresher. As the street was now a more attractive place, more people came to it. The shops are thriving. None are boarded up. Opposition seems to have dwindled to one irate antique dealer. At the end of the shops, a side road has been bollarded off and a small park enlarged to make a public square run by the local residents association as a social space, and people play petanque on it, among other things. A small corner of North East London that will be forever Paris.

The attempt to reclaim our streets from the car is beginning to flower. Waltham Forest has 6 mini-Holland schemes in place, with several more in preparation. Every week there are delegations from other local authorities coming to have a look to see how it works.

Essentially the idea is to keep through traffic confined to main roads – by cutting off through routes on side roads with bollards at one end. These block cars, but allow walkers and cyclists through. That means that local residents with cars can get in and out, but their streets will no longer be rat runs. This dramatically cuts the volume of traffic and the speed it goes at; because any traffic is local and part of the community, not racing through in an edgy quest to get somewhere else as quickly as possible. It makes the areas concerned calmer, quieter, more peaceful. An elderly pedestrian carrying his shopping at a slow shuffle illustrated the importance of this. In most streets the presumption is that we all have to skip or jog out of the way of an oncoming car just as an act of self preservation. This man couldn’t do that if he wanted to and now he didn’t need to. None of us should have to.

With safer roads, more people – and children – are walking or cycling. The council has put in 250 lockable bike hangars with space for 6 bikes. These take up the parking space of one car. At a rent of £25 a year per bike, 3 000 people are on a waiting list; providing a demand for an additional 500 hangars. There has been a measured improvement in physical activity and health which is self generating once the framework is in place.

Subtle changes to street furniture are also taming the traffic. Extending double yellow lines further from corners improves visibility. Making the corners on junctions sharper forces vehicles to slow down to take a bend; so the emphasis is put on pedestrian safety rather than the speed of traffic flow. Mixed use paving at junctions makes drivers think of the primacy of walkers when they cross from a main road to a residential area. All this seems quite small, but the cumulative effect is civilising. One local resident commented that before this scheme was introduced he used to have several near misses with vehicles every week when he was out on his bike. Now its down to about one a month. The children pouring out of schools at 3:30 stroll confidently and socially down empty roads previously dominated by speeding cars.

The barriers to traffic are sometimes in the form of trees or planters, further greening the area. Maintenance of the planters is run by local residents, and several residents associations have been formed to keep them up; thereby bringing people together and creating more of a community with a sense of ownership and neighbourliness. Residents of one social housing block – seeing the example – independently crowd funded so they could plant trees and flowers along the end of an otherwise bare patch of green lawn.

One of the first things that people noticed when a railway bridge that had previously been a rat run was bollarded off was the bird song. In a space that no one would previously hang around in, someone has thoughtfully fixed a little notice at infant child’s height with the time of trains on it; so they can stand and watch as they go by.

So far, so civilising. All of these developments are south of the great circle of smog that is the North Circular, where there is a greater density of tube stations and tighter bus routes facilitating alternatives to cars even among the well heeled; who nevertheless keep cars and mostly park them up during the week but retain them for weekend escapes. The North Circular is also the border for the first phase of the ultra Low emissions Zone – leaving the outer suburbs as a zone left behind in an earlier car based phase of urban development.

But the problem in these wider, sparser unreconstructed ‘burbs is not just an infrastructural one, but a matter of politics. The MP for this area is that godfather of all things backward, Ian Duncan Smith – or “Ian Duncan Smith Nurrrgh” as he is known in the House of Commons – the groan of despair that greets his name every time he is called by the speaker making it habitually triple barreled. That’s the Ian Duncan Smith who turned up at Chequers recently in an open topped sports car like a depressive version of Mr Toad – an instant meme for a mid life crisis – and clearly “the motorists friend.” The Conservatives are digging in against the expansion of the ULEZ and will make it a theme of their 2020 Mayoral election campaign; so the prospect of successful mini- Hollands between the North and South Circulars and the M25 becomes something of an imperative. What they will be seeking is a response like the initial reaction in Walthamstow Village, but one that has no chance to learn from experience that there is a better way to live.

Post script – a personal encounter with IDS.

What I wrote above may seem a little unkind – though not as much as one of the fit for work assessments brought on by Mr Duncan Smith when he was at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is partly driven by an odd sixth sense experience while I was accompanying a visit to the House of Commons by our School Council. While Emily Thornberry was showing them the Terrace overlooking the river I was standing just inside and felt a sudden chill behind me. It was a bit like the moment in Star Wars when Obi Wan Kenobi says “I felt a great disturbance in the force – as as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” I turned, and there, looming up from the restaurants below, staring blankly ahead, was the former leader of the Conservative Party, although wreathed in all the bready, buttery aromas of what passes for a good lunch in the home counties- carrying with him such an air of misery and gloom that I’d have felt sorry for him had he not been so intent on pulling the rest of us down with him.