City skylines are always so inspiring – where the big clutter meets the wide open space. Stopped at a traffic light near St Pauls this morning, I watched a crane slowly life a plum-line over Farringdon. Grace and beauty, in stark contrast to the snarling clutter of random traffic and people scuttling below.
Had planned to see Caroline and John play last night. As the gig didn’t start until 8.30pm, I had time to kill beforehand. Hung around in the bar at work with Niina for… too long, probably. Had 1 too many drinks, probably. I finally donned my cycling hear and headed for the gig around 9pm.
At least that’s where I tried to head. I found my way to Vauxhall OK, then checked the MapBlast! directions I’d downloaded to my Handspring earlier. I’d forgotten to include the bloody map, and the text directions were quite useless. Cycled around and around Vauxhall in ever-decreasing circles without ever finding the venue.
So instead, I decided to take the Zen route home. Headed off into South London, tacking from street to street like a demented sailing boat. I felt certain I was headed in the right direction, but before I knew what was happening (could it be that I blacked out while cycling for a while there?) I found myself at a crossroads on the South Circular, with Crystal Palace signposted straight ahead, Dulwich and Lewisham to my left and Clapham to the right. My rudimentary geography of South London told me that I had probably gone too far South. I took the East turn, towards Dulwich, and soon found a signpost to Dulwich Village. Never having seen our former prime-minister’s former home, I thought I’d spin off in that direction.
Dulwich Village was a bizarre anachronism – twee rurality dumped into the heart of London. It had the feel of Highgate Village or Petersham, wide gravel pavements edged with chain-linked white concrete posts and banking grass verges, neo-Gothic shopfronts and pubs spaced out by parks and footpaths. It seemed fairly naff, but at the same time reminded me of “Grandpa’s London” – Highgate Village, so self-assured in its high status that it’s not ashamed to be musty, dusty, fraying at the edges. Perhaps that was because I caught that time during a decline, but that’s how it always seemed to me. I prefer this kind of comfortable lazy affluence to the noveau-noveau riche need to showcase the latest polished clinical fashion in every aspect of their lives.
Dulwich Village gradually turned into Red Post Hill; they even have a hill here, like Highgate and Petersham and unlike most of the rest of London. Not a proper, Sheffield hill, but steeper than anything I had encountered in my last few weeks’ cycling. Does the money follow the landscape, or does the ground swell up wherever old money is to be found?
I emerged in Herne Hill, which sounds like it ought to belong somewhere in Suffolk, but was actually far more urban than Dulwich. I headed towards Camberwell (and almost back to Kennington, where this whole crazy adventure had started). At Camberwell Green, hunger finally got the better of me – despite having eaten a healthy dinner, the number of curry and chip shops passed on my route had exerted an irresistable pull on my stomach. I managed to save my conscience and my guts by sticking to houmus and salad, which I tried to keep in my mouth and off the floor while pushing my bike along Camberwell Church Street. I passed the gallery – was it really only today that Niina and I discussed this place, seems like lifetimes ago.
The landscape started to get familiar once again – unavoidable Peckham! Just as any random North London trip draws one into the unrelenting clutches of the Stoke Newington triangle, so visitors to the South of the river must be wary to avoid getting sucked in by the Peckham tug. I worked up enough centrifugal force to slingshot myself out of its evil grasp, and meandered safely again through New Cross, past the pub where I saw John when he played with the Revs all those years ago. Finally made it into the Greenwich one-way, up onto the Cutty Sark Gardens and down Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s wonderful Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Cycling down the (mile-long?) tunnel is strictly forbidden, so I felt rather nervous sitting on my back, shuffling along in front of a bunch of engineers who were doing overnight work on the lifts. Needn’t have worried – as I passed, one called a friendly “watch yourself at the other end mate, there’s a box up there”.
Emerging onto the Isle of Dogs, a clock stuck – I sat still and listened to the 11 bells while gazing at the night river skyline. From here the 3 miles or so back to Bow seemed like nothing compared to the distance I had already covered. One Canada Square watched over me, steaming benevolently, from Canary Wharf, while two towers alongside struggled to be the highest in Europe, but failed. An old man hobbled across the pavement in Canning Town, mumbling forgotten thoughts to himself. The flat door opened, I went in and shrunk into the bed, where I lay writing letter for the next hour before sleeping.