The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, November 27, 2002
NO WISDOM
Walk from Streatham to Hampton Court, Sunday 9 December 2001

It helped that it was a beautiful, if freezing, morning. It made my task much easier. Can't get Welch's "I Dream A Highway" out of my mind; on Sunday mornings it has attained the status of gospel, of faith. Keep to the green routes as far as possible. Conceive an alternative Oxford for yourself; that's all that you're doing, isn't it? We didn't mind coming down to London at weekends if we were doing something specific, but loathed having to stay there at weekends.

The meeting the previous night had not gone well. Dealings with slabs of stone earlier on the Saturday; then to Farringdon to pretend that sociability was an option. A major mistake. I made my excuses outside the Indian restaurant and scrambled onto a 45 bus. Had to do something more con/destructive today. So I decided to take a walk to Hampton Court, because we had last been there on a balmy late summer of a Tuesday in September 2000 - a truly happy day, one of these rare days where everything is perfect, everything goes right. I needed to face it alone.

So, a green route - cut through an empty, frostbitten Tooting Bec Common. Just before turning into Franciscan Road there is a frozen copy of ES magazine on the ground; Beyonce on the cover as Ice Queen. An uphill hike through bland suburbia; lots of schools, an Italian deli desperately trying to pretend it's Lina Stores, then a downward incline, a hard right and a hard left, and I'm into Tooting High Street. The yuppie breakfast caff with its Costa coffee is shut on Sundays, which proves the un-yuppiness of the place. Further down, though, the 49 caff in Colliers Wood is open, so I stop off for a faux-1971 breakfast, thrombosis on a plate, though strangely tasteless, as though it were a replicant (like its Dinos Restaurants counterparts up West; a Bulgarian's idea of an English breakfast).

Onwards, past the admittedly quite impressive grey tower which was obviously built to approximate some kind of a shabby genteel south-west London sub-landmark. It must be even more striking when you emerge from Colliers Wood tube to appear in front of it. I see lights on within at a distance at night, so I know that some of it is occupied, but largely it is punctuated by an array of For Hire signs. It would like to be SW19's equivalent to the near-balletic perspective of the Kensington Hilton and the Thames Water Tower at Shepherds Bush roundabout; but like the latter, you know instantly that you are on the verge of leaving "London"; this is an exit route, the River Wandle wandering through the makeshift park on my right to counterpoint the rare surfacing of the River Brent just past Alperton.

I opt for Merton High Street, and like all suburban London high streets it makes me think of the Trongate and the various other tributaries surrounding Barrowland in Glasgow on a Sunday of old; grandiose but deserted, as though the buildings' purpose had eviscerated from the city like the Tobacco Lords when the credit ran out. Apart from the newsagents and launderettes, everything's shut. I suspect that Saturday mornings here are no different; they certainly aren't in Streatham High Road.

I pass the turnoff for Merton Road, deciding to avoid the hellish bustle of Wimbledon town centre, and move onto Kingston Road, since Kingston is where I need to get to in order to cross over to Hampton Court. It remains deathly cold, but if you were by some brain-freeze accident deprived of awareness of temperature, you could have mistaken this for a fine spring day. Everything in its place; Neighbourhood Watch signs all over the place, a small private hospital which no one should ever need use. At one junction a tram crosses my path; looking more like two 211 buses jammed together than a tram. There is nothing urban here; we have left that far behind. By the time you reach Raynes Park there isn't even anything in the way of suburbia; a rather unwelcoming rail bridge underpass, the wideness of the roads which remind you that really you shouldn't be walking here (cf. Mile End or Park Royal). Junk shops with junk looking at their contents.

Once past the bridge, there is a ramshackle BR station and a small parade of shops which might as well all be Greggs the bakers, and then the road widens out again, and Coombe Lane, though I have never previously travelled through it, looks horribly familiar. It looks like the Botley Road. Houses well back from the road, though instead of the Botley interchange there is a flyover from which we can view the A3 Kingston bypass. I am well out of town now, where only coaches and I would ever want to venture. Thereafter the road inclines uphill again and becomes more wooded and more Cumnor-like; the sort of place where unfussy doctors can hang their golf clubs without their bag of Bacardi and Coke cans ever being mistaken for Pepsi.

The downhill approach to Kingston isn't particularly ethereal, its St Paul's-style orientation marker being the dour chimney of Kingston Hospital. The outskirts are unremarkably active, but the trudge through the Clarence Street town centre is the hardest part of the journey. Christmas shopping is at its height, meaning that one has to push and shove one's way through the masses to get anywhere. I am compelled to stop off at John Lewis for a trip to the gents. Horrendous, but the nearest alternative crossover point would be to schlep it all the way upriver to Richmond; a hell of a bypass. Thankfully, once past the shops and the extraordinarily desolate-looking bars and cafes littering the waterfront - in their way, more depressing than the closed Costa joint in Tooting - I am back into a different world. Over Kingston Bridge to the greenery and failed nobility on my left.

The quick option is to hike it straight up Hampton Court Road, but there is no pavement as such, simply an unending blanket of wet and rather slippery leaves in an undulating mess. Anyway, it would be the easy option - no, I need to work palpably to get there. So I decide to stick to the riverside and embark on the long way round; three miles past the farmland and paddocks, and approach Hampton Court side-on. Surbiton blinks at me from across the now much narrower-looking waterway.

(Soundtracks? All in my head; a Walkman or Discman would be deleterious and unhelpful in this sort of journey. You need to hear what's going on around you as well as being better able to imagine what you would like to hear. Music always sounds better when you are imagining it in your head than when you actually play it. I am thinking of early summer records; that petrol station '70s synthesiser, the Moog swoons, that ungraspable echo which drags me back to being 14 again, still grasping the imagined infinity of Uddingston Main Street on a Wednesday afternoon in June when school is out and you really, gloriously, have nothing else to do and no responsibilities. I am thinking of the awesome mournfulness of Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves The Sunshine." The benign monolith that is Earth Wind & Fire's "That's The Way Of The World" which makes me think of abandoned Clyde shipyards and the haze over Hope Street on a Saturday morning. The oh my God LOVE ME I AM HERE existence of Kool and the Gang's "Summer Madness." The embrace of Smokey Robinson's "A Quiet Storm." The instrumental break in Dury's "Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3" where Payne's sax solo suddenly dissolves into echoes and floats into infinity on the sudden appearance of Chaz Jankel's synth before snarling back to mono and hurtling you back into reality.

Kylepark Avenue, May 1979.

The three-mile walk round the perimeter of Hampton Court is by far the most pleasurable part of the journey. I can think. I can - to an extent - exist. Cyclists, couples and the odd student wander benificently past. Yet there is dread about what I will find there. As if I would find anything there. As if I would find her there.

That's not why you went on this walk, was it?

WAS IT????

You expected to find her there.

You are as daft as a brush.

You are mad.

You should be seen to.

Past the Home Park Golf Course, where I view people forever fencing themselves off from us. Bobby Davro might put in a round or two here, you never know. And what difference would it make if he did?

Finally, feet now beyond pain, I approach the Palace. I know my way around it backwards and enter the grounds sideways. I'm not going in. Not even to buy some bramble jelly. In September 2000 we saw the guy from One Foot In The Past filming a piece there. I even know the man's name - Dan Cruickshank. Don't ever recall seeing the footage on TV. I walk round to the front, where you can see the approach from Hampton Bridge which is how we usually approached it, just off the train. Lovely but literally half the place it should be, after Henry VIII lopped the top half of the towers off. Bloody proto-Georgian frippery. I go in a semicircle, around the gardens, finally reaching the rear, and the Long Walk. I sat down where we did. It was moderately populated but of course she wasn't there.

I sat where a year and a quarter before we had shared sandwiches and you don't need to know what else. Now there was only me. Soon no one would sit here. No one whom you would know.

The heart murmur arose. The beat became arrhythmic. Just to sit here, see this sunny and harmless landscape; I would not mind if this was the last thing I saw. I waited for what I had spent all day trying to achieve. I waited for the decisive shock of chest pain, the subsequent numbness and nothingness. I would have accepted all of it. The purpose of the walk was to kill me, to set me free.

I was aroused from my reverie by a stray swan attempting to insert its beak into my packet of crisps. Bloody heartburn. That's all it ever is. It wouldn't even let me die in peace.


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