How are you? I hope you’re keeping well in our absence and that the weather is good for you. Here on the other side of the Thames it has slid between sunshine and heavy cloud sprinkling drizzle.
We find ourselves in gentle Muswell Hill, a long way – both in distance and in other ways – from South East London and it does feel like we are on holiday. Or perhaps, given that this is only the first stop on an itinerant tour of the city, like we are travelling.
‘Oh,’ a snarky voice erupts in the back of my head. ‘And I suppose you hope to find yourself too?’
No. I just hope to get by and to, eventually, get home.
So, Muswell Hill. Not somewhere I’ve ever been before – except to visit our hosts and, on occasions, to bypass traffic jams on the nearby A1. Indeed, unlike large swathes of London, I know very little about it beyond the fact that it was once thought to be the prettiest village on the city’s outskirts and, a long time later, was the birthplace of Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks.
It is all very pleasant, full of red brick Victorian staunchly poised middle class housing now valued to make the eyes water. Its Broadway has all the amenities one could desire, from upper chain restaurants to independent delis, from swanky clothing brands and boutique jewellers, even a bookshop and a cinema. If one were concocting a perfect high street for those with disposable incomes, at first glance anyway, it would look somewhat like this. It is a far cry from those perfect pop dramas the Davies brothers wrote almost fifty years ago. Those songs could have been about anywhere in the suburban normality. Muswell Hill is too rich now to be completely normal. It is seeps wealth.We are staying at the generosity of my girlfriend’s cousin and her husband, while they are away. Their modernist seventies house is a far cry from the sort of property we’re used to, spreading itself out across four floors, packed full of comforts and backing straight out onto Highgate woods. It is the sort of luxury one could get used to, should one ever be able to afford it.
The wood, both in the way it fills the views from the rear of the house and the canopy of green that breaks the sudden bank holiday Monday evening sunshine gives it the impression of being rural. In reality it is, smuggled in between urban belches of Archway, East Finchley, Alexandra Palace and places further north than I know the name of, but it’s possible to get lost under the dappled shade, amongst the heaving joggers and to the rhythm of the occasional cricket thunk.
We wandered around this hidden corner of countryside in the aftermath of our packing epic. I felt dusty and sweaty from three days of lugging boxes of books and records, furniture and pictures out of the flat, into a bust up van, the driver’s door of which didn’t open, and down to the storage facility. There was a welcome tranquillity to those woods, a stillness only broken by the occasional yelp of an excitable small child or a dog happily straying from its owner. The wood’s charm helped fool us that this is just a holiday and so it didn’t feel too indulgent to return for dinner and wine as the sun dipped into evening.
But we still have to go to work. The only real difference during the weekly day is that my commute is inversed. I head north to south in the mornings, like my internal settings have been tipped upside down. The cycle ride into town is fun: a pelt down from Highgate via Archway’s sharp hill building such momentum that I barely needed to turn the pedals again until Tufnell Park. The return journey in the evening is, to put it mildly, more a slog. That exciting whiz and those languid stretched views that pop out at the end of many of Muswell’s avenues seem less appealing on the slow grind back up, the regular clank of my stretched chain tripping over the gears.
And in the evening we find ourselves back in that sort of holiday state. Not at home, the routines broken, I am more inclined to laziness. Or maybe my lethargy is something else, something in the water. The north is, after all, like an exotic country and one needs to be aware of the risks. Come Wednesday evening, I feel as though I was getting a bit of a cold. My neck aches and my throat is sore. On Thursday morning I plummet down the hill to work, as normal, feeling tetchy but not ill enough to stay home. On the way, a stomach bug kicks in and I spent two productive hours in the bathroom.
My energy sapped, I staggered my way back to Muswell Hill and before eleven was back in bed, not to move again for many hours.
Being ill in someone else’s home is significantly less satisfying than if you were in your own place. Normally, when unwell, you can bed down, pull up the hatches and ride out the storm. You can dig out old films, comfortingly light books, there are things which by their very presence bring cheer, but when you’ve only packed the essentials you find yourself mainly drifting in and out of a disturbed sleep, waiting for reality to kick back in. It reminds me of when I got sick in Varanasi, where explorations of the Ganges were halted by my disappearance into a small hole in the ground toilet. There too the biggest problem was not my stomach, but the accompanying drain of energy as though I’d expunged everything of use from system.
With little else to occupy my mind, I find some DVDs of YesPrime Minister to watch – after a battle with the hugely complex television system – and hear the punch-lines in my head moments before the actors spoke them on screen. I must have watched each episode dozens of times, all through my childhood, but with not having seen one for a decade or so I am surprised at the capacity of my deep memory to beat the gag.Come Saturday morning I feel well enough to walk to the high street to scavenge breakfast and a newspaper. Its niceness oozes from every paving stone. Its inability to offend bustles to the front and refuses to back down, even when I give it my best under-class scowl. It is filled with smiling happy people. I see a couple of young guys coolly attired with trimmed beards and shades brandishing ice-creams, joyfully in the simplicity of life. On the corner a girl kisses her man softly on one cheek as orange sunlight sets across them. School kids wait at bus stops and an old woman struggles with bags of groceries, tottering slightly under the uneven weight. Maybe it hasn’t changed so much after all from when the Davies brothers’ bristling guitars could be heard through open windows.
It is, however, a false dawn for me. The walk is less than ten minutes in each direction and yet takes me far longer. On the way back I am short of breath and light-headed. I just make it through the door and slump onto the sofa for two hours.
I have often joked that being too deep into north London makes me ill, but this time it really seems to have done so.Or at the very least I am getting my comeuppance for being a smug git.
I’ll write again soon.