Back, once more, in the capital, B offers me a choice of two options regarding afternoon entertainment: we can either stay indoors and watch a movie or we can go and help Andrea who is building a log palisade for housing stag beetles. A relaxing movie sounds nice. We opt for the stag beetles which, although in decline, proliferate in West London where certain ‘types’ have recovered a piece of land formerly inhabited by winos. I am minded of an Alan Bennett snippet in which he purchased a couple of bottles of organic wine, the label of which claimed the contents were suitable for vagrants. How very inclusive, thinks Alan, before realising that it actually read ‘vegans’. Andrea throws logs around like a regular lumberjack and I am exhausted just looking at her. I offer to hold one or two in place in order that she can swing whatever that tool is.
We have been invited to experience ‘Punjabi Nights’ by the Irish contingent. This involves a bus trip, courtesy of my new old person’s bus pass, through Southall. It’s a thrilling trip along the road from Ealing wherein every other building houses an exotic sari shop – at least 100 of these establishments interspersed with even more exotic food emporia. And in Desi Tadka, we are the only customers of non-Punjabi origin. The menu is alien, even for one who purports to love Indian food. We’ve brought our own alcohol but, frankly, it’s pointless: from the first taste of the unidentifiable ‘starter’, I feel too ‘drunk’ to drink: never again, will I order an ‘Indian Take-Away’. Why would you having tasted the real thing?
Here’s a little picture that graces the pages of some editions of ‘Our Mutual Friend’. As I’ve probably mentioned previously, it’s a book to be read by those who want to know what London, and especially the Thames, was like in days past. Today, B and I are off along that river to make our own way into history; a history that is soured by yesterday’s terrorist attack on the city.
We take the clipper: a river taxi that probably has its own name. All around, flags fly at half mast but London is getting on with life. We’re heading for Canary Wharf – a place about which I’ve previously written on canal-type blogs, but which I’ve never previously been to.
It’s a grey day but this is the way to travel in London Town. If you want to see all sorts of Dickensian environments, and their current incarnations, that are recognisable by their names, take a boat. And take it in the company of one who has just got a new job: well, ok, I’ll have a small bottle of wine then thanks.
We leave our transport at the flawless entity that is Canary Wharf. As B reminds me, most of the current financial world hinges on what’s occurring here. It’s spotless and graffiti-free. They even have their own security personnel. I’m not sure whether I like it or not but it’s intriguing. And we have come here to see past life.
Firstly, however, we must have a little drink. I am ‘old school’: I only take the occasional bottle of the red stuff but, today, I’m persuaded by the two-for-one offer on cocktails; particularly, by ‘Flowers From the Mediterranean’. This comprises lavender and hibiscus flowers with Lanique Rose liqueur combined with lemon and topped with sparkling Cava. I am drunk.
Thus we enter that place which epitomises the whole reason for the trip; for we have come to see the Crossrail exhibition in the Museum of London, Docklands. And what a joy it is. Crossrail is the company building the Elizabeth Railway from Reading to somewhere east of London. Some of it’s overland – most of it’s underground. Right from the start, they’ve involved archaeologists and the discoveries have been amazing. For a start, they have 3000 skeletons ranging from the Roman period, through pits for prostitutes and plague victims to more modern-day unfortunates. They have a wealth of information about ancient marshlands plus newly created nature reserves. They have everything you could need to trace a history of Londidium.
It’s a million miles away from my almost-rural life. And maybe, superficially, even further from Dickens’ city. By the time we leave, the sun has made a sort-of appearance and as we wait for the boat, I look at the constantly evolving London skyline. In itself, it’s a living illustration of architectural change amidst which, the river is constant. One’s position, economically, culturally, historically and culinary, is determined by one’s distance from the water. Still.