Thursday, February 25, 2016

London through its charity shops #28: Eltham SE9

 I still go to charity shops – indeed I still find it hard walking past one without going in, you know, just in case, though I usually stick to the south west London ones – East Sheen, Putney, Battersea and Wimbledon – that I know and love. My series London Through Its Charity Shops becomes out of date every month a new charity shop opens and others shut down, or are refurbished, usually for the worse, or one charity shop where I used to get lots of art books or records just don't have the same kind of stock anymore – this is the nature of the beast. Recently I was visiting the charity shops on the Fulham Road and an old man, who reminded me of Colonel Blimp, was doing exactly the same as me at the same time. We fell in line, and started chatting. He looked at me and said: "I bet you never thought you'd end up with a tripod today" (I'd just bought a as-new Leica tripod), and I retorted, "I bet you never thought you'd end up with a goldfish bowl today" (his recent purchase). And this is the beauty of charity shops.

But this year a quantum shift has happened to my charity shop habits. I used to head straight for the records, CDs and books – but have reached saturation point: I own over 300 records, 1,000 CDs and 500 books in a small, overcrowded flat, and actually need to read and listen to some of them. So, the shift also occurred when I realised I hadn't bought a pair of jeans in a decade; mine all had holes (Gap jeans with gaps) in the pockets (loose change tumbling down my leg in particular became quite annoying) and were misshapen and worn. So, I went to buy a new pair of Levi's and did a double take when I saw the £80 price tag. I decided to look for jeans in charity shops. Admittedly it involved a fair degree of hunting in order to get the right size but after a weekend of searching I emerged with two pairs of Levi's, a pair of Wranglers (as new, unworn, with the labels still on) and two pairs of Abercrombie and Fitch, all for less than half the price of a new pair of Levi's (I'd recently had repairs to pockets to some of my old jeans and paid more for the alterations than a pair in a charity shop). If I was thinner I would have bought twice the amount – I saw lots of pairs of Levi's as new for less than a tenner, though usually size 28 or 30. This is all a revelation to me. I've never looked for clothes before but once I focus on one thing and one thing only, I find I have a fair degree of luck (yes, this is further evidence of my Asperger's-like obsessions). Condition of jeans in charity shops is generally and surprisingly very good; certainly a lot better nick than my ten-year-old rags. So, in short, now I look for clothes in charity shops and aren't afraid to say so. This is where the new barngains are.

Anyway: Eltham. It has lots of decent charity shops (and a Wimpy!) – Barnado's, Marie Curie, Scope, British Heart Foundation, Save the Children, Cancer Research, Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice Shop and Demelza House Trading Shop – all within ten minutes walk of each other (not that I managed to do all of them), either on or just off the High Street. Nothing spectacular, but all spacious, bright and reasonably priced. I looked for jeans first – tempted by a pair of grey Levi's (£8) but they were a tad tight – then moved onto records and books. I spotted an LP by The Enid called Something Wicked This Way Comes. I hadn't heard of the band, but liked the cover, looked them up, didn't feel the need to buy it. This is progress for me.
Though Eltham is synonymous for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it has a lot more to offer beside racist killings and charity shops: Eltham Palace is a stunning Art Deco building (above), surrounded by parks and mansions – Kate Bush's former house (pictured, top) is just around the corner – though later owners added the Wuthering Heights lettering. Sevendroog castle has amazing views of London; from the top you can see for thirty miles in all directions, and also has a nice cafe.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Two funerals

Five of us lived in the college house twenty years ago. In the intervening years, two died. The two funerals were separated by more than a decade.

Death of the Piano Man (2001)
It was seven years since college but felt just like old times except me and Ben were walking up to North Wembley tube 
station to meet Emma. Ben was in hysterics walking along. He was laughing at my shoes and pin-striped suit – my only suit. Or rather, he was laughing at my dad’s old black brogues, two sizes too big for me and it felt like it and judging by Ben, looked like it too. Then there was Emma walking towards us. Dressed in black, and with a fake fur coat, I hadn’t seen her in five years yet she looked exactly the same and it felt like it was only yesterday. She said as much when we met. Yes, it was just like old times what with me and Ben walking along and Ben laughing at me. Except that I was wearing a pin-striped suit and Ben a dark grey one and we were going to a funeral. Emma said we looked almost like adults in our suits. Emma and Ben had turned thirty recently. I was to be thirty in a few months.

Emma asked me what I’d been doing and reminded me of the gypsy who told me, some years ago, that I would die on my thirtieth birthday if I hadn’t changed my way of life by then. I hadn’t really, and I was almost thirty*. We got into Ben’s brothers car and drove to the address, a short drive from the station. We small-talked until we arrived at the family house. Then everything turned a bit sombre.

I had called Ben the day before, and he’d called Emma. I had read about Dave’s death in The Financial Times on the Tuesday. It occupied a few lines at the bottom of page eighteen. There was no photo of him. David had died at the weekend, in his sleep, of a heart attack. He was thirty-four but the day he died it was his thirty-fifth birthday. Dave had been a photographer on the FT. He was a good photographer. I hadn’t see many of his photos after college but he'd spent time in Pakistan taking photos there. His two passions were photography and The Who.

The reception was in Wembley, the Muslim prayers in Harrow and the burial in Hertfordshire. It was an open casket, we took turns to pay our last respects to Dave. Women were screeching but Dave looked peaceful and serene, as if taking a nap. It was such a shock meeting his brother; I had to do a double take. He looked identical to Dave. The congregation was, like Dave, a complete contradiction: there were bikers; there were poncy ex-film and photography students (us); there was Irish family and there was Muslim family.

After the funeral Emma and I looked for a pub, to toast Dave. Eventually we found an Irish pub, full of old men (and a few women), all watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on a large screen at the back of the pub. No one was talking, everyone was watching the screen. We didn't care. We went straight to the jukebox. Billy Joel's The Piano Man was Dave's song ("the microphone smelled like a beer"), and we played twice over, almost drowning out Chris Tarrant's voice. We had a few whiskies for Dave. It seemed apt. Dave's father was Pakistani but his mother Irish. A curious mix for a curious man who had long battled the bottle and his sexuality. He'd eventually come out winning and was sorting his life out.

(Shortly after was 9/11, but just before that another young friend died too. He had converted to Islam a few years before, and we hardly heard from him. He had a wife and child who we weren't allowed to see. He had completely changed since converting. He took his family to Jordan for a holiday where they all died one night in a hotel room of carbon monoxide poisoning. It felt like the whole world changed that year.)

One of the last times I saw Dave was when I accompanied him to an Alcoholics Anonymous party. It was tense and twitchy. People were standing around; obviously there was no alcohol involved. We didn't stay long. I remember him saying to me this evening would just become an anecdote, but to him it was his life. He was right – I did tell people about it, it was such a surreal evening. Dave was a passionate, tough, burly, complex, mixed up, bisexual, alcoholic, angry man but interesting and a good friend.

Redemption Song (2014)
Had I really not seen Ben since Dave's funeral? It would seem not. Again, after a ten year gap, we almost immediately reverted to our former roles: taking the piss out of each other. I was running late; it was deepest north west London. I finally got to the Methodist church and slinked in at the back. There was incense, chanting and a woman blowing from a horn. I was one of only about five white people in the crowd. It was my first Rastafarian funeral, and four old college friends were there too: Ben (white), Maria (black), Ruby (black) and Sharon (also black).

I remember Isaac's laid back attitude, his multiple women, his spicy chicken noodle soup with dumplings. The service was conducted by a charismatic black man in flowing robes. Before long the service turned into a sermon and diatribe, the priest vehemently blaming the white man for suppressing black people, who would all rise again once they returned to Africa. Later he asked the congregation to call out prominent black people (mostly men): Haile Selassie! Marcus Garvey! Bob Marley! I started feeling very hot around the collar, and glanced around at the handful of other white people in the room. But white and black people alike found it uncomfortable and inappropriate.

After the service, we all moved to the burial ground. It was a hot, windy day, and all the men – black and white – took turns shovelling dirt into the grave whilst the Priest and congregation chanted and sang. Bob Marley's Redmption Song was the last song, and it got quiter and quiter til it was almost a whisper.

In truth I had hardly thought about Isaac in the past twenty years. I regret losing contact with many friends but this is life, it seems to move forward at a terrific speed with scant regard for sentiment and reflection until it's too late. A funeral is the place you find out more about the dead person than you did during their life; it's the place you actually want the dead person to be alive at, there's so many questions to ask them, but obviously it's too late.

*Twelve years later, Maria would 'joke' at Isaac's funeral that the next funeral they will all be going to would be mine. Within the next five years. Charming.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Notes on losing friends
A funeral

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Three animal dreams

1. Two Moomins riding a large white hare through the dark snowy streets of Helsinki.

2. Again in a dark street, we spot a 30-foot high squirrel. I get my iPhone out and get some photos of it – then it's on the move. We give chase, being careful not to get too close. It enters a building, maybe a museum, and we follow it cautiously, taking more photos along the way. We find it in the corner of a huge dark room, its eyes are massive.

3. I've bought a huge fish tank, takes up about half the living room. To start with, I just add a few tropical fish and some plants. Day-to-day the contents seem to expand, and it gradually turns into a swampland with dinosaur-era foliage. Insects fly around it, vicious-looking fish and other small dinosaur-like creatures emerge. It gets beyond my control. My parents come round to take a look; my mum puts her hand in the tank and gets bit.

I was working closely with a colleague when I had this dream, and told him about it one day. He looked stunned: he's had a very similar dream once a week for thirteen years. But he did used to work in a pet shop, and a bit of an expert on aquariums.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Heron Tower Fish Tank

Previous dreams here

Monday, February 01, 2016

The mouse

I arrived at work – late – to find a cardboard box over the phone on my desk and three workmates standing round it. Apparently there was a mouse under my phone. They'd trapped it but didn't know what to do with it. One wanted to kill it. I took over the situation* and suggested placing a bin just under the edge of my desk, moving the box with the phone and the mouse and letting them both fall into the bin, holding the phone before it fell into the bin and squashed the mouse. We slid the box slowly towards the bin, grabbed the phone before it fell into the bin, and watched as the mouse shot across the room.

But we must have injured it, for there was blood by my phone – just a small amount, someone said, a 'flesh wound', and I quipped* that for a human to spill the equivalent amount of blood would equate to gallons. Anyway, there was nothing else to do. I sterilised my desk and phone and got on with my work.

After lunch I came back to the desk and looked for something in my bag – and there was the mouse, snuggled into one of the pockets, not moving. Everyone gathered round (except the girls – seriously, I'm not being sexist or stereotypical – but they are all absolutely petrified of mice) and peered in. It was alive – frightened and wounded, but alive. A colleague and I took the mouse outside, unsure of where to put it. We put it by a bush in the courtyard. My colleague went back upstairs. I stayed to watch it. Poor thing, it hobbled around, then started limping into the middle of the courtyard, where people are always walking. Someone did almost step on him and I nearly had to push him aside: "Look out for the mouse!" I exclaimed. The mouse was almost the same colour as the cobblestones in the courtyard. I texted my colleague, told him to bring down some cake (there's always cake in the office).

I put my hands down in front of the mouse, and it crawled onto them. I stroked it. It was so cute – little feet, little whiskers, little nose. It looked like it had little hope of survival. My colleague came down with cake and we set it down near a hole in one of the adjacent buildings. And left it to it – what else could we do? I was tempted to take it home, but was going out that evening and didn't want it squashed in my coat or bag. I went back down half an hour later – the cake and the mouse were gone, hopefully a good sign.

*Like in my dreams and fantasies, in my stories too I'm always the one who takes control of the situation and provides the jokes – though in this case, true.