I went back to the house where I was born last week.
It must be 40 years since I last ventured to Metroland and much was surprisingly unchanged.
At Baker Street, the old wooden clattering boards showing the destinations of the Metropolitan Line had gone, but original bits of signage and furniture survive, or are at least in the original style.
After Harrow-on-the-Hill, where the new blocks and offices were as I expected, West Harrow is still re-assuringly scruffy; there seem plenty of green fields and allotments flourishing, and hopefully too the swimming baths where we went once a week if the water temperature was over 56 degrees F.
Rayners Lane felt so familiar and the station architecture did not disappoint. One exit is now blocked off but the two round-ended kiosks – newsagents/confectionary and shoe repairs respectively, could have looked the same in the fifties. There were no new tall buildings in sight. The old, Art Deco, Odeon Cinema is now a Zoroastrian Temple,
( http://www.mawgrim.sathosting.net/cavalcade/raynerslane2.jpg and 3jpg to see how it used to look )
but it still EXISTS with its elephant trunk façade, unlike the other glamorous 30’s cinemas I remember - the Langham in Pinner, now site of Lidl, the Astoria and Rivoli in Ruislip, the Rex in Northwood Hills – I can’t remember in which a ceiling fell down a week after I had been to see a film.
Or the Embassy in North Harrow, the foyer of which my grandmother hired for my mother’s fifth birthday ( grandfather was a commercial artist and doing well in the thirties – he did a lot of drawing for Liberty’s ); great-grandad was a member of the Inner Magic Circle and provided the entertainment, involving eggs cracked into bowler hats which changed miraculously into chocolate Neapolitans for the children ( his birthday presents to everyone always came out of ears or cuffs with many flourishes and delays…”Oh please stop messing around and just give it to me PLEASE…” ).
The bungalow in Rayners Lane, purchased new in 1932 for £750 ( including garage ), and where at least 8 members of my family lived together during the war, looked awfully small now – squashed against a slightly bigger one next door ( source of the pass-me-down leather Clarks T-strap sandals with the toes-cut-out-to-eke-out-another-summer)( remember the lethal wooden X-ray machines to measure our feet in the shoe-shop? Its amazing what we have survived….).
The interior of this tiny box was once covered with my grandfather’s murals and I was born there exactly mid-century. I remember photos of Mum in her donkey-coloured two-piece, wide hat and veil ‘The New Look’ and then the voluminous 50’s skirts which could lie in a complete circle on the floor, from which eventually my home-made dresses were cut all through my childhood.
The Broadway up to the station now has a sprinkling of saris among the hardware and bargain stores; the Woolworth’s is in the same place but the ‘milk bar’ I so longed to be allowed to frequent is now a gloriously gaudy Hindu wedding ceremony supplier.
When I was 3 we moved up the road to Eastcote ….”where each new, brighter, Metroland house was slightly different from the rest…” certainly the case in our patchwork street of semi-d’s; and where the height of early 1960’s chic was the Marinka coffee bar where you could get a glass of Coca Cola with a twist of lemon and brown sugar round the rim of the glass, if you could lose your parents long enough. Mummy had her tennis friends round for iced coffee on the swing-seat in the garden, with multi coloured sugar crystals (in a sugar bowl), which I would steal and offer as a libation to the fairies at the end of the very reasonably sized garden, (one of Betjamen’s ‘fairy dingles’ maybe.)
In Eastcote too the Woolworths was still in position. And the P.O. The Fish-and-Chippy had a very new look but seemed roughly in the right place, and some of the other shops too – stationer, sweetshop, newsagents; though not the Express Dairy on the corner ( now a newsagent ) - Eastcote’s first attempt at a ‘Supermarket’, where you could actually choose and pick up your own stuff from shelves and freezer, and take it to the till – unlike the floridly tiled Sainsbury’s with its porky smell of ham and pies and strong cheddar, where young women with white muslin hairnets served you in a strange and unfathomable and time-consuming Russian-style system of separate queuing.
It was outside the Express Dairy that I absent-mindedly walked into a lamppost, very hard, in a thunderstorm, and my mother picked up the hailstones and clapped them to my swelling brow – I still have a slight lump over my right eyebrow……
The little department store for fabrics and haberdashery has vanished without trace, and the two tiny single story coal-suppliers offices, once with their lace curtains and particular warm coke-y smell and sacks of anthracite like a demented squirrel’s hoard of nuts, are now supplying some sort of windows and taxi cabs respectively.
The Ideal Cinema in Field End Road was never an architectural gem. Known locally as the ‘Bug Hutch’, it was wood or half timbered I think; I remember it’s passing in my early teens and its rapid replacement with a small ugly ‘office block’. My mother, who was still in her very early teens when I was 3, was desperate to see ‘Mogambo’ (‘Passion’ in Swahili apparently ) - a florid tale set in Africa, with Ava Gardiner and Clark Gable - so she took me along too to the matinee. It was the first film I ever saw and I still remember the first scene as we groped our way to our seats in the dark – it was of course halfway through the film as for some reason no-one ever checked the times before going or worried about starting at the beginning, you could stay and watch films through several times without attracting the usherette and her torch.
Come to think of it, I always thought my Mum looked a bit like Ava Gardiner, all glossy black wavy hair and very red lipstick.
Crossing to bits of Ruislip or Pinner without going back to Harrow on the train meant long walks which we made without complaint, I don’t remember buses. I walked miles aged 3 for dancing classes and the library in Pinner.
This time my partner and I went by train and the station, half old and country-clapboarded and half new where the main line has been screened off, was not particularly familiar so I’m sure we always walked. But Pinner looks just the same, still remains of the rural village and Helen Allingham-y charms.
Unlike Eastcote, and Rayners Lane it has attracted the posh chains to its old High Street buildings – Pizza Express and Café Rouge Next to the old tea rooms where I remember being taken for a Horlicks (“…I told you you wouldn’t like it…”) , still a cosy, half timbered restaurant. The charity shop test says it all – paperbacks here the usual £2.50, in Eastcote I noticed they were only 50p – I didn’t dare test my partners patience by continuing researches in Rayners Lane….
In which cinema did I see The Young Ones? – it was filmed nearby at Ruislip Lido where we made occasional trips for the pedalos.
I searched for the Pinner library of my nostalgic dreams, home of my love affair with books (there weren’t many in the house at home). In my memory it is always an autumn dusk and I’m walking the 2-3 miles scrunching through dry leaves. I know we are nearly there when we pass the dress shop called ‘Carol Ann’ and my mother says she wanted to call me that, but then my initials would have spelled CAT – to my infant consciousness this doesn’t seem to be a particular problem. The library is a tiny prefab of 2-3 rooms – one for children where the librarian reads stories – with a particular warm yellow light from a primitive source, and a very particular smell of primitive heating, paraffin stove?? oil heater?? ( Northwick Park Station waiting room smelt very similar and I often used to change trains there just to savour it…) It is a fairy tale hut right by the River Pinn and a small bridge…
The bridge is still there, and a tiny strip of park with a couple of benches, but I am assured that the library has always been the solid building near the station, but I’ve checked with my mother and I know I am right. Thank Goodness I still don’t look old enough to be remembering that far back.
Later, Eastcote got its own two storey brick library with serious non-fiction upstairs that would put many larger ones now to shame. It was also open well into the evening , with tables and chairs, so you could sit and do your homework there after tea with no rush and panic.
I apologise for this indulgent excursion into my suburban past, but it does suddenly seem to be all in the air. I had made my impromptu trip before I was told that John Betjamen’s wonderful documentary ‘Metroland’ was about to be televised on an evening all about London’s Underground.
I watched it transfixed. All my topics were there – although he followed the Pinner, Watford and Rickmansworth lines as they push further towards the real countryside. My branch ended at Uxbridge but I often stayed on the wrong train after Harrow just for the hell of it.
I spent two hours every day on the Metropolitan and Bakerloo lines to get to school – a chance for an awful lot of reading ( and endless no-good ) – hence my fascination to return to the well-beaten platforms.
Within 5 minutes Betjamen had mentioned the Pinner and Ruislip wives shopping in Liberty’s – cue my grandfather. He had answered my query about the nameless station next to St John’s Wood that we flashed through last week – it was Marlborough Road.
He’d reminded me of lawn mowing, radio request programs, and car washing ( once a lucrative little industry of mine in our street); and even shown us the crazy man who built his house round the Mighty Wurlitzer. Among other things in his varied musical career, my father played this very organ in Leicester Square ( my mother saw all the films back-to-front in her courting days). He used to be pumped up on his flashy little stand and pound his way up and down the keys, stops and pedals – he was quite a small man so this involved a lot of shifting around to get in reach. He knew this house and its owner well.
In our house in Eastcote there were eventually two pianos and an organ in the room under where I slept, and often a lot of singers as well, including my mother – whose repertoire I used to sing at the top of my lungs in the back garden at an early age ( poor neighbours – I used to stretch over the fence and eat their raspberries too…)
So now here I am ….Hate organs. Love singing. Love film.
Have made a start at coming to terms with being born in Rayners Lane.
Will now post more sensible details about what I am doing next.