Being able to walk to work is unusual, especially in London. As with all good things of course, I take it completely for granted.
It’s not a bad walk though, through the Barnsbury estate and past the Two Brewers (‘travellers by appointment only’) that never seems to close, along the back of the prison and across the road by the Hemingford Arms, with its heavy, picturesque coating of ivy. And then you’re into Barnsbury proper – deep town houses with pianos and nurseries in the basements, and back streets round by the Albion or the Drapers (rest its soul) that almost feel like you’re in some gentle southern English village rather than five minutes from Upper Street.
Of course modernity has its hooks in, and they’ve been tearing up Richmond Avenue for years now, as one by one the line of old mansions with absurd stone sphinxes lying outside each one are converted into flats. Worse still, people have evidently been deciding that their gardens are not chic enough, and you see skips full of beautiful, unfashionable plants – roses and those lovely raspberry ripple camellias – lying uprooted while gardeners carry in vans full of despicably stylish little alpines.
Thankfully not everyone has such good taste. In the summer people’s fences are covered in lavender, which you can scrunch in your hands as you pass (I have occasionally scrunched the odd bee), and in the winter everyone has boxes full of tough yet fragile-looking purple, pink and white cyclamen.
Other people walk the same route too, coming the opposite way. Of course you never say hello, or acknowledge it as you pass them each morning. This is London after all. There’s a tall, gangly man, with slicked-back hair and specs, who I use as a gauge of how late for work I am, and an attractive but miserable-faced girl with a green moped that’s seen better days.
The exception to the no-pleasantries rule is a big, overall-clad guy with an oversized nose and lower jaw, who once complimented me on my jacket (it was a pretty good jacket), and the other week remarked as he passed what a lovely day it was. He delivers these comments while walking in the other direction and without slowing his brisk pace, sort of like a drive-by conversationalist, so that by the time you’ve thought of a response he’s already gone.
Back in the days when we still drank in the Tap next door, before it became the lilac-walled tumbleweed establishment of today, we used to joke that the withered old lady who plied the route between there and the Old Royal Free estate was probably a reclusive millionaire. It’s unlikely. She moves at a creeping pace with a stick, and often has trouble with the door, clutching two ten-packs of Silk Cut to her chest. Sometimes she steps out into the road and brandishes her stick feebly in the face of oncoming traffic until it stops. I saw her do this once to a bus on Upper Street.
There’s another old lady who seems to walk the same three-block route, day-in, day-out. Well-dressed and dignified, with a headscarf and neat white hair, she smiles benignly and wordlessly at everyone she passes, and stops to read every notice on every lamp-post, or quiz night advert in the pub window. Once, when (big spenders) Mike and I took the interns for fish and chips at the Trawlerman, she came and sat down in an empty seat at the end of our table. Didn’t say a word, just sat and listened. Like that slight contact was enough to sustain her. Real loneliness is a difficult thing to appreciate, particularly in such a big city, and the thought makes me uneasy. I remember years ago going to see my great aunt, a reclusive and very perceptive lady, and asking her how she was. ‘Oh I’m alright. Just old. Never be old, Joly.’