A love letter to Kingsbury: A metaphor for London, a suburban oasis

Tube station and AvonAfter a stint away, I returned to the NW London pocket of Kingsbury (where I grew up) with fresh eyes. Look at the potential; a reservoir, eccentric cottages and castles, cheapest rentals on the Jubilee line, 15 minute tube ride to Central London and an actual genuine community that doesn’t live through local lifestyle blogs and urban farmers’ markets.

But wait, there’s more…greenery, history, celebrities and more boozers than you can shake a half bottle of Stella at.

INTRODUCTION: The brilliant basics

Sitting 8.2miles from Charing Cross (the centre of London according to black cab drivers), Kingsbury is one of London’s middlebrow areas. Not the roughest place to live, nor the poshest. The next Prime Minister won’t have attended its schools, nor will the next Ken Loach film be set on its streets.

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Panic in the ‘burbs: These days Kingsbury only ever features in the national press for the negative stuff (via Mailonline.com)

Despite puzzled looks from those who boast of nosebleeds when venturing out of Zone 2, the type of people who move to Balham and define their “Londoner” status through Buzzfeed criteria, Kingsbury’s only a short ride from Central London. You’re not going to have a nosebleed, a stroke nor be confined to wheelchair for the rest of your life by jumping on the Jubilee line here.

Despite having a population of just 52,000, Kingsbury has changed the world more than most Eurovision-winning nations and has greater potential than wherever Time Out is calling out the ‘next Dalston’. It’s given us an England cricket and football captain, a Rolling Stone, a BRIT-award winning girl band and so much more.

It’s London, just condensed.

HISTORY: Born out of Ancient land disputes

Founded in 10AD, it was named “The Kings’ Stronghold” by Anglo-Saxon settlers. Meanwhile, Queensbury (next stop on the Jubilee line) got its name from a local newspaper contest in the 1930s. Just saying.

An important trading route, the area fell into the hands of the Knights Hospitaller. Being a Roman Catholic military order, it was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1540 with the land assigned to the dean and chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1544.

Many claimed the territory to be an independent state, free of royal intervention, and as a result the Kingsbury Liberation Front was formed. Forced to conduct their activities underground, they led several campaigns against successive kings and governments to win back sovereignty. However, their activity is thought to have ceased sometime around the mid-20th Century.

In my mind, it would be ideal if Kingsbury had assembled a standing army and fought for nationhood.

GREENERY: A suburban oasis

Despite perpetual development, Kingsbury boasts one of the highest ratios of green land. Fryent Way Country Park, a retreat from the surrounding London sprawl, was apparently where Charlie Watts would assemble his drum kit for a practice pre-Rolling Stones.

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From top left clockwise: The Welsh Harp Reservoir, sailing boats on the reservoir, Kingsbury Town FC & Fryent Country Park

The Welsh Harp Reservoir, a popular rural retreat for the Victorians, is one of few SSSI within Greater London. Along with supplying the River Brent, it also contains several sailing clubs. Such is their obscurity, many lifelong residents don’t even know they exist.

But that’s what makes Kingsbury so enigmatic. You could live here for 10 years and never fully uncover the seemingly endless alleyways and overgrown public footpaths that spring surprises. Be it a lost underground river, a shooting range or a WW2 air raid shelter, the depth of Kingsbury’s character will amaze you.

PUBS: They really matter

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Kingsbury Boozers: (Top row) The George, The Wishing Well, JJ Moons. (Bottom row) Green Man, Roisin Dubh, McDonagh’s

It’s well represented on the pub front with a total of 11. None of which serve food on breadboards or disingenuously encourage patrons to engage through games of Guess Who?

While they all have their unique offerings, here are ‘The Big 5’;

  1. The George: Was the place to watch England games from 1998-2006. Full-English fry-ups with pints of Stella before catching the bus into school during Japan/Korea 2002, a personal highlight. Nowadays, karaoke nights include heartfelt renditions of Fields of Athenry and Kingston Town, a subtle nod to the pubs glory days.
  2. The Wishing Well: Amongst perfectly poured Guinness, RTÉ’s Gaelic football coverage and Sunday night sing-alongs it’s done well to carve out an HQ for Kingsbury’s large Irish community. Formerly the site of a video rental shop, it’s still far more authentic than the visions of any O’Neill’s pub. Post-Christmas Day mass drinks before family dinner, an annual tradition.
  3. J.J Moons (Wetherspoons): Recently expanded from one shop unit to two, it’s Kingsbury’s busiest weekend pub. Its proximity to Kingsbury tube station makes it popular amongst younger drinkers. An interesting bookshelf serves the late morning/early afternoon crowd.
  4. The Green Man: While the paintings of seafarers on rough seas might need some explaining, its mounted agricultural hand tools hark back to Kingsbury’s farming heritage. Once famous for its beer garden, demolished for flats some years ago, its historic charm lives on through the wooden interior and snug area. A dated jukebox, Shakespeare’s Sister to Blur, ensures you never leave the pub’s mid-1990’s heyday.
  5. Jono’s: Formerly The Kingsbury Tavern, it’s only just reopened after serving as an illegal cannabis farm for the past decade. Recent launch was very successful, providing a much-needed boost to the Church Lane area. Certainly one to watch.

ARCHITECTURE: “When were they built, Sir?”

Kingsbury has some of London’s most eccentric architecture; 1920s semis, a POW-built village, post-blitz council blocks and Help-to-Buy new builds.

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Trobridge Architecture: The castles appeared in Madness’ video for their 1982 hit Our House

But it’s the designs of Belfast-born architect Ernest Trobridge that really impress. Ramblers from preservation societies come to squint at his renaissance cottages and castles built in the 1930s. One of his most famous designs on Wakeman’s Hill featured in the music video for Madness’ 1982 hit Our House.

This heritage can only be explored on foot, and so mainly enjoyed by local schools that can’t afford transport to more faraway fieldtrips. This architecture deserves more visitors than hoards of bored school children.

FAMOUS RESIDENTS: Where stars are born. Or at least go to school

Advertising legend Sir John Hegarty said, “Simply sitting on a bean bag doesn’t automatically make you creative”. Essentially, you don’t need to live in an area daubed in commissioned graffiti to be relevant.

Kingsbury has proven this. From sport to music, terrorism to technology, Kingsbury has already touched you in so many ways:

  • Pre-Italia ’90, Stuart Pearce played for local pub side Dynamo Kingsbury Kiev, avoiding detection using the name Yak Jensen
  • England cricket captain Mike Gatting was born here and went to the same primary school as Pearce
  • Olympic boxing champion Audley Harrison lived next door to my mate, despite being introduced to the ring as coming from rough-as-fuck Harlesden
  • Derrick Evans lived here too, both pre and post Mr. Motivator fame, and helped keep the local mums in shape with his evening workout classes
  • Arsenal legend Paul Merson apparently used to stick his nuts in the pockets of the pool table at Kingsbury Town FC, challenging uncoordinated punters to have a free shot
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Kingsbury Legends: (From top row) Audley Harrison, Mike Gatting, Stuart Pearce. Charlie Watts, Sugarbabes, George Michael. Amy Johnson, Tony Kanal & Chris Squire

Kingsbury High School does the music, producing:

  • The original Sugarbabes line-up started here before being infiltrated and taken over
  • No Doubt’s Tony Kanal (yes, No Doubt was a band and not the stage name of Gwen Steffani)
  • George Michael, who included shots of Kingsbury in the music video for his single Round Here
  • Charlie Watts, though mistakenly introduced on stage as The Wembley Whammer by Mick Jagger (Watts actually attended Tyler’s Croft school, which merged with KHS in later years)
  • Chris Squire from Yes and Jet Harris from The Shadows knocked about around here too
  • Jazz Warrior Courtney Pine

Actors. Terrorists. Murderers.

  • The first two series of Grange Hill were filmed here (don’t even get me started on the rumours about why production stopped)
  • Alice Branning in Eastenders
  • Dhiren Barot studied here before he was arrested (whilst getting his haircut in Luton) for heading up Al-Qaeda’s 2004 financial services plot
  • Convicted murderer James Hanratty studied here before being the last person to be hanged in Britain

It’s no coincidence that one pocket of London has produced this many artists, thinkers and musicians. There’s something about the area that stimulates a logical yet disruptive outlook on life. Or something like that.

You too could make your name here. Just like Oliver Goldsmith, who wrote She Stoops to Conquer at local Hyde Farm, and TV Pioneer John Logie Baird, who received the first continental television pictures at Kingsbury Manor. Aviation pioneer Amy Johnson, who learnt to fly at Kingsbury’s aerodrome, even has a block of flats named after her. Accomplishment is recognized and rewarded here in Kingsbury.

DEMOGRAPHICS: Everyone is, or was, related to former local boy Paul Merson

Okay, an incestuous bloodline of that degree may be somewhat exaggerated. Despite a close community that trades on mates-rates and lifts to school, Kingsbury is one of the truly diverse parts of London.

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Sales collateral: How local estate agents try to promote Kingsbury

Aspirational Irish immigrants of the 1950s moved here from the same inner city Victorian terraces their Grandchildren can no longer afford to buy. They built our roads and repaired our post-war cities, but now live here with their valuable labour supply companies and plant hire contracts.

The 1970/80s saw Indian communities arrive that were determined to supply the country with the smartest minds and savviest businesses. They’ve left a legacy that extends far beyond the curry houses, resplendent saree shops and phone dealers that can also cut your keys and resole your shoes. This summer the local community raised £20m to build the world’s first ‘Eco-Hindu Temple’ right here in Kingsbury.

More recently Kingsbury’s been a big beneficiary of the expansion of the EU, with fresh waves of Eastern European manual workers, cheap loft extensions and Tyskie stocked off-licences.

TODAY: Former landmark elevated to convenience store

The Prince of Wales’ Bandwagon Soundhouse was one of the earliest heavy metal clubnights in London. An unknown Iron Maiden played there in 1979 and called their EP The Soundhouse Tapes after it. The site is now a block of flats with a Tesco Metro beneath.

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No coming back: The Prince of Wales hosted an early Iron Maiden at their club The Bandwagon, now a Tesco Metro

Kingsbury is not exempt from globalization, having seen its character succumb to glass developments and generic chain stores. Increasingly becoming more bland and indistinct as time goes by.

The former jewel in its crown, Kingsbury Lido, was closed in 1988. Finally demolished in 1994, an overgrown cordoned off pile of rubble lies there today. While commonly accepted that the death of a child was the final nail in its coffin, its closure still fuelled further speculation;

  • George Michael was found ‘cottaging’ in the changing rooms
  • To make way for a theme park to rival Disneyland Paris (which opened in 1992)
  • It’d become a prime target by the IRA (God knows why)
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Kingsbury Lido ’64: My old man (middle) enjoying a summer swim

A minor victory over Globalisation

Whenever a McDonald’s closes, skeptical schoolchildren instantly ask themselves why; a local outbreak of herpes and the milkshake machine often being linked. Reasons behind the closure of Kingsbury McDonald’s include:

  • George Michael was found ‘cottaging’ in the toilets
  • It was haunted (why that would’ve closed it down, I don’t know)
  • A Paedophile was found asleep in the children’s play area

Regarding Pizza Hut, “the first UK delivery unit opened in Kingsbury, London in 1988” according to FranchiseSales.com. For some parts of the UK, this would be a genuine achievement and be taught in schools through song and interpretive dance. Not here. No need. This town gave the world a Rolling Stones for God sakes.

FINAL WORDS: A Kingsburian’s summation

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The Midnight Garden Tour ’11: Me, in somebody’s garden, Roe Green Village, Kingsbury

Ex-Sugarbabe Mutya Buena drinks in the local Wetherspoon’s. Paul Merson’s cousin works in a local hairdresser. Charlie Watts’ auntie lives in the flat below my gran’s. Some lad from school even featured in the Tulisa sex video.

But the vast bulk of Kingsbury’s success stories have rolled on (1990’s dance group Baby D being the last known celebrities still living locally). Evidently so when I failed to recruit any of them for the 2012 Olympic torch relay when it came through Kingsbury.

What’s more, lifelong Kingsburians now look to Bushey and Stanmore for the suburban dream in John Betjeman’s Metro-Land.

But the affordable rents, proximity to town and the tranquility of its parklands make for ideal living. Maybe even a place to invigorate the aspirations of London’s creative young and poor? Maybe a place to raise a family? Maybe even a place to visit to remind yourself of the importance of London’s suburbs. The potential is huge for those willing to make the trip.

Follow Rob @Orbiterlover on Twitter

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**Big thanks to Simon Phillips for all his help crafting this article**

 

Kingsbury shopkeeper’s don’t mess about when you try robbing their jewellers

My hometown of Kingsbury, North-West London, has given a lot to the world; an England football captain and caretaker manager (Stuart Pearce on both fronts, once played for Dynamo Kingsbury Kiev), an England cricket captain (Mike Gatting) and The Sugababes. Though sadly, it now only makes the news when one of its residents gets stabbed for his copy of Grand Theft Auto V.

But now the London suburb has a new set of heroes: the fruit and veg traders of its High Street, who bravely took down an armed robber this week. At 2pm on Monday 7th September, four men on mopeds ram-raided an Indian jewelers on Kingsbury Road. Managing to fill a laundry bag with gold and diamonds.

After an initial stand-off between locals and the gang, involving a meat cleaver being indiscriminately launched at the bikers, the shopkeepers believed to be from the Iraqi community gave chase. Using food crates and a shopping trolley, they managed to floor one of the culprits as he rode through the crowd. The police arrived moments later and arrested the suspect.

It was caught on camera and uploaded to Youtube shortly after. These guys don’t fuck about when people come to their ends to take liberties.

Follow me @Orbiterlover

Me and Morrissey’s India Tour 2012

Mumbai, November 2012

Emerging from Mumbai international airport after a very enjoyable flight (see bottom of page for some of the films and shows I watched along with a short review of each) shortly after 1.10am on Tuesday 2nd November, myself and Andy jump into a taxi towards Patrick’s flat. Patrick? No he’s not some botched drug contact, but a friend of Andy’s Mum who’s kindly agreed to put us up for our two nights in Mumbai. He’s Sri Lankan and moved to the Colindale/Kingsbury area in 1980 where he lived until very recently, having moved out to Mumbai for work as an architect.

After snaking our way around town to his gated community in our taxi, passing several armed guards, we were finally escorted upstairs to his lair. He couldn’t have been nicer, waving a hand at our apologies for getting in late and instead, offered us his personal driver for the following day (after he’s been dropped off at work).

Most people shout about London’s multiculturalism and what its residents have to thanks for it; the different cuisines, the variations of skilled labour, Nelson Mandela’s endorsement of the Olympic Games bid. But more pertinently to myself and Andy, is the realisation that hailing from the most multicultural borough in London, means it makes perfect sense for us to rock up in an Asia hub city and get hooked up with a local resident and his driver on a whim thanks to the people we live amongst back home.

The following day, we meet Mohamed, the driver who we ask to take us to the Gateway of India. On the way, we pass what must be condemned as a normal day in Mumbai; men breaking backs and women carrying the equivalent of their own body weight on their heads.

Indian Women eh’, bloody hell. In fact, more specifically old Indian women, the ageing frail ones. Back home I’ve seen their resilience, strong-willed determination, impeccable leadership and their position as silent figureheads of the family. I’m seeing it now on the streets of Mumbai and I’ll see it even more so on my trip to Delhi to come. But stick them on a plane and it’s a different story altogether as I can testify from last night’s flight from London. From the formidable Iron ladies, they’ve a propensity to reduce themselves to a heap of sluggish excuses, shuffling up and down the aisle as an air steward’s nightmare, ageing visibly every few minutes while constantly on the lookout for sympathy, a free upgrade, or an obstacle to trip up on. All the while, ensuring their ever obedient, ever present loyal son feels a pang of guilt throughout about the whole dramatic ride. But off a plane and on the streets they’re as good as gold. The sons I admire. All six in fact.

Cars and people are flying in all directions, right of way does not exist and even if it did it’d be lost in the sounds of a thousand beeps. Chaos it may be, but god-damn it’s organised. The honk of a horn is used for its intended purpose; to warn of a driver’s presence, and not as a tool for rage and fury. I’m perhaps mistaking it for cultural difference and lack of sleep, but I quite like how people talk to each other. Watching Mohammed ask for directions from fellow drivers, it’s direct and to the point, allowing strangers to extrapolate as much as they need from fellow strangers without wasting time and effort satisfying socially-bureaucratic expectations. Almost child-like, they talk to each other the way everybody does before the importance of good manners are bestowed upon them. That’s not to say their rude to each other, but just talk to each like they’ve been mates for years. Even when they take up grievances, be if for pushing in the line of a queue, they scowl and shout like kids in the playground. Not everybody’s friends, but they know each other well.

On route, Mohamed drives us through a patch of the world famous Dharavi slum, which according to him is not safe for tourists to explore despite several posters I spotted around advertising tours. One in particular irks me somewhat, which boasts of providing the best sights of the slum “made famous by Slumdog Millionaire”. Dev Patel was made famous by Slumdog Millionaire. The lack of working-time directives for Asian child actors was made famous by Slumdog Millionaire. Though I’m not sure the same should be said about the largest slum in Asia. I’m pretty sure it didn’t’ need a summer blockbuster to bring it to the forefront of people’s attention, especially over here.

I don’t really have an appetite for poverty. Sadly, this only means that I’d be unable to stomach a bag of chips walking down one of its sewage strewn back roads, and not an indicator of how I’m going to focus my incredulity into kicking off the next series Live Aid concerts.

Another thing I’m uncomfortable with is haggling with poverty. If I don’t do it with the ticket controller at Liverpool Street tube station over the extortionate price of my Oyster card, why would I do it here in Asia? Though it is recommended, if only to maintain a stable market, and not one characterised by demand pull inflation which could have severe detrimental effects on all the other street sellers and local people, but that’s a different story altogether. One good thing they do here to shelter locals from the tourism-induced inflation is a two-tier pricing strategy which is in full force across the city most notably at the National Gallery of Modern Art and the former Prince of Wales Museum, now renamed to Chhatka Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. What a name. What a country.

Or of course, if you want to be treated the exact same as locals, both in service and in price, the Starbucks that runs at the back of the Taj Palace Hotel does all the same shit you get back home. Equality through globalisation.

As we approach the famous Gateway to India perched on its own mini-peninsula, me and Andy are apprehended by two ‘Holy Men’. Guessing this must be okay, we allowed them to wrap our wrists up in red and yellow bands, synonymous with the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan, and then were quite taken back with the wording ‘small tip for Holy Man, a small tip for India’. Okay, you got me, fairs fair. I rifled through the notes I had in my pocket still quite miffed as to the value of each domination, each one adorned with a smiling Gandhi beaming up at me. My only tip for India thus far would probably be to get some more national hero’s, but just what do you give a self-blessed Holy Man. Could give some coins, although the R1 and R2 are the exact same size and weight, the former looking more like a token for an arcade machine if not a credit for the launderette machine with its flimsy appeal and image of a rogue gloved-hand giving the thumbs up, the sole markings save for the R1 sign. We bung them a couple of 100 notes in the end and he blesses us free of negative spirits – the only thing these and will ward off are other Holy Men annoyed they didn’t get to us first.

It’s incredibly hard to find anywhere in Mumbai city centre to sit down, take a breath, tie up your shoelaces, collect your thoughts and check your wallets not been stolen. Therefore it’s a must to get into the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel which sits along the main harbour opposite the Gateway of India.

The toilets in here aren’t that bad either. Great in fact, considering Mumbai has 17 public toilets per 1 million people. Given the stereotype, India appears to have quite an adequate sewage system, my first concrete example that this country is ready for the economic opulence the world expects of it. Not to mention sustainable. Greece was never going to be a taken seriously as a stalwart of fiscal stability when their toilet walls were adorned with requests not to flush bog roll down the loo.

Leaving Mumbai was kind of similar to how I felt about Los Angeles; had a really great time and couldn’t really fault the place but for some reason was more than willing to Dunkirk when the opportunity came.

After stocking up with biscuits we headed over to the train station to catch the overnight train to Goa; carriages made up of bunk beds instead of chairs, quite common in high-density, low income countries. Taking logistics into account I volunteered myself for the upper compartment, leaving Andy the spacious bottom bunk with the with window view.

Needless to say he woke first and wasted no time in inviting me down to share the great views of India’s invigorated countryside, him looking radiantly fresh like the housewife who’s had a great day at the spa.

We got off a few stops early at Thivim, as we had a place booked for a few nights in the happening beach town of Arambol.

Goa

Now, I’m sure we’d both agree that our time in Goa was perhaps the most eventful and enjoyable and undoubtedly the period of the holiday which we’ll no doubt bore our friends about the most, but it was also the biggest chunk of time devoid of moments of reflection, and consequently will be heavily disproportionally represented in text but in an attempt to summarise we;

Visited spice farms in Ponda, lauded it up in our own penthouse apartment in Calungute, showered with elephants in the jungle, reminded ourselves of orderly chaos in Panaji, rubbed up colonial Portugal in Old Goa, moved freely within the inner circle of the original hippy settlers of ’75, became favoured locals at the Peace, Love and Little Cakes bar in Chopara, floated around Goan-trance parties, floated around on 50cc scooters, discussed astronomy with Shia and exaggerated the size of local snakes with Scottish Gary, named from memory all 50 states of America and the England world cup squad from 1966 (Missouri and Roger Hunt being the final editions), initiated ourselves as honorary residents of Arambol, walked in on a very amateurish rap video shoot atop Fort Chopara, bathed amongst identified jumping fish, came dangerously close to falling in love with some Israeli girls and overall ate so much traditional Goan prawn-based curry that at one stage I thought my dreams of succumbing to gout at such an early age had been realised.

That and the beach life is kind of what we did. Then flew out to Delhi on the eve of Diwali.

See Part 2 for stories of celebrity in Delhi, analysis of the Taj Mahal in Agra and sobering it up with the Barmy Army in Ahemedabad

Delhi

We emerged from the world famous Chandi-Chowk, its name embedded in folklore for its chaotic and non-stop movement of people, animals, vehicles and fluids. So much so, I even bought a blend of tea named in its honour. This may say more about me, but I kind of admire their perseverance to keep on toiling, battling for no distinguishable reward; no holiday, no pat on the back. What’s the point if it never stops? It’s the first day of Diwali when we arrive and every inch of pavement is covered by workmen or work vehicles. Was it this busy when India faced rivals Pakistan in the semi-final of last year’s cricket world cup? Or did it come to a natural stand still almost like the images of a tranquil Trafalgar Square when England are play in a high profile game – think England-Germany Euro ’96 for example.

The only way to cross the roads here is to wait for a pile-up or traffic jam and using it to manoeuvre across safely. And to think ‘jaywalking’ is illegal in the US. I’d like to see the reaction on people’s faces here if I told them that. I wonder what they’d say if I told them that in the UK people frown on those who shit on your own doorstep, another liberty these people take for granted.

Like Mumbai its incredibly hard to find anywhere to sit and rest in central Delhi, but here’s a tip; head over to the raised partition that runs between both side s of the Netaji Subhash Marg highway. From here you can sit on a grassy verge and dangle your feet off it while watching the traffic fly beneath, and count how many people you can spot on one motorbike/scooter – 2 people, 2 people and a dog, 3 people, a family, 2 families? An infinite numbers of opportunities of reckless transit. As for gathering your thoughts its also a great place to reflect on Delhi’s madness and discuss at length ways to solve the obvious town planning problems; but don’t stay too long, leave when the conversation begins to nose dive towards drastic and often irrational utilitarianism measures.

Directly opposite here, is the famous Mughal building, The Red Fort; pay particular attention to the museum of independence and have a read about how effective Gandhi’s non-violent practices were. If you don’t want your image of him tarnished, Just don’t read about the support from Nazi Europe, the supply of arms from the Berlin Committee or exploitation of the war effort by the Ghadar movement to stir trouble amongst certain factions in Turkey. Peaceful loving Gandhi? Was he balls!

Also, it’s imperative to follow in mine and Andy’s steps in making the mistake of sitting down in the comfy and spacious women-only compartments on the Metro system before being told to leave and join the perverts and cheats further down the carriage.

By the time we get back to our hotel, the fireworks are off. Kids and older kids hastily light bangers and whirl around uncontrollably with Catherine wheels in their hands. The sounds that greet us when we emerge from New Delhi metro station is too loud to think, though I manage to observe how many of the participants are kids out in the street on their own. From my experience, I thought Diwali was strictly a family occasion, though these street kids seem happy in each other’s company. Just as well, as orphans can pick their families, just not their friends.

After heading down the main bazaar towards our hotel for our shower, we head to Connaught Place for some dinner.

After a fine meal of Indo-Thai food in a plush place, we went in search of something for dessert. Being Diwali, and most places being closed, we had to settle for a Krushems from KFC. It was here we saw the full extent of the divide and conquer of the emerging classes. Waiting patiently in the queue behind some local students, in barges the town bully who goes out of his way especially to push his way to the front of the line in the most literal sense, followed shortly by his gang of younger and less cocky foot soldiers. Cartoonish in every way, he’s dressed in black trousers, white dinner jacket and heavily laden with gold jewellery. He rests his arm on the counter using it to pivot himself round to greedily take in the faces he’s taken advantage of. Then he sees the pale and inexperienced Rob and Andy, stops and comes over leading with his big meaty hand wishing us a ‘Happy Diwali’. Generously, he allows the students to rightfully take his place at the till. He’s quite nice, to us, and after telling him how much we appreciate his country he wants a photo with us – throwing his camera at one of his boys to do the honours. He’s definitely atleast the 3rd hardest person in Delhi. Based on the fact he’s the hardest person we’ve seen and I’m sure we’ve seen atleast a third of the 11 million people that live in this City today.

Good lad.

For all the talk of India’s position as the emerging power house, it’s very hard to get this when walking around New Delhi. With the exception of Connacht Place, there appears to be very little to accommodate for the vital role that the City plays in these aspirations. Unless India is to rely 100% on recruiting internally, I cannot immediately see what they are offering to attract foreign investment aside from perhaps a dedicated skilled work force and generous tax relief (just speculation). An enjoyable holiday experience, I’m not sure the world’s talent would have an infinite tolerance for it. But unlike London and other global cities, Delhi’s power will not stem from its centre, buts its periphery. Its new towns, its Milton Keynes. Noida. Gurgaon.  After a while these settlements of glass buildings and gated communities will become the new city centres, and after that, the only city centre. New Delhi will become Old Delhi. A Newer Delhi will evolve, reinventing itself and giving up on its traditional beliefs and values, rebranding its appeal hoping nobody notices, all in search of a new type of Delhite. Newer Delhi abandons Clause IV. The Sun Backs Newer Delhi. Newer Delhi victorious after landslide victory in the polls.

 

Agra

The following day we rent out a driver who comes fully equipped with his own car, in which he uses to drive us to Agra, 200km south Delhi and home to the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal; Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’ while its creator Emperor Shah Jahan said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’ – The guides research, not my own. Nonetheless, would it have the same profound impact on us? Afterall we’ve already seen it in pictures and film and fo this I’m slightly worried this will just be another opportunity for what I liked to call Photo Tourism; Take picture now, upload soon, enjoy much later. Facebook and the need to share everything being the main catalyst for this type of tourism. Also, Kipling and Jahan had a far greater wit and came equipped with a far superior lexicon to explain such feelings. I was worried our only surprise would rise from its size (“it’s much bigger than I thought”) or its alignment with faith (“Muslim? I thought it was a Hindu thing”). But, it did have the intended gaping effect, though I’m just not aswell endowed with the necessary argot to tell you just how much so. So we’ll leave it there.

Lurking somewhere behind my left shoulder I heard a vaguely familiar voice, nobody specific just no doubt from film and TV, say to its company “wow, my first visit to one of the greatest man-made wonders. After this, my second must-see is the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil”.

Now, I’m not sure of what actually constitutes the Seven Wonders of the World anymore, what with all the derivatives and categories, but if I’m on a tour of man-made wonders, the hand-carved Inca trails of Machu Picchu would definitely take priority over a huge concrete statue of Jesus Christ – but that’s me.

After a good few hours at Taj Mahal, jumped into some kind of hybrid wheelbarrow/rickshaw to Agra Fort.

Alex James from Blur said that the stares you get walking through a supermarket with a wailing baby is the closet thing you can do to knowing how it feels to be recognisably famous. Well neither of us have much in the way of a proxy, but the last few days we’ve certainly been novelties and in some form celebrities over here, especially in the national parks and monuments. By the time we’d finished the Taj Mahal I’d lost count of the number of times we were approached by groups of Indians wanting their photos with us.

The national parks, such as Taj Mahal, Fort Agra and The Red Fort, are mainly made up of Indian tourists who have travelled from places less accustomed to westerners – hence our strong celebrity pulling power here more than ever.

It was mainly groups of lads, shuffling their way towards us, egging each other on to be the one to ask for permission until one plucked up the courage to come over. Normally bounding over like the kid at the school disco first to approach the girls, armed with his brother’s oversized jumper and his Dad’s overused chat-up lines. Sometimes, parents would give us their babies to hold for a photo. It was always harmless and good natured, though much to my surprise the novelty of being a celebrity worn off after a while – even on me. After a while, kids would just secretly take pictures of us, thinking we weren’t looking.

Though we couldn’t understand the language, we always knew when we were the core of their muffled jokes. Take it from me, all those times when you joke about somebody you see on the tube or at a music festival, whether it be questioning their gender or just their looks in general, there’s a very good chance the victim knows you’re fun is at their experience.

Only once at Agra, outside the world-famous Mausoleum was I asked to take a picture of somebody else. I actually volunteered as a very large family were looking around anxiously for somebody to capture them all in front of the great monument. Sadly for them it was an old Nokia, one of the pioneer camera phones. Nonetheless I took it. But Christ, I think they’re planning on getting it enlarged and putting it up in their homes as a heavily pixelated family photo; no doubt they’ll all look like the early Super Mario characters.

Once back in Delhi, we headed back to one of the city’s finest curry houses, United Coffee House (poor name, great food), feasting it up with India’s new wealthy. Eating at a relatively exclusive restaurant in the rags you’ve been wearing all day can do wonders for a man’s self-esteem.

Our last day, before we got the train to Ahmedabad, we paid a visit to the Lotus Temple. Completed in 1986 as a house of prayer for multi-faith it sits outside the melee of Delhi, amongst a soothing national park – “It looks just like the Sydney Opera House”.

It’s a lot less hectic than other monuments we’ve been to and for that reason one of my favourites. The steps besides the eight surrounding water pools that surround the temple make it an excellent vantage point for people watching. I’m surprised, impressed and disappointed by the lack of ambition the native kids have of pushing their fellow peers into the pools; it’s probably why India don’t do aswell in the Olympics as they probably should. On the flipside it’s probably why they, relatively speaking of course, manage to live in harmony with each other despite so many conflicting belief systems.

Unlike the crouching quartet of Chinese students, who are all crowded around one corner of the pool betting on whose coin will reach the bottom first. Chanting and egging on sinking coins. China won 88 medals at the last Olympics.

Inside was nice and neutral, looking strikingly like the interior of the English Martyrs church at the top of Blackbirds Hill in Neaden, with its wooden beams and semi-raised alter worshipped by rows and rows of oak benches. Having to be silent, it felt more like a school exam hall than a place of prayer, complete with their own Mr. Kent ushering in and out the packs of nervous students, his pointed index finger rather leaving his pursed lips.

The atheists definitely have the debating halls and the support of the comedy circuit, but no doubt religion will always have architecture.

Ahmedabad

Another sleeper train, which we stayed up most of the night with new friends Nick and Jana playing cards all night. This time the destination of Ahmedabad, a city just north of Mumbai and often labelled the ‘Manchester of the East’ owing to its industry and textile business. This in itself is not reason enough to visit such a city on such a short stay in a country, but we were actually hoping to secure tickets for the 1st Test match of England’s cricket tour of India.

After arriving at the train station we part with Nick and Jana, with vague plans of meeting at the match and head to our hotel for a quick check-in. After which we zoom in a cab to the Sardar Patel stadium which has a capacity of 54,000 but is not to be confused with the other Sardar Patel stadium in Ahmedabad some 7km away which only has a capacity of 50,000. Seriously, sometimes I think the planners of these towns want to fail.

The atmosphere outside the ground is electric – which in most cases means lots of flag waving and even more shouting, and now not an exception.  Speculating our chances of securing tickets for this will be about as slim as reservations at Dorsia, we set about looking for the first tout. In doing so, we stumble across a ticket booth for foreigners only; if you ever see a queue in India, rest assured there’s a strong possibility there’s a much smaller one made up of Westerners nearby. We approach with caution but end up with a brace of tickets with the Barmy Army in the lower pavilion.

There’ s more people outside the stadium then inside, rather surprising given it’s the last few minutes of lunch when we enter. We see India declare and England lose 3 wickets in quick-succession before close of play.

We had great seats, but there was no denying the distinctive smell of piss and shit secreting its way from the nearby toilets. It really was basic for such a renowned sporting venue and definitely makes you think twice about romanticising the rough and ready of sport stadia gone by. Whether it be lamenting terraces and reasonable ticket prices at the footy, it’s probably safe to say the reality of the raw element of football has been effectively lost underneath a veil of nostalgia.

The stadium’s not quite full, though there’s certainly a great atmosphere present. The assault rifle-clad policemen encircling the boundary  juxtaposing the benevolent and peaceful village setting playing out behind them, almost as well as the loyal sing-songer of the Barmy Army returning to his seat with a round of waters; Gujarat is a dry state, strictly no alcohol consumption. The whole scene throwing up images congruent with Banksy on some east London shop shutter.

We find some seats. Seating is non-assigned which is great for the real fans who get there early and have the pick of the lot, but not so great for us who have to make do with the unannounced waft of shit every so often.

The 3rd day of the test (our 2nd) is much better both in terms of atmosphere and entertainment. With a bad start, England are bowled out and asked to follow on for the 2nd innings with a loss looking inevitable. However, heroics from Prior and Cook see an impressive comeback with a draw looking possible. The day ends on a high, all suspecting we may see one of the great test comebacks. Even the kid who’s obviously been forced along for the ride by his Dad (and possibly psychiatrist) occasionally looks up from his phone to inspect the scoreboard. He has unnecessarily long finger nails and according to Andy this is a sign of an unloved child. Crickets a good laugh.

The 4th day (our 3rd) sees again a very promising display from the partnership of Cook and Prior. I agree to go ahead of Andy and meet him there, purposely choosing to sit behind guy who looks like Billy Connolly, using his flamboyant appearance as a meeting point if necessary. All this man’s life in public he must hears murmurs of ‘Billy Connolly’. Nick and Jana join us later on.

It’s quite something watching an event unfold no more than 100m away, especially when its being projected all across the world. All the lager soaked carpets it been discussed, or the back seats of cars its being followed and yet here we watching it live.

We leave shortly before the end to catch our flight back to Mumbai, where we will then transfer to our flight back to London.

Sitting at the airport, half expecting to everybody to break into dance like the  culmination of a Bollywood hit, one side with the ‘baddies’ from our trip (the cheats, the queue jumpers, several uncredited Tuk Tuk drivers) and the other with  the ‘goodies’ (Matthew from Little Cakes, Mumbai resident Patrick). The fact that the baddies of our trip were no worse than a pantomime villain is testament to how much we enjoyed our time in India. It’s a great country, really is, even if my notes have not fully illustrated this. But then again, nobody wants to hear the positive aspects of ones experiences. For these, I urge to make the trip yourself if you haven’t done so already.