Yesterday evening really deserves a post to itself. Less the music than surrounding events.
So I was going to a band audition. I’d worked out what I needed to do: train times into London after work, Tube (one change) across to London Bridge, another train out to Peckham Rye, then I had a map to get to the address of the rehearsal space. All worked out to land me there for the agreed half seven start.
All good as far as Paddington. Made it onto the Tube (Circle) – full, being central London about half 6, but nothing unbearable. Then one or two stops in comes the announcement that there are delays produced by severe disruption on the Northern line – which is what I’m changing to. Several overlength stop pauses and increasing crowding later, it was evidently all too true.
Fighting my way round the labyrinth that is King’s Cross underground station to the Northern line takes a while; the tunnels are so circuitous, the Underground décor so uniformly indistinguishable that I could very well have believed I emerged onto the same platform I’d left. However, it is the right one and I squeeze myself into another train.
The Northern line is a byword in London (apologies to those I’m teaching to suck eggs). It’s deep below ground, with correspondingly small and rounded tunnels and therefore trains. It runs a long way through key business and residential areas and so is always busy, and horrifically so at peak times. I commuted on it for a three-week intern placement after university and once had to get on the third train to come along because there was no physical way of fitting more people into the first two. There was an exposé a couple of years back about the amount of space per person on rush-hour Tube trains being so small it would be illegal to put cattle in, and they must have done the study on the Northern line.
It feels every bit like it tonight. I’m crammed in, standing against a carriage end with a manbag full of music kit, empty lunchbox, you name it, and a violin case. Being that far down and that crowded, there’s no trace of the crisp October evening out on the surface (and beyond the sprawling heat island-continent of the metropolis), and I’m sweating horribly in a three-quarter length wool overcoat. Eventually I find enough space to take it off and carry it, while we grind through stops, waits in stations and slow movement.
By London Bridge I’ve got three minutes left to catch the train that won’t give me much time to spare at the other end. It’s been a while since I was at London Bridge, though it was on the way to my Kentish first girlfriend’s home. I’d forgotten it’s not so much a station as a collective label for a disparate set of platforms. First up and round, a good five minutes’ walk at a normal pace, from the underground to surface level; then past signs – left to platforms 1 to 6, right to the rest; a departure board, I need platform 14; through ticket barriers, 7 to 13 one way, 14 and 15 still round to the rest; now I know the train I’m getting is four minutes late so I’m walking rather than jogging but it’s still a way and the sign isn’t well positioned to show me platform 14 itself. If the train had been on time I would have missed it.
The platform is full of people. It looks like one of those mid-century photos of the London dock commute, or cheap excursion trains, or evacuations, or something. I keep walking down until and as the train arrives, the layer of people gradually thinning from a solid quadruple and starting to funnel into train doors, until it looks like everyone might be in soon and I take the next entrance. At least I’m far enough down to get a seat this time.
Peckham Rye is only ten minutes away. With the train being late though, I’ve only got five minutes to find my way to the audition if I’m going to be on time. The station is contained within one of those shopping arcades that probably looked like up-to-the-minute covered markets redux when they were built but are now (as it’s nearly half seven, it’s completely dark) dingy, grubby and confusing to the newcomer. There’s a bloke begging positioned strategically in the crossways of aisles right outside the station.
It’s not clear which side of the station I’ve come out of according to my map, and I turn back on myself a couple of times before finding the right direction. This handful of roads is a textbook version of what middle-class people who want to be trendy and alternative call ‘vibrant’ – bright lights, bilingual shop signs (nowhere seems to be closed yet), open grocer’s / food shops with bunches of coriander, enormous yams that look like logs piled up, the yells of butchers in languages I don’t recognise let alone understand (I suspect some are Arabic but many more could be from sub-Saharan Africa) and the pervasive smell of meat that’s been hanging unrefrigerated all day, or offcuts and drips that have fallen underfoot and festered.
Once I turn off the main road towards my destination though, it all changes. No one is around, the street is dark and I pass small suburban houses, various council office signs mostly to do with social housing. It doesn’t take more than two minutes to reach the right street, and I turn out to be a couple of numbers away from the address. The landscape has changed again, to an industrial estate which is deserted at this hour to the point of looking like the set for a rather unpleasant scene from a gangster thriller. Number 133 appears to be a set of tall metal gates; as I arrive the security guard is letting a lorry out and I walk in through the pedestrian gate let into one of the main ones.
I arrive in still greater darkness within what would be a courtyard if it had any definable shape, rather than an unplottable straggle around towering shapeless buildings and largely unlabelled doors. There’s a sign showing unit occupancy, but there’s no map and rather unsettlingly unit 2A is shown as ‘To Let’. So I walk on, coat firmly wrapped around me, looking like I know where I’m going in my best traveller-away-from-home-culture manner; at least I don’t need to consult the map now. There’s what seems to be a soup kitchen; a subcontinental tailor with a brightly-lit entrance that opens onto stairs upward, cluttered with overflow of this and that, dominated by a sari-clad mannequin, the arm towards the outside missing. There are lots of doors but few numbers and no clear sense of order. I eventually find some numbers near to the one I’m after (something like 2B and 2A.1), though nothing with any indication of what’s inside or looking really like it’s open. I procrastinate briefly and then ring the bandleader I’m meeting, who I can hear directly as well as over the phone almost from the moment she picks up, emerging from an anonymous and darkened small doorway practically in front of me.
Oh, and then we played some music and stuff and they’ll get back to me and it took me ages to get home but I didn’t have to get up this morning and it was cool, you know?