Tuesday 6 October 2009

A tourist in Wembley: something I wrote a few months ago

I actually wrote this in December last year, never got round to putting it up though...

The idea sprang into my mind as I brushed away the cobwebs of a three-star hangover (in film review speak: there were moments where it asserted itself, but hardly memorable). It being a while since I had the time to do so, I indulged in all the essential pursuits of the lone hungover male (shuffling around in tracksuit bottoms, yesterday’s boxers and Moroccan slippers – check; copious scrotum scratching in front of Saturday Kitchen and Sky Sports News – check; bacon sarnie, cup of tea and, joy of joys, the discovery of a leftover microwaveable choccie pudding – check). Selflessness not being one of Eoghan’s greatest virtues, I was desperate to find something to take the place of Christmas shopping, so I was relieved to remind myself that I’d been meaning to have a poke around Wembley for some months.

The arch of the stadium dominates the skyline for miles around, but upon exiting the tube station one is confronted by the sleek, elegant behemoth of the structure itself. Corporate messages and pseudo-inspirational guff (Bobby Moore this, Beckham that) are everywhere, and the vast swathes of huge glass windows give an uncomfortable feeling that behind each one is a skipload of prawn sandwiches accompanying the signing of contracts with backs turned to the on-pitch action, but it’s an undeniably beautiful monster.

A 20 minute walk takes you into Wembley proper – which at first sight seems like any other north London suburb – all the usual suspects. Wandering down the high street, a human crosswind nearly blew me off my feet; I flailed around, grabbed onto a lamppost and managed to escape the tempest of bodies – which, from a safe distance, I ascertained was the swarm of locust-humans piling into the Woolworths closing down sale.

Death came even closer as I leapt unwisely in front of a bus en route to the haven of an Oxfam. A Jonathan Raban book on his travels in the Mississippi looks brilliant after only a few pages – and contains the phrase “inefficient pornography” which was worth the price alone. This was joined by a small Madhur Jaffrey compendium, a cocktail book and some Shakespeare (Twelfth Night). Then it was time to peruse the records, and with my digger hat on, I wondered what the casual observer would make of my haul which consisted of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, a High Contrast drum & bass 12” and…Rick Astley. The shopkeeper remarked that there were more through the back and would I like to take a look; I nearly hugged him when I found the very un-chazza Urszula Dudziak’s Magic Lady (with “Samba Ulla”) for 59p, as well as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

The real reason I was in the area was to visit Indian London. I had a vague idea – from past information gleaned from my friends Sanjiv and Paul and a short googling session – that Ealing Road was the place to go, so I sallied forth in that direction. The High Road meanders along, with pound shops and mobile fascia stores aplenty. I was impressed by the spectacularly vulgar suits sold in a local tailors; a gold tailcoat, I’m sure, would look fantastic on a pair of shoulders originating from the subcontinent, but the thought of one adorning the fragile frame of yours truly is just too horrific to bear. Although, I must say, I’m sorely tempted.

Wembley is, apparently, the most un-English area in London; more than half its residents were born outside the UK. I’m not an expert on the subcontinent, but from what I could glean from shopfronts and restaurants, there are a lot of Gujeratis and Sri Lankans around. It has a very different feel from, say, the Edgware Road. The latter has a romance about it – just by watching the groups of men chatting over shisha until 2am at the outside tables, you could easily imagine yourself drifting off to Beirut, whereas in Wembley one is still undoubtedly in London. In truth, wandering down the Ealing Road, I had expected the stretch of shops and restaurants to be larger, but contented myself to wandering back and forth along the street, taking in the sights, from the stunningly gorgeous girls behind the counters of the jewellery shops to the amusing sign over a shop proudly announcing Fireworks: Buy 1, Get 2 Free!

Food shops, however, were aplenty, and I visited several. Of course, I had to give the impression that I was on a buying mission and not a mere tourist, so I loaded myself up in each one. The first thing that surprised me was that Indian shops are not dominated by spices. In fact, although you can pick up enormous bags of fennel seeds, turmeric and cumin very easily, there were some spices conspicuous by their absence (I didn’t spot and mace or saffron, for example, all day). On the other hand, literally scores of different kinds of flour and ground pulses adorn the shelves of every place; First I entered a butchers. Staying true to my mantra to never pass a lamb’s heart without buying it, I also picked up some stewing mutton, and fennel seeds and garam masala which I later saw identical bags for half the price elsewhere. I drank a carton of a mango drink which slipped down nicely, although I’ve never been a massive fan of mango juice.

There are plenty of small shops and takaway joints selling both savoury and (especially) sweet snacks; when I saw a takeaway offering 3 dal wada for £1, my spirits rose. These were not dissimilar in texture to falafel, but had a delicious sweet, nutty, spiciness and I wolfed them down. Next up was a trip to one of the many cash-and-carries, where I emerged with cumin, whole coriander seeds, fenugreek and mustard seeds. I was thirsty again from the dal wada, and despite having an inherent dislike of coconut milk, was seduced by the thought of “when in Rome” and bought a can of the stuff, which had a little water and sugar thrown in to make a drink.

At the first sip, I was pleasantly surprised: it was pure and refreshing and, injecting myself with stereotypes and easing my imagination into fourth gear, I was able to imagine myself on a Goan beach, pouring the nectar down my throat. This reverie was cut short by the angry snarl of an old woman with numerous shopping bags, whose path I blocked. Sadly, the drink rapidly lost its appeal and the sudden appearance of lumps with the texture of feta almost made me deposit the aforementioned bacon sandwich, pudding and dal wada into the gutter.

Undeterred, I found my way into another shop where I filled up with all kinds of junk with which to clutter up the kitchen (any advice on what the hell to do with tamarind paste gratefully received). I was about to turn for home when on a hunch, I decided to explore a little further down the Ealing Road and, sure enough, the beating heart of Indian Wembley revealed itself past the houses. Vast cash-and-carries with rows of beautifully arranged fresh vegetables, street stalls selling sweet potato curry surrounded by youths consuming the same. There was no sign of either of the restaurants I was looking for as recommended by Paul and Sanjiv, though; any ideas, chaps? I plumped for the undisputed king of supermarkets, VB & Sons – a vast Lidlesque affair with row after row of sauces, pulses and spices. I emerged with some chapatti flour (no, I don’t know why either), cornflour, and dried coconut milk, the latter with an unpromising Nestle logo.

In VB, I’d say there were about 200 people shopping; I did a quick scout of each aisle and concluded that I was the only white face. London it might be, but this was another world. I was enlightened – the happiest I’d felt for a while. On the face of it, this was a walk around a grotty London suburb; for me, though, it was a micro-holiday, a few hours of forgetting everything else and getting lost in the atmosphere. The bus back to the tube station sailed past McDonalds and screaming police vans and my romantic blinkers were reluctantly ripped off.

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