A friend of mine, Mr Ian Tolley, said to me recently that time moved in slower circles up in Scotland than it does down south. I was inclined to agree with him, until I made a journey this week. After many years’ absence I made my way to Carpenders Park, a lost suburb of Greater London, somewhere between Watford and Wembley. I was there to see my uncle, who is recovering from an operation.
In this place, so familiar to me from my childhood when I used to regularly visit my grandad, time seems to have slowed to a stop. We are in the backwater of a slow river, where the gleam of movement has been replaced by the slow thickening of sunlight and the basking of water-lilies.
How weird it was, and yet totally appropriate, to find the station just as I remembered it, with the long, easy slope down to the exit, seeming to prepare you for the long, easy amble of life on the outside.
Near the station, quiet strands of little-used shops sat exactly where I had left them years before, a small florists, the taxi service, post-office, and the little betting shop my grandad used to sit me outside while he placed his money.
Carpenders Park has the air of a small Devon village, yet it is just on the edge of the seething capital. Life seems to pass unremarked. On this Friday lunchtime, in the sunny lanes people wash their cars as if living in a perpetual Sunday.
The shopping parade has no name, no roof, no highlights. Shops have no jokey names and no pretensions. There is no Starbucks, no Prêt a Manger, just shops that call themselves what they are. How weird is that? And they sell cuts of lamb and cream buns that look and are exactly the same as they would have been in the seventies.
I would have said this is a place without imagination except I spotted a wooden rhinoceros in the middle of the precinct – part of a curious gesture at a playground.
Posters for gigs never make it out here. There is just a half-hearted smidge of graffiti. Old men and shaven-headed youths stroll around walking dogs, buying sports papers and chatting easily. They seem outside the rat race, a different type of person uninfected by the stresses of modern ideas.
For a moment I am wooed into the easy consensual world of my teenage years. It is hard, walking these pavements, to imagine we live in a world of quantum physics, push-notifications, terror-cells and bank bail-outs. It’s hard not to believe that every man sits down to the same pint and pie, supporting the same team and wanting pretty much what his neighbour wants.
My uncle has lived there since the early 60s, and when I asked him recently what the area was like these days, he said indignantly ‘Carpenders Park? I never go there.’ It struck me as funny that as far as he was concerned he never went where he actually was.
When I returned to the station, I suddenly noticed that according to the signs there, Carpenders Park is to your right when you leave the station, not to the left where I have always gone.
So I guess the place I’ve been going to doesn’t actually exist – or if it does… it certainly isn’t Carpenders Park.