Kilburn High Road
Following Irish O’Grady’s 1985 footsteps along Kilburn High Road is quite easy. Much has changed, even in the few years since the novel’s 1980s, but the main landmarks and ports of call, as it were the bone-structure of the place, are still intact enough to be recognisable.
This is the A5 out of London, a log-jam of traffic slewing up and down a perceptible slope. It rises more sharply at the top end leftwards out of the Jubilee Line station, up Shooter’s Hill to Cricklewood (posher once, O’Grady tells us, though not really posher now). O’Grady turned right out of the station, wondering whether Morans, where he’d had his first job, would still be there. It was; and still is; on the right, just a little way down. M.P. Moran & Sons Ltd, a Builders’ and Timber Merchant, selling tools and plumbing stuff, with large Bathroom showrooms. It’s the last of the Road’s big stores. Its one-time big companions, B.B. Evans, Woolworths, the British Home Stores, have all, alas, gone. Shopping here is not what it once was.
Once the road was a spectacular shopping drag, a ‘ditch’, as O’Grady puts it, walled in by great fetchingly square five-storey blocks, many with ornamental eaves, all loops and arabesques and machicolations, housing three hundred or so shops. Solid, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois citadels of purchases they were – the big departments, smart grocers, wet-fish shops, coffee and tea emporia, several Sainsbury’s, Lyons teashops (Foyles began in Kilburn) – interspersed with ornate banks, grand pubs, cinemas, the big dance-hall (one-time cinema) which O’Grady remembers from his youth. Kilburn High Road was renowned for the domes which crowded its skyline. M.P. Moran’s two domes survive, as does Lloyds Bank’s, and the old dance hall’s. The pubs mainly survive as well: the Sir Colin Campbell (named for the hero of Lucknow); the Greene King (‘Licensed 1486, rebuilt 1900’ it proclaims); the Black Lion, in which much of the novel’s drinking takes place (‘Rebuilt 1898’), a listed building which entirely merits its place on Camra’s Historic Interiors Inventory; and many more. 1898 and 1900 sing out proudly on those pubs. This settlement was clearly entering its heyday then. The many side roads are crammed with substantial late-Victorian, Edwardian houses.
But how the shops have changed. Now they’re dominantly bazaars of ultra-contemporary need – Botox parlours, Sports Direct, Vodafone, Laser Hair Removers – neighboured by the pitiless flagships of urban economic decline, grim tokens of a citizenry hanging in there, but only just – pawnbrokers, cheapo household good marts, Poundland, Everything £10 or Less shops, instant money sharks - Pay Day Loans brazenly offers money at APR 319.1%. Long ranks of brightly plasticated ground-floor desperation prop up floor after floor of dingy-looking apartment windows and offices of need – so many solicitors, specialists in immigration problems – or just gloomily empty floors. And if those immigration advisors are outward signs of population change, even more so are the numerous Halal butchers and grocers, a Halal restaurant, and the boxes of exotic veg spilling onto the pavement, all manned, as is the way, by men – middle-easterners and easterners of all sorts, Bengalis, Arabs, Turks, Lebanese. The Road’s Safeways supermarket, which O’Grady favours for his food needs, sticks out now as a rather alien supplier.
Plainly the Irish Kilburn of O’Grady’s and Chris Petit’s acquaintance (‘County Kilburn’ as the area was once known), is legible now rather as a kind of palimpsestic trace. The Road does have, to be sure, a couple of Paddy Power bookies. The Sir Colin Campbell offers Traditional Irish Music Nights. The huge, upturned galleon, Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in the side Quex Road (O’Grady’s sister’s church, where O’Grady hangs out to meet old chums), still functions. The Irish Centre Housing Association is putting up a huge apartment block opposite. But the Church does seem rather big in funerals, and the St Eugene de Mazoned Primary School next door in Mazoned Road is open nowadays to all religious comers. ‘Irish Times Sold Here’ the metal signs outside a newsagent announce, but they are getting a bit rusty. You can still eat Irish Salt Beef on this Road, but that’s at Woody’s (Lebanese?) Grill, where every other dish is very unIrish indeed. So though it’s not quite a case of everything being, as the Yeats poem has it, ‘changed utterly’, it is a close-run thing.
The big Deco-ish building that was the Road’s dance hall is still intact, but it glooms mysteriously, shut up, apparently occupied, but as and by who knows what. And the Road’s most prominent architectural citizen, the onetime Gaumont State Cinema, is now a branch of the Ruach Inspirational Church of God of Brixton. A form of Christianity very far indeed from the Quex Road Romans. The State was the largest cinema in Europe, a wondrous Art Deco palace, with a vast four-manual Wurlitzer organ which had, notoriously, a grand piano somehow attached. The cinema’s tower, the tallest edifice in this Road of tall buildings, boastfully echoed New York’s Empire State building, whence the cinema’s name. ‘STATE’, the tower proclaimed on three sides in huge letters which lit up at night. The grand opening on 20 December 1937 was broadcast nationally on the wireless by the BBC (Gracie Fields sang, harmonica genius Larry Adler played, as did the BBC’s resident Henry Hall dance band). The State was one of London’s main popular-music venues. Louis Armstrong, Stephane Grappelli, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles all performed there.
Eventually the vast auditorium gave way to a small cinema - O’Grady takes a woman to see a film in it. Now the building resounds only to the Ruach Ministries’ pentecostal rhythms, and that just once a week, on Sundays at 12.30. They’re not too put off, one hopes, by the building’s pavement-level rash, the Beauty Laser Hair Clinic, US Nail Art, Cancer Charity Shop and Hair and Beauty Salon which cluster where once the film posters went, under the crumbling white Deco tiles and the rusting empty flag-pole holders. The great STATE letters are still in place, but they light up no longer.
Here, as on every hand in the Road is manifest cultural shift, even reduction, if not absolute decline and fall (piquantly, Evelyn Waugh, author of Decline and Fall, once lived in Kilburn). But it’s a pervasive declivity that’s greatly alleviated, unexpectedly, amazingly even, by the neighbour that arrived too late to get onto O’Grady’s radar, the wonderful Tricycle Theatre and Cinema – in the adapted and built-on old Foresters Friendly Society building, over the road from the Sir Colin Campbell. The Tricycle’s a brilliant community Arts hub, specialising not just in great superior drama and film but in radical docu-dramas, re-enactments of the Iraq War Inquiry, and such. It’s said that on the Tricycle’s occasional Irish music/film/drama nights the small auditorium is emotionally packed with Kilburn’s residual native Irish.
And daily at the Tricycle, and not just on Irish nights, a kind of beauty, even, to quote Yeats again, a terrible beauty, is born again: cheeringly defiant in the face of the Road’s so many occasions for gloom about change and loss.