Tooting Regained


I wandered, lonely as a freelance writer, watching the children fighting and the dogs pissing through the alleged woods where the railway line intersects with the open air swimming pool. This is 'The Common'. I emerged at a set of traffic lights near a church on a road junction where some older children were brutally washing the windscreens of unsuspecting cars. And there, in front of me, was an amazing sight. A high-street with actual shops — branches of Smiths; a choice of newsagents; a small religious bookshop selling those American devotional tracts which I never get around to reading. Two cinemas, a police station, several hippie food shops. After six months of living in Tooting, I was relieved to have discovered how near I was to Streatham.

This is probably the most damning thing anybody has ever said about Tooting.

I mention this because the aforementioned ritual of replying to advertisements for jobs last week yielded an unexpected result, to wit, an interview with a small publishing house. All those 'action verbs' and the Word 6 'Resume Wizard' must have actually done some good.

The last interview I had, which was with a computer firm who had neglected, before interviewing me, to point out that some knowledge of computers would have been an advantage. The interview was in a suburb of Walsall which is in turn a suburb of Birmingham. Between tubes and busses and getting lost the trip took me five hours and I only barely made my appointment, so this time I decided to be an Organised Person. I set two different alarm clocks as well as phoning that nice lady who rings you up and says 'This is your reminder call', and packed samples of my published work into a bag before going to bed, so that I could catch a tube at 9.30 (the precise moment when One Day Travel Cards become available) and get to Euston barely later than 10.00 and catch a 10.15 train which got me to my destination at a little after 10.45 allowing me to establish the non-existence of busses and the existence of a promising taxi-rank by 11.00. It was only then that I realised that I had three hours to kill in Milton Keynes.

One emerges onto a concourse, concrete, about two miles square with some modern art and an old steam train, but no sign of human life. One or two nervous lorries meandered slowly along the boulevard. It's like a university campus without the books; like a godless version of Coventry Cathedral. What city in the world is there whiteout human life outside its only railway station? I aligned myself with the signpost that said 'shopping centre' and walked along, I kid you not, Midsummer Boulevard.

One walks past mile after mile of identical office shaped buildings, with names like 'Avanti Permanent Direct', all rather stylish looking with expensive potplants and leatherish swivel chairs inside. One gradually realises that some of these office blocks are actually pubs. At one point, I had that nightmarish sensation of walking past the same building twice, as if however far I walked, I wasn't going to get anywhere. Many towns have one of those ghastly indoor shopping malls, not quite air-conditioned enough, with over-large branches of pasteurised chain stores. Sometimes, one even ventures inside. But—so far as I could tell — this was the only shopping centre in the town. (A phrase like 'the sleazy end of Milton Keynes' sounds like a category mistake.) I confess that, at the very end of Midsummer Boulevard, there was a vague attempt at a market, cheap clothes stalls labelled optimistically 'trendy kids' and a man selling suspiciously clean second hand paper backs. But can it actually be the case that an inmate of Milton Keynes, if he should want to buy a mop would have to go to Woolworth's—that he could not possibly wander into a half-empty cut price store selling stationery and hardware, or an old fashioned hardware merchant who is rude to you and doesn't know his stock? From the ceilings of the mall hung huge lengths of copper tubing, perhaps 20 feet long, suspended in strange patterns. Someone had installed giant windchimes in an air-conditioned building where there could not, conceivably, be any wind.

There are no public toilets, clocks, or benches in the entire city.

There had been an attempt to make the 'business park', the location of the interview, seem vaguely suburban. At any rate, there were a lot of trees and there had even been some attempt to make it look as if they had not been planted in any particular order. With still half an hour to spare, I wondered along a path that led into a residential area. There were signs, but they didn't point to anything meaningful. There was a large brick building with a tower, and a design on the tower that looked like a clock, but wasn't. I thought it might be a church; the Parish Church of St John the Actuary. It was actually a fire station. Someone from the business estate, on his lunch hour, had found a bank and was reading his paper. Every house looked artificial, a toy house. If I lived in one, I would be permanently wanting to go upstairs and sample the international cuisine, or look at the labour saving gadgets.

There is a lot of grass. I guess most people can walk to their place of work. I suspect that children are only rarely kidnapped. There is no graffiti, although a hippie had stuck up a few posters of a Frisbee in flight with the slogan 'they are out there',

The grass stopped for a children's play area, two swings, one slide and one park bench. I read my book for half an hour. George Orwell was explaining to me why, if the English People are to survive, they must be persuaded to have more children, and that cheap houses with lots of bedrooms must be erected for them.

Three children rode past on bikes. (There are lots of safe cycle tracks.) They were all wearing jeans and denim jackets. They were all wearing the same jeans and denim jackets. They were all wearing the same clean, pressed jeans and jackets.

I have a terrible, awful feeling that this was their school uniform.

The interview was like an interview. I ate an ice cream Bounty on the way home.

The presence or absence of a green man outside Tooting Station still bares absolutely no relationship to the colour of the traffic lights or the movement of the traffic. There are supermarkets where you can buy spices you haven't heard of and wouldn't know what to do with if you had; twenty at least Indian restaurants; several Asian sweet shops; a choice of Sari emporiums; and shops selling furniture you either can't afford or wouldn't want; randomised hardware shops; halal butchers; a blackboard advertising a market fishmonger who often has a supply of fresh shark. There's a stage Irish drunk outside the Catholic Church. I am extremely happy that I live in Tooting.

This is probably the most damning thing anyone has ever said about Milton Keynes.