This piece was first published in 2010
Ah, punctuality. Alexei – comedian and actor formerly of ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor’ fame but now acclaimed author, latest novel, Mr Roberts – is ascending the steps at Willesden Junction just as I arrive at the top from the other direction. Excellent timing.
I’d invited him to walk with me because I’d read a piece he’d written declaring that he writes in the morning, and then takes a bus or train to an unknown destination, and walks home to Bloomsbury. I thought I’d divert him to Harlesden for the afternoon.
White bearded, almost benign-looking and smaller than I imagined – I tell him later about this unexpected lack of height, to which he quips; “Oh people usually think I’m not as fat as they expect.” – I give him the choice of right along the High St into Harlesden or left and down Scrubs Lane, then along the Great Union Canal before turning right towards the main drag. “I do want to experience Harlesden,” he says, “but it would be good to see a bit of urban countryside first.”
I’d read somewhere that he was going on tour again as a stand-up? “No, that was a mistake,” he says huffing as opposed to puffing, “I’m doing a reading of my new memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework, which comes out in September and a Q & A at the South Bank in summer. That’s what the papers should have said. It was actually selling better before that stand-up stuff came out.” That’s a good sign, I suggest, in terms of his more recent career as a novelist. I guess that he gives a good reading – unlike the majority of writers who are, of course, not performers. “Yeah, I always say to them, just because this has been good, don’t expect others to be. They’ll be shit.” Ever bolshie funny – the Scouse thang. He sets the tone for this walk.
On the right, at the start of Scrubs Lane, I laughingly point out an ugly office block that calls itself somewhat hopefully the Chandelier Building. “Yeah, it reminds me of another hideous building in Camden which called itself The Red Lobster,” he observes, “and helpfully they put a picture of a red lobster on the side, as if that could remove the ugliness.”
How many copies of Mr Roberts has he sold, I wonder. “Twenty thousand,” he says, “I’m a better writer than people think. My short story collection Barcelona Plates that came out ten years ago, has sold over 75,000 copies, that’s the biggest selling short story collection in the world. And still the Guardian don’t ask me to write any fiction for them.” Has anyone told them, I say. Remember, the Guardian is edited by 30 somethings, they probably don’t know who you are. “No, probably no-one has. But I’m not sure I can be arsed. My previous career helps with my profile but I think it does prevent me being taken seriously. I haven’t even been longlisted for any of the literary awards.”
Isn’t there an organic deli where we can get a cup of coffee, he asks.
Fortunately, we’re walking slowly. I was a little afraid – I’d been playing too much tennis and am aching – beforehand that Alexei was going to be a hearty walker but he’s limping slightly and more of a flaneur today. Having spotted across the road the incredibly kitsch Cornices Centre, which boasts some gorgeously garish objects like a huge cartoon rabbit licking a multi-coloured ice-cream. It could be Jeff Koons but it’s not quite shiny enough. We’ve reached the canal bridge and Golbourne Road’s iconic Trellick Tower – built as social housing in the 1960s – looks mystifyingly close. “I had a camp mate at Chelsea School of Art,” says Alexei revealing his arty past, “ who named it Clockwork Orange Towers which seemed just right at the time.” Trellick Tower is an architectural wonder to some. Not to Alexei or me. It was designed by legendary architect, Ernio Goldfinger. But I did visit this Xmas to visit my friend Amanda’s mother, and the view from the 20th floor is spectacular.
Is the satirically inclined Stalin Ate My Homework about growing up – he’s Lithuanian Jewish and both his parents were members of the Communist Party – in Liverpool during the 50s and 60s? “It covers from 1947 when my parents met,” he says as we find the towpath going east, “ to the end of the 60s when I was 17. It’s a heterosexual, Communist, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.” Mmm, just what I would expect from him.
As he utters the word ‘Communist’, a cyclist in a high-visibility jacket suddenly looms towards us, his eyes twinkling crazily. He stares us at both meaningfully and announces cheerily ‘God Loves You’. He couldn’t have chosen a better juncture. We burst out laughing at the synchronicity of it all. Well, that’s what I’m laughing at.
Oh, it’s peaceful down here. The willows are in bud. A couple of locksy young men with a dog and a canal boat are relaxing and enjoying the first signs of Spring. The warmth. The relief at being able to ‘be’ outside.
But I’m off again. This is turning into a walk interview. Are you a single child? It suddenly occurs to me in an intuitive manner that he must be. Working class and doted on – a recipe for success. “Yeah, he says. “my mum was 37 and dad 43 when they had me.” His mother is still alive and mentally alert in Liverpool. “She’s 94,” he guffaws, “and lives in a house bought by her son. Does she ever say ‘thank you’? I did a reading from the memoir in Crosby not long ago, she came along in her wheelchair and heckled. ‘Lies, lies’ she shouted.”
We’ve jumped onto a stone bench and are looking over a wall at the railway lines beyond. “My dad was a railway worker,” he says. “Which line is this?” The one that goes to Paddington. “Oh, I think the Eurostar maintenance yard is over there, near Northpole Road where I filmed a TV film called Sorry About Last Night.” I check later and he’s right but it’s not used by Eurostar any longer.
I’ve just heard that a high-speed link to the north is coming to near here in 2020, I say. He obviously doesn’t believe me. No, I have, I say, Harlesden is going to be the new Kings Cross.
There’s silver birch grove to our left. Silver birches, I love their grace. They’re my favourite trees. “I find them sinister,” says Alexei shocking me, “there’s a hunting plain where they grow, near my house in a village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, near Granada. They’re spooky.”
I can’t agree with that. For me, they’re more like delicate filigree lace than furtive strangers. Tangentially and somewhat provocatively, I mention his marriage as being one of the longest in showbiz. He’s been married to Linda since 1974, that’s 36 years. I’m agog in admiration! But Alexei immediately looks very uncomfortable at the mention of his personal life. So we divert again to the break up of Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes. “I know I was shocked,” he says as if he knows them.
Is there anywhere decent to get a cup of coffee in Harlesden, he wants to know. Like Star Bucks? No, there’s no Star Bucks. Long-term Marxist and strident non-conformist that he is, he comes out in defence of Star Bucks. “I think people like (leftwing comedian) Mark Thomas whinge too much, at least they make an ok cup of coffee available to more people. I don’t like it when people can’t admit what’s good about capitalism as well as what’s bad.”
"It’s a heterosexual, Communist, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.”
We stumble across some drinkers’ detritus. Alexei wanders over and examines the Lech lager can. “I hate it when street drinkers are so untidy,” he protests, “they should have to put a deposit down on the cans.” As we leave the canal, there’s an office building on Oak Lane that is derelict, almost every window is broken and it stands in an ocean of litter. “Good, good,” he mumbles meaning the faster this terrible architecture is falls down, the better.”
We’re at the railway cottages (I visited with Nick Barlay on my fourth walk) and Alexei remembers filming in some similar ones. “They replicated houses up north in the 70s,” he says, “because they didn’t have double glazing or central heating.” I tell him about my recent discover. That the 60s sitcom The Likely Lads was filmed at Willesden Junction. “Exactly, what I mean,” he says.
“Look at that guerrilla gardening,” he says pointing down a communal alleyway full of yuccas. The community have got together there. It’s like that Heaven 17 song ‘We don’t need no fascist government…’
I have to admit there is a subtext to our conversation, which revolves around the 80s. I was a pop n’rock journalist for music paper, Sounds – better known for its Iron Maiden interviews than its Flock of Seagulls’ ones and guess who did the latter? – as well as seminal style magazine, The Face. Alexei wants to know if I enjoyed being able to make or break bands? I assure him that I personally did not have that kind of power. But there were those critical reviews and confrontational interviews. Not only did Frankie Goes To Hollywood pelt me with bread rolls for giving them a bad review, I got into a heated spat with the Stranglers who were provocative lads. Those were the days when journalists were expected to be opinionated and go for the jugular. Oh, those were the days, I say. Before the ubiquitous caution and PR protection.
I make a remark about his limp that I’ve been noticing for some time. “I’ve done my back in,” he admits, “I attacked the gym work outs and I’ve overdone it. I’m trying to lose a couple of stone.”
And then he asks an absurd question. One, which reveals his profound ignorance about Harlesden.
Isn’t there an organic deli where we can get a cup of coffee, he asks. I smile not only at the ludicrous nature of the question, but also because I was intending to take him to one of the Irish pubs up the road.
Alexei, it has to be said, has an interest in history and architecture in a surprisingly erudite way. As we stand at the corner of Acton Lane, he looks at All Souls Church and declares: “This Church of England one is gothic revival,” he says then turns to look up to the left, “but look at the Catholic one, it reminds me of the Tate Modern, of the power station. It’s industrial bleak and I think the Catholics could have borrowed that aesthetic.” I hadn’t thought of that, but he could well be right.
"My mum came along in her wheelchair and heckled. ‘Lies, lies’ she shouted.”
Somehow I feel a compelling urge to change the tone, and show him Wrights, my favourite Harlesden shop. We stand in front of the racy lingerie window and I hear myself saying brazenly: ”Do you think Linda would fancy anything from here?” Alexei is unusually quiet. I’ve done it again. I’ve stepped into overly personal territory. Deliberately. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that he’s embarrassed. And then, I can’t stop. Don’t want to. I find myself babbling about the sexy pirate outfits from Italy. Patently, Alexei does not do sex in public.
Or public houses in private. The Shawl is festooned in orange and green balloons. We go in. Faces are fixed on the TV racing. There’s the pervasive stench of Guinness. I run out of the door. He stares at me. Not that he wanted to stay. “Oh, the breath of death,” I find myself announcing. Next I try The Coliseum. “Do I have to come?” asks Alexei firmly weighing in against the pervasive mid-afternoon state of alcoholic stupor. I have to give up. The strains of ‘She died giving birth’ waft out of the drinking hall and I smile wryly.
Finally, we find welcome solace in the empty Os Amigos. My local Portuguese eaterie. Musician and Harlesden dweller, KT Tunstall’s favourite local restaurant. I comment that no-one seems to have recognised Alexei today. Is he surprised? “Sometimes people say ‘Hello’, but Liverpool is really the place where I’m still up there,” he says smiling. At this point, he launches into a complex story about his fascination with flying business class, having a column in the Daily Mirror during the 90s which was read by 8 million people, and the dedicated band of airline seat aficionados who not only take photos of these seats, they chat about them online. His point is being that more of them chat about seats, than post comments on his website. From 8 million to 20. “But does it matter?” he intones in half-funny tones.
One of Alexei’s core theories is that we’re all a mass of contradictions and we should be allowed to inhabit all of them fully. This is one of them. He’s a Marxist and he also loves flying business class and looking at photos of first class airline seats on the internet. Tony Blair, he reckons, needs psychotherapeutic treatment for his inability to own up to his internal contradictions. “And that is really is corrupt,” he says emphatic as ever.