East is east and west is west

Sunday, March 13th, 2005

I don't really know east London – the west is my manor. Outside of the cesspit of my home district, what I'm familiar with is the leafy avenues, smart developments and individualistic parades scattered with quirky little shops that make up places like the Hamptons and Teddington.

East London's a foreign place, a scary one – mile upon mile of blasted, poverty-stricken rabbit hutches, shading into the impenetrable murk of the Essex marshes. At least, that's what it looks like from my angle – probably nonsense, of course, but if so it's nonsense that I've never had the chance to contradict.

But these last couple of weekends I've been venturing into the wilderness after my Saturday nights working on the Isle of Dogs. Last weekend I went from there to my parents' house in north Hertfordshire, and this weekend I was desperate to avoid the usual route through central London which was so roadwork-strewn that a journey of some 45 minutes under optimum conditions took just a shade under two hours.

So for the last couple of weeks I've been heading east from Docklands and picking up the North Circular, past places like Beckton and East Ham, and using that to head home west.

Now, the North Circular's a road I thought I knew pretty well. I remember it near its western end in Ealing, an apologetic excuse for a road that sidles between houses and junctions, restricted to a single lane and a 30mph limit, as if it expects to get thrown out of the neighbourhood should it assert itself too much and disturb people.

I also know it in north west London, in Neasden, from my days on the local newspaper there. In that part of London it cruises between rows of shabby houses, a traffic blackspot that delights in slowing down motorists so that it can show off the treasures by its sides – the Ace Cafe, the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Ikea, the World of Leather, the wholesale Chinese food warehouse, the new Wembley Stadium – its arch unnervingly like a slumped and drunken London Eye, definitely a poor substitute for the twin towers of the old Wembley.

Now I know it in east London, too, and it's a different road altogether there. It doesn't mess around – it's a motorway in all but name, with hair on its chest and a bully's swagger as it bulldozes its way through the capital, shrugging houses and businesses aside as it goes. From five miles away you can look back from an elevated section at the lights of Canary Wharf, and it looks like there's nothing in between that matters. In east London, the North Circular is king and nothing stands in its way. Like Ozymandias, around it the lone and level sands stretch far away.

I guess it's property prices, and social differences, that are responsible for the difference. West London, for the most part, is where the rich folks live and, while some of the major roads are pretty major, it's impossible to imagine whole districts being levelled to make way for them (airport terminals, of course, are another matter). But no-one cares about the east, apart from the people who live there – and no-one cares about them either. So great areas get bought up and razed to the ground to let roads run through unhindered, and houses cluster together for protection by the side of the new road, houses that used to face more houses a stones-throw away across the street, but which now stare fearfully out on eight lanes of screaming traffic.

I drove the length of the North Circular tonight, from east to west, and although it was only 37 miles from car park to car park, and a lot of that was on different roads entirely, it really was like travelling between different worlds.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.