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Friday, December 02, 2005

Really the Goldhawk Road...

Sun's out, sky clear, wind down. Only sign of almost hurricane now decimated plants.

So maybe Granny will at last regale you with the Goldhawk Road. She has a particular reason to do so, or will have in two days time. For which reason let's start at the posh end of Goldhawk Road, where it flanks Ravenscourt Park on one side and Stamford Brook/Chiswick on the other, before swinging round the corner, skirting Acton and heading for the much less salubrious delights of Shepherd's Bush.

Once upon a time, on the right- hand side of the road just up from Stamford Brook station, backing, almost, onto Ravenscourt Park was one of the bigger if not the biggest maternity hospitals in London, Queen Charlotte's. It's gone now. Queen Charlotte's has migrated to Chelsea, much less convenient for those locally pregnant. But when did the NHS ever set out to convenience anyone? (And no, it is not more convenient for pregnant Chelsea which had a perfectly good maternity service of its own up till then, but there you go.)

Granny has reason to be fond of Queen Charlotte's. It was there that Beloved Son was born, 40 years ago this Sunday. (If, reader, you dread reaching 40, think how much harder it is to to find yourself the mother of 40 year olds like Granny. Oh dear. Oh dear.) Granny wasn't quite so fond of Queen Charlotte's then as she is retrospectively. Queen Charlotte's though a good hospital was also a stuffy one. For her first baby, Granny had opted to patronise the Charing Cross Hospital (then situated in Charing Cross just opposite the station. It migrated to Hammersmith long since, wouldn't you know.) The Charing X was far from stuffy, attracting to its maternity ward an interesting mixture of local Soho cafe owners, of varied races on the one hand, and the more advanced middle-class with ideas considered outlandish anywhere else, on the other. This was due to its being the first hospital in London to offer classes in childbirth and to let fathers into the labour ward. Unfortunately all these benefits turned out redundant in Granny's case; she had to have an emergency caesarian, so did not need to use all those complicated breathing techniques she'd been practising for weeks; in mind and spirit she wasn't even present at the birth herself, any more than her husband was. Shame about that.

Second time round she determined to do better. Alas Charing X was not on offer; Queen Charlotte's was. When she demanded first maternity classes, and second, still more daringly, a husband at the birth she was invited bluntly to take herself elsewhere. But there wasn't a convenient elsewhere; she crumbled, acquiesced, though not before she'd been listed as a difficult patient. In practice things worked out better than she'd dared hope. Beloved son conveniently elected to be born on a Saturday when the labour ward was otherwise empty; when the dragons who kept the doors shut and husbands out were mainly off duty. Dear husband didn't quite make the birth - not least it happened very fast - but he was, against all the rules, allowed in straight afterwards, just as triumphant granny clutched her naked, bloody, but perfect baby to her bosom for the first time. There's nothing, she assures you, like seeing and feeling your baby born where previously you failed to , merely woke up with a slashed belly and a mysterious new being in a cot next to you. Weird that. In the case of Beloved Son she remembers the entire process; mysterious he wasn't.

The downside of its being Saturday and everyone off-duty was that noone was round to stitch her up. The dignity of the new mother was not an issue then. (She hopes it is now.) Granny's feet held up in stirrups, her very private parts were displayed in full towards the door. Anyone who peered in - many people seemed to - peered straight up her. She could have been furious about this. In retrospect she was/is. At the time clutching baby in one arm, then-beloved husband on the other, she didn't care a damn.

As usual things have changed since; not necessarily for the better. Home birth seems to be the main battleground now between the medical establishment and their more vocal patients. In the maternity ward itself the presence of the fathers is now so taken for granted it leads to quite other problems; such as fisticuffs arising between them and their mother-in-laws. Some hospitals - including the one where Beloved Eldest Grand-daughter was born - allow only one of them, not both, to attend the births. Forty years makes a lot of difference.

Enough of that; enough of the posh end of the Goldhawk Road; though Granny still thinks of it fondly and regrets the fancy and expensive housing which has replaced the site of her triumphant accouchement. Well beyond such things these days, her attention - and abode - has now moved to its other end; to the Shepherd's Bush Market and from thence under the railway bridge and on towards Shepherd's Bush Green, south of which is the little flat she inhabits when in London.

The market is one thing. In some respects it is a shadow of its former self, when the mere smell let alone the sight of it transported you to somewhere in the Developing World, a long way away from London. Even ten years ago the vegetable stalls stretched half way up towards the Uxbridge Road, you could buy huge bunches of coriander, basil, the kind come in mean little boxes in the supermarkets at 10 times the price. You could also buy any kind of vegetable just about; heaps of yams, plantains and so forth, not available anywhere else. The Grenadians who live in Acton all did their shopping there. They still do. If you want salt fish, ackee ackee, 'snail on stick' (a mysterious delicacy) black peas, etc etc, they are still sold in the dim shops that fill the railway arches. Most of the vegetable stalls, alas, have been replaced by those selling fallen-off-a lorry produce, mostly electronic. Though Granny does hope they haven't entirely chased away the knicker stalls offering a variety of highly-coloured, diaphanous, and vestigial garments. She hasn't visited lately on Saturday afternoons. But she hopes that the black limousines still draw up, that the flocks of ladies clad from head to foot in black, only their eyes showing over little leather masks, still emerge to surround the knicker stalls, rifling through their products, chattering away to each other. It always cheered - yet saddened - Granny to see that despite their enforced modesty they were allowed in private to be as frivolous as the rest of us. Yet frilly knickers seemed and seem a minor pleasure compared to the freedom to wander down the Goldhawk Road and up through the market unescorted, with the sun on your face and arms.

Beyond the railway bridge, the shops and restaurants lining the street up to Shepherd's Bush Green define the area pretty well. The nature of many is the reason this end of the Goldhawk Road makes Granny think not of Beloved Son, but Beloved Daughter. There are sundry greasy spoons of varying ethnicity - the Hot Pot for one offers Carribean breakfasts. There are dubious money changers, two pawn shops, beauty and hair salons and suppliers catering mostly for non-white hair and skin. There is the Pick n'Save Off licence, there are also a couple of wine bars for the Yuppies who live on the Hammersmith side of the road and a riotous Polish restaurant run by a former Polish opera-singer who throws vodka in the with fixed-price meal, overfills all plates with Polish dumplings and the like and won't take no for an answer. 'Eat it or else' is the rule of the place more or less.

But it is not these that bring to mind Beloved Daughter. What brings her to mind are all the textile shops. Beloved Daughter is a textile artist, decorating lengths of silk in abstract mostly geometric patterns, also cut from silk, to hang on walls. Granny is not describing what she does very well. It is hard to. It would be easier to show you the work but Beloved Daughter has forbidden Granny on pain of death - she means it - to show any of it on the Blog. 'Sooner put a picture of me' she says: - but she wouldn't like that much either. You will have to take Granny's word for it that they are beautiful; that she is as proud of her first child at this end of the Goldhawk Road as she is proud of her second at the other.

Two of the shops are for African textiles, mostly cotton or synthetic cloth with big, bold patterns. All the others are Asian: Alanita, Sikhur textiles, Orya, Unique Fabrics, Classic Textiles, A to 2 Fabrics, Flamingo Textiles, Arore Fabrics, and so it goes on; most of them have the name in Arabic script - Urdu - underneath. Granny has not entered all of them. But over the years she's visited many. When she can think of no other birthday or Christmas presents for Beloved Daughter beautiful - and expensive - lengths of silk are always welcome. She has learned to sweep past the outer parts of the shop where the sari lengths are made of cotton cloth or synthetics. 'I want the wedding saris,' she says; and there they are, Arabian night gleams of colour shimmering richly, in big bolts, ready to be measured out and cut by large pairs of scissors; if she can only choose which one. It takes hours to choose sometimes.

After such dazzlement by colour, she emerges blinking into the grey light of a winter day in the Goldhawk Road,where many of those thronging its pavements hailed orginally from no less sunny places than the cloth. Granny adores this mixture of people and places. It is one thing that keeps her in love with London. Much as she also craves the English countryside, she misses such a rich mix in country villages, surrounded by Anglo-Saxon pink-and-white. She misses it on her Canary Island. Though not as much as she misses Beloved Son and Daughter.

Forty years on, far from his birthplace down the smarter end of the Goldhawk Road, Granny wishes she could be in London on Sunday celebrating with Beloved Son and the rest of her immediate family the precious if messy if undignified moment of his birth.The telephone will have to do instead, alas. But it doesn't.

It is a truth, reader, universally known by mothers, but little acknowledged, that once your children grow up you spend too much of your life saying goodbye to them.


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