Posted in Places

Leytonstone – A cut-out-and-keep guide

Tell another Londoner you live in Leytonstone and watch them give you a quizzical look. They’ll have heard of it, probably – in East London somewhere, right? – but can’t say more. Admittedly, there are good reasons why it’s slipped off their grid. For one, Leytonstone is stuck out in darkest zone 3. For another, it’s overshadowed by more buzzed-about neighbours, a nowhereland between Walthamstow (cooler), Leyton (grittier), Wanstead (middle classier) and Forest Gate (none of the above, but still somehow better). Leytonstone, let it be said, is unremarkable. At first glance it’s yet another residential burb, with row after identikit row of terraced houses, some schools, some shops, a few parks and two separate branches of Costa Coffee. But in la-la-London-land, where even broom cupboards spark a buy-to-let bidding war, it also happens to be (relatively speaking) affordable. And if you look a little closer, there are more than a few reasons to linger awhile.

Who’s lived there?

Little Leytonstone has birthed its fair share of Famous People, from David Bailey to David Beckham, Damon Albarn to Derek Jacobi. Exit the tube station and you’ll see mosaics paying homage to another local boy made great, Alfred Hitchcock. I should add that none of the above luminaries live there now. Possibly the rents are too high.

Where’s the hub?

That would be Leytonstone High Road, an ancient pre-Roman pathway. The road itself has been resurfaced since, but it’s still pretty snarly in the traffic department – all idling engines and wheezing buses. As far as shopping goes, though, it has you covered. There are the high street staples (Boots, Matalan), the smaller independent-y ones (posh florists, antiquers), and the obligatory scattering of pound shops and 99p stores. Oh, and the High Road isn’t half long. Be advised, too, that the closer you get to Maryland and Stratford, the greater the amount of urban grot.

Fashion? Turn to the left

The style set will look in vain to find a single decent clothier in Leytonstone. It’s not London’s best-dressed postcode. But who cares when you’re this close to ‘Westfield Stratford City’ – hip, haute and only two stops away on the Central line, it supplies your every sartorial want.

What’s the skinny on the supermarkets?

An aircraft hangar-sized Tesco hulks just off the High Road, and it’s open 24 hours (though everyone seems to go on Saturday morning – an unedifying experience). If simply thinking about Tesco makes you go cold inside, don’t worry. There’s also an Iceland.

Is it cool? 

Leytonstone is studiedly uncool. Compared to Walthamstow, or even Leyton, the hipster count is low. But what it lacks in artisanal hummus, it more than makes up for in fried chicken. There are outlets just everywhere. And supreme among them is USA Chicken and Pizza, opposite the station (I like this one just for its name, admittedly).

Where else to eat? 

If you prefer your chicken un-fried, there are plenty of other places to sup, some delicious, some not. Heading up the ‘delicious’ category is Petchsayam Thai, which dishes up zingy, droolsome curries that fill your stomach without emptying your wallet.

Any worthy watering holes? 

The Walnut Tree (a Wetherspoons) does the job, but the pick of the bunch is the Red Lion. It re-opened recently, and very glad Leytonstone was to see it again. It’s warm, convivial and pours a top-notch pint of ale. Local old boy Damon Albarn sometimes drops by; last year he had the entire pub belting out a proper East End knees-up rendition of ‘Parklife.’ It was the single most exciting thing that’s ever happened in Leytonstone (and I wasn’t there). Also, when the last cup has been drained, KFC is just over the road.

Leafy bits? 

This is, comfortably, Leytonstone’s strongest suit. The green, green trees of Epping Forest rustle nearby, and you’re close to Wanstead Flats: think woodland, football pitches and tickly, thigh-high grass. Joggers pant around the perimeter, kids lob frisbees, dogs catch them, and the surly traffic of the High Road seems a world away (though it’s only ten minutes).

In an ideal world, where in Leytonstone would I live?

Aim yourself at the Bushwood area, which nudges up against Wanstead Flats. Pretty, prosperous and shaded by old trees, it makes local estate agents break down and weep for joy.

What if I need to leave suddenly? 

In this most unlikely event, you’re in luck. Leytonstone is blessed with splendid connections. The Central line can have you in the City in just sixteen minutes, and the Overground from Leytonstone High Road arcs east to Barking and west to Gospel Oak.

Finally, what is the difference (if any) between Leytonstone and Leyton?

Leytonstone is around a mile further north-east. It’s considered a tad leafier. The eponymous ‘stone’ is a restored 18th century obelisk that stands at the site of a Roman milestone (but north as it is of the psychic barrier of the Green Man roundabout, it might be closer to Snaresbrook). Both Leyton and Leytonstone are scythed in two, for the record, by the angry A12.

Posted in Nostalgia

Underground undergrads

Old Tiverton Road, Exeter, 2006, and I am washing up in the kitchen of the student house I share with seven friends. To my right, a colony of slugs dozes unnoticed in the cutlery drawer. Behind, the cabinetry and worktops look like they haven’t seen a decorator’s hand in our lifetimes. The floor, begrimed with dirt, wants mopping. That knocking sound you can hear is the water pipes, clanking away like a furious mechanical heart.

The way of the student is, more often than not, a messy one. But so unusually foul were these students that even the mice had moved out (we never saw a single one; doubtless the slugs scared them off). The kitchen, being in the basement, was splendidly cold and cheerless, untroubled by the sun even in the heights of summer. Its every unwiped surface was a bacteriological weapon, lethal to the touch.

Faced with these adverse living conditions, only two species can survive. Students and slugs. And we came to realise that, compared to our squelchier cousins, we were maladapted to life underground. Every evening, around 11pm, we would resign ourselves to the coming of night and their slithering ascendance. In the morning they’d be gone, but evidence of mollusc merrymaking was everywhere, from the hob to the dining table to the crockery we’d been remiss enough to leave on the drying rack. It was the slugs’ world; we were just living in it.

The better news: the lounge was next door, and was officially slug-free. The worse news: it was dark, dank and we once found a snail living on one of the walls. If ever a shaft of light penetrated the gloom, there was a serious danger its ‘fittings’ might tremble into dust. The carpet, an inky brown, possessed the pizzazz of a converted coal bunker, and the furniture – two drooping sofas and a scattering of mean cushions – was crying out for a fly-tipping. It was a room fit only for waiting out the apocalypse, or watching Neighbours. Or both.

But in this house of delights, surprises and oddities, there was nothing so delightful, surprising or odd as its tendency to… wriggle about. I was lucky, so I thought, to have a room on the second floor, well away from the slug-ridden kitchen and the snail-troubled lounge. But when the blow fell, it was from an unexpected quarter. Closing my door of an evening, I suddenly found that it… wouldn’t. On closer inspection, it seemed the door frame, tilted from the vertical, had rejected geometrical order. It was warped. I was surprised, to say the least of it. Raising the issue with the landlady the next day, I received the following response.

‘The house and its walls are always on the move,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing for it but to wait awhile. Before long, it and they will move back.’

She wasn’t wrong. Only seven months of compromised privacy later, the house duly retrod its tracks, and the door frame re-aligned itself. It was, once more, possible to shut it. Just as well I hadn’t been inside when it first happened, or I’d have spent the better part of my 21st year bunkered in my room. Under house arrest, in an unusually literal sense.

But when one door shuts, another one opens. Not long afterwards, I graduated and said farewell to that peculiar old house on Old Tiverton Road, forever. But sometimes, just sometimes, when the sun’s out and the breeze whispers warmly across my neck, I miss its airless, lightless, hopeless kitchen. I miss its clanking water pipes. And I miss my old enemy, the slugs, who we did eventually notice dozing in the cutlery drawer. But that’s another story.

Posted in Tennis

The Nole Slam

For the fourth time in five years, it’s the Djoker who laughs last in Melbourne. His four-set besting of Andy Murray was Grand Slam title number eight, and his fifth Down Under (a record in the open era). While those two iconic hall-of-famers, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both lost early, Djokovic cut a swathe through his section of the draw, straight-setting Fernando Verdasco – a dangerous floater in the first week of Slams – and cuffing aside 6 ft 5 in Milos Raonic, a player who thunders down serves akin to the hammer of Thor. Only defending champ Stan Wawrinka, in the semifinal, could take Nole the distance, before collapsing in a blancmange-esque final set, losing it 6-0.

There is no one so fitted as Djokovic to playing tennis in this era, one of slow courts, poly strings and two-handed backhands. Since the 1990s, when Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter and Stefan Edberg serve-and-volleyed their way to multiple Slams, the game has moved backwards to the baseline, rewarding consistency and calculated risks. It is Djokovic – defined by a lack of weaknesses, rather than any particular strength – who stands out, the most gifted baseliner in a crowded field of gifted baseliners.

So it was to prove in the final against a resurgent Murray. The Scot, in beating Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Tomáš Berdych, had tapped his richest vein of form since undergoing back surgery in September 2013. But Djokovic is a different and more difficult opponent. While Murray has downed him in two major finals (US Open ’12 and Wimbledon ‘13), both are played on faster surfaces. On a slower court, Andy is at a competitive disadvantage to Novak, his forehand a tad less reliable, his footspeed slightly slower. He’s a counter-puncher by trade, a tactician who uses his opponent’s pace against him, rather than generating his own. In a fair fight on a slow hardcourt in Melbourne, Djokovic’s more aggressive playing style has the edge. The longer they fence and parry from the baseline, the more likely Nole is to win.

And win he did, thanks in part to a spectacular implosion on the other side of the net. After failing to take a break point at 3-3 in the third set, Murray rapidly lost the next nine games, and with them the match (and his temper: after a final, regretful backhand into the net, Murray sat down and obliterated the racquet in question, and two others for good measure). But he can surely derive satisfaction in reaching the final – a result which hardly seemed likely at the World Tour Finals two months ago, where he was embarrassed by Roger Federer at the round-robin stage, 6-0, 6-1.

Meanwhile, with Rod Laver watching on in the stadium that bears his name, Djokovic could yet emulate the Aussie Great and win all four Grand Slams in a single year. But there’s a roadblock en route, and it’s a hefty one. Beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open (the only major trophy Djokovic hasn’t hoisted) might be the toughest ‘ask’ in all sport. Like Federer before him, Djokovic has lost to Nadal every time they’ve met in Paris, his hopes routinely ground into red dust by the Mallorcan’s loopy topspin and inexhaustible court coverage. In fact, the only player to beat Nadal in Roland Garros is Robin Soderling in 2009, and he lost to Nadal the following year. And he lost the year after, before all but retiring from the sport with mononucleosis.

If Djokovic were to win the French Open and join an elite band of seven players who’ve achieved the Career Grand Slam – including Federer and Nadal – it would be only fitting. Where Rafa is the immovable object, and Roger the irresistible force, Novak is the perfect halfway house, part-defender, part-attacker. He is the best-balanced tennis player there has ever been, a rubber man who can retrieve any ball, before turning the point around and winning it. Underneath the jocular, easy-going exterior is a man who is thoughtful in five languages off the court, and a cold-eyed competitor on it. He has the belief that any tough match – save perhaps for Nadal at Roland Garros – can eventually be twisted to his will. His trophy cabinet not yet be as garlanded as his two chief rivals, but make no mistake. Djokovic is an all-time-great in waiting. If he hasn’t arrived already.