Peter Davies is the ninth writer in the My London series. He is a journalist and literary critic.
When, some years ago now, I told a roomful of friends and neighbours at my flat in leafy Twickenham that I intended to move from among them to dwell in distant Kentish Town there was a profound silence. That was to be expected. They knew they lived in a place of peace and natural beauties that unfold themselves whichever way you look up and down the Thames.
As I glanced out of my window at that Palladian gem Marble Hill House, where Pope and Swift had been guests of George II’s mistress Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, I marvelled at my temerity – or foolhardi- ness. When the silence was broken by the icy query ‘Kentish Town?’ (from one of the neighbours, not friends – they were too polite), I knew I had no answer that could in a sentence annihilate the scepticism that surrounded me.
So what, years later, of Kentish Town? Twenty years back, I had felt it im- portant to arrive by train. Railway stations always give one the worst view – the backside – of any town. Even Florence has to survive the arrival at Santa Maria Novella station. Everything about a destination has to improve from that first step.
But as we pulled into the platform I was intrigued. This place was no shrinking violet: ‘KENTISH TOWN!’ proclaimed graffiti in giant capi- tals sprawled across the brick façade of a building overlooking the station. Alas, in the recent retouching of this wholehearted welcome someone has seen fit to remove the exclamation mark. But at that point I felt a spontaneous embrace.
My first night’s sleep was punctuated by what I now laugh off to guests as ‘the Kentish Town Symphony Orchestra’ – the blare of police sirens, rev- ving of engines and the squeal of brakes. I fantasised idly on the level of street crime they might imply as I lay in bed.
The first imperative was to get out on the streets. They had to be walked. I had to prove, for my own pride’s sake, that I would never be heard admit- ting to old friends that I was missing the Thames-side saunter, the roam in Richmond Park.
Nor would I as it transpired. Kentish Town is a place of huge diversity, top- ographically – as well of course of ethnicity and a hundred other aspects. And of course it’s close to things. A short stroll, aimed in no particular direction, took me, completely unawares, to the Regent’s Canal. From that point it was merely a question of how far my legs would take me before a pub to refresh me, followed by a bus/tube/train to get me back home, became a necessity.
On that first day the pub at the end of my walk turned out to be on the banks of the Thames at Limehouse. I sipped a beer, ate a sandwich and considered the transformation of the river from the Wind in the Willows affair I had known to this broad, tidal ‘brown god’ in a relatively few miles.
As the days succeeded it became evident that the number of green places in walking distance, Hampstead Heath and Regent’s Park with their com- pletely different terrains being only two, would prove a constant antidote to a longing for what I had exchanged for them.
The acid test would, of course, be culture. How could I have imagined that residence in Kentish Town would turn me into a glutton for the Italian ope- ras of Handel? That I would become addicted to those conglomerations of shaggy-dog story-telling and inane sentiment, nevertheless driven by such extraordinarily ravishing music that even the protests of one’s posterior at their extreme length simply have to be ignored?
True devotees will of course travel any distance to hear one of these. Coachloads of devotees from Manchester and Leeds can always be seen in London audiences. But for the Kentish Town dweller these siren voices are seemingly always on tap at some venue either a twenty-minute stroll or a few stops on a bus or train.
Imagine Handel’s masterpiece, Alcina, crammed into the tiny ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’ theatre above the Gatehouse pub in Highgate. It seemed im- possible that this, one of Handel’s most lavish pieces, could be done in such a space. But on a sweltering evening, Hampstead Garden Opera, which has been doing this sort of thing for twenty-odd years, succeeded triumphantly in a theatre so small that the front row of the audience could practically rub noses with the cast.
With the Grimeborn Festival just down the road at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston, who needs Glyndebourne? The sheer inventiveness of some of this youthful upstart’s productions, minimalist in setting, using emerging singers, carefully crafted as regards vocal/orchestral balance, crammed as they are into its cramped theatre spaces, is remarkable – and affordable. The beauty of the enterprise is the temerity of its directors in staging it at the same time as the famous Sussex festival, as an ‘alternative’ summer season. As we drink our wine, bought from the Arcola’s most sociable bar, on the pavement outside, we do not hanker after Glyndbourne elegances. We are enjoying the fare too much.
Opera 24’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Grimeborn’s 2013 season extracted the essence of thing so deftly that you could not protest against the substantial cuts, and came away moved, not contemptuous as the title appears to invite you to be.
Back to Handel last year, with Acis and Galatea – English Handel this time – we saw a rare attempt, by York University’s ‘Eboracum Baroque’, to stage this masque, which is generally done at best as a ‘dressed’ con- cert performance with limited acting, as a genuine operatic drama, based around a marriage it had created for the eponymous protagonists. It didn’t get everything right. A purely drunken lout of a Polyphemus perhaps went a bit too far, diminishing the character. But it had a go at injecting psycho- logical drama into parts of the piece that are usually inert. And for that we had to hand it to its young creators.
I hadn’t expected living in Kentish Town to provide opera on the cheap. As an amateur naturalist, I certainly wasn’t counting on it as a source of what has turned out to be the most absorbing urban birdwatching.
Times colleague Caitlin Moran recently lamented in one of her columns the decline of birds in her London garden. I recommend removal to Kentish Town. It is not on the list of the country’s major bird reserves yet, of course. But, sitting in our scrap of garden we have thrilled to a red kite flying over- head, watched a waxwing perching on the telephone line in winter and a firecrest hopping through the front hedge.
Great spotted woodpeckers come to the birdfeeder, sometimes even prac- tise their ‘drumming’ on the guttering. Last summer we saw fledged within our tiny demesne broods of blackbird, great tit, blue tit, and dunnock.
This, it is true, involves a certain application of double standards to the cats who pass through the garden, particularly one rather handsome pied pilgrim by the name of ‘Smudge’ whom we normally rather like. For a nec- essary month or two of the year he becomes puzzled that fond accents and plenteous strokings are exchanged for bursts of water pistol and the cold, hurled contents of buckets. We think he forgives us.
And I hope Kentish Town, too, will forgive me my definition of its sym- phony orchestra. Sweet robin song at midnight in winter, the energetic self assertion of the wren in springtime and the stereophonic chorus of flocks of goldfinches at almost any time of the year, these are perhaps the true music of London NW5.