When Christopher Wren was renovating the Church Of St Mary Le Bow, he uncovered a paved roman road that had run from St Albans to Canterbury, built on the route of a grassed track that has served the ancient Britons before them. Watling St is still a major highway. The Jarrow Marchers headed to London from St Albans along it 80 years before I came this way, and it has to be said that they had the more eventful day. Against a backdrop of febrile domestic and international events – the Spanish civil war, the abdication crisis – the march itself ran into complications. A contingent of communists tried to join the march and were rebuffed. And there was a frankly bizarre kidnapping ‘incident’. But you’ll have to wait for the book for all that.
Had I passed by a little earlier I would have dropped in at the RAF MuseumHendon. No-one knew it then (though some might have made an educated guess) but just five years after the Jarrow marchers passed though, some of them would be fighting Nazism abroad and the RAF were at battle in the summer skies of southern England. Many of the Jarrow marchers had been in the services and some of the older ones were veterans of the first world war. All of this to makes their treatment at the hands of the state, big business and the church seem even more wretched and ungrateful to me.
I’m running late compared to their schedule so its dusk when I reach Radlett. They took a lunch break here and the local vicar and parishioners them a crate of oranges at the Congregational Hall. Comfortable then, Radlett now is one of the most prosperous towns in the south of England, as a glance in the estate agents window confirms. A five bedroom house will cost you two and a half million and a little place in Letchmore is a snip at six hundred thousand. As the lights come on down the main drag, a young couple and their toddler daughter are having a late lunch (or an early tea) on the modish stripped pine tables of the Red Lion . They seem cosy, happy and presumably mortgaged to the hilt.
Elstree. The very name has a certain, faded, very English glamour. When the marchers passed nearby in the autumn of 1936, it’s likely that Drake Of England, Dandy Dick (starring Will Hay), Invitation To The Waltz or I Give My Heart were being filmed there. The News Chronicle carried a story that as they passed, the Jarrow crusaders were unnerved by the presence of scores of policeman who turned out to be extras in the making of the a gangster movie (the nearest thing to this description I can find is Living Dangerously, filmed at Elstree though set in New York; it seems unlikely to have been McGluskey The Sea Rover). The Marchers has every right to be nervous; the police and/or the Special Branch had been with them either openly or clandestinely for most of the march. Later in its illustrious career, Elstree was home to the Muppets, Star Wars and Morecambe And Wise. The last time I was here was under rather different circumstances than the Jarrow Marchers. I was taking part in Pointless Celebrities with my partner the splendid Mark King of Level 42. To make me feel less like a pampered media fop though I should point out that this time I was cold, alone and tired. And back then, I did give the money from winning the show (oh, yes, should have said, we won) to The Working Class Movement Library of Salford.
Several dark hibernal miles down the road and I reach Edgware. Here the marchers were welcomed warmly and generously by the Mayor and the Rotary Club and treated to tomato soup, steak and kidney pud and apple pie (sequentially, of course) at the White Hart Hotel. It’s still there though it has changed its name. To the Change Of Hart. No, seriously
A middle eastern cabbie tells me that if I want to sample the real modern taste of Edgware, I should head down the high street and make for Edgware Kebabs. “Very clean..I used to work there”. Twenty minutes later I am making strong inroads into my nosh with all the gusto of my fellow northerners of eighty years before, just a few yards from where they dined, even if my repast is a little different; Lamb kofta, yoghurt, chill sauce, pitta, Efes turkish beer
Assurances of cleanliness must have travelled the borough as the place is rammed on a quiet winter sunday evening. An older lady in twin set and pearls comes in and one of the guys behind the counter, noting a new customer, asks ‘where do you live, lady’ perhaps unaware of how this might sound when accompanied by the noisy and rapid sharpening of an enormous curved carving knife. A little girl and her dad – clearly regulars – are welcome warmly by all ( “Hello Princess! Give us a kiss!”) Princess turns out to insanely voluble and just the charming side of vexatious.
“This door is rubbish.. (swinging on door) …you need to get a new door”
“Will you give me the money, Princess?”
“No! Ask your mummy and daddy for the money!”
“Ah (sadly but tenderly) my mummy and daddy are in Turkey. Do you know what Turkey is?”
“Yes, it’s like a chicken you can eat”
I find some Anatolian psychedelic rock on my Phone and head off into the night, smiling.