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Earl’s Court life, The Independent On Sunday

Like the man who walked into St. Jude’s Church while I was voting, looked at the booths and tellers and asked, “Isn’t this Alcoholics Anonymous?”‘

‘To Let Flat, Furnis Room Kichen Bahroom’. ‘Artist urgently requires assistant’. ‘Escort work Foreign Ladies Call James at Bayswater Escorts’. ‘The Most Famous Ad Site In The World’ hangs by a newsagent’s doorway on the Earl’s Court Road. The small-ads pinned to its green baize rub closely together. The small crowd studying them is more withdrawn, avoiding contact. A young Russian woman makes a call from her mobile about a flat, her plump, goateed boyfriend watching intently. A Hispanic man silently edges along the site, scanning the Spanish, English and Polish ads for cleaners, labourers and receptionists.

There’s money in so many foreigners. Opposite the Tube station and up steep stairs (notice: ‘Spitting is Illegal’) Joe The Barber does good business in Sim cards. One wall holds Arsenal posters and a cartoon of a wild, can-wielding man captioned: ‘No drunks – that includes about 50% of Earl’s Court.’ The other wall carries old Mercury signs. Joe says, “People come to Earl’s Court from all over – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China. Their mobiles don’t work because of the system. I fit a new card for 25 quid.”

Migrants, backpackers and exiles pour into Earl’s Court and their words stream out. The side roads choke with ramshackle ‘Call Centres’ – ‘Italy 14p’, ‘South Africa 26p’ – and cyber shops, ‘Internet Access 50p’. These dusty-windowed places with their homemade signs carry the melancholy of separation. Like Earl’s Court’s bright battalions of fast-food restaurants, that will feed you from Full English Breakfast to small-hours kebab, they serve people away from their real homes. So do the nylon-curtained bedsits and low star hotels, temporary refuge for asylum seekers: 92 languages are spoken by the pupils of Earl’s Court’s primary schools.

There is another side to this. All summer, jolly Antipodean flags compete on chipped stucco balconies and in the cool dark windows above shops. Groups of Arab men debate on street corners. Cheery armies of day-trippers and sales reps roll out of the huge Exhibition Centre laden with shiny brochures and giveaways.

And the drifting live alongside the settled. The public face of Gay Earl’s Court may be Clone Zone and the darkened windows of the Colherne pub on the Old Brompton Road, but the private one is professional men serving on residents’ committees and making the daily Tube commute. On Penywern Road, off the torrent of Warwick Road and its monoxide-dusted mansion blocks, bedsit hostels sit next to whole, immaculate stucco houses. Around Child’s Place is ‘Kenway Village’ (you know estate agents) whose powder-paint cottages are Chelsea-pretty. It was here a friend found a drunk across the back seat of her car one morning. He’d used it as his bedroom and toilet. (Although against a mother with children to get to school before the bell, he stood little chance.)

The addicted, uprooted and left behind are not entirely alone. Past the ever youthful, beatniky Troubadour restaurant on the Old Brompton Road and across from Brompton Cemetery’s Gothic acres, is the Response Community Centre. Here the thoughtful, wiry-bearded Roy Hiscock organises free computer classes, internet access and homework clubs. Narcotics Anonymous meet in the back room, the computers prudently locked away.

On the street the addicts often appear as much bemused as threatening. Like the man who wandered into St Jude’s Church while I was voting, looked at the booths and tellers and asked, “Isn’t this Alcoholics Anonymous?” Or the woman who swayed up with a can and a clutch of pennies as I was collecting for Marie Curie Cancer Care outside the Tube. She aimed for the collecting tin saying, “Is for the lil’ chilren.” Priggishly I started explaining that actually it was for… “Is for the lil’ chilren” she insisted, giving her money, then weaving slowly away.

2 November 2003

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