How are you coping? If you feel you are coping, that is? As I noted to a friend, I veer between manic activity and shameful indolence on a daily basis.
At first, upon seeing my wife spend all day seated at the dining room table in one videoconference after another, I experienced a bout of guilt-induced (as I now recognise) energy. I tidied the garden, I repainted this and that, I cleaned the bathroom and kitchen. I went for walks; I dusted off the bikes and pumped up the tyres. It was a pleasant enough novelty: a novelty which, to be honest, is beginning to wear off.
The daily walks/bike rides have continued, albeit with less enthusiasm, because my wife needs to get out of the house and I’m happy to tag along. We consider ourselves very fortunate, because although we live only a few miles from the centre of London there are many parks and quiet roads, and even the occasional traffic-free route, such as Green Dale.
Last week I was sent on an errand to get bread from Gail’s in Clapham Common
I was meant to arrive by 11am; by the time I’d finished dawdling I had only 45 minutes to make the journey. Naturally I thrive under pressure.
Back in my early days at the British Library – it was 1985, I think – I attended a series of lectures by Professor Don McKenzie. Amongst (many) other things, Don talked about landscape as narrative, with particular reference to Australian Aboriginal culture, and I am sometimes reminded of this when you visit places in Greece, Turkey or Italy where, according to Ovid or Homer or Hesiod, a nymph appeared, a centaur frolicked, Heracles undertook a labour, etc., etc. Although collecting a couple of loaves from Clapham is hardly the stuff of epics, I did find myself traipsing through my past.
I have lived in just three places (one as a lodger and two as a householder) since I moved to South London from Bethnal Green in 1985, and my route took in all three. That they are less than an hour’s walk apart does indicate a certain lack of imagination, but London is so enormous that once you are settled in an area that tends to be where you will end your days.
Every time I go through the door I remember moving in: it was a hot August day in 2002. Why is it that when you move your worldly goods it is either boiling hot or pouring with rain? We had only moved a couple of miles from Brixton to Herne Hill. Immediately a neighbour turned up and said “welcome to the street”, and I knew I was going to be happy here. When we arrived Concorde’s flight path would take it right over the velux window in the loft; it was twice as loud as anything else. Thankfully, it was just once a day. The years have also passed quickly (see what I just did?) But right now, there is hardly a plane in the sky.
How quickly the bizarre becomes the normal
There was next to no traffic, the trees were in blossom, and the weather was dry… for the first 10 minutes. I set off along Half Moon Lane to Herne Hill Station and cut through Brockwell Park, keeping the regulation two metres away from other folk.
This wonderful park has been ever-present in my life for 35 years, since those free GLC concerts. When we lived in Brixton Hill we’d often go to Herne Hill for a Sunday afternoon pint and return by clambering over the fence on Dulwich Road to avoid a laborious walk home via Brixton Water Lane. Luckily the wall at the far end was a lot easier to get over. Even so, I couldn’t do it now if my life depended on it. We’d then cut through the Tulse Hill Estate to Helix Road. This time I went through the unlocked gate.
Endymion: a suitably Classical name for the midpoint of my odyssey. We lived at this house (in the middle) for 17 years. But when it was built it was not in Endymion Road but in Beechdale Road, which adjoined it. On 23 June 1944 a V1 fell at the South East end of Beechdale totally demolishing 12 houses and badly damaging another 20. Nine people were killed. A further 12 houses were damaged in Endymion Road. After that, Beechdale Road ceased to exist, and its surviving houses were tacked onto Endymion.
It is a fine, large terraced house, with a poky little “garden”. When we moved in, it had no central heating, it was riddled with dry rot and the roof needed replacing. Interest rates were sky high and we had to pack the house with lodgers (six at one point) to pay the mortgage. Still, it was our own place and we had a lot of fun, when we could afford it. The area did have its downside: I mean to say, a spot of burglary is par for the course and I’m not an unreasonable man but having yer motor broken into every couple of months and being robbed by some geezer wiv a shooter outside yer own gaff is bang out of order, innit? Eventually we moved away, leaving some good friends, Curry Paradise and the Elm Park Tavern, behind.
Most evenings we would pop down to the Elm Park, if only for “a last one”. It’s where I met fellow Beefheart fans Phil and Di, Ann and Helen the twins, Sam and Lynne, Chalky (AKA “The Elm Park Elvis”), Claude Johnson who won a famous race discrimination case against his employers at Brixton Prison, Scotch Dougie, Big Billy, the chef from Paisley (speciality: deep-fried pizza), a bloke from M|A|R|R|S (as in “Pump Up the Volume”), Paul the mad engineer, the man who played Charlie in Casualty, a guy who made props for Doctor Who and a jobbing actor who was a costermonger in EastEnders for a few years – together with assorted dangerous plasterers and slappers, and a uniformed screw who sat in the corner and drank from his own pewter mug as if ensconced in a Devonian hostelry.
There was the time Donald Pleasance popped in for a pint. Oh, and Bert Kwok. There was the time some punter threw a brick through the pub window from the inside. A cry for help, if ever there was one. There was a weekly Pub Quiz (which I won, to add to my already impressive CV), and Laura’s twice-weekly Karaoke (I had a crack at “La Bamba”). Tales of the picaresque. But it was never the same after the landlord, Irish Pat, had a heart attack after one large vodka too many and lay dying on the pavement, while his family fought over who was going to save him. Young Barney couldn’t manage the pub on his own.
Strangely, although it is only 20 minutes from where I now live, I have hardly ever been back. My old house has been divided into two or three flats; no doubt it’s making someone a fortune in rent but it looks sadly down at heel. After all the hours I spent sanding and polishing the heavy Baltic pine doors!
I bought it from a Maltese geezer for 75k and sold it to a scouser for 300k
Straight across Brixton Hill (the A23 Brighton road) takes you to Jebb Avenue and right past, indeed almost into, HM Prison Brixton. It is a ghastly and depressing place to look at. I don’t want to dwell on that, for it also hosts an innovative scheme, whereby a high-end restaurant, The Clink, is manned by trusted prisoners close to their release date. I can confirm that the nosh and service are good, and the necessarily plastic cutlery is of high quality. Needless to say, you have to book and pay in advance. No cameras. No tips.
You exit Jebb Avenue for Lytham Road through an anonymous hole in a very old wall, close to the recently-restored Brixton Windmill.
Straight across King’s Avenue takes you to Crescent Lane, a long and possibly ancient way to Clapham Common. Road after road after road of Victorian houses, with some very desirable earlier villas. And so, eventually, I arrived at my destination in Abbeville Road, Gail’s bakery, bang on time. But before heading back with something not unlike the Golden Fleece, I thought I might pay a visit to nearby Briarwood Road, my first base in South London, all those years ago.
As previously recounted, I moved to London from Oxford in July 1984 to take up a job with Methuen. I was lucky to find a good and cheap house in the East End with my friend Paweł, but less than a year later the owner, a Polish film director who’d been working abroad, wanted – quite reasonably – to move back in, so I had to find somewhere else. In those pre-internet days that meant buying the Evening Standard, scanning it for somewhere suitable that you could afford then ringing up and rushing round. And so I ended up in a very nice house in Clapham belonging to an Australian lady with a young son. It worked out well. She’d worked as secretary for many years for Sidney Bernstein, founder of Granada, and had some great stories to share.
I knew a couple of people (including an aspiring actress called Lynette Edwards who later turned up in one of Paweł’s films) in Clapham from my Oxford days. There was a wine bar, Newton’s, just round the corner in Abbeville Road, that I used to frequent – not least because I fancied a barmaid there by the name of Grace. But it turned out that she already had a boyfriend. Tant pis! On one occasion I went for a drink or three and came back the worse for wear at midnight. I stripped off, put on Radio 4 and crashed out, face to the ceiling, on the bed. At some point my landlady entered and discreetly turned off the radio and the light.
Nothing was ever said…
As I walked up Briarwood Road, trying to find the best place to take a photo, I heard the voice of a woman receiving a delivery. I called out, “Marian, is that you?” An unmistakable Aussie accent told me that it was, although I couldn’t really see her from behind the hedge. A cuppa was out of the question but we did manage a conversation from either end of her garden path – our first for more than three decades.
Everything is connected
I was thinking about my time as a Claphamite while watching the Chernobyl series a few months ago, because it was in Marian’s kitchen that I remember hearing about it on the radio. It was the weekend of 26/27 April 1986, about a year after I’d moved in. The Ukraine was a long way away, and we hoped we wouldn’t be affected. Maybe we were… who really knows?
Now we know for sure that being a long way from China makes no difference. Take care, as everyone says these days.