Sunday, July 06, 2008


South London. For many Londoners it's like the Science Museum - a splendid place that they really intend to visit. One day. When they're not so busy.

People do really live there. Noble souls with firmly-set jaws, and the proud air of someone living with a terrible illness. Whenever someone tells you they're moving South, it's always said bravely. "Honestly, it's really manageable these days. It's ten minutes by bus from Clapham."

You nod sympathetically, ask if there's anything you can do, and think "I will never see you again."

It's never the same if they move to Brighton. You'll see them fairly often, as it's far easier to get to, and has a beach. That makes it an honorable member of Zone 2.

This brings us to another tricky issue. No-one is exactly sure what South London is. Waterloo, for example, is far too central and useful to be South London. Clapham also has its fans, people who are prepared to sit on the Other Bits of the Northern Line, sailing through quaintly-named places that you think were simply painted on the Tube Map to make it look busy.

The problem with Clapham is the people who live there. Oh, they're marvellous, but they're a bit touched, if you know what I mean. If you go there for a dinner party, someone may suggest nipping to Vauxhall for a cheeky disco (Vauxhall is NOT South London. No one knows exactly where it is). And they will always say, "Let's catch the Overland. It's so much easier."

This is the difference between Northerners and Southerners. South London folk have clearly had A Bad Experience on the tube and try and avoid it at all costs. North Londoners thrive on Bad Experiences on the tube. It makes us the haloumi-eating bastards we are today.

But South Londoners are obsessed by the Overland Train. One Clapham friend points out that you do get a magnificent class of Rough on the train. And this is true. You can easily lose your heart and your wallet - but you should never try and take South London Rough home. A friend is currently dating one. In the beginning it was all truculent violence and brutal sodomy. Now he cooks Sunday Roasts and plays Abba CDs. Tragic.

Mind you, he says that since they had that "Clapham Junction" drama about gay bashing, property prices have soared. Which tells you at least four odd things about Londoners, and one dark thing about the human soul.

The Overland Train, along with knife crime and Alexandra de Vane, is South London's most remarkable feature. Yesterday a friend and I both tried to go to Dinner Parties in South London. I was going to "Brockley", she was going to something like "Ebbsfield End". At about 7 o'clock on a Saturday, London Bridge starts to look like a resettlement camp for lost souls clutching bottles of pink fizz. It is full of departure boards listing destinations that are Clearly Invented (Penge?). I found myelf standing next to a baffled Muscle Gay gawping slack-jawed at the board and stroking his Echo Falls for comfort. He glanced at me, and the look said "I normally wouldn't notice you, but if you take me away from all this I will make you happy." I shook my head sadly. I had to get to Brockley.

The Overland Train is just like a proper train that goes to real places, but it contents itself with rattling slowly through Dad's Army destinations called "Upper Warlingham" and "Knockholt". No one ever gets on or off at these stations. Why would they? They're not real.

I once had a friend who lived somewhere far-flung that began with B. You could reach him via an exhausting combination of tube, train and DLR. At the station were trees, fields and cows. This is not South London. This is simply a way of letting the good folk of Kent see Les Mis.

Brockley was lovely. It has a few streets of Very Nice Houses that have been lovingly done up by people Who Wish They'd Bought In Kentish Town When They Had The Chance. It had a lot of trees (each decorated with a picture of a different lost cat), and a variety of 50s utility furniture and Christmas trees lining the pavements.

It also has a Tesco. As Tescos go, it looked like those lonely outposts in Star Trek that are casually wiped out by marauding Klingons. Nervous staff stood behind a counter, ready to beam out at the first sign of trouble. The stock was almost entirely crisps and nappies. "It's really changed the area," said my friend Joe, "There's even a gay couple who shop in here sometimes. You never saw them at the 24-hour corner shop."

At the end of a lovely evening, I stood on a freezing platform, next to a drunk man who was simultaneously pounding the information point and urinating.


Lippy said...

I have a lovely friend in Brockley who is always telling me I can stay at hers if I need to stay over in London. But frankly I can GET HOME in the time it takes to get to Brockely - so when I need to crash I will carry on crashing centrally in Gt Eastern St thanks!

But so glad to see you back in circulation - even if it is on the Overland!

Skip said...

Gawd, yeah. South Londoners are always saying "No, really, you can crash over. We're just a hop from the centre of town. It's practically Zone One." And then they laugh, oddly.

I was chatting with a friend who lives in London Bridge about where South London begins. We agreed it's at the end of his road, where Bermondsey starts. Suddenly, the shops get all South London, and there are people milling around with broken wheelie luggage.

Fabio said...

When I moved from Camden to Camberwell Grove I was surprised (and delighted!) to find they had working streetlamps and electricity-- and mobile phone service!

When I moved from London back to New York, I remembered that even in North London, the Tube and overland trains don't fucking work.

But they do here.

Mark said...

Well I live in Brockley! And it really is very easy to get to. It's 2 stops from London Bridge - hardly a hike and it's in zone 2.

I cycle in and out of work every day (near Holborn). I used to live in North London but gave it all up for the delights o the SE. Brockley is much more spacious, I live a wide tree lined street, and I have a 40 foot back garden which backs onto a mews street of which I own a share. At the weekend I stroll to Greenwich or Blackheath.

I wake up to the sound of birds now (rather than sirens as it always was in N London), all is idyllic. You're right about the lost cat signs though - they're everywhere.

And no, I never wanted to live in Kentish Town, in fact I don't think I've even ever had reason to go there...

Mark said...

Sorry, mistake, it's a 40 metre back garden, (by about 10 metres), not 40 foot

hat said...

Most South Londoners don't call it the overland - it's just the train. Cos it's not just a tube above ground is it?


Fabio said...

Overland train. Train. Whatever.

I guess what I should've called it is 'Severe Delays.'

Brockley Nick said...

If you're struggling with the complexity of the train map, please don't be afraid to ask for help. We may be happier and more attractive but that's no reason to be intimidated.

An easy way of working out if you are in south london is to see if you are south of the river - waterloo and london bridge pass that test, which is why they are collectively known as the south bank.

Brockley is getting a tube station shortly, so we hope to see you soon.

Until then.

Mark said...

"Severe delays" on the train, oh and the Tube is just soooooo reliable, Tube trains run on time, they're spotless and crime free and whole lines never ever shut down completely for engineering works or signal failures. Yes, in wonderland. I just cycle - north of the river, south of the river, makes no difference

Brian Sibley said...

The one thing to remember about South Londoners is that we are very unforgiving! ;-)

Skip said...

North London and South London are less places, more states of mind.

I'd argue that North London is for people who like to get places quickly (normally delicatessens) and with the minimum of fuss, or the maximum of fuss and a fucking good whinge.

South London is perhaps for a more patient, calm sort. Who likes trees and grass and stuff.

Mark said...

I would certainly agree that S London, or at least SE London anyway is much more spacious, perhaps greener and population density seems lower.

I enjoyed living in N London but it was certainly more "bustling" - people everywhere rushing about, parking restrictions on every street, traffic jams everywhere. Of course SE London has its busy spots, but nothing like when I lived in N1....

MikeintheHill said...

I made the move from north London to south London after my first 6 months in London. Having moved from Glasgow, to Kensal Green I did not feel safe or at home in north London at all. In fact nearly moved back home, until the opportunity came up to buy in Forest Hill. Best move I would say I've made! Feels a lot safer, a lot greener and there is definately more of a community feel in south London. I work on Euston Rd, and found living north London dirty, congested and unfriendly. Despite the fact my commute has increased three fold since moving south, I am much happier where I am. Plus is a 12 min ride on an overground train to L.Bridge really that bad? I certainly beat my 'northern' friends into Soho town on a Sat night! Better than the tube. I live for the 176 night bus from town to Penge! Passes by my door. Forest Hill is by far the best place to be in London just now - roll on the East London Rail Line!