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.