It’s the languid network of buses and trains that cross stitch it and the sheer undulating expanse of it that make South London what it is, a place freer of the homogenization of ‘gentrification’ than most of the capital north of the river. After all, Norbury, Norwood, Mitcham, and the many other small towns absorbed into London in the early to mid 20th century as it spilt south over the Thames like an old rocker’s beer belly, are never going to be desirable in the way that, say, Shoreditch, Notting Hill or even Fulham is. But this means that businesses that would have been priced out the area, or driven out by corporate chains, can – and do – survive.
Dorchester, just up from Streatham Hill is but one of these. If you live in the area you’ve probably marvelled at the prices on the hand-typed menu, and peered through the latticed windows into its interior of wooden panelled walls and checked tablecloths with neatly arranged napkins, as if you’re looking into some sort of Streatham temporal anomaly. Yes, the interior is like a film set for a 1950s or early 60s film. Yes, the couple of times I’ve eaten there, the other diners seemed to be mostly made up of a gang of Streatham old boys, who were there to flirt with the equally aged waitresses. It felt like being in a sitcom.
The food was good. Nothing fancy, but everything cooked well. The menu consisting of the sort of things grandmas offer to favoured grandchildren. I had battered plaice and chips, a half pint of orange juice, and the apple and cherry crumble, with custard of course. It all came to seven whole pounds and sixty pence. As if they’d fixed the value of money to what money could buy 20 years ago, and no manner of inflation could convince them otherwise. Charmingly, everything was added up by hand.
I’ve been made redundant. Set free from the office job that I loathed. Last year I was on the brink of walking out. This was possibly due to listening too much to The Clash’s first album on the way to and from work, and doing the same thing day in day out, workwise, for months. But that’s another matter. I used to dream about this, about having free time to create in.
But now, with this empty space in place of my job, I’m blocked. Artistically blocked. I’d kicked the creative urge with my work shoes, crushed it into the dull grey tarmac of the 9 to 5, and buried it under a tombstone of financial prudence. Even recently selling the image rights of one of my paintings for use in a 21st Century Art History educational module, whilst on paper fantastically validating, just made me feel a murderer’s guilt.
There was a time when I thought financial reality be damned, nothing matters more than to create. I clung to Auerbach’s famous quote: ‘I think that the very earliest influence was a horror of having to work in a bank or an office, a desire for a free and creative life’ to ward off my lack of career progression, and things like former colleagues asking me ‘but, don’t your parents want you to do to a proper job?’ But once you’ve hidden from bailiffs it’s hard to get harsh financial reality out of the back of your head. Despite the dread of the modern office. Despite the slow death that is walking away from things that gave your life meaning. Especially if you’re about to become a father.
I know that the solution is to keep on keeping on, to quote one my favourite Northern Soul songs. To ditch the preciousness, to just create, in the hope that this will one day resurrect my creativity. To steal back the time from the bourgeois monotony that my life has become, one hour, one evening, one day at a time. After all, the ecstasy of creation, and I mean that in the ancient Greek way, rather than the more modern gurning and dancing to fire-alarms way, changes you in such away that you’ll always be merely ‘weird’ without it.
In the first six months of being a new Streathamite, we were burgled. Someone in our building forgot to double lock the front door of the house, and people annoyingly unknown cut the locks on the door to flats within and kicked them in with such force that we found part of the lock a good 6 feet away from the doorway. It’s never good when your landlord phones you, but it’s worse when your landlord phones you to tell you that you’ve been broken into.
After a tense bus ride through south London, I got there at the same time as the police. And breathed a sigh of relief. They’d only stolen the Playstation, and not things like my wife’s netbook, left in plain view, with all our photos from our recent holiday in India. Megabytes of predictably unbacked up photos of the ‘if Dickens wrote Bladerunner with added dysentery’ chaos of Mumbai, but also of the village in Gujarat where my father-in-law grew up, and the religious boarding school that my wife was packed off to as a teenager in a futile attempt to stem her British irreligiousness. In fact one of policeman says ‘you’re the happiest burglary victim I’ve ever met’.
As I’m housebound due to not having a door on the flat for a couple of days, I meet more policemen. I answer the front door of the house, which requires a Heath Robinsonesque array of chairs to jam shut at night, to a policeman in the sort of body armour you only see on policemen at the end of Notting Hill Carnival, or at political demonstrations. He asks if I had been in the day before. I had, but I hadn’t seen who it was that had dropped a shotgun into the bushes opposite our house. The second visit was almost more worrying. A community support officer so young looking that I was half expecting him to ask if I could buy him alcohol or cigarettes from the local shop. Who then proceeded to plead with me for help catching the burglars, as they had no pointers.
Even so. This could happen anywhere. This is just bad luck in the grand scheme of things. I’ve been unlucky enough to be attacked for being a ‘speccy c*nt’ at about seven thirty in the eventing while walking down a Brighton Street. Which involved being punched to the floor and then kicked in the face hard enough to warrant the St John’s ambulance man informing me that, whilst I was probably only in shock, and didn’t need to go to A&E, I should actively seek out Rocky Horror Show themed parties, as I ‘wouldn’t need any make up’. It’s not worse than that.