1st August 2021
Today marks quite an anniversary in my life. It’s exactly 50 years since I moved from my native Bournemouth to start work in that there fancy London. Cor blimey, luv a duck, gawd bless ya. To mark the occasion, here’s a little (?) look at the places I’ve lived in since then.
But first, why the move from sunshine to smoke? It all came about following the final meeting between me and the laughably named ‘careers officer’ at my school. He’d finally given up on me and my stupid ideas about working in things like journalism (‘you’ll never make it, lad’) and acting (‘what I said earlier’), and in exasperation threw a big book across the table. It was called ‘Careers for School Leavers 1971’ and was basically an A to Z of companies. They were the lookout for young blood, or more likely they’d simply paid to be in the book.
Anyway, I took it home and showed it to my dad. He had a quick flick through and landed on the page showcasing Sir Robert McAlpine, the construction firm. “I’ve heard of them. They’re massive. Go and work for them.”
So I went for an interview and got offered a job as a materials buyer. (Ask me about nickel-plated twin thread 2″ No. 8 countersunk woodscrews. Go on.) I was also offered accommodation at a place called the Caledonian Christian Club, a hostel for young Scots working in London in the banking sector.
You have questions, I can tell. But the fact that I wasn’t Scottish, did not work in a bank and could hardly be called Christian didn’t seem to matter. McAlpines was a Scottish firm and that was as good a link as any. So on Sunday 1st August 1971 my parents deposited me at the hostel, an imposing Georgian building in Endsleigh Gardens WC1, and roared off back to the coast.
My salary was £11 a week, which was crap even then. The equivalent today would be about £150. From that £11, I had to pay £4 a week for my room. Food was also included, and I remember some of it being edible. But my most abiding memory is of my fellow residents. I was one of perhaps three English guys in a community of around 70 expat Scots. Some delighted in telling me how superior Scotland was to England in every way. Some liked to swear in completely novel ways whereby sentences would be constructed almost entirely of swearwords, then one or two nouns and verbs would be inserted at strategic points to convey meaning.
A few had serious anger issues. One pulled a knife on me after I suggested that shouting at the manager of our local pub was perhaps not a wise move. I was with another when he split a man’s head open with a bottle of Newcastle Brown following some imagined slight in the nearby UCL student union bar. The area itself could be dodgy, too. Three big mainline stations were nearby, and on Saturdays the streets would fill with drunk football fans looking to have a pop at any strolling ‘cockneys’. I got attacked several times and learned a golden rule for surviving the big city: at the first sign of trouble, run like hell.
Go west, young man. Or even south-west
I’d like to say I forged strong and lasting friendships from the three or four years I spent at the Caledonian Christian Club, but I’d be lying. I couldn’t fucking wait to get away. When a school friend and his mate moved to London in 1974 and my salary had crept above starvation level, we got together and found a flat in Fulham.
Fulham was still a fairly working-class area back then, as evidenced by the mass of black and white flags that appeared when Fulham made it to the final of the 1975 FA Cup. I would jokingly tell friends that I lived in ‘Fulham NEAR CHELSEA!’ to make it sound cooler. You’d even see the odd scrap-metal collector driving a Steptoe-style horse and cart. But the area was changing. Our neighbours constructing a sauna in their cellar was a sure sign that the area was becoming gentrified. These days it’s all Whole Foods, plantation blinds and SUVs.
My flatmates were called Mike and Ted. However, after a few months I learned that Ted’s real name was in fact Leslie. Confusingly, he had a brother also called Ted. They called each other Ted whenever they met. Then, shortly after finding out that flatmate Ted wasn’t called Ted at all, he told me that his brother Ted was actually called Simon. There were no Teds. Right.
A bush with the law
We had some memorable parties in Fulham. Prior to one, we thought it would be a good idea to decorate the flat with some greenery. So after a night girding our loins in the pub, we headed off to nearby Eelbrook Common and began hacking at shrubbery. However, someone called plod and before we knew it we were spending the rest of the night in a cell in Fulham Road nick. The police didn’t press charges, but I dined in on Special Branch jokes for years afterwards.
A bloke called Wayne lived up the road from us and started turning up unannounced and being a right pain. Wayne the pain. I think he was what nowadays we’d call ‘special needs’, but back then he was just the local loony. “Look,” he said to me one day. “I got meself a tattoo.” I glanced down and recoiled. His forearm was a mass of bloody welts and scars, with vaguely discernible blues and greens and blacks amongst all the weeping crimson. “Who the hell did this?” I asked. “I did it! Wiv me pens!” Reader, he’d impregnated his arm with ink from coloured biros.
Mind you, I wasn’t exactly Captain Sensible. Once, during some sort of drunken game, I somehow managed to push my hand through the glass of the front door. I was bleeding copiously from the underside of my wrist so we quickly asked a car-owning neighbour to rush me to St Stephen’s Hospital. They couldn’t stitch it because of the position of the wounds, but the good news was I hadn’t severed an artery. Obviously. I still have the scars underneath my watch strap, and to this day have an aversion to thrusting any part of my body through plate glass.
Earls Court out
During the Fulham years I got several bar jobs, including one at a long-gone pub called the Lord Ranelagh in Earls Court. Earls Court being famously gay I shouldn’t have been surprised one night when a young Asian guy sauntered to the bar and said “I want cock.”
I was happy to redirect.”You want the Coleherne up the road, mate.”
He pointed to the back of the bar. “No. That cock. Cock a cola.”
I quickly made friends with the fellow bar staff and the pub’s resident DJ. They were fun and friendly people who didn’t call themselves Ted. A few of them rented a house in Wimbledon and when a room there became free, I moved in.
I still see the people I met here in 1977. All except for Jim. Jim was a transient South African – not nearly transient enough – who inhabited a strange kind of smoke-filled box room halfway up the stairs. He was everyone’s idea of the world’s worst flatmate. Never washed anything up, never even washed himself, and if you ever implored him to at least keep his door closed so that the rats didn’t make forays into the rest of the house, he wouldn’t understand you as he was perpetually stoned out of his mind.
Altogether more refreshing company was Sue, who I met through a Wimbledon flatmate. Even when she wasn’t dancing on pub tables or belting out Gary Numan songs on the underground, she was brilliant to be with. We had a lot in common, but although I was partnerless and keen, Sue was hooked up with a doctor and was all settled in a flat in Lewisham. So I was more than surprised one day when Sue called and said that she and I should drop everything, leave England and go live on a kibbutz. Surprised and stumped – what the hell was a kibbutz?
She explained. I listened. I asked about the boyfriend. He’s history, she said. I thought he was medicine? Boom! Anyway, I quit my job (by then I was working for a company that made oil drums), sold loads of my stuff to raise funds, relinquished my room in the Wimbledon house and bought a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv.
That God and his mysterious ways
A week before we’re due to fly out, Sue rings and says that she’s no longer coming. Why ever not, I asked, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.
“I’m sorry. But I’ve found God, and believe my life will be better spent here, teaching the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
I know! I probably said much the same thing then as you’re thinking now. But the die was cast, I’d booked the flight and was soon to be jobless and homeless. So off I went to the Promised Land, there to enjoy a drink and drug-fuelled orgy of hedonism and debauchery, sometimes involving other people.
The old Sue would have fitted right in. The new Sue would have absolutely hated it.
My kibbutz experience and the subsequent jobs I had in the Netherlands have no place in this blog, which is primarily about the various London places I’ve lived in during the last half-century. So let’s miss out a year or so and pick up the story in 1980. I was back from my travels, a bit wiser, not at all wealthier but with a rich fund of anecdotes about chickens and bananas. Oh yes.
Initially, I shared a huge house in soulless Brondesbury Park with some ex-kibbutzniks and a bunch of Aussies, but that didn’t work out. (Turns out not all Australians are chipper, easy-going souls.) So I briefly returned to Bournemouth for a factory reset. I did a few manual jobs, including a stint working the spots at the Winter Gardens. It was here that I told a briefly speechless Michael Barrymore that there was not a soul alive who could convincingly whistle the theme tune to Panorama. The rest is history.
A fresh start
What to do with my life next? All I knew was, I didn’t want to go back to some boring office job. I wanted an exciting office job. So my mate Adam helped wangle me a role as a copywriter at a direct marketing agency in Bayswater (‘what is it I have to do again?’) And for the first month or thereabouts, he let me stay in the spare room of his and his wife’s house in Bounds Green.
It wasn’t ideal. Well, if you like living with super people who share your taste in music, comedy and leisure pursuits, it was the very definition of ideal. But I ask you. Bounds Green. See, the thing about north of the river is, there’s bloody miles of it to get through before you’re actually in north London. But to get to south London you simply step across a bridge and bang, you’re in it.
Until something better came along and not wishing to outstay my welcome, I decamped to a flat near Turnpike Lane. There were no recreational temptations here. Just me, the studiously quiet owner and a ticking clock. Every waking moment was like a never-ending wet Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. But when she announced she was hosting a party, I perked up. I volunteered to go to the off-license to buy some wine and beer. It was clear from her reaction that the thought hadn’t occurred to her. “Oh yes, wine and beer. Maybe some of the guests will enjoy that!” Whaaat? I bought as much as I could carry and, in the event, quite possibly consumed the lot.
The only thing of note to happen during my mercifully brief stay here occurred during a trip to the local launderette. It’s funnier than it sounds, but only marginally.
Salvation came in the form of a call from my old friend Mike, who’d fetched up in a mews flat in Clapham. There was a room there if I wanted it. I think I might have moved in before he’d put the phone down.
Cedars Mews featured a colourful and ever-changing roster of inhabitants. There was the needlessly tall Hugo, who once landed a summer job touring the country on a flatbed truck pretending to be Darth Vader. Mild-mannered James, the rural vicar’s son, who got himself arrested for mooning at a policeman as he rode past on his moped. I remember a waitress, a nurse, a film-maker, a bicycle courier, a shop assistant, an architect… The nights were long, the parties frequent, and the shopping kitty a bugger to resolve.
For reasons lost in the mists of time, we rented the adjacent garage to a famous photographer. He operated from a seven-storey apartment in Clapham Mansions, a grand old block of flats situated between us and the Common, and was in the midst of having a huge swimming pool dug out in his back garden. The noise was deafening. Anyway, he came round one afternoon to pay the following years’ rent for the garage. It was obvious he resented having to pay money to us mere flat-dwellers and was arrogant and rude. We got our own back in an unforeseen way when a letter arrived from the council asking if we had any objections to a neighbour of ours conducting a commercial business in a residential property. ‘None at all’, we replied. ‘We assume they have the necessary permission, just as we assume the people in Clapham Mansions will have sought and gained official approval for the large covered swimming pool currently under construction to the rear of their property.’
That did the trick. Work suddenly halted and the site remained silent for months, presumably while he got retrospective planning permission. Ha! Mind you, he sold the place in 2012 for £3.5 million so it’s conceivable he got the last laugh.
I meet my destiny
The most significant event of my time in SW4 occurred not in the flat but in the Windmill, the huge Youngs pub in the middle of Clapham Common. It was here that I first set eyes on Carol, who was later to become my wife. We spent increasing amounts of time in each other’s flats so eventually decided to buy our own. We found one in a freshly converted cotton-reel factory, situated one stop down the Northern Line in Clapham South.
Here is where I started to become a proper grown-up. Parties became dinner parties, the food kitty became a joint account and I found myself starting to use words like ‘flatpack’, ‘satinwood’ and ‘personal pension’.
The next move up the property ladder saw another move down the Northern Line to Balham, Gateway to the South. (In 1988, almost everyone came out with that quote when you said you lived in Balham.) We spent almost 10 years at our Victorian semi in Fernlea Road, a time that saw Carol and I get married and bring two unsuspecting young people into the world, Georgia in 1990 and Sarah in 1992.
We built some brilliant memories in Balham. (Although it was strange how, like Clapham South before it, the area seemed to become cool and trendy within weeks of us actually leaving it. It was like the Urban Gentrification Crew were waiting around the corner, saw our removal lorry trundle off into the distance and say ‘Alright lads, they’ve gone! Make with the wine bar and artisanal bakery conversion kits!’)
I exaggerate, of course. Balham was great. I even managed to persuade fellow Balhamite Arthur Smith to do a turn at my 40th birthday bash, held upstairs at the Bedford Arms. But towards the end of the 90s we were thinking about schools for our girls and more space for ourselves and our dog Echo, so in April 1997 headed off to New Malden.
We immediately hit it off with our neighbours when they popped round to introduce themselves and ask if we’d sign their petition. I asked them what it was about.
“They’re planning to open a pub in the high street!”
“That sounds good, where do I sign?”
“No no no, this is AGAINST the opening of a pub!”
Welcome to New Malden, people.
Although the ‘burb itself can feel decidedly parochial, it’s dead handy for nicer places. There’s Richmond Park, Home Park, the River Thames and all that Wimbledon and Kingston have to offer. We love our house, too. We discovered that a not-very-famous painter called John Sargent Noble once lived in it and that its cellar served as an air-raid shelter during the war. The biggest threat we faced was when a burglar broke into the adjoining house one Christmas Day at 2.00am and lit fires everywhere in an attempt to destroy his DNA (nice try, George). Although the occupants lost everything, our home was undamaged and we all emerged unscathed.
That brings us all up to date. We’ve lived here for almost 25 of the last 50 years and our memories of the place are overwhelmingly positive. But we can’t spend the rest of our lives in New Malden. I mean, come on. So where to next, hmm? Any suggestions warmly welcomed…