Clapham Omnibus

I lived in Clapham for a few months in 1980 soon after I left school, when it was a suburb largely for the poor and the young. I was in Clapham North (Atherfold Road to be precise) and as anyone who lived there at the time will testify, it was grim.

The housing stock was basically the same as it is now – minus the new glass and steel boxes – but it was populated largely by people like me, who lived hand to mouth, jumped tube barriers, sat wrapped in blankets of an evening and slept four to a room.

My efforts to keep our place tidy were brushed aside as my flatmates sought ways to eke out an existence:

‘Who’s left that massive pile of sugar on the coffee table?’ I once stormed.

‘It’s not sugar, you spastic,’ came the reply.

One night we clubbed together to buy a new-fangled food speciality – a kebab. We gave the money to our housemate to go and buy it but as he left the shop he had it taken from him by, he claimed, someone bigger and hungrier than him. Mugged for a kebab.

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Grim up North Clapham

Personally, I always suspected he spunked the money on smack, of which he was rather fond. You could score on the street corner (when it wasn’t in our sitting-room) where there now stands a tapas bar. Either way, from then on I went back to chips. I knew my place. Kebabs were too fancy and attracted too much attention.

The time of which I write was closer to the end of the War than today, and it bloody well felt like it. Clapham High Street was barren and decrepit, as it was to be long into the ’80s and even into the ’90s, with boarded shops and nothing to buy because in the midst of the greatest economic depression since the 1930s, few locals had anything to spend.

Up past Clapham Manor Street where we used to go to have our baths (at the wash-house, after our bath fell through the floor of our bathroom into the flat below), stood the lone beacon of hope, The Two Brewers, then a cheap and cheerful rock boozer in which, for a change, you might not get your teeth knocked out. A little further along, there was a Wimpy. That was the extent of a Clapham night out.

A decade or so later, when a mate took pity on me after I’d been summarily turfed out of my high-rise squat elsewhere in London, I returned to Clapham. This time I was in a shared flat off Abbeville Road in what estate agents were beginning to call ‘Abbeville Village’, and which featured a wine-bar called, to our embarrassment, Flumbs.

Eco, a groovy sourdough pizzeria, opened on the High Street to much excitement and that was soon followed by Clapham Picturehouse, where I briefly worked as an usher. (Halfway through watching Home Alone 2: Lost in New York for the third time I tore off my uniform and ran from the building. Nothing was worth sitting through that for. Not even eating)

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Eco (Eco)

Braying voices in the gardens of Abbeville Village told the story of the Yahs moving in. One night, through my back bedroom window, I watched a group of them hoover up several grams of coke from their garden table until they were powerless to stop it all blowing away in the wind, the polo-shirted tits.

But even then there persisted an underclass that refused to bow to the mores of the incomers.

On Elms Road I witnessed an attempted bag-snatch by a wild-eyed boy from Crackcloud on a woman returning home with her child. After a brief struggle the man ran off empty-handed towards me. Our eyes met as he passed and I turned to watch him lurch-run up towards the Common.

‘You bloody bastard,’ shouted the woman after him, adding, unwisely I thought, ‘There was £300 quid in there!’

The man stopped, turned and started running back towards me and the woman to have another go, his eyes like broken saucers. As he passed me I swatted at him with a paperback copy of Hobbes’ Man and Citizen while the woman got safely into her house.

‘So, if anyone’s to blame for gentrification, it’s you,’ said local-ish chum, Half-life, a little ungenerously, when I told him the story.

‘Well, what would you have done?’ I said.

‘I would have run past you on the other side of the road.’ he said.

‘I don’t mean if you were him.’ I said, stating what to anyone else would have been the bleedin’ obvious. ‘I mean if you’d been me.’

You? Oh, God, no,’ he said, and we left it at that.

Priced out of Chelsea and Fulham, moneyed types started arriving, attracted by the family-sized houses and the greenery, flocking like sheep, if sheep wore chinos and moccasins. One local estate agent said recently that almost half of Clapham buyers are now from ‘prime central London’, particularly Kensington and Chelsea. It sounds horrific and sure enough the word ‘Clapham’ has entered local parlance as a pejorative adjective, as in:

‘Went to that Pop Brixton place at the weekend.’

‘How was it?’

‘About 90% Clapham.’

‘Shit the bed, sorry to hear that.’

So what of Clapham now? Is it now filled only with people in turned-up collars carrying odd-shaped balls? Is it still possible to have a dirty good time? Can you get wankered in the afternoon and meet interesting characters? Do you still get mugged for your kebab?

Fuck it, I went over to find out.

Shopping

Smokees
Head masters

I got the Ginger Line to Wandsworth Road, which, it turns out, is in Clapham. Looking for top-rated cafe, The Roastery, I immediately took a wrong turn and headed north east up Wandsworth Road. Through the tears I was shedding at all the closed pubs, I did manage to spot Smokees, a cute little head shop.

Yes, the best shop in Clapham may not even be in Clapham. Funny old world.

Cafés

Heading back to The Roastery, I fueled up on truly fine coffee (sourced from Bullett Coffee) and headed over to Clapham North for a look-see up the High Street.

En route I passed the Clapham North Art Centre in the ‘Arts District’ on Voltaire Road where I once saw Half-life read from his epic science fiction poem, Drunk in Space, with such intensity that one girl started crying and her boyfriend called the police.

Since it was now past one o’clock and he would likely be awake, I put in a call to tell him I was in Clapham. He was sulking.

‘What’s this I hear about you having some beer launch last week?’ he said. Bugger. I had to think quickly.

‘Oh, yeah. That was Dirty South,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ said Half-life. ‘What a cunt.’

‘I’m afraid so,’ I said, and arranged to meet him for pints later on.

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Dream breakfast

Other cracking cafés worthy of a mention are Fantasia in the Old Town, which does a fine breakfast, Coffee House at Clapham North which fills a roll like they’re closing in 10 minutes and they need to use everything up, and The Black Lab coffee house at Clapham South.

Eats

Who’d be a cow in Clapham? A GBK has been joined by a Byron, an Honest Burger, a Haché and a Bodeans – not to mention the McDonalds – putting Clapham at puce on the agronomic heat-map.

I bought a Big Issue from a vendor outside Waitrose and headed down Venn Street, which with its weekend food market is fast becoming the foodie centre in Clapham.

In Spain, if you were to serve pre-cut Jamon Iberico from a plastic bag at a restaurant you would have your cojones removed – and probably not by a qualified surgeon. But that’s what Barsito on Venn Street thinks it’s OK to do. It is not. All that tasty fat is trimmed off and every piece is of a uniform consistency.

You’re better off going next door to Gastro, the uncomplicated French bar/restaurant that does all the classics very well (and a fine breakfast, to boot) and offers extensive al fresco dining tables, weather permitting.

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Enter, it is Gastro

The local institution that is La Rueda on the High Street also deserves a mention. Restaurants come and, if they’re dodgy, go. I haven’t eaten there for 10 years but La Rueda is certainly a stayer.

But the best restaurant in Clapham is Trinity on The Polygon in the Old Town. I was aghast to see it closed when I went round there, but relieved that it was only for a re-fit and an extension upstairs (good – my only criticism is that you felt a little jammed in at times, which once led to the missus and I appalling a neighbouring table when discussing which one of our daughters’ creative friends had rearranged our magnetic fridge letters to read ‘Jump on my tits, breh’).

Frankly, I can no longer afford to eat there a la carte (mainly because I can’t be fucked to get a job) but a good tip for an occasional treat is the £22 set lunch – two courses, and then push off elsewhere for a nice pudding ale, right?

Pubs

Talking of Mrs Raider, she and I have an established byword for a rough-house boozer of the old school: ‘Bank of Swans’, we whisper out of the corner of our mouths to each other at appropriate moments.

It harks from The Bank of Swans pub on Poynders Road on the South Circular, an estate pub that was frequented by leering, toothless alcoholics with beer-glass scars and ready knee-jerk bigotry. We’d stumbled into it when, after a boozy lunch, I’d been ticked off by the authorities for trying to break into Brixton Prison and needed an afternoon’s succour.

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Image from acclaimed photo series, Dulwich Raider, Urban Warrior: Escape Into Brixton Prison

I was sad to discover it is now closed. Yes, it was shit-awful, but one day there will be no shit-awful pubs left, and then we’ll miss them. I’m missing them already, tbh.

Instead, I met Half-life in The Windmill on Clapham Common. Or rather, beside it, where you can take your pint, sit on the common and roll a little bit of whatever you fancy. The Windmill is a little grander these days than it used to be. If you turn up, as I did, in a vest top, sandals and chewing a grass stalk you might feel a bit out of place. But not as out of place as in Abbeville Village.

‘The problem with Clapham,’ said Half-life as we tucked into some London Beer Factory Summer Pale Ale outside (the very nice) The Abbeville on Abbeville Road, previously Flumbs, ‘Is that it’s become the sort of place where you’re likely to get arrested for carrying a knife.’

‘I think that’s pretty standard now, mate,’ I said. I do worry about him sometimes.

‘Not before Clapham, it wasn’t. Before Clapham happened you were allowed to carry a knife from your belt throughout South London. Everyone knows that.’

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Put your fucking collar down you lilac-shirted buffoon, Abbeville Road

Back down by Clapham Common we dropped into The Alexandra. I hadn’t remembered it being so Irishy, or its wall displays celebrating, for some reason, the countryside, but I did remember its glorious upstairs room, filled with wood and afternoon sun.

‘You can’t go up there, guys,’ said a passing member of staff as we approached the stairs. ‘The plumbing’s not in.’

‘Let’s face it,’ said Half-life, ‘With your arse, you really need the plumbing to be in.’

Excitement seemed to be building about the golf on TV.

‘Shall we watch a bit of The Open?’ I said.

‘I would rather eat your eyeballs, minced with garlic,’ said Half-life.

‘Can’t you eat your own?’ I said, ‘So I can at least see the scores.’

But the weather in Scotland looked dreadful and the lure of the sunshine outside proved too great. Outside, watching Clapham go by, it was impossible to discern any particular lah-di-dahness. At 6pm, maybe it was too early to catch the yuppies coming home from work. Maybe they don’t work, unlike us today, and we gamefully toiled on into the Old Town via a look-in at the The Belle Vue, which was reassuringly much as it’s always been with its simple wooden chairs and tables, a bit like a pub.

On the way round we noticed No.32 The Old Town, the upper terrace of which is a great sun-trap. But as its previous incarnation, the Frog and Forget-me-Not, it was one of the first gaffs the Hoorays colonized and, perhaps unfairly, we weren’t in the mood to try it.

I’m pleased to report all three Old Town pubs are open, thriving and offering great beers (although two of them don’t open till after 4pm, which is a loathsome feature). The Sun has an extraordinarily handsome front bar, although the outside space is a bit functional and the garden room offered four of the saddest words pub-goers can face: ‘Reserved for private function’.

The Prince of Wales, with its distinctive POW! POW! POW! neon sign (the exclamation marks are mine) is a hoarder’s delight, its walls and ceilings filled with the bizarre and the bonkers. The Rose & Crown has a sign outside saying ‘Boozer’ and offers eight cask ales and some Old Town sitting. It was our favourite.

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View of the Old Town

Speaking of the Old Town, surely there’s a better place to park dead buses than in the fucking piazza. True, it’s better than it was, with some of the square recently reclaimed from traffic, but when they’re all lined up you might as well be drinking in a bus garage.

And while we’re at it, every shop bar one down one side of the Polygon is an estate agent, and if that doesn’t make you want to reach for your cyanide pill, the Sainsbury’s Local has been allowed to get away with monstrous street-level signage – an eye-achingly awful advertising blot. Someone should put though the windows – they’d look better boarded up, frankly.

On our way once again, we threaded through the back streets to Clapham Manor Street and the magnificent Bread and Roses, a Trades Union owned backstreet boozer (The slogan ‘Bread and Roses’ originated in a speech given by Rose Schneiderman: ‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.’)

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A visit to the Jeweller

Here, Half-life bumped into a mate sitting out front and they caught up while I purchased more boozes.

‘Who was that?’ I asked, when he joined me out back in the late sun.

‘Jimmy, from nick,’ said Half-life. ‘They called him the Jeweller.’

‘Oh. Did he make bits of jewellery to trade for snout, or something?’ I said.

‘Don’t be daft,’ said Half-life.

‘Why was he called the Jeweller, then?’ I said. Half-life paused.

‘Because he offered an overnight ring-widening service,’ he said, and I thought about this for a moment.

‘Oh, fuck,’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ said Half-life.

We loved The Bread and Roses. It was a reminder that what makes a pub is not the decor, not the location, not even, ultimately, the beer… It’s the people. A lesson that the best pubs are a melting pot of their local communities.

After one in the ever-green Falcon, we called it a night after Half-life dropped a half-full pint on the front terrace and a girl in a velvet choker gave him a funny look. Time for that kebab.

Green

Clapham Common is 220 acres of green space and the fact that it’s open all day and night makes it feel wilder, less tamed than London’s gated parks. And indeed it is, as Ron Davies MP, discovered when he was robbed by a fine-looking ‘Rastafarian’ after allegedly asking for sex on the Common one night. Some time later he had counselling for a ‘compulsive addiction to risk’. You don’t have to be gay to recognise him as one of our people. We say, Hero.

Today, as well as footballers and shouty Australians, the Common hosts fun-seekers of all types, for free and forever. It’s hard to argue with that.

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Fuck all

Sport

Talking of football, Clapham Rovers won the FA Cup in 1880. Crikey. That’s one in the eye for Dulwich Hamlet FC fans.

And to be fair, they played rugby union as well, so the rugger-buggers in the area have got a bit of history, too.

What is there to moan about

1. The ‘Strip’

‘I defy you to take a walk up Clapham High Street on a Friday or a Saturday night,’ says reader, Andy T. ‘They must be bussing them in from Essex. It’s like flippin’ Magaluf out there.’

2. Posh wankers

I don’t mind the posh, they can’t help it, but it’s no excuse for being a wanker.

Pip on the Urban 75 forums reports hearing some well-to-do hooray shouting across the aisles in Sainsbury’s: ‘Ollie, mate! Basics houmous! Lol! Legend!”

Button it, Hank, for the love of God.

Secret

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Drummed out

Clapham is home to several deep-level air-raid shelters and their three surface level entrances known as the Rotunda (or, locally, as the Drums). One of them (pictured) is the subject of a consultation on turning it into a place for people to eat and drink.

The funny thing is, if you look closely at the picture, you’ll see people are already using it as a place to eat and drink, and what’s more they’re not paying £5 for a bottle of Mahou so small you worry about swallowing it.

Omnibus

And there you have it, really.

Clapham today is not yet a Mayfair or a Holland Park; it is still home to an impressive cross-section of London life, but the money is taking over. Has taken over.

Omnibus, as we all know, is the dative plural of omnis, meaning ‘for all’, and when I hear the phrase ‘Clapham omnibus’ I think, ‘Clapham for all’.

Clapham for all? Yes, of course, if you have the money.

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Image credits: Grim up Clapham North by Paul-in-London used under this licence; photo from Dulwich Raider, Urban Warrior: Escape Into Brixton Prison used courtesy of Heinemann

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  • BigSofty

    Aaah Clapham. Or Cla’am as it was known for a brief moment in the late Seventies when gentrification first raised it’s oikish head.
    Personally I blame the decline on that nice Asian chap who ran the late supermarket beside Clapham South tube. Selling pasta at 8 in the evening, unheard of at the time, attracted the pasta loving Hooray Henrys and Come-on Camillas in search of cheap pied-a-terres that morphed the place into South South Chelsea.
    Pasta? I hear you say. Bear in mind that in the Seventies pasta, as opposed to proper spaghetti in a tin, was the equivalent to quinoa and had the same effect of attracting all the wrong sort.
    If only he had only stuck to selling Heinz…

  • Ah the lovely Gastro: gets you out of London, for a bit, and over to Paris – with a lovely breakfast for company.

  • I posted something here yesterday about my longstanding love of Gastro and the Gastro breakfast. I made a slightly witty remark about checking out of London and popping up in Paris – all this in a Clapham restaurant. Anyhow. the comment didn’t stick. User error? And I’m not writing the same thing twice. But, just to recap, Gastro, plus Clapham cinema – a classic one-two.

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  • Jane

    I lived in Elmhurst St at the tail end if the 70’s. The Bread and Roses was called the Bowyer Arms then and was our local. I worked for a while as a barmaid in the Windmill. It was one of the busiest pubs in London apparently, or Youngs busiest pub anyway, and paid a premium rate: 5 quid a session. Back in the days when pubs close at 3 and opened again at 5.30. It had a small public bar too, then. In the summer we had to wheel bottle skips across the common after closing time to collect the glasses. No plastic back then. Customers were allowed to take the glasses out. Sometimes we wouldn’t finish till 1am. Once, a couple of us decided to pop in to the Wimpy, after work, which was actually a 24 hour Wimpy, would you believe!
    We were asked to leave, as “they didn’t serve women unaccompanied by men after midnight”.