With the first instalment of South London Arts Holes now being used by the Arts Council as an educational resource and copies of it being passed round galleries and auction houses in exchange for sexual favours, we have decided to rush-release the second in the series, which finds our heroes combining art with binge drinking in and around Dulwich, Camberwell and Peckham.
I was meeting old Deserter familiar, Half-life, at England’s first purpose-built public art gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery (DPG), a brick building in the Classical style by the Old College in Dulwich Village.
A weak sun was shining as the clocks struck one and a middle-aged, middle-class army had colonised the café patio that overlooks the gallery gardens in order to soak it up. I didn’t spot Half-life at first, sitting at the back with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, possibly because he was clean-shaven and wearing what can only be described as a cardigan.
‘Nice knitwear,’ I said, approaching his table.
‘I’m just trying to fit in with these cunts,’ he said, a little too loudly.
I recall that entry to the DPG used to be free on Fridays, but, alas, no longer; I imagine it had to be stopped as too many poor people were enjoying the art. However, it’s a reasonable £5 to get in to the standing exhibition, and free if you’re unemployed, which, most excellently, we are.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the DPG displays some of the finest Old Master paintings in the world, with works by Canaletto, Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough, Poussin, Watteau and many others. We weren’t even drunk and it was immediately obvious to us that this was the greatest art we would see all day.
The only sour taste was the knowledge that in order to cut costs, senior management at the DPG is proposing to lay off half of the gallery assistants (19 of them), replace them with volunteers and ‘apprentices’ earning as little as £2.37 per hour and move those that remain onto new annualised hours contracts which will force them to work any hours stipulated by management without over-time rates.
Here’s our alternative idea: Fire the senior management.
Afterwards, we couldn’t face the staid, grey murmur-mongers in the café and with the Crown & Greyhound currently closed I suggested heading into Dulwich Park across the road and visiting the café there. As soon as we pushed open the café door, though, I was forced to concede that this was an error on my part.
Unbearable levels of chatter and clatter rebounded off every hard surface in the place. Children wailed or chanted the alphabet and mothers and grandmothers had to shout to be heard: ‘They’ve just bought in Highgate!’ ‘Now she does Internet marketing from home!’ ‘Internet marketing?’ ‘Internet marketing!’
People shouting ‘Internet marketing’ at each other invariably does little for the ambience of a place and we escaped outside with two bottles of Aspalls Suffolk Cyder (yes, at least the place is licenced) and found a table on the edge of the maelstrom.
‘It’s like a world from which men have been eradicated,’ I said, looking around. ‘Where women and children are allowed to roam free.’
‘Suits me,’ shrugged Half-life. ‘I prefer the company of birds, to be honest.’
‘Little bit hurtful, mate,’ I said, and drowned my sorrow with a mouthful of apple-y booze. ‘Do you want to finish rolling that joint because that woman over there is giving us a funny look.’
‘She’s not giving us a funny look, she’s boss-eyed,’ said Half-life and I looked over at her. ‘Don’t stare, then,’ he admonished.
‘I see what you mean,’ I said. ‘She’s like a Picasso.’
‘Yeah, one of her eyes is too close together,’ he said. ‘And the other one’s too far apart.’
And we tittered at another’s misfortune, like men.
Back outside DPG we caught a handy P4 bus to Carnegie Library on Herne Hill Road and strolled through a sunny Ruskin Park down into Camberwell for our next stop, the GX Gallery on Denmark Hill, a commercial gallery which showcases contemporary fine artists.
After a wander round the ground floor, Half-life refused to set foot downstairs as the ceiling was ‘too fucking low’ so I was left to browse the paintings alone: Some Peter Blakes, a smattering of Sir Terry Frosts and a handful of fine Donald Hamilton Frasers. One of the latter caught my eye but sadly it was priced at £14,000. I mentioned this to Half-life, who was sitting on the receptionist’s desk upstairs, rolling a fag.
‘If you want it, just take it,’ he said, revealing his refreshingly unfettered approach to the concept of material possession and which goes a long way to explain the tiny swallow tattooed on his hand.
Cutting through to Grove Lane we treated ourselves to a pint of malty Gravesend Shrimpers Bitter at the outside tables of Camberwell’s finest, The Hermit’s Cave, where you can pause amidst the considerable hurly-burly of Camberwell Church Street.
‘Have you got a light?’ asked a passing hobo with one shoe and a cracked smile.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Good, ’cause I need a smoke,’ he said. There was a brief pause. ‘Have you got a smoke?’
Fortified, and with a new friend for life, we set off along Camberwell Church Street towards Peckham.
‘Oh look, we’re passing the Camberwell Arms,’ I said.
‘Why?’ said Half-life, which was a fair point, but we pushed on regardless.
The South London Gallery (SLG) stands halfway along Peckham Road and is a wonderfully elegant art space with unexpectedly generous proportions. The main space was being used to display an installation by Isabelle Cornaro based on a classical landscape painting by Nicolas Poussin (him again).
I liked the idea – using pedestals to display objects in order to create a 3D interpretation of the painting – but in practice it just looked like a roomful of random shit left on boxes.
‘Someone’s forgotten to clear up,’ said Half-life. ‘I’m going for a wazz.’
The gallery has a cosy café and even a little garden, in which we were standing when a sudden heavy shower caused a flurry of excitement and we were forced to take a window seat inside and sit out the precipitation in the company of two bottles of Peroni Gran Riserva Doppio Malto and a round of cheese on toast.
When we tried to make a break for it the rain started teeming down once more and we were happy to duck into the Peckham Pelican, not 50 metres from the SLG, a lo-fi bohemian arts/events/bar/café on the ground floor of an Art Deco-style residential block on Peckham Road.
We stood at the bar, breathless, skittish, rain-wet and somehow still thirsty.
‘One of your oversized Alhambra sharing bottles please,’ I said.
‘And the same for me,’ said Half-life, the big berk.
When the sun reappeared we merrily made our way down Commercial Way towards our next destination, Asylum, an artist-run community arts centre based in the grand former chapel of Caroline Gardens, a handsome 19th Century retirement complex for ‘licensed victuallers’ (publicans, to you and me).
What could be better, we figured, than looking at some art in a semi-derelict house of God surrounded by the ghosts of boozing past? Annoyingly, when we arrived Asylum’s doors were resolutely closed, with not even a sign as to when they might open.
‘Didn’t you check ahead?’ asked Half-life.
‘Checking ahead is not one of my strong points,’ I said, aware that I was being pulled up on my organisational efforts by a man who hasn’t got up before noon in two years. We had a little sit down on a helpful bench and overcame our disappointment with the use of medicinal herb, before heading back to Peckham central.
By way of some compensation, I discovered while writing up this story that Google Streetview actually allows you to open the fancy doors and have a nose around inside the building itself, though this will be of little consolation to Half-life, who considers the use of computers an affront to evolution.
Near the Asylum is the Asylum Tavern, a perfectly serviceable old-boys boozer which we utterly and summarily shunned in favour of a powerful IPA in Beer Rebellion at Queen’s Road.
In the summer months a natural art-stop en route to our final destination, Peckham Springs, would be Franks on top of Peckham’s multi-storey car-park, where art collective Bold Tendencies displays artworks over a couple of the top floors, though of course the real aesthetic tour de force is the view from the roof.
Sadly, last year they no longer opened at lunchtime, which was the best time to meet a mate and lose an afternoon. So the next best time will be at opening time, 3pm, on a Friday, ahead of the hipster hoards flooding in on the Ginger Line. Franks is open from June 18th.
We did, however, stop off at Rye Wax, a subterranean annexe of the CLF Art Cafe at the Bussey Building, off Rye Lane. Here, to stave off exhaustion (and as a nod toward healthy living) we settled for a coffee and a sticky and 15 minutes listening to throbbing, tune-free deep wub.
‘This music’s shit-house,’ said Half-life.
‘I think you may have come up with a new genre,’ I said.
As we were passing, it seemed rude not to look in at the Brick Brewery, where we surprised owner, Ian, by coming in his back entrance. After flirting with a pint of delicious Sir Thomas Gardyner session ale we went full out for a 7.3% monster classic, the name of which, perhaps understandably, I was unable to recollect until calling on the power of Twitter some days later. (It was a special edition Pioneer IPA.)
‘Now, this is art,’ said Half-life, taking another draught and spilling some down his cardigan.
We crossed the yard to Peckham Springs (sister venue of Peckham original, the one and only, Bar Story) which offers art + booze on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Picking up a couple of Curious IPAs in the roomy rail-arch bar, we took a seat at a table with a sign warning that it was later ‘Reserved for Octavia’. It quickly became apparent, as the room filled with young women clutching two drinks apiece, that the main draw was the happy hour cocktails which we had somehow neglected to spot on the drinks boards.
We returned to the bar for two expertly put together whisky sours and took them next door where we sat and considered our mortality in Memento Mori, a photography exhibition which was hanging in the small adjacent Sassoon Gallery and which was accompanied by a stark, ambient soundtrack, to which Half-life for some reason started humming.
‘Your singing is my bleedin’ memento mori,’ I said. ‘Preferably immediately.’
‘You’ll miss me when you’re gone,’ he said, and lit a doobie.
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See also: South London Arts Holes 1