‘Have you been boffing petrol again?’ I asked. ‘What the frig?’
Often when Half-life meets new people, whether it’s an astronaut, or a librarian, he thinks: ‘I could do your job. Why didn’t they give that job to me?’ – a rhetorical question if ever there was one.
Lately he’s been seeing a Blue Badge Guide, someone qualified to lead groups of tourists around London, armed with obscure knowledge. Half-life devised his own outing – the South London Bob Marley Toking Tour.
‘He reckons he’ll get paid to chat shit about Marley, smoke trees and get free pints from stoner chicks,’ explained Roxy. You can see his logic.
Half-life’s tour began at a pub, The Brockley Barge, to be precise. Not that Holy Bob ever visited SE4’s ’Spoons, but there is a Marley mural, painted by Dale Grimshaw, on the side of the boozer (see main image).
Half-life didn’t know that a dozen people tried to attend his inaugural walk, because he was an hour late. By 12.30, most had slipped away disappointed. One rang our guide to complain and had the misfortune to wake him. He left the area in some haste.
By 1pm I’d had a leisurely brunch in The Barge and the only people left were me and Bigger Steve. Bigger only stayed because Half-life owed him some wedge and, being a big Marley fan as well as a laid back dude, had been persuaded to take this tour as part-payment.
When Half-life arrived he complained bitterly about flakey tourists and the impatience of people nowadays. Also, that he was parched.
‘Pint, complete me,’ he bade his breakfast.
We wandered outside to check out the impressive mural, partially obscured by Wetherspoon’s bin and cardboard collection, in a fitting tribute, not to Bob, but to South London.
‘Right, students. This is Bob Marley,’ he announced. ‘Drink?’
I had to admit I was expecting a little more detail about the great man. A little more colour, perhaps.
Also, why Brockley?
‘Brockley’s got street art coming out the ying-yang,’ said Bigger. ‘Yeah, got a festival and everything. There was a Marley mural round the corner back in the day, on the MOT garage. When that got knocked down the locals had a whip round for this baby.’
‘You can learn a lot on my tours,’ said Half-life, sparking up the first fatty of the day.
Half-life had boned up on his Marley though, and after a smoke, that information became available for him to disseminate on the bus ride to the next landmark, in Peckham. He told us Bob Marley & The Wailers were already huge in Jamaica by the time Marley did a UK tour with Johnny Nash (best known for the hit, I Can See Clearly Now) in 1972. Struggling to make an impact here they agreed to a left-field suggestion from a teacher they met in a Soho club to perform for his class at Peckham Manor School, now the Damilola Taylor Community Centre. They played an acoustic set in the gym, did a bit of Q&A and played football with the mesmerised kids. Weeks later, Nash’s cover of Marley’s Stir It Up was in the Top 20. The following year Bob and his Wailers would release their breakthrough LP Catch A Fire, quite possibly the greatest reggae album of all time.
The gym is much the same now as on that extraordinary day, but given that the place is dedicated to model behaviour, we decided to toke ’n’ talk on our way to refreshments at the Peckham Pelican, the unfussy bar/cafe/arts venue nearby, where Bigger treated us to a toddy that included Jameson’s, ginger, cardamom, orange and honey.
‘I consider myself livelied the fuck up,’ declared Half-life, who practically had to be dragged out, as often happens when he meets whiskey.
Our guide then took us to Battersea Park because that’s where Marley used to play football with the Wailers when they lived in Chelsea in 1977 and would meet up with Eddy Grant for a game. Marley had survived an assassination attempt in Jamaica the year before, which may have prompted his move to London, yet he still went on to play at a festival two days later, stating: ‘The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?’
‘That’s the motto I try to live by,’ said Half-life. ‘I never take a break from spreading joy, love and little bags of herb. Here, how about we nick some kid’s ball and have a kickabout?’
Thankfully we didn’t have to use muscle to get a ball. Some lads let us join in with them, but it became quickly apparent that we were better suited to the post-game refreshment side of the sport. Bigger and I struggled after a couple of pints, whisky and smoke, while Half-life’s liberal elbow use meant no one tried to talk us out of moving on.
The next step truly was a surprise. Two trains took us to Wimbledon, where we strolled to Cannizaro Park, near the Common. Unfortunately, Half-life got us lost at what later transpired to be 15 yards from the entrance to the park, taking a wrong turning and then, in trying to correct it, another wrong turn. We did stumble upon the Fox & Grapes though, which, despite being more of a hotel/restaurant than a pub, did an invigorating pint from Wimbledon Brewery. Restored, we trekked past the golf club and found an alleyway into the weird and wonderful grade II listed walled park.
The park used to be the gardens of the Duke of Cannizaro’s estate. Cannizaro House has been occupied by numerous aristocrats since and visited by great writers, such as Lord Tennyson, Oscar Wilde and Henry James before Merton Council bought it in 1949.
Like Battersea, Cannizaro is a park with a bar. Cannizaro House has been converted into the Hotel du Vin. The bar is beautiful, if a little stiff, but the Orangerie – a glass conservatory that looks out on the park, would be special in the right company. Not that I was in the right company. Half-life took one look at the coiffed hair and cravats of polite society and declared:
‘Fucking Babylon’s having afternoon tea.’
Passing the sweet but strange little aviary, Half-life’s pace quickened.
‘This is it,’ he said, ‘Possibly,’ as we passed through a vivid tunnel of extravagant flowers.
We pulled off the path into a sheltered little nook, with more flowers in loud bloom, but also thankfully, benches. And there he was: Haile Selassie, Jah to the Rastas; Emperor to Ethiopians from 1930 to 1974 and Wimbledon’s most unlikely statue. We sparked up and listened to Half-life’s talk, which he stood up for, like a Messiah, or an attention seeker.
‘So some Rastas reckon Selassie was God and others that he was just a prophet. The First Rasta was this Leonard Howell. He reckoned Haile Selassie was divine and had been foretold in the fucking Bible. Howell starts this Rasta commune in Jamaica then one day goes, “Hang on, maybe I’m God”. But he was living on a ganja farm with his 13 wives, so you could understand his confusion.’
Bigger asked about Babylon.
‘It’s corruption, it’s decadence, it’s oppression. Europe and America being a sack of cunts to everyone and not smoking enough green.
‘Smoking ganja is sacred to your Rastafari. They call it “wisdomweed”. I don’t know about you, but I get some of my best ideas when I’m off me tits – like my plan for a glass-bottomed airship pub – so maybe they’re on to something there.
‘The ganja is about as cool as it gets though as they don’t do alcohol, baccy, meat or some fish and they expect women to be subservient to lads, which is about as fucking Babylon as you can get, if you ask me.’
Bigger Steve piped up. ‘So did they dig the Bible?’
‘They fucking loved it mate. They read it and said “We are the Chosen fucking People”, just like the Jews and the Gammonites do.’
‘And what is Haile Selassie doing here?’ asked Bigger.
‘So fat fascist Mussolini invades Ethiopia in 1936 and Selassie then nicks off to Blighty to wait for someone to kick them out. Stayed in Parkside, Wombledon for a bit, before moving to Bath.’
‘Was he very God-like?’ I asked as we made our way to the station again.
Half-life told us he was very impressive, for an autocrat. A great speaker. He was a friend of the West, who pushed for a united Africa – lots of good stuff. But he spent a fortune on Emperor-type schizzle while his people starved.
‘He was shite on civil libs, to be fair and he’d happily have his enemies beheaded, so… I liked him. But he did die after complications from a prostate exam, which would make him the first God incarnate to have his jacksie area scrutinised.’
Half-life’s wandering plan started to make sense now. We went to Bob Marley Way in Brixton next, not in itself a remarkable road, but, now we had passed 4pm, we could visit the Sympathetic Ear, the smart bar run by Canopy Brewing, on Tulse Hill.
There we had a nectarous pint of something hoppy and snacked on irresistible beer cheese (a bit like Welsh rarebit but made with beer) while Half-life told us of Marley’s death.
Marley was one of the biggest stars in the world by the end of the ’70s. He had mastered the craft of combining impeccably memorable songs with words about his religion, politics and injustice, with the odd massive party rumble thrown in.
In 1977, the year the Exodus album made him a mainstream megastar, Marley was diagnosed with cancer. For religious reason, he refused to have a toe amputated that may have extended his life, but fucked up his footy. He continued touring and recording until it had spread throughout his body, when he turned to an ‘alternative cancer treatment’.
‘It’s just like alternative comedy,’ explained Half-life. ‘It’s not funny.’
Issal combination therapy is described as a ‘Dubious Treatment’ by the alternative medicine watchdog website, Quackwatch. Marley died, aged just 36.
The final stop of a thoroughly exhausting day would take us to the Crystal Palace Bowl in Crystal Palace Park, where Bob and the Wailers performed their last ever UK gig, in 1980, with Marley already gravely ill. The Bowl was the home of the Crystal Palace Garden Party, which between 1970 and 1979 put on Pink Floyd, The Faces, The Beach Boys, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton. In 1980 it hosted Marley along with the Average White Band and Joe Jackson (for £5.30) on its unique stage, which sits in front of a pond, right where the mosh pit should be.
The Wailers played a legendary set which few can remember due to the easy availability of cannabis in the park. Marley returned to the stage to do the encore with his acoustic, solo. He sat down and played the then unreleased Redemption Song. Less than a year later, he would be dead.
The stage is now in a poor state of repair, though it wouldn’t take much to knock it into shape and bring the party back to Crystal Palace. Bromley Council are currently ‘exploring potential new uses’ for it, but its old use would be just fine.
‘Let’s go cheer ourselves up,’ said Half-life, wisely. ‘I know just the place.’
Half-life led us to the park’s maze. Surely Bob must have had a mess about here? With the hedges standing about five feet six tall, there was no chance of losing Half-life or Bigger Steve, yet the maze still provided a challenge. After a few ‘We’ve been this way before’ moments, we stumbled on the centre of the maze – and the path to the escape gate – so it seemed only right to celebrate with a doobie on the benches provided.
We were now in perfect condition to appreciate the dinosaurs that stood sentinel over the park’s larger lake. They’re still a marvel, even to 21st century soaks like us, as they must have been to the Victorian children who saw them first. And the fact they’re anatomically inaccurate makes them less educational and more fun.
Gipsy Hill Brewery’s tap room, the Douglas Fir, sits mercifully nearby, so we were able to meet Roxy for a stupendous pint in a cosy little micro-bar. The Hepcat was the only cask they had on, amid several kegged beers, and when it’s this fresh and lovely, the case for the keg becomes less convincing.
Roxy brought us all salt beef bagels from Brick Lane, bless her, and laughed almost too much at Half-life choosing a lie-in over a £200 payday.
‘You’re a beacon of hope in a world obsessed with advancement,’ she said, clinking glasses.
It was a good job we fortified ourselves because we felt obliged to visit Beer Rebellion on Gipsy Hill while we were in the area and fuck me, what a hill that is up to the Crystal Palace triangle. I’d refuse to come down if I lived up there.
We’d earned one at Walker Briggs, Antic’s latest addition to SE19, before pushing on, happy to be going down Gipsy Hill, to the Beer Reb. More lush ale was complemented by our colonising the basement, done out like a gorgeous living room, but one with mates in it and a bar at the top of the stairs.
Roxy had one more surprise, insisting we visit the Railway Bell round the corner – a serious omission from our earlier round-up of railway pubs. There we were treated with tenderness and patience despite the staggering, slurring and spilling. Your humble narrator stumbled about like a fucked pinball, bumping into every obstacle in his path, and some that weren’t.
‘So did you actually learn anything today, Bigger?’ asked Rox during our final pint.
‘Fuck, yeah,’ he said. ‘Never lend Half-life money.’