Common people

Fishermen, footballers, derelicts, children, homosexuals, cyclists, rabbis, kite-flyers, au pairs, dog-walkers, Cabinet ministers, skinheads, highwaymen, joggers, stand-up comics, the man on the Clapham omnibus, crack dealers, art students, Samuel Pepys, snogging couples...
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The Independent Culture
Oh, we get all sorts down here at night," said Jock Martin. "But if you're looking for the gay fellers, you're wasting your time. They tend to arrive about 3am. You can see them over there, wandering about." He waved a podgy finger towards the silent, silhouetted bandstand where the only sight of humanity at 5pm was a nervy young chap wheeling an empty pram.

Mr Martin, a burly Scot from Dundee with the prodigious beard and whiskers of a retired Victorian admiral, beamed indulgently about the nightly cruisers. They didn't bother him; he certainly felt no desire to investigate the sweaty claspings and sunderings that routinely disturb his sleep. His voice had that raised-eyebrow quality one uses when describing the forgivable oddities of other people - which, given the oddness of Mr Martin's own lifestyle, was a bit rich.

We were standing beside the Mount Pond on Clapham Common, south London, in front of his temporary home, a large green bivouac tent containing a sleeping bag, a gas heater, a portable TV, a small frying pan, an electric night-light and an irritable-looking white bull terrier called Gunner. Behind us, traffic thundered by on the South Circular Road. The reason for Mr Martin's encampment in this unlikely place was evident from the brace of sophisticated fishing rods that stretched their spindly fingers over the crepuscular water of the pond. "I've been here since last Friday," he said proudly, "and I've caught 21 carp. One of them was enormous - 16 and a half pounds."

I looked at him coldly. He was clearly talking about "Old Blackie". Down Clapham way, every urban fisherman claims to have landed - or very nearly - the famous Giant Carp of Mount Pond. It's a mythical monster, a real Ted Hughes carp, a piscine Beast of Bodmin, one-eyed and mean; they say it spits out hooks and breaks fibreglass rods as if they were Twiglets; they say it's likely to jump out of the water, bash you up and steal your car, if you're foolish enough to turn your back. I'd heard it all before. But there's something about the beaming Mr Martin, in his green zip-up fleece, that makes you want to believe him. If he told you there was a 25-foot basking shark in this dim little pond, one that played the theme from Jaws on an underwater flugelhorn, you'd believe it.

Because frankly you'd believe anything about Clapham Common at the moment. Ever since Ron Davies decided, on a whim and because he was "worried about the flooding in Wales", to go walkabout on the Common on Monday night, the place has taken on a mythical resonance. From being a rather flat and boring patch of greensward, it's now apparently a no-go area of Stygian corruption, a stew of crack dealers, muggers and al fresco sodomites, all them out to trap the unwary. And it's not just Cabinet ministers who should watch out. In Wednesday's Times, Matthew Parris, the former MP and parliamentary sketchwriter, gave a horrific account of how he was jumped on by two men in The Avenue and beaten until his ribs and jaw were cracked. Reporting on the Davies incident, The Mirror quoted an unnamed "police drugs specialist" as saying, knowingly, "There are several gangs working in that area who look for lone punters to turn over with this kind of con trick. The villains are mainly drug dealers and pimps." The Birmingham Post explained to Midlands readers that Clapham Common was now a "Danger Zone - notorious as an after-dark pick-up area for gays, who are often preyed on by criminals. Deserted by most pedestrians after nightfall and criss-crossed by roads, the Common attracts the sort of people and activities most would baulk at finding closer to home."

Well bang, as it were, goes the neighbourhood. How did this happen to my backyard, the inoffensive Common where every Sunday, from the age of 10 to 18, I went for walks with my father and sister, a cricket bat and a hurley stick in our hands; the Common where the Dutch au pair Corrie would take us for shrieky games of hide `n' seek in the long grass among the very bushes where the Welsh Secretary met his nemesis; the Common where we'd stop to watch the Polish wartime emigres playing chess by the bandstand; the Common where I'd stand transfixed for an hour, Sky Ray lolly in gob, as I watched the model-boat enthusiasts topping up the petrol supply in their tiny crafts, before sending them aquaplaning across the choppy water of the Long Pond?

It's a blow for modern Claphamites, too, to discover that their home, one of the comprehensively gentrified bits of the metropolis, is a cesspit of sleaze. For Clapham Common is a classic of London in-between-ness: an area where the posh and the down-at-heel coincide on every street. When I was growing up on Battersea Rise, our side of the Common was shockingly declasse. The air stank of barley from the Ram Brewery. The shops were basic - Midwinter the greengrocers, Kalsi the chemist's, Brown's the bread shop, Edwardes the dingy furniture store. There was no trace of style. The streets running parallel to Battersea Rise were a maze of terraces, the houses large but old-fashioned and ignorantly crammed together. Imagine my surprise when, on returning from university in the late Seventies, the place was being transformed - Polyanna's Bistro, Just William's Wine Bar, a snooty wine-and-cheese shop called Acquired Taste. Local estate agents started to speak of the terrace maze as "Twixt the Commons" - all the roads that ran from Clapham Common to Wandsworth Common had suddenly become among the most desirable property in the south. What was going on?

But Clapham has always attracted the intelligent middle classes, people for whom Chelsea would be too pricey, Hampstead or Richmond too smug. A surprising number of writers found it congenial. A wild place until the late 17th century, Clapham became a popular suburb for people moving out of London after the Great Fire. A stagecoach service started up, and an influx of merchants built substantial houses in the Old Town. Samuel Pepys (according to John Evelyn) "lived at Clapham in a very noble and sweate place where he enjoyed the fruit of his labour in great prosperity". By the mid-19th century, the marshland had been drained, tilled and grassed and turned into commonland, such that William Thackeray could write, in 1855: "Of all the pretty suburbs that still adorn our metropolis, there are few that exceed in charm Clapham Common." Shelley's first wife Harriet went to school on the Common, and Lytton Strachey grew up in the area.

Merchants and City gents would ride up to town each morning in gigs and stove-pipe hats. And as the railways spread, a new influx of Londoners landed in Clapham, for whom the umpteen terraces in SW11 were built. EM Forster, whose paternal cousins lived in a mansion called Battersea Rise on the west side of the Common, wrote nostalgically in 1934 about the decline of the area under the creeping spread of London. "Clapham," he declared, "once infested by highwaymen, turned first into a pleasant and then into an unpleasant suburb."

Its image has changed umpteen times since the war. Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, set in 1946 and published in 1951, fixed the place in readers' minds as the unlovely arena across which the nasty triangular aftermath of a love story was played out and where, in the rain, "the black leafless trees gave no protection: they stood around like broken water-pipes". In the late Sixties, when the skinhead phenomenon started in London, the Common briefly became a battleground: inoffensive night walkers (hippies were fair game, and suspect homosexuals and, slightly later, Asians) would find themselves pursued by a howling gang of 40 bald adolescents thirsting for blood.

The highwaymen motif persists. No matter how grand Clapham gets, there are always highwaymen lurking in the shrubbery: robberies, sexual assault, drugs.

You can see it as the result of a clash between SW11 (which means Battersea, Clapham Junction, Northcote Road market - the essence of Sarf Lunnen grot - and the "Twixt-the-Commons" gang) and SW4 (which means Clapham Old Town, Clapham High Street, the three Tube stations into the heart of town, the gateway to Wimbledon and the heartland of Surrey). Within both areas, there are up- and down-market sectors, up- and down-market people endlessly eyeing each other. The smart bit of Clapham is now Windmill Drive, where a complex of luxury developments is underway, and the pounds 86-a-room Windmill Hotel ("The London hotel with a country feeling") is a far cry from the cavernous old boozer that spawned it. The pub's car park is full of Shoguns and Land Rovers and a vast, phallic, silver Corvette.

But some of posh Clapham has gone markedly downhill. The Old Town used to give itself airs as the intellectual nexus of SW4. Julia Neuberger gave spectacular 20-guest, sit-on-the-floor dinner parties in Orlando Road; Frank Delaney lived in palatial splendour by the bus garage; and Patric Dickinson, better known as "Rouge Dragon Poursuivant" of the Royal College of Heralds, had a pad near Macaulay Court (named after the historian Thomas Macaulay, who grew up there). All have moved on, however - and recently it's become famous for the Gents loo beside The Polygon, a small five-sided island of houses and shops, where the public lavatory became the site of a perpetual orgy of gay contact-making.

"The cars would start arriving mid-morning in the summer, full of men in tight shorts, and by lunchtime they were parked on both sides of the road," said a local journalist, Richard Johnson. "They'd even sit on the grass bank outside the church, looking at everyone who passed by. Every time I walked my dog, I came under this heavy fire of eye." Mr Johnson enlisted the help of the Bar, the South London Press and the local MP, Kate Hoey, and got the teeming restroom closed down.

Lavatories play a disproportionately large role in the Common's reputation. Go for an evening stroll, and you find yourself unconsciously noting their location and wondering what kind of Cabinet-level discussions may be taking place therein. There's one at the entrance to the wooded section, now barred and padlocked; another at the end of Windmill Drive, beside the children's playground where the sign for WOMEN is enormous, and the one saying "Men" is discreet to the point of invisibility. The only flashing going on around here is the red lights on the trainers of a small boy, pulled out of the sandpit and carried home by Mamma. By the bandstand, with its gaily-painted wrought-iron columns, the restaurant and ice-cream parlour (and the Gents) are closed down and covered with graffiti, and some dubious, narcotically inclined men lurk nearby.

Joggers in Air Nikes speed silently past you like subliminal muggers. A length of white material snagged on the branch of one of the shrubs in Ron Davies territory leads you into paroxysms of conspiracy theory: Is it a sign? A clue? A pair of Y-fronts? Up ahead on this lantern-lit pathway, a man is doing calisthenics, stretching upwards, leaning from side to side, then bending and touching his toes. Whatever he is limbering up for, I suspect it is not a game of leapfrog. Suddenly he notices me approaching and sits down on a bench, affecting nonchalance. He is fiftyish, East European-looking and edgy, and no, since you ask, I do not offer him a lift and a bite of supper.

The rest of the Common people are cyclists, parents with children and footballs, couples, joggers and a hundred dog-owners. Of muggers, gay opportunists or senior Parliamentarians there is no sign. What the people frequenting this suburban territory all share is the classic Londoner look - a tight, concentrated, slightly harassed intelligence as they hurry for home or raid the shops for meals-for-one. They aren't well dressed, but are far from poor. They're conspicuously youngish - late twenties, early thirties - but however well they're doing, they haven't done it to their own satisfaction yet. They live in a teeming suburb which affects a rural earthiness. They are stuck between two worlds, of bourgeois comfort and proletarian starkness. And at the back of their minds, as they walk through the streets, is an atavistic fear that it may all go wrong, that the highwaymen may be back at any moment.

10 pm. The half-moon is covered with gauzy cloud. The Long Pond is silted up with dead leaves. Three planes form a triangle of lights in the sky. Down Windmill Drive, two policemen sit in a van, the words POLICE and DOGS stencilled on the back. A hundred yards further, as if on cue, two men pass by with their own dogs, scrutinising my face as if checking a Missing Persons file, and make for the playground. On my way to a welcome drink in the Windmill, I pass a man and woman having a serious snog in a parked Mitsubishi. Through the bushes, a small green light can be seen, glowing by the pond: Jock Martin, Common-dwelling fisherman, watching TV in his tent and waiting, like everyone else, for something to happen.