Saturday, March 08, 2014

Surreal in South London

I have had a very surreal adventure tonight. I was going to write about my lovely trip to the Hanna Hoch exhibition with Caroline but I'll write about that tomorrow. Tonight has nudged that out of the way.
Have you noticed that young people, forbidden from the streets and with no youth clubs to go to, now ride around endlessly on the buses, singing, shouting, ganging, commandeering the back seats and making teenage colonies to practice their slang and make plans? It's a wonderful new subcultural activity and I don't honestly think anyone can stop them. Three cheers for them! There they all were on the 36 bus as I went to visit a student on his placement. I can't talk about that but I am delighted that he is so happy where he is.
Camberwell has always been an oddball place. It's being gentrified by the second but there are defiant scrubbygutters and lit-up windows with broken blinds and torn net curtains that insist on poverty even though in some driveways there are very expensive cars and in others, Lambrettas that would have been stolen twenty years ago.
I remember walking through an estate; some silly pizza delivery boy had left the keys in his bike as he went into the flats to deliver a pizza. A young chap just hopped on to his bike and sped away, as brazenly as anything.
Anyway, I digress. As I walked past the park where I used to take my daughter and her cousin when they were babies, I peered across to see if Hook of Holland was still there. Hook of Holland was a garishly-painted house with concrete windmills in the garden, painted in blue, white and red enamel and with wire sails. Had it been housing-associationed? I couldn't see. Once, I'd seen a cat rush up to the front door of the next-door house and enter via the letterbox. On the other side of the road there had been a house whose front garden sported a set of plastic doll's heads on pea sticks, all lined up as though they were snapdragons.
As I was thinking this, I noted the stillness. There wasn't a soul about, no wind, but sirens over Brixton way. A thick-legged spider whisked across the pavement in front of me.
As I stood in the dark at the bus stop, a white sports car roared down the road and did a U-turn nanocentimetres in front of the 36 bus that was going to take me to the tube station. 'That was a close shave', I said to the driver when I got on, but my voice was drowned out by a tall young black guy who was telling the whole bus about Jesus in a very loud voice.
I clambered upstairs and rode past the big derelict church where I'd seen huge rats pottering around one night when I was walking a deaf dog who was more interested in attacking traffic cones than rats. There was another set of teenagers on this bus, a little older and more glamorous, and this lot had a volume-controlling teenager who shushed them when they got too loud.
As we got to the tube station I went downstairs. A white-haired white-skinned vicar with a dog collar and an ostentatious silver cross upon his chest was battle-testifying with the young man.
He sounded as though he came from Durham.
'I'll testify to you too', he flung over his shoulder, nose pointing forward.'I'm a prison chaplain. The Good Lord gave me the skills to do that'.
'Oh bless you and bless the Good Lord' said the young man.
'.... and the Lord gifted me with the blessing of poetry!' exclaimed the vicar arrogantly.
In his loudest church voice, he belted out some doggerel that included the line 'and when I am emptying the chamber pots'.
The young man was very impressed. No one else paid any attention at all.
They carried on in this vein, playing testifying tennis until it was time to get off the bus.
At the tube station, I played the scene over in my head as I walked past a brightly-lit hole-in-the-wall newsagents. It was the most abundant hole-in-the-wall newsagent that I had ever seen. Stacks of kitchen roll, mops, Kit Kats, chewing gum, were piled high and very neatly on the pavement, and a side-order of newspapers rather apologetically fanned out on a little table to one side.
In the station, I stopped. I had to take a photo of the shop and it's proprietor, an African man with a beautiful embroidered hat. I set up my little camera and strolled back out again. There was a lady buying something and I raised my camera as the shopkeeper vanished under the counter, getting something for the customer, I assumed. I clicked away as his head popped up, and I suddenly realised that he was hiding from me.
I thought this terribly funny until I realised that (a) he was probably here illegally and/or (b) he was scared of people out to get him.
The strangeness continued on the tube journey home; did I walk into an alternative universe this evening? I think not. I remember Camberwell as perpetually peculiar and there is something reassuring in the fact that it hasn't changed.

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