It’s hard to believe that it’s over ten years now since I first found myself gazing out wistfully over the Ethelred Estate from the top floor of a house just off Lambeth Walk still part-owned by Lambeth Council and wondering why there seemed to be so many helicopters around these days.
It wasn’t the alliance with Lambeth Council that was a problem: they agreed to paint my windows every seven years, and I promised to take up arms in support of the mayor should war ever break out with Wandsworth – we were cool. No, it was the cultural and social dislocation I found hard to manage. For an East Londoner – albeit one whose maternal grandmother had caused shock and outrage by marrying out (my grandfather came from Bermondsey – or “across the water”, as they said in Bethnal Green) – south-of-the-river was a disorientating place. Younger readers, with their free bus travel, might find this absurd, but – ten years ago, times were different. Ten years ago, delivering a parcel was still called “parcel delivery”, not “logistics”; Boy George was still, as he’d mentioned in Karma Chameleon, a man without convictions; and “unexpected item in the bagging area” was just a safety phrase heard only in a few basement clubs on Greek Street which ten years ago I didn’t even know existed.
Still, having toted my stick and spotted hankie across Lambeth Bridge, I tried to get to grips with the trappings of this odd transpontine world: with the trains that ran above the ground rather than below it; with the unique one-eared, one-eyed fauna that terrorised the aptly named Lambeth Walk Open Space; and with the way entire conversations could be conducted using only subtly different inflexions of the word “Millwall” (it’s a tonal thing, I think, like Mandarin – to my untrained ears, and even after ten years of living next door to a pub, it still just sounds like people shouting “Millwall” at each other).
Getting my head round the politics, though, was another matter entirely. When the 2001 election was announced, and overnight every other house on Kennington Road sprouted a pristine royal blue placard – and I do mean placards, not just flimsy posters but big, wooden, all-weather affairs, like estate agents’ signs – I was bewildered. Of course, London is full of political mysteries: just what, for instance, has Simon Hughes MP done to the voters of Old Southwark to make them construct shrines to him on every street corner from the Borough to the Blue: can he really have incriminating photos of all of them, or does he simply pop round each night to do their washing up? But Kennington Road is in Vauxhall, and Vauxhall was a Labour stronghold – or so I thought. What on earth had made Kate Hoey’s once-loyal constituents suddenly turn their back? After all, she didn’t become chair of the Countryside Alliance till 2005 – back in 2001, we still naively believed she was a good person, and the idea of training mangy gangs of urban foxes to take turns staring in through her French windows, photos of the victims of Hungerford and Dunblane clasped in their soft tiny paws, hadn’t yet occurred to us.
And then I twigged. Despite being south-of-the-river, Vauxhall is actually very close to Parliament (which also explains all the helicopters): it’s where all the MPs live. Though not in ex-council flats, obviously – they prefer the big Georgian townhouses on Kennington Road. I’d been such a fool: that photo in Gandhi’s window of Ann Widdecombe attacking a rogan josh – it wasn’t there just to deter burglars, was it?
The odd thing is, you never actually see any of them; you only really remember they’re here when you stumble across a policeman with a sub-machine gun in some conservation area cul-de-sac by the Oval, or when camera crews appear outside houses in Courtney Square where (former) Chief Secretaries to the Treasury have, it seems, been paying a grand a month to rent a room from a friend – which for one room sounds pretty steep, to be honest, even for Courtney Square; hell, these days you could probably rent Courtney Cox for less.
So, I don’t know. I’m still not sure I’ve got the hang of this place. There was a piece on the news the other day saying that scientists had discovered evidence of crows using tools, but – that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to lend a jackdaw your floor sander, does it? And, in a similar way, I still sometimes find myself thinking that maybe the people outside the pub really are just saying “Millwall Millwall” to each other.
And then, one Saturday afternoon in May, something occurred which put everything into perspective.
Here’s what happened. I was sitting at the back of the West Stand at Brisbane Road, peering miserably through the drizzle towards the far end of the ground where a handful of small blue men from Wycombe were trying to put the ball into the Orient goal with annoying persistence, when suddenly we broke, Scotty laid the ball off, and there was Ryan Jarvis, thundering through the crumbling Chairboys’ defence like a wet blond god and, even before the ball hit the back of net, the chant was ringing round the stadium: we are staying up, we are staying up – and I thought: Millwall? Sarf London? Yer ’avin’ a laaarfff…