Category Archives: Herne Hill

Ain’t it a chain? Pizza Express comes to Herne Hill

One of the great things about Herne Hill is that unlike many parts of London, it has managed to avoid contamination from chain stores, bars and restaurants. We have independent chemists, delis, bakers, florists, a greengrocer, DIY store, bookshop, butcher, restaurants, cafes, clothes and furniture shops. I doubt there is any area of London with as flourishing an independent economy.

It gives the place a distinctive character. You can gossip with the shop owners, get advice in the DIY shop without relinquishing your masculinity, receive and suggest personal recommendations in the bookshop, even get credit in some of the food shops if you’ve been using them long enough. You may pay for these privileges, but it’s worth it.

The only chains are Oxfam and the World’s Worst Sainsbury’s, which is best used as a short-cut between the station and the bus stop and left at that.

Until today that is.

This afternoon, Pizza Express open a branch in Herne Hill.

The site they’ve taken is incredibly awkward. It’s a large wedge, part of which is unusable because it is taken up by a bridge that goes over the top of a large – and hard to fill – lower-ground floor. It’s a space most restaurants would struggle with – indeed two Indian restaurants have failed to make it work – but which Pizza Express can make a virtue of – think of their odd-shaped branches at Charing Cross or Kennington.

The arrival of the Pizza Express behemoth has had a mixed reception in Herne Hill. Some retailers hope it will bring increased footfall into the area, parents are pleased because Pizza Express is excellent for children, but many restaurants and bars are worried it will draw away much-needed custom.

As they should be, because many of the restaurants and bars in Herne Hill – with the honourable exceptions of Number 22 and The Lido Cafe – are shit, serving mediocre food at over-inflated prices and reliant on the fact Herne Hillers have nowhere else to take their custom.

I like independent venues, but I like good shops and restaurants more. If Pizza Express’s decent food, excellent service and good value improves competition, it is doubly welcome.

But there is a fear. Where one chain opens, others follow, chasing the money, extinguishing singularity and turning streets into Clone Towns.  A redevelopment is taking place under the arches by the station. The artist’s impressions says  it will look like this.

But what’s the betting it ends up like this?


Herne Hill could easily go the way of Richmond and other indentikit middle-class outer-urbarn high streets. Be vigilant people, and support what’s best about our local economy.

The Lambeth Country Show: vegetable sculptures and celebrity scarecrows

My eager anticipation of the annual Lambeth Country Show in  Brockwell Park is frankly ridiculous. But there is something about this festival, combining sheep shearing and donkey rides with jerk chicken and reggae, that really works for me. It is great fun and slightly surreal.

Where else this weekend, for instance, could you have seen the Mayor of Lambeth stroking a duck?

For many people, the best thing about the festival appears to be the lethal Chucklehead Cider, which comes in four pint jugs and, judging by Twitter, will be responsible for several thousand hangovers in South London this weekend.

But I disagree. For me, the annual highlight is the vegetable sculpting competition in which some of the region’s finest artists demonstrate considerable imagination and skill by carving cauliflowers and potatoes so they look like animals.

This competition is fiercely fought. This year’s winner was a pineapple owl, and as ever, its suitability was hotly contested.

Work of art, or waste of a pineapple? Opinion was divided. Others prefered the baby sweetcorn and butternut squash lion.

Then there was this simple yet gorgeous art deco courgette crocodile.

While the carrot and potato python drew some admiring glances.

Congratulation to all who took part. The real winner, I’m sure we will agree, is art itself.

But could the reign of the vegetable sculpture be coming to a close? Many onlookers seemed more impressed with the celebrity scarecrows this year, and who can blame them? Check out these beauties and see what you think.

There’s honest, and there’s too honest

Spotted in Herne Hill. I’m not sure this is the best name for a reputable business.

Fancy a dip? Cos I bloody don’t: shrinkage, country music and David Hockney at Brockwell Lido

Although I am lucky enough to live just a short belly flop from Brockwell Lido, it will be a cold day in Cairo before you ever see me in the water.

Some people adore swimming. They embrace the invigorating iciness, relish the chance to strip down to their Speedos and take on the chill of the British outdoor pool, defying both cold and dreaded shrinkage (‘like a frightened turtle’) in search of their daily dip.

I am not one of those people.

I have never liked swimming. I don’t like getting wet, I don’t like changing rooms, I don’t like being cold and damp, I don’t like shrinkage. I know that after the initial ice-induced paralysis has worn off the swimming pool can be almost pleasant, but I don’t like the actual mechanics of swimming either, the hard work, the splashing, the water in your mouth, eyes and nose, the getting overtaken by grannies, the knowledge you are wallowing in urine, saliva and chlorine.

Slather me in seal fat and offer me the Queen, and I still won’t go near the shallow end even on the hottest day of the year. What’s the point? You can’t read in a swimming pool.

So, it is perhaps rather ironic that one of my favourite London songs is about a lido. ‘Springboard’ by The Arlenes featured on their 2002 debut album ‘Stuck On Love’. ‘Gospel Oak Lido is the place to be,’ sings Big Steve Arlene in this brisk, wide-eyed ode to swimming and love at a London lido. The sound quality isn’t great, but give it a listen here.

The Arlenes were that rare beast, a decent English country and western band. English artists have always struggled with authentic c&w. There have been some great albums and songs, but these are usually pastiches or neo-homages. There have been some interesting reinventions from the likes of the Mekons. But rarely have a British band truly embraced country music in all its authentic glory, creating a noticeably British take on an American art form. (A nod here to The Rockingbirds, who also got it.)

Perhaps that’s because country is too sentimental for British tastes, or maybe it’s because it’s not something we Brits grow up with – how often do you hear a country song on British radio (similarly, how many decent British Westerns have you seen)? But while imported sounds like blues or jazz are swiftly assimilated into the British musical tradition, country has always been the unwanted runt, something to snigger at, an American tradition we don’t understand like eating grits, going to church and being optimistic. Even country artists like Johnny Cash are celebrated for their rock more than their country, while the country influences behind Elvis Presley are rarely grasped on these shores.

The Arlenes, who were a half-English, half-American duo, genuinely adored country, and ‘Springboard’ oozes the sort of sunny outlook that David Hockney had to leave Yorkshire and move to California to find. It is a difficult thing to pull off in London, where the sun doesn’t shine all that often, nobody knows the words to ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and some miserable sods won’t go near a swimming pool, but they managed it.

I’m not sure where they are now. Their second album ‘Going To California’ – lacked the panache of their debut and the band disappeared, but I thank them for ‘Stuck On Love’, which I adore and listen to frequently.

So put together ‘A Bigger Splash’ and ‘Springboard’ and you go some way towards convincing me of the aesthetics merits of the outdoor pool, even if you can be sure I’m not going to dip a toe in the water.

See you at the lido. I’m the one who isn’t getting wet.

The funfair

This week, I went to the fair at Brockwell Park. I don’t have a picture of that, but here’s me at another funfair in 1977. I was not a particularly pretty child, nor a thin one, nor one that actually looked all that much like a boy. And what is that coat I’m wearing? But along with a photograph of me and my dad riding the dodgems taken a year later – me marginally cuter, he like the Brummie James Dean – it is one of my favourite images from my youth.

That’s because it was taken at the Epsom Derby funfair, where we went as a family every year. It is almost impossible for an adult to now understand how exciting the funfair is to a small child – the colour and clatter of the rides, the sweet smell of popcorn, onions and candy floss, the sheer thrill of being outside after dark – but this picture brings a lot of that back to me. It’s a pure pleasure, one without any compromises or guilt. By contrast, most grown-up fun tends to come with the feeling that one is doing something one shouldn’t, and will pay for it later, either with a hangover or an empty wallet. Or perhaps that’s just the Catholic in me talking.

When I was a teenager, fairs were still about thrillseeking, just in a different way. There were the rides of course, but now it was more because this was were you went to meet girls (or watch your friends meet girls, or watch your friends talk about how they’d like to meet girls). You also went along in fear/search of some real danger – the possibility of getting chased round the park by the semi-mythical Roundshaw gang, who supposedly spent every evening roaming the borough, looking for people to beat up. Such bifftastic activity has been circumvented by the organisers of the Brockwell Park fair, who have a ‘No Gangs’ notice prominently displayed and a police van on constant vigil. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. The parent says ‘good’, the teenager says not.

And it’s as a parent that I take my daughter to the funfair every time it comes to Brockwell Park. That’s partly for her sake, because she loves it so much, but it’s also partly for me, because I want to remember what it’s like to feel this way.

Here she is last week, on a violently orange airplane.


I read an article last week about the dishonesty of most funfairs, how it is impossible to win any prizes and the whole thing is essentially a tiny, tacky, travelling confidence trick. It’s very difficult to visit the fair as an adult and not see the sleaziness. But to a child, unaware that the coconut might be glued to the stand, this is paradise. It is wonderful to witness, but also slightly depressing, because it is impossible to share in the innocence, to see the funfair through an eye unstained by prejudice.

My daughter had more fun at Brockwell Park funfair than I think it is possible for an adult to comprehend, when everything is costed in terms of money and time. I hoped that when I went with her, I’d vicariously absorb some of her glee. And I was happy to see her happy, but I also ended up wallowing in nostalgia and misremembered romance. Is that such a bad thing?

This guy knows what I mean, or at least I used to think he did.

The invasion begins!

Magnificent Maps at the British Library

The British Library currently has an excellent new exhibition about maps called Magnificent Maps. I reviewed it for New Statesman (get me), and tried to focus on the sort of political aspects of the maps on display that would appeal to the generally Labour-supporting readers of the New Statesman, seeking any sort of diversion from the electoral massacre they had recently witnessed.

Diamond Geezer also took inspiration from contemporary politics with his review. He wins, I think.

The highlight of the exhibition for many Londoners will undoubtedly be Stephen Walter’s incredible idiosyncratic The Island, which you can study in detail here. This is a very personal and witty look at London by an artist. I particularly like the rather condescending but still satisfying comment he puts next to Herne Hill – ‘If I lived south of the river it would be here’. What finer praise could a North Londoner offer?

If you like maps a lot, you should also check out the hand-drawn gallery at Londonist. A little bird tells me that these may soon get a museum exhibition of their very own.

Le Garage: an art gallery comes to Herne Hill

Plonked on a prominent corner site on Dulwich Road, just opposite Brockwell Lido, is La Garage. You can’t miss it. It’s the one with huge floor-to-ceiling windows through which you’ll see an antique bath filled with blue water.

Le Garage is Herne Hill’s newest art gallery. It’s the creation of Alice Bailey, a Canadian who bought the building in auction about three years ago (the name tells you what is used to be) and then started to think about what she was going to do with it. A friend suggested she turn the downstairs space into a gallery, so that’s what she did as soon as she’d finished rebuilding the upstairs and refurbishing it with things she found in junk shops (‘it’s kind of random,’ she says).

‘It was a total accident, I just thought they were great windows and I should put something in them,’ she says, so she did. Currently on display (until March 28) are paintings, photographs and the paint-filled bath by pseudonymous artist Mei Ziqian, and Alice already has three more shows lined up including a photographer, a shadow puppet play and an artist who does embroidered portraits of characters from ‘Coronation Street’. After that, she wants some street art, but is open to any ideas. Drop by if you have something to offer.

‘I want it to be organised but free and organic,’ she says. ‘There are a lot of artists who can’t get shows in London, although I know I’m a bit out of the way here in Herne Hill. A lot of people have already contacted me after seeing this and so far the work I’ve seen has been great. The photographer showing  next is quite well-known, but she wants to do something different from what she usually does, and she doesn’t want to do it under her own name.’

The space is still not fully developed, and Alice is wondering how to use the back room and pondering about turning the garden into a cafe – inspired partly by Scootercaffe on Lower Marsh, where she lived previously. ‘It’s so nice living above your business,’ she says. ‘I really want it to be fun, because it’s a fun space, informal and  friendly.’

Le Garage, 115 Dulwich Road, SE24 ONG.

Honesty, reliability, quickness

I love these flyers you get in London promoting the work of African spiritualists. I’m not sure how much cause there is for them in Herne Hill, but who doesn’t want to ‘regain fidelity’ or receive the ‘immediate return of affection and of forever love’?

Books and charity in Herne Hill

When I moved to Herne Hill three years ago the one thing I thought it lacked was a bookshop. In Waterloo, we’d had the excellent Crockatt And Powell (now sadly closed) as well as numerous shops selling second-hand and remaindered book. In Herne Hill, all we had was the brilliant but not-for-adults Tales On Moon Lane, a children’s bookshop.

Fast forward a few years and we have not one but two grown-up bookshops. Rejoice! But this bliss for booklovers, has not come without controversy.

The Bookseller has the background, but for those who can’t be bothered to click through, here’s the story. Shortly before Christmas, Herne Hill Books opened near the station. It’s a lovely shop albeit in the smallest space I have ever seen, but with good stock and helpful, friendly stuff – exactly what an independent should be like. It did well before Christmas and was seen as a welcome and overdue addition to the area.

Then, last month, a competitor arrived around the corner on Half Moon Lane. But this was no ordinary competitor, this was a branch of Oxfam Books. I was delighted, the more bookshops the better say I!, but Alastair Kenward at Herne Hill Books was less pleased. I bumped into him last week while he was out walking his dog, and we discussed the problem, which boils down to this.

Oxfam Books are not like any other business. They are a huge company with all the economies of scale that go with that, but they do not pay staff and do not pay for stock, which gives them an even greater advantage over their rivals. And to cap it all, they are a lovely fluffy charity, so you can’t criticise them without being called an evil sod who steals shirts from the backs of starving orphans, as happened to Kenward when he spoke out in The Bookseller.

I have a lot of sympathy with his position, especially given the threats indie booksellers already face from the internet and supermarkets.

So here’s the issue: should Oxfam go about their business like any other company even though we have established they are not actually like any other company?

Should they, as a charity, be beholden to a higher moral principle, one that is perhaps ludicrously idealistic and impractical but which is that they endeavour to only open in areas where there no existing local independent businesses to threaten?

Or does being a charity mean they should exploit every loophole and advantage they can, because at the end of the day all the money they make will theoretically make the world a better place?

I take the middle view, with many caveats, but that won’t stop me using both shops, which in the end do serve slightly different markets- new and second-hand – and together with Tales On Moon Lane make Herne Hill south London’s answer to Hay-on-Wye.

Perhaps all three shops should get together and organise SE24’s first literary festival?