Tag Archives: Brockwell Park

Parks and pubs

I reviewed Travis Elborough‘s lovely history of the British public park for Caught By The River.

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Travis has previously written excellent books about the Routemaster and London Bridge as well as worked with Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly on their London film (which I’ve still not seen) How We Used To Live.

This time, his scope is a little broader – his history of parks begins with the dawn of urbanisation – but is at its most fascinating when focussing on the 19th century, as cities grew exponentially and parks were needed as never before.

It made me think about my relationship with my nearest park, Brockwell Park, which crops up in the book several times – for instance, as the location of the country’s first One O’Clock Club in 1964, created after an LCC employee was horrified to discover “ten howling babies in their prams abandoned outside Brockwell Park’s playground”, left there by older children who were meant to by looking after their siblings and were instead using the facilities for their own fun.

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Brockwell Park is a classic London park in that it covers so much of the history and present of parks. It was formed from a rich man’s land, given to the people for their free use – and within the grounds still stands the austere old Brockwell Hall (now a cafe) and the former kitchen garden. It was landscaped in the Victorian style, with bathing ponds and the kitchen garden made into a formal walled garden, but also has an Art Deco lido as well as more modern facilities such as the BMX track and a superb children’s playground. Here you will also find a bowling green and tennis courts, the remnants of a model village, a lovely miniature railway and the marvellous community greenhouses. During the war, it was used for allotments, barrage balloons and artillery; in the 80s and 90s it became the location for concerts and protests – most memorably, the 1994 Anti-Nazi League concert.

The park still has multiple uses: dog walking, jogging, football, kite flying, BMXing, duck-feeding, picnicking, woods exploring, head-clearing, ice cream eating. It’s where my daughters both learnt to ride their bikes, where they play tennis and meet friends at the playground, in the trees or at the log circle, depending on weather and mood. The park is used for community events – Park Run, film screenings, the Lambeth County Fair – and sometimes also for fundraising, ticketed events and filming, as Lambeth try to balance the annual gap in their budget, a shortfall that means the historic One O’Clock Club is now rarely open.

In Brockwell Park you have the story of all parks, but also a very local and personal one – and it struck me as I read Travis’s book that the best British parks now offer cradle-to-grave facilities but suffer from a similar lack of resources as the rest of the welfare state even though we need them as much as ever before.

The park is at least used and valued, unlike that great modern casualty, the London pub. An excellent history of local pubs – The Pubs Of Herne Hill and Dulwich – has just been published, showing all the pubs in the area that still exist and the many we have lost (including three on Effra Parade alone). A similar history of local parks would be equally treasured.

 

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Park football

I recently played my first football match for about a decade, so thought it would be a good time to revisit this article, which originally appeared in the Independent On Sunday in around 2003. This is an edited version.

“Can we join your game?”

It’s an action stopper every time. The match shudders to a halt as everybody sizes up the newcomers, two lads in Italy shirts with heavily accented English working their way round Regent’s Park like free transfers looking for a kickabout.

“Can we join your game?”

Well, it’s not as simple as that lads. This might look like two dog-eared teams in mismatched shirts puffily chasing a flaccid ball over a softball pitch, but it’s actually an evenly tied humdinger, a finely poised 4-4. Pick the wrong Italian, and that satisfyingly tight and edgy tie could turn into a 10-4 romp. And who wants that?

Welcome to the world of park football, when London’s green spaces become a mass of under-athletic over-enthusiasm. Just after 7pm, gangs of kids and grown-ups who should know better mob up at tube stations – Regent’s Park, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Clapham Common – and descend upon the nearby park to seek their pitch. Bags become goalposts, talents are weighted and teams carefully picked, and, after token warm-up, the game is on.

And what a game. Pitches are warped, with non-existent boundaries so that the keenest players will go haring off after the ball into the far distance; fouls are rare, with every physical challenge followed by an apology; headers are met with open mouths and closed eyes; teams are mixed in race, sex, size, language and ability. The only unifying factor is that everybody is playing for the hell of it. It’s fun.

This can change when you find yourselves a couple of players short for a decent game among yourselves. You need at least four-a-side for a proper match, so if only seven of you have turned up there are two options. Rope in a pair of eager passing Italians to make up the numbers, or – more thrillingly – challenge another group short on numbers playing elsewhere in the park.

Possible match-up are scrutinised and whispered conferences abound: what about them, they look crap. Don’t ask that lot, they’re wearing shinpads. Check them out, they’re all in Tottenham shirts – they must be rubbish. Eventually the challenge is thrown down, considered, debated, accepted, and the teams line up. At first it is tentative, nervy, almost polite, as you test each other out, softly sparring like virgin boxers. Then your opponents realise how crap you are, and thrash you 9-0.

In these circumstances, there are only two ways to lose: to some awesomely gifted foreign language students who score countless goals of great beauty and raise your spirits with their relentless exuberance; or to some ultra-competitive English accountants who celebrate each methodical goal with high fives and crush your spirit with their relentless commitment.

Indeed, it is almost terrifying how many cultural stereotypes are encountered on these pitches; stocky, tricky southern Americans who want to beat half-a-dozen players before scoring; willing but limited Scots; talented but retiring east Europeans; willing but limited English; pass-heavy Spaniards; clueless Australians playing rugby. All are represented on this uneven playing field.

Here young and old, black and white, join together to bond in unexpected teams. And, most tellingly, here are the Asian footballers that we are told do not exist, playing huge, joyful, eager games and raising the question why no player from the subcontinent has yet broken through to play top level professional football in this country. Well, they’re out there, in London parks, having fun with us and wondering why their role models all play cricket.

Bus stops and Brockwell Park: exhibition in Herne Hill

Martin Grover, an artist based in South London, has an exhibition at Le Garage in Herne Hill until Thursday November 1. His paintings are mainly of Brockwell Park, old record covers and bus stops, making him the ideal visual companion to my life.

His bus stop art has now extended from 2D prints into 3D sculptures/installation – in other words, he makes actual bus stops and writes strange slogans on them.

His Brockwell Park paintings are lovely. They are painted from sketches and photographs, although he confesses he makes a lot of it up in the studio, which is why Batman or James Brown might occasionally turn up in one.

Then there are the record sleeves, perfect reproductions of old 45s: often Stax and Motown but also plenty of country and Dylan.

South London Purgatory System at Le Garage until Nov 1, 2012. Mon-Fri, 10.30am-5.30pm; Sat, Sun, 10am-6pm. 

Six London landmarks in music videos

1 ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers at Leighton House.

2 ‘Wannabe’ by The Spice Girls at Midland Grand Hotel.

3 ‘No Way No Way’ by Vanilla at Brockwell Lido.

4 ‘Blood In My Eyes’ by Bob Dylan at Camden Market.

5 ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ by Chemical Brothers at the Natural History Museum.

6 ‘The Medal Song’ by Culture Club at Stamford Bridge.

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.

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.