The madness of crowds: Clapham High Street

It must have been in the late spring of 1982. I went down to London from Oxford, where I was at university, to buy a bag of marijuana from a friend of a friend who had a room in a squat immediately behind Brixton police station. “It’s a great gaff to deal out of,” the bespectacled little fellow said. “I mean, this is the last place they’d come looking – right by their back door.” Maybe he was right; after all, it was only a year since Brixton had been up in flames, the railway bridge was still black with soot and the premises to either side of the squat were boarded up. It seemed reasonable to think that the police might have had more serious things on their mind.

We took our bag – it was a big green dustbin one and contained about half a pound of weed – and sauntered off into the city. Even with this plastic-wrapped potential jail sentence dangling from my hand, I didn’t feel particularly paranoid – but then some things don’t change and, statistically speaking, we were the wrong colour to get stopped and searched by the Met.

My friend, who is now a thoroughly respectable provincial solicitor, suggested that we go up to Clapham Common and have a snooze with our grass on the grass, which we did. We then sauntered back down Clapham High Street, took the Tube to Victoria and got the coach back up to Oxford. The reason I vividly recall that day has nothing to do with the marijuana at all – obviously – and everything to do with Clapham High Street, because I remember thinking, as we trolled down it in the late afternoon sunlight, what a benighted and miserable stretch of road it was. It had none of the vigour and buzz of Brixton Road and on the way from the common to Clapham North Tube – where the commercial zone ends and the residential one begins – there can’t have been more than one or two restaurants and cafés and perhaps a boozer or two. As in Brixton, quite a few premises were boarded up, or their windows were fly-posted, and overall there was such an atmosphere of psychic despair that the rubbish drifting across the roadway reminded me of tumbleweed blowing through a western ghost town.

Fast-forward 32 years and here I am on Clapham High Street again. It’s not terribly surprising – I live down the road in Stockwell – and at least once a week I find myself metonymically riding the 88 bus and having all sorts of rather conventional opinions. On this occasion, it was the night bus, because we’d been to a late screening at the Picturehouse, and the opinion was . . . well, it wasn’t so much an opinion as an experience of profound shock: who the hell were all these people?! And what the devil were they doing – many of them half-naked – on Clapham High Street at 12.30am on a Sunday morning in January?!

I’m not so blinkered that I haven’t noticed the rising commercial tempo of Clapham – where there used to be a brace of hostelries, there are now scores of them. Indeed, along the stretch where once I toted my bag, it’s pretty much a continuous strip of tapas bars, pizza parlours, Belgian mussel shacks and Brazilian steakhouses; there are assorted themed bars and several clubs, including Infernos, which – rather suitably – suffered a fire a few years ago. I knew all that but what I couldn’t quite credit was that come Saturday night all these joints really would be jumping – but they were and there was no room on the pavements, either, so that the crowds spilled out into the road.

London barely went into recession after the 2007-2008 crash; last year, house prices in the capital rose by an average of £50,000, so that people who own property are, once again, earning more off it than they are from their employment. The visible evidence of this bunce is the crowds whooping it up in Clapham – Clapham!

While they swill their property bubbles and dance the night away, there are many other Londoners living in a permanent hangover. I’m not in the business of inciting revolution but a society that can become so crazed and decadent that it seriously considers Clapham a fit destination for a wild night out is clearly in need of a savage reality check. What next, the Balham carnival? Mardi Gras in Mitcham? As I sat on the top deck of the bus, it occurred to me that I’d become a one-man constabulary – after all, while I knew there was criminality like this going on, it had never occurred to me to look for it by my own back door.