After the unprecedented disorders of early August – a rending of the fabric of civility on a par with the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths – it behoves even this column, concerned as it is with the plebeians’ daily bread, to name and shame the guilty parties. By this, I mean that small, core group of bodies who know no shame . . . But first, a digression, a wander across the grassy verge, under the tendrils of the willow that waves beside the boating pond – see! There strains the fat man on his pedalo, while, over there, the anorexic vies with her whippet. And lo! Does not the cacophonous coo-burble of the filthy pigeons scrapping for scraps lead you into that drowsy, questioning reverie yet again: why is it that you never see a juvenile pigeon or, for that matter, a hoodied crow?
This week, it’s park life. If you’re anything like me – two legs, gastrointestinal tract and mouth – I dare say you eat quite a bit in park cafés. I know, I know, the well-organised among us take the cooler, the rug, the folding chairs, the antique Victrola grinding out Chaliapin singing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen”, the ox tongue in aspic . . . but for those of us bobbing in the mainstream, the park is usually an extempore decision.
For years, I’ve had children, dogs or both to justify my park life – but I don’t think an excuse is needed. What is inexcusable is the hefty mark-up that park cafés charge for their provender. It’s as if, by wandering across that grassy verge, you had incurred a sort of al fresco premium, when most park cafés offer no better prospect than the aforementioned pedalo, whippet and willow, together with the dubious delights of fresh dog excrement – its bouquet, not as a dish. My local park, Battersea in sarf London, offers four establishments: a kiosk selling panini, tea, cakes and sandwiches, sited beside the ornamental ponds and pergola that are all that remain of the old funfair; another kiosk – offering the same menu – by the car park; a more plebeian trailer by the playground, which, when open, shovels out fat, white chips, hot dogs and other guilty pleasures; and then there’s La Gondola.
We usually go for the first option. In summer, the flowerbeds and fountains make it easier to bear the £15 price tag for a couple of toasted sandwiches, a brace of Cokes and a cup of Earl Grey. In winter, we gravitate towards the playground trailer, seeking grease to line our shivering stomachs – but what we never, ever do is eat at La Gondola. Housed in an echt modernist hatbox beside the boating lake, La Gondola would seem to be the best eatery in the park – its trestle tables provide great views of the Victorian rockeries on the far side of the lake, while its menu is extensive, running all the way from full English to full Italian, with an outside barbecue in summer offering grilled chicken, sausages and burgers.
As you draw closer to La Gondola, however, you notice the signs plastered all over the place: “This area is exclusively for customers of the café. Anyone found with food and drink not bought from the restaurant will be asked to leave”; “Please note: we don’t fill up empty bottles of water”. And so on, in a mournful tirade of officiousness. Then you spot the prices. Park cafés are pricey, that we expect, but £6.90 for a burger, chips and a scrag of salad? And £18.50 for a jug of Pimm’s? And £4.30 for a child’s portion of risotto? Time was when I would take La Gondola in my stride, figuring this was just the way the world turned – but then I began to say: “Nyet!”
Passing by there the other day, I thought, hmm, I wouldn’t mind giving La Gondola a shitbagging . . . but, being a conscientious soul, I went in to have a word with the proprietor first. Rafaela, who has held the lease for eight years, agreed with me: the prices were extortionate – but what could she do? The landlords were charging her £14,400 per annum to rent the hatbox premises and this was likely to rise to 18 large ones next year.
And who was this Rachman whose greed was forcing me to pay £1.60 for a can of Coke? Step forward, Wandsworth Council, which, not content with planning to evict people from their flats because they’re related to someone nicked during the recent émeutes – the sort of collective punishment associated with a Nazi occupation – also sees fit to try to turn an outrageous profit out of what should be a public service.