When I was nine years old, we moved to Peckham in South London. People we told reacted in one of two ways. The first was to remind us that it’s where the TV show Only Fools and Horses was set though not filmed (if you spend any time in Peckham you’ll find that bit of trivia out pretty quickly).
The second reaction was to be racist. This ranged from the reasonably veiled: ‘I hear the gang culture there is bad’; through to the they-might-just-be-old-fashioned: ‘Where on earth do you do your shopping?’, and on into the BNP card carrying black cabby who said : ‘You don’t wanna drive down the wrong road round there, you’ll be picking spears out of the paintwork.’
Even though a huge amount has changed over the last twenty years – when we moved there in 1989, The Attractive Bellenden Road Area, as it is now labelled by estate agents, was just a video rentals run by two men who wouldn’t let me check out Planes Trains and Automobiles because it was a 15 and I was twelve. Mrs Patel at the newsagent is the only constant, the lady who knows my dirty addiction to sour gummy sweets. Since I’ve lived in Peckham their shop has been shut once, for a week when the whole family went to India.
I was thinking about this when I saw the post-it note wall in the aftermath of the London riots. So many people talking about what they liked about living in Peckham – my favourite – ‘I love the chicken and chip shops’ – so many people coming together to create a vibrant record of identity and belonging and all of that wonderful intangible stuff that binds us together. And not one mention of Only Fools and Horses. In the aftermath of the riots, as in the aftermath of the stabbing of schoolboy Damilola Taylor, I seemed to get asked ‘what it was like’ to live in Peckham.
What I remember about growing up in Peckham was the guy who kept a hairy white horse in his council flat. He’d ride around on the horse bareback, with the traffic blasting behind them. I remember admiring the nonchalance, present in the hips and shoulders, of a man slowly plodding a hairy horse down two lanes of traffic.
Or I remember when I was fourteen and my grandmother came to stay with us for Christmas. She came with the proviso that on Christmas Day she be taken to church. So my father dutifully took her round the corner to the All Saints. Later he gleefully described a full gospel choir singing carols. After fifteen minutes of singing my grandmother leant over to him and said quite loudly, ‘I expect this is all on a cassette player is it?’
I remember the fug of fish, and vegetables and goat and spices every time I come out of the train station and turn left, past the tumble weeds of discarded weave blowing under the arches, catching the mangled feet of pigeons.
Peckham is the place of my adolescence, my first cobbled together attempts at dressing myself from the charity shops on Rye Lane. In the communal changing rooms at Atlantic Clothing, the first time I saw a G-string on a lady and how rude it looked. I wore silver platform boots, skin tight woollen orange and blue flares and directional bra tops in every colour. I dyed my hair pillar box red and then green and then electric blue like the wigs on the high street I couldn’t afford. At weekends I’d go to the spa at the leisure centre and slide into the jaccuzi between huge black women coated in coco butter. It’s where I’ve walked dogs on the rye for as long as I remember. It’s where I go when I need to go home.
Peckham has had its moments – pin pricks of horror that altered the way I saw things. One when I was eleven, when a man was stabbed in the neck in our local pub, and made it down as far as my father’s car, stemming the flow of blood by pinching together the separate continents of the skin of his throat. The policeman who came and held his head on for him in the ambulance, was the same man who came and interviewed me a few weeks later when a man in a yellow checked suit tried to drag me out of our front yard to meet his sick wife and his puppies and have an ice cream.
Living there has occasionally given me a frisson of danger like on my first day at a new and fancy school (I’d left the last one when, sure that my limp performance at school must be down to my being bullied and the school doing nothing about it, rather than me being a bit dim, my father called the headmistress a cunt). At the new school the teacher introduced me to the class with the memorable line: ‘And here we have a real live cockney.’
At a literary festival in a small town in Serbia last year, I got on stage to read a quiet piece I was having trouble doing out loud as it had to do with my parents’ wedding day, my father being at that moment in the final few months of his life. Before we read, the people hosting the event did a little mini interview about some aspect of what we had written. One author got asked about the nature of love in fiction, another about truth and representation. When it was my turn to go up on stage, they told me how Only Fools and Horses is huge over there because, ‘This is how many people here live their lives’. They asked me to do my best impression of Del Boy. They asked me to say Luverly Jubberly.
Photograph © Claire Shea