One day in Clapham

The sun in England is a precious commodity, the people wait in anticipation for its sporadic appearances and bask in it when it arrives.

Its the first weekend of summer, the weather is perfect and there is a festival atmosphere at Clapham Common.

You could have blinked and missed the change to summer. In March gloves were a requirement for a newly-arrived Australian, the cold wind was ever present and it blasted your lips until they were dry and cracked. Today the grass is green, there are leaves on the trees and the blue of the sky is not hampered by a single cloud. England will give you an appreciation for the sun and its is quickly met by bare skin and soon, sunburn.

It’s a gentle sun though, it is just that the people here don’t see see it much, which explains their capacity to burn. On Monday morning I see a hideously burnt woman self consciously walking to work and I try not to stare.

I’m here to meet a woman and I’m sitting on a log behind the Clapham Common tube station. There are hundreds of people about and a drunk man with busted shorts asks me if he can use my phone to call the friends he has lost.

He looks harmless, but before I hand over the phone a judgement call has to be made: If he runs, will I be able to catch and overpower him? I decide I can and hand it over and he’s grateful. His friends don’t answer after four tries and I tell him that if they return the call I will let his friends know to meet him where they were last sitting. He calls back later and says he found his friends.

I’ve never met this girl before, but I recognise her walking towards the common. She’s in a sheer blue floral summer dress. Tall, slender and pretty. Her blonde hair is combed off her forehead and swept to each side of her face. She looks strikingly similar to a woman I used to know and who I have fond memories of and it makes me smile.

We greet awkwardly with a hug, but I went in for the peck on the cheek and she wasn’t expecting it. She’s Irish and I am Australian and neither of us knew that about the other before we met. We walk, its hot and she says she’s thirsty.

“I had a big night on Friday and I don’t think I want to drink alcohol,” I say.

“Let’s get a soft drink from the van over there.”

The elderly man selling the drinks can’t speak English. My girl wants a citrus flavoured soft drink, but there are none and she makes him rummage through the esky to find the coldest drink.

“I don’t think he liked me.”

“Doesn’t matter, he should have had a cold drink.”

“The sign does say ‘cold drinks’.”

We sit beneath a tree in the shade and talk for two hours. My first day without booze was easy.


Drinking on the corner with Poles

The sheer scale of my hangover broke my will to not smoke. I was leaning against the wall outside the off license on the corner of my street when the man walked towards me carrying a black shopping bag.

He offered it towards me and asked in a thick accent, “beer?”

“No, I had too many last night, I couldn’t do a beer today.”

He looked confused. “Have a beer”.

I grabbed the beer out of the bag. It was a 440mL Tyskie, a lager I hadn’t tried.

“Where are you from?” I asked him.

“Poland. This is a Polish beer, it’s very strong.” He showed me the label where it was written 5.5% alcohol. It was refreshing despite the high alcohol content.

The man introduced himself as Mark, and by now two of his friends had joined us and we were drinking Tyskies together on the corner.

“Why do you have no shoes on?

I looked down and acknowledged that I was barefoot. “I was quickly walking to the shop to get some smokes”. It was a bright and sunny day in London, about as good as the weather gets.

Mark was about 5’10, late 30s and boasted a small paunch, but he was tanned, fitĀ  and wearing clothes that had witnessed hard work – he was a carpenter.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.


Mark held out his hand for me to shake it and congratulated me on the place of my birth. I took his hand, slightly embarrassed.

“Why would you be in London if you are from Australia?”

I’d been asked the same question before, but this time it appeared genuine, rather than the half-smart way most English asked it.

“I want to see the world. I have a two-year working visa and you can only get it before you turn 31. I’ll head home after that.”

Mark was doing his best to understand me, but I was stretching his knowledge of English. His younger friend moved closer, he had a better grasp of the language.

“Poland is very bad for young people,” he told me. “There are no jobs, I couldn’t find any work and our money is worth very little – one pound is five of our Zloty.”

He held out his hand exposing five fingers to make a point.

“I find work here in London on building sites, it is much better here, but I don’t like London, it’s no good. I won’t be going back to Poland though.”

This lad was tall and thin, in his mid 20s, with shaved head and the early stages of a patchy beard. He was wearing a ratty t-shirt, tracksuit pants and Adidas slip on rubber slippers.

“There are a lot of Polish in England?”

“How many Australians are there?”

“About 30,000, I think.”

He laughed. “There are two million Polish in England, our Prime Minister calls Britain an island of Poland.”

Mark offered me a cigarette, I took it. “It is Russian, very strong.” It tasted better than the Malboro Lights I was carrying.

“Do you smoke?” It was a question from my new English-speaking friend, I never asked his name. I was holding the cigarette, but I knew what the question meant.

“Yes I do.”

He laughed. The third Polish man was rolling up a joint. This one hadn’t said a word to me the whole time and it appeared that he was the worst English speaker.

“I very much like smoking. It is very good.” My young friend said, with a smile on his face. His mates were laughing and talking in their own language. “They say I smoke too much.”

We were still standing on the street corner, beers and durries in hand.

“In Poland very many men drink standing outside the shop.”

“I’ve noticed a lot of people drinking on the street around here,” I replied. “Especially in parks. In Australia most people drink in pubs, no one outside shops.”

“Yes, but it is only one for a beer from the shop, and 10 for a beer in the pub. I can’t do that, ten is too much for a beer, who can pay that?”

I nodded in agreement.

“But then the police come and you get a ticket and it costs you 100.”

The joint made its way around the circle and I inhaled two deep lungfuls and passed it along.

An attractive girl from our street, who I had seen a few times since moving in two months ago, walked by with her boyfriend and the three Polish men made a few catcalls in their own language and giggled like schoolboys.

Mark called out to another woman who walked past not long after.

“You know her?” I asked.

“Polish woman,” Mark replied.

His friend told me she was Mark’s girlfriend. She wandered over and stood in front of Mark, said something and walked off. The others were laughing, making a slapping motion.

“This is Mark,” they said, laughing, indicating he was ‘under the thumb’ as we would say at home.

Mark was embarrased.

“No! This is me with Polish woman,” he said, pretending to grind an ant into the dirt with his foot.

The smoking was finished and it was just Mark and I again after his two friends made their farewells and walked off.

A smart looking black man parked his Porsche 911 turbo convertible on the corner near us and walked into the Chinese takeaway joint across the road. You don’t see many Porsches in the area we lived. There were plenty of cars parked on the street, but they were all
economical family cars and every second one had a flat tyre.

“That’s a nice car,” I said.

Mark looked at it, made a face and held up his hand waving it like he wasn’t sure.

“I like the car, I don’t like the driver. I don’t like blacks. The Polish don’t like blacks.”

He said it matter of factly, like he was saying he didn’t like a certain cut of meat. It was surprising, considering our suburb was predominantly of African or Caribbean descent.

“I don’t like blacks and I don’t like …..” he was searching for the word in English.

“Indians?” I asked.

“Yes, Indians. I don’t like Indians.”

I finished the last of my Tyskie.

“Well Mark, I have to head home.”

I thanked him for the beer and walked back to my apartment. I hoped I didn’t run into them again.


A night on the tube

Each carriage on the tube has enough seats for 90 people and space for another two dozen standing.

Fluorescent lights illuminate the cream walls and blue upholstered seats, clean as you could expect considering the crowd it carries each day.

Passengers are reading books, newspapers or electronic devices and many have headphones inserted to drown out the clashing of steel on steel as the locomotive powers on.

There’s a middle aged man with grey hair reading a book and he bursts in to laughter. On his third chuckle I lean closer to see what he is reading, tempted to ask about the book, but he’s engrossed.

Two French girls in their early 20s step off the platform and talk animatedly in their own language, comfortable in the fact few, if any, people can understand what they are saying. One has flowing brown hair, tied back at the top, but with the sides and back hanging around her shoulders. She wears circular reading glasses and a silver zip up jacket over a t-shirt with black jeans. Her friend wears a straight-brimmed cap and rolled up jogging pants, black hoodie and DC sneakers.

If only all the passengers were this happy.

There is more than 2200 years life experience crammed into this rolling tin can.

The lights dim and change colour, music begins playing from the speakers and beer flows from eskies hidden under the seats. People are dancing and at each stop new passengers are welcomed with open arms and handed a beverage.

People talk about their day, their loves – current and lost – tell stories, joke and laugh, then leave.

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Let me show you to your seat

I was boarding the plane to Heathrow, ducking my head and scanning the row and seat numbers as I was walking the aisle looking for my place, when a middle aged gentleman caught my eye.

The grey-haired old boy called out, “10a, you’re in 10a aren’t you? It’s here, we’ll get up so you can take your seat”. It was the window seat and they were in the two closest the aisle.

I glanced down at my ticket and shook my head, “no mate, I’m in 10e, not 10a”.

He looked shocked and slightly disappointed.

“10a is here, you are in 10a,” he repeated.

This was getting confusing and complicated.

“I am in 10e,” I replied.

The man clenched his jaw in frustration.

“10a,” he said, raising his voice.

I could only reply, ’10e’, stunned as to why this man was taking such an interest in my seating arragement.

This back-and-forth went on until a nearby stewardess heard the commotion, hurried over and looked at the ticket.

“It’s 10e, your seat is there,” she said, pointing at the seat I knew was mine.

“I’m Australian, you may not have understood my accent,” I said to my adversary.

“It was plain English,” the hostess responded, as I took my place.