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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Mud, grass, more mud: a storm in Clapham Common's dirty SW4 festival teacup

Oh, think of the joys of dancing to Fat Boy Slim or whoever in all this glorious mud….just another pic of
Clapham Common post-South West Four festival 2015

As usual,  complaints about the impact on Clapham Common of the annual and increasingly popular dance music festival, South West Four, have been coming in thick and fast, with the Friends of Clapham Common making their annual protest along with the Open Spaces Society.

For the second year running the massive pills, balloons and pilsner fest coincided with August bank holiday torrential downpours. As a result, a month later, the common still bears the scars of this two-day event, attended by thousands buyers of what strike me as very pricey tickets for dancing to a bunch of ageing djs with an admittedly very big hi-fi system and lots of mud.

Not unusually I am in two minds about the whole goddam quagmire fiasco.

Yeah, right - remember this you oiks!
I usually like the idea of this Common - which , let's face it, is a pretty unlovely patch of NOrth Surrey sediment - being used for music events, however big. While I'm personally not that much into electronic dance music, and do not have much love all its millionaire club DJ superstars, and its crowds of screeching 18-25 year olds with their tangerine-tan legs and their floral wellies,  well, it's all too young for me obviously, much but then, it is a well established event. And grass does grow back. And the fireworks at the end were nice.

I'd be a filthy hypocrite to condemn this lot. I couldn't believe my luck when within a few months of moving into this area I got to see the best and most beautiful soul-jazz singer of recent times - Sade - at a huge free Anti-Apartheid concert on the Common.

This event, in June 1986,  was huge, and yet surprisingly little remembered. Apart from Sade, we had the ubiquitous (then and now) Billy Bragg, but so far as I remember there were also appearances by Culture Club and the late Gil Scott Heron…but maybe I am misremembering. There were so many of these events in those days of GLC vs Thatcher.

Later on there was a series of smaller GLC-sponsored gigs at the bandstand, where I was lucky enough to see  Dr John and Desmond Dekker amongst others (I have the photos to prove this!) I also have hazy memories of a big reggae event which I think was called London Sunsplash after the Jamaican events, as well as a good crusty thrash-fest with people such as Transglobal Underground. All, needless to say, were free.

Then in the mid to late 80s we had annual visits from the hardcore French circus troupe, Archaos. One of my many abiding regrets is that, in all those weeks of rushing to and from work, across the Common, back again, passing each time all these wonderful Archaos people, their massive tent-arena, their lights and sounds and their outlandish vehicles (I remember a big old Citroen covered in a sort of thick plaster crust of shellfish…but maybe I was just drunk that day)…hesitating, breathing it all in, and then off I went, back to my domestic joy.

Many if not all of these events elicited hostile responses from the Clapham Society and the FOCC, and so I developed a dislike for them. It seemed they were a bunch of privileged residents, probably living in those gorgeous houses lining the north and west sides of the Common, of a certain age and class, and perhaps they did not like their rus-in-urbe bliss being smashed into by all these smelly left-wing oiks…and indeed they still don't.

Another delightful aspect of those days were the summer Sunday Latin American football fiestas on the  cinder-dirt pitches up by the South Circular. Even if, like me , you didn't care much about football, you would be drawn to walk along those paths near these pitches, where the open-air feasts were getting going, the smoke of the barbecues and the improvised grills, the drumming, big family groups seeming to follow a deeply compulsive choreography, the Latino or Brazilian or Cuban or whatever music was thumping  out of various ghetto blasters, people seemed so happy, whoever was winning!

These people have long since shifted across to the new Burgess Park in SE1, so much closer to the heart of their community. Now the Common is infested by (sort of) poor rich kids from the SW London commuter belt. Ok, plenty of them continue the fine traditions of Sunday afternoon soccer.

But these days, every day, they are outnumbered by the fashionable runners  (jogging seems to have gone well out - "I do not jog, I run!" ). Then there are the big, sad groups of post-work or Saturday morning fitness-seekers, they are being shouted at by some fat ex-squaddie bastard charging £30 an hour to bully them out of their cellulite. Sometimes all you can see is a sea of rippling dayglo lycra. Bottoms up, dears.

I can't say I like Clapham Common as an open space. As one lifelong local told me, it is without doubt one of the filthiest places in the UK.  I think that's inevitable: here it is, open and unguarded,  24 hours a day, surrounded by …well, all of south London's residential streets. People do things here, they dump things here. In the warm months they more or less live here. It's dull, but it is a real common.

If it can remain truly common I will continue to love it for that virtue. It must be a place where anyone can do whatever they want, more or less within the law….OK, less.

So there it is. The first memory I have of the Common is on school trips to the West End, for theatre or museums or whatever. Crossing the Common on the A24 was a sign of leaving suburbia and entering the city. If that's still the case, who knows…this filthy old bit of mud and grass and litter and stunted or tortured trees, and dog-shit, and stagnant water,  is still as common as the muck it is made of , and  that much the better for it.

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