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

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Photographer gets under the skin of Clapham High Street's Jekyll and Hyde character

This uninspiring photo of Clapham High Street is by me: to see this much-maligned thoroughfare in a totally different and much more interesting light, check out Jim Grover's photos on the BBC Online site or better still get along to his exhib-
ition at the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham, April 3 - 20
Thanks to photographer Jim Grover, the south London Babylon otherwise known as Clapham High Street is being shown to the world in all its glorious ghastliness - and even a bit of unexpected beauty -  on the BBC website.

 Jim Grover's amazing photo essay has been chosen as this week's  BBC Online"Picture This" feature  - a few days before the photos go on show locally at  Omnibus (the arts centre in the old Clapham Library building on Clapham Common northside).

Jim hit on the brilliant notion of treating his subject, rather like Hieronymous Bosch, in two parts - heaven and hell, and photographing them differently, one in colour, the other black and white.   The division is between night and day - cleverly working on the split personality of this singularly unattractive thoroughfare.

And he works some real alchemy with his camera: sometimes it looks almost beautiful, sometimes as sordid and threatening as a Mean Streets era New York. The real stars of the show, however, are the people, and thankfully there's hardly an upturned-collar rugger shirt in sight.

His daytime shots beautifully capture a suburban world of shoppers, street cleaners, mums, kids, shop keepers, rough sleepers, pensioners, commuters, itinerants; the same old Clapham set. These photos are all in colour, and are all taken on the south side of the street.

The nightlife shots are all black and white and are all taken on the north side of the street, focusing on the true inferno of Infernos, the notoriously tacky night-club, and that strip of bars leading down towards Clapham North. You don't get too much sense of the literal tackiness of this street on a busy summer night, when your shoes can stick to a pavement awash with puked-out Baileys, half-digested kebabs and a mixture of human and canine urine.

Generally he's very kind to Clapham - he doesn't mock or caricature it, and the yuppie-buppie-yummie-mummy-rugger-bugger set don't get too much of a look-in. They tend not to use the thoroughfare that much anyway, in my experience, sticking mostly to the "Old Town" area of max wealth, the plus Venn Street and the pubs around Clapham Common tube station when there are big matches on.

Jim Grover makes gold out of the base metal of this conflicted bit of Lambeth. There are many beautiful photos, even on the BBC site: I am eager to see more at the exhibition.  Favourites so far include some of the long-term shopkeepers and some very atmospheric shots of made-up revellers, and of my favourite bit of the street including the old Greek restaurant (Sappho) and that strange mystical charity shop.

I'm looking forward to seeing these pics at the Omnibus - especially as I have been trying to do something similar in words for years, and failing.

For as long as I can remember the authorities have been trying to clean up and gentrify the high street, to make it more yuppie-friendly. I remember when the Sainsbury's opened on the site of the old bus depot (and later, British Transport museum) - when, for a while, people thought this might be the beginning of an invasion by upmarket retail "brands".

Thank God, it never happened!

Instead it remains as scuzzy as ever, even after the building of that posh new library and health complex with its classy (but vandal-friendly) Andrew Logan artwork spelling out "LIBRARY".

As Jim's photo essay confirms, Clapham High Street remains a real Jekyll and Hyde of a street, a bit down at heel during the day, and an all-out alcohol fuelled war-zone every Friday and Saturday night.

It's rather quaint and old-fashioned in its way. It has nothing to do with the world of cool, arty nightlife so highly prized in places like Shoreditch and Dalston and Deptford and Peckham. It is totally uncool, unfashionable, and un-smart. And yet it remains incredibly popular, mainly it seems, for the kids from the further-out south west London suburbs. In short, it's a rite of passage place for kids with fake IDs.

They come to get hideously drunk in the bars here, they hope to pull, but most seem just to wander up and down in groups, vomiting occasionally, and shouting loudly to each other (I heard one say last week, "Guys, I really have to take a shit right here right now") - before tapping their phones to rustle up some sort of Uber car to take them back to dad's post-divorce black-leather-lined bachelor pad in Putney or Purley.

But, like so many other of London's suburban high streets, the real boss here is the traffic. Like the A23 through Brixton and Streatham, this is a trunk route, combining both the A24 as well as the A3. It is just too big a road to tame.

The pedestrian crossing lights are some of the most ruthless anywhere in London - you get half way across and they start blinking at you. Impatient drivers in their white vans, Audis and Aston Martins - they are  all in such a hurry. You run the last yards and off they go, heading perhaps for lovely gated homes in Nappy Valley, or further out, in Surrey and Hampshire. Heading north, they're looking for posher places to spend their bankers' wad of an evening.

They don't care that they are on Clapham High Street.

But there I go, fantasising again. See the reality of 48 Hours On Clapham High Street in Jim Grover's great exhibition at the Clapham Omnibus, April 3 - 20.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Bill. Thank you! So glad that you enjoyed the BBC selection and very much hope that you'll get to see all 48 images (and accompanying analyses of the High Street which I think you'll like!) at Omnibus. This is the final week of the exhibition. Jim