I'm a South London girl, through and through. Those of you reading this from other parts of the country, or indeed the world, might not realise the enormous difference between being just a Londoner and being a South Londoner. I know lots of countries have a north-south divide; with one half of a country deemed to be more prosperous, productive and progressive than the other. I know I've occasionally made an ever-so-slightly derogatory comment about my beloved's birthplace being in the north of England. But the truth is, in my heart, the north-south divide centers on the River Thames. All the good people live south of the river, the others, well they're just Londoners.
I'm fiercely proud of the few square miles where I grew up. Who needs London Zoo when you can feed the ducks in Dulwich Park? Who'd want a dip in the Serpentine when you might swim all day at Brockwell Park Lido. Why crane your neck to admire the Docklands skyscapers when you could gaze up at the Crystal Palace Tower and pretend you're in Paris?
None of my family still live in the area, so nowadays there's very little reason to go back. But once in a while, when I'm brave enough to take the car into London, I'll go slightly out of my way to follow the route of the no.3 bus, slowing down as I pass our old house in Croxted Road, and again when I hit the congestion of Brixton High Street. Then I'll remember the shopping trips to Brixton with my Mum, me traipsing around behind her while she did her shopping; bored, but comforted by the knowledge that we'd always end up going to Marks & Spencers for chicken-flavoured crisps and a packet of iced biscuits.
My first ever Saturday job was at Clark's the Bakers in Brixton's Electric Avenue. Wikipedia tells me now that the street gained its name from being the first in London to be lit by electricity. I didn't know that then, but I did know the different names for all the types of bread; from farmhouse to bloomer, split-tin to baguette. I remember the way our fingers got sticky from the cakes, then black-sticky from handling the money, and I know how horribly smug I was that I could add up the prices in my head while others needed to jot them down on the back of paper bags. I haven't thought about that job for years, but as I write this, I can still picture the brown and white checked overalls we had to wear; a bit like a doctor's housecoat, only nasty and nylon. I can still sense the feel of sticky fingers on synthetic fabric.
And when I think of working at Clark's I can't help but remember my first ever boyfriend. Eddie lived in Brixton, and on Saturdays he worked in Electric Avenue. I never minded tidying up the trays of belgian buns and doughnuts, when it meant I could look up to see the tall grinning Irish lad, selling yams and green bananas from the market stall outside. After work, it was so much nicer waiting outside Woolworths for the bus home, when you had someone warm to wait with.
Perhaps the relationship was doomed to last only as long as my job at the bakers, but it wasn't helped by events on the night my Mum threw a party, on a river-boat on the Thames. Copious amounts of free drink and the gentle rocking of the waves proved too much for Eddie and he ended up being sick over the side of the boat. It might perhaps have been ok, if I'd known before then about the false tooth he wore. The one right at the front. The one that flew out in a stream of vomit, into the river that night.
At the time I was mortified and even though the tooth was soon replaced, I could never look at him quite the same again. Many, many years later, with the benefit of hindsight and perhaps a slightly less shallow perspective, I can be much more forgiving. Who knows, maybe his nausea had nothing to do with the drink, perhaps it was the strange foreign air he was forced to breathe on leaving South London and entering that no-man's land of the Thames, the great north-south divide.