Soon after diagnosis my mum uttered the heart-stoppingly sad words ”This isn’t my world anymore”. Of course she wasn’t talking about Balham at the time but the life that was slowly being robbed from her, but as I wander around Balham today, taking surplus plates and old saucepans to the “Mary Portar-esque” charity shops I can’t help but be reminded of these words.
When we moved to Balham in the 1980s my dad warned that he would not see his children brought up in “this hole” (we were of course - big words, small muscle as usual). Prostitutes on the corner showing skirt for trade, children playing in the gutters (still not sure what was meant by this part of the story – like they were washing in the drain overflow or something). Neighbours with tatty clothes and half-wild kittens they’d swap for cigarettes. Damp, white-washed concrete streets interrupted by the threatening graffiti daubed on the pet shop’s walls.
But within the tattered edges was a colourful, characterful place. The Caribbean market with its exotic fruits with unpronouncable names, the tucked away Asian supermarket throwing forth its dizzying spiced aromas, and the flame-haired grandma selling flowers at the corner of the traditional street market, calling everyone love and signalling to the deaf fruit-stall man that “Old Bert” was on his way and causing trouble again.
And now? Gone are the corner shops selling single malboroughs for 10p and liquorice shoe laces longer than your arm. Gone is the russet-haired flower lady, the site of her stall now occupied by tables of overpriced wooden toys and other superfluous, but mesmerisingly cute trinkets. (“objet shit” Mr Milk likes to call it). Gone is the opera-singing homeless man at the underground station and the rainman postman who could recall a little too much about your personal mail. Replaced by artisan bakeries, glossy estate agents selling houses at unreal prices, asian-fusion eateries, Starbucks and Waitrose.
Where once was life in all its technicolour splendour, now are just subtle degrees of parlour grey. Cinammon and five spice replaced with hibiscus and lightly smoked turbot. Whitewashed concrete and shabby edges improved by brushed steel and clean lines and poor old Bert edged out to make way for Richard and Miranda and cute little Angus.
Balham isn’t the same for me anymore either mum. I think it’s about time to move on.