The history leaves some places unaffected, passing through them on the tiptoes. Nevertheless, there are always some stories hidden behind – even if it’s a story of a woman who won the battle with addiction or a ticket inspector conquering the West End like a boss. “Where to look?” I wonder as I close the door of my house.
The library is closed and I didn’t really expect that, so I pick up a local newspaper and swear, mumbling some words in my native language a second later. The feeling of annoyance soon fades away, though – daisies and catkins claim that the spring has already arrived.
“Nothing really interesting happened here,” the woman wearing a pink velour vest and jeans looks at me and wonders for a while. “We’ve had a turnover of people, a lot of new families are moving in here.” I don’t realise yet how these words will find a proof during the several upcoming minutes.
“So is it that boring here?” I ask, laughing.
“Well, nothing very interesting happened,” she repeats, stressing every single word in the sentence, “since I started living here, and it’s been ten years. Maybe some of the shopkeepers could help you,” she suggests and each of us follows our own path in Norbury again. I keep on trying.
“I don’t speak English,” I hear from the woman overloaded with shopping bags.
“I’ve moved in here three weeks ago,” another person answers.
“I’ve been living here for four months only,” someone tells me.
“I suppose I’m not the right candidate. I haven’t been living here long enough,” somebody tries to convince me.
I follow Beatrice Avenue to the church. And the first thing that comes to my mind when I see the street name is the question how people choose names for streets in Britain. Was there any Beatrice living there? And what was her story? With the sense of linguistic, historical and storytelling helplessness, I look around and notice a lot of interesting house names. “Casa Creatura”. “The White Cottage”. “What’s the story, what’s the story behind them all?!” my mind shouts as I keep on walking. However, I don’t try to inspect that matter – maybe that white cottage was given such a name because it’s, well, plain white? You will never know, you see. I turn off the sarcastic mode and I stop teasing myself. I begin thinking about Kingsley Amis – a poet and a writer who was born in Clapham and raised in Norbury. He once said that it was “not really a place, it’s an expression on a map; (…) really I should say I came from Norbury station”. Yes, he said that, I repeat to myself, and he didn’t even care that the trains were usually delayed! I decide to gag my weird sense of irony, even though I’m sure the best comic novelist of 20th-century would forgive me all those digressions – and I focus on his works. He managed to write some novels: a very successful “Lucky Jim” with “You Can’t Do Both” and “The Riverside Villa Murder” set in an environment strangely resembling the place where he was raised. Years later, he came back to his old house with the BBC filming crew and the new resident didn’t have an idea who the Booker prize winner was. Yet his sense of humour let him find this slightly absurd situation funny – after all, this was the trait grown in this neighbourhood, at 16 Buckingham Gardens in Norbury.
Finally, I stop battling my thoughts and reach another person on the street.
“Well, you can go to this pub called The Moon Under Water,” the man points out the building. “They have a lot of nice photos of Norbury from the Forties and the Fifties there. And you can always ask for a story,” he says.
The pub has its own atmosphere; I enter it with the hope that I can actually order a story with a brown bitter pint of Guinness here. A lot of old gentlemen sit around and sip beer slowly, arguing about politics and their lives. I join one of them, who sits here alone.
“So do you know anything interesting about the neighbourhood, or do you know any interesting people here?” I ask.
“I think I’m interesting, I’m a ticket inspector,” he says, pointing at his jacket with the company logo. I don’t dismiss any story, so I sit down, ready for some juicy tales from London buses.
“So I’m usually going as far as West End and Croydon on buses,” he says and I try not to laugh – as the start of his story sounds like a pamphlet of all those fairy tales about travellers from the far lands. Even if Oxford Circus doesn’t necessarily resemble a dreamy “once-upon-a-time” land, I try to listen carefully.
“There are older people sometimes, who are sixty-five or seventy, and they can go free on the bus. And I still ask them for the ticket,” he says with a smirk and I wonder why he behaves like that at work. Is it because of the power he has? Or maybe it’s because he wants to tease them somehow? I don’t know the correct answer, nevertheless I don’t interrupt. “And they don’t like that at all, but they show me their tickets,” he adds. “And during the night there are always those young people who don’t like to pay for travelling,” he continues, “but I don’t care. I will retire in a year’s time.”
He shows me the group of people who are apparently the experts of local life. “One of them is the taxi driver, and I know he’s off today. He’s a big man, but he’s a friendly guy,” Bill the ticket inspector assures me. I approach the group of the man and I repeat exactly the same thing.
“We aren’t experts, who told you that we were?” the taxi driver asks me.
“The guy who is sitting over there.”
“Which guy, what is his name?” one of the men gets into interrogative tone, but after a while, I manage to make them all listen.
“We can’t really tell you that much,” the cab driver explains. “You’ve just missed a lady that is interested in local history. She was here an hour ago. That’s a shame. She’d tell you everything in nice words.”
“Well, it’s my job to dress the story up in some nice words,” I say.
“But if you wanted to write a really interesting story, you should have a tape and record it all. You know, the friend of mine recorded the stuff about life in London for American schools… he had a camera and a tape for that,” the man from the left side of the table tries to counsel me. I take the advice without commenting on the obvious things and thank them quietly, going to the bartender to ask the same question one more time.
“Well, I don’t know who could help you here,” she starts, “but I’ve heard that there’s a story connected with the pub on the opposite side. Apparently, there was a man who was accused of killing somebody and he was hung, but then it turned out not to be true, something like that,” she says.
The powerlessness embraces me again, but I approach one more person.
“Well, not many people know that,” the man smoking on the street with the younger girl says, “can you see that shop? Over there, yes, this one – people used to skate there in the sixties.”
“Oh, how do you know that?” the lady looks at her companion and seems quite impressed.
“Not many people know. And do you know those slopes on the railway station? Do you know what was the use of those?” the roles are swapped and now he asks me.
“Horse racing?” I ask, remembering all the stuff I’ve read during my research bit. If you’re not in a hurry and if you tend to stop and read all the information on the railway station, you’ll know that the slopes were used for bringing racehorses down from the train. Now it’s the only thing that reminds people of Streatham Races from the 19th century.
“Exactly. And you know, the small river – the Norbury Brook – was one of the obstacles. And those streets,” he nods towards Beatrice Avenue, “were a part of the track.”
Trying to follow one of the older men on the street, I get the attention of a woman in her forties. When I explain what I look for, she instantly agrees to help me. We meet up in the pub that I visited earlier. Sue orders a cup of tea for me and gets a drink for herself.
“I had a great childhood,” she says when I ask about her childhood memories. “When you go up the hill, there’s a park in Pollards Hill,” she reminisces. “We used to go there, hang out, play cricket… And once, I remember I hit the ball so quickly, and it hit one of the boys straight in the eye. And you could see this part of this face slowly puffing up, puffing up…” she smiles to the memories and takes a sip of her drink. The beverage in the glass looks like grapefruit juice and I wonder what could be the purpose of drinking it in a wine glass. But I let my interlocutor carry on, leaving this question out for later.
Sue really loved her high school – mainly because she used to meet her friends there and on the bus stop. And teenagers in this area didn’t really have that much to do after their learning part of the day. “After school, we usually got changed and stayed in the park till six o’clock or so. There weren’t any clubs we could go to, so we just went there or hung out on the street corners. You know, when you’re a teenager, you don’t really care,” she explains. As every generation, the youngsters of Norbury were rebelling a bit. Sue and her sister always used to have a pack of cigarettes in their bags.
“And when my dad found out,” she laughs, “because my friend’s mum slipped out, he really told me off for that. And he didn’t use to smack us, he’d just groan. And you know, he didn’t really argue with my sister. And do you know what he told me? ‘You’re older. You should’ve known better’. And I was just a year older!”
There wasn’t that much to remember when it comes to parties. When they happened, everyone at school really looked forward to them. “There is that special party that I remember. Actually, there are two. One was on the way to Croydon, and there was that boy that I really liked… but nothing happened. And the second one was in Selhurst. There wasn’t anything in particular, but sometimes you remember that atmosphere, being excited for it… that’s why it’s special,” Sue states. “And then my sisters got married and everything has changed.”
Before too long it was the time for her to leave home. “I met my husband in Streatham Ice Rink. We were both working here – it was my first job ever, actually – and then he took my place,” she thinks back. “It actually went quite fast, we got married and we moved to Wallington. I got a job there. And later I split up with my husband. I wasted twenty odd years,” she stops for a while, “well, maybe I didn’t waste them – I have a beautiful daughter, she went to university… But everything started to crumble and it got a bit too much. I started drinking, I didn’t have money for the flat… and that’s why I moved back to Norbury.”
I discover the purpose of the pinkish drink in her glass as Sue takes me into her addiction story. “I used to drink a lot. Then I learned that it doesn’t really help, and I recovered. But I never drink indoors. I used to do that a lot, but I think that avoiding it really helps. My mum used to be an alcoholic too, so we don’t trust ourselves,” she explains. “I shouldn’t probably touch alcohol at all,” she nods towards the glass, ”but it’s nothing really, it’s wine mixed up with some fizzy drink.”
Four years ago she was run over on the crossing here. “I was on the road, and the car drove from behind the bus. He hit me so fast that he literally made me fly in the air, smashing me definitely… he left me there without any help and I’ve never found him. An ambulance and a helicopter rescued me – they moved me to the University College Hospital. I stayed there for six months. I wasn’t able to move, I was lying with my legs in traction,” she describes. That’s why she still moves around using crutches, what is easy to notice when she is about to leave me. I finish my cup, taking notes and looking around.
“I really love Norbury. I think that I will stay here until the end of my life,” she says just before leaving me, and this rare statement sets me in the mood for a walk.
I walk down the London Road slowly. The 109 bus to Croydon Town Centre passes me by. The lights change and I can cross the road to buy some oranges in the market. The afternoon slowly comes to an end. I hear someone talking in my native language behind my back. Somebody withdraws money. People usually run or stroll through this area to never come back – and that was the case with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer who was annoyed by noises from London Road just like I am, and Will Hay – a popular comedian from “Oh Mr Porter!” and “Convict 99” who was living in Pollards Hill. I get the feeling that it’s high time for some pseudo-philosophy. We all know that it usually attacks you when you don’t want to listen to your own thoughts.
Some environments have all those famous-famous people and big-big stories. However, there are some whose identity was built up from all those little ones. The history passed through them tiptoeing – and Norbury is definitely one of those places. Seven miles from Charing Cross and one thousand miles from the point on the map of the world where my craving for both unusual and ordinary stories was born, it may seem boring at first, but when you start roaming the streets and understanding how people live, think and speak here – you suddenly get sort of an enlightenment. It’s the same. It is always the same.
Keep on comparing and you’ll never settle down.
Can you bet?