Back in you don’t really need the date, I bought my first flat in a place called Finsbury Park Road. It was one of those bits of London that was supposed to be up and coming. It had been ever since John Betjeman’s Cockney Amorist belaboured himself about a lost love in the Park.
I will not go to Finsbury Park
The putting course to see
Nor cross the crowded High Road
To Williamsons’ to tea,
For these and all the other things
Were part of you and me.
In Finsbury Park’s case the up and coming-ness meant that all the brilliant little shops like the place that sold hundreds of different kinds of tea, the two Chinese tool shops, the two butchers, the vegetable shops and West Indian restaurant, the kebab shop, the Arsenal Tavern which definitely wasn’t brilliant, the French cafe you went to on pay-day, the greasy spoon opposite where the French cafe owner not only ate but where his accent became a lot more Birmingham than Toulouse, the picture framing shop that had to be sold, the place that sold massively expensive fireplaces rumoured to have come out of the Iranian Embassy, all of those places except the Arsenal Tavern went.
The butchers used to drive in from miles out in Essex. So did the veg shop guys who learned to speak island Greek, because that’s what their customers spoke. The picture framing shop had to be sold because of a Friday night. The owner got a bit gobby in the pub and said something he shouldn’t have to someone who said ‘say that again, that’s libel, that is.’ The framer did and it was and had to find £30,000 out of nowhere, or out of his shop. As he was.
The French restaurant, A Point Between Nowhere, closed I suspect when the owner died. He looked like a thinner version of Rene in ‘Allo ‘Allo, but totally without the charm. He combined what he clearly thought was Parisien hauteur with a patronising manner bordering on aggression, which is probably where I learned it from. If you had a ten year-old Jaguar and one of those orange wives with capped teeth and a crennalated cleavage you couldn’t get him off your table all night. His prices were ludicrous but the food was pretty much the best around for miles, or certainly around there, then.
What we also had which went away for a bit then came back, was prostitution. My boss at work had lived in the same street ten years before and told me how the only way not to get hassled walking down the street to buy a pint of milk was to carry an old fashioned shopping bag on your arm; apparently it was code for ‘I’m not working.’
In the absence of a shopping bag the message was seen to be ‘stop me and buy one,’ long before anyone had even invented semiotic deconstruction. That was the way it was. And it was a pain.
I got back to my flat one night very late and probably I shouldn’t have done. I dropped my car keys and realised I hadn’t turned the headlights off and got in the car through the passenger door and crawled over the seat to switch them off, got out, dropped the car keys again. As I walked up to my front door a point police helmet popped up behind my dustbins. I asked the policeman what he was doing in my garden.
‘We’re looking for prostitutes.’
I told him I didn’t think he’d find any behind my dustbins.
‘Ah no. We’re hiding from them.’
In the circumstances I thought it best to leave him to it and bade him a good evening, which behind my dustbins I thought was unlikely.
Someone left the front door of the house open one day, so several of us were treated to some stranger on the stairs asking for Tanya or Suzy or whatever other bullshit name he’d been given the last time he’d visited the house, before it got converted into flats.
When I turned the sound down on the TV one night I heard a voice from the front garden asking ‘do you want to do a tenner for some gear?’ which I presumed wasn’t the policeman back behind the bins again.
I looked through the shutters and found three women sitting on my garden wall. One of them was heating something in a spoon that she held a cheap lighter under. I called 999 and told them about the drug taking on my garden wall.
The police asked me how I knew it was drugs. I said that when people burned things in spoons and said things like ‘do you want to do a tenner for some gear’ I generally thought all the references so far were for heroin. The policeman said I sounded as if I knew a lot about drugs and asked for my address. I told him if they were going to send the plainclothes car not to bother sending the Vauxhall with two radio aerials because everyone knew it was a police car and we left it there.
You Really Wouldn’t
They didn’t want to do anything about the real crime. The same way they didn’t want to do anything about prostitution except hassle the girls who without exception looked as if they’d have to give you money and quite a lot of it, rather than the other way around. Obviously, people’s tastes differ, but they were all fat. The poor girl who waited at the bus stop and never got on the bus for four hours in February wore a mini skirt and no tights. If you weren’t into purple thighs you were out of luck.
In Sweden the government has done a sensible thing. Instead of hassling the girls they hassle the buyers, by making the purchase rather than the invitation to the purchase the illegal thing. Back in Funsbury Park we did much the same thing but without the legal backing.
Because we were fed-up with not being able to get parked on a Friday night, because we were fed-up with smackheads shooting up on our garden walls, because we were fed-up with women getting into the passenger seat when we’d just stopped in the road to reverse park into a space, because we were fed-up with having to get people out of our gardens when we came home, we came up with A Plan.
We didn’t have mobile phones. Or the internet. But we did have flash on our cameras, whether or not we had film in them, so we set that off when we walked down the street, pointing our cameras at cars that had stopped in the road for no traffic-related reason. It really worked. A couple of free flashes of a kind the Friday night motorists hadn’t been expecting and all the cars left in a hurry. We got a bit of what used to be called verbal from some of the girls about how they hadn’t done anything wrong. But neither had we, so we couldn’t see what the problem was.
Actually, we could. I don’t think any of us had any moral issue with the girls selling what they could if anyone was desperate enough to buy it. But we were totally fed-up with that happening in our street, in our own gardens. I didn’t want to have to get junkies off my garden wall. I didn’t want to have to deal with syringes in my front garden. And women who lived there were fed-up of it being assumed they were prostitutes simply because they didn’t have a Y chromosome or up for it if they didn’t own a shopping basket.
So we stopped it. A few years later the Director of Public Prosecutions was arrested for kerb crawling. Unsurprisingly, he never went to court, because in England once you’ve got to a certain position in society you almost never, ever, ever go to court whatever it is you’ve done. His wife said she would stand by him. She left him and killed herself a few months later. She came from Gothenburg. I’ve been there. Good cheese and a 1950s feel to the place, but bone-snappingly cold in February. Today if we’d got our cameras out and inconvenienced the DPP we’d probably have been branded ‘terrorists’ and been arrested ourselves.
But the past really is another country. It depends whose version of the rest of the quote you want, Christopher Marlowe’s (himself a man not unfamiliar with dodgy pubs in the wrong bit of London) or JR Hartley’s. The wench may well be dead, sadly. But they definitely do things differently there.