Anyone who’s ever lived in Herne Hill knows that to the wider population the words “Herne Hill” probably sounds like something Charlie Brown’s teacher would say. There are places in London that the Tube does not reach. You might even know people who live in these godforsaken black holes, though chances are you haven’t seen them in months, possibly years, because it’s just too much fucking effort and they might even be dead for all you know. Herne Hill is one of those places. It always needed to be followed by a “You know, the bit near Brixton with the park. The grumpy old man on the miniature train. The Lido? The Velodrome? That thing with the bikes.” Ohhhh, they’d say. They’d never ventured that far away from the tube station. And who can blame them. It’s at least a five minute walk.
I lived there for about three years, more or less. Herne Hill is like a little country village, with all the curtain twitching that implies. Try as you might to avoid it, you can’t help getting to know people. You can’t walk down the street without waving at the butcher, the baker, the, uh, embarrassing number of bartenders with whom you’re on first name basis. Simply by living in this place no one north of the river will ever visit, you become Local in the League of Gentlemen sense of the word. You know that if a non-local walks into the pub, The Law decrees you must re-enact that scene from An American Werewolf in London. Everyone knows what you’re up to. If you order an Indian takeaway thrice in one week, the same one-eyed delivery guy will raise an eyebrow at you as stand in your doorway, rifling through your wallet for some cash, never having managed in the space of an entire day to don something other than your pajamas. If you need to buy something embarrassing from the chemist, you bloody well do it in Brixton or you’ll get asked about your condition whilst considering your options in the biscuit aisle at Sainsburys.
Living as I was in a flat above a shop at the corner of the octopus-like intersection, I got to survey the whole village from my lofty perch. This was helped by the fact that one side of my flat consisted of mostly nine-foot tall windows which opened out onto a convenient ledge large enough to sit on, dangling your beslippered feet in the air above the real estate agent’s neon sign. Directly across the road was the Half Moon, a massive old Victorian pub with a boxing school on its first floor. For the first five minutes of the class you could watch men punching each other’s lights out, until the windows fogged up from manly exertion and obscured the show. From our window we would umpire less athletic fights over imagined slights in the beer garden below, charter the gradual decline of local alcoholics, and keep watch to see if we’d be accosted by one of the mentally deranged members of our happy society should we step out of the flat momentarily to buy a newspaper.
Such members included Coin Toss, named as such because he had exactly the same unfortunate hair as Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, which he brushed, slowly, every day for five hours. Then there was Veg Aisle, my favourite, a rotund waistcoated nut who would regale himself with anecdotes in the mirror of the vegetable aisle at Sainsburys, pausing before delivering the punchline for full comedic effect. “So I said to him, I said…” Big laughs all round from him and his reflection. I once said hello to him, partly to see what he would do but mostly to obtain access to the parsnips. He leapt a clear foot off the ground and said conspiratorially to his mirror, “She’s talking to us.” From my window I learned that some well-meaning functionary had actually granted him license to ride a scooter, which he did, frequently, in a helmet four sizes too small with the straps horizontal behind him. And as he sped past, cars screeching to a halt in his oblivious wake, you could still see him mouthing the words, “So I said to him, I said…”
I’d been living in the flat a full two weeks, and had already confirmed that our window was not a one-way mirror like they have on the telly. Occasionally one had to creep from the shower to the front room in order to obtain underpants from the washing line which, due to the placement of ancient radiators, was pushed up against the enormous window. Inevitably, towel mishaps would result in an uproarious “WAHEY!” from the beer garden below. The only correct response to such things is a Royal smile and wave. I was on the phone telling my no doubt proud father about my naked introduction to the community when he said, “Where’d you say you live again?”
“Herne Hill. It’s the bit near Brixton with the park.”
“I think that pub’s in From Hell,” he said, referring to his enormous burglar-stunning brick of a graphic novel about Jack the Ripper.
I flipped through the book to bit where Netley’s driving Gull around London, and Gull’s going on about magic and gods and symbols. It’s the so-called “heavy-going” part with no murders and (unlike my front room) zero tits, the bit where many people stick the bookmark in and never return. There on page 24 of Chapter 4, was the view from my window, behind the silhouette of a horse and carriage and a speech bubble saying something about Herne the Hunter. In his own journey around London to gather reference images for my Dad, its author Alan Moore would have stood on my doorstep some twenty years before I did. When I later told him this he replied, “It’s written in the stars, ‘Ayley, it’s written in the stars.”
I was kind of into this weird villagey place, given that astrologically the hairy Wizard of England figured I was supposed to end up there. The fact that the guy who wrote the Fu Manchu novels used to live round the corner, or that Roddy McDowell of Planet of the Apes grew up there was an unexpected bonus that rather annoyingly impressed very few, unlike our other, less dead, celebrity neighbours. I saw a couple of them out my window, like Paul McGann who brazenly leaves a trail of steaming dog turds after failing to clean up after his King Charles Spaniel. The eagle-eyed viewer may also note that he doesn’t even bring a plastic bag along for show, thereby giving the illusion of good intention like everyone else does. James Nesbitt, otherwise known as “my neighbour Jimmy,” picks up after his pooch with the deft hand of a dogshit master. Many times I’ve seen him stoop down with the plastic bag up to his elbow as he nimbly negotiates the task quite literally at hand.
One morning while still recovering from the kind of cold you doubt you’ll ever come back from, I was waiting for the overground train on Platform 2 at Herne Hill Station. I spied my neighbour Jimmy there too. Things were not going well in the land of trains and already three had been cancelled, but we were promised another in two minutes time, onto which three-trains-worth of people were hoping to cram. Nesbitt was obviously unused to commuting in such conditions as the man had bought himself a tea in a polystyrene cup. I stood next to him on the verge of saying hello, perhaps complimenting him on his poop-scoopin’ abilities, but mostly wondering what the hell he was doing in that salmon pink shirt. Did his wife buy it for him? From my window I had observed him meekly trailing behind her as she strode paces ahead of him, stopping only to bark orders back at him about running home to fetch the daughter’s sandals, or an umbrella. Was this salmon pink shirt some sort of revenge on the part of the wife? I was still thinking about it (perhaps it’s for a role?) when we crammed onto the train together and I found myself face to face with him, his polystyrene cup of tea sandwiched between us. There were perhaps two inches between his nose and mine when it became apparent that I needed to sneeze. I tried to make it go away by ignoring it. I scrunched up my face and held my breath. I buried my face in my shoulder. I did all of this two inches from James Nesbitt’s face to no avail. It was coming. My best bet, I resolved, was to sneeze with my mouth shut, if such a thing was possible. A bit like drivers attempting to sneeze with their eyes open though I’ve never once seen that work.
It came. It was a sneeze of such force that had I been in a room on my own I probably would have had to have a sit down afterwards. I successfully kept my mouth closed though the knock-on effect was something which can only be described as an implosion. While not a whisper of sneeze escaped my lips I was thrown forward with such force that the polystyrene cup of tea wedged between our respective chests snapped in twain and Mr Nesbitt’s salmon pink shirt was salmon pink no more; a freeze-frame of two mortified parties in carriage three. “Och, Jesus!” he said, as I turned tuna scarlet.