By Stephanie Sanassee…
It is believed that the energy prints of historical events linger in the places where they happened; they re-enact themselves over and over again for eternity. If that’s true, then as I walk the streets of London, ghosts are everywhere, playing out their scenes around me. London Bridge continues to be attacked by Vikings while commuters shoulder barge each other on their way to work, and the victims of the King’s Cross fire continue to scramble up the escalators to get out, as we casually ascend to street level.
As I stand at the cross junction by Balham tube station, I see the German bomb obliterate it again; the mains burst and the water races down the steps and engulfs the sheltered Londoners that were waiting for the raid to be over. But with my 21st century eye, I watch people emerge from the building, solid and intact. Some of them scan about to find the friend that they’re meeting, some of them march forth up the road to get home quickly, and some of them exit the station with wonder and exploration of a little place in South London that they have never been to before.
I watch a train’s worth of young professionals; arty Europeans and mothers who lunch enter this tiny town now. But the reason I was raised here was because a boat’s worth of immigrants were dumped here in the 1960s. Balham was a great disappointment to those minorities when they finally set their battered suitcase and children down in a flat that promised a first-world living space. What they were given was a family room, intended to double up as a box bedroom, with damp and mould sharing the tenancy. Those beautiful Victorian houses were kept for the English families that were descendents of importance.
While that bomb hit Balham in the October of 1940, my grandfather was serving the war in Italy. Two decades later, he arrived for the first time in Britain with his wife and his commonwealth residency, sending for his children to come and join them here in the borough of Wandsworth.
I walk down the high street – the ‘Old Roman Road’, and I see a face-lift has taken place. Organic food stores encourage the locals to keep up with their diet and yoga lifestyles and two coffee shops have nudged out the old Indian shops where I used to buy my backpacks for school. The supermarkets were once low-end and sold family value packs of no-frill crisps and biscuits. Now a Waitrose has come to mark the new high-end status.
My mother, my sister and I used to come up here every Saturday. My mum would drag our green and blue tartan trolley while we struggled to keep up, loaded with plastic bags. Down the hill and back up again we’d go, every weekend without fail. We’d walk into Hildreth Street Market on our jaunt to pick up fresh slabs of beef for mum to make a curry with. I remember that stench of red meat and the grinding and screeching saw-like sound of the bone cutting machine. We’d wander through, and a whole range of aromas would tickle my nose as I hurried to make it out the other end: bananas and potato soil, salt-fish and afro-Caribbean hair product. That fishmongers was the main reason I chose to never eat fish for the rest of my life; the pearlescent eyeballs of the fish were terrifying and the juices that dripped from them made me heave and sniff my clothes just to make sure the fabric wasn’t storing the smell.
Occasionally, we’d here other Mauritians buying fruit in their heavy Creole accents: “I take two,” they’d instruct the grocer as he put one mango into a little brown paper bag. I wander through the market now and half of it seems to be missing. The cobbled stone pathway seems much larger than it did when I was a child.
I head down to a pub I spent many a night in when I was twenty-one. The Bedford is a grand pub indeed, and sits right next to the railway bridge, dominating the corner of Bedford Hill; a road so notorious for prostitution in the 70s and 80s. The ‘ladies of the night’ would take a spot each and propose gentlemen as early as six in the morning. The locals would laugh when you said: “I’m just popping to Bedford Hill,” and they’d reply with some humorous remark about going to ‘work’ to make a bit of extra cash.
Perhaps they have migrated elsewhere, as I only see buggies getting pushed and dogs getting walked up and down the good ol’ Bedford now. I settle down with my drink on a comfy leather sofa by the fireplace. I don’t feel the ghost of Charles Bravo right now but he must be in here somewhere. Poisoned to death with antimony – his murderer was never found, Balham’s biggest scandal. Now, the locals poison their livers with Jack Daniels and Coke as they watch local bands play their first recognised gig there on that little stage. Perhaps Charles is sat at the bar sipping his fatal drink again as the pianist begins to play.
I left this town a while ago and moved onto pastures new, but never straying too far from the Northern Line. And wherever I go there are those ghosts, living London’s history infinitely. Some prints have been left by me and I occasionally come to visit them again. My inner child remains here in Balham as the memories are too strong for her to leave. She still hugs the trees on Wandsworth Common and she sits on the carpet in the Library with her books, keeping her favourite stories alive.