Holidays in Hell: South London

Harry Goodwin 18 January 2021
Image credit: MutualArt

‘Harry, Harry, Harry,’ said my mother, thumping the table like a mastodon atop the tundra. ‘Harry. You spineless invertebrate. You’re Peterhouse’s answer to a congested bowel: brown, full of shit and liable to irritate. What do you think you’re achieving by applying to be Travel Editor during a -’

During a you know what. To be fair, she raised a good point. ‘You raise a good point’. This is not the best time to be testing one’s abilities as a travel writer. The exigencies of Tier 4 hardly allow me to spend some harrowing months among the Patagonian Indians before sending some gentle regrets back to TCS head office. No Uruguayan sojourns, no Uzbek soirees for me. What was I to do?

In good Cambridge undergrad fashion, I decided to disregard lockdown regulations on the grounds that extremely clever, charming and handsome people can’t catch the virus. After rummaging through my Cambridge things, I found what I was looking for: the three playing-darts with which, last term, I made the walls of my room resemble downtown Aleppo. I then threw these at a map of the world. The first landed in that precise corner of the South Pacific favoured by ocean-rowing freaks and Japanese war criminals since time immemorial. Bit tricky to get to. The second landed in Yorkshire. Talk about off-the-beaten-track, but apparently the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel there.

My third dart landed in Dulwich, a leafy suburb which has much the same relation to the eclectic sprawl of South London as Israeli settlements have to the West Bank. Trembling with anticipation, I got my mum to pack my suitcase. After flying in to Gatwick, I took the express train to Victoria and then the Southeastern service to West Dulwich. Like all train journeys in Britain, it was delightful: I struck up conversations with a number of passengers, including a whimsical old gentleman who addressed me by the local honorifics ‘blabba mout’ and ‘rasclaat’.

Situated in the demilitarised zone between the up-and-coming neighbourhoods of Peckham and Brixton, Dulwich is renowned for its green spaces.

I alighted just after midday. Situated in the demilitarised zone between the up-and-coming neighbourhoods of Peckham and Brixton, Dulwich is renowned for its green spaces. First off,
I headed for the park. On the way, I walked past the local school. As I passed the Astroturf, a posse of young men sidled in front of me. I’m not about to confess anything, but the odour of sweat, Lynx Africa and sexual frustration was somewhat Proustian.

Dulwich Park consists of several expanses of grass criss-crossed by paths. I am told by locals that it contains many secluded spaces for getting trollied off Stella before talking to Ralph in the shrubbery, but have yet to visit these myself. (I can, however, attest that in Streatham’s Gorringe Park attempts to relieve yourself on a windy day can end catastrophically.) There is also a lake with water and assorted pigeons.

My God: the Lycra, the pastiness, the rage.

I enjoyed visiting the outdoor café, with its tableau of severe mums, ululating kids, melancholy dachshunds and kill-me-now dads. My God: the Lycra, the pastiness, the rage. As Larkin put it, something is pushing them to the side of their own lives. The dads’ glares towards me (envy? embarrassment at their past selves?) were amusing – until I realised that unless I succeed in avoiding intimacy for the rest of my life, I’m going to end up one of their number. A note on etiquette: if a Dulwich resident addresses you in the café, avoid coarse phrases like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘Labour party anti-Semitism scandal’.

When I visited, conditions were a bit Third Battle of Ypres.

Dulwich Woods is to Dulwich Park as Cindies is to Glitterbomb, in that there are lot more dogs and they’ll keep bothering you while you’re trying to have a pleasant outing. When I visited, conditions were a bit Third Battle of Ypres. Pretty much everyone I crossed paths with gave me a polite stare which I took to mean ‘What is this solitary brown youth doing in the woods?’ If it’s not that I look like a cross between Bashar al-Assad and a giraffe, then maybe it’s just that I look like a jerk. At one juncture, a toddler pointed at me and said to his grandmother, ‘That man is very happy’. Man? Happy? I stumbled over to a log and went on Facebook for a bit.

At the end of the woods is a little-known viewpoint where you can literally and figuratively look down on all of London. I descended the hill with the golf course on my right and the council allotment on my left. At first glance, the tumble of sheet-metal shacks and raked earth in the latter looks like a Brazilian favela; at second glance, it looks like a council allotment.

I eventually wound up in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Highlights: Rembrandt, Murillo, Pissarro, some minor-league Dutch bloke who was really good at painting dogs and Rubens’ The Miracles of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Lowlights: uptight Gainsboroughs, dingy Poussins, wall after wall of Rococo soft porn and Rubens’.