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I was conceived in a flat in this street. It must have been during my father’s Christmas leave. I was due to be born in the Royal Free Hospital in the Gray’s Inn Road, but, three months previously, a V1 flying bomb scored a direct hit on the building and so the expectant mothers were reassigned to other hospitals.
When walking, the body moves over the stiff leg with each step, only one foot at a time leaves contact with the ground and there is a moment when both feet support the body. A child is usually able to walk unassisted at around 11 months old.
Billy and Pauline go down the road and cross to the other side. I go after them. We get through the fence. The bombsite is good to play on. I’ve been told not to play here because it’s dangerous. I might get into trouble.
In the afternoon of June 28, 1944, a V1 flying bomb fell in Gauden Road, near Clapham North Tube station, killing 11 people. The previous night, just after midnight, a V1 fell farther up the road, killing one person. Two weeks later, at 3am on July 10, one hit Clapham Road. Four people were killed; six houses were demolished and 20 houses and a church severely damaged.
I finally find my phone and shut the front door behind me. Trying to get out of the house always takes too long. And once I do leave then I’ll probably have to go back for something: credit card, or change or I should be wearing something warmer or to make sure I’ve really locked the front door.
I’ll walk. Should take about an hour.
Although walking speeds can vary greatly depending on such things as height, weight, age, terrain, load, culture, effort and fitness, the average is about three miles an hour.
On June 25, 1944, just after midnight, a V1 bomb fell in Studley Road. Ten houses were demolished and 30 severely damaged, including the Methodist church. Three people were killed
Two months later, on the afternoon of August 20, another V1 fell in Studley Road…
I cross over by the war memorial. Three men – they look Somali or Ethiopian – are getting out of a battered Fiat Punto. One is wearing a dark top with NEW YORK printed across the front.
“I think you’ll get a ticket leaving it there,” I tell them, but they ignore me.
Talking to myself again. But only when I’m on my own, when there’s nobody around. I know I’m doing it. Not whole conversations, just little questions like: “Why can’t that be true?” or “How could that happen?” They often seem to be regrets for things in the past that I did or didn’t do. Stupid things. Wondering how my life might have turned out if I’d made different decisions about certain things.
They get out of the car and stretch their arms in the air.
“Not sure we should park here,” says Ramzi.
Muktar shakes his head and looks at him with a strange expression on his face. “Don’t matter where you leave it now, does it? Think about it.”
“Why Stockwell anyway, man?” says Yassin. “Why right down south of the river? We could’ve chosen anywhere.”
“It was Hussain’s idea,” says Ramzi. “He lives in a flat round here. Well, his wife and kids do. He used to go to the mosque down the road there, but the imam wasn’t a serious believer, so he stopped going.”
They gather round the boot of the car. Ramzi opens it up and Muktar lifts out three rucksacks, one after the other. “Yeah, this’ll be bigger and better than Mo’s in July… You’ve got the purple one, Yassin.” He smiles. “Okay with you?”
“Makes no difference to me, man… where’s the station from here?”
“Just up there round the corner,” Muktar points up the road and heaves his rucksack up onto his shoulders. “Now… we’re warriors, right? This is for the sake of Allah…”
“…For he loves those who fight in his sake,” says Yassin.
Ramzi bangs the boot shut and they stand there gripping the shoulder straps of the rucksacks on their backs and leaning forward from their weight.
“So we’re all clear, right?” says Muktar. Me and Ramzi get the Northern Line and you, Yassin, get the Victoria… and… we’ll meet again…”
I walk up Clapham Road towards the Oval. As I reach the Tube station a man wearing a black top and white trousers runs very fast out of the Tube station and is chased across the road by a group of shouting people. The station flower seller drops a bunch of flowers and joins in.
“Stop! Stop him!”
But he’s too fast for any of them.
He looked familiar.
During World War II trench shelters were built in London’s parks. The one in Kennington Park followed the standard design: two trenches joined by four shorter ones at right angles to them, making a closed grid each section of which could accommodate up to 50 people. The earth walls were reinforced with sandbags and the corrugated iron roof covered with a layer of soil. All trench shelters were prone to flooding and subsidence, so they were lined with thin concrete slabs. This ladder design was dangerous: a direct hit would cause a collapse of the whole shelter and a bomb falling inside the grid between the trenches would create a shock wave sufficient to crush the trenches.
Some of these shelters had a zigzag design which could withstand the stresses of a direct hit far better, but the expense and lack of manpower made such a design for the Kennington Park trench impractical.
On October 15, 1940, a 50lb bomb fell on the Kennington Park trench shelter. No official death toll was announced at the time but it was believed to be 104 fatalities. With the shelter walls collapsing due to the wet ground, rescuers digging the bodies out eventually could do no more and they covered the remains with lime. Most of the 48 recovered bodies were buried in Lambeth Cemetery. The rest still lie, unidentified, beneath the park.
I turn into Harleyford Street where there’s a crowd, mostly of women, staring up at a parachutist floating down from the sky – too fast surely.
“He’s a Jerry,” a smiling old man tells me, folding his arms. “The bombing bastard.”
There are angry shouts as the crowd gets bigger. People run out of the flats and others lean over their balconies.
The German’s parachute catches on a telegraph pole and he dangles there a few feet from the ground. Two women jump up and hit at him with umbrellas. Some throw stones, bits of wood. Others grab his legs, trying to pull him down as his blood drips onto them.
“They’re after the parachute silk,” says the old man.
They wrench him to the ground and kick and punch him as he lays there, his face pale and bruised.
“I am an officer! I am an officer!”
“If they want that silk they’d better hurry – here come the police.”
The police push and drag the women away
“Get away from him… Get away. We don’t do lynching in this country.”
They kneel over the German, unbuckle his harness and the parachute is immediately snatched away. Four or five women pull it in different directions, yelling at each other as the police gently pick him up, carry him to their van, put him inside and drive off across the cricket ground. Suddenly embarrassed that I’ve been standing staring at all this, I move on.
Walking 30 to 60 minutes a day, five days a week, with the correct posture, reduces the chances of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, anxiety and depression. Life expectancy is also increased.
The pub which used to be run by my uncle and aunt isn’t there any more. And neither is my uncle – he killed himself sitting in his car with a hosepipe running from the exhaust in through the back window. Another uncle of mine committed suicide in the same year, by throwing himself into the Thames. Both men had served in World War II.
This must be the place where I was told to meet up – behind the Vauxhall Tavern. I look at the poster outside: Frank Sanazi’s Blitz. There’s a park behind the pub, with the railway viaduct along one side and the arches underneath used for different things: Metropolis Motorcycles, Chariots Roman Spa. Is this the place? Gerry’s not here and I’m starting to feel anxious.
On April 21, 1749, there was a full rehearsal of The Music for the Royal Fireworks at Spring Gardens. This suite, composed by George Frideric Handel, was commissioned by King George II to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Over twelve thousand people, each paying 2/6, tried to attend, causing a three-hour traffic jam of carriages after the main route to the Gardens was closed when the central arch of newly-built London Bridge collapsed.
There’s a tap on my shoulder and I jump. It’s Gerry.
“Christ!… Don’t do that.”
“Been here long? How d’you get here?”
“About five minutes – I walked.”
“I got the tube from Stockwell… So what now?”
“I guess we wait for him.”
Gerry lights up a cigarette and looks around. “How long’s he going to be?”
“Should be soon… Hang on – this is him.”
He’s carrying a large canvas holdall over his shoulder. He shakes our hands.
“Right, are you two clear about what was decided at The Swan?”
“Have you both got my number on your phones?”
We nod again.
“Okay,” he says to Gerry, “you stay over there at the bus stop. If you see anything, any police, then ring me. When you hear the bang, disappear. And don’t run.” He turns to me. “You – follow me.”
“What bang?” I whisper. “You never mentioned anything about a bang.”
“Just come with me.”
I follow him through the deserted park until he stops at a small mound hidden by trees.
“Here’s the spot.”
“What’s going on?”
“You’ll find out in a minute.” He kneels down, unzips the holdall and pulls out a thick green tube.
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s a Neto, an RPG 22. They’re Russian. It can fire a rocket grenade right through a yard of concrete. We acquired some from a couple of lads who aren’t too happy about the ceasefire. I think they got them from Yugoslavia.”
He slides out an extension to the tube then reaches into the holdall, pulls out a grenade and pushes it into the end of the tube. He flicks up the sights and hoists the launcher up onto his shoulder. “Okay, all set.”
“So what’re you going to do with it for Christ’s sake?”
“D’you see that big building over the railway line? You can just make out the lights of the top windows from here. Well that’s the MI6 headquarters. We’re going to give those bastards a fright.”
“You’re going to fire that at the MI6 building? Over the railway? Jesus, d’you think you’ll hit it?”
“Sure. Now, you get to the end of this road, where the park stops and, like I told your mate, if you see anything, ring me. And when you hear it go off, get lost.”
I walk quickly away and at the end of the road I stop and wait for a few minutes, gripping my phone. There’s a flash then two bangs. I follow the road round the edge of the park and head south.