Saturday, 23 May 2009

Meet a friend and fellow walker

I live in Balham in South West London. Named the “gateway to the South” because of its medieval coaching inn and, from the 19th Century, a railway station. Adjacent to Clapham, Balham is only 5 mins to Victoria Station in central London by train. It is a burgeoning community and in the last 10 years has embraced street café society. It has its own street market and adjacent wine bars and brassieres, home to artists and actors, business and working people alike. But there is a community within the community, the people who have lived there for many generations or at least all of their lives. Balham through and through.

There is a little tapas bar, where hangs my scallop shell from Santiago. The Musketeers meet there. Sometimes only one, often two, frequently three and from time to it is like a convention. 50-something guys catching up with each other, having a gossip. Some watch football and argue about it. Some talk about literature. Some are eccentric and others are just very unusual. But the place itself it like that. The owners are Manuela and Philippe. She is from Madeira in Portugal, he is from Sri Lanka. The tapas are…well…a mixture of both cultures with a passing nod to Spain. But the friendliness of the place overcomes the use of cumin, chilli, curry leaves and lemon grass. In-house entertainment is also provided from time to time when the volatility of their relationship boils over in public.

When I walked the Via de la Plata the crowd got regular bulletins charting my progress. As the discussions rage there is rarely a consensus. But there is a genuine affection for each other; mutual concern. Guys who haven’t been seen for a while are searched out subtly to make sure they are ok. The health of octogenarian Frank, originally from Madrid, is monitored closely as are Mark’s occasional departures from reality. The actor from the Redgrave family, the TV comedienne and Peter the Printer all add points of interest.

The founder member of the club is Sean, known fondly as The Future Mayor of Balham. He’s lived in Balham all of his life and is universally known and loved. He is one of the most talented and helpful people I have ever met. He is a qualified electrician but he can do everything. And if he can’t do it he will know someone who can. But it is his helpfulness and niceness which has made him famous. Sometimes he doesn't charge if he thinks the client doesn’t have a lot of money. It is impossible to walk around the streets with him without having to stop 20 times or so whilst he enquires how people he knows are doing.

He’s a real South Londoner (pronounced Saaarf Londoner) and he does a mean line in rhyming slang. Apples and pears (stairs), Borassic Lint (skint), Brahms and Liszt (errrr ..drunk) and Brown Bread (dead) are all staple parts of the vocabulary. More than this. Sean is a real Runyonesque character.
Runyan wrote about characters such as Nathan Detroit, Big Jule, Harry the Horse, Good Time Charley, Dave the Dude, or The Seldom Seen Kid.

Sean speaks about Nauseating Terry, French Connection Mark, Nigel the Niggle, Wimpy Mark, Rambo, and Bob the Tot amongst others.

The meaning of some of these names is self evident. Others require some knowledge of the logic involved. French Connection Mark has a house in France and needs to be distinguished from Wimpy Mark who is accused of being a hypochondriac. Rambo is well into his 70’s and makes delicately cast miniature historic figures for a living, Nigel the Niggle is a fine portrait artist who seems to have an eye for detail and Bob the Tot is a scrap metal dealer.

The latter required some research but I have been assured by the government’s Health and Safety Executive that the definition of Totting is as follows:

“Totting is the practice of sorting through waste by hand to remove recyclables with commercial value.” Now we know.

So when Sean mentioned quietly one evening that he’d told his doctor that he’d had a little chest paint and was being referred to hospital, the silence and concern was palpable. The musketeers assembled to get the results of the tests which had been ordered at the hospital. An artery was slightly blocked. The procedure to fix this was discussed in detail. So too was a fitness regime to get Sean ready.

For once a consensus was reached without a vote. Sean would join me in my daily walk every morning before work. This is a circuit of just less then 5 kms around Tooting Common.

Commons are the “lungs” of London. Huge parks. There is one at the bottom of my street. I didn’t really believe that Sean would come. But at 7am my phone beeped. A text message. Only one word “when?” I was round the corner at his house 5 mins later. Then next morning it was the same. Now it is a regular routine. It appears that Sean has been bitten by the walking bug.
Yesterday he was sporting a pedometer. As we went along Sean commented on the flowers, the birds singing, the ducks and swans in the pond and the mental health of the fit young people arriving on bicycles for an early morning swim in the unheated outdoor pool at the Lido in the park.

As we passed one of the markers on the track I though it might be an omen. I’ve started suggesting we might do a full day walk…and who knows what could happen after his procedure. The 1000 km Via de la Plata?

Good luck Sean. The Musketeers will be waiting for you.

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