Saturday, July 16, 2005

Catford Bridge

Part 1 of the London's Got Soul trilogy. Some action-packed travel journalism. [1]

Catford Bridge

From: Koranteng@toli
To: Family
Date: May 27 2005 5:41 AM
Subject: In Catford

So I managed to make it to Yaa's place in London...

It was quite a journey and will be fully blogged in due course. Let's see..


Landed in terminal 4 at Heathrow, I couldn't sleep on the flight and watched a couple of B-movies without the headsets - much more poetic that way... The Picadilly line no longer serves terminal 4 hence I had to take replacement bus service to Hatton Cross. 15 stops on Piccadilly Line to Green Park. Change at Green Park, head to London Bridge and then take British Rail. South London doesn't get tube service.

The heat. Who would have thought that I would leave Boston in cold freezing rain and start sweating within 5 minutes of stepping out of Heathrow airport. The bus driver was complaining because the air-conditioning wasn't doing much.
"Hottest day of the year... They say it's the hottest day in 40 years."
I had to take my coat off and stuff it in the suitcase.

Getting trapped in an elevator at Green Park station with 5 rather scantily clad 18-19 year olds, the kind that make you feel there is a God somewhere... The words that came to mind were fresh, luscious and nubile. One of them, the slightly bigger girl was the only non-blonde. She was the archetypal best friend: the slightly less attractive friend that all beautiful women like to surround themselves with. She was blindfolded and some tissues bulged out from the sides of her eyes. It was her 18th birthday, her friends explained amidst a torrent of giggles, and they were taking her out to some surprise party/hen night thing.

When we got on the tube, I was reminded again of why the Brits have the greatest sense of humour. A couple of labourers, painters I think, on their way back from work spotted the hen party and started laying into them with charateristic humour
"You let them blindfold you? ..."
The whole car started cracking up and the wisecracks begun as the train got stuck in the tunnel as is typical in the London Underground. I heard more concentrated wit in the 5 minutes we waited than I've heard all year. The girls were good sports and gave as much back as they got from the other passengers. We were dying of laughter long after they stepped off a few stops later.

Running to catch a British Rail train with my 70 pound suitcase, backpack and all...

Only to be told after I made it that the platform had been changed just before I was about to jump onto the waiting train... Ah, British Rail... Running up and down stairs on footbridge to get to the right platform, and barely catching the hourly train.

In Catford

The fight that I stepped into right as I walked out of Catford Bridge station...

As I took my first 3 steps into Catford, this was the scene... On the left: 15 or so drunk black (Jamaican?) youths. To my right: 20 white guys (football yobs?) - Liverpool had won the Champions Cup the day before beating AC Milan. I can't believe I missed that match, but that's what happens when you leave your packing and shopping to the last minute. In the middle: 10 or so policemen trying to calm things down and keep things from spiraling out of control... The dozen or so women standing outside the pub egging the fight on.

As I looked up, I saw the first punch being thrown. Thus I walked straight into a melee of about 30 people yelling at each other and exchanging furious blows...

A bunch of them almost knocked my suitcase off as they fell on me in one of those pub brawl tangled scuffles. Exciting introduction to South London. 6 or so police cars began streaming into the place. Flashing lights, sirens, tangled limbs, dirty streets. Screams of women. The fighters were more methodical and mostly kept quiet as they went about inflicting damage on each other.

Picking myself up and dusting my bags off... Pound-foolish and/or a true son of a journalist, take your pick, yours truly taking out his trusty Olympus 35mm camera and beginning to take photos of the scenes of mayhem (I hope some come out - I haven't gone digital and the camera is a little dodgy, and they've put that wheel in a place where it's easy to make things blurry, plus I have to scan). Would this be my Catford Bridge Rodney King video? Or perhaps a Do The Right Thing Mookie moment?

Asking at the Jamaican barbershop at the Station Approach why the police were only trying to arrest the black teenagers, who were protesting that they hadn't done anything since, as far as I could tell, it was the white guys who were out of control and who threw the first punch... The brothers in the barber chairs were a little inebriated (Jamaican rum) and of no use, or perhaps they were wondering if I was for real. Also
"Na man, no mini-cab around here. The office closed at 9pm."
Fleeting thought: a barbershop open at 9:30pm?


At the first flash of the camera, the bald white guys who in response started snarling at him, the black guys snarling at him, the exasperated police officer snarling at him
"No photos please, sir..."
People behave differently when they know there's a camera. Still, the lip:
"That's the least of your worries, officer. Look what's happening over there!"
The guy in the Liverpool shirt had somehow broken free from the large group and was delivering furious blows to someone who wasn't taking it very well and was literally crumpling.


The little crowd outside the pub enjoying the Thursday 9:30pm excitement... The police trying to usher them in to the pub to stop them adding fuel to the fire.
All right mate.
Catford bridge fight police doing their thing

The teenagers who seemed to be streaming towards the scene with nothing better to do on this hot night...


The little rush down the street to not get further involved and to get away from the madness. All of South London's police vans seemingly arriving on the scene. CID in effect. The noise.
Then of course there was the lack of mini-cab or black cab around - this being South London (I knew I was just 7 minutes from Yaa's place - so near yet so far) - also the mini cab office right outside the station was closed and, in any case, was back where the fun was, where the flashing lights and furious police cars kept heading towards.

So of course there was the decision to pick up a doner kebab at Broadway Kebab and Fish and Chips down the road... He's very local your Koranteng...
"As'salam Alaikum... Let's have a doner. Make sure there's lots of chili on it. I like it spicy."
The Moroccan-looking customer who couldn't figure out what he wanted and asked for a sample.
"If I give you a sample, I'll have to give him too."
"Well why not?"
"I'm trying to run a business here."
"Well, why not?"
"All right then, lamb or chicken?"
"Hmm, let's try the lamb."
Discussion of the fight only a hundred meters away...
"Ahh... It's just the Thursday night crowd. Don't mind them. Plus it's football. Can you believe Liverpool won?"
"I can't believe I missed the match."
"Amazing... Steven Gerard... A comeback.. And I'm not even a Liverpool fan.."
The Lebanese owner who told me not to waste my money calling a mini-cab
"Besides there aren't any around. This is South London"
And gave me directions to Yaa's on the bus:
  • 3 stops on Bus 202
  • Stop at the Tesco store
  • turn back
  • turn left...
He even drew me a map.

The walk down to Catford Center where Yaa had picked me up when I passed by last September - right in front of the Post Office. Still on the lookout for a cab of some sort. No luck. Passing a host of characters wondering who this guy was with suitcase, backpacks and camera.

The call to Yaa confirming the directions to the Tesco (as I thought - my coins run out and the phone cut off in the middle of the conversation - this is when one needs a mobile phone)
"Yes... Tescos, turn back, turn left... Just cross the street to the bus st_"...
The Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi? youths who were fooling around the payphones and who discovered yours truly and had themselves a little anthropological fun with this curious stranger...

[censored harrowing interlude]

Catching the bus eventually... A little puzzled about which street she meant me to cross, the signs said The Catford Gyratory and there were 8 streams of traffic.

Anyway, on the bus, paid my £1.20.


The bus driver was annoyed that I took 2 minutes to find change in one of my bags.

The woman sitting ahead of me was reading Ovation magazine, pictures of some Nigerian society wedding including the obligatory Benzes in the driveway. Getting off at the said Tescos...

Asking a guy walking out of Tescos for Argon Rd... Puzzlement followed... Then
"Ah right, Oregon Rd" [pronounced Our Gang]...
You're in the wrong place mate, this is Perry Hill, you need to head back to Catford, you're looking for Brown Hill Road, innit."...
Innit. Innit? Checking my printed sheet of paper in the 10.30pm street light
"Ah right. Angang not Argon."
"Would help to know where you're going mate."
"Tell me again."
"Are they any minicabs around?"
"Nah man, this is South London, you know."
Not believing my luck or indeed the guy (he looked like a carbon copy of me actually) walking into Tescos... Past the wary, obviously Ghanaian, security guard
"I don't know this area, sir." A Heavy Ga accent...
To the counter: the Indian manager on the left and the African guy - he looked Ghanaian or Nigerian, who manned the register... They both looked warily at me, my suitcase and backpack. I had put the camera away.

Started asking for OurGang road. Deer-in-headlight stares... Brown Hill Road was around here but on the other side of Catford Center. This was Perry Hill and Castford Lane.

Realizing that I was in the wrong place and had gone in the wrong direction, resolved never to listen to owners of Doner Kebab joints...

The Indian guy pointing me to a London A-Z map behind me...
"Oh right, a map."
Meanwhile lots of late night people buying all sorts of things at Tescos (fags - or cigs as the yanks call them, beer: Kroenenborg and Stella Artois). Thursday night traffic.

Buying said London A-Z map, after discussing with manager, realizing that it was rather a Texaco station I had been looking for not a Tesco store... Aha....

Asking for a minicab...
"No man... don't know any numbers... maybe near Lewisham Hospital"
South London.

Dropping all the coins I had found like Inspector Clouseau as I attempted to pay... Like Christmas come early to some of those who helped me pick said coins up... I was about £5 lighter by the time I got the receipt for my map.

Meanwhile there was the black guy (West Indian?) who tried to get change for an obvious counterfeit £50 note... Said security guard, on head nod by Indian manager, threw him out... Late-night convenience stores have their own practiced routines.

Ah, the bus. Running across the street to catch a bus in the opposite direction... The noise my suitcase made on the ground was, how to put it, interesting. The Pakistani bus driver who said to catch a Bus 202 instead since he didn't think Bus 181 would take me near my destination (2 stops past the McDonalds... walk back, turn right and down the street).

My determination, newly armed with London A-Z to ignore advice and get to my destination, and hence to take the Bus 181.

Driving past Catford Center... Police were still processing the scene at the station. Wondering if I shouldn't get out and take the bus 202... but deciding well at least I'll know my way around, I have a map.

The Nigerian guy on the bus having a conversation about Christ, the Path of Righteousness ™ and of course his latest business opportunities. I couldn't figure out his 419 scam but he was such a practiced operator. The way he went from religious matters to the necessity of closing the deal was so smooth I would have given him all my money. I wished I had a voice recorder. And whoever was on the other side has gullible as their middle name. He saw me staring at him and smiled as he continued his conversation and working his scam
"Yes, just send me the company letterhead."

2 stops after the McDonalds was St Andrews Church and nothing else...

Low light... Having forgotten my directions, walking in the wrong direction for 3 blocks. Then remembering said London A-Z. Very difficult to find road in index at back of map. What was the name again? Angang? Oregon? OurGang Road?

Backpack is becoming heavy... Dropped the map...

Almost 5 hours after I landed in London, knocked at Yaa's door. She was in her coat and had just been about to walk out to search for me... Time is 11:45pm, 2 hours since she spoke to me.

Heated up my doner kebab in the microwave.

Talked with Yaa about the good old days and the adventures to come... Wonderful conversation about life, love, wedding planning... Waache weddings in London where everyone's friend cooks a meal (waatche, jollof, barbeque chicken, kenkey, fish etc). The community hall rented for £300 tops, the buffet, the fun with the screaming kids running around... The clowning of said weddings (that I loved by the way) by those in the US. The commercialization of weddings in the US... Those friends of mine who wouldn't blink at spending $25,000 dollars for a wedding... Thoughts of the day after the wedding... modesty, credit cards etc.

Ate my doner kebab, the chili was essential.

Slept with a smile on my face as always.

There's internet here but I need to wipe off all the spyware that is making their computer slow... Unfortunately I didn't bring my adapter so can't use my laptop.

I come back to Boston on Tuesday night.


"Good resolutions are like babies crying in church, they should be carried out immediately." - Modern Ghanaian proverb

Postscript (a photo essay)

koranteng catford luggage

Our Gang Road, a Bermuda triangle.

Our Gang Road

It turns out that Yaa's house is a 7 minute walk from the station.
It took me almost 3 hours to make it home.

The barbershop at the Station Approach is called The Aftermath.

Catford The Aftermath Barber Shop

Broadway Kebab and Fish and Chips is the official name.

Broadway Kebab Catford Bridge

My new favourite Doner Kebab joint.

doner kebab joint

The owner gave me the lowdown about the previous night's affair. Apparently it is a relatively regular occurence. Gangs of youths head into pubs and scope out who might be drunk. As you're leaving the pub, one of them will jostle you, one of his friends would join in and while you're distracted a third will steal something. This time, one of the victim's friends spotted the theft hence the outrage of the football fans who descended on the gang. Thus of course the police were indeed arresting the correct people and my impertinent tourist shtick was an obvious misreading of the situation. Thankfully I had my luggage and looked so otherwordly (a camera?) otherwise I might have beem taken for a combatant and ended up in a police van (or erusticated?).

Doner Kebab joint owner

The Copperfield pub's clientele is a typical South London mix, it's a fun place so long as you keep your guard up as you leave.

Catford Copperfield Pub

The Catford Cat at Catford Center is of course the great landmark.

Catford cat

As is the Broadway Theatre. Unfortunately I didn't have time to catch the Elvis show.

Catford Broadway theatre

Catford is an interesting place, it's a mix of salt of the earth South Londoners like these dodgy bricklyayers.

Catford dodgy bricklayers

He said:
"I hope you're not the Tax Man"
since they obviously hadn't gotten a building permit or paid taxes anytime since that abortive Thatcherite Poll Tax episode in the late 80s and early 90s.

There is a shadow economy at work.

catford mobile phone

At the mobile phone shop near OurGang Road, I bought my £50 LG mobile phone, my first and a second-hand one to boot. It came with a dodgy charger (you need to stand the phone upright otherwise it won't charge). Said phone died in the middle of my first call to Orange's customer service to top it up. Missing from this picture is the owner, a wheeler/dealer who is likely selling goods fallen from the back of a car. Astute and street smart, he run to the right, behind the door when he saw my take my camera out. The Nigerian woman (fiancé in Atlanta) had just started working there. The Jamaican guy changes his phone every month and had stories about life in the US, Brazil (he'd die for the women), Jamaica and Africa (Ghana, Nigeria - those people take your ID and want bribes). My phone was likely one of his castoffs. A lean Chinese guy with a backpack came in selling bootleg dvds of the latest American joints, we looked them over, very up-to-date I must stay. As I was leaving, I overheard the owner ask him
"So what phones do you have for me today?"
Had I just bought a hot phone?

The black influence is obvious and omni-present, both West Indian and African.


On a glorious day, glorious hair products. Women of the darker persuasion spend so much money on their hair and can't leave nappy alone. Hey, I benefit from the results but it's no wonder that the first African-American millionaire was someone who sold hair products. Curtis Mayfield sang of we people who are darker than blue...

Catford Afro beauty

Still Catford is quite a gentrified place with great yuppie eateries amid the doner kebab joints, havens that wouldn't be out of place in Paris. The class and ethnic mix is more of the balanced melting pot.

little eaterie

England was having an unexpected heat wave so this van was about the most popular thing on a Saturday afternoon. The Moroccan doner kebab guy and I got some lollipops for desert. The teenager that you see has a Jamaican boyfriend, I didn't catch his name, he was a Winston type. Her mum runs the ice cream van during the summer. This was their first day out this year.

Catford ice cream

There's also a strong Asian influence, mostly South-East Asian but also Chinese. Chinese herbal medicine is a growth industry everywhere, We're all wary of these drug companies and seek efficacious solace in time-tested remedies. On the food front, in England, the Indians have it over the Chinese. The most popular dish on a Friday night is a curry or vindaloo if people are feeling adventurous.

chinese shops

The backyards of Catford are often more interesting than the front and the same goes for its people. They hustle and bustle and have a lot of fortitude. As Alyson Williams sang
Not on the outside, inside's strong.

Backyard barbecues are the thing, it's all about the joy of small things.


Evidently the children who grow up in this melting pot have a lot of soul.

catford sidewalk painting

I love Catford Bridge.

koranteng catford struggle

London's Got Soul.

Catford Bridge - the photoset

[1] This is the very lightly edited email I sent on the morning after I arrived in London for a weekend trip this past Bank Holiday/Memorial Day. The addition is the preliminaries section and obviously the photos and the postscript photo essay. I also fixed a few typos and changed some names to protect the flavourful. Normally I mull my travel journalism and tweak it to death, this time I thought the immediacy of the moment was worth keeping. Given the kind of start I had to my trip, it was clear that it needed to be blogged and more.

This is the first part of the London's Got Soul trilogy.

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MacDuff said...

Brilliant piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

This place must have changed since my last visit - i always thought it was the end of the world

next up in london i shall do crytstal palace (my brother has chosen to live them poor soul) another strange wilderness of sarf london!

See Review of African Blogs on Pambazuka News:

Anonymous said...

I agree, a great piece of writing, and reading this after a few years brings back that summer as if it were yesterday