Linen print from ‘lovebox’, The Cure
Ah, Manhattan-sky lined metropolis of dreams; majestic multicultural melting pot; monolithic memorial to modernity. Or Croydon.
When I first came to London from rural County Down, I thought Croydon WAS London. I was almost eight years old and already disappointed by my visit to the other nearest town centre. Hang on a minute, this wasn’t London; you know, the one I’d been sold on being enticed away from my seaside town. Okay, there were red double-decker buses, but I’d expected the full Tower of London with beefeaters scenario. And then a trip over the other side of the hill revealed the futuristic sky-scrapers of Croydon.
Reluctantly I accepted the fact that it wasn’t the ‘actual’ London, and not even technically a City, but it was one that my childish mind could comprehend. London is too big to see; once you’re there you are already in it and part of it. But from the top of the hill, Croydon had limits, and encapsulated all my childhood ideas of what a big city should be. It only needed Flash Gordon scooting around in a flying car to complete the look. Some of my earliest memories of Croydon are going to a Saturday morning disco at The Greyhound – yes, that Greyhound – an infamous live band venue now long gone and shuttered up, looking forlorn and defeated under the weight of the mighty Nestlé tower. The morning disco was officially for ten to fifteen year olds, but I got in at nine because my friend’s mother worked on the door. How cool was I? In teenage years I hung around Croydon’s paved precincts with my mates, trying on clothes in Top Shop and Miss Selfridge, sharing bags of vinegar-soaked chips and cramming into photo-booths to snap ourselves in Hawaiian shirts, shades and pork-pie hats. Everyone was in a band, including the guys I was about to go walking around the countryside with, and my friend Liz and I would dutifully trot along to every gig in our ‘furry’ granny coats and winkle-pickers.
A stunningly professional flyer
There was an abundance of second-hand clothes shops at the time and I don’t think I ever wore a dress that wasn’t Vintage. My favourite was a Debbie Harry-style yellow Crimplene mini, which I teamed with Doc Martens, fishnets and long, cruelly back-combed hair. This ensemble I might choose to team with shocking pink lipstick smudged à la Robert Smith of The Cure. Ah sweet youth.
And now I was standing in a camping shop.
Croydon has changed, over the years. Gone are the second hand clothes shops (it’s like we bought it ALL) and independent record shops like Bonapartes, or the magnificent Beanos which traded old vinyl. The larger music retailers are visibly dying a death, and I cannot help but wonder what will happen to all these large shopping centres as more and more purchases take place online. High Streets are already becoming a wasteland of betting and pawn shops in a nightmare scenario not envisaged even by Bill Bryson in his wildest rants about Sketchleys. But perhaps I too have changed; I know too much, and the wonderland has lost its sheen. No longer enticed by the gewgaws and baubles of mammon, nowadays I come out in a feverish anti-materialist rash within minutes of exiting West Croydon train station, and feel overwhelmed with a burning desire to flee in haste towards nature and beauty. But today I have made my way in a desultory manner past the cheap jewellery shops, McDonalds and Chuggers to a branch of a well-known outdoor clothing and equipment chain, and am staring at an ungainly, frumpy pair of ‘walking trousers’ with an elasticated waist. Shoot me now.
And yet… there is an insidious appeal to these places that prowls a deep-hidden recess of your psyche. One minute you’re fondling a stainless steel screw-top beaker thinking it would come in handy for a cup of tea on a walk, the next you are mentally climbing Everest in a two-man tent with a plethora of ultra-cool camping equipment. And Ben Fogle. Camping shops are a haven for encouraging the outdoorsy geek. They are crammed full of cool gadgets and gizmos that you didn’t know you needed, especially given you haven’t struck a peg in a tent since the Girl Guides.
But distractions aside, I am here on a mission; The Walk is looming and my friend Rich has suggested a practice run the next morning. The correct socks have been hunted down and commandeered, and now it’s time to tackle the boots. Rich has recommended a certain brand, so I try them on dutifully. I hoick up my trouser leg and peruse the reflection in the unhelpfully angled mirror. Hmm. Now as we’ve seen, I am not averse to a clumpy boot, but these are hideous Gore-Tex grotesques. My normally longish legs are rendered squat and my ankles non-existent in the stiff, incarcerating grip. How am I supposed to wear little shorts and a holster and utility belt with these? It’s supposed to be Lara Croft not Don Estelle. Disheartened, I remind myself it’s not about the look, but how they support the foot and ankle, or so they tell me, and admittedly the price is good.
The sales assistant gazes into the middle-distance in boredom as I pace up and down again, doing that ‘testing’ thing you do when trying on new footwear, galumphing in a manner never seen anywhere outside of a shoe shop. Horrible, heavy, clod-hopping, Frankenstein monster boots! My old Doc Martens were dainty by comparison. I begin to waver from my instructions and eye-up a rather more attractive and slim line leather boot. They are twice the price, but rebelliously, I try them. Ah, that’s better: lightweight, comfy and stylish. Springing to the mirror again, I turn a coquettish ankle. Oh yes, perhaps not quite the full Lara, but much more like it.
‘You should get the first ones’ the assistant says in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone.
‘Oh? Why’s that?’ I ask furtively. Her beady-eyed contempt has not gone unnoticed.
‘You’ll be better off with them’
I look askance at the Frankenstein boots.
‘Really, but why?’ I try to keep the disappointment out of my voice. ‘These are much more comfortable, and they’re more expensive. That must mean they’re better, right?’ I don’t say a word about how much more attractive they look, but I know it, she knows it. I want the Lara boots.
‘What do you need them for?’ the assistant questions brusquely. I tell her. Her eyes only widen ever so-slightly when I describe the route and distance, and they only barely flicker up and down my length in assessment, but I know what she’s thinking.
‘You should get the first ones’ she repeats. ‘Those leather ones will fall apart’ she adds, shifty-eyed, and without conviction.
And suddenly it’s pistols at dawn. Why won’t she sell me what I want?! She has scanned my being, without knowing anything about me, and decided that I would be wasting my money on the Lara boots. You won’t make it, her scornful eye says; you’ll do a couple of hours and give up. She’s doing me a favour, ensuring I don’t waste my money on expensive gear, when clearly it’s just a whimsical fad on my part. Now, there are many words perhaps to describe my physique, and admittedly ‘athletic’ would not top the list, but still; she doesn’t know me. She’s about twenty years old, and I note with some annoyance that she is working the elasticated trousers rather well.
The following morning I am gasping for breath as I climb yet another steep incline on Box Hill in the dawn fog. Rich has, over the years, worked out a personal training ground; a circuit of around seven miles that takes you up and down probably the hardest route that this innocent looking downland escarpment has to offer. Bugger. Whilst only slightly alarmed at the image of Rich skulking around in the pre-dawn to discover this (both he and Kev, who used to live here, claim that there are LOADS of people living rough here, which is unnerving), I am rather more immediately worried about my rapid heartbeat and the ensuing nausea that I’m experiencing. Half-way up a ridiculously giant-stepped ‘path’, I smile and wave nonchalantly to the guys who are lolling about at the top and grinning. It’s alright for them; all that testosterone means easy muscle tone. By comparison, my thighs are made out of duvet. All the same, my words come back to haunt me: ‘It’s only putting one step in front of the other, how hard can it be?’ Forcing myself to move on, I curse my lapse in self-belief alongside every step of the way as I heave the gigantic and heavy Frankenstein boots onwards and up.
(P.S. I do get them in the end…)