Caught by the River

The Clapham Garages

Adam Scovell | 30th May 2018

Adam Scovell goes in pursuit of Angela Carter’s old house, and stumbles on a quiet, ungentrified slice of Clapham in the process

It was during a walk last autumn in search of Angela Carter’s old house that I first came across the garages. The walk had been a depressing task; a long, dull meander along several miles of the south circular to Clapham. After those miles of winding road, I was only to find the area at the end unrecognisably affluent and cleaned up. I had naively expected the house to be reflective of the photos I had seen of Carter in it in the late 1980s: battered but lived in and filled with eccentric bric-a-brac. The Chase where Carter lived is now a prime property hotspot. It has plaques for several royal-themed street parties from previous years hanging proudly on its opening wall. There are huge cars residing ominously outside even bigger houses. Local shops have equally been turned into luxury experiences with quotas, targets and “breaking new markets” dominating the buzz of conversation. The “red dawn” that Carter once wrote of in a letter to friend, referring to a rise in socialism in the area, had never ultimately happened. The Clapham I had come to find had long since passed – or so I thought. It was then that I walked down an alleyway that led to the garages and I was whisked sharply away to another realm.

Around half way along The Chase, there sits a wide entrance designed for cars which leads to the land behind. This land is filled with old white garages that possess green, rusted doors. The concrete all around is cracked and covered with dead leaves. Trees hang over the walls and sometimes intermingle with the streetlights, though this isn’t a street. Walking through it quite by chance was like travelling back in time at least thirty years, similar in tone to the images I had surrounded myself with before moving down to London a couple of years back. The strange realms of Callan, The Sweeney, Minder and all of those other cult programs had seemed to be filmed in an alien world full of open spaces, land left to its own devices and a surreal affordability. The London of those programmes is as fantastical as a Dali painting in comparison to the city today. But these garages were part of that same world and, as I strolled around this mostly derelict space, I felt more than anything to have arrived.

I began to snap away with my camera, noticing all of the unusual things left there. There were signs saying “NO BALL GAMES” but made of metal and with each letter three-dimensionally rendered. There was explicit graffiti on almost every other door and even the doors themselves seemed odd in their design, as if from a time now unusually passed. The view straight down the alleyway of garages was incredibly picturesque as the breeze rustled the leaves and rubbish on the ground. It felt not unlike some of the more absent scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), not least because just over the way, hundreds of people were enjoying their Saturday with a variety of sports on the common, whilst others fought for highly sought-after seats in expensive bistros and coffee shops. It had been a noisy place to walk through, but here there was only the breeze in the garage square and the trees shaking; not a soul in sight.

I thought also of a number of paintings by George Shaw, and noticed later how my 35mm camera had produced images with a soft quality, making them look incredibly similar to Shaw’s realistic work. In his painting The Fall (1999), a number of similar garages are captured with an eye that sees that same beauty in the decay, although Shaw’s are a lot more dilapidated. Another of his paintings, The National Game (2017) comes even closer to Clapham’s garage realm, the concrete dipping and creating mini lagoons which reflect the trees back towards the sky. The painting also has that same mixture of doors and boards, hiding who knows what behind their secretive barriers; rusted Ford Cortinas used in dodgy deals, mouldy boxes of LPs, old DIY tools, children’s clothes, a wedding dress from a happy day in an 1980s summer, dead rats and memories.

I can’t be too romantic about this, however. The houses in the road opposite cost well over £1,000,000 each, even though the area still has some pockets of extreme poverty further north towards the Thames. Carter’s house was last on the market for a million pounds, and seems to be empty today. I’ve even found garages in other parts of the city whose rent costs more than my last flat in Liverpool did. In other words, no land is safe, all land is profit, and all will be cleaned up and sanitised eventually. It’s the same story for most of the city, especially in Zones 1 and 2. But this is the point. Such places that have managed to survive the scrubbing tell of a time when space was not such a defined commodity in the city, when there was still some sense of affordability and even an unfathomable beauty to the ordinary. There’s no slogan, no catchy marketing brand or price tag attached to this place. It just is. And in the London of today, that is an incredibly rare thing to find.