Oh, now that autumn is well and truly here, would that I could summon up the sweet smells of the skunk smokers outside the Surprise! They come across from the college around mid-morning and, plonking themselves down at the pub’s grotty outside tables, beneath the crap loggia, they skin up and fill the air with that peculiar taint: two parts synthetic cat’s piss to one of old-style marijuana. They’re pretty inoffensive, the skunk smokers: they just sit there, cosmically addled in their Puffa jackets and trainers, their jeans at half mast and the waistbands of their stretchy psyches exposed for all the world to see.
The skunk smokers are young and mostly black – the boules bellies who patronise the pétanque area immediately beside them are entirely pasty-white and middle-aged. One of them plaits his grey beard. I’ve never seen the boules bellies exactly drunk but there’s that persistent hoppy aroma and low-level effervescence about them, when they play, indicative of men who are seriously committed to real ale. Elsewhere in the park, there’s more drinking going on: the Portuguese who gather outside the Luna Café favour bottles of Sagres and the Ghanaians who cluster on the low wall along from the pétanque area have a penchant for tinned Guinness but, again, neither group seems to get pissed: this is workaday drinking.
Indeed, during the week, there’s a serviceable vibe to the local alcohol culture that would gladden any erstwhile Blairite: these solitary Polish tradesmen, sitting cross-legged under the trees, canvas grips full of spirit levels and plastering hawks beside them on the grass, a can of Lech or Tyskie wrapped in a brown paper bag in one hand, a black-market fag in the other – surely they are exemplars of the happy, pan-European café society that we all hoped open borders and 24-hour licensing would usher in?
Still, I doubt even the most passionate globaliser would feel as sanguine about the khat chewers. They buy their khat in a café on the Wandsworth Road, where it arrives early each afternoon – presumably direct from Heathrow, since the stuff loses its potency in about 24 hours – and sits quite brazenly, stacked up on the floor, wrapped in newspaper. I tried chewing khat a few times but although the hit was acceptable, an intriguing cross between amphetamine and weed, the means of ingestion was insufferably tedious, necessitating as it does the eating of about half a hedge before you lose your grip on suburbia.
The khat chewers are either solitary on benches, or else make up small colloquies that occupy the tree-fringed mound at the southern end of the park. All are instantly recognisable by their bugged-out red eyes and the bouquet of privet-looking fronds tucked under their arms.
The khat chewers are either Ethiopians or Somalis – and some are presumably Yemenis. They’re inoffensive enough and one can’t help but feel a little protective towards them, dependent as they are on a drug that has to be daily dew-picked a continent-and-a- half away.
I wish I could say the same about our indigenous addicts, who are often shockingly incontinent. Vanessa, who maintains a hefty crack habit about a hundred yards down the road from me, often collars me outside the local chemist’s; and when, in the past, I’ve challenged her on the veracity of her claim to be begging the price of some baby formula, she’s yanked her breast from her blouse and squeezed it in my face to prove that she’s lactating, albeit insufficiently.
But that’s not in the park. In the park, the toxified largely behave themselves and even needle junkies retire decorously to the bushes and then use the dog shit bins for their contaminated sharps. No, it’s in the street that things get wiggy: at night, the demented whippoorwill of the emergency services’ sirens whips this poor Will into a frenzy, as does the garbled gargling of late-night totterers- back from the local pubs.
I need at such times to remind myself: you were once like them – indeed, usually considerably more stoned/drunk/wired than they are and sometimes for several days in a row. No, in contemporary Britain, to be stone-cold sober 24/7 and 365 days a year is the real lunacy: I am part of a quiet and well-behaved crowd of nutters who, if we are ever remarked upon at all, are only castigated by the effervescent majority for being the most frightful bores.