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5 June 2000

From the height of naff to the shock of the new

Stefan Stern finds that the Balham immortalised by Peter Sellers has changed in bewildering ways

By Stefan Stern

You get hardened to it after a while, learning to feign pleasure at the predictable reaction. “Ah, Balham,” the cabby will declare, and then, with a satisfied twinkle: “Gateway to the south!” Easier to offer a weak smile than reject a ride home because of a cliche. Far better to get quickly into the back before receiving the only other possible London taxi-driver response to the word Balham – a shake of the head and a speeding off into the night.

Balham has been frozen in the popular consciousness as standing for the height of naff. Working from an old Denis Norden and Frank Muir script, Peter Sellers condemned its residents to being the eternal butt of jokes and faintly sneering comments. Too far out from central London to have metropolitan cool, yet not far enough to be a true suburb, Balham does indeed lie, “four square on the Northern Line”, in a vague, somewhat featureless middle ground.

North and west Londoners look down on Balhamites, refusing – if at all possible – to travel down to us. “But it’s only as far out as Hampstead!” you cry, in vain. We are not even on the same planet as Hampstead. A few minutes of Sellers’s vocal genius, a lifetime in the wilderness. “Is there honey still for tea?” cries Sellers’s effete Balham poet as he passes by the El-Morocco tearoom. “Sorry dear,” comes the tea lady’s reply. “Honey’s off.”

But if only they knew, those cabbies and lifestyle journalists and metropolitan sophisticates, if only they had heard about the changes that have befallen Balham in the past few years. If only they had seen the new bars and restaurants, the absurd, astronomical house prices, the strange-sounding, expensively dressed professionals, barging their way towards the increasingly exotic fare on offer in Sainsbury’s; then the sneerers and the mockers would change their tune.

Something amazing has happened to Balham: it has cast off the naff and embraced the new. Where once there stood a froth-free zone – even the frothy coffee lacked froth – now there is an espresso bar at the railway station. Everywhere you go, the traditional, distinctly non-U vowel sounds of south London are being challenged by the clipped, assertive voices of the affluent. “Oh India,” the tense mother in front of me cried to her daughter in the supermarket, “come on.”

Old Balham, new Balham: the temptation to see a political parallel is hard to resist. The Battersea constituency (with Balham at its southern tip – which also edges into the Tooting and Streatham constituencies) went true-blue Conservative in the 1980s, depriving the Commons of Alf (now Lord) Dubs’s intelligent compassion. But it finally returned to new Labour in 1997, launching the former Guardian man Martin Linton into parliament.

(The struggles of Labour in Battersea have been memorably charted by John O’Farrell in his bestselling book Things Can Only Get Better. On page 136, the dynamic office-sharing duo of Dubs and Frank Dobson discuss the previous night’s events. Dubs: “I had to go to the Balham ward barbecue.” Dobson: “The Balham ward barbecue? What do you want to go to that for? I never go to those bloody things if I can avoid it.”)

“It’s the sort of constituency where the sands are constantly shifting under your feet,” Linton says. “It’s always changing – the Battersea effect [of well-off people moving south of the river] is certainly spreading south.”

May 1997 was a spectacular win for Labour in Battersea, celebrated as heartily in Balham as anywhere. But in the recent mayoral and London Assembly elections, this part of south London seemed to be turning distinctly blue again. Is the MP worried that the prosperous people of new Balham will turn out to have been a one-night stand for new Labour?

“I take nothing for granted, or even for probable,” Linton says. “The vote could be very soft. But people moving in are just as likely to be progressive New Statesman readers as anyone else.”

Linton is not panicking, but there will clearly be work to do. The volatile electorate, it seems, has embraced new Labour for the time being, but is considering its possible repeat purchase carefully.

The consumer-driven shift from old Britain to new Britain is not just a London phenomenon. All over the country, parades of shops are being reconfigured, town centres are being transformed to cope with the booming demand of the many (and not the few) who seem to be doing rather well these days. For these people, up and down the UK, every night is party night. Shops and restaurants are full, cash registers groan, the punters are happy. We have achieved not so much “a chicken in every pot”, as a Cafe Rouge in every high street.

Is this progress? Of course it is, and of course it isn’t. Doubts over the new British consumerism may stem from genuine concern about greed and inequality; they could also represent the worst kind of sneering snobbery. But the diehard Balham resident of several years’ standing cannot help but question what is going on in the streets of SW12 and SW17. That ordinary terraced house you turned your nose up at a few years ago will now cost you, unbelievably, £350,000 or more. The sort of properties that nurses, teachers or even junior doctors would have once considered within their reach are now for the bankers, the consultants and the lawyers who have fled south in search of “affordable” homes. Tweedy jackets and sensible shoes are chased out by pin-stripes and Prada.

In the sadly diminished market in Hildreth Street, stall-holders seem to find fewer and fewer customers for their reasonably priced fruit and veg. Tory Wandsworth council has never made the traders feel terribly welcome, failing even to provide a public lavatory for those out in the street all day. Meanwhile, the professionals march past on their way to Sainsbury’s or Safeway. We busy, sophisticated people don’t want to have to engage in conversation with greengrocers and their ilk. Far better the cool anonymity of the supermarket aisle and checkout.

Balham’s Afro-Caribbean community, still vibrant and vocal, livens up this part of town, preserving what they can of their identity, filling the pews of the Baptist church in their finery. Will they still feel at home in shiny new Balham? And does shiny new Balham want to preserve the mix that made the community what it was in the past?

And where will the less well-off live? Rents are exorbitant, council stock depleted. Dickens referred to the “streaky bacon” of rich and poor living side by side; it was part of what gave towns and cities a sense of community, an “all life is here” quality. Now even “dear old Balham” risks being socially cleansed, made safe for the winners, the professional and commercial elite, the few and not the many.

This is a national trend. As the Blairites have said, it is too simple to talk of a north/south divide when cities such as Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle are experiencing a similar frothy excitement in the growth of services on offer to the comfortably off. The once derelict Newcastle quayside of Get Carter is now home to popular bars and restaurants; Manchester’s ship canal is similarly rejuvenated; Birmingham will soon have its own mega, modern Selfridges; and as for Leeds – “I never thought that there would be a Harvey Nichols in Leeds in my lifetime,” a friend said recently in a moment of quiet bewilderment. Oh, the agony and the ecstasy.

Wherever you look, the shabby but authentic world of old Britain is being driven out by the cleaner but phoney, new “improved” version. Orwell’s original Moon under the Water pub has materialised in an antiseptic, synthetic pub-chain form. Tired Wimpy bars have entered McWorld. The butcher, the baker and candlestick-maker cower in the shadow of Wal-Mart.

This, too, is political. “Modernisation” is written on the Prime Minister’s heart. Newness is paramount. The Millennium Dome, potentially a monument, you might have thought, to 2,000 years of history, appears to be an almost history-free zone, while its new-ness or modernity remains flimsy and unconvincing.

In Balham, five new bars will soon have opened in the past 18 months alone. And my old favourite, Goblins on Bedford Hill, is closing. Goblins was Balham’s answer to the Rovers Return or Boston’s Cheers, “where everyone knows your name”. It was a warm, friendly, authentic place. And it is going. In its stead come The Lounge (at least the name is convincingly non-U), Bar Interlude, The Point (although I’ve never found one there) and The Exhibit (“Surround yourself with art and become part of The Exhibit”). It won’t be the same. No Cafe Rouge yet, at least.

But further up the high street, not one but two “cheque cashing” businesses have opened up – a reminder that there are other people in this part of town who are excluded from the conventional economy, and who probably won’t be availing themselves of some of the new “leisure destination possibilities”. You can’t miss these new shops – in garish red and yellow, just down from the Balham mosque (formerly the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society). Of the El- Morocco tearoom there is, however, no sign.

Which brings us back to Peter Sellers’s memorable, if out-of-date, observations on Balham. No longer just the gateway to the south, now a highly desirable pocket of “south Clapham South”, sucking up the not-quite-rich-enough overspill from Battersea and Clapham (who in turn had spilled over from Chelsea and Fulham). We need a new Sellers for the new century.

“Everyone knows about ‘Bal-Ham’,” says John Rattray, the vice chairman of the local Balham Society. “Not everyone knows about Balham.” Rattray gives some of the newer, glitzier venues a couple of years. “They will be a flash in the pan,” he says calmly. Others may survive.

Martin Linton has a longer-term perspective. “It’s the curse of the A24. In my father’s day, they talked about ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, then it was ‘Bal-Ham’, then Citizen Smith’s ‘Tooting Popular Front’ – it’s always moved south – Colliers Wood must be next,” he jokes. “But Balham has had an image graft. Peter Sellers tried hard enough to make Balham unfashionable, but for anyone under 35 living in Balham, they just might not be the butt of office jokes in the same way any more. It has lost its joke status – it’s a very nice place to live.”

So speaks the loyal MP, wisely. For now, it’s time to say farewell to Balham, once symbol of old drab Britain, now symbol of new shiny Britain, with its cappuccinos and tapas and marinated olives. We turn away from packed noisy bars full of barely dressed, slim-hipped young people, who are bellowing alternately at each other or into their mobile phones. We draw back to the familiar confines of our living rooms, to reflect about all we’ve just seen and heard, in search of some quiet authenticity.

And is there honey still for tea? Oh yes: Guatemalan mountain honey suffused with cranberry juice and Californian raisins. Simply divine, darling.

The writer is features editor of Management Today magazine