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Cool Tan Classics


I recall the day vividly. Lingering late-spring, premature summer heathaze driving the dazzle, tanning the sun-seekers’ heads on bodies outside the Tate white; the lawns crammed with thirsty capital-ites. And there I was too, enamoured by this trusty glare. Reticent at first, unsure who I would meet and if they’d see me as too much of an outsider to allow me in – this was London, after all. No worries. They let me in and I embraced it. Years afterwards it dawned on me how massive that innocuous, nervous meeting was, and what it will mean as I plunge into the future... .

Between 2011 and 2017 I volunteered on monthly wellbeing walks for the mental health charity Cool Tan Arts (the ‘Largactyl Shuffle’, named after a typically side-effect-inducing drug), reaching into some of South London’s most atmospheric side streets and hidden haunts, and imparting a huge slice of history along the way.

The snapshots return to me in various colours, as diverse as the editions themselves – frostbitten jaunts towards festive singalongs in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, rain-contorted struggles through the centre duelling midnight’s articulated-lorry choruses, and soul-melting low-key rambles to quicken the limbs, before the years had even woken up. Add in a potpourri of spectral meetings and vanishing faces destined to depart to providence, and I realise I gave myself a safe, glowing capsule. It’s impossible to detail all the events, but below are the standouts – the glistening ellipses, which satisfy my innermost hopes even now.


Slap-back in the middle of summer, whack-bang in the centre of the Elephant, everything is quiet. Trudging. Going under empty bridges that lead to nothing but rubble, or if you’re in luck, ghost-town precincts with storeys of deserted homes. These rickety walkways snaking right over our heads. The bright vests moving against the burnt-brown bricks. Here the signs offer warnings – ‘UNSAFE’ or ‘demolition in progress’, but we go on anyway. We’re shouting up to the missile-potted windows, some totally blown out with the faded-fabric curtains flapping into view. But no one calls back.

I imagine the lone survivors - I know they are here - and how they guard the whole block, which is abandoned apart from them. Whose footsteps do they hear late at night? What noises from lurkers lurking on the walkways? The brittle community was smashed away. August sun beating down. New light for this beautiful broken place. The solace of the disused living arenas – the not-really-there place that still breathes, life-signs sparse. Going around the blocks the occasional voice remnants wobble into earshot, kick-start our adrenalin. Guess where they’re coming from – from behind the chipboard doors? From the stone-floored time-worn basketball courts? From the remaining defenders of this space, the souls who fight for their homes? In this magnificent centre that I would struggle to imagine. In here a village. In here the hens on the inner-city farm.

Sun blazing on my face with just the merest hint of the relentless roundabout traffic. Doorways offer flickers of a past time. Faded Coke cans glimpses of daily lives now lived somewhere else. Condemned labyrinths furnished with leading-to-nowhere stairwells. Ageless echoes from a run-down fort. A dream of the periphery, or what I once imagined the edge to be. In the hush I felt my chest bulge up. I knew I was waiting for something, or at least felt that something was on the verge of materialising. The city hummed as though it was pre-magic. It fizzed quietly even in these nearly gone home-wreck fields. And I revelled in its undertones, because I knew the yield, when it came, would be fantastic. Progressing into this barren estate, I think I began to know the entire game had changed, and sensed the trajectory channelling across a different arc.

Where are my companions now? It feels as though my fellow travellers from that day melted into the past as it became more distant to me. Important characters fated to leave this incessant people-mash behind, and with it, remove themselves from my burgeoning little dreamland. We rested there in the blossoming sunbeams. A year before Olympic zeniths, remarking how splendid it was to be on this hushed rural estate. Hens clucking. Warm rays fractured by the high towers. And around the back of the main site, on another deserted alley, the hop-scotch markings that now must be gone, waiting perhaps to be unearthed once more when this generation’s constructions are torn down and replaced by another, short-sighted, better future.

There we grinned and threw stones and I felt very young. The secret game in the spaces where games are no longer allowed. In my memory it is sepia-yellowed: laughter stretches out, forms whole sentences. Another thought-shell that displays everything I need to keep my positivity there, even though the clearness of the memory is crumbling as though it were one of those nettle-bordered blocks. A misty past, full of unravelling realnesses. Even now I hold a light for that time and for those lost communal spaces. I remember them most days. Like when I knife through the bulldozed, planed zones where nothing lives. The new zones. Brutal reminders that pasts come and go, as will futures.

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© Copyright 2017 John Maher