The defining moment of my life so far occurred when I was seven years old, in the winter of 1999. I'd been hanging out at a friend’s house, just up the road from the basement flat I shared with my mother in Forest Hill, a perfectly unglamorous corner of south-east London.
There was a phone call, and a summoning back. You know how receptive children are to tone. Childhood is all tone, colours and snatches of clarity at nameless things. I knew already, and knew for certain when I saw all the adults with faces like stone, squished into the tiny living room. Mum's dead, isn't she? That's the first thing I said, straight off the bat. And she was. Breast cancer, barely into her forties.
It could have happened to anyone, anywhere. As it does on a daily basis. After all, death and grief hardly confine themselves to the fringes of inner London. Though there’s nothing unique in their visitations, rubbing up against them so young threw up a few enduring curveballs. One of the most potent has been a fixation on the area where it all just happened to happen.
Forest Hill, a whole of district's worth of elevated residential bleed: an occasionally dull, though often demented, expression of urban compromise. My own family’s connection with the area spans the sum total of a single generation. Before here, there was chaos. An unending procession of hastily-vacated council flats, from Islington to Peckham, plus a few elsewheres crammed in between.
We arrived because of me – indirectly, at least. It’s nice to be the centre of your own origin story. Before my birth, my parents were homeless – though my gran lived down the road in her own cramped Catford one-bed. It shows how much has changed in the succeeding years, that the council offered them housing as soon I came onto the scene. Something in Hither Green, then our little basement two-bed in Forest Hill, conveniently near gran and our fragile networks of family, school and work.
Things changed when my dad’s drinking became too outrageous to ignore and began to fray the brittle harmony of a newly semi-secure life. You can’t blame him, really, as little more than an exploited Spanish adolescent, stuck in an unforgiving city and an unfamiliar language. And this is about here, not him – even if his memory colours the edges of my mind when I walk past 197C Honor Oak Road. I really thought that flat to be heaven on Earth. My oversized bedroom with the bars on the windows and enough room to conjure up games of astonishing complexity, with whatever Action Men and market stall tat I could grip my hands on.
There’s something that HG Wells wrote, about coming back to the dismal south London of his youth. Something remorseless and cruel, about the endless rows of "dingy houses" and the unspeakably tedious lives of the people in them. He would have been talking about us, just of a different era. Of course, we didn’t see it that way, and I still don’t now. I’m convinced there’s something magical about Forest Hill, even if its spells are often ambivalent.
The steepness of the roads and impossible angles of light thrown out by an autumn sun. Bouts of appalled silence, yards from the hell of the South Circular. An overabundance of green space and foliage, which can feel like comfort or the harbinger of neuroses, depending on your mood. And the Victorian insanity of The Horniman Museum – vanity project of a 19th century tea merchant and obsessional collector of international infamy. I’ve always been terrified of the smell in the taxidermy-crammed main building, a potent mixture of foot-worn floor polish and greasy palms. Yet there’s nowhere I’d rather spend a Sunday afternoon.
Still, Forest Hill has always been an easy place to gloss over in the consciousness. Lewisham (where I was born) to the south-east offers a winning example of permanent neglect, punctuated by a retro-chic shopping arcade and the Citibank Tower, south London’s first "skyscraper" and monument to a never-quite-realised future. Peckham lies at the southward jaws of Forest Hill Road, and is now an Evening Standard property supplement case study in the wonders of aggressive gentrification.
Even the fringes of Catford offer a clearer selling point as a byword for Zone 3 obscurity: the sort of place that haunts the future nightmares of Home Counties transplants and trapped first-time buyers. But nowhere else offers the absurd, high-altitude terrain and almost gleeful lack of architectural coherence. If not quite the place that London forgot, there’s still a sense that time passes differently here. It’s tough to explain and even harder to prove, really. But I imagine that anyone who has spent any chunk of their life in Forest Hill will already know what I mean.
All the dense post-war estates, coexisting cheerfully with four-bedroom rococo masterpieces of bad taste, centred by a stubbornly change-resistant high street, home to "Ferfect Chicken" and a chronically exasperated Chinese restaurant that housed so many family meals and minor special occasions. Plus, the constant, un-ignorable reminders on the horizon, of an entire metropolis just out of reach.
Though it isn't the whole story. There are the usual physical markers of what people like to call regeneration. The chocolate box delis and artisanal butchers, refitted old man boozers and sourdough pizza haunts. A commuter-packed gym, where McDonald's used to stand. Plenty of healthy-looking incomers, priced out of the surrounding areas, beaming at the good fortune of their discovery.
The foot-to-throat rapidity of change you witness in Hackney or Southwark is generally absent, even if you suspect it might be right around the corner, chuntering along the Overground. For now, there's still an overlying quaintness to the changes; akin to a 2008 fixibike hipster's idea of the cutting edge. It’s tough not to smile at the old Blockbuster transformed into a sad looking Costa, still replete with the white and blue fittings of the mid-2000s.
I think about T a lot these days, though there was a time when I didn’t at all. We’d been friends from the beginning at Fairlawn Primary. We had things in common, besides an aptitude for Nintendo all-nighters. My father, the drunk. His dad, the pastor turned drug addict. I think we must have been 14 or so, one oppressively hot summer’s night when I was back, staying at my gran’s. He lived down the road, in a crumbling Victorian house with his extended family. There was a cousin in King’s Cross, where he’d go to escape from his dad’s occasional visitations.
There had been a phone call that night, as we stood around, doing close to fuck all, accompanied by his mother’s tears. He was round the house again, she said, leathering the door, yelling for money, screaming against his real and imagined enemies. No, she wasn’t frightened, but it might be best for you not to come home, not until he exhausted himself and drifted off again. How do teenage boys react when faced with phone calls like that? Embarrassment, mainly. Anger. You feel all sorts of things, then.
He decided to walk all the way to central, right there and then. I didn’t argue or point out that it was eight miles away, without an Oyster Card or directions. When T got these things in his head, you knew better than to remonstrate. A thousand times you’d seen it. There would be a trigger, a switch, or whatever. Then the decisive action, swift and streamlined as you like. He was good like that, always clear in judgment. Always precise, no matter the consequences.
I walked past T’s house for the first time in years the other day. The door had a fresh coat of paint, green as money, a new family having long since taken over. We used to laugh about what we’d ever do if we got rich. We’d get daft and hysterical. Cars and bikes, games and holidays, all sorts of gadgets and extravagance. But first things first, T would say. I’d get out of this shithole and never come back.
Someone told me he’s doing well now, whatever that means. It’s good to hear it, even if too much time has elapsed now to seek him out and reminisce on those long-gone days. What would be the point? To dredge up his worst times, to satisfy my own constant need for reflection. His obsessions might not be my own, just as his memories might not chime to mine. It’s funny, as you get older, realising there’s less accidents in your actions that you previously supposed.
All the isolated quirks that become habit and pattern. Choosing to rent a flat three doors from my old family home, straight after university. Finding my feet conducting me back to the heart of Forest Hill, on my semi-regular evening walks. Never letting the past entirely glaze over, in the hope of what, exactly?
It has as much to do with the future as it does the past. Eventually, I’d like to settle here, if I am to settle anywhere. There’s nowhere else that feels as comfortable, or as "right". Sometimes I think about the easy, desirable life I might have led if things had turned out differently. If mum would still be in the same damp flat, working as an admin assistant at Lambeth Council – and how happy she’d be to see me return for Sundays on the sofa, talking nonsense about our weeks in front of the TV.
Or perhaps we'd have drifted, when the housing association had upped the rent, and she’d decamped to the outer boroughs, to a life somewhere further on the margins. But I know these to just be dreams, for speculation on idle nights when I’m not surrounded by friends or work.
It’s all about the perspective, here. Poised at the top of Forest Hill Road, staring north, it really does feel like it’s the world spread out in front you. Caught at dusk, on the correct evening, you can squint and be forgiven for thinking that it's been spread out for your benefit, and yours alone. The city at its most absurd and unobtainable, somewhere just beyond your hands, from Waterloo to the evil-looking multi-angled clusters of glass in the old City.
Yet that too is a just a sleight of vision. To squint just means seeing more, of less. I couldn't see T on that long passed summer night, inching his way to temporary sanctuary in Kings’s Cross, over all that uncaring terrain. Is it natural to still feel shame? Is it normal to cling to a place – and the past – in the hope that holding on is preferable to a gradual forgetting of the events that have shaped you, for the good, ill or indifferent?
I have never quite managed a satisfactory answer to either question. It's likely I never will. There are other certainties, though: another view in Forest Hill that I know to be even more significant, though of less immediate drama and widescreen potentiality. Turn at the top of the hill, back into the suburban pastoral of Honor Oak Road, past the primary school and boutique institutional grimness of the nursing home on the right, and you'll arrive at the peak of Ewelme Road.
To linger there on a clear night, the sky spreads for miles. South past Catford and straight out into the nameless residential bleed of Kent, and beyond to God knows where. I stood here once many years ago, with my mother on a winter's night. These are not my recollections, but hers, composed in the last bitter days when the light was drawing in, from a hospital bed on an upper floor in Guy's Hospital.
My aunty had kept the package of her writing, safe for my 18th birthday, when it was thought appropriate to hand on this particular inheritance. The hand is steady, though the ink has faded with time and countless re-readings.
Isco, do you remember that first clothes sale at Fairlawn? You were in Year One. It was in the evening, so it was quite late as we walked home. It was a cold night in November, a clear bright night with "la luna uena", a full moon and lots of stars.
We stopped and stood hand in hand at the top of the hill and watched the light shining, looking up at the moon.
“Lets make a secret wish, mum," you said.
“Alright, but we must keep it a secret,” I replied.
So we made our wishes. I hope they come true