diamond geezer

 Monday, September 25, 2017

K Wandsworth
Wandsworth was the largest of the pre-1965 boroughs, so the Herbert Commission proposed breaking off the riverside chunk and bolting it onto Battersea. Today I'm visiting the other part, away from the Thames, the rump that eventually lost Clapham and Streatham when they were forcibly merged into Lambeth. And I'm focusing on one particular current resident, who grew up (and still lives) in the borough, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

Born: St George's Hospital, Tooting

Sadiq Aman Khan was born on 8th October 1970 in a maternity ward at St George's Hospital in Tooting. The fifth of eight children, his parents had emigrated from Pakistan a few years previously.

St George's feels like an anomaly, a modern building adrift in a sea of suburban housing. Desirable Victorian terraces run up to its utilitarian boundary, stopping dead at a big fence or the ring road, and something much more contemporary (and uglier) rises within. It wasn't always like this - St George's began on what's now Hyde Park Corner in 1773, and only moved to Tooting in the 1970s. The site had previously been occupied by The Grove Hospital, an isolation unit opened in the 1890s to cope with an epidemic of scarlet fever in the capital. St George's took over The Grove in 1954, eventually demolishing it and the neighbouring Fountain asylum to create the higgledy mishmash of buildings we see today.

It often surprises me how busy hospitals are - not the wards where the healing happens but the internal public thoroughfares and associated services. The main corridor through the centre of St George's could almost be in a shopping mall, with coffee shops and eateries, a cashier's office for paying your bills, and even an M&S Simply Food. There again, most shopping malls don't also have a glass case of surgical treasures, a bronze bust of former medical student Edward Jenner, and a plaque unveiled by the Queen. It is still possible to be born here - the maternity wards are in the architecturally undistinguished Lanesborough Wing, complete with 13 delivery rooms and two birthing pools (please bring two forms of identification).

Grew up: Henry Prince Estate, Earlsfield

Sadiq, his sister and six brothers grew up in a three-bedroom flat on the Henry Prince Estate, a dense patch of Wandsworth council housing. His mother Sehrun was a seamstress, and worked from home, while his father Amanullah was a bus driver on route 44, which stops immediately out front. [video]

The Henry Prince Estate was built in 1938 on 10 acres of land near St John's church, fronting Garratt Lane and stretching back to the River Wandle. I've not seen any other development quite like it, a sequence of large square courtyards surrounded by four storey brick blocks, linked by a central service road carved through white streamlined arches. The Wandsworth coat of arms is emblazoned above the archway at the main entrance, and above that a modernist clock, eleven of whose numerals have been replaced by letters from the name HENRY PRINCE. Henry was a local Conservative councillor and had been chair of the Housing Committee for almost two decades before he died, just as the estate was coming to fruition.

There are 272 flats altogether, with no sign of obvious external disrepair. The sequential courtyards are a nice touch, providing a social focus and a green view from the windows, although I doubt they'd have been scattered with parked cars when the estate opened. These squares would also have provided a safe place to play, easily observed from a ring of surrounding lounges and kitchens. Today a much smaller area has been secured with proper playground equipment. I walked through when all the local children should have been at school, so saw only a few mothers returning with shopping and Wandsworth's gardening contractors clearing out the shrubbery, plus some toking youth on a bench round the back by the river. Social housing is still doing its job here, 80 years on.

Went to school: Fircroft Primary School, Tooting
Went to school: Ernest Bevin School, Tooting

Sadiq went to Fircroft Primary, a Victorian establishment over a mile from home, and then to the boys school just round the corner, which back in the 80s didn't have the best reputation. Sadiq took physics and maths at A level and was planning to become a dentist, until a teacher suggested he was argumentative enough to become a lawyer instead.

Fircroft was built by the School Board for London, according to some flowery stonework on the second floor, and its buildings and playground take up almost a whole block. A lot of happy shrieking was coming from the other side of its high perimeter wall when I walked by, passing posters for the 7.30am Breakfast Club. Sadiq is still a member of the Board of Governors, but no longer has the spare time to sit on any of the committees. As for Ernest Bevin, this has very much the look of a sports centre or utilities HQ, thanks to a complete rebuild in the 1990s, so the rooms where Sadiq learnt mechanics and trig are long gone. The sixth form students I saw shambling outside in the street suggested that school uniform is not a key part of their regime. Other successful alumni include snooker player Jimmy White, and TV presenter Ortis Deley.

Boxed: Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club, Earlsfield

Sadiq was very much into football, boxing and cricket, and as a teenager once had a trial for Surrey County Cricket Club. He and his brothers all attended Earlsfield Boxing Club, at the insistence of eldest brother Sid, who turned up as an 11 year-old and is now the head coach.

Earlsfield Boxing Club is based so far up Garratt Lane it's practically in Wandsworth. Kicked out of Earlsfield proper in 1971, the club set up shop in half of St Mary's Church, and now own the whole building. The red and blue boxing glove motifs decorating the bell gable are a nice touch, and a heavy hint that the C of E moved out some time ago. Inside the extensive hall you'll find boxing rings, a large gym and a flurry of straight-talking, so I'm told, at what's now one of the largest boxing clubs in the capital. Frank Bruno started out here, and recent Olympic medallist Joe Joyce is Sid's most recent world class protégé.

Prays: al-Muzzamil mosque, Tooting

Long before becoming London's first Muslim mayor, Sadiq was a worshipper at the al-Muzzamil mosque in Gatton Road, which he still attends regularly. I believe this is where in 1994 he married his wife Saadiya, a lawyer he met soon after starting work as a trainee solicitor in Bloomsbury.

Turning off from the bustle of Tooting High Street, Gatton Road looks like a well-to-do terraced street, and on one side it very much is. But on the other side the houses break after a few hundred yards to make way for a large redbrick building with a golden dome perched on top, and thinner golden minarets to either side. It was built in 1972, and sort-of looks it, and was the first mosque to be established in the Tooting area. Males and females worship separately within, via separate entrances, and there are also dedicated Wudu facilities (for ritual washing). Nextdoor is Gatton School, pairing a typically tall Victorian building with more recent playground infill. The whole set-up looks ever so ordinary until you spot that the school's motto translates as Oh Allah Increase My Knowledge - this is in fact the UK's first purpose-built Muslim Voluntary Aided primary.

Lives: Thrale Road, Furzedown

You can tell a lot from the street a politician chooses to live in. Ken Livingstone's home is a Cricklewood terrace, while Boris Johnson goes home to a grand townhouse in Islington by the mouth of the Regents Canal tunnel. The Khan family, in contrast, live in a much more mixed street in South London, just off Mitcham Lane.

Thrale Road is named after the family who used to own Streatham Park, a now-demolished mansion hereabouts, and whose most famous lodger was the lexicographer Samuel Johnson. Formerly known as Green Lane, it runs down the western edge of their former estate from the tip of Tooting Graveney Common. There are some big detatched houses up at this end, but also some terraced villas and more modern blocks of lowrise postwar flats, and further down an actual council estate - the Fayland. The photo I've chosen to depict the street isn't typical, but is typically atypical, and correctly hints that this is no shabby backwater.

Down towards Mitcham Lane are a chunky modern church and then a row of shops, including two barbers, an off-licence and a fried chicken shop called Kebabalicious. The big timbered pub on the corner used to be called The Samuel Johnson but was recently renamed The Furzedown, because literary figures are evidently passé these days. Mitcham Lane's shopping parade has seen better days but could be worse, and there is a Sainsbury's Local to which perhaps Sadiq nips for milk. His favourite restaurants are further away near Tooting Broadway tube, specifically Vijaya Krishna on Mitcham Road and Lahore Karahi on the High Street, according to his Visit London list of Six Reasons To Visit Tooting. It seems the local lad is in no rush to move away.

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