Covid tales from a south London park bench – photo essay | Art and design

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Jim Grover: At the side of Mount Pond on Clapham Common there is a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year snack wagon called Honest Tom’s. It has been there for 30 years and was owned and operated by Tom, who passed away last year. In his memory, a bench has been erected nearby, with an inscription plaque and a flower vase which Nadine, who has worked in Honest Tom’s for 27 years, fills with fresh flowers each week.

It was, deliberately, a random process. Whoever sat down on “Tom’s bench” became my subject for the day. One day I had to wait for three hours. Another day, despite going twice, no one sat on it, so the empty bench became my mute subject.

August had some typically British variations in climate, including a heatwave and heavy rain. The images also convey the passage of time: the weekly new flowers that wilted and died, and the green that peppered the scorched grass as rain swept in at the end of the month.

The visitors’ experiences of Covid cover the compete spectrum. Their stories are like many we read and hear about, but are made very real as we see the faces behind the words. Yvonne’s incredibly moving story, on the very last day of the project, puts all the others into context.

Timothy, 1 August.



Timothy first came to Honest Tom’s in May, when he started working for Lambeth council on Clapham Common at the weekends. During the week he works for himself as a painter and decorator in Sydenham. He is of Jamaican heritage.

“It didn’t really bother me … I take certain things to prevent getting it … It’s part of my culture. So I lived my life normally … It’s fate. I know one girl that caught the virus … she is still alive … I visit her and help her out a bit.”

Dave, 2 August.



Dave owns Dave’s Paws, a dog-walking, cat-feeding and pet-sitting business. He has been coming to Honest Tom’s for six years becaue it’s on his daily dog-walking route. Today he is walking Luna.

“Our business has taken a massive hit. We lost a few dogs where clients lost their businesses … although we’re still walking their dogs for free. All our cat business went out of the window because, obviously, no one is going away and leaving their cats.”

Penelope, Rebecca and Jamie, 3 August.



Three generations wait for their lunch on Tom’s bench: Penelope, her daughter Rebecca, Rebecca’s partner Jamie, who is a director of a food ingredients business, and their son Max. Jamie discovered Honest Tom’s a month ago, and they now come all the time, typically for lunch. They talk about how Covid has altered their daily lives.

Rebecca: “Only not going to baby groups.”
Jamie: “Only in terms of work and working from home … which has its ups and downs. I wouldn’t be able to be here today, I’d be in an office in Wapping.”

Emin and his friend Paul, 5 August.



Emin (left) and his friend Paul. Honest Tom’s is a big part of Emin’s life. He’s been coming for about 20 years and typically comes several times a day, sometimes with his wife Sheila, to meet and chat with his many friends. Paul has been coming for at least 30 years. He was born around here and used to bring his dogs.

Emin: “This place was closed for seven weeks … so I missed the people up here. Other than that, it wasn’t too bad. I had Sheila to keep me company. I know a couple of people who got ill, but they came through it all right.”

Paul: “My mother died back in February. I went to her bungalow in Suffolk and got grounded there for five weeks. I couldn’t get a coach back. I got badly ill there … it was horrible. In the end I panicked and managed to get a minicab company to bring me back to London for a lot of money … and then straight to the doctors … but it wasn’t Covid.”

Victor and Harvey, 6 August.



Victor (left) has been coming for just a few weeks. Harvey has been coming for a year or two. He’s an electrical engineer but sometimes helps his friend with food deliveries. They are part of a group of motorbiker friends who meet most days at Honest Tom’s. Some of them use it as a base, glued to their mobile phones, as they wait for courier jobs to bid for from the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

Victor: “I kept on working right through … doing deliveries for Uber Eats. I work every day. I was fine.”

Harvey: “I kept on doing the daily things in life, but there hasn’t been enough part-time work for me as an electrical engineer.”

Matt, August 7th



Matt has been coming once or twice a week for about three years. He’s an electrician.

“Covid put the company I work for completely out of business. I’m self-employed, and they told us to sit at home until further notice … they’re still shut down today. I had no income and had to find other means of employment. I’ve got some work now, if you can call it work, for my uncle … it’s still money, but it’s not what I was earning before.”

Mark and Stephen, August 9th



Mark and Stephen are brothers. They have been coming for about 20 years but have been regulars for the past four. They come every Sunday to have lunch together. Stephen travels all the way in from Beckenham.

Mark: “I don’t go out as much … only for the basic stuff, food and exercise, but I’ve been able to keep working in grounds and gardens as a gardener.”

Stephen: “It was challenging for us during the lockdown … it’s always been very important for us to be able to meet in the open on a regular basis. When Honest Tom’s closed I realised that Covid was more serious than I’d first thought. I don’t remember it being closed in all the years I’ve been coming to the common. In terms of work, it hasn’t really had an impact on me. I haven’t been furloughed … I work for the government. I used to work from home a few days, now I’m working from home full-time. My guess is they’ll be requesting us to return before the end of the year … as long as circumstances permit.”

Pedro and Rico, August 10th



Pedro (left) and Rico are also bikers. Pedro has been coming for about three months, attracted by the vibe and his biker friends. He also sometimes fishes in the pond in front of the bench for carp. Rico has been coming for three or four weeks, attracted by the food at Honest Tom’s and the bikes.

Pedro: I work in construction … I worked through it, painting and decorating … business is fine.”

Rico: “I’ve been keeping busy … I work in construction … I’m self-employed. I wish I was a courier rider.”

Michael, 11 August.



Michael has been coming for about 10 years. He’s ex-army and lives in a flat in Balham provided by the ex-services housing association. His son is a doctor. Now he does a bit of film extra work – “there’s not many jobs for anti-tank gunners round here unless you decide to become a mercenary.” – plays classical guitar – “it keeps me alive – and has recently been learning some 17th-century poetry – “which will be good for a pint in the pub.

To be quite honest I never expected to be still here with all the fear around … totally exaggerated. But touch wood, I have survived. I have saved a lot of money … there’s more money in my bank accounts … and it makes you realise how you fritter it away. There is a bright lining to every dark cloud … there’s something to be learned from everything.”

Holly, 13 August.



Holly is Tom’s granddaughter. Her dad, Simon, now owns and runs Honest Tom’s, where Holly works the afternoon shift. She started work in January, a few weeks before Tom’s was forced to shut in March, the first time it has been closed in its 30-year history. She is also a graphic artist.

“With Tom’s being closed I was out of work for 10 weeks. It was a lovely holiday (she laughs slightly sheepishly). I spent all my time in the countryside … every day I was going on long walks in the fields, and although I wasn’t getting paid I still had support around me. Everyone else seemed to be working harder … my partner (a police officer) was working much harder.”

Zoe, August 15th



This is the first time Zoe has sat on Tom’s bench. She comes to the common most days but stopped here today for a break having just taken up running. Zoe is an NHS hospital speech therapist and works in mental health and forensics.

“I got stuck in Australia and unfortunately contracted the virus there. I went for a holiday for two weeks … but ended up there for two and a half months. It was pretty hard getting back… The airfares were expensive, and they kept cancelling the flights, which happened to me … it was so unfortunate. But my work was good over here, I work for the NHS. I am fine now … I am one of the lucky ones. Work is busy.”

August 16th



Nadine (right) has worked at Honest Tom’s for almost 27 years. She works the morning shift Tuesdays to Fridays and comes in from Croydon. She is here today to cover staff holiday. Susanne comes every Wednesday, attracted by “the lovely food, the absolutely lovely ladiesat Honest Tom’s and the opportunity to give her dog a sausage.

Susanne: “I have COPD [a lung disease] and had to stay locked in for two months by myself with my dog … it was horrible. I didn’t speak to anybody, I didn’t see none of my kids, my grandkids. It was depressing, awful, because I like to get out. I couldn’t wait to get back out … I didn’t feel anxious at all. Now I do anything … I spent the night with my grandkids last night … I babysat and looked after them and cuddled up with them in bed. Someone died in my family of Covid … she was disabled and had a lot of issues.”

Nadine: “It stopped me working with Tom’s being shut. But I enjoyed being off … being indoors, getting things done, just me and Den [Nadine’s husband]. It was hard not being able to see my kids and grandkids … but you’ve got FaceTime and all that technology now. Other than that, I quite enjoyed it. I am never off sick … I just have my holidays … and it was nice to have a long break. It’s hard being on your feet for six hours each day at my age.”

Michele, August 17th



This is Michele’s first time at Honest Tom’s. He stumbled across it while walking on the common with his young daughter. Michele is originally from the north of Italy, where Covid hit hard. He has been here for more than 15 years, and he’s an analyst programmer.

We have all been constrained so it’s been tough for everyone from a social and a mental health point of view. We keep balanced … but you need to make an effort … so it’s not easy. We’ve been OK, so we are very lucky. I’m working from home. I had the opportunity to work from home before some days a week, and to save some money and the commute, but I never liked it. Maybe it’s because I’m Italian. I like to interact. It’s a different rhythm … I guess we’ll have to get used to it. We went back to see my parents in Italy a couple of weeks ago. It was tough. They want to touch you … and you’re scared of giving them anything.”

Martin and Maria, 23 August.



Martin and Maria are friends. Martin has been coming to Honest Tom’s for 20 years and knew Tom. Maria has only been coming for six months, but now comes a couple of times a week. She likes the peace and quiet to collect her thoughts. She’s currently not working because of health issues but was previously a NHS receptionist. Martin is a carpenter, although he is not doing so much at the moment, having recently lost his wife to cancer.

Martin: [Covid is affecting me] more now at the end, with all the uncertainty. It didn’t affect me directly, thank goodness.”

Maria: It’s all the uncertainty and the illegal raves going on on the common. I’m worried about that … we were here late last night at 10 o’clock and there were two raves going on. There was no social distancing … the police had no one to send.

Freddie, Rob, and Te Keepa, 24 August.



The tree over the bench provides some shelter for Freddie, Rob and Te Keepa as the rain starts to fall. They are about to return to school for their final GCSE year. They have been to Honest Tom’s a few times before.

It’s been alright … staying indoors … not going out … working has been a bit harder.”

Junior and Emin, 25 August.



Junior (left) has been coming to Honest Tom’s for more than ten years. He comes from Bromley on his motorbike as often as he can, mainly to meet up with his friend Emin. Junior ran his own car body repair business for 27 years before being injured in an accident which has left him with long-term illness. Emin shared his story on 5 August.

Junior: I am trying to be careful … everything has been fine.”

Margaret and Tony, 26 August.



This is Margaret’s first time on Tom’s bench. She has come along with Tony, who is a regular and comes on his bike from Stockwell two or three times a week. They are friends and members of the same organisation for people “of a certain age.

Margaret: “I don’t worry about it. I’m 81 … I haven’t got time to worry about it. I don’t feel alone, but I’m missing the Proms.”

Tony: “It’s hard. I live alone … so I feel a bit isolated. I usually go to Sweden in the summer to see a very good friend for a couple of weeks … I’ve missed that this year. It’s been tough.”

Tony and Michaela, 27 August.



Tony and Michaela started to come to Honest Tom’s six months ago, to meet up with friends. They both now come almost every day. Tony does motorbike deliveries for a vegan restaurant. Michaela is studying engineering at university and just got a first in her pre-return exams.

Tony: “I got kept in lockdown, like everyone else, and was out of work … I’m back at work now. It’s not like normal life. You’re under control … like when you’re younger and you’re under control by your parents. I’ve missed my freedom … I don’t like it.”

Michaela: “University stopped for a bit … but I didn’t mind.”

Tony, 28 August.



Tony is a local black-cab driver. He’s come for breakfast after a night shift. He can remember Tom opening 30 years ago and has been a regular for the past 15 years or so, stopping to grab a cup of tea or a bite to eat. He now comes most days if he’s working, attracted by a decent cup of tea and the sense of community among the regulars. He’s made many friends up here, and he sometimes helps out in Honest Tom’s.

It’s been terrible … the work has completely gone. I’m self-employed … the government money has helped out a lot. The business is still as bad now … the work hasn’t picked up at all.”

Angler, 29 August.



No room on the bench. Anglers.

Theresa and William , 30 August.



Theresa and William took pity on me, having heard that I had been waiting for three hours for someone to sit on the bench. By now it was early evening and the light was fading fast. This is Theresa’s second time at Honest Tom’s. William has been coming for about 20 years. He comes every morning at about half past five to get a cup of coffee on his way to work as an air conditioning engineer.

Theresa: “I was in the travel industry, in sales … I lost my job. I had just moved to London in January for the job, and now it’s gone unfortunately. They put me on furlough. They were very good to us and let us know every week, and they still touch base with us … so it was a nice layoff. But they finally let me and a lot of people go due to Covid.”

William: “On a personal level it hasn’t affected me in any way. As a maintenance engineer … I’ve worked right the way through as a key worker. I’ve been lucky when so many haven’t.”

Yvonne, August 31st



The final chapter in this month-long project is an incredibly moving encounter with Yvonne, whose experiences put all the others’ into context. Yvonne has been coming to Honest Tom’s for “donkey’s years, including when Tom was working on his own in a much smaller wagon. She comes two or three times a week as she lives close by. A beaming smile illuminates Yvonne’s face as she proudly tells me she is a “great grannie”.

My husband died. He collapsed at home and it took a couple of hours for the ambulance to come. We managed to get him to St George’s … and they kept him in there. He just couldn’t walk … he was in there a couple of weeks and then he caught this virus there and he died. And my two daughters and I, we couldn’t see him … no contact … we couldn’t even say goodbye He died in the beginning of April, and we couldn’t bury him until May. And now I am on my own. It was a nightmare. It’s still a nightmare.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid tales from a south London park bench – photo essay | Art and design

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