Walk Through The New … Clapham Library

I had a funny old trip down memory lane last
night. The location was a rain-swept Clapham High Street, and more specifically the new Clapham Library. The occasion was a reading by Neil McKenna from his new book, Fanny &
which is an account of a scandalous and sensational transvestite criminal case which “rocked Victorian
London to its knickers”. This is one of a series of events brought together by Lambeth Archives and the Lambeth Local History Forum for the Lambeth Heritage Festival 2013.

I’ve known Clapham High Street since the
early 1980s, when the main night-time hazard involved dodging the tumbleweed as it rolled past
the charity shops. Over the last few years, I’ve seen the street transform itself
turn into Party Central for South London’s bright young professionals, and
heaven help you if your taxi home takes you down there on a Friday or Saturday night.

During the day, the High Street is still a real high street with shops and caffs, albeit with a higher yummy mummy quotient than a few years back. The fact that the area is inexorably on the up has been consolidated by the new Clapham Library which opened at the Mary Seacole Centre in July last year.

The new Clapham Library is notable not only for its interior spiral design, reminiscent of
Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, but also for incorporating a number of services
under one roof including a new medical centre. To confound tabloid outrage over local government expenditure, the £6.5 million construction costs have been paid for
entirely by the sale of 136 residential flats which form part of the new 12
storey development. Equally interesting is the spectacular Andrew Logan mirrored sculpture outside the entrance, which spells out the word Library. Each letter is inset with a mass of personal items, donated by the people of Clapham as a permanent and personal reminder that the library is for them. 

Thinking of Lambeth Heritage, I have to admit that I have fond memories of the Old Clapham Library on The Pavement. However I'm glad to see that the old building is being converted into an arts centre, rather than being redeveloped into another up-market burger bar or yet more luxury affordable housing. So, great news for Clapham and Lambeth on all fronts.

Back to last night's book event, I don't think I've spoken to Neil McKenna since I was a student at UEA in Norwich (my Linkedin profile will help you with the sums on that one) so I was intrigued to catch up with him again. His reading was highly entertaining, and his book Fanny & Stella is a hoot, although the more faint-hearted may need to take the advice of the Daily Express book reviewer, who with a refreshing absence of irony, claims not to be a prude but felt the need to "skip
over several passages". It's good to see the spirit of Edna Welthorpe living on into the 21st Century.

What more can I say? Buy the book. Visit the library. And enjoy the rest of the Lambeth Heritage Festival.


– Donald Lickley

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