What to see
Sutton is a newcomer to Towns of Two Halves: you can order the book for £8 from email@example.com. For more on Sutton (shopping, eating out etc) there’s Sutton Council’s downloadable guide or 15 Best Things to do in Sutton.
Towns of Two Halves update
A visit to Sutton United might easily be dispiriting.
There’s the risk of losing, obviously, and that is exacerbated by Sutton’s recent elevation. They may have beaten Coventry City and Leeds United there in the past; they may be National League champions; but it’s non-league, innit? All fans of league clubs expect their teams to put teams from the division below in their place.
Then there’s South London. The shapeless backside of the capital visible from the railway lines is dreary. The trains give you the opportunity to contemplate the wasteland at leisure by proceeding at the stately pace of a bus and, like a bus, they will stop frequently – at and between stations.
You may set out enthusiastically ready to find interest in unpromising circumstances. For example, when did Balham stop being the Gateway to the South and become the Home of English Gin? And that mesh fencing topped by angled lines of barbed wire – why are the angles inclined to keep trespassers in? But it’s hard to sustain this for long. You’ll find your patience waning. Graffiti… it’s relentlessly formulaic, isn’t it? Repetitive and unimaginative and splashed with colour in the way people think exclamation points will make a dull text more exciting. Graffiti is what you get when a generation with nothing to say is encouraged to express itself.
Not for nothing was Tony Hancock’s fictional home in Cheam, the next stop down the line from Sutton. By the time you get to Sutton you may be prone to sarcasm. Arcing across the platform is what must be the lowest bridge on an English railway station – if you crack your head on it, the day will seem complete.
You could sidestep that last risk by travelling to West Sutton station, which is so close to Sutton United’s Gander Green Lane home that a long throw-in could reach a passing train. But there are good reasons to treat West Sutton with caution.
The first objection concerns journey times. West Sutton is served by trains from London St Pancras, which may sound handy for fans arriving from the northeast or, indeed, from Paris or Brussels. But the journey from St Pancras takes about an hour and includes 17 stops. Life is too short.
By alighting at West Sutton you also miss what Sutton has to offer. It may come as a surprise to learn that Sutton is a not insignificant centre of public art – murals and street crossings mainly. Not to mention the Rolling Stones.
The murals are a fine collection. The most dramatic is a short block south of Sutton railway station and well worth the detour. By Spanish artist Eva Mena it is a striking depiction of the US musician Erykah Badu, known as the Queen of Neo soul. Her hair, skin, flowers and jewellery belong to four quite different artistic styles and the red-brick background is unsettling but the whole is wonderful. It is also, oddly, reminiscent of James Barnor’s famous Swinging Sixties photograph known as Drum Cover Girl (Erlin Ibreck, London 1966) and you’ll catch another echo of that at the north end of Sutton High Street.
Two other murals are municipal, but that doesn’t automatically consign them to the ‘worthy but dull’ category. The Twin Town mural is on a north-facing gable end and arguably dull in situation, but the decoration of false windows celebrating Sutton’s continental partners is a bright idea.
The third key mural is also north-facing and too high up the wall to study closely. This is the Heritage Mosaic, again the work of Rob Turner and Gary Drostle, at Trinity Square. It recalls the history of the Borough of Sutton in 19 monochrome panels set in a colourfully patterned frame – like stained glass in reverse.
Trinity Square is a grand name for a rather nondescript urban space, but the Heritage Mosaic isn’t its only distinction. The branch of Wilko on the east side has a living wall above the ground floor and must therefore be one of the shaggiest discount stores in the country.
On the opposite corner is the Sutton armillary, known as the Millennium Dial. Appropriately, this sphere was donated by the Rotary Club and it has moved more than once. Inset into the pavement around it are inspirational time-related messages: “Enjoy today, not yesterday, nor tomorrow,” for example. Sutton’s Buddhist community must be delighted.
Worth a mention is The Messenger, David Wynne’s equestrian statue at Quadrant House beside the station. This is how Edvard Munch would have sculpted an interpretation of How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. The rider’s alarm suggest that good news is fake news. His nakedness won’t improve his mood.
Transpose 2002, beyond B&Q from the main crossroads, is a victim of rewilding. Once apparently “a significant landmark for those entering Sutton from an easterly direction” (or ‘from the east’, you might say) it is now a large meaninglessly-defaced blade of steel attached to a column of stone being absorbed by an unruly hedge. Admirers of the work of sculptor Michael Dan Archer might want to take a pair of shears and some paint-stripper with them.
Behind the High Street, to the west, is St Nicholas Church. One of the monuments – relocated from an earlier church on the site – is to Joseph Glover, rector, who “introduced the printing press to New England” in the 17th century. Wikipedia’s account is more even-handed: it credits Glover’s wife Elizabeth, pointing out that Joseph died on the voyage to the Massachusetts and was buried at sea.
In Sutton this is an odd instance of gender-blindness. Elsewhere, the town is more than usually sensitive. It helps pedestrians across St Nicholas Way by providing a Pride-inspired Rainbow Crossing, and at the north end of the High Street there is what the council says is the first Transgender Crossing in the UK. This is painted in the colours of the 1999 trans flag – blue, pink and white – “a visible celebration of Sutton’s transgender community… a sign of the inclusivity of the borough… and [will] make walking and cycling more appealing”.
The Transgender Crossing leads at one end into a supermarket and at the other to the doors of the Winning Post pub (pictured above). Do not bother with the supermarket.
The Winning Post was called the Red Lion when the Rolling Stones played there on perhaps 10 nights in the winter of 1962, at the beginning of their careers. It was a significant venue for them: Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman became permanent members here, and a promoter saw the band and provided a vital step up.
None of that has left any trace in the pub’s back room. There’s no sign that the world’s greatest rock ’n roll band ever played in this anonymous, high-ceilinged, 40ft by 50ft space. The floor and the windows may be unchanged and might have a tale to tell, if you were disposed to sense vibrations from woodwork. Otherwise, imagination is required.
And for that, you must begin by picturing a clean slate. All the ‘content’ within a couple of clicks – Chuck Berry playing Johnny B Goode in 1958, or Marty McFly playing it in 1995 in Back to the Future for that matter – forget it. On your way to the Red Lion in winter 1962, you’re going to see a bunch of lads you’ve never heard of play music you’ve never heard.
It wasn’t the Dark Ages but there weren’t many ways to hear music of any kind in 1962. On the radio, the BBC Light Programme had Pick of the Pops and Music While You Work. Hardly anybody had a television. As for new music in the suburbs: records were too expensive to buy on the off-chance that you’d like them – you needed enlightened friends or a sympathetic music-shop manager. And there were pubs and clubs, not all of which would put on concerts that featured amplified electric guitar music.
Popular music in the UK in 1962 was dominated by clean-cut young men, girls with big hair and groups (not yet ‘bands’ – bands had conductors and a brass section) who wore suits and moved in step with each other. On 7 December the top three in the singles charts were warbling Frank Ifield, the Joe Loss Orchestra and Del Shannon.
Change was on the way. The Beatles were playing in Hamburg in late 1962 but had their first chart success with Love Me Do – their own composition – released in October of that year.
The embryonic Rolling Stones must have been like seeing colours after a lifetime of monochrome, like Cajun food after a diet of pap. The noise would be the first thing to strike you as you made your way along the dim passageway from the front bar to the back room. There were probably six Rollin’ Stones (as they were known then): Keith Richards and Brian Jones on guitar, Colin Golding on bass, Ian Stewart on piano, perhaps Charlie Watts on the drums and Mick Jagger’s vocals. Watts had a job as a graphic designer and was apparently unsure at first that he could commit to the band. Bill Wyman joined in January 1963, chosen (it is said) because he had the best amplifier among the contenders.
It seems likely that they had an edge from the beginning. In an early publicity shot only Wyman is attempting a smile. Jones glowers, Jagger and Watts are blank and Richards, supported between them, looks half-asleep. It could be a still from A Clockwork Orange. They have two ties between them but all the shirt buttons are fastened to the top.
I like to picture Jagger strutting (Little Red Rooster) and leaping (Jumpin’ Jack Flash) on stage. But with six of them there wouldn’t have been much room. Also, they didn’t record those two songs until the mid-Sixties. Besides, for British rhythm and blues bands the music came first and the emphasis was on guitars and energy. They probably didn’t even have a lights show.
According to setlist.fm, on 7 December 1962 the Rolling Stones played black American rhythm and blues music by the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon, and of rock & roll pioneers like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. There were no Jagger/Richards compositions; Jagger and Richards were just 19, and their first number one (Satisfaction) was three years in the future.
The bar of the Winning Post on a sunny June afternoon is a large, modern, airy room, and the radio plays music from the Eighties. The bar-top is decorated with untold numbers of (decimal) 1p coins. A column at one end of the bar is composed of bricks small enough to look Roman, another echo of the distant past.
Years ago I was commissioned by a computer magazine to write a piece on virtual reality. My opening sentence – “An image of the future: a young man sprawled on a sofa wears a headset that gives him the sense of sprawling on a sofa” – was rejected as being too downbeat. Perhaps, one day, technology will conjure a facsimile of an early Rolling Stones concert; at last, technology would be unequivocally good for something.
This is a chapter added to Towns of Two Halves, originally published in 2018. To order a copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.