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Coronavirus tales from Tom's Bench on Clapham Common

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
image copyrightJim Grover

Throughout August, photographer Jim Grover photographed the people who sat on Tom's Bench on Clapham Common in London. The bench is in honour of the owner of Honest Tom's, a snack bar that has been there for 30 years, and who passed away last year.

"Everyone who sat on Tom's Bench has been through what we've all encountered over the past few months," says Grover.

"But the impact on individual lives has been so varied, from surprisingly rewarding to absolutely harrowing, and everything in between. Yvonne's moving story, on the last day of my month-long project, 31 August, put all the others into context. Hers was life-changing."

Here we present a selection of the pictures of those he met, along with their thoughts on how the coronavirus has affected their lives.

image copyrightJim Grover

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

image copyrightJim Grover

Matt comes here once or twice a week, and has been doing so 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."

image copyrightJim Grover

Holly is Tom's granddaughter. Her dad Simon now owns and runs Honest Tom's, where she works the afternoon shift, following in her grandad's footsteps.

Holly 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."

image copyrightJim Grover

This is the first time Zoe has sat on Tom's bench. She comes to the Common "pretty much every day" but stopped here today for a break having just taken up running. Zoe is an NHS hospital speech therapist.

"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 air fares were expensive and they kept cancelling the flights, 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."

image copyrightJim Grover

Nadine (right) has worked at Honest Tom's for almost 27 years and fills the vase near Tom's bench with flowers each week to commemorate Tom. Susanne comes every Wednesday, attracted by the company, "the lovely food, the absolutely lovely ladies" in Honest Tom's, and the opportunity to give her dog a sausage.

Susanne: "I have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition] 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."

Nadine: "It stopped me working, with Tom's being shut. But I enjoyed being off, being indoors, getting things done, just me and Den [her husband].

"It was hard not being able to see my kids and grandkids, but you've got Facetime and all that technology now.

"But 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."

image copyrightJim Grover

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's currently not currently working 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: "It didn't affect me a Iot at the beginning, more now at the end with all the uncertainty. It didn't affect me directly, thank goodness."

Maria: "Again, not at the beginning, but now 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."

image copyrightJim Grover

Junior (left) has been coming to Honest Tom's for more than 10 years. He rides over from Bromley on his motorbike as often as he can, mainly to meet up with his friend Emin. For 27 years, Junior ran his own car body repair business, before being injured in an accident which has left him with long-term illness.

Junior: "Because I am trying to be careful, everything has been fine."

Emin: "It hasn't really affected me. 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 [his wife] to keep me company. I know a couple of people who got ill, but they came through it all right."

image copyrightJim Grover

Tony and Michaela started to come to Honest Tom's six months ago, to meet up with their 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 some 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: "Not really, university stopped for a bit but I didn't mind."

image copyrightJim Grover

Tony is a local black-cab driver, he's come for breakfast after a night shift. He can remember Tom's opening 30 years ago, and has been a regular for the last 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 amongst the regulars. He's made many friends here.

"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, as the work hasn't picked up at all."

image copyrightJim Grover

The final chapter in this month-long project was a 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 it was Tom working on his own and a much smaller snack wagon. She comes two or three times a week as she lives close by.

Her husband was one of the many killed by the virus.

"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 [hospital] 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."

You can see the full set of pictures from this series on Jim Grover's website.

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