Londoners Sit On Park Bench, Tell Photographer How Covid Has Affected Them

Londoners Sit On Park Bench, Tell Photographer How Covid Has Affected Them
"It didn’t really bother me because I know that I can’t get it. I take certain things to prevent getting it…guava leaf and soursop leaf in the morning, and when I go home in the evening…and I make special teas with them…and sometimes I will take a bit of bicarbonate. It’s part of my culture. So I lived my life normally…I didn’t really think of it because I know I can’t catch it. It’s fate. I know one girl that caught the virus…she is still alive… I visit her and help her out a bit" - Timothy

On Clapham Common, by Mount Pond, you will find a bench dedicated to 'Honest Tom'.

It's in honour of the man who ran the nearby 'Honest Tom's' food wagon for 30 years — and passed away last year. During August 2020, photographer Jim Grover came to Tom's memorial bench almost every day, taking pictures of the people who sat there, and asking them how the pandemic had affected them.

"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" - Dave from Dave's Paws

Says Grover: "It was, deliberately, a random process; whoever sat down on ‘Tom’s bench’ became my subject for the day.

"On one day I had to wait for three hours for someone to sit on the bench (it’s not the only bench!). On another day, despite going twice no-one sat on it, so the empty bench became my mute subject that day."

"I wouldn’t be able to be here today, I’d be in an office in Wapping." - Jamie (second from right)

Grover's unsuspecting subjects turned out to be incredibly open with him. Some, like electrician Matt, admit to losing most of their work. Dave, owner of Dave’s Paws, a professional dog walking, cat feeding, and pet sitting business, has had business shaken to the core, too.

Theresa's is a similar story — she moved to London in January to start her new job in travel sales, and soon after, found herself made redundant.

"It didn’t really affect me because I kept on working right through… doing deliveries for Uber Eats. I work every day. I was fine." - Victor (left)

For others, the pandemic has had the reverse effect, spurring on the opportunity to make a little more money. Victor and his friends keep themselves on call for food delivery bids, so they can courier for Deliveroo and Uber Eats.  A 'really good day', he says, is worth £100-£150.

His companion on the bench, Harvey, laments being too young to cash in on the action.

"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." - Matt

For others, the pandemic has offered the chance to step back from work, and contemplate life. 'Honest Tom's' granddaughter, Holly, admits that while the food wagon was closed down earlier in the year, she enjoyed the 'holiday' — although she also experienced pangs of guilt, owing to her partner, a police officer, feeling the extra demands during lockdown.

"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." - Michael

Other Londoners Grover spoke to didn't seem too worried by the pandemic at all. His first subject, Timothy, told Grover: "It didn’t really bother me because I know that I can’t get [the virus]. I take certain things to prevent getting it… guava leaf and soursop leaf in the morning, and when I go home in the evening…and I make special teas with them…".

"I had my holiday cancelled…I’ve booked another holiday to Croatia with the money I got back. I had a little bit of time off work but got the money back from the government. So all OK really." - Max (left)

Says Grover: "Everyone who sat on Tom’s bench bench has been through what we’ve all encountered over the past few months. But the impact on individual lives has been so varied, from surprisingly rewarding to absolutely harrowing, and everything in between."

"With Tom’s being closed I was out of work for 10 weeks. It was a lovely holiday….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…going up to the farm. 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." - Holly, Tom's granddaughter

On the very last day of his project (it comprises 28 photos in all, as Grover had "a brief ‘staycation"), the photographer met Yvonne. Her story is certainly on the 'harrowing' end of the scale: she lost her husband to Covid-19, and was unable to say goodbye before he passed away. The whole experience, she confides, has been a 'nightmare'.

"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 getting 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." - Zoe

Says Grover: "Yvonne’s moving story, on the last day of my month-long project, put all the others into context; hers was life-changing."

"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 baby sat and looked after them and cuddled up with them in bed. Someone died in my family of Covid… two days after… she was disabled and had a lot of issues." - Susanne (left)

Like many of the subjects, Yvonne is no stranger to Honest Tom's, and has by her own admission, been coming here 'donkeys years.'

"It’s been alright…staying indoors…not going out…working has been a bit harder" - Freddie, Rob, and Te Keepa

It's testament to Honest Tom's that the snack bar is open once again — cheering up locals with pies, sandwiches, burgers and cups of tea.

"University stopped for a bit…but I didn’t mind!" - Michaela (right)

Nadine, who has worked at Honest Tom's for 27 years, replenishes the vase behind the bench with fresh flowers each week: he obviously remains much missed.

"I was in the travel industry… I was 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 lay off. But they finally let me and a lot of people go due to Covid’ - Theresa (left)

Grover's photos form an exhibition — Covid Tales from Tom's Bench — which runs at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, from 30 September-31 December. Entry is free.

"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. And that was in March…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." - Yvonne

Last Updated 21 September 2020

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