Every journalist has a favourite piece that never got into print: this is mine. I had a pleasant and interesting day in Wimbledon going from the Centre Court to the magistrate’s court, but my editor gave the space to a photograph instead …
On Court Three at Wimbledon, Anne Keothavong, a young British hope of Thai origin, is whacking out a junior singles match with A. Bastrikova, a blonde Russian miss wearing an Anna Kournikova-style plait.
Passers-by keep pausing on the steps next to the court to watch, only to be told by a plump, perspiring youth in a Securicor uniform: “You are not allowed to stand on the stairs.” It takes some non English-speakers a moment to understand his repetitive monotone, but without exception they all obediently move along.
And that is about the extent of the policing problem at the All England Club. With three days of Wimbledon fortnight left, Superintendent Stephen Grainger tells me there has been only one arrest inside the grounds – police investigating an unattended bag found drugs inside, which was unfortunate for the owner. Did he say drugs? After cocaine at Ascot, is Wimbledon succumbing as well? Superintendent Grainger is not going to be drawn. “I have about 50 officers under my control, and a lot of those are traffic wardens,” he says. “We are not going to search 35,000 people a day for drugs.”
Well, what about arrests outside the gates? Superintendent Grainger concedes that there have been a few more than one; maybe 10 in all. A couple of ticket touts, one or two people drinking too much in the overnight queues, plus a member of the All England Club, no less, who got drunk and objectionable, and tried to muscle his way back in after being escorted from the grounds. With beer at £2.90 a pint and a glass of Pimms costing £6.80, not many people can afford to get legless at Wimbledon.
Some victims of crimes such as pickpocketing have found their way to the police post in the bowels of the Centre Court, but again they add up to no more than a handful. It seems that something like half a million people descend on London SW19 for two weeks a year, enjoy the tennis, buy overpriced strawberries and souvenirs, then leave the place pretty much as they found it. Many, indeed most, of the residents are pretty chuffed that the name of their suburb is known all over the world.
To listen to some of the people whose houses overlook the courts, however, they live in Arcadia for 50 weeks a year and Sodom and Gomorrah for a fortnight. One way of getting round the problem is to go away, letting your house for several thousand pounds to a tennis player (and goodness knows what they get up to). Others prefer to stay and deplore the alleged nightly scenes of mass drunkenness in Wimbledon village, the leafy part at the top of Wimbledon hill. “Car thefts shoot up every year at this time,” one tells me. “I wouldn’t go into the village with my wallet in my hip pocket when the tennis is on,” says another.
Superintendent Grainger, who is in charge of operations for the whole of Merton borough, says diplomatically that it is “a question of perceptions”. There is a problem of burglary around the village – not surprising in an area so well-heeled that a campaign against a big new restaurant development can muster several QCs – but most of the crime in Wimbledon, whatever the time of year, actually takes place at the bottom of the hill, in what the people at the top call “the town”.
In Court Four of an anonymous brick building next door to a B&Q superstore, the other Wimbledon is on display. The magistrate’s accent is impeccably village, but the accused, the crimes with which they are charged, and the places where the offences occurred are just as solidly town. The cases are rattled through almost as briskly as the trains going past on the main line to Basingstoke and Southampton. Two young men are sentenced to 18-month community rehabilitation orders for a fight in the KFC fried chicken outlet in Wimbledon Broadway; another man pleads guilty to shoplifting four bottles of whisky from Tesco, also in the Broadway, to fund his habit. In mitigation his solicitor calls it a “revolving-door drugs offence”, and the case is adjourned for reports.
Possession of a bladed article, theft of a car radio, damage to a doorway and assaulting six police officers: as the charges are read out, it is a reminder that both village and town are part of a big, bad metropolis. Yet the climb to the top of the hill, where riders clop from Wimbledon Common to the stables behind the Dog and Fox, leaving a trail of manure outside cafes where men in linen suits are reading Corriere della Sera and the International Herald Tribune, seems to take one into a different universe. Here the main problems are overcrowded boutiques and the savage parking restrictions imposed during the tennis championships, not the effects of too much drink in a sweltering council flat, and tomorrow everything will be back to normal for another year.
As I made my way towards the All England courts down Marryat Road, where a house buyer with £1m to spend would get nothing but a pitying look, a woman was talking to two of her neighbours. “They all get drunk and fall in,” she was saying. I edged closer. “It’s marvellous,” she went on, holding up a green plastic trap. “You just put beer in it, and it kills slugs like anything.”