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Mary Poppins’s carpet bag in Deptford

Mary Wakefield pays tribute to the 999 Club in south London: a place of refuge that turns nobody away. Neither Christian nor conservative, it embodies all that is best in both traditions

15 December 2008

12:00 AM

15 December 2008

12:00 AM

Alice looks down from her perch on top of the rocking horse, bright-eyed behind big specs, says: ‘Catch me!’ then propels herself into the air. I catch, hug, then prop her back up again, ready for another go. ‘Ooh, she likes you,’ says Iris, director of the 999 Club and uncrowned queen of Deptford. ‘She doesn’t normally take to people that quick.’ I am ridiculously, disproportionately happy. Alice has a squint, is five but looks three. I love her. So where’s her mum? I ask Iris. Why isn’t she here? ‘Oh, her mum!’ Iris snorts. ‘She spends all day online chatting. She ignores Alice — leaves her sitting on her own, so her gran brings her here most days. She’d be lost if she couldn’t come here, wouldn’t you, Alice, love?’

It’s easiest to explain the 999 Club in terms of who it’s for — which is anyone at all who needs help. The helping hand extended down from government flails about blindly in Deptford, missing those who need it most. So the 999 Club does the job instead. The basic idea is to offer hot meals, advice and a place to hang out, but in fact it’s more like Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, out of which comes whatever is required. Iris — Lewisham’s Mary P — and her swat team of local girls will feed you, help you apply for benefits, direct you to Narcotics Anonymous, drive you to hospital; they’ll badger lazy housing officials on your behalf, give you blankets — even wash your clothes.

‘Here’s a story that explains why government help doesn’t work round here,’ says Iris. ‘Listen to this. The council tried to start a crèche on the estate where Alice lives. It was a nice crèche, but it had to close down, guess why?’ I can’t. ‘Because none of the young mums could be bothered to get out of bed!’ says Iris. ‘They was too busy texting to bring their babies downstairs.’

On a break from catching duty, as Alice plaits the rocking horse’s mane, I look into the main 999 Club room. It’s like an upmarket café in there: vast windows, three staff behind a long counter, tables, chairs, TV. Perhaps, though, if you did just walk in (and you could) you might think it an unusual café. Over Alice’s shoulder I can see two old Irish men, two young Poles (homeless), a fat man with tattoos (smiley), an old lady with cats on her cardie, a former child soldier (female) from Somalia and a man dressed entirely in luminous orange, with a neon orange trilby on top: all with different problems; all here for the same reason that bishops and brigadiers hang out at the Travellers Club on Pall Mall — because it’s where they belong.

Sunlight sifts in through the fog of fumes on Deptford Broadway. Beans and mackerel for lunch and then a skirmish with a crew of 6ft lesbian toughs who saunter in, all buzz cuts and attitude. They don’t look like they want to belong. ‘They want money,’ says Iris grimly, and walks across to meet them with the sort of casual but menacing swagger Clint Eastwood might use to approach a gang of bandits. From a safe distance, hidden in the crèche, I see gesticulating, I hear language used, then I see the lesbian crew turn and leave. ‘I told them to f*** off,’ says Iris, when she gets back. ‘I said I knew they were here to steal stuff, and if they wanted a fight, I’d give ’em one, but outside and after work. You got to be tough in this job,’ she adds, looking me over for signs of toughness and finding none. ‘Well, don’t worry. You learn quick round here. These girls are all learning fast.’ Iris gestures to the 999 staff. ‘If the bad guys know you mean business, they don’t bother you much.’

By teatime, I decide that the 999 Club, though neither Christian nor conservative, is nonetheless the most Christian and the most truly conservative outfit I have ever come across. It demonstrates a more Christian love of neighbour than any church of any denomination. There is no one too sick or too bonkers or too foreign to be helped. Iris tells a story about an Indian girl who arrived at the club recently after walking so far in high heels that her feet were glued to her shoes with blood. She’d refused to marry her arranged husband, so her father had first beaten her, then had her committed to a hostel for the mentally unstable. The girl, terrified, fled in the night, and ended up at the one place in the area offering unconditional help.

It’s conservative in the best sense of the word, because it’s a direct response to real need, and infinitely adaptable. The 999 Club began as the brainchild of two women who went to the same local church. Iris French, tough, big-hearted, married into a notorious gangster family — Deptford aristocracy. Patricia Wyndham, more traditionally aristocratic, but supernaturally determined. Both women could see that the government solutions weren’t working here, so they did the type of market research any decent politician should do, and asked around to find out what was most needed. The answer was a place from which locals could help themselves, so the 999 Club was born (appropriately for this time of year) in a shed in the churchyard, offering tea and advice. Before long (though after a lot of campaigning) Patricia bagged a grant and a better place. ‘If you build it, they will come,’ as it says in Field of Dreams, and they did: not just the halt and the lame of Lewisham but also people offering help: the Maudsley Primary Care Trust provides a nurse who offers jabs against hepatitis; University College Hospital bring round their mobile TB screening unit; a chess champ dropped by recently offering lessons and he now has a keen class of Jamaican pensioners.

There are three 999 Clubs in Lewisham — in Deptford, Downham and New Cross — but (listen up, Mayor Johnson) there should be more — maybe a few in every London borough — because they act as magnets, drawing the best out of everybody. And because they run on common sense. For instance, when Iris and Patricia grew worried about the vulnerable people sleeping rough in Deptford, they solved the problem themselves. They asked local churches for sponsorship and opened a temporary shelter in the club house. So for the last two winters, 15 or so men and women have slept on mattresses on the floor, watched over by Iris’s son. Is it a bit of a riot in here at night then? I ask, imagining a sort of slumber party for swinging crackheads. Iris looks shocked. ‘Oh no, there’s no bother. They want to be here, the homeless girls and boys. They’re happy and safe. They don’t want trouble either.’

As the club prepares to shut down for the evening, I watch one of the young Poles play chess with a toothless Irishman. The Pole plays aggressively, brows knit, and explains, as he moves, the importance of chaos theory to financial predictions. The Irish octogenarian plays appallingly but manages somehow to force a draw, then leaps to his feet delighted: ‘Now you weren’t expecting that, young man!’

The 999 girls mop the floor, I skive the hard work and listen to Iris’s life story, which deserves an article or even a book of its own. ‘I brought up 15 kids,’ she says, ‘my own, and then when my sister died I brought up hers too. And then I fostered three. A few more didn’t make much difference.’ And now you’ve got the whole of Deptford to look after, I say. ‘Oh, it’s no trouble!’ says Iris. ‘I swear I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life right now. I can’t wait to get here in the morning. All
the staff love it, that’s the thing. It’s not just for the people who come here, it’s for us too. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have here to come to. We’re all in the Club together.’

The 999 Club is a registered charity and can be contacted at Mary Wakefield is a trustee of the 999 Club.

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