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Escaping in Suburbia

One my overwhelming feelings in the recent lockdown, was that of nostalgia. By nature I tend to think about the past, but the never ending sense of time took me back to my school holidays in the 1970s. I started to get inspired about the mundane suburban south London life of my youth; the high street gossip of my mother, the shopkeepers and the playground rumours.

Heaven and Hell

The Saturday Morning Pictures at the ABC Cinema was my heaven, especially the time when instead of showing a creaky old episode of Flash Gordon it was King Kong vs Godzilla; itself wildly out of date by today’s standards. The cinema at that stage was still in its unchanged 1930s glory with a ballroom upstairs and its own restaurant next door. Unfortunately, just along from it in an unassuming semi was my hell, my dentist Mr Bradford. He seemed to always find an excuse for some work to be done, probably due to some form of money-making scam off the NHS. Once when going for a check-up he gave me an on-the-spot filling without an anaesthetic. That event changed my thoughts on dentists forever with my next appointment 32 years later!

Spinning Tubs and Gravy

Peter Pan’s Pool was a permanent children’s amusement park at Southend Pond situated between Catford, Bromley and Beckenham. There were roundabouts, swings and canoes on a boating lake of many inches’ depth, but my favourite was the Jigsaw Train with its revolving tubs you sat in. My Nan’s flat at nearby Nayland House overlooked this place and on her ‘Bisto Gravy’ button tin, I scratched my first word OXO. In researching this painting, I found out my inspiration for this; opposite the pond, next to the Green Man pub, OXO had their offices.

The Bride of Catford

Although about aged 3 at the time I still recall this particular part of Catford which holds many memories for me. The looming old dark church opposite the theatre and a TV shop where I once glimpsed Dr Who and the Yeti one drizzly Saturday evening. Then there was Timpson’s Coach Station, permanently filled with the fog of the drivers Pall Mall cigarettes, but importantly the starting point of many day trips and holidays. Further along the road there was a draper’s shop with its fascinating pulley system that sent the cashiers money whizzing across the ceiling. So on a rainy, stormy night, outside the long-lost gothic Church of St Laurence and the Town Hall a couple of local lovers meet. They are, Boris Karloff, born in Forest Hill and Elsa Lanchester who once lived nearby in Farley Road, Catford.

Today Chiesmans, tomorrow the world

Most children growing up in southeast London in the 1960s will have come across Chiesman’s department store in Lewisham, with the obligatory visit to Father Christmas. My favourite part was down in the basement, seemingly full of overhead pipes for heating and the sprinkler system. Here there was the toy department and an indoor amusement area with a Dalek ride you could get into and then conquer the World.

This town wasn’t big enough for the both of us

In mid-1970s the playground was rife with rumours that the Los Angeles pop group Sparks had moved in nearby. I was doubtful as my friend had told me he had a swimming pool in his back garden with a baby shark, but this rumour was actually true. Years later I read an article that Sparks had been put into digs down in Beckenham, but Russell and Ron Mael hated having to get the last train back from London as there were no night buses in those days! My picture places them on Southend Road opposite the back of Beckenham Junction Station where there used to be an intriguing collection of buildings for the coal yard, including Rutland Lodge a house with one bay window but two front doors. Ron and Russell look very out-of-place; lost in suburbia, probably thinking their last hit was very prophetic.

Sausage rolls; a cut above the rest

Kennedy’s was a south London chain of sausage and meat shops forever lost in time, locked in a 1930s splendour. Everything was very particular to the shops, vitrite ceilings, opaline lights and sunburst windows, through which you could glimpse, breakfast sausage, fruit pies and coleslaw. The branch in Beckenham High Street sold my favourite sausage rolls and my mother always told me that the young man who worked there cut his own hair. For me he certainly did, I always thought he looked like Mr Spock from Star Trek.

Bob’s Full House

Someone at school once told me that Bob Monkhouse ‘acquired’ all the old railway memorabilia from Beckenham Junction station, and being an eight-year-old train fanatic this really annoyed me. Bob was born in Beckenham and was well known for his obsessive collecting so perhaps there was some truth. Here I have him by a local landmark in the most suburban part of the area, The Park Langley Garage. This unique building was modelled on a Japanese Temple but commonly called the ‘Chinese Garage’ and I always remember it from an earlier time when my dad used to pass it in our old Cortina.  In my painting Bob doesn’t want to cause attraction, so he’s going via Kelsey Park to his mock Tudor abode in ‘Greenways’

The last days of Mr Griffiths

The legendary Mr Griffiths was the woodwork and craft teacher at my junior school; his infamy coming from his attitude towards the boys, whom he terrorised. I have never witnessed such extreme violence towards young children, and I’m surprised he was allowed to get away with it. Just the thought of him made me feel sick so once after a lesson where we had to make a tetrahedron, I took it home and burnt it in our garden in some sort of childish exorcism. Unfortunately, later he asked for it back to put in the end of term exhibition; scared of his possible anger I had to ask my dad to track down the peach-coloured cardboard to replicate it. Years later some friends practicing their newly found driving skills saw him, now retired sitting opposite the school on his old Honda Club; just watching.

The ghosts of my life

In my last days of secondary school, a classmate mentioned that over the weekend he’d, ‘seen that bloke out of the band Japan in the dry cleaners’. Of course, it was very possible as lead singer David Sylvian had been born at Stone Park Hospital, Beckenham and although the band had been formed in faraway Catford his mum and dad still lived close to Penge East station. I’m not sure which dry cleaner it was, but as David was a stickler for details, I’m sure he would have been worried about its aesthetics, so I have him running from this very picturesque one at the Penge Triangle.

Dave and Ange go to Safeways

Beckenham was blind to the up-and-coming ‘rock god’ David Bowie. Along with his wife Angie they were considered local eccentrics. There seemed to be something in this part of the High Street that attracted them, just along from the old Arts Lab at the Three Tuns and over the road from the Evelyn Paget hair salon. This picture is inspired when my mum saw his wife Angie at the cheese counter in ‘Safeway’, an ultra-modern supermarket for Beckenham, with more choice than the usual Kraft Cracker Barrel.

Black Snow

Still to this day between Beckenham Library and my old orthodontist there is an empty plot of land. It was once the site of the Beckenham Arts Centre, which was a corrugated iron roofed bungalow, looking like something from an Indian Tea Plantation. One night in 1978 my father woke us up to tell us that the Arts Centre was on fire, and we should be ready to evacuate. Beyond, the trees were silhouetted against a glowing sky, which suddenly lit up as gas cylinders started to explode. The next day there was an eerie silence with an all-pervading smell of smoke and our back garden was covered in a strange snow of tiny blacken pieces of canvas from lost art.

Smoke and Bangs

Hayne Court was a massive dilapidated Victorian mansion along the street from where we lived. Despite its size, at night it seemed to be lit by a single bare bulb in a side window, which made us think it must be haunted. The garden was an overgrown jungle and only ever visited by some naughty neighbours who let their pet gerbils run free! It was however inhabited by an eccentric gentleman called Russell-Kitchen who collected vintage cars that he kept in a massive garage at the side of the house. Occasionally he made it into the outside world on the road, seen through clouds of smoke, accompanied by the sound of loud bangs.

Enid goes to Mystery Mansion

At junior school I avidly read the ‘Famous Five’ stories of Enid Blyton, unaware that she had lived in seven different houses around Beckenham for thirty years. She always reimagined the landscape for her books, so I have made Beckenham Place Park the setting of ‘Mystery Mansion’ where she sits by the enigmatic standing stones;  long since gone and now replaced by the marker posts of the border between Lewisham and Beckenham over in the woods near Crab Hill. Deep in thought she dreams of more adventures whilst studiously ignoring her faithful but a bit too popular dog, ‘Bobs’

Ernie’s

I’m not sure of the real name for the wildly out-of-date hair salon on Clock House Parade but my father always called it ‘Ernie’s’. Here in the back room, I was taken for my haircut; on the single wooden barber’s chair on to which a plank was put across the arms to get me up to the right height. Like many things in Beckenham during the 1970s it was still in the 1930s. All was very dark and dingy looking especially the front ‘Ladies’ part, looked after by Ernie’s brother who presided over the ancient equipment including a permeant waves machine. He looked like Ron Mael so this confirmed to me the playground rumour, that ‘Sparks’ really did live in Beckenham.

The man who wasn’t there

It was a normal afternoon in the early 1970s walking home from school, going up Bridge Road, and crossing over onto Blakeney Road. Suddenly I became aware of a man walking in front of me who just seemed really weird. This section of the road was bounded on one side by a 6ft high wall separating the pavement from the railway so my mind was really focused on this man. He was attired in an old style suit, wearing a trilby hat and holding a little case. What eventually struck me after following him for a few minutes was the colour; I’d only ever seen people dressed like that in black & white films that my father watched. Then in the blink of an eye he just wasn’t there, I was startled and looked all around  but the street was totally empty. Feeling suddenly scared I ran all the way home to tell my mum I’d seen a ghost.

Return of Aunty Vi

One day walking by Bourne House just down from Clockhouse Station, an old Rover pulled up along side us. It was my long lost Aunty Vi, my fathers estranged elder sister, who let’s say, ‘liked the odd tipple’. Being a sort of deluded ‘Norma Desmond’, the car was driven by her husband Ken, playing the part of chauffeur, whist she sat in the back with her fur coat and pearls.

Ziggy played guitar and bought his tights in Woolworths

One day my mum came back from shopping down Beckenham High Street with a bit more local gossip. She’d bumped into David Bowie in Woolworths where he was buying himself some tights. She wasn’t that in-to Bowie except singing ‘Starman’ whilst ironing but, “you should have seen his hair” In my painting I have him strutting his stuff to ‘Moonage Daydream’ in his new ‘Freddie Buretti’ daywear amongst the delightfully cluttered stock of Woolworths, a shop that was universally loved for being useful. ‘Woolies’ is the perfect place really to practice his stagecraft because he can also buy some ‘Copydex’ glue, in case his glitter falls off!

Paradise lost

My paradise would be my Aunty Doll’s (Doris) prefab over in Bell Green, Sydenham. Situated in Dilwyn Road and overlooked by the gasworks, its garden was a jungle of dahlias and chrysanthemums all lovingly tended to by her husband Danny. As a contrast, the inside of the house was all dark Victorian velvet curtains and Danny’s boxing trophies and where where strutted ‘Sooty’ their 18-year-old black cat, over-fed on smoked haddock and Jersey cream. It was all swept away in the early 1970s for redevelopment; a paradise lost.

Out of the Woods

Bounded by Beckenham High Street, The Drive and Church Cresent lies a secret little piece of woodland through which the River Beck runs. Who knows what lurks there, but in the early 1970s a classmate of mine used to live in a house which backed this spooky place where we played in the river when it still ran free, before it was later encased in concrete to stop flooding. Once when playing hide-and-seek there I chased him as he ran through the trees and over a garden wall. I followed only to find that the garden wall was directly against a shed and there was nowhere he could have gone. Then I heard him calling from behind in the woods asking me where I was going; it was all a bit weird. Composer Carey Blyton; Enid’s nephew had also once lived a house over on The Drive which backed onto these woods. He became famous for his ‘Bananas in Pyjamas’ but my interest was that he later did the incidental music for Dr Who and the Silurians, using strange early English instruments.

Mum, when are we going?

For me the weekly shopping trip of my mother to Bromley High Street reached its boring crescendo in Marks & Spencer. During her endless clothes shopping I used to stare out of the window up and down the High Street. Directly across the road was an ancient tobacconist and further up past Woolworths was Hennekey’s that had a barrel outside with a clock on it, which for some unknown reason always fascinated me.  Looking down towards the New Theatre I used to think of getting a Milky Bar bought from the little counter in Importers Coffee House opposite, famed for its revolving coffee roasting drum in their front window that scented that part of the high street.

The Sleeper Awakes

When shopping in Bromley there were shops my mum always visited on the Market Square, Maunders the bakers, Caters supermarket, and sometimes the little tumbledown sweet shop next to Medhursts. After visiting Maunders I would pick away at the fresh hot bread and we would then go on to Caters who sold their own version of burger patties called ‘Steakettes’, bought individually from the meat counter and separated by little squares of paper. But the Market Square wasn’t famed for these things, it was the birthplace of Herbert George Wells and being an odd chap, he’s gone through time to about 1971 to see if he can still get bread in Maunders.