I have mentioned before that my parents acquired what would become my shop from Albert Chapman in 1947. Albert had removed from Wisbech in the 1930’s and brought his family, his wife, two sons and a daughter to Dulwich where he took over an existing printing and stationery business. Albert’s main interest was in printing and he had an extensive, if somewhat disorganised and archaic print works in a building behind the shop which he continued to operate until the early 1960’s.
One of his sons, Arnold, was the black sheep of the family and was to cause Albert some difficulty in his business because Arnold was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. After World War Two, when the Cold War started, the direction of Albert’s eldest son’s loyalties gained a local, modest notoriety. I do not know whether Arnold had been politicised in his youth by his abhorrence of seeing William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), proclaiming the virtues of National Socialism on a soapbox, on the corner of Calton Avenue, just a few yards from the shop and printing works or whether it was the inspiration of the International Brigade’s intervention in Spain’s civil war, a doomed venture which included so many British printers. By 1947, when I began to overhear conversations in the shop or over the kitchen table, it was not as trendy to be a communist as it had been in the Thirties, because of the perceived threat to peace from our wartimr ally, Russia. Albert’s other son Spencer, by contrast, was of a more placed nature and was also a talented artist who specialised in wood-cuts. Spencer had inherited some of his father’s skill in graphic art, maybe Arnold some of Albert’s politics.
I actually do not know what Albert’s politics really were although I suspect he began his working life as a radical and gradually as the years passed became more mellow but I do recall that during a national printing strike around 1960 Albert came to me in great alarm. His dilemma was that he was a member of the one of the printing unions involved in the dispute and he had been instructed by his union to come out on strike. But as the owner of a printing business Albert was also a member of the Federation of Master Printers, in other words - the employers, who were vigorously opposing the strike. What should he do? He argued that he could hardly strike against himself! In the event Albert decided to carry on printing but behind locked doors and curtained windows. All through the lengthy dispute Albert quietly continued as a black-leg, an action I suspect quite alien to his character.
As a small but versatile printer, Albert drew to his printing -works, and hence to the shop, an interesting mixture of clients. Among these was a Dr S. D. Cudjoe who had come to Britain from the Gold Coast in the early 1930’s and practised medicine as a G.P. in Camberwell. In the immediate post-war period London had become the centre of African nationalism and Dr Cudjoe was an articulate proponent of the movement for colonial change. He blamed the failure of young African literates to go back to work in their villages on the general contempt of the professional classes for the uneducated which he considered were directly inherited from the European colonialists. His politics, combined with his enthusiasm for art made Cudjoe a popular visitor during discussions over the printing of his book (Aids to African Autonomy) the book jacket of which he so brilliantly designed and which Albert published under The College Press imprint.
To our sorrow, Dr Cudjoe returned to the Gold Coast when the colony’s independence was becoming apparent. I often wonder what happened to him in the newly created Ghana.
Interestingly, another thread of Post-Colonialism also had its roots in my shop in the early Fifties. A local poet, Lionel Monteith had already founded a branch of the British Poetry Association in Dulwich in 1949, with regular meetings at the Crown & Greyhound. Another local poet, Howard Sergeant was the Association’s president. The guest poets at their Dulwich meetings in those early days read like a literary Who’s Who: Stephen Spender, Laurie Lee, Dannie Abse, Marie Stopes and Michael Croft. Out of this organisation sprang Poetry Commonwealth which published the works of poets from around the former Empire, all printed by Albert Chapman and the shop and printing works became the poste restante address for the enterprise. One poem which was submitted recently turned up among some press cuttings. It was by the distinguished Indian poet Pritam Singh.
No use the rose that blows so red,
No use the cypress tree,
When she I love is far away
And cannot be with me.
In vain the evening shadows lurk,
In vain the moon doth rise;
To me their charm is naught without
The magic of her eyes.
It is said that everyone can remember what they were doing when they heard the news of the assassination of President John Kennedy. Such an odd claim but I have to say that in my case it is absolutely true. I was buying white and pink coconut ice from a stall at Doris’s Christmas Bazaar when I heard the news.
The Christmas Bazaar, which I nicknamed the Bizarre Bazaar, was the highlight of Doris’s year. She was one of my assistants at my shop and because of this I was party to the politics of this annual Christmas bazaar held at Herne Hill Congregational Church (now Herne Hill United Church) at the top of Red Post Hill.
Doris had risen to be the supremo of the two-day bazaar by virtue of succeeding her mother as leader of the Women’s Pleasant Hour, a Monday afternoon gathering the membership of which was a springboard to the coveted membership of the bazaar committee. Membership of the committee carried certain privileges, one of which was to preside over the ‘ pre-buy’ evening at Doris’s house in Woodwarde Road. Those patrons considered by the committee as being sufficiently affluent (as Doris’s employer I fell into this category) were invited to a private viewing of the merchandise which would later stock the stalls of the bazaar on the following Friday evening and Saturday.
On arrival at Doris’s house one found embroidered handkerchiefs, lavender bags, bars of soap tastefully decorated with sequins (which had to be carefully removed before use), hand-painted cards and all manner of other objets d’art over which the committee and their friends had patiently laboured all year. All of the gifts were displayed on the seats of Doris’s dining room chairs, behind each one of which a member of the committee waited expectantly to make a sale. After an interval for admiration, consideration and purchase those awarded the social distinction of being invited to the Bazaar Pre-buy would then be rewarded with complimentary refreshments on a generous scale - if only the Oxford Street stores had learnt from Doris’s marketing strategy they would not have had to stage pre-Christmas reductions at all.
At my shop, a month or so before that fateful day in November 1962, Doris, while pricing up some Basildon Bond pads and envelopes, shared with me a considerable dilemma the bazaar committee had just faced. The committee met throughout the year and its members sent dozens of letters to various companies, appealing for a donation or any goods it made which could be sold at the bazaar. One company’s response had been such that the committee was sworn to secrecy by an anxious Doris.
The dilemma in which they found themselves stemmed from the strict temperance ethic which Herne Hill’s Congregational Church minister was promoting. The gift the company sent to the bazaar was a case of six bottles of white port. Admittedly the bottles were only halves but that did not make problem seem any the less. In view of the Church’s stand the wine could not be put on sale at the bazaar. After much discussion the doors of the hall were locked in case the minister turned up unexpectedly and the committee settled down to remove all traces of the demon drink by the best means they could think of. They spent the afternoon drinking the entire case load.
Mr Richards was tall thin and wore a brown overall and had a commanding voice. He might well have been the model for Captain Peacock in the sit-com “Are you being served?” series. Mr Richards presided over Cullen’s the Grocers in premises now occupied by Oddbins. White marble counters ran along three sides of the shop and in the centre was an ornate mahogany cubicle in which sat the cashier. At the sight of any hesitancy on the part of a customer in making a selection, Mr Richards would spring to attention and would invariably summon Ron, a short and willing assistant who suffered from a gammy leg. Ron would be despatched, limping, to the farthest corners of the shop under the direction of Mr Richards military arms movements and commanding tone, to gather items on ‘Madam’s’ shopping list, after which Ron would be directed to take the pile of parcels, often larger than Ron himself, out to ‘Madam’s’ awaiting car. Mr Richards would then open the shop door with a flourish for ‘Madam’ whilst at the same time assuring her of his continued attention to her requirements.
This of course caused a great deal of mirth amongst visitors, especially American ones and Mary Welch tells me the story of the day she found a bottle of champagne amongst her Cullen’s grocery and milk bottle delivery with a note on to say “With the Compliments of Mr Richards” on the champagne. It was only later that her American friends owned up that they were the culprits.
Just in case you are thinking that all my tales are of a vintage character, let me tell you what happened a few weeks ago. A local resident was clearing her late father’s effects from his former home when she found his small cache of wartime ‘souvenirs’. Like many boys during WW 11 he had made a collection of the fragments of expended munitions he picked up in the streets on his way to school. His collection, small but probably much admired by his fellow pupils, included a fragment of a V1 Flying Bomb, a 40mm shell case (empty) and an incendiary bomb. Knowing my interest in local history she brought these ‘treasures’ into my shop and asked if I might find a suitable place to deposit them.
On inspecting the incendiary bomb I was mildly surprised it was so heavy and appeared intact, apart from some white paper stuck around the business end. From my experience of seeing such specimens at Dulwich Hamlet School I knew that such an intact bomb was very unusual. I asked the lady if she was sure it was not a ‘live’ bomb. “Oh my father was very careful” she said, “I am sure it is not”. On the other hand I was not quite so sure but leaving it with the two other items I promptly forgot about it for several days.
When I remembered it again on the following Tuesday afternoon, I thought I would have a quiet word with Bomb Disposal, perhaps suggesting they pop in my shop the next time they passed and perhaps have a look at it. “I shall have to send this up the line” the operator said, “Can you hold on please”. It was a quiet moment and I had nothing better to do so I agreed. “Please leave it where it is” came the reply, “Someone will be down to have a look at it”. I was delighted. It was just what I had anticipated, a nice quiet inspection of the bomb and no fuss.
Eight minutes later, six police cars, sirens screaming, blue lights flashing appeared outside my shop. Rolls of “Police Line Do Not Cross” were festooned about the Village. People were evacuated from their houses, shops closed, the dancing class in the Village Hall ushered out. Children still at the Village schools were warned to duck under their desks if they heard an explosion and four P4 buses parked up one behind the other along the Village street. Even the Village opticians, who, with a commendable show of Dunkirk spirit had refused to budge, were ordered out of their shop.
The police cars were now joined by two fire engines and an ambulance. All was eerily quiet. Then more sirens as two high speed cars arrived with the Bomb Disposal Squad. This was made up of two very genial middle-aged gentlemen in black pullovers with a bursting bomb woven on the breast. Hardly a good luck emblem I thought.
Of course, an inspection showed that the bomb was a dud (or partially dud) because the removal of the sticky paper revealed a neat hole its base.. I had put it in a bucket pending the arrival of the squad, a tip I had picked up a few months earlier when another good-hearted person had brought me in another souvenir found in someone’s loft. It was an instruction leaflet on how to deal with a fire bomb.