Even more tales from the Village - continuing Brian Green’s reminiscences as fifty years of shopkeeping in Dulwich
James rates a double entry in this chronicle of those eccentrics which make up the litany of my reminiscences. And Hugo is still only twenty-one so he has plenty of time for more. Both instances concern James’s formative years at Dulwich College Preparatory School. James went through fountain pens at the rate of about one a fortnight. Some were lost, some mislaid, some lent, some dropped and some bent. His long-suffering mother marched him into my shop one day and informed me that James could have any pen of his choosing, whatever the cost but it would be positively the last she would ever buy him.
James surveyed my stock and selected a Waterman pen which he might have been awarded for passing a number of starred A levels but not for his more modest efforts in Year 5. His mother appeared, gulped at the price and wagged another finger at her son.
James came in my shop last month. He is in his final year at Imperial College. “I’ve still got the pen!” he told me.
James’s second entry is actually set a year earlier than his foray into writing instruments. For many years I had been conducting classes of boys and girls from local schools on local history field trips around Dulwich. Often these trips included a visit to Dulwich Woods where I would tell the children the uses the timber was put to and some stories connected with the woods. On that particular morning I had the assistance of the class teacher and three mothers (one of whom was James’s mum). At the end of my little homily I told the class of twenty 9 year olds to follow the path for 30 yards and then turn left for the car park where the school minibuses where parked.
The class teacher, three mothers and I arrived at the car park. There were no boys there. We retraced our steps the few yards into the woods and all that could be heard was the undisturbed song of birds. We pressed further into Dulwich Woods and found some woodcutters (it was beginning to resemble a fairy story). No, they had not seen a class of twenty noisy 9 year olds that morning.
I remembered a play about a party of Australian schoolgirls who had vanished on a picnic at Ayers Rock at the end of the last century - it was not a comforting memory. The class teacher was visibly getting paler, the mothers more frantic - until James’s mother’s head sharply lifted like a Bloodhound getting scent. The rest of us could hear nothing but she led us to the furthest extent of Dulwich Woods where of course we found 4D and, naturally enough - James.
Lilian Gandy lived in Dekker Road, a road already featured in these reminiscences as being seemingly populated by some of the cream of Dulwich’s characters. Lily Gandy was one of these and was the frailest creature I have ever met. She seemed to sway in the breeze rather like the flower she was named after. Sway as often as she did, miraculously, she never actually fell. I would help her down the 1inch step from my shop door, where she would pause, sway back and forth and then set off slowly but determinedly for Dekker Road. In later life she dedicated herself to providing me and most of Dekker Road with a small bowl of flowering hyacinths. In the autumn Lily would spend weeks potting up a prodigious number of flower pots and putting them in cupboards and dark places in her home. They always flowered at Christmas and Lily would totter around Dulwich in her alarming manner, distributing these much loved tokens of her affection for people.
it was said that Margaret Thatcher was persuaded to live in Dulwich, during her time as Prime Minister, by the proximity to the Dulwich & Sydenham Golf Club as handy recreation for her husband Denis. This was coupled with a hefty discount from Barratt’s the developers of her house at Hambledon Place on Dulwich Common and finally by the encouragement of Robin Butler (now Lord Butler of Brockwell) then her Cabinet Secretary and himself then a Dulwich resident.
Mrs T was not a permanent resident, she was rather like one of those rare birds (the Nutcracker for instance) which visits only occasionally. Denis by contrast was quite often in evidence. In acknowledgement of the honour the Prime Minister had done to Dulwich by coming to live among us, the Dulwich Village Business Association decided it would be appropriate to ask her to switch on the Village’s Christmas illuminations.
The organisers of the Great Switch On were the two young owners of a Village gift shop. Overwhelmed over by the letter of acceptance from Mrs T at Number Ten, they felt the ceremony should be given greater importance and ordered the construction of a raised wooden podium with a handrail so that the Prime Minister would not only be better seen but perhaps also give Dulwich the benefit of her oratory. Unfortunately, they had failed to get the Association’s permission for this fine gesture which in any event it hugely exceeded the Association’s total assets. But as it was in a time of great prosperity they just borrowed the cost of the construction from their bank, along with a further loan for another new Jaguar.
The Great Switch On was performed with great aplomb by Mrs T, only slightly marred by a number of eggs being thrown at her by members of various local opposition political parties. Fortunately their aim was poor and Mrs T retired into SG Smith’s car showroom where I, among others, entertained her with wine and undivided attention.
That was not however the end of the story. Soon after, yet another recession struck and the two young owners of the gift shop now found themselves hounded by their creditors. In the end the bank repossessed all their assets, which by then were very few, the Jaguar having gone first. The only item of value left, or so the receivers thought, was the ceremonial podium. Sadly, it remained, unloved and unsold in the yard at the rear of Barclays Bank in Dulwich Village. After a year it finally ended up by being dumped in a skip.
My arty friends are forever grateful to me for occasion I introduced them to the Good Life which had so far eluded them, one evening at the end of the last recession in the late 1990’s. Most of them had felt the cold draught of the shortage of commissions, the evaporation of illustrative work from publishers and the general absence any kind of demand for their art. Not only were the roofs over their heads threatened, but the concept of an evening of gay abandon was merely a distant memory.
What had caused this turn of events was a morning telephone call from the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It transpired that someone from a PR company had seriously slipped-up. Not actually slipped-up, but REALLY SLIPPED-UP. It reminded me of that scene from Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, when our anti-hero opens his wardrobe and out fall all the invitations he was supposed to have posted. The rather frantic telephone call was to ask if I could get together a bunch of people for a private view of the extremely popular Pieter de Hooch exhibition where the sponsors were expected to appear that evening.
The Pieter de Hooch exhibition was one of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s most successful exhibitions. So large was the attendance that a special awning had to be erected from College Road to the entrance to protect the queuing public from the elements. To get a ticket for the show was a triumph; to be invited to a Private View was little short of a miracle - especially one of the nature that transpired.
I have a vague memory that the sponsors were an American firm, perhaps dealing in aircraft or armaments, something like the Colt Revolver Company or the Winchester Rifle Corporation. At any rate I contacted as many artists as were sober, unemployed and conscious that morning and invited them to bring themselves and any relations they could lay their hands on, to the Gallery that evening.
Unemployed artists en masse are a frightening sight; enough to make even the most hardened member of the Metropolitan Police on crowd control quail. Yet my ‘rent-a-crowd’ were silenced and awed by the stupendous reception that awaited them. Several waiters, with trays laden with flutes of champagne lined the entrance and encouraged my guests to enter with glass in hand. Once inside the Gallery they were faced by the largest floral arrangement they had ever seen and which I found out later had cost £800 and would be thrown away later that evening. In the corner of the Gallery a harpist plucked sweet melodies as more waiters and waitresses emerged carrying platters of tasty morsels while outside, in his own marquee a chef cooked bite-size pieces of tender steak.
It is amazing how much better one can appreciate art with a full stomach and liberally refilled glasses of champagne. Especially if one cannot remember when the last time such a state of euphoria had occurred. The one or two representatives of the sponsoring firm who were present were clearly impressed by the interest in the works of Pieter de Hooch by their guests. And why should they not have been? After all, they were all professionals and were almost as serious about art as they were serious about where their next meal might come from. And I can honestly say that in all the history of Private Views at the Dulwich Picture Gallery never was an exhibition so appreciated.
Once the Parish Hall in the Village had been returned to the Parish after the end of World War Two by the local authority that had used it for all manner of wartime emergency uses, it was in need of extensive repair including the laying of a new floor. In 1947 the hall was back in use and occasional dances were arranged by various clubs or the church’s own youth fellowship. By the 1950’s these dances had grown very popular and were open to the public. It was usual for the dances to have an interval halfway through the evening for refreshments and some dancers took the opportunity of taking a different kind of refreshment from that on offer by slipping along the two hundred yards which separates the Parish Hall from The Crown & Greyhound. Not unexpectedly, this fuelling with alcohol sometimes led to incidents of fisticuffs between the waltz and the foxtrot.
Eventually the organisers decided to ask the police to station an officer on the door for the dances and the local ‘bobby’ - PC Les Potter would usually oblige. What made the dances a great deal more peaceful was the fact that PC Potter was a dog handler and his dog, Maxie was a huge Alsatian . The sight of Maxie at the door to the hall was enough to intimidate the most intoxicated. What few people knew however was that Maxie was the friendliest of dogs to all law-abiding citizens.