Bermondsey summers

Another nostalgic post, from 2013. Not many of you have seen this before.


What is it about memory, that makes us remember summers as being better in our youth? Ask most people about the weather, and they will almost always agree that the summer was better when they were young.

Six weeks of unbroken sun, school holidays spent outside, with perhaps the occasional thundery shower, that helped to clear the air. Given that this might span a time period from 1958, to 1998, it cannot really have any basis in fact. Although I do not have the real statistics to hand, (and cannot be bothered to look them up) I am sure that we didn’t always have fabulous summers, with weeks of Mediterranean heat, and unbroken blue skies. So why is it that this is how I remember them?

Before we moved to Kent, when I was fifteen years old, I spent my summers on the streets of Bermondsey, a South London district…

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Bermondsey: The London Of My Youth

I was born and brought up in a borough of London called Bermondsey. Although it has since been amalgamated into the much larger London borough of Southwark, it still retains its own identity with the people who live there. It is adjacent to the south bank of the River Thames, and close to the iconic Tower Bridge.

In recent years, the area has undergone some ‘regeneration’, and become a relatively fashionable place to live. But during my youth in the 1950s, it was an industrial area of central London, and everyone who lived there came from working class families on low incomes.

Some of the typical local houses I used to walk past as a child.
The empty space is where the house was hit by a bomb, during WW2. You can see the wooden supports holding up another bomb-damaged house on the right.

The busy street market where all my family used to get their shopping.

My Mum worked in the Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, which can be seen in this later photo from the 1960s.

Other local employers included the Pearce Duff Custard and blancmange factory.

The Alaska Fur Factory was later closed, due to the unpopularity of real fur.
It is now converted into smart apartments.

The library I used to go to all the time to borrow books has also closed. It has become a Bhuddist Centre.

The imposing Town Hall, where I once went to participate in a regional quiz. Also closed, and converted into apartments.

There were many popular pubs in the area. This one still stands. The Gregorian Arms was well-known as a venue to watch Drag artists when I was a boy, and my Dad would occasionally sing at the piano there too.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday


Yesterday, I published a post about identity. I had spent some time thinking about my background and life in London, on the southern banks of the River Thames. When I got up today, I searched through some images, happy to wallow in a little nostalgia. Then it occurred to me to share some with you, a glimpse of a time and place, and a part of London many of you may never have heard of. Rotherhithe.

This house is not my grandparents’ house, but in all other respects, including the corner location, it is identical. Their house survived the nearby bombing in WW2, though many in that street did not. Such houses had outside toilets, tiny back gardens, and life was mainly lived in the ‘back room’, next to a small kitchen known as ‘the scullery’. It was usual for someone else to live in the upstairs rooms, and my aunt and uncle lived up there, with my cousin. My grandparents’ house still stands, and is now considered to be a ‘trendy and desirable’ property.

Close to the river, rows of low-rise flats had been built. This shot is from the early 1960s, which I can easily tell from the cars parked on the street.

Tower blocks soon became popular in the area. This is Addy House, built in 1963, and thought to be very smart and modern at the time. At sixteen stories, it would have been one of the tallest buildings in the borough then.

When I was young, the River Thames was still a busy and vibrant workplace. The docks and wharves on both sides were full of ships, and many local men worked as dockers, or on barges. You can see how close the area is to Tower Bridge, which was a short walk from where I grew up.

That area is also famous for a road and pedestrian tunnel under the river, the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Used as an alternative to Tower Bridge, (which opened several times a day to allow ships to pass) this was opened in 1908, and is still just as busy today.

One of the features of living so close to the river was the amount of riverside pubs in the area. This is one of the most famous, The Mayflower. It was originally called The Shippe, and dates from 1550, making it one of the oldest buildings still standing in the area. The current pub was erected on the site in 1620, named after the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers tied up their ship of that name there, before leaving to explore America. It is very popular with both tourists and locals, and has a very good restaurant upstairs, as well as riverside seating at the back. I had my second wedding reception there, in 1989.

If traffic was bad, and we wanted to get into the centre of the city, we would sometimes use the small tube (subway) line. This only took us to Aldgate, in East London, and from there we could change lines to get to the shopping areas of Oxford Street and Regent Street. This is the station today, unchanged since it was built, in 1869.

I hope that you have enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me. If you ever visit London, don’t forget that many of the most interesting parts of the city are south of The Thames, away from the more familiar tourist traps.

A very quiet Easter

When I was young, Easter was eagerly anticipated. Not that we were a religious family, you understand. Easter was a time of school holidays, visiting relatives, and eating chocolate eggs, and hot cross buns. The long weekend, with two public holidays, meant that everyone tried to get away from London. Whether for a day trip, or longer break, the prospect of bad weather (seemingly compulsory at this time) didn’t put anybody off. After a long winter in the city, this was the first chance to get out, and breathe some fresh air, hopefully close to the sea.

Unfortunately, the road network was not well developed in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. This meant that all the thousands of cars and caravans had to crawl through tiny villages and larger market towns, to get to their destinations. It seems forgotten today, but traffic was terrible back then. Cars were unreliable too, prone to overheating, and getting punctures. The Easter trip was something to endure and tolerate, as long as the couple of days at your getaway of choice could reward you with some relaxation. Traffic jams were so long and convoluted that families could often be seen outside their cars, pulled up on a verge, making tea with a camping stove. The small rest areas, called lay-bys here, were full of overheated cars, steam billowing from tired radiators; the occupants seeking to relieve themselves unseen in clumps of handy bushes, or sat glumly next to their expired vehicles.

For much of my youth, our Easter trip would be to my Grandparents’ caravan. This was situated on a static site in Essex, on the northern side of the Thames Estuary, adjacent to the River Blackwater. This site had the enticing name of ‘Happy Days’, and the caravans could be used from Easter to October. The facilities were primitive by today’s standards. There was a communal washing and toilet block, a small park with swings and play equipment, and a site shop and club house. This contained the highly-regarded bar, which saved the adults having to leave the site in the evenings. Water for the caravan had to be drawn from a tap, and carried over in large containers. There was a coal fire inside for cooler evenings, and some basic furniture. Despite the fact that the caravan was built to sleep only four, we would often have double that, as well as beds on the floor, for the smaller children. Nobody minded the proximity, we were all family after all. There was a tiny patch of grass alongside, which was ours to use when it was warm enough to sit outside. A short drive away, the large town of Maldon provided sufficient shops, as well as a large public park with a funfair and boating lake.

Despite the fact that it usually rained for at least some of the stay, those trips to the caravan were a delight, to both youngsters and adults alike. It was the closest we would ever get to outdoor living, a real change from our lives in South London, and it was only 52 miles away. We would eat our Easter eggs and delicious buns, and our parents and older relatives would have too much to drink in the club house. We also met some new friends; local kids who did things like going out in boats, swimming in the river, and helping out on farms. It was a simple life, with no TV, electronic games, or fashionable trainers. But we had a great time. Times do change though. These days, many people still go for an Easter break. They go to places like Center Parcs, where they can try archery, ride mountain bikes, or buzz around on Segways. If they are lucky, they might go to EuroDisney near Paris, or enjoy a trip to a theme park in the UK, riding on terrifying roller-coasters and similar machines. Some travel further afield, to gites or villas, enjoying croissants or pains au chocolat instead of hot cross buns. I don’t envy them though.

When you get older, such short holidays lose much of their appeal. Working shifts for most of my life, the chances were that I would be working anyway; perhaps both of the days, or at least one of them. At least there was financial compensation for missing out, in the form of double pay or time off in lieu, sometimes both. Easter eggs started to appear in the shops not long after Christmas, and hot cross buns became available all year round. The unstoppable march of retail reduced national holidays to little more than seasonal marketing opportunities, until they just became a day like any other. Saying that, Easter Sunday must still have some significance, because other than Christmas Day, it is the only day that Tesco is closed.

This last Easter, for us in Beetley at least, was very peaceful. On Friday, we took Ollie (and ourselves) to a place called Mousehold Heath, in the centre of Norwich. We had never been there before, so it was an opportunity to get out together for a change, and to see somewhere new. Norwich is not a large city. Despite being the largest city in Norfolk, a population of around 133,000 places it around 30th in the UK. It does benefit from some nice public areas though, and Mousehold Heath, almost in the city centre, provides a welcome escape from the busy roads that surround it. Once parked, and inside the woodland, only some distant views of the buildings and the sounds of traffic remind you how close you still are. There are many paths to choose, and also attractive open areas and a pitch and putt golf course. The new surroundings were much to Ollie’s approval. Numerous other dog-walkers and some dog-admiring families, meant that our dog got his fair share of attention. We stopped halfway at the American-style burger bar, that has outside tables. Thankfully, this is tastefully presented, using a lovingly restored Edwardian pavilion. Other than a sign near the car park you would be pushed to realise that it was even there. After enjoying coffee, and sharing a delicious burger, we crossed the road towards the bandstand, and explored the rest of the heath. The journey home was less than thirty minutes, so it made for a stress-free afternoon out.

Julie had to work until 2pm on Saturday, so we went out that evening. We don’t have a pub anymore in Beetley. But we do have the building that used to be the pub, and it has kept the same name, The New Inn. It is now a welcoming Thai restaurant. Lovely people run it, and the food is delicious too. The bar at the front still serves as a sort-of pub for those not wishing to dine, and it remains popular with many local people. On Sunday, we stayed home, and cooked a turkey for our evening meal, a nod to another Easter tradition from the past. Ollie enjoyed eating some of the bird, and there was plenty left over, which we used for a tasty turkey curry the next day. With the skies grey, and a threat of rain, we also stayed home on Monday. I went and did the regular shopping trip to Tesco, which was closing earlier than usual, though still open until 6pm. The shop was extremely busy, more so than normal for a Monday. As the TV news had promised no rain, and possible sunshine, many shoppers were stocking up on items for a barbecue that evening, and the aisles were packed.

This morning, Julie had to return to work, and I stayed home, nursing my still-aching back. It didn’t stop me taking Ollie for his walk of course, he has to go out. Easter was over for another year, though I am sure that I will be able to buy hot cross buns next week, if I want to.


Not Waving but Drowning

I would like to thank Jaypot, for suggesting that I explore my childhood for inspiration. Here is the first result of that exploration.

Stevie Smith wrote this famous poem, in 1957. If you have never heard of it, here is a link;
I did not become aware of this poem until the 1970’s, and considered it to be a fine piece of work. More than that, it had a connection for me, that even now, is painful to recall. I must start by saying, by way of a disclaimer, that many of the events recounted in this post were told to me later, by my parents. (Though despite my youth at the time, I do actually remember the main occurrence, as if it happened yesterday). This also applies to the exact geography of the location, a place I have never visited since, and which may well have changed, over time.

In the year that this poem was published, I was five years old. Though hard to imagine now, I had a mop of blonde curly hair, and an angelic face, set off by blue-green eyes. Looks-wise, I was at my peak; this is the best it was ever going to get. We were living in South London, within sight of the local docks, and as a family, we were happy. At least I thought so, but I was only five. My Dad worked as a carpenter then, making tea-chests and packing cases, in a workshop in nearby Deptford. Mum worked in the biscuit factory a few doors from our house, as a book-keeper in the office. I had not yet started school, and was due to go to the local primary, after their summer break was over. We lived in the upper rooms of a terraced house, and our landlady, a kindly widow, occupied the ground floor. It could be very hot in Central London, during the summer, and it was nice that my Mum and Dad often thought of places to go, to escape that heat.

As well as family holidays in Jaywick, a chalet town on the Essex coast, we also had a regular holiday to Cornwall, staying with a bachelor uncle in Penryn. He had been in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, and had some fascinating stories to tell. He wasn’t really an uncle, more like a second cousin, on my Dad’s side, but I really liked him. However, those longer holidays were expensive, and involved tedious, frustrating drives, as there were no motorways until 1963; and not for many years after that, to the South-West. To escape the humidity of the city for the day, usually on a Sunday, we would drive out to somewhere nearer London, like Box Hill, in Surrey, Epping Forest, in Essex, or Yalding, in Kent. These were more manageable as day trips, although traffic jams were as common then, and just as bad, as they are now. My Dad had a car, something of a rarity in our area in those days. It was a 1938 Wolseley, which had once been a Police car. Despite its age, the car was kept running by almost daily maintenance, and lots of love and devotion. It had back doors that opened the ‘wrong’ way, so an awning could be erected across the gap, which we could sit under. Inside, it had an internal string roof lining, which was used to store items to keep to hand, for the journey.

I was a bad traveller then, and could easily be car sick after less than twenty minutes driving. However, that didn’t put me off, and I always looked forward to our excursions. One hot day, Mum told me that we were going to go to Yalding, where we could relax by the river, and have a picnic on the grass. We always took a picnic, as there were few cafes around, and they were a little too expensive for us to use anyway. As well as food, we also had a paraffin stove and small kettle, for tea making, and milk would be taken in a thermos flask, to keep it cool. On arrival, we parked alongside many other cars, on the grassy area, right next to the river. (By coincidence, this area has featured heavily on the news since Christmas, as it has been badly flooded). Next to the parking area, the river was shallow, and led up to a weir. After the weir, the water is much deeper, and there is a waterfall effect, caused by the water rushing over the obstruction.

I had been allowed to take my toy boat. This was a wooden boat, made by my Dad, and it had a fairly large sail. This boat floated well, and I had previously sailed it on the pond, in the local park. After a family paddle, Mum prepared the picnic, and we all sat and ate. It was getting hotter, probably almost thirty degrees, and my parents were relaxing on the grass, tired after a long week at work. I was too young to sit still for too long, and returned to play with my boat, in the shallow water. Mum told me to stay where she could see me, and lay back on her blanket. I was enjoying the cold water on my bare legs, and the progress of my sailing boat, in the fast-flowing river. I started to follow it, as it built up speed, until I had walked a considerable distance from where I had started, near the family car. The exact period of elapsed time I am unsure of, but it was long enough for my Mum to have looked up, and to realise that I was not there.

She woke my dad, and told him that I was nowhere to be seen. They began to run around the area, which was filled with day-trippers, enjoying the sunshine. They asked everyone if they had seen a small boy, with a distinctive mop of almost white curls. Panic began to set in, when nobody could recall seeing me, or anyone like me. They went somewhere where announcements could be made, over a loud speaker system; possibly a First-Aid tent, or a Police point, I have no way of knowing now. Meanwhile, I was following my boat. I was too young to understand what a weir was, or to even notice the warning signs. I just wanted to catch my sailing boat, before it got too far from my reach, and became lost. I increased my speed in the water, and reached forward, in an attempt to grab it.

Although I was only five, I have two distinct memories of that year. One was starting school that September, being left by my Mum, and not wanting to go off with the teacher. This is the other one, and I can see it in flashback anytime, at will. My legs went from under me, and I had the sensation of sliding. Not falling, but sliding, just like on a slide at the local park. I went straight down into the deeper water, and it covered me immediately. There was no time to be alarmed, to panic, or to cry out. I was looking up, the sun bright but hazy through the water above me. There was no spluttering, no fighting for breath. I was swallowing though, as water seemed to be filling my mouth and stomach, I just kept swallowing. Every time I did, there was more water, and so it continued, for what seemed an eternity. Then there was a feeling of great peace. At that moment, I wasn’t scared, and could see clearly around me. The surface seemed to be a long way off, and there was total silence. Then it went dark. If that was death, it wasn’t as scary as you might imagine.

My next memory was of being on my back, coughing. Someone was covering me in something that felt rough and scratchy, and it was suddenly very noisy again. A man stood nearby, shivering, and soaking wet all over. Men were asking me questions, constantly repeating things that I couldn’t understand. I was lifted onto a stretcher, and my Mum appeared, wild-eyed and mad looking, most unlike her usual self. Some time passed, before I was aware of anything else. I was in a bed, but it wasn’t my bed. I was covered with scratchy covers again, and couldn’t move, they were so tight. Everything else was a blur, and I was told it all later, when I was able to understand. I remembered being under the water though, and I never found my boat.

I had wandered some way off from my starting point. It had been a while before my Mum noticed that I had gone, and the frantic searching had taken some time. On the bridge, or possibly beside it, a man had been fishing. As was the style of the day, he was fully dressed, in jacket, tie, and trousers. He had suddenly noticed a little boy, because of the white curly hair. The boy seemed to be running onto the top of the weir, and then disappeared under the water. This selfless man discarded his rod and line, and without thinking, jumped straight in, to rescue me. Helped by others on the bank, he got me out onto the side. Like most men at that time, he had seen some service in the war, and immediately knew that I was dead. I had drowned, and I didn’t even know. I had no heartbeat, and I wasn’t breathing. My lips were blue, and my body was floppy and lifeless. With the help of a first-aid trained person, the angler attempted to bring me back from the abyss. The resuscitation protocols during the 1950’s were very different from those practiced today. The generally accepted technique was to move the arms back and forth above the head, in a rowing action. This stimulated the ribs to move, assisting breathing, and also helped the lungs and stomach to expel any water. (Many years later, when training in the Ambulance Service, I was still taught these techniques. They were known by the inventors’ names, Silvester-Brosch, and Holger Neilsen.)

When this failed to revive me, they simply turned me over, and moved my ribs manually, which eventually resulted in most of the water coming out, and I started to breathe soon after. The period must have been mercifully short, as there was no long-lasting damage. By now, my parents were still no closer to finding me. They had gone the opposite way, and had no idea that I was so close to the weir. A police car toured the picnic grounds, asking if anyone had lost a child, and we were eventually reunited. My Dad told me, a long time later, that the soaking wet fisherman had retrieved a sodden packet of cigarettes from his jacket, and attempted to light one. Flushed with gratitude, my dad gave him his own cigarettes, almost a full packet. He never got the life-saver’s name, something both my parents always regretted.

I was taken to hospital in Maidstone, the county town about five miles from where I had drowned. I was kept under observation there, but I don’t know for how long, as I am sure that I was home later that night, in the dark. Perhaps not, memory plays tricks sometimes. I made the local London newspaper, the Evening Star. A small corner, telling how a London boy drowned on a day trip to Kent, and was saved by an angler. When my Mum died, I found this cutting in her possessions, saved lovingly, for fifty-five years. I was never once told off about this incident. Never scolded, or warned not to wander off. I believe that my parents always felt that they were to blame, and their guilt stopped them from admonishing me.

I never really felt comfortable in deep water after that day. And I have never learned how to swim.

Significant Songs (1)

When I say significant songs, of course I mean that they have a significance for me. For many of you, they might be just annoying, or not to your taste. That is fine, as music is nothing if not subjective, and this occasional series of posts is not intended to convert anyone to a particular song, or style of music. Consider it nostalgia; as you may already know, I like the occasional wallow in that.

All The Young Dudes (1972) Mott The Hoople

When I heard this song played over a car radio, I thought at first, that it was by David Bowie. This turned out to be a reasonable assumption, as I later found out that he had written it. In 1972, I was far from being a Dude, in the sense of ‘a cool dude’. I wasn’t even an apprentice Dude, and did not so much as possess a single element of ‘Dudeness’. I was 20 years old, and a very straight South London boy; with a normal job, and a normal girlfriend. I did have varied music tastes though, and immediately liked this song, buying it on a vinyl single, the next day. It seemed to have something for everyone, and I liked a lot of the lyrics. As a city dweller, the line, ‘Is that concrete all around, or is it in my head?’ especially resonated. It even had some Cockney rhyming slang in there-‘Boat Race’.

I had no idea what the strange name of the band signified, if anything, and still haven’t bothered to find out, to this day. Although they were being marketed as a ‘Glam Rock’ band, I didn’t buy that at all. Ian Hunter, anonymous behind his signature shades, and mass of curly hair, was far too cool to be a Glam Rocker. This was a genre associated with The Sweet, Slade, Gary Glitter, and many others; they were not in Hunter’s league. His conversational singing style, almost like he was chatting to the listener, appealed to me immensely, and there was a real power behind that voice, that you just knew had the potential to roar. I liked the asides, left in after the recording, and the reference to spotty faces, Marks and Spencer, and the obvious English accent, made this single stand out from so much of the imported American music of the period.

At the time, I was going through a transition in my life. My old friends were still going to the South London pubs, listening to all our favourite stuff, suited and booted, drinking beer, and driving decent motors. My new friends were a little older. They had long hair, some had beards, they played in a band, and understood music. They weren’t bothered about cars and pubs, and their musical tastes were different. I felt myself beginning to be drawn to their spliff-smoking lifestyle, and relaxed attitudes to everything. Not that I was about to grow my hair, or to stop wearing suits and ties; I couldn’t quite go that far.

This song, along with many others, seemed to sum up how I felt at that age, at that time in the world. I took lyrics and ideas from it, and moulded those into representations of my own thoughts and issues. In retrospect, it seems I was completely wrong. Bowie later told how he wrote the song as a warning of the impending apocalypse, that he believed would be just around the corner. The news that the Young Dudes were carrying was that of Armageddon, apparently, and not the lifestyle and social upheaval that I was reading into it at all. I don’t mind getting that one wrong. The world didn’t end, despite Mr Bowie’s prophecy, and I still enjoy the song as much today, as I did almost 42 years ago.

Here is a clip of a good version of the song, billed as Glam Rock, unfortunately.

And here is Bowie performing the song himself. Less frantic perhaps, but still good.

If any of you have never heard it, then I hope that you enjoy it. If you don’t, well that’s life.

Some songs about London

If you ask me where I live, I will answer ‘Norfolk’. However, ask me where I am from, and the answer will always be ‘London’. Lots of places have songs or music written about them, and I have mentioned some on other posts on this blog. But it is the songs about my home town that have the biggest impact on me. Often corny, sometimes coarse, these songs have followed me through my life so far, and will continue to do so. Here are just some of them.

London Pride.  Written by Noel Coward in 1941, this song was designed to inspire Londoners during the Blitz, and remains as one of the most evocative songs ever written about London, and the Londoners who lived there at the time, and since. This version is actually sung by Coward, in his distinctive upper-class lisp. A piece of history on the page, courtesy of You Tube.

Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner.  Again written during the war years, this time in 1943, by Hubert Gregg. This is the song us Londoners all sing when we have had too much to drink, or we are in the company of non-Londoners. It is the anthem of the ‘old’ Londoners, and in its day, was the equivalent of ‘New York, New York’. This hackneyed, sentimental old tune runs through my head whenever I think of my city. To me, it is priceless. This version is performed by Flanagan and Allen, a music hall act who made many wartime songs famous.

A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.  Just before the outbreak of the second world war, this song was written by Eric Mashwitz, and released in 1940. It has been recorded by many famous artists, but perhaps the best-known version, at least here in England, was by Dame Vera Lynn. Here she is, singing the song live on TV, in 1969, thirty years after it was published.

The Lambeth Walk.  I was born in Lambeth Hospital, so I have something of an emotional attachment to this song. Lambeth was a small area of South London, bordering the Thames, on the opposite bank of the river to the Houses of Parliament. It is now an enormous London Borough, and as such, has lost much of its original identity. Lambeth Walk, once a street market, still exists. This song, from the 1937 musical, ‘Me and My Girl’, also has an accompanying dance, that I have attempted more times than I care to remember. This clip, from the 1939 film of the show, not only demonstrates the old song, but also the dance that went with it. It resembles the earliest form of Line-Dancing. Just fabulous!

Wotcher!Knocked Em In The Old Kent Road.  Composed in 1891, by the Chevalier Brothers, famous music hall performers, this old song also has a personal involvement for me. The Old Kent Road is a famously long road in South London, once the way of pilgrimage to Canterbury, and as the name suggests, the main route from London, to the county of Kent. I lived near it, went to school just off of it, and shopped along it, until as recently as 2011. The shop fronts have changed, but the essence of the place remains the same to this day. ‘Wotcher’, for the benefit of non-Londoners, is a greeting, possibly an abbreviation of ‘Watch You’. It was very common in my youth, and is still heard, though less used by younger people. In 1939, in the Hollywood film, ‘The Little Princess’, Shirley Temple sang a version of this song, alongside English character actor, Arthur Treacher. This is a short clip of that performance.

A Foggy Day In London Town.   Written by George and Ira Gershwin, this song, from 1937, was intended for Fred Astaire, in the film ‘A Damsel In Distress’. It has been recorded countless times since, by most of the greatest singers ever known. It continues the long connection of London with Fog, made famous in so many films. The best version is probably that recorded by Frank Sinatra, but I cannot resist the original version, so here is the grainy old film clip.

Waterloo Sunset.  London group, The Kinks, released this tribute to London’s sights and sounds in 1967. It has a timeless quality about it, and is rightly regarded as a tribute to the great city, despite its melancholy love-song feel, and the story that Ray Davies originally titled the song ‘Liverpool Sunset’. The view from Waterloo Bridge is one of the best anywhere in London, taking in all the iconic riverside buildings, as well as many of the other bridges. Here they are, performing the song live, in black and white.

London Calling.  In 1979, punk band The Clash released an album of this name, including this track, issued as a single. It is a political record, about many things, as well as London. However, it has since been widely associated with the city, and is often used to represent it, in film clips, and advertisements. It has undeniable power.

There are many more songs relating to London, either directly, or by association. This is a varied sample, and I hope that you enjoy them. You can be an honorary Londoner, for the short time it takes to listen to them.

Selling Yourself: Part Three

My time with sausages and pies was over for now, though I would re-visit this area of sales at a later date. Having sneaked a day off to attend an interview, I had a new job offer, and I was off, to sales pastures new.

The confectionery market is well-known to us in the UK. We have a national sweet tooth, and there are plenty of companies out there willing to exploit this. I saw an advertisement for one of those companies, although the sweets were only a small part of a more complex organisation. Jimmy Goldsmith, father of Jemimah Khan, and businessman extraordinaire, owned a company called Cavenham Foods, producing food of many types. As he is long dead, I feel it is in order to use the actual names.

One subsidiary of this, the third largest company in its field at the time, was an offshoot selling cheap sweets, alongside the Elizabeth Shaw range, of premium liqueur chocolates, and mints. I got the job after a short interview, and left the sausage company on a Friday, starting the new job the next week. I was to be a company representative covering a large part of South London, calling on retail outlets, and developing new customers where possible. Our largest competitor was Bassets, famous for their liquorice allsorts, as well as other, lesser-known sweets. This was a step up for me, a suit and tie job, good salary, no commission, and a nice new Ford Cortina car. I had arrived.

It is interesting to realise just how large the market in loose sweets was, (and perhaps still is) despite the low unit cost for the customer, of four for a penny, or a penny each. This was known in the trade as the ‘after school market’, as children returning home from school, with or without parents, would seek to get as many sweets as possible, with their small amount of disposable income. This is where we came in. Foam candy shrimps, chocolate flavour tools, rainbow drops, jazzies, foam bananas, milk bottles, and many other traditional favourites, were our main products. Selling at tiny amounts per unit, they nonetheless made a good profit for the shopkeeper, and also got the children into the shop, where they might also purchase drinks, comics, and crisps.

If their parents came too, all kinds of sales opportunities opened up. The retailer could hold large stocks, without tying up too much capital, and the point of display was simplicity itself; just rip the front off of the boxes, and plonk them near the till. In the more upmarket retailers, we could also introduce our liqueur range, and the mint crisps that sold at a premium price. Both of these were popular for taking to dinner parties, as an alternative to the ubiquitous After Eight mints.

Again, there was little training. A book listing the range and prices, and a large box, containing files on all existing customers, was all I got. There were monthly calls, and quarterly calls, as well as ‘suggested’ routes to take. Otherwise, it was all up to me. I had no sales targets, and no commission targets to achieve either. It was a simple case of making at least twelve calls a day, five days a week, and canvassing new customers where possible. I had to submit a daily paperwork trail, with the name and address of the customer I had called on, the time I arrived, and the time I left. Orders were sent in weekly, for delivery by the end of the month.

This seemed straightforward enough, but this seemingly innocuous accounting procedure was to eventually be my downfall, although I had no inkling of that at the time. I had a car full of ‘samples’ to offer to new customers, as well as stocks of each product stashed in the boot, in case of any quality complaints, or returned sweets. It seemed to me that I couldn’t go wrong, and could do this job standing on my head.

I did not allow for two seemingly unrelated factors. Shortly after getting the job, I moved away from home for the first time, to share a house nearby, with four friends. This was one of the factors. The other, was that my area was so large, that I had an enormous amount of customers. In one long street in South London, say Streatham High Road for example, I might have upwards of thirty shops to call on. These would range from small newsagents, to corner shops, grocery outlets, or traditional confectionery shops. If I arrived in the area by 9am, I had easily completed my twelve calls by 1pm, without moving the car. I could have carried on of course, and perhaps made thirty calls in a day, but this would have been seen as unusual by the company. After all, they expected me to spend a reasonable amount of time in each shop, promoting our brand, and selling as much as possible.

The trouble was, I had no difficulty selling the stuff. Every shop I went into wanted it, and was happy to order then and there, with the minimum of fuss and discussion. I might have occasionally taken some time to add on an order for the expensive liqueurs and mints, but they would generally take some, just to get rid of me, and to secure the order for the penny sweets.

I was also now living with friends. Those friends had jobs, but they were also in a band, and had lots of other friends calling around. We played records, listened to music that they had written, and they rehearsed constantly, once home from their day jobs. It was a fun environment, and not conducive to holding down a regular job. I wanted to be at home, to be around my friends, and to enjoy myself. Selling sweets for a multimillionaire didn’t seem all that important, even though they were paying me a decent salary, and providing me with a new car. Very soon, I began to arrive home early, having completed my calls and getting my orders. I had to do some creative paperwork, so as not to disclose my actual hours. I would put down my last call as around 4pm, with paperwork to be completed afterwards, and I made sure never to post anything before 5.30pm, as that would have been a dead giveaway.

It didn’t take me long to realise, that if I did twenty four calls in one day, which was easily achievable, I could alter the dates on all the forms, and have the next day off. As long as I was careful with the posting times, and the general record of the calls to the shops, I was fairly safe. The orders were still flowing, and I had an order to call conversion rate of well over 90%, the second best in the whole company.

A month later, and I took the next step. Working very hard on a Friday, I could cover enough calls to never have to go out on a Monday again. I even got some cooperation from shop owners, telling them that the order dates would be different, for ‘accounting purposes’. They didn’t care, as long as they got their sweet bananas, or sugar mice. I soon worked out that fifteen calls a day over four days was all too easy to do, so upped it to twenty a day, still finishing by 4pm. This meant that I could work for three days, and still complete the sixty calls a week required, as long as I applied myself midweek. I stopped working on Fridays, as well as Mondays, and started to enjoy a long weekend, every week. I had ‘invented’ flexitime, although I didn’t know it as that.

The funny thing was, that I actually increased sales. Nobody before me had ever done better in that area, and my sales of the premium brands had almost doubled on the previous year. When I turned up, the customers were always pleased to see me, and would comment that things were good, and that they liked our products. I could see nothing wrong with my part-time working habits, as I was always high up in the sales charts, and even received letters telling me that they were exceptionally pleased with my progress.

I bought a lightweight grey suit, ready for the coming summer weather, and set about revising my area, to make life even easier. I would drive to the most distant customer first, which meant that I was slowly working my way back nearer home, instead of ending up with an hour’s drive at the end of the day. I had also taken to eating the goods on the go, eliminating the need for lunch or breakfast stops. I do not recommend a diet of foam candy animals and chocolate covered bananas though, as I was soon becoming well-known at the local dentist, and spending my life in a permanent sugar rush.

One day, I had a moment of panic; one of those times when your back goes cold, and you realise that you have missed something vital. I wasn’t doing enough mileage. Even allowing for the extra calls, dropping two days a week meant that I was down at least eighty miles a week. Although I had made up these mileage figures, for the benefit of the paperwork, they did not actually show on the odometer, and the car was due to go in for a service. This left me with the farcical situation, of having to drive up and down the nearby A2 trunk road, back and forth to Dover, until I had clocked up the requisite miles. I spent almost a whole weekend doing this, and realised, for future reference, that extra miles would have to be factored in.

Nothing this good lasts for ever, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It is always the small things that catch you out. Conversely, it was my popularity, and the increasing sales of our products, that brought about my demise. One of my customers, that I had recently called on, had placed a very large order. Even so, it seemed that he had quickly sold out, and needed more stocks. I had split that order into two, showing a non-existent call on him the previous week, as part of the juggling process that managed my ‘time off’. In those days, there were no mobile phones, so the customer in question contacted the company directly, asking for me to call in and see him. As they should, they checked when I had last called, and were surprised to find that it had been so recently, and that an order was in the system for him.

When they rang him back to tell him this, he was adamant that it had been a while since I had called. They then contacted the calls shown on my paperwork for that day, and asked them if I had been there also. Of course, I hadn’t, as I had not even left the house. This prompted a behind the scenes operation by Head Office, as I continued my personal plan, oblivious to their discoveries.

Late one morning, after sleeping in, I noticed a car parked across the street, A smartly-dressed man was inside, apparently making notes on a clipboard, that rested on the steering wheel. This was most unusual, in a residential street, where all our neighbours had usually left for work by then. As it was a Monday, I had no plans to go out selling, and I already had my day’s paperwork completed, timed and dated, and ready for posting that evening. I went and had breakfast, returning to the front window some forty-five minutes later. He was still there, parked directly opposite my company car, which had plainly not moved. My instincts told me that something was amiss.

Engaging survival mode, I quickly telephoned the company, saying that I had been unwell during the night, and was calling in sick. I had never done this before. I hoped that this would put a stop to any developing situation, and offered to telephone all of my planned calls for the day, and reschedule my appointments. This seemed to do the trick. Twenty minutes later, and the suspicious car had left; I breathed a sigh of relief, and set about altering all the paperwork that I had completed the previous week. I went back out to work the next day, and made sure that I left early, and returned late, even though this meant me parking up in a local Park for almost an hour, so I was not back at the house too soon. With the paperwork suitably ‘corrected’, and all orders re-written with new dates, I felt relaxed, and ready to resume my previous working methods. Perhaps I had imagined too much, and the man in the car was nothing to do with me at all, just a double-glazing salesman, writing up his orders.

I should have trusted my gut feeling, but I was young.

Two weeks later, I was telephoned early one morning at home and requested to visit Head Office, which was on an industrial estate near Heathrow, and to be there by 9am on Monday. This was fairly unusual, so I asked if there was to be a sales meeting, or a presentation of new products. The secretary on the other end of the phone, told me that she thought it involved swapping my car, for a newer model, so could I be sure to bring both sets of keys, and all the user manuals. This sounded good. there had long been talk of getting us the larger estate cars, as we carried so much stock, and the large boxes of customer records. And when you are a young man, the prospect of getting another brand new car, especially a different model, is always exciting.

I missed some salient points though. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will notice, that no mention had been made of getting my appointments covered, and I had not even been asked if it was convenient, for me to use most of Monday doing this, as it would presumably involve letting down customers who expected me to call. I also ignored the fact that my existing car was still relatively new, and I had been the first to use it, so it was very unlikely that it would be changed so soon. In my confident young mind, I also shelved the notion that I should have mentioned these points, as I had become so used to not working on a Monday, it hadn’t even occurred to me to question it.

I arrived in good time, and was offered a cup of tea by a secretary. After a wait of nearly an hour, I was asked to go into the office, to see the Sales Manager. There were three men sat around a desk, all perusing paperwork. That paperwork looked strangely familiar. I was told to sit down, and nothing was said about new cars, or excellent sales results. They started to ask me about specific dates, when and where I had been on those dates, and what orders had been placed. I said that I would have to consult my copies, and the customer files, to be sure. I looked at my diary, and soon realised that all the dates they were asking about, fell on a Friday or Monday. After a bit of waffling from me, they finally revealed the extent of their investigations.

They had re-called on all the customers that I had claimed to visit on those dates, during the last month. In some cases, the shop managers or owners had actually been on holiday during that time, so could not have been present, to place the orders. They did remember me calling though, but they were certain that it was the previous week, and on a Wednesday. My managers produced a wad of my submitted paperwork, with red crosses next to every call that they had managed to prove was incorrectly listed. The game was up. They asked me what I was up to, and I simply told them the truth. The job could be done the way I was doing it, and the sales had increased as a result.

I don’t know what made them more angry, the fact that I had been duping them for so long about my working hours, or the realisation that all their procedures and controls were meaningless, as my sales boost had proved. I stuck to my guns, adding that I worked more hours during my three-day week, than most of my colleagues did in five days. I also had a box full of happy customers, and some of the best sales figures in the company. I knew that they were annoyed, but did not really see it as a huge problem. If I did the calls, and got the sales, what difference did it make what days I worked?

Well, we know that they didn’t see it my way.

The Area Manager was so annoyed, that I thought he was going to physically attack me. I suspect that his own job was under threat, as he was supposed to have been supervising me, but had been happy to leave me alone, when I was doing so well. I was instructed to leave my keys on the desk, surrender all outstanding paperwork, and given my cards, and some petty cash, so that I could get a train home. Instant dismissal, with only a nominal reference. This was my reward, for exposing their shortcomings, and being the second best salesman in the company. I couldn’t really blame them. After all, I had been taking the piss, and it had been good while it lasted.

So, I walked out of the door, and didn’t look back. It was only the second job that I was ever sacked from. I bought a local paper on the way home, and saw some interesting adverts for jobs in it. After two telephone calls, I had an interview arranged for Saturday morning.

Bermondsey summers

What is it about memory, that makes us remember summers as being better in our youth? Ask most people about the weather, and they will almost always agree that the summer was better when they were young.

Six weeks of unbroken sun, school holidays spent outside, with perhaps the occasional thundery shower, that helped to clear the air. Given that this might span a time period from 1958, to 1998, it cannot really have any basis in fact. Although I do not have the real statistics to hand, (and cannot be bothered to look them up) I am sure that we didn’t always have fabulous summers, with weeks of Mediterranean heat, and unbroken blue skies. So why is it that this is how I remember them?

Before we moved to Kent, when I was fifteen years old, I spent my summers on the streets of Bermondsey, a South London district, close to the River Thames. There may have been a two-week family holiday, usually to Cornwall, and there were also weekends in Essex, staying at my Nan’s caravan, but mostly, it was ‘playing out’ with mates.

This was sometimes on the still-present bomb sites, derelict areas caused by wartime raids, and often near my Nan’s house, where we played various games on the pavements, and in the roads. We might also venture into Southwark Park, where there was a good play area, with a climbing net over a sandpit, and a large roundabout. In the other direction, the smaller St James’s park boasted an unusual slide, with a closed-in top, resembling a wooden fort.

I might also wander down to the river, where the busy docks were then still working flat out, and look at the huge cargo ships, spinning cranes, and passing river traffic. This might involve slipping past the Dock Police, who were supposed to stop us going in, or just going to Cherry Garden pier, with direct access to the riverside, where we could play at low tide. Once out, we rarely returned home until the agreed deadline; if we needed to pee, we did it up a tree, and we had our pocket money, for any drinks or snacks that we wanted.

The most enduring memory, whether false or not, is of good weather that enabled us to play, however and whenever we wanted. We played cricket, with pieces of wood, and any ball we could find. Football of course, with old boxes for goalposts, and if there were not enough of us to make up teams, then it was up against a wall, or one in goal, with the ‘three goals and in’ rule applying. We would always assume the identity of the star players of the day, and would argue, until allowed to keep our choice. The playmates were generally neighbours, and any other kids who just happened to be hanging about, as we rarely ventured outside our world, the small borough that was Bermondsey.

Being boys (there were rarely girls, except sisters who had to be looked after) we liked to play at war. Although the Second World War was fresh to us, and we still had the evidence in the bomb-sites, we did not restrict ourselves. We also liked to pretend to be knights in armour, using all sorts of adapted implements and household items to simulate medieval attire. We would go to the local ‘shop that sold everything’, and buy garden canes, one long, and many short. They were affordable with our small amounts of pocket money, and with some old string obtained from anywhere, they magically transformed into bows and arrows. With these, we could be the English archers at Agincourt (we had all seen Henry V), or just as easily become fierce Apache warriors, opposing the U.S. Cavalry.

Toy guns, discussed at length in another post, would be prized in these conflicts, and those not lucky enough to have one made do with suitably shaped pieces of wood or metal. At times, there could be as many as thirty of us on each side; one group defending an area, the other attacking with screams and whoops. These battles were not without their casualties. Stones and bricks were often thrown, and the large numbers of flying ‘arrows’ also caused eye injuries. Even if you survived the skirmish, you could be sure of scraped knees, scuffed shoes, and torn clothing. Nobody got an ambulance though, or a trip to the hospital. You went home, to get Germolene on your scrapes, and a telling off for spoiling your clothes. Before getting out again, as soon as possible, to rejoin the fray.

I can still feel the heat, even now. The pavements felt uncomfortably hot when you sat down. Dogs dozed outside houses, grumpy if approached. Ants were everywhere, and sometimes, huge numbers of winged ants would emerge, their desire to fly off sparked by the increasing temperature. You were always thirsty. The parks had water fountains, operated by pushing a plunger, and then you had to try to drink from it, craning your head awkwardly. Older fountains had large metal cups, attached by chains. They were probably unhygienic, but the water always tasted fresh from them.

If all else failed, you would knock on any door, and ask for a drink of water, from a complete stranger. It was never denied, as it was a very different world then. If you had money, you could buy a drink, or better still, an Ice Pole or a Jubbly. Ice Poles were long tubes of frozen, flavoured water, encased in a polythene shell. You bit off the top, and pushed the pole up as you ate it. Jubblies were even better, but cost 3d. They resembled a pyramid, and were really frozen solid. They contained a tasty orange ice, and were in a waxy cardboard container. Peeling off one corner, the Jubbly would appear, and could be slid in and out, as required. Even in the full heat of summer, they would last a long time, and were a great refreshment.

When I moved to the new maisonette in Bermondsey, aged eight, we had communal gardens. These became my new playground. With the other kids from the flats, of all ages, we would play in the wartime air-raid shelters, on the older estate opposite. As we had a ground and first floor, we would leap from the stairwell halfway up, pretending to be parachutists at Arnhem. With earth and grass to include in our games, we would dig out tiny trenches, and place our toy soldiers in them. We even poured water into them, to simulate the mud we had seen in the films. A good game like this could involve up to six kids, with a few hundred toy soldiers, in an impressive trench network that we kept going for days, if not weeks, on end.

When I got a bike, a whole new world of summer play opened up for me. We would cruise around in large numbers, pretending to be fighter planes, attacking each other with loud machine-gun noises, covering a good few miles each day. Other times, we would ‘obtain’ broom handles, and stage elaborate jousting contests, slavishly following all the rules, just as we had seen in the films. Pedalling rapidly towards each other, we fearlessly clashed our broom handle ‘lances’; if someone fell off their bike, the other boy would get off also, and continue the contest with wooden swords. And it was still hot, always hot.

This was pretty much how it carried on, until I became too old for play, and started to read, or listen to music in my bedroom instead. By the time we moved to Kent, I had stopped noticing the heat of the summers, but I vividly remember the open doors, to let in air, and the sound of the younger kids, out playing until past 9pm, enjoying the warmth.

Nothing will persuade me that those summers are a myth, or just a rose-tinted memory.

We all have a book in us

How many times has this been heard over the years? Approaching Retirement, I was often told, ‘now is the time to write that book’. After all, I had led a comparatively exciting working life. Over 20 years in a front line ambulance, followed by more than 10 years behind the scenes working for the Metropolitan Police. I had attended bombings, and major disasters. I had delivered babies, cared for victims of terrible burns and injuries, and ended my working life deploying firearms officers in Central London. There was also the possibility to inject humour, with unusual tales of quirky events, mistakes and errors made, and the strange characters that I had dealt with, or worked alongside. I had travelled a fair bit. What about experiences behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in Soviet Russia, or visiting East Germany many years before the wall came down?
If this did not provide fertile enough ground for that book, there were always my personal interests. History, Civil Wars, Cameras and Photography, Dickensian London, and the development of weapons through the ages. Maybe I could use my experiences with the Police, to write about modern crime-fighting in the Metropolis? There was always the possibility that my new life in Norfolk would yield great material for a book about the transition from London to the countryside. I would definitely look into it. After all, didn’t my life deserve a printed legacy, or to be available as an electronic download? Surely I too deserved to be in the remainder bins at half price, or in the window of Waterstones as the cheapest of the ‘buy 3 get 1 free offer? Failing all that, I could adapt these experiences and interests, to write a work of fiction, loosely based on something I knew a bit about.

I considered all the options, starting with the obvious. My Life in the Ambulance Service. An interesting read, with a few chuckles, and lots of gasps. From the end of the 1970’s, to the start of the 21st century. Strikes, civil disorder, changes in the NHS, advancements in care, yet the job was essentially the same. There have been a few written already. They didn’t sell well. There was one exception to this, the marvellous ‘Bringing out the dead’, the only work to ever get inside the darker aspects of the job of a Paramedic. Generally though, people don’t want to read the truth about injury and illness. It just isn’t entertaining or informative.
What about Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War? I have always been interested in that period. I am a member of the Cromwell Association, and I live in East Anglia, so research should be easy. I was forgetting Antonia Fraser. Her definitive biography of the man and his times, as thick as a telephone directory, immaculately researched, and a great read for anyone interested in the subject. No point trying to better that.
Perhaps a crime thriller, drawing on my Police contacts? I remembered the novel ‘By Reason of Insanity’. Probably the best book about a serial killer, and those hunting him, ever written. Then there were the books about forensic detectives, pathologists, or those with a gritty, authentic feel, like the ‘Rebus’ series. Could I do better than all these?

I doubt it.
How about a non-fiction work of importance, say the history of a great city like London? Oops, Peter Ackroyd beat me to that one.
This leaves the fish- out- of- water transition to a strange land, as my best bet. Hang on, am I forgetting Bill Bryson, or ‘A Year in Provence’? My feeble musings on a life in Norfolk are never going to hold a candle to these best sellers.
So, it had to be a well-researched, thought-provoking work about the unhappy lot of the working class in Victorian London. I would start right away. I had the credentials, as I came from the poorest district in South London, Rotherhithe. Nuzzling the south bank of the Thames, this was a place that had changed beyond recognition, from unspeakable slum, it had become a fashionable, dockside development. The docks had closed, and the inhabitants mostly moved away. There had to be some mileage in that surely? No. I had forgotten Charles Dickens, not to mention Mr Ackroyd (again).

My conclusion is that we do not all have a book ‘in us’. Writers and authors have books in them. They get up early, write long and hard. They research, they study, they read other books, and they strive for excellence. They are their own harshest critics, and they give their lives to their work. Families are shunned, homes re-mortgaged, lovers abandoned, luxuries are foregone. They also have good ideas, and act upon them.

The recent meteoric success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and its sequels, fuelled by social media sites on the Internet, is a good example. Written by a lady who waited until she had seen her family grow, and her career aspirations satisfied, she embarked on her trilogy of lust, bondage and dark love. It has probably made her a fortune, and she has the film rights to come as well.
I could have had that idea. I could imagine sex and bondage, vulnerable females, and a dark central character. It can’t be that difficult can it? But I didn’t have the idea, and if I had, I wouldn’t have acted on it. E. L James had the idea, and she did the work necessary to get it into print. She reaps a just reward, good luck to her. That is the difference between writers and readers. If you want to be a writer, you have to act on those ideas, and be prepared to work hard to make them appear on a page. They don’t always have to be new, but they must catch a mood, and be of their time. Just because you did something interesting, doesn’t necessarily make that thing, or you, interesting as well, when translated to the written page.

Keep reading, and enjoy those books. I choose to stop believing that I have a book ‘in me’. I don’t.