Friday, 27 September 2013

You Dig?

I used to read sci-fi comics and the NME; I moved on to the Times and Mojo. Now as I drift into old age I find I am irresistibly drawn to gardening catalogues. I've given up gigging for digging. There, I’ve said it. How much longer before I start wearing beige knitwear with Werthers originals in the pockets?

A (younger) friend tried to get me to go to the Portmerion Festival the other day. It’s a special place – the location of The Prisoner series; it was a great bill, the weather forecast was good. I weighed up the merits of traipsing to Wales, watching bands, eating dodgy burgers and bedding down in a field, or staying at home and gently pottering in my garden. No competition, I pottered.
Not only did I save a fortune, I rather think I enjoyed myself more.
 This year I have over fifty tomato plants and they all seem to have fruit on them but they will not surrender their blushing globes easily, needing fairly constant love and attention. There are lower leaves to trim, there is watering to be done, a bit of weeding, suckers to pluck, snails to remove and canes to fix. How could I have ever considered abandoning my lovelies at this crucial stage in their development, even for the not inconsiderable charms of New Order or Primal Scream? Plus the fact, the idea of standing in a mosh pit in a foreign field is just a little too exciting for me these days.
Yes, gardening – specifically vegetable growing - is the new rock ‘n’ roll. Waiting lists for allotments stretch into decades, many enlightened schools in the area have put in veg beds, the Horniman has installed a very impressive World Food Garden ( and the Dulwich Vegetable Garden (, behind Roseberry Lodge in the park is now well established. It was where, the other Sunday a very congenial hoary-handed man of the soil was happy to take a five-minute break from his labours to talk manure.
But what to put in my bed? Onions, spuds and parsnips are all cheap and plentiful in the shops just down the road, as well as being dull so I don’t see the point in growing them. I’ve made a point of planting things that taste better than shop bought produce or things that you can’t easily get, or things that are expensive: I’ve had asparagus in for three years now. We had a crop of two spears last year which I admit is less than spectacular and doth not a dinner make but I’ve got high hopes that once they get going we’ll get about ten years of free asparagus out of the plants. More successful this summer was some delicious chard and a fair crop of raspberries.
There are set up costs of course, tools and compost to buy. The catalogue bursts with labour saving money-wasting gadgets. I figured out that the three raspberries I had last year stood me in at about seven quid each, but persevere and as the years go by the unit costs fall away.
My next crop is very ambitious; I’m planting fifty saffron crocuses, which will look pretty and yield little rust-coloured stigmas that weight-for-weight are more valuable than gold. To plant these, I of course needed to buy a special crocus-planting tool, which is £20 and may only get used once, but that’s less than the cost of a new shirt and since I don’t go out any more I don’t need a new shirt. 
Apparently 150 crocuses provide only one gramme of saffron (enough for 12 meals), while you would need to plant the equivalent of two football pitches to get a crop of one kilo.
Now I’m not suggesting we plant crocuses all over the sports fields but it has made me think about the bits of land there are scattered around the area that could benefit from the addition of a fruit tree or a tomato plant. The plant shop lady from Herne Hill grows tomatoes up beside the tree outside Pullens restaurant in a space of about ten square centimetres. 
Imagine if Dulwich was covered in fruit and veg and you could just help your self? That appeals to my old hippie mentality. Perhaps the council should plant fruit trees rather than ornamentals; cabbages rather than daffs; like Johnny Appleseed who travelled the USA planting apple trees wherever he went, I shall start scattering veg seeds in the verges of Dulwich. A little bit of guerrilla gardening would go a long way.
To think of all those years I wasted hanging around record shops on Saturdays when I should have been in the garden centre mulling over mulch. Now what on earth am I going to do with all these tomatoes?
© Steve Overbury 2012
Steve’s book London Babylon about the dark side of the Swinging Sixties is available from priced £12.99. There are 414 pages of previously untold stories, anecdotes, pictures and spelling mistakes. Each visitor to the site is entitled to the two ‘missing’ chapters free.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

How Rizla thin the veneer of civilisation. Just how far have we really crawled from the primordial ooze? How rapidly would we revert to the brutish, blood soaked ways of the Cro magnon; flint marks on bones, body parts sizzling on the fire.

I recently asked the local butcher if he could get me a deer’s head with the antlers. I fancied nailing one to a tree in the garden to freak the foxes out, or do I mean the neighbours?
He matter-of-factly pondered my request, then said he would have a word with his game distributor. After all, the heads have to go somewhere don't they? Had I considered that it would still have the flesh and fur on it? How would I get it back to the bone? I might need to boil it in a big pot for a couple of days. 'Goat’s head soup,' he laughed. 'Chuck in a couple of onions,' I said, adding that I wanted a deer not a goat and that I’d look on the Internet.
A subsequent visit to the butcher threw up this bit of dialogue, which was ear wigged by those in the queue behind me, two genteel ladies and a rather impatient trendy looking chap.

Butcher: Did you get anywhere with your head?

Me: You can get them on Ebay.
Butcher: That would save you boiling it
Me: Absolutely, I didn’t want the wife catching me boiling heads
Butcher: You can get anything on that Ebay
Me: Not entirely. I did think that if it was that easy to get a stag’s head, then I’d try and get a human head
Butcher: A human?

Me: Well, the skull. I don’t really want a head, you know with a face. I wouldn’t want to get caught boiling that on the cooker
Butcher: And can you?

Me: No, you can’t get human heads; I meant a skull
Butcher: It’s probably not allowed
Me: That’s probably a good thing, I mean that you can’t get body parts on Ebay
Butcher: I saw a programme the other day and this bloke in a laboratory was getting a skeleton. I always thought they were plastic but it was a real one.
Me: Where did he get it from?

Butcher: Bangla Desh I think. It was a little one
Me: What? Was it a child?

Butcher: Think so

I thanked him and paid for my sausages and left the shop passing the three customers who had all gone very still and recoiled from me in horror as I made for the door. 

Friday, 11 March 2011

Nirvana: South London

We live among acres of sports fields, parks, ponds, woods and tree-lined avenues of mansions, slap bang in the middle of London. Spring in Dulwich is beautiful; Autumn is sublime. Lucky buggers, that’s what we are.

Out of the house and a short clump down to the folly. This staggering and reeling is supposed to be jogging. Past the pub, which stands on the site where Byron once went to school, I struggle up the oak-lined avenue and turn into the woods. Here be woodpeckers, foxes and magpies, squirrels, jays and owls, bats, badgers and snakes, and, until about six or eight years ago, an old hermit who rode a Moulton bike, wore a leather flying helmet and lived in a windowless shed. Up near there I once I saw a safe with its bottom blown out.

When they were little, I dragged the kids up there for a walk. I extended my arms, breathed deeply and informed them that this was just like the countryside. But, indelibly London girls, they’d spotted the gates and fences and were filled with dread. “Will we get locked in the countryside dad?” They were similarly spooked when we got to the sealed railway tunnel entrance and I told them about the trainload of Edwardian passengers that was rumoured to be still in there.

Years ago you could run out onto the golf course. I did so one Spring morning, stared down at London glistening like some far off Camelot and breathed, ‘Thank you God.’ Thanks seemed appropriate even for a pagan like me.

Down between the allotments and the golf course is the Grange, owned by the Sainsbury family and once stuffed with modern art. Right at the tollgate and past the old college, I ponder on its most celebrated old boy Shackleton; his dinghy, the James Caird is moored up in its cloister. In it, he and his men undertook a three-week wind-whipped voyage across Antarctic seas to South Georgia - a man from Sydenham at the end of the world.

To starboard are clapboard cottages and a duck pond. After the main road is another clapboard, the gleaming white Pickwick cottage where Dickens retired his affable Mr. Pickwick. “The house I have taken is at Dulwich. It has a large garden and is situated in one of the most pleasant spots near London.” Some of the houses down here were old even before Mr. Pickwick.

Before ducking into the park, I pass the gallery, complete with a rather incongruous mausoleum parked in the middle of it, the chamfered roof of which inspired the red British telephone box. A skein of Canada geese sweep over, then I nod at the grumpy heron on the island in the boating lake.

The final leg leads me past the rhododendron bushes where it’s said Michael Caine lost his virginity and then up the trail past the site of the Victorian fire station taken out by V1 rockets.

In three miles I’ve crossed only one road yet this isn’t the shires; Brixton’s just up the road and I get my veg down in Peckham. As my mate once remarked, “When they do put a tube station down here, they should call it ‘Nirvana, south London.’”

© Steve Overbury 2009

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Park Life

The park is not just a place to empty the dog out and get mugged for your phone, or to race pushchairs and crash odd-shaped bikes. All human life is here.
Kids stand contentedly smearing 99 flakes round their cake holes in the diesel fumes of the ice cream van, weekend dads stare abstractly at one-legged pigeons scattering psittacosis while they fight over a chip. And the ancients run their fingers over the names of old comrades on the backs of the benches.

Still drunk Sunday leaguers shout, ‘Square,’ and ‘man on,’ and ‘for f**** sake.’ Red-faced joggers limber up, while dreaming of the full face at home, then out for some beers with their mates. Lovely jubbly. Poseurs pump iron on the new contraptions and a swarthy tennis player with a demon serve has a racquet in one hand and a fag in the other. A watery sun smiles down on us all.

Sounds: By day dogs bark, kids yell and all manner of music drifts over the hedges, calypso and gangsta, fox trot, dubstep and grime. By night the screams of the foxes mingle with the squeals of lovers and sometimes the hovering chopper means man-on-the-run. A hound down the street thinks the sirens are the bay of his pack and he joyfully calls back in a dog and car chorus, then they pass and he stops, hangs his big dog head and wonders why they ran off without him.

Sadly gone are the galloping police horses and the doppler whoosh of the Eurostar, engines fore and aft. One night there was a monumental fireworks display; a barrage of aerial bombshells threatened to take out the windows as if NATO was playing games down the garden. Sometimes the delicate chimes of Christ’s Chapel waft this way when the wind allows. Then there is the ever present swish of the South Circular which you can trick your mind into thinking is sea.

Also gone are the bagpipes. About ten years back on odd mornings, a faint skirl arrived with the breeze, a ghostly piper playing at dawn. People scoffed when I told them that but I swear it’s true.

However, the strangest thing I ever heard in the park was also the strangest thing I ever saw. First came the commotion of some moving machine through the trees closely followed by the padding of light feet… paws? Then shouts, a man shouting. But what is he shouting? ‘Mush’? Is he shouting ‘Mush’? A team of loll-tongued huskies raced toward me dragging a sled on wheels, Ben Hur on the back of it, wild haired and sweating, clinging on and shouting. It seemed exigent to fling myself in a bush and as I lay the sled swept by its charioteer yelling, ‘Morning,’ and, ‘dreadfully sorry.’ Perhaps I imagined the crack of a whip.

I’d like to have asked him if he was flying the Dulwich huskies to Alaska for the Iditarod but there was little opportunity for chatting. Maybe he did and maybe he won because he never came back. Surely the dogs preferred the white wastes to the Dulwich green and he swapped his commute for a cabin.

Dog teams, pipers and sex in the bushes, failed footballers, fireworks and fights; roller blade hockey, Earl Grey at ten thirty, sausage rolls, burgers and cakes… oh, and ducks. What more could you ask?
Dulwich Park is just a field behind the houses but it’s also all things to all people, a field of dreams.
© Steve Overbury 2011

Steve’s book London Babylon: The Beatles and the Stones in the Swinging Sixties is available in local bookshops or from priced £12.99. There are 414 pages of previously untold stories, anecdotes and pictures. Each visitor to the site is entitled to the two ‘missing’ chapters free.

Brief Encounter

Spotted anyone famous in the Dog? Steve Overbury once saw Georgie Fame (famous by name etc.), and on another occasion, gasp, Andrew Ridgeley, but he wishes he had been at the bar 99 years ago when these two popped in.

‘Miss! Hello miss, could I get a coffee please? Hey miss, over here! Miss, I’ve been standing here for fifteen minutes.’

She pursed her rosebud lips at him when she finally deigned to drag her sorry chassis over to his end of the bar, looked him up and down like he was the delivery boy, then reluctantly cranked some lukewarm slop into a cup.

He paid for it, sipped it and pushed it away.

He’d been only twelve when he’d left the USA but he’d already tasted good American coffee thank you, and at just 17 he’d savoured great coffee in Paris, France. Now, aged 19, he was in the Dog in Dulwich Village and the coffee stank. Whenever he came in here it was the same. By the time you got served it was time to go back to work. Will the service ever improve in this bar? Will the coffee? It’s 1912 for chrissake and you can’t get a decent coffee.

‘I usually drink the tea in here. I think there is less that can go wrong.’

He surveyed the gent who had addressed him; the thin care worn face, the round glasses and the neatly combed hair.

‘I guess so. If I didn’t have to teach poetry to a class of over privileged kids this afternoon, I’d have a large one.’

‘I don’t drink. My only vice is Astrology. You’re a teacher? For my sins I’m a teacher too.’

‘Then I’m sorry for you mister,’ he said, ‘Fortunately I’m only temporarily an English teacher. Do you teach English too?’

‘Music. Today I’m teaching singing. Do I detect an American accent?’

‘You have a good ear sir; I thought my accent had been beaten out of me. Chandler’s the name, Ray Chandler… from Chicago. Good to meet you.’

‘Good to meet you too Mr. Chandler. My name is Holst. Gustav Holst.’

‘Holst? You’re a German? You don’t sound German.’

‘No, that’s because I’m from Cheltenham. My family is Swedish.’

‘A teetotal Swede and a thirsty Yank in a Dulwich bar, who’d have thunk it?’

‘I teach at James Allen’s girl’s school around the corner, and between lessons I write orchestral pieces but no one seems to like them.’

‘JAGS, all girls! That’s my kinda school. I teach at the College up the road - all boys - very dull, and in between lessons I write poems but no one seems to like them either.’

‘You’ll get there Mr. Chandler.’

‘Something tells me you’ll get there too Mr. Holst. Are you sure you won’t have a drink?’

‘I don’t think I should get a taste for alcohol at the age of 38 Mr. Chandler.’

‘It’s never too late to pick up a bad habit, I’m only 19 but I’m having a bourbon, assuming I ever get served. Hello miss! And please don’t tell anyone you saw me drinking on duty Mr. Holst, I need this job. I’m saving for a ticket back to the USA.’

‘You’re going back to Chicago?’

‘No, too cold. I think I’ll make my way down to California. Seek my fortune in the sun.’

‘I too will be in the sun in a few weeks time, in Spain. I’m planning to write a piece about the planets.’

‘That’s a pretty big subject Mr. Holst.’

‘Yes, aim high my mother used to say. Aim for the sky.’

‘I’ll drink to that, as my father used to say.’

There is no record that Gustav Holst ever crunched through the snow to the Crown and Greyhound for a cup of tea in 1912, or that he ever encountered a young Raymond Chandler, who had strolled down from Dulwich College for a winter warmer, but on the other hand there is no record that he did not.

There is also no record that the service in the Dog was bad back then but it’s not an unreasonable assumption.

Get off my land

For millennia, the Great North Woods were the domain of Mother Nature, then the king – guess which one - rudely robbed her. And when Henry VIII said to the people, ‘Get off my land,” what he really meant was, stop stealing my deer or I’ll cut your hands off.

He stripped out its oaks to build his navy until all that remained of the once great forest were two slivers, Sydenham Hill Wood and the adjacent Dulwich Wood, whose ownership passed down to the Dulwich Estate. In around 1802, it’s recorded that one ‘Matthews the hairyman’ used to live in a cave up there, just one of the renegades that must have sought sanctuary in the woods or used them for crime. There are two murders on record; God knows how many others there might have been over the centuries.

Now, you can accuse the College of many crimes, but messing up the woods isn’t one of them. Well, that’s if you don’t include the nasty pikestaff fence that separates them from the golf course, or the deeply unattractive Wates development that chewed into the pristine greenery. But at least that damage won’t be done again, or we hope not.

The Dulwich Estate can pride itself on having protected the village and its environs against the filthy excesses of the planners for centuries. Lots of us live here largely because of that and regularly enjoy ambling in the woods, catching occasional glimpses through the trees of the shimmering city just four miles to the north.

However, many Dulwich residents will be unaware that the best local views of London aren’t from the woods or the top of Dawson’s Heights flats, nor from One Tree Hill or Horniman Drive; they are exclusive to the gardeners of Grange Lane and Rosendale Road allotments. But don’t think for a moment you’ll ever see them. The twin vistas are jealously guarded by the allotment-eers and those who dare try to catch a peek of them should prepare themselves for a dust up with a hoary-handed son of the soil.

My encounter went something like this:

‘Good morning.’

‘Who are you?’

‘I was thinking about putting my name down for an allotment, how long is the list?’

‘You shouldn’t be on here you know,’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Why are you up here?

‘I was thinking about an allotment and I wanted to see the view.’

‘It’s private property.’

‘I know, but I’m only having a look at the view.’

‘It’s not allowed. There’s been vandalism up here.’

‘I’m sorry about that but do I really look like an allotment wrecker?’

‘They call the police, you know, the golf club does.’

‘Are you going to call the police?’

Then you spot the next-door allotment holder bearing down on you, hoe at the ready, and it’s clearly time to leave.

Go on then, call the police, and if they can be bothered to turn out at all; unless I’m standing next to a burning shed with an empty petrol can and a box of matches in my hand, what do you think they’ll do? And whose land is it anyway?

But by then the bucolic euphoria has slipped away and you slip away with it.

The pugnacious gardener was a recent allotment holder. I could tell by his recent allotment, staked out and raked but devoid of plants. No point telling him I had been going up there for years to stand in the little paradise of blooms, beehives and happy farmers gazing at the spectacular view. Everyone knows that the BT tower is to the right of the big wheel, Sadie, Sienna, Jude and you Primrose Hillbillies, not to the left.

To be fair, it does say on the Grange Lane gates that allotment holders should try and discourage trespassers but what is trespass anyway? It’s not a crime that’s for sure. However, this custodian seemed perfectly prepared to fight with fork and fists to protect his thirty-foot long patch of dirt. Him and his mate looked like they would think nothing of beating me to death with a spade and shovelling me under the compost heap until ripe enough to spread like mulch on their tomatoes.

But it’s deep within us all no matter how we masquerade as clean fingered urbanites. Land. Without your own patch you are nothing, just a serf. So I sympathise with the veg men while at the same time feeling a bit annoyed that they exclude me.

From Grange Lane you can scan an arc encompassing Battersea Power Station and the City; from Rosendale Road the sweep extends to the Dome off to the east. To be up there on a fine day lifts the heart. But you’ll never experience it unless you are prepared to battle scary allotment holders worthy of Matthews the hairyman himself. Get orf moi land!

Those Weren’t the Days my Friend

The Lordship Lane of thirty odd years ago had roughly the same buildings but in all other respects was a different world.
You knew where you were in 80s East Dulwich, the pilot episode of Ashes to Ashes. Lordship Lane was lined with Vivas and Cortinas and olive oil was available only from chemists. Pub violence was systematic, passed down generation to generation and unremarkable; man against man, woman against woman, woman against man, dog against dog was all routine, then occasionally you’d see a 15 year-old poodle-permed mother step back from the bar take her fag out of her mouth and crack her toddler across the chops just like she had been by her own mother.
East Dulwich was more South Peckham than an offshoot of the village, where if you saw an attractive girl, you knew she’d got off at the wrong bus stop and where claret didn’t mean a fine Bourdeaux from Green and Blue’s. If you’d spilled some claret down yourself, it meant that you’d just been glassed in the Magdala and you’d better get down to Kings sharpish.
Units of the Special Patrol Group – the heavy mob - used to be stationed at Dulwich Police Station, so local trouble got stood on hard. Accused of involvement in the death of Blair Peach during the Southall riots and of stoking up the riots in Brixton, an enquiry had confirmed that when the Dulwich SPG were involved in a punch up they invariably reached for the baseball bat or the crowbar in preference to the regulation truncheon. The kickings administered in the Lordship Lane cells were legendary.
Each evening after a hard day beating people up, the Dulwich cops would pop over to a boozer near the cemetery, get a lock in until two in the morning and all drive home with a hand over one eye.
East Dulwich has moved on and up. It seems a lifetime ago that I couldn’t raise a mere £12,000 to buy a three bedroom flat in Matham Grove, when the dustmen would be finished work and in the pub by 11am, when the guy from the Chinese takeaway used to practice his karate kicks on the tree outside his restaurant muttering, “Solly Johnny, no chips!” when Mick McManus the wrestler could be spotted in Lordship Lane picking up his groceries, and when the guy who worked down the chip shop really was called Elvis.
There was a strict demarcation line: East Dulwich was run down and rowdy, Dulwich Village was demure and dull, and ne’er the twain did meet (although I did occasionally pop down to the Gallery for clandestine culture injections). However, we did eventually cross over the tracks when briefly us yobbos, a glam/punk band, utilising the band’s van, inaugurated the Dulwich fish round. For a few bizarre months, plaice fillets and lobsters were being delivered to the old ladies of Court Lane and the village by a bunch of cockatoo-haired young rockers still speeding and wearing last night’s make up. You couldn’t make it up.
It had to stop mainly because we couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings, but there was also the smell. No matter how much we scrubbed the van out, by the time we got to the gigs the band stunk like the van; leopard skin trousers, Cuban heeled boots and a whiff of hair spray and haddock.
So we sold the punk rock fish round to an old chap who had just retired as a Billingsgate porter. He half-heartedly worked it for a few weeks then made off with all the dosh without paying any suppliers, for many of whom he had carted fish all of his life; perhaps that’s why he did it. He also failed to advise his wife of 45 years where he was off to.
Although it might be satisfying to sit outside Jojo Maman Bebe, Canute-like, railing against the gentrification of East Dulwich; it would be a foolish and futile act. Of course gentrification has been a good thing, its ripples spreading to Nunhead and maybe even as far as Penge one day. The housing stock/shops/girls have all improved immeasurably and the shiny, happy incomers who are either planning one, pushing one or pregnant with one seem nice enough. But it’s hard not to feel a slight nostalgia for the days when the pubs on ‘the Strip’ didn’t intimidate the old boys, and by the old boys I don’t mean Old Alleynians.
Steve’s book London Babylon is available here
Steve’s blogs are at and
© Steve Overbury 2010

Friday, 4 March 2011

Prefabs: Back to the Future

Robert Elms enquired on his radio show where all the prefabs have gone. It prompted Steve Overbury to go out looking for some of the last remaining examples of early modular housing

In January 1953 floods swept down the coast of Essex leaving many dead or homeless. The road home from the Colchester maternity hospital was washed away and I was inconsiderate enough to choose that moment to be born, an Aquarian into a watery world. My proud parents weren’t prepared to swim home, so were forced to take me back to my gran’s house. They didn’t want me to spend my first night on earth in a swamped prefab. It was to be one of the only nights I didn’t sleep under that felt and tin roof in the next idyllic ten years.

I never knew I was deprived. I remained blissfully unaware that my home was generally considered fit only for gypsies, or the tribes of tattered refugees fleeing blitzed London.

On our part of the small estate, two rows of three prefabs faced each other, there were no front fences and the lawns stretched to a central path where all the kids ran around in total safety. Neighbours wandered house-to-house out the front and, via gates in the fences, garden-to-garden out the back. My brother and I were once parked in next-door’s yard in order that we should both contract chicken pox from their contagious kid. Do parents still do that?

I Love Lucy was on the television. Its broad American suburban streets were on a quite different scale to our six-foot wide child-friendly path but I was only two feet tall and to me our path was a boulevard. Turn right for my pal next door, turn left for the blackberry bushes or cross over to beg for sweets.

It took about a day to clip a prefab together. Erected by the thousand during the war to cope with the housing crisis, prefabs were only intended to be short-term accommodation – ten years tops - but as the post war depression lingered on, their indispensability as starter homes became more apparent and our house was still standing in the early 80s although we’d long moved on.

Some were imported from the USA and Canada, some were made in the UK. Ours consisted of slabs of pre-cast concrete panels covering a wooden frame to form a five-roomed bungalow. In fact my aspirational parents used to refer to our house as ‘the bungalow,’ the word ‘prefab,’ they felt carried a stigma.

The ‘bungalow’ had all mod cons - a fitted kitchen with an electric oven, hot running water and a fridge. Adjacent were two bedrooms, a living room and a bathroom; the garden boasted an asbestos shed, a galvanised steel coalbunker and a corrugated iron water butt - just enough essential parts - the JEEP of modular housing. It even had an airing cupboard that was good for hiding in which occasionally, when sleepwalking, I had been known to mistake for the toilet and pee over the linen.

All these luxuries were ours at a time when my grandparents had outside loos and my great gran would have to turn down the gas mantles before she went off to bed carrying her candle in one hand and a stone hot water bottle in the other. The potty was under her bed.

The prefab captured imaginations. People were thrilled by the idea that these flat pack palaces would arrive on a lorry in the morning and by teatime you could be sitting in your own hot bath. My parents grew to love their small but perfectly formed up-to-the-minute living unit.

And many other young forward-looking baby-boomer parents, riding the wave of post war regeneration, admired the building’s light, classic layout and clean lines, born of a utilitarian imperative. The prefab proved more popular than anyone had foreseen and far from pining for one of the expensive but conventional red brick semis down the road, I thought that we were an all-American nuclear family and our dad was Desi Arnaz.

A survey of 100 top home building companies reveals that forty-five of them say they are expecting the industry to revisit timber frame prefab construction. It seems that the prefab is to live again – only with a 21st century spin.

Prefabs are seen as a solution to the acute problem of providing starter homes, student accommodation and somewhere for nurses and teachers to live in the inner cities.

A new Peabody prefab development in Murray Grove, Hackney which uses innovative modern materials prompted architectural analyst Hugh Pearman writing in the Times to comment, “The surprise is not so much that homes are being made this way at the start of the 21st century. The real shock is that they have not been made like this for years already.”

Architects, fully aware of the housing crisis are looking at the basic prefab with renewed enthusiasm – even passion - and are thinking (literally) ‘out of the box’ citing Le Corbusier, Philippe Starck and Buckmaster Fuller (who built dome homes) as influences on future designs. However, slick though their units are, they remain stubbornly expensive. Only when economies of scale can be factored in can we expect to see more of these exciting lightweight developments in and around city centres.

In 2010 prefabs have vanished from Colchester but a smattering of survivors can still be spotted around Dulwich, Peckham and Nunhead, although they are becoming endangered. The prefabs in Nunhead, one of which has been ‘improved’ by the addition of leadlight windows and Tudor beams, have been around for sixty odd years and could possibly stand another sixty by which time they might have been customised beyond recognition but, sadly that’s unlikely since the council seems hell bent on expunging them from the area. As occupants die or move on the prefabs are cleared and are usually replaced with characterless cheap housing. There are only a couple still occupied in Lordship Lane. However, in Catford, six of the 175 prefabs on the Excalibur estate, which was built by Italian and German prisoners of war and is the largest surviving post-war prefab estate in England - have recently been given Grade II listing and may yet survive the council’s demolition plans.

Steve’s book is available here London Babylon 
Read his blog here and here

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Dulwich Dreamboat

It was one of those nights a long time ago. Helen the hairdresser had just stabbed Eddie Woods the dustman with her snippers and the blue lights were flashing outside the Foresters.

Well he had tried to touch her breasts without asking permission.

Tanked up on Holstein, the chaps had given the arresting officers a bit of lip and the cops were threatening to come back mob handed and fracture a few skulls, just as soon as they’d dragged a spitting and screaming Helen into the Black Mariah and bundled her off to the cells.
Post stabbing, the lads all wanted something else to happen. Was that too much to ask? But after weighing up the pros and cons of scrapping with club-wielding policemen, the wisest decided to slip away to the EDT, respectfully stepping over the puddle of Eddie’s blood on the way out.
Maybe it was the super lager or maybe it was the full moon but the air crackled with possibilities. We might have driven to Brighton in stolen cars, run naked across Goose Green or just fought amongst ourselves, but none of those suggestions quite hit the button, so when Billy the drug dealer burst in the door with this wild story, it was perfect timing, and we were all ears, ready for anything.
He knew this guy he said; this guy who had built a boat and tonight was to be its big launching; champagne cracked across hull; 'I name this ship,' etc. and bon voyage. Billy, part of a press gang, had been deputised to scour the local bars and recruit volunteers by whatever means necessary. The ship’s captain had ordained that the able bodied of East Dulwich should assemble and help him extricate this fabulous creation, his dreamboat, from its berth in the back garden of his house. The suggestible half drunk congregation instantly rallied to the cause and soon a flotilla of beaten up motors led by a Suzuki Rascal made its way to the dry dock in Underhill Road.
There were probably a hundred others like us there, milling about by a huge parked up low loader its ramps jutting into the street, and the road had been coned off by the same cops we had just been jeering. Cars parked everywhere and nearly everyone stunk of booze but the cops weren’t bothered, even they were glowing with the anticipation of this great event.

You see, this wasn’t some dinghy or a gin palace; it was a colossal concrete-hulled hulk, which rose from the back garden like a mini Cutty Sark, the tips of its masts visible over the terrace roofs. And the garden wasn’t beside the road, it was three houses in, making it necessary for the captain to demolish his neighbour’s fences and move their washing lines, sheds and rhubarb frames to facilitate his well-planned extraction.
Rolling logs had been laid down across the shattered gardens and ropes attached to the prow of the ship, then, like Egyptian slaves, we gathered the ropes up and in two long lines took the strain and heaved. At first nothing, then the monster stirred and moved, while the captain stood high on the foredeck yelling down instructions. The cops turned all their headlights on full beam illuminating a primal scene of grunting, swearing labourers, tearing muscles and burning hands.
In ancient Egypt it might have been water-bearing maidens but in modern Dulwich, it was girls with flagons of cheap cider that quenched the raging thirsts and stoked up the alcohol levels of the two toiling teams. The captain knew well the difference between what his crew wanted and what they needed and the cider was dispensed liberally while the navy rum was held under close guard until the task was complete.
It seemed never ending but finally the leviathan was perched and chained onto its lorry. The rum was sloshed into paper mugs, the 'Bon voyages' declared and the great ship trundled off to the Thames with a police car escort fore and aft, on a carefully planned route that avoided south London’s low bridges.
We never found out the name of either the captain or his ship. Apparently he threw a party on the boat the following evening but for reasons I can’t recall, we didn’t go. Word came back that he and his wife and kids were off around the world. Hopefully they made it or perhaps his dreamboat rests at the bottom of the estuary; certainly he was never seen in Dulwich again. However, it’s tempting to think that a man with that much drive and perspicacity is currently dangling his tootsies in the Indian Ocean perhaps in the Maldives, watching his grandchildren dive for pearls.
I can’t reminisce or check facts with others about this Fitzcarraldo-like adventure that took place under a full moon outside a kebab shop in SE22 in the late 70s since those I remember being there have either died or moved on.
Sometimes I wonder if it ever happened at all.

Illustration: Doug Gordon

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Rembrandt to go

Dulwich Picture Gallery owns a legend. One of its paintings is so popular that it has been stolen no less than four times, exciting the press into dubbing it the ‘takeaway Rembrandt’.

The first press report says that between the 14th August 1981 and the 3rd September 1981 a Rembrandt portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III was taken from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Why couldn’t they have been more specific about the date? Was the stock checker on holiday? Why did it take three weeks to notice that one of the gallery’s most popular and valuable pictures was missing? Did they think it was off being touched up? Wasn’t there a Rembrandt-shaped mark on the wall where a masterpiece had once hung?

It was retrieved when police arrested four men in a taxi who had the painting with them. Restored to the gallery, only two short years would pass before it was off again - a burglar smashed a skylight and Tom Cruise-like descended through it, using a crowbar to remove the painting from the wall. The police arrived within three minutes but were too late to apprehend the thief who’d grabbed the swag and scarpered. Jacob was AWOL for three years but was eventually found on the 8th October 1986 in a luggage office at the train station of a British army garrison in Münster, Germany.

Twice more the painting was stolen and recovered; the first time it was found underneath a bench in a graveyard in Streatham and the second on the back of a bicycle. In each case there had been an anonymous tip off. Nobody has ever been charged over the thefts.

When I saw Johnny the window cleaner hobbling up Lordship Lane the other day something stirred in my memory. I hailed him over: “Johnny. Do you remember, you once told me that you found the stolen Rembrandt from Dulwich Picture Gallery hidden behind the rubbish bins at the Half Moon in Herne Hill? Was that true? Is the real truth that you were involved in nicking it? Because I reckon you were. I’ve read that the picture was actually found under a bench in a cemetery in Streatham. Did you nick it Johnny? You were always good on a ladder.”

He said, “I’m not Johnny.”

I blinked. “But isn’t that a chamois leather sticking out of your trouser pocket?”

“I’m Bob the window cleaner, not Johnny the window cleaner. Johnny’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that… but you look just like him.”

“Yes, that’s probably because I’m Johnny’s son. Anyway, aren’t you talking about the world cup?”


“You know, Pickles the dog.”


“The dog…”

“What are you talking about Johnny?”

“I’m not Johnny, I’m Bob.”

“What are you talking about Bob?”
“Pickles the dog found the world cup in Norwood. In 1966”

“No I’m talking about a Rembrandt.”

“No the dog didn’t find a Rembrandt, he found the world cup.”

I began to get the feeling that I might become as crazy as Johnny if I continued this interrogation any longer so I gave him a conversation-stopping crack round the back of his flat-capped head. He looked a little bemused, hurt even, then seemed somehow grateful and limped off.

The Rembrandt, a portrait of a young Dutch engraver called Jacob de Gheyn III is just the right size to slip inside a coat which presumably accounts for its popularity with thieves.

Picture the scene: Having successfully smuggled it out of the gallery, the cat burglars reconvene in the boozer – perhaps the Half Moon - and start spending all the money they haven’t got yet. They order large brandies and rub their hands together in speculation; how much is a Rembrandt worth? A million? Two million? More?

It is only later when the hangovers have worn off, when they’ve put on their suits, smoothed down their hair and hawked the little masterpiece round the fences, and been laughed at by one and all, that the painting loses its lustre. For the dealers it’s déjà vu; they’re all very familiar with the image of the young engraver Jacob. They’ve seen him so many times before. Don’t you dopes realise, the dealers chuckle, this painting is in the Guinness Book of Records as the most stolen in the world, so well known that it would be like buying the Mona Lisa? Only a congenital idiot would buy that. They’d be staring back at themselves on Crimewatch within the week.

Then it starts dawning on the thieves that they have fallen victim of the curse of the takeaway Rembrandt. It’s too hot to handle; they’d get more for it selling it at a Peckham boot fair than on the international art market. All their dreams are dashed. No new house in Bromley, no Porsche Carrera, no timeshare in Marbella. It’s back to the painting and decorating… or possibly the window cleaning.

Then, having got their heads around the notion that they are in possession of a totally worthless Rembrandt, they have to decide how to dispose of it. The most obvious solution is to burn it but for some reason they don’t. They are but brutish thieves working for the basest of motives yet still they cannot put match to canvas. They stare at the pocket portrait and are mesmerised by the guileless look of its subject. It was after all painted out of love. One of a pair; Jacob and his friend Maurits Huygens had two paintings done of themselves dressed Guinness-style in black smocks and white ruffs. They made a pledge: whoever died first granted their picture to the other. Sadly the pictures are now only occasionally reunited and Maurits lives alone in a gallery in Hamburg, but maybe his spirit is out there somewhere looking down on his old friend Jacob, and is preserving his image from harm. If they can’t ever be together forever, then at least he would ensure that Jacob should remain safe in Dulwich.

On each of the four occasions that Jacob has been taken on holiday to destinations unknown, he has always returned safely, mysteriously making his weary way home sometimes after years have elapsed. Cast under its spell, the blaggards have variously contrived to leave the picture in a luggage office at the train station of a British army garrison in Germany, on the back of a bicycle and under a bench in a cemetery. On one occasion, the British cops, tipped off by their Dutch counterparts, picked up four men in a taxi who had a ‘takeaway’ with them that wasn’t a kebab and chips. But even with the apparent villains in custody, for some reason no charges were ever made.

Jacob seems content restored to his rightful place amongst the Rubens, Gainsboroughs, and of course the other less well travelled Rembrandts. He remains inscrutable about his travels and the treatment he has received at the hands of ruffians. And since, in his honour, Dulwich Picture Gallery now has an elaborate alarm system with God knows what devices to prevent further larceny (there is a rumour they even have their own helicopter), Jacob’s days away may be all over.

And unless Jacob once went missing for a fifth time that we don’t know about, the story that he was found behind the bins at the Herne Hill Half Moon by Johnny the window cleaner must be untrue but I’ll certainly try and find out when I see him next – Johnny that is.

Dulwich pubs – part 1 in an occasional series

The Castle, Crystal Palace Road.

Back in the 80s, I was an aspirant recording engineer, constantly trawling for customers. One afternoon in the Castle I observed a young man park his sax at the bar and spotted a business opportunity. Kismet. Irish Paul, the landlord’s son wanted to be recorded and I wanted to record him.

As we all know, Paddys can often play and Paul was no exception. Father to son, nimble fingers and quick fists; where Paul was a wild man on a sax and his dad was nifty with the accordion; they were both equally handy in a fight. When a brawl broke out one night: I was there with some clients, a folk group. An abiding image is of the old man holding about four of the baddies in the bear hug of death while his boy Paul clubbed another with a bar stool. Don’t mess with the Murphys. The folk group was very impressed.

The family also ran the Atlantic (now the Dogstar) in Brixton, which Sonny, a one-time brass player with the Manfred Mann band used to look after for them. The back bar was a dark no go area given over to dealers and pimps, bands used to set up in the front and occasionally Courtney Pine popped in to play, while outside the cops constantly hovered.

I pondered, ‘Who else but the Irish would dare to try and run a black pub in Brixton?’ When the 1981 riots broke out, the Atlantic was one of the few buildings on the Railton Road Front Line that wasn’t trashed, doggedly open for business while the rest of SW9 burned. Sonny was fully occupied serving pints to the over heated journalists, when he wasn’t charging them five quid a time to use the pay phone.

Back in Dulwich, the Castle locals were ever interesting, Nick played bass for Sniff and the Tears, Mary would be strongarming customers for money for Guide Dogs for the Blind with a fag permanently dangling from her lips, Martin the bar man used to steal televisions, Dick the Brick slashed his own throat with a Stanley knife. I remember Declan telling me that his chickens used to climb the tree in his garden and the only way to get them down was to shoot at them.

One afternoon Ken the Quantity Surveyor was playing pool. Kids stood at the door watching and one of them said, “Crap shot, what a shit shot.” Ken said, “Bugger off you lot,” and played another ball. “ What a terrible shot,” the kids said. Ken turned to Paul who was serving, ‘Can’t you do something about these kids Paul?” and Paul said, “Well I would Ken but they’re your kids.”

When the place started to actually fall down, even the old man resigned himself to redecoration. I remember one day standing just inside the public bar front door, wiping my boots on the mat. “I wouldn’t stand there if I was you,” advised Paul. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Because I think the ceiling’s about to fall in.” And it did. Sure enough, as I moved down it came, a great slab of plaster that might have killed me.

There used to be toilets at the back of the pub that were sealed off when they put the stage in. Paul used to say that that there were a couple of drinkers still in there who had unluckily been using the facilities when the builders bricked up the doors. Recently, the back area and stage has been ripped out but if there were any skeletons found in there with their trousers round their ankles, they’ve hushed it up.

The important thing is that both the Castle and Mary are still standing. The long overdue latest refit is a good one; the pub looks smart in its new livery, it’s one of the last real boozers left in Dulwich and it serves the best Guinness in town. Hoorah.