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 www.londonbabylon.co.uk
Steve’s blogs are at www.london-babylon.blogspot.com and
© Steve Overbury 2010