Monday, April 25, 2011

The Biggest Aspidistra in the World

The Biggest Aspidistra in the World was a hit song in the late 1930s for Gracie Fields, the quintessential Lancashire comedy singer. So it might seem strange to try and claim this as a South London song. Still years ago somebody told me that it was inspired by an actual aspidistra plant in Evelina Road in Nunhead - this is mentioned in passing in a couple of places online, but I can't be certain that they aren't just amplifying a rumour that I passed on to them!

The song was written in 1938 by Will E. Haines, Jimmy Harper and Tommie Connor (the latter also wrote I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and the English version of Lili Marlene). Connor is on record as saying the inspiration for the song 'came when he was walking along a London street' and saw a woman in a window with a giant green plant (Our Gracie: the life of Dame Gracie Fields - Joan Moules, 1983). But the road in question isn't identified in this source. Can anybody confirm the Evelina Road connection, or maybe a connection between Tommie Connor and South East London that would make it plausible? He was born in Bloomsbury in 1904 and died in Farnborough (Kent) in 1993, so that leaves plenty of time in between to wander the streets of Nunhead!

Anyway the song does mention Crystal Palace, alluding to its destruction by fire in 1936:

We 'ave to get it watered
By the local fire brigade,
So they've put the water rate up 'arf a crown.
The roots stop up the drains,
Grow along the country lanes,
And they come up 'arf a mile outside the Town.
Once we 'ired the Crystal Palace for an 'ot 'ouse,
But a jealous rival went and burned it down.

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