Monday, June 23, 2008

The London Nobody Knows (1962): Deptford Market

On Saturday I went to the 34th annual Amnesty International booksale in Blackheath. It's a real treat for bibliophiles, with every pew of the Church of the Ascension in Dartmouth Row full of (mainly) second-hand books. I guess there must be a fair smattering of writers and book reviewers living locally, as there were lots of review copies of recent books on sale. My best find though was an old book, Geoffrey Fletcher's 'The London Nobody Knows' (1962), a celebration of what Fletcher worried was the disappearing 'off-beat London; the unexplored, unknown-to-the tourist London... the obscure, hardly-to-be-thought of city'. There is an essential film based on this book, with James Mason narrating.

The book though, unlike the film, really gives South London its due, particularly Deptford and its market. Anyone who has been down Deptford market recently may lament some of what has vanished (e.g the buskers), but perhaps celebrate how much is still recognisable in Fletcher's account:

'A stone's throwaway is the market in Douglas Way, a Hogarthian scene on Saturday. Vegetable stalls without number appear, stalls full of dis­infectant and toilet paper and those selling lino and rugs. There are stalls selling pet foods, especially strong in budgie-toys, stalls of tinned fruit, wireless stalls. That almost obsolete form of transport, the horse and cart, comes into its own in Douglas Way, and very nice these carts sometimes are, too, decorated with curvy flourishes, fat roses and carving, here and there. It is like the London of Phil May, less vigorous, perhaps, but the jokes still have the special London quality. At the end of the street are junk dealers' stalls -pitches only, many of them - a pile of miscellaneous goods laid out on the pavement, but the junk and marine store dealers appear to be decreasing in numbers. Although I have made one or two finds in this market, including a complete set of old kitchen jars for four shillings, straight off the pavement, the wares have a dreary look about them. Battered suitcases minus a lock or the handle are nearly always found. Victorian sewing machines, also hardy perennials, fail to arouse a desire for possession, and there are impossible beady lampshades left over from the nineteen-twenties. Great shapeless masses of scrap iron erupt on the paving stones, together with decrepit television sets, old clothes, ancestors with mutton-chop whiskers and other articles whose specific purpose, if they ever possessed such, can now only be guessed.

Deptford High Street is crossed by a rather interesting bridge, carrying the Greenwich Railway. The bridge is supported on Doric columns of cast iron, and dates from the late 1830's. Saturday morning is the time to see the human element at its richest in Deptford, and in the crowded High Street are all sorts of buskers and street entertainers whose presence gives additional character to the street: an organ grinder, perhaps, whose instru­ment is more properly termed 'a street piano' (there is still one firm left hiring out the' pianos' in London, near Saffron Hill: look for the pictures of Edwardian beauties on the panels of the organ), one-man bands, sellers of Old Moore's Almanack and so on. Today, a couple of stocky, red-faced men take their stand under the railway bridge - one plays an accordion and the other sings 'The Mountains of Mourne'. Appropriately, too, for Irish ideas are not lacking in Deptford - witness the large pub charmingly named The Harp of Erin and here today at the Catholic Church a gaudy Irish wedding takes place. As the bride and groom assemble on the steps, they are joined by their families and friends, the women in pale blue and the men in navy-blue suits. All wear large pink carnations, and the men's faces, each creased in a wide grin, are all red from the application of yellow soap. Small boys, also in blue suits and with even shinier faces, cross their legs uneasily, and the accordion plays 'The Meeting of the Waters'...

It was at Deptford that I once saw one of the most interesting of the remaining street entertainments of London-a pearly-suited pair, presumably man and wife, doing a sort of clog dance in the street to the accompani­ment of a concertina. Such entertainments are worth watching in present-day London, for they are disappearing rapidly. This is unfortunate, for those who get their living off the streets are essential to character and interest'.


Anonymous said...

ho ho, Douglas Way has hardly changed at all! I believe some of the wares he was describing are probably still there, being recycled ad infinitum!

Transpontine said...

Indeed, although I must admit I haven't seen a horse and cart there.

Transpontine said...

OK on Sunday I was in Douglas Way and I saw... a horse and cart.

bob said...

About 10 or so years ago, I was living in New Cross and my girlfriend was living on Brookmill Road. On my walk there I always passed at least two horses: the horses that lived behind the school on Tanner's Hill and the Gypsy horse(s) on Brookmill Road itself. The latter seem to have been moved on when the Traveller site got re-sited for the DLR. Not sure about the former.

The next year, I moved to Geoffrey Rd, Brockley, where there was a horse, I think a rag and bone man's horse, down the road from me, whose owner used to sell manure to gardeners. Not sure if that horse is still there either.

Now the main horses I see are the police horses based in Lewisham, a frequent site in my part of town.

Transpontine said...

Lets start the campaign for real horses in Brockley & New Cross - perhaps Goldsmiths could start a paddock on that lawn at the back.