Deep South London. Photos & text David Secombe (5/5)

New Cross, SE14, 1999. Photo © David Secombe

In the South

Abandoned power stations, allotments, back gardens, badly painted public art, big sheds, Blow Up, bored au pairs, breakers’ yards, broken tumble dryer, cheap calls to Nigeria, dead riverside industry, evangelical church services, executive developments, failing schools, failing shopping precincts, forbidding pubs, half-decent football clubs, kebab shops, lock-up garages, mangy foxes, municipal parks, neglected cemeteries, prefabs, railway embankments, rats like cats, roadside shrines, second-hand shops, short-lived grand schemes, stranded Victorian villas, strangely-located nightclubs, tandoori restaurants, tattoo parlours, Turkish men’s clubs, tyre sitters, vandalised youth centres, wind off the Thames, 20,000  streets under the sky.

… for The London Column.  © David Secombe 2011.

Deep South London. Photos & text: David Secombe (4/5)

Brenton Pink on the steps of his house, Lewisham. Photo © David Secombe 1999.

Brenton Pink’s house sits on Lewisham Way, a busy artery into London from the south-east. It is a large Victorian house – described elsewhere as a ‘mansion’, which might be an exaggeration –  which its owner has decorated in an extremely vivid colour scheme evoking his native Jamaica, from whence he emigrated to London in the 1950s.  By virtue of its prominent location, the house has become a well-known south London landmark. The photograph above is over ten years old; at time of writing, I believe that Mr. Pink is still in residence, although he is not seen outside the property as often as before.

V.S. Pritchett once described London’s brick buildings as having hues “as delicate as plumage”* and their muted tones lend the older suburbs much of their drab character. Painted in primary colours, a Victorian house becomes different altogether: the candy-bright paintwork commonly seen in well-to-do suburbs of London transforms small terraced houses into would-be Italian villas. But Brenton Pink’s decoration of his home is something else: it is a memoir of Jamaica, a fragment of the Caribbean recreated in Lewisham – hardly the brightest of suburbs then or now. He is London’s own Douanier Rousseau.

* London Perceived, 1965.

… for The London Column.  © David Secombe 2011.

Deep South London. Photos & text: David Secombe (3/5)

Photo © David Secombe 1999.

Walking up to strangers and asking them if you can take a photograph can be a ticklish business, but more often than not people are charming and accommodating. They will often pose for you with the kind of co-operation which one would expect of a professional model; but one has to get it done with fast.

The gentleman in today’s photo was a fixture on Brockley’s Wickham Road for years. I lived nearby and saw him almost daily: seen at a distance, he appeared to carry on vehement conversations with himself, gesticulating forcefully and waving his customary tin of Tennant’s Super. (Someone told me that this mind-numbingly strong lager is known colloquially as ‘Purple Herple’, but I’m not sure whether to believe them.)

I never found out his name, but he possessed a wonderful profile, like a teardrop wearing trousers: it was as if he’d been poured into his habitual outfit of elasticated, calf-length pants and off-the shoulder vest. Out walking one Saturday morning, I turned a corner and encountered him at close quarters. He was calmer than usual and I steeled myself to ask him if I could take his picture. He instantly  snapped to attention, and very formally and politely complied with my request. I think he must have had a military background, as his pose was very erect, and as I tried to edge round for a profile shot he swivelled with my camera, so I was obliged to photograph him straight on, as he wished. This is entirely fitting, and he emerges in the photo as he appeared to me in person: as a distinguished gentleman who might have encountered some difficulties but who was yet to jettison his dignity.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.

Deep South London. Photos & text: David Secombe (2/5)

Victoria Way, Charlton, SE7. Photo © David Secombe 1998.

Despite London’s world city status, there are districts that can seem as remote, cloistered or exotic as Samarkand or Tibet – particularly those areas where the tube penetrates not at all or merely feebly. Charlton, SE7, remains one of the most overlooked and permanently unfashionable of all London localities. Its backwater ambience is very appealing to a certain type of person, and equally incomprehensible to those who crave easy access to a tube line or who see districts east and south of a given marker as dragon-infested territory. I lived there for seven years and grew rather fond of the place. (We moved out when they built the Millennium Dome in ‘north Greenwich’ a mile or so to the north-west, a development which has added little charm to the district.)

This gentleman lived a few doors away from where he is pictured, sitting at the junction of Victoria Way and Eastcombe Avenue, a daily routine which enshrined him as a local landmark. I photographed him twice, this being the most successful attempt. He indicated that he was deaf, so conversation was impossible, but he posed and co-operated with beguiling charm. He had a sort of stoic nobility and his presence on this nondescript south-east London street lent it a mysterious, romantic quality which it otherwise had no right to possess.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011

Deep South London. Photos & text: David Secombe (1/5)

Brockley. Photo © David Secombe 1999.

STAN: I’m from the South too.

OLLIE: The south of what, sir?

STAN: The south of London.

– Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West, 1936.

The Brockley Cowboy – I can’t tell you his name – has been a familiar figure on the streets of SE4 for many years. During all this time, his outfit has remained broadly the same: a ‘life on the range’ denim jacket, usually teamed with matching jeans – although not in this photo; a plastic cowboy hat and the occasional idiosyncratic accessories (a small tartan wheelie case was a featured item for a time).

Occasionally, I would see him in the company of someone who appeared to be his carer, but more often than not I saw him alone, almost always smiling, restricting himself to just a few streets at the western end of the SE4 postcode. In this picture he is standing at the junction of Drakefell and Endwell Roads. I happened to be passing – I lived on Endwell Road – and asked him if I could take his photograph:  he gestured his assent with an endearing largesse. It was as if these streets were his prairie, the evening flow of commuters and traffic as familiar and natural to him as cattle moving across the plains.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011

Londei’s London Shops. Photo & text: John Londei (3/3)

Tom Cornish, Tobacconist, 87 Clerkenwell Road, EC1. Photo  © John Londei

John Londei writes:

This was the second photograph I took for my book Shutting Up Shop. The tobacconist sat across the road to my studio, two doors along from ‘Morrison’s’ the chemist, the shop that started the ball rolling.

In 1956 William Hadly was de-mobbed from National Service. “A friend got me a job here telling me: ‘You’ll only be number two’. In 1959, I ended up buying the business.”

Tom Cornish opened the shop over one hundred years ago. “I never met him. He went out of business in 1911. But I still keep the picture of him – our ‘founder’ – above the clock. It shows the business has some standing.”

The shop had remained unchanged since William took over, the corner wooden phone kiosk an echo of the days when most people didn’t own a telephone. “You’d be surprised how many people comment on it. Only tobacco, I sell only tobacco, nothing else! Not even chewing gum. Every morning I’m up at 5.20, and open the shop at 7 o’clock. I shut at five in the evening. We always make sure we are in bed by 9.30. The biggest change for me was when VAT started in 1973. Most nights I do the books. The VAT has given me so much extra work.”

George Fieldwich, who had worked at a local pub, joined the shop at the age of seventy-one. William’s wife, Erna, was Austrian, and used to be a language teacher. “I enjoy the foreigners’ surprise when I speak to them in their own tongue. I am a non-smoker. I would have preferred to run a bookshop.”

William always seemed to have his pipe permanently clenched between his teeth; in fact I can’t remember ever seeing him without it. “I go all round the jars and try them all out. People come from miles around for this stuff. Once you’ve got a customer, you’ve got them forever. That’s why we don’t change the name of the shop, because it was famous.”

Erna also saw no reason to change things. “See that ‘Senior Service’ lady on the wall… We could have sold her a hundred times over. We have had many offers for her. But we always refuse.”

 © John Londei 2011

John Londei’s book  Shutting Up Shop: the decline of the traditional small shop is published by Dewi Lewis.

Londei’s London shops. Photo & text: John Londei (2/3).

Eddie Schloss, proprietor: silk & woollen merchant. 28A Goulston Street, Aldgate.  © John Londei

John Londei writes:

This was a hard shot to take; full of problems, with torrential rain, gale force winds and hardly any light.

Eddie Schloss had just seen off a difficult customer. ”They all come here telling me the same thing was offered up the road for half the price, ‘So why didn’t you buy it?’ I tell them.”

Eddie’s father, Samuel, was a Polish immigrant who settled in the East End of London and opened this shop, near Petticoat Lane market, in 1928. Eddie, his only son, left school at fifteen to work for his father. “He was a wonderful man. A true gentleman. Very fair. A good father, by God. I respected him. I loved him deeply. If my father were alive today I’d be the happiest person.”

Eddie joined the RAF and remained in the service for many years. “They allowed me compassionate leave, as my father had been taken bad. He couldn’t do it anymore. What with it being a family business, they gave me leave to come out. I took over here. I wasn’t cut out for this work. I wanted to be a doctor. Medical matters always fascinated me. I began studying it at school, but my education was wasted. But you need a different kind of patience for this work.”

Eddie didn’t seem interested having his picture taken, and it took a lot of persuading until he finally agreed. I don’t know what he was thinking as he watched us battle with the elements trying to set up the plate camera.

”Art. You’re probably doing it for art. I respect that. But I’ve got enough problems without art as well. Be honest with yourself, do I need it? I’ve got enough problems without you. I respect you as human beings. You’re wasting your time, but be my guest. But don’t expect me to spend any time on it. When I was younger I might have been impressed.

“ I would be happy to have a copy of the photo when it’s done. I won’t be impressed. I’m too old for that, but I’ll see what my wife thinks. God bless you – if your art gives you only half the problems I’ve had, you’ll have had  enough.”

 © John Londei 2011.

John Londei’s book  Shutting Up Shop: the decline of the traditional small shop is published by Dewi Lewis.