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At Number 29: A Memory of Crescent Grove, London S.W.4

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The battered and peeling gateposts near Mr Bowes the dentist led to a dusty rubble track, which in turn led to my first home.

The Gateposts of Crescent Grove, c.1964

In the spring of 1958, I was born in St John’s Wood, north London. The setting was ‘a nursing home’. 29 Crescent Grove was where I then spent the first few years of my life.

Like most of the houses nearby it was a dilapidated mixture of flats and bedsits. My mother had moved in to the first-floor flat the year before, having met my father, who was Czech, over an ice cream at the BBC’s Bush House in the Aldwych. At the time, she was in search of somewhere to live, and his mixture of continental charm and extraordinary English had worked its usual spell.

Next door down (No.31 ?) was owned by a lady known to us as ‘The Old Pious Goat’. I have no idea what her name was. Like Vesta Tilley, she had been a male impersonator in music hall, and had now retired to run her home as a lodging house. She was religious, and the rules of her house were extensive, and strict, prompting my father once to enquire if her tenants were allowed to breathe. He meant it, and was relieved when she said that they were.

Whether or not my father wholly owned No.29 is not clear to me without further homework, but I remember that he took an almost patriarchal interest in the occupants. To a very small child it seemed that every available corner of the house was inhabited by rather weird and wonderful characters.

Cresecent Grove, in about 1910. No.29 is somewhere on the left

Michael lived in the basement. Michael had a beard, and was bohemian. He came from a well-to-do background, and seemed to be very well off. He certainly didn’t need to work. He was also a little unbalanced – a combination of genius and insanity – something that ultimately got the better of him, and he died very young. I think it was a brain tumour, but this was something that was only ever whispered about in my hearing.

The ground floor was where my father lived with his first wife. They had escaped from what was Czechoslovakia to London just in time for the Blitz in 1940. Their part of the house was a fascinating mixture of too many books, odd furniture, and cats. At Christmas, the bath had live carp swimming in it.

The furniture was odd because it was antique, and mainly of very good quality, and we weren’t used to it. It often suffered at the hands of my father’s first wife, who would seek to improve any item that had untidy things like intricate brass ornaments and decorations on it. She would ruthlessly attack with a pair of pliers until it was reduced to almost Calvinistic plainness. A fine regency card table still in my possession was thus denuded, and a pair of unfortunate Georgian long-case clocks also subjected to the same fate – their finials and decorations torn off and unceremoniously dumped.

Spotlessly clean net curtains hung in the windows at the front and back of the house. They did not look English. Nor did the large baroque cherubs that clung to the wall in the entrance hall. They were almost black with the grime of centuries and soot, until my father’s first wife attacked them as well – with white gloss paint, carefully colouring their loincloths an attractive powder blue.

The cats were acquired over several years – every one of them a stray in some kind of disrepair. Most of them smelt, and had colonies of fleas. They spent warm days outside in cardboard boxes, and at night occupied the very warm kitchen – or went prowling in the wilderness that had once been the carefully tended gardens at the centre of Crescent Grove. Carefully tended they were not any more – with no railings anywhere, and huge untamed bushes of privet and rhododendron swinging over the cracked paving. Noisy and grubby children (who were probably very ordinary and middle-class) played rough games there: Cowboys and Indians, Soldiers, and Robin Hood. There was no reason to go anywhere near, so we didn’t, and I don’t think I ever saw The Crescent on the other side of the gardens. We kept mainly to our part of The Grove.

The Crescent, showing the carefully tended gardens in the middle

Uncle Rudolph was not a relative, but a retired Polish airman who had flown with the RAF. He now lived in a single room off the main stairs, and his passion was fishing. Every weekend he disappeared, returning on Sunday evening, laden with freshly-caught fish which he would distribute to anyone who might appreciate it. My mother once opened her front door to find a very large pike hanging from the doorknob, its tail curled decoratively into its mouth.

Mr Parker, who was rather stout, and rather elderly, lived opposite Uncle Rudolf. My only memory of him is of a black gaberdene raincoat and a black hat, glimpsed as he passed on the stairs. He was always very polite. Shortly before he died, he gave my father a pretty walnut chair that had belonged to his mother. I have it still. It is small, useful, and comfortable. The gentlemen must have shared a bathroom, which was probably further along their passageway.

At the top of the house were the rooms occupied by the au pair employed mainly to look after me. I think the accommodation consisted of something like a bedsit and a small kitchen and bathroom – but by the early 1960s my mother had applied to run a playgroup there, and what I had always regarded as my home and my territory was invaded by a mixture of children who I mostly did not like, and certainly wanted nothing to do with.

There was Mark, the youngest, a toddler who was a bully: no chair was safe from him if he decided it was his – the occupant was pushed out of the way onto the floor, too surprised to retaliate; there was the strange and exotic Indian girl with a steel plate in her head, covering the place where her skull had failed to grow properly; there was me, very shy, and rather plump, and there was my best friend, Peter.

Me and my friend Peter Martin on the sofa at Crescent Grove

Me (with curly hair) and my best friend Peter Martin sharing an armchair at Crescent Grove. I was very fond of the embroidered kitten on my chest. From what little I can see of the illustration, I believe the book was called ‘How the Mole Got his Car’.

Peter lived nearby at Parson’s Corner and was collected by his father at the end of the day. There were three or four others, who I cannot recall, and the group seems to have been considered a success.

Peter and I were occasionally taken out for treats by Lisbeth, a splendid Norwegian friend of my mother’s who had wanted a year’s sabbatical from her job in Oslo, and who had been seconded to run the playgroup.  She took us to places like Arding & Hobbs (opposite Clapham Junction Station) for afternoon tea, where we embarrassed or amused customers and waitresses alike by playing hide-and-seek under the stiff white table-cloths in the otherwise silent dining room. We were also photographed together, sitting on a threadbare armchair in my mother’s sitting room, both glued to a large picture book about a fire engine. Peter was shortsighted, and wore round metal-rimmed glasses. He was clumsy on occasion, and once managed to fall down the stairs from the top of the house, literally turning cartwheels past me, until he landed against the wall and burst into floods of tears. His only injuries were shock and a bump on the head. He and I stayed friends until school intervened and we went our inevitably separate ways at the age of five.

Our last meeting was at Chessington Zoo. He had been invited to my birthday party, but I don’t remember which one.

There is a coach-house next door to No.29. It was part of our house in those days, but I always thought of it as a garage, and could never understand how Uncle Henry and Adele, his schoolteacher girlfriend, managed to live in the same room with his Morris Minor.

Uncle Henry was Czech, his proper name Jindra Bertl, and I’ve always though Adele was English, but perhaps she wasn’t. They were a young and friendly, rather stylish couple who would soon be part of the Swinging Sixties – an era that came into being with some very hard winters. Crescent Grove disappeared under snow that was higher than the edge of my pram, and as a small child, the visit to the Market to buy a Christmas tree with my mother was a perilous undertaking through the bustling crowds, thick fog, and ice.

‘Just push,’ was my mother’s instruction as we negotiated a very tall Christmas tree through a press of other people’s shopping and heavy winter coats.

Before I was five years old, my mother took the plunge and bought a house of her own. It was in Barnes, facing the Green, and we lived there for twenty years. I do not know what became of Uncle Rudolf or Uncle Henry and Adele, but it might have surprised some people to know that my father and his first wife moved with us, along with their many cats.

Although perhaps unconventional for the time, it was an arrangement that worked, and to me it seemed completely normal, as part of a childhood that was – on the whole – a very happy one.

* * *

(The booklet by Hermione Hobhouse, ‘A Regency Survival in Clapham’, published by the Crescent Grove Trust, was an immense help in writing the above. The pictures were kindly provided by Alyson Wilson of The Clapham Society.)

Copyright © Francis Wright, 2011


Written by Francis Wright

December 31, 2011 at 8:30 am

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