We were meant to leave London long before 2018. We’d come here in 1987 on an 18-month assignment from my wife’s New York law firm. But during that time our eldest son Teddy was born. A child focuses your mind, and it focused ours on London, which seemed a better place to raise a child than New York. We lived briefly in Chelsea, then in Putney. But Sarah wanted a better commute to the City and, one Sunday, driving east from Putney to have a look around Blackheath, she suggested a diversion through Dulwich, a place I’d heard of only in the context of Maggie Thatcher. Dulwich, at first sight, seemed a place we wanted to be. There were children. There was a park. There were playing fields. Traffic, such as it was, moved at a pace you could live with. There was a pub and shops. In front of Village Books, I stopped the car. We entered Spencer Kennedy (now Knight Frank), an estate agent. It would be more than a decade before we ever set foot in Blackheath.
We agreed to rent a house on Ardbeg Road. The owner was an oil engineer due to be transferred with his family to Abu Dhabi. With the first Gulf War about to begin however—this was February 1991—they decided to remain at home. We rented, instead, a cottage on Roseway and never once regretted this lucky consolation prize.
There are different ways of feeling like a foreigner and being an American in Dulwich felt distinctly different than being an American in, say, Chelsea. Chelsea was a fully populated, sprawling English film set where it was easy to go unnoticed. But in 1991 Dulwich, even a bog-standard American had rarity value—if value is the appropriate word for it. If I went into a shop and said something, I would sometimes notice—at the end of an aisle—a head peeking around the corner to get a proper look at me. I felt in those early days as I’ve always felt in Paris—as if I might as well be wearing a ten-gallon hat, walking bow-legged, and shouldering a lasso. Not that I’ve ever particularly minded being recognized as an American. Having one’s shortcomings pre-emptively attributed to national character—rather than to one’s own—has its advantages.
The ambiance of Dulwich Village was also quite different from the other places we’d lived in London. It was a village, after all, and in that sense, almost by definition, agreeably retro. Besides the bookshop, the village had two greengrocers, two butchers, two wine shops, a stationery shop with a secret toy cave in back, a dry cleaner, a chemist, a hairdresser, several estate agents, a car dealership, a petrol station, Bartley’s Flower Shop, Park Motor Garage, and a bakery where, every other morning, I bought an uncut loaf of granary bread, always with exact change from our change jar. There was an interior decorating shop with its lush window display, which we suspected of being a front for some nefarious activity because it never appeared open. There was a travel agent, a beauty salon, a timber merchant, Sweeney Todd’s, The Crown and Greyhound, a small grocery, a Barclays Bank, and a celebrated art gallery. There was a tiny electrical shop that smelled funny but was run by two lovely, elderly brothers who engaged in an activity known, once upon a time, as “fixing things.” There was also, next door to Anvil—a gift shop—a post office and haberdashery under the same roof, where, in one go, you could buy postage stamps, thread, and a hat for Royal Ascot—Dulwich Village’s gentler and more eccentrically parochial response to the comprehensive mercantile panache of, say, America’s Walmart, where you can pop in for shampoo, a chest of drawers, and a semi-automatic weapon.
Henry James once said that the two most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon. My memories of 11 Roseway, where we lived from 1991 to 1995, are drenched in sun. Lest you think rose-tinted glasses feature in this retrospective, I will remind you that, during this period, London enjoyed consecutive summers when a hosepipe ban was in force. Our garden bordered both the Griffin Sports Ground and Dulwich Hamlet School. During term time we were regularly serenaded by the school orchestra; in the spring and summer, with the rear windows open, we enjoyed the timeless, ineffably civilized loop of sounds emanating from the nearby cricket pitch.
Sarah worked in the city. I worked at home. We imported the first of our wonderful string of Swedish au pairs. Every afternoon I taped “Sesame Street,” which Teddy and I would watch after his tea. We watched tapes of Postman Pat, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Fireman Sam as well. After he started school, Teddy would one day come home from a friend’s house humiliated by the fact that he hadn’t understood that the telly was something that didn’t require a tape; you could just turn it on. But that was later. At Roseway he basked in an innocence that would have been impossible to preserve in New York. Nowadays, in the digital age, it would be difficult to preserve anywhere. His oldest friends date from Little Flowers Nursery, which, until the church burned down at Christmas in 1992, was at St Barnabas. After the fire and a short interlude in the Parish Hall, Little Flowers moved to the corner of Turney and Croxted. In time, all four of our children would be proud graduates.
Our son Billy arrived in February 1992 and, the next year, Teddy entered Dulwich Village Infants’ School, less than a minute’s walk from our door. In June 1995, Stephanie made her auspicious debut. I have five brothers and Sarah has three—not a sister between us—so Stephanie seemed a miracle. I have a photograph of Sarah cradling her in the hospital bed with Teddy and Billy on either side. Teddy, who is six, is in Tottenham Hotspur kit. Billy, three, sports the kit of Man United. Our abiding red and blue Crystal Palace period was yet to begin.
A month before Stephanie was born, we learned that we would need to leave Roseway—our landlords required their house back. Shortly thereafter, at Dulwich College’s old swimming pool, where Teddy took Saturday morning swimming lessons, I was told by a neighbour that the people at 92 Burbage were moving to the States and might be looking to rent their house. I popped round. Within a few minutes we’d agreed that Sarah and I would rent it. Sarah’s three-month maternity leaves we always spent with our families in the States, and so we did with Stephanie. By the time we returned to Dulwich, now to 92 Burbage, it was October 1995. On our first morning back, people who’d never spoken a word to us or acknowledged our existence in any discernible way, upon seeing Teddy and me rushing to school, became abruptly animated, stopping us, telling us they’d heard we’d gone back to America and how wonderful it was that we were back! Dulwich suddenly bloomed with technicolour, as if we’d just landed in Munchkinland. In wonderment we hurried along as doors to houses and upper-floor windows seemed to fly open for inhabitants to smile and wave and shout “You’re back!” Birds sang, the sun shined. There was no place like home.
On Burbage, we lived opposite the Alleyn’s Old Boys Sports Ground, now the Edward Alleyn Club. It became customary for the boys in the neighbourhood to gather there for a kick-around. They called themselves The Burbage Sharks. On Saturday mornings in Dulwich Park, a noteworthy fellow by the name of Richard Goat would hammer tall stakes into the ground with a wooden mallet, marking out a football pitch, marking out goal posts. Saturday morning footie in the park soon became the high point of our boys’ week, and that of many other Dulwich boys as well. Football was rampant. In the summer of 1996, England hosted the European Championships. The “Three Lions” anthem was inescapable, ringing with hope and yearning after 30 years of hurt. Alas, England lost in a semi-final penalty shootout to Germany—again—plunging our house into mourning. “I can’t stop thinking,” Billy, our four-year-old, inconsolably sobbed, “about Anderton hitting the post!”
Billy entered the Infants’ School. Teddy entered Dulwich Prep. We got Crystal Palace season tickets. Between ourselves and three other Burbage families we held a block of 12 seats in the first two rows of the family enclosure—precisely where, a year earlier, Eric Cantona had notoriously kung-fu kicked a Palace supporter, earning himself a season-long suspension. In the front row that night, Burbage Road’s own Fletcher family had their eternal fame sealed by umpteen newspaper photographs of the Cantona incident in which, in assorted aspects of astonishment, they featured. In March 1997—again, against the run of play—Katherine greeted the world. There are earlier baby pictures of Katherine no doubt, but the one that has endured, framed on our mantle, is of her at two-months-old held in Teddy’s lap, outfitted, like each of her siblings, in full Crystal Palace kit. The boys and I are about to leave for Wembley, along with 40,000 of our closest friends, to watch Palace win improbable promotion to the Premiership. In all of sport, there is nothing comparable to the sudden, astonished ecstasy of a football goal: 89th minute, David Hopkin looking to curl one… Say no more.
Sarah and I had been in London for ten years now. Our four children had been born here. We said tomato, they said tomahto. In another context, we’d be said to have “gone native.” Sarah decided to leave her New York law firm and became a partner at Freshfields. We bought the house on the corner of Dulwich Village and Aysgarth. We moved in with little furniture, no beds, a million things to do and no idea that Princess Diana had died the night before. In all of Britain, we were the last to know.
Life went on. The Saturday morning football match had morphed into three or four matches, all with pitches staked out by Richard Goat. Together with the fathers of two of Teddy’s friends, we launched an under-10s football team to compete in the Tandridge League. We called it Dulwich Park FC. It was sponsored by Wates of Dulwich—now Pedders. The club’s insignia—in tribute to Richard Goat—was a goat holding a wooden mallet. Billy followed Teddy to Dulwich Prep and began playing club football for Croydon FC. Stephanie followed Billy to the Infants’. There were putative Cruise and Kidman sightings, as the Hollywood couple was rumoured to have bought the Georgian mansion across the street from us. Cool Britannia. The internet had bedded in with email, ecommerce, and eejit stockbrokers peddling hot dot-com stocks. On the eve of Y2K, I had Oddbins deposit a pallet stacked with bottled water in our garage. Our computers didn’t crash, but the stock market soon did. Saturdays we watched Palace, who, following their 1997 promotion, had been ignominiously slam-danced back to the first division. Sundays the boys played football for their clubs. Birthday party invitations meant a quick trip to Village Books or Mr Green’s. During warm weather, after-school visits to the Italian Deli for gelato cones beckoned. At the playground in Dulwich Park, in the evening shortly after six, the Concorde would appear from the south and gently bank in our direction before roaring overhead. A car drove through the window at Oddbins. There were football stickers, Go-Gos, Pokemon, and Sylvanians. There was Harry Potter: first the books, one every year or two, with queues forming outside Village Books on the eve of pub dates, the doors opening at the witching hour; then, eventually, the movies, one at a time, incomprehensible if you hadn’t read the books, which at least one Dulwich father hadn’t. The Steam Fair would come and go with its redolence of locomotives and a lost age. On July 4th we celebrated our independence from the country we lived in. November 5th was our wedding anniversary, when bonfires were lit all over Britain and fireworks set off in our honour. On Remembrance Sunday a drumbeat would summon us to the street or to our upper-floor windows to watch the solemn procession through the village to the war memorial at Christ’s Chapel. Thanksgiving was a holiday our children were convinced their parents had invented. Christmas Eve meant Christmas carols at the 4pm crib service at St Barnabas. Although our children did not come in costume, many children did and were invited, in turn, to the altar: angels, shepherds, Marys, Josephs, wise men and, for a regrettably limited engagement, Shrek. Every year the minister would ask, “Are there any donkeys here?” Every year I’d nudge Billy and say, “Go on, get up there.”
There is much to be said for tradition.
(Greg concludes his reminiscences in the next issue)
Greg Barron is a lecturer and writer.