September 11th. I don’t think the first tower had fallen when I left to collect our girls from school. But when I returned home, it was gone. Then I watched on the telly as the second tower fell. I remember thinking as I watched, What is that? — my brain unable to process the fact that I was watching a 110-story building, in real time, collapse.
A new age had begun.
Travelling to the States, which we did at Easter and in August, became an ordeal not only of push-chairs, car seats, luggage and air-sickness bags, but of airport security. In the spring of 2003, the US and Britain—with broad public support in both countries—invaded Iraq. The Iraq army was easily defeated, but chaos followed as the country fragmented. During the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s, the question I’d often hear was “Why doesn’t the United States do something?” The mantra now was “Who appointed the United States policeman of the world?”
Teddy entered Dulwich College. Stephanie entered JAPS. The village, in almost imperceptible degrees, was constantly changing. The butchers, the greengrocers, and the bakery were long gone, as was the timber merchant, whose premises had been converted into numerous Aysgarth Road townhouses. The Post Office had long since moved across the street and stopped vending hats. Cafes proliferated. Pizza Express arrived, as did Café Rouge, which replaced Bella Pasta, which had replaced Sweeney Todd’s. The grocery, which was where Gail’s is now, closed shortly after the arrival of Shepherd’s, which was sandwiched between Pizza Express and the newsagent. The P4 bus stop was moved in front of our house and, across the street, the first of an eventual four or five ancient Chestnut trees was cut down, to be replaced by gangly pre-adolescent saplings. The iPod appeared. Social media. Being American had ceased to be a thing - or so it seemed to me - as the village became demographically almost cosmopolitan. More than once I caught myself obliviously discussing immigration as if I were talking about people other than myself. Can there be a more manifest example of making oneself at home? Teddy felt sufficiently at home in Shepherd’s that I felt compelled to suggest to him that a bathrobe and flip-flops were perhaps not appropriate shopping attire.
Our flat-roofed two-car garage, which had been grafted onto our Edwardian house, had somehow received planning permission during the 1960s. Yet it took us two years to get permission to knock it down and replace it with something more attuned to the original construction. For the better part of two years, we lived in a building site. In 2004, around the time the renovations were completed, Dulwich Park FC—by winning the Surrey Cup and, in their final match ever, defeating the winners of the London Cup—laid claim to be the best Under-16 football team in London and Surrey. Around the same time, our old Burbage Road crew delivered a full coach to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for Palace’s promotion playoff final against West Ham. Neil Shipperley - “in off his shin” - sent us home “glad all over.”
In our newly landscaped front garden we planted pink roses in demure tribute to our first Dulwich home in Roseway. We also planted a winter-blooming cherry tree that Stephanie—trend-setter that she was—named Mr Peach. In the rear garden, Katherine named a freshly planted, unassuming birch tree Steve. Later we would add a gum tree in front who went by the name of Bazooka Joe. Both girls were at JAPS by 2005 and in 2007 Billy was about to join his older brother at Dulwich College. The Dulwich Prep Leaver’s Day celebration was just beginning when news arrived of the central London suicide bombings in which 52 people were killed and 700 injured.
With Dulwich College sports matches taking place on Saturday afternoon, the boys and I had reluctantly surrendered our Palace season tickets. Teddy and Billy would go on to play six consecutive years of first XI football between them, captaining the team four times. They played two years each in first XV rugby as well, Teddy captaining the side in his final year. Our girls, who found these matches less than riveting, especially when, frequently, inclement weather was involved, quickly learned to plot alternative Saturday plans with Sarah or with their friends. I, however, would haunt Dulwich College touchlines for years.
Southwark Council spent several months digging up the rotary in front of Christ Chapel, clogging traffic through the village. The new rotary prevented vehicles on Gallery Road from turning left onto Burbage, instead squeezing them into a bumper-to-bumper 365-degree churn around the rotary, constipating movement through the village even after the roadworks were complete. In the wake of angry complaints, the Council spent more months congesting traffic while they dug up the rotary a second time, returning it to its original state, save for a short slip of a bike lane and a pedestrian crosswalk to nowhere.
In the summer of 2008, Teddy, who had entered Harvard the previous fall, learned the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a pre-requisite to representing the USA at the Under-20 World Cup in Wales. Meanwhile, stock markets were falling. Then the financial crisis hit. Worse was to come. On a summer afternoon in Portugal in 2009, Henry Fraser, one of Billy’s closest friends, broke his neck taking a running dive into the ocean. Barely surviving and paralyzed from the neck down, Henry was eventually transferred from Lisbon to Stoke-Mandeville Hospital, where he began the arduous process of adjusting to his new life. As the Dulwich College school year began, Billy and his friends formed a rota that ensured that, each day after school, one or two boys would travel by train from Dulwich to Stoke Mandeville. The boys also began raising money to defray the costs of Henry’s care. Among other projects organized were a dinner with an auction, generously hosted by comedian Jack Dee, a Dulwich College parent, and a football match at Dulwich Hamlet FC that pitted the Dulwich College 1st XI against a celebrity team that included, among others, four former Premiership players and the chef Gordon Ramsay, who was also a Dulwich College parent. For the event programmes, I solicited advertising from shops in the village, where the outpouring of support and generosity was nothing less than astonishing. Katherine Opie-Smith, a dentist in the village, slipped a £500 cheque through my mail-slot. David Isaacs, at William Rose Butchers in East Dulwich, donated £1,000 plus the burgers and sausages for the football match. In the end, something like £135,000 was raised. Henry, who returned to the College the following year to complete his A-Levels, now works for Saracens Rugby Club and is an accomplished mouth-painting artist. He’s given inspirational addresses to the likes of the England Rugby 7s team and recently published a moving memoir called The Big Little Things.
I had the first of two hip replacements and began listening to the first of the 199 audiobooks I’ve since enjoyed while walking in Dulwich Park or working out at ESPH on Lordship Lane. A truck rammed a pillar outside the Post Office and wound up supporting the overhanging roof. Billy left for the University of Pennsylvania and Stephanie left JAGS for a US boarding school, where she promptly achieved a kind of immortality for asking, during Maths class, if anyone had a rubber she could borrow. The next year Katherine followed her there, leaving Sarah and me alone in a house that, like a thing organic, had somehow grown bigger.
Suddenly nothing much happened. Years blurred. Everyone but me had a “smart” phone. But even I had an iPad. In Dulwich Park I’d high-five a jaunty middle-aged woman each day as we power-walked past each other in opposite directions. Le Piaf was replaced by the estimable Rocca’s. Southwark dispatched a spy car to our corner of the village. Like a U-boat, it had a periscope, with which to spot unwary mothers dashing into Shepherd’s for milk or some tea-time ingredient, whereupon it would unleash a torpedo. Whether it was public outrage or local partisan activity I do not know, but the spy car was eventually removed—or blown up. A barbershop opened, complete with barber’s pole and sidewalk café. In 2014 The Dog closed for refurbishment. After about 20 years, it re-opened in 2017. Southwark commenced roadworks again, this time at the Dulwich Village traffic light, snarling traffic and inconveniencing everybody so to install several feet of dedicated bike lane and a new zig-zag crosswalk with a raised curb for people to trip over. The Post Office moved into the chemist shop, bringing with it the now little-used, royal red post box, which, like the telephone box outside Dulwich Vintner’s, soldiers on, a monument.
Everyone’s past is a lost world. Very late at night, I’d sometimes gaze down from my loft window at the corner outside Café Rouge to see three or four foxes hanging out like teenagers, all but smoking fags. Café Rouge reincarnated as The Real Greek. Shepherd’s, the newsagent, Park Motors—all gone. The England football team’s 30 years of hurt metastasised to 50 years and counting. Dilwihs, the meadow where dill grows. In Saturday morning drizzle, boys playing football on a makeshift pitch in Dulwich Park. The restrained and sombre spectacle of Remembrance Sunday observances. Skirting around the Dulwich College tollgate. The joy of a home goal at Selhurst Park. A flash of feral parakeets, incongruous as monkeys, swooping from a tropical dream into a village tree. Shackleton’s boat at Dulwich College. The Founder’s Day picnic with concert and fireworks. Jo Brand at the Post Office or at Dulwich Hamlet waiting for school to let out, worth a dozen Cruise or Kidmans any day. Rain or shine, Sunday mornings, a woman named Sandra with her collection cup outside the newsagent, faithfully collecting money for Alzheimer’s research. The legacy of Edward Alleyn and that of Richard Burbage, without whom we wouldn’t know Shakespeare half as well as we do. The ghosts of bomb-struck buildings, of majestic Plane trees, of Dickens and Ruskin, of Lord Haw Haw and of Oswald Mosley, upon whom P.G. Wodehouse based Roderick Spode, the British fascist leader of the Blackshorts. P.G Wodehouse, Dulwich Old Boy, his study frozen in time in the Dulwich College library. A line of schoolchildren beneath my loft window, led by Mr Green to the Old Burial Ground and then on to the site of the village stocks next door to Village Books. Mr Green, dapper and bespectacled unofficial Mayor of Dulwich, cycling past in jacket and tie, helmeted, on his unfolded bike. Home from a holiday in the States one August, driving through the dappled light beneath the canopy of trees lining College Road, being struck by the unassuming beauty of this place and thinking the actual words I can’t believe I live here. Dulwich & Sydenham Golf Club, where you get a free drop if a fox takes your ball, transforming you (or so I’ve heard) into the village idiot, cartoonishly brandishing a 9-iron while chasing Foxey-Loxey into the woods. Abandoning my car one late afternoon in a snowstorm: trekking home through a snowdome, the eerie beauty of Dulwich Park in the twilight, virgin footprints, still air, branches white, the pristine enchantment and foreboding of Narnia. The reassuring harmony of a cricket match on the periphery of awareness. Rhododendrons blooming in the park. Evenings at The Dog. Rembrandt’s girl at the window. Memorials to the war dead at Christ Chapel and at Dulwich College. New Year’s Eve with our oldest Dulwich friends. The hypnotic poetry of the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4. The houses, the shops, the trees and the streets, the people my family know by heart.
As with any good journey, you end up discovering something you didn’t know when you started. You start off writing a retrospective and you end up composing a love letter. On a recent July day at Dulwich College’s Old Library, our son Teddy married his JAGS sweetheart, Lucy Lyons. Teddy’s lifetime has spanned our time in London. And so it seems fitting that on a sunny summer day, attended by friends and family, his wedding should bestow upon our life here the sort of pure happy ending one might hope for, but rarely find, outside a novel by Jane Austen.
Good-bye, Dulwich. Thank you for everything.
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