Continuing Brian Green’s reminiscences as a Dulwich shopkeeper for 50 years
She is short and slightly built and tends to scurry when she walks. She has two facial expressions. One is a wide grin, the other, a look which combines earnestness with urgency. I don’t know what Micky’s given name is; it might be Michaela or some other feminised appellation of the Archangel’s. Why should I imagine this? Well, both Micky’s parents were scholars in Italian and her father had translated a woven chronological text of the Gospels from its original Italian, into English. Which probably explains why Micky spent nine years as a nanny in Venice while her father performed these labours.
When the work was done the family moved to Pickwick Road and Micky turned her attention to photography. She is a talented photographer. The Wimbledon Tennis Museum retained her services for many years to produce a photographic record of the All England tournament for its archive and each year she was to be found amongst the press scrum around the Centre Court. She also became one of my suppliers of greeting cards. Her photographic flower studies were extremely popular, to the extent that in that pre-digital age, Micky could not keep up the production of her handmade cards. Friends and neighbours in Pickwick Road and around were dragooned by Micky into their manufacture, a labour if not remunerative (the costs of processing individual photographs being so high) was at least sociable.
And then one day, long after her elderly parents had died, Micky announced that she was going to Venice to organise Vivaldi concerts in various Venice churches. We all thought she had gone mad, and indeed told her so too. But she went, staying I believe, with the family with whom she had been the nanny. Perhaps it was Micky who was responsible for the proliferation of performances of The Four Seasons in so many of Venice’s redundant churches and palaces. However, having tested the water, her plan was then carried a stage further. She would sell her house in Pickwick Road and buy a small flat in the centre of Venice where she would study the life of Vivaldi. Her friends repeated their earlier warnings, prophesising total disaster. But she sold the house in Pickwick Road and went to Venice.
The years went by, and every summer Micky would reappear in Dulwich during Wimbledon Fortnight to continue with her photographic assignment. Then the visits stopped. In 2001 I was staying in Venice, in a crumbling but lovely fifteenth century palazzo now doing service as a modest B & B. It was in a little square to the east of the bustle of St Mark’s. In a corner of the square was the small church S. Giovanni in Bragora. One morning, the door being open, I went in. There was Micky.
The church was where Vivaldi started his musical career as a choirboy and it was where Micky was working on his papers while repairs were being carried out at the better known Conservatory della Pieta on the Molo, where he was concert master and director for 40 years and produced most of his compositions. Micky is the Pieta’s official Vivldi researcher and the trustees would later provide her with a flat in the former church and there she continues to be immersed in study and translation of the Vivaldi archive. Her researches into the all-female choirs which Vivaldi trained at this refuge for unwanted babies have revealed that the women sang tenor and bass parts and some remained at the Pieta for their entire life. She is now a world, possibly the world authority on the composer (a biography of Vivaldi by Micky is in the pipeline) and when the BBC shows a programme about his life, there is Micky, with her urgent and earnest expression indicating some detail in the manuscript, before lapsing into her familiar grin as she makes her point.
In Dulwich Park, on the pathway around the lake is a wooden bench inscribed with “In Memory of Dick the Brick 1950-2000“. It does not say that the bench was donated in Dick’s memory by the regulars at the Castle PH in East Dulwich where he propped up the bar and ran the pub quiz and where he was held in such affection. It was his skill as a raconteur that won him his reputation as one of East Dulwich’s characters. His stories were told in a soft Devon accent and their humour was always directed towards himself. Dick was the most agreeable of companions on a stroll in the country or a drink at the bar.
Many of his stories were about his years at sea and he retained the rolling gait of a sailor all his life. Dick was born near Plymouth and he enlisted in the Royal Navy where he served as a gunner on Fishery Protection vessels during the almost forgotten Cod War with Iceland. When he was discharged from that service on health grounds he joined the merchant marine. It was between these two spells at sea that Dick took, at the suggestion of the RN, a course in bricklaying and it was to this trade he turned when he became disenchanted with life in the merchant navy.
Dick was a very good bricklayer when he put his mind to it. The problem was that he was not equipped by nature to put his mind to anything for long. Perhaps that’s why his marriage failed and probably explains why his career ceased in the Royal Navy and why his life ended the way it did. Dick was essentially a lonely man and craved company by propping up the bar for hours on end and getting steadily drunk. When a close friend died Dick imagined he might fill his former shipmate’s shoes. He prepared to remove to Scotland to look after the widow and her daughter. When this suggestion was rejected, quite wisely by the widow, Dick returned to London and his lonely flat, took a Stanley knife from his tool bag and cut his own throat.
Arthur Perry would be everyone’s idea of an old fashioned vicar - always wearing his clerical collar, to be seen in summer in a cream alpaca jacket and a Panama hat which he doffed to every lady he passed in the Village during his frequent perambulations. He invariably gave an impression of being surprised and amused and swept along by events, rather like the expression the Prince of Wales adopts. He was a keen crossword puzzler, and to his delight, twice winner of ‘ The Times’ crossword competition.
Yet Canon Perry (a title he explained to me one day as a kind of ecclesiastical OBE), had a less well-known side. He was a true comedian. Not the brash, in your face kind of comedian, but one of subtle timing and brilliant delivery. He might have been compared with a Jack Benny or a Bob Newhart. This aspect came to the fore one year when he attended the then annual clergy conference at a Butlin’s Holiday Camp, an odd choice of venue but generously offered gratis by Billy Butlin. Arthur entertained the attending serious minded delegates with a stand-up act accompanied on the piano by Michael Marshall, Bishop of Woolwich, also a Dulwich resident. His performance became a legend.
Arthur Perry arrived as a priest in the Church of England via a job in a shipping office in Liverpool. He was a low-churchman and well suited to St Barnabas when he arrived in the late 1950’s. Unlike its neighbouring Anglican churches, which had been built some thirty years earlier at the height of the Anglo-Catholic movement, St Barnabas was consecrated on the crest of a liturgical reaction against ritualism. Thus it should not be found so surprising how a series of Lent lunches which I attended, developed.
In common with many churches the Gospel of St Mark was selected as a text which might be studied and digested, along with a simple lunch once a week over the six week period of Lent. The lunches started modestly enough; after all there was expected to be an element of sacrifice and simplicity. Thus week one saw bread and cheese accompanying the story of the life of Jesus. The following week soup was added to the diet, the cheese still being retained. A week later a splendid pudding made by Rene the Vicar’s wife appeared on the table. In week 4, cream accompanied the pudding. By the last two weeks of our Lenten fast Arthur’s home made wine accompanied a now fully blown luncheon.
When he retired, Arthur’s modest salary did not allow opportunity for providing himself and Rene with a new home upon leaving his comfortable vicarage in Calton Avenue. His friend, Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, interceded and Arthur was offered a delightful cottage owned by the Church of England in Walsingham in Norfolk. The problem for Arthur was that Walsingham is the Anglican Church’s one and only shrine, a place of pilgrimage and veneration and therefore quite alien to Arthur’s concept of churchmanship. However, needs must and he and Rene moved in to their new home and in no time at all Arthur began ‘helping out’ with the many services at this unique place and eventually began to accompany some of the pilgrimages. God works in a mysterious way!
In case, dear Reader, you might think I have run out of stories about my fellow shopkeepers, let me assure you that I would be surprised if Fate could have provided a more unusual bunch. Take Wally Burt for instance. Wally was the newspaper seller when the Village (and elsewhere) used to support one. He would be at his stand at North Dulwich Station in the mornings selling his ‘dailies’, and in the evening greeting the same but now more weary trainloads of commuters with the choice of three London evening newspapers. His favourite greeting was “Buy a paper, have a read”, uttered in a barely inviting base tone.
Wally I think, always resembled a cheerful Fagin. For about nine months of the year he dressed in the same sort of well-worn overcoat Fagin might have sported. Newspaper vending was not the extent of Wally’s business life. In the hours between the morning and evening trains Wally was a bookie with a legitimate stand at all the South-east England racecourses. In the days before betting shops Wally was never averse to taking a bet at the same time as handing over a copy of The Times.
I cannot recall how or why I suggested Wally might be an ideal Father Christmas at the Village Infants’ Christmas party. As deputy chairman of the governors I suppose I had some kind of role in the management of the party at St Barnabas Hall. Wally was enthusiastic about the idea. A Father Christmas outfit was obtained and the day of the party arrived and almost two hundred excited infants awaited the arrival of Father Christmas aka Wally. The tea came and went but still no Wally. In desperation and feeling responsible, for this, my only contribution to the party, I donned the Father Christmas outfit and filled in as a poor substitute for the absent Wally. As the party was ending and parents collecting their children, Wally arrived. Red-faced and breathless and clutching 200 copies of The Dandy and The Beano which he had intended to give to the children he apologised for the vagaries of British Rail which had cancelled his train to Dulwich from his home in deepest Surrey.
There was more than a passing resemblance between Elizabeth and Margaret Rutherford. Indeed, Elizabeth could have been cast as Madame Arcarti any day with her scarves and large shopping bag, the latter having wheels for easier transport in Elizabeth’s later life.
Elizabeth was always cheerful and well-dressed. Her peroxide hair often semi-contained by a brightly coloured beret and her lipstick carefully applied. She was to be seen at all hours of the day and night, trundling her wheeled bag back from her frequent visits to the English Speaking Union in Charles Street where she often lunched or attended lectures.
Elizabeth was an avid lecture attendee. Whatever the subject, Elizabeth would be there. However, every chairman’s heart would sink when Elizabeth was espied entering the hall and taking up her favourite position in the front row where her striking presence was guaranteed to put the lecturer off-balance. What rattled the chairmen of such functions was Elizabeth’s guaranteed habit of being the first to ask a question in that doubtfully useful period at the end of some interesting talk when most of the audience are anxious either to head for home, an awaiting glass of wine or cup of coffee.
It mattered little if the lecture was about growing vegetables in Sumatra or the latest archaeological find, Elizabeth’s questions were always framed in such a way that while she initially addressed the subject of the lecture, by the end (and it was not reached for some time) she would have diverted it to her favourite topic - education. Education, in her opinion, had gone to the dogs. At other times and in private conversations and in hushed tones Elizabeth would often introduce her other pet subject - the presence of strange and powerful forces at work. I cannot remember if these forces were of a domestic or an alien character but imprisoned behind my counter I was frequently warned by Elizabeth that: “They are listening to us you know”.
In the 1970’s, when I was editing another community/church magazine for Dulwich, I was approached by the owner of a new restaurant in Lordship Lane, close to Townley Road, who was interested in taking a third of a page of advertising space. At the time there actually was no space available and so I had to apologise and explain that should there be in the future I would let him know. The reputation of the restaurant grew and I decided I would impress my bank manager by taking him there to lunch and at the same time repay him for his hospitality on a previous occasion.
It was a splendid lunch and the service was unobtrusive. Shortly after the restaurant was ‘discovered’ by Time Out and all changed. The menu outside disappeared. In its stead was a notice which said “We do not serve prawn cocktails or well-done steaks and we only serve lamb pink. If you want to know anything more about this restaurant, consult the guides.” The media began to carry long reports in bold type about the new enfant terrible of the culinary scene, who, upon a complaint would emerge raging from the kitchen. It was not long before Nico Ladenis shook the dust of Dulwich off his pots and pans and up-spooned for Battersea and onwards towards Park Lane, the stratosphere and three Michelin stars and in the process cued in the long line of celebrity chefs which pepper (sic) our TV screens and newspapers.
If there is a future Nico Ladenis opening a local restaurant, let me say that we do have an eighth-page space available for an advertisement.