8 Dec 2012

The Square

Tanya and I grew up in St Peter's Square W.6. If you know it, that might seem much grander than it really was but to deny anything might sound as if I am ashamed to have been so fortunate. These days the Daily Mail will look up an address on Zoopla and say "they grew up a in a £3 million pound house..." as if the fa├žade really indicates the conditions in which someone lives.

As a single-parent family there was no silver spoon in our mouths. For 38 years we rented a basement flat in a subdivided 1830's terrace house which had a chronic damp problem that builders sent to fix just papered over. We were what polite society might have called "distressed gentlefolk".

It wasn't always so. When our parents moved in our father had become a lecturer at a local college and was the chairman of various committees on design education and had some recognition as an intellectual force, so he had expectations he would be able to support us and his previous children. 

Our landlord was a Quaker spinster who owned several houses in the square and surrounding area and she believed in social mixing so she would only rent to people she liked that had occupations she valued. It took several interviews for my dad to get the original tenancy. He describes in a letter how he applied some spatial analysis to where he wanted to live; within so many miles from his work, near a tube, shops, bus routes etc., but most importantly, rooms of pleasant proportions and good light as well as an affordable rent. He walked radially from the college in a different direction every evening, making many notes on the mechanisms of urbanisation in Hammersmith and Chiswick for his lectures, and leaving his details with every estate agent he passed until something came on the market. 

After our parents separated Tanya and I and our mother moved to Kelly Street in Kentish Town to a tiny terrace house shared with a bus conductor and his wife in two rooms upstairs. Kentish Town was vibrant but crowded and there wasn't any open space. Tanya would have her NHS glasses fitted at Mr Seymour the opticians and we probably got coats from Blustons. As there was no indoor bathtub and the Ascot over the sink often broke down, we walked a couple of streets over to a public baths where Irish women scrubbed their laundry and we would all pile into a cubicle where a dour matron with the hot tap handle on a key ring would draw our bath. You had to summon her by banging on the pipes and shouting "more hot in 46 please" and she turned on the tap from outside.

At some point my mother, probably because I don't recall we were going to school by then, must have said enough of this and they arranged a swap. We moved back to the square and my dad moved to Kelly Street. When our father died there wasn't any advantage in moving anywhere else as Mum worked at the BBC at a drafting table but her taking time off to care for us during our sequential bouts of mumps and measles and so on caused them to let her go. As a freelance set designer she could sometimes work from home and she converted her bedroom into a studio. Over her shoulder I saw her draft plans for Benny Hill skits and Liberace shows and furnishings for Gatwick Airport and The Playboy Club, then as a mature student she finished her degree that marriage and babies had interrupted.

We certainly had some illustrious and notorious neighbours but there were also artists, teachers, social workers living in the square as well as celebrities like Vanessa Redgrave, Shelia Hancock, Alec Guinness and others but to me they were just my friends' mums and dads. Although with some playmates in the square we might play hide and seek over four floors and make camps under their grand piano, at another it would be an arrangement much like my own; bunk beds four to a room and six kids having tea at the kitchen table whilst their mum bathed the baby in the sink and their underwear dried on the rack stacked on the Nightstor heater. Only once or twice was I made aware that buying our clothes from C&A wasn't quite the same as Kids In Gear.

The square has been featured in several movies; 1964's The Pumpkin Eaters and 2006's Miss Potter are the most often cited but I recall seeing the green trucks of the BBC and other productions more often than that. I am told I once walked into our living room to find Christopher Plummer sitting there, a friend in production had borrowed our house as his dressing room, and I loudly asked my mother "why is the daddy in the Sound of Music wearing curlers..?" Another time there was a crew in the park and after hanging around watching them for a few hours, I and a few friends were asked by an A.D. to play a game in the background of a shot. When I asked what the film was called, I was told it was called 'Percy'. Purdey of The New Avengers lived in the square. I recall the filming taking one day with Joanna Lumley entering and leaving the house in several different outfits and cars.

The best feature of the square was the park in the middle. Here literally was a level playing field fenced from the road and in earshot of a shout from the front door to come in for tea. Bicycles could be ridden around the perimeter path in attempts to set lap records. Across the Great West Road was the River Thames and towpaths to Putney and Richmond. Before we were teens we could cycle free of traffic along the Upper Mall and the LEP warehouses to friends in Chiswick or downstream for a hot chocolate in Riverside Studios, sometimes catching a matinee of something worthy. The concrete banks of a derelict reservoir - now a bird sanctuary - could be ridden like the Brooklands circuit. Later on Tanya and I pounded a route round Hammersmith Bridge and Barnes Bridge in training for marathons.

I won't mention names but I find it interesting that with such creativity around us, so many of the children from the square, both from well off and poorer families, have done well in many creative fields. It's not been by networking or having contacts, though that can help, but that Hammersmith had good schools and facilities back then and the collective aspirations of our peer-group and the role-models around us must have influenced our choices.

With the go-go Eighties and Nineties, eventually the rented houses in the square succumbed to spiralling property values and were sold off to bankers and stockbrokers and the area went downhill. I no longer heard opera chorus singers practising nor saw so many neighbours in the Hobby Horse. I did hear a child crying all the time and the father I never spoke to always shouting at him. As we had no car, a neighbour parked his Ferrari outside our house, his own parking spot taken by his Aston Martin. 

Vanessa downsized and moved away. A residents association was formed who got fed up with the Norman Garage parking in the street so they introduced permit parking. They had the park in the middle locked where Bob Marley and associated stars hanging around in recording sessions at Island Records used to play football with us.

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