Finding myself in a kind of literary limbo – waiting for news about my new book release and the next stages of a couple of other projects – I decided to decamp from sleepy Cambridge for a few days to the illustrious streets of South West London, to quell my itchy writing fingers and clear the mind in preparation for all that comes next. I have family links to the Putney area and thought that now would be a good time to investigate a couple of particular family legends originating from my Nan’s side of the family.
My grandparents have always been a rich source of unlikely tales from way-back-when, especially my grandfather and his naval exploits. Whilst he hails from what was once the rough-and-tumble East End, decades before the fashion of creeping gentrification, my Nan came from the slightly more gentile area of Upper Richmond Road in the South West. Her father owned a large, double fronted tobacconist and sweet shop, where Mumsie remembers sitting on the huge wooden counter as a child, sucking the sugar off the bonbons before putting them back in the jar. Heath and safety regulations were presumably somewhat more slack in the 1950s than those we enjoy today, but one hopes that the young Mumsie had nothing but the best interests of customers’ dental health in mind at the time.
Never short of quirky characters in our family, Mumsie had a cousin called Tom who at the time was famous for walking his pet chicken, Phillip, up and down Putney High Street on a piece of string. In days long before the easy availability of cameras, the only record that remains of this scintillating piece of local history is the word-of-mouth recollections of our good selves. Hoping that such a sight might have caught the interest of locals at the time, I intended to search the local history section of Putney library to see if any photographs of Tom and Phillip existed and also to track down my great grandfather’s sweetshop, which by now is likely converted or even demolished.
Mumise was very small at this time (she isn’t very big now, to be fair) and my grandparents’ memories are foggy after eighty six years, so no clear information about the location of the sweetshop is forthcoming. Despite being unable to trace this elusive emporium, nor finding any pictorial evidence of the enterprising Tom and Phillip, a happy couple of hours were spent exploring both the historical records and lively streets themselves.
Putney is perhaps the closest thing to Cambridge that you can experience in London. Here you will find the starting point of the legendary Oxford and Cambridge boat race and the banks of the Thames boast boat houses of varying grandeur, homes to all manner of top-notch rowing clubs. The bright, crisp afternoon was perfect for wandering along the river, watching a bit of rowing and hunting for another historical location – Festings Road.
For those of a certain age, a certain bowler hat-wearing children’s character by the name of Mr Benn needs no introduction. Created by David McKee, Mr Benn was a smart London gent whose address was the only slightly fictional 52 Festive Road (next door to McKee’s own address at the time of 54 Festing Road). Every day he would leave his house, dressed smartly in a black suit and bowler hat, to visit a fancy-dress shop where a mysterious shopkeeper would inexplicably appear and suggest he try on an outfit. Mr Benn would dutifully don the outfit du jour then leave through a magic door and embark upon an adventure related to his costume.
This was a successful quest and I merrily hummed the Mr Benn theme tune and jauntily announced the infamous catchphrase of ‘As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared!’ with the kind of gusto you can no doubt imagine. So pleased was I with my own adventure, that I had to go to a nearby public house to raise a glass to the fellow who served as an early influence of my love of bowler hats. Sharing details of my endeavours of social media, as one does in this day and age, I was delighted to receive a tweet from Mr Benn himself! His Twitter feed suggests that he spends less time in costume shops these days, preferring to visit classic car shows, but the similarities between our profile pictures leads me to believe that I might be his love child.
Mumsie has some explaining to do, I suspect.