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Dean Whitbread 2013

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Written on March 23, 2006, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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The London Borough of Lewisham has been dubbed many things, few of them complimentary, and most especially not by those charming citizens of South East London who live there.

In Saxon times, Lewisham began it’s humble beginnings as Oleofsa’s village. In 862, Lewisham was referred to as LIofshema mearc and Lieuesham in 918. The shopping centre was built in 1977, the centre was pedestrianised in 1994, and that’s about the scope of the improvements so far.

Sydenham is the nicer end of Lewisham where it borders Croydon at Crystal Palace, the place where I grew up. The borough boundary runs along one side of the great park which houses the National Sports Centre up the long, slow leg-busting hill up to Crystal Palace Parade from lowly Penge. The mighty Victorian mansions, faded, crumbling hulks when I was there in the 1960s and 70s, have once more come into their own, refurbished, rejuvenated and split into flats with majestic frontages and some spectacular views. This is a posh, green part of the borough, with fresh air and middle-classes, and though Hither Green ain’t so bad and some other patches, Brockley for example, do pass muster, most of Lewisham is pretty down at heel, the respository and domicile of a great teeming swathe of South East London chav.

If you visit the Towntalk Lewisham site, you can send e-cards from the various parts – including Catford, which has to be the least attractive part of the least impressive borough in the South East of Britain. Note the complete lack of Catford cards available to the internet-minded tourist should s/he be inspired by the sight of the famous Catford Cat to rush into one of the two internet cafes and email images to friends in Bangkok, New York, Sydney, Moscow.

Yet I have always had a soft spot for Lewisham, and specifically Catford, because it was the home (though not the birthplace, which was India) of one of my great and enduring heroes, Spike Milligan. I read all of his books as a child; I identified with his musicality, his art, his depression and his comedy. I recognised South London vernacular in his speech patterns, the non-punchline jokes, and the wonderful sharpness of his observations of human lunacy – in particular, Puckoon and his war trilogy Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, Rommel? Gunner Who?, and Monty – His Part In My Victory all of which I consider essential reading.

In the latter book, fighting in the North Africa campaign under Monty, he and his wartime mates visit ancient Carthage, and the timeless comment from one of them is: “Looks just like Catford”.

So for us Croydonians, the two places were always interchangeable. We’d catch a bus to Catford (there was an obscure hardware store there which contained otherwise impossible to find vacuum cleaner parts) – and we’d ask the bus conductor for a ticket to Carthage with our teenage faces completely straight.

“Where?” came the inevitable reply.
“Carthage,” we’d repeat earnestly, and then give the name of stop to make sure we weren’t over-charged.

Of course, in Latin lessons, which I studied (badly) until I was 18, we referred only to Catford, and the resigned acceptance of Mr Heald to this deliberate aberrance was a model of grace which won him our genuine affection.

Spike was a pacifist, an environmentalist, and a satirist without whom the post-war British comedy boom would not have been as spectacular. He inspired the whole of Monty Python, and his surreal legacy lasts to this day with comedies such as The Mighty Boosh. Yet his comic art had an edge and a pathos which made it disturbing, and frequently the laughter which came from great personal pain had an illuminating, cathartic quality. Unlike Hicks, he was a survivor, and lived to the respectable age of 83. When he died, it took his family a year to have his gravestone marked with the epitaph he had always wanted: “I Told You I Was Ill” – and even then, they had to write it gaelic – “Duirt me leat go raibh me breoite”.

Lewisham honours the great Spike with an annual Spikefest- the London Borough of Lewisham’s comedy festival – this year running from Monday 24th – Sunday 30th April. The highlight of this festival which I shall certainly try to attend is on 30th April, a Sunday afternoon film and talk given by Jane Milligan, Spike’s daughter at the Brockley Jack theatre. It should be fun – Jane is great. I expect there will be a good atmosphere and it’s only four quid.

If you can’t get there, check these books out.


English Teeth, English Teeth!
Shining in the sun
A part of British heritage
Aye, each and every one.

English Teeth, Happy Teeth!
Always having fun
Champing down on bits of fish
And sausages half done.

English Teeth, HEROES’ Teeth!
Here them click! and clack!
Let’s sing a song of praise to them –
Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.

Spike Milligan

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This thing has 2 Comments

  1. dave bones
    Posted 24 March, 2006 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    txt me a reminder its just down the road.

  2. Mom101
    Posted 24 March, 2006 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    I can always count on learning something here that I would never hope to learn anywhere else in a million years. Thanks for this! Forwarding onto the comedy-geek sigoth.

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