Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Victory Square: A Guided Tour

Another thing you could buy in 1974 was sarsaparilla. From a herbalist in the Walworth Road.

That always struck me as very odd. I’d probably heard the word sarsaparilla two or three times in my life, and only in very old cowboy movies. Now I was living in Sarf London, and I could buy sarsaparilla by the jugful in a shop five minutes’ walk from the Elephant and Castle. The kind of shop that had a dark stained wooden counter and rows of white jars on shelves up to the ceiling and little tubs of exotic stems and shoots and tablets dispensed into plain brown paper bags. There was a blackboard outside and you could always tell from a distance if sarsaparilla was available that day because they’d chalk up the price for you.

It’s not there any more, surprise surprise. Neither the blackboard nor the shop. If I want to drink a non-alcoholic cordial prepared from the roots of various prickly climbing plants of the tropical American genus Smilax I’ll probably have to fly to Arizona first.

I bet you can still buy 1950s Bedford ambulances. Probably for a lot more than £400. Back then it felt like a fortune. My entire year’s student grant was 600-odd, so it was pretty impressive when Yaya decided to stump up the money for Bertha.

Buying the truck, of course, was just the beginning. Now we had to do something with it.

I say ‘we’ because I don’t remember there ever being any doubt that this was a team project. Yaya was tall, but even he was going to rattle around in Bertha if he did it on his own. Stuart and Mark F were pretty much on the bus from the get go, and I’m pretty sure I was part of the planning as soon as I came home from Victory Square.

I came home for several reasons:

- I couldn’t afford the rent any more. Pitiful when you consider I was only paying £4 a week.

- I needed a job to pay for my forthcoming jaunt to Istanbul in Bertha. There was always work to be had at Stansted Airport, and it always paid better than anywhere else.

- If I was going to be on the bus, I had to work on the bus. That was the rule.

- I needed a bath.

Let’s consider that last statement. Victory Square was a terrace of tiny Victorian houses in a run-down corner of Camberwell that was waiting patiently for the bulldozers to show up and turn it into part of the Burgess Park Open Space (which they duly did a couple of years later). Consequently nobody thought it a very good idea to spend any money looking after their property. Instead they were either left derelict or let out to people who didn’t care: the very poor and students.

Number 1, Victory Square got the student treatment. There were three bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms down. I lived in the middle upstairs bedroom with a table, a wardrobe, and a mattress on the floor. It was the smallest bedroom in the house but that was only fair: I’d arrived last. The view from my window consisted of the back end of a scrap yard.

Stewart Craig had the best bedroom. Front upstairs. he had a wall heater and everything. He’d bagged it for himself because he was the one who found the house in the first place. The arrangement backfired on him badly when the rest of the residents realised there was only one place to hang out and socialise at Victory Square: Stewart’s bedroom.

Apart from the bedrooms, there were only two other rooms in the house:

- A kitchen, downstairs at the back, where Flash deep fried his chips every evening. The rest of us lived on brown rice and vegetables, but Flash came from Newcastle and stayed loyal to his roots. Despite compounding a fire hazard already made lethal by a paraffin oil heater in every room.

- A scullery. Well, more of a corridor really. It had a door that led out into a back yard so tiny it really wasn’t worth going there, a sink (the square Victorian kind), and a tiny Belling water heater that generated just about enough hot water for one warm sinkful.

That was it. If we wanted to get clean – really clean – we went to the local public baths. No, not the swimming pool: a proper public bathhouse with spotlessly clean slatted wood flooring and
your very own cubicle with a cavernous tub that would have done Yaya proud and taps that poured in a boiling torrent.

All gone now, like the sarsaparilla.

The problem with the public baths, of course, was getting to them. I mean, we were busy students. We had projects to finish and pubs to live in and girls to pursue and all-night games of Risk to play. Fitting in a bus trip to the nearest bath-house took up valuable time.

Under the circumstances, we were lucky to have friends. And yet we did:

- There was the lot over at Kempshead Road. Which also disappeared, under the other end of the Open Space.

- There were all Pat Chappelle’s mates from Catford, who weren’t really students at all and tended to shun marijuana in favour of sulphate which meant that when they came to visit everybody stayed up for two days and a night talking about doing things that never actually got done.

- There were Libby and her sister Liney who’d just started running a stall under the Westway at Portobello Market which meant they dropped in at weekends. I’d spent the first six weeks of that year living in Libby’s hall of residence in Tooting, where she was studying dance at the Laban Centre, but it wasn’t really working out. Not just for lack of space: we’d started to stagger to the end of a long relationship, and I was making a very clumsy and immature job of bringing it to a close (I have a feeling I’m coming back to this later).

And there were Simon and Martin, driving by in the Pig (which we will also return to later, since it deserves a post all of its own).

We had parties too. Not the sort that require planning: to throw a party at Victory Square you put the word out, piled all your possessions (excluding mattresses – they had potential still) into Dave Minchin’s room at the back, handed the guardianship of the stereo to Pat, bought a couple of Party Seven cans for the people who were too stingy or broke to bring drink of their own, poured yourself into your cleanest loon pants, and prayed for a girl to notice you.

Mostly they didn’t. Even if you did manage to get off with someone, the only place to sleep was in a room laid wall-to-wall with mattresses. Usually my bedroom. Which was probably intended to induce the mood of a Roman orgy but in practice only led to embarrassed fumbling after you figured everyone else in the room had gone to sleep.

There was a TV comedy in the early 80s called The Young Ones. You remember: it pretty much launched Ade Edmonson and Rik Mayall. To this day I’m convinced they must have come to a party at Victory Square and borrowed the idea:

- The Young Ones weren’t very successful with women. Neither were we.

- The Young Ones didn’t bother with domestic repairs. Nor did we. One of our most entertaining evenings ended with someone being nailed into the loo. We let him out eventually, but the nails remained in the doorframe. Probably till they demolished the place.

- The Young Ones had an old couple living next door. So did we. Fortunately ours were deaf.

- One of the Young Ones played guitar very badly. So did I.

- One of the Young Ones had lank centre-parted hair that hung down to his shoulders. So did Flash.

- The Young Ones had a Russian landlord. So did we (that's the clincher, I’m sure you’ll agree).

In fact the only substantive difference between The Young Ones and Victory Square that I can remember is the livestock. They had rats. We had...

Eric Posted by Hello

I know what you’re thinking. Cutesy-wutesy ickle puddy pussoo why don’t you come and purr on my lap cootchie-coo. But let me tell you: you’re looking at the hardest cat in Camberwell. A real Gilbert Shelton job. Dead mice on the doorstep. Crap on yer pillow soon as look at you. Upholstery shredded overnight. Or it would have been if we’d had any.

You’d be hard if you lived behind a scrap yard with real rats and the people who were supposed to look after you never emerged before 11 in the morning and fed you all manner of evil-looking leftovers at night. As for a litter tray – forget it.

Eric left round about the time I did. AWOL. One of the missing. Five grown men shedding tears in the square. Probably grew tired of cold chips and figured he’d do better hanging out with the rats next door.

The difference is, he came back. I was off to Istanbul. All I had to do now was find some money to pay for the trip.

So did we all, come to that…


Anonymous caroline morphess said...

I just feel so much better about the impending day when it starts off with a Bertha installment.

And yes, the Russian Landlord!

9:54 pm  
Blogger broomhilda said...

I get to drink sarsaparilla every summer at our local renassaiance (sp?) faire.
I remember watching 'The Young Ones' on PBS, that was before we started getting BBC America. Vivian used to just crack me up.

You might have had more success with the girls had you bathed more often, you think?

Thanks for the Bertha update, I needed that today.

3:00 am  
Blogger Deirdre said...

Feels like Bertha's going to roar into view soon. Is the floor going to shudder or something? We'll all run to the window and there she'll be...? How do you park something like that, anyway? And why am I asking non-stop questions? The damn question-mark key just will not stop interfering? No, I mean it? No, no, yes, no (that's for Caroline), it's really going wild? Bloody? hell? Oh?? ??


4:11 pm  
Blogger Mark Gamon said...

patience, patience. we'll start refurbishing the old girl soon. i symnpathise with your question mark problems. i'm having a little trouble with the shift key myself. i may need to abandon caps altogether, like archy and mehitabel...

who's patience, by the way?

6:27 pm  
Blogger Omykiss said...

I confused sarsaparilla with sphagnum just for a moment :(

2:15 am  
Blogger Mark Gamon said...

Euurgh. I just looked it up. Sphaghum's a natural germicide. Doesn't sound at all tasty.

11:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to hear somebody else remembers Victory Square. I was born there, No 6 Way back in 1949. Back in the 50's you could buy sarsaparilla (hot or cold)in gallon containers from a stall on East lane market.

Terry Welsh

8:09 pm  

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