South London

“Few places in the world which were once the scene of pageantry, glory and decisive events have received such scurvy treatment at the hands of time as South London…”

Harry Williams, author of the 1949 gem South London, published by County Books and the first of my lovely finds at the charity booksale last week, doesn’t pull any punches. He’s an angry man. He’s angry at the clumsy development of the boroughs south of the river as opposed to the fragile treatment of the north London villages. He’s furious at the way South London’s glorious past has played second fiddle to its sumptuous northern neighbour. And he’s positively apoplectic at the state in which German bombers have just left the whole sorry mess.

But he has a soft spot for Greenwich. He admits that her charms, though “not immediately apparent” - with her “garish main thoroughfare, most depressing where most pretentious…shoddy little shops,…all-pervading atmosphere of dirt, tiredness and weary resignation…lumbering trams,” when the brittle carapace of post-war filth is broken through, “bursts upon the astonished vision with magical effect after an approach of the kind so prevalent in the southern half of the London tangle.”

There isn’t enough of this sort of stuff about. Well ok, the superlative Iain Sinclair makes a fine fist of London polemic – but he’s a Hackney man.

Harry Williams’s impassioned prose is a joy to read – even if he is, on occasion, a little slipshod with facts (hell – aren’t we all…) describing St Alphege’s Church as “a fine example of Wren’s genius,” for example, or telling us that there’s “nothing of exceptional interest” in the Maryon parks. Indeed, a previous owner of my copy has gone through making pencilled amendments and correctly re-labelling several of the pictures, one of which is printed upside down.

But this is fabulous stuff. Williams riffs happily on Greenwich’s many charms (I love the phrase “umbrageous dells,” and shall use it constantly now I know it means ‘shady’…) before moving reluctantly on to the rest of the borough – “an anticlimax, but we must not shirk it, for we are in search of the soul of this part of London and we cannot tell where it may be found” – as well as other more westerly places, with a style that I would expect of a much more modern author.

All the way through, it’s illustrated with some wonderful photographs (as aforementioned, slightly hap-hazardly labelled – and all the sweeter for it.) Since they really are great fun and I haven’t a hope in hell’s chance of ever finding the photographer, I’ll reproduce one or two of them over the next few months until I get a cease-and-desist… ;-)

I’d like you to take a look at the pic at the top. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s of Trinity Almshouses. But just take a peek at what’s behind them. Look at the chimneys on that. I can’t find out when these beautiful things were torn down for the frankly utilitarian versions we have today, but it had better have been for a good reason.

For a different view of those chimneys – and not merely because I want to share this lovely aerial pic of Greenwich, see below (as usual, click on the image to make it bigger.) Things that I especially like about it are the little paddle steamer in the Thames, the flatness of the Isle of Dogs – and the patchwork effect of what I can only assume was the last knockings of the allotments allowed on Greenwich Park during the war.

There are some other crackers, but I’ll leave them for another day, leaving you with the immortal words of Harry Williams:
“For this one moment, in Greenwich, beauty is revealed fully, and within limits completely, making nonsense of the jumble of architecture passing as commercial efficiency which is the norm of the London Scene.”

One Comment to “South London”

  1. Connie Beighton says:

    I too recently acquired a copy of South London, and am constantly amazed by the prose, and Harry Williams’ passionate fulminating about the lack of town planning within the South London Boroughs, and the paucity of the infrastructure. It’s wonderful. The GLA should read it every day. If only his views had ever been heeded. Who was he? Such a common name and I cannot find anything on him on the internet.