Mean Times in Greenwich
Dan Colman, Dickenson, 1999
I’ve been chuckling all morning at this book. It’s over ten years old now, and long out of print, but you can still find it online for cheap, which is where I picked up a copy, some time ago now, put away, and forgot about. I’ve just rediscovered it and enjoyed it hugely.
At first sight it’s a bunch of comedy poems, accompanied by cartoons. I confess it’s not my favourite form of literature, hence my putting it away in the first place, but once I accustomed myself to the jaunty style, I began to get it. It’s a fabulous, irreverent social history that says as much between the lines about the way Greenwich was – well within living memory – and is no more, than any number of those memoirs that seem to abound on supermarket bookshelves at the moment.*
Dan Cooper was born in Deptford and lived for most of his life in Greenwich. His poems – short, self-deprecating, knowing and very human are funny, and manage to describe his world in a few verses, mainly consisting of winkingly naif rhyming couplets – an example, from Down in Greenwich Timber Yard, where a teenaged Dan is sheltering from the Luftwaffe with a girl called Vera:
With air raids raging all around
We lay hard pressed upon the ground
With swollen lips and thumping head
In ecstacy, with my arm gone dead
Every poem is Greenwich of the 1930s-50s related and most tell of delightful incidents that though a long way from my own experience in years, make my heart jolt in recognition. The time, for instance, where a dreary school trip to Greenwich Town Hall…
Various officials gave us the griff
Me and my mates were all bored stiff
…turns into fairyland when the boys hide under a table in the banqueting room and discover the party food being stored there for the shindig that evening or the unfortunate incident told in Dog-Dirt Shirt when the same bunch of pals decide to roll down Observatory Hill without checking the terrrain first.
We’re not talking sophistication here (as you’ve probably surmised from the last example…) But we are talking a Greenwich I, for one, don’t remember.
Take Slipping Tips in the Slipper, which tells how, for a small consideration, the attendant at Greenwich Baths would make sure you got hot water for your slipper bath. Rather less joyously, Everybody Smoked recalls how if weren’t careful at the Granada Cinema, the bloke behind you might use your collar for an ash tray and that taking off your shoes in the same place risked your stepping on a lit fag-end. Wartime tales abound – like the real rocket that falls on Woolworths while he’s in said cinema watching Flash Gordon.
In Houseducks, even Colman admits he doesn’t know why his family used to keep ducks in the front room, though tellingly he does say that when the fowl-family finally moved out, an entire human family moved in, so I’m guessing the ducks were during the war and the family was afterwards when housing was short.
Some things remain the same – dangerous dogs, for example, in Torn Up Feet in Lassell Street, or infidelity in Up in John Penn Street, which tells of his mum’s ‘friendship’ with a burly docker called Harry.
And yet throughout there’s a slight sense of melancholy – remember, this is 1999. Colman has lived through the war, and seen his world change. There are sly references to that change all over the place:
Not surprising Wolfe looks severe
With Canary Wharf so bloody near.
But Colman has changed too. His biography states that he started out as a messenger in a London ad agency, working his way up to owning his own (all very Mad Men…) At time of writing it says:
He now owns a farm in Kent where lorry loads of his boyhood friends and neighbours from sout east London used to spend their summer holidays picking hops.
I can find nothing at all about Dan Colman now, but his book made me smile today. I’m now going to track down his other volume, I Never Saw My Father Nude…
* At a pub quiz recently I found myself sitting next to a commissioning editor from a very large publishing firm (embarrassingly I’ve forgotten which one) who told me that they are buying historic memoires like crazy just now because it’s what sells in supermarkets – so if you have any tucked away in the attic…
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