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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Penge Revisited (Again)

Perhaps I keep going back to Penge because living there nearly a half century ago was the last time I experienced being part of what I thought was a normal, loving family.

This almost feels like a macabre thing to write because my brother certainly couldn’t go back and risk triggering the childhood trauma he went through in that south London flat. For me, the trauma came later. The self-harming certainly started in Penge though. This isn’t good when you’re nine (or at any age).  However, the photographs from that part of my childhood don’t automatically trigger the shit switch. And my schooldays there were, mostly, ok. However, after two pints of Guinness in The Pawleyne Arms and then walking aimlessly after an abandoned bus ride up Crystal Palace Park Road, I was desperate, crying, and asking my mother to forgive me.  My Mum killed herself. Not in Penge but in the last of the three horror houses my parents lived in after we left London.

There were constant reminders all over town of the festive season. I recalled some nice Christmases in Penge. However, Christmas would be poisoned later. That, and the imprint of my desperate, early teens, lunge into Christianity has left me unable to embrace Christmas as an annual secular glorification of childhood and mindless consumption. Walking round Penge at Christmas also brought up memories of a much later time when I drove to Sussex to cook Christmas dinner for my then elderly Mum, arriving early morning so that I could leave almost as soon as we’d eaten the rudimentary roast. I remember that there was so much smoke in the kitchen that the benign Orwellian monitoring regime kicked in. A disembodied broadcast voice, that of a ‘Life-Line’ operative, asked, ‘Are you alright Mrs Partrick?’ ‘Yes, I’m fine dear,’ I feigned in reply.

You were totally alone Mum, and I moaned at you about how much you needed to get out more, and do this, that and the other. I made you feel like a burden and ultimately that was a key reason why you killed yourself. That, a lifetime of depression, and then learning about your husband’s sexual abuse of your children, all played their part.

I am determined to write this. Though right now I am seriously having my doubts. I sincerely hope that other family members do not see it. If I don’t send them the link, then I guess they won’t. I do want some people to see it though. Perhaps those for whom I continue to ‘perform’ in some guise or other, whether professional or voluntary, playing the responsible and supposedly well-informed person. Everything managed, everything in its place.

There was something very familiar in those desperate feelings I experienced walking near Crystal Palace. It was a sense of abandonment that is deep and goes right back to childhood. That same feeling has this week sent me out running into the darkness of the small hours, unable to sleep, lost in the ‘child’ that these memories evoke or the vulnerability that contemporary triggers engender.  At least I am now able to recognise these feelings. Likewise, I know that going back to Penge for the second time in a little over a year was a risky exercise.  On each return visit the nostalgic excitement progressively diminishes and the darkness is always just around the corner. Of course, the darkness is always there. I have known its contours, its associations, its symptoms ever since that Penge boyhood.

I gazed up once again to the outside of my first home. I can see the bedroom where I first remember things going wrong. I recall an evening when my brother and me had ‘child minders’. I was very upset and pleaded to the evidently distraught Godsmarks that they ‘Tell my parents that it’s happened again.’ What had actually ‘happened’, they didn’t ask. I think I had meant time spent alone in my bedroom unable to cope with my feelings and feeling compelled to either poison myself (Pot Ash) or clean myself from within (soap). I don’t remember the Godsmarks, or any other child minders, ever coming again. Prior to that evening I do though remember the excitement of Mr Godsmark driving me to the centre of London in his (open top) white Triumph Vitesse.

The family flat, High St Penge

This same self-harming nine-year-old was frightened of certain girls; way more than any of the Malcolm Junior School boys (now the 'Harris Academy'). My eventual fight-back against the hardest bullying girl brought down on me the wrath, and one-sided physical punishment, of a deputy head mistress. Having been slapped hard several times on the back of my legs with a ruler, I railed, amidst angry tears of righteous indignation, at what I thought was a self-evident injustice. All of this presumably relates to the horrors I was infusing at home, even if I was not (yet) personally experiencing them. T
he last time I had gazed up at the front of our former High Street flat in Penge, the shop below was in business and there were signs of life above it. Not so in the relative darkness of this visit (see photo above). Circling the block once more, I walked past the Cromwells’ wall, now fantastically adorned (see below), and tried to work out exactly where the Godsmarks’ old house was. 

Montrave Road, Penge

In approaching the very familiar sight of ‘our’ part of the High Street once again, I saw, for the first time since boyhood, that there was still an entrance to an alley from where you used to be able to get to the back of where we lived.  What’s more, this time the huge gate to it was open. I nervously waited for the owner of what I later realised to be the manager of the nearby ‘Penge Masala’ restaurant to get out of their car and enter the premises. Strangers snooping about the back yards of people's houses after dark, surreptitiously taking photos, would not be welcome. I finally summoned up the courage to go down the familiar and very dark alley. Heart pounding with child-like excitement, feeling half crazy, I stumbled past the back of the curry house, past an abandoned fridge, and nearly fell over the rubbish that was strewn everywhere until I found what had once been the entrance to the back yard of the shop that we’d lived above. All was roughly boarded up and totally impenetrable. Was I going to break in? I had tried to blag my way in via the front door to our flat the last time I was here. I hurried back up the alley, adrenalin racing, past the voices from the kitchen at the back of Penge Masala.

Alleyways of childhood

Through the darkness the light of the street became visible. However, like later when I walked past the edge of Crystal Palace Park, I’d wanted somehow to fall out of the light into the darkness of the old familiar alley and be swallowed up by it. Sometimes, like much later that same night, running in the darkness of Leyton and its filter beds, I imagine deliberately falling into the blackness. Either side of that Leyton path, I could have fallen into the ice-cold water below, but I recoiled at the likely horror of what this would bring.

Back into the light

Walking up past Crystal Palace Park, I had spied the iconic broadcasting tower, strangely barely illuminated but still overwhelming in scale. After veering into sidings and photographing aspects of the area’s Victorian remains (see immediately below), I slipped into the park itself, mindful of the strangeness of all that was being illuminated. 

Crystal Palace gothic

Crystal Christmas

All part of some Christmas shopping spectacle, it seemed. Well-dressed, well-heeled couples walked into the main entrance where merchants offered choice trees and scented candles.  Imaginary conversations went through my head as I strode about in a slightly moth-eaten 20+ year old Crombie coat. You don’t know anything about me, I stated to imaginary interlocutors.  Don’t presume anything.  I am not what you see.  I am not of you.

I’d never fully appreciated that there had always been part of Crystal Palace that was moderately well to do. Large houses still abound. My father used to say we were from Crystal Palace, partly to help people locate where we lived and partly out of social embarrassment at what ‘Penge’ somehow connoted. A thoroughly middle-class white family strode by. Perhaps the children attended the Langley Park grammar school located a bus ride away. I am not of you, I quietly intoned. 

I had no interest in revisiting Langley Park Grammar School for Boys. I had only attended it for nine months, but the elitism of a state-funded institution and its almost exclusively middle-class demographic never left me. My brother had somehow slotted in. He worked hard, kept his nose clean and found some long-haired members of a more rarefied socio-economic grouping to play the officially disapproved of sport of football with during break times. Very aware that I was neither of the council estates nor possessed of the leafy assuredness that comfortable dwellings provide, I though never felt at home at Langley Park. Harold Wilson became an instant object of sympathy for me when I heard the roar of appreciation from the grammar school staff room when the news broke that he had resigned as Prime Minister.

That part of Penge High St that is close to Crystal Palace is undergoing a gentle gentrification including a bourgeois-looking cafĂ© and a tap room (empty). Some of this process is even finding its way into Penge proper, although plainly not the parade that includes our former High Street flat. I saw a lot more estate agents in Penge on this return trip, and in Southey Street, behind the High Street, a sign pointed the way to a micro-brewery and adjoining tap room. However the street art in Southey Street looked way more enticing (see below). 

Southey Street art

When in 2017 I made the first of a series of return visits to Penge I saw a lot of boarded up shops and very few estate agents. Penge though is only 15 minutes by train from Victoria and has three walkable, overground stations. So, amidst London’s ever-present property price insanity, the attraction to the middle classes of its less salubrious outposts is I suppose obvious. In any case I wouldn’t have noticed so much as a kid that Penge had probably always had its ‘comfortable’ parts. Almost across the road from where we lived, Avington Grove has some large and impressive late Victorian family houses that look as if they have maintained that status. The Wilsons (no relation) lived opposite us in this (see below) quite smart house (although I think it had already been converted into flats back then).

The Wilsons' home

On Kent House Road, where the big houses that I used to steal milk from meet Thesiger Road, there’s a parade that now has an upholsterer’s and an upmarket carpet shop (and this more modest shop, below, whose awning may not have changed in the last 45 years).


Kent House offie

Reviewing Southey micro-brewery's website a little later, I noted that among the beers available for four days a week in the Taproom, and anytime if you order online, were the pointlessly offensive ‘Lazy Jesus’ and ‘Hazy Jesus’. The online Lazy Jesus though was proving so popular that it was listed as ‘out of stock’. St John’s Parish Church Penge is only open to the public for an hour a week. I share the anger that some fellow Survivors can feel about a ‘Man in a Purple Dress’ , even if I have retained my childhood respect for a Christian faith that gave me love and salvation. It also taught me to equate the consequences of my abuse with sin. I am still dealing with the shame of that.  

I eventually left Penge in a state of high agitation. I felt pathetic that a trip that I had taken because I couldn’t face a day with either myself or anyone else, had brought a lot of upset.  Unlike the last time I came, this was no journey of self-discovery I thought. I’d arrived in the actual darkness and had continued to dwell there.  However, I had come because I had wanted to ‘feel something’. Writing this now I realise it revealed a lot more than I had thought. Feeling shame isn’t anything new. However, if I am helping myself to process my mother’s suicide nine years on, then this is a good thing. The Pawleyne Arms’ cheap beer had only contributed to what was always going to be an emotional roller coaster. It also brought me a wonderful mash up of a 40-year-old Stranglers’ song (‘Golden Brown’), an all-time favourite number that always instantly transports me to being 17.

The Pawleyne Arms, Penge

A good friend asked me if, in blogging this and other forms of life writing, I felt ‘held’ enough. Perhaps not. But as it isn’t free writing, is typed and is constantly being edited, even mid-sentence, perhaps these are the ‘constraints’ that keep me in check.  I don’t want to be in check though.  I’d hoped this could convey the scream I had wanted to come out, especially by the side of Crystal Palace Park Road. However, hitting ‘publish’ is fairly ‘un-boundaried’ I guess. So here goes.



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