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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Peter the Greek, Captain Cook's widow, a lyrical student film from 2003…and much else besides

Clapham High Street 2015: it has changed a little bit since Mrs Elizabeth Cook, widow of Captain James Cook, lived here over 200 years ago

It's been an odd week.

Something strange has happened each day, and each time it seemed essential to write an entry for this blog, if only to get these matters out of the brain and onto the internet, where the strangeness could be shared. Then, I found I could not write anything down.

Well, today's strangeness sort of brought all the other strange things together. As previously arranged, I go to see my new friends up on Prescott Place.

Peter's shop is looking good, with loads of stuff on the shelves, LPs and books and stuff. People are looking and even occasionally buying (an old chrome-plated alarm clock, 50p).

I pick up a copy of Jung's memoirs and offer to pay. Peter won't take money from me. I have given him a print-out of the first entry I wrote about his second-hand shop last week, and now he wants to tell me more.

First though, he wanted to make sure I fully understand that Elizabeth Cook, widow of Captain Cook, really did live on Clapham High Street - in a house that could now be the Trinity Hospice  shop, the Barber's, or maybe the McDonald's next door.

He has an old local history book. It looks like a 1960s or 70s book, with photos that I hadn't seen in any of the more recent crop of Clapham Society books. The framed page I saw on the last visit was a photocopy of the page from this book, the pages about Elizabeth Cook.

So - to remove any further doubt - Elizabeth Cook, widow of Captain James Cook, did live in Clapham from  1788, until her death at the age of 94, in 1835.  She outlived not only her husband, but also -
The page from Peter's local history book showing
a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth Cook and
the bit of Clapham High Street where she  lived
(as it looked in the 1930s).
horribly - all six of her children.

The book suggests she lived in a house in what are now shops, at 136 - 138 Clapham High Street.  These are typical London suburban  single-storey shops built over the former front gardens of once quite smart houses, and if you cross the road you can begin to imagine this ageing lady, living out her long old age there.

Now, back to Peter - because he also had more to tell me about his time in Clapham.  As we were talking another local celebrity appeared. Yes, Andy, the barber of Landor Road.

"I had no idea you knew each other" I said, stupidly.

"Of course we did, we're both Greek and we were both in Clapham since way back. I was barber as well in 1967, but not in Andy's shop".

At some point though he moved into selling stuff. He starts showing me old magazines. One, an accountancy mag,  has an article about one of his sons, who's now a successful accountant working in Poand.

Some more recent local history: Peter
outside his lock-up shop in 2008, as featured
 in  The Economist's Intelligent Life
Another has a great full-page colour photo of Peter standing outside his lock-up - exactly where we are standing right now. It's a very upmarket glossy mag, that was distributed free with The Economist back in 2008, called Intelligent Life. Peter's a star of their regular photo-essay, this time the subject was "Shops with character". You can see the pic in its full glory in the Economist's online archive, here.

Interestingly, Peter's store has a sign above - "Joe's Television, Audio, Video, DVD repairs" – where now he has a big "Closing Down Sale" banner. The caption states that Peter's looking after the TV repair shop in Joe's absence. It also speculates on Peter's future: "…you wonder much longer such a place can remain in business….The problem is it's not just the proximity to such a competitive and relatively upmarket shopping area…it's also the success of eBay".

Well, that was six years ago, and here he still is. Well, until November 18. Clapham High Street is still not really "upmarket", and I'd say it was as much charity shops as eBay that have driven second-hand dealers out of business. But in Peter's case, the real problem is the sky-high value of land in this part of London. Peter says his former landlords are planning to build a house on the little plot occupied by his lean-to.

The Morning Song, 2003: Peter becomes a film star

Next, he gives me an old VHS videotape and a few DVDs to watch at my leisure. The VHS tape is labelled "Peter's film" and I put it on as soon as I get in. (Of course I still have a VHS player, check the title of this blog!)

It turns out to be a really charming, lyrical documentary, made (I think ) by students from the London Film School in 2003. It's called The Morning Songand was edited and directed by  Giusi Vittorini. They've chosen eight people - a butcher working at Moen's on Clapham Common, a Chinese girl working in  a food store, a retired primary teacher, a fireman working at the Soho station in Shatfesbury Avenue, a girl working in a cafe, a girl working in Neal's Yard cheese shop in Covent Garden, a motor mechanic - and Peter.

Peter inside his 'Pandora's Box' of a lock-up shop in 2003
(still from the film, The Morning Song, LFS and Giusi Vittorini)
Oh yes, and one other - a liquor store owner who looks very much like the proprietor of the famous Gerry's Wines and Spirits in Old Compton Street, by far the most interesting booze shop in London. I always imagined this guy was Gerry himself, but looking it up I find his name is Michael Cyprianou, yes another Greek Cypriot who arrived in London in the 1960s, and became a legend. What a generation!

And outside as well - apart from the colour of the shutters, nothing
it's amazing how little has changed in 12 years
(still from the film, The Morning Song, LFS and Giusi Vittorini)
The film gets each of these characters to speak about themselves, and they each have three appearances.  First talking about their work, then what they like (or don't like) about it, and then their dreams, or what makes them happiest. It's an absolute delight, this short film, and you can see it - along with more of this director's work - on  her YouTube channel.

Peter is shown inside his store. It looks very neat and much less crowded than his current lock up, and he refers to it as his "Pandora's Box".

He also says it's the "best job of his life…" (Remember this is back in 2003).

I like his answer to the final question: "If you like your work, and you have a good drink, and a nice woman for sex, then life is kind…"

I need to know more about this video. I'll be going back to talk to Peter again next week - but if anyone has any memories of his shop, or of similar characters in the area, please leave a comment here.

Meantime, something to look forward to: your man,  Daniel Ruis Tizon, the real voice of South West London, the one who is Available each week on Resonance FM, is getting Andy the Barber of Landor Road onto his show soon. If both Daniel and Andy are on their usual form, then it will be an unmissable bit of radio. Hyperlocal subject matter, yeah right on, Landor Road is as hyperlocal as anyone could want, but it should be listened to wherever you happen to find yourself in this strange old solar system we all seem to inhabit. It'll sound just as good in San Salvador as in Stockwell.

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