Nell and I had become intrigued by North Battersea, just the other side of the river, at that time one of the poorest parts of London.
It was she who had found us a terraced slum house in Lavender Road that, she decided, would suit us better than the Georgian mansion we occupied on the embankment in Chelsea.
It was a hot summer and the river mud on which this part of Battersea was built was exuding a warm and fertile smell.
Impossible to tell in those dreamy summer days how damp the house would be in winter, or that we would have coughs and colds during much of the time we stayed there.
I agreed with Nell. The two up, three down, house was nicer than the one in Chelsea.
The house was tiny. In the garden there was a proliferating vine, beneath whose leaves one could sit in the summer.
That first visit I remember a voice over the garden wall. ‘I’m sorry,’ it was saying, ‘There’s no dinner, no dinner today, none.’ And the querulous voices of children.
We both had spent most of our lives so far in mansions and manor houses. We had driven from our wedding in my father-in-law’s Bentley. Apart from a period as a conscript in a military band, I’d lived the life of the privileged. Now, here in Battersea, I remember meeting with much poverty but also an unexpected feeling of security, as a result of entering an enclosed society where everyone, it seemed, had been to school together and everyone knew each other. And we discovered with great pleasure that, mainly because of our son Roc, we were accepted here.
I remember the matriarchs that presided over the households that were our neighbours, and the vast extended families. To us it was an unknown and exciting land, and our motives for going there were, I think, romantic and idealistic.
Having said all this, I still don’t quite understand why we did what we did. It did happen to be in one of the poorest and most deprived parts of London, this terraced house that Nell had discovered and fallen in love with. I’ve explained already that Nell was a member of the communist party. Both of us were firmly inhibited by the politically correct socialist ideals of the time and both trying to get away, as we saw it, from our privileged backgrounds. We wanted to live in a house which we’d bought from our own earnings, rather than one that had been bought for us from inherited wealth. And, if there ever was to be a proletarian revolution, North Battersea would be a safer place than Chelsea.
I loved the vast derelict area down the road, that we called ‘the debris’. There was dust in the air, the dust of demolition that slowly came closer to our house. Now the house is gone. A vast new council estate has replaced it and the terraced houses of all our neighbours.
Our move from Chelsea to Battersea seemed to us simple and easily explainable. But, from the start, there were some who found our move eccentric, shocking, and also trivial.
The Daily Express newspaper was at war with my father-in-law already. This was something to do with Lord Beaverbrooke, its proprietor, having been Phillip’s father’s best friend. The newspaper treated our move as if it were a personal insult. On and off, for days, our house was besieged by their reporters. Soon, after an article they wrote about us had disclosed where we were living and that we were away for the weekend, the house was burgled, and the Express was able to gloat, ‘The Sandfords get their first real taste of Battersea life. They are burgled!’
There was also an item about our pink bath having been scratched. Our bath was the same colour as anyone else’s and no-one ever scratched it. Otherwise true.
I think some people felt it shocking that we two folk from privileged backgrounds should actually believe we could find what we were seeking in life in Battersea.
After a while people left us alone, and Nell and I settled in and were happy. It was those days that inspired her ‘Up the Junction’ and my own ‘Cathy Come Home’. Nell’s book was inspired by what she saw as the more lyrical side of Battersea life and the film of it which Ken Loach directed had something of this same celebration. My own vision of Battersea slum life was more tragic.
And so now I pass to the curious account of those times contained in the film version of Nell’s ‘Up the Junction’.
Compared to the sensitive filming of this same book by Ken Loach for television, Peter Collinson’s film version seems to me to be unfair and unsatisfactory, and the screenplay, by Roger Smith, presents a picture of Nell that I can’t really recognise.
Nell had got to know Battersea by wandering over the bridge from Chelsea and exploring it on foot. In the Collinson film she arrives, not on foot, but in a large chauffeur driven Rolls Royce.
And, compared to Ken Loach’s lyrical evocations, what she finds there is a curious collection of charicatures, some fairly close to recognisable Battersea characters, but mostly belonging more to the artificial world of Ealing comedies.
‘Battersea on a Friday night,’ says one of the characters, ‘is all pubs and knees-up Mother Brown.’ At the climax of the film the Battersea hero takes ‘Nell’ down to a seaside resort in a stolen car. When he’s picked up by the police, she says, ‘But I’d much rather have gone by bus.’ He replies, savagely, ‘Yes, that’s your trouble.’
But was it Nell’s trouble? Or is it mine? At that time we both felt that we had been born too high up the social scale and that that was a handicap. We were in love with the terraced houses and vine trees and Turkish lino that we had just discovered.
Nell’s feelings about public transport would these days be considered acceptably green.
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