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The Warp

Battersea Night (1)

Nell put a key in the lock by the patch of stained glass in the door and we stepped into the damp-smelling front passage, over dirty boards and peeling Turkish lino.

There was a room on the right with a smutty fireplace. The walls had wooden chocolate brown boarding up to half their height. Above that they were papered with huge roses, patched with damp.

Beyond that was the kitchen, its floor covered with a narrow covering of lino, and beyond this a shed disguised as a scullery, with a basin where one tap dripped.

It was a two-storey house with a back extension. There was privet round a front garden the size of a bed sheet and, in the midst of this, a barren patch of soil.

Pulling back the bolt on the back door, we went into the thin back garden, punctuated with a collection of corrugated iron sheds, painted crude colours, now much rusted and faded, and bridging them was a green vine which made with its tendrils a summer house in which were old chairs and a table.

We sat down beneath the vine, seeing through its green leaves the windows of the other little houses grouped around. Behind frayed curtains, the faces of neighbours, half hidden, peering.

There was an overpowering stench from a nearby factory. Under the vine was a depth of deep blue shadows beneath the green leaves.

Further through into the garden I later built a shed from glass windows which I had picked up from the houses that were being demolished all around us.

North Battersea. The smell of the fetid mud on which it was built, the teeny boppers prancing saucily through the streets in their high heels, going through their comely ritual of love on the hard asphalt and heartless pavements.

The house that Nell had found for us was an ordinary terraced house in a street like any other.

More sky was visible here than in the fashionable part of London, for the houses were lower. Over the roof of ours when we first entered it was a sky into which stretched the four tall chimneys of Battersea power station, its white smoke floating into the sunset, tinged pink and red.

There was a feeling of impermanence. Our house had been scheduled for demolition until we bought it for £800 and Mr McArthy, a kindly health inspector, decided to decondemn it. Almost every other house was also scheduled for demolition. Every day the area of debris grew greater and the area of inhabited houses less. Children loved to play around the debris, and there were always fires springing up, made from old chairs, old timbers, everything that by night got clandestinely dumped on the debris, so that each new dawn saw new growths of ancient bedroom suites and gas cookers sprouting on the debris.

Through the newly vacated houses children ranged in gangs. I went through these old houses too, peering at the photographs that people had left behind, wedding groups of whom I’d try to reconstruct the history in my mind and the occasional heroic shoddy memorabilia of war, the jaded faded tinsel, awarded men in exchange for their limbs or lives.

These were old-fashioned things, and there were also needlework pictures, framed pictures of granny, china mementoes from Eastbourne or Brighton or Blackpool or Southend, mahogany upright pianos. Things which people had not thought it worth their while to take with them to their new council flats.


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