Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Houses of Robinia Avenue

In the 1940s and 50s we lesser mortals of York Road, Tooley Street, Buckingham Road and Shepherd Street certainly considered the three Avenues and one Grove that lay on the far side of Dover Road to be quite exclusive and the dwellings therein almost impossibly desirable. Those fortunate families giving Lime, Robinia or Plane Avenues, or Laburnam Grove as their home address were extended a certain amount of deference from the butcher, chemist and greengrocer - esteem that the rest of us were definitely unlikely ever to be the recipients of. I know for a fact that I was pushed around the hallowed Avenues as a baby in my high pram simply for the entertainment value. The high pram itself was something of a luxury and years later I was told it was bought On Tick from Arthur Barnes’ Rainbow Stores because not only did he go in for fair prices and a wide stock range but his after sales service was apparently second to none. Hire Purchase was in its infancy at The Rainbow and did not take off in its later more recognisable form until after the war, but certainly late in 1939 you could organise what was sometimes called A Lay By with certain stores and pay five shillings a week and once your chosen item had reached the halfway point towards complete payment you could take it home with you. It was because of some similar arrangement that I ended up with a rather more stylish pram than might otherwise have been my fate and hence, perhaps, the outings to the various local Groves and Avenues that befitted such a baby carriage.

My mother was most admiring of Robinia Avenue in particular where smart interwar residences stood side by side each proudly displaying its small front garden and just beyond, a door to the vestibule where raincoats and muddy Wellington boots could be left and the dog’s lead or harness could be stored if you actually kept a dog. But then the people of Robinia Avenue did seem to keep dogs and were particularly fond of Cocker Spaniels and Corgis. Pausing deferentially outside one of the wrought iron gates I was told, before I was one year old that instead of kitchens some of these homes had Kitchenettes that were a mere passageway fitted with cooker, worktop and sink; what progress! Some of the houses featured stained and coloured glass in the form of decorative leadlights, adding enormously to their overall appeal. Tiling was also greatly admired and being impervious to frost were used outdoors for forecourts and doorsteps and could also be seen via tantalising glimpses, sometimes even on the walls of the porches. Our wartime neighbour Old Mrs Bassant of 29 York Road said that the New Estates in a place called Welwyn Garden City were all like Laburnum Grove and The Avenues and that one day we might perhaps take a day trip together to see this phenomenon for ourselves.

I seemed destined to be pushed in the high pram for much longer than was usual and I must have been nearly two years old when I was told one morning shortly after a particularly active overnight period of incendiary bombing that we were in for a Real Treat because it was a day when we might actually see inside the vestibule of one of the Robinia Avenue homes! My high pram was to be exchanged for a push chair courtesy of an advertisement in the window of Ripleys the Greengrocers. I clearly recall my hair being neatly brushed for the occasion and tied with new hair ribbons and being put into white socks and my best shiny black shoes that were just a little too tight and made me protest volubly when required to walk in them. I clearly recall the journey back when the green lollipop I had been given to stop me screaming for the return of my high pram and the agony of the tight shoe problem, got stuck in the wheels of the alien push chair, new, modern and already much hated. Sadly I remember nothing of the house with the vestibule and whether or not we might have also got to see the narrow kitchenette but my mother waxed lyrical about the baby vehicle switch for months so it was certainly a very rewarding exchange of goods as far as she was concerned.
The general attraction of the desirable residences did not entirely diminish as I grew older and from time to time Molly from No 31 and I would choose the Avenues for our occasional contemplative walks during which we planned our futures including husbands, homes, careers and in my case even the names of my possible children and what they might wear on a daily basis.

It was years later before I realised that the much sought after area just around the corner from Dover Road had also had a significant effect upon my younger brother and most particularly so where his relationship with his future Father in Law was concerned. Bernard told me that he had immediately become inordinately fond of Reg, the father of his new fiancĂ©e Janice, and despite Bernard’s many failings, it seems evident that the feeling was mutual. Reg certainly went out of his way to be more than fatherly and helpful towards the teenager who was to shortly become his son-in-law and the father of his first grandchild. Considering the extreme youth of the young couple and my brother’s lack of Old Fashioned Prospects this attitude of paternalistic concern and affection is rather surprising. Any initial surprise concerning the relationship between Reg and his son-in-law-to-be could only turn to wonder and astonishment when the breadth of my brother’s deception and duplicity was finally untangled and revealed.

Janice herself maintained that she became aware quite early on in their relationship that the young man she loved was not always totally honest with her. Pragmatism prevented her from delving too deeply into his various web of fantasies, however. She did not believe for a moment that my poor mother, still living in York Road, Northfleet, and quite obviously in financial need, drove a Citroen which she parked in Dover Road. Neither did she believe that the Citroen enthusiast owned several properties in Spain. These claims seemed unlikely to Janice. Nor did she think it likely that Nellie was Bernard’s long lost and only recently rediscovered Real mother and that he had been adopted as a small child into a much more affluent but still local family. Furthermore it seemed dubious to her that he was nearly twenty one years old when other local lads who claimed to have been in his class at school were only just reaching their eighteenth birthdays. His declaration that he was a pop singer with a well known band also seemed improbable.

Janice was undeniably astute and perceptive but her all too trusting father, despite his years of undoubted success in the business of supplying paint and wallpaper to the citizens of both Islington and the Medway Towns, clearly was not. It later became evident that Reg had touching faith in the various fanciful tales told to him by his future son-in-law. Not only did he appear to uncritically accept the Pop Band story which explained Bernard’s lack of more mundane Work History, he did not for one moment query his age and even contacted me at the approach of an entirely imaginary twenty first birthday to ask if it would be in order for him to Put On A Bit Of A Do to celebrate the event. It’s very hard to know what to say under such circumstances and I think I said very little, hoping that the crisis would pass because by this time the young couple were already married and living quite comfortably above the shop in Camden Passage, at The Angel where my brother was now the youthful manager. Whatever conversation passed between us Reg did indeed Put On A Bit Of A Do where a hall was hired, we all dressed up for the occasion, bottles of something very like champagne were served along with smoked salmon savouries and Bernard celebrated his twenty first birthday at a time when he was only eighteen and a half years old.

There was undoubtedly despite everything, a bond of love and respect between Bernard and his father in law and over time, with a fair amount of fast talking , the complications in their early relationship emanating from the tidal wave of fantasy my brother created around himself, were resolved. Years later Bernard confided that the very worst teething problem of the relationship had been extricating himself from Robinia Avenue and the fiction that he lived there in a more than noticeably smart corner house complete with stained glass, tiles and a fortunately friendly Corgi.

During the months leading up to their wedding, he visited Janice and her family at Isted Rise several evenings each week and ever helpful Reg had become in the habit of dropping him home; but not to York Road where he was to later still maintain his Recently Rediscovered Citroen driving real mother lived in poverty. Heart in mouth he regularly and with an astonishing degree of confidence, entered the front gate of the house in Robinia Avenue where invariably the Corgi gave a welcoming bark, calling out a jovial `Thanks & Cheerio’ to Reg before stooping to greet the animal then secreting himself behind the hedge until the car had turned back towards Isted Rise. Then, whistling with relief he sauntered home to York Road leaving an ever confused and wistfully whining canine behind him!

In more ways than one and over a number of decades, as a family we were individually much involved with the Desirable Dwellings of Robinia Avenue.

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