THE last time I had walked down the North End Road the local market stalls were still charging in pounds, shillings and pence.
This north-south thoroughfare represents the proletarian fag end of fancy Fulham, running due south to the Broadway. I don’t recall being back since my widowed godmother sold her fish shop there in the early sixties and decamped to Brighton.
My trip down memory lane was a reminder that William Cobbett’s Great Wen, the 19th century rural obsessive’s negative nickname for London, is so sprawling that a half century can pass without even the most dedicated urban flaneur retracing his steps in once familiar places.
The pilgrimage was part of my researches into the prevalence of what I call Bart’s Syndrome, named after East End composer Lionel Bart and inspired by his 1959 hit “Fings ain’t wot they used t’be”.
It particularly affects former working class Londoners who followed my godmother’s path to Brighton, Essex, Milton Keynes, Australia or wherever, and now seek to justify their decisions by conjuring up the present dire state of the neighbourhoods they left behind.
The syndrome even extends to those who were plucked from the bosom of the metropolis in their infancy to be raised in some provincial wilderness with nothing but their elders’ false memories to comfort them.
It’s a remembered London in which we apparently survived on a diet of pie and mash and jellied eels, washed down with sarsaparilla and dished up by Pearly Queens.
Sufferers tend to congregate in online self-help groups with names like Hackney Memories or Growing Up in Brixton to swap tales of the good old days.
Here is a genuine but anonymised example: “I was born in Fulham, as was my mum and her dad. I now live in *****shire. Fulham was fab in the 60’s and 70’s. North End Road was a bustling market place. Sadly, it’s not a patch on what it once was.”
So had it changed? Not that much really.
OK, so there’s a Thai massage parlour where I think the cobbler’s might have been, and a Chicken Cottage to supplement the surviving fish shop. It now has three pawnbrokers in the space of as many hundred yards (we’ll all be heading to them soon!) and phone shops and betting shops that weren’t there back in the day.
The street market founded in the 1880s survives, although with about a tenth of the 90 stalls it boasted in its heyday. But there are more permanent small fruit and veg and general stores to make up for it.
One stallholder was complaining that in the new Global Britain some supplies are harder to come by. “Don’t even ask for aubergines!”
The North End Road itself has survived the galloping gentrification that long ago gobbled up most of Fulham, although there is now a Waitrose at the bottom end to supplement the Co-op at the top.
Half way down, Lillie Road marks the frontier between the Labour-run north and the Tory-run south, although who knows how long that will last.
In the immediate hinterland, most private housing is beyond most people’s pockets, even if they could get a mortgage these days. In contrast, the 1960s Clement Atlee estate, rented as social housing, was singled out in a 2019 government report as the most deprived area of Hammersmith and Fulham.
One grumpy North End Road shopowner and Bart’s Syndrome sufferer told a local journalist at the time that “about 10 to 15 years ago there were so many more shops and the market was really big”.
Sixty odd years ago, Bart’s lyrics lamented: “They changed our local palais into a bowling alley and fings ain’t what they used t’be. There’s Teds in drainpipe trousers and debs in coffee houses. No, fings ain’t what they used t’be.”
Now when did you last see a Ted? As for debutantes, the late Queen officially abolished them in 1958 after deciding some things were better off changing.
PS: Now I cant get Bart’s bloody tune out of my head.