CJ Stone's Britain: Greenwich mean time (Charlton & Greenwich)
Going Public: My sister would drink bottles of the latest recommended Australian white wine, whereas I’d climb the hill to the nearest pub and drink gallons of watery beer.
- CJ Stone's Britain: Ghost town (Coventry)
It’s where I ran away to when I ran away from home. I took my first drugs here: a cough medicine called Dimerol. The Guardian Weekend March 8 1997
I was staying with my sister. This was very strange, not least because my sister lives in Greenwich while I stayed in Charlton. Same house, different parts of London.
It was not so much a geographical difference as a cultural one. My sister would drive to the supermarket and buy interesting, exotic, exciting food-stuffs, whereas I’d walk to the Co-op and buy whatever they had on special offer. My sister would get a taxi to Greenwich and eat Vietnamese or Mexican or Malaysian food, whereas I’d pop up the road and get a takeaway. My sister would drink bottles of the latest recommended Australian white wine, whereas I’d climb the hill to the nearest pub and drink gallons of watery beer. My sister would go to “the cinema” and see the latest positively-reviewed masterpiece by this or that well-known director, whereas I would watch re-runs of Morecambe and Wise on the telly.
My sister moved here 10 years ago. She said, “I’m living in Greenwich. Come and visit me whenever you want. It’s only an hour’s drive up the motorway.” But - you know how it is - you get so engrossed in your own life, you forget. She moved here ten years ago, but I only came to visit her last year. I needed a place to stay and she offered me her spare room. Her spare room was in Greenwich, but I swiftly moved it to Charlton.
Charlton is working class, relentlessly, uncompromisingly, unashamedly so. Greenwich is where the Navy was born and from where Britain set off on its great Imperialist adventure. Charlton is where they dug the grit for the ballast and dumped the rubbish. It’s been like this for centuries. Charlton people know each other. They grew up with each other. They don’t live in London, which is 20 minutes on the train, and they most certainly don’t live in Greenwich, which is only three stops. They live in Charlton.
They support Charlton Athletic, of course.
I was in Greenwich one day, having a drink. I overheard two people talking.
“So how was your first football match?” the woman asked.
“Well I learned that when Charlton Athletic score we all go ,’Fwroar!’ - like that. But when the other side scores, we all go, ‘we wuz robbed.’ That’s what I learned.”
Later a couple of blokes asked me if I minded them sharing my table. “Not at all,” I said, and I started chatting to them. After a while one of them said, “I’m bored with hearing the sound of your voice. I wish you’d shut-up.”
“What is it about London?” I said. “Anywhere else in the country and people like to talk.”
“So why don’t you move there then?
That’s Greenwich. But it’s not Charlton. In Charlton, once they get used to your face - once you become a regular - people talk to you.
One time I met a man in the pub I’d grown accustomed to using. The pub is called the White Swan, in Charlton Village. The man was swearing voluminously. Then he turned to apologise.
"I’m sorry,” he said, “you're not religious are you?"
"Not really. I don't believe in anything."
"Thank Christ for that," he said. "I'll tell you what I believe in. I believe in money."
"Money's a religion too," I said.
"No it's not, it's a necessity."
"You miss the point," I said. "Sure it's a necessity at the moment. But it's only a necessity because everyone believes in it. What would happen if we all stopped believing in it? It would disappear. It's not the same as goods or good work or the value of human life. It's a myth, it’s a religion. The only trouble is, everyone else believes in it, and because everyone else believes in it you have to believe in it too, like you had to believe in God in the Middle Ages. But that doesn't make it any more real." I was warming to my theme.
"I'll show you how real it is," he said, snatching the five pound note from my hand. "See? You need it don't you? See, see?"
Well he was right of course. It was all very well coming on with all this clever rhetoric, but the fact was, I couldn't afford to do without that fiver, not if I was to have any more drinks that evening. In the end I was pleading with him. "Go on, give us the fiver back will you? Please."
"Tell you what," said his friend, intervening, "I bet I live longer than you."
"I bet you don't," said the first man.
"How much do you bet?"
"I bet you this fiver."
My friend ordered a round using my fiver. After that he bought another round of drinks using his own money. And then another, and another, and another. So I was all right in the end.
Greenwich is where the Britain set off on its great Imperialist adventure. Charlton is where they dug the grit for the ballast— Guardian Weekend April 5th 1997.
Well I loved that pub. I’d go there every evening and drink Greene King IPA, at £1.50 a pint. Then I’d talk to Tom. He always started much earlier than me. By the time I got there he was always fairly drunk. I’d see him across the room, looking first through one eye, and then the other, as if trying to focus. And then he’d belch, several times. It was all that fizzy lager he drank. He’s a upholsterer. Now, there’s a trade. We spent hours one night talking about films we liked. Most of all, he liked Westerns. He could name every actor and every Director in every significant Western ever made. He drinks seven-and-a-half pints every evening, and leaves as the last-orders bell rings.
Another night I was sitting there when Betty came by. Betty’s as wrinkled as a walnut and twice as tasty: a beautiful old lady. She collects glasses. There was one on the table next to me, with some drink still in it. She said, “Is that finished?” I told her I thought it was. She said, “only someone had a go at me the other night. They said I’d taken their drink away. I said, ‘listen, I’ve been in this trade thirty years or more, and I’ve never taken anyone’s drink away.’”
“I think they were being naughty,” I said. “Don’t worry about it Betty.”
But she continued to be worried. It was her professional pride at stake. She said, “I know my job. I never take a person’s drink away till they’re finished with it.”
“Have you got any kids, Betty?” I asked.
“Five,” she told me.
“And how old’s the youngest and how old’s the oldest” I asked.
“The oldest son is forty nine, and the youngest great-grandchild is three.”
“So you’re a matriarch,” I said.
“Aye, I am that love,” she said: “the great grandmother of Charlton.”
- Western Reunion
To be honest, it was more awkward than I had imagined. I was in Poole in Dorset, meeting an old pupil of mine.
CJ Stone on-line
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