I’ve long been of the opinion that wherever you go, however unpromising a place might seem, you’ll always be able to find something historically fascinating there. I’m convinced of it. So much so, in fact, that I have, in moments of high emotion, offered to fight anyone who disagrees, shirts off, in a pub car park.
Only in one instance has my theory let me down. Actually, maybe two – I once spent a long weekend in the Jutland port town of Hanstholm which is, I promise you, the least interesting place in the world. Here’s an idea of how dull Hanstholm is: apparently the name comes from an old Norse phrase meaning ‘the inlet of the glove’. The story goes that long ago a woman once dropped a glove there. And that’s it. That’s the story.
If you don’t count Hanstholm – and I’d argue that the glove story is perversely interesting – the only place my theory has let me down has been the place where I grew up.
I was raised in the anonymous hinterland where south-east London and Kent overlap with an almost tangible reluctance. An unremarkable mini-suburb between two larger anonymous suburbs; a commuter dormitory of a place, all semi-detached houses separated from the railway line by allotments and bounded by a depressing park at the bottom of the road with a paddling pool that was never filled except with an autumn’s worth of dead leaves.
It was such a nondescript place that when people ask me where I’m from I have trouble answering. London saw it as part of Kent, Kent regarded it as part of London. It had a postcode, but that was about as close to an identity as it got. As somewhere that sprang up directly as a middle-class shantytown with the coming of the railways, history – certainly any kind of interesting history – had never noticed the place. It bugged me that the only place to scupper my otherwise foolproof theory of the serendipitous interface between place and history was where I grew up.
Then, about a month ago, I read a biography of James Robertson Justice.
Now, he may be best known for his role as the irascible surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt, barking at Leslie Phillips and Dirk Bogarde in the Doctor films, but James Robertson Justice was much, much more than that. He was, for example, a professional racing driver, a member of the League of Nations police force in the Ruhr, an international ice-hockey player and fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
But the thing that delighted me most was revealed on the very first page; that James Robertson Justice was born on the street where I grew up. The family lived there only briefly – he himself always claimed to have been born in Scotland – but it is a matter of historical record that the man who taught the art of falconry to Prince Charles and who was wanted by the Nazis for murder was born right there on my street. My theory holds water – there IS something historically significant everywhere you go.
There’s a pub over the road from the house. I’ll be there, shirt off, in the car park if anyone fancies having a go.