The Square Deal

Childhood, Memory, and a Small Antique Shop

By Michael Kemp

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there…”

L.P. Hartley

Crystal Palace and Norwood Heights, by Audrey Hammond
The Square Deal – Ken Holly’s Antique Shop in Westow Hill
© Audrey Hammond 1971.
From “Crystal Palace - Norwood Heights” by Audrey Hammond, Brian Dann, and Mike Conrad,
first published in 1988 by The Crystal Palace Triangle Community Association.
Reproduced with kind permission of Audrey Hammond.

The past, for me, would begin somewhere on the outer fringes of Norwood Park. A line of tall trees. A pale sketch book, perhaps. A long meandering walk up the vagaries of Central Hill, in the silent shadow of the Convent (hidden behind its high forbidding walls) ~ up to where all roads level out and reach their apex ~ between dreaming and waking ~ as we approach Crystal Palace.

An old sepia postcard of Westow Hill, set beyond the first set of traffic lights (which may, or may not, turn blue tomorrow) ~ not a “hill” at all really ~ but rather a horizontal road leading to the Crystal Palace Roundabout, the “White Swan” pub, and the scarce remnants of Paxton’s “Crystal Palace” itself: a lone sphinx, a set of empty stone steps, broken balustrades, weeds, wind…

But, once upon a time, there stood a small antique shop, on the corner where Westow Hill falls away down Beardell Street, a shop known under many changing names during the years; but I knew it as “The Square Deal”. This would’ve been about 1961 and I would’ve been about 11 years old. Radiograms were playing “Halfway to Paradise” and “Take Good Care Of My Baby” from open windows. Everybody looked like Bobby Vee. I would’ve been down on my knees sorting through dusty boxes and cases of foreign coins, medallions, cigarette cards with tinted pictures of famous cricketers. The windows were stacked with bric-a-brac, green necklaces, peacock feathers, picture frames, urns and vases. The shop itself housed stuffed birds and animals, suits of armour, bicycles, dismounted cyclists, old books, shells, stamps, umbrellas, Victorian pith-helmets and wind-up gramophones. The further one delved into the “Square Deal” the more secretive and mysterious it became. Glass bead curtains, seen draped across doorways, probably leading to secret stairways and passages. I often dreamt of the shop when back in Norwood Park Road, silently retracing my footsteps through the musty rooms and locked cabinets, searching for hidden treasure, a set of keys to the past…

The past was hardly ever spoken of at home. It wasn’t important. What was important was “getting on”: passing the eleven-plus exam, going to a “good” school, and getting a job in the Post Office (or maybe Local Government). There was little evidence of the past visible in our house. We were too busy. There were hardly any books. “Straight & Crooked Thinking” ~ home psychiatry. We didn’t have family albums with photographs of ourselves growing up, because photographs were “morbid” (luckily the family two doors down the road were amateur cine-enthusiasts ~ so rare footage of us catching butterflies, or each other, in giant entomological nets ~ or myself saluting the flag in a Sunday afternoon boy cub’s uniform ~ do remain and still exist on flickering standard 8 film).

But the past was seldom mentioned, or else kept firmly behind closed doors ~ and this is why a childhood walk to “The Square Deal” was such an enticing prospect ~ to spend hours crouching in the ancient dust, sifting through other people’s family histories and mementos. A sense of yesteryear, of time passing, of a certain antiquity. And, if one forsook the main entrance up on Westow Hill, and followed the narrow descent of a hill that was Beardell Street, then, another two doors down, there was a separate entrance where the entomological exhibits and lepidoptera were stored, cases and cases of exotic butterflies, bright shiny beetles, all mounted on cork and behind glass. No sign of the grey British Isles here, these were radiant and vibrant species: Atlas Moths (wingspan eleven inches), Black Witches, Prometheus Moths. Goliath and titan beetles. Chromatic Swallowtails and brush-footed butterflies. Papilionidae, Pieridae and Nymphalidae.

These were the days of still life. A fifth season, somewhere between summer and autumn, where summers elongate, memories fragment ~ and the English badminton game goes on forever…

Watercolour hills and private landscapes, abandoned lawn tennis and bowling clubs, haunted by the rattle of lukewarm teacups and crinkled sandwiches, stiletto heels and acoustic guitars; all prisoners of their own memory.

Eventually, I did pass the eleven-plus, and was rewarded by a family visit to the “Square Deal” where I could choose as many exotic specimens as my room in the attic would be able to hold. Bright, colourful things.

But years pass, windmills creak and spin, delicate expensive butterflies turn to dust with the steady vibrations of the industrial world. We move from town to town, city to city, country to country ~ we change our names and our given occupations ~ we become other people ~ but there is always a small part of me, of us, still searching for clues, in the small back room of “The Square Deal”.