Hendon: just nostalgic illusion?

By Melchett Mike
November 1, 2009


This was the street sign idea I proposed, as a small design project, to a conceptual artist friend.

Jason and I both grew up in Hendon, the suburb of North-West London which most people – or at least those whose interests and aspirations extend beyond a healthy Jewish community and an excellent selection of synagogues (including, of course, the ones that you don't go to) – long to get away from. And during university vacations, following months of undergraduate decadence, Jason and I would invariably bump into each other and catch up in Hendon Central, always reflecting – though with humour and no little affection – on the sheer dullness of our childhood home. Indeed, whenever a woman in whom I had an interest would ask where I was from, I would always mutter the response in an extremely throwaway manner. "Hendon" had always been a conversation stopper.

Even ignoring Hasmo and its "Legends", however, Hendon features more landmarks and places of interest than your average suburban neighbourhood: the RAF Museum, Police Training College, one end of Britain's best known motorway (the M1), the Welsh Harp, Hendon Hall Hotel (where FA Cup Final teams would stay, a safe distance from any action, on the night before the big day), Middlesex University (if you couldn't get in anywhere else), Barnet Copthall Stadium, and that paradise of the bored North-West London Jewish housewife, Brent Cross Shopping Centre.

Hendon has somehow contrived, however, to be far less than the sum of its parts. I have no desire to even visit (and if I do, it will only be for free board and/or Brent Street's excellent Lahore curry house).

But, perhaps as with all childhood homes, nostalgia tends to drown out reality. And the memories of many former Hendonites are fond. Following his return to Israel from a recent visit, my cousin Marc said something that tickled me: "You know what, Michael, I walked down Brent Street, and it meant nothing to me." Now, anyone who knows Brent Street will be amazed that this dreary suburban high street – with seventies eyesore, Sentinel Square, at its miserable heart – could ever have meant anything to anyone. But Marc and I regularly reminisce lovingly about the "old country" during our concurrent morning drives through the Israeli traffic.

Or was the Hendon of our childhood really a better place?

The neighbourhood supplied no shortage of characters. There were the Carmels who owned the greengrocery on Vivian Avenue, and whose hotheaded son Danny was constantly fighting with customers over one thing or another, often the handling of his fruit. Opposite them was irascible old Mr. Kaplan the grocer, with his unfeasibly strong Mitteleuropean accent, who was just as prone as Danny to upset patrons.

And who can forget the Irishman charged with running the tennis courts at Hendon Park, but whose little green (appropriately) hut – for booking the courts – was nearly always closed (judging by the hue of his cheeks when he eventually appeared, it was never too difficult to work out where he had been)? The usual form was: turn up . . . to find the hut shut; start playing anyway; run off when the Irishman eventually appeared (because we were near the end of the match anyway and Jewish, considering the 30p an hour fee better put towards the cost of our first flat or car); find refuge in the "corner shop" next to the Hendon Classic (cinema), where we would drive the Asian owners to distraction, leafing through their comics (and, later, other "mags") with no intention whatsoever of making a purchase.

If Hendon's most famous son was the great Test batsman Denis Compton, its celebrity resident was heavyweight boxing champion Henry Cooper, who once dumped Cassius Clay on his backside, but who would unfailingly offer a warm “hello” as he strolled his giant poodle up Brampton Grove. Carry On and East Enders actress Barbara Windsor also lived in Hendon, while eighties soul band Imagination frequented the local video shop on Sentinel Square (or was that Just an Illusion?)

Talking of carry-ons, the forty-odd detached homes on our street, Edgeworth Crescent, seemed to house and generate more characters and drama than your average small town. And I am not just talking about the product of the lively – some would say perverse – imagination of award-winning author (and former JC literary editor) Clive Sinclair, who grew up next door and who, on revealing his Hendon roots, has been quoted as exclaiming "God help me!"

Where there is now a Holmes Place and sheltered housing, however, once stood two 'proper', old-style cinemas: the Classic (opposite Hendon Central tube) and the Odeon (in the Quadrant). Hendon was also home to numerous traditional English pubs. The White Bear, on the Burroughs, provided shelter to a much-loved stuffed polar which disappeared with the pub's character when it – like so many others – was converted into a vapid theme pub, the only discernible theme being its absolute dreariness.

Another Hendon institution sorely missed is its football club, Hendon FC, which now groundshares with Wembley FC after, this year, being forced to leave its home of 80 years, Claremont Road. Perhaps it is just me (and the several dozen other saddos who watch Hendon), but I always found it strangely satisfying being able to stand right behind the away goal and to viciously abuse the generic "fat useless c***" – i.e., every visiting goalie (irrelevant of ability and girth) – knowing that he would hear every word (and, often, respond). You can't do that at Arsenal. And standing among us was another favourite son of Hendon, David "Got your number!" Bedford, the former 10,000 metres world record holder and – more significantly for fans of Hendon – vice-chairman and champion of our ailing club.

The Burroughs still provides a strong sense of a more distinguished past. And, on three consecutive General Election nights, we gathered beneath the balcony of Hendon Town Hall to hear Maggie Thatcher – whose constituency was neighbouring Finchley – deliver her victory addresses.

The study room of the adjacent Hendon Library was where we revised for our O and A level examinations. Its stereotypically plain librarians – remember the lovely "Olive Oil", anyone? – would never fail to take the bait of pranksters who would ring up asking for "Mike Hunt". During the heat and pressure of summer exams – as frum (primarily Hasmonean) boys had their closest exposure yet to non-religious Jewish and Gentile girls – there were more Jewish erections in that room than on your average West Bank hilltop.

Raleigh Close (Hendon United) Synagogue still is, for me, Shul. A reader of melchett mike has opined, interestingly, how Reverend Hardman z"l, Rabbi Silberg, and the incumbent Rabbi Ginsbury "so accurately represented, and represent, the state of Anglo-Jewry at the time". And shammes (beadle) Moshe Steinhart became an inadvertent communal legend, his wonderfully naive, malapropistic weekly announcements sparking more hilarity than your average stand-up comedian.

Last month, at the lacklustre Kol Nidrei (Yom Kippur eve) service in Tel Aviv's Great Synagogue, my mind wandered back to the atmospheric Raleigh Close Kol Nidreis of my childhood and youth, where Hendonite coreligionists whom one hadn't seen for an entire year would spend the entire service awkwardly rearranging their garish kippot (skullcaps) – each with its own unmistakable year-long crease across its middle – on their often equally shiny bonces.

But Hendon possessed a wider sense of community too. Every Sunday morning and summer evening, there were "pick up" games of football in Hendon Park, where Jewish kids, black kids, Greek kids, and those from local council estates, would all muck in very happily (Asian Muslim kids however never did, the first time we became aware of any "them 'n us" tension, though it was of course to get much worse). And there were real characters there too (whatever became of "Mad" Dave?)

But all that has gone.

I still see Stuart – known as “Rushie” in those games because of his remarkably cool (for park football), Ian Rush-like finishing – on my increasingly infrequent visits to London. He still lives in Hendon, and bemoans the changes there, not least the increase in crime and general feeling of insecurity on its streets, which he blames on the influx into the neighbourhood of eastern Europeans.

Whatever the accuracy of his analysis, there is a perceptible dearth of ethnically English people left in Hendon. These days, the roads not sufficiently desirable for Jews to inhabit are occupied primarily by Asians and the eastern Europeans who Stu so decries. There is virtually nothing "English" about Hendon left. And – however un-PC, and impertinent for a Jew, to say so – that strikes me as sad.

Hendon was our shtetl, our East End: good times and great memories . . . though I, for one, would not want to be back there.

NOTE: To view the original of this post (replete with photographs) - together with further entertaining, no-punches-pulled blogging by melchett mike (a former BBC journalist living in Tel Aviv) - go to http://melchettmike.wordpress.com/


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