War of the words: How H G Wells snubbed Bromley
Newly discovered letter reveals how author bluntly rejected freedom of borough
Wednesday 29 December 2010
When the burghers of the ultra-respectable London suburb of Bromley offered H G Wells – its most illustrious 19th-century scion after Charles Darwin – the freedom of the town, the firm expectation was that he would graciously accept.
Unfortunately for the dignitaries of the leafy south London borough, the science-fiction writer and serial philanderer did not quite hold his birthplace in the same esteem. Indeed, it appears that, far from being flattered by the honour, he would have preferred that Bromley receive a visit from the Martian killing machines that terrorise Earth in his most famous work, The War of the Worlds.
A letter from the author discovered in a copy of his autobiography, and now on display for the first time, reveals the extent of the antipathy that Wells had for Bromley when he brusquely refused the award, saying he had already received the same distinction from the City of London and Brussels, and had no need to add to his collection.
The rebuff, in 1934, is the latest example of a long line of literary figures taking umbrage against some of Britain's less glamourous corners. The poet laureate Sir John Betjeman famously condemned Slough to more than 70 years of opprobrium when he exhorted "friendly bombs" to fall on the Berkshire town.
Wells, who was born in 1866 to an impoverished shopkeeper, revealed his true feelings about the Kent commuter town in his reply to the letter from a committee of dignitaries offering the freedom of the borough. The author wrote: "Bromley has not been particularly gracious to me nor I to Bromley and I don't think I want to add the freedom of Bromley to the freedom of the City of London and the freedom of the City of Brussels – both of which I have."
The writer, who was a lifelong non-conformist and was high on a list drawn up by the Nazis of British intellectuals to be arrested upon a successful invasion, later underlined his opinion of Bromley by describing it in one of his books as a "morbid sprawl of population".
The letter, found by a Kent-based archaeologist, has been put on show in an exhibition exploring the author's suburban beginnings in a household goods shop his parents ran in the centre of Bromley. The site is now occupied by a branch of the clothing retailer Primark.
Wells's antipathy to his birthplace may be coloured by the fact that he led a miserable existence as a child. The shop made so little money that his father, Joseph, had to supplement his income as journeyman professional cricketer for Kent. When an injury ended his sporting career, the family put their two sons into apprenticeships, and Herbert George left Bromley for the last time at the age of 14 to work as a draper.
Christine Alford, collections assistant at the Bromley Museum, which is staging the exhibition, said: "He obviously was not very proud of his upbringing and to some extent wanted to forget about Bromley. I think the offer of the freedom of the town was probably a reminder of something he no longer wanted to be associated with.
"It is a pity because he is one of the most famous writers from the area and his childhood experiences would have been part of what made him an author. If he is not proud of us, we are proud of him."
Indeed, Bromley, whose creative residents have ranged from Enid Blyton to David Bowie, has long made it clear that it bears no hard feelings against its prodigal son. A plaque marking his birthplace has stood there since 1986.
How Bromley has been the butt of jokes
“The end of the world will surely come in Bromley South or Orpington,” according to poet Adrian Henri in his verse Death in the Suburbs.
The south-east London borough has frequently been the butt of a joke from Monty Python’s Midget Café to ribbing across the comic spectrum from Rik Mayall to Sir Terry Wogan.
Being the biggest of all London boroughs - covering 58 square miles - it is also the oldest in population with more than 20 per cent of its residents being over 60.
Unsurprising then, that many look to the town of Bromley as HG Wells did - as a dull, "morbid" sprawling suburb with not a lot to its name.
But beneath its stolid reputation, beats a vibrant and creative heart that has given Britain some of its most outlandish world-class performers.
Most famous of its residents is David Bowie, who met some of his collaborators during his schooldays at Burnt Ash Primary and Bromley Tech: Peter Frampton, one of his 'Spiders from Mars' Geoff MacCormack and artist George Underwood.
Founding the Beckenham Arts Lab at the then Three Tuns pub (now a Zizis restaurant) and organising a free festival in 1969, Bowie helped make Bromley an unlikely haven for cutting-edge music.
Performers at the borough’s Chislehurst Caves during the 60s and 70s included Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and, reputedly, the Beatles.
But it was resident Siouxsie Sioux and the “Bromley Contingent”, with Billy Idol, Sid Vicious and Adam Ant among its membership, that brought notoriety to the area when they appeared alongside the Sex Pistols during their infamous interview on the Bill Grundy show, shouting abuse from the audience.
Punks weren’t even the first anarchists to reside in Bromley with Russian writer Peter Kropotkin living in exile in Crescent Road between 1886 and 1914. A blue plaque marks the ordinary terraced house where Kropotkin, one of the world’s leading anarcho-communists wrote some of his most influential works.
While Bromley's rock history is anti-establishment, the town was also home to political heavyweights - notably William Wilberforce who is said to have first discussed the abolition of slavery with William Pitt under an oak tree in Keston.
There is some evidence that Bromley is not slavish in its admiration of the curmudgeonly HG Wells. Although a blue plaque marking his birthplace survives, a nearby mural that once hailed the War of the Worlds author has been painted out and replaced with one celebrating another famous Bromley resident, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.
Kate Mead, freelance journalist and lifelong Bromley resident
Places they loved to hate
Slough, John Betjeman
"Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!"
(From the poem, Slough)
Chelmsford, Charles Dickens
"If any one were to ask me what in my opinion was the dullest and most stupid spot on the face of the earth, I should decidedly say Chelmsford." (Letter to Thomas Beard, 11 January, 1835)
"Trudging slowly over wet sand
Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen
This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down
Armageddon – come Armageddon!
Come Armageddon, come!"
(Every Day is Like Sunday)
Wales, Dylan Thomas
"The land of my fathers. My fathers can have it." (Adam magazine, 1953)
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