John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Can you really call a town talented just because a historical figure once dropped in to buy a choc ice?'
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The Independent Online

Have you heard of Helensburgh? Scottish seaside town on the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow, pop 15,000, built in 1770s by Sir Ian Somebody, a clever spa impresario who named the place after his wife Helen. Sailing club, golf club, slightly grim seafront with pointy obelisk thing. British nuclear deterrent fleet of submarines moored nearby at Faslane naval base. And, er... that's all there is to say about Helensburgh – except that it's "Britain's most talented town" according to the weekend newspapers.

"Talented" in the sense that scores of clever and illustrious people come from there. Or lived there. Or stayed for a night. Or worked there for a week. Or owned a dog which briefly ran into the Clyde near the town and splashed about for two minutes. The locals are launching a campaign to celebrate 75 "Helensburgh Heroes" in a Walk of Fame along the esplanade, at a cost of £28,000, like the pavement of stars along Hollywood Boulevard. The campaign is run by Phil Worms, who has a talent for combative pronouncements. "For a population of less than 20,000, we seem to have produced or inspired more than our fair share of talented and historical people," he says. "We believe no other town of a similar size could match Helensburgh for talent." Hah! Talk about asking for trouble...

The "talented people" Mr Worms is excited about aren't necessarily locals. Yes, John Logie Baird and Deborah Kerr and the smoothieboots singer-dancer Jack Buchanan were born there, all right – but Andrew Bonar Law, the only British prime minister born outside the UK, was married in the town in 1891, which scarcely merits a blue plaque on the church wall. W H Auden and his pal Cecil Day-Lewis both taught at a local school for a few months, but hated the place. A J Cronin, who wrote Dr Finlay's Casebook, lived there as a kid, as did Emma Sanderson, the solo yacht circumnavigator. Who else? A chap called Horatio Carslaw turned out to be brilliant at maths, and a fellow called George Urquhart was a whizz at dealing with ticks in cattle; and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the architect, designed a house on the edge of town, though he never lived there...

Is that it? Is that the level of talent and the extent of their connection with the town? I mean, I'm all for civic pride, but let's keep a grip. Can you call a town "talented" because a historical figure dropped in one day to buy an ounce of shag tobacco and a choc ice? Can a town give itself airs as a crucible of creativity because a poet taught some children there for eight weeks before legging it south? I suspect not. But what Mr Worms's declaration prompts in the metropolitan soul isn't so much cynicism, as a desire to seize him by the lapels and argue about one's own home.

Listen, matey, you want to say, your scabby fishing village doesn't hold a candle to my charming suburb of Dulwich (pop 20,000) when it comes to famous connections. Where do I start? The man who invented Eno's fruit salts, James Crossley Eno, lived at College Road. The bloke who gave the word "tannoy" to the English language, Guy Fountain, lived at Lancaster Road. Little Tom Morris, the midget violinist (3ft 4ins) who was taught to paint by Ruskin, he lived in my neck of the woods, Croxted Road, where P G Wodehouse grew up at No 63 (in his biography of Wodehouse, Robert McCrum refers to it as "a dispiriting milieu". Gee, thanks, Robert.) Lord Byron spent two years at Dr Glennie's Academy on the corner of Lordship Lane, where there's now a Harvester restaurant; how his lordship would have hated the laminated menus. And let's not forget the Rt Hon Brass Crosby, who became Lord Mayor of London in 1770 and wouldn't allow the Navy's press-gangs into the City, thus giving us the expression "as bold as Brass".

There are stacks of other famous Dulwich-dwellers. Anita Brookner was born in Herne Hill, where you can still see a blue plaque to Arthur Sarsfield Ward, the creator (as Sax Rohmer) of the original yellow peril, Dr Fu Manchu, who possessed "the brains of any three men of genius, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan". Ernest Shackleton went to Dulwich College, and dreamt about the school jam puffs when he was stranded in the Antarctic. Raymond Chandler went to the same school and, mirabile dictu, shared an English master with Wodehouse. Lawrence Durrell lived in Hillsborough Road, behind the prep school. John Ruskin's first drawings were of Dulwich, and he used to take his students to sketch in Dulwich Woods.

But I fear I'm straying into just the kind of suburban braggadocio I was criticising in Mr Worms. The truth is, lots of suburbs like mine, and towns like his, can brag about their "talented and historical" temporary inhabitants – but don't enquire too closely about fame or you may come unstuck. I'm uncomfortably aware that two of Dulwich's most famous citizens aren't people you'd wish to have as neighbours. One is that arbiter of good taste, Eric Morley, who invented Come Dancing and Miss World. The other is William Joyce, better known as "Lord Haw-Haw," the Brooklyn-born fascist and radio propagandist for Germany during the war, whose meetings of the violently anti-semitic National Socialist League used to attract huge crowds to Dulwich Library and open-air rallies in the Village.

Would we allow Morley and Joyce gold stars in a future Walk of Fame in Dulwich? Or are they insufficiently "talented and historical" in the right way?