Karen McLeod is an air hostess, performance artist and writer. Her novel In Search of the Missing Eyelash is published in paperback in June by Vintage.


The view from Penge

It's where I'm from. When I respond to the inevitable question, "Where do you live?" the usual reaction to my answer is "What a funny name", "Where on earth is that?", or else an inscrutable, lingering smirk during which I watch the whirr in the brain of the questioner rolling the name of their birthplace or neighbourhood comfortingly around. Once someone followed up with "Penge? Sounds like a venereal disease."

My default is to defend the place, my small corner of southeast London looking down upon Kent (and often mistaken for being in it), with gloomy neighbours in nearby Croydon and the long-ago glamorous Crystal Palace. I guard it like a dog, it's my patch, it's where I grew up and have chosen to live. My parents and my sister live here too. "It's like EastEnders,' I laugh as people look at me strangely for not wanting to move away from where I was raised.
I try to big up the place, pointing out that David Bowie went to school here, and it's rumoured that Rolf Harris stayed for a while, as if this might give Penge – and me – some form of credibility. I'll continue to do this for as long as people screw up their noses.

Once a moderately pretty hamlet at the edge of dense woodland, Penge has evolved into an unpretentious and not very charming suburb. It has a high street full of nail parlours and charity shops, boasts the oldest working police station in London and in the late 18th century was widely known as a drunk's paradise, with twenty-two pubs in the space of about half a mile. Some of the same pubs still remain, and social problems like drug addiction and alcoholism are as common as elsewhere, but it's safe enough to walk around after dark without fear of attack.

The seventies were more glittery: Peggy Spencer from Come Dancing taught people ballroom moves at her dance school. I like to imagine the Penge people whooping it up with cocktail shakers and maracas, ahead of their time in the sequins and velvet-trimmed flares that have now become a staple of Saturday night telly. Suburbia can be a happening place.

But now it is quiet here, and small things take on a big significance. The rest of the world doesn't tend to get discussed. The Guardian or Independent, if they are visible at all, are generally seen in the piles of unsold papers put out front to be collected after Tesco and Sainsbury's shut. No one's bothered about what's going on in Tibet or Iraq. They talk about the NHS and Heather Mills; things that affect them or stir a reaction. Every Monday, my mother and her friends have a coffee afternoon with cream cakes. (Actually, "coffee afternoon" is often a misnomer; they're always ready to crack open the Buck's Fizz at the merest mention of a successful hip replacement.) These ladies are all local, some have lived here for fifty years, others moved in when they married. Most of them met when they were dinner ladies at the local primary school. They are all still married to their original husbands. They see themselves as perfectly normal.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.



Issue 09 £5.20

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop