Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Battersea Rise three literary connections – John Walsh – The Falling Angels

Battersea Rise/Lavender Sweep

Battersea Rise Literary connectionsThis is the third of the Battersea Rise Literary Connections – EM Forster, Pamela Hansford Johnson and John Walsh journalist and author who lived on Battersea Rise. Dr Walsh’s house is at the apex of Battersea Rise and Lavender Sweep. The photo below of Lavender Sweep and Battersea Rise was taken in the seventies by my brother-in-law John, who is a pilot.

John Walsh

In his memoirs, The Falling Angels, he gives a somewhat jaundiced view of Battersea and Battersea Rise. This autobiographical and very funny book is about growing up between two cultures and dominated by his Conflicting relationship with his Irish-Catholic heritage which echos James Joyce’s statement that his first mistake was leaving Ireland and his second was going back. John’s book is also an affectionate homage to his parents. What is so resonant for me is the Galway connections as well as the Battersea ones. His parents did retire to Galway to Oranmore which is five miles from the city and where we now return to stay with my eldest sister Ida who lives there. John referred to his mother as The Widow of Oranmore and she who had been the Pope’s representative in Battersea. This book is one of the best for understanding the Irish experience in Britain both the immigrant and that of the second and even the third generations living here. We all enjoyed the book very much.


Battersea Rise/Lavender Sweep

Lionel Shriver reviewed it and liked it. › Arts › Books › Biography

The tension between an English upbringing and an Irish heritage is gentle, more entertainment than torment, as John Walsh, former literary editor of the Sunday Times and now at the Independent, would doubtless agree. Hence the aims of his warm, seamlessly well-written memoir The Falling Angels are modest: to tease out the strands of Union Jack and Tricolour woven into his personal history, and to determine which flag flies over his own life……..The prose in The Falling Angels is fluent, its craftsmanship meticulous. The dialogue is dead-on

Critical Praise

‘A book to be relished’   WILLIAM TREVOR

‘The reader should be warned that this is a book that makes you laugh out loud in public. A magnificent entertainment’  Bernard O’Donoghue, Independent

‘The Falling Angels is a work of autobiography dominated by a single theme – the author’s love-hate relationship with his Irish-Catholic heritage. John Walsh’s father was a doctor from Galway and his mother was a nurse from Sligo. They came to England to find employment, met on a pilgrimage to Rome, married, and settled in the scruffy Battersea end of Clapham, where Walsh and his sister Madelyn were brought up… Anyone with even the slightest interest in or connection with Ireland will have a grand time with this book’      DAVID LODGE, SUNDAY TIMES

‘A beautifully written book, a family memoir which is moving, honest and funny by turns… the description of the terrible evening in which Walsh insists that his father, mother and a visiting priest and nun watch a film about Ireland – only to find that it contains an explicit and embarrassing sex scene – made me cry with laughter… Anyone who has visited Ireland, or grew up there will feel serial tremors of recognition at the details he describes’  JENNY MCCARTNEY, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

‘In an age of unreliable fake-Irish memoirs, John Walsh’s The Falling Angels convincingly and hilariously anatomises the uncertain identities of the émigré Irish middle class…’

He does reference EM Forster who is the first of these three literary connections to Battersea Rise. Forster wrote about his great aunt Marianne Thornton whose family home was the grand mansion called Battersea Rise which was sited nearby on the Westside of Clapham.

Battersea Rise

John wrote: “ EM Forster once rhapsodised about his cousins’ fashionable home with the words: “Battersea Rise! What a thrill the name gives me. Did I ever go to the house in the early Eighties, led by some cousin in my peacock-blue velvet suit?” (Apparently, he did go there once aged 8 before his great aunt had to leave as her brother Henry Wilkes Thornton inherited it for his family). Forster chose to write about his cousin rather than about her father Henry Thornton who was one of the Clapham sect and who was an anti-slavery campaigner along with his charismatic cousin William Wilberforce with whom he shared the house before each of them got married. Forster called his book a domestic biography which is much about the about the house which he related to in a vicarious way as it is about his aunt but using family correspondences. When the house was demolished he wrote scathingly about what came afterwards.

He wrote: Clapham once infested by highway men , turned first into a pleasant suburb and then into an unpleasant suburb” . I wonder what he would say to the residents of the desirable Edwardian house on the West side of the common who need to be well paid professionals or city traders to buy them now and evidenced in the swarms of estate agents who ply their trade  in the area. There were only two of them in the vicinity when we bought our home in 1968 and one of them was Edwin Evans who had bought the Thornton’s house and grounds.


John Walsh when reviewing a restaurant SOIF opposite his former home wrote: The Rise itself never had many pretensions, however. It’s a strip of London’s South Circular up which, in the 1960s, enormous car-transporter lorries used to run through the night and make the houses shake.


How do I know? Because, dear reader, Battersea Rise was where I grew up between the ages of 10 and 18. I know every inch of it. I remember when, across the road from our house at No 8, you’d find Midwinters the grocers, Kalsi the chemist, Edwardes the furniture store, plus a butcher and a baker.

The painting is by Benjamin Hope.    

Battersea Rise Ben Hope

I met Ben when he was painting this at the end of our road Lavender Sweep and I mentioned to him that it was Dr Walsh’s house who used to be our GP and that his son John had written about it and described it as like the prow of a ship. Ben held his first solo exhibition in the JP Gallery which is a few doors down from this house on Battersea Rise. John attended the preview of the exhibition and wrote a lovely article on it in The Independent magazine.Bens exhibition

Courtenay, a local estate agent, produced a calendar which included this photo of Ben painting Al fresco.


“It was a big house but hardly a Big House. It stood at the crest of a hill and resembled the prow of a ship. Where Battersea Rise and Lavender Sweep met at a sharply acute angle, our back garden formed a thin V-shape, with a black wrought-iron lamp at its apex, the figurehead of the SS Walsh……  When we first moved there  in 1963 I was ecstatic to find an air-raid shelter at the end of the garden ……..From the garden you could see the edge of Clapham Common…….It was a very English sort of place. It had been a haven of middle-class luxury in the nineteenth century”

John claimed that by the time his family came; The Battersea end of Clapham Common  was a dump, a service area for Clapham Junction; the busiest, noisiest  and dirtiest railway junction in the country. It was a stridently working class and immigrant neighbourhood then: a tough coarse-grained part of inner suburbia. 

He was right about the area being working class and immigrant. That was what made it vibrant. Later all those bed sits were taken over and turned flats and houses and what is called  ‘regeneration’ was really social cleansing as it changed the demographics of Battersea and it became a Tory constituency and subsumed into the borough of Wandsworth.

The merchant

He goes on to claim that the skinhead phenomenon started around the junction and depicts an exaggerated image  “where gangs of forty or fifty bald adolescents  with braces and Doc Marten  boots would congregate , before marauding across the Common in search of homosexuals, hippies,  and (later on) Asian youths to bash up”

I never saw any marauding hordes heading to the Common. He continues The pedestrian walkway that led to the station featured in the movie Up the Junction, giving my backyard a sudden dodgy gleam of trendy squalor ……But it put Clapham Junction on the map as the essence of ‘Sarf Lunnen’ – a place of gormless listless violent, Philistine , charmless non-endeavour – occasionally enlivened by shrieks of laughter from big girls with ragged stockings and white lipstick, who all looked like Adrienne Posta“.

We didn’t wear ragged stockings but pink lippy was much in evidence.

UPJ girls singing

Oh dear, he does seem to have been so alienated from the life of those around where he lived but it isn’t how I remember it but I was older and more integrated into life here. He was too young to have been going to local pubs. We used to occasionally meet his Dad in The Alexandra – an Irish pub – by Clapham Common tube Station.

The alex pub

This sounds to me just as snobbish as EM Forster and Pamela Hansford Johnson had been about Battersea as it changed and became more populated.

The thing about John Walsh was that he went to a private Catholic school in Wimbledon and came home to a very  Irish household in Battersea. This is unlike the experience of my children with just one Irish parent who eschewed the Catholic Irish community and they attended local state schools. He acknowledges that his perspective of Battersea was of a tripartite ghetto shared among the blacks, the Irish and the Poles. He seemed to have overlooked the English. Of  course, I have always thought that segregated sectarian schooling is unhealthy  and divisive and therefore not good preparation for life adult life, especially if one comes from an immigrant background but in general I think it is wrong to segregate children according to the parents religious beliefs.

Breakfast club queue

He depicts the environs of Battersea Rise ‘as a boring dusty Junction serving  corridor…. an artery, a migratory conduit …..had become subsumed under a a later name:the South Circular Road. Yet his domestic life was entirly Irish sustained by a freemasonry of London Irish. Amongst them were their accountant, all manner of tradesmen and he mentions their cleaning lady Mrs Geoghan whose daughter I happened to meet at a funeral I took

The  exiled Irish that came drifting by our Battersea retreat included the priests from the local catholic Church St Vincent De Paul, his mother’s nursing friends and the women from the church. One very funny chapter is entitled ‘Singing the Greens’  and is devoted to the sing songs  and the party pieces that are  apart of it that took place at the gathering in his parents house amongs the fug of smoke, the whiskey and bottles of Guinness consumed. The chapter on the the Irish language and idiom is also marvellously entertaining.

Batt Rise Leonora

The three literary perspectives connected to Battersea Rise are from different eras. I have decided on the quaint and colourful image painted by Leonora Green from the thirties of the lower end of Battersea Rise at the junction with Northcote Road and the eponymous pub to represent this neighbourhood that I have lived in for my adult life. I still cannot imagine living anywhere else. I love that Battersea has had such a rich socialist and radical political history and I hope to continue to celebrate the place and appreciate its icons like the Battersea Power Station, The Battersea Arts Centre, The Cats and Dogs Home, Battersea Park and the riverfront, the bridges and the pubs even some churches – St Mary’s and St Lukes and the writers who have have written about the place.


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