Oliver Cross: It’s Peckham high street but not as Del Boy remembers it

Delboy Trotter and Rodney put Peckham on the map.
Delboy Trotter and Rodney put Peckham on the map.
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AT THE WEEKEND, me and my partner Lynne enjoyed a luxury London break in, well, Peckham.

And here would be a good place to unload all your images of Peckham based on Only Fools and Horses and Nelson Mandela Towers. The TV Peckham – almost entirely white and working class – probably still exists somewhere, south London being an urban sprawl able to accommodate almost everybody, but at its heart, which I take to be Peckham High Street, it’s not Del Boy land at all. It’s more like an outpost of Africa.

You don’t have to worry about the future of the British high street in Peckham High Street. The seemingly unstoppable march of the supermarket giants grinds to a halt when they are confronted with crazily-signed shops selling yams, plantains and piles of unrecognisable vegetables not generally available at Tesco.

There are shops offering bright print fabrics to wrap around African women and parlours which can do wonders with black hair. Wet fish shops, which disappeared from most British high streets decades ago, still thrive in Peckham. In fact – which should be a cause for wonder – there appear to be more fishmongers in Peckham High Street than there are pawnbrokers, bookmakers, charity shops or ‘to let’ signs.

We were in London because my daughter, the university lecturer (says he, unnecessarily but with a hint of pride) has just moved into a flat in Peckham and thinks it a remarkably fine location.

I spent a few years living in south-east London in the 1970s, never suspecting that Peckham might one day become fahionable. We stayed there through Air B and B, a very useful website which puts you in touch with people who have a room (or occasionally a castle or a boat) to let out at rates generally below those of the faceless budget hotel chains.

We rented (at about £80 a night for the two of us) more than a room; it was a penthouse - a big, self-contained top-floor flat which, just around the corner from harum-scarum Peckham High Street, would have looked quite at home in Far Headingly, Leeds.

From our bedroom window we could see the Canary Wharf complex, which, containing the most important business buildings in Britain, made us feel at the centre of things, even though Canary Wharf is actually rather ugly.

Our flat was in a large Edwardian villa worth, I concluded after consulting estate agents’ windows, at least £1m

It made me think of the economics of the two-state solution, which makes London and the South East effectively a different country from the rest of the UK, so that our landlady, a charming, thirty-something professional type, could be sitting on a property fortune while still needing to make ends meet by hiring out rooms. This would also explain why Cost Cutters and bargain booze stores are so common in south London – it’s a question of large assets and small disposable incomes.

Our landlady said that all her guests so far (she was fairly new to Air B and B) had been visiting relatives. It had occurred to nobody that Peckham might be a holiday destination, which is understandable but wrong.

With a bus pass, you can reach central London in minutes (and by the time you’ve qualified for a bus pass, the actual number of minutes is of little importance) and visit the wonderful, eclectic Victorian Horniman Museum in nearby Forest Hill, which has been described as a hidden gem so often that you would have thought more people would have discovered it by now.

OLIVER was last week found, by the Office for National Statistics, to be the most popular name for new baby boys in the UK, which seemed strange because I’ve spent most of my life hating it and fantasising about being able to pick a new, less upsetting, name - probably Dave.

It’s not about the name Oliver itself – you can’t judge how your name sounds to other people – but the way it isolated me as a child.

When I was being educated, between the 1950s and 1970s, a relatively small number of names had to be shared out among whole schools. Girls were generally called Elizabeth, Catherine, Linda or other names which were only a small step forward from the names of their mothers or aunties – typically Vi, Gladys or Mable.

Boys were, more often them not, called John, although John has now, astonishingly, dropped out of the top 100 favourite names. It was more-or-less a rule that if there were three or more brothers in a family, one of them would have to be called John, although Paul, David and Stuart were also acceptable.

Then my mother (I’m sure my father would have had no say in the matter) spoiled things by calling me Oliver – a name which, unless followed by Twist or Cromwell, meant nothing except oddness.

I’m sure she thought this would make me distinguished or different, not realising that my greatest terror is being marked out or noticed. I’m pleased that so many babies are now called Oliver, but I wish the name-shift had happened about 60 years ago.

AND NOW, from out of nowhere, David Cameron, with a magician’s flourish, presents the electorate with his latest policy idea –putting families first.

This is presented (and for Cameron, a PR man by training and instinct, presentation is three quarters of the battle) as a new concept , as if he had spent his premiership so far putting families second and has suddenly seen the light.

All policies will now have to pass a ‘family test’, applying both to hard-working families (hooray) and problem families (boo). Of course, many people, particularly young adults and the old, don’t live in traditional nuclear families but they are not part of the swing constituency and can be safely ignored.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have said nothing striking about anything recently, even though war clouds are gathering in the Middle East.

It’s as if, unlike David Cameron, they have overlooked the fact that the general election is a little over nine months away and it really is time to start posturing and adopting meaningless gestures.

POLL POSITION: But political parties need to respect the electorate says Stewart Golton.

Stewart Golton: Let’s put the ‘local’ back into this election Leeds