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The Last Word: Julie Peakman, author and historian

Julie Peakman is a highly acclaimed author and historian. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and Honorary Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is a frequent contributor to newspapers and popular magazines, as well as academic journals. Her TV and radio work includes television documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Biography Channel, Radio London and BBC Radio 4. She has written biographies on Emma Hamilton and Peg Plunkett, and various books on historical culture. Her new book, Hitler’s Island War. The Men Who Fought for Leros, is her first foray into the social history of war and a homage to the men who fought in Leros. She is a resident of Leros and Forest Hill.

How long have you lived in the area?

I have lived in Forest Hill for over 35 years now. I met my husband here all those years ago and we have remained in the area ever since.

What brought you here?

I came for my friend’s wedding party and ended up staying the night as I missed the train home. Her mother put me in her brother’s bed as he was out for the night. He came home the next morning to find me in his bed! Strange how such romances start. We talked all morning and afternoon, and saw each other continually after that, and moved in together three months later. It took us about a year to find our ideal home to buy, an old Victorian place where we still live.

What has changed most during that time?

When I first arrived here, Forest Hill was a bit run down. Over the years, better shops and services have moved in and it has become a more lively place to live. I love the profusion of delis, restaurants, take-away and its cultural diversity. The Horniman museum has been the staple cultural wonder the area.

What do you most value about the area/street you live in?

We were pleased that there is such a close community to fight to save the lovely buildings in the area when the council want to pull them down or fails to protect our heritage properly. My husband, the writer Jad Adams, got the old Capitol cinema listed so at least we managed to get that saved.

What one thing would you change?

The management of Forest Hill pools. The new swimming pool and gym has made a difference for us locals, but it is poorly run. I, and many other people, campaigned hard to save the frontage and have new pools and affordable exercise classes for Forest Hill, but the current management simply do not provide enough classes to warrant the membership charge. I stayed with them for two years, but left because you could never get into the classes as there were too few of them for the amount of members. Not long ago, the management cut the classes back yet further, as they tried to save on expenditure, but this backfired and more people left. The only way forward is to produce at least four times as many classes so we all enroll again. The council need to replace the management.

The other problem is the widening of the pavements on the already congested area on Dartmouth Road. This has reduced the car parking places detrimentally affecting residents. Worse still, in order to do this, the council have taken away residents’ private parking spaces on their own land without consulting them, and removed access points to their property. We have another battle on our hands to ensure we can park in our own parking spaces on our own land.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t do without?

My husband.

Do you know your neighbours?

All of them. We have a great resident association in out two blocks and everyone looks out for each other. I also have other friends in the area.

The most famous person you’ve seen or met?

I’ve met a lot of famous people as I worked in the acting business for a long time. Laurence Olivier directed me in Hindlewakes, a TV drama on TV years ago, and I used to work on Coronation Street for years. The nicest and most famous person who was a friend was the politician Tony Benn, a wonderful clever, loyal man – and honest –so rare for politicians these days! However I am not sure why people are impressed by fame. Talent is a much better indicator of a person’s worth. Plenty of today’s famous people have no talent, and many talented people have no fame.

Do you belong to any groups?

I belong to lots of groups, but mainly to do with history and writing – The Authors’ Society (a sort of union for writers, who try and protect writers from getting fleeced); the Biographers’ Club (for those who have written biographies, obviously!); the Institute for Historical Research; the Women’s Studies Group; the Royal Historical Society. Our residents’ association is the only local group, although Jad and I are involved in a lot of local meetings and activities.

Describe your perfect weekend.

We tend to work quite a lot of our weekends as we like what we do for a living. On our time out though, we tend to stick locally, going out with friends to local restaurants and maybe go to the cinema in Greenwich or Beckenham.

What’s your favourite place for a night out?

Thai Orchard. We love it there and go frequently. It’s our ‘home from home’.

Where are you likely to be found on Saturday?

At the cinema and at home.

Coffee or tea? Where?

Tea, tea, tea, preferably brought to me in bed by Jad. I am not good in the mornings…

The best meal I’ve ever had.

My brother took me out for my birthday recently for the Menu Dégustation with matching wine at the Hilton, Park Lane. It was probably the most expensive too. The cheapest best meal (hard-up authors are always looking for a cheap meal) was curry in a shack serving builders in Mumbai – cost about 4 rupees.

Cafe, pub or bar?

Restaurant.

What’s your favourite place to go for a drink?

Any decent restaurant, but generally a bottle of plonk with a curry at home with Jad.

The best kept secret…

Well if I told you it would no longer be kept would it?

Where’s your favourite place to walk?

Leros

When I want to relax…

Leros

What is your favourite shop?

I don’t ‘shop’ as such except for books. Kirkdale Bookshop is the best! Geraldine, the owner, is our friend and she gets us what we want.

What was the last thing you bought there?

Mary Beard’s ‘Women and Power’

Best bargain you’ve ever landed.

Our basement bought at auction.

If money was no object…

I’d be doing what I do now.

The book I’m reading at the moment…

Through a Glass Darkly, a biography of the writer Patrick Hamilton written by our friend the writer NIgel Jones. We recently saw Hamilton’s play ‘Slaves of Solitude’ at the Hampstead Theatre in which he perfectly captures the seedy boarding houses of war-time Britain and the awfulness of people’s lives.

My perfect holiday…

Leros with Jad.

My secret ambition…

to write that best-selling novel!

www.juliepeakman.co.uk

This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of SE23 magazine.