On Sunny Corner
My house has a name. I christened it when I bought it, in December of 1989. It’s called Sunny Corner.
The house is on a corner. Most of the time, it’s sunny there–not at night, and not during rain, but you know what I mean.
But my house is not the original Sunny Corner. That was a little blue house that used to stand on the road out of Dover, leading to Folkestone, in the southeast of England. When I came upon that house, on a Wednesday in June, 1989, it was accidentally. My intention had been to walk the path along Shakespeare Cliff; but that summer, the channel works were in full swing, and halfway along toward Folkestone, the path was severed neatly by a sturdy and threatening fence: below that point, the ad-hoc village which had sprung up to serve the massive construction site looked like a sore on the summer greenery. I had to turn back.
Where the path joined the Old Folkestone Road was the little blue house, its bow window
fronting on the street. Painted high on the front wall, in a gothic script, were the words “Sunny Corner” and below them, “1876-?” The window was full of bits and pieces of metal–shrapnel–and accompanying hand-written cards identifying them as parts of materiel which had come through the roof of the house during the Battle of Britain. Taped to the glass was a sign quoting Lady Macduff’s words from act IV of Macbeth:
“For the poor wren
(the most diminutive of birds) will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl”
(IV, ii, 11-13).
It was while I was examining this display that an elderly man with an enormous dog on a leash approached along the road. He stopped, noting my interest, and introduced himself: Ray Pidgeon, the owner of Sunny Corner. He informed me that he allowed people to visit and go through his house every day except Wednesday, because of its historical value: during World War II, he and his mother had operated a shop there–the closest shop to the front line during the Battle of Britain. Now, because of the need to widen the access road to the channel tunnel, the MOT was planning to raze the little blue house, along with others that stood in the path of progress.
It was Wednesday, but he let me in to look over the house anyway. It was a haunting experience. The place was spotlessly kept, though a bit shabby. Memorabilia of a lifetime lined shelves: more shrapnel, more cards, pictures. There was an overwhelming sadness there, too. This nearly 80-year-old man had lived his entire life here, with his mother until her death; he had never married, had no children. All there was–was this house. And it was soon to be torn down. He told me he’d gone the route of the courts, of writing to his MP; half-jokingly he suggested he’d stand outside, with his dog, between his house and the bulldozers when they came. Surely they’d stop for an old man. He’d even proposed a sort of compromise–that the MOT allow him to live out the remainder of his life at Sunny Corner, and tear it down once he was dead. But he was up against the Goliath of government machinery, and he knew his chances of coming out ahead, like David, were slim, though he kept up hope. Inviting
strangers in to look over his house and hear his story was one way of fighting. Another way was to write the history of his house: he’d published a book of his memoirs, called Sunny Corner, England; proceeds from the sale of the book were to be used to fund his legal battles to save his home. I bought one. He signed my copy, using his pen name, Ray Langabeer, and I in turn signed his guest book.
I’ve kept Sunny Corner, England on my desk at home for 21 years now, and I’ve read it several times. Self-published, it has its eccentricities of punctuation; the narration sometimes rambles, sometimes foreshadows so heavily it’s like getting hit over the head. But the voice is clear and strong and loving, and more than that, it’s nostalgic: the voice of a man who feels he’s led a charmed life, despite its setbacks. He’s lucky in his family, especially his mother, Gertrude Langabeer Pidgeon, a plucky sort of woman who told fortunes from reading cards. He’s lucky in his friends and neighbors. He’s lucky in his pets–mostly mongrel stray dogs who chance by. He’s lucky that his mother’s original lemonade stand, serving the men stationed at the barracks up the road, grew into a little shop that supported them for years. He’s open to people–though not to love–throughout the stories, just as he was open to me when I appeared at his doorstep. At the end of his book, though, he writes,
“If the new A20 destroys my home I hope I am not alive to see that day.
“A doctor’s certificate will never state the truth when describing ‘Cause of Death’.
“A few simple words on the gravestone will, though, if they read ‘Died of a broken heart when a new road destroyed the home he loved’ ” (251).
Before I left Sunny Corner, we went out onto the cliff. Mr. Pidgeon pointed out the old train tunnel, his garden allotment, and a place, scarred deeply into the white chalk between us and the beach below, where a plane had crashed into the cliff during WW II. The giant dog accompanied us amiably on our tour.
That was in the summer of 1989. I closed on my own house (older than Mr. Pidgeon’s by about 106 years, and more sprawling, and white, not blue) in December, and, thinking of him, named it Sunny Corner. I learned the following year,
from a letter his niece sent (she had my name and partial address from the guest book) that he had lost his battle with the MOT. He had ended up in an assisted-care home, where he had died. She sent me a piece of the blue house, salvaged from the wreckage.
The bit of blue mortar also reposes on my desk, next to the book. Progress, I think when I look at the two things , at times almost seems criminal. And I think of Ray Pidgeon every time I write my address.
In looking up Ray Pidgeon, Ray Langabeer, and Sunny Corner, England online, I found a couple of interesting things.
1. Ray Pidgeon’s self-published book, Sunny Corner, England, can be purchased these days at Amazon UK.
2. The Dover District Council now has a development called Sunny Corner, billed as “housing with support,” built very close to where the original little blue house stood. The specs indicate that dogs (and cats) are welcome.
I feel the same way about my Sunny Corner. The cellar may flood, the furnace may quit, the roof may leak…but it’s mine.