East End Memories



A few weeks ago, I was watching a repeat episode of The Sopranos and it reminded me of an event that I witnessed years ago as a kid growing up in the East End. The episode is the one where that miserable old man, laughingly called Junior, is attending a wake. After eating his fill, and following his constant moans and groans, he is encouraged to sing. After a suitable coaxing, he eventually stands up and starts to sing. He chooses an old Italian song - a Neapolitan song, I believe – that I have known for years and which stirred up old memories long since hidden in the recesses of my unconscious.

I have always known the song as Cateree, Cateree. Sadly, I was never sure of the correct spelling and even if this was its actual title. Anyway, regardless of the name of the song and its spelling, Junior sang it with remarkable feeling and I found his rendition to be moving. This is not such a surprise since it is very emotional song. Songs like this have fallen out of fashion some time ago and I am sure that they are now considered to be trite and sentimental when held alongside the sophisticated standards of today. However, not too long ago society considered this particular song to be serious music and treated it as if it were sacred.

Once the programme had finished, I went to the internet and searched for the song. I learned that the correct title is Core ‘Ngrato, but that it is commonly known as Catari, Catari. As it was still early evening, I went out into my garden and sat down. I could not get that song out of my head and found myself humming the melody as the dusk fell.

And sitting there, in the garden, in the almost dark, I found myself thinking back to one afternoon years earlier when I was a just a kid. That day, I stumbled across an ad hoc recital being given for the benefit of those in the vicinity and I can still remember vividly the effect that it had on me. It was similar to that experienced by many of the characters in that episode of The Sopranos where even the most jaded were moved by the sentiment of the song. It never fails to surprise me that people from different societies have far more in common than we often realize.

As a kid, I lived on Cambridge Heath Road about fifty yards off the Whitechapel Road. These two roads meet at what was once the site of the old Mile End Gate.  This was a toll gate and a charge was levied and had to be paid before passage through it was granted. The site of my parents' shop marked the border between the boroughs of Bethnal Green and Stepney. Today, these boroughs have been absorbed into the swirling mass that became Tower Hamlets, a rather pretentious and inappropriate name I always thought. We were on the Bethnal Green side of this border. Immediately past Mile End Gate, the Whitechapel Road becomes the Mile End Road, which is still a major artery out of London (the A11) that leads travellers on to Essex and East Anglia.

Whitechapel Road signNot far off from where the shop used to be, and on the Whitechapel Road, can be found The London Hospital. This hospital specializes in the treatment of orthopedic problems and was where the Elephant Man lived his last days. It was traditional in the old days for a market to grow up in front of hospitals. This tradition continues in London and in many places where old hospitals are still open for business (Montefiore Hospital in The Bronx and the Hopital de Bicetre at Le Kremlin Bicetre on the outskirts of Paris). The market before The London Hospital is still present and is known as The Waste. Today, The Waste has the appearance of having seen better days and is a sad shadow of its former self. But, when I was a child, it was a great source of treasure and pleasure for a kid of my age with its stalls, shops and colourful characters. But the market is a tale for another time.

Just past Mile End Gate, but just before the site of the old Mann, Crossman and Paulin brewery is a pub or a public house. This pub is not large and consists of two small bars, the public bar and the saloon, which although narrow go back a good distance. However, what this place lacks in size, it more than makes up for in notoriety. The pub, The Blind Beggar, is known as The Beggars by its clientele and the people in the area. As I said, this pub enjoyed a certain notoriety when I was a kid, as it was a drinking hole of The Kray Twins and various other members involved in the seamier side of East End life. My mother forbade me to go anywhere near this place. I was not allowed even to walk past it. I am sure that she believed that, if I did, I would be swept inside and lost forever to a life of crime. The pavement in front of the pub is wide, so I could go past without fear of being snatched and dragged inside by those with especially long arms. Anyway, like all other kids, I used to creep up to the doors of the pub and peep in and see what was going on there.

The Blind Beggar, 337 Whitechapel Road, London E1 1BU

As I remember it, the inside of the pub was quite dark. There were long seats with dark soft cushions placed along the walls and high stools at the bar. Scattered about the bars were a number of tables and chairs. There was also a piano in the public bar and most of the time someone would be sat at it tinkling out a tune. In those days, playing the piano was considered an important attribute and would bring the player free drinks during the time that he chose to play. Most of these piano players never had any training and played by ear.

Playing by ear was considered to be a gift and was a natural talent. Such a talented person would be everyone’s friend and would be sought out for parties and asked to play once they came into a pub. What playing by ear meant was that such a person could sit at a piano and, after a few minutes of hitting wrong notes and causing some irritation to their audience, they would suddenly be able to play the requested tune. This would greatly please the audience and drinks would then start to line up on top of the upright piano to be drunk at leisure. The top of a pub piano would be well stained with the rings formed by past signs of appreciation and would also be scarred by the burns of cigarettes placed there while a tune was being knocked out, as it would be forgotten and would slowly burn down causing a long piece of ash to form that would fall on the keys while the remains of the lighted cigarette would leave a narrow black mark on the piano top that no cleaner would ever remove.

My father was blessed with such a talent and would always get up and play once he received a request to give us a tune. Although being able to knock out a tune was a definite talent that would guarantee a pleasant time for the audience, who often joined the player in a bit of community singing, to those with a discerning ear the sound produced by such virtuosos might have proven to be irritating or even painful. What one would notice about these tunesmiths was that no matter what tune they played, the rhythm knocked out by the nicotined-stained stubby fingers of their left hands was always the same. Whether they played one of the popular tunes of the day or something more classical, the melody would always be accompanied by the same vamp. My father enjoyed playing the Warsaw Concerto and a bit of Tchaikovsky, but as was his style, the rhythm would always be the same as that accompanying his playing of Some of These Days or You made me love you. Still, the audience never seemed to mind and everyone had a good time.

Now, this brings me back to the matter at hand and the subject of this tale. I remember walking by The Beggars one hot summer afternoon, taking care not to be dragged inside and into a life of crime. As I did, I could hear the sounds of the piano with its familiar and strangely comforting vamp. As I reached the open door of the Public Bar, I heard someone ask another to give us a song. For some unknown reason, I stopped and heard that someone say that he would, but would do so a little later. The audience failed to agree and began to demonstrate their displeasure by yelling their wish to be entertained and to be so now. What singer could ignore such entreaties? I watched the potential Caruso stand up and make his way over to the piano where he stood before his adoring public. Clapping and more cheering broke out. I stood fascinated at the doorway and waited with equal anticipation. Children under 16 were not allowed into pubs in those days and this was strictly enforced in order for adults to have a place to escape the cares of their daily lives and to get away from their kids. In those days the police were strict and would be none too pleased at finding a child in a pub and fines and summonses would result. It was very common at that time to see kids waiting at the entrances of pubs for their Mums and Dads. The kids would be given a glass of lemonade and a packet of crisps to shut them up for a bit while their parents enjoyed a drink or two.

Anyway, the singer, a short stocky fellow with thick black hair and a ruddy complexion stated his song of choice. This was greeted with even louder applause and cheers. Obviously, this was a command performance that was to include special favourites and would perhaps be one of distinction if the response of the audience was anything to go by.

The pianist now began to play the introduction to the song and did so with much feeling and flurry, which served to heighten the excitement. The singer stood still, looking down at the floor while waiting for his moment to begin singing. As the piano reached a crescendo, suddenly and with purpose, he lifted his head and after giving it a slight shake, he opened his mouth and began to sing. This is an understatement for out of his mouth came a wondrous sound. Catari! Catari! He sang these two words with remarkable and tragic feeling. This was no ordinary singer as even I at some tender age could tell. I stood there spellbound, totally transfixed, and completely captivated by what I heard. The song was filled lines that conveyed heart-wrenching agony. Although it was sung in Italian - not that I knew this at the time - and the words were unknown to me, I felt as if I knew what the song was about. I seemed to instinctively feel that the singer was telling of an unfrequented love, even though I did not know what an unrequited love was! He sang of a pain that would only be understood by those who had felt the agony brought by a love callously cast aside and left to die, like a flower carelessly tossed away and which now lay on the ground in a garden in a far off land where the sun shone hard and enflamed passions. The audience understood the singer’s agony, as they sat spellbound in their seats with their beer and shorts on the tables before them now untouched. The singer continued his lament and his audience learned of his pain, his passion, and of his unwanted love. Some in the audience were unable to control themselves and tears escaped their eyes. Everyone seemed to understand the pain. Perhaps they too had suffered humiliation and scorn at some time in their lives and those painful memories were now being relived.

Eventually, he sang his last heartbreaking notes. These were sung with such gusto – with such torture - that I am still surprised he did not burst a blood vessel in achieving them. The place was silent for a second or two and then it erupted. Loud applause and cheering could be heard as he graciously took his bow. I found myself standing at the entrance totally drained. But drained of what? I remember feeling incredibly sad and sighing deeply. I was shattered. I knew that this experience had had a pronounced effect on me, but due to my young years, I did not exactly know what that effect was and would have to wait to find out.

I was amused during the episode of The Sopranos when one of the young women listening to Junior sing asked what a particular phrase meant. Meadow or some other spoilt young women from New Jersey, said that it meant an ungrateful heart. It has been years since that day at The Beggars and I have heard that song many times since yet for some unknown reason I have never learned what the words of the song actually meant in English. I cannot explain why but I have never bothered to find out, but I suspect now that I never felt that I needed to. Last night when this young woman asked her question and got her answer, I found myself suddenly saying out loud for all to hear around me OF COURSE that’s what it means – why on earth are you asking?!!!! All those years ago, I had known, without knowing, that the song dealt with an ungrateful heart. Who needed an explanation? The feeling was in the sound and the delivery of the singer and anyone who cares to feel can understand the grand emotions of life without a translation.

I remember standing at that pub entrance and still marveling at the song when the proprietor of The Beggars came up to me and brought me back to the realities of life. Annoyance was the look on his face and venom was in the words that came from his mouth, as he told me to hop it before ya get a clip ‘round the ear! At that, I took off up The Waste to look for other memories that would bring me bitter-sweet pleasure in later years.



While I was growing up, every time that the Kray Twins were mentioned on the news or in the newspapers, my Mum would often tell us about her time as a barmaid in the Blind Beggar public house in Whitechapel, and of the times she chatted with them.  As I reached my ‘teens, like you with your Mother’s story of how she sat in the central garden of Homerton Hospital when you were ill during World War II, I often thought she was being slightly over zealous with the truth.

Not long after her death, which was from injuries she sustained in a traffic accident involving a drunk driver, my youngest sister was going through her possessions, as she had requested in her will.  My Mum had gone to this trouble as she did not want her family squabbling since there were eight of us.  Anyway, my sister discovered some old black & white photographs.  My Father was a fortunate man, as my Mum was an absolute stunner, but to my eternal shame, from looking one of the photographs, I found that she had been exaggerating, but had been telling the truth - she had been a barmaid at the Blind  Beggar!

Patrick, ex-resident of Hackney



For those readers who are interested in hearing a rendition of Core ‘Ngrato, I offer here a number of links where this may be achieved:



Salvatore Cardillo

Catari, Catari, peche me dici si parole


peech me parle e ‘o core me tumiente,


Nun te scurda ca t’aggio date o’core,


nun te scurda!

Catari, Catari, che vene a dicere stu parla

ca me da spaseme?

Tu nun’nce pienze, tu nun te ne cure.

tu nun’ce pienze, tu nun te ne cure.

Core, core ‘ngrato,

t’aie pigliato ‘a vita mia,

tuttie passatio e

nun’nce pienze chiu!

Catari, Catari, why do you address me

only with bitter words?

Why do you speak only to torment me,


Do not forget that I once gave you my heart,


don’t forget it!

Catari, Catari, why do you pretend?

Don’t make me suffer agonies!

You never think of this pain of mine,

you never think of it, you don’t care!

Ungrateful heart,

you took possession of my life,

and now it’s over,

You no longer think of me!

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Copyright© 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins