East End Memories



I had seen the Empress cinema many times from the bus when being taken to Hackney, but had never been inside, not until I had arranged to see How to Marry a Millionaire. I cannot say that the exterior of the cinema had impressed me at that time, but this was of little importance since I was not planning on going there to admire its architecture, but rather to be wowed by three sirens. And now with sufficient funds to finance this adventure, although gained in a somewhat clandestine manner, I began to allow myself to feel some excitement. As the outing was to be, and remain, a secret, I dared not show too much joy, as this would cause my mother to smell a rat, and know that I was up to something. I had to box clever, as they say, and maintain my composure. I don’t think that I had lied to my parents up until that time and as long as I wasn’t asked any direct questions, I could maintain my record. I had to get through the rest of Sunday and Monday until 1.30 p.m. without showing any over excitement and I remember that getting through this time proved harder to do than those seemingly endless last few days before Christmas!

Sunday afternoon was spent in the usual way with my mother and I listened to a number of radio programmes while my father slept off his lunchtime binge. Whenever my father did not drink too much, we had the habit of going out in the late afternoon as a family. We either paid a visit to someone or else went on short excursions to places like Victoria Park, but not today. Whenever my father went to bed under such circumstances, we had the habit of keeping the volume of the radio low. We did not want to wake him before he had time to sleep it off. He was always very grumpy if he awoke too soon. Experience had taught my mother to allow him to come to in his own good time. In this way, he woke in a more tolerable mood and pass his initial conscious time in the making of tea. In general he made his own tea since this was the brand he much preferred.

There was one thing that always irritated me about my father – tragically, the number of such things increased as I aged – which was that, once he got up from sleep, he would enter the room where my mother and I were sitting and interrupt our enjoyment of a radio programme by asking what was happening in the plot of the programme. He expected to be given an instant potted history of the events so far. This not only caused me to miss what was happening next, but also vexed me as he would nod his understanding and then leave the room immediately to make tea, thereby missing what followed. I could never understand why he bothered to ask about the plot if he was going to leave the room immediately. Mercifully, when he brought our tea in, the programme would generally be over and I would be spared recounting once more what he had missed.

After my father had drunk several cups of tea and then eaten his formal tea, his more normal jolly self returned and he was ready to play the piano or during summer months go for a walk. During the winter months, we enjoyed musical evenings until it was time to listen once more to the radio. My parents enjoyed Variety Bandbox, which came on the Light Programme at 9 p.m. As a special treat during school holidays, I might be allowed to listen to a little of this programme, as I was on that particular Sunday, before going up to bed.

I was happy to go to bed that night. As the time past, it was proving more and more difficult for me to hide my excitement. At least alone I was free to think about the trip without fear of revealing my intention to anyone. Sleep did not come easy that night, but it came and I like to think that my dreams were filled with those three luscious sirens, but alas, it was not.

The next day was Monday and my folks were busy with the shop. Normally I amused myself in my room while listening to the radio or else I went up the Waste or to a friend. I decided to ask my mother if I could visit a friend and then go to the local cinema that afternoon. I would remind her that I had sufficient money to afford this. Although I was still quite young, I knew how to cross a major road and could be trusted to do so only under the watchful eye of one of my parents. Luckily, the nearest cinema, the Foresters, had recently reopened following repairs after being damaged during the war and was only about 200 yards further along Cambridge Heath Road. Although I did not like this cinema especially, to say that I was going there served my purpose well, as there were no major roads to cross in getting there, only Brady Street, which was not wide or busy. This street was mainly used by the Trolleybuses whose route terminated at Mile End Gate and had little other traffic.

I crossed my fingers when I asked to go to the Foresters that afternoon. I said that I wanted to go to a friend’s house and then go off to the pictures later. I even said that there was a strong likelihood that we might want to sit through the main film a second time should it prove of particular interest. I had to set the scene for my possibly arriving home late as my afternoon sortie required me to account for the time needed to get to and from the Empress. Rather than have my parents worry when I did not return at a time that they expected, I preferred to offer them a reason for any tardiness now, rather than come up with an excuse later when they were in a worried mood. I feel shame when I think how devious I was, and at such a young age!

Fortunately, my mother agreed to my being allowed to pass away an afternoon in the company of chums watching flickering images on a screen. At 12.30 p.m. with money in my pocket sufficient for my needs and a few shillings to spare in case of an emergency, I bade my parents adieu, happily allowed myself to be kissed, and set off. I must confess to some strong feelings of guilt at that time, but like the sailors of old, the call of the sirens was pulling me away from the bosom of my family along a route that led me to Hackney and these feelings soon left me.

I remember that I did not wait for the 653 Trolleybus at the nearest stop, just in case someone that knew me should spot me and tell my parents. Instead, I walked along the Cambridge Heath Road towards The Salmon and Ball at its crossroads with the Bethnal Green Road. It was nearly 1 p.m. by the time I reached the bus stop. I only had thirty minutes to get to the Empress! Fortunately, I did not have to wait long for the bus. Once I got on, I sat close to the exit and when the conductor asked anymore fares please, I gave him a sixpence and asked for Well Street. This was a large junction where lots of people would most certainly be waiting to cross the road. I would be able to mingle with them and so be certain of getting across in safety. There was no point in tempting fate and using a less travelled crossing.

No one seemed to notice me sitting quietly in my seat. I was glad that the bus was not busy, as I had been brought up to give up my seat to standing passengers, but now I would have no one to lean against should the bus jolt or lunge, as trolleybuses were prone to do and send an innocent flying along the central walkway of the bus.

We make good time and passed the bus stops en route without event – first Hackney Road and then those prior to and just after the little bridge across the Regents Canal at London Fields. In those days, there was a scent factory in Hackney and once a bus passed the Hackney Road, nostrils were quickly violated and insulted from the odour of the fragrance produced there. I now realise that I never learned the name of the offending product even though it was responsible for my dislike of most scented products. Mercifully, the air of the area is no longer polluted by that perfum exclusif wafting over the lanes of Hackney!

I alighted the bus at Well Street and joined the group of potential road-crossers and once the lights changed in our favour, swiftly walked across the road and breathed a sigh of relief once I arrived on the other side. I made my way to the Empress and was amazed to see only a handful of kids waiting to go in. In the group were some kids that I knew. They were there with an adult who was probably an elder sister or a young aunt. She was off in a dream world somewhere and paid little attention to her charges or me. Although I knew these kids, they were not particular friends of mine, however I quickly saw the benefits of joining their gang and within minutes, none of those behind us seemed notice or care that I had pushed in. And just like them, the so-called adult didn’t realise or was bothered by having taken an extra kid into her group.

At last the doors opened – a few minutes late, I might add. Has the reader noticed how certain people who are charged with allowing the public access to an establishment never seem to open the doors on time? I swear that they enjoy keeping clients waiting an additional minute or two. When a young patron is interested in entering a cinema with as little wait time as possible and finding the perfect seat with all haste, every second counts. Once the doors opened, the queue pushed forward and the slow monotonous business of buying tickets started. The adult put down a ten shilling note to pay for her band. I did not try to include myself in this group for fear of being turned away from the cinema and missing the film. Once she picked up the tickets, which shot out of the opening once the required number has been selected by the box office person, I requested my ticket and expertly caught my ticket before it came to rest. I moved to the right and waited to give my ticket to the waiting usherette who upon tearing it repeated the words, down the front! She was informing me, and in addition anyone that chose to listen, that I had purchased a ticket giving me the right to sit in the cheapest area in the cinema. At my age, when going to the pictures without my parents, where else would I be sitting? And in fact, where else would any self-respecting kid want to sit?

I would like to thank Mr. Brian Hall and Mr. Kevin Wheelan for their kindness in allowing many of their pictures to be reproduced here.

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins