East End Memories



I remember sitting in that miserable 1950-style lecture hall on an early summer’s afternoon when suddenly what came up on the screen caused me to bolt upright. The members of the class were happy as we were coming to the end of our pre-clinical years and would soon be leaving that lecture hall where we had sat and suffered through biochemistry and physiology and other equally difficult subjects during the past two years and would soon be going to the wards!

What I saw on the screen brought me back to reality with a bang. I was sitting in one of those uncomfortable wooden seats with their little fold-up tables on the right side and half-listening, half-sleeping while someone standing at the front was attempting to interest us in a variety of bacterial diseases. Unfortunately, the slides used to illustrate the salient features of the diseases were old and discoloured, which made it difficult to actually see them. Most of my classmates had given up trying to see them and had nodded off. It was beyond me why the school had not updated their teaching aids by now. Surely they could afford to do so. Couldn’t they take a few pennies of the tuition money paid by the 115 people sitting in the class and buy new materials instead of bringing out these miserable slides each year?

In spite of the poor quality of the slide, I saw something on the screen that was a revelation! There, in that loathsome uncomfortable lecture hall, on that hot early summer afternoon, was the answer to something that had been puzzling me for years, in fact to my second year in infant school to be precise. Without meaning to, like Archimedes when he leapt from the bath, the joy that I was feeling inside suddenly found its voice and came bursting out of my mouth before I could stop it. My declaration was loud and woke up my class and so flustered the lecturer that the poor thing froze. Feeling that perhaps an explanation was in order, I decided to share the cause of my disturbance with my class. I stood up and began to tell them about my early schooling and of a classmate of mine. While I was doing this, I was also reminded of a relative of his and how he had been instrumental in sowing a seed in my mind, which lay dormant for years, but which eventually germinated and bloomed into an interest that bordered on an obsession. Imagine all this from meeting two small schoolboys. As we say in the East End …… go figure!



Click on the pictures for songs of London

Within a split second, I was back in Miss Davis’ class at Sir John Cass Foundation School in the City of London and sitting at that little desk in another uncomfortable wooden seat. Normally, a child such as I would not go this school as I lived outside its catchment area.me. My mother made it clear to my father However my mother somehow managed to persuade the school authorities to accept and me that she did not want me going to school in the East End. It wasn’t that she was a snob, because she wasn’t, but she knew that were I to go to school there, my chances of getting a completely honest, I never understood scholarship would be nil. To be what this infamous scholarship was and I doubt if my mother knew either. However, what she did know was that it was something vital to getting a good education. And she knew that without one, you did not go to a good school where you could get a good education. And without a decent education, my mother was convinced that you were limited in life’s choices. She believed that you would be doomed to work in a factory, or at the docks, or worse yet, doomed to a life of crime. No, my mother was not going to have those kinds of choices for her son. No, I was going to get my chance to escape the typical East End life and she was determined to do what had to be done to see to it. And obviously she did, for I went to Sir John Cass Foundation School.

I remember that it was just before Christmas and we were making paper decorations to put on the walls of our class. Some class members were being allowed to use scissors while others were not. I can’t remember by what criteria Miss Davis used to decide which child used scissors and which ones did not. The chosen ones were making various cuts on folded paper, which when unfolded revealed a repeated pattern of holes shaped like diamonds, circles and squares. Those deemed unsuitable to wield the scissors were told to paint the decorations in bright colours. We were allowed to choose our own colours. Once the paper chain was suitably decorated, it was left to dry and we were told that later in the day they were to be pinned on the wall thereby giving the place that Christmas look.

Click on the picture for music

I was sitting at a tiny table that were normally stored around the perimeter of the classroom and only used for painting which, considering we young artists, was a stretch of the imagination. There I was, sitting there quietly and dolloping paint onto someone’s freshly made paper chain and trying to do a good job. I suspect that the reason why I was doomed to paint was because I was one of the youngest in the class and obviously considered not yet ready to be trusted to climb the mountain of advancement and rest among the giddy heights of scissor use. While I busied myself with my art, the classroom door opened and one of my classmates, James Joffery came in and was accompanied by the most curious looking fellow I had ever seen off a cinema screen.

Years later, while reading Oliver Twist, I was reminded of this little boy when I came to Dickens' description of The Artful Dodger. Although this kid was perhaps not as flamboyant as Dodger, he was nonetheless a figure of curiosity, like someone one might expect to find after tumbling down a rabbit hole while chasing a white rabbit on a lazy summer’s afternoon!

Click on an Artful Dodger to view a clip

Although this curious looking fellow was obviously a boy, he did not have the appearance of any boy I had seen up until then. And if his appearance did not instil interest, his walk or rather his mode of locomotion certainly did, for it was like none other seen. He sauntered into the classroom with a definite swagger that caused him to twist from side to side as he lazily dragged his feet lazily across the floor like some cowboy moseying up to the bar of a saloon. His manner of entering the classroom and his way of tackling the space between the door and Miss Davis’ desk was with the energy of someone not especially fussed whether they got to their destination or not. His apparent disinterestedness in where he was being led was compounded by the vacant look on his face. His movement seemed excessively deliberate, like a lizard moving across the sands of a desert. He gave me the impression that the mere act of walking or thinking about it exhausted him. He seemed to slow down as he continued on his way so much so that I half expected him to stop in mid-travel and yawn and stretch and perhaps remain still for a minute or so to rest a while following this obvious excessive display of energy. Again, years later, I thought of this boy when I met a woman where I was working. She was a delightful person and I became very fond of her, but it exhausted me to walk with her for she moved with the speed of old glass in a window pane. I remember getting out of the lift with her when going to her apartment for the first time. I was immediately struck by the fact that she seemed to walk slower and slower the nearer she got to her door and came to a virtual stop two or three steps from journey’s end. It was if she had somehow taken her bones out and had to flow the last few steps of the way! Once inside, I collapsed from exhaustion! Once at his journey’s end, the boy remained in place, vacantly staring slightly above our heads.

Unlike his companion, James looked a little flustered as he mumbled something to Miss Davis. James was not a kid to seek the limelight and preferred to go about his business quietly and unnoticed. Miss Davis nodded in response to whatever it was that James told her and then called for silence. Her request was totally unnecessary since the mere presence of this boy was enough to silence us. It was as if we had been frozen in time with our brushes dripping paint and our scissors poised in mid-cut. Once our composure had been regained, brushes and scissors were put down and Miss Davis turned to this strange looking kid and introduced him to us.

Miss Davis was a sweet woman, who was probably in her mid-thirties at the time. She was very shy and reddened whenever she had to do something out of the ordinary. Introducing this boy proved to be such an occasion for her. We noted the redness creeping up her neck and across her face and then up to the roots of her fair hair when she began to speak. We liked her very much, as she was very kind to us and was very encouraging and never shouted like so many teachers that were to follow her. She lived at Leigh-on-Sea with her mother and took the train to Fenchurch Street Station each day and then walked the mile or so to school. I often wondered what happened to her and if she ever married. She was a charming woman and I hope that she was happy, whatever she chose to do.

The now-very-red Miss Davis told us that this curious fellow who was visibly wilting now had travelled a long way to be with us. I remember thinking that this must be the reason why he appeared so tired. I also remember thinking that her introduction made him sound like some guest star on a radio programme! And now ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for your special delight and entertainment today, we present to you ……!

We learned that the boy was an American and came from the United States. This immediately confused me since I came from England and was English and my friend Mohammed came from Pakistan and was Pakistani or as I should say, an Englishman of Pakistani decent. So how come he was American if he came from the United States? When I asked Miss Davis about this obvious confusion, she reddened once more and gave me no explanation and just glared at me and moved on to talk more about this fellow. I had to wait sometime before I received a suitable answer to this question and all became clear.

In this day and age, the world is, so I have been told, a smaller place than it once was. This means, I presume, that since travel is more accessible and cheaper, more people have ventured forth to other lands. Supposedly, we have now been exposed to different peoples and cultures. However, in the early 1950s, few travelled to other lands, and those who were able to, were either more well to do or else in the army, as most folks did not have the money for such jolly jaunts. Since I lived in the East End, I had always been surrounded by folks born in other countries with different religions and cultures. My part of the East End was a place where immigrants generally settled first when entering Britain. My class consisted of about 40 children. Of the 40, most were Jews, both born in England and in Europe, together with others from India, Pakistan and Ceylon along with a couple from African countries. People like me were in the minority. However, to us, everyone was the same since everyone spoke in a similar manner and we all dressed in the same style and all the boys had the same type of haircut except for those that wore turbans.

Just one look at that curious looking fellow who now slouched before us was sufficient to tell us that he was obviously not a local boy. He was a little taller than the boys in my class and was quite lanky. It turned out that he was a year older that most of the class. However, almost everything about his appearance was different from what we were used to. We might have as easily believed that he came from Mars had we not been told that he came from the United States and was an American. Mind you, for all we knew at the time, the United States might well have been a place on Mars!

One of the most noticeable features of this boy was his hair. What there was of it was fair. But it had obviously not been cut by an East End barber! It was cut in what I later learned to be a crew cut. I had never seen such a cut before. It looked like nothing I had seen in the pictures on Maurie’s wall, my father’s barber where I was dragged to periodically. The hair on top of his head stuck straight up in the air and did not seem to move. The rest of it, at the back and at the sides, was shaved and gave him a bald look.

As if his hair was not strange enough, his clothes were also different and nothing like the current mode worn by little boys in post-war Britain! However strange his clothes were, their colours were even stranger and were totally unknown to me. Firstly he wore long trousers. In those days, English boys did not wear long trousers until they were about 12 or 13-years old. They wore short trousers together with long socks that were kept in place by elastic, which easily broke causing the socks to bunch up around the ankles and thereby annoy mothers to no end! His trousers did not appear to be made of cotton or wool, but of some other fibre also unknown to me at the time. However, it was their colour that remains most vivid in my memory. It was a light reddish chocolate brown colour. I remember this well as I had never seen such a colour before. Although sweets and chocolate were still on ration at that time and were not easily accessible to kids, I knew what chocolate brown looked like from both dark and milk chocolate. And I knew red, but this shade of reddish chocolate brown was totally new to me and not especially agreeable to my eye. I remember that his trousers had turn-ups. Although turn-ups were normal at that time, what made them noticeable was that they were on trousers worn by a child. This addition to the garment made him look like a little old man, as my mother would say, which means that he was dressed in a style, by our standards, which was too old for his years.

If I was surprised by the colour and style of his trousers, I was shocked by the colour of his shirt! It was of a light pink a colour, I hasten to add, that boys did not wear at that time. And as equally shocking was the fact that he wore no tie. Ties were de rigueur at that time for school boys. One final thing about his shirt: it had a pocket on the left side. I had never seen this before. Clipped to the pocket was a pen, but more of that later.

Click on the pink shirt and white T-shirt for music

Also noticeable was his footwear. Or should I say his footwear and foot coverings. As the turn-ups of his trousers did not quite reach the top of his shoes, we could readily see his socks. What was remarkable about them was that they were white. I had never seen a boy wearing white socks before. I remember again years later when I was visiting a friend at the University of Reading, she introduced me to her boy friend, who happened to be an American. By then one saw Americans running around London and one was used to their mode of dress. Most looked like that young boy and all wore white socks. Her boyfriend was unlike most Americans that I had seen in that he was short ....... very short. Most were veritable giants. I had been told that their greater height and, so they said, better health than we poor Europeans, was a result of the healthier diet that they ate. Apparently they drank gallons of fresh milk, ate bowls of cereal and chewed on vast quantities of meat. It seemed that their foods were filled with every conceivable vitamin known to man and were meals were eaten so as to provide a good balance between proteins, fats and carbohydrate. Obviously, this poor fellow must not have eaten all of his dinner as a child. Anyway, I remember that we were chatting and I said something about the Americans that I had met and seen about the place wore white socks. I said that it was like a signature. As I made my flippant comment, my eyes moved down to the boy friend’s feet and guess what? Yes, he too fitted in with his countrymen. For some reason, I felt acute embarrassment and hoped for the floor to open up and swallow me.

I now live in America and find that many people, men and women, only wear white socks. But then we live at a time when the casual look is in fashion and people make the effort to dress down. In keeping with the onslaught of American Cultural Imperialism, I observe, and sigh deeply with regret, that this mode has been exported to Europe and beyond and has been received with much success. Despite having lived in America for over thirty years, I have to confess that I still can not bring myself to wear white socks, I am afraid.

To finish my description of the little boy’s dress, I need to comment on his shoewear. He wore white shoes – or sneakers, as I later learned they were called. Until then, I had never seen a man or boy wearing white shoes unless he was playing tennis, that is. It needs to be remembered that this was a time before The Jets and The Sharks danced down the street in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. The wearing of sporting apparel to school was unheard of at that time. Children wore shoes: leather shoes, black or brown, in winter and perhaps sandals in summer. When it rained hard, Wellingtons might be worn and black plimsolls were the footwear of choice when games were played. One would never think of wearing them for general wear.

Miss Davis told us that the young boy was James’ cousin and told us to say hello to Johnny, as the boy was called. We did as we were told in unison. If I thought that the kid clothes were surprising and somewhat different, I was in for yet another surprise once he opened his mouth to speak. He answered our greeting by saying Hiiiiiii and making a slight waving motion with his right hand. His lingering Hiiiiii surprised me, his need to wave left me totally confused. I remember that the whole class was silenced by his greeting. We sat and stared at this unknown kid while he looked into the space above our heads with no expression on his face at all. Evidently my classmates were as perplexed as I was regarding who this stranger was and no doubt wondered which planet he came from! He certainly wasn’t like anyone we had ever seen in the flesh before.

Apparently, Johnny was visiting James and his family and staying for Christmas and the New Year. We were told that he was coming to school for the last week of term and would take part in our Christmas celebrations. Miss Davis said that we should welcome him and make him feel at home. She then turned to Johnny and asked him where he was from in the United States and various other questions about himself and his school. Not even Johnny’s look and mode of dress prepared us for what followed next. Any remaining wind in our sails was promptly removed when he opened his mouth to answer Miss Davis’ questions! We all sat there, frozen, with mouths wide open ……. for Johnny spoke English!

Today, everyone knows where America is, how an American sounds and who their President is plus a whole host of other things about the country. When I was a child, we saw American films and heard the actors and actresses talk. However, at that time I did not distinguish which film was American and which was English. They were just films. I was still at the stage when I followed the action and not the dialogue. I liked sword fighting, Indians, pirates and battle scenes. Talking in a film was something that impeded the action and was something to ignore. Whenever the hero began his wooing of the heroine, it signalled the time either to talk to one’s friends or else throw things at others and create some mayhem. Who in their right minds actually watched two people kissing? I certainly hadn’t thought about the language that Americans spoke and so had absolutely no idea that these peoples spoke English!

Johnny, being the little old man that his dress suggested, was obviously not a shy child, as he answered each question posed by Miss Davis without hesitation and ended them by addressing her as M’am! Later, when we went outside for playtime, some of my classmates were soon amusing themselves by making up silly rhymes: Do you have any jam M’am? Have you seen Sam, M’am? And then the jokesters burst into peels of giggles, thinking themselves very clever and original.

There were two empty seats at my table and Miss Davis sent this curious boy to sit next to me while James took the seat across from us. I remember that once Johnny sat down, he turned to me, and without smiling gave me another Hi! Mercifully, this time he omitted the wave!

James normally sat next to me in class since his name appeared after mine in the Register. Now it seemed, Johnny would be sitting there. As it turned out, once I got used to him, Johnny proved to be a good kid who was full of fun. Without realising it, thanks to Johnny, I began to learn that people from different places have far more in common than you think and that any differences are of minor importance. This has since been proved to me many times over.

Johnny was about a year older than us and was able to write in ink! At our age at the time, such a feat represented a major step forward in one’s development and education. Handwriting was considered an important part of the curriculum in those days. Teachers were strict and insisted on good, neat penmanship. Mercifully, Ball Point Pens and Biros were still in their infancy at this time. Sadly, my class was still using pencil. I also regret to say that chalk and slate were still employed for doing our sums. I began to look at Johnny slightly differently now.

This now brings me to the subject of Johnny’s pen. It should be remembered that when I was a child, a fountain pen was a highly prized object and use and ownership represented passage from being a baby to being more grown up – certainly not Grown Up, but a sign that one had successfully taken one’s first step towards the adult world. Everyone in the class was dreaming of the time we had learned to write in ink so that we might receive our reward. I could not wait for the time when I could discuss from first-hand experience, the relative merits and flaws of a Platinum Fountain Pen and compare them to the Conway Stewart.

Johnny owned a fountain pen, which he proudly carried in his shirt pocket for all to see. His pen looked like a space ship! It was made of some copper-coloured metal and was decorated with a number of fin-like additions. Its clip was in the form of an arrow with a golden tip. I was very impressed with its look and asked to be allowed to look at it. Johnny obliged. As I held it in my hand, I was surprised by its weight. I dared to ask if I might write my name with it. Johnny told me that he was sorry, but he could not allow me to use it. He then went on to explain why. He said that only one person should ever write with a fountain pen, since everyone presses on the nib with a different pressure and this influences its stability and affects your writing. Naturally, I did not know or care about nib pressure, as all I wanted was to write with it! He could see that I was disappointed and said that he would let me use his pencil sharpener, if I liked? He brought it out of his pocket. It was a remarkable object, made of plastic in the form of a small aeroplane! I took this magnificent object and began to sharpen my pencil even though it did not need it. One could not turn down such an invitation. I was becoming more impressed with this kid by the minute!

Sadly just before we broke up for the Christmas holidays and we were to say goodbye to Johnny, he lost his pen. He was very upset. Miss Davis was also very upset and made us scour the classroom in the hope of finding it. Wastepaper baskets were upturned and the contents thoroughly examined with a fine toothcomb. Cupboards and drawers were emptied and everything from them was examined carefully. The floor was looked over once and then looked over again. The whole classroom was turned upside down, but to no avail. Although Johnny was upset, he shrugged his shoulders, and seemed to accept its loss. He told me that he hoped that his father would get him another one once they went back home. I felt very sorry for him. However, any sadness was soon pushed to the back of our minds. It was soon to be Christmas, the best time of the year for a child, and try as one might, the excitement generated by the coming season soon overwhelmed everything else. Besides, we were soon to put on our Christmas play and later in the day we were to feast on jellies and cakes and then receive a visit from Father Christmas! With such fun ahead, how could Johnny not manage to cheer up?

Miss Davis decided that we would not put on the usual Christmas play. This would have been The Story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. Last Christmas, we presented such a Nativity Play and we had a good time playing in it. Mary, played by a little girl that I liked and who had the unfortunate name of Patricia Weed, sat on some wooden object especially made by the woodwork master from the Senior School. He had attached the frame to a broom with stiff bristles, which served as the poor donkey’s head. Mary and Joseph pretended to go to The Inn where the Innkeeper told them that there was no room. They next pretended to move on and eventually arrived at a stable, where they stopped and Jesus was suddenly born and dropped into a decorated wooden orange box, provided by the father of one of my classmates, which served as a manger. Jesus was a doll that was provided by one of the richer girls in the class, Ann Olson.

Click on the individual pictures to hear carols

At the time I was not fond of Ann Olson, as she liked to pull my hair! Miss Davis had told the boys in the class that we were never ever to hit the girls no matter what they did. She said that we were to report any bad action to her. Right!!! Since we liked Miss Davis, we tried hard to do as she bade us. Eventually one boy in the class got so incensed by having his hair pulled by another girl that he smacked her across the face. This sent her flying across the room! In addition to being smacked by Miss Davis, his mother was asked to come to the school to discuss her son’s behaviour. One should remember that this was a time when parents had little interaction with school teachers and their child’s education and punishment. After seeing the shame that his actions brought on his mother and himself, no one dared slap, smack or bash a girl and the girls in the class took full advantage of the situation for a while. However, we developed ways to get our own back on them. I remember once helping a chum of mine tip some paint in the lap of a nasty girl that had been bothering him.

My nemesis, Ann Olson had long plaits with ribbons tied at the ends. She was a vain child and was proud of her hairstyle. During lunch, some days she removed the ribbons, but was never able to replace them. When this happened, she would find me and pull my hair and run to Miss Davis and say that I had pulled her plaits and made her ribbons come free. Regardless of what I said, NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, especially Ann’s mother believed me. I remember on one occasion that her mother came up to me after school while I was walking with my mother. She then began to scream at me about how tired she was that I was pulling her daughter’s plaits and removing her ribbons. I remember mother stopped and turned to me and asked if I had done this. Now, I knew better than ever lie to my mother when asked a direct question. I said that I had never pulled her hair or her ribbons and that it was she who pulled my hair. My mother and Mrs. Olson then had a set to, which led to Ann not pulling my hair for a while.

Top Row: Me, Pat Weed, Jeffrey Apen & Ann Olson
Bottom Row: Sandra Alfred, James Joffery & Me

Unfortunately, Ann periodically pulled my hair, which I tolerated until our final year at the school. At that time, we boys noted that the girls were beginning to grow breasts and Ann was showing that she was to become a well-endowed young lady. I remember that one day she pulled my hair in a particularly violent manner that brought tears to my eyes. Enough was enough! The camel's back was broken! Suddenly Miss Davis' words went right out of the window and I gave Ann a punch in her newly developing breast! I did not punch her hard. It was meant to tell her that I was not going to tolerate her behaviour any longer and that she could tell her mother and our teacher what I had done, if she so chose! I hoped that my tap would be sufficient for her to learn that I was not going to tolerate her bullying any longer! I was amazed, as Ann did nothing following my response and quietly walked away. The next day Ann arrived at school and from that moment on, she was a different person towards me. From then on everyday she brought me some sweets and began to smile at me at every opportunity. Even her mother suddenly became nice to me and even asked me to come to their house for tea. I went and we shared a kiss while sitting on their leather settee. I was surprised when she admitted to always liking me! Go figure!

To return to the previous year’s Christmas Play, most members of the class squeezed on stage dressed as the shepherds. I played one of the Wise Men. I enjoyed this, as I had lines and I believed that I brought dignity to my role while strutting around in my robe and hat very much in a manner that I had seen in a film set in Baghdad. However, what I remember most of this play was our special back drop that we made ourselves. At first, it was fun to make, but the task dragged on and on and literally took days to before it was finally finished. Miss Davis had given us lots of cardboard sheets to paint with various colours, which when she joined them together with lots of sticky tape, somehow, if one squinted one’s eyes, looked like the entrance to the inn and also doubled, perhaps unconvincingly, as the stable. I remember that I was not chosen to be amongst those given the supreme honour of painting The Star that the Wise Men were to follow. I was somewhat miffed, as I thought my painting to be a cut above most members of the class! When I offered my help, Miss Davis, rather brutally I thought, said that only those members of the class with the steadiest hands were being allowed to paint The Star! I found this sleight hard to forgive, but perhaps since it was so close to Christmas, somehow I did.

Click on Lawrence of Arabia to hear the Main Title from the film; click on The Sultan to hear Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade; click on The Sultan's Dagger to watch the introduction of the film, Topaki; and click on The Herdsman to watch the film's credits

For the Christmas when Johnny visited, Miss Davis decided that we were not going to present the usual Nativity Play. This was going to be left to the other classes. We were to present a Mummer Play. Miss Davis said that this was a play with a long history and traditionally presented at Christmastide in villages all over England in ye olden days. I remember that this added excitement and we were all in favour of it.

For information about the history and performance of the Mummers Play, please click on the link here.

First performance of Crook Morris Mummers Play, 17th January, 2009

Our play was to be the final presentation of the day following those of the other classes. I expect that we dismissed these plays as ordinaire and totally forgettable, since we were pretty full of ourselves and were no doubt expecting great reviews. Although I tried to watch the efforts of others, I was far too excited to concentrate and wanted to get up on the stage and get going!

I really liked our play, as the cast of characters were both interesting and heroic and included St. George, a dragon and Father Christmas. What more could one ask for? With such characters, we were guaranteed success! After some auditions, I was asked to play Father Christmas. Naturally, as far as I was concerned, he was The Star! I was really looking forward to playing the part and had been rehearsing my lines at home for days.

St. George was being played by some dopey kid who, in my humble opinion, would seem the least likely to be heroic of all of us. However, Miss Davis got it right when it came to the casting of The Dragon. She chose the boy, Geoffrey Apen, who was the funniest kid I knew at that time. It may be difficult to believe, but I swear this kid had timing when he told a story or a joke. He also had an amusing face and it was enough for me to just look at him to start laughing. He also had the ability to squat down and then run across the floor at an amazing speed, rather like a Cossack! We were all amazed when he would suddenly bend over and dash off at top speed. Miss Davis once tried to have us all try to copy this movement. Most of us fell over while a few moved slowly and ungracefully across the floor. Meanwhile Geoffrey flew at top speed between us. I used to go over to his home from time to time. He lived on Anthony Street, a street adjacent to the Palaseum, just off the Commercial Road in Stepney. Each time I went over, I was taken downstairs to the basement where I found his family milling around. I never did see a room on the ground floor of the house and began to think that they lived underground.

James, being a shy child, was playing a member of the crowd. This suited James as he was never one to grab the centre of attention. Johnny’s arrival came after the principle roles had been assigned. However, Miss Davis offered to write in a role for him, but he declined. Johnny said that he did not enjoy being in plays, but would be happy to join his cousin and play one of many in the crowd scenes!

I have to confess that I enjoyed playing Father Christmas. I suspect the red robe, the sack and the beard had much to do with it. Although the play had dialogue, I don’t think we kept to it totally. I feel sure that I add a few lines here and there, as I began to realise that St. George was perhaps the hero of the piece after all! Well, if he was the hero, I was going to have the most lines! I don’t recall if the play received a good round of applause or not, but as far as I was concerned, our presentation was a great success and I believed that I gave a great performance!!!

Following the plays, we went to the dining hall where the dinner ladies had decorated the tables with Christmas-y paper along with plates of cakes and bowls of jelly. I am sure that we feasted well. And who wouldn’t when presented with mounds of jelly and lots of cakes! One thing I remember well was that Johnny kept referring to the jelly as jello. We told him that it was called jelly, but he did not seem to learn or care and continued to talk about jello, which he seemed to like as much as we did. Since Miss Davis had told us to make Johnny feel welcome, we allowed him to continue on his merry way.

Click on the pictures above to listen to music

Once the feast was over, it was time for the visit of Father Christmas. I was most disappointed as I wanted to meet him while wearing my costume from the play, but Miss Davis said that it would not be good form, so I had to give up this idea. Again Johnny seemed to have his own name for Father Christmas, as he kept calling him Santa Claus. Although he was allowed to call jelly, jello, he was told, in no uncertain terms, that the jolly old gent was called Father Christmas and not Santa Claus! I don’t think Johnny mentioned him again.

We said good-bye to Johnny on the last day of school. He would be returning to America on New Year’s Day. He wrote to the class once via Miss Davis soon after he returned home. She read his letter to us twice and when she had finished, she said that each of us should write a short letter to him in reply. About a week later, Miss Davis collected our meagre few lines and put them into a large manila envelope and sent it off to him. Although we never heard from Johnny again, he left a lasting impression, as you will see.

Click on the pictures to hear Native American music

It is strange how an innocent conversation can have a profound and lasting effect. As a result of a misunderstanding of something Johnny said in answer to an innocent question, my imagination took off. Soon after he joined the class, we naturally asked him all sorts of questions about what he did, what he ate, what he liked and which types of films he liked. We soon learned that his likes and dislikes were not that different to our own. Most importantly, he liked the same types as films as we did. However, he and I did disagree over the relative merits of cowboys and indians. He preferred cowboys while I preferred indians. I liked seeing indians ridding full pelt, yelling and screaming, and sending arrows and lances at the brutish people opposing them. He liked playing with Meccano, train engines and cars, just as we did. I remember asking him about the games that he and his friends played. He mentioned some that were similar to those that we played. When I asked him if he played football or cricket, he looked puzzled, and then said no. James said that they did not play cricket in America, but they played baseball instead.

Baseball, now what was that? I had never heard of it. When asked what it was, Johnny began to explain the game and soon two things became obvious to us: one, that he liked the game very much, and two, that we had no idea what he was talking about. I was just about to tune him out, when I heard him mention the words …… The Braves ……. and quite suddenly, a simple misunderstanding of his meaning caused my imagination to run rampant.

While lost in my own thoughts and riding across the plains along with a wild raiding party, Johnny continued to ramble on about Baseball. Braves! This is what indian warriors were called. Since my imagination was working overtime now, I was convinced that he was actually talking about real indians while Johnny was really talking about a team! Since I was very fond of indians, and indeed had been given a synthetic feather bonnet for my last birthday, which I held in high esteem, and being a highly imaginative child, I suppose that my misunderstanding was not too difficult to understand. Anyway, I soon convinced myself that Baseball was played by real indians riding real horses! I couldn’t believe this game! It sounded incredible! Once my imagination took over, I heard nothing else he said and contented myself with my own whimsical thoughts!

We played Rounders, of a sort, every Thursday afternoon in the playground during our Games Period. Since we were still very young, most of us lacked good co-ordination, however we tried hard to hit and catch the ball and run between the bases. Miss Davis organised us into teams and we played for about half an hour or so. Johnny took to the game and proved to be very good at it. He kept likening it to Baseball. Naturally, after hearing this, I took a greater interest in it. Since I liked indians, I wanted to be as much like them as possible and thought that by playing this game, it would help me achieve this. Soon I was imagining myself as a Brave galloping around the bases on my horse and making for home!

Once I was a little older, I remembered that Johnny came from a place called Milwaukee. It is a strange name that I later learned was an Indian name and that the local baseball team was known as The Milwaukee Braves!!! I have to confess that I was more than a little disappointed to learn that the team was not made-up of real indians after all, but then life is filled with such disappointments, isn’t it?!

Click on a Brave to see film of the sixth game of the 1958 World Series between The Milwaukee Braves and The Yankees

However, on a more positive note, because of my meeting Johnny and his talk of The Braves and my own imaginative memories of what I thought they were, I began to follow their progress as a team. I did this throughout my school and college years once I realised that the scores of American Baseball games appear in certain of the better newspapers in Britain. Obviously there were a sufficient number of Americans living in Britain to warrant this. I found that following the progress of The Braves during these years to be somewhat demoralising. Sadly, they were not very good during this time and lost more games than they won. However, I stuck with them.

In 1968, I went to work in Toronto. One of my main reasons for going to live in Canada at that time was so I could travel and see North America. During the Easter holiday of 1969, I went to New York and Washington D.C. for the first time. Once I got back to Toronto, someone asked me where I was hoping to visit next. I said that I wanted to go to Milwaukee. Milwaukee??? Yes, I said, Milwaukee!

Later that summer, I went to Milwaukee. I was filled with excitement. I was going to go and see The Braves play! Milwaukee was an industrial town at the time and the largest city in the State of Wisconsin. Since I did not have a lot of money, I went there by Greyhound Bus, which I had boarded in Chicago. The ride to Milwaukee was not especially interesting as we followed a highway and not Lake Michigan, as I had hoped. I arrived in Milwaukee late at night and unfortunately my first glimpse of the city was not especially impressive. Still, I was there on a mission and not to see the glories of the town! I went to a hotel and checked in. The next morning I went down to the front desk and asked the desk clerk where the baseball stadium was. He took out a small map and circled the hotel site and the ball park on it. Who knew that the stadium was not called that, but a ball park? He told me that I was lucky as there was a day game that afternoon and would be able to get a ticket easily, as the team was not doing too well that year and folks weren’t going to the game often! I asked him how far away the ball park was and he told me that it was too far to walk! I asked if there was a bus that I could get there. If he was amused when I asked if I could walk there, he almost fell on the floor when I mentioned a bus. At that time, most Americans never thought to take a bus. Gasoline was cheap and it was the age of huge automobiles. Why would they want to take a bus?!!!

Click on the collage for music

Eventually I arrived at the ball park! I could not wait to get my ticket. As I walked towards the park, I noticed an advertisement on the wall. It announced that The Brewers would be home to the Chicago Cubs that afternoon. The Brewers? Who were The Brewers? Where were The Braves? My heart sank when someone told me, once they stopped laughing, that The Braves had moved! Moved? How could a team move? Players move! Managers move! But teams? I could not believe this. The West Ham Football Club would always, please God, remain in East London. Liverpool F.C. will always be in Liverpool, and so on. It seems that this is not the case in the United States. I later learned that teams can be sold and that new owners can take them to another city. And it would seem that several years earlier, The Milwaukee Braves picked up sticks and moved south, to Atlanta, in Georgia, to be exact, and in doing so, were now known as The Atlanta Braves!!!

I couldn’t believe that I had been so stupid and had not learned this in Toronto. I was embarrassed to say that I had not told anyone why I was going to Milwaukee. Obviously, had I done so, I would have known. Amusingly, I maintained silent on this faux pas for years, but once I got over the embarrassment of the mistake, I began to tell others about it and I laughed, along with them, at myself and my stupidity!!!

Regardless of whether The Braves were in Milwaukee or Atlanta, once I came to live in the United States in 1980, I was able to become a full-time fan! Not just a fan, however! My interest in Baseball and in The Braves in particular verged on the obsessional. Thanks to the owner of the team and also his ownership of a television channel, now being readily available all over the country thanks to cable television outlets, I was able to watch almost every game each summer. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the team went through a Golden Age and won the World Series for the first time since they had been in Boston. It seemed that before being The Milwaukee Braves, they were The Boston Braves!!! Imagine that!

Click on a Brave to hear music


Anway, I thank Johnny for making my misunderstanding possible, for without it, I might never have discovered The Braves and Baseball and spent many happy hours watching games, and later listening to them on the radio, which has proved to be a far more entertaining way to follow the games. Radio is a wonderful medium, as it allows one’s imagination to run rampant! Thanks to radio, I can once again imagine that each Brave is not just a player, but is in fact a Brave astride a horse and racing around the bases heading for home!

I have written a series of fantastic tales about the meetings of The Braves, as real indians, with other teams as seen according to their names under the title, The Atlanta Scrolls.  Should you have an interest in reading them, please contact me via the website.

One final point regarding Johnny, or rather, Johnny’s pen: it proved not to be too well made and quickly fell to pieces.

Click on the pictures for songs and music associated with London

Continue to Part Two - The Kid from Left Field - The Film

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins