East End Memories


Many of the local excursions that we made as a family on Sunday afternoons were special occasions since they were to family members for High Tea. High Tea! I still shudder at the mere mention of this meal. I fear that my dislike stems from its association with visits over the river and through the woods to my grandmother’s home. My grandmother was not a good cook. In fact, she was a dreadful one. She lacked not only the smallest ability to provide a decent spread for us to eat, but also seemed totally unwilling to make even the smaller pretence that she was pleased to see my mother and I. Our periodic and formal visits to my grandmother’s house were miserable affairs and always proved stressful for my mother and myself. I have to confess to still being a little envious whenever I hear others talk about their happy memories of childhood visits to grandparents and of the wonderful times that they enjoyed there.

Although my childhood days could hardly be described as Victorian where children were seen but not heard, we were still expected to be on their best behaviour around grandparents especially and to speak when addressed and, above all, to sit quietly and not make a noise or a fuss. Parents wanted their children to make a good impression on their grandparents. To show them off to their best advantage, children were suitably prepared before presentation. Every child stood before his or her grandparents only after being well-scrubbed and well-groomed and following strict instructions to behave well. Any deviation from these demands brought embarrassment and left the poor parents feeling well and truly shown up. What a child needed to remember was that Grandma’s house was no place to have fun in and no place to be caught with your elbows on the table or scrape chairs across the floor, and a hundred-and-one other things that kids will do. Was it any wonder that I never looked forward to visits to my Grandmother’s home?

Fidgeting and fussing were not tolerated by my grandmother and neither was any interruption to the flow of her conversation. Normally I was not one to fuss or get bored when in the company of interesting or colourful people since I was genuinely interested in what they had to say. Besides, most people that I met during visits to the homes of people that my parents knew were kind enough to pay me a great deal of attention and not ignore me. During such visits and following the normal greetings and conversations centring around my height, weight and general manner, if no other kids were present, I was generally left to sit quietly in a corner of the room or at a table nearby where I pretended to read or I might be expected to occupy my time with the dog or cat of the house. While remaining quiet and seemingly engrossed in my occupation, I would be all ears and listening intently to the conversation about me. Not only did I find much of what I heard to be of interest, but more importantly, since the grown-ups generally forgot that I was present, they would talk of matters generally spoken about only once children were out of earshot. Their forgetfulness allowed me to learn a great deal about matters which were not my concern.

During my childhood, Sunday visits meant dressing up in Sunday best clothes. Nowhere was this of greater importance than when we visited my grandmother. In those days, there was no such thing as casual wear. Casual wear meant sports clothes and this meant tennis, a game not played by the working class. It has to be said that wearing Sunday best clothes was not as terrible as people might think unless of course the weather was extremely hot. In those days, no self-respecting person would ever think of wearing working clothes on a Sunday. Few would dream of venturing outside unless dressed in clothes befitting the day. No matter what a person’s job was and no matter how little money that person earned, just about everyone managed to have something special in the wardrobe, which was kept and maintained specifically for attending weddings, funerals and Sunday visits.

Although Sunday clothes were special, they were not always new. Most people were still unable to afford to buy brand new clothes. Many people were still forced to purchase their outfits at either the old rag girl’s shop or else down the lane. Despite being second hand, these clothes were well-made and had been well-cared for by the original owner and were far from being ragged. The new owners continued to look after these clothes and saw to it that they were regularly mended, washed and ironed. Whether brand new or second-hand, Sunday best clothes were always brushed and pressed with care before wearing.

My parents always enjoyed seeing me well-turned out and were proud when people they liked, as well as perfect strangers, commented on what a nice boy I was or what a little gentleman your son is, and so on. Even going down the lane was not just a place where we shopped, but was a place where we visited people whose opinions my parents respected. As a result, I had to look decent and present myself well, which to my mother meant keeping my head up, but above all, holding my shoulders back at all times! As I have said before, this can be both uncomfortable and tiring!

Whenever I accompanied my parents on a Sunday visit, I was subjected to a ritual before being allowed out: my hair was neatly and somewhat brutally brushed, my shoes were highly shined and I had been scrubbed from head to toe. Although we were not rich, my mother always saw that my Sunday best clothes were new (the reader is referred to East End Toff). I was dressed in little suits that were tailored affairs. These were of a good quality lightweight wool and made by one of the many tailors of the area known to my mother. My mother preferred dark suits. She always chose a weave of either dark blue or charcoal with the finest and simplest of patterns. She disliked the flamboyant and never chose a brown weave. In those days, young boys always wore short trousers. My mother insisted that I kept my long socks pulled up to the knee at all times. Since woollen socks did not enjoy staying up when a child walked, I was given wide elastic bands to place under the turned over sock tops to help maintain them in place. My black shoes were polished and brushed the night before any visit, but were not considered shined until after passing my mother’s inspection. My mother was more difficult to please than any sergeant in the army!

Shirts were still made of pure cotton and always white and required careful ironing before wear. Great care was taken with my tie, as it had to match my suit. It was never overly colourful or with an excessive or extravagant pattern. This would be considered vulgar and my mother prided herself on never being vulgar! Although I had learned to knot my own tie at an early age, a Windsor knot was frowned upon by our society since it was not considered classy amongst the working class! Finally, I was never considered dressed unless there was a freshly washed and ironed white handkerchief in the top pocket of my suit. Now I was ready to go forth into society!

Without wishing to sound conceited, but for the sake of honesty, I have to admit that I did cut a rather dashing figure when dressed in my Sunday best clothes. I was often admired by those we visited or met in the street. Any praise given to me came as a result of the way I looked rather than from anything I actually said or did for the most part. Since I was smartly dressed and knew how to behave, or rather, I knew how to charm. As a result, I quickly gained the reputation of being what Americans would call a cute kid! I detest the word cute, as my American friends and acquaintances can attest. Babies are cute; adults are not. To me, no person over the age of five is cute! The word cuteness does not conjure up the look of sweetness and charm, but one of deviousness, craftiness etc., which I find to be more admirable qualities, I fear, rather than superficial qualities that fade with time! I was brought up to be polite and to always greet adults with handshakes, just like a little gentleman. People would find this sort of behaviour delightful in one so young. I would smile sweetly and, for good measure, perhaps blush a little. Goodness, I would have slapped a child like me!!! Anyway, this cuteness often as not caused people to dip into their pockets and purses for silver coins, which they gave me to spend on something nice, as they put it. I was always grateful.

Although my mother took pride in the praise heaped on me, she did not like my eagerness in taking money. Although I was not a mercenary child, I was happy when adults reacted towards me by reaching deep into their pockets and bringing out a coin or two. My willingness to accept this money with pleasure was the result of my rarely, if ever, getting any pocket money. If I wanted to go to the pictures or if I wanted to buy a particular comic, I would ask my mother and most often be given the money. However, if I wanted to waste my money on sweets, this was another matter and the answer would generally be no!

My father never gave me any regular pocket money and only gave me any money at all when he was drunk. It wasn’t that he was mean, but rather he had better things to spend his money on, such as beer and cigarettes for himself and other people! My father was generous to strangers. For example, should he see a mother and baby on a bus or in the park and be charmed by the baby, after oohing and aahing, he would give the mother some money to buy a little something for the child. This would infuriate my mother, since he never showed such generously towards me, unless, as I said, he was drunk.

Desperate needs call for desperate action! And so tragically, I soon learned to seize the opportunity whenever he was drunk. I was very cute in a cunning sort of way as a kid, as I never asked him for an outrageous sum, just for a small coin. Like most drunken people, my father became overly sentimental when intoxicated. Within minutes, he would be telling me that I was a wonderful son and that I was such a lovely boy and how I could have anything of his. This behaviour was in marked contrast to that generally shown towards me during his sober moments. I knew that he loved me, but he rarely showed it in tangible terms. Anyway, the more the schmaltz oozed, the more his coins found their way to me. He generally wept and wallowed in a bout of self-pity, as he turned over the coins. After a while, he nodded off with most of his Sunday lunch left untouched and cold before him. Soon the snoring began and we knew that we had to help him upstairs to bed so that he could sleep it off. Whenever I received such a windfall, I was always generous to my mother and willingly shared my sweets with her! I used to present her with a Bounty bar or else some Turkish Delight, which she would savour.

I laugh now whenever I think of such events, as my mother was always in favour of my getting what I could from my father under such circumstances. However, when it came to my taking money from the adults that I met during Sunday visits, my mother and I suffered a divergence in thinking. She was of the mind that I should not accept money from people, especially relatives. This used to annoy me. Not only would she actually tell people not to give me money, but she would also tell me to give it back whenever she discovered my grateful acceptance out of her sight! Give it back? Are you kidding me? I always felt that whatever I was given, I had earned!

Often times, I suffered during those visits and was only receiving some recompense for the indignities that I had endured! After all, hadn’t I tolerated being kissed multiple times by the women, as well as politely suffering their poring over me for what seemed forever and then tolerated their endless stroking of my hair? I reasoned that I deserved whatever I was given! However, whatever I endured at the hands of the women was nothing compared to the horror that I suffered at the hands of the men! My plight really began once I was passed to them! These men, both strangers and family members, seemed to think that I actually enjoyed being thrown into the air and then swung around the room while they pretended that I was some aeroplane that had flown in specifically for their amusement! If my flight was scheduled after High Tea, it would not be long before I was found in the toilet vomiting up the hateful meal! When this happened, not even my mother dared suggest that I return any money received! It was not always easy being a child and especially if you were a cute kid!

After having my innards sufficiently churned-up, I yearned to be left in peace to recuperate from my flight. However, this was often not the case for next I would be expected to gleefully run and play with some old and possibly blind and ear-chewed and mange-ridden cat, who like me and Greta Garbo, yearned to be alone and allowed to sit quietly on its cushion in some dark and cool place and dream its dreams in peace. What owners of these old cats failed to appreciate was that their animals were unfriendly creatures to outsiders at the best of times and generally that they disliked little boys more than anything else. And who could blame them? These cats were not spring chickens and were hardly suitable companions for a child. They had long claws and were afraid to use them. After all, I am sure that they had memories of having their tails pulled by an overly zealous child and rather than wait to see if a new playmate was considerate of them or not, they would strike first as a warning to leave them alone.

Whenever there was no cat to torment me, you could bet your life that there was an ancient dog to mess with me. To my chagrin, I learned at a young age that the English were animal lovers.

As a child, I have to confess that I was not overly fond of other peoples’ dogs. My father was a dog lover par excellence and treated his dog with love and great care. His dog was always immaculately maintained. There were never any fleas on his dog! And this was the era before flea and tick collars. But the great thing about his dog was that it did not smell.

Dog lovers do not realise it, but their dogs often smell. I am sure that owners have become used to the various odours that their pets produce, but the less frequent visitors have the unfortunate habit of noticing it the second they enter their homes. Dog odours become more pungent as a dog ages. Fido during the later stages of his life not only constantly sheds hair everywhere, but also leaves his smell on all chairs and cushions. Winter was the worst season to visit a home where an old dog lived. Windows were closed. The fire in the grate was stoked up high in order to warm the room and Fido who was collapsed on a cushion or couch. These were perfect conditions for allowing his odours to circulate the room and insult the nostrils. Despite all efforts to keep the shedding hair away from you, I always left covered in dog hair. My father was always very voluble when it came to the aftermath of such a visit and would moan and groan for the whole journey home about that flea-bitten mange dog and complain that the beast was too old and should have been put down ages ago! My mother would be annoyed at his behaviour, but for once, I was totally in agreement with him. Mind you, he had not had to play with the creature!

What amused me most about visits to such homes was how dog owners always assumed that I had been living and yearning to play with their animal. I felt that they believed I had come to visit especially to do so. Their dogs were probably wonderful friends and companions to them. After all, isn’t a dog man’s best friend? My father attested to that! But dogs tend to be the best friend of their owner and not man, in general and certainly not to a small boy! It was always with a heavy heart that I followed expectation and took off my jacket, rolled up my shirt sleeves and rushed out into the yard to run up and down with an angry dog! Again most of these poor creatures were old and again were not suitable companions for a small child and soon collapsed to the ground, panting for their life, and, mercifully, refused to run no further.

Was it any wonder that I was happy to sit and be content to listen to the conversation about me while leafing through a book or playing with some little toy brought along to keep me amused while the grown-ups talked? Anyway, I figured that any money handed to me was money that I had earned and I wasn’t going to give it back, no matter what my mother said! And my outstretched hand always grabbed the dibbles before anyone changed their mind! I tried to avoid that fierce look, which was characteristic of my mother when displeased by my behaviour, but always felt it burning into me. No matter how long I tried to avoid it, whenever I looked her way, it would always be there to let me know that she was not pleased and that I had shamed her by taking the money. I knew that later, this matter would be discussed at length, and despite my entreaties about having earned the money for having to put up with all those kisses, hurls into the air and scratches and bites from those mangy beasts, she never saw my side and expected me to put the money into a money box where it would sit and be saved for a rainy day! Now, I ask, what child gives a feather or fig about rainy days?

I had only one living grandparent during my childhood. Soon after my birth, my father’s father died from complications of pneumonia, a deadly disease at that time. He seemed to have been a nice man and was very proud that he had a grandson. A few weeks after my birth, he walked from Dulwich, in South London, over to Bethnal Green and back in order to see me. His visit coincided with an air raid and so all trams and buses operated by London Transport were at a stand-still. His return walk was made all the more difficult as it began to rain and to rain hard. Soon after, he developed a cold, which turned into pneumonia, and brought about his death. While ill, he wrote a charming letter to my mother, whom he liked very much, telling her about the happiness that he had felt upon seeing her and holding me. He even suggested that we come and live with him so that he could be of help to her. Sadly, he died soon after.

My father’s mother and stepmother had died a number of years earlier. His mother was a woman of interest since she had been a trapeze artist and had travelled the world prior to getting married. Whenever my parents mentioned her, they always spoke of the size of her shoe, which was amazingly petite! According to my mother, my father’s stepmother was a delight. My mother had helped to nurse her during her final illness up until she died. My mother’s father had been killed during World War I and her stepfather had died just before the start of World War II.

As a result, I only knew my maternal grandmother when I was a child. Unlike most people of my age, I have no warm and fuzzy memories of a tiny, sweet, silver-haired, doting angel with rosy cheeks and a loving smile who stood waiting at her front door ready to greet her children and grandchildren with a friendly smile and a loving kiss. My grandmother rarely, if ever, extended an invitation to us to come and visit her. Any visits were requested by my mother and were generally suggested so that the old lady, as my father liked to call her out of earshot, might see me.

For some unknown reason, my grandmother never warmed to my mother. My mother was her eldest daughter from her first marriage and had been extremely helpful and generous to her throughout her life. My mother raised her half-siblings since her mother was forever pregnant and confined to bed unless she was out drinking with her second husband who had given up working for a living once he married my grandmother. My mother’s childhood is like something written by Dickens and easily rivals that of the early lives of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist (details of my mother’s early life will appear in another story at a later time). Despite the brutality and cruelty shown to her during her childhood by her mother and stepfather, my mother remained respectful and dutiful to her mother.

My grandmother’s coldness and her disinterested attitude towards my mother were immediately extended to me. Although my grandmother lived less than one mile from my mother at the time of my birth, unlike my father’s father who walked across London in the rain, she made no effort to visit her either during her confinement or after my birth and did not actually meet me until I was several months old. This meeting only took place then as my mother took me to visit her at her home. Apparently she showed little interest in me during that initial visit, or in any subsequent visit, I might add. I hate to say this so bluntly, but I fear that I cannot put it in any other way, but my grandmother was not an especially pleasant person. She did, however, like my father. However, this was most likely due to the fact that he bought her drinks whenever they met.

I hated going to my grandmother’s house as a child. Before leaving home, my mother always gave me her orders! These were detailed and strict instructions on how to comport myself during the visit. She did this since she knew that my grandmother had the habit of scrutinising every breath I took and would be more than ready, willing and wanting to mouth off her criticism of me. Of course, her critique was not really of me, since I was a mere pawn in her game, but aimed at wounding my mother, which she did.

High Tea, as I have said, was a miserable experience both for my mother and myself. We generally arrived at about 4 p.m. and I would immediately start to count the minutes until we could leave. If we were lucky, one or more of my mother’s half sisters were present. I needed others to be present to help dilute the hostile atmosphere generated by my grandmother.


At the time, my grandmother lived in the house where I had been born. When my parents moved to the pie ‘n’ mash shop, my mother arranged for my grandmother to take over renting the house – 11 Royston Street. This small street is found just off Bonner Street, in Bethnal Green, which itself leads into the Roman Road. Number eleven is no longer present. It was demolished a number of years ago and the land was used for a small public garden. In the interim, the houses across the way were also demolished and replaced. Amongst these homes, there is now a new number eleven.

My grandmother lived in the house with her two youngest daughters and her youngest son from the second marriage and who were now adults. These children were now adults, but remained at home since they were unmarried, which was the custom of the time. My grandmother had given birth to many, many children: three from her first marriage and seventeen – yes, seventeen – from the second. Of those of the second marriage, one or two died soon after birth and one, my mother’s favourite brother, was killed during the war. He died two days after the end of the war and was shot by a sniper. The remaining children of her second marriage were not a happy brood and did not get along well. My mother said that they were a sullen bunch and remarkably selfish as children, except for her deceased brother, that is. Only three remained unmarried and continued to live at home, which was the custom of the time. Although my two remaining unmarried aunts got along reasonably well, this could not be said of their relationship with my uncle.

My Uncle Leonard was, to say the least, odd. His surname was Smith. Obviously this name is not unique and is in fact the most common name in the English-speaking world. In order to separate himself from the ordinary and the average, he changed his surname to Beaumont! Naturally, this did not sit well with his mother and his brothers and sisters. My mother had no opinion on the matter having long since decided that her half-brother was a selfish ninny.

Uncle Leonard was unlike most men of the area, as he did not work as a labourer. He apparently studied and managed to get a position working in an office. At that time, should an East End boy work in an office, this would most certainly set him apart from the neighbourhood rank and file and separate him from their company. He went to work in a suit and tie and carried an umbrella whenever it looked like rain! It was presumed that he worked in the City, but no one knew for certain. He made no effort to bridge any gap between himself and neighbours and family. His affected snobbish manner, life-style and behaviour succeeded in alienating most family members and separating them from him. As a result, he lived a life outside his family while living with them. He did not eat with his sisters and mother and rarely spoke to them. He spent his time in his room where it was said that he studied in the hope of bettering himself and so gaining promotion at work. His studiousness would have been admirable were it not for the fact that he was nasty. He was rude, arrogant and belittled all those around him. As a result, there were constant skirmishes between his sisters and himself. Often these skirmishes exploded into full scale battles and the occasional war. My grandmother, never one to help defuse a situation, more often than not fanned the flames of discontent and helped bring a situation to a head.

Whenever a situation became intolerable, the sisters, Louise (Louie) and her younger sister, Margaret (Marie) would appear at my parents’ shop whereupon they would weep and wail and recount the latest insults that they had endured at the hands of their brother. Since they always turned up late at night, swearing never to return home again as long as that beast was there, my mother, stupidly, would listen and offer them a safe haven until a peace could be agreed upon.

Peace was never possible, since very early on the following morning, generally while the girls were still in bed, my grandmother would appear at the shop where she would immediately begin snorting fire and spitting venom! Without even so much as a good morning, my grandmother launched into vicious accusations and recriminations. The object of her attack was my mother. She accused her of coming between her sisters and brother, causing them to argue and bringing shame and misery on her family. Over the years, my mother knew that she could not reason with her mother and listened while vitriolic abuse was hurled her way. Generally, my father’s response to the situation was to offer to make everyone a cup of tea!

When I was first privy to a maternal attack on my mother, I, young as I was, leapt to her defence and I gave my grandmother a mouthful! Naturally, I did not realise that this only added fuel to my grandmother’s fire and brought my mother more abuse and shame once I had been removed from the room. Once my grandmother’s attack came to an end, she would snatch up her stolen children, as she called her cringing daughters and demanded that they follow her home immediately. As she stalked out of the shop, her final odious remark was to tell my mother to never come to visit again! Naturally, I was ready to dance a jig at such a request! Unfortunately, my mother saw things differently and told me that Nanny did not mean what she said. Even I could see that Nanny meant every word that she spat, but blood is thicker than water. My poor mother was upset and out of salts as a result of this incident for days. My father was absolutely of no help at such times and continued to escape to the kitchen at every opportunity only to return carrying a tray of tea cups. His solution to any and every problem was tea!

Generally, we did stay away for some weeks, but my mother would accidentally, on purpose, run across quite by chance one of the sisters or even her mother while supposedly shopping on the Roman Road. And so, because of her need for family, my poor mother began the process of setting herself up for another round of abuse. And believe me, it did come and not long after the previous one I hasten to add.

As I said earlier, my two single aunts and uncle lived with their mother. I say lived, but co-habited would be a better term. Their deciding to co-habit and so lead separate lives arose as a result of yet another row, or rather a fight, between my aunts and uncle, but this time with spill-over involving my grandmother.

This fight was the result of my grandmother’s cooking. My grandmother was, without doubt, the very worst of cooks. I do not make this statement lightly. I can swear to its truth and would do so in any court in the land. In fact, I have proof of it from the time that she came to stay with my parents and me following our move out of the East End.

The battle started at dinner time. It was said that my grandmother produced an especially foul and inedible meal for her children to eat. Normally her meals were always inedible, so that evening one can only assume that she had somehow surpassed herself in her lack of efforts in the kitchen. Apparently, each child paid their mother a hefty sum of money for the right to live in her home and for the hoped for delicious meals that they received each morning and evening. Uncle Leonard, obviously pushed to breaking point by constant disappointment in his mother’s culinary efforts, became vexed. Somehow, his distress turned towards his sisters once more and obviously old scores surfaced which needed to be settled and old wounds were opened. This time, apparently, Uncle Leonard, in great and exaggerated distress, took up a chopper and proceeded to chase his sisters around the house.

Unfortunately, there are times when I regret my visual imagination. When I first heard the details of this event, seeing it in one’s mind eye, caused me to become helpless with convulsive laughter. Naturally, it took a long time before my grandmother was willing to tolerate the sight of me following this insult. Making false apologies was a small price to pay for the joy that reliving this event in my mind again and again over the years has given me.

According to my grandmother, who obviously, and mistakenly, saw herself at the time as a Boadicea-like figure, rose up in defiance of this brute and demanded that he cease his chastisement of his sisters and lay his chopper down! Again according to my grandmother, he now turned his attention on her and showered her with threats peppered with comments on her ability, or rather lack of ability to cook. Fortunately she was able to escape his cleaver and was able to seek sanctuary in an adjoining room where her daughters had previous taken up residence. The poor victims of this violent attack apparently spent some time locked behind a door, which was the only thing separating them from Uncle Leonard and his eager cleaver. I am told that they were saved from certain death only when Aunt Louie’s fiancé called to take her out for the evening.

According to my future Uncle Norman, once the front door opened, he found himself being greeted by a madman with fire in his eyes. Uncle Leonard is said to have spoken some incomprehensible words and next thrust the angry cleaver into the hand of his future brother-in-law and then took off up the stairs to hide in his room. Once inside, he locked the door and, according to my aunts, did not reappear for several days, which is most certainly an exaggeration. Meanwhile, my grandmother fearing for her life and forgetting completely any danger that might yet befall her daughters, immediately packed her bag and literally ran to my mother seeking a bed! Her visit lasted for one month.

This unexpected visit of my grandmother was especially annoying for me as it coincided with the annual school summer holidays. As a result, I was expected to entertain her each day and see that she was kept amused until my mother got home from work. That summer was perhaps the most miserable that I have ever spent!

Several years later, I learned the awful truth of that my brutish uncle’s foul attack on my aunts. It seems that although they did have an argument with my uncle and they did run from the room to hide, their account of the incident owes more to fantasy than fact. Later I learned that Uncle Leonard was in fact innocent of chasing my screaming banshee-like aunts from the room. It would seem that they chose to leave the room in this manner. Thanks to their overly stimulated imagination, they presumed that he was going to attack them and so did not wait for the unlucky blow to fall. They later claimed that flight was the better part of valour! As they ran, Aunt Louie, who had remarkably poor eyesight and wore spectacles with the thickest of lenses, ran smack dab into an occasional table. As it happened, the infamous chopper was laying innocently and obviously precariously on the table. Apparently, the fiendish cleaver slipped and fell to the floor as my Aunt Louie crashed against the table and sent everything on the surface flying about the room. During the chopper’s fall, it touched, without grazing, my aunt’s leg. Once behind a locked door, my aunts agreed to exaggerate their claim of brutality against their brother. As a result, they claimed that the cleaver was in their brother’s hand. They also felt that any claim of brutish behaviour would appear more plausible if they said that Uncle Leonard chased them from the room while wielding the fiendish implement. Uncle Leonard, now finding himself alone in the room and fearing for the safety of his siblings and mother, knelt down to retrieve the offending slicer with the plan of returning it to the table and so out of harm’s way. It was at that precise moment, immediately following his taking hold of the dangerous weapon, that the future Uncle Norman knocked at the door and, as they say, the rest is history.

Anyway, to return to my grandmother’s cooking – or should I say, to her lack of ability to cook. My grandmother had a number of peculiarities. One could not reason with her. Once she believed something, it was imprinted in her mind as if in stone. I was once on a bus in London with her and we came to the Mansion House. I remember that she insisted that we had arrived at Whitehall, which was still several miles away, and told me to be quiet since I was wrong. I remember asking the bus conductor where we were and even when he replied that we were just passed the Mansion House, she did not believe him and said to his face that he was wrong. She also had the most peculiar way of folding one pound notes that she then placed in her purse. Occasionally, I find myself copying her method of folding and when I do, I smile. Gone she might be, but not forgotten!

Mansion House and The Bank of England   Whitehall

My grandmother was also the type of woman to expect to be waited upon. And so, it was a surprise when one Sunday she announced that she would be cooking lunch. I remember the horror that I felt when I saw her efforts. The meat had been burned to a cinder! Her potatoes, which she had mashed, were watery and drinkable with a straw! However, these disasters were palatable when compared to the cooked cabbage that she produced. I remember that poor cabbage well as it was white in colour when raw. I have absolutely no idea how she did to it, but it turned out to be dark green in colour once cooked and tasting of grit! To make matters worse, it had a foul odour! I could not, and would not, eat it.

My unwillingness to eat my grandmother’s lunch caused her to accuse me of being a spoilt child who wants his own way all the time. My mother tried hard to encourage me to eat, but I honestly could not. My grandmother, always ready with the venom, next launched into my mother and complained that she had been just the same when she was a child. Now, considering that my mother was starved as a child, and was removed from her mother and stepfather’s care as a result of their brutality and starvation techniques, and this was in the 1920’s, long before there was such a thing as Social Services, this was like a red rag to a bull and caused my mother to remind my grandmother of her childhood. My father, sensing a row coming, sided with my grandmother and began to chastise me for not eating the lunch. Sadly, one thing led to another and my mother suggested that her mother pack her bag, as it was time that she went home.not need to be told twice since she had had more than enough and could My grandmother said that she did not wait to get home to her daughters and son where she would be appreciated!

The next day, I had to accompany my grandmother home. The journey took about two hours and during the whole time, she did not speak to me. She allowed me to pay for the tickets and never opened her purse once, keeping her neatly folded pound notes safe and secure for her own use at a later time.


Click to enlargeHigh Tea at my grandmother’s was hardly a meal to look forward to. My grandmother was incapable or perhaps lacked the patience to cut bread neatly. Most people at that time could cut bread into thin slices. Hers were doorsteps – thick, dry slabs of aged bread, with only the merest scraping of margarine on them. Her High Tea consisted of what she called salad. Her salad was nothing like the ones that are eaten today. She would throw a withered, dry and decidedly unappetising lettuce leaf on the plate and drop a hard-boiled egg on top of it. The egg was never sliced or arranged in a decorative manner. It sat there …….. dark grey in colour and whole, like a rock, which no fork could pierce! In her impatience, much of the shell remained attached to the egg. Although bits of the shell was still present, it had been smashed into tiny pieces and proved almost impossible to remove. She never provided spring onions with her salad, but instead decorated the plate with a chunk of the strongest smelling and tear-producing onion imaginable. This ambrosia-like feast was topped off with an old and often mouldy tomato that proved as soft as the egg had proven hard. She served no cheese or meat with this plate. I fear that not even a dog would eat this fayre, were she willing, of course, to spend money on its upkeep for my grandmother was notoriously mean. Even her nearest and dearest believed that moths liked in her purse where they kept the neatly folded pound notes company.

One was expected to eat her salad, without any dressing, together with two slices of her doorstep slices of bread. The reference to the eating of the bread was specifically aimed at me. She was forever informing me that unless I ate the divined number of slices, then I would get no cake. I had friends who often spoke of the delicious cakes that their grandmothers made for them: the succulent chocolate cake, the delectable strawberry shortcake and the moist and light Madeira not to mention the delicious light fruit cake! And let us not forget the biscuits that they made for their little darlings to take home with them! My grandmother, should she had bothered to have a cake for us, would have bought one from the baker’s that had obviously been left over and had been greatly reduced in price. The outer covering of her cake was dry and leathery. Any filling was now congealed and decidedly unappetising to the eye let alone the palate. Over all, I would have gladly forgone her cake!

If her salad was odious and her bread and butter jaw breaking, these were considered sumptuous compared to what she did, or rather did not do, to tea! My father secretly fumed whenever he was given a cup of tea by my grandmother. Unfortunately, this would have been the one time that I should have enjoyed hearing my father explode with horror at the weakness of the drink.

Although my father was not a reliable man and constantly broke promises made to my mother and me, he did have some good qualities. At the top of the list was his ability to make a cup of tea. Once I moved to North America, the first thing that I wanted once I came for a visit and had greeted my parents, was to sit at their kitchen table and enjoy a cup of my father’s tea. It was truly an elixir from heaven!

I will talk no more here about my father and tea, since this must be saved for another time, he had decidedly definite and strict views on the subject. And it will be learned that when it came to the matter of tea, I was most definitely a complete and utter disappointment to him and to this day, I feel the shame!

The only good thing that I can say about a visit to my grandmother’s home was that she had no dog and no cat. I suspect that she kept no animal since she was something of a miser and would most certainly resent spending money on an animal. Although I was spared having to play with a mangy animal, I did not always escape being thrown about the room. Whenever one of my aunts’ husbands was present at these High Teas, I found myself being flung up and down and round and round. Fortunately my grandmother would soon put a stop to such behaviour. This was not to save me from the indignity, but rather out of fear that something of hers might get broken. Somehow I did not mind vomiting my tea over her carpet even though she would scold me even more than usual for doing this.

I was always pleased when my parents decided that it was time to leave. Their excuse was that I had to be taken home as it was getting close to my bedtime. I think that I can count the times that my grandmother actually kissed me before my leaving and I think that the number of smiles that she gave me were even less. Normally I gave her a kiss on her cheek upon arrival and when leaving. She never moved nearer to help me reach her cheek and I had to struggle to achieve my aim, but still often missed. Not that she seemed to care. I saw that she was always warmer to any cousin that might be present than she ever was towards me.

As I grew older, my grandmother’s opinion of me worsened. I never understood this since I gave her no cause for her poor opinion of me. I remember that once she told my mother that I was going to turn out badly. She said that there was no doubt that I was destined for prison! I have no idea how she came to this conclusion. She never criticised my numerous cousins who were constantly in trouble both with parents and police as they grew. This remark upset my mother very much. However, what really caused my mother to get annoyed with her occurred when she said that once I grew up, I would discard my parents since I would have no need of them and that I would never again concern myself with their welfare! I felt that this remark was especially cruel. My mother was very upset by it and quickly gathered me up and we left the house and did not return for several months.

At the age of seventy-something, my grandmother found herself living alone except for the ever increasingly more morose Uncle Leonard. Both Aunt Louie and Aunt Marie had long since married and moved away leaving their brother to tend to the needs of their mother. He had tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade his sisters and brothers to take the old girl into their homes, but received no takers. I remember that he came to our home and demanded that my mother take her in. My mother declined this offer by saying that we did not have room for her. Naturally my uncle became annoyed and this led to him becoming abusive. Although my mother remained polite and respectful to her mother, she was, I am glad to say, unwilling to tolerate rudeness and abuse from her half-brother and she sent him away smarting from some of her comments.

Uncle Leonard was still working in an office and was still having trouble getting along with people. Apparently one day, completely out of the blue, he announced that he was emigrating to Australia and that my grandmother could go with him, if she wished. After learning that none of her children was interested in having her live with them, she begrudgingly joined him. I heard that there was a family get-together prior to their departure, but my parents did not learn of it until after it had taken place. I was away in college at the time and so did not attend. I am sure that I was not missed.

Apparently my uncle and grandmother settled in Perth, in Western Australia. We heard that they never settled to the way of life there and found the heat to be intense. After three years away, they returned to England and after a year or so of living back in the East End, they eventually moved to Ipswich, where they remained for the rest of her life. My grandmother died at the age of ninety-something seemingly of old age. I was living in the United States by then and so did not attend the funeral. By then, I had not seen any family member including my uncle and grandmother in perhaps twenty years.

Following my grandmother’s death, my Uncle Leonard started to lose his mind and control and began to appear periodically at my parents’ home. Whenever he presented himself at the door, he yelled obscenities at my mother for all her neighbours to hear. Next he would bang and bang on their door and then start to kick it. All attempts to have him stop these assaults failed. He ignored conversations with the police. Eventually my mother was advised to take out a court order to bar him from coming within a certain distance of her. Once she did this, his visits grew rarer and at last they stopped, however he began to write her abusive letters for a number of years. I have no idea where he is now and whether he is still alive. I have long since lost touch with all of my other uncles and aunts, as well as the myriad of cousins that I have. I feel certain that none of them ever give me a thought.

In complete contrast to the visits to my grandmother’s home were our visits to the home of one of my parents’ customers. This was a lovely old lady, called Mrs. Cooper, who lived close to us and who behaved towards me more like a grandmother than my own ever did. Nanny Cooper, as I used to call her, had the appearance of the typical grandmother. She was a tiny woman. In fact, she was extremely tiny. My mother was only four feet eleven inches tall and she towered over Nanny Cooper! I swear that she was my height and I could have been no more than four or five at the time. She used to come to my parent’s shop every Monday at lunchtime and always ordered a bowl of eels, never a pie. A bowl of eels meant four pieces of eel from the centre, which is the fleshiest part of the fish, and one piece from the tail end. My mother was fond of this woman and they would talk for ages. My mother, I know, always gave her a few extra pieces of eel, for which Nanny Cooper was always grateful, and some pies to take home for later. I learned, years later, that her sons had been killed in the war. One had been fighting in Europe and died in Germany. The younger son had been sent out East and had died in Burma in a Japanese prison camp. My mother felt great compassion and empathy towards this lady.

My mother sympathised with her loss, as she had lost two of her brothers in a similar manner. My mother’s elder brother had spent several years in a Japanese prison camp and was never the same once the war ended. I remember him as a soldier since he remained in the army following the war. Sadly, Civy Street did not agree with him, as after retirement from the service, he was unable to settle into a routine and became an alcoholic. Tragically, his life spiralled out of control and he died in early middle age. Her youngest brother, Georgie, was her favourite, as she had raised him from a child. He had been in the artillery and, sadly, was shot by a sniper in Germany two days after the war ended. He died instantly and is buried in Germany, at Kleve, just across the border from The Netherlands. He was 20 years-old when he died and, as a result, remained so to my mother. Even when she was an old woman, the mere mention of his name brought tears to her eyes. She owned only one picture of him, where he is dressed in his soldier’s uniform, which she kept in a frame on a wall in the front room wherever she lived. Now that she is dead, I have the picture and it hangs on one of my walls.

Nanny Cooper’s husband was also killed in the war. Although he was too old to be called up to military service, he had been required to do numerous civil defence jobs, one of which was fire watching and basic ambulance care of the injured during the bombing raids. Most people had to do fire watching in addition to their regular job including my mother. Apparently during one of his shifts, while helping to free a family trapped in their bombed home, an unexploded bomb suddenly decided to explode. This killed the trapped family and various other people along with Nanny Cooper’s husband. Sad and as tragic as her story was, there were many people who suffered in a similar way who were living in my part of the East End when I was a child.

I remember Nanny Cooper as a kindly old lady. She always wore a long black coat that buttoned up to the neck. She wore it along with a small smart black hat with black feathers at the front. She had snow white hair under her hat and always looked very elegant to me. She certainly appeared better groomed than the average person that came into the shop, but during those early post-war years most people had little money to spend on glamorous clothes and hairdressers.

Nanny. Cooper had a kind heart and always brought me something each time she came to the shop. She brought either a colouring book or some coloured pencils. This was the era before wax crayons remember. I am sure that she bought these gifts on one of the stalls along The Waste and although neither cost very much, I feel certain that she bought them in spite of having little spare money. Social benefits were not great in those days. Anyway, I was appreciative of her gift and always made a point of giving her a special thank you.

What I appreciated about Nanny Cooper was that she did not smother me with kisses or try to smooth down the parts of my hair that stuck up and refused to lay flat despite Brylcreem! As a result, I would accept happily the occasional kiss on the cheek that she gave me or I gave her.

Nanny Cooper would invite us to her house on a Sunday afternoon for High Tea. Her invitation never filled me with horror, unlike the thought of visiting to my grandmother did, for Nanny Cooper always made us feel welcome and obviously looked forward to our coming. She lived close by in a tiny terraced house just off the Mile End Road, just a few steps past the old Truman’s Brewery and the People’s Palace.

Nannie Cooper's HouseThe front of her house seemed tiny to me even then. It was what used to be called a two up and two down. This meant that it was a small house with two rooms on the ground floor and another two rooms upstairs. Her house was a little larger than the average two up and two down as she had a very small kitchen or scullery at the back of the ground floor with a door leading out into a tiny yard. The yard was literally one yard wide and was not a garden but a place where a clothesline was hung and where a dustbin was kept. The toilet was outside in the yard. In those days, homes like this had no bathroom.

The interior of Nanny. Cooper’s home was Edwardian in style. This meant that it had a dark and cluttered look. The curtains of the front room were heavy and kept out the light when fully drawn. They also served to keep the heat in, which came from the coal burning in an iron fireplace that had to be black leaded and would gleam thanks to the use of Bristo, a blackening agent. Before the front room window, on a tall wooden table, stood a well-kept aspidistra in a decorative pot. Although the room was small, I remember that it housed an amazing number of pieces of furniture including a heavy settee with large cushions, two matching armchairs, one on either side of the fireplace and a china cabinet filled with her mementoes and treasures.

In many ways, the front room was more of a museum than a place to sit. Upon reflection, I am sure that the room was only used when special visitors came to call. Sadly, Nanny Cooper was like other survivors of the war who after losing their loved ones had few visitors. On the wall above the fireplace was a large mirror. I could not believe that she was tall enough to actually see herself in it since, as I said, she was a very small woman. On the fireplace mantelpiece was a clock and some pictures in silver frames. The clock was very nice and chimed every quarter of the hour. Its tick had a comforting effect. I have always enjoyed sitting quietly in a room and listening to the ticking of a clock. My father loved clocks and we were inundated with many in our home. I fear that I have inherited his affection for clocks and my house has far too many clocks. Sadly, none of them chime.

Being a child at the time, I was naturally both curious and verbal about my curiosity regarding the pictures. I remember asking Nanny Cooper who the people in the pictures were. Naturally, my mother tried to shush me since she obviously realised that they were of her family members and did not wish to cause further sadness to her by forcing her to talk about them. She was kind enough to take each picture down and showed me them. The pictures were all professionally taken. This was the practice in those days since people did not own cameras. The photographs were of posed figures and were all sepia toned, which made me think that they were all taken years earlier.

The first picture was of a young boy in knickerbockers. He was standing upright and looked very serious despite his young age. He wore a little suit with a tie and had a handkerchief in the breast pocket. He had very curly unruly hair. She told me that this was a photograph of her eldest son, whose name I have since forgotten. She said that the picture had been taken when he was my age. She allowed me to hold the picture and look at her now dead son. I remember noticing that the picture was not just of the young boy, but was filled with a background sheet of hills and a valley with a river running through it and on the floor was stood an old wooden rocking horse. I remember feeling sad when I noticed these details.

Nanny Cooper returned this picture to its place on the mantel and then brought down another to show me. This was a larger picture and was of her younger son although he was older in the picture than his brother had been in his. The boy was also dressed in a suit, but this time he wore long trousers and he was smiling. He had a rather impish grin along with a sparkle in his eyes. She told my mother that he was a tease and was always joking and tormenting her in a pleasant manner. Once I returned the picture to her, she excused herself to get the tea.

My mother took this opportunity to tell me not to be so inquisitive as obviously talking about her sons had upset her and, indeed she was probably right, as when Nanny Cooper returned to the room carrying a tray with the tea things on, I could see that her eyes were both moist and a little red. I felt very guilty and vowed to ask no more questions. However, being a child still, I forgot when I looked around the room and discovered her china cupboard.

Nanny Cooper soon noticed that my curiosity had been peeked by the contents of her cupboard and asked me if I would like to look at some of her mementoes? I looked at my mother to see if she had the look on her face. She didn’t and so I thanked her and said that I would. She got up from her chair and took me over to the cupboard and opened it. Inside were many wonderful looking objets d’art, which I found fascinating to see. I cannot remember everything that she had but there were a number of glass objects that glittered in the light thrown by the dancing flames in the fireplace. She had a number of old dolls, which now I realise must have been made in Victorian times. Everything in the cupboard seemed magical to me.

Tea was soon poured into china cups with matching saucers. Sadly for my father, the tea was weak. Tea was served with cake and biscuits. Nanny Cooper’s cake was not like the dried up shop-bought one begrudgingly offered by my grandmother. Her cake was home-made and was delicious. The first cake that I tasted at her home was a lemon cake. My mouth still waters at the thought of it. On other occasions, she made other wonderful cakes, which she said were especially for me. She also made the most delicious and remarkable biscuits. I liked her oatmeal biscuits best of all. Occasionally she would bring me some cake on her Monday visits for lunch. I was in heaven. What I truly appreciated about Nanny Cooper was that she encouraged me to eat well. She said that she enjoyed seeing a boy who was a good eater!

As much as I liked Nanny Cooper, her wonderful cakes and biscuits and the treasures of her home, there was still yet another wonder that I discovered that proved to be even more of a delight! In the corner of her front room, I discovered something truly magical – something mesmerising and captivating. Nanny Cooper had a pet, but not just any pet, but a companion that was like no other that I had seen up close before. Nanny Cooper had a parrot! Parrots were exotic creatures in those days and not commonplace. Although I had heard the parrot that lived at Victoria Park, I had never seen it.

Victoria Park is one of the many wonders of the East End that most Londoners know nothing about and even fewer visit. It is a large stretch of vegetation that was first laid out at the bequest of The Baroness, who was also responsible for the Columbia Road Sunday Flower Market (see Sunday Morning Markets – Columbia Road Flower Market for an account of the life of The Baroness). When I was a child, the park had a small zoo that was filled with the most extraordinary and exotic animals. It was here that I first saw kangaroos. Imagine being very, very young and seeing those wonderful leaping creatures for the first time! I remember reading the great Captain Cook’s account of his first sight of these magnificent creatures and understanding the excitement and wonderment experience by the explorers.

In addition to the kangaroos, when I was a child, Victoria Park was home to a parrot. I have to confess that I never actually saw this parrot, but I do remember hearing it sing out Pretty Polly and other classic parrot remarks whenever we walked through a particular area of the park. I was very taken by this animal and I would beg my mother to linger so that I could hear the bird again and again. This bird fascinated me. I could not believe that an animal could actually talk! The reader should be able to imagine my response to Francis the Talking Mule and even, years later, Mr. Ed! I would stand close to where I heard the bird talking and speak back to it. Pretty Polly, pretty Polly would ring out among the trees. I was always overjoyed whenever I called out and Polly replied.

Parrots were rare as pets even when I was a child, but my parents once lived in a house where the old lady, Miss Burfield who owned the house, kept one. Unfortunately, my parents were asked to leave the house as a result of the bird. It seems that they lived on the top floor of the house and my father would often complain aloud of the number of steps that he had to climb to get home. Often my father would be drunk and would swear as he made his way up the stairs. My father had a loud voice and obviously carried. It seems that parrots have the habit of picking up words and expressions that their owners might wish that they had not.

Miss Burfield was a church-goer and played the harmonium during services. The vicar of her church often came to tea along with other members of the congregation. Apparently, during one of these gatherings, quite suddenly and completely out of the blue, just after Miss Burfield had asked the vicar if he would like some more tea, her parrot suddenly yelped aloud and told the vicar to sod off! The faux pas might have been forgiven were it not for the fact that the bird next began to hop feverishly about his perch while telling the vicar, in highly colourful terms, to hop it! The vicar was insulted, Miss Burfield was mortified and the other guests developed a case of the vapours. Meanwhile, the bird would not close his beak!

Despite my father’s denials, he was blamed for teaching the bird obscenities and was told to pack his belongings and be gone, so to speak! Although Miss Burfield was very fond of my mother and was truly sorry to see her leave, she did not change her mind. This was one occasion where my father’s charm failed to get him out of trouble. It seemed that the vicar and the other guests left the house in a huff and holding a lower opinion of Miss Burfield. Apparently the last words uttered by the vicar while fleeing the house with his ears covered were demands for poor Polly to be stuffed! As a child, this was one of my favourite stories and I would beg my mother and father to tell it to me again and again. I must confess that I still laugh whenever I think of it today.

Anyway, suffice it to say that parrots were not your average pet. They were the animals much loved by seafarers – of pirates with patches over an eye and with ‘kerchiefs about their heads and cutlasses between their teeth – by one-legged ship’s cooks – and obviously, on occasion, by little old ladies in the East End of London. Nanny Cooper’s bird stood on a perch in the corner of her front room and had been remarkably quiet until I discovered it. It stood on one leg with its free claw tucked under its colourful feathers and with its eyes closed. Nanny. Cooper said that Polly slept a lot and did not speak often any longer. Naturally, I was bursting for the bird to speak. I remember that my father said nothing – absolutely nothing – I suspect that my mother had given him the look! She evidently did not want him teaching the bird any of his vocabulary and upsetting this old lady!

Eventually the bird opened an eye and eyed us. As fascinated as I was by the creature, it was a fierce looking bird. Its beak looked sharp and dangerous. It was a colourful animal with dark blue, red and white feathers. Nanny Cooper asked me if I would like to give her bird a piece of fruit. I looked at that beak and decided no, but before I could speak, my father answered yes on my behalf, whereupon he got up to accompany me. My father only showed this much interest in anything when he wanted to do something. He wanted to feed the bird, but he knew that the old lady wanted me to do so, but he could accompany me and so get a closer look at the bird. My father was such a child. In many ways, he was more of a child than I ever was. Anyway, I was given some fruit and made to get nearer to this wild animal and was then expected to put my open hand up to where he stood! I eventually did so with my father pulling my hand closer and closer. I remember closing my eyes just as that violent looking weapon of a beak plunged down in the direction of my hand! My father was too busy oohing and aahing at the animal to notice the speedy recoil of my hand once the fruit had been grabbed and gobbled. I quickly returned to the safety of the fireplace where I entered into the oohing and aahing from a safer distance.

I remember being told when Nanny Cooper passed away. It was sudden and apparently been peaceful. Well, I hope that it was. I remember mentioning that she had not come to the shop one Monday lunchtime and being given the news. I was very upset, as she had been a perfect grandmother to me. My mother went to the funeral, which was held later in the week. I was considered too young to go. I was sorry about that. While we continued to live in London, we went on occasion to visit her grave and leave flowers. I think that we were her only visitors. She was buried in the Manor Park graveyard, but unfortunately, I cannot remember exactly where. I regret this very much.

I have to confess another regret that I have regarding Nanny Cooper. I never learned what became of her parrot. My mother never knew and periodically, whenever we spoke of her, I would ask her if she thought that the bird was still living. I had been told that parrots live to a ripe old age.


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