East End Memories


My Paternal Grandparents

My father worked hard throughout his life and never could be described as ever being lazy. Unfortunately for him, and for my mother and me, he did have other flaws to his character, which would ruin any progress that he made. When I was a child, he worked long hours each day in the pie ‘n’ mash shop and would not even be completely free on Sundays. Despite Sunday being a day of rest and being the only day of the week when the shop was closed for the whole day, he still had much work to do to ready it for the week ahead.

The most important job to be done on Sundays, and every day for that matter, was to maintain the furnace in a good working order and keep it alight. The furnace heated the oven where the pies were baked and the burners on top of the stove. And it had to be kept alight even on Sundays. Our furnace was, to say the least, temperamental and could not be allowed to go out because whenever it did, it would take an eternity to relight and would cause my father’s temper to ignite first. And so periodically throughout his day of rest, my father would have to go down to the bake house and add coal to the furnace to ensure that it was aglow on Monday morning and ready to be fired up.

Another important job that could only be done on Sundays was the cleaning of the shop floor. The floor was of short wooden planks and each day was covered with fresh sawdust. Sawdust was used widely in those days. It was spread around the floors of butcher’s shops especially as well as a number of other shops. Twice daily, my father would sweep the shop floor and clean up the rubbish left by the customers. In those days, nearly everyone smoked and customers used to enjoy a cigarette or two after their meal in the shop. Since few people used the ashtrays provided, cigarettes ends were most often put out under foot on the floor. It was also not uncommon for customers to drop their empty cigarette packets on the floor as well as a slew of other matter no longer needed. In order to avoid spreading the soiled sawdust about the shop during sweeping, my father would sprinkle a little water throughout the shop and this would help congeal the old sawdust into clumps and make it easier to handle. Once he finished sweeping up, he would then spread fresh sawdust down ready for when the shop opened. However early each Sunday morning after sweeping the floor of the previous night’s debris, he would get down on his hands and knees and scrub the floor boards. He would use a large stiff brush and strong lye soap for this job. This soap was powerful stuff and hardly something to maintain soft hands! Long before I got up, my father had all of his necessary assorted chores completed and the floor would be clean and dry and covered with fresh sawdust ready for Monday morning.

After his hard work, my father would spend the rest of his Sunday morning eating a large English breakfast, drinking endless gallons of tea, which he made himself, and in reading the Sunday Newspapers. These activities would need to be over by twelve noon since, at that time, he had to ready himself for his visit across the road, which was my mother’s euphemism for his going to The White Hart – the public house on the other side of the street.

Newspapers collage

My mother would make a good breakfast on Sundays. Her breakfast was a veritable feast and consisted of two fried eggs, several rashers of back bacon – none of the streaky variety – tomatoes and numerous slices of toast together with multiple cups of tea. When I was a child, Sunday breakfast was an important meal in our house. In fact just about everyone who could afford it ate well at breakfast time. In those days, people loved eggs and bacon and butter and knew nothing of either cholesterol or triglycerides or HDL/LDL ratios or of the hardening of arteries.

Breakfast   Breakfast   Breakfast

Although my mother prepared the breakfast on a Sunday, the making of the tea was left to my father. To say that my father was a connoisseur par excellence when it came to tea making would be an understatement. Should he want tea, he would make it himself whenever possible since no one, with the possible exception of my mother, could ever be trusted to make what he sarcastically liked to call a decent cup of tea. Today people look at me with a complete lack of understanding should I ever talk about my father’s tea. No one that I have ever met has been able to equal the quality of the tea produced by him.

Teapot   Teacups

Once breakfast was over and my father had refilled his cup with tea, it would be time for him to read the Sunday Newspapers. My father would go out to the Newsagents close by very early each Sunday morning to collect our batch of newspapers and would start reading them while he waited for his breakfast. The popular British Sunday Newspapers have always been controversial in content. Over the years, the number published specifically for the Sunday reader has diminished and today there are but a small number left. When I was a child, there was still a vast number to choose from and just about everyone bought several of them. One newspaper that almost everyone bought at that time was The News of the World. When I was a child, this newspaper was considered somewhat scandalous. It printed libaceous pieces about vicars, priests, teachers, magistrates, insurance agents etc and their involvement with chorus girls and women of ill repute. It was considered to be the worst thing ever should one’s name appear in this newspaper. Although people were apparently scandalized by the stories about the various people who had fallen in grace, everyone seemed to be thrilled by the tales. Of course by today’s standards, or should I say by today’s lack of standard, I doubt if any of these stories would raise an eyebrow now. However, I remember that once I could read, I was not allowed to read The News of the World. My parents saw to it that this newspaper was kept well and truly out of my reach.

News of the World logo

The People logo

  Newspapaers collage

In spite of the censorship imposed by my papers on my newspaper reading, I was allowed to read and had to content myself with The Sunday Pictorial and The People. I preferred The Sunday Pictorial since it was a tabloid and easier for me to handle. In addition, it had lots of pictures, which was helpful since my reading was not the best at that time. My father would also buy The Empire News and occasionally various others, but never on a regular basis. I believe that it was The Empire News that would include a comic section in colour. I was never especially interested in this section. I disliked the colours and the concept of publishing comics for adults. Over the years I have come to appreciate certain comic strips, but still dislike those that I consider mindless.

Sunday Pictorial   Sunday Pictorial   Sunday Pictorial

My father would amuse himself at the kitchen table with the 'papers' while my mother and I cleared the table. She would do the washing-up and I would be allowed to dry certain non-breakable things like the cutlery. Once this was over, my mother would return to the kitchen table and be ready for one of the most important events of the week. Before this took place, my father would ensure that all cups were filled with fresh tea. After all, nothing as important as what was to follow could possibility be undertaken without tea.

Signs of the Zodiac

The most important thing that appeared in the Sunday Newspapers each week for the majority of the British public was what used to be called The Fortunes. This was the weekly Horoscope and, when I was a child, this was something that was taken very, very seriously. Now that breakfast had been eaten, my mother would request for my father to read them to us. It was expected that I should sit still and to be quiet during this time. I did not dare but comply with this request. Even the slightest shifting in my chair would cause my mother to turn my way and give me the look, which was enough to freeze me to the spot.

Cancer - The sign of the CrabAfter clearing his throat and taking a sip of his tea, my father would begin his reading with Cancer, which was the sign that my mother was born under. She would listen carefully and then ask him to tell her what it meant. She always did this I suspect more from habit than for any other reason. It wasn’t that she did not understand what was read, but more from wanting to check that she had fully understood it. My mother had been forced to leave school at 11 years of age and so never felt that she had learned to read properly or understand what she was being told. She lacked the necessary confidence in herself in this matter. The contents of her fortune would be discussed at length and the possible meanings and significance would be hotly debated. This was serious stuff and was not to be taken lightly.

Libra - The sign of the BalanceFollowing the reading of my mother’s fortune in all purchased newspapers, it would be my turn to hear what the week held in store. Again, my father would clear his throat, take another gulp of tea and launch into what the stars had to say. Once more my father would be required to explain the sense of his readings and this time I would actually pay strict attention. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the end of a week when neither the money promised nor the love that you will find materialized. I used to feel cheated and very annoyed about this. I always felt that some other Libran had somehow got his hands on what had been intended for me and was off somewhere spending and enjoying my money and cavorting with the love that I should have found. I was extremely unforgiving about these slights. Still, this did not stop me from wanting to know what was in my immediate future the following Sunday. My mother would listen to my fortune with great interest and nod and raise her eyebrows at me whenever something special was promised to me.

Pisces - The sign of the FishOnce my father had completed these tasks, he would turn his attention to the reading of his fortunes. I have to confess that this would interest me less than those of my mother and mine. This was not because I was jealous of what was promised to him, but rather a result of his style of reading – or should I say acting! He would read my mother’s and my fortunes in a matter of fact manner, as if he was reading some dull tale of someone mentioned in the newspaper on an inner page. When it came to his turn, he would throw himself into the reading of Pisces with gusto and with the verve of a Shakespearian actor and would linger over words and ponder their meaning out loud totally oblivious of our presence. As a result, my mother had no need to ask him to explain anything or elaborate any further for he had done this ad nausiam.

Whenever my father read that money should be coming your way, he would stop reading and drift off into another world for a while where he would dream of what he would buy when this happened. Naturally we would be completely forgotten during his whimsical musings. As time passed, my mother would get steadily more and more annoyed at what she took as his selfish thoughts and once she reached the point where she could stand it no longer, she would say to him …. and what are you going to do for your son? Sadly, my mother knew my father well, and it was not unkindness on her part to assume that his dreams revolved totally around him, but was something based on past events.

Money! New British coins

Once he was brought back to reality, he would stop his dreaming and then look directly at me for a second or two. And then he would tell me that I would be sent to boarding school! The concept of sending me to boarding school should not be misconstrued. Although I most certainly did not like the idea of being sent away to school, the plan to have me whisked off and be raised by strangers was not said just to be shot of me. His motives were not as those of David Copperfield’s stepfather who simply wanted to get rid of the young child and get at his mother’s money. Despite my father’s shortcomings, he would not have wanted this. To people of my parents’ generation, it was generally believed that a child would get both a good start in life along with a good education should he go away to school. Even though I knew that he would not be winning any money during the week to follow – well, I always hoped that this would not be the case – his declaration of the plans for my future would always fill me with horror and cause me to jump up from my chair and run to my mother for protection. Although she was sympathetic to my feelings and would have been heartbroken to see me go away, I knew that should they suddenly come into a vast sum of money, she too would believe it was for the best that I should be sent to such a school since it would give me the necessary start in life to be the success that she hoped for. Despite this, my mother was considerate of my feelings since I was still very young and took everything told me very, very seriously and scolded my father for his unfeeling manner and told him not to be so cruel. My father, for his part, would now look hurt and surprised at our responses and would seek refuge in his reading. Even at my young age, I could tell that my poor father was no match for the combination of my mother and me.

David Copperfield - Boarding School

My father was amusing and highly predictable in many ways. Despite having hurt my feelings with the threat of boarding school, it only took him a minute to forget all about my response and he would once again return to his verbal musings. He would now continue to tell us what he would do should the mythical promised fortune come his way. Off he would go into his dream world once more and eventually his musings would turn to my mother. Although my mother was a good and kind woman, she was remarkably sensitive and one had to be very careful how one presented something to her especially when the something related directly to her. Sadly for my father, he never remembered or learned anything from past squabbles resulting from such musings, and would carelessly throw all caution to the wind as he became carried away with what he would buy her. Invariably he would make some comment that would displease my mother and he would receive a severe scolding despite his protestations. Tragically, it was when his attention turned to the style of garments that he would buy her that would cause the fight to start. I always felt sorry for my father whenever such a situation took place. His idle musings had got him into trouble again!

A little explanation is needed here I think so that the reader may fully appreciate why a simple remark about the style of a dress or coat should cause such a commotion on a quiet Sunday morning. To understand this fully, one needs to go back to when my parents first met and to the early years of their marriage. Both of my parents were very independent people even when they were young and both had decidedly definite ideas about what they liked and did not like. Their differences were most easily and readily appreciated through their respective definitions of style. And this was perhaps most strongly manifested when it came to my mother’s mode of dress especially when she was a young woman.

Let us consider my father first: my mother always said that my father was somewhat of a peacock. And judging by his manner of dress and the length of time he took to prepare his clothes before finally going out, I could easily understand her description.

Peacock   Father 1974

Like all married couples, my parents had their differences. Naturally there were the little things that niggled the one about the other, but which were tolerated. And again as will all couples, a few problems appeared which reflected their points of contrast, which when viewed through a more critical eye soon looked to be without solution and required that either one person relinquish their opinion and acquiesce to the other or agree to differ and expect the occasional tiff to flare up from time to time. There were two such points of contention that developed between my parents during their early years of marriage. These subjects of disagreement continued to bubble away beneath the surface throughout their married life and would bubble up and come to the boil at periodic intervals.

The first point of contention between my parents resulted from my mother’s inability to iron my father’s clothes in the manner to suit his tastes. At the root of this disagreement was, according to him, my mother’s refusal to iron his dress shirts and his suit trousers as he demanded. The second point of contention was more fundamental and came from what my father used to refer to as my mother’s flashy manner of dress.

Edwardian Women   Flat iron

crossed swords

  Edwardian hats

Now, ironing may seem to be an unimportant subject to disagree over. However, couples have gone to war over far lesser and seemingly insignificant subjects. As I have said before, my mother was never taught how to run a home by her mother. My mother spent her childhood and youth tending to the enormous number of children that her mother and stepfather produced. What time her mother had was passed either in the arms of her husband or else in the pub with him thereby leaving my mother, the eldest daughter, to care for her siblings. My mother said that there had been no iron in her home as a child and so she was not used to ironing clothes. Once the kids were able to fend for themselves, my mother was able to go out to work full-time. However, she never had enough money to buy important things, let alone an iron. She said that her only method of pressing the few clothes that she was able to afford when she was young was to put them under a mattress, which was on the floor since she never had a bed while she lived with her mother.

Anyway, to return to my parents in their early days of marriage: apparently over those early weeks, my father not only complained about my mother’s failure to iron his shirts to suit his tastes, but soon extended his complaints to how she ironed his suit trousers. My mother always insisted that she tried hard to iron his clothes as he wanted. But according to her, no matter how hard she tried, he was never satisfied with her efforts. It would seem that my father was unable to accept anything less than what he was able to do himself. My father certainly had an overly developed nit picking nature when it came to certain things, but to be fair, I believe that a highly exuberant insistence on exceptionally good maintenance of his clothes come to fruition during his training as a tailor. I feel certain that his fastidious nature found an outlet in the shmateh trade where such behaviour is de rigueur and that it became overly developed and was seen as excessive in his personal life.

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Before discussing how my mother dealt with these problems, it might prove useful to give some details on my father’s peacock nature. As a young child, I used to enjoy sitting quietly in the kitchen to watch my father prepare his clothes for wearing. I was totally mesmerized at the operations that he undertook in order to ready himself and would sit quietly, without speaking, with my mouth wide open in wonder at the ritual that took place before me. He would invariably start with the preparation of his suit of choice. His choice of suit was made earlier in the day in the privacy of the bedroom, but only after much thought and consideration had been given to the matter. This required the laying out of all of his suits on the bed for full inspection. Once a suit was chosen, the real work was ready to begin. Before a suit could be worn, it had to be steamed and pressed with loving care and then hung up to dry and air.

To say the least, my father took Pressing to an art form. He had a number of accessories that he deemed absolutely necessary to achieve the required standard. He had purchased a collection of high quality cotton tea cloths, which were to be used, and only used for pressing. They were certainly not to be used to dry plates and cutlery! He would take one of these tea cloths and soak it for several minutes in a bowl of cold water. While his tea cloth soaked, he would set about preparing the kitchen table for ironing. My father never used an ironing board and would sneer at the idea. He said that a table was better since it was wider and allowed a wider sweep, whatever that meant! He never ironed, or pressed, directly on the table since he said that a soft base was required to obtain good work. My father owned an old non-fleecy blanket, which he folded over once before placing on the table. Next, he covered the table and blanket with an old folded cotton sheet. Now, believe it or not, he was ready to begin.

Earlier my father had brought the chosen suit down from the bedroom and had hung it on a hook in the kitchen. He would next remove the chosen suit trousers from their wooden hanger and place them on top of the padded tabletop. Once he had prepared the trouser leg to be pressed to suit him, he went to the sink and took his tea towel from the bowel and allowed the access water to drip free. He would gentle squeeze the towel, but never wring it, to aid the flow of excess water. Once he was satisfied that sufficient water had been removed, he placed the wet tea cloth over an area of trouser leg while being careful to ensure that no crease developed in either the trouser or cloth. He next turned his attention to his iron, which had been heating over a low flame on the gas stove.

A point of note regarding my father’s ironing implement that needs to be told was that he never employed an electric iron. No, my father did not like such a modern invention. He much preferred to use an old fashioned heavy iron that required heating on a low flame. He felt that he had better control over the heat transferred to his garments with such an iron than he would have with the electric type. He continued to use this old iron for the remainder of his life and refused to use an electric steam iron once they became readily available. In addition, he never welcomed non-iron fabrics while my mother embraced them with open arms.

Now that he had prepared his garment for ironing, he took hold of an old and well-used thickened piece of cloth and placed it over the handle of the old-fashioned iron on the gas stove. Now he gripped the iron with determination and placed it with some force over an area of towel and continued to press down for a specific period of time. This would cause the water in the tea cloth to sizzle and boil and steam would escape around the iron. Once the iron was removed, steam would smoulder about the tea cloth and he would wait a few seconds and then remove the tea cloth and drop it back into the bowl of cold water in the sink. He would then brush the pressed area of trouser leg with a special brush that he had purchased from a haberdasher’s in the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly. He would repeat these operations again and again until he was convinced that he could do no better with the crease that was made in the trouser leg. After this, he would turn the trousers over and repeat the whole procedure with the other trouser leg. Once finished, he would carefully pick up the garment and fold it onto a wooden hanger and return it to the hook where it would be allowed to dry and air. I have to admit that the creases that he produced in the trouser legs appeared as sharp as any knife edge. I could only sit there impressed. However, I was always left exhausted whenever that I watched him press a pair of trousers!

Needless to say my father would iron in silence. He also discouraged any conversation directed at him. He would also deny all playing of the radio in the kitchen while he worked. And as he did, he had a look of intensity on his face, which certainly informed me that no social interaction would be welcomed. If my mother dared to come into the kitchen whenever he was pressing, she would take one look at me, raise her eyes to the air and give me a quick wink and turn around quickly and escape the room. Naturally, my father never noticed her entrances and exits.

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Once the trousers were pressed, my father would turn his attention to the sponging and pressing of his suit coat. He executed this operation with as much care and attention as before. One special point of interest was that he was always sure to press the flaps of the side pockets of the coat. Once pressed, the coat and the trousers were hung on separate wooden hangers and he would give both garments a last long lingering inspection. Now it was time to turn his attention to the ironing of a white, starched cotton handkerchief. Please do not underestimate the importance of this vital and necessary accessory as a sign of good grooming to a man about town of that epoch. During its ironing, my father took tremendous care to ensure that each fold was perfectly executed. Once completed, the handkerchief was placed on a clothes horse to dry before its placement, with infinite care, in the top pocket of his suit coat. I will spare the reader the details of my father’s preparation of his dress shirts, which had been washed, bleached and starched with care. Please be aware that as much care went into their pressing as previously described for his suit.

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To return to the first bone of contention between my parents: ironing. As the reader will now be well aware, my father’s requirements when it came to the preparation of his suits, dress shirts and handkerchiefs would be demanding for a slew of lackeys. My poor mother, who also worked a long day and had to keep house as well as cook each evening, found his demands excessive to say the least and found the whole business to be daunting.

Despite my mother’s miserable upbringing and the violence that she suffered at the hands of her stepfather, she had a remarkably cheery disposition and always had a very positive view of life. She was also good at finding solutions to problems. Although my father found adjustment to marriage somewhat difficult and tended towards volatility, my mother knew that she had to risk his wrath and make a stand or else she would be beaten into a shaking jelly, as she put it.

Despite my father complaints about how my mother ironed his dress shirts, she felt that it was the production of the crease in the trouser legs of his suit, which was the major source of consternation between them. Apparently, after several years of trying to iron his suit trousers to suit my father, my mother finally rebelled. In the hope of ending his complaints, she organized a coup. Years later, not too long after my father’s death, my mother told me how she achieved this.

My mother had received many a black eye and a broken bone from the beatings that she sustained from her stepfather when he was in a drunken stupor. When dealing with her stepfather, she soon learned that any direct attack from her would only bring her another trip to the hospital and achieve nothing. And so, without realizing it, she set about becoming a mistress of passive aggressive behaviour. And judging by her later successes, she evidently achieved this rank with distinction. Sadly for my father, and later for me, battling against my mother was never an easy matter, as we would discover again and again.

Having a sleepOnce my mother accepted the fact that she could never iron his trousers to suit my father she thought of a plan that would so frustrate him that he would not bother her again with this matter. And so one day, she ironed his trousers so that the crease was formed along the seam of the each trouser leg. This was indeed a simple and quite clever thing to do. It appeared that my father did not notice this error until he dressed. She said that she made sure that she was well away from him as she did not want to be there at the initial discovery. She said that she could his yelps coming from the bedroom. These continued for a while and then he apparently went silent. She said that she waited and after a few minutes he came into the kitchen wearing the mis-ironed trousers. He was furious and looked so funny standing there in the kitchen with the creases running down the sides of his trousers. She said that she did not dare to laugh, although she thought that she would choke, since he was still very annoyed. In his anger, he played right into my mother’s hands. He began by moaning and groaning at what she had done. Naturally, he had not thought that she had ironed his trousers purposely in this way, and complained that she had not taken enough care to notice her error. My mother being a great actress pretended to be shock at her error and offered to iron the offensive garment again. Apparently this caused him to stammer and splutter and here he played right into her hands. According to my mother, he became even more excited and said that he could no longer trust her to iron his clothes and that she was never – ever – to iron his trousers or dress shirts ever again. My mother claims to have pretended to feign surprise at his declaration and begged for forgiveness and a chance to redeem herself knowing full well that my father was prone to sulk and would be in no mood to forgive and forget just yet. And by the time he was ready to give her another chance, she would have allowed herself to be convinced that her ironing skills were inferior and totally unworthy of doing his suits and dress shirts the justice that they deserved. In this way, as she put it, everyone was happy. She never did iron his trousers again, which suited her just fine. As she later said, let the silly old sod iron his own trousers!

Following this coup d’etat, my mother’s ironing duties for my father were limited to his work clothes and other everyday garments. Eventually, thanks to non-iron fabrics even this fell by the wayside. However, until the advent of such fabrics, the occasional skirmish between my parents would break out over her ironing since this had become a battleground of choice. Although my father accepted that he iron his own trousers, he never quite accepted that she not iron his shirts. As a child, I have to confess that I used to sit and enjoy their cut and thrust back and forth whenever they argued over semi-serious matters. Both my parents were witty people and had a natural ability to turn a phrase and I would sit back and enjoy the exchange. This always proved to be true entertainment. Their interactions were better than anything on the radio and decidedly better than the majority of programming on television at the time.

My mother was clever in that she was not afraid to use a good plan twice if she had enjoyed success with it before. It was when I reached 13-years of age that I learned to admire my mother’s ingenuity more fully. Although I never complained about how she ironed my trousers, one day, out of the blue, my mother presented me with a pair of school trousers with creases along the seams. I was shocked that she had failed to notice her error and complained bitterly to her. Being young and her son, I was much easier to deal with and she could now afford to be more direct. After I had finishing complaining, she looked me straight in the eye and told me that I was now old enough and ugly enough to iron your own trousers. It was then that I realized that my mother was what was commonly known in East End parlance as a pisser! This is a very honourable title and totally deserving of respect.

Just to give the reader some further indication about my father’s peacock nature, allow me to describe the remainder of his preparation for going out into the world. Once his suit had passed muster, he would turn his attention to his shoes and would take an eternity with their preparation. He would put shoe polish on a special brush and then work it into the shoe leather with great determination. This was not an operation to rush and he would cover the whole shoe with polish, allow it to dry, and then apply a fresh coating. Once he was convinced that every square inch of leather had been covered, he would allow the polish to dry before beginning the brushing process. And brush he did. He would brush and brush for an age. The excess polish was removed with loving pleasure and the result would be shoes that did not merely shine but gleam. Once these operations were complete, he would turn his attention to the steaming of his hat. This meant holding his hat over a kettle of boiling water and rotating it in the steam. According to him, this revived the hat and made it fit to wear. Whenever I tried to do this, I burned my fingers and dropped the hat! However, it was his shirts that had to receive the most care. These garments had to be starched and pressed to perfection before he would think to wear them. When I was young, my father still liked to wear attachable collars, collar studs – both front and back, and cufflinks, of which he had many. Christmas and birthday presents for my father were easy when I was a child as I could always buy him a set of cufflinks. My father never believed in having too many cufflinks. I still have several pairs that belonged to him, which I keep in a special box that he also bought at that haberdasher’s in Piccadilly.

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And now, let us turn to their second battle ground. This centred on my mother’s definition of style and was most strongly manifested in her mode of dress as a young woman. My father dressed in a conservative manner, which obviously suited him as I always remember him as being a handsome and stylish man. My mother never found fault with his mode of dress and always said that he dressed well. For her part, she was also stylish and an attractive woman with a strong and appealing personality. She was always a popular with others and had a decidedly winning manner and easily able to fit in with any group. Although my father obviously recognized her charm and always found my mother to be an attractive woman, he felt that he mode of dress was somewhat flash! And there, as they say dear readers, lay the rub!

My mother never had much money as a young woman. Her mother insisted that most, if not all, of her earnings be given to her with the reasoning being that it was needed to feed the children from her second marriage. Her stepfather never worked although he apparently had once earned a good living as a French polisher in the small furniture factories that once lined Gibraltar Walk just off the Bethnal Green Road. As a result, my mother had to dress herself in second-hand clothes that she bought down the lane.

Coats collage

My mother had jet black hair when she was a young woman together with a dark complexion. This prompted many people to ask her if she was Italian or Spanish. As a small child, I felt that such remarks sounded exotic and for a time I took to occasionally calling her Senora, which amused her greatly! As a result, bright colours suited her very well. She liked to wear brightly coloured dresses – reds, blues, yellows – anything but green since green was often considered as an unlucky colour by many. When I was young, I would sometimes accompany her to the dress shops on the Whitechapel Road and the owners were forever telling her that it was a pleasure to dress her since she wore colours well. My mother always loved hats and would choose them with great care and wore them with much panache and often at a jaunty angle. Let me emphasize that the angle was always tasteful and never to excess. She would buy her hats at a small shop on the Whitchapel Road where I often heard the venduese tell her that madame was born to wear hats.

As a small child, I was aware that my mother was an attractive woman who always looked nice when she went out. In those post-war years, this was not often the case since money was scarce for most people and it was all that most people could do to make ends meet and put food on the table. As a result, the majority of the mothers of most of my contemporaries of the time were dowdy dumpy women totally devoid of charm and attraction. Although we were not rich, my mother knew how to choose her clothes so that they showed her off to her best advantage. Whenever my mother met me from school, I would easily pick her out amongst the crowd of waiting mothers since she always stood out amongst the dull group.

Like many women, my mother was fond of shoes. When she was a young woman, she especially liked what she called American Shoes. I do not know if these shoes were imported from the U.S. or not, but I suspect that it was the style that gave them their name. Anyway, my mother liked these shoes, which she described as being open-toed and with an extremely high heel and would buy them second hand when she went down the lane. Naturally, my poor mother suffered with painful feet in later life, which she refused to believe were a result of her much loved American Shoes.

Shoes collage

Although my mother never had a great deal of money when she was young to buy clothes, what she bought, she bought wisely. As she aged, she chose garments that were well cut and well made. Her charm and attraction were also enhanced as a result of her manner of standing and by the way she had of holding her head at a slight angle, all of which accentuated her charm. She always smiled a great deal and always seemed to have laughter in her eyes. For many years, my mother was able to turn heads when she walked down the street although none of these would be Lotharios ever interested her.

During my parents’ early courting days, my father accused my mother of dressing flash! Obviously she must have liked my father, as I can no reason why she would have continued their relationship after such a remark had she not. Naturally, years later when I questioned him about his remark, he denied it most fervently! Anyway, he did continue to pursue her and eventually asked her to marry him. And here comes an amusing tale about my parents.

My mother would tell me of the first time my father took her to meet his parents. And here again my father displayed a total lack of charm and behaved in a less than gracious manner when he told my mother that he could not take her to meet his parents if she insisted on wearing anything from her current wardrobe. When I first heard this as a child, I was very upset and felt hurt for my mother and said that she should have sent my father away for being so cruel! She would smile at my response and then tell me that had she done what I suggested, I would not have been born and that would have made her sad! Of course, this would upset me more and many tears were then shed!

My father next had the temerity to insist that he take my mother shopping down the lane to buy a suitable dress for her to wear for her first visit to his parents’ home. My mother said that at hearing this, she not only wanted to laugh, but also to send him packing with a flea in his ear. My mother would always look a little whimsical now when telling this story, and say that she did not laugh and did not send him away and, to her surprise, she found herself agreeing to go with him down the lane the following Sunday to look for a suitable dress. What did Rogers & Hammerstein say about love?

Who can explain it, who can tell you why?

Fools give you reasons.

Wise men never try!

My mother would always laugh when she described the dress that my father chose for her on that following Sunday. She said that it was in basic black with a series of white ribbons across the front and came down almost to her ankles. The first ribbon was large and stretched from shoulder to shoulder. The subsequent ribbons got smaller and smaller as they progressed down and the last became a small bow at the waist. My mother would laugh and laugh and say that she looked like a Sunday School Teacher when she put it on. She said that once she had visited his parents and got home, she cut off those ribbons, took up the hem and always wore the dress with a bright scarf to give it some colour!

China Doll   Granny Shoes   Crinoline Dresses

Both my parents were short. My father was no more than five foot one inch in height although he was extremely chunky while my mother was four foot eleven inches, although she would always insisted that she was five foot tall! I am not tall, but grew to be five foot ten inches and suffered much for this when I lived with my parents. Since both parents were much shorter than me, I had to contend with low placed mirrors in their house and low placed baskets of plants hanging from the ceiling of nearly every room. I was always having to crouch when looking in a mirror and forever banging my head on those plants. To this day, you will find only one hanging basket in my home. This is a tiny brass pot once belonging to my father and is placed in a corner, high up and out of my way, and is kept purely as a remembrance of him.

Anyway, as a result of my mother’s height, my father did not like high heeled shoes – American or home made – and insisted that he chose suitable shoes to go with the dress. My mother said that he purchased the kind that most grannies would be ashamed to wear! Apparently they were flat heeled – something which my mother never ever got used to wearing even in her later years – and with laces! My mother would always almost choke with laughter at the mention of the laces. I am sure that at the sight of these shoes and at my father’s insistence that she wear them, she must have thought very seriously about their relationship and whether it should continue. And who could blame her for this? I also think that my father should have considered himself very, very lucky at this time for had my mother not been in love, she would most certainly have sent him off! My mother says that she only wore those shoes once and put them into the dustbin once she got home.

I am told that my father’s parents fell in love with my mother immediately and always treated her kindly. It would seem that they would have loved her no matter how she dressed. One last point about that visit, apparently my grandmother suggested that my mother not dress in such a dowdy manner. It seems that she told my mother that as she was young, she ought to dress in a manner more fitting to her age and not like a dowager and with a bit of colour!

And so, my father was now on very, very dangerous ground whenever he started to muse about the kinds of clothes that he would buy for her should he suddenly become rich. Over the years, my mother had told him of her feelings about that black dress and those awful shoes! My father would always defend himself by saying that they had suited her very well and then he would spoil it by complaining that she chose too bright colours. And then the argument would be on. My mother would remain in a playful mood and be very funny in her comments to him. My father could never grasp that my mother was too stylish a woman to dress in the granny style, and as was his way, he went silent and sulked for a while, as he pretended to read the newspaper.

Eventually, my father would come out of his sulk and start to joke and torment me. He could be very funny at times and soon we would be all be laughing again. However, this delightful family scene would be short lived as it would be time for him to prepare himself for his trip to the pub. And he would eventually excuse himself and go upstairs to make preparation for his next appearance before the world. My mother would then turn the radio on and we would listen to Sunday Morning Church Service and then Forces Favourites. During this time my mother would prepare Sunday lunch – a great highlight of the week – and during the odd minute here and there, she would read the Sunday Newspapers. My father would go out at about twenty minutes past twelve and walk across the road to enjoy a number of drinks. Sadly, he would always have one or two too many drinks before closing time rolled around.

Once it got to two o’clock, my mother and I would stop everything. We would turn the radio off and sit quietly and begin our wait for my father to return home from the pub ……… drunk ……. and hope that no one had upset him!



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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins