East End Memories


This story is dedicated to Mr. David Mitchell who was the first to recognize me as an East End Toff.   

Me looking serious

I was having lunch the other day with a small group of people when the conversation turned to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. After some general chit-chat about his films, the conversation soon turned to their individual favourites. Their choices included many of the films of his great period: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest and so on. When someone mentioned the film Rear Window, I was just on the point of putting a mouthful of something into my mouth. Unfortunately, at that precise moment, my mind chose to play a cruel trick on me and I was reminded of an incident that had occurred years earlier when I was a child. The memory of that event caused me to laugh and the food poised on my fork was tossed about the table much to the chagrin of my companions.

Alfred Hitchcock Collage

Somewhat startled, my companions looked at me as if I had suddenly gone nuts. I apologized for my eventful accident and immediately began dusting the table in an attempt to tidy up. Soon the waiter arrived to help everyone clear up my mess. Naturally I was embarrassed and apologized once more. Although my companions had settled back into enjoying their lunch at this point, they wanted to know what had caused my laughter and wanted me to share the joke. I told them that it was something that had amused me as a child and probably would not be funny to them should I tell it. However, they insisted on hearing it.

Rear Window poster

Click here to watch a clip from 'Rear Window'

Rear Window posters in different languages

I said that the mention of the film, Rear Window, had reminded me of something that had happened years earlier when I was a child living in the East End of London. I had gone with my parents to the Odeon Hackney to see Rear Window – a great film to see if you are not familiar with it, by the way. I remember sitting and enjoying the film when a woman sitting behind me interrupted my concentration by talking. Never one to appreciate such an insult even at my young age, I turned around and gave her a glare. The woman, totally oblivious to having interrupted my concentration and being the cause of my irritation, was commenting on the suit that the actor Wendell Corey was wearing in the scene currently on the screen. The suit was tan coloured and very well cut. Even I, at my young age, could appreciate its style. It was made from light weighted material and obviously ideal for the hot summer that the characters were experiencing in the film.

Wendell Corey in Rear Window

Still unaware of my irritation, this woman continued with her talking and said that she would like to see her husband in such a suit. Being young, I did not care that this conversation was private and not intended for my ears. I also did not care that it might be thought rude of me should I turn and look at the film star sitting next to her that she wanted to see dressed a la Wendell Corey. Since I did not care about either of these points, I turned round in my seat to see the would-be film star seated behind me. Unfortunately, I could not but gawk in surprise at the site that greeted me in disbelief. What I saw could never be mistaken by any stretch of the imagination for a film star! What I saw instead was an old and very fat balding man with the sourest look on his face. To misquote the song, this poor man’s figure was less than Greek. The idea of this dumpy old man daring to wear a copy of the suit on the screen struck me as too ridiculous for words. Suddenly and before I could engage what little impulse control I had at that time into gear, the ludicrousness of the situation seized hold of me and I burst out laughing while still looking directly at this poor man. Try as I might, I was unable to suppress my laughter.

My laughter brought a smack on my legs from both parents and I was told to turn round and be quiet and watch the film. Sadly, I found it hard to stifle my laughter, which burst forth each time Wendell Corey appeared on the screen. I tried coughing each time he was in a scene, but each time, I lost the battle and broke out into gales of laughter again and again. Even the stuffing of my handkerchief into my mouth did little to help. Sadly, more smacks soon came my way. My poor parents were mortified by my behaviour and I was threatened with additional smacks once I get you home! Alas, no threat could chase away or erase the sight of that man in my mind.

Once I finished, my other companions at the table gave me a sniff but no laughter. I expect one had to be there to find the story amusing. Luckily for me, I was saved from further scorn since just then the dessert arrived. My companions each grabbed the spoons before them and plunged them into the ice cream and soon they were merrily engaged in the scraping of the last remains of it from their bowls. My story was forgotten. One final point about the story: each time I watch Rear Window, I cannot but remember that poor version of a Wendell Corey-look-alike and laugh.

Talking of suits reminds me of when I was a kid and how many children were dressed in those days. Like many mothers, mine always made sure that I was dressed neat and tidy. However, one thing that she always insisted upon was that I should have good, well kept Sunday best clothes. I notice today that parents don’t seem to think in the same way. This is not to say that kids are badly dressed. We live in an age when casual wear is de rigueur and this is especially apparent in children’s wear. Even when kids go to church, despite some boys dressing in suits, ties and dress shirts, there will generally be some nod to casual wear. Check out their shoes – most will be in sneakers or some other sporty shoe. When I was a kid, Sunday best meant a suit, a special shirt and tie together with leather shoes that were highly brushed and polished. Trousers were short until you reached a certain age when you were deemed ready to graduate to long ones. Every boy wore short trousers in those days and no one thought anything about it. It was only when a boy reached eleven or twelve years of age that some embarrassment began to be felt about still be in short trousers, especially by those who had suddenly shot up in height.

The final touch to Sunday best clothes would be made with the placement of a neatly folded white cotton handkerchief in the top breast pocket. Once a child was dressed, he would be required to march up and down for his mother’s inspection and await her final nod of approval. I doubt if any sergeant major in any army was as difficult to please at inspection as a mother at that time. My mother always seemed especially harsh in her critique, since I never seemed to be able to hold my shoulders back and keep my head up to her satisfaction. Eventually, after passing muster, the child was deemed presentable to be seen in public. At this, he would be told to go and play, but don’t get dirty! Now how could a boy go and play and remain clean?

These little suits were worn for special occasions only. Such occasions included going to church, visiting family friends and relations, travelling and, in my case, going to the theatre. Immediately I got home, I had to go upstairs straight away and take them off – no waiting was permitted. Once removed, the suit was not allowed to remain on a chair for a second longer than necessary and, G-d forbid, was never to be dropped on the floor. In those days, kids knew what it took for parents to buy clothes and knew not to treat them like rags. Today, I am amazed when I visit the homes of others and see clothes dropped and left on floors in just about every room of the house. I cannot blame the kids since their parents had set the example. My little suit was hung up straight away on its special hanger and put back into the wardrobe without delay. In addition, I had been taught not to loosen my tie and drag it over my head to take it off. I had been shown how to untie it and then either roll it up and put on a shelf in a tall boy or else hang it over the rail of the door. The worn shirt was immediately given to my mother and would be washed the next day, ironed the day after and then put away in a drawer. Everything was now ready for use either on the following Sunday or earlier if needed for a special occasion.

My parents had a wide range of customers that came regularly to their pie ‘n’ mash shop. They included factory workers, families, road workers and many in the shmateh trade – they made clothes, many of which were sold on Savile Row. Whitechapel once boasted a large Jewish population and many worked in the small tailoring businesses that flourished along and around the Whitechapel Road. Many people in shmateh were friendly with my mother and were regulars since my parents’ pies and eels were very popular. As a result of her friendships, many people in the rag trade often made my father and myself suits at a special price. My mother, being a stylish woman, liked to wear costumes, as women’s suits were once called, and occasionally would have one made for herself. I remember that she always wore a costume with a wrap-around skirt.

Unlike most kids of today, I did not dislike wearing these suits since I thought of myself as being quite grown up in them. However, what I did dislike, and dislike intensely, was the fashion at the time for boys to be dressed in a matching suit with their fathers. Such bespoke suits were made of the same material and in the same style. This, I not only disliked, but hated. I found the fashion to be quite ridiculous, but try as I might, I could not dissuade my parents away from the idea.

Matching SuitsAlthough I had a number of photographs taken of me when I was a child, only a few have survived. Mercifully, there is only one where I am seen dressed in the same suit as my father. We are seen standing on the steps before the British Museum. It is interesting to note that I have never liked this museum and whenever I go, I find that I have to leave after a short period of time. Perhaps I associate it with the concept of matching suits still. In the picture, I am seen wearing a cap while my father is wearing his trilby. Thank heavens for the difference. My father, although not tall, was stylish and, I will give him great credit for this, he knew how to wear a hat.

Talking of photographs, there is one picture of me taken on the promenade at Brighton during my first visit to the resort that shows me in a very happy state. I was very excited as I hoped to build a sandcastle and had brought my bucket and spade expressly for the purpose. I really liked that bucket as it was decorated with Mickey Mouse, a particular favourite of mine at the time. The reader will notice that I had expressly turned the bucket so that Mickey would appear in the picture.

Me on my first visit to Brighton

Today, although I see this photograph as showing a happy and excited little boy, there is one thing about it which continues to cause me to cringe with embarrassment whenever I see it – it is those sandals! Just look at them! It is the strap about the ankle and the openness across the instep that makes them look like old Granny shoes! It amazes me that such a shoe was made for boys! They seem more in keeping with shoes for girls.

When I was very young, it was still the fashion to dress young boys in military wear. I do not mean the ex-military wear much loved by the French, which becomes le style at periodic intervals, but rather little outfits made especially for children. Such outfits were once loved by the Royal Families of Europe and later become popular with the general public. Coming from Britain, we once had a strong tradition and an affiliation for the sea. And so it was not surprising to see children dressed in naval attire. I remember being dressed in the outfit of a naval man and was very fond of it. It consisted on a pair of trousers and a long overcoat. It was Military Dresswinter wear as it was made of thick and heavy wool. I liked the buttons since they were made of brass and shone. If I liked the outfit, I absolutely loved the hat. The hat was that of an officer and was quite heavy on the head. However, wearing it gave me a great sense of authority and my father would amuse himself by getting me to march up and down whenever I wore it. I enjoyed this and would happily swing my arms and march in step as my father called out one-two, one-two, one-two. I think that I actually believed myself to be an admiral, or a captain at least! The hat was very well made and maintained its form during the time that the outfit fitted me. The bill was of some shinny black plastic-like material on the outer surface and of a dark mottled green material on the underside. The insignia on the front of the hat was of an anchor, which I liked too. I was very upset when I finally outgrew that outfit and a little annoyed when my mother gave it away to some woman who came into the shop. Once it was explained to me that it no longer fitted me and that there was this poor little boy living up the road whose father had not come back from the war, I remember feeling guilty and willingly wanted this child to have my coat and hat. I say willingly – this was true regarding the coat and trousers, but it took a great deal of effort to part with that hat!

Click here for YouTube clip

Talking of dressing up, I remember that once I started going to school, there would be a Christmas party just before we broke up for the holidays. This was always something to look forward to, as there would be jellies and cakes for the eating, which were always enjoyable. Mind you, you were required to eat a sandwich or two before being allowed to eat a cake. However, this was a small price to pay for the right to nosh the good stuff. There would be games and prizes to be won and I am sure that everything was arranged so that no child left empty handed. However, the highlight of the afternoon was the fancy dress parade! A special prize was to be awarded to the child with the best costume. Naturally, we all had our eye on that prize. There was always a great deal of excitement in the class once the teacher announced the date of that year’s party. Much thought went into choosing just the right costume and preparation took place over what seemed like many weeks. The plan was that we were supposed to help our parents make a costume. The teacher always stressed that costumes did not have to be elaborate and could be very simple. She always stressed that they should not be hired. The more snooty girls in the class whose mothers could not only sew, but sew well would feign mock horror at the mere suggestion of such an affront! Many of us in the class could have slapped these creatures, but since we had been taught never to hit girls, we refrained from giving those silly cows what they well and truly deserved. I was annoyed by the supercilious manner of these girls since my poor mother was not adept with a needle and thread and so would certainly be unable to make me a costume. Besides, she had little time left after working in the shop. My father, who had been trained as a tailor, was also too busy to make me something. However, despite what the teacher might have dictated, my mother did what she thought was right and I would always be a part of the parade.

I remember two years in particular where great effort went into obtaining a costume for me. I have to admit that the inspiration for my costumes came from films. Being a great lover of the cinema from an early age, I suppose that this was not surprising. I think that the idea for my first costume probably came from my first experience with falling in love.

Never underestimate or dismiss the first love of a child. Although it is certainly not a mature love and certainly not something that could possibly last, it is nonetheless deeply felt and the memory of it may still be carried in the heart for all of one’s life. I actually fell in love with two women when I was very young. The first woman that caught my eye and won my heart was Doris Day. I remember being greatly taken with her. My parents would take me to see her Warner Brothers’ films at the ABC Empire in Mile End Road. My favourite was Tea for Two, although I did not dislike all of the others. I think that West Point Story was my least favourite, but this was only because they had dared to make it in black and white! Unfortunately, I was not old enough at the time to appreciate films made in black and white. This would come years later once I began to use the term film!

Click on the individual posters to see a clip from the film

I was very taken with Doris Day. I loved her voice and thought her the most beautiful woman in the world. Years later, once I was not longer Ms Day’s greatest fan, I was surprised to learn that she was not popular with the Press and regularly won the Sour Apple award for being the least accessible of actresses. Imagine that! Perky, bubbly Doris Day was not the girl next door and was as difficult as the rest of us! Perhaps I’m falling in love again.

Doris Day collage

Click on the individual pictures to see excerpts from her films

My other love was Judy Garland. I never saw The Wizard of Oz as a child. I was raised on her adult MGM musicals. I was always wounded when it looked as if Ms Garland was going to be spurned by the so-called heroes of her films. And whenever there was another woman involved, I would take an instant dislike to her. I have hated poor Ann Miller and Angela Lansbury and others as a result. Not that either or any were bad actresses, but purely and simply because they caused Ms Garland to cry in a film. I would take these films very seriously and feel the rejection personally. I would then voice my opinion while still in the cinema for all to hear much to the embarrassment of my parents.

Judy Garland collage

Click on the individual pictures to see excerpts from her films

Anyway, towards the end of any film with Doris Day or Judy Garland, there would generally be a big splashy production number where everyone would be dressed in their finery. The men would be dressed in evening wear and the hero would get to kiss these beautiful women. I must have somehow linked the mode of dress of the men with the winning of my favourites. As a result, I wanted evening wear! Naturally, my request was not taken seriously by my parents. At first I was humoured and told that I was too young for such a suit. Later my persistence caused my parents’ patience to wear thin and I was told to be quiet with the talk of evening wear! What was a person to do? And then along came that year’s fancy dress parade!

Naturally, I changed my tactics. What if I were to go to the fancy dress parade dressed in evening wear? I thought that this might just get me my evening attire. Naturally I was aware of Fred Astaire at the time and had seen some of his films with the great Ginger Rogers. Sadly, I was not greatly taken with him, although I liked her very much. Even as a child, although I admired his dancing, I found his acting to be painful and his singing to be weak. I was more of a Gene Kelly man. He was more athletic and I found him to be more versatile. I had seen Singin’ in the Rain and was especially taken with the Broadway Rhythm sequence where he was dressed in evening clothes and a straw hat a la Maurice Chevalier. However, despite admiring him more, I had to admit that Fred Astaire, with a top hat in place, was more debonair, albeit a trifle less dashing. And as a child, I was definitely looking for that debonair look!

Singing in the Rain poster
Click on the poster to watch a clip from Singin' in the Rain
  Gene Kelly - Casino

One final point here about the Broadway Rhythm sequence: I was very, very taken by Cyd Charisse and her dancing. To be honest, it was those long, long legs that I could not believe, but liked. I remember asking my parents about them and being told to be quiet! Years later, I went to see Ms Charisse when she appeared on Broadway in the musical version of Grand Hotel (she played the Greta Garbo role). Since she had become by then one of my very special favourites, I was unable to resist the temptation of waiting at the stage door to see her up close. She was even more beautiful than on film and despite my intention not to push forward and talk to her, I did. I remember getting her to autograph my programme while I told her, somewhat unwisely, that I had loved her long legs when I was a child. She looked at me, sniffed and moved on! I had forgotten that, at this time, my beard had already turned snow white in colour and I must have seemed much older than I really was to her. The poor woman must have felt a hundred years old after hearing my complement!

Cyd Charisse collage

Anyway, back to my wish for evening dress: my nagging must have worked as my mother took me to a Costumes for Hire emporium in Aldgate one day after school shortly before the day of The Parade. We were greeted by the sales associate and once he learned what was required, we were swept back into the outfitters’ main area. Here I was asked to try on a series of evening suits in order to find the correct size. I remember being very taken with the trousers: evening wear for men has this wonderful design along the outer seam of the leg. This takes the form of a strip and adds a certain flair to the trouser. The coat was also remarkable in that the lapels were what seemed like satin to me. Not knowing any better at the time, I made no complaint when I was given a clip-on bowtie to wear. I felt like a prince in that outfit and strolled up and down the outfitters and, much to the delight of the associate, I did a little dance a la Gene Kelly! How could I not? As wonderful as the suit was and as suave and as sophisticated as I felt, this was nothing more than a prelude to what was about to come, once the hat was produced.

Talking of hats, I have only recently taken to wearing hats. The first hat that I ever bought was a homberg. I purchased it in New York and would wear it when I went to weddings and funerals of which I attended many. I have a wonderful overcoat which I bought in Paris during a sale in 1974 and I would wear this hat with this coat. I thought that I was really elegant whenever I wore this ensemble. Since the discussion of this coat is beyond the scope of this story, anyone wishing to read more about it is requested to go to the After Thought immediately following this story where I will tell more.

Evening Wear

(click on the picture to see a movie clip)

Weren’t we talking of hats? To return to my evening attire: I cannot stress the transformation that took place once I was given a top hat of the correct size to try on. Once it was placed on my head, and once I had adjusted it to a jaunty angle, I was suddenly transformed – I felt like bursting into tap and Singin’ in the Rain. I was ready to run up the wall and dance on the ceiling! What is that line in that Christmas song, Frosty the Snowman?there must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found – for I no longer felt like a little East End boy! No, I had become a young man about town - an East End Toff - and was ready to take my table at some swanky restaurant or better …… catch the late show at the Moulin Rouge where I would be surrounded by the screaming wild danseuses who I would willingly allow to kick my hat off!

Click on the picture to watch a clip from Singin' in the Rain
An Englishman at the Moulin Rouge

Sadly, although my fancy dress was much admired at the party, I was not chosen as one of the finalists. Of course this is completely understandable, however at the time I was amazed that I was left out of the final group since I did not feel that my competition was especially strong. The competition, such as it was, consisted of a motley crew. There were a few kids dressed in sheets, pretending either to be Romans or ghosts – I could not tell the difference! Several others wore eye patches and kerchiefs on their heads along with stripped shirts – a more sorry bunch of pirates I had never seen. The most amusing of the bunch were a couple of overweight fairies complete with glittering wands, sagging wings and wearing ballet shoes! There were various other efforts made by kids where they pretended to be animals, both wild and domestic. Although it was not home made, I felt that my evening wear was clearly the best. I certainly wore mine with penash and style, which certainly could not be said for my companions. Still, what can one do when one is not recognized by the powers-that-be?

A fairyI remember being met by my mother once the party concluded and being taken to have my picture taken at a nearby photographer’s studio. Following the picture taking, I found the winner of the Parade waiting to be photographed. It was one of the fairies! In fact it was the heavier of the two and the child with the most miserable disposition of all the kids in the class. The girl was one of those whose mothers could sew. The child had been bragging for days about how she had been helping her mother by sewing on numerous sequins and things onto her costume and how she was certain to win the prize. She was a nasty jealous natured child who had a mean streak in her. She was not liked by her classmates and I for one disliked her intensely. The child was greedy and would never share anything. Even the teacher would often be vexed by her behavior.

Anyway, once I came out from the photographer’s, and this child went in, I remember her mother suggesting to my mother that since we both looked so adorable, why didn’t we have our picture taken together? As I have said, my mother was a stylish woman. Her natural good taste and distinction were sufficient for her to decline the offer with a polite but acceptable excuse that satisfied her mother. Had I not been blessed with a mother with discerning taste, she had only to look in my direction see the horror stricken look on my face to know what my feelings were regarding this matter and would know to decline this gracious offer. I remember that both my mother and I run from the establishment. We were on the verge of choking as we leapt down the stairs and out to the street with all the speed and grace of young gazelles. We were both in fits of laughter since that poor child was not at the best of times easy on the eye, but here, dressed as a fairy, she made a perfect figure of fun.

I remember another year where great effort was made to find me the perfect costume. A little earlier in the year, I recall having become aware of the law and taking a strong liking to it. I suspect that I had seen a film where a scene must have been set in a British courtroom. Although I was brought up to trust the police and to be unafraid of them, it was not them that impressed me at this time. I was impressed by the method just by counsel used to address each other and for weeks I went around calling people my learned colleague and the like! I was very taken with the wigs worn by the prosecution and by the defence, however what really took my fancy was the one worn by the judge. I found the judge, sitting at the bench, high above the rest of the court, to be a remarkable character and to be smartly dressed. I was greatly taken with his long and exaggerated wig and with the black robe that he wore.

Sir William LeeOnce I had discovered the law, I began my quest to get an outfit for the next fancy dress parade. To be honest, this did not prove as difficult as I first thought. A week or so later, one afternoon after my return from school, my mother took me to this tiny little factory/room off Whitechapel Road. Here, two or three large hand-operated sewing machines filled the room. There were several tailors’ dummies over in one of the corners each with a mass of pins stuck in them. Old, marked and dirty mirrors decorated the walls. We were greeted by a stout Jewish man who obviously knew my mother since they seemed to have a lot to talk about. He obviously knew me to, as he began to make a fuss of me immediately I arrived. I remember he grabbed my right cheek with thumb and index finger and gave me a huge pinch that not only hurt at the time, but stung for a good while afterwards. Following this painful interaction, I stayed out of arm’s reach of this man as much as I could.

The man–in-charge soon whisked my mother to one side and installed her in a chair where she would have a perfect view of the proceedings to come. Soon, two old men, each with a slight stoop, and yarmulkes on their heads arrived. They were obviously known to my mother as well and once greetings were over, they turned to me, but this time I was clever, as I stayed out of reach, but gave them my best smile since they seemed very nice. Soon tea was produced and everyone got a cup and seemed to be having a good time. I was given some lemonade, which I greatly appreciated. They were all chatting away and laughing while I was left to look about the place. I remember that they kept a black cat that was lying motionless before a small electric heater that was used to warm the place. Just as I was getting ready to see if the cat was alive by stroking it, it was my turn to be whisked away. Without realizing it, I was soon to become the centre of attention. The old men had put down their cups and now surrounded me and gave me the once over. Quickly, I had my coat removed by unseen hands and I was immediately told by my mother to stand up straight and pull your shoulders back as the old men continued to circle me. Without further a do, my arms were measured, as was my height and girth and anything else that a tape measure could be got around. Although I don’t remember moving, I could hear my mother telling me to stay still. Meanwhile, the old men and the tailor were talking away, or rather yelling away at each other in Yiddish.

Jewish TailorsOnce the men had done whatever it was that they needed to do, they left me alone and returned to their cups. I was still the centre of attention and now everyone was gazing at me and telling my mother what a lovely boy I was and how lucky she was to have such a well-behaved boy chick. Such a well behaved little man! And manikin was given a cake and then some sweets. It paid to be whatever it was they saw me as and I was grateful for the goodies that I was given.

About a week later, my mother and I returned once more to the little tailor’s after I arrived home from school. Again I was greeted with much joy by the tailor. Sadly, I was not quick enough to dodge his fingers and this time my left cheek got the squeeze! And again, I felt the pain for an hour or so. Once my mother was quickly installed in a chair and given a cup of tea, and again before I could get at that cat, I was whisked into the centre of the room where again off came my coat. However, this time, I was not poked or prodded or measured, but was told to hold my arms above my head. This I did and suddenly a long black garment was passed over my head. My arms were taken and pushed through sleeves and again I was told by my mother to stand up straight and pull your shoulders back! The tailor next stepped forward and I was pushed first one way and then the other. The garment that I was now wearing was pulled down at the back and then pulled up at the shoulders. I was told to hold my arms out to my side. The sleeves of the garment came to my fingertips. Quickly on each side of me, one of the old slightly stooped men appeared and began to pull at and then turn under the sleeves and secured their handiwork with pins which were held between their teeth. Next they were both on the ground and were adjusting the length of the garment.

Once everyone, including my mother, was happy with the length of the garment and the length of the sleeves, I was required to walk up and down – yes, my mother had voiced her commands again! – and to show off the garment, which I now learned was called a robe. It seems that my mother had arranged for my fancy dress costume to be professionally made that year.

Although I did not mind singing during our Musical Evenings at home or dressing like an admiral, I suddenly felt embarrassed at wearing the robe. I think that my reticence came from the fact that the garment resembled a dress too much for my liking. I had obviously failed to appreciate the form of a judge’s robe from the film. All I had really seen was the top of it since the judge remained seated behind the bench. I was feeling somewhat disappointed and wished that I had not allowed it to be known how impressed I had been by the beck’s grab.

And then something happened to change my opinion! The tailor after gushing at me and wanting to pinch my cheeks yet again, but thinking better of it, suddenly ran to the back of the room and quickly returned carrying a large and crumbled brown paper bag. He was beaming. Everyone but me seemed to know what the bag contained and they all became quite excited at the prospect of what was to come. I swear that the old men got so carried away that they were clapping their hands and hopping on the spot with anticipation. My mother was beaming with pride as her darling stood there feeling a little despondent. But as I said, this was about to change.

The tailor put his hand into the bag and then dragged out what looked like the cat, now dead. He brought this foul looking dead thing towards me and before I could duck out of the way, he had dumped it on my head. He stepped back and clapped his hands with joy. The old men stepped into their jig once more and my mother’s beam increased. What was this thing that he had dumped on my head? Since I had not seen the cat on this second visit, I was certain that its carcass was now on my head and I was not best pleased! I was about to rip it off when quick as a flash I saw my image in one of the many mirrors! And then I understood the joy that was all about me. I was now wearing a miniature judge’s wig.

There is an old expression that says that clothes maketh the man. Well, this was certainly true that day! Once I realized that I was dressed as a judge, I felt myself transformed. Suddenly I assumed the persona of a judge! I turned up my nose and began to strut about the about the place with all of the dignity and the presence that I could muster and which I believed becoming of a judge. My efforts were much appreciated and I received several rounds of applause from the audience as I paraded up and down, making several turns, and yes, I did hold my shoulders back and I did keep my head up high.

The tailor and his associates had made that robe and furnished the wig as a gift to me and I was very appreciative to them for their gifts. Eventually, I was disrobed and de-wigged and my gifts were wrapped and packed up for us to take. I thanked each gentleman in turn for their kindness and as my gift to them, I allowed my poor cheeks to be pinched once more and maintained a smile despite the pain. I remember them using the word delicious to describe me, which I did not understand at the time since I thought that such a word was reserved for food and not people. Anyway, I had been instructed to shake hands only recently and was eager to try the salutation out. The old men were bowled over when I extended my hand for the shaking. Such a manikin! Oi!!

Gypsy dancerUnfortunately, my outfit, although admired and pawed over at school, did not bring home the grand prix! This time the prize was reserved for a young girl who came dressed as a gypsy! A gypsy – I ask you! The winner was a nice girl, but still it was a bitter pill to swallow. I was outwardly gracious to her in my congratulations, however I have to confess at being than polite under my breath. I was convinced that there had been a carve up and believed that the little girl must have been a relative of the teacher who judged the event. Call me a poor loser! I can still remember that little girl shaking her tambourine as she danced and twirled about the room! Total show off! Had I won, I would have walked around the room with the dignity and grace as befitting one called to the bar!

Click here for video clip from 'The Red Violin'
click here for part of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5

Recently, I showed a few of my childhood pictures to someone who was also born in the East End – in Poplar to be precise. He was amused and when he saw the one where I am dressed in evening clothes, he referred to me as an East End Toff!. At first, I was a trifle unsettled by this comment. An East End Toff! What is a toff, you might ask? Allow me to explain its meaning and its implication. A Toff is someone of the elite class that goes up west for fun and frivolity. Personally, I think that it is a shortened form of toffee-nosed, which is a derogatory term for someone of the upper classes who, it is assumed, looks down their nose at the middle and lower classes. Although I was not one to look down my nose at anyone, I can understand why I was called this. Although my folks were not rich, they were not poor when compared to the average East End person, and as a result, I was given much, much more than the average East End boy. Still, it is amusing to think of my being such a type. Much as I hate to admit it, the term described me perfectly!

Dandys and Toffs
Dandys andToffs
(click on the picture to hear Ella Shields singing 'Burlington Bertie from Bow')


In the story above, I mentioned an overcoat. I love this coat – note the use of the present tense, but more of that in a bit. Let me tell you something about the coat itself. It is made of English black and white wool, but the material was cut in France. The weave is herring bone. However, what makes this coat special is the design. It is single breasted with the front buttons hidden. The coat is fitted slightly at the waist and has a long vent at the back. It is an extremely stylish coat, which sadly no longer fits me.

I wore this coat until 1981. I had been living in New York for about a year at that time. Contrary to popular belief, the average New Yorker is not stylish. Sadly, one cannot ride the subway or ride the bus and afford to be stylish. I recall coming home one evening after going to the theatre and taking the subway. Since it was winter, and cold, I was wearing my precious overcoat. Apparently, there was a problem with the subway and the trains were being diverted. I was living at the time in the wilds of the Borough of Queens and in order to get to my station, we were being shunted onto the Flushing Line for part of the journey. The Flushing Line passes through a much rougher area than I usually traveled through. I remember standing on the subway and then later in the subway car and becoming more and more aware that almost everyone was staring at me. Their look was not one of admiration, although I was looking pretty sharp in that coat! No, these were poor working people who were coming home after working long hours for low pay and who were now very tired. But most importantly, they were shabbily dressed in cheap coats made of synthetic fabrics. Suddenly, and for the first time, I felt like a victim-waiting-to-be!

Once I got home, I took off my coat and put it away in my cupboard. I knew that I could no longer wander the mean streets of New York in my overcoat. I was no longer in London or Paris. Since I could not afford the rents of Manhattan, I had to live in Queens and use the subway to get around. New York was quite dangerous at that time and people were advised not to make themselves conspicuous when using public transport. I was very sad, but it made sense not to wear my coat for the time being.

On the following Saturday, I went out to Alexander’s, a now defunct chain store that specialized in clothes suitable for the subway and bought a really horrible overcoat made of synthetic fabric complete with a fake sheep skin lining and collar. I even bought a black wooly hat to wear. I wore that coat and hat during the winters months and was always horrified when old folks and other fearful folks jumped out of my way when I walked down the street. I was never especially proud of this gruesome boorish image that I projected in the 1980s while living New York City! However, it did allow me to blend into my surroundings.

There is a legacy from the wearing of my coat: because of it, I learned to appreciate hats. One has to grow into hats, I find. My father was a great hat wearer, as were most men of that epoch. Today, hats are mostly baseball caps, which I find acceptable in the U.S., but I don’t appreciate seeing them so widespread in the U.K. and elsewhere. Whatever happened to the flat hat – the cheese cutter, as we used to call it? By the way, I still have my homburg. I wear it only on rare occasions since I no longer attend weddings and funerals.

By the way, I still have the coat. I had kept it with the strict intention of wearing it once I am in a place and in a position to do so. Sadly, it has sat in my cupboard for a number of years now. Unfortunately, fashions change and such a coat is no longer in vogue. Casual Wear has seen to that! Plus, no longer living in a big city makes the wearing of such a coat even less likely. Finally, and most tragically, I have to admit that the coat no longer fits. It truly grieves me to confess that I am incapable of doing the buttons up. I have kept it since I live in hope that I will miraculously lose weight and I will once again be able to slip into it and it will fit me as it once did. Incidentally, I have thought about giving the coat away to someone. However, I have never found anyone, as of yet, that deserves and merits such a gift. And so, every couple of years or so, I go into my cupboard and take out the coat. I remove the coat protector in which it hangs and admire it. I am happy to say that it has maintained its form and the wool is still soft to the touch while the colours remain startling. It is easy to still marvel at it. After a few minutes, I cannot resist slipping it off its hanger and torturing myself by daring to try it on. I live in hope that it will fit, but alas it does not. I sigh a sigh of regret and sadness as I stand there looking at my image in the mirror. Life can be so cruel. After another sigh or two, I take the coat off and return the garment to its bag and once more I put it away again in the cupboard. I next promise myself to eat less, but again, alas, I soon forget about my quest and return to enjoying my food. Life can be so crushing at times, no?

The Coat

The Subway Coat


After writing this story, a friend of mine urged me, with some force I have to admit, to think again about the future of the coat. He said it needed to be worn and not allowed to sit and rot away in a cupboard. This is a chilling thought. Of course he is right, but sadly, finding it THE home it needs has proven fruitless in the past.

After a long and especially cold winter, spring has finally come to where I live. I have a small unassuming house with a pleasant back garden where I like to sit during early morning hours. During this season, the air is warm and the environment is peaceful broken only by the singing of the birds and the occasional bark of a dog. I enjoy getting up early especially at this time of the year and going into my back garden where I can sit, with coffee in hand, and allow my thoughts to wander peacefully. It is a pleasant scene: birds walking across the grass looking for that early worm while others sing merrily in the surrounding gentle swaying trees. At such times, problems seem less urgent and solutions are often easier to find. And so, the other day, I went out into my garden once more and sat down with my early morning companions and once more I set myself to think again about my coat and what to do with it.

Sadly, I could think of no one here where I live to give the coat to. Overcoats are rarely, if ever, seen here. People do not walk, especially in winter, and so have little need of one. I could not think of anyone in England either that I could give the coat to. The people that I know there are of my age and most likely the coat probably, just like me, would not fit any of them now.

As I sat there, my mind wandered back and I thought of the places where I have lived. I remembered the time when I first came to America. I had come to live in New York. I had taken a research position at one of the large university-hospitals. In addition, I also taught at the hospital’s parent university, Yeshiva University, which is a Jewish religious school. I taught Comparative Anatomy and Organic Chemistry, the latter being a very important subject in this country since it is a required course for those students wishing to go on to medical and dental schools. Each year, I was lucky enough to have a terrific group of students who were not only good scholars but also young people with ambition and drive. It was a pleasure to teach them. The students worked very hard and started their days early with religious subjects and then at about 3 P.M., they would begin secular courses towards their degrees. This made for a long day and an even longer one for those studying sciences since there would be laboratory study to follow.

I thought of my old students, many of whom still remain in contact with me. And then I remembered one in particular. This fellow is now a physician. He is a pediatrician and also an anesthesiologist and is in private practice with a group of other physicians in the Tri-State Area. He is a family man with four children of his own, the eldest of which is now in college. He was a good student, but he had one quality that I admired more than his others, especially in one so young, and it was this special quality that easily set him apart from his colleagues.

Although he was no giant - he was perhaps five feet nine inches tall and probably weighed no more than one hundred and sixty pounds (eleven stones six pounds), he behaved as a giant. He was no crude bully. He had no brutish manners. He was plain and simply fearless when confronted with a wrong. He refused to tolerate lies. He refused to support poor logic in a debate. And he would not allow someone to bully him. The young man had a temper, this I cannot deny and when confronted by someone attempting to treat him in a disrespectful manner would never shirk from showing it and allowing the antagonist to feel his displeasure. As good as this quality was, best of all, he was not fearful of authority and refused to be intimidated by it.

Needless to say, the young man gained a reputation from a young age, which has followed him throughout his early life into adulthood, and so is thought of, in certain narrow-minded circles, as being difficult. Apparently he had fought with the Head Master of his High School over a matter, which when described in depth to me, clearly proved to me that he was totally in the right. At Yeshiva, certain people attempted to exert pressure on him, which lead to their experiencing the sharp side of his tongue. Again, when the facts of the matter were laid out before me, I felt that he was completely in the right. Other incidents have occurred during his adult life, but on each occasion, judging by the facts presented to me, it has always been clear to me that he was the injured party. This ex-student is a fellow after my own heart.

For those of you that do not know me, I too have a certain reputation for being quick tempered. Needless to say, I do not show annoyance unless provoked. It is my aim in life to lead a peaceful existence. Perhaps I do not suffer fools gladly and perhaps I do not give people enough time to think out their answers, but I never argue with the weak or with the infirm. I understand innocent mistakes and understand confusion in the aged and the very young. What I do not tolerate is when folks dismiss me as unworthy of their time or else give me wrong information since they lack the energy to do their jobs correctly.

I will relate one tale where I was wrongfully accused and made to suffer an unfair branding. When I was finishing my studies in Medical School, I thought that it would be good to do my very last rotation at a hospital in The Bronx where I had been working prior to going to school. I was to study for one month in the Emergency Room of the hospital. At that time, The Bronx was a dangerous and violent place and there was sure to be much learned and seen during my time at the hospital. One great advantage for students was that one would be allowed to ride an ambulance and so see trauma and many hideous things that people do to each other.

When it was my turn to ride the ambulance, I reported to the Ambulance Service as told, at 5.30 P.M. When I arrived, the supervisor sniffed at me and told me to wait outside, by the wall until 7.30 P.M. When asked why I should do this, the person replied by telling me because I say so! Naturally this brute was not used to anyone, let alone a student (I was 42 years old at the time, by the way), asking questions. Much to his annoyance, I said that this was not a good enough reason for me to stand for two hours waiting his pleasure. I told him that since I was a student, my job was to study. I said that I would return to the Emergency Room and then return at 7.30 P.M. At this, I left. He remained with his mouth open.

It took me about ten minutes to walk back to the Emergency Room and when I arrived, I was greeted by the doctor in charge who was convulsing with laughter. It would seem that as a result of the insensitivity and boorish behavior of the supervisor of the ambulance service, I was considered to be too rough to be allowed to ride the ambulance in The Bronx!!!

The doctor could not stop laughing and insisted on telling everyone in the Emergency Room about my incident. Once he had gained some control, he asked me if I wanted him to insist that I be allowed to ride. I thought that he would burst a blood vessel from further laughing when I thanked him, but declined his kind offer. I said that it was far more amusing to be banned from riding the ambulance in The Bronx than ever it would be actually riding one.

Recently, someone likened me to a gunslinger in the old west. Imagine that! They said that I would have worn a black hat and would have worn notched six guns with silver handles. They went on to say that I was not the type to turn away when confronted with someone who dared to disrespect or abuse me or someone under my protection. Apparently, I am seen as someone who would issue a challenge along with the invitation to meet in the main street once the sun had reached its zenith. Here, the show down would take place! According to this person, my adversary and I would then stand some ten paces apart, staring eye to eye, and with fingers twitching at the ready. Someone would begin a count ................ one ................ two ............ and at that, I would fire! And as the song says another one bites the dust!

When told this, I was naturally vexed as it made me seem like a cruel and callous person. I found it hardly sporting to draw on two and not wait for the three count. The person relating this analogy said that it was normal for gunfighters to draw early and that I was not breaking any rule or code of conduct here. Apparently all I was doing was ensuring that I survived and the one that insulted me did not.

Well, if I am like a gunslinger then this young man would certainly qualify to be one as well! And so, like Archimedes, sitting in that bath, all those years ago, the solution to my quest had been found! I stood up and clapped my hands with joy and relief. The noise frightened the birds and caused them to abandon temporarily their search for worms. Sorry as I was to interrupt the birds’ breakfasting, I felt sure the worms would be grateful.

I sat down again and looked across my garden. The sun was just beginning to rise above the trees at the bottom of my garden. I sipped my coffee and enjoyed the tranquil scene. After many years, I had come to the end of my quest. At long last, a worthy and deserving successor had been found and now the precious mantle was ready to be passed on to him.


The Austrian Coat

The Fayetteville Coat

The New Coat (found at The Good Will in Melbourne, Australia)

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins