I always remember my Dad being utterly dependable and like the Rock of Gibraltar to his family. Despite this, when I was a boy my Dad and I were not close. After leaving the Irish Constabulary he was employed first by the Manufacturers of Gibbs Dentifrice, and I remember well the many cut-outs of fairies and “ivory castles” representing strong teeth which he used to bring home to me. Afterwards he worked for Clarke Nichols and Coombes, the confectionary manufacturers, as an engineering storeman.
The depression was at its height – or its depth. As soon as one man stepped out of a job – or was pushed out – there were ten waiting to take his place. My father who had a young and growing family to support must have been sick with worry during all this time, hence his preoccupation which I interpreted as coldness and aloofness.
There were occasional jewelled moments. I remember Christmas when my father and mother prepared a Christmas tree, and lighted candles were a “must” for my father. I remember how he used to bring home the Mickey Mouse Weekly with its coloured cartoons for us children every Friday night. And there were the hidden presents always produced after I had gone to sleep the evening before my birthday, so that I should discover them when I awoke in the morning – my mother also played a part in this, of course. I remember the only occasion when I played football with my father – one twilit evening on Hackney Common as the sun went down and we finally could no longer see the ball. I would not exchange this golden memory for any money in the world.
So my father worked hard for his family during a time of unparalleled economic difficulty, and I, only half understanding the problem, thought that he was very reliable, but distant.
With a background of generations of coalmine labourers, invariably cheated and swindled by the proprietors, my father hated naked capitalism and was convinced of the validity of the tenets of humanitarian socialism. His unalterable belief was: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” This definition alone will indicate that he was never a communist, although, in common with so many men of good will in England in the twenties and thirties, the abject failure of the Russian social experiment grieved him.
Settled in London, a permanent resident of the Borough of Hackney, he began to work long hard hours for the British Labour Party. By the introduction of a socialist system the working man would at last get a fair go, men of good will and economic understanding would unite the world, and war and poverty would be no more. If these ideals seem empty and illusory in the affluent latter part of the twentieth century, they most certainly did not in the nineteen twenties. At that time the world was emerging from the utter carnage of the first Great War, but all that greeted the heroes returned from the battlefield were poverty, class distinction and more poverty. Never was a revolution closer at hand in England than during the late twenties and early thirties.
In addition to his political activities, my Dad began attending evening classes where he commenced the study of electrical engineering. Thus, although he always did his duty by his family, my Dad inspired in me feelings of awe and respect rather than close affection. It was clear to me that he was enormously intelligent. I did not think that I would ever be able to obtain his clarity of thought and power of intellect.
I remember that there was one day when I turned over in my childish mind what would happen if my Dad were without a job – a thought that haunted everybody during the depression. I thought: “He is our father – he will have to look after us somehow. It is his duty”. Then, as I considered it further, it suddenly flashed upon me that my worries were without foundation. My father was so intelligent that he would always be able to support us. Furthermore, it was a duty from which he would never shrink because, if he was nothing else, he was the kind of man to whom principle and duty were the most important things in life.
From that moment on, I was never afraid again. Although I was very young, I understood clearly that despite the fact that we were poor, we were as secure as any family could ever be because my father united us and would always protect us, whilst my mother’s love for us was unbounded.
Parents have such an important influence on children. Some things learnt in childhood almost unconsciously from parents can affect one’s whole future outlook. I remember, when I was very young, before I went to school, I would make paper boats from pieces of torn newspaper, in a fashion taught to me by my mother. During the winter months, when we had a fire going in our small living room upstairs at Frampton Park Road, I would put the paper boats at the edge of the grate, then watch as they exploded into flames.
I would pretend that they were German battleships from the First World War, torpedoed by allied submarines. One evening, I sat by the fire watching one of my paper boats burning, and saying quietly, “The torpedo has struck. The boat’s on fire. All the Germans are jumping into the sea and getting drowned…..”.
My father from his chair said suddenly in a sharp voice: “You’re not to say that, do you hear? Just stop it. It’s a terrible thing in wartime for ships to be torpedoed and people drowned”. I have never forgotten that remark. The truth of it cut into my childish play and showed me the reality in a way that has never left me. I did not play my burning boats game again.
My father claimed to be an agnostic. But his biblical and social principles were better than those of any cleric that I have ever met.
In our area of London there lived a large Jewish minority. Although we lived cheek by jowl there was little intermingling. The Jews kept to themselves and so did the goyim. Frampton Park Road was a Christian street, although there was a synagogue in Devonshire Road. This street intersected Frampton Park Road about half a mile up towards Clapton. In the opposite direction, only about sixty yards from us, Frampton Park Road crossed Well Street, changing its name to St. Thomas’s Road, and becoming a pure Jewish street for about a mile, right up to Gore Road and Victoria Park. There was a synagogue a few hundred yards down from Well Street, and on Saturdays, bearded men in long caftans, tall silk hats, or homburg hats used to discuss earnestly and gesticulating matters of importance in harsh, guttural Yiddish. No doubt the finer points of Talmudic Law were at issue. But, of course, in those days, I had no idea what the Talmud was.
The visible presence of a sizable and quite different minority gave rise to a deal of anti Semitic feeling. The 653 trolleybus, which ran between Upper Clapton and Mile End carrying many Jewish workers from their homes to their jobs in Whitechapel, became known as “The Palestine Express”. It was a joke, but one with a faintly unpleasant savour. Neither were the peace, love and harmony of our neighbourhood helped by the shocking unemployment existing at the time. These strange foreigners (thought the goyim) must surely be stealing jobs which native born, red-blooded Englishmen ought to have had. It never occurred to them, of course, that an Englishman could also be a Jew. Christians faintly disliked their Jewish neighbours. For their part, the Jews faintly distrusted the Christians.
One day, struggling to solve this problem (I must have been about nine years old), I said to my father, “Dad, do you think we ought to stop the Jews from coming to this country – because they’re taking our jobs?” My father stopped what he was doing, looked at me very seriously, then bent down so that he could talk to me face to face. “Listen son.” he said, “Always remember that if a man comes to this country, works hard and honestly, and keeps the laws of the country, then he has as much right to be here as you or I have.”
I have a crystal clear recollection of that statement of my father, and I believe it to be the most important remark that anybody ever made to me in all my life. It was a never to be forgotten signpost towards a satisfactory philosophy.