The small room on the mezzanine floor of our house assigned to my Uncle Arthur was littered with old radio parts, clocks, pieces of gramophones, and similar junk. In those early days of radio – known as “wireless” at that time – my uncle displayed an ability to put together all sorts of receivers, from crystal sets to super heterodynes. We had no electricity in our house – only gaslight. So he was always making up huge batteries comprised of dozens of used dry cells obtained from the garbage tips. These he wired together and placed in water. He also had excellent ability to mend watches and clocks and to put together bicycles. Unfortunately the one thing he lacked was the ability to capitalise on these skills. At the best of times a “loner”, his continued unemployment over the years had sapped his self-confidence and self respect to the point where he had become withdrawn. He sought refuge in dreams of winning fortunes in one of the many newspaper competitions. He became a misogynist, purely because he could not relate to women, and affected to despise those he could not get on with.
My uncle was a victim of that terrible depression which followed the First World War. The poverty and economic malaise of that time ruined people’s lives, not only from the material point of view, but also psychologically. In war one has cases of mental break down. Economic depressions with resulting unemployment also give rise to tremendous upsets and deep mental strain.
Tell any man for long enough that he is stupid and useless, and he will eventually come to believe that he is stupid and useless. Deprive a man long enough of the opportunity to use his skills, and he will lose those skills. Deprive a man long enough of the opportunity to work and he will forget how to work, and eventually not want to work. This was the invisible but terrible abyss into which my uncle had fallen. He had lost incentive and he had lost self-confidence. Thereafter, every idle day increased his disadvantage.
My uncle’s reactions to our difficult environment enraged my grandfather. He, too, was under strain. He, too, for one reason or another had found difficulty in obtaining employment. So he had gone out and created his own job by becoming a barrow boy. It was a man’s duty and sacred trust to bring some money at least into the family to help keep things going. Wake up England, for God’s sake! Why did my uncle not try harder?
My grandfather’s outbursts of rage alternated with moods of deep disappointment that his only son had not made a better job of facing up to life’s difficulties. There was thus the worst kind of antagonism between the two. It was the antagonism of a son who knows that he has disappointed his father, and of a father who has been disappointed by his son. Although everybody knew that it was there, for the most part it was silent. However, there was the occasional explosion.
I remember one occasion – I was very young – when a quarrel broke out between my grandfather and my uncle as I was sitting on the polished fender in front of the fire in the downstairs living room. The exchange of words became heated. Suddenly my uncle picked up my grandfather’s greasy old bowler hat from the sideboard and smashed his fist into the top, denting it. My grandfather gave a roar and charged towards him. Just in time my mother came dashing down the stairs and pushed herself between them, screaming at them to stop. I had got up and was standing in the centre of the room, my heart beating wildly, terribly afraid of the strength of these two men, far bigger than I, who shook the floor as they lumbered to meet each other. But my mother was between them, and my grandmother now appeared to put a stop to the fight.
I have rarely been so upset in all my life. To see a father and a son fighting is terrible. My uncle, tight-lipped, turned, put his tattered and dirty cap on his balding head, snapped a pair of bicycle clips around his ankles, went into the passage where his old bicycle stood, and was gone. He did not return until very late that night. God only knows what thoughts went through his mind as he cycled around the streets of London.
My grandfather, with the slam of the front door, sat down on a chair, hid his face with the palm of one hand, and began to sob. It was the first and last time I ever saw him cry. It tore my heart out.
My mother put her arm around his shoulders.
“Never mind, Dad. Never mind.”
My grandfather sniffed a little, and then got up. He carefully pushed his greasy bowler hat back into shape, put it on his head and struggled into his overcoat. Then he too was gone with a slam of the door. He returned earlier then my uncle, for the pubs closed at half past ten. He was heavy footed, lurched along the passage, and went straight to his bed.
If, in some ways, my uncle was the problem child of the household, in other ways he was indispensable – to me, at least. Near to where we lived was a very large expanse of open ground known as Hackney Marshes. Every Saturday my uncle would take me to Hackney Marshes with a penny fishing net and a jam jar with a piece of string tied around its neck to make a handle. For hours on end we would sit together on the banks of the River Lea, fishing for the bright, darting minnows that filled its waters. Sometimes we were lucky enough to catch a wriggling, white-bellied newt, looking like an outraged miniature dinosaur and frantically waving a long, gold-edged tail. After my uncle rolled up his trousers, we would paddle side by side in the soft, warm mud of the shallower parts, bound together in the earnest search for “tiddlers”, understanding each other’s deepest thoughts without exchanging a word, the cares of the world completely forgotten.
Once a week, if my mother had a few pence to spare for us, my uncle would take me by the hand in the evening and lead me round the corner to the local picture house. There we would sit in the front row and watch the latest screen adventures of Miss Tallulah Bankhead, Mr Gary Cooper, Miss Jean Harlow, and a very young Mr Clarke Gable.
“The Empress” picture theatre had been rebuilt in the early thirties and, in the fashion of the day, a Wurlitzer organ had been installed which would rise on a lift during the interval. Spotlights would play on it from all parts of the theatre and popular selections would be given by the organist to the accompaniment of appropriate coloured slides flashed on the screen. The organist was a musician of rather better than average ability whose surname was Milton. He never failed to get an ovation after a performance, which he acknowledged by turning to the audience and bowing low before resuming his seat and pressing a button, which turned off all the lights and set in motion the descent of the organ and its player into the orchestra pit. They billed him as “Milton at the Mighty Wurlitzer”, but we locals always used to talk about going to see “Milty at the Mighty”.
One day Milton disappeared, and another organist was engaged. I cannot remember his name. He could not have been anywhere nearly as spectacular. A few weeks later, in the Sunday News of the World we read a story to the effect that Milton had committed suicide on Dartmoor. The poor fellow had apparently cut his throat.
We take people for granted, never thinking that they, too, have their problems. Many times I had watched Milton turn round and smile as he acknowledged applause after a performance. Yet that smile must have hidden a deep and intractable problem that nobody even suspected.
My uncle probably took my father’s place in my early childhood, for Dad was engaged in other struggles at this time. Dad did, however, spend some of his time with me, and I particularly remember the occasion when he took me to Club Row, that Sunday morning flea market of east end of London, to buy me a dog.
As all Cockneys know, hundreds of dogs are sold every Sunday at Club Row. You can’t move for fox terriers, greyhounds, chows, Churchillian bulldogs, squash-nosed pekes, canine freaks, Dalmatians, Alsatians and innumerable yelping mongrels, the results of clandestine canine encounters behind the dustbins. Whichever way you turn you get furry bundles of life thrust into your face while hoarse voices invite you to “Buy a dog puppy, mate”. They are all “dog puppies”. Bitches on heat can create traffic jams in London’s narrow streets with their swollen canine populations. In Club Row it is debatable which are louder, the voices of the dog salesmen or the excited barks of the animals themselves. As you push your way through the crowd, one hand on your wallet, pedigree papers are waved wildly in front of you. It is said that if you take a dog into Club Row and lose him at one end of the street, you can be one hundred per cent certain that you will be able to buy him back from somebody at the other end.
There are literally hundreds of dogs to choose from in Club Row. How then could one possibly pick a “stumer”? Well, my dear old Dad did. He was a highly literate and most intelligent man, and I was so happy to be with him in Club Row buying a dog. But I think that it was after we bought Pat that I first realised that my father’s judgement was not infallible.
My father was a humanitarian, a socialist, a staunch Labour supporter with an innate sympathy for the underdog. Perhaps he felt sorry for this miserable, watery-eyed terrier with a lot of Irish in him and a lot of unidentifiable antecedents to boot. Perhaps he wanted to rescue him from his dirty, unshaven and clearly unsympathetic owner, Anyhow, he paid ten shillings for him, which was quite a lot in those days, even though a greasy lead was thrown in, and I walked away the proud owner of a dog.
For about thirty seconds, Pat tried to get back to his previous owner. Then he completely forgot about him and devoted himself to a continuous olfactory exploration of the sides of the houses lining the streets. If he came across something interesting, you had to stop until he had satisfied his curiosity, otherwise you would have to drag him stiff legged half way along the street before he would admit defeat and recommence his nasal examination of the area. This was typical of Pat whom we quickly found to be his own dog; who considered nobody but himself.
He had seemed to be very contented during the walk home. But as soon as we had settled him in the downstairs living room in an old box with a couple of sacks, he turned moody, showed the whites of his eyes viciously, growled when I stroked him, and tried to snap off one of my fingers. We optimistically hoped that this was just due to his being in a strange house. However we subsequently learned that it was his normal behaviour after a walk, when he was tired, making it clear to all and sundry that he wanted to rest.
There was a great deal of Irish and a great deal of terrier in Pat. If he was annoyed, he never hesitated to show it, and once he got his teeth into something, he would never let go. He hated the postman, whose knock drove him berserk. He would grasp the postman’s trousers in his teeth and you literally had to prise his jaws open before he let the unfortunate man go. The postman approached our house and we awaited his arrival with equal trepidation.
We tried to keep Pat locked up whenever we expected the mail to be delivered. But Pat was cunning. Sometimes he would slip out quickly when the front door was opened. He might disappear up the street for a couple of hours, pursuing his private affairs. Then he would arrive back at exactly the same time as the postman, and Kathleen Mavourneen! The donnybrook was really on and we had great trouble.
Motorcyclists, too, used to annoy Pat intensely. If my grandmother happened to be talking at the door and a motorcyclist passed, Pat would come dashing along the passage from the interior of the house, slither into the street, struggling madly to make a turn, then take off like a rocket. Our street was a long one, and motorcyclists took the opportunity to accelerate. But Pat was a ball of muscle with plenty of stamina. He would rapidly pick up speed and shoot away until he was only a small white and brown barking dot on the horizon.
He was jealous, too, and poor old Mary Anne, our cat who had formerly graced the hearth in the downstairs living room, when she was not roaming the back yards of the neighbourhood, now found herself banished to the coal cellar.
Pat was a fighting dog, and it was unsafe to take him out without a leash. Even then it could be hazardous. Pat never encountered another dog without going for the unfortunate animal bald headed. Neither did it matter what size they were. If they were small, Pat shook them like rats and returned flushed with victory, entirely impervious to the representations made by their hysterical and irate owners. He had won the war – let the politicians talk about the peace. If the dogs were big, then there was simply more for Pat to get hold of. He would still have a go, and return bloody and rather irritable, but unrepentant. On these occasions my grandfather, who recognised in Pat a similar moody, dissatisfied personality, would gently sponge his wounds with pieces of cheesecloth dipped in olive oil.
Pat blotted his copybook almost beyond redemption when he broke into the rabbit hutch at the end of the garden. For a few moments he was in an Irish terrier’s paradise, chasing startled rabbits all over the flowerbeds and snapping their necks one by one. After this his fate hung in the balance for a long while. But my mother used all her powers of advocacy and my father finally sanctioned a reprieve. Sadly, Pat sealed his fate a few months later.
A chicken coop had replaced the rabbit hutch and we had in it several birds we were fattening for Christmas. I came into the garden one day to find the coop suspiciously quiet, and suddenly noticed that a large hole had been made in the corner of the wire netting. Pat had been at work again and all the birds were dead.
That afternoon my father led him away, Pat jumping gaily about in expectation of a run on Hackney Marshes. They finished up instead at the local vet. Pat was still expecting fun and games, and scrambled happily on to the table. He was barely aware of the injection that put him quietly to sleep.