Sometimes my grandfather would have meat left over, and as there was no refrigeration, this became a problem in summer when the weather was warm and flies abounded. My grandfather would soak the meat in a solution of brine placed in the tin tub where we children had our occasional baths.
In the houses of those days there were no facilities for baths or showers. If you were an adult, you paid a visit to the public baths in another part of the borough. If you were a child, Mum gave you a sluice in a tin tub on the Wash House floor.
Sometimes the meat would remain in its brine bath over the weekend. On Monday, in spite of all efforts to keep it clean and free of pollution, maggots could be seen crawling. The meat was an investment in money that my grandfather could not afford to lose. He would scrub the maggots off, then plunge the meat again into a solution of water and potassium permanganate crystals to give it back its red colour. Somehow, with his blarney and salesmanship, he always managed to get rid of it. Nobody seemed to complain, and fortunately none of his customers ever got food poisoning.
My grandfather had a sardonic sense of humour, and was an eternal nonconformist. I had picked up an ancient typewriter at the Kingsland Waste flea market, so my grandfather got me to type out little cards with the words:
I never did figure out what a “meat banger” was, unless it referred to the way he used to chop and hack at his pieces of meat. However, my grandfather took great pleasure in distributing the cards with a lordly air to his rather bemused customers.
His insistence on calling himself Dick Hunter, instead of Arthur Hunt gave untold trouble in later years after his death, when setting the family history record straight. My grandfather’s sense of humour frequently kept us from despair. On one occasion there was a plague of black beetles in the Wash House where he used to cut up his meat and he was anxious to get rid of them in case he received a visit from a Health inspector, who might forbid him to trade. When putting down powder, plugging holes and fumigations had all failed to kill the pests, I asked him one day
“How are we going to get rid of them, Gran’dad?”
“We’ll get rid of them all right, Jimmie”
He thought for a moment.
“Well, I’ve got an idea. I think I’ll catch one of them beetles and paint ‘im blue”.
“Paint ‘im blue?”
“Yes. Then I’ll let ‘im loose. All the other beetles will mistake ‘im for a policeman and run away to escape being arrested. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
My grandfather was vastly amused, but it didn’t seem very funny to me. I thought we still had a serious problem.
My grandfather was basically a very kind man. We were all on the edge of insolvency in those days, and many a Friday I would go with my grandmother to the pawn shop to pawn the sheets for a few bob to tide us over until some money came in from somewhere. However my grandfather had his stock in trade – there was always some meat somewhere in the house.
Although my father had permanent work his wages were meagre. But there was always a joint of meat or some stewing steak for my mother when she wanted it. Gran’dad would come upon her unexpectedly, one of his better portions of meat in his hand and say, “There you are, Nellie. Get that down your scrags. It’ll make the kids strong.”
On Sundays, too, when my grandfather was carving the joint in the downstairs living room – my mother cooked her own dinner late on this day – he always set aside meat for me, which my grandmother made up with mustard into a juicy sandwich. I used to take my sandwich, sit on the polished iron fender before the open fire, and bury myself in the reminiscences of Gracie Fields, or the serialised biography of Edgar Wallace, or any other “confessions” carried that Sunday by The News of the World.
During the week I used to come to my grandfather every evening and receive the sum of one penny for The Evening News and one halfpenny for myself. Twice a week I also used to receive the sum of twopence farthing for a quarter of an ounce of ‘British Oak’ shag, which my grandfather would smoke in a foul old clay pipe.
With this money I used to trot across Well Street to Mr Williams, the newsagent, and buy the paper. On my way back I would stop at Ernie’s, the sweetshop, and lay out my halfpenny as advantageously as possible on sweets. I would dawdle as much as possible going back in order to read most of the news before my grandfather. What news it was, too! The test matches – Don Bradman was always scoring – the record breaking runs by Sir Malcolm Campbell in his “Bluebird” – The flights of Miss Amy Johnson. The international outlook didn’t bother us in those happy, far-off days. Sometimes, when I hadn’t finished the newspaper, we would have arguments about who was to have it. My grandfather thought that having paid for the paper, plus an additional delivery fee, he should have first claim. These arguments were generally settled by an amicable compromise in which my grandfather would take one half and I the other.
My grandfather loved reading.
He had left school at twelve, but he loved to read books. They were restricted for the most part to the works of Edgar Wallace and Nat Gould, the two most famous writers of thrillers and racy tales of the day. But I would wager that my grandfather had read almost every book that those two prolific writers had put out. Gran’dad would sit in a chair in the downstairs room, stockinged feet on the mantelpiece, the rear part of his legs presented to the fire for warmth, and he would read for hours. I have often wondered what kind of a man he might have been had he had the opportunity for a better education and had his interest in reading been channelled in a productive direction.
It never occurred to me that my grandfather was mortal until he had a serious illness in the early days of the 1939-45 war. He had contracted a carbuncle on the back of the neck, and had to spend several weeks in the Hackney Hospital. This was a place in which he was at first terrified to stay. For local tradition had it that once one went “into the infirmary”, who knew if or when one would come out. My grandfather did come out, but he had shrunken and lost weight, and his skin was an unhealthy yellow. I was also growing up rapidly, and my own increasing weight and height probably added to the impression. But my grandfather was never again the man he used to be.
In October 1941 I was called up for the army, and some months later found myself stationed a few miles outside London at the town of Staines. I got home for weekend leaves, and saw my grandparents occasionally. They had been bombed out twice, and were now living in a cramped little tumbledown house about ten minutes walk from their original home. My grandfather became weaker and more shrivelled. I think that the disruption caused by the air raids and the war must have contributed to his ill health. He, like so many others of that terrible time, were also affected by the snapping of the link which had bound him to the same house and the same street for thirty years. (The street had now disappeared and only a rubble-strewn waste of land remained).
I missed visiting my grandparents one weekend, and when I came next to the flat in which my parents were living, (the local Council had finally allocated it to them because their former home had been destroyed), my father met me with a serious face.
“We’ve got bad news for you, son.”
I could feel within me before he spoke further what it was all about.
One night my grandmother had awoken to find my grandfather struggling to get into bed. His face seemed partially paralysed, and he could not speak. He had been to the toilet and must suddenly have collapsed. They took him to hospital, but he died shortly afterwards. They said that he had died from the debilitating effects of a carbuncle on the back of the neck and cirrhosis of the liver.
My poor, dear old Gran’dad. My grandmother told me that she had the feeling that he did not want to live any longer. The mean streets, the narrow life, the continual work, work, work for nothing had finally filled him with disgust. He wanted to rest. I hope that in his last moments he experienced peace and rest.
My grandfather was always so hard up that he could not afford to put stamps on his old age pension card. So under the English system of those days, he did not qualify for the old age pension until he reached the age of seventy. He was sixty nine years old when he died – within a few months of drawing his old age pension. He worked hard every day of his life, first to look after his family, and second to make other people rich. At least he could have boasted that he never took anything without working damned hard for it and that he never accepted a favour from anyone.
My maternal grandmother was a small, wrinkled woman with a slightly humped back and work-worn, thick-fingered hands. Her long grey hair was plaited and coiled in a bun at the back of her head, and she wore a fringe in front. The money my grandfather earned was never enough to pay all the bills, so my grandmother was invariably out charring at other people’s houses to make up the difference. A regular client of hers was an old Russian Jewish woman even more wrinkled than she, who lived a few streets away, and through the generosity of “Old Booba”, candlesticks, matzos and kosher delicacies used to find their way into our home. My grandmother worked, if anything, even harder than my grandfather. I never knew her to rest. If she wasn’t scrubbing somebody else’s floor, she was scrubbing her own; or she was washing clothes in the big, steaming copper in the Wash House; or she would be sweeping, beating carpets, cooking or seeing in some way to the comfort of others.
She only allowed herself one luxury. Every evening at about nine o’clock she would take a coloured, ornamented jug to the pub just at the end of the street and bring herself back half a pint of bitters. I think that she deserved it.
My grandmother was fond of all her grandchildren, but especially of me. When I was born I had a deformed face – some would say that that is still the case. However, my grandmother massaged my face for hours when I was young and eventually restored it to something like normal balance. Nan was always prepared to make me a strong cup of milky tea with a new crust from a cottage loaf, to which I was particularly partial. Being only a child in those days, I never thought to consider how much butter and bread and tea cost and how hard Nan worked physically to get those little extras.
My siblings were two sisters and a brother. My elder sister, Nellie, born in 1926 was the student of the family, always sitting in a corner studying. My second sister, Dolly, born in 1928, became an archivist at the London Guildhall. My brother Harry was born in 1931. Of all the family he displays most the intelligence of my father and the humour and business orientation of my grandfather. He started work in the London Water Board, and later went into partnership with a friend in a camera business. He did not marry until he was thirty. He then found himself short of money to buy a house and hit on an infallible way to amass enough capital to start himself off. Using his knowledge of cameras and photography, he proceeded to make moving pictures – of the type that were at that time unlawful in England, and carried a heavy penalty if detected. If they had known, my father would not have approved, my mother would have been deeply shocked, and I do not know what others might have thought. However, Harry needed money to set himself up and provide for his family. Nobody was going to give it to him, so he earned it by supplying a demand. I always thought that it was an amusing, original and enterprising example of “Foxon get up and go”. Once he achieved enough capital, Harry dropped the movie business and settled into successful family life.