Ch6 Pt3 Egypt 1946 first impressions.

The next morning, those of us who can keep any food down are queuing along the upper deck, waiting our turn to descend to the mess deck for breakfast.  Here we learn that one of our three engines is useless, and that one of the screws has broken during the pitching and tossing of the night.

After breakfast I go up on deck again and see to the starboard a mountainous island rearing itself from the sea, an island encircled by cloud, gloomy and menacing. Corsica! The island of Prosper Mérimée and of Guy de Maupassant who wrote such bloodthirsty tales about Corsican vendettas; the home of that military and administrative genius and scourge of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte; and of that “other Corsican”, the singer Tino Rossi. No doubt Corsica is a beautiful island, but today, looming and misty, it has an air of menace.

Towards midday the sea began to get extremely rough again, and become more or less calm only at twilight on the third day, when we were sailing between the green, hilly coast of Italy and the island of Sicily. Here, in nineteen forty-three, the allies had successfully completed the invasion of Sicily from North Africa. Then they and the Germans gazed at each other from opposite sides of the narrow Straits of Messina, poised ready to spring at each other’s throats.

Some members of the ship’s crew told us that this was the roughest crossing of the “Med” they had ever known, and we could quite believe them. Nevertheless, we had periods of relative calm. At these times, it was good to promenade the deck and look at the immense expanse of sea, really blue now, whose billowing, white-crowned waves leapt and pranced as far as the eye could reach. Sometimes, when the sun shone and the skies were swept clear of clouds, it was most pleasant to lean on the handrail and look at the turbulent, foaming water cut and flung aside without mercy by the bow of our ship. I shall always remember one night when I had climbed on deck to get a breath of fresh air. It was pitch black. The sea and the sky were fused together in one single mass of darkness. Only the beat of water against the iron body of the ship could be heard. A few squares of light, escaping from the cabin windows illuminated, from time to time, foaming whirlpools, or white, threatening waves. Then, from the other end of the deck, men began to sing. Others joined in. And suddenly it was a wonderful blend of deep, melodious, all-male voices, and of the hissing passage of beaten, foaming sea. Everything was in rhythm. The soft wind carried away my cares, and nothing mattered in the world except the beauty of that moment.

At about ten o’clock in the evening of the sixth day, we saw to starboard twinkling points of light. Over there lies the coast of Egypt, and we are approaching Port Said. The acolytes of the engine room have had their work cut out on this voyage. They have worked frenziedly, but rumour has it that despite their efforts two of our three engines have failed, and we have sprung leaks in three places. Certainly we are visibly lower in the water, but all’s well that ends well. In half an hour we are at Port Said, the motors stop, and we drift with the calm, black waters shimmering and sucking at the sides of our ship. Opposite, on shore, are myriad lamps throwing a wan light on deserted streets. They illuminate monstrous cranes and send a thousand reflections jumping and glittering across the rippling water.

Sirens sound. Busy little bum-boats approach us. I see for the first time an Egyptian wrapped in a garment like an outsize white nightshirt, which I later learn is called a galabieh, with a red fez on his head. But the illusion of a dignified, mysterious oriental world is shattered when an Arab vendor, who has failed to sell a soldier a leather handbag, gives vent to his disappointment in very colloquial Anglo-Saxon English, making me believe that his command of ‘four-letter words’ is possibly equal to my own. Ah, well, it just goes to prove that English really is the true international language.

Although it is night, the wind on my cheeks from the neighbouring desert is warm. When are we to disembark? Nobody knows. In the British army you get used to waiting for somebody else to make decisions for you. However, this is my first journey outside Europe. I’m in no hurry, and it is pleasant to watch the Arab vendors who have gained access to the deck, and a conjuror who gives a ten-minute floor show for suitable remuneration and produces small day-old chicks from the most unlikely places.

Eventually we disembark at two o’clock in the morning. Our large valises are strapped to our backs; our small valises are on our hips. For portability we wear our thick great coats under our webbing. We hump our heavily laden kit bags on our shoulders. Sweating and cursing we cut across the quay, file between shadowy bales stacked one on top of the other, and scramble aboard an Egyptian train waiting in a siding.

During this time a few very young soldiers, who haven’t kept up with our group, lose themselves after leaving the “Empire Battleaxe”, get tangled up with a completely different group of soldiers who are leaving Egypt, and finish up in another ship. This sails triumphantly into the wide blue yonder carrying our friends back to dear old Blighty! We hear nothing of them until several weeks later. Having sailed the length of the Mediterranean three times, they finally finish up at our camp in Egypt, where they should have arrived the first time. That’s par for the course with the British army – everything in a state of absolute and continuous chaos! God only knows what the pay clerks costed their wages to!

Fortunately my own small party reached its allotted railway carriage with no difficulty. I fell asleep on a wooden bench in the long, grey coach in which I found myself after having unhooked my corset of webbing and let everything fall to the floor.

When I awoke, dawn had broken, we were rattling along at a fine speed, and it was surprisingly cold for a tropical country. It was February and still mid winter. Through the windows we could see the yellow, undulating desert. But there were wide lengths of greenery close to the railway, and tall, soaring palm trees dotted the adjoining landscape. Often we passed tumbledown, seemingly half-completed dwellings, on whose roofs were untidy piles of straw, apparently placed as protection against the heat of the sun.

At this hour Arabs were leaving their hovels like animals quitting their caves. Men enveloped in white, burnous-like galabiehs and muffled to the eyes because of the cold, travelled astride small, trotting donkeys. Each was followed by his wife – on foot! – swaddled in a black shawl and generally veiled. Sometimes, the donkey was replaced by a slow, ugly, incessantly nodding camel. One could not fail to notice the abject poverty of these “fellahin”, and this never ceased to appall us during the whole of our stay in Egypt. There seemed to be the very poor and the very rich, with only a small and insignificant middle class.

Towards ten o’clock in the morning it got very hot. Off came greatcoats, and tunics were unbuttoned. The country became bare, dry and uninviting. The trains stopped at several stations, and hordes of vendors descended on us. The technique was for them to approach us slyly and to show suddenly a glittering ring, which they would immediately hide again in a dirty palm. How much? – Two pounds, effendi. A real bargain, oombashi. After the usual haggling, of course, these prices would descend spectacularly to something in the region of five piastres – a shilling.       

Then sellers of oranges, (stolen from roadside groves), would do their best to make a quick turn at our expense. Or banana sellers would clamber aboard, and there was a temptation, for bananas had not been available in England for years. Unfortunately or otherwise we had received no Egyptian money as yet, and very few of our lads had any English or French money left. One thing that surprised us was the fluency with which these dirty, apparently uneducated natives spoke English. Doubtless their range was narrow, but within that range their fluency was perfect. They had, of course, learnt the language by ear, and their grammar was more often than not at fault, but here was a demonstration if I ever saw one of the necessity for linguistic back-up in foreign language teaching, and of the poverty of book teaching if that linguistic back-up is omitted.

At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the train pulled into a siding and we got out. We clambered into lorries, passed through the outskirts of Cairo, and arrived at a reception camp on the edge of the suburb of Heliopolis. The Greek name was well given, for the sun beat down from a cloudless sky and glared back from the white walls of the stone buildings. The lorries stopped, vomited men with their heavy kit and clattering hob-nailed boots, then moved off as each soldier set about finding an empty space in the sea of white tents which covered a plain of sand.

[Above is an interactive map from The British Library Online, showing an array of allied sites in Cairo in 1946, and where the troops may or may not go.]

We stayed at this camp for three weeks. There was little to do except scrub one’s packs and webbing with sand and water until they were white. An Arab would be only too pleased to perform this enervating task for a couple of piastres. We used to spend the evenings on the canteen terrace, drinking tea from glasses made from beer bottles, chatting and writing letters.

At this time the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty governing the British occupation was up for rediscussion. There was much talk about this in the newspapers. The better class of Egyptian – the effendim – did not seem particularly anglophobe. No doubt they realised which side their bread was buttered and understood the vast amounts of British currency keeping the economy afloat. But a few louts from among the fellahin used to wait for us in the guise of boot blacks at the entrance to the camp. Thus, whenever we were going into Heliopolis or Cairo we had to run the gauntlet of these fellows, who would approach us pretending to want to clean our shoes. These were always dirty after we had trudged across the sand to the gates. To accept, however, meant that one’s trousers would be smothered in boot polish. We were officially forbidden to resist these people, however much they pestered us, thus cracking a few heads with some sticks and putting an end to the matter was out of the question. However, we used to go out in groups, and if a bunch of Arabs became threatening, there were always a few large stones around which we could pick up and look as if we were prepared to use – as indeed we were. Thus a number of ugly incidents, which blew up from time to time, always seemed to peter out. 

The native shops and stalls, the bistros with their tables scattered across the pavement at which Arabs – some dressed in galabiehs, some European fashion, but most wearing the ubiquitous fez – sat drinking coffee and often smoking hookahs, had a great interest for us. This was unfortunately marred by the hostility we encountered during our first days in Egypt.                                               

Another pastime of the Arabs in the vicinity was to organise raids on the camp. At night, they would cut the barbed wire which marked the perimeter, quietly enter the tents, and steal whatever they could lay their hands on. A rifle was worth twenty Egyptian pounds, a small fortune for a fellah, which was one of the reasons why the arms of all British forces in the Middle East were kept in locked armouries when their owners did not need them.

Ch 2 p 1 Uncle Arthur and My Dog

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.

Ch 1 part 1 Hackney

I was born on 26th April 1922 in my parents’ bedroom in Frampton Park Road, Hackney, London. The grandiloquent name of the street hid narrow-gutted houses of small dimensions, which would today be condemned. 

The house in which we lived was one of a very long, hundred year old terrace of houses, slowly sinking into the London clay. I can remember, as a child, watching the moon through a crack in the brick wall, which seemed to get wider as the years went by. Periodically the repairman came to patch it up, but it always reappeared. We rented the house for a few shillings a week, and the landlord’s rent collector was a remote and austere man, who lived in another part of the neighbourhood. I suppose the frontage of the house would have been about fifteen feet. Entering into a narrow passage, first on the right was the parlour, used as such only at Christmas. For the rest of the year it was my grandparents’ bedroom. The next room on the right was the kitchen-cum-dining room. It had a large open hearth and a bright steel fender in front of it, kept scrupulously burnished by my grandmother. Here I sat for hours as a child reading books about cowboys and Indians. At the end of the passage was what we called “The Wash House”. This contained a copper with room for a wood fire underneath for doing the weekly washing, a large old fashioned mangle with timber rollers and a handle on a huge iron fly-wheel, a gas stove, and a cement sink with a single tap for cold water. Here we washed our clothes, washed the crockery, washed ourselves, and cooked. The Wash House also contained a large chopping block where my grandfather, who was a self-employed butcher, chopped up his meat prior to offering it to the public. Sometimes, at night, huge black beetles would invade the Wash House, attracted by the residue of small pieces of meat. We conducted continuous warfare against them, but never let on to the health authorities.

            Half way along the passage on the left hand side, was an even narrower staircase. This led to a landing and the entrance to the toilet, and a small mezzanine appendage or attic overlooking the pocket-handkerchief back garden. (There was no front garden, all the terrace houses giving directly on to the footpath). In this room lived and slept my Uncle Arthur, my mother’s brother, who was a leather cutter by trade, but who for most of his life was unemployed. (These were the days of the great depression in England). From the landing, four more stairs changed direction and led to the two top rooms of the house. One was a bedroom, the other a general living room. In the living room we children did our homework, had our meals with our parents, and generally spent the evening with them. In the bedroom three large beds were jammed around the walls. My two parents slept in one bed, my two sisters in another, and my brother and I in the third. While my mother was giving birth to her children, we were scattered about the other parts of the house. At these times I remember my father telling me in his Yorkshire dialect that “Mam was poorly”.

            In those days, with chimneys from two million households belching coal smoke into the air, London was a fog-ridden city. Sometimes, when the pea-soupers came down, you almost literally could not see a hand in front of your face, nor yet find the street where you had lived all your life. If you blew your nose, particles of grime from the fog appeared on your handkerchief. Many a foggy morning I can remember lying in bed looking up at the recently lit gas light on the wall of our communal bedroom, and listening to my father clatter downstairs, slam the front door and walk to work. He always walked to his job at Hackney Wick to save the bus fare. As his footsteps echoed down the street, I would hear him hawking and coughing. The fog upset his wheezy chest, never too good in the early morning.

            We children had the entire run of the house and the small garden at the back. However, whilst there were no restrictions as far as we were concerned, my grandparents generally kept themselves to the ground floor, while Mum and Dad kept to their two top rooms. My uncle spent hours gazing gloomily out of the window of his small bedroom, unable to get work, losing confidence in himself. Sometimes Barney, who ran the handbag factory in Well Street, just down the road, would offer him a few weeks’ work. Barney always wore a smart overcoat and a brown trilby hat, and I knew when he had been around because of the lingering smell of the cigarettes, which he chain-smoked. But the work always cut out after a few weeks or a few months, and my uncle would be unemployed again. The depression and the general poverty of the time ensured that the lumpen proletariat2 could never get off their backsides, no matter how hard they tried. The worst thing was that men of good potential were psychologically downgraded and destroyed by their continuing inability to get work.

 However those in positions of privilege, with the advantages of a better education and assured income, never ceased to turn up their noses at people whom they considered socially inferior. So the joke and the curse of English society, the class system, continued its merry way, one stratum of society looking down on another, but up to somebody else, until you arrived at the Establishment who controlled all the wealth and power, and they, of course, looked down on everybody.

            The lumpen proletariat, for their part, were resigned to their lot. Every Friday and Saturday night the pubs were full, and many men and women spent what little extra money they had on getting riotously drunk. On these two evenings, as chucking out time arrived, crowds of revellers would wend their way home singing songs such as “Nellie Dean” and “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” beloved of East End Londoners.

            My grandfather was not a singer, but when he was moody or discouraged, he was a drinker. He had once sworn off the demon drink for two years, but it was a temporary interlude. For most of his life, like most East Enders, who had no other future except poverty, he liked his beer.

            My grandfather and grandmother with whom we lived – the people who were always “Gran’dad” and “Nan” to me – were my mother’s parents. My father’s parents were coalmine workers, up in Yorkshire. Although it was only half a day’s journey by car in today’s terms, most of the time they could not afford the train fare during the depression, let alone a car. So we hardly ever saw my father’s parents. 

            My maternal grandfather was a short, pot-bellied man with a broad nose and tremendously strong arms. One of his grandmothers, according to the family story, had been a Jewish girl – the family name was believed to be Simmons. This would not be surprising as there had always been a large Jewish minority in the East End of London, and some intermarriage was to be expected. My grandfather’s left wrist, which had been broken when he was a lad, had never set properly, and was crooked and gnarled. He strengthened it by means of a greasy leather strap. His dark hair was thinning and starting to turn grey. Sometimes, when he had had a sluice in the Wash House and was feeling good, he would break into a favourite ditty. I never heard it before or since, but I always remember it with a smile.

                            “Once upon a time                                                                                          

                            When the birds shit lime                                                                                                                       

                            And the monkeys chewed tobacco ……”

This was Arthur Hunt, or Dick the Butcher as he was known in the neighbourhood. My grandfather’s father was John Hunt, by profession a coal heaver, but grandfather was brought up in an orphanage. 

One never worries much about family antecedents when one is young. Subsequently those who might have been able to supply information have themselves passed on. I do know that both my grandfather and my grandmother were born in 1872, and were twenty-two years old when they married. They had met “at the orphanage”, so my grandmother also must have been brought up there. The marriage record shows that at the time of her marriage my grandmother’s father was a carpenter, (deceased). Whatever the explanation, they must both have had a difficult childhood.

            When he was young my grandfather was apprenticed to a butcher, learnt his trade well, and as a young man came to own a horse and cart and a stall in the local market. Alas, for all his blarney and expertise at butchery, my grandfather had one fatal flaw. Every time he made a profit he went into the nearest pub and passed it over the counter to the publican. My grandmother finished up running the stall in the market, while my mother and uncle, as children, played underneath. Meanwhile Dick the Butcher lorded it in the public bar.

            My grandfather lost his stall, and since he was unable to work for a boss due to a deep rooted dislike of taking orders, finished up pushing a barrow of meat around the streets to make a living.

            The daily routine, as I remember it, went something like this: at about half past three in the morning he would get up from bed, go into the Wash House and brew a saucepanful of strong tea which, for some reason known only to himself, he would call “Australian Tea”. He would share the tea with our cat, who was known as Mary Anne, then wash and shave and take the old, grinding, double decker tram to Smithfield Market. Here he would buy enough meat to last him the day. If the price was right and the weather not too warm, he might buy enough to last him longer. He would put the meat in a sack, hump it on his shoulder and bring it back by tram to our house. In the Wash House it would be cut up on the wooden block and placed in two cane hampers, which my grandfather always kept scrupulously scrubbed and clean. He would then walk across to the house of a plump, florid, middle aged lady who made a living hiring out the many hand-barrows she owned. If I remember rightly the charge was threepence for the morning and sixpence for a whole day. The hampers with the cut meat would be placed on the barrow, and my grandfather would push them around the streets until he had sold the lot.

            At one stage (I would have been about eleven or twelve) I used to push the barrow for my grandfather every Saturday morning, when there was no school. He used to introduce me to all his customers as his grandson. I felt out of place and shy, but I was very proud to be helping my grandfather in his work. He used to give me sixpence for my morning’s chores, which was a great deal of money for a small boy in those days.