CH 3 p 1 Soho, and first love.

Soho, the district in which the premises of Messrs Osborne and Garrett stood, consisted of a number of narrow thoroughfares, sometimes cobbled, sometimes asphalted, which wriggled their way between the traffic-streaming boulevards of Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street. Soho had an unsavoury reputation, but its notoriety was not entirely deserved. By no means were all its inhabitants racketeers and prostitutes. On the contrary, the majority were honest, hard working citizens.

True, it was a district of foreigners. Voluble Italians jostled harsh-accented Africans and gesticulating Frenchmen walked side by side with Hindu women in silken saris. The mixed population, which is today the norm in England, was then the exception. Thus, Soho in those pre-war days was to me a place alive with romance.

In Soho one could spend an hour in a chop suey joint or an Indian restaurant, there to partake of the many and varied delicacies of the east. Or one could patronise a certain French rendezvous in Greek Street where soupe a l’oignon, escargots farcis, and cuisses de grenouille were de rigueur on the menu. Or if one wished to hob-nob with the dark sons of Spain and speak a bit of “Castellano” to the waiter, one could go to “The Majorca” at the Regent Street end of Brewer Street. These spots were typical of the marvellous variety of foods and languages.

But it was at night that Soho really came into its own. Then, when the offices were empty, when the grind of the working day was over and people gave themselves up to pleasure, the thunder of the west end traffic could be heard like a muted drum roll in the quieter back streets. Glaring on-and-off neon advertisements would give spasmodic illumination to murky lanes, and as one walked and felt the cool breeze on one’s face, one must have been dull indeed not to have revelled in it all. We were young, the world was full of romance and opportunity, and it belonged to us.

Look! Over there is Piccadilly Circus, brilliant hub of the universe, and beyond lies the black, shimmering River Thames. How beautiful it all is!

Even the pornography shops didn’t look so dingy when night overtook the West End. And the heavily painted prostitutes who brushed past you with an overpowering whiff of perfume and a murmured “Hello darling” seemed much more glamorous than they would have been if you had had the nerve to accept their invitation and follow them to some squalid back room.

Those days at “Ogee’s” were, on the whole, happy ones. I was worked hard and earned every penny of my meagre salary. But after the grind of Thursday, taking small advertisements over a scratchy old-fashioned telephone in the morning (the “Journal” ran several pages of “smalls”, and there was always a rush before we went to press) and the foot wearying afternoon journeys when I carried proofs, hot from Oldham’s Press, round to the larger advertisers, I could walk home with my colleagues through the neon-lit streets, puffing at a cigarette, talking of the day’s work, and enjoying the marvellous feeling of being on a London paper, however insignificant it might be. Those men and women in evening dress whose limousines carried them swiftly to some expensive restaurant might feel pretty pleased with themselves, but I knew something they did not. I knew what was going to be in tomorrow’s “Hairdressers Journal”.

The “Journal” offices were at the back of Ogee’s big store fronting Greek Street. We reached them by entering a small door in an insignificant side street and climbing a short staircase. One then found oneself in a square space enclosed by walls on two sides, a counter on a third, and fenced off from the main office on the fourth side by a frosted glass partition. This partition annoyed us intensely, because we always had to guess whether anybody had climbed the short flight of steps and wanted serving. Invariably we used to get up and go round to the counter when nobody was there, because we had heard a board creak. When someone was in fact there, we often failed to realise it, and were warned only by an impatient shuffling of feet, a testy cough, or a peremptory tap on the glass itself.            I disliked the early part of the week most during those “Journal” days.

Apart from Monday morning reluctance, my job in the early part of the week was to sort out the replies that had been sent in to box office numbers and redirect them to advertisers’ addresses, of which we kept a weekly list. Since the “Journal” officially appeared on Saturday, every post on Monday brought piles of letters to my desk, and I never had a moment’s peace. 

I had to leave home at about half past six in the morning to get to work on time. I would generally knock off at about six in the evening. You were expected to bundy on a few minutes before time and not leave before all jobs were finished. Any involuntary overtime was not paid for, and of course, as was general in those days, Saturday mornings were worked. On Saturdays we got away at about one o’clock.

On weekdays we had a tea break at four thirty in the afternoon. Well, it was not really a break, because one was expected to go on working. But I remember with pleasure the tea and biscuits that motherly, white-coated Jessie, smiling through her rimless glasses, used to fetch round on a trolley. We all needed tea, especially on Mondays, when the licking of innumerable envelopes reduced me to a state of near dehydration.     

I remember, too, the pulsating, busy basement, the “guts” of the building with its endless belts carrying packages hither and yon. This was the section from which parcels were dispatched all over the world. Incredible that these packages would journey in a few weeks to places which I should probably never see – to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.            

I used to go to a cafe in Dean Street for my lunch. This consisted of two ham rolls (no butter) and a cup of tea. The customers were all men, and the talk was rough. The subject was always normal – that is to say, women and booze in that order. According to the conversationalists the women were always loose and the booze was always potent. If there were any “four-letter words” I didn’t know already, I was rapidly introduced to them.

The proprietor was a deft, cheerful, watery-eyed, watery-nosed individual in his middle thirties called Len. I think we all went there because the “caff” was the cheapest eating-place in Soho. Later, when the war came, a bomb hit Len’s Cafe and completely destroyed it, but by that time I had moved on elsewhere.

I was attending evening classes during this period, studying shorthand, typewriting, English and French, in the hope of one day becoming a real journalist, and not just an advertisement copy-boy and stamp licker. Three evenings a week I used to climb the brick-enclosed staircase of the local evening institute, which was a children’s school during the day and had certainly not been designed to accommodate adults. The ceilings were low, the coat hangers and lavatories needed raising a couple of feet, and we had to squeeze into the desks which children used during the day and sprawl with our feet along the gangways. However, we did not worry greatly about the surroundings. The object was to try to learn something to help us on our way.   

After the fashion of the time the whole school was lit by gas lamps, which gave off a faintly yellowish light. It was here that I met my first girl friend, Rita, although I must confess that our friendship was of a very short duration. 

Rita was a blue-eyed black-haired beauty, precocious for her seventeen years. Her lips were soft, cherry coloured and moist. She had a pair of shapely silk-stockinged legs that Michelangelo might have sculpted. She was acknowledged by the boys to be the best “looker” in the class, and whenever she came in, all eyes were turned in her direction, and a dozen young masculine hearts fluttered in silent worship. I caught her up in the street one night when the classes had finished. 

“Good evening. Do you mind if I walk home with you?”                                   

“Why, no” she said. “Of course not”. 

Her voice expressed such pleasure at the prospect of my company that my heart swelled in ecstasy. She was definitely the girl most likely to succeed. There was a dead silence for some yards. I had run out of steam and didn’t know what else to say. But Rita did.                              

“Do you like shorthand?”                                                                                   

“Why, yes,” I said. “Do you?”                                                                            

“Yes. Very much. I like Miss Jolly.” The shorthand class was taught by a tall, bespectacled and persistently cheerful woman whose name was appropriately Jolly. 

“Yes. I Iike her too.”                                      

“Do you like typewriting?” asked Rita.                                                                   

“Yes. Do you?”                                                                                                 

“Yes.”                                                                                                                  

“Do you like English?”                                                                                         

“Oh, yes”.

What a wonderful conversation we were having. We seemed to agree on everything. My head in a whirl, I walked Rita to her door. I asked if I might see her home the following night. She said I might. I debated whether to kiss her, but thought it might be a bit soon, and we parted with a formal handshake. The following evening I invited her to come to the pictures with me, and she accepted, but she did not keep the appointment. The next time we were at evening classes, a note was passed to me by one of her girl friends.

Rita apologised for not meeting me and regretted that she could not come out with me again. I was bewildered, and although she had left rather hurriedly at the end of the session, I caught up with her and demanded an explanation. 

She seemed rather embarrassed.                                                              

“Well, you see, my mother saw us at the gate the other night and she said that since you are a Christian boy and I’m a Jewish girl it wouldn’t be right for me to go out with you.” 

I was stunned and hurt. It was my first chagrin d’amour. The pleasure of love, the old song says, lasts only a moment. But the pain of love lasts for a lifetime. Well, it certainly took me several weeks to soothe my upset pride.        

The lesson was this, that I had always automatically assumed that one was fortunate to be a white Anglo Saxon Protestant. Yet here was somebody telling me that it was better to be a Jew, and I was simply not good enough for Rita because I was a goy. There was no way that Rita’s parents were going to stand by and see her run the risk of becoming a shicksa – a proselyte – an abomination. I understood the point. Later, when I began to read widely about Judaism, I understood it better. 

Ch 2 p 4 Mum and School.

My mother’s maiden name was Eleanor Alice Hunt. She was born at London Fields, Hackney.  On the birth certificate her father was shown as Arthur Hunt and her mother as “Ellen” Hunt. This should have been “Eleanor”, and was an example of my grandfather’s airy disregard for detail in official matters. He always called my grandmother “Ellen”, and if it was good enough for him, it should be good enough for the Registrar. My grandfather’s profession was shown as “Butcher”.

My mother spent most of her life up to the Second World War in Frampton Park Road, Hackney, she and my father taking possession of the two top rooms in the house after their marriage in 1921. As a boy, I used to climb a sycamore tree in the back garden that had been planted by my mother as a seed when she was a child. 

My mother did well at school scholastically, but with money needed to help with the household expenses, she left at the age of fourteen and started work as a machinist at a local shirt factory. She pursued this occupation until her marriage to my father, after which she devoted herself to looking after the household and her children.

My earliest recollections of my mother are of a fair haired, very attractive, bluish-green eyed woman who loved me probably above all else in the world. To my father, she was “his girl”, and he cherished her and remained scrupulously faithful to her until the end of his life. My mother had long, naturally wavy hair that she subsequently had bobbed in the fashion of the time, and used to curl with hot tongs. She never wore make-up, which for some reason she disliked. Many women eschewed make-up in those days. I think it may have had something to do with the Victorian concept that only “fast” women wore that sort of stuff.

My mother had a true Cockney sense of humour and like my grandmother, she worked hard. She kept our two rooms scrupulously clean at Frampton Park Road, and I have a whole range of memories of her kneeling on a piece of sacking and scrubbing the lino flooring (we used to call it “oil cloth” in those days in London). I also remember her and my grandmother stoking up the copper in the Wash House to do the weekly wash, manipulating the heavy mangle amidst clouds of steam, scrubbing on the scrubbing board, and hanging out interminable rows of sheets and clothes in the back yard.

Having lived all her life in the east end of London, and drawing the conclusion that any sensible person would arrive at, my mother’s ambition was for her children to lift themselves out of the ignorance and poverty of our environment, and to this end she always tried to direct us.

When I first went to Infant School, in Paragon Road, Hackney, opposite the Public Library and the big Telephone Exchange, my mother used to take me there in the morning. Every afternoon she would bring with her an old tin can that we would place on the tram lines running along adjoining Mare Street. When a tram came along I would shout with laughter as it rattled past and squashed the tin flat in a most satisfying manner. 

After the Infant School, I received my education at three other schools. These were, the Hackney Free and Parochial School, which was the elementary school and stands to this day in St. John’s Churchyard, Hackney. Then by the grace of scholarships and my parents’ scheming to finance me, I progressed to Upton House Central School, and one step higher to Parmiter’s Foundation Secondary School.

However, the Hackney Free and Parochial School will always be My School, for there I spent my happiest childhood days. There the teachers seemed to have a real interest in their pupils. 

Of all my teachers I remember best Mr Bowles, a small man with large horn rimmed spectacles, but how well he knew his job of handling boys. Tragedy struck him during my later years at the school when he lost his wife. I wonder if Mr Bowles ever knew how my childish heart overflowed with sympathy for him then? I remember too fierce, bald headed Mr Atkins, the history master. He stirred my imagination with tales (delivered with fine histrionics) of the sabre toothed tiger, prehistoric man, and the first Roman invaders of Britain. On one occasion also, when I was standing in front of the class he gave me the biggest clout I had ever received from anyone for turning away when he was speaking to me. I suppose I deserved it. The next year Mr Atkins offered a book as a prize for the best historical essay and I won it. Mr James, too, springs into my vision, the kindly, grey moustached headmaster who called all his pupils by their Christian names and always had time to listen to any one of them. We all rather looked up to Mr James. Apart from his kindness and obvious ability, he was the only member of the staff who had a university degree.

And, of course, no Hackney Parochial boy who was there with him could ever forget “Jimmy” Hollick, a veritable Mr Chips. Jimmy had himself been a pupil at the school in the eighteen seventies, subsequently becoming a student teacher, and then being promoted to the full status of master. He was tall, hoarse voiced and very short sighted. His suits were always impeccably tailored and sat well on his broad boned but spare frame. He wore pebble glasses with extraordinarily thick lenses, and had to hold papers within a couple of inches of his wrinkled face in order to read them. He was the deputy headmaster, a Hackney local boy who had made good.          

After Mr James’ retirement, Jimmy Hollick became head until, in the early days of the war, a piece of shrapnel received during an air raid put out the sight of one of his failing eyes and ended his teaching days for ever. He was a good man with a fine understanding of children. Jimmy specialised in the teaching of geography. It was he who slung a map across the blackboard one day and first said to me the magic name “Australia”.     

Jimmy Hollick and Mr Bowles used to take the swimming classes together at the local (indoor) baths. At different times during the day, classes of boys would form up in a row in the school playground, “quick march” through the little gate into the silent, tree-filled Hackney Churchyard, then up and across to busy Mare Street. We used to get about half an hour of actual swimming, two boys sharing a small “box” with an inadequate wooden seat to dress and undress. Leaning precariously over the edge of the pool, and generally getting themselves soaked in the process, Jimmy and Mr Bowles would encourage breathless boys to hang on to the bar and make appropriate leg movements, yelling to make themselves heard above the din. Or else they would induce some intrepid young man who had almost mastered the art to allow his arms to be fitted into a couple of loops hanging from an overhead wire and then be lugged up to the deep end, puffing and blowing and madly waving his arms and legs.     

I never saw Jimmy Hollick actually swim, but Mr Bowles once donned a bright blue costume and volunteered to take part in a race. However, he gave up half way, informing us that he was unable to see where he was going without his glasses. We all readily accepted the explanation at the time; indeed it rather tickled our boyish sense of humour. However, in the light of adult experience, I look upon it with some scepticism, believing that Old Bowlsiefound the exertion of the race too much for him and decided to give it away.

Every Christmas, partitions which divided three classrooms at the school would be folded back so that one large hall was formed. A wooden platform was erected at one end, curtains were rigged up, and each class set about devising a sketch or short play. I remember that I took the part of the heroine in a cowboy melodrama at one of these Christmas shows. I can’t remember the plot. But I know that all rules of chivalry went by the board, because I had a tremendous life and death struggle with the villain of the piece, falling over and severely bumping my head on one of the iron desks in the process. The villain was well and truly plugged by the hero’s six guns, and the curtain fell as I swooned (very nearly literally) in his arms. The gun reports, horses’ hoof beats, and so on were provided by our effects man who stood hidden behind a small curtain, knocking the usual coconuts together and striking the blackboard with a hammer. We looked forward to Christmas at that school, and thoroughly enjoyed our annual show.

I left eventually and went to other schools, but I never enjoyed them half as much, except when a very fine linguist by the name of Algernon Montgomery taught me the first elements of French at the Upton House Central School. I learnt the elements of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and mechanics and promptly forgot them. I gained some knowledge of biology, physics and chemistry. At Parmiter’s Foundation, history meant mostly learning long strings of dates and any understanding of this subject I may possess was picked up mostly from reading books after I left school. The best thing that I retained from my education was an excellent knowledge of French phonetics and later of the language itself. I liked this and had a bent for it. I was then spewed out into the world equipped with a School Certificate and good for little else but pushing a pen.

I had failed to matriculate because in changing from one school to another I had missed out on some basic mathematics, and had never been able to pick them up. Mathematics was a compulsory subject in matriculation in those days, and if you failed in that it mattered not at all how good you might be in other subjects. After the war I found that every worthwhile avenue of study was barred to me unless I went back to the beginning and matriculated all over again. This I was unwilling to do, and the absence of any concession in this regard was one of many reasons why I finally left England and went to Australia. 

I mentioned at my last school that I would like to go in for journalism. I personally wrote to some forty or fifty newspapers, but was unable to get a traineeship with any of them. Thankfully, my school found me a job on The Hairdressers Journal, a trade paper run by Messrs. Osborne and Garrett, known as “Ogee’s”. This was a Soho firm that made hairdressers’ equipment and ran a large department store for the public and the trade. It was at this office that I started work at the age of sixteen some months before the outbreak of the 1939 – 1945 World War 2.