Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Book That Made Me

A certain high street bookseller (whose name I won't give, but it begins with W and rhymes with 'Porterstones') is running a project/marketing campaign* at the moment called 'The Book That Made Me.' Like most English students, books have been making my mind for as long as I can remember - possibly since I first read Dick King Smith's Sophie stories and decided to become a lady farmer when I grew up - and I don't think they've finished making it yet. But the book that contributed most to the literal making of me is one I've never read, and the copy I own is too close to total spinal collapse for me to risk reading it now:

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell.

According to Grandma, this was the book that began Socialist Sybil; she wrote in her memoirs:

"I read it - and re-read it - and all became clear. I had borrowed it from the West Ham Public Library and just could not bring myself to part with it, so I told them I had lost it. They charged me 2 shillings. I stuck the receipt for this money in the front of the book, and have it still – one of the few books rescued from the rubble after the bombing in 1941**.

(West Ham Libraries receipt for 2 shillings, stuck inside the cover)

For years, I took no active part in any political movement, but read as much as possible. Then, in about 1936, the publisher Victor Gollancz started up the Left Book Club, and this was just what I needed. Members received a book a month, with other optional purchases on offer, and a publication called “Left News”. We formed the West Ham Left Book Club group – I was the convenor (I suppose I was about nineteen) and we met monthly to discuss the Book of the Month."

She goes on to describe trying out Labour Party meetings ("and very boring they were, too" - some things, I suspect, never change) before leaving in favour of "something with more fire in its belly" - the Communist Party - aged 21. "We did not think we were going to change the world – we knew we were!" she writes.

It was through left-wing politics that she met my Grandfather, and by inheriting the same ideology that their son met my Mum, many years later, in the Communist Party; they lived in (mostly) cheerful heathen sin for 25 years before accepting middle-aged bourgeois life and getting married when their bastard offspring, my brother and I, were 11 and 9 respectively. 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a book I've never read, made me, and is one of many reasons why I hope with all my heart that e-books will never fully replace their paper equivalents.*** I own an e-Book reader (of which I will not name the brand, but it begins with K and rhymes with 'spindle') and in many ways it's great; it let me keep a library's worth of fictional universes with me when I was away from home for nearly a year. But part of my grandparents' lives and mine is in the actual, physical pages of the falling-apart book my Grandma half-stole from a West Ham library. Real books, with covers you can stick receipts to and write your name on, are something magical - not because of the fictional worlds they take us into, but because they preserve other people's real ones.

*Delete according to current cynicism level.

**The family house was bombed in the Blitz, while everyone was in the cellar - more on this in a later post.
***The next most significant is that it's much harder to judge people based on their train reading material if it's on a screen than if's between covers.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Wartime Feminism

(In which Sybil moves jobs and joins the war effort)

I stayed in this office [Lacrinoid products] about eighteen months, and during this time my family were bombed out of our home and eventually lived in Chelmsford so it became increasingly difficult to get to and from work. Also, I wanted to get more closely involved in the war effort, now that the CP was actively supporting the war - although my personal view had always been that support of the war was the only way it was possible to check the spread of Fascism. I wondered about joining the armed forces or land army, but decided to go for factory work, as many local firms were engaged in war work. I got a job in Chelmsford at nearby Crompton Parkinson on a lathe in the machine shop, and it was an experience I have never regretted, although hard manual labour and the night work I hated. Girls, all as inexperienced at the work as I was, volunteered in or were drafted in, and we became a very mixed, friendly and supportive team. The Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) which catered for most of the workforce did not at that time accept women members (this altered in 1943, I think) and so I had to join the Transport and General Workers’ union (TGWU) which did have some members amongst the male unskilled and a few female employees. The machine shop became 100% unionised and I was the shop steward. We became well-known in the factory, and all wore our mob-caps with a red star badge on the front, “working for Joe!” We fought for and got a raise, but the wage was pretty poor considering the hours we worked: the bosses used the war to their own advantage, as they could easily get more workers, as needed.

One girl, Joan, wanted to become a crane driver (unheard of) and was prepared at first to do it for 2/3 the male rate, but became convinced we should hold out for the full rate and refused to go up the ladder to the crane until it was agreed. At 18, she became an excellent driver and soon the men were trusting her to safely carry the huge lumps of metal around, to trundle to the machine needing them. Joan subsequently joined the YCL and became an active union member. This work lasted under two years, as I had in the meantime married and become pregnant, so left the job in 1943 to many tears all round. 

We will leave my working-for-wages story for a while, as it would be some years before I returned to it and then only part-time, and look at my political being, how it came about and my activities therein. For this we need to go back to about 1933.

[to be continued...]

Monday, 23 January 2012

Air Raids and Illegal Newspapers

(I have missed out quite a large chunk of the memoirs since the last post - mostly descriptions of childhood homes and family members; in the meantime Sybil has left school and got a job working at Lacrinoid Products.)

It was September 1939. The meeting was going reasonably well. By this I mean there were at least a dozen people actually standing and listening and others giving a fleeting ear in passing. George Martin was a fiery, Cockney speaker, with plentiful traces of humour and a confident, easy style of speech. The theme was, of course, peace – how to get it and keep it. We did not know Chamberlain had already declared, “We are at war with Germany,” and I doubt whether the others gathered around us at Beckton Corner, near West Ham Docks, knew either. The meeting had only been in swing about half an hour but already the horse was a bit restless (the speakers’ platform being on an open horse-drawn cart) and we considered closing it perhaps earlier than usual. Very suddenly and unexpectedly, came the loud, mournful wail of an undulating siren, shrieking its warning far and wide. Back went the horse’s ears, together with most of the crowds’! We all knew it was an air raid warning, as we had been told what to expect. Where to go and what to do? People scurried as quickly as possible to get under cover but we could not leave the cart. The decision was made that George and one other would take care of that and return it to the owner, while the other four comrades found what shelter we could. We were in an unfamiliar part of the Borough, so decided to follow other people and go to a nearby railway station, which was at least below ground. In the event, it was a false alarm, and Britain did not in fact experience any actual air raids until at least a year after the start of the war.

It was during this period that I became more politically active and aware. I was an active member of the Clerical and Administration Workers’ Union (CAWU) and indirectly this brought about my leaving Lacrinoid’s employ, as there was a “round robin” organised amongst the clerical staff asking for improved conditions and pay, for which I was blamed although I was on holiday at the time and had I been there I would certainly have advised against it until all had joined the union. However, with the war just starting, I was ready for a move more related to that, so I became a clerical officer, “unestablished”, in the Civil Service at the West Ham office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which was housed in Stratford Town Hall, in the ballroom. We were mainly occupied with issuing ration books and identity cards and the paperwork connected with shop supplies.

The Lacrinoid years were mainly enjoyable and carefree, although greater involvement with wider affairs of the day brought considerable worry and consumed lots of time. Vi [Sybil's office partner at Lacrinoid] and I became very good friends – I introduced her to the progressive movement and she became a popular and hard-working member of the Young Communist League (YCL). Funnily enough, I never joined them, but a lot of my social life was with them and through them – rambling, camping, holidays and lots more.

So now, 1941, I was a disher-out of ration cards – and of the illegal “Daily Worker” while it existed -  luckily not for long, I believe only a few months, then the CP decided not to risk being banned for doing something illegal, but to use instead its other publications to spread the message.

It (the Daily Worker) lay with all my work papers, innocently on the shelf – and would be collected in the morning, and distributed to specified points. My boss would have hit the roof but it was never suspected. The office staff were mainly girls, mostly young. I transferred from the CAWU to the Civil Service Clerical Association (CSCA) and recruited practically all the young staff: the managers had a different association. Our little branch prospered, with the help of the association’s Headquarters, and we won permission to have monthly meetings on the premises during lunchtime, as the increased bombing made evening meetings almost impossible. Once or twice, it started as work finished, and then it was too difficult to travel the couple of miles home and I slept in the church crypt opposite the Town Hall, arriving at work next day, crumpled, unwashed, but much earlier than usual!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Björn and his marrow

The first post of 2012 is a little off-topic, not being strictly from the memoirs, but the last ones have all been quite text-heavy, so I thought I'd start the year with a picture:

This is Björn. He has successfully grown a marrow from seeds my Grandmother - Socialist Sybil to you - sent him. I know this because on the back of this picture is the note, "Björn successfully grows marrow from seeds I sent to Sweden," in Grandma's handwriting. Quite why this is written as though it's a newspaper headline ("Stop the presses! Björn has grown a marrow!"), I'm not sure - nor am I sure when or why Grandma had such a surplus of marrow seeds that she sent her excess to Sweden, and I don't know who Björn is. His picture was in with a collection of mostly holiday snaps my Dad kept from Grandma's house when she died, with notes on the back like, "Sybil and Vi, with French acquaintances," but this one wasn't in a labelled envelope like the rest, so I have no way to tell how or when they got to know each other, but I was intrigued by the mysterious Mr. Björn, and thought success of any kind seemed like a good note to start the year on, so here we are.

Normal blog service will resume shortly (possibly after I've dug myself out from underneath the paperslide-in-waiting of undone work that is currently my room, and/or packed to go back to Oxford).
In the meantime, Happy New Year everybody. May all your 2012 endeavours be as successful as Björn's marrow-growing.

Rachel x

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Family history

I do not remember any of my grandparents, although I dimly recollect a “minyan” (a quorum of ten men for religious prayers, on death) being held at our house, which I think was when my paternal grandfather died. His name was Philip Kirschenbaum and he was a tailor living in the east end of London at 18 Hutchinson Avenue, St Botolph, City of London. His wife was Sarah (nee Moses). My mother’s parents were Edward Jacob Morris – he too was a tailor – his wife was Catherine Morris, nee Nathan. They also lived in east London, at 16 George Street and then at 46 Sidney Street, E1. No photographs exist since the bombing but I remember one showing him to be a rather good looking man with white wavy hair, a rather droopy moustache and light eyes, probably blue or grey. My mother was always proud of the fact that they were English so I assume they were born in the UK.

My own father was Samuel Kirschenbaum, known as Phillips, born in Hutchinson Avenue on 19th June 1879 and died in 1968 aged 88. My mother was Dinah (always called Ada) Phillips nee Morris, born 12 Jan. 1877 and died
in 1945 aged 68. They were married on 1st June 1904 and had a son Edward Lionel born in 1910 who died of meningitis aged eighteen months. Then came Kathleen (Kay) born 1913 and died 1982, and myself, Sybil Sarah, born 1917 – date of death to be added later!

Aunts, Uncles and particularly cousins played a small but significant part in my childhood life. My mother was one of a family of twelve, and we kept in touch with about half of these on a regular if infrequent basis. I only remember seeing the eldest, Hannah, once – for a Christmas party, complete with a tree plus fairy on top. Never before or after had that happened to me. Hannah with husband Moss had a very superior house, with several servants. Aunties Abby, Minnie, Hettie, Rose, Jewel (Julia) one other aunt whose name escapes me, Uncles Eddie, Lionel and Henry, plus my mother Ada (Dinah) and their respective spouses and children made up the Morris family. My father’s siblings consisted of brother Moss (probably Moses), a brother (but it may have been a cousin) who went to America, a sister who died of TB at eighteen while studying the violin in Germany, and a sister Esther, and I think a sister Miriam, who probably died young. 

To return to my mother’s siblings, we saw Eddie and wife Polly, plus their nine children at infrequent intervals – they lived in Bow, a very poor, shabbily clad family – Eddie barely provided by owning a fried fish shop. A good-looking crowd and very overwhelming for Kay and myself. Great gamblers, too, even within the family, and my mother warned my father off playing cards when we visited, but he invariably did anyway and always lost. They all made sure they either “married money” or worked in some very lucrative job, as legal as possible! We occasionally visited Minnie, Lionel, Abby and Henry – Hettie lived too far away. We saw more of Rose and Jewel, who were single and consequently had more time to socialise – although Rose married late in life and she and her husband owned a hairdressers in Rainham. Jewel visited us every Saturday, coming late afternoon to tea but occasionally to early dinner also. Both she and Rose worked much of their lives in the “sweat-shop” tailors owned by their father in the yard of 46 Sidney Street, Stepney, which was the Morris family home – as did Henry and Lionel. We saw Auntie Annie frequently I became very friendly with my cousin Kathleen, two years my senior. We are still regularly in touch, although I see nothing of Kath’s brother Eddie who lives in Southend – a family dispute means Kath seldom sees him.

My Uncle Henry was an enthusiastic socialist and on the few occasions I met him he was always in a discussion (argument?) on behalf of “left labour”. He was a smallish, dapper man, with a stiff waxed moustache that hurt you when he kissed you. In a surprising way, although he was only a very occasional figure in my life, he affected the rest of it by his influence, but more of this later. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

Pregnancies and Burglaries

Part 6

I remember several of our maids very well, but one in particular (Gladys Medbury, later to become Gladys Brunton) who helped care for us when  was small and remained for some years a very important person in my life. I can never remember my mother putting me to bed, although I am sure she must have done sometimes, but as a young child it was always Gladys. She was a warm, humorous person, never lost her temper, and very inventive regarding games. She was expert ironer and I loved to watch her go about it – the shirts folded just so, the frills around the table-centres goffered neatly, as was her little afternoon cap. Her young man, Fred, was out of work for a long time but one day appeared in army uniform, which upset Gladys very much but I thought it was very exciting. She disappeared one day unexpectedly, but came back again and stayed for some time after that. Years afterwards I discovered she had expected Fred’s baby, but had a miscarriage and had to go into hospital for a while, but it was all hushed up – in the 1920s such events were kept hidden. I believe my mother looked after her well at this time and certainly she remained at our home thereafter for some time, before marrying and moving away.

I remember a maid called Mary Quilter, who also cared for us well, as well as doing the work. She went off to Australia to join a brother who had already emigrated. There was another Mary who was far more interested in flirting with the boys than in anything else and I am sure my mother never knew that when Mary took us walking over Wanstead Flats we were left to our own devices while she gadded around with the fellows. There was a Doris, who I remember as a good-looking, fair-haired girl, much given to singing all the up-to-date ditties of the time, and the young man lodger next door at 32 Sebert Road would join in, hanging out of his back upstairs window that looked into our garden. Two songs I remember particularly – “What’ll I do when you are far away, What’ll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to? When I’m alone with only dreams of you, That won’t come true, what’ll I do?”

Sweetheart, if you should stray
A million miles away
I’ll always be in love with you.
And though you find more bliss
In someone else’s kiss
I’ll always be in love with you.
The heartaches, the sadness
‘Cause I know tomorrow again we shall meet
I wish you happiness
But for me, sweetheart, I guess
I’ll always be in love with you.

When we moved to Claremont Road, we had a young girl named Dorothy Flux, who came from Wivenhoe and who was quite a country girl. She was mad on stage stars, particularly music hall artistes, and started me on my craze for autograph collecting. I acquired a pretty good collection, not exclusively stage personalities, but during my later teens lost interest in the hobby and like a fool, gave the book away to a  young friend working with me on the office staff at Lacrinoid Products. I had collected all Jack Hilton’s orchestra, Jack Payne, Louis Armstrong, Max Miller, the Houston Sisters, Leslie Hutchinson (“Hutch”) one of the boxing champions Jack “Kid” Berg and many, many more.

One childhood escapade lived with me for years but luckily no adult ever knew of it. I returned home from school one day to find nobody at home – very unusual, but it seems Mary had a rendezvous somewhere! I forced open the downstairs window to get in, but couldn’t push it up high enough to make an entry. Soon afterwards, Mary came back and seeing the open window, assumed someone had tried to get in. I kept quiet, knowing I should not have opened the window. Mary was scared and made me go in first, even upstairs to make sure nobody was around, until in the end I was even scared myself! My mother then came home and insisted on calling the police to make sure all was well. By this time there was of course no question of me telling the truth about the matter, and ever afterwards I had to listen to my mother relating the story of the attempted burglary and how they must have been interrupted while attempting it.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Schoolroom Drama

Part Five

There was an acknowledgement amongst the Jewish community that, while knowing we were superior to any non-Jewish groups, we did as little as possibly to exacerbate people’s hostility. This unspoken assumption of our superiority must of course have stirred up anti-Semitic feelings, but there was no question of our demanding equal consideration – one quietly knew we were better, but must not invite anyone’s attention our Jewishness.

The fact that our family did not adhere at all strictly to the mores of the religion did not lessen this feeling. Perhaps this is not so surprising and could well be common to most religions: most people regarding themselves as Christians probably practice little orthodox Christianity but still feel part of their group, but do not feel themselves to be God’s chosen people. Not that I ever heard such a thing expressed in this way – there was no need to put words to it – we knew we were superior without that!

As a child, I felt a certain difference, but as my mother encouraged friendships as far as possible exclusively with Jewish children, it did not make things difficult, except that I was not encouraged to make too much of a bosom friend of the lodger’s daughter, Joan Bull.

My last few months at Godwin Road School (I was nearly eleven years old) were rather nightmare ones. Jewish children were very much in  the minority but only occasionally encountered hostility. One teacher, Miss Read, sister of the Headmistress, was particularly anti-Semitic – in later years I recognised her as a Fascist in the making. She was good at making the few Jewish children scapegoats and one day I was jigging about in my class seat (I often could not hear the lesson, being partially deaf, but nobody, least of all myself, knew this) she called me out in front of the class and said, “If you want to bump up and down, I’ll bump you,” and proceeded to shake me vigorously by the shoulders. I said nothing of this at home, but when I undressed ready for bed my mother saw bruises on my arm and the story came out. The next day my mother accompanied me to school and proceeded (much to the delight of the children) to pummel Miss Read across the room, loudly proclaiming she would not have her child mistreated just because she was Jewish. Miss Read called wildly for her sister and pandemonium ensued. At the end of that term I was given a note saying I was not to return and would be transferred elsewhere.

My mother was not accepting that and fought it, with the help of a local Councillor, a Miss Wordley. The school had to take me back but I was ostracised and given little tuition: no pencils, pens, paper, needles, etc. I said nothing at home, wanting no more schoolroom fights, but at the end of that term my mother withdrew me, at her request and not giving the school the satisfaction of expelling me. Miss Wordley was a teacher at Upton Lane School and I became a pupil there. Unfortunately all this was at the time when I should have been taking the 11 plus exam to try to get into the West Ham Secondary School, which I just might have passed, but the chance was lost.

However, West Ham has a “second-chance” scheme at twelve years old for what were called Central Schools: this I took and passed, and left Upton Lane after a year or so for “The Grove” in nearby Stratford. Education at the Central Schools tended to be geared to clerical / technical teaching, and was for three years only and led to no leaving qualifications such as matriculation, so everyone left at fiteen which I duly did, and got my first job as an office junior with Lacrinoid Products Ltd., Rainford Road, Forest Gate. Kay stayed at Godwin Road School until she left at fourteen as did most children, except the tiny minority who passed the 11 plus.