Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tar and Touring Violinists

Grandma Sybil's Memoirs, Part 2: Forest Lane and the First World War

The small shop with flat above where I was born (165 Forest Lane) has been demolished and the space where it stood incorporated into a Girls’ High School, but the rest of the row of little shops are still there at the time of writing. Amazingly, the shop next-door to my birthplace is still a café. Across the road, my father’s tiny lock-up jewellery and watch-repair shop remained a jeweller’s until quite recently but the 90s recession put paid to it – how sad. That shop held many memories for me, mainly but not wholly pleasant ones. More about the shop later.

Recall of features of my place of birth are somewhat dim, but I recollect a little shop selling cheap jewellery and knick knacks, and I particularly remember being allowed to serve someone with a penny whistle. The shop parlour was dark and pokey, with the stairs leading from it to two bedrooms above. Lighting and cooking were by gas (although electricity was quite common by then) and one lit oneself to bed by candlelight, there being no gas above ground floor level. I lived there until the age of three (1920). The most vivid memories are of the back yard, with the WC at the bottom of it. After dark, the twenty paces it took to reach this were a nightmare to me, especially as we occasionally had to run the gauntlet of a neighbour’s vicious cat springing out at one’s legs and hanging on. This may well have happened only once or twice and been multiplied in my imagination because of the fear.

The neighbouring café was owned by a very frightening lady – a Mrs Ridgewell. She was a large, buxom woman, fully capable of dealing with a Railway Café full of boisterous, noisy and sometimes “rough” railwaymen and other tough customers. She was certainly able to cower me, and I was not easily sat upon. Her backyard contained a covered chicken run, which I was forbidden to approach, but it held a fascination for me and it took more than her shouting to discourage my squeezing through the fence to get a closer look, until one day I returned to my own yard plentifully bespattered with tar from the newly tarred run. My mother had the job of trying to remove it from flesh and frock and was very cross. This certainly stopped all further such excursions, as I was always somewhat frightened of my mother, although nothing like as overawed as was my sister Kathleen (later called Kay), who was four years my senior. I should add here that neither of us ever received corporal punishment – my mother’s face as she made big, frightening eyes, plus her tone of voice and general demeanour were enough to check us.

The shop, with living rooms over, was a way of adding a shilling or two to the meagre allowance my mother received from the Royal Flying Corps, for which my father volunteered early in 1917, when family men were beginning to be called up for military service. He thought it better to go into the armed forces as an instrument maker than chance being put into the “poor bloody infantry” or something equally dangerous! In the event, he spent most of the war well behind the front line, as a violinist with the Zigzag Concert Party touring round France entertaining the troops, my mother having sent over his violin and mandolin at his request. 

After the war, we left the Forest Lane shop and flat and moved to Sebert Road around 1920. After demobilisation my father re-opened the lock-up watch-repair and jewellery shop situated at 5 The Bridge, Woodgrange Road, which remained a jeweller’s shop until recently. This was on the railway bridge (a hill in Woodgrange Road) so he had to contend with the trains thundering underneath him all through the day, but I cannot recall any particular disturbance and the noise was not noticed, he was so used to it. An express train caused the shop to shake, but my father carried on imperturbably repairing the watches, with a steady hand, a magnifying glass almost permanently glued to his eye. 

Friday, 23 September 2011

Hello World

My Grandma Sybil was a Communist. I'm not - I'm mostly just mildly baffled in a left-of-centre way - but anyway, in 1993 she wrote down her memories from childhood to her husband's death in 1961. Since I was two in 1993, I didn't realise they existed until I found them in a box of Grandma's things in my Dad's study a few months after he died, and decided to type them up. Grandma was involved in politics from the age of sixteen, lived through wartime London, and knew how to tell a story, so they make quite interesting reading; this blog is mostly for the purposes of posting them, though other aspects of my life might creep in from time to time. 

The name of the blog comes from the memoirs themselves, which she gave occasional subtitles to. (I like "How Socialist Sybil Began" because it sounds sort of like a left-wing Just-So Story.) This is what they look like:

and there are about 18,000 words in total. I might not always post in order, but let's begin at the beginning:

Funerals Were Ignored

We did not even notice the number of hearses that passed our door, there were far too many. And this was because at the bottom of Sebert Road, Forest Gate, E7 (I lived at No. 30) was the largest cemetery in possibly all London, certainly in East London. Most – probably 90% – were horse-drawn hearses. Cars for everyday use were commonplace, albeit only a small minority of the population owned a private one. The magnificent black funeral horses were a breed apart: head-tossing, foam-flecked, very superior animals. Just occasionally, there was a funeral which captured our attention, belonging to a local big-wig (the term VIP was not yet current) or to one of the “monied” classes, and this meant four horses instead of two, large black plumes on their heads and black velvet horse blankets on their backs, with a surplus of top-hatted “ushers” in a attendance. Once, just once, came a military cortege, with a band playing a funeral march and a mounted gun pulled by horses. Without exception, all the men who happened to be walking along the road or were nearby when the funeral passed, took off or doffed their hats in respect, even the tradesmen.

I lived in the Sebert Road house for about eight years, from the age of three until twelve (1920 to 1928) and when we moved to Claremont Road to a posher establishment it was still in Forest Gate, where I had lived all my life. I was born in Forest Lane – a road opposite the railway station – and continued to live somewhere in Forest Gate until Hitler put paid to our settled existence by dropping a landmine on us in 1941.