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.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Custard Cream Confessions

Part 4

Eventually, two rooms in the house were let to a widow and her daughter who was my age, named Joan Bull, and then the games were often shared, but never my dream world. The Bull family occupied one room on the first floor as living room/kitchen, and the largest attic room as their bedroom. The small attic room as spasmodically occupied by a maid-of-all-work referred to by my mother as the “the shiksa” which simply means, in Yiddish, a non-Jewish girl, but which my mother, being religiously bigoted, always managed to make sound derogatory. In the years from approximately 1925 until the years of the forties when cheap labour became hard to get, we had domestic help. It was the normal pattern amongst the small – and not so small – business people to employ such a person, often resident. In my recollection these were mostly Jewish families, of which there were many in Forest Gate. Undoubtedly, as I realised in later years, it was exploited labour, but probably not so bad monetarily as it could have been, at least not in our case, as I remember my mother negotiating the wage as ten shillings a week plus food and accommodation. (This was precisely the princely sum I was to receive many years later when I started work in 1932.)

At that time (the late twenties) nothing worked by pushing a button – gramophones had to be wound, cars cranked with a handle, washing hand-washed, cakes hand-beaten. No refrigeration meant butter, milk, etc. had to be kept in the cellar to be cold, covered with a wet cloth and of course shopping was almost daily.

What general impressions do I have of that period? Many tradesmen called regularly, most of our meat was delivered by the traditional whistling boy on a bicycle, the milkman doled out milk into one’s own jug, dipping the dispenser into a large churn – highly unhygienic one would imagine. Bread was delivered by a baker with a horse-drawn cart, handling both horse and bread indiscriminately. Coal cart drivers called their wares “C-O-A-A-AL” around the streets; the men wore sacks roughly made into hats which hung down their backs, enabling them to carry the sacks of coal more comfortably. The coal was shot straight into the coal-hole to the cellar, with my sister or me standing by counting how many were delivered to ensure we were not overcharged. Supermarkets did not, of course, exist, but shops selling several different kinds of goods were just coming into existence – in Woodgrange Road there was a Penny Bazaar (the origin of Marks and Spencer’s) with all the goods laid out on stalls around the shop. Sainsbury’s sold groceries and dairy products only, with an egg stall laid out in front of the shop – cracked ones were sold cheaply and placed in your own basin (about a halfpenny each). Fresh fish shops, now almost non-existent, were as common as butchers – there were three within walking distance.

Most of the shopping was my responsibility, probably because I rushed about and was so quick, weaving my magic tales to myself all the while. One job I hated was taking my father’s tea round to the shop. This consisted of liquid tea in a covered enamel jug, plus a cake in a bag, but I often managed to spill it and I can feel the hot tea now, dripping through the little wicker basket and running down my leg. The fact that it was such an inexorable daily task made me resent it but it continued for some years. Another shopping exploit concerned biscuits, which were sold loose. I loved custard creams passionately and on my way home from buying some, ate one – and then another – and then another. My mother soon spotted short weight and I was sent back to demand the full half-a-pound – I cannot remember how it ended, but certainly I would have been quite unable to own up to eating some.

The nearest street market was about two miles away, reached by bus on tram, and my mother enjoyed visiting it occasionally, sometimes dragging along a reluctant girlie (me) with her. I remember she had a thing about gloves and I spent many boring minutes by a stall surrounded by gloves of all shapes and sizes – certainly kid gloves must be “soft as butter”, I recollect! Kathleen always seemed to manage to avoid these trips (although she would certainly have enjoyed them more than I did) probably because she was so much older (4 ½ years). She and I seldom played together as we really had no common interests, but I can remember no quarrels. In any outgoing activity, I usually led the way, especially if it was escapade which might not win approval – and she silently applauded. We slept together in a double bed, and often at night I composed a story while she listened; sometimes I illustrated this with shadow figures on the wall, as our bedroom was lit at night with a small paraffin lamp.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

A Watchmaker's Daughter

Part 3 of the memoirs: Childhood in 1920s London

The watches in their disintegrated state lived under wine glasses mostly (usually broken ones with the base missing) to keep the watches dust-free. It was a tiny shop, with room for only one or two behind the counter and possibly three customers, and my father spent many solitary hours there – he employed no-one. Shop hours were 9am till 8pm and 9pm Saturdays. Around the walls hung clocks of various shapes, sizes and sounds, which created a cacophony of uncoordinated chiming throughout the day.

Evidently the shop generated enough income to keep the family in relative comfort, although with little surplus. Christmas was relied upon to raise at least a quarter of the year’s income: the shop was well-known for its crystal necklaces and hundreds were sold during the run-up to the festive season. Also, Japanese-style coffee sets were fashionable and saleable and both my sister and I helped in the selling at Christmas time, when we were old enough, although I was never keen on either jewellery or the selling of it. I can remember an unexpected source of income one year, when Britain came off the Gold Standard – whatever that means – and consequently people were rushing to sell gold at a good price. My father brought the gold home at night to weigh up and get it ready for re-sale and melt-down. He much preferred to buy old jewellery rather than sovereigns and half-sovereigns, as everyone knew the value of these (37/6d, old money) and consequently he did not make much profit on sovereigns.

Most Sundays he spent in the East End (Stepney) buying new stock, getting fine engraving done (he did the everyday stuff himself) and perhaps attending a boxing match at Blackfriars Ring. This was his only recreation, except for a very occasional trip to watch West Ham football when I accompanied him and Kay minded the shop. He had no holidays as he only closed on Bank holidays, but I never heard him complain and I believe he enjoyed his quiet working day. Once or twice he tried taking a young lad (usually from the Jewish orphanage where he had spent some years of his own childhood) with a view to teaching him the trade, but it did not work out and I think he resented his solitude being invaded – and of course the shop was hardly big enough to house two people permanently.

My period of childhood spent on Sebert Road was in the main a happy time, except for the last few months, of which more later. The terraced houses were larger than they appeared to be from the outside, as they were two-storied; three bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor and two attic rooms above. Opposite the house was a small biscuit factory run by an Italian family, producing ice-cream wafers and cones. Their children seldom played with anyone outside of their own “clan” – we regarded them with curiosity but no animosity.

I spent many, many hours in the garden. It was a fairly long, narrow one, with a very small lawn on which grew a cherry tree. There was a greenhouse containing no plants except a vine producing nice black grapes. Neglected flower beds, loganberries, gooseberries and weeds comprised the rest of the garden. The railway ran along the bottom of it and I liked to sit on the fence there, watching the trains go by and waving to the drivers, until one day I fell off and part of the way down the embankment of the railway line, to be rescued by my sister – luckily no adult ever heard of this escapade.