London Boys

Now I can’t pretend to be a Londoner, and though I often say my dad’s family were Londoners, it was really just a stopping place on their journey from Kent to Hertfordshire. However, two things have recently got me thinking about the London of my past. Firstly, last week my sister and I travelled to Highbury and dropped off some memorabilia to Ambler Road infant school where our nan and at least two of her siblings went to school a century ago. Secondly, I have just started reading Robert Elm’s London Made Us, which is his personal memoir of growing up there. And though I never lived in the city, I visited relatives, did the tourist bit, and worked there for several years. I am at least in part, made by London. In this blog I randomly recall memories made in the Smoke!

London 2

We did of course visit the capital as tourists on several occasions. We went to most of the popular attractions and dad took loads of photographs. We also attended the Lord Mayor’s Parade several times and dad and I went to the Royal Tournament. We were outside Buckingham Palace for the Silver Jubilee (and I went with mates for Di and Charlie’s nuptials). These though are wanderings through mainstream London. Much better are those away from the tourist tracks.

Back in the sixties and seventies we still had relatives living in London that we visited. Ironically they were not dad’s family who had mostly moved out of the East End to North London suburbs or, like his parents, to leafy old Hertfordshire. The rellies still in London proper were mostly on mum’s side. My great uncle Jim and auntie Flo lived in in Canning Road, Highbury. No.5 had been Flo’s parent’s home and the family had previously lived at No. 1. Indeed, when my great aunt finally moved out in 1997 the family were not far short of living in the street for a century!

London 3

We visited no.5 many times. It was a peculiar house at least by our standard of a fairly traditional Airey house in Goffs Oak. There was a narrow hallway after the front door with stairs leading up to the right. On the left was a Front Room stuffed with comfy chairs, sofas with antimacassars and cabinets full of china. The only time I ever remember using that room was after my great uncle Jim’s funeral. Next on the left was another room. This had long been converted into a bedroom. I guess it saved them having to go upstairs. On the right was the door down to the cellar. More a coal hole than a full-blown basement but big enough to move around in. When we cleared the house we found a lifetime’s supply of light-bulbs nestled amongst a forest’s worth of newspaper. Back to the hallway and you continued down some steps to a small room half the size of the two rooms we had passed. Here my great aunt and uncle lived their life. A table and chairs, a dresser, one comfy chair, a small black and white TV, and a wireless was pretty much everything in it. Another step down took you into the scullery which, in their house was the kitchen. A sink, a small oven and a tiny fridge was everything. Microwaves were used in radar and dirty clothes went to the launderette in Blackstock Road; dishes were washed by hand of course. Upstairs on the first half-landing was a toilet and a small bedroom whilst on the top floor were two further bedrooms. No, I haven’t missed out the bathroom – there wasn’t one! If I will always remember two things about that house they are these. From an upstairs window you could see the pitch at Highbury, well half of it anyway as the stand roof obscured the rest,and in the garden was a cage where the family monkey used to live. Yes, they used to have a pet monkey rescued from a banana crate at one of the markets apparently. Before my time sadly.

From Canning Road it was a short walk to Highbury New Park where auntie Flo’s brother Don lived. It was a walk through a residential area which was very quiet back then. I didn’t realise that had we gone a different route we could have enjoyed the colours and bustle of Blackstock Road and seen some real London rather than genteel Highbury.

Don and Peg lived in the basement of a big house in Highbury New Park, a stone’s throw from Wessex Studios where the Pistols later recorded. Not that I knew that until many years later. Now Don and Peg liked a party and often after a night in the pub they would invite everyone back to their flat for a knees-up. My great uncle Jim would go but would normally stay in the kitchen. The reason being he was an Inspector with the CID and half of North London’s villains were normally in the parlour at these parties. Of course, we never went to these dos but I do remember a big family bash in the flat probably for one of Don and Peg’s wedding anniversaries. They had a grand piano (Maybe a baby grand?) in the parlour which trumped the little upright I shared a bedroom with.

For my next London memory I am going to jump forward 15 years to the early eighties when I was working in London. I used to walk over from High Holborn to Smithfield regularly to see my personal banker aka my sister Julie. She worked for what was then the Midland Bank in West Smithfield. One of the main reasons I liked going over there is that I could get a drink at 8:30 in the morning. You’ve gotta love a market pub. It was a great area though. Rich in a history that I probably didn’t appreciate much at the time, the sights, sounds and smells would kill a true Vegan stone-dead. That great Victorian meat emporium was a magnificent place. May years later I would attend a conference there at a centre built into the market itself.

All around the edges were great warehouses. Some did what they said on the front whilst others were fronts for all sorts of things. If you believe every conspiracy story you have ever read, the British Secret Service had quite a settlement round and about. Back then though, I was more interested in filling my stomach. Down Cowcross Street one of the best hot Salt Beef sandwiches in London awaited and once consumed I would head into the Three Compasses for a Guinness (Jewish to Catholic in 20 yards!). Here I would sometimes see the boxer John Conteh, standing on the table preaching the word. (Jewish to Catholic to Evangelical in 25 yards!). Finally, I would realise I was supposed to be at work and head back to Holborn via Fleet Street (for another bevvy).

Now let’s jump ahead another 20 years. I’m sober and more able to appreciate other things in life. I’m now with Hazel and she still lives in Brixton, a in a top floor flat in the Effra Road. I often stay over. Brixton is of course alive. At night it’s a little edgy; constant sirens make the nerves tingle a little; and sudden shouts from groups of young people across the road tend to cause an increase in pace. On a Saturday morning, walking through the market and Electric Avenue, it’s a different world. The friendliness is all around. There’s a lot of that underrated form of conversation we call banter. Banter a half dozen different patois. Fruit and veg that would have been unrecognisable to my great aunts and uncles but just made me want to go and cook a goat curry that evening. And music, of course music. Mostly reggae but not wholly so. Electric Avenue was so called because it was the first street in the area (In London?) to have electric lighting but it could have been called so for the atmosphere it projected. I was quite sad when Hazel moved in with me in Essex as it meant no more stays in Brixton.

london1

And finally, another view of London. Around the turn of the century I worked for Fitzpatrick who held several London road maintenance contracts for TfL. One of these involved us closing down the Blackwall Tunnel every Tuesday night so work could be carried out. I visited during one of these closures and walked through the empty tunnel where the only sound was the buzz of the fluorescent lamps. We came to an evacuation/ventilation shaft and clambered up the iron spiral staircase. We emerged from the ground a few hundred yards from the Dome. We were in waste ground and the gentle hum of the sleeping city was only background noise. It was magical in the same way those streets around Covent Garden were magical when we were delivering fruit and veg in the early hours (See previous blog for that). There is something very special about being about in the hours between midnight and dawn. And there is something very special about London!

London 4

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