Yes, my Aunt had it hard and by the time he is of school age, "Little Jim’s ‘happy’ face" is not seen too often. But at that time my Aunt was able to put a gloss on necessities and she boasts to my Tante while they sit together in the hotel kitchen, of the secondary school education her boys are receiving in Paris, secondary education not being general in England at that time unless paid for or won by scholarship limited to a few . And she proudly shows my Tante letters penned neatly by Edwin (called ‘Ted’), reading them out loud as my Tante cannot read English:
Dear Mummy, We are quite well. Everyone is kind to us. Please do not worry about us. We look forward to seeing you in the holidays. We are learning a lot of French and Cecil is well and happy. Please do not worry about us. Do not work too hard for us. Much love from me and Cecil, your loving son Ted.
Of course, my cousin lies, as he sits writing in a bleak classroom, Cecil beside him weeping so that his tears mingle with the black ink from Ted’s pen. Ted is barely ten months older than his brother, but cannot remain a child for long, instead he must pack three score years and ten into his life-time of twenty-eight years. 336 months, 9856 days, with two or three extra to allow for leap years. Not many revolutions around the sun before Ted is pulled down under the heap.
On these visits of my Tante to my Aunt, both women spend much time in speculating as to whether my father was the progenitor of Dornan’s daughter, Margot. Had my mother been daft enough to take in her husband’s bastard? Or had she been deceived in the matter? Their opinions varied according to the trials and tribulations of their day and, of course, there was no proof either way.
"Esther" Margot says seriously, on returning home from an outing with her mother. "My Auntie says she’s really my mother!" Margot looks up into my mother’s face, watching her closely as if to determine the truth of the matter. "That’s right" my mother confirms "she is your mother. I’m glad you know that now."
Margot, seemingly satisfied, says nothing more, but it is some time before she remembers to call Dornan "Mummy" without first having called her "Auntie".
My mother might have hoped that the revelation to the child of her true parentage would effect a psychological change, so curing Margot of an annoying habit of helping herself from the well-stocked fruit bowl, sinking her teeth once only into each fruit and leaving the rest of the apple to moulder on any conveniently placed piece of furniture. My mother, collecting up the damaged fruit from chairs, tables, sideboard, bookshelf, remonstrates with my Tante:
"Can’t you stop her? It’s so expensive - ist so teuer!" "Margot! Die Äpfeln!" my Tante exclaims, throwing up her hands in horror, shrugging and rolling her eyes. And that is as far as the matter goes. This one bite and the decorating of the room with decaying fruits becomes Margot’s trademark, determining her identity and allowing her to control her environment.
Alone all day, without adult company, my Tante hopes to find a friend from among the neighbours, but they are suspicious of our family who appear to be of no recognizable social class and, what is more, are foreigners, bohemians and probably Jews. In those days, to the English, every foreigner was a Jew.
"Jerry, Germy Germans, dirty filthy Jerries, Jew boys, Yids, Jewesses, bang, bang, bang, we’ll shoot ya - stick ya bellies, go back where you come from...."
shout the children. Bored of an evening they gather outside my Uncle Henry’s bakers shop in St. James’ Road, Islington (now Mackenzie Road). The children ready to run should my Uncle, a well set up man of medium height, come to the door. One of the children was Rose Howe whom I met years later when she had become Rose Blake and both she and her husband Ron were Trotskyists. She had been at school with my cousin Dora Lahr and had nothing against her, but this baiting of a supposed enemy provided a heady excitement. An excitement which could be obtained from nowhere else in the dull deprived lives of these children. Some of the bolder boys pick up a stone, the shop door is flung open and my Uncle appears. He is angry, shouting out that he has called the police. With screams of delight the children scarper. At the back of the shop, Dora, her sister Joan and my Aunt Emma (an Englishwoman) cling together. Joan white-faced, Dora crying and my Aunt regretting once again that she has married a German - a hard worker, a good provider, a good man, member of the Lutheran Church and a sharp businessman (these latter two virtues alienating him from my father) but nevertheless, a German.
As for my two cousins, it was memory of these very events which made them both determine to leave for America, by marrying during the Second World War GIs of German descent and, at the same time, decide to have no further truck with the extended family Lahr.
Certainly, this antagonism of the local populace was a form of war memorial more potent than the stone crosses placed in Cities and villages and decorated with poppies every November.
Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that my Tante will find friends among neighbours, even without the problem of language. And so my isolated Tante continues to carry out her day to day routine, each day like the one that went before, so that time passes hardly at all and my Tante fails to notice that I am growing from a baby into a child. Therefore, I suck at bottle after bottle after bottle long after the age when I should have been given solid food.
My mother is not insensible to my lack of progress for in spite of the daily dose of fresh air I am a pale, wan child. At times I attempt to pull myself up in my cot, or hold onto the sides of furniture, but my legs refuse to support me and I fall plop, onto my bottom. "She is not doing well" my mother says, her blue eyes clouded, her mouth drooping.
"Leave her to Maria" mutters my father " domestic work is what she does" and he repeats his estimation of my Tante as an earth mother. "The child will grow up to be an intellectual, not a farm labourer" he adds, falsely equating rude health with manual occupation - brawn not brain. My mother says to herself "perhaps it is true, my daughter is a carriage horse, not a cart horse" making a distinction which she is to use throughout her life. But she is not happy and watches me daily, her eyes constantly seeking out the swallowing heap of dead history into which she fears I might fall. And so it continues, until the arrival of my Aunt Becky at our house acts as a catalyst.
Together with her three children, Florrie, Woolfie and Helen, she descends upon my parents one Sunday without warning. My Tante is out visiting my Aunt Mary and Margot has been taken out for the day by her mother. My mother uneasy, as always in the presence of her sister. Sibling jealousy might have been the cause of the original breach, but this could have been resolved if their interests, attitudes and life-styles had not diverged. Certainly my mother has never forgiven Becky for her behaviour at my grandfather’s death bed, but she is not a person to harbour a grudge if it is not nourished. As it is, my mother sees my Aunt Becky as representing a confining life with a rigid code of behaviour sustained by superstitious beliefs. An environment from which she herself has escaped. My Aunt Becky, on the other hand, considers that my mother has discarded her Jewish roots in favour of arty-farty pretentiousness, literary poseurs and wild revolutionaries. If my parents had opened a grocery shop she would have applauded and boasted of the venture, but a bookshop! Who’s going to buy books! Only people with nothing better to do and more money than sense!
However, my mother is fond of Florrie, named for her dead half-sister, Flora. Florrie is now about twelve years old and before my mother had become so involved with the shop and her own child, she had taken Florrie on outings regularly. "Auntie" demands Florrie "Where’s the baby?" "In her cot. She’s sleeping" says my mother. "Let’s see her then" hectors my Aunt. Florrie runs into the bedroom behind my mother and the child returns holding me carefully in her arms. Woolfie is down on the floor under the table acting out a game, Helen is struggling to climb down from her mother’s lap. As Florrie brings me into the room, lying supinely against her shoulder, my Aunt Becky lets Helen down to the floor and puts out her arms to me: "Come to your Auntie, then" she purrs. I give a feeble cry as she takes hold of me. She looks me, over long and hard. "What’s the matter with her?" she asks bluntly. "Nothing" my mother says doubtfully. "She’s always quiet." My Aunt snorts derisively. Helen is at the sideboard, door open and to my mother’s consternation china and glass are being lifted from the cupboard by small hands, and deposited on the floor. My mother stirs uncomfortably and my Aunt follows her gaze. "Come away" she shouts "Florrie, put the glass and china back and take your sister in the garden. You go as well" she instructs Woolfie. "What are you feeding her on?" "She has her bottle" my mother falters. "Bottle, schmottle! How old is she? Don’t tell me, sixteen, eighteen months. Isn’t she weaned" Doesn’t she have proper food?" "Maria sees to her" admits my mother. "I have tried her with a little cereal or a rusk, but she spits them out".
My Aunt holds me up and looks me over critically. "She needs a good meal inside of her" she decides "she’s what they call ‘malnourished’. starved." She proceeds then to tell my mother how she, herself, had weaned her children at nine months and continues by enumerating all that they eat within the waking day, emphasizing the vegetables, fruit, cereals, meats and bread, understating the sweets, biscuits and cakes.
"What time does Maria get home?" "Not until six" replies my mother. She is now seriously worried and for the first time welcomes her sister’s intervention. While this is happening, my father is in the bedroom sorting through books and papers. Having greeted my Aunt and made funny faces at the children, he is pleased to creep out of the way and shut the door against intruders.
"I’ll stay until Maria gets home" promises my Aunt and as good as her word there she stays, sitting in a chair and calling out to my mother with the latest family gossip, while my mother butters and jams bread for the children and makes a quick salad for the adults. My Aunt even tries to get me to take a little bread and milk, my mother hovering guiltily, but determinedly I clench my mouth shut and push away the spoon.
At last my Tante returns home. She is happy. The bus conductor, a clean looking man of about her own age, has smiled at her and said a few words. She could not understand him, but is sure that he has asked her for a date. She had smiled in return and shaken her head, but she could not deny that things were looking up. Who knew what the future might hold? My mother and Aunt hear my Tante’s key in the door and mark her footsteps coming down the hallway, their eyes watching for the living-room door to open.
My Aunt Becky pounces. "What are you feeding the baby on?" she shouts in Yiddish, for she is sure that Yiddish is close enough to German for my Tante to understand. My Tante is confused. She remembers that this is my mother’s sister, for she has met her once before, but she cannot understand why she should be shouting at her. "Was, was?" she asks in German and my mother translates Becky into German, Hof Deutsch.
"Speak more slowly" my mother instructs my Aunt. "She can’t understand." Aunt Becky continues with her interrogation, watched wide-eyed by Florrie and Woolfie who have come in from the garden, Helen taking the opportunity to once again attack the crockery in the sideboard.
Finally, my triumphant Aunt determines from my defensive Tante that I am being fed nothing but bottled cows’ milk. "I do what I am told" insists my Tante. "A bottle at six, at ten, at two and at six again. Sometimes I give her two bottles at one time" she adds proudly and in exculpation. Once or twice my father has ventured out of the bedroom, but on hearing my Aunt Becky’s shrill voice, my mother’s interpolations and my Tante’s shouts of innocence, he has retreated. This is women’s business.
Now, my mother appears at the bedroom door. Her eyes wild, her face red. "That woman - Maria - she’s got to go. My child is starving to death." The terrible look on my mother’s face forbids my father to argue. Instead, he crawls out of the room to take Becky and her children home by bus and tram. receiving on the way my Aunt’s views on childcare and a retailing of my mother’s lack of common sense. "She’s always been the same" declares my Aunt, vindicated "head -in -a-book and airy-fairy."
After that, my mother stays home with me, refusing to speak to the puzzled Maria, or to allow her anywhere near me. My Tante, for most of the time, continues to take and collect Margot to and from school, but with little demands made upon her she stays in her room writing letters to her sisters or goes for walks, wandering the streets, sometimes appearing at inconvenient times at the hotel in which my Aunt Mary works. Every evening, when my father returns home, my mother hisses at him "Tell her she must go. Tell her! Tell her!"
My mother spends her days in holding me in her arms and trying to coax me into eating the diet set out in the long neglected baby book. I, unappreciative of her efforts to fill me with earthy substances, refuse to allow a morsel past my lips, which I clench, pushing the spoon away with my hands or moving my head about to avoid it. Only when I open my mouth to cry is my mother able to push in a spoonful of food, but it does her no good for promptly I spit it out again or cough and am sick. My father begins to dread his arrivals home to a distraught and exhausted wife and a sulking and confused sister. At last he speaks to my Tante. He hums and ha’s and hardly meets her eyes.
"The doctor says Esther should stay at home with the child" he mumbles. "She gets very upset. She worries. She’s not very strong. We’re starting another child and she miscarried several times when working at the shop. It was too much for her." "Ja, ja" says my Tante, nodding and waiting for the crunch line. "Margot’s going to boarding-school" my father says "and so her mother won’t be paying us any more." He offers to buy my Tante a ticket home, unless their sister Mary could find her a job in the hotel. But my Tante is homesick. she wants to return to a community in which she feels at ease and whose language and interests she understands. She would have a great deal to tell them about our strange ways and she welcomes the prospect. "Ich habe heimweh" she says pathetically "Ich fahre nach Deutschland züruck."
My mother takes me to the hospital where I am diagnosed as suffering from rickets, my legs bowed, my knees knocked. A diet is prescribed, but I steadfastly refuse to eat, so there follows for me forcible feeding, as if I am a small and late suffragette. My mother weeping and wailing stands outside the room in which nourishment is forced down my gullet by a strange hand. I scream my protest for I take no pleasure in such sustenance and am willing to turn my back on this cruel world. But the treatment continues until I within, exhausted, capitulate, and my mother, without, collapses from anxiety.
Far away, in China, famine forces the Chinese peasants to sell their children, the girls to brothels, the boys to childless couples.
My hunger strike is over, but it should be recorded that although I have been scooped out of the overtaking mound of death by my agreement to pass through my corporeal self plant and animal life, almost immediately I attempt to crawl back beyond my origins. Once again to be thwarted by my mother’s family, in the person of my Uncle Gussie’s cousin, Annie.
My mother has taken me to visit my grandmother, Rachel. Once again I am fretful and lethargic, but I agree to sip my grandmother’s lockshen soup from a spoon. My mother sighs in relief. I am eating. I must be well. Perhaps the journey has tired me, or I am teething. My grandmother pets me, talking softly in Yiddish and lies me down on her big high bed with the bed-ends of shining brass. I slide into the concave middle to dream of the time, a few years later, when I will be alone in this room and let myself fall into the depth of the bed, while in the other room the adults sit shiva for my grandmother, the thick candles throwing pale light and shadows onto the wall.
Annie, a well built, sturdy young immigrant woman from Poland calls. Dragging with her the shadow that I remember of a large, bowed old woman, leaning always on a pushchair, for her breaths are short. For the present, she moves rapidly into my grandmother’s house and my grandmother says to her in Yiddish: "Esther’s baby is not well. Take a look at her." Annie comes into the bedroom and peers at me. "I take her to London Hospital" she says and sweeping me up into her arms, runs from the house quickly, leaving my mother frightened and confused, to be comforted by my grandmother.
They wait and they wait, my mother unable to keep still, my grandmother telling her "Annie knows - she has so many children. The baby will be all right." At last Annie returns. I am in her arms and sleeping. I have received treatment on an electric belt and the doctor has said to Annie "Mother, you are only just in time - another day and this child could have died from pneumonia." Pneumonia, pleurisy - diseases which dog my growing-up years.
Margot by now is at boarding-school in Muswell Hill, for her stories to Dornan of my Tante’s shouting and slapping have for some time made her mother uneasy. But it is the situation she has found in the house on her Sunday visits, my mother’s obsession with my food, a sulking Tante who stumps about banging doors, my father greeting Dornan with a goat-like laugh and then creeping away to hide in the bedroom, which has convinced her that this is no place for Margot.
Margot’s boarding-school was situated off Muswell Hill Broadway and later, when we move to Wilton Road, we often pass the two old houses made into one, set back a little from the road. At those times my mother remarks "That’s Margot’s school." But, by then Margot is only a name to me and I now have but one memory of the girl who for a time was an older sister. For when I was about seven years old, my sister and I return home with my mother to 9 Wilton Road, to find in the garden two strange girls, dressed in school uniform, one of them leaning over a flower-bed indicating a plant. Wide-eyed, I rush indoors to blurt out this surprising and somehow, alarming news. My mother hurries outside to bring both girls back with her. "Don’t you remember Margot?" she asks me, pointing to one of the girls. I stand on an old settee, confused by this invasion of big girls whom I do not know, and yet am expected to remember. I shake my head and refuse to speak.
This was not a happy visit for by now we are poor, living in the lower part of the house, the top half let to tenants, and my mother once again feels at a disadvantage. These are only twelve year old girls, but their middle-class accents and airs of confidence have the effect of returning my mother to her roots from which she suspects she will never escape.
Margot must have retained some memories of my Tante, but I know her only by reputation until I meet her again in 1954 at a Confirmation Party in Steinbockenheim:
We sit on a wooden bench before a wooden table, among salad, cheeses, fruits piled high and bottles of wine. Around me in this large back room of a stone-built peasant house, a hundred or more men, women and children eat, drink and be merry. My cousin Christel, dressed in black, has that day been confirmed in her faith, a faith which will lead her to marry, produce three daughters and work long hours in a launderette. Tante Maria, a middle-aged obese woman, sits opposite me, alongside her husband Georg, a small man who smiles continually.
"How is Margot? Dornan?" she asks me in German and is obviously astonished at my reply that I know nothing of them. Her amazement opens to me another life in which my parents have brought up Margot as a daughter and my older sister and in which my parents have remained close to Dornan. I am able to partly satisfy my Tante’s curiosity by telling her that Dornan had married a wealthy man, but I do not tell her that on at least two occasions when my mother had been desperate for money, she had written to her former friend and received in reply a few pounds.
If it had not been for a sudden stroke of luck, my parents might have continued to rent a flat in Fairbridge road, but suddenly, out of the blue, £500 is thrust into my father’s hands. It happens like this. A booklet entitled ECHOES by Rudyard Kipling had been put up for auction and sold for £500. My father produces a second copy which puts the auctioneers in a quandary. If this copy goes for less, the first will lose its value. So £500 is paid to my father - a fortune in those days. And this decides my parents to buy a house.
What pleasure to view houses up for sale, old houses, new houses, houses under construction, all offering prospects of a variety of lives. My mother views each dwelling as a stage set for herself and her family. A long hallway, a flight of stairs, exit to room right, to room left....this search for the perfect abode becomes so interesting to my mother that even when settled, and later mired, in 9 Wilton Road, accompanied by her children she continues her peregrinations around every empty house, or house in the process of being built
Before 9 Wilton Road is decided upon, several houses are turned down and in later years my mother is to point out to me, almost regretfully, streets in which we might have lived, as if she thought that a different address would have provided a different sequence of events in our lives.
But, as it happens, my mother has fallen in love with 9 Wilton Road at first sight, for it makes her think of a doll’s house. Had she been a devotee of Ibsen this might have persuaded her against it, but at the time it symbolized for her happiness, tranquility, security. Within a doll’s house all is controllable and manageable. Here she will find shelter with her two children, for by now my sister has been born and is three months old. My mother maintains this illusion of a doll’s house over the years, even when it is clear that events both inside and outside the house are beyond her control, by periodically changing around the furniture, as if by providing different aspects within the rooms she will be making fundamental changes to our lives.
The house is to be named ‘Echoes’ in honour of our good fortune, and my father takes the first steps by washing out the name ‘Suffolk House’ written in gold lettering over the front door. Perched on a step-ladder he rubs hard with cloth, scraper and turps, until the last gold letter is gone. But he never gets arou8nd to substituting ‘Echoes’ in its place and so the glass frame remains blank, the gold enclosing only space. Name, unnamed.
Wilton Road was built on part of the Halliwick Manor Estate, dating back to 1066 when it was owned by Robert de Moreton. In 1226 it passed to Henry III, who granted it to Henry de Aldehele - and so on down the generations, being rebuilt in the 16th century. However, in 1832 the St. Pancras and Islington Council bought 87 acres of the grounds to form a cemetery and by 1918 the Manor House had become a furniture store used by Jelks, the second-hand furniture dealers. Apparently, it continued to be used in this fashion until 1932 when the Urban District Council demanded rates, which resulted in the Manor House being demolished. And so the mighty are fallen.
I knew nothing of this history during my childhood in 9 Wilton Road, the road itself sloping down from Colney Hatch Lane before it rises again to meet with Coppetts Road, an incline which I learn to treat with care for one winter throwing myself forward to slide down its icy surface and enjoy the sensation of flying, my legs escape from under me and I fall heavily on my back. I look up the road and see in my mind’s eye on the same side as 9 Wilton Road, the Friern Manor Dairy Farm, fronted by white palings (16). The leftover of a rural past soon to be buried in concrete and crowded flats which cover old cowsheds. It is while cycling past these flats on his way home from the bookshop that my father is to see a small girl in flames. Desperately, she rushes out of the front door into the forecourt where the evening breeze wh9ips the flames into a frenzy. A human torch she turns and runs back into the building. The whole scene passing before my father’s eyes in a fiery blur. Before these flats were built, I remember looking through broken fencing and espying down a slope old and disused tennis courts. I always wished that I had courage enough to climb down and explore the terrain. But I never did so.
In front of our house stands an Ash tree, its pinnate leaves stretching like many fingered hands to protect us from storm and during the Second-World War, from blast. In Autumn its winged brown fruit dances in the breeze, to settle in the earth and push up shoots. Shoots soon removed by my father. Directly outside the house the Council has laid a drain, a conduit which overflows in response to a heavy rainstorm, sending into our front and back gardens a flood of sewerage. For a time my father regarded the outpourings of his children’s bowels and urinary tracts as rich manure, but the waste of strangers is not welcome and my mother spends many fruitless years in arguments with the Council.
While my mother argues with authority, I sit in the conservatory, or lean-to, on the saddle of my blue Raleigh bicycle which is set up on its stand, turning the handlebars this way and that. Around me the storm rages and I can see the waters swirling down the garden path, over the vegetable plots, covering the patch of grass. Lost in the sound of rushing waters, I guide my craft across turbulent seas and at last to safety.
Some time in 1955, the Council at last examines my mother’s complaints against their drain and, triumphantly, state that the Ash Tree is the cause of flooding for, it is claimed, the tree is sending its roots into the drain and so interfering with its proper function. The tree is ordered to be felled at my mother’s expense and falls with a groan at the ingratitude of human kind.
Now, when I look down Wilton Road from Colney Hatch Lane, I note the high grey pointed roofs which form two lines of grey triangles, the terrace effect broken only on the odd side by number 9 which is detached, smaller, plainer and squarer. Should I walk, or drive, through the road I see the bay, or sash, windows with their suggestion of Corinthian columns and I notice the ‘new’ houses built in a different style, on both sides of the road to replace those destroyed by bombing. For Wilton Road had the distinction of being the only road in the area to be hit by two bombs in two succeeding weeks.
In those days we shopped locally and although the shops might well have been part of a chain, service was personal and over a counter. Stevens and Steeds where a light to determine goodness is shone through every egg sold. It is here we can buy broken biscuits cheaply, served from large square tin boxes with glass lids, these lining the outside front of the counter. A wonderful mixture of biscuits of every kind. Grocers in those days paid one farthing for every jam jar returned, so we often begged, borrowed, or stole jam jars and used the proceeds to buy sweets, or broken biscuits. Coopers, also a grocery store, but containing a sub-post office, bit but containing a sub-post office, behind the grille of which an unaging woman, carefully dressed and coiffeured, sits throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. Austere and sharp-tongued, quick to remind children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ so that even when I have children of my own, a purchase from this sub-post-office reduces me to infancy. On this parade also was a fish and chip shop, a butchers and the Off Licence where my father sent me on a Sunday to buy for him a bottle of beer to take with his dinner. Then there was Torrys, newspapers and confectionery, where I spend on sweets the ha’penny a day allowed me by my mother. a packet of sweet, brown, coconut ‘tobacco’, a packet of sherbet with lollipop or licorice stick; packets of chewing gum, bubble gum, large gobstoppers, and from big glass jars a variety of sweets: bulls eyes, aniseed balls, pear drops with their smell of nail varnish, peppermints and many other flavours of boiled sweets. Torrys, a shop in which my father was to refuse to set foot for many years. There was another sweet shop on the parade at the top of Wilton Road, but we used it only rarely, and then only to buy phallic shaped ice lollies wrapped in paper. Dettmers, the greengrocers, Mrs. Dettmer so admiring my mother’s curly hair that as soon as permanent waving becomes available she suffers regularly and willingly the then seven or eight hours necessary torture. Mr. Dettmer, like my father, is German and his daughter Joyce, a little older than myself, at one time tells me solemnly that being of German and English blood, she is a ‘half-caste’!
There is also what is known as an ‘oil shop’ run by Mr. Carver, a small wizened man who wears thick lenses glasses with tortoise-shell frames, and whose daughter, older than me, is a pupil at the Convent. From the ‘oil-shop we buy vinegar, loose, taking with us a bottle, cereals - ‘Force’ is the brand of cornflakes sold in those days, a picture of ‘Mr. Force’, a cartoon type character on every packet, and maybe we bought oil. There are two laundries on the parade at opposite ends, Wilton Road in between. Boring shops to a child for there is nothing at which to look apart from the counter over which the washing is passed. However, a notice on the counter of both laundries fascinates me, for it says that the shop is not responsible for washing lost as a result of revolution, war or Civil war. Is it safe to leave our washing here? What if we step outside to find revolution, or war raging, soldiers fighting in the streets or revolutionaries behind barricades of ripped up paving stones or discarded furniture. Could we step back inside and reclaim our laundry, or would we be refused? Shades of Genet’s ‘Balcony’ outside a laundry instead of a brothel!
Later, and shortly before WW2, a further line of shops is erected farther down Colney Hatch Lane. but we use them only occasionally, perhaps when the grocers Buyansave has a special offer.
For items of clothing or drapery, we go to Muswell Hill Broadway, described by Bruce Stevenson in MIDDLESEX (pubd. Batsford):
"The late-Victorian shopping centre...has one merit: It is all of a piece and has a beginning and an ending ‘a period piece of unruffled cheerfulness’ says Ian Nairn. The views down the side streets, though Urban, are fascinating."
At least once a week we take the 1d bus ride up the hill and just as I have learned to remember the number of the red double-decker bus, 135, the number is changed to 134! It was a high day when I was judged old enough to catch the bus up the hill on my own! At other times we trudge up the hill past the big old houses with their large landscaped gardens and driveways, sweeping up to their front doors. Houses in the midst of which flats were to grow to occupy their space. Flats which while under construction were illustrated on upright wooden boards to demonstrate their final glory, each flat with its small windows forced onto or against its replica. My sister and I named them ‘elf prisons’ and made up stories about their miscreant occupants.
On the other side of the road the tall houses of some three or four floors, now divided into flats, remain much the same. Grimly they remind me of when I was locked into a top room, possibly for no more than a few minutes, but in my panic it seemed like forever. I had been invited to tea by Mary Sinclair, whose father had died before she was born. Her mother acts as caretaker to one of these tall houses, occupying, with Mary, the ground floor. The rest of the house untenanted. Mary and I play hide-and-seek and I am fascinated by so much space and the bare boards of empty rooms, that is, until Mary decides to lock me in!
At the Broadway, I walk with my mother past Monnickendams, the Jewish bakery. Members of the British Union of Fascists stand outside, displaying their newspaper and disseminating anti-Semitic literature. Blackshirted, white-faced young men. a little up the road, the Communist Party shows its opposition by selling the Daily Worker. My mother stiffens as she nears the fascists and I too feel under their threat. We buy rye bread at Monnickendams and then deliberately and defiantly, my mother approaches the Communist Party sellers and buys the Daily Worker. Stalinism, she decides, being the better of two evils.
For school clothes we shop at Arthur Humphreys in which there is a full-sized rocking-horse covered in soft short brown hair. I climb upon its back, take the reins and rock gently backwards and forwards. Thudding hoofs, warm sunshine, I gallop over aromatic bright green grass. I jump streams and fences, my legs tightly gripping the living body of the horse.
At other times we go to the North London Drapery Stores at which I am fascinated by the network of cables above my head, along which shoot cup-shaped vessels in which change, or receipts, are sent from office to counter.
Woolworths is a treasure trove - a 3d and 6d treasure store. Anything can be bought, wonderful mechanical toys, soft toys, notebooks, crockery, buttons, elastic, underclothing... "Do you go to Woolworths" sneers Dorothy Tibbs, a girl in my class at school. I wish that I had the confidence to reply, "Yes, don’t you?" but instead I say weakly "my friend wanted to go in there." Years later I am to discover that girls from Ladies’ Cheltenham College were not allowed to be seen in Woolworths, because from their point of view it was for the working-classes only - not people like them!
My sister and I often buy my mother a present at Woolworths. On one occasion a vest for 6d because she had complained of feeling cold and had no money for clothes. We are always guilty with the thought that she deprives herself for us.
Quite often we go to the Broadway to the cinema, called ‘the picture palace’ in those days. There we become lost in larger than life celluloid, set characters appearing before us instead of being confined to black print. In front of the silver screen my mother escapes for a short time the hardships of reality - lack of money aggravated by bills dropping on the mat, the letterbox clanking shut as if a trap. A shortage of money which makes each day a struggle to feed us, clothe us and keep us warm; films are also an escape from my poor health and my sister’s bedwetting; my lack of achievement at school; my father’s secret life, for unless he were at home my mother could never be sure as to his whereabouts; and a growing anti-semitism which she fears will cross from Germany to meet with British hatred of Jews, to produce a British Fuhrer. At the pictures, wrapped in bathos or comedy, my mother becomes at one with this romantic world where the bad are punished and the good rewarded, where true love triumphs and everyone is well-fed, well-clothed and lives in beautiful apartments. As has been said before, human kind cannot take too much reality!
The picture palaces for the first few years were the Athenaeum which in September 1936 is to be usurped by the Odeon which was built opposite, demolishing several late Victorian houses, and the Summerland, or Electric Theatre, at the bottom of the hill called Summerland Gardens, off Colney Hatch Lane. The Summerland closed in 1938, having fallen into dereliction once the Ritz, built on Muswell Hill, opened three months after the Odeon. The Ritz to be superseded in its turn by a pub and restaurant above which are offices. For everything is in a state of flux, as Heraclitus remarked five hundred years before Christ. The only certainty is uncertainty.
The Athenaeum had been built in 1900 as a dance-hall and was used at different times as a conservatoire of music, a girls’ school, a cinema, by the Muswell Hill Parliament (a debating society), a spiritualist church and a synagogue. An impressive building, its name demanding neo-classical columns to the front of its second and third floors.
Of the Summerland, I seem to have a clear picture of a plain, square building, the exterior cement-washed yellow or beige. In front of the screen and on the floor are tubs of plants and flowers, probably artificial. Jack Whitehead in THE GROWTH OF MUSWELL HILL (pubd. 1995) remarks that the Summerland was "like a theatre at the end of a seaside pier." I am almost sure that it was at the Summerland that I watched a Laurel and Hardy film in which a piano falls down a flight of steps, taking one of the actors with it. I see no humour in this episode, for to me it is a terrible and painful accident, and I scream so loudly that the Manager asks my mother to leave and take me with her!
While in the toilet at the Summerland, together with my mother and sister, Sheila Leckie, a freckled girl at my school, peers through the small open window, much to my mother’s annoyance. "rude child!" she snaps "no manners!". Uncertainty or not, she had a fixed idea of propriety!
My mother goes so often to the cinema that she is known to the cashiers at both picture palaces and so these young women never charge for us children, the three of us going in for 6d. My mother is much put out when the Odeon and the Ritz are built and operate on a much more impersonal basis. However, she continues to go to one cinema or the other weekly and it is films, together with the reading of books, which make her view life as a continuing drama of people’s relationships. Life stories, motivations, the hand dealt out by fate, emotions, strengths and weaknesses, response to adversity, so that she takes this interest into the lives of friends and neighbours, making them all into characters in stories.
As for the architecture of the cinemas themselves, at that time the Athenaeum and the Summerland were mere walls and seats enclosing us as we immersed ourselves in the more than life-sized adventures on the big screen. The Ritz, and especially the Odeon are another matter, for their architecture and interior decoration aim at separating us from the poverty, hardships and anxieties of our lives outside their walls. Within their magnificence we can truly believe that there is always a happy ending. And that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are immutable individual human characteristics resulting in persons making their own decisions without reference to circumstance or the economic and political superstructure. The message: Life is Hollywood, glitzy and what we ourselves make it.
"Can anyone go in there?" asks a middle-aged woman in a 1930s cartoon reproduced in a 1992 calendar issued by Sound Associates. The woman dressed in a long coat, wearing a hat and carrying an umbrella is addressing a policeman. They are standing in front of the ‘Superbia Cinema’. Through an open door can be seen a wide carpeted flight of stairs flanked by a uniformed doorman and a bell-boy on each side. A board announces "Continuous Performance." Those ‘continuous performances’! We often come into a cinema after the film has started, and so stay on when it has finished to watch the beginning, joining the two parts up in our minds. A skill lost to succeeding generations, for when I took my youngest daughter, Esther, to a Walt Disney film, arriving late and so sitting on to see how it began, she complained bitterly that she had seen "a happy ending and a sad beginning"!
The Sound Associates Calendar contains also a black and white photo of the interior of The Odeon, Muswell Hill, opened September 1936. Designed by George Coles, FRIBA "adapting his style to suit the simple modernism preferred by the Odeon circuit." The picture shows columns, potted palms, an octagon cashiers’ box and an intimation of a similar shape for the ceiling. A smaller picture of the exterior shows the wide glass doors, covered by a portico on which the squared letters of ‘Odeon’ are balanced. " "Now tripled but retaining most of the original features" declares the calendar.
The cinema is part of my life and when my sister and I are older, on returning home from school before my mother has arrived home from her weekly film trip, we further her escapism by pretending that our living-room is a cafe. I write out in crayon on a piece of paper ‘Cafe Wilton’, or ‘Cafe Lahr’, or a conglomeration of both our names ‘Cafe OOshe’ and prop the written name on the high mantelpiece above the Ideal Boiler. We lay the table carefully, first putting upon it a clean tablecloth. My sister takes slices of bread and cuts them into shapes, making designs with an apple corer so that sometimes there are more holes than bread. I put onto the table whatever is available, jam, a savoury spread, cream cheese...and then write out a menu decorated by crayoned drawings. In anticipation we wait for my mother’s return so that we can once more wrap her in the land of make-believe, and at last she arrives and we call her Madam and present the menu, my sister and I acting as waitresses. Until the game is exhausted and we all sit down to tea and my mother tells us the story of at least one of the two films.
These are my early memories of Muswell Hill which the guide books tell us was originally Mus Well, meaning a mossy well. This well in the Middle Ages was reputed to possess curative powers, so attracting many thousands of pilgrims and I can see them now, the lame, the halt, the blind, the distressed, feeling their way, stumbling and dragging their feet, quietly weeping, the intact bearing the bed-sick on litters, from north, south, east and west, to impinge upon the mossy well where all ills will be cured.
This evidence of Muswell Hill’s religious past causes much excitement in my childhood, for during the building of the new Catholic Church, Our Lady of Muswell, in Colney Hatch Lane, near to the Broadway (the previous church at the back of the site having been relegated to a hall) a relic is found. This is a broken statue of the Virgin Mary, plain, clean lines, plaster coloured, resembling in its simplicity modern art. A relic which, as a child, I find disappointing for I prefer the ornate gold and blue painted statues.
Once the foundations of the new church have been laid, several hundred of us, men, women and children, stand in the open air within their confines, surrounded by building materials, for the blessing , followed by the priest preaching the good news that replicas of this excavated Virgin Mary were to be made for sale, to raise money for the church, and that pictures of the Virgin would appear on an informative leaflet. The well itself, he tells us, is in a garden of a house in Muswell Avenue, but the spring which feeds it had been uncovered on the church site and a small pond would be included in the landscaping around the church. Before the building of the new church, my sister and I have been baptized into the Catholic Church.
My parents on moving to Muswell Hill would have been uninterested in its religious past, but proud of the area’s literary connections, for Wilkie Collins, Coventry Patmore and W.E. Henley all at one time lived within the district:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever God’s may be
For my unconquerable soul.
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Declaims my father, not entirely seriously, at odd moments. The poem by W.E. Henley appearing in a book called London Voluntaries and dated in its preface 1897 Muswell Hill. Coincidentally, it comes within a group of poems called ‘Echoes’.
Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, lived also in Muswell Hill and while residing at its foot wrote Lalla Rookh (published 1817) - that strange Eastern romance which takes up 104 pages of small print in my old book of his collected works. Moore sits in a small stone cottage behind which rises the green hill set in fields of waving corn. In the distance a dairy herd grazes. But Moore sees none of this for his eyes behold "bazaars and baths covered by rich tapestry, hundreds of gilded barges upon the river Jumna, banners shining in the water, while through the streets beautiful children go, strewing the most delicious flowers around..." Dipping his pen into the black Indian ink, Moore writes:
Before the porphyry pillars, that uphold
the rich moresque-work of the roof of gold,
Aloft the Harem’s curtained galleries rise,
Where through the silken network, glancing eyes,
From time to time, like sudden gleans that glow
Through Autumn clouds, shine o’er the pomp below.....
My own connection with Thomas Moore came through one of his songs "The Minstrel Boy" as androgynously I identified with the youth, fearless "in the ranks of death":
Land of song! said the warrior bard,
Though all the world betray thee,
One sword at least thy rights shall guard,
One, faithful harp shall praise thee.
I sing, standing straight, chin up, determined to meet with valour the surrounding enemy.
The pub in Colney Hatch Lane, opposite Wilton Road, was until recently named The Minstrel Boy, and was not built until after the Second World War. During my childhood its site was a wasteland flanked by advertising boards (as was the site which is now the public library). Previously, and from the time we first moved into Wilton Road, the respectable working-class and lower middle-class - busmen, post office workers, clerks, railwaymen, small shopkeepers - disturbed by the building of a Council estate off Coppetts Road, sent round a petition against it every time a pub was proposed for this site. For they were convinced that its erection would result in sober, respectable, industrious, thrifty Wilton Road being invaded night after night by disreputable, disrespectabale, drunk, lazy, spendthrift Council tenants disturbing the peace as they sing their way to their estate. I am an adult before the pub sign "The Minstrel Boy" declares a victory for song.
And so, in 1929 we settle in Wilton Road. The year of the Wall Street crash, bringing with it world slump, unemployment, depression. For a time we live on what is left of the £500 received for the Kipling booklet ‘Echoes’ and on what my father can earn from the shop. We are even able to employ a succession of live-in maids, country girls who come from large families to look for work in the city and can settle into the only type of job for which they have any training. In those days, nearly every suburban home employed a live-in maid who received her keep and a few shillings each week. Most of them dressed in frilly aprons and frilly hats to announce not only their own status, but that of their employers.
I cannot remember whether our maids wore uniform, but my mother, with her constant interest in human stories, spent much time in listening to their tales of romance and, in some cases, in talking a reluctant father-to-be into marrying a distraught maid who dare not return to her parents’ home in ‘trouble’. "I knew you were a lady" one such young man tells my mother solemnly, my mother having come to the door bare-foot "because your feet are so well-kept."
A snapshot of this period stares up at me. I am at the seaside and I am running out of the sea, my dress tucked into my knickers, my arms outstretched, my mouth wide open to form an ‘O’. Behind me the waves are high. I have been taken to the seaside by one of our maids and her boy-friend and she assures my mother that I am shouting "Oh, my bummy!" A mortgage and a maid told my mother that she had arrived. She had bettered herself and her lowly roots were shrivelled. As it happens, ours was one of the few owner-occupied houses in Wilton Road, for almost all were let out as two self-contained flats, tenants gaining their status from the type and size of property which they could afford to rent. In fact, to this day the end house of Sutton Road, which runs parallel to Wilton Road, continues to bear the legend on its brickwork:
SELF-CONTAINED FLAT WITH GARDENS
With regard to Wilton Road, the Hornsey Journal for 1905 had advertised: Superior and Substantially Well-built 7 ROOMED HOUSES. Side entrance, long gardens - price £425. Ground Rent £7.7s. Rent £40.
But my mother has risen above this, she is a property owner. And yet she is a socialist and sincerely believes in the reconstruction of the world into one in which all are equal. In the meantime she has to live within the confines of what is and make her mark within its boundaries. Life splits us all into a million fragments which impinge upon one another as if they were parts of a jigsaw made up of different and differing pictures placed together haphazardly. Therefore, our perception is inconstant, vacillating, variable, unsteady, unstable, erratic, mutable, mercurial, volatile, unsettled, capricious, fickle, uncertain. For from infancy we are moulded and twisted to conform to what is expedient, to divide our wants from our needs, knowledge from understanding, intelligence from rote learning, sex from caring, fecundity from respectability, thought from action, theory from practice.......
In fact, Werner Heisenberg published his ‘Uncertainty Principle’ in the year of my birth, 1927. A theory which the newspapers declared undermined the whole idea of exact measurement, stating as it did that the more precisely one tried to fix the position of a body, the more uncertain was its momentum, and vice versa. A dialectical approach stated by Heraclitus and developed by Marx and Engels into a scientific theory applied to the development of societies. They saw economic systems as nurturing within themselves the seeds of their own destruction and re-creation. The twins subversion and creation in a unity of opposites, incessantly reacting one against the other in a continual friction. Until, at long last, a vast explosion of revolutionary energy scatters the heap of history far and wide, transforming and levelling the prospect - as said by Walter Benjamin who saw revolution as interrupting the course of history. When the dust, the ashes and the detritus settle once more and the coughing and spluttering comes to an end, the mountain is seen to be reconstituted into a manageable pile. The wreckage of capitalism upon which it is possible to build a harmonious socialist society.
However, until this happy state of affairs is achieved, it is unreasonable to expect me, or the persons presented by me, to behave consistently, or consistently inconsistently. My own perception cannot be other than flawed and I can do no more than interpret the facts as they appear to me.
Since moving to Wilton Road, my mother has stayed home with her children for my Tante’s inadequate care of myself has convinced her that she must personally care for us. She has taken her second full-time pregnancy very seriously by giving up smoking cigarettes for the time being and eating a well-balanced diet. Once my sister is born she concentrates on her feeding, much to the disgust of the baby clinic which, on hearing that the baby is being fed on solids at six months old, insists "Mother! You’ll kill that child!" But my mother is unrepentant. She is compensating my sister and herself for all the nourishment owed to me in my early days, and my sister is a bonny, bouncing baby. "What a beautiful!" the old ladies compliment my mother as she pushes the pram up the street and my mother glows with pride. She has proved her worth as a mother and as a woman.
For a time, the write James Hanley lodges with us and my mother compares him favourably to my father who has little ambition and treats each day as if it were separate from the one that went before, or after. Added to which, my father is away from home for long hours and returns to the house tired and unwilling for social intercourse. To my mother, James Hanley is a life-line and in the summer of 1992 he re-entered my life in the person of a Mr. Fordham who in the midst of writing a doctoral thesis on James Hanley contacted me for any information I might possess. This directed me towards obtaining through my youngest daughter, Esther, from the University of London Library, copies of letters sent from Hanley to my parents and deposited at the Library.
Although the letters do not bear it out, I was told by my mother that Hanley preferred my sister to myself and I like to think that this was because she was at the cute baby stage. I, on the other hand, was demanding of attention, pulling at my mother’s skirts, pushing myself between them, sulking when ignored, slinging myself down to scream in a tantrum, my heels drumming the floor:
"The children are great" writes Hanley to my mother. He is baby-sitting us while my mother is in hospital for an operation during which her appendix is removed:
"Mr. Lahr washes the children and they have their breakfast before he goes out...I feed Sheila with the right hand and Oonagh with the left...from a communal pool...Sheila is getting to like me better every day so the competition is rather fierce and at meal-times it’s quite a fight for first place..."
"Sheila has gone up to the Dawsons (17) and goes every day."
"Your mother departed this morning and I’m not sorry either...I wrote my cousin in the South of Ireland and if she doesn’t come another girl will. But you’ll have to pay a good Irish girl fifteen shillings per week...Charlotte (our maid) is managing all right, but I really think it takes Irishmen and Frenchmen to look after children...Mrs. Pierce (our charlady) is alright, just the same old way, pottering to and fro as if she was carrying the Southern hemisphere on her back..."
Some time later:
"I don’t know how many more rumours will be flying about, but it seems to me that there must be some people who know of the row we had trying to make things a bloody sight blacker for me. Of course, considering that nothing else would make it appear even worse...Fact is I said all along weeks and weeks ago that Sterling (18) had to get a "Boy" (19)...I’m glad this damned business is over. We are all apt to say mad things when angry. I personally am willing to forget...For Christ’s sake don’t believe everything you hear about me. How you can like Sterling is a bloody mystery to me..."
Of course, Hanley had been a sailor" my mother says, admiration in her voice.
"The steward now placed his hand behind the boy’s head to support him. Again he gave the boy a drink from the bottle. Then he leaned back as though to get a better focus upon this boy, who had dared a horrible death in order to get away to sea...’No boy’, he told himself ‘would do such a thing unless quite desperate...’"
writes Hanley in BOY, a novel which tells of a boy who at the age of thirteen runs away to sea to escape poverty, a domineering father and noxious work on the docks. Only to be raped by his shipmates, to contract syphilis, to be put down by the Captain and thrown overboard. Of course, the members of the establishment reared on glorious tales of Britain’s Imperial might, Drake, Nelson, the Boys’ Own Paper, Hearth of Oak are our ships, Hearts of Oak are our men, Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves, shocked and horrified by this unromantic story of the sea, ensure that it is banned on its first publication in 1931.
"Hanley climbed up that drainpipe" my mother says to me for the umpteenth time, indicating the pipe which runs past the bathroom window. We are standing in the garden of 9 Wilton Road, at the side of the house. I narrow my eyes to see a blue-clad figure lightly making his way up the pipe. Grasping it between his knees and moving his hands one over the other, hornpipe fashion.
"She had an affair with Hanley" says my father, his voice changing timbre as he thinks back over the years. As had been usual since the shock of my mother’s death on 12 January 1970, my father sits on a wooden chair, close to middle of the three windows, peering out into Wilton Road, intent upon devouring the life going on outside. Around him is tumbled his life - stacks of books and newspapers, pamphlets and booklets. The large double-bed, a survivor of the marriage, is littered with letters in and out of envelopes. Almost every letter received in his eighty-six years. At the side of the room stands a small table and on this is placed a bottle of orange juice and glasses. It is the quiet part of the day, early afternoon when the children are at school, the babies at rest, the adults at work. There is nothing and no one of interest in the street below and the doors of the houses remain tightly closed. As I enter the room alone he turns from the window to stagger to the bed and sit down heavily on its side. I cross to sit on the chair which he has vacated, turning it to face into the room. For some while we have said little to one another, the gulf of my mother’s death between us.
"She had an affair with Hanley. I found her in bed with him. I punched him on the jaw" he adds in pain and pleasure. Later, and nearer to the end of his life, my father becomes convinced that Hanley will visit him. "He’ll come today; or perhaps tomorrow." As if he had come to believe that this sight of Hanley, who in my father’s mind’s eyes was yet a young man, would expunge the intervening years and my mother would be restored with her tight curly hair, bright blue eyes, quick movement and laughter. And he, once again, would be in his prime. But this transmogrification did not take place for Hanley did not come and my father, like my mother, passed into the dust pile of history.
"Hanley was a sailor" says my mother "The sailors would have saved my sister Flora and her children from the fire in Portsmouth. If only they had known that they were still in the house." To my mother, Hanley was the saving sailor.
Esther Lahr painted by William Roberts
On to Fire
Get You Back Home