Voices of a lost East End that reach us through the smog of time
Despite or perhaps because of the great smog of 1962, the worst for a decade, the Alma at Limehouse was crowded. Among the drinkers were ‘an inaudible Chinese elder nicknamed “pukkapoo”, Scotch Lilly, a skinny local prostitute with the most saddest eyes that I ever saw, a tall homosexual ex-army major named Hugh, cold and incisive but [he] soon became warm and friendly when he sat down at our table.
‘A deformed dwarf drifted towards us. Obviously tortured by his ugliness he took not one but two of Dave’s cigarettes. His presence so close to our group disturbed “pukka-poo” who got up and left the pub. Two lesbians in their thirties, one sporting a black eye, sat down at the next table and immediately started arguing.... ’ Reviewers talk of being ‘gripped’ by books. I was not so much gripped by A Tale of Friendship — an East End Story by Alfred Gardner as gently and consistently engaged. Without meaning to I read it from cover to cover, always curious to find out what happened next. I would have told you this was not my kind of thing at all, yet found myself staying with it to the end.
The point about Mr Gardner’s book is that every word of it is true. When he had called on me in Limehouse — I am a resident, like him, of the riverside part of the inner East End — he told me that he was worried about the book he had come to show me, because on rereading it, after paying to have it published, he could see all the mistakes and rough edges in his style. But I could tell him honestly that not only do they not matter, but that his natural, unhurried, unforced, matter-of-fact way of telling the story of his life in the East End between 1941 and the end of the 20th century makes him the most credible of witnesses, and lends to every scene and every character he paints the real-life quality which keeps the reader with him.
He told me about another local author, Jennifer Worth, and arranged for her to send me a copy of her latest book, Shadows of the Workhouse, which follows her autobiographical Call the Midwife, an account of her years as a district nurse in nearby Poplar in the middle of the last century. A more dramatic and stylish writer, Jennifer Worth, who worked with Catholic nursing sisters, has pieced together in Shadows of the Workhouse the true and terrible human stories she heard, reaching back into the last century, from those she met. Many had been brought up in the workhouses of east London which, though officially abolished in the 1930s, carried on in all but name for decades longer.
Worth’s book made me cry in a railway carriage yesterday. Gardner’s book — the story of an intense platonic friendship with a man of mixed race, David Upson, whose drinking and smoking finally killed him — is moving in a subtler way. The two men met by chance when Gardner was a teenager in 1959 and both came to the aid of a woman stretched out unconscious in the Commercial Road. In a rough place and among rough companions they drank and wenched and worked together, drawn to each other (I sense) by their shared kindness and humanity.
The story goes nowhere in particular, but it takes you through a world which is hardly recognisable today. Yes, the pubs — the Prospect of Whitby, the Gun — are all still there, and the rag trade limps on in the hands of a new set of immigrants. But the Prospect is full of Japanese tourists these days, their coaches waiting outside; and the Gun is a smart gastropub over the river from the Millennium Dome and in the shadow of the Goth City towers of Canary Wharf. The Green Parrot Club in Grace’s Alley is no more.
‘We were sitting drinking in the Green Parrot ... when in walked Father Joe Williamson ... He asked the proprietors, a small, serious-looking Greek and his buxom blonde wife, a Mae West look-a-like, if they had seen a certain Scottish girl that had recently arrived from Glasgow. Father Joe had established a refuge for prostitutes at Church House ... and was engaged in the sometimes precarious task of personally rescuing girls from the seedy clubs in the vicinity.’ Many of the pimps along nearby Cable Street were Maltese, says Gardner (surprising me). The picture he paints of this London at that time blows out of the water any Daily Mail assumptions we might make about a golden, decent, law-abiding time in postwar England. There is a fight on every page, a human tragedy round every corner. And you get the strongest of impressions that most of these will never have been reported, and few will ever have come to the notice of the police. Crime statistics from the era will bear little relation to reality.
‘As we gazed at the passing river traffic [Alfred and David were in Greenwich], Dave spoke ominously, “Enjoy the view while you can, Alf, one day, in the not-toodistant future, all of those ships, tugs and barges will disappear, and a whole way of life that’s been round for generations will be lost for ever.”’ David Upson spoke truer than he knew. History books can recount and recapture much from an era which has passed; they can name the leading figures, recite the economic statistics, print black-and-white pictures of the facades of buildings; they can reproduce newspaper headlines and retell the big stories. A good biographer can even try to reconstruct atmosphere and local colour. But the reconstruction of atmosphere is essentially a work of dramatic fiction; while the laying out of mere information, however meticulous, leaves something vital out: how it felt at the time.
If you want to discover how it felt at the time, there is no other way than through the eyewitness accounts of those with no axe to grind, who were simply part of the scene. Something intangible is imparted.
I so much admire local authors. Alfred Gardner never set out to make money or even his name from this book, nor from his next, which will be about his trade as a cutter and machinist in the garment industry. After paying the costs of printing, he is giving all the proceeds to St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney. But beyond entertaining thousands of readers, people like Gardner and Worth have contributed to our knowledge of the past something rare and fragile, and something which can be set down by nobody else and in no other way.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times. A Tale of Friendship is published by Alfred Gardner, 2 Folly Wall, Isle of Dogs, E14 3YH. Shadows of the Workhouse is published by Merton Books, PO Box 279, Twickenham TW1 4XQ.