Friday, 17 August 2007

Down the Lane

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By down the Lane, I mean Brick Lane in the East End of London, old borough of Bethnal Green today known as Tower Hamlets. Brick Lane starts in Bethnal Green Road and eventually leads to Petticoat Lane which is generally well known as the Sunday morning market of the East Enders.

Today there is not very much left of the East End cockneys in this market. Colourful stands with goods from Asia, the main immigrant population of today being from Bangla Desh. Smells of Indian curry and associated food waft along the streets. The book "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali has also made the area well-known. By the original local cockneys the book is looked upon with dissaproval. I have read the book and find a very good description of how a Bangla Desh girl has to leave her country and arrives in the East End of London to live with a husband and environment she does not know anything about. Nothing really to do with the East End, but with the problems of immigrants - so is the book intended as the result is very good.

I am now going back to the 1950's/60's when I was around 8-15 years old and still living in the area. The reason I lived here was probably based on my mother's family whose grandmother was a Huguenot descendent. The Huguenots arrived in England in the 17th century due to religious persecution in France (they were protestants, France was catholic) and one of these refugees (my ggg grandfather approximately, settled in the East End of London). Ok, this great grandmother was the child of a Huguenot and a lady from Norfolk. Thus my grandfather was born in the East end (Hoggerston to be exact) and my mum's family all grew up in Bethnal Green.

Back to Brick Lane. On Sunday morning there was the famous market. On Sunday my mum was occupied with cooking the Sunday dinner. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with baked potatoes for example followed by apple pie and custard (not every Sunday but this was the usual). To let her get on with this task in peace and quiet it was my dad's duty to take his little girl out (me). Where did we go - down the Lane. Hand in hand we walked down the Bethnal Green road and turned the corner Bethnal Green Road/Brick Lane and there we were. In the middle of crowds bustling with activity, buyers and sellers all collected around the various stalls. As a kid it made quite an impression on me. At the beginning of the lane there was a Jewish bakers (the Jewish immigrants came at the beginning of the 20th century and settled in and around the Lane). We walked past the bakers - on the way back we would buy a few bagels for Sunday evening tea.

Further down the Lane we came to stalls where records were being sold. The CD and even LP records did not exist in the 50's/60's. The records were 78 rpm. My dad loved these stalls. He could search for a few old memories on the records - I remember 4 for a bob (a shilling) or 2 bob according to the condition and who it was. Harry James, Woody Hermann, Mugsy Spanier, Rox Fox, Cab Calloway, just to name a few. Anything old jazz was my dad's taste and his eyes would sparkle when he found such a gem. I used to have my money's worth as well although the only record I remember buying after so many years was "I taught I taw a puddy cat" by Mel Blanc which I often used to listen to on Children's favourites on the Saturday morning radio brought by Uncle Mac.

After our visit to the records it was my turn and we moved on to the comic shop. This was a little shop in the Lane, the door being permanently open in the entrance four or five special tables each one full of comics. I was always allowed to pick 4 (4 for 2 bob - very reasonable). I always took a Superman, a Roy Rogers and something from Space. My fourth choice was a Classics Illustrated. I was always a great reader and I just loved books. Although the Classics Illustrated was not the original as a 10 year old I had a simplified way of knowing what the great authors wrote. When I visited my 91 year old dad in London last year he told me that it was a shame we didn't keep the comics, especially the Classics Illustrated. He read that today they were worth quite a bit of money.

Our journey down the Lane usually started around 10 o'clock in the morning and around 11 o'clock we would get a bit thirsty. Dad always looked after me first and we would stop at one of the stools selling drinks. There were sort of bottles in a contraption hanging upside down of all colours. My favourite was sarsparilla. I think it was brown and probably the fore runner of Coca cola. It was not the taste so much, but you were drinking something like beer (although no alcohol). Who knows what was in it and today it would probably be banned through some sort of health laws.

Food was also available and I was always treated to an Italian ice cream - they were just the best, bought from a cart. The ice cream had bits of ice in it and you could get vanilla, strawberry or pistachio. Nothing fancy with all sorts of designer names like today. Frankfurters were also sold. A sort of dark red sausage pulled out of hot water and put in a roll with mustard. This was forbidden. Mum was very strict about them. She found they were not good for you, you didn't know what they were made of and you would get all sorts of strange illnesses if you ate one. I always wanted one, but mum's word was law and dad did not buy me one. I can remember the smell of them even today.

I can also remember the sales men selling crockery. They would have their plates, cups and saucers and there was one show on the street when they were trying to sell their goods. The salesmen were artists. They would throw the crockery into the air and catch it again, without anything being broken. You could also buy pots and pans. We had some at home, but I didn't like them. Mum and dad thought it was a wonderful bargain, they were made of aluminium, but I always found that the food cooked in them tasted of aluminium as well. They were the good old days where you saved where you could but we all survived.

Before finishing our tour of the Lane we went through the Pet Market. I don't know whether the film A Kid for Two Farthings is known - I have a copy at home. It was made in 1955 based on life in Brick Lane and the little boy in the film bought a kid goat from a man in the Lane. The Pet Market in Club Row existed when I was a kid. People with their animals just stood there, their dog on a lead, chickens in a cage or cats in a box. Probably their stray at home had had youngsters and they wanted to earn some money by selling them. Of course me being an animal lover, wanted a puppy, a kitten and even a little chick. Even white mice or a rat would have been ok. Poor dad had to explain that we just could not take one home. We did not have the room and my mum was frightened of mice and rats so that was that. Club Row was just near the arches of Bishopsgate Goods Station which burnt down some time in the 60's. If you walked through the arch you would arrive in Commercial Road - Jack the Ripper country.

Our visit to the market was finished and we turned back into the Bethnal Green Road, not forgetting to buy our Bagels at the Jewish bakers. The next stop was the pub. We always went to the same pub. It had a long entrance with benches outside where dad could get his pint, I had my cream soda and we could sit together. The entrance to the pub had mosaic on the wall and I remember the picture in mosaic of old Bethnal Green in the days when it was fields and farms.

On the way down the Bethnal Green Road there were many stalls selling Prawns, Shrimps, Cockles and Winkles - sea food brought in from the surrounding London ports. They were not sold in weight, but in liquid weights - pints etc measured in enamel mugs. We always bought some for our Sunday evening tea (to eat with the bagels). At that time there was no health issue in eating them, but today with the state of the local water, no-one really bothers to buy them.

Eventually we arrived home (sort of tired but happy). Dinner was never served before 2 o'clock on Sunday so we did not have to rush. Looking back, childhood in the East End was something I am glad I had. They are memories and events that will never repeat themselves. It was London after the war, Most of the new buildings did not exist and half of Bethnal Green road was ruins of the places bombed in the war. It was just my London.

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I found this photo on Internet showing the corner of Bethnal Green Road/Brick Lane. My Jewish bakers doesn't seem to exist any more - it just belongs to the past.

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