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  • Theatre and Concerts

    May20 My dear friend, Barbara, invited me to a play reading at the Roundabout Theatre Company. The play is by Greg Pierce and is entitled: The Decoys. the storyline has, as a base, the tale of the two escapees from a high-security prison some years ago. They engineered their exit with the help of electric tools supplied to them by a prison guard who was also the girl friend of one. I seem to remember that one died, somehow, shortly after the escape and the other recaptured. I do remember that the girl friend was arrested and charged. However,the main theme of the play seems to be the conflicted emotions of father and son. I found the reading, interupted by scene settings by the Director, somewhat rambling and difficult to follow. My short-term memory failed to reinforce my imagination.
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Ch 4. The Hobbs

As a child, I believed that, in addition to their venerable founders, all families comprised a multitude of aunts and one or two uncles. In later years, I came to realize that this gross imbalance of the sexes was not the natural order of things but a consequence of the terrible slaughter in the trenches of the Great World War. My parents’ generation began redressing the balance.

The founders of my maternal family were Charles Edward Hobbs and his wife Virginia. They both hailed from Bethnal Green, a Borough contiguous with Hackney. Bethnal Green must have been in the heart of the Jewish and Cockney East End district but the Hobbs were neither. Social class-structure and the tribal belonging it generated had an infinitely greater hold on 20th century British minds than people of today can believe. The lower orders well knew their place. But, already, some families were starting to be upwardly mobile and beginning to deny their working-class origins. Charles Hobbs was self-employed and the Thompsons were top-wage earners. Both families maintained the traditional parlour, complete with piano, aspidistra and caged song-bird, but the life-style they led was beginning to be disparaged by diehard Cockneys as one of ”spats, pianos and poverty”. (‘spats’ were a stylish gaiter of grey cloth worn over the ankle and instep by flashy gentlemen of means).

The Cockneys, cheerful as London sparrows, it was said, were a dying breed. All over the East End one could  and still can hear their distinctive accent. Dropped ‘h’s and ‘t’s and mangled English were marks of membership. Even today, Ethel  (my Brooklyn born travel friend) remarks upon it when we visit London. But, one heard, less and less, the rhyming slang which was their main badge of belonging and which kept them so close-knit. I was told that it had its origins in London’s prisons, invented by the inmates to prevent the guards from knowing their intent, but I have never been able to verify this explanation. Today, it is rarely, if ever heard but, in my young days, I picked up many examples of the slang while playing with local kids; such as, ‘up the apple and pears’ = upstairs! Or, ’favourite round the Obadiah’ = best place is near the fire! Naturally, I learned the rude ones first—mainly because outsiders didn’t have any idea what insults were being thrown at them and this was very amusing to the cognoscenti. For example, the word ‘Berk’ is often used to disparage another ’bloke’ and it has moved into fairly common usage today. Few of today’s users, however, realize that the word is short for Cockney rhyming slang: ‘Berkley Hunt’!

The other distinguishing ritual of the true Cockney was the ‘Pearlie King’ tradition. Men, women and children would dress themselves up in black suits sewn all over with ‘pearl buttons’. Pearl buttons are the small shirt buttons made of some synthetic, nacre-like, material which are still in use today. The Pearlie Kings sported the most complicated patterns and, like the Scots and their kilts, the pattern distinguished one Cockney family from another. I remember being taken occasionally, by an aunt or parent, to watch their full–dress parades. They could be seen individually at all times of the year, though, mainly in Petticoat Lane or one of the other open markets.

Petticoat Lane (Middlesex Street) was one of the open markets essential to the lives of the London poor. It still exists, but it has taken on the gentrified trendy look admired by today’s ‘in’ crowd. In my day it was filled with vendors selling absolutely everything from fruit to monkeys. Most of the vendors were regulars and were probably licensed, but a great many were itinerant and not necessarily trustworthy. It was said that a lady could have her handbag lifted at one end of the lane and buy it back, emptied, at the other! One had to use extreme care and smarts in order shop successfully down the Lane. The odds of a non-Londoner coming out with a bargain or a white elephant were about 50/50. I have a vague memory of uncle Nart once taking me to one of the permanent stalls to buy budgerigars for his aviary—but this may have been on an excursion to Brick Lane, another open market which, I seem to remember, specialized, at that time, in pets of all kinds.

In my late teens, I was visiting my mother’s family and was walking down the street near their house accompanied by one of my cousins, Kitty. It was winter and I was dressed in a black Melton overcoat, quite usual in the suburbs where I then lived, but I had added a white silk scarf around my neck for a bit of sophistication. As we progressed down the street, I heard the Cockney grapevine whispering; “toffs abaht!’ “toffs abaht” and suddenly, I became aware that I was no longer part of them. “toffs abaht” can be roughly translated: “rich gents in the offing and money can be wheedled out of them by judicious servility or by more direct means”. The fact that they were fooled by a simple white scarf, caused me to examine my own conditioning and I began then, I think, to question the tenets of class distinction which were still totally unquestioned by my parents’ generation.

Mixed in with the Cockney areas were the Jewish ones. Communication between the two was very limited, however. Both were extremely traditional, insular and intolerant of other groups. Charity started and ended at home! No self-respecting Jewish or Cockney family would allow one of its members to live on the street—the shame of such a thing! He would have been taken care of somehow, even if it meant impoverishment for the remainder of the family. I had no inkling then of what the Jews thought of us, but Cockneys often spoke disparagingly of them on one level. On a more intimate level each respected the others’ talents and craftsmanship. My family’s suits were always hand-made by Jewish tailors—they lasted for ever, so good was the cloth and workmanship. Curiously, the more I earned in later years, the less I could afford to purchase hand-fitted suits of the quality I wore as a kid! And, the Jewish bakeries! There was nothing in the world as fluffy and tasty as a chocolate cream puff from Monicadam’s! One or other of the aunts would bring in a dozen every Sunday.

The east end of London bore the brunt of Hitler’s bombs during WWII. Its rail yards and docks were annihilated, together with most of the wall-to wall housing in which the workers lived. The post-war diasporas, Jewish and Cockney, spread out as far as Australia.

My mother, Emily, Emmy or simply Em, was the third youngest of five sisters and one brother. Thanks to the researches of my niece, Gillian, I can now put names to them, but at the time I began to be aware of my surroundings, only Aunt Doris, the youngest, had not gone off to found a family of her own. She, it was tacitly understood, had lost her love on the fields of Flanders and had resolved never to be reconciled to the loss and (oddly) never to be photographed. Most of the satellite branches of the Hobbs were living within walking distance of the founding home as was customary—the extended family flourished on close personal contact. There were no telephones for the lower orders yet, and letter-writing was not encouraged, except for official purposes.

Tilly in the backyard of the Scawfell Street House

The Hobbs’ family home was a rented house in the middle of a row named ‘Scawfell Street’—an ugly name for an ugly neighbourhood, I thought. Scawfell Street was still within of the borough of Hackney but was three-quarters of a mile away (as the little boy dawdles) from the Thompson residence. The houses were similar to those in New Street, but smaller, and each had an area in front of its downstairs window enclosed by a cast iron fence. A few householders had a struggling plant or two within the fenced space but the majority used it to store their dustbins. Poverty was just as prevalent here as in London Fields but a somewhat elevated air of working-class snobbery showed in the meticulously lime-stoned steps and the black-leaded railings of Scawfell Street. The required aspidistras could be seen peeping between their white lace curtains but close scrutiny was foiled by the fence.

I have included the picture of Tilly not only to give an idea of the young lady herself, but also to show the barren dinginess of the East End back yards. Space between the back-to-back houses varied from street to street. Scawfell street’s was average.

For almost the full length of the street, the houses faced a high yellow brick wall with a narrow iron-barred gate let into it. This wall enclosed the playground of the district’s municipal school. The school itself was contiguous with the wall at the lower end of the street where I was not to venture. During my early childhood visits to the maternal homestead, I would listen for the school bell which signaled the opening of the gate in the afternoon and watch in awe while millions of ragged boys would explode through it and spread like a wild-fire into the street, shouting and cavorting as they went.

Entering the gate in the morning was a much more sober affair. The boys (schools were not to be co-ed for generations yet) dragged themselves into the compound as if they feared the gate would never open again. Going in, their failing spirits matched their mended hand-me-down clothes and heightened the aura of real poverty surrounding them. Although Dickensian London was transforming itself, some kids still went without boots.

As I remember it, the Hobbs household, consisted of a very severe giant of a grandfather, a tiny, loyal, but sometimes conspiratorial, grandmother and Aunt Doris. Doris would have been in her late twenties. Grandmother Virginia, “Ginny”, to the adults, and Nana Hobbs to us, was always kind to me. She fed me bread and jam for my tea when she had care of me. There was no butter on the bread to keep the jam on top as I had become used to in our suburban house, but I kept my faint disgust of the soggy offering to myself for I vaguely understood from my mother that there was no money for butter. I am not sure that I knew at the time what that really meant but I was impressed with the seriousness of not saying anything about it.

Ginny and I must have developed a close rapport by the time I was nine or ten. Of a dark evening, she and I would be by ourselves in the kitchen completely at ease with each others’ company, possibly listening to early radio broadcasts because I remember a small speaker fret looking down at us from one of the walls. She would hand me her ornamented beer jug with its large handle to one side, rather like a smaller version of the water jugs in the wash basins in the bedrooms upstairs. It held about an imperial quart, I imagine. I would trot this jug up to the “Off-license” next to the pub at the corner of Scawfell Street, about fifty yards up the road–Ginny, herself, was having trouble with an infected leg during those years—something to do with an oyster, I understood. Whether it was because she had eaten a bad one or had scratched her leg while opening it, I was not aware.

In spite of the strictures upon entering public houses which I mentioned earlier, it was quite in order for children to enter the “Off-license” premises which most pubs had attached to them, and even make purchases. The Off-licenses sold beer and spirits for consumption “off” premises, that is, alcoholic beverages purchased there were not allowed not to be consumed within the precincts of the pub itself. Hence the sporadic trail of little boys and dear old ladies making their way up the street in the early evening with an assortment of jugs and bottles in their hands. Upon arrival at the off-license, I would stretch up, put Ginny’s jug on the counter and say, in the deepest voice I could manage: “Milk Stout, please!” As always, I would add a small lemonade and an arrowroot biscuit to my order and pay with the exact coins my grandmother had given me. When I returned with the jug of stout, Ginny went through a truly amazing ritual. She put the poker deep into the kitchen fire and we would sit in front of it and wait. In a while, she pulled out the poker, now glowing red-hot at the end, and plunge it into her milk stout! The resulting hiss and burst of steam was wonderful to behold. Tan-coloured froth burgeoned forth like a mushroom cloud in a panic to escape the heated iron below and overflowed the rim of the jug! She would put the jug to her lips with infinite relish as we settled down for our evening round the fire.

Next to the Off-license was the source of one of my fondest memories. The Brewery stables. On winter’s evenings, under the glare of the gas lamps I watched the dray horses, great Clydesdales with be-ribboned manes, being led up the cobbled slope to their first floor bedroom. The power of their massive hind quarters and the slipping of their iron-clad hooves on the cobbled surface fascinated me and impressed my boyish imagination. I have never lost the image.

Scawfell Street had another happy attraction for pre-teen me. On the corner opposite the stables there was a Jewish grocery shop where one could buy all manner of exotic things out of barrels. I had no interest in these. My total interest was concentrated on the home-made ice-cream sold there. Nana Hobbs was able to spare me a coin occasionally. It was probably only a ha’penny or even a farthing. Whatever it was, it would only buy me a small newspaper cone of strawberry flavoured crushed ice. The real ice-cream was made by constantly turning and stirring the ingredients in one churn which was placed inside another filled with ice. If I stared longingly enough, the proprietor’s wife would ask me to volunteer with the turning and, as a reward, would give me a taste in a small cone. Haagen-Dazs would probably have rejected it—to me it was nectar!

Ginny and Grandfather Hobbs

Little boys were never to be heard by Grandfather Hobbs unless spoken to. And I don’t remember that he ever did. He did, however, hold some kind of office in the local working men’s club and it was through him that I and some of the Hobbs cousins, perhaps, were able to attend the annual children’s party. I remember only a stage on which people, dressed as clowns, did some magic tricks; a forest of chairs and tables and a mass of bellowing kids, among whom, I was alone.

Grandfather Hobbs was a master cabinet maker. Perhaps it was from him that I inherited my developing craftsmanship? He had a workshop at the lower end of the street, beyond the school. I did peek in at the door once when I was older but fear that he would be upset, prevented me from entering fully to see the machinery working. In our suburban home in Seven Kings, we had many fine examples of his inlay work.

Aunt Helen married George Hayday and they had lots of children together, one of whom, aunt Helen designated ‘her fire watcher’ for some strange reason. George was a skilled engineer and was famous in our family for having installed the elevator in the Princess’s doll’s house. The Princess became Queen Elizabeth II and her doll’s house is still on display in Windsor Castle. George was not so lucky. The between-war period was especially hard on the working man; jobs were in short supply and the “dole” (unemployment pay) didn’t last long. When I first became aware of Uncle George I thought him a tall, kindly man with a shiny red smiling face. He was, by that time, a road-sweeper for the local council. This was a vastly better outcome than being sent to the “Workhouse” which was an institution for the indigent run by the Local Authority. It was a solution of the very last resort for extended families unable to muster enough between them for one more mouth to feed and house. I gathered from the family whispering (not meant for children’s ears), that a certain ‘Uncle Johnnie’ was an inmate. But, whatever connection he had with the Hobbs, I never learned.

Aunt Till, “Tilly” to the adults, and both short for Matilda, was the naughty one. I don’t really know what her family offence was, she was often the subject of whispered exchanges and oblique references which my straining ear failed to interpret. I think it had something to do with ladies things—even abortions. Anyway she married and moved far from the family nucleus to Burnt Oak in north London. Les and I visited her there once and we spent two or three days with her son Charlie. How we got there and back and how the visit came about, is a complete blank. But I do remember having uneasy feelings about it and winning a coconut at the local fair! She then moved to Oxford where her husband, Charles, worked for a printing Company associated in some way with the Bodleian Library. During a visit there, my proud father sprung a surprise; he had Uncle Charles question me on my knowledge of printing. I was attending The London College of Printing by that time and fancied myself reasonably-well up in the subject. In the event, I made a complete idiot of myself and let my father down badly. Aunt Till remarried and finally moved to Aldershot, a garrison town in the south of England. I know she was reconciled with the family by the time I was fourteen because my brother, Les, and I had, reluctantly, to include her son Charlie in our cycling adventures while the four parents went for drives in my father’s car.

After Doris, Mary was the Hobbs aunt I had most to do with in the pre-war years. This came about largely because of the rapport I had with her son, Teddy, but also because Aunt Mary was the designated Christmas pudding maker for the Hobbs family. Decent Christmas pudding making was a fine art and few could spare the time or the dedication. The ingredients were largely the secret of the maker but they would certainly have included dark rum for preservation and dark beer for colour. They were made the year before consumption and issued to family members in the size appropriate to his or her rank. My entitlement was one of the smallest, about six inches across at the widest part. Mixing and boiling began when the seasonal ingredients became available in the shops; about the first week in December. Before the mixture was put in the bowls, children from all around were invited in to have a lucky stir. Thereafter, the mixture would be sprinkled with silver thrupenny bits (threepenny pieces, coin of the realm at that time) and thoroughly stirred in. The mixture would be spooned into various size bowls and an inch-thick layer of dough would be placed over the top of the bowl reaching a little way past the rim. This was keep to out the boiling water whilst cooking. Lastly, to keep the dough in place, a piece of torn-up linen was placed over the dough and tied tightly in place around the rim. The torn-up linen had to be white so it was mostly provided by discarded bed sheets or underwear. The bowls were then piled into the copper filled with water and boiled for 12 hours or more non-stop.

A little ceremony always accompanied the eating of the Xmas pudding on Christmas Day; brandy would be poured over it, lit and then carried into the dining room ablaze. A rousing spectacle!

My entitlement continued even after I had returned from the war and was married. But my undiplomatic tongue ruined it forever. I was enjoying a spoonful of delectable, aged, pudding, well sauced with brandy butter, when I chomped upon a suspicious button! I was aware that bed sheets rarely had need of buttons and so concluded that it had previously been attached to a pair of long-johns. I told Aunt Mary this, thinking that she would be amused. She wasn’t! I never received another one.

Aunt Mary and her quiet husband, Ted Bradshaw, held their fair share of family parties in their flat and, as a boy, I marveled, not without fear, at the visible movement of the upstairs floor as the guests danced a “Knees-Up-Mother-Brown” on it in unison. The upstairs, was, in fact, sublet to Tommy and Alice Nunn, but although I vaguely remember their faces, I cannot recall their connection with the Bradshaws, which was obviously very close.

Teddy was quite a few years older than I and he shared, with a friend, a camping cabin in Epping Forest in Essex, a county on the eastern fringe of London. He was, naturally, already “in the Print” that is to say, employed in the printing industry in some capacity. I persuaded my parents to allow me to camp in my little tent at the edge of the forest under Teddy’s cousinly eye. I have never lost the taste for camping since. The fresh smell of the dew; the heady sense of freedom which lying out under the stars can bring; the companionship of the blazing log fire; the patter of rain on canvas—I am still enchanted by it all. Seventy years later, my daughter Susan, who was indoctrinated as a baby, brought her grandson, (my great-grandson), on camping trips. (Latterly she has even brought her horse ‘Playdoh’!)

One of my most shameful memories concerns Teddy. Through my father, young Teddy was persuaded to lend me a set of bound volumes of instruction, about the time I became an apprentice. These were relatively expensive text books essential for the aspiring Printing executive. As soon as I saw them I perversely decided that I would keep them and repeatedly delayed returning them on some pretence or other until war broke out, when they were lost forever.

After the war, Teddy and I completely lost contact.

Teddy had a brother Chris–short for Christopher I suppose, although he was always Chrissie to Les and me. I had little to do with him as a boy. We must have met at family parties but I can’t recall any encounters. Immediately after WWII however, I contacted him through the family grapevine and asked him to make me a set of loose-leaf binders–he had become a skilled book-binder and owned a small business. I needed the heavy-duty binders to start my scrapbooks.

I next heard news of him, some years later, when he, like Les, had emigrated to Perth, Australia. Australia had need to populate its vast empty spaces and was providing irresistible incentives to immigrants from Britain. Perth was rapidly becoming a duplicate East End.

Nearing the end of his life, I invited him and Les to join me in New York for a visit. We drove to Maine to stay with some old travelling friends; then took the ‘Blue Nose’ Ferry to St. John and on to the Gaspe Peninsular and round to Quebec City. Chrissie had some bladder problems so the drive was not without its anxious moments, but, in general, we three old codgers had a glorious time together and I was so very glad to be the catalyst that made his last excursion possible.

Of the other two Hobbs aunts and one uncle, I recall only Nellie’s name.


2 Responses

  1. Your last memoir just received was indeed enlightening. I now know from where came a WW2 song, We’ll ‘ang old ‘itler from the ‘ighest branch of the biggest aspidistra in the world. The singer’s name will not come back to my failing memory. As a youth in the states when bottled and canned beer was not all that common. A young lad would be sent with a covered tin pan to,”rush the “growler” at a nearby tavern usually on a Sunday evening, very similar to your description in England. Aldershot now is understood in, “Gunga Din”. I always wondered where it was. Best of all is, I now know what was behind the Thru-Penny Bit found in the Christmas pudding by an uncle in, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. A Christmas TV DVD that I religiously watch every Christma Eve.

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