01 The Box Scandal; Gypsies and Germans; The Film Scandal; The Road to Salvation: In the Van; Lost Millions; Paradise Lost and Regained

The Box Scandal

Nellie, who ten years later was to be my grandmother, sat on the pavement in front of her house in a crumbling North London suburb tossing crumbs to the squawking birds, holding court of the cottages around among her chirping friends. Her husband Joe often remarked in reply to her complaints of the time he spent on charitable committees that she ran a more efficient advice centre and board of help than anything the guardians of the parish did.

Sure as fate Mrs Noel brought her along a hard luck story, a servant girl crying and holding her pinafore over her eyes to conceal her shame. “Her master won’t let her have her box because she left without notice,” explained Mrs Noel, who faithfully found and put the lame ducks on proud display for Nellie to get flying again. “She won’t be able to get another job without a box and without a character. She’s got nothing but the clothes she stands up in. What do you reckon we should do?”

The initial answer was always the same. “Bring her in for some chicken soup, then we can think.” They all gathered in the little shop-parlour (the shop itself was never used as such, it was always a sort of glory-hole as far as I could gather). Nellie was used to problems: she had twenty-seven siblings — her father had buried four wives in three different countries, having had Victorian-sized families by each, and Nellie being the eldest had looked after them all.

She could discover improbable relations everywhere, ranging from a gentleman-farmer on Long Island, New York, to an embarrassing Dutchwoman who, when visiting London for the first time and speaking no English but an excellent imitator, lifted her skirt and shouted, to Nellie’s horror, “Stop the bus, the horse is pissing” to the driver, explaining to Nellie this was the way she’d observed English ladies boarding public vehicles.

“A character you have, you don’t have it given,” explained Nellie to Effie, no longer weeping. “If you want it in writing, we’ll soon find someone. The job, well, for the wage you were getting, if you’d even have got it, doesn’t matter, they’re crying out for girls. As for the box, my old man’s out totting, maybe he can find you one, and we’ve always got plenty of clothes. You can pay for them a penny a week, meanwhile finish your soup.”

Effie had barely time to stutter her thanks let alone swallow her soup, when Joe arrived and was told her story. “‘It’s odd,” he said. “I got a box this morning. I haven’t even paid for it yet. A gentleman stopped my trap and told me he wanted to get rid of it. He asked two guineas but being a toff wanted to be paid in gold. I said I’d have to come home first or pay for it in silver — but he said he knew me from the hospital committee and I could take it away and pay when I was passing.”

Effie stared at the box as it was brought in. “It’s full of clothes,” explained Joe. “About your size, I reckon. There’s a stroke of luck for you”.

“But it’s my box!” cried Effie. “Look. there’s my mum’s picture, and my letters, and everything. I never thought I’d see it again. Are you sure you’ll take only a penny a week?”

“Not likely” roared husband and wife together, in accord for once. “It’s your box,” explained Joe. “Take it. Good job I never gave that man the two guineas, I’ll give him a piece of my mind instead.”

“He’ll sue you,’” said Mrs Noel cheerfully. She always liked to prophesy doom. “He’s a Justice of the Peace and the case will come before him. You won’t stand a chance. Probably end up in prison, all for a penny a week.”

“I don’t mind paying,” said Effie.

“I do.”

The gentleman listened sympathetically to the account next day of how he had given the girl back her box. “Very commendable of you, I’m sure. However, you didn’t suffer the inconvenience of a girl leaving without notice. If that sort of thing became common one could never sit down to dinner. However we needn’t discuss the rights and wrongs of that, just give me the two guineas we agreed on. I trusted you to come back, supposing you to be an honest man.”

“I’m not a receiver to take your stolen goods,” began Joe hotly but was interrupted.

“Have a care. I am not accustomed to being slandered or of being deprived of what is justly mine, without seeking legal redress. I am perfectly entitled to retain the property of someone who broke her contract, and to sell it in lieu.”

“She says she had to go up ten flights of stairs with hot water five times a day, and your son was always pinching her bottom.”

“I do not relish either listening to criticism of my domestic arrangements. As it happens, I do not possess kitchens on every floor nor do I intend to carry up the hot water myself while I pay servants their wages. As for my son, he is well over the age when he needs parental consent. So kindly either pay what due or prepare to meet me in court.”

Mrs Noel proved wrong in one thing — he didn’t sit on his own case, but pointedly left the bench just before. The other JPs rallied to him. It was explained that whether or not he was right in his opinion that he was entitled to retain Effie’s box, or not, and that case was not before them, a contract to pay two guineas had clearly been entered into, albeit verbally. Payment and costs were allowed to the plaintiff.

It proved a Pyrrhic victory. In addition to being on the hospital committee and a JP, the gentleman was also chairman of the local Conservative Association, and it was the year of the General Election. Whenever he stood up to address a meeting in this hitherto Tory working-class stronghold, there was a chorus of ‘Want any boxes, mister?’ and ‘Who stole the skivvy’s clothes?’ The candidate himself never got a word in edgeways, so great was public opinion against his chairship. Even when they withdrew him from meetings, the public was shouting to demand to know where he’d gone and if he’d given notice, or if not, had his box been kept.

The Liberals romped in, even though their candidate ran a pawnshop which was always retaining Mrs Noel’s goods when she couldn’t pay up. She wanted to know what Nellie would do about it, but all she could think of was raising the cash for the present coat in hock.

Gypsies and Germans

Somewhere I read as a child that a gypsy woman stole two bags from the Roman soldiers at the Crucifixion, containing fifty nails intended for nailing Jesus to the cross, and ever since gypsies have been allowed to steal fifty times a year; but presumably since their confusion with the tinkers and didecois and other travelling people they have ceased to count the exact number.

In our time gypsies have been the subject of the most audacious theft since Manhattan island was bought for a few mirrors. The whole gypsy way of life, as celebrated in the operettas, its independence of money values, its preservation of tradition, depended on two things: movement and gold. Not only movement has been restricted until there is practically no place to go but on and out, during the various gorgio economic crises of the twenties gypsy camps all over the Continent were raided and their gold confiscated. In return they got currency valueless a few years later. Once the gypsies had to disgorge the loot of centuries it was the end of burning caravans when people died and setting up in them when they married. They had to settle down in slums or as travellers become tramps on horseback — later traded in for old bangers of discarded cars.

By the outbreak of World War I there was a broken-down gypsy encampment on the marshes near Joe’s house; the people changed but the site remained until well after I, their third grandchild was born. As he handled old clothes off and on, an old gypsy woman used to come to sell him scarcely worn men’s clothing, which she claimed came from her brothers, cousins, in-laws, until after a few months he came to wonder how she had acquired so large a family who never seemed to wear out their clothing. Most of them, too, seemed to be seamen.

One day Joe read in the newspaper how drunken seamen were lured to out-of-the-way spots by the promise of sex by gypsy women whose accomplices then knocked the punters on the head and robbed them of everything, even their clothes. He challenged the woman next time she came. She looked at him with immediate horror.

“You’re a German”’ she screamed. “I always knew it! You’re a Hun spy spreading pro-German propaganda.” A crowd gathered. Someone had sent for a policeman. She became more vigorous in her assertions. “I’m not standing here listening to him saying the Kaiser is right!” she cried, and ran off with her mackintosh and seaboots.

“And what have you been saying to upset this patriotic lady?” asked a policeman, as the crowd muttered menacingly. He told him. The mood changed, gypsies being perceived as a more immediate threat than Germans, even in November 1915. They still considered the war might end by Xmas, whereas the gypsies might go on forever. That same evening the police raided the gypsy encampment, and, being Friday, not only found a lot of new loot but two drunken and naked sailors who hadn’t yet been dumped on the highway. On Saturday morning fifteen able-bodied gypsies armed with horsewhips attacked my grandfather’s house shouting anti-German slogans (it was reported in the local press as ‘Renewed Local Anti-German Riots’).

Nobody could have been more indignant than Joe. Neither he nor Nellie had ever even been in Germany, all the family who hadn’t been born in London had been naturalised anyway, except Sid — who had come over as a babe in arms, so although his older brothers had been naturalised, it wasn’t thought he counted and they had lost his birth certificate anyway. For this offence he spent thirteen months in a prison ship at twenty years old, amongst Germans who thought this Englishman had been sent to spy on them. He got out of it by volunteering for the Army.

He was on leave at the time of the raid, and he and his father fought off the raiders, while Nellie poured water from the top floor over all indiscriminately, Sid’s girlfriend Rose ran for the police, Mrs Noel gave ineffectual whacks with her umbrella, while Mrs Nathan next door on the other side persuaded the neighbours not to join in as the police were coming — though this was a mistake, as she thought the crowd were going to help the gypsies, not having noticed Mrs Cummings running around screaming “The gypsies are attacking the soldiers!”

Of the two younger children, one was howling throughout adding to the panic and the other was afterwards criticised for sitting there reading, though there wasn’t much else she could do, being only eleven, and her book did explain what to do in times of civil commotion.

The affair collapsed suddenly, chiefly because the gypsies felt surrounded, and not because of the eventual arrival of a policeman on a bicycle. But afterwards a dignified statement in the window, with photographs of Joe, and two sons in uniform, proclaimed: ‘Certain people passing through the neighbourhood, without homes of their own’ — an obvious backhander — ‘have put about the foul lie that I am a German, on the contrary. My two sons are in His Majesty’s uniform. I myself am a former sergeant major.’ He omitted to say his youthful service was in the Austrian Army.

The Film Scandal

The film scandal happened some years later, when I was about eight years old. Charles Doran was MP for Tottenham and led a crusade on behalf of the film industry, in which he had some sort of financial interest. In his crusade for more British films to be shown and to cut out ‘alien’ (i.e. Jewish) domination, he was aided by the actor Victor McLaglen, an earlier John Wayne type, son of an Irish clergyman who made his name playing Irish Republicans, whom he detested. The crusade was primarily against American films since Continental films were hardly ever shown before the war, except occasionally at art houses and subject to curious restrictions.

The campaign successfully restricted the American films, at least by law. The Quota Act was passed, by which a proportion of British films had to be screened for each American one. The public was less convinced than Parliament that this was a good idea. West End managements put on cheap British films in the mornings, with the lights up and the cleaners busy, and having done their duty by England, they showed their American films for the paying public in the afternoon and evening, thus preserving their reputation.

But a boom had been opened for cheap film makers, with whose interests Doran was involved, and they began churning out films, two or three a week. Butcher’s films in Manchester produced cheap comedies, mostly filmed stage versions of artistes who happened to be in Lancashire and could pop over on two or three afternoons when there were no matinees, to roll off a film or two. Some of these incredibly bad films are still around, to be picked up by television, such as some of the better cheap ones of the ‘Old Mother Riley’ variety which have become cult movies.

British films did not recover from the blow to their reputation for years. Actors such as Henry Kendall were sidetracked into bad films and their reputations diminished. Others ran off to Hollywood, one of the first being Victor McLaglen, and once the films began to speak their stage experience and diction were in demand. Doran’s campaign fizzled out but he was known locally as the man who tried to ban American films, the biggest strike against him, and among a minority, as the man who wanted to form a private army in case of another General Strike (McLaglen, in Hollywood, actually did so) and also as an anti-semite. A few years later he would have been dubbed a fascist, and I believe he had some connection with the Imperial Fascisti, which was formed as a strike-breaking outfit rather than a political movement. It collapsed when one of its principal members, Colonel Barker, was arrested on fraud charges and was discovered not only to be a woman, but to have married a naive Irish girl who suffered so much derision when it came to public attention that she had married unknowingly to the wrong sex that it filtered down to the school playground.

The two prospective Labour members for the constituency, Fred Messer and Bob Morrison, saw their opportunity and they rallied round as many discontented elements as they could, including my grandfather Joseph Meltzer, still a person of some political consequence because of the Box affair, and with influence in the Liberal Party to which he then belonged and in the local synagogue. He switched a vital balance of votes to them, and the Tories went the way the Liberals had gone.

Roads to Salvation

Rose’s parents, Henry and Maria, had always lived in Islington, but out of London their roots were in Balllymena (they were second cousins) and throughout their many moonlight flittings through Islington and Hoxton, Maria clung to the vestiges of respectable Ulster Orangery.

The youngest daughter’s husband Bob was the last of the tradition. He never dreamed of leaving the house without his bowler hat, and always carried a briefcase to work, though he was not even a plumber but a plumber’s mate. Most of his Irish Catholic workmates on the building sites always called him sir, and he socialised to the extent of going to the pub with them on tea breaks — partly at the insistence of the plumber, who wanted to know where the staff was. There he opened his briefcase and took out his bottle of milk and sandwiches. No publican faced with the amount of custom from the thirsty labourers would object — had he done so, they would all have walked out. He looked rather as a prophet of old must have seemed among the heathen, which he undoubtedly considered a parallel.

Maria was a strong believer in the iniquity of drink, which she held to be the road to Roman Catholicism. She was proud that no member of the family had ever become a Roman Catholic (though many had taken to drink). Had they married Papists it was doubtful if she would have held the marriage legal, and though nobody seemed to deny that somewhere part of their ancestry was gypsy, they certainly denied that even before the Reformation they had ever been Catholic. They talked of the Celtic Church coming first and passing on the message direct from Glastonbury despite Rome.

Their exclusiveness did not extend to them objecting in the slightest to Rose marrying and entering the Jewish faith. The objections were all, as usual, on the other side. For them, Jews had their own religion, to which they were entitled, Catholics were merely anti-Christ. Didn’t they acknowledge it by calling themselves Roman Catholics, thus admitting they followed the Pope of Rome, when everyone knew he was anti-Christ and wore red socks?

Henry went along with a lot of this but was less convinced about the iniquity of drink. He claimed he could drink any paddy under the table and it had never taken him on the road to priestcraft — on the contrary, he would say with a wink, you’d never find those fellas in the places where he said mass. He worked as a master craftsman at the Royal Agricultural Hall, where every Saturday afternoon Maria would stand and wait for her housekeeping money after he got paid as she would never enter the doors of the music hall-tavern opposite, where he spent the weekend evenings in the ‘pulpit’ where he ‘said the mass’ — that’s to say, in the chair announcing the turns and calling for order and orders.

He was a popular chairman in the heyday of Collins Music Hall, and was treated to beer all night, which was expensive, as he felt impelled to buy back rounds for every free drink and his wages would disappear if Maria had not got to him first.

Nellie loved to slip away Friday evenings to the music hall when her husband was at his communal devotions, and when she came to know Henry through Rose she often slipped into Collins’. Sometimes the two of them would talk over or even sing the latest songs in her kitchen, while Maria was discussing the denunciations of Rome in the Old Testament with Joe in the parlour. It was a pity they lived long before partner-swapping became acceptable — it never, I suppose, entered their wildest dreams.

Henry had a nodding acquaintance with a large number of the lesser luminaries of the Edwardian music hall, if one could call them that. He had known the mothers of both Edgar Wallace and Charlie Chaplin, and got up collections for both in their impoverished days which were before Chaplin rose from the gutter to become rich and famous, and after Wallace did.

In view of their common non-Catholic background, it might seem strange that Sid and Rose sent their two sons, of whom I was the youngest, to a Roman Catholic school — I never understood why. The troubles were on in Ireland and nearly all my fellow schoolmates were Irish, recent arrivals or first generation in England, whose parents were attracted to the brickfields of the new suburbs. There were about half-a-dozen non-Catholics, mostly Irish Protestants. We had certain privileges — for instance, most of us got Thursday afternoon off — when self-employed people with cars used to take half-holidays. The headmistress seemed to accept the idea that this was a non-Catholic observance. She obligingly switched her main religion classes to Thursday afternoon to avoid disruption. In return we were frequently summoned by the headmistress for an emergency Monday morning conference. “There’s a boy just come from Ireland without any shoes, I’ll give you a note for your mother to ask if you’ve any old shoes and you can go home five minutes early when we’re having prayers”,

My mother used to be amazed and amused with the frequency of these notes. “That woman must think we run a shoe shop,” she said, until one day she put down the note murmuring “I don’t believe it — there’s a boy turned up without trousers”. His mother had made him a makeshift covering out of an old skirt, which she claimed was an Irish kilt. Poor lad, he never lived it down in all the years I knew him, though for the next five years wearing my prematurely discarded short trousers too long and wide for him.

The desperate poverty of the local Irish population in what was comparatively a well-off working class neighbourhood generally, was due to the fact that they were refugees who had been chased out of their homes which were burned with all their possessions. Most of them were children of Catholic Loyalists, not wanted by the Republicans and not welcomed in Protestant areas either. Their past associations had been service to the Crown in the forces in one degree or another, and their world vanished with the Free State. Not all thought themselves English perhaps but British certainly, and woe betide any who denied it. Those of my young contemporaries whose families had settled locally before the war regarded themselves English, as I did. They rather looked down on the newly arrived, most of whom had settled in the same few back streets by the tram depot, close to the building fields. The school fervently preached subservience to King and Empire, despite (or because of) the creation of the Irish Free State, Only on the subject of Guy Fawkes did it waver a little from its Englishness. Boys who had been discovered going around with a guy were severely admonished, it being made plain that poor old Fawkes was utterly wrong but he shouldn’t have been pushed to the limit he was, which however was a long time ago, like the rebellion in Ireland all of ten years before, and need no longer be discussed. It was difficult to teach history with this approach, and we never got beyond Kings and Queens ending with the young Victoria in her nightdress saying ‘I will be good’ when she was told her uncle the sovereign was dead.

How much more was science treated with suspicion lest it lead young minds to heresy. One day the class was asked how old the world was — I have no idea even now what answer was expected — I shot up my hand and answered brightly, “Five thousand’” plus whatever it was. There was a laugh and we were told severely to go on to something else and resume that afternoon. I suppose the mistress popped over to the church opposite to ask Father John about my answer. That afternoon I swelled with pride as it was explained I was absolutely right and she had stopped the class because of the laughter. Jews calculated the world’s date since the Creation, the way Christians did from the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately for my religious enthusiasms, that was the year (whatever it was of the universe, but 1931 of the usual calendar) when I passed the examination, whatever they called it then, and went into the secular grammar school. It so happened that at our first science lesson we were asked the age of the world. This time my answer, gleaned from occasional attendances at Hebrew school, failed dismally, and we were given some extraordinary story of it being incalculable millions of years old. I protested, but the damage was done, and doubt was sown in the young mind.

At eleven I had spotted a fatal flaw in two religions. Being influenced by what seemed the much more reasonable beliefs of my new schoolfellows at the grammar school, and having picked up a certain amount of the Arthurian nonsense lying around my maternal grandmother’s house, I decided to strike out for a third.

It greatly distressed the Church of England vicar when a serious minded 12 year old called on him and asked for a belated baptism. He had never heard of such a thing before — that’s to say, he’d heard of baptism but the demand for it was usually from parents clutching infants. He doubted if it were legal and said he might get into serious trouble. So might I, I said, if my parents found out. In fact, when I finally decided to confide in my father, he was more concerned as to what would happen if my grandparents found out. Couldn’t he have advanced his career and not just had to drive lorries if he’d chosen the easy way out that I was seeking so young, but he had refrained out of respect for older people who took these things seriously. And (illogically) hadn’t my mother changed her religion out of love for him, and how would it look to her? Anyway when I was older I would be mature enough to make up my own mind.

What ultimately put me off the healthy sanitised version of Christianity offered by the Church of England was the fact of finding it too had feet of clay, though in this case one should say feelings of flesh. The curate had enthusiastically espoused my case and offered to take me for baptism classes and even stand as godfather. I could not understand why my schoolmates grinned over his interest and put it down to cynicism at religious enthusiasm. When I ran into the curate in the street one day he was with one of the few Catholic boys who had made their way to my new school — most went on to the Jesuit grammar school if not too poor, as usually the St Edmunds boys and girls were unable to be committed to stay at school longer than 14. He was a very good-looking boy, far too beautiful for his own good, but I thought it was his soul the curate was after. When I learned otherwise, and even then it had to be explained to me, I was disgusted. In my defence I can only say the world was sixty years younger then as well.

As I didn’t go to an upper-class school, though Latymer was reckoned so locally, I had only once more encountered that approach in my boyhood. Upstairs on a bus (of the old open-top style) with a German boy, Oscar, my age, about ten at the time. a visiting grandson of an old friend of my grandfather, very blue-eyed and Aryan, a gentleman leered at us and asked his name. The name Oscar set him smiling curiously, his hands moving mysteriously beneath the wet-weather tarpaulin cover: “And you’re Alfred, I suppose?” he asked me. “Oscar and his little friend Alfred — well, well.” “No, not Alfred, Albert,” I replied, but he seemed to take no notice.

“Oscar is a very important name in this country,” he said, repeating with enthusiasm, “Oscar and Alfred”. I got quite heated trying to correct him but we had to get off at our destination, clearly to his disappointment, and we rushed to ask my grandfather who this great Oscar was.

He banged the table in rage and Nellie asked him why he was in one of his “Kaiser Williams”, as she termed them. “He was talking about that scoundrel, Oscar Wilde!” he shouted, “Such people shouldn’t be allowed on public transport where there’s children!” He grabbed his stick and rushed to the bus depot to complain — I still don’t know what they could have done — while we besieged poor grandmother with excited questions as to who Oscar Wilde was, cowboy, gangster, murderer or what. I don’t know whether she knew but found it hard to explain, or just said the worst thing she could think of. She whispered to me “He was an anti-semite”. I did not know what it was, but I was duly horrified and for years quite unjustly believed that about Wilde, even after I knew his story,

As for poor Oscar, to whom I secretly imparted the thrilling but incomprehensible accusation, he must have heard the word many times afterwards in Germany, and may have been equally confused. His father incidentally was under suspicion with the Nazis for a time — I never learned why — but managed to clear himself, which was disastrous as if he had not done so his son might not have been accepted by the forces. He died on the Russian front twelve years later defending a regime he and his entire family detested.

In the Van

My father, Sid, had originally wanted to be a printer, and thought he was about to commence work at 14 on a free apprenticeship when the father he had presumed dead returned after a dozen or so years absence to take command of the family and raise more children. For years Sid had thought himself an orphan. His mother had taken in mangling and raised three boys. Now he was told he was 15 (Nellie couldn’t count), a free year couldn’t be spared and working for newspapers was out on religious grounds (it meant working weekends). Joe put him to woodworking though incapability of carpentry was hereditary in the family and Sid turned to odd jobs like photography. The war saved him. He took to cars and afterwards to driving lorries.

He hated to be called a lorry driver. He was a self-employed motor contractor, which is to say he bought his van on HP, paid for petrol, oil, maintenance, repairs, insurance or pension, got no paid holidays or sick pay and in theory worked for himself — in practice, for one firm Barker & Dobson for 25 years, until they told him one week he would be too old for them the next.

There were many self-employed van drivers in those days, all busy cutting up one another until a road magazine was started which started them thinking on organised lines though the official Transport and General Workers Union was largely uninterested in the “cowboys”. I seem to recall the magazine was called “Headlight” and was published on Islington Green. It listed overnight lodgings and transport caffs (long before the motorways, one really had to know the roads and could get well puzzled for overnight stays). A lot of caffs advertised themselves as a “good pull up for carmen” (Spaniards and opera lovers never misunderstood). During the war they provided much better meals than the restaurants and in larger quantities than the average ration book family could provide. Because the magazine got people together — it never pretended to unionise them — boycotts could be very effective.

There were Blackpool landladies, for instance, who charged the earth for “rooms” (more likely three in a bed) in the winter to lorry drivers, yet in the summer didn’t want to know them. Drivers put up with a lot on the road — in those days men were generally less inhibited about sharing a bed, but in any case “hot beds” (paid by the hour) were not uncommon. It lasted a long time until the boycott system brought in standards. It was an eye-opener to me at an early age.

As self-employed drivers couldn’t push up wages by strike action, they tended to work out agreed rates among themselves. The employers could argue on “profits” (wages) but not on hours or miles. When during the depression (they had them in those far off days) wages were slashed, it would have been sheer philanthropy to work on the roads self-employed so low were rates cut (plus the fact that a driver often had to pay for his own van boy in order to get through the deliveries in time — there was no shortage of school leavers at five shillings i.e. 25p per week each, to go on the scrap heap at 18). The drivers finally agreed on the number of miles to (say) Birmingham, allowing for new roads, and the employers tended to check with other drivers rather than send out their own surveyors. And it’s remarkable how many hours were lost — i.e. put on wage sheets — owing to roadworks. Otherwise drivers would have gone under.

As it was they tended to be among the aristocracy of workers during the pre-war depression, particularly in London. But somehow many managed to have a strong inferiority complex when faced with clerical workers earning perhaps a quarter of what they did, but dressing formally to do so. As with many other things, I was told I would understand better when I got older, but I never did.

Lost Millions

When he came out of the Army after World War I, my father felt liberated from such dead-end jobs as free-lance photography, and moved from Tottenham to open a second-hand clothing store in Edmonton. This failed in the depression when we moved back to Tottenham, and he took up lorry driving. Edmonton was once a reasonably safe Conservative seat though with a growing working-class population, which gradually pushed out the would-be middle class to Bush Hill Park and Enfield. It was represented in Parliament by a man named Chalmers, who was left a legacy by a maiden aunt named Rutherford on condition he perpetuated her name. Adding Rutherford to Chalmers seemed no great hardship in exchange for a sizeable sum, our MP must have reasoned, and he dutifully did so.

Unfortunately for our MP’s political career, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had started activity in England and chosen as one of their first meeting places Edmonton Green. “Spouters’ Corners” (afterwards confined to Hyde Park) were then a centre of public life and a place where all the neighhbourhood came to listen, which flourished until the cinemas opened on Sunday. That and the growth of motor traffic killed public meetings stone dead.The JW’s message was that millions now living would never die and of those who heard and believed, some gave up their entire possessions in immediate expectation of the Kingdom. There may be a handful still living in hope of blissful eternity if present penury. The meetings were addressed by loudspeaker recordings of the earthly founder of the sect, Judge Rutherford, since neither Jehovah God nor his son were available.

It was natural that when the familiar name Chalmers did not come up at the election (the only time he showed up in the constituency) and the electorate thought itself faced with a nutcase Rutherford who believed that the end of the world was nigh, and members of all other religious sects were going to be thrown into darkness, the Edmonton folk reversed the national trend and elected the Labour MP Broad. He stayed in Parliament almost to the end of his life casting poor Mr Rutherford Chalmers into outer darkness, wondering what had come over local people asking him such absurd questions as to whether he really thought the Pope was anti-Christ and accusing him of speaking differently before the election, as if he ever spoke at all.

Most of the lads at St Edmund’s went round that election chanting “Vote vote vote for Mr Broad, Chuck old Chalmers out the door”, more aware than their Catholic teachers as to whom the MP was. The staff, though in the main Tories, regarded with abhorrence the idea of a man like Rutherford, who equated the Pope with the Whore of Babylon, being their MP. (For some time I thought a whore was something like a Shah and was perplexed to hear grandmother Shelly complaining, when grandfather took my brother and I to the pantomime, about exposing us at a tender age to the wiles of Drury Lane Whores.)

Edmonton became a safe Labour seat, and as Mr Broad was getting on, many local Labour hopefuls waited eagerly for him to retire. Edith Summerskill was well known as a local doctor, who finally gave up in despair and started a new national trend by becoming elected for Fulham in a sensational by-election. Other young hopefuls were not so successful. One or two with their eyes on the constituency “nursed” the succession for years and, despite early successes in municipal politics, never achieved success in the parliamentary lottery. When in 1945 Mr Broad finally retired, threatened by Party HQ (it was said) that if he tried to carry on any longer the Party would have to put him in the House of Lords to finish off the last year or two of his life, the seat went to a carpet-bagger from national politics.

Though by 1932 I was again living in Tottenham, I did not want to change my school where I had been a year and being backed by the independent grammar school (probably on account of some early promise I never fulfilled) the education authorities gave way. Because of this I associated with Edmonton youth activities until 1935. When I started to take boxing lessons at that time my colleagues were Tottenham based and most of my Tottenham associations were later to become involved in petty crime.

The Tottenham Communists (most of whom lived near me, but whom I only met when they penetrated Edmonton meetings) included Ted Willis (who like many East End communists used its Unity Theatre to advance himself, becoming a playwright and later a lord after democratic socialist governments were electable). One of the Edmonton hopefuls was a former pupil at the County School, who made his way in the local League of Youth and became a county councillor (and a governor of his old school only a few years after he had left it — a fine start for an ambitious man, but that was his highspot). He was for a time engaged to the sister of a schoolfriend, Peter, who introduced me to socialism a year before I came to reject parliamentary socialism by the unlikely route of my boxing lessons.

The Labour League of Youth was then torn between factions, one of which supported its parent body the Labour Party — a similar problem everywhere led to the disbandment by the Party of its youth section. There seemed to be three factions — those who admired Stalinism and finally went over to the Communist Party, those who thought a “revolutionary line” could be achieved within the Labour Party and flirted with the Independent Labour Party (then still a force in Glasgow, and with a lingering influence all over Great Britain), and finally the Pacifists. The “revolutionary liners” were for a United Front between the CP, the ILP and Stafford Cripps’s Socialist League. Even at 14 years of age I saw through it but the veterans of the ILP swallowed the line until it swallowed them. Most of the ILP disappeared. The Pacifists were strongly for the League of Nations Union but later for the Peace Pledge Union when it started (many great intellects such as Einstein supported both, not realising that they were contradictory).

Labour Party pacifism was fairly solid among veteran older members of the Labour Party who had been World War I conscientious objectors — and who had been quite isolated from the majority of people for years, partly I suspect because of the ‘holier than thou’ approach adopted for life by people like the Mayor, Councillor Albon, whose pacifism did not prevent them from being reactionary in every other respect. The fact they had gone to prison for not joining the armed forces did not prevent the occasional magistrate in their midst giving an offender the option of joining the armed services or going to jail.

Alan Albon, son of the Mayor, wavered from the Labour Party, though always pacifist. I knew him fairly well when we were at neighbouring schools, in later years more so when he became one of the first liberal pacifists of a now familiar type to describe himself as an anarchist. When James Maxton, the Clydeside agitator who led the ILP and was a brilliant demagogue, came to Edmonton Town Hall to speak he persuaded many of us youngsters to learn more of the ILP. The CP was abandoning the United Front, after uniting with the ILP (and leaving it decimated), and was turning to the Popular Front, in which they wanted to include Conservatives, Liberals and Labour — they had a few Conservatives, some Liberals and some of the Socialist League but the ILP was against it. Its programme was more advanced than its membership, as I soon found out when I attended an ILP Guild of Youth weekend school.

Jennie Lee — wife of Aneurin Bevan — was still in the ILP (like most of the ILP careerists, she eventually went over to the mainstream). She and Fenner Brockway addressed the seminar but she was by far the more dynamic. Typically, both finished not just in the Labour Party but in the House of Lords. I was not the youngest at the meeting (even at fifteen) but several of us felt, despite its apparent revolutionary commitment, it was letting the CP set the agenda, just trying to modify it to British (or more specifically Scottish) socialism, while the adult membership were largely nostalgic for the old ILP and wanted to justify its continued existence. Afterwards Alan Albon joined the ILP though its pure-pacifist membership, later to dominate it, was then a minority. I had meanwhile discovered anarchism (and thought I was the first to do so, at any rate of those living). Oddly I came to it partly through reading Upton Sinclair’s “Boston” on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Not all politics, it seemed, was about power, advancement or money, though I recall my Aunt Alice assuring my mother, who worried I was getting mixed up in politics, that quite a good career could be made that way.

I was never cut out to be in the market place and it is idle to speculate what, if anything, the price might have been if I’d been for sale.

Paradise Lost and Regained

My religious waverings had been speedily dispersed by the age of thirteen, when I began to read, alongside the Bible, the classics of rationalism, Paine, Ingersoll and the like, as well as being influenced by freethought writers like Shaw and Wells. At an age when it seems some of today’s kids are just getting into Superman I was almost into Nietzsche, at any rate at second-hand via Shaw. I wasn’t precocious — I certainly wasn’t different from anyone else so far as any other study or activity went, and behind in anything practical. I was introduced to freethought by some socialist minded friends at school and never found it got much opposition from our generation, who were all sliding out of established religions if not into clarified rejection of it as well as having a cynical attitude to any of the sentiments and sediments left over from before the twenties, especially patriotism and war.

Most of the younger generation, and particularly the imaginative, were sick and tired of hearing about World War I. All we’d known of it was old soldiers standing in the gutter singing “Keep the home fires burning” and saying “spare a copper for an ex-serviceman”. There was a popular saying, “Coming the old soldier”. The potential officer class, the undergraduates of Oxford, came round to passing a resolution that they would not fight for King and Country (not realising that the slogans would be changed the second time around) but potential squaddies down to the 13 year olds were saying “They won’t take me for a mug next time”. Coming out of Armistice Day anniversaries every November 11th and parading past the Roll of Remembrance, someone would be sure to say, “I suppose it’ll be us there next time” and someone else replied “It certainly won’t be me”. It didn’t take a decade to prove the first right and the second wrong for most of them.

Kids were offered bright hopes in schools like the Latymer School, Edmonton, which was perhaps of the best of its kind, and taught hitherto middle class values to the sons and daughters of the working class. Most of them would move into tedious minor office jobs. We were taught of a bright and civilised future for a League of Nations similar to our Commonwealth of Nations if only one learned not to be aggressive. Ultimately I suppose what was meant by being unaggressive was as a collective part of the nation and as an individual going obediently in response to a mere slip of paper calling them to report for military service.

In due course thousands unaggressively joined the regiments that perished in the Dunkirk evacuation; the brightest and boldest went into the RAF and fell in the Battle of Britain. All those who did so, I suppose, are there on the self same Roll of Honour which I have never had the heart to go back and see. Millions died who had never lived.

Pacifism and the League of Nations had its effect too on the scientific intelligentsia. In their pursuit of a non-violent way of solving problems they were to devote their attention to developing the atom bomb which would ultimately make war, and no doubt the human race too, obsolete, but that was still in the future. The choice appeared to many of the thirties generation to be between first peace and war, and secondly between fascism and communism. It never seemed anything but odd to me that so many of the “greatest” minds of our generation and the one before should have fallen for either or the cause of mediocrity, some until one thing or the other dispelled their illusions, some for life, not a few because their illusions killed them.

My decision to go the road of sectarian politics was taken in 1935 at the age of 15, as an immediate result of my taking boxing lessons. The school most certainly didn’t encourage boxing, though it did every other sport, and I suppose this was on grounds of principle. Also, Edmonton had a prospective Labour MP Dr Edith Summerskill, who like many young hopefuls was waiting for Mr Broad, the sitting Labour incumbent, to die. As a doctor she must have known he couldn’t have far to go, but he clung on till after the war. In the end she got impatient and left to fight a hotly-contested by-election largely on the peace issue. During the war she became Home Secretary and afterwards Minister of Health, so she had perforce to abandon her pacifist campaign to be able to conscript people for the Army with a clear conscience, and to support the use of the A-Bomb. She sublimated her pacifism to campaign against boxing, but even in the thirties her influence against it was very strong, and independent grammar schools dared not go against her influence. But then the governors didn’t have to go through the streets of Edmonton and face the jeering gangs who could never forgive one being overweight or in any way unusual, even if only by way of a grammar school cap.

My first boxing “professor” Andrew Newton had been British amateur lightweight champion as far back as the 1880s. He turned professional and never lost a fight. When he lost an eye and retired from the ring he opened a gymnasium in the Edgware Road, not far from Marble Arch. He was passionately devoted to the art of boxing and to the training of young hopefuls. I understand that originally he specialised in training “Red Coat Boys”, or bootblacks (a long vanished species) who looked on the profession as the one way out of a cul de sac. They were employed by the firm where the young Charles Dickens went to stick labels on shoe blacking bottles when his father went to the Marshalsea Prison for debt (and which was immortalised in “David Copperfield”). Later Mr Newton trained well-to-do students but also members of youth clubs, and the social mixture kept the venture financially afloat. Occasionally he found, trained and managed a rising professional, but that was a bonus.

It proved harder to get into Andy Newton’s club than to be baptised. Bruises, unlike water, showed and I had to convince my parents I was doing weight training.

They too shared the aversion to boxing, but didn’t mind my trying to lose a bit of weight. Andy’s courage was infectious. Many who never learned to fight in the ring came away from the classes able to handle themselves in the street. Contrary to the fashionable Summerskill teaching that pugilism would teach them to be aggressive — a philosophy which has flourished in post-war periods, while football has been glorified and produces all the tearaways until they gave that too a bad image — I found a tolerant atmosphere, contrasting with the bitchiness and spite of the academic circles I later discovered. We were able to walk tall and be respected for the mere knowledge of being one of Mr Newton’s young men. It meant you were left severely alone by the jeering and accosting crew, who dreaded being individually challenged with fists, even when they were in gangs, for fear of disgrace.

This also applied to girls who took self-defence classes, then more disapproved than being a victim of rape. Boys who might have otherwise drifted to street gangs themselves never did after taking boxing lessons; while even those who drifted into smalltime crime never mixed it with anti-social violence. They might have a go at the police, but mugging as it evolved after the war was unknown, at any rate in our neck of the woods.

Most of those I mixed with in the boxing world were on the left, because the natural enemy was the upper middle class from which the fascists then came, though they recruited hooligans in the working class sector, gradually taking the place of the old street gangs. The boxers, including Andy were often pro-Communist Party, which long before the Molotov Pact or the tanks in the streets of Hungary I never could be. I worked out a strain of stateless communism for myself and was surprised when I later found I wasn’t the first. The one who argued with me most, trying to make me a better boxer and also a Marxist, was the “assistant professor” Johnny Hicks. A cabinet maker and professional boxer, Johnny divided his rare leisure between listening to the speeches at Hyde Park and training at the gym. He was a poet as well as a boxer, and, though inclined to the Communist Party, an admirer of its trenchant socialist critic F.A. Ridley.

Frank Ridley often came with his wife (a former Tiller girl) to the gym to watch the boxers after his Hyde Park meetings, a year or so before I met him in Charlie Lahr’s bookshop. The coincidence made us friends, though we had many differences of opinion, ever since.

When Johnny Hicks opened his own establishment in North London, I went there. I gave out leaflets advertising it at school, which earned me a lecture from the Deputy Headmaster, Mr Champion, who asked me where I got my ideas about boxing being any sort of sport, and I produced a history of boxing from the school library which I had on me. He abruptly changed the subject to saying that the objection was to the distribution of commercial leaflets in school hours, which was just as well as the book was stamped as presented to the school Library by the Headmaster himself and to crown it, was called “Champions of the Ring”.

The “commercial leaflets” were for free lessons, but for once I did not argue. With most of my teachers I got on well (I hope I wasn’t a creep) but on one occasion after that a master sent me to Mr Champion to be thrashed. I forget what it was for but I probably deserved it, though I don’t suppose I thought so at the time. He was quite apologetic before bringing out the cane, and explained it was obligatory on him to act on a request from a colleague. I was told other members of the staff, for whom I did some donkeywork historical research in my spare time for a proposed book of theirs, were quite indignant at the incident, and that may have been the reason for his hesitation, which is a better thought than that he might have been apprehensive at caning a strapping fifteen year old who had lessons from Andy Newton and Johnny Hicks.

Andy never picked me very difficult opponents. He said as I went to a grammar school it wouldn’t have been right for me to take a beating from an elementary school type (more likely it was because I wasn’t really very good). However, Johnny, either because he wanted to test me or got fed up with my obstinacy in argument, eventually picked me a first class opponent, partly by mistake, who ultimately demolished both his hopes (not to mention myself in the second round).

Billy Campbell was a tough young seaman from Glasgow, who packed a punch like a sledgehammer, and had the keenest brain I have ever met. He danced around me in the ring and all I could do was to take my punishment while the audience of boys, most of whom never came into the ring themselves, roared with delight at seeing yet another big guy being clobbered (it seemed less funny to me at the time I admit, but I regained my sense of humour when it happened to someone else).

Afterwards, while I was still dizzy and trying to invent excuses to take home to say how I came by the bruises, he came and apologised, and was full of remorse when he found I was Joseph Meltzer’s grandson.

His grandmother Euphemia had often told him of how, when a young servant girl, her employer had confiscated her box and all she had and the old gentleman had recovered it for her, and his lady had found her a job just when she thought she was stranded homeless and penniless in a strange town. She had married and returned to Scotland, but her English daughter-in-law, now widowed, lived in Edmonton along with Billy, who sailed between London and Bilbao where his girl friend Melchita lived.

He had been taught amateur boxing and sectarian politics in Glasgow by Frank Leech, a Lancashire man who had settled in Clydeside in a newsagent shop on his Royal Navy pension and was the mainstay of the Glasgow Anarchists. Frank had introduced him to hard line Anarchism of the traditional class struggle type, from which he never varied, but it was strengthened in him by Melchita having introduced him to the seafarers’ syndicate of the CNT (the National Confederation of Labour) in which those principles were about to storm the heavens in the mid-thirties.

So it was I came to accept the principles of Anarchism through the principles learned from the long tradition of Anarchism in Glasgow and the Spanish connection. I suppose I can boast of consistency, said to be the virtue of fools, but from strict adherence to these principles I never varied for sixty further years, and it’s got a bit late to change now.

The Prince of Wales had a few years earlier gone to South America and exhorted England to wake up, with a view to capturing the South American market. As a result Spanish was being taught in schools, even though it was considered a bit of a poor relation. I made the best progress of my class in Spanish battling against indifferent teaching of the language — so that I could be fit and ready to pass it on to Billy, who was eager to acquire it. I was doing my best to translate articles for him from the libertarian press, not to mention his love letters, when I was still on Selected Texts from Don Quixote, and while still reeling from the voluntary punishment I took in the ring from which he did his best to dissuade me. Between my teaching him Spanish at second-hand and him teaching me Anarchism we formed a friendship which lasted on his side until his early death and I feel until this day.

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Juan Conatz
Dec 25 2010 05:54

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I couldn't paint golden angels: Sixty years of commonplace life and anarchist agitation - Albert Meltzer

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