By Bethlehem Taylor
The following memoir recalls the childhood of Bethlehem Taylor who in 1980 returned to his Romany roots and with his young wife bought an old gypsy caravan,a 15 hands grey wagon mare, harness, pots and pans and set off for the west country to live a life of freedom amongst the last of the traditional gypsy horse drawn travellers.
Many adventures awaited them, not least the heat of the summer and the snow and cold of winter.
Around the camp fire at gypsy horse fairs, fruit picking time, and on the side of the road,they heard the stories, tales of magic, legends and folklore of these wonderful, mysterious and persecuted people.
Life is sweet brother
The sun, moon and stars
All good things
The wind on the heath
Old Romany poem
Bethlehem is available for presentations and talks on these and many other issues and he can be contacted at +44 01803 840 989. In the meantime, here is his childhood memoir.
A Cockney Childhood in the East End of London : 1945-1960
by Bethlehem Taylor
I don’t often talk about some of the things that I know or have experienced because people think I’m bullshitting. I’ve done so much and experienced so much in a different way and a unique way that people turn off and so I don’t talk a lot about my previous history. People find it strange to understand but you can listen to it and change it. I don’t mind that.
My heritage and my manor
Before I get going I should say I have a lot of Romany in me and I must say that gypsies are secretive. Partly for their own protection and partly because that’s their nature. So, some things I don’t talk about but I’m not placing any such limitations on this because it may be useful to someone somewhere.
I will just start off by describing my manor. So sometimes I will be using Cockney words and Cockney terms which may need explaining. I’m fluent in Cockney, and Romany is a different, secretive language but I know enough of it to understand. The place where I grew up, where I spent my childhood was a small area called Bow in the East End of London. It’s a small patch dominated by the Roman Road market which was a big market and I lived in the streets that led off from the main market street. From 1945 to 1960 most of my life was centred around the market.
To the north of the area called Bow there was a big park called “Vicky” (Victoria) Park . It was a bit rough in the years following1945. It was getting a bit threadbare. To the north of the Vickie is Hackney and to the northeast of that is Hackney Wick which leads to the Stratford Marshes. These were low lying areas where the poor lived. That’s where the River Lea runs through the Stratford Marshes into the Thames. To the south you’ve got the Mile End Road, the docks and the Thames. Just to the east of Mile End Road is St Mary le Bow, the church which houses the Big Bell of Bow. Tradition has it that if you were born within the sound of Bow Bells you are a true Cockney To the west there is Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Stepney and then, the City. So this was the area that I was familiar with and I called my manor. Within that manor, I gained respect from other people, because later in my life I became a boxing champion and a street fighter.
At the time of my birth
I was born in April, 1945 just about a month before the end of the Second World War. My mother told me in the last months of her pregnancy the doodlebugs (the German V1 and V2 rockets) were coming over from France and that caused panic amongst the population. That whole area was a backdrop for the Blitz and a target for the bombing in the Second World War even though it was a poor area. A lot of people didn’t want to be evacuated to the countryside and they chose to stay there during the Blitz and that forged a unique community of people who had fought and struggled together and it gave them a certain kind of nobility and it bonded their community. There was a very strong sense of community. It was inclusive but it was exclusive if you weren’t a Cockney.
My Romany Grandfather
My Grandfather Taylor, Charlie, on my mother’s side, well he was a Black. He was a Romany from the tribe called the Blacks. Charlie, arrived in England from Ireland with his brother, three sisters and their mother and father. They may have arrived in Liverpool and come down to the East End later. I don’t know what year this was. I asked my mother a number of times to fill me in on the family details but she won’t. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She finds it very humiliating. I think she’s forgotten it on purpose. This is part of the Romany secretiveness. They’re a very insular people and they’ve been persecuted throughout history and still are. They were also persecuted during the holocaust with the Jewish people. I think the Romanies lost a million in the concentration camps but Romanies never took to looking for compensation because it goes against their character of survival. They don’t like to become mean or bitter or look back to something hurtful in the past otherwise they will feel defeated. They choose to forget – to rise above it.
Charlie the entrepreneur
Soon after my grandfather arrived, his father deserted the family and that’s something in a Romany family that you do not do. His father deserted his mother so her brothers had a right to slip a knife through his ribs because you just don’t do that.
So at the age of 12 Charlie, my grandfather, became the sole breadwinner for those 6 people. He arrived in London, in Bow and he set himself up as a costermonger – a barrow boy. A barrow boy would sell fruit and vegetables. He would push his barrow around the side streets calling out his wares. Each of the costermongers had their own cries. His cry was “All fresh today Mrs! Hand picked in the gardens of Kent. All fresh!” My grandfather also had on his barrow, marrow bones because you could crack a marrow bone and put it in a soup and give it a bit more nourishment.
My grandfather also used to do “tick” (credit) if somebody didn’t have any money to buy food, because at that time everyone was living from hand to mouth. If a man came home from his work as a day labourer, he would be able to come home at night and give his wife some money and she would be able to buy some food for them and their children.
My grandfather was a very kind and generous person and he naturally looked after people. He had a good clientele for his wares. After a while he prospered and he employed another person to have a barrow and sell vegetables and fruit. Eventually my grandfather became rich enough so that by the end of the First World War he owned two greengrocers shops down Hackney Wick.
My grandfather also had a horse and cart and he would go down to the sawmills and collect sacks of sawdust which he would take round to the butchers and the bakers because in those days the shops used to put sawdust on the floor. It made it smell nice and fresh and it was an antiseptic from the resin in the wood. So he would supply the sawdust and he was earning money too from his horse and cart.
He used to deliver the sawdust in sacks to the butchers and he would take away the empty sacks he had left behind last time and he would slip in them a couple of pieces of meat. So he would steal. Romanies were not above stealing if it was necessary. The word for stealing is “chourdie”. “It’s just chourdie, mush.” Chourdie means borrow. You don’t steal it, you borrow it !! The idea was that you would give it back.
My grandfather and my grandmother when they got married lived above the shop in Hackney Wick. Let me tell you a little story : one Christmas Eve, grandfather, Charlie ,was coming home from North London. He was coming through Hampstead Heath on the way to Hackney Wick and he didn’t have a bird for Christmas Dinner. When he saw a swan asleep on the one of the ponds at the top of Hampstead Heath, he tied up his horse and quietly crept up on the swan in this pond and wrung its neck and he took it home and gave it to Ann, his wife, my grandmother. She said, “Charlie I haven’t got an oven big enough to put this bird in.” So he said, “I’ll take it down to Bill’s, the baker and put it in his oven.” A lot of people would do that if they didn’t have an oven. They would take stuff down to the baker. Bill the baker said to him, “Charlie this is illegal because all the swans belong to the King. They’re protected! But I’ll cook it if you give me ‘alf of it.” So the baker cooked it for him and they had swan for Christmas Day dinner.
Later on in their married lives they became Pearly King and Queen of Hackney Wick. And then the real King and Queen would throw a big summer garden party for all the London pearly kings and queens at Buckingham Palace. The pearly kings and queens would raise money for the poor. They were fundraisers for charitable causes.
My grandmother and my grandfather were archetypal Cockneys. My grandmother came from Wales and she was a Lloyd. She was in service at a big house on the other side of Vicky Park. A lot of Welsh girls went into service. One day my grandfather after his morning’s work – he used to get up very early and rode up to Covent Garden to load up with vegetables – and at lunch time he was in the pub. I think it was called the Rose and Crown. It was his favourite drinking place. Anyway he was in the pub when the barmaid leans over the counter and said, “Charlie, there’s a young woman asking for you. She’s in the Saloon Bar.” And Charlie says, “A young woman asking for me? I don’t know a young woman.” “She said her name was Ann.” And then he remembered that he and his mate Bill had chatted up a couple of young girls in Vickie Park a couple of days before.
So he goes around to the Saloon Bar and joins her and buys her a drink and he says “What’s up Ann?” She said, “Charlie, I’ve got nowhere to live. I’ve just been sacked and I’ve got no money.” And he said “How come ?” She said, “Well Perkins the butler put his hand up my dress and I swiped him one and now he’s got a black eye and he’s sacked me.” Charlie said, “Did you get your wages?” and she says “No”. So Charlie says “Right, I think we’ll have to pay a call on Mr Perkins.” So he asked his mate Bill to come with him and he says to Bill “Get half a brick and wrap it in some news paper we may need it.” So they walk across the park to this big house. They knock on the door and the door’s opened by this chap. He says to my Grandfather, “The tradesman’s entrance is around the back.” Charlie puts a foot in the door and grabs this chap by the scruff of the neck and says “I’ve come for Ann’s wages,” and the guy says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So Charlie says, “If I give you another black eye will that help you to remember ?” So the guy gives him the money and he comes back and he’s got Ann’s wages. So the guy was running a scam. On the servants’ pay day he’d put his hand up their skirt and they’d react and that gave him reason to sack them and keep their wages.
So Ann moved into the pub and got a job working there and they started courting and then they got married and settled down to start a family in Hackney Wick.
My father’s mother I met but she was very old and my father’s father got concussion when a bomb landed on their house in the east end of London. He became mentally ill. They came from Huguenot stock. They were Flemish weavers and they lived on a small island in Stratford Marshes – Morney Island. It was a bit of land that was higher than the marshland. It was a bit damp there.
The Huguenots were protestants and hardworking and were also clannish but they made very good cloth. My father came from that stock. I’ve lost their name in the mists of time.
The east end of London is a place of immigrants and refugees there were loads of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe and Germany and refugees from the countries the Germans overran. They all came to the east end. The east end was close to the docks, poor housing but at least there was work. Everybody worked. It was also a place of opportunity. If you wanted to work you could find work or you could make your own work.
My mother considered her and her husband to be upper working class. Definition of strata or layers of class but I used to think, “But it’s just working class! What do you mean, upper working class?” “Well you see, your father is a skilled tradesman. So he’s always in work and so he’s not so down on the ladder.” And she’d say, “Well we know our place.” And I would say “Well, it’s pretty shitty.” And she said “It’s not so bad, because below us are the niggers.” I found this appalling. How could she talk about someone like that. They are human beings. So there was class and racial prejudice even at the bottom of the heap.
My father was an upholsterer and my other uncle was a French polisher and another was a cabinet maker. There were another two, one was a carpenter and the other was the black sheep of the family. They all worked in Jewish furniture making factories, small factories. They made bespoke furniture.
My father came from a family of 7. My mother said to me that my paternal grandmother smothered two of the babies at birth because she didn’t think they would survive. They were too weak. That was the culture they lived in.
My father left school at 14 and went to work. I left school at 14 too and went to work. My father always made sure that me and my sister had shoes. When he was a child they didn’t have the money for shoes and they used to wrap their feet up in rags and it was cold in the winter. Some of the kids didn’t even have rags.
Losing my innocence
In my family I was the first born boy. The eldest. I have a sister who is 5 years younger than me. We lived in half a house in Usher Road. There was a childless couple lived downstairs and we lived in the floor above. It was quite an ordinary upbringing but what I was conscious of was there was violence there in the community, in the place. We used to play on bombsites. I was playing on a bombsite one day and I looked up and there on the rafters was half a bed and I realized that someone dropped a bomb on this house and there could have been people sleeping in this house. There may have been children in there. They may have been killed and then I realized this is what people do to each other. They kill each other and I found that quite revealing that this place I was living in was a war zone.
An incident occurred on our street. The milkman would come round delivering milk and a Prices bread van would come round delivering cakes and bread. Also pulled by a horse. This horse had just done a shit on the street and my Mum said “Quick go and pick up the droppings. I can put it on my roses in the back garden.” So I ran out with a little bucket and a little coal shovel and I was about to pick up this fresh steaming dung when this other kid came running out from another house and he shouted out “I saw that first that’s mine!” But I said “Actually I saw it first but I’m willing to share it with you.” He said “No I want the whole lot.” I thought that was rather selfish. So I looked at him and I had this coal shovel in my hand and I said “Help yourself” and I conveyed to him that if he went to take it I was going to hit him in the face with this shovel and he looks at me and says “I’ve changed my mind you can have it.” And I thought “I’m just one of them. If it comes to it, I’m willing to hurt someone too”. That was an eye opener. I was 5 at that time.
I nearly killed a guy when I was about 5. I came out of our house one day and there was a kid living next door and he was twisting the arm of this little toddler and the kiddie was crying. I said “Leave him alone” And he said “No.” He was enjoying doing it to the kid and seeing him suffer. So I grabbed him by the neck and dragged him across the street put him on his back, grabbed him by the ears and banged the back of his head on the stone kerb repeatedly til the blood started to flow. He looked at me eyes wide open and I said to him “I have the power to push you through the door way of Death and your Mum will miss you but I can let you go if you promise never to do what you just did again but if I see you I’ll kill you.” And then I let him go.
So I walked away from that kid and realised I’d lost my innocence.
Reflecting back on my life while writing this I realized that I hadn’t spoken about all these things for many years. I’ve thought about them a lot, and I’ve drawn my own conclusions. I drew my own conclusions when I was a child.
The events I have been telling about were revelations to me. I was having all kinds of revelations about life particularly the spiritual aspects of what life on earth was all about. So I must have been quite an unusual child.
As a child I was on my own until I was 5 when my sister was born. But what’s true is I’ve always been a loner. As a child I was quite lonely. Firstly I didn’t really fit in and secondly, because I didn’t really want to fit in. When I saw the price people paid to fit in, for me that was a bit steep. I wanted to keep my freedom, especially my freedom of spirit, so I was able to do that by being observant and learning from other people.
When I try to recollect my childhood I realize I had trouble with linear time and when I was a child I didn’t have much of a concept of time. It was like being able to step inside of a film. I was in the film watching everything that was going on and I could interact with some of the characters in the film but I was mainly an observer. I was an observer rather than being the main character. I think in theatre I would have liked to have been a director.
When I think and talk about poverty I don’t just think about a lack of food or lack of clothes or lack of a warm dry house. I was brought up in poverty because in the house I was brought up in there were no books. There was no music. There was no art, no theatre and no creative expression. My father used to make odds and ends out of broken pieces of wood. My parents didn’t even talk to me so they never read me a story at bedtime. They never sat with me to listen to me read and I left school barely able to read and write.
I got a job in a bookbinding company because I like print and I like the spoken word. My parents were not unkind but they hadn’t got a clue. I said to my mother, “Why don’t you leave him. He’s a loser. He ain’t goin’ nowhere.” She said “I can’t I’m married to him.” And I thought oh! Marriage is a prison sentence because she can’t leave him. Now I had aspirations to be creative and to do things that were interesting.
More about my father
But, I talk about my father. The first time I met my father was in my mother’s bed. When I woke up I used to go to my mother’s side of the bed and have a cuddle. One morning when I woke up I found a strange man in the bed and I didn’t like that. So I sat on his chest and started hitting him, saying “No, no go away” and my mother started to explain to me, “This is your father.” It was the first time I’d heard about that – that I had a father. So that wasn’t a good start.
This was an great upset to me. My father, this stranger had just returned from the armed services. The war had been over nearly two years and he’s been part of the army of occupation in northern Holland and Germany. That also happened to my cousin who was a year older than me, and his father came back from the war and he did the same thing. He found this man in bed with his Mum. So between me and my father there was always suspicion and always competition for the affections of my Mum. My attitude then was “Bollocks to it! I’m not going to play second fiddle. If I’m not first, then I’m not interested.” So I began to withdraw and let those two get on with their married life. They were desperately trying to catch up the years that they’d lost when they were apart. My father was in the army for about three years, for two years after I was born and my mother worked in a munitions factory. That’s what working women did. She said there was an explosion in the factory and it made her a bit nervous after that. So my father tried to bond with me. One of the ways he would try to do this is that on Sunday mornings he would take me out in my little buggy for a walk around the park while my Mum prepared the roast dinner – proper Sunday roast dinner. It was the one time of the week that people would sit down and eat together. So my father would push me round Vicky Park for a good hour’s walk and I think this must have been possibly one of the things he’d looked forward to when he was in the war. It was winter and we’d always go the same route around the park and on the way round we’d come to the lake and I’d have a little bag of crusted stale bread to feed the ducks and I used to take my little home made woollen mitts off and I would sit there and feel the pain of my hands getting frozen because the guy pushing the buggy was, to my understanding, a warrior. He’d been away in a war and he’d fought and he’d survived. I knew then that to be a good warrior, I would have to learn to withstand pain. So having freezing cold hands was a way of me learning to sit with the pain.
I was about two or two and a half at the time, something like that. He kept saying to me “Put your gloves on! Your hands are cold. Look! they’re cold” and I would just shake my head and take them off again. But when we got round to the end of our walk we’d go past a little kiosk and I’d get a glass of hot water with some blackcurrant cordial in it and I’d warm my hands around the glass and sip the cordial while my father had a cup of tea. And when we’d get back home he’d say to my Mum “He’s a little sod. He keeps taking his gloves off and his hands are freezing cold but he wont keep them on.” But my mother said to me, “He’s been wounded.” So I thought he’d been wounded. In fact he’d become ill. So he wasn’t wounded to my mind. He was addicted to strong army tea. He’d drink about 26-28 mugs a day of this strong army tea and he gradually got ill.
Unfortunately as I began to grow up as a boy I didn’t want him as a role model and my mother wasn’t a role model because she was a female. So I had to……I kind of used Charlie, my grandfather as a male role model because he was happy, he was a liver and he and his wife Anne were Edwardians and full of joie de vivre, love of life, laughter, drinking, partying but hard working.
My father had a good war in that he enjoyed it. He was a motor cycle dispatch rider and he would take the orders up from the headquarters up to the troops moving forward in the front line as they went through Holland and into Germany.
I think my father was a loner because he was the runt of the family, the other kids picked on him. That gave a him a hard shell. My father got quite bitter as he got older. Five years after he came back from the war he started to get bitter. What it was, he told me, which was the only time he actually confided in me. He said, “When we was in the war and we was all fighting together we used to get together with the officers and we used to talk about when the war was over we would go back to England and change everything. There would be this sort of peaceful revolution and the class system would be swept away and there would be work and money for everybody.” And he believed in this but it never occurred and he actually bought a dream that either he was unable to manifest or achieve but when that dream came around to me in the 1960s which was part of the “Flower Power” movement and that was a force. I was in Sydney at the time. It was like a tidal wave of joy, of happiness, wellbeing, peace and it was so energizing.
Thinking again about my father, what I realize about him is I tried to get on with him but he was hard work. I’ll tell you a little story he did have some courage. One day, he came up to his annual holiday because in those days the whole factory shut down. So my father took us on holiday somewhere on the south coast. I’m not sure where it was and he would never talk to me directly. My Mum did. She said, “He hasn’t got enough money for the holiday.” So I said “Oh, well that’s his problem.” And he got himself a job on a fishing boat – a sailing boat and in the evenings he would work in their fish and chips shop. They would cook the catch that they got that day and sell it in the evening and me and my Mum and my sister use to queue up in this fish and chip shop and when my Dad saw us he would a pack up a huge packet of fish and chips and he would just put it on the counter for us and we’d take it and walk out the door and we didn’t pay for it. I remember standing out on the harbour wall with my Mum and my young sister and seeing him going out on this fishing boat and he’s at the front of the boat by the bowsprit and he’s waving and he looks magnificent! He’s waving, he’s buoyant, he’s sharp, he’s glowing. He was having an adventure and I thought to myself “Why don’t you just keep going.” Go over the horizon and into that vast blueness beyond and don’t come back because this is the real you.” The way he was living was not much of a life. I realized that in order to love him I needed to respect him and I didn’t. It was difficult to love him. As he begins to get more bitter he begins to get a bit more aggressive towards me. He blamed some things on me. I thought he was going to hit me. He kind of hit me a few times. I thought he was going to hit me and I looked at him and I fluttered my eye lashes and the lights in the room flickered on and off and I looked at him again and I smiled and I did it again. And then for the first time I saw fear in his face. And I thought for the first time that the man was not above fear. He backed off and I thought “That was handy,”
Sometimes in the summer we went camping down to places like Sheerness or Canvey Island. My father liked camping. We were at this campsite and beside was a pub and behind the pub was quite a large beer garden where the kids used to play and I asked my Dad if I could play just outside the little protective wall around beer garden and he said yes. So I am playing quite happy on my own and then I’m hearing all these people in the beer garden laughing, but it’s an empty laughter. There is no joy in it. It’s a laughter that is masking sadness, and suffering. I thought to myself, “Why are these people so sad?” And then I had the realisation “You have incarnated. This is Earth” And I thought, “Shit ! I’m on Earth” And then I thought to myself, “So what am I doing here ?” And a voice said to me “You’re here to help people.” OK. and I realized that I’d chosen this man and woman to be my parents. I’d chosen to incarnate through them and I thought to myself. “Well, I’m not going to do much good for these people if I’m always on the outside. I ‘ve got to know them and to know what it’s like to be like that to be able to help them.” So I went back into the beer garden and sat with them and began to know what it was to be poor and brought up in the east end of London. I did say to this…..I had a mentor what I would say was like a spirit mentor and just before I re-incarnated I was having what you might say a counselling session with him and I said to him, “You know down there is pretty dark and the consciousness is pretty abysmal. It’s hard to wake up in that murk of ignorance…stupidity.” He said to me, “I will come and wake you up.” I said, “ Promise?” And he said, “Promise.”
One day when I was about 9 I was queuing up in a fish and chip shop in the east end of London – we ate quite a bit of fish and chips because it was cheap and it was quick and if my Mum and Dad were busy it was a meal on the table. I’m queuing up and I heard this voice again and it said “What are you waiting for?” I said “I’m waiting to get the fish and chips.” And he said “No, you’re waiting to wake up.” And then I had this exposure of consciousness inside my head. It was like a light bulb being turned on and I realized “I’d got work to do here.”
The university of my life and my early education
I try to be compassionate but I have to work at it. Soon after I arrived in Totnes I realised this was a working place and said to myself, “I’m going to have to learn to be compassionate here ; not so impatient, not so rude, I’m not the only one in the place. I need to be a bit more smooth” So I began to work on myself. You see for me there were two – there may be more than two – but for me there were two ways of education. One was in the route through school and one was enrolling in the university of life where the teaching situation was immediate and one could join in and learn the lessons that were being presented in those particular circumstances. I found the university of life or the school of hard knocks fascinating. I’m still a student of the university of life because there is another reality that runs alongside this one. This is my understanding. And that reality, I find, is far richer than the book learning way of school. The period from about 5 to 9 is for me very hazy because I’m going in and out of different time sequences and I’m trying to get an anchor, a bedrock in this reality and I thought I could possibly use the educational system but it was impossible. I was dyslexic before that was even talked about or realised. We were told by the teachers we were scum and the best we could hope to do in that school was to get a job as a roadsweeper because we were fit for nothing else but I realised that the schoolteachers were embittered people who wanted to be middle class. Perhaps the teachers’ pay wasn’t enough. I don’t know but they took it out on us kids.
One day I came home from school and my mother said, “What’s wrong with your ear?” It was black and blue. “What’s happening?” she said. “The teacher was hitting me.” Because in those days teachers hit kids. She said “Why?” “Because I can’t hear what she’s saying.” So my mother took me round to the doctor’s and he checked my ears and he said, “He’s deaf.” “So how’s he learnt to communicate?” And the doctor said “He’s learnt to lip read.” So my mother when she was fired up went down to the school the next day and confronted the teacher and said to her, “He’s deaf! That’s why he keeps saying ‘Pardon’ and if you ever hit him again I’m going to come down here and punch your lights out.” And the teacher stopped hitting me. Of course I knew……I know teachers or rather I’ve known teachers and teachers are usually kind , considerate, compassionate, tolerant and they also have wisdom. Teachers have a responsibility to teach in a good way. I remember this not from this time around but from another time around. So I had no respect for these women, at primary school, they weren’t teachers, they were Barbarians. And I thought well if you could just see that I’m here because I wish to learn. It’s no good beating me up because I don’t know. That’s why I’ve come to learn I’ve come to let go my ignorance if you could teach me but if you keep hitting me it’s not going to have much effect. So I abandoned them.
I develop a stammer and become mute
Around about this time, and this is where the learning curve gets really steep for me and is one of the reasons why I wanted to be born in the east end of London.
Between the age of 5 and 6 I developed a horrendous stammer. And I also became mute. I stopped talking to my mother and father because they didn’t listen and there was no point in talking. Nobody else listened so there was not much point in talking. But I had this stammer which I thought was an affliction and people would sometimes laugh which I thought was cruel. If it was a girl I would say to her “That’s not very nice.” If it was a fella, I’d hit him straightaway as hard as I could. That was obviously disrespectful but it gave me a sense of compassion for people who were at a disadvantage or who were struggling with a disability, loneliness, being on their own. If I saw people, women carrying heavy bags of shopping and they looked like they were struggling and I’d go and ask them if could carry their bags and I would carry their shopping for them because it was a gentlemanly thing to do. If they offered me money I wouldn’t take it and say “That’s very kind of you but I’d rather have the good luck.”
Two years in the country
Around about this time that I became mute, my grandparents Charlie and Anne, suggested to my mother and father that I went to live with them in the countryside. Charlie had been in the First World War and had got caught in a mustard gas attack and he got a war pension and they retired from running the two shops and they had a little bungalow built on a small holding near Laindon in Essex and they had chickens, rabbits and a dog and it seemed like I spent the whole summers with them and I may even have spent a whole two years but slowly I considered them to be my real parents.
There was a gypsy encampment up on the hill near Laindon in Essex. Of course Essex was still called the Witch County because there were witches still practicing. Of course they were herbalists. At one time my grandfather got a tapeworm and he went to the doctor and the doctor gave my grandfather some medicine to take for it and he told my grandfather he had to watch for it when he passed his stools. He had to look for the head because that was the part you had to get rid of. Anyway he drunk the medication checked his passings and….no head. So he went back to the doctor and he said, “I think you’d better go and see Mrs. Green, the herbalist,” and my grandmother said he wasn’t off the toilet for two days, but he got the head! So there was still folklore about – different people.
I felt at home with my Grandad. My grandparents had recently lost a son in the Second World War. Alf had been killed in the Western Desert at the siege of Tobruk and my grandparents believed that I was him who’d come back because sometimes in the evenings we used to play cards for toffees and some times I would say “Hey, Grandad, do you remember this one ?” and I would sing him a First World War song and he would say when I went to the toilet or to bed, he would say, “Anne, that’s Alf. He’s come back.” But in the front parlour they had a piano and on there was a photograph of Alf in his desert shirt and shorts and there was also a little cenotaph. I’d look at the photograph and I’d say, “No, that’s not me. I am not Alf.” But I never said that to my Grandad because it used to allay their suffering. It gave them some joy. We used to have sing-alongs of First World War songs. My grandfather, although he’d caught the mustard gas, he still rolled cigarettes and smoked and I would make a roll up using matchsticks in the paper. Then he’d light his cigarette, then he’d light my cigarette and swiftly blow the match out saying, “Third light’s unlucky.” This came from the trenches in the First World War. The German sniper would see a light come up and he would aim in that direction, then he’d see a second light, and then when he’d see the third light, he’d fire.
My secondary education
Going back to my education a lot of the teachers at secondary school were quite old. They were called back from retirement because of the shortage of teachers. Many were in their 70s and some in their early 80s.
There was a little bit of bullying going on. A couple of bullies tried it on with me but I could see they were just fucked up because they came from a fucked up family. They weren’t really nasty but if they became nasty I used to hit them. Education – I couldn’t make head nor tail of the education system. I learnt to be able to write by remembering words as pictures. I didn’t see them as made up of individual letters. I just saw them as a picture and if I thought that word would be better off with another letter added on, I’d add it on.
When I had my own children I said “If you want to go to school you can. If you don’t want to go to school you don’t have to. It’s for you to decide. So we home educated them and they also went to a little private Montessori school. We could only afford one day a week. It wasn’t expensive and then when they got to 7 they said “We want to go to the big school because all our friends go there. ”I said “Fine and if you don’t like it you can come out.”
My concern before I went to school was that I didn’t want to feel inadequate but that’s the feeling I got from formal education. I just felt so inadequate and no matter how hard I tried I was just not connected to it. Yet when I went to an adult course in Creative Writing at the Mansion House in Totnes I came top of the class. Each week the teacher would ask me to read out the piece that I’d written and it was the first time I’d done homework which I found really enjoyable.
I think the purpose of education should be about bringinh out positives, bringing things out in the open and nurturing, bringing to fruition all the positive aspects of being a human being so a person feels a worth, a self worth.
I say to people life is a handicap race. Each of us is running with a handicap.
Pie and mash with a rich white parsley sauce
Also I started to earn because I was always hungry : that was the thing about the East End, everybody was hungry. There was enough food but never much of a variety. I started working when I was about 6 and when I started working I started earning money so I could buy the food I wanted to eat. And this didn’t please my father because he wanted to be, he had to be the alpha dog. He had to be the guy who made the money and one day, I’ll just touch on it briefly – we used to have “Penny for the Guy”. You’d make up a stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes and then you’d stand on a street corner and ask people if they could “spare a penny for the Guy.” So that we could buy fireworks and one day when I was about 6 I was sitting in the corner, initially it was about mid-October and I’m sitting between the legs of the Guy which was leaned against the wall and I nestled back and began to nap and vaguely I could hear the voices of women in Cockney accents “Oh ! at the poor little dear ! Butter wouldn’t met in ‘is mouf. Wot a little angel !” Then I could hear “clink, clink, clink”. They were putting money in my cap. And so when I did “wake up” I’d made five pounds.
When I took it home my mother counted out the change and she said “Don’t let your father know.” My father hit the roof when came home and asked me “How did you get on today?” And I said “I made a fiver.” And he hit the roof. He went ballistic. He said “You’ve made more money in a day than I’ve made in a week.” But they never encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit in me. They didn’t want to know. They wanted to work for other people.
I used to make kindling. I was passing an ironmongers and outside they had a little cardboard box and in it were bundles of kindle wood for sale because everybody had a coal fire for heating. And I looked at that box and I remembered at the end of the market on Saturdays the fancy fruit came in wooden boxes and so I went out and collected a load of these boxes. I took them home and then spit them up into kindling and then sold them. I went round knocking on people’s doors. Because of my terrible stammer I forced myself to speak to people that I didn’t know, and I worked out words that I would call “Trip you up words.” Words that began with a “w” or a “c”. So I used to try and make sure the first word was an easier word to pronounce. And I had a system where I would pretend I was on a horse and we were galloping towards this difficult word and then we’d jump over it and land on the other side. So I would say, being friendly “Hullo! do you need some kindling today?” So I’d asked a question and the east enders were very supportive if you had an entrepreneurial streak and so I would say, “Only threepence a bundle and they’re sixpence down at the hardware shop.” I’d sell out.
One of the little scams that I had ……because if you had scams you could get some other kids involved…. your mates and that was more fun. There were a lot of Christian missions to the east end of London and every summer they would go away on a charabanc outing, a coach trip to the seaside. So if you went to their Sunday school you’d get to go on their trip. So we would find out who was going to the places we hadn’t been before or that was nice and then we’d go round to the Sunday school and asked to join. We could only fit two Sunday schools in on a Sunday afternoon so I took this kid with me to one Sunday school. Talk about ham actors. The head guy of this Sunday school said, “I know why you’ve come. You want to go on the seaside outing. So I said “Oh! No Mr. We’ve come to hear the stories about Jesus.” So my mate, he really pile it on and he said, “ yeah, we wanna know the Gospel mate, we wanna hear the word about the fella called Jesus.” So we’d demolished all this guy’s defences so he says, “Well, all right.” So we go to Sunday school at least three times and then the guy says, “OK we’re going out on the next Sunday to Margate, be here at 10 o’clock.” So on the Sunday we would get up on the coach, and then we have a picnic on the beach and every kid would be given half a crown spending money. We’d go up to the penny arcade and then we’d get a coach trip back and then we wouldn’t go back again to that Sunday school. They were little scams that made it a bit more interesting. It also gave you a bit of an edge because you could hold one’s position.
There were situations available that were teaching situations. One of them I had when I was very young. There used to be an Italian café. It used to make delicious ice cream and in the summer they would have a little window in the front of the shop and people would queue up to get an ice cream. So I decided I would queue up but I didn’t have any money. And I thought Id let that resolve itself because I had decided I would like an ice cream. So I queued up and said to the Italian man, Vanilla cornet please.” And he made a little cornet up and put it on a little stand. He said, “That’s sixpence” and I gave him a button. So he said in his Italian accent, ”Hey kid , this-a no-a money this a button. It’s not money” And I said to him, “That’s all I’ve got.” Then I stood there and I out-patienced him. It was a stand off. I stayed in the same place and no one could get to the place where he was selling the ice cream. And the Italian man with his accent said “I tell you again kid. This-a button. No buy ice cream.” Then somebody in the queue said “Oh you fuckin’ Iti bastard give the kid a cornet.” And I looked at the Italian man, “Do I get the cornet ?” Reluctantly he gave it to me. And I said to the man in the queue, “Thanks Mr.” So I get a cornet. It was little things like that that made life a bit more interesting.
My Mum and Dad’s marriage was – what do you call it? – closed. It was just them two. I was in the way. By this time my grandparents were living in the bungalow in the countryside. I spent a lot of time there. I must have spent about two years there. I went there and stayed there. I didn’t go to school while I was with them. I didn’t bother with school. I had the whole countryside as a classrom to roam in. And they had a dog and it was called Gyp. And that’s the only thing I’ve ever cried on, cried over – when Gyp died. So I was brought up – mainly brought up by them.
My sister was born when I was 5 my father actually loved her. So he did love. He was able to love another person other than my Mum. And they got on. They got on well and I was pleased for him.
But I was always a rival for him but I couldn’t have been much threat to him because he was a grown man but then he started to get ill. His kidneys started to go.
Show time at the market.
The East End offered many things. One of the things the street market offered was entertainment and some of the stallholders were actually showmen. The guy who sold bananas. There weren’t any bananas until about 5 years after the war. I used to watch this guy perform. I would call it a performance. He would have a nice stall covered in that green grassy stuff, it’s not real grass, it’s imitation grass and he’d have rows of other bananas on the stall and he’d have his mate by the side of him. So this guy’s prime pitch was just at the start of the market so when people came into the market this guy’s stall would be one of the first they would see and he would say to his to his helper, his mate, “Bring out another box Alf.” And he’d bring up this beautiful polished wooden box and it had steel bands around it. And he would say “Open it up Alf.” And Alf would get the crowbar underneath it and he would snap the bands and that was quite a dramatic sound and then the chap would go through his set piece. And he’d hold up a bunch of bananas and he’d start discounting it. He’d say “I won’t charge you a pound for this lovely bunch, I’m not gonna sell you it for ten bob” And he’d work the audience up and he’s get an audience as big as the square and he worked them up and then he’s say, “Who’d give me half a crown ?” And he’s got a couple of plants in the audience and they’d put their hand up and that was like the match that lit the fuse and they all wanted to buy a bunch of bananas. The guy was performing and it was about timing. He had to time the reaction of the audience until it was ready to buy. Then when the sale was over then him and his mates and the two guys he’d planted in audience would all have a cigarette and a cup of tea out of a flask. I used to watch them because I was amazed at the guy’s skill working with people to part with their money.
The tragedy and comedy of life
I used to see life as a drama with its tragedies and sometimes its hilarious comedy. It was about those two faces. It’s about the only way I could hopefully understand why there was so much poverty and suffering
I think possibly drama was something that was available if one had the courage to step in the door when it opened. It’s a bit like street theatre. My father once took me and my sister to see a circus in Vicky Park and when the clowns came on I was terrified. There was this little old car that came whizzing around the arena with four clowns in. And of course the front bonnet blew up in the air and they all piled out very animated and then the back boot flew up in the air and then out came another two clowns and I was terrified and I hid behind my mother and she said, “What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of?” I was unable to tell her because I knew the clowns knew and if the clowns saw me in the audience they would come and get me and take me away with them because they knew the other reality that was available and they were still working with their humour and the clowns came from that other side reality : the dark and the light, the sadness and the laughter.
My way out of the East End
The imagination can be a doorway into that fairy tale world of magic, the other reality. For instance I was afraid of the dark so I used to force myself to walk across Vicky Park in the dark. Just to get used to confronting the fear that I felt about the darkness.
And then there comes a point when I’m about 11 and I was doing odd jobs and I’d got my own car washing business because it occurred to me seeing the fellas outside cleaning up their cars on Saturday or Sunday mornings. And I thought who wants to do that when it’s freezing cold ? Nobody does, so I got a bucket and a sponge and then with this mate of mine we went round knocking on doors. We got enough work for all of Saturday washing cars. And the first car we washed it was so cold the water froze all over it. I thought “Oh!shit!” and my mate said “Let’s scarper.” And I thought, “No, that’s gonna sabotage my plans. This could be our ticket out of here.” So we went back to the house an knocked on the door and I said to the fella “Could I have some hot water, because the water’s froze ?” And he said “Sure” and I got a bucket of hot water and the sponge and chamois leather I got rid of all the ice. I thought that I’ll do that, always ask for warm water. The reason I didn’t ask for hot water was because it would cost them money to boil it. That was a way of earning money and I earned enough money to go on a school trip to Venice. And that was the first time I’d been out of the country and I went away with the school. It was an eye opener. There were about 50 of us in this party. 11 of us were boys and the rest were all girls. They were middle class girls and they were very nice. Us boys we slept in a little dormitory above a tavern. We had three course meals every night with wine and the fish came up with its head still on. And I thought “This is alright!” And the teacher said, “Raise your glass, cheers, cin cin!” And I thought, “Yeah there are other ways of living and I’m gonna get some more of that.”
You see the east end of London is a place to break out of and by the time I was 11 I was preparing to make my move to leave. So I was waiting. The idea about waiting is to know that one is waiting. Not perhaps what one is waiting for or how it’s going to manifest but that one is waiting, waiting. And so my next avenue out appeared in the form of a boxing club run down in Hackney Wick by Lord So and So and I enrolled in this boxing club when I was 11 and trained up. I think I had about 44 bouts and then I won the London championship. All the while through the boxing programme there were ex-servicemen who’d been boxers, sportsmen. People who’d excelled at sport and they also gave a training which they called mental training. “If you think you can beat a person you’ve got more chance of beating him than if you think you can’t. The man who thinks he can’t do it has already lost. Little things like that so by the time I was 14 I’d won the championship, I’d left school and I was on my way out of the East End.
Malcolm Ross writes
I loved Bethlehem’s piece on his East End Childhood. He writes with such ease and such conviction. The stories he has to tell are both heartbreaking and inspiring. Are kids still as resilient and as enchanted as he was back then? It’s encouraging to think that they might be, like him, somehow proof against the corruption all around them. But perhaps back then, for all the grime and the grit, humanity was still recognizable in the struggle for a decent life. Today I fear we may already have gone too far down the one-way track to zombiedom to save our own souls let alone for our children to have any chance of saving theirs.