Archive for the 'Before I forget' Category

Unaccompanied drinking – tales from old Brixton

Friday, November 12th, 2010

We had a deal, my father and me. And the deal was that we wouldn’t drink in each others’ pubs unless invited. As it happened I doubt if he would have drunk in any of my pubs, even if had asked him to either of my locals, the Pied Bull in Streatham or the pub known as the Pig and Whistle on Belmont Road, Clapham. But it did mean that I didn’t go the Duke of Edinburgh in Ferndale Road in Brixton, even when I lived about half a mile away.

He first took me to the Duke sometime in the fag end of the fifties. It was, and is, a handsome redbrick 1930s pub set by the railway line which runs high above the garden. Then I walked under the bar to get to the back (out of hours of course) to see the animals that the landlord my ‘uncle’ Vic Bailey kept there. In one corner was a dovecote full of fantail pigeons which were his joy. I was fascinated by them.

One morning Vic was out in Brixton market when he came across a goat. It was tethered to a stall manned by a black guy. In the late 50s the new immigrant community was settling into SW2 and setting down their roots in Somerleighton and Atlantic Road, the area which 40 years on would come to be known as the front line. Vic was astonished to see the goat and the stall holder, encouraged by his interests pointed out what a good stew the animal would make. Vic did not hesitate. He bought the creature and led it back to the pub. It was a rather malevolent animal with a lank grey coat and although I cannot be certain, I think it had dark glittery eyes. Vic called it Nanny and he fenced off a part of the garden for it.

A couple of weeks later he came across a little white goat, also in the market and it joined Nanny at the Duke. With customary imagination, Vic called it Billy. Once when I was about a small child about 3 feet tall, I leant against the wire of the goat run and suddenly was hit by something firm and dense which knocked me over. The evil Nanny had butted me – a small child for heaven’s sake, probably dressed in knee socks and a little kilt with my hair held back by a slide. Frankly Vic should have let them curry the beast I thought then and now.

The pub had several bars. My father and his cronies would hang about in the private bar between the public bar and a large room which I think was called the saloon. Vic would join them. Many of the cronies were fellow golfers, members of the Vaudeville Golfing Society which was for stage and theatre folk and of which my father was the Honorary Medical Officer. Max Seymour who’d been the manager at the Crazy Horse in Paris and then ran a night club in Balham and Leslie Saroney, once hugely famous as one of the Two Leslies were his particular chums. And from time to time there’d be live music in the saloon. My father played the clarinet and saxophone and I went once or twice to sit in the room clouded with cigarette smoke and alive with music and talk. The wonderful, legendry George Melly sometimes played there too – he mentions it as a “transpontine” destination in his book “Owning Up”.

In the early 70s, when I was a student nurse and living in Brixton my father would take me out and ask where I wanted to go. And I would always say to the Duke which pleased him. His friends would tell me jokes and Vic would wax slightly sentimental and keep serving me dry martini vermouth which I drank at the time thinking it was rather cool. And we would spend the whole afternoon like this.

In 1974 I was made senior staff nurse on a ward at Kings College Hospital – frontline hospital where my father trained. My ward was next to Todd Ward where I had been born but which had become a specialist unit in the interim. And where I last saw Vic who was suffering from the disease that killed him a week afterwards. He was weak and jaundiced but he made a sterling effort to show that he was glad to see me. I was glad to see him.

And now my friend Daphna is going to be doing a standup there under her stage name of Miss D. If I can get there, I will but I’m acutely aware that if I do, it will be the first time I will have been there without my father. I’m sorry I won’t be able to introduce them.

Still at it

Monday, November 10th, 2008
Letter home

Letter home

It’s the time for remembrance. 90 years since the end of the first war – The Great War as my grandparents and great aunts called it. And they had been through it. I watched the remembrance service and it becomes more poignant each year. The story of the mother and sister of a 20 year old soldier, dead in Afghanistan haunts me. My own sons are of the same age as the youngsters dying there and in Iraq. I found it unbearably sad when she told of the visit from the police and army officer – “please tell me it isn’t Joe.”

My father was a prisoner of war having been picked up by a German patrol in the Libyan desert where he and his navigator had spent days after they were shot down. He was transported up through Alabania and eventually to Stalag Luft VIIB prison camp. That was in 1942 – he had been too young to join up at the start. He spent his 21st birthday shackled to the next prisoner on their way to Silesia. His cards home to his great aunt, censored of course, arrived each month and each says mostly the same thing – “we are pretty A1 here”, “we are getting on well” and always, always, “I expect to be home soon”, “not long now”. All through ’42, ’43 and ’44 – the last card I have was sent in December ‘44. Shortly afterwards he was part of a famous death march out of the camp when many of his friends died. He told my brothers and I of the pathetic effort to take everything they had and he gave us the mental picture of his saxophone lying in the snow when he jettisoned anything which wasn’t absolutely necessary.

On Maundy Thursday 1945, aged 23 he closed his eyes in the camp where they had marched to. Wracked with dysentery he knew he would die and thought only that he would have liked to see his parents and aunt and uncle again and he would have liked to have studied medicine. Oh well.

On Good Friday the Americans arrived, hosed them down, put him and others onto the hospital trains and sent him home to spend 8 months in hospital. He was discharged just before Christmas to go home to his uncomprehending parents in Croydon. On Christmas afternoon he went into bleak, bombed Croydon centre and came across two German prisoners of war waiting for repatriation. He took them home for tea because, as he explained, they were the only people he had met that would really understand what he felt. He left that example, he and my mother employed a German au-pair for us children less than 10 years after the war and he told us “never, ever, forget that what happened in Germany could happen here if we aren’t vigilant.”

Oh, and he did study medicine too.

Those were the days

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

Gosh, I’m coming all over retro. The pre-recession atmosphere speaks to my waste- not-want- not side; newspaper articles about how home cooking, which I do already, is the new eating out, eschewing plastic bags, which I have done for years, and not flying away for weekend breaks, is the right and also fashionable thing to do are making me feel that I’m back in a mainstream world where I have some remnants of the map from the last time. Also, I’m not so sure as once I was that everyone else is having a great debt fuelled time dining in fabulous restaurants in exotic parts of the world dressed in the latest fashions. So I’m feeling rather cheerier than sometimes and especially so since the Americans have done us all the favour of electing Barack Obama.

And here is a story to appeal to my inner hippy – alright, I know, it was only a phase. It’s about squatters. My first reaction, I must admit, was that of a mother of formerly teenage boys, when surveying their bedrooms. Slight disapproval of the mess in what looks like a rather lovely house. It’s apparently worth over 6 million pounds. Then I read that the business that owns the house, hadn’t even noticed their property had been taken over. So my second reaction reached back a few decades when people squatted houses that had stayed empty – and when friends occupied houses on an official basis before the housing associations transformed them into homes.

I don’t think houses should lie empty as part of an “investment portfolio”. I think they should be homes for people who will form proper communities. My London home was in street full of variety – we were the only English among Irish and Welsh. My neighbours were from St Lucia and from Jamaica and theirs from Barbados and Ireland. There were French and Indian and it was a real London community where we knew one another and thought enough to knock on doors and look out for each other. Sounds so cheesy but it was actually true.

Now those terraced houses, described when they were built at the beginning of the last century for occupation by two “fairly comfortable” families with “good ordinary earnings”, change hands for so much money that I doubt first-time buyers could live there.

So my heart lifted a bit to hear about the artists who have taken over the Mayfair Mansion and I thought I could probably overlook the drawing pins in the wall.

Fizz has left the building

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

My best cat, Fizz died this week, from kidney failure, the curse of cats. He was born on the sofa in our front room (although not the same sofa as I now have guests will be relieved to know) and effervesced into the world with such vibrancy that we gave him Fizzy as a temporary name until his real owners renamed him. He was a perfect marmalade cat, affectionate and lively and in due course we waved him off to his home in London in the arms of my godson. When, about a year later, Fizz’s family moved abroad to a 4th floor flat high above a busy street in Rome with a broad terrace balcony with low walls, Fizz came back and stayed since.

He was the most affectionate of animals who never lashed out or got tired of attention. He grew large and healthy and as far as a cat can have feelings he cared for us and seemed to know his tribe.

And now he’s lying under a tree in our garden having grown thin and wasted over the past few months, prey to the same problem as his mother who died when she was 6. And the house seems empty. I still open the front door with care, forgetting he’s not behind it, waiting to welcome me home. I close the bedroom door at night, by habit, despite there being no risk of 6kg of affectionate ginger cat landing on my chest in the middle of the night, the heavy, crushing feeling making me fear heart attack. I expect to hear his morning miaow demanding breakfast and of course it doesn’t happen and I expect him to lightly jump onto the sofa beside me to sit close and purr like an idling engine.

I knew I’d miss him when the time came – and by heck I do.

I’ll still have Paris

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

I remember when the UK joined what was then the EEC (European Economic Community) and the New Year’s party when we cheered our accession. Three years later I spent the 1976 New Year in Paris about to start work in a French hospital thanks to the recognition of nurse qualifications across the community. Although I was often very homesick in Paris I loved France, loved the city I lived in and finding out how ex-pat communities live. I was enchanted by the railway stations with the destination boards saying Milan, Rome, Barcelona, Zurich, realizing I could just get on a train and get out in another country’s capital. I am so glad I learnt fluent if imperfect French.

Exploring Paris, I saw the bullet marks in the walls of the Ecole Militaire and the plaques on the walls where a citizen of that city had been shot and died. My colleagues told me of landladies who wouldn’t let apartments to Germans and they pointed out a building near to our hospital which had been an infamous HQ of the Gestapo. Living in a city that had in living memory been occupied by a foreign force opened up my mind, but living there with people of my generation from all over Europe and beyond opened it further.

Among my colleagues was a young woman, like me about 25, who had fled her home country of Chile. She was called Marta and she was a nurse. Her boyfriend, a doctor had been arrested by the regime and she had left for her own safety. She told me of a surgeon, arrested at the table as he operated and dragged from the theatre. She told me how much she missed her mother and how much she worried for her. One day, Marta told us she was going home because her mother was ill. We worried for her, although with an imperfect vision of quite what was happening in Chile. Communications in the mid 70s were obviously much more limited than now. She told us she would be back in 6 weeks but she wasn’t. And although the hospital enquired at the Embassy and wrote to her home address we never heard from her again. I like to hope she simply decided to stay at home and grow older with her family. Whatever did happen to her, my loathing of Pinochet’s dictatorship has never faded.

The experience of working and socialising with people from so many other countries gave me a lifelong interest in countries and people outside my own (although sadly I have hardly travelled at all), And the contrast of the benefits of peace which allowed me to work in Paris whilst my colleague had to seek shelter because of internal war in her own country made me an enthusiast for the EU which has helped maintain peace for more than 50 years to a point where war – actual physical, destructive, killing war – between members of the EU is unthinkable.

..still hanging on

Friday, June 6th, 2008

Alright, now I am quite interested in the US elections. And Hillary is hanging on in there. Strangely enough, I can understand this apparently odd response to Barak Obama’s win. Hillary has been in this for the long haul and giving up on the dream, acknowledging it is over is almost unbelievably difficult.

The night of the General Election in 1992 was one of the most emotional of my life. Just before midnight on 9 April I had been at Woolwich Town Hall for the count, supporting Rosie Barnes, the SDP MP for Greenwich. We all of us knew that this was the end whether Rosie won or otherwise. There were only two people from the SDP defending seats, David Owen was not standing, the party was truly over. My head knew it but my heart had much difficulty in actually understanding that the cause that I had devoted most of my free time to for over 10 years had gone.

I was at the Town Hall to oversee the vote counting. And of course one began to get a feel for the way the vote was going. The atmosphere was almost volatile with supporters of the other parties hustling, spitting and swearing at us and as it became more apparent that our woman had lost we became more obdurate in response. When Rosie arrived we gathered round her, she looked at us and asked how it was going. We just shook our heads slightly and I remember her saying “oh well, never mind”. After the announcement, she gave a terrific speech, brave and gracious against a background of belligerent noise. A Conservative swore aggressively at a female colleague of mine. We cheered and screamed wildly and until my throat was raw.

After the count, we went back to our HQ in an old shop where all the supporters were gathered having watched the count on TV. I got back a bit before Rosie and her agent. We determined we would give her the most rousing welcome home. She had told her agent she would not cry. She walked in, we cheered, she started to speak and got as far as “well everyone” before she choked to a halt.

I have never experienced an evening like it. The wild, friable mood swinging from tears to laughter in seconds, and the desperate need to hang on to the community we’d built up over years, people who spoke the same language and had shared the disappointments and kept on going. Over the years we’d all seen our friends’ bemusement at our passion for politics which took us out on miserable Sundays to walk around the council estates, our descent into dullness as we obsessed about electoral systems and national insurance reform.

You don’t give that up easy. I bet there’ll be a few tears at Hillary’s party this weekend. And if they have the same sort of hangover that I had all those years ago, it will, at least be one thing they remember.

The daily news

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

I take press calls at the Institute where I work so I always listen to the early morning news and try to predict what the story of the day might be. I’m rather better at it than I am at chasing a cheap flight but not much. Yesterday I thought it might be about Yahoo giving information about Chinese bloggers to the government resulting in two journalists ending up in jail. In fact it was about Gordon Brown trying to bring the legendry clunking fist to bear on internet providers in order to limit terrorist communications. A few days previously it was the Finnish killer and then the terrible murder of Leeds Student, Meredith Kercher. As well as doing interviews for Sky TV our expert wrote about it in some depth. Horribly compelling.