We all have nostalgic memories of our childhood years. Where we fought, played, grew up from a children's world of make-believe to the real world that could be cruel - much crueller than children can ever be. The Geordie thinks of the Scotswood Road, Wallsend: the Glaswegians, the Gorbals, Sauchiehall Street: the Londoner - if he comes from south of the river - the Old Kent Road: the Elephant, Commercial Road, Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane and Dockland - these areas of cranes, ships' masts and funnels poking about the brick warehouses. A drive or a walk around where you grew up 30 or 40 years ago shows changes. Not just the buildings have gone, the chummy slum replacd by the cold and impersonal blocks, but the atmosphere - the people - the feel - is different in a way that has got nothing to do with bright new kitchens and indoor loos.
Mums, dads - and kids
To any Londoner, East or South, this book is a reminder of all that. Paintings by John Allin and the text by Arnold Wesker reveal a feeling for what was there. Not just the buildings as they were - but the people, the mums and dads - and the kids.
The brewer's dray, the street musician who couldn't play a note but pushed a pram with an old gramophone on it, that ran down halfway through the record. The kids sitting around the table with big mum pouring a cuppa and dad - cap and braces - cleaning his brown boots - with the old mangle in the backyard outside.
The black tarmac paving inside the 'buildings' with the kids doing it all. Cricket up the wall - flicking fag cards - girls spinning tops - boys riding those wooden home-made scooters with ball bearing wheels, broadsliding around imaginary bends far better than any New Cross or West Ham speedway rider ever did. The posh kids' rubber-tyred scooters from Hamleys could never do that.
Bunking in the 'pitchers', lining up for the twopenny rush on a Saturday morning, sitting on that wooden plank on the barber's chair. Two all off kept the cost down and the head clean.
Your bike, no lights, so you kept out of the way of the coppers after dark. No mudguards so you had mud up your back the moment it rained. My first one cost 5s. and after miles of sheer enjoyment around South London - and further without Mum knowing - was sold for 30s. Mind you, I had mended the puncture so it was good value!
If you couldn't manage the real seaside - Soufend - Tower Beach under the Tower was almost as good. You never see kids there now - they are in Bournemouth or Majorca.
The eel and pie shops. Live eels or stewed or a 4d pie and 2d mash, heaven on earth! Not many of them left.
Hackney Baths was not much different from the old Deptford Baths by Surrey Docks where I learnt to swim. Now replaced with a super new municipal bath, bigger, cleaner and far more hygienic - but not the same. But most of all the weekly hot bath. 'More hot in No. 7' tell everything to everyone who bathed in the luxury of the public baths once a week, rather than in the tin tub in front of the fire.
Then the war. Buildings destroyed - people broken up in more ways than one. A whole way of life gone and never to return.
It is all in this book. Harmless nostalgia maybe, but the message is there. The only thing they missed is the street parties for the Silver Jubilee and the Coronation. You don't have those any more - so say goodbye - you may never see them again.
Say Goodbye: you may never see them again
Arnold Wesker and John Allin. Jonathan Cape 1975.