A TALE OF THE EAST

22 Jul

               

 

 “Living in the East End was always a bit different. It was almost like we belonged to a different tribe, one big happy dysfunctional family. Looked down upon by the rest of the snobs in London but funnily enough envied by them at the same time. They know that we’ve got something that no amount of money can buy. No matter how much they push their pseudo working class values and Karl Marx t-shirts they’ll never be one of us. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I wouldn’t like a piece of their pie – money coming out of my arse, big house up on the heath. But that’s not the way it is see, those weren’t the cards I was dealt. Working class scum through and through. No bloody silver spoon in my mouth I can tell you.”

                “Born within the sound of Bow Bells is what officially makes you a cockney but same as most things, there’s a little bit more to it than that. It’s not quite as jolly as the press and the picture postcards would have you believe. The perennially charming, chirpy, crafty-cockney stereotype is a public relations myth. The pearly kings and queens walking around snapping photos with Japanese tourists isn’t who we is. Although nowadays it’s a mystery who we are, given the number of colored faces walking around. It ain’t what it was, when I was a lad.”

                “The East End has always been a transition point for people coming to Britain. If it isn’t the Jews and Huguenots then it’s the Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Greeks and now the bleeding Polish. Bit of a mixing pot you might say. There not like us, but they have some of the same values. Hard working bleeders most of them, running their shops and market stalls for the pittance they need to support their wives kids and extended families, all crammed into the old terrace houses down by White Chapel. Like bloody rats living on top of one and other – struggling for breath in a city that so full, it’s enough to make you choke.”

                “The East End was where they used to unload the boats, where the old textile factories were before the war. Rough area where the spivs used to hang around trying to make a couple of quid off the backs of one another. Salt of the earth is the phrase I believe they use today, although if you knew them, like we knew them, then you’d understand the look of amazement on my face. Hard working folk for sure, but scum to the bone. Rotten through and through, the base level of humanity resigned to the shit jobs that the West End folks and suburban bastards wouldn’t do if their lives depended upon it. A form of social bondage, you might say, doomed to scratch their lives away in the limbo of industrial servitude. Bloody slaves is what they were. Third class citizens that nobody gave a rat’s arse about.  It was the war that made the difference. Ask anybody, they’ll tell you the same thing. If it hadn’t been for Herr Hitler and his bloody bombs we’d never have escaped.”

                “You must have seen the pictures on the news reels, the old black and white flicks of bombed out houses, wives in aprons with kids hanging off them smiling for the cameras. Winston Churchill, the stuck up bastard, walking through the rubble shaking his way through crowds of shell-shocked East Enders. Making political speeches and offering brave words on the top of bombed out houses still filled with the bodies of women and kids. They had no idea what we were suffering what we was going through. It was our heads the bombs were landing on, not there’s. But it did something for us, made us stronger. What is it they say? Forged us in fire, tempered our spirits and turned us into the hardy group that were renowned the world round for. Let’s face it, you can’t say Cockney without thinking of some happy smiling bloke with a fag in one hand and beer in the other. Not like your flat capped northerners with their stoic wall of silence, but jovial, dirty, faces that would do you over soon as look at you. That’s what did it – the war. That’s what made us who we are today. A common experience of suffering that bonded us and shaped east London for the next forty years.”

                “ Now it was us against them, which is the way it had always been, but now we was all on the same team and we knew exactly how to play the game. A feeling of empathy for your fellow cockney, comrades in arms, except we wasn’t fighting the Jerries, we was fighting for our own bleeding survival. Happy days when I look back now, but I wouldn’t want to live them again. No, things have changed and the End isn’t what it was.”

                “ It used to be a sea of familiar faces. Everybody knew everybody and it didn’t matter what they were up to, everybody kept stum. Sign of respect that is, understanding that a man has to work hard to look after his missus and his kiddies. Don’t matter what it is. Whether he’s pulling ropes on barges down by the river or filling his van with stolen merchandise from the same boat it’s understandable. Me, I respect any man that gets out of bed in the morning, who goes to work to support his family. That’s worthy in my book, in fact I would say that was rule number one. Don’t need no book of laws to tell you that. Hard working bloke has enough on his mind without having to worry about people talking behind his back.”

                “Because everybody knew everybody there wasn’t much you could get away with, which meant that you had to treat people right. It’s one thing pulling a job and nicking, but it’s another getting away with it. Don’t get me wrong, thievery has a long history in the End and is as honest a job as any bloke could have. Lot of respect for thieves us cockneys, you see that’s what helped sustain us. Once that stuff came off the boats it soon made its way around the neighborhoods and everybody eventually got a piece of the pie. Almost like a worker’s collective where the money would slowly trickle down into the community. Take care of our own we did, and nobody starved when we were kids.”

                 “Bloody hell, we didn’t have much, and to say we had three squares a day would be a lie. But I’m here to tell the tale today aren’t I? So it must have had some benefit. The black marketeers and thieves were respected figures and there was no way anybody would inform on them. Never tattle on your own kind – words to live by. Doesn’t matter if they have you in a cell down Bow Street nick and their beating seven kinds of shit out of you , you never squeal. Anyways it would come back and bite you if you ever did. Divine retribution I suppose, where you’d find fellas who’d sung like canaries to the rozzers, strung up beneath the railway arches, or beaten to a pulp.”

                “They might have been crooks, what was doing the robbing, but they was our crooks and they lived up to a set of rules the same way we did. Didn’t matter what you stole, so long as you didn’t thieve off your own kind. Steeling from people who have nothing is worse than bloody murder, and bloody murder is what they got if they did. Taking the food out of family’s mouths for their own bloody greed is what got more than a few of the sharp nosed bastards their one way ticket. Examples have to be set, and once you’ve dealt with the idiots everybody can go safely about their daily business. Never locked our front doors we didn’t.  You may have heard about it, but that’s gods honest truth. No need to really as nobody was going to steal from you. Of course there wasn’t anything to pilfer but on the other hand you knew where you stood. No written laws just common knowledge. You was either with, or you wasn’t, and those that wosen’t didn’t hang around too long.”

                “I think sticking together was the main thing, respect for the tribe and all that. Together we were strong, a sense of community, a feeling of unity. It was always us against the world. You couldn’t play both side of the fence and if you did you always fell foul of one faction or another. You had to pick sides and stick with that team. No point in switching half way through the match just ‘cos you thought the grass was a little greener on the other side of the fence. You is what you is, and you are what you are. You remain faithful to the group, and the group remains faithful to you. Dead simple really. Don’t need a degree or something to work that out, do you now?”

                “I remember when I was a nipper, running packages for Irish John. I was only a kid but that’s what got me passed the filth, they’d never have suspected a half starved urchin like meself. Had to make a delivery down the Mile End Road to a bloke called Brown. We was always helping out. Whether we was watching out for the coppers, running packages, or taking messages, we were always busy. As children it was a bit of a game, a game that we became very good at. Sort of a school for scandal where the lessons for later life where learnt at the knees of the hooks and sharks that was doing the business.”

                “They was always dressed nice. They had the flash motors and always some dolly-bird on their arm. They treated us well, and we loved them for it. Role models for all of us, father figures for the dads that never came back from France and Germany or the bastards that had run off and left our mums after getting them up the duff. People call them gangsters now, but they wasn’t, they was bleeding heroes. Cold calculating businessmen is what they were, men who wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in any scum that stepped out of line. I remember banging on the door and Irish John being inside. There was some fella lying on the floor with blood streaming down his face moaning to himself and sobbing. John had a couple of his boys standing over him who’d clearly given him what for.”

                “See that Billy,” he said. “That’s a nark, that’s a bleeding canary turned on his own kind. Don’t do that round here do we? What would the world come to if we didn’t have rules and order?”

                “ I remember staring up at him, too scared to talk. He took the box out of my hands and unwrapped it in front of me. A black, gleaming revolver, the types the officers wore on their belts.”

                “Now Billy, lad let this be a lesson to you. Eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth, this bastard deserves what he’s going to get.”

                “The pistol exploded, the sound of the shot deafening inside the small front room of the tenement. The man on the floor lay dead, his brains splattered all over the fire guard, the sobbing  stopped. Irish put the pistol in the box and gave it back to me.”

                 “Take it back where you got it from Billy and remember,” he put his finger to his lips.

                “He didn’t have to worry about that though, the lessons we’d learned, and the community we lived in, had already taught me that. Nice bloke was Irish, although I hear that years later they hung him for something he hadn’t done. Always get there way in the end do the rozzers. If they can’t get you for what you did, they does you for something else. No bleeding loyalty that’s their problem. No respect for community justice.”

                “It’s all changed now though, it isn’t like what it was. No bloody community. No respect for nothing. No looking after the sick and the elderly. Now it’s everybody for themselves. Screw you jack so long as I’m okay. Most of the old faces have moved out of the neighborhood and the bomb sites we used to play on have long since been cleared up. But something remains, the same the lessons we learned as kids have served me well over the years. The trust and faith placed in my fellow cockney is something that will never die.”

                “That’s the problem with the world today, they have nothing to stand up for, nothing to call our own, no tribal loyalties. No better lesson than a thick ear and a growling belly. That’s what these soft bastards need is a bit of toughening up. Best thing that could happen in my opinion would be for Adolf and his bloody Luftwaffe to drop a few bombs around the country. That’d make the buggers realize how bleeding lucky they were. That would stop their bloody whining.”

                “What we needs is a little collectivism, a little shared hardship. Fellowship through common suffering and circumstance. Although you tell kids that, and they look at you funny. Everybody’s looking for a quick fix, but there’s nothing like living the reality to make one appreciate ones friends and family – but what the hell would I know? I’m just an old man who’s been there and lived it. Why would anybody listen to me?”

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2 Responses to “A TALE OF THE EAST”

  1. Cathy Webster July 25, 2011 at 4:22 am #

    That was just a phenomenal character sketch, not just of a person, of course, but of a community. Gorgeous writing here.

    • Colin James I-10 Blog July 25, 2011 at 6:44 am #

      Thanks Cathy – like they always say – write what you know.
      Keep reading 🙂

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