Close to the aforementioned Roman Road market in Old Ford, lived my maternal grandmother, but for anonymity’s sake I’ll call her Elsie. Elsie’s husband had run off with his mistress some years before, leaving Elsie to bring up two children single-handedly in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. This she accomplished by working her fingers nearly to the bone in a local biscuit factory, and cleaning other people’s houses. However, Elsie always kept her East End sense of humour, and it is primarily her ability to make people laugh that seems to have rubbed off on me. Elsie had no special talents, but she was an East End piss-taker of the highest order, and this talent showed itself in abundance on Saturday nights when I would stay overnight with her (aged about 7 or 8) if Mum and Dad were going out.
Elsie would take me over to Victoria Park (usually abbreviated to Vicky Park) on Saturday evenings to watch the ballroom dancers perform in the open air ballroom. To get to the park we had to walk down Gun Makers Lane, a road I silently dreaded as a child in case I came across a person possibly brandishing a gun they had made. Elsie would start the evening off by kicking off her shoe as she was walking along, which would travel quite a way down the road to my great delight. Like a dog I would run ahead and fetch it back, and Elsie would put it back on her foot for a few moments before kicking it off again. Sometimes she would produce special sound effects from the back of her throat as the shoe flew through the air. When we reached the gates of Vicky Park both shoes tended to stay on just in case one of them ended up in the stream as we crossed over the bridge.
If the funfair was there Elsie would let me have a couple of rides on the swings and maybe fish for a prize on the hook-a-duck. Then it was off for the special event of the evening; the ballroom dancing. I would sit on a built-in concrete seat next to my grandmother and wait for the fun to begin.
Huge middle-aged ladies wearing impossibly frilly, flouncy dresses sailed like galleons across the circular amphitheatre to a tinny orchestra seated up on the stage. The ladies’ dance partners always seemed terribly small in comparison, causing Elsie to always start giggling at the sight of tiny bald men steering gigantic matrons around in time to the music. Her laughter was infectious, causing an unfortunate chain reaction in her granddaughter. “There goes o’ ball ‘ead – remember him from last week?” or “If she falls over on top of ‘im she’ll squash ‘im.” and phrases of this ilk would escape from Elsie’s lips in sotto voce throughout the whole of the performance. We would be doubled up at the poor dancers’ expense, causing much tuts of annoyance from the rest of the audience.
Jaws aching with mirth, we would wend our way home at the end of the evening, passing the elaborate carved Victorian drinking fountain in the middle of the park, where you could cadge a quick drink of water. I would then climb in bed beside Elsie and sleep the night away. On Sunday morning she would take me back on the bus to Mum and Dad, filling me up with chocolate on the way so that I couldn’t eat any Sunday roast dinner.
When the car that killed Elsie struck her one foggy November night in 1967 the world lost the best piss-taker of all time. Elsie’s death left a big hole in my 10 year old heart, that never quite healed over. When I visited Vicky Park a few years’ ago for the High Voltage Festival, there was the Victorian drinking fountain still in place, but roped off to probably dissuade the more enthusiastic male festival goers from relieving themselves on it. Amidst the noise and clamour of the festival my mind was immediately cast back about 45 years to those Saturday nights spent with Elsie. The fun in the open air ballroom cost us nothing in monetary terms, and set me up with a sense of humour that to this day has never failed me.