Thanks to BeetleyPete for the idea – here’s my ‘E’
No, not the television soap opera, the real East End of London where I was born and grew up. I came into the world in The Salvation Army Hospital in Clapton, London E.5, and then spent the first seven years of my life living in the spacious top floor flat above Barclays Bank in Commercial Road, Poplar, E.14. Dad worked for Barclays Bank in the City, and had managed to wangle cheap rented accommodation above the Poplar branch of Barclays so long as he acted as a kind of maintenance guy in the bank below in his spare time. Dad was very practical with a set of tools, and so this arrangement suited him very well. Mum cleaned the offices on the first floor, and between them they managed to pay all the bills.
The flat was haunted, which I came to discover round about the age of 5. I would see ghosts, my bed would shake to its foundations, and imprints of bodies would appear on my pristine bedcovers during the day when I was at school and Mum was in the flat on her own. Accepting all these events as normal, I’d play outside on the pavement with the kids next door, collect a fortune on Guy Fawkes Day, and on my way up to the flat would rush past the tall cupboard on the first floor as I was convinced something nasty was in there.
One night Dad heard noises coming from the bank below. Armed with a baseball bat he crept down the stairs only to find that the boiler was playing up and needed repairing. On another night fifteen naked Chinese men ran hell-for-leather out of the Chinese takeaway opposite. Life was never dull living on the Commercial Road!
I had been attending Mayflower School in Upper North Street since the age of 3. Mum had sent me to nursery school there as I was a bit of a handful, to say the least, and I think she enjoyed the break. However, when I was 7 we moved away from the traffic to a quiet little street in Poplar (Layfield Place), that unfortunately disappeared when a new technical college was built in the late 1970s. I made new friends, walked to Manorfield School on my own, and generally enjoyed living at ground-floor level and spending a lot of my free time playing outside and roaming the local streets with friends. I spent most Saturdays hanging around Chrisp Street market and standing at the second hand record stall. At that time in the 1960s all the slum housing was in the process of being demolished, and we’d have a ball playing in condemned housing that eventually made way for a widening of the A102 which led through the Blackwall Tunnel to the south side of the river. We’d also play ‘chicken’ across the A102, but fortunately the roads were somewhat quieter then.
At age 11 I gained entrance to George Green’s Grammar School in the East India Dock Road. I remember being bored out of my box in Maths and Physics classes, but I enjoyed the English classes and learning French. The girls had a playground on the roof, and we would throw the remains of our lunches down on the boys below. We all walked in crocodile form over to Poplar Baths for swimming lessons once a week, and I eventually learned to swim there and win several certificates. However, there were no music lessons at the school, and my violin teacher from Manorfield would appear at lunchtimes to teach me. Boys would make faces at me through the glass door, and I couldn’t concentrate. I gave up the lessons.
By the time I was 13 Mum and Dad had notice to quit due to the upcoming building work that needed to be started on the new technical college. All that would be left of Layfield Place was an indentation in Byron Street where a cobblestoned road had once led past our house. We moved across the Thames to Kidbrooke, and I left the East End behind. I attended a school more suited to the arts/music, and I flourished. I took up the violin again, and joined the orchestra, choir and madrigal group. I was no longer an EastEnder, but I had enough memories of the place to last a lifetime.
Today my little part of East London does not fit with my memories. I do not often go back, because it is unrecognisable. Three of the only few places that still look the same are Poplar Baths, the outside of George Green School (it’s now an adult learning centre) and the top floor haunted flat in Commercial Road. Underneath the flat is a cafe now, and not a bank. I look up at the windows if I ever pass that flat, and wonder if the ghosts of my childhood are still there. I hope so.