Beatrice Ali, Salvation Army Hostel Dweller
“She was dancing in a tutu under my window, directing the traffic and shouting ‘Up the Common Market!” explained Clive Murphy with a wan smile, as he sat in the kitchen of his flat above the Aladin Curry House in Brick Lane last week, recalling how he met Beatrice Ali, the well known local personality and eccentric, pictured here by East End photographer Paul Trevor in the nineteen seventies.
Recording thirty hours of conversations with Beatrice telling her story, between May and October 1975, Clive edited her words to became “The Good Deeds of a Good Woman,” the first book he published in his “Ordinary Lives” oral history series in 1976. It is a fascinating account which explains the human story behind Beatrice’s famously idiosyncratic behaviour, restoring dignity to an individual who had been rendered marginal by her own misfortune and become the object of derision in her own community.
“Whenever I could find her, I asked her to come and see me to make a tape recording. We entered into a collaboration agreement, splitting the royalties fifty-fifty. She did it because she was burning with resentment at some people and she wanted to talk about how kind she was. I think she was very lonely and very glad to have someone to talk to.” Clive told me, describing the origin of the book.“She threw milk bottles at windows,” added Clive affectionately,” and when the book was published she used to shout at mine, ‘I know you’ve got a woman up there!’ She was as lively as a trivet. She was just perfect.”
“The Good Deeds of a Good Woman” is a candid account of a mixed-race marriage that ended badly when Basit, Beatrice’s husband of thirty years, left her in 1965, once their sons were grown up, selling their home in Spitalfields and returning to East Pakistan where he took a young wife. Yet in spite of the tragedy of her circumstance, Beatrice demonstrated an endearingly unsentimental wit and lack of self pity in the telling of her tale, in vigorous language that held my rapt attention, without a break, from cover to cover.
Returning one day to discover a padlock on her own front door, Beatrice slept on Liverpool St Station before moving into a Salvation Army Hostel. Censured by many English people for her inter-racial marriage, Beatrice found herself rejected by the Bangladeshi people too. Even her sons disowned her, and she sought to retain self-respect by undertaking good deeds, while struggling to support herself as best she could. In such straightened circumstances, every action of her existence became a brave gesture of defiance against the odds. Today, Beatrice’s story of her courageous daily battle for survival on the streets of Spitalfields is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the evolving life of the East End.
“I sat nights in Liverpool St Station and after that I’d go into the toilet and have a wash and do my hair, then come back and have another sit down. Then I’d go and stand at the meths drinkers’ fire in Spitalfields Market till two men come round with soup and bread between twelve and quarter past. I’d have that and then have a walk around or stand at the coffee stall in Commercial Street, and then I’d go back to the station and buy a ticket and go and doze off in the Waiting Room. Policeman would come in and wake you up. ‘Have you got a ticket?’- and I’d show it. ‘Won’t be long. I’m going to work at five o’clock.’ ‘Oh! Sorry to worry you.’”
Once Beatrice was living in the Salvation Army Hostel, she could only return at night, filling her days with casual jobs and altruistic deeds to restore her reputation and self-esteem, as these two extracts illustrate.
“I’m a fool when I’ve got money. I’d give to anybody. About four months ago I was walking through Fieldgate St and in Fieldgate St there’s a butcher’s shop, and I saw an old man with two sticks and he’s looking at these lamb chops. ‘Oh they’re such lovely big meaty chops!’ He looked at me. ‘Oh Mum,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t half love four chops! Two for me and two for my wife!‘ I had money. I went in. I said, ‘Four of them nice meaty chops, love!’ How much do you think they were? A pound! I said to the old man. ‘They’re only a pound, love.’ He said, ‘You’re not buying them for me, surely?!’ I said, ‘Yes’ and I bought him a tin of peas as well. Funny thing, I was lucky that day. If you help anybody, you’re often lucky. I went into the betting office and I won £10 on the horses.”
“Someone saw me with an old man, they said, ‘I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have no interest if I went out with a man like that.’ I said, ‘What you would do and what I would do is two separate things. My heart is soft, if I thought anybody needed the money for food and I had it, I’d buy it for them. If I had two shillings and someone needed a shilling, I’d give it to them.’ This old man, bless him, he couldn’t thank me enough. He said, ‘You are so kind to me. I do appreciate this kindness.’ The morning after I put him in this armchair, I went round the Maltese shop near the nuns’ and got him a cup of tea and brought it to him – he’d been out all night sitting in this armchair. ‘Here you are, Dad. Here’s a cup of tea and a couple of cigarettes. And here you are, here’s ten pence.’ I said, ‘Are you all right, Dad?’ He said, ‘I’m all right. Don’t worry. But come back and see me again. I always look forward to you. You are so kind.’”
The year after she recorded her story, Beatrice got a flat in the Boundary Estate but was subsequently found there, two weeks after she died, by social workers who had neglected to visit. “The Good Deeds of a Good Woman” is an alarming tale of how a woman can fall through the surface of existence and never regain control of her life, but it is also remarkably testimony of moral courage and tenacity to survive and, thanks to Clive Murphy, we can remember Beatrice Ali today with the respect she deserves.
Hardback copies of “The Good Deeds of a Good Woman,” including a vinyl record of Beatrice Ali talking, are available at Labour and Wait.