Juke Box Jimmy, the Scots Cockney
Here is Jimmy in 1969 on his wedding day at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, aged twenty-three, full of life and surveying the world with a grin that indicates a man who knows his way around. Yet only ten years earlier, he came to London from Cowdenbeath where Jimmy’s father was a Scottish miner who wanted a better life for his three young sons. In their corner of Fife, the only sources of employment were the mines or the docks, both declining industries. With brave foresight, he quit his job and came alone to London to seek a new life for his family and once he had secured a job at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, they came to join him.
“I went to Daniel St School and when the teacher asked me to read a story from the book out loud, I said, ‘I’ll have to read it in Scots, Sir,’ and obviously all the kids laughed. I didn’t speak Cockney at that time.” admitted Jimmy, describing his first encounter with cultural displacement, adding that he picked up Cockney at once and never looked back since.
Jimmy has been a regular customer at E.Pellicci in the Bethnal Green Road since 1959 and once he had polished off his steamed pudding with custard, we walked briskly West together, weaving our way through the back streets over to 19 Old Nichol St.
In the nineteen sixties, Jimmy used to work up on the third floor as an optical technician, manufacturing spectacles at Prince’s Optical Company and enjoyed a high old time. “We did have some great laughs,” he confided with a twinkly smile.
In Jimmy’s animated company, the street transformed before my eyes as he pointed out the exact spot in Camlet St opposite, where the foreman became visible as he approached – explaining that someone always had to keep watch at the window, especially if all the staff of the spectacle factory were skylarking up on the roof making comedy home movies with a super eight camera, as they liked to do. Crossing to the corner of Camlet St, Jimmy placed his hand on a sill with a significant grin. Here lived the infamous Nell who threw a bucket of piss from this window onto any car that parked outside. Then, with a gesture in the direction of the site of a hut across the road where Marc Bolan played, Jimmy walked into Redchurch St, that was all cabinet makers in his personal landscape of memory, which, I began to realise, was more vivid to him than the mere shadow of our present day.
I ran at his heels scribbling in my notebook as we made our way East, Jimmy speaking to me as if to one blind, indicating landmarks that were visible only to him, referring to the names of pubs closed years ago and pointing out the bullet hole from the shooting of Ginger Marks in Cheshire St, in the wall that no longer stands. Passing the Cheshire St washhouse that is now flats, he said, “When we first came down from Scotland we used to come here for lovely baths.” Then he halted in his steps, pointed reverentially and announced, “This is where I spent my youth playing football on the grass.” Such was the limitation of my vision, all I could see was the bare concrete car park in front of us.
Next, we crossed Vallance Rd to arrive at the corner of Menotti St where Jimmy lived when he first arrived from Scotland. “There were five of us living in two rooms on the first floor, a front room and a bedroom. I slept with my dad on the lower bunk and my mum slept on the top bunk with my two brothers. The rent was too high and we had mice in there.” Jimmy recalled dispassionately, as he peered up expectantly to the blank first floor window of the newly built flats that occupy the site today.
Everything has changed on this side of the street, but a passing train drew Jimmy’s attention to the railway opposite. “It took a while to get used to that!” he said and looked over at the gloomy dripping arch that he was was too frightened to walk under alone as a child. He indicated the corner where his loyal friend Alan, who lived in Whitechapel, would wait until Jimmy was safely inside his front door before turning for home. Then we walked away into Weavers Fields in the afternoon sun.“This used to be all debris here – bombsites – we loved it,” declared Jimmy, gazing around at his former playground in delight.
“I feel most at home in Bethnal Green, my roots are here because this is where I was brought up. That’s why I come five days a week to Pelliccis, when you go in there you feel part of a family, and I love all the hospitality that goes with it. There’s two chaps I see on a Friday, they are my friends from seventeen years old. To me, it’s the best place I’ve found for food – when they close for a holiday, I’m lost, I don’t know where to go.”
Walking the streets with Jimmy, each place became familiar and domestic, and I envied his ability to strike up conversations with everyone who walked into his path. To Jimmy, the street is a social environment where he feels at home and can meet anyone as an equal. He expects to speak with everyone and his only disappointment is when he receives no response to his open-hearted entreaties.
Next day, I took the 309 bus from Bethnal Green to Poplar where Jimmy lives alone with his cat in a small flat, to see the juke box he is renowned for. The glistening handsome machine enjoys pride of place in the living room, lined with filing cabinets containing Jimmy’s vast and meticulously organised record collection. Unfairly dismissed from his job one day, Jimmy won justice in the form of a lump sum of compensation at a tribunal, allowing him the once-in-a-lifetime chance of an expensive purchase. So he bought the beautiful Seburg jukebox you see below, which he cherishes as a symbol of both his self-respecting independence and the love of music that fills his life today, even if he rarely plays the machine out of consideration for his neighbours.
“I’ve still got the Scottish tongue, though I don’t use it now,” said Jimmy, turning Scottish with complete playful authenticity to surprise me, as if he had switched records in his own internal jukebox.“Even when I go back to Scotland I find it too embarrassing to speak it in front of the Scots, but I always spoke Scots to my parents.” he explained. Then, changing tone and referring back to the moment when his father came South more than half a century ago, he added quietly, “I’ve got him to thank for everything in the first place.”