At the Boys' Club 86th Anniversary Dinner
Last night, I had the delight of attending the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club eighty-sixth anniversary dinner at the invitation of my new friend, club member Ron Goldstein. Entering the bar, I was immediately in the thick of a loud exuberant party of a hundred old boys in dark suits and club ties – the majority were octogenarians – all laughing and greeting each other flamboyantly in unselfconscious joy.
The rare spectacle of so many happy people together in one room stopped me in my tracks, it was sight to lift the heaviest heart. These were boys of modest origins who grew up on the Boundary Estate and in the surrounding streets of Bethnal Green and for whom the boys’ club (founded in 1924) offered a place of refuge where they could participate in cultural, educational and physical activities that served to raise their expectations of life. And many of the bonds of friendship formed there a lifetime ago exist to this day, as these lively reunions testify.
Aubrey Silkoff, the boy who wrote his name on the wall in Navarre St, Arnold Circus on the 19th April 1950, came to greet me. Like me, he was a newcomer attending his first reunion but already he was swept along by the emotion of the occasion. “I’ve just met people I haven’t seen for fifty years!” he declared with breathless excitement, introducing three childhood friends Alan Kane, David Goldsmith and Melvyn Burton who also wrote their names on the wall in 1950 when they used to play together. “We were happy in those days,” announced Alan, turning sentimental and speaking on behalf of his pals. “Do you know why? Because we hadn’t got a pot to piss in!” he continued, answering his own question, guffawing and breaking into the broadest smile, while the others exchanged fond satirical glances. Reunited, the excited dynamic of their childhood friendship took over and, as I cast my eyes around the room, I realised that while all these men lived as husbands, fathers and grandfathers in daily life, tonight they were free to be boys.
Once everyone was gathered, Maxie Lea MBE, the diminutive and playful club secretary, invited us to walk through into the dining room, where Ron and I took our seats at large round tables. Then Monty Meth MBE, the bright-eyed club chairman welcomed everyone, reading out apologies for absentees, saluting an old boy who had flown in from Dallas for the night and remembering those who had died since last year. Each name was received with cheers, applause and cheerful hammering on the tables, with the greatest affectionate response reserved for those who were here last year and all previous years, but who would never be seen again.
After a chicken dinner followed by chocolate gateau, Tony and Irving Hiller stood up to sing, providing the opportunity for everyone to express the sentiment that had been building up all evening. The gentleman next to me confided he had been friends with Tony – a talented songwriter who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1976 – since they both met in kindergarten at the age of four, eighty years ago. All shyness and unfamiliarity were overcome now, bonds of friendship had been reaffirmed and it was time to play. Beginning with the club song (with new words to the tune of “Anchors Away”), providing the catalyst to release any lingering inhibitions, “So, as members of the best club of all/We’re shouting Cambridge/With a C-A-M-B-R-I-D-G-E/ Whizz bang, Whizz bang, Whizz bang rah/Who in the hell do you think we are?/C-A-M-B-R-I-D-G-E !” It was the cue for everyone to wave their hands, link arms, or stand and gyrate, re-enacting teenage idiosyncrasies and celebrating them in others, as distant memories of years ago came back to life. Although very little alcohol was drunk that night, everyone was high on emotion. A sense of mortality intensified the delight for some, and in the midst of the skylarking and high jinks a few tears of happiness were discreetly wiped away.
Few of these men live in the East End anymore, although many grew up here before the blitz – in a world we perceive today through black and white photographs of terraces with children playing in the street. Quite literally, some of these men were those children in the photos. Yet in their hearts they all still live in the East End, as incarnated by the spirit of emotional generosity, decency and respect that was encouraged by the boys’ club and which forms the basis of their common understanding. It is not the same East End you and I know today, but it is an East End that has a vibrant existence between members of this generation whenever they come together. My experience of the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club reunion dinner was a living vision of the very best of this lost world.
Through my many conversations, I learnt that while they have achieved professional careers and some have been honoured for distinguished service in the forces, none was ashamed of their origin. All were eager to come and show their gratitude to the boys’ club that provided such a life-changing experience – because, as the years go by, they recognise the familiar sense of belonging together more than they can belong to the increasingly unfamiliar geographical space of the East End.
I shook hands with Aubrey Silkoff at the end of our first reunion dinner, and we both turned to the spectacle of multiple farewells that filled the room. “Everyone turned out well, didn’t they?” he said, nodding his head in approval as the quiet realisation came to him. I think he will be back next year.
Pictured in the top photograph, boyhood chums Des Gammon and Sidney Berns.
Joe and Simon Brandez, father and son, both old boys.
Ron Goldstein with boyhood pal Ben Lampert.
Len Sanders with his grandson Scott, both old boys.
Michael Denton, the oldest boy of all at ninety seven years of age.