Jimmy Keane, Caretaker
Here is Jimmy Keane, sitting comfortably in his executive chair in his office in the basement of the former Godfrey & Phillips Tobacco building in Commercial St where he has been caretaker for forty years. This mighty edifice on Commercial St, clad in biscuit-brown ceramic bricks, is so large that you can see it filling the entire top left corner of the photograph of Spitalfields which is our header this month.
Few ever get to venture down to Jimmy’s secret lair in the basement of his building, and I recognised I was a favoured guest when he escorted me in from the cold and wet, down the stairs, along the passage and into his private enclave where, as I passed through the metal door, I realised the air was several degrees warmer. “They call me site manager but really I’m just a caretaker. I listen to complaints from the tenants and I sort it out if I can and, if not, I refer it to my superiors.” he said as he poured me a cup of tea, outlining the boundaries of his responsibility with elegant equanimity.
We were in a sparsely furnished room with no windows, that possessed both tranquillity and a climate of its own, where Jimmy could feel at ease in his short-sleeved shirt even in the depths of Winter, and be at peace with his thoughts.“I was in at four-thirty this morning,” he explained with sprightly humour and an Irish twang, gesturing to his thin windcheater drying on a coat-hanger suspended from a pipe, “It was chucking it down, but you just keep walking, because you’ve got to get to work even if it’s raining.”
So there we were in a cosy bunker beneath Spitalfields, where I could ask Jimmy anything and no-one could overhear our conversation. The nature of Jimmy’s employment has given him a unique view of the social changes during his tenure, as an observer with privileged access, and I was eager to learn his appraisal of the different worlds that have passed before his eyes between the walls of this former cigarette factory.
“When I took this job in 1971, the rag trade people were running this area – all Jewish factories in them days. It was rough and ready, now it’s a bit more upmarket. The people working in the sweatshops didn’t have a great deal of freedom, you either did the work or you were sacked. The rag trade wasn’t an easy life to be in. What do you call progress? I suppose it’s progress that those things aren’t done in this country anymore. I saw all that go, and now I’m dealing with a different crowd of people now who’ve got credit cards and they’re upmarket. I haven’t got the education for that kind of thing. What people got in this country was barely a living, they were exploited. But there’s more pressure now on these people I see here on their laptops – if they lose, they can lose a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my knocks and I’ve put them behind me. These people come with stress every day. They’re nice people, but I don’t envy them because I’ve got freedom, to me these people haven’t got freedom.
Thirty or forty years ago, people might earn £4 a week and spend £3 of it on beer! They were getting a weekly wage in cash and they didn’t worry about mortgages. When the market and brewery were working twenty-four hours, there were singsongs in the pubs at six in the morning. It was a different buzz and people were happier in themselves, but they were crazy gamblers, horse-racing, dog-racing, dice, cards. They’d love a gamble! I say there’s only two kinds of people that gamble, the needy and the greedy.
When the rag trade was here, I used to go home at Christmas with three or four hundred pounds in cash from tips, now the excuse is, “We don’t carry cash.” They’re a different quality of people today, they’re more selfish. They think because they’re middle class they can look down their nose at you sometimes, but I’m one of those who won’t take it from my employer and I won’t take it from these people either. It’s a lot of snobbery! At the end of the day, I don’t need them but they need me, so I am in a strong position. I’m more or less my own governor here and I’m quite contented.
I was born in Ireland in 1935. There was little work there in the early nineteen fifties, so when my father completed his twenty years in the British army, based in Birmingham, we moved down to the East End. That was 1951. There wasn’t much work in London, I did lots of jobs from making ice cream to being a cooper’s mate. Things only picked up in the late fifties and early sixties, when the building trade expanded. I used to do a bit of work for the family that owned this building and I came here to do a bit of painting, they were Orthodox Jews. Very nice people, and I have worked for three generations of the same family. They wanted a caretaker and I have been here ever since.”
It was a clear-eyed testimony, told with humour and without cynicism, and I was full of admiration for the way Jimmy had recognised the beauty of his situation and negotiated a self-respecting independence of spirit. Resuming a professional persona, he pulled on his long blue coat, standing up with all vigour and swagger of a man half his age, and bragging of how he kept fit running up and down all the stairs.
And when we emerged into the public area, Jimmy began telling me how he had been featured in a fashion shoot by Dazed & Confused when they were based in the building, and how it led to some other modelling work, and how much he enjoyed it, and how he had done quite well out of it, and how they told him he was a natural. Then several young people who worked in the building in media and fashion companies ran up to him, to greet and embrace him enthusiastically, which delighted him, and I saw how popular he was, and I realised that I had been party to the private thoughts of Jimmy Keane, the caretaker – but fortunately I know I can rely upon you to maintain his personal discretion.
Down in Jimmy’s den.
Jimmy, the proud custodian.
In Jerome St, the lettering of the former cigarette factory remains.