Carol Burns, Dogsbody
I was shocked when Carol Burns told me she was a dogsbody, because I could not believe it of such an astute woman. “I am surrounded by men telling me what needs to be done,” she confided to me with a hint of theatrical affront, speaking just loud enough for the males in the vicinity to overhear, and raising one eyebrow with cool irony.“In the end, it’s easier for me to do what they ask, just for the sake of a quiet life.” she added, wagging a cigarette with a sweet smile of weary compliance.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that Carol is another example of oppressed womankind – you may rest assured she can hold her own in any situation. The truth is that Carol can afford such a self-deprecating quip because she is unquestionably in charge at C.E. Burns Ltd, her father’s waste paper business, still operating from Bacon St where her great-grandfather John Burns started it in 1864.
In the blue Micra parked at the kerb, sits Carol’s ninety-five-year old dad, Charlie Burns. A legendary East End waste paper merchant and boxing entrepreneur. His entire life has been enacted on Bacon St and he cannot keep away now, observing the ongoing saga each day from his discreet vantage point in the passenger seat, interrupted only by greetings from passersby. Carol brings Charlie here every day, keeping one eye on him while greeting customers and making sales of secondhand furniture, carpet tiles and job lots of toiletries and fertilizer.
Whenever there is a lull, Carol retreats to her strategically placed garden shed, lined with family photos, where she can snatch a moment’s peace to gather her thoughts before negotiating the next bulk sale of toilet rolls. It was here that I joined Carol on a slow Summer’s afternoon while she reflected upon her half century on Bacon St.
My brother Edward told me, when I was eighteen, that I’d still be here at forty and I’m fifty-nine now. I stayed because of my dad, and I’m quite happy with what I’m doing. I don’t even think any more about what else I might have done. You meet different people every day. I walk down the Bethnal Green Rd and the traders in the market all know me.
My dad’s mum, Alice, died on 29th March 1952 and I was born that June – I was the one that lived out of a pair of twins. And I always thought that she died for me to be born. I was born at home in Redmill House, Headlam St, Whitechapel, and I came down here to Bacon St at eight years of age. When I left school at sixteen in 1964, I came here to work, I sat and answered the phones. I came down each day around six to join the boys for a proper breakfast, before they went off to collect waste paper at nine thirty.
We used to keep a horse and cart then, and we had three geese to act as guard, they were worse than any guard dog if they went for you. But then someone reported them and they were taken away. We only had them because somebody asked us to take care of them and never came back. It was better that what it is now, you had a lot more trade even though it was on a smaller site. People was happier. Nobody had to worry about what they had, because they didn’t have anything!
We moved to Sharon Gardens when I was fifteen, and I got married for the first time when I was eighteen. Then I separated and moved back to Sharon Gardens, until I got married again and moved to Bethnal Green – I only moved across the Cambridge Heath Rd to go from E1 to E2, when I moved into Canrobert St in 1978, and I’ve been there ever since.
My dad found something you could sell and then others followed, but he was the leader in our eyes. This has always been our family business. My sister used to work down the lane before me, and my mum worked Wednesdays and Fridays, and my brothers were always on the vans. There’s seven or eight of us altogether.
Everything’s negotiable here, because if we a stuck a price on it, we’d be gone years ago. We have a laugh, we have a joke with our customers, we give a little and they give a little, then you meet in the middle and they buy it. And they tell their friends, and they come along too.
It’s my life and it’s been a good life. I get by through talking. We are the East Enders that stayed in the East End, not some that moved out to Ilford. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not out to impress. We don’t buy mansions or drive expensive cars, we are how we are. We don’t want the champagne lifestyle, we want lemonade. We’re just proud to still be here.
Carol is one of a family of innovators, recycling waste paper for nearly a hundred and fifty years, before the notion of recycling became virtuous. Today, the Burns family are patrons of the arts and you will find a constantly changing gallery of street art outside their Bacon St premises, thanks to Carol’s enlightened generosity - “They’ve got to start somewhere.” she says cheerily.
Carol takes pleasure in all her negotiations as an opportunity to exercise her considerable skills of rhetoric, and the codes of civility and respect that attend these conversations are close to heart of what this old family business is about. It presumes a society in which everyone can talk to each other as equals, based upon mutual respect, and Carol delights to tell me of those customers to whom she says they can pay her later, who invariably do. Shrewd and without sentiment, Carol Burns runs her family enterprise based upon assuming the best rather than the worst of people.
Carol Burns in her shed lined with family memories.
Charlie and Carol Burns, snapped a few years ago in their beloved Bacon St warehouse.
Carol’s father Charlie Burns in the car where he sits each day on Bacon St – at ninety-five years old, he is the oldest man on Brick Lane.
You might like to read my original portrait of Charlie Burns, the King of Bacon St
or of Charlie’s nephew Tony Burns, Chief Coach at the Repton Boxing Club.