The Return of David Power
David Power at The Golden Heart where he played the piano in 1946
By chance, I bumped into David Power, the Showman & Ex-Musical Prodigy at the London Ex-Boxers Christmas shindig recently, where I had the pleasure of introducing him to Frances Mayhew of Wilton’s Music Hall. So yesterday, after he had paid a visit upon Frances at Wiltons to arrange a date for an evening of Music Hall in the spring for which he will be impresario and compere, David walked up from Wapping through the frost to Spitalfields for a celebratory drink with me by the fireside at The Golden Heart. “I was spellbound,” admitted David, in wonder at seeing Wilton’s for the first time, “I closed my eyes and expected to hear Burlington Bertie…”
David’s appearance at Wilton’s Music Hall marks his return to the East End as an entertainer for the first time since he performed in Spitalfields as a youth. “I played the piano in here when I was fourteen years old, in the nineteen forties just after the war.” he recalled, casting his soulful eyes around the empty barroom of The Golden Heart, “I had to wear a hat and a false moustache because I wasn’t old enough to go in a pub. I played Friday, Saturday and two sessions on Sunday, and I got a pound.”
“They mostly sold stout in them days and there were very few women in here. Instead, the men took their wives and mothers home a bottle of stout just to keep them quiet. The piano player had fallen ill and they heard me playing the piano from the window of my Aunt Sarah’s at 98 Commercial St. Now I loved my Aunt Sarah, but every word out of her mouth was swearing, while my Uncle Jimmy, he was the gentlest, mildest man you could imagine and my cousins were the same. Yet Aunt Sarah made up for the lot of them, she had more front than Tower Bridge.”
We braved the cold to revisit the doorstep of the notorious Aunt Sarah at 98 Commercial St and found her long gone. “It’s very difficult for me to explain to you, because it was a very tough life round here,” David confided to me with a grimace. “‘You’ve been with the kurwas?’ they used to ask,” he said, raising a significant smile as we entered the park next to Christ Church, known to David as Itchycoo Park, “That means you’ve been in here having sex on a gravestone with a prostitute.”
Crossing Commercial St, we entered Toynbee St passing the Duke of Wellington. “That’s where Stafford murdered his son, he got involved in slot machines,” David declared dryly, in passing, as we approached the former premises of Hymie the Barber. “All the stars used to come here for a shave and a haircut for a half crown,” he announced, “all the market boys.” Turning down Brune St, we crossed into the old market building where David started work at fifteen. He stood and scratched his head, surveying the chain restaurants and office workers doing their Christmas shopping, on the site where he was once employed in the fruit & vegetable market. “This place, years and years ago, it was alive,” he assured me, “People came from miles and miles around. At three o’clock in the morning it was buzzing, like a great theatre, and the cafes were open twenty-four hours a day. Most of those men were strong as lions.”
“I’m going back seventy years, I’ve never been back before,” David protested, in trepidation, as we walked down Commercial St, turning into Thrawl St in search of Faulkner St where he grew up. We found the buildings were gone and the street renamed Nathaniel Close. Similarly, in Old Montague St, where David’s grandparents lived there was no trace of the two-up-two-down cottages that he remembered. We stood amidst the chaos of the building works at the rear of the London Metropolitan University. “My grandfather, David Solomon, was the British Lightweight Bare-Fisted Boxing Champion,” David asserted, as if to conjure him into existence to spite the erasure of his world.
Seeking refuge from the chill, we entered a cafe in Middlesex St for hot mugs of tea, and within five minutes a woman came in and asked David, “How’s your cousin?” Thereby confirming the unexpected truth that even after all this time, the movements of people and the rebuilding of neighbourhoods, ties of kinship among East Enders do survive. David was heartened enough to order a sausage and tomato. “Whether it was good or bad, we didn’t know any different,” he ruminated, as he cut his sausage.“But I think you would have liked it, living in my time, in the nineteen fifties,” he conceded tenderly.
As we tucked in to our lunch, I realised we had been on an emotional journey together and I understood how it important it will be for David to perform in the East End for the first time, after all these years. “There’s going to be a lot of top professionals. I’ll get the TV down, they have nothing on for over forty-fives. All you see is murder and killing and X Factor, but there’s so much more talent out there.” he bragged, “We’ll have an opera singer and a Russian musical prodigy and a magician, and I’m going to get Roy Hudd.”
I was already looking forward to being at Wilton’s Music Hall next year and hoping you will be there with me to celebrate the triumphant return of David Power, the Showman.
Outside 98 Commercial St where David’s Aunt Sarah lived in the thirties and forties – “She had more front than Tower Bridge.”
In Itchycoo Park, “‘You’ve been with the kurwas?’ they used to ask…”
At the former premises of Hymie the Barber in Toynbee St -”All the stars came here, all the boys in the market.”
“My cousin Sammy Lissner stood here for seventy years on the corner of Wentworth St selling fruit & vegetables.”
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