Remembering Robert Poole
The novelist, Robert Poole, wrote of himself - “Born Stepney 1923, about fifty yards from Brick Lane. Education practically nil. Occupations: 1, Office boy. 2, Telegram boy. 3, Office boy. 4, Office boy. 5, Light factory hand. 6, Tomato grower (everyone was poisoned!). 7, War factory making gun brushes. 8, Volunteered for the navy, became wireless operator – anti-U-boat detection, later PYU landings in Burma. After demob became – 9, Garage store assistant. 10, Estate agent – hopeless! 11, Fractured spine in car crash, wrote short stories. 12, Joined the merchant navy as a steward. Jumped ship in New Zealand. Changed name to dodge police. Wrote and broadcast for NZ radio and became radio actor. Also an import agent and sub-editor on a daily newspaper. Police caught up. Clink for four weeks, then deportation. Back in London failed to get into the BBC so sold clothes in Oxford St. Then in 1958 went to Margate and ran the bingo stall in Dreamland. Fabulous! Showed short stories to Russell Braddon, who liked them. These stories developed into LONDON E1.” (Biography from the jacket of the first edition of LONDON E1, 1961.)
A couple of weeks ago, Robert Poole’s nephew, John Charlton, got an unexpected phone call to say that LONDON E1 was being republished for the first time since 1961. It triggered a lot of memories for John, both of his uncle Robert and of the East End of his childhood, and I was lucky enough to accompany him when he returned recently to take a look around the old territory upon the occasion of the republication of LONDON E1.
For John, revisiting his youthful past was also to recall his uncle’s novel, because the two are inextricable. Out of the eight children that survived infancy in a family of eleven siblings, John told me his mother Emmy Poole was closest to her brother Robert. It was an intimacy that was to last their whole lives and ultimately result in Robert portraying Emmy as “Janey” in LONDON E1.
“My grandfather George Poole had a stall under the railway bridge in Brick Lane selling fruit & veg. I was only eight when he died, but I remember that he used to boil up sheeps’ heads and sit there by the fire, peeling off the meat in slices with his pocket knife and slipping it into his mouth. He wore a flat cap, he loved his pint of beer, he drank in the Queens’ Head in Chicksand St and he always used to give me a couple of bob.
There was three years difference between my mother and Bobby (as we called him), and they were always together and they often used to go together to the West End. He gave a copy of the book to each one of his sisters but they all lost them except my mother, she would never part with it. I remember, when he died she was very upset. Bobby, he was very talented man, he spoke a few languages and he was a natural musician self-taught. He used to arrange music for Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and Eartha Kitt, and he often stayed with her in Paddington. Bobby used to come down to the East End on a Sunday and play the piano at the Queens’ Head and he’d bring Eartha Kitt or some big star, and they were over the moon.
I knew him as a child, he was very quiet and well spoken, not a cockney – he changed his accent. I got on well with him, he lived with me and my mum for a while. I remember listening to him doing book reviews on the BBC. He wanted to get away from the East End. He won a scholarship to go to college but my grandfather wouldn’t let him go, he had to earn money instead to keep the family.
I remember he worked in Dunns outfitters on the corner of Goulston St and then he worked in Dunns in the West End. He worked in pubs behind the bar, anything to get a job really. And he went to work in Dreamland for six months as a bingo caller, so he could learn about fairgrounds. It was for another book that he was writing and it was almost finished when he died, “Carnival for Shadows.” I was told his publisher Secker & Warburg were going to get a ghost writer to finish it, but we never heard anything more and no-one knows what happened to the manuscript.”
Two years after the publication of LONDON E1, Robert Poole died at the age of forty of an accidental overdose of the painkillers he had being taking for the spinal injury acquired in a car crash a few years earlier. By then he was drinking heavily and the promise of his first novel was destined never to be fulfilled. He struggled and it took its toll. Yet it had been a miraculous journey he had travelled, defying extraordinary odds, as one denied further education yet blessed with exceptional abilities. The stature of Robert Poole’s writing ensures that, half a century since it was first published, LONDON E1 stands as a vivid and authentic social portrait of Spitalfields at the end of the war, when Jewish people were moving out and the first Asians were moving in.
John Charlton left forty years ago. ”The East End is not as I knew it, but I don’t miss it because I got a better life by moving away,” he assured me, speaking frankly,”Leaving was the best thing I ever did.” Yet even after he left, John could not keep away, returning every day to earn his living from a stall in Petticoat Lane selling menswear until his retirement three years ago. He treasures his copy of LONDON E1, inscribed by Robert Poole in 1961 to Em, his mother, Bill, his father and to himself, Johnnie. He carried it swathed in a plastic bag for protection as we walked the streets together in the freezing drizzle, clutching it to himself as a precious object of infinite value – because the book is a reliquary that contains an entire world.
Robert Poole ‘s 1961 author photograph on the jacket of LONDON E1.
Emmy and Robert Poole as children in the nineteen twenties.
Robert Poole’s inscription in the first edition of LONDON E1 to his sister Emmy, her husband Bill Charlton and his nephew John.
The Evening Standard’s review of LONDON E1, February 1961
John Charlton returns to 14 Deal St where he lived in 1961 when his uncle’s novel was published.
Looking west from Chicksand House, where John grew up, towards Brick Lane in 1942.
John’s clothing ration book as a child.
Eleven year old John stands wearing a suit and tie, centre right at the back of the crowd celebrating the coronation in Deal St, 1953.
John’s invitation to the Deal St Coronation party.
A crowd gathers for a beano outside the Queens’ Head in Chicksand St in the early fifties. John’s grandfather George stands in the flat cap holding a bottle of beer on the right of this picture with John’s father Bill on the left of him, while John stands directly in front of the man in the straw hat.
John stands with his hands in his pockets to observe the high-jinks.
Gipsy George from Bermondsey plays the accordion for the regulars of the Queens’ Head before they set out on a beano.
LONDON E1 by Robert Poole can be ordered direct from the publisher Five Leaves and copies are on sale in bookshops including Brick Lane Bookshop, Broadway Books, Newham Bookshop, Stoke Newington Bookshop and London Review Bookshop.