The Return Of Pat Nightingale
Contributing Writer Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit & A Year of Marvellous Ways, interviewed Pat Nightgale last week on an especially showery day
“A little girl with long plaits on weekdays, ringlets on Sundays and baggy knickers most of the time. A shilling pocket money: sixpence to be saved, a penny for the Sunday school box, and five pennies for sweets.”
For many people, the memories laid down in childhood are vivid, often golden. They offer an unshifting narrative in an ever-changing world, a refuge to return to, a place that is simpler, kinder, and most of all, magical. And sitting with Pat Nightingale, overlooking Brushfield St, as heavy rain kept the promise of spring at bay, I had never felt this so keenly.
“Mum was in and out of hospital after my birth in 1946, so I ended up living with my grandparents in Harman St, Hoxton, for the first twelve years of my life. My grandfather was called Alfred Thomas Jenkins, but I called him Pop. Others called him ‘Oppy’ on account of his bad leg. My Nan was Susan Rose. She was lovely. She did everything for Pop. He wanted a cup of tea – she’d make him a cup of tea. He wanted the television channel changed – she’d change it. Rent needed paying at 9am every Monday – she’d do it. He was a bit of a bastard, really, a Victorian through and through, but a great storyteller.
They were market traders in Hoxton St where they had a vegetable stall. Nan’s parents were traders too, and my Great Grandmother, who was always known as Polly, was the Ladies Barrow Race Champion. The Barrow Race was held annually from 1918 to 1929, and the route was between Borough and Spitalfields, and any market trader could take part. And when Polly died, there were one hundred and forty wreaths at her funeral, all from the traders she raced against. She was a kind and charitable woman and if anyone came to her stall hungry, she’d send them back over to her house where Nan would be cooking dinner. Sometimes Nan had to cook for an extra twelve or fourteen people.
We had a whole townhouse to ourselves. Me, my grandparents and two aunts. An eight room house with an outside toilet. You’d go up the first flight of stairs to a half-landing where there was a small sink, then up another to the cooker. And looming over the whole of Hoxton was the workhouse, built on the Land of Promise. I never remember going without anything, but I had friends who did. Friends who had to sleep in the same bed with all their siblings. One wet the bed, they all smelt. And there was shame around poverty, real shame. I never liked walking past the workhouse, and I still don’t. People used to say it costs nothing to be clean but Nan would’ve said, ‘Then you’ve never had to choose between a bar of soap and a loaf of bread.’
End of day, the market traders dumped their rubbish in the gutter and me and my friends used to play there, searching for pennies and food. If my Nan had ever known, she would’ve murdered me. It just wasn’t done, see? Coal that had fallen on the streets, firewood, food, you left it for people who needed it. And if you could afford it, then you never needed it.
I remember oranges used to come in wooden crates that were nearly white and my friends used them for their furniture. And I wanted to too, instead of the mahogany stuff we had at home. Eventually, I got one to keep my books in and my Aunt Vera made a curtain to put around it.
On Mondays, I occasionally went to school but, when there was racing on, me, Nan and Pop went racing instead. We’d get the bus up to Stamford Hill and then get the coach. If the racing was at Brighton, we’d end up at the beach.
Every winter, I had a new coat, and a new coat meant Christmas was coming. We got it at Evada’s in Whitechapel. And there were all sorts of smells on the streets in winter, roasted chestnuts and baked potatoes and pigs’ trotters, and because Nan’s stall was on the corner of the street, we could smell the bread from Anderson’s too and the Pie and Mash at Fortunes, and it’s always the smells that take me back to that time.
But my favourite thing, though – and it only happened during school holidays – was to go to Spitalfields with Pop. I’d go to bed early and I could never sleep because I was so excited. I’d pile on the clothes, and we’d set out into the dark frosty winter morning, and you know, it was so lovely, so magical. And I can see my Nan watching me go, wondering if it was all right.
The stables were at the back of our street and that’s where we kept our pony called Mary, and the cart. I’d sit up front with Pop, and I’d look up at the sky, and there were dark blue skies then, with millions of stars that danced as we jolted across the streets and sparks shot out from the cobblestones as they clashed with the metal rim of the cart wheels. And, if we were early, we’d stop at the horse trough on the corner of Camwood St so Mary could drink.
Spitalfields was huge with baskets piled high and Pop knew exactly what he wanted at the right price, so we had to walk round and round. And he tipped the porters well because they let him know whose produce was good. And there were things there that we never had at home, like Sparrows Grass (asparagus) that people said made your wee green. I remember, when it was pea season, that’s all Pop bought for his stall. People talk about the smell of money, well, the money from Spitalfields had a greasy vegetable smell.
And it was on these trips that Pop liked to tell me his stories. He told me how he’d swum the English Channel. How he’d put grease all over himself to keep out the cold and a boat had followed him. He told me how he’d been a cowboy in America fighting the Indians, but he didn’t stay long because he didn’t like the food. And when Edmund Hillary climbed Everest, Pop said that he’d already done that but he didn’t like to brag.
And then he told me about the Rainbow Fairies. How when it rains and rainbows appear in greasy puddles, he said that it was really a sign that fairies were about, because when fairies’ wings get wet and heavy, they come down and land in puddles.
Pop was a clever man with little education, a man who told me I had to know my place in the world without telling me what my place was.
Later, in 1956 maybe, I asked what happened to Mary, and my Nan said, ‘She ran off to be a race horse.’ Pop said, ‘Don’t tell stories, she went off to the circus.’ To this day I never knew what happened.
It was a different time. All I know is that rain smelt different, street lights were fewer, and skies had more stars. I can never remember not feeling safe. I was a much-loved child, and I had the best of everything available. It was almost like magic. And I still look out for puddles, but I don’t tell everyone because everyone will come and look for them, and Pop said fairies are very private people.”
Pat’s grandparents, Susan Rose & Alfred Thomas Jenkins at their stall in Hoxton St
Pat Nightingale seeks rainbow fairies in Brushfield St
Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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