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A Bethnal Green Childhood

May 27, 2017
by Linda Wilkinson

Linda Wilkinson, who grew up near Columbia Rd Market, recalls her family’s Sunday rituals in this extract from her forthcoming memoir of departure and return to the East End, COLUMBIA ROAD: OF BLOOD & BELONGING published by September Books on 1st June

Linda and Geoffrey outside Garcias and Daltrey in Columbia Rd in 1953

Sunday has its own rhythm and rites. After the changing of the beds mum will check that the roast is ready for the oven that the vegetables are prepared and she will, for the first time that week, sit and read a newspaper. If the weather is fine in mid-morning Nan will visit for a cup of tea, but irrespective at noon Dad will go to the pub and come home for his meal and an afternoon sleep.

Over and above all of this, the Sunday flower market takes place as it has done since the 1860s. I adore the fact that I can perch on the doorstep and watch the ebb and flow of people. Women wear the ubiquitous turbans over their hair as they purchase flowers, or bulbs. Not many men are out apart from the market traders who flirt mercilessly with the clientele, who give as good back. The hue and cry of the costers in the market is the same as many another. ‘So many for two and six,’ the numbers a moveable feast according to the season. ‘The best bargain you’ll ever have.’ Goods are sold from the pavement, having come on handcarts or in small vans. It feels warm and safe and happy, and I hug my knees and relish the entertainment.

My grandmother is upon me before I realise it. Wearing her best dress she prods me with her walking stick. Her soft white hair is piled ornately under a pearl-encrusted hairnet and outrageous earrings dance and dangle with her every movement. She is in her late seventies and she scares most people. ‘Get up dreamer, let me by.’ She pats me none too softly on the head and wanders down the passageway.

In the kitchen, I occupy my favourite spot on the floor where I can appreciate the enormity of both Nan and her personality. I love these visits.

I see her on Saturdays when we go to her flat near the Broadway Market to do her shopping, but having her here in my home feels special. I watch as she pours tea into her saucer, dunks toast into the cup and then sucks it. She has teeth, false teeth, but they sit in a handkerchief in her coat pocket. The slurping sound as she sucks the tea from the saucer is unrestrained.

‘Mum!’

‘I can’t wear the teeth all the time Bella, they rub.’

Dad, who is ever present at these visits, rattles his newspaper but remains invisible behind it.

‘Get some new ones.’

Nan seems fond of her black rubber dentures, but perhaps it’s just that she hasn’t got the hang of a new pair being free on the State.

‘Lin’s going to nursery soon,’ Mum informs her.

‘She’ll have to speak then.’

‘I can speak.’

‘Can you now?’

‘And she can read.’

‘Don’t be daft, she’s only a child.’

‘Mum taught me.’

She is unimpressed until mother snatches the newspaper from Dad and I stutter through a few sentences.

‘She’s a strange one, all that staring at you in silence, now this.’

‘She’s just a bit different.’

They drift on to conversations not connected with me and I slip back into watching them. Tony, my brother, comes in; he and Nan have a great affection for one other. He is full of the bustle of a teenager on his way to manhood and I have to sit on a chair to avoid his stomping feet. Even Dad lowers his paper and joins in until twelve o’clock chimes. Nan leaves, Dad changes to go to the pub and Mum returns to the kitchen.

Later, once Dad has returned and eaten his roast, he falls asleep on the smooth white territory of the bed where I join him. Mother sits and snoozes in the kitchen, legs propped on another chair, but Dad and I lie down. He has a smell on these afternoons, a smell that I can never forget. In contrast to the sheets it is a feast of the earth. Sweat, beer and tobacco. In his armpits the black matt of hairs curl, unlike the dark straightness on his head. There is no grey there, well perhaps a hint. Sunlight is deflected by the window of the house next door. It bounces weakly into the bedroom. The walnut veneer of the bedhead is warmed to a deep glow. I trace the black lines with a small finger. Soon he will have to wake. Soon the beer will clear from his head. It will be six o’clock and we will eat winkles, shrimps and white buttered bread. Later he will stand in the street, this summer street, and smoke in the darkness. I will sit on the window ledge next to him and listen to the soft banter that the neighbours exchange. There is no traffic and the other children race up and down. He knows that I prefer to sit close to him; there are never any admonishments to go and play.

I kneel on the bed and look down at him. The vest and pants he wears are thick. Like the sheets they have survived the rite of passage through the inferno of cleaning. Above the bed, behind the walnut, is a mantelpiece. On this stands a glass of water. I hear sounds of stirring and a kettle being filled. Gently I dip a comb into the glass. The drips fall like small crystals as I drag the teeth slowly through his hair. His eyes like mine are brown. Smiling he stays my hand.

‘All right, kid?’ I nod, and he envelopes me in a glorious hug of love and understanding.

Linda and her brother Tony, 1952

Harry & Bella Wilkinson on their wedding day, 1939

Linda’s mother and grandmother, 1932

Columbia Rd

You may like to read these other stories about Columbia Rd by Linda Wilkinson

Bella’s Blues

Return to Columbia Rd

Not Quite Murder Mile

Notable & Lost Buildings of Columbia Rd

9 Responses leave one →
  1. May 27, 2017

    A good piece of descriptive writing by Linda all will be well for her new book. I expect Columbia Rd is a community within a street there is still a cobbled road surface, it never wear out. This has to be a happy and affectionate family I liked the pic of Linda as a child a face full of happiness. Good wedding pic of Harry and Bella the bride has a deep smile showing happiness on her special day. Writing is not easy it all depends on word-flow, mine sometimes come at 2am in the morning you have to get it down then – or all is lost. Otherwise its thinking cap back on. Linda and GA are masters at this ‘writing game’ long may they do so. Poet John

  2. Sharon Morrell permalink
    May 27, 2017

    Absolutely wonderful writing, made me cry.

  3. acadarchist permalink
    May 27, 2017

    Beautiful writing. I already knew what Linda`s Nan looked like before I saw her photo, such was Linda`s descriptive skill. Lovely.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    May 27, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing Linda’s description of Sundays long past. I guess we all have “Sunday memories,” a little different but somewhat the same…

  5. Sue permalink
    May 27, 2017

    Lovely writing.
    Sue.

  6. Adele permalink
    May 27, 2017

    A very enjoyable read, beautifully written.

  7. Nicole permalink
    May 27, 2017

    This reminds me of my own childhood, mum cooking the Sunday dinner, dad up the pub, then home to eat and a sleep. Nan always came round on Sunday too. A pint of shrimps and half of winkles with bread and butter for tea, and if we were lucky a tin of fruit cocktail with evaporated milk! I can still smell the cabbage cooking and the feel of the kitchen with its steamed up windows!! Have just ordered the book, can’t wait to read it.

  8. May 28, 2017

    Haven’t commented for a long time but I’m still reading after all these years. Great writing, Linda. I’ll look for the book. Thanks for featuring her, Gentle Author. We’re the same age so I could remember similar Sundays.

  9. Peter Morris permalink
    May 28, 2017

    Gorgeous writing. I grew up in Northampton and our family rituals from that time were pretty much the same, as I guess the whole country’s was at that time. Sad so much traditional, pleasant day-to-day social activity has seemingly gone forever.

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