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A Walk With Suresh Singh

May 22, 2019
by the gentle author

We are very proud to be the publishers of A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh, London’s first Sikh biography, telling the story of one family in Spitalfields over seventy years. In celebration of the book, author Suresh Singh will be in conversation Stefan Dickers at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday 7th June at 7pm. (Click here for tickets)

In the meantime, Suresh and I enjoyed a ramble round Spitalfields recently and he showed me some of the places that hold most meaning for him.

“I love Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East. It was the library I used to go to every Friday when I was at primary school. You could sit and read. It was just lovely. Upstairs was the art and music library. They had big oversize books of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, the Impressionists, Matisse, Degas and Le Corbusier’s book about Chandigarh.

It was amazing to have this in Brick Lane, at the end of my street. You were given freedom to look at the books and could borrow twelve books and five records at a time. The librarian in the music library would order whatever you requested. Even if you asked for ‘Yes’ album, he would get it by next week. My dad had a record player and I learnt to be really careful with a record because when you returned it they would meticulously check it.

The library was a whole world. It taught me to read quietly. It exposed me to books that I might never have found. My mum and dad could not read or write. We had no books at home. I liked the art section because the books had pictures and I learnt that pictures told stories as well as words. The librarians always helped me and I could spend hours there. It was a sanctuary from the mayhem outside, a kind of university of the ghetto.”

“Christ Church School, Brick Lane, was my primary school. I loved it when I came back after a long visit to India at six years old. I have frightening memories of it too, as the place I had to go to after the freedom I had experienced in our village. My mum used to walk me here every day and I would walk home for dinner at Princelet St and come back again. School dinners were so bland but my mum gave me dal and roti.

The water fountain used to work and we could drink from it. I remember it as so high, my friends had to give me a lift up so I could drink from it. You pressed the button and it worked. There were little fish that lived in there.

Later on, Eric Elstob – a friend whom I worked for in the renovation of his house in Fournier St – was treasurer of the school and he restored the railings, which was lovely. A couple of years ago, they were repainting them blue and I asked them to paint a bit of my bike with the same colour to remind me of the great memories I have of this school. We used to have great jumble sales at Christmas. You could climb through the school and out through the back, past the gardens of the houses in Fournier St and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church into Itchy Park, and out into Commercial St and Spitalfields Market. I loved it because it was a backstreet school.”

“I have fond memories of the rectory at 2 Fournier St when Eddie Stride was Rector. It is one of the few Hawksmoor houses. I helped Eddie wash the steps with Vim when the tramps pissed all over them. There used to be queues outside and Irene Stride made sandwiches for them.

It was a place where Eddie made me feel very welcome. I rang the bell or knocked on the door, and he would always open it to me. The door was never closed. I could always go in and play in the garden. Later on, there were big power meetings at the rectory when Eddie became the chairman of the Festival of Light. So you would meet people like Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard and Lord Longford coming and going. It was always an open house.

I was brought up as a Sikh but there were no gurdwaras in Spitalfields, and my dad said ‘You need some moral purpose,’ so he send us to Sunday school and that was how I became friends with Eddie Stride. He was a great friend to our family. He helped me get grants for further education from the Sir John Cass Foundation which led me to study architecture. I loved that time and these steps mean a lot to me. It is amazing how Vim can clean Portland stone. ”

“I always knew the Hanbury Hall as 22a Hanbury St. In those days, Christ Church was closed because it was unsafe and this was used for services instead. There was a youth club at the top of the building on Thursdays and Fridays and we had our Sunday school in the hall.

Because it was built as a Huguenot chapel, everyone used to say that this hall is older than the church and sometimes that used to scare me late at night. There were these big wooden doors that closed with a hasp and I always feared someone might come down the winding stone staircase. Later, when I was doing carpentry work, Eddie gave me the task of housing the remains of the smallpox victims that they found when they were cleaning out the crypt.

When I started a group, we were allowed to rehearse in the vestry at the back. This place was a playground for me but also a church where services were held until the eighties. Then I helped move the furniture from here back to Christ Church. I remember we put the communion table on casters and I had to clear out all the copies of Lord Longford’s pornography report which were being stored in the church.

This hall was a treasure because it had a lovely atmosphere but also a haunted atmosphere too. It was the main meeting point for all of us in Spitalfields at that time.”

“Once, the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane was a dark scary corridor for me. It was my route from my home in Princelet St to my secondary school, Daneford in Bethnal Green. At that time, it used to smell of hops and it was dark and dirty. I got beaten up by a bunch of fascist skinheads at the corner of the brewery where it meets Buxton St. I still try to avoid this route but like a magnet it draws me through. I used to run through or cycle because to go round the other way was much longer and sometimes more scary- you would have to cut past Shoreditch Station and round the back to Cheshire St.

So this was the quickest route but it was like going through a factory. The brewery was always there in my childhood. The smell and the noise were twenty-four hours, and it was always dark beneath the brewery walls. The brewery was a landmark and I remember smoke coming out of that chimney. It was a place that you had no choice but to pass through. At the other end of the brewery was where the skinheads hung out but at this end was the Bengali area where I felt safer. Every day I hoped I would not get my head kicked in as I went to school.

As a kid, I found these long brewery walls interminable. I walked and walked and thought, ‘Will I ever get through to the end?’ It still scares me in a way.”

“I used to pass Franta Belsky’s sculpture in Bethnal Green every day when I walked along the little passageway to Daneford Secondary School. Today, I am wearing the tank top my mum knitted when I was eleven and I remember wearing it to a non-school uniform day all those years ago.

I always used to see this sculpture out of the side of my eye. My friends would say, ‘You go on Singhey, I dare you to touch her breasts and come back down again.’ But slowly I began to appreciate the beauty of it and began looking at books of Henry Moore and David Smith. It was a lovely thing to see before you went to school every day. It comforted me to see a woman and her baby because I thought, ‘That’s how my mum cares for me.’ It gave me a sense of security. I thought, ‘How amazing that we have a piece of sculpture outside our school.’ It made me feel proud because of the sculpture. My dad used to take me to Hyde Park where there were Henry Moores next to the Serpentine. I thought, ‘We’re on a par with the West End here in Bethnal Green.’

I slowly started loving it. I loved her plait and it reminded me of when I had a topknot. I appreciated it in different types of light and I still love it today.”

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St last summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

You may also like to read about

Suresh Singh’s Tank Top

A Modest Living

At 38 Princelet St

A Hard-Working Life

Joginder Singh’s Boy

How to Make A Chapati

A Cockney Sikh

The first Punjabi Punk

A Sikh at Christ Church

Three Punjabi Recipes

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Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. marilyn r permalink
    May 22, 2019

    Remembering being around those streets in the 80’s and the streets by the Truman brewery
    Thank you for giving me another visit

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    May 22, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what lovely reflections Suresh shared of his boyhood haunts in Spitalfields. I particularly liked:

    “The library was a whole world. It taught me to read quietly. It exposed me to books that I might never have found. My mum and dad could not read or write. We had no books at home. … It was a sanctuary from the mayhem outside, a kind of university of the ghetto.”

    Like so many great thinkers who were self-taught in the public libraries of the western world…

  3. Adele Lester permalink
    May 22, 2019

    Wonderfully reminiscent of growing up in the area, from the Jewish perspective – different from Suresh’s, but oh so similar!

  4. May 22, 2019

    As a former library worker it is so good to know first hand from Suresh how much he personally appreciated them and the role that they played in his development. Libraries have helped so many people who otherwise could not have afforded the high price of books or never had the space and peace and quiet at home to sit and study.

  5. May 22, 2019

    Suresh’s ramble around those streets and places in the East End that he holds dear has made me think that I should do the same, recording memories good and not so good……before it all changes forever.
    I found the same sense of peace in Hackney Central Library, now a cinema I believe.
    It seemed like another world to me and I spent hours amid the silence there revising for exams.
    It’s good to see the lovingly made tank top is still looking great!

  6. Upkar Virdee permalink
    May 22, 2019

    A truly astounding piece of writing, simple and so true as it brought back memories of mine when I use to spend my weekends at my brother- in laws flat off brick lane in Montague Street in the mid sixties. Its probably changed now like so many things, but am glad of its character, likewise even I got beaten by a gang of skinheads in 1965 in the East End of Canning Town for being a Singh with a turban.

  7. Laura Williamson permalink
    May 22, 2019

    Wonderful that the Whitechapel library, which was a haven of learning for Isaac Rosenberg, was fulfilling the same purpose for Suresh so many decades later. Great and at times taken for granted places, our libraries, I truly loved the one in Smethwick that I grew up with. It was a place of magic for me and reading this account took me back there.

    Thanks to Suresh and the GA, great piece.

  8. Lesley permalink
    May 23, 2019

    What a lovely man your dad was.

  9. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 24, 2019

    I thoroughly recommend the talks given by Stefan and Suresh. They have a great rapport, and shed a fascinating light on his time growing up in Spitalfields. And his father comes over as a very kind and wise man despite not being able to read or write.

  10. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 24, 2019

    And there may well be delicious samosas available too…

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