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Old Dame Trot & Her Comical Cat

April 24, 2019
by the gentle author

I must confess that I identify with Old Dame Trot - as illustrated in this early nineteenth century chapbook – knowing all too well how it is to share a home with a large feline personality…

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Schrodinger’s First Year In Spitalfields

April 23, 2019
by the gentle author

Schrodinger puts his feet up

Already a whole year has passed since Schrodinger, formerly Shoreditch church cat, came to start a new life with me in Spitalfields. He arrived in April and after spending a couple of weeks sitting in the old wing chair, I let him venture outside for the first time on May Day.

In those first months he skulked around in wary reserve, observing me to ascertain whether I had any sinister intent or whether his new existence was a temporary state from whence he might get swept away again. Did months of wolfing freshly cooked chicken each Sunday change his mind or did he simply forget his earlier life as he became immersed in this one?

Although my house is much smaller than Shoreditch Church, I think Schrodinger has come to recognise the advantages of carpets and upholstery, and regular fresh food. The appeal of stretching out on the rug before the old iron stove in a stupor of warmth on cold winter nights is not lost on him either.

When my old cat Mr Pussy died, his regular spots – on the window sill and in the squares of light cast upon the carpet by the morning sunshine – were vacant, yet I found I still cast my eyes there in expectation of his presence. Consequently it was a heart-stopping surprise at first to discover Schrodinger sitting in these same spots, gazing back at me entirely unaware of his predecessor.

Schrodinger is his own creature, circumspect and self-absorbed, commonly avoiding eye-contact when his antecedent would always seek it. A cat who already knew who he was before he arrived in Spitalfields, Schrodinger is emotionally self-reliant and less dependent on human affection. Thus it is an unexpected privilege when he seeks contact, leaping nimbly onto my lap as I sit at my desk writing these words, or bounding onto the sofa when he enters the room silently to discover me stretched out and snoozing. His greatest gesture of endearment is to rub his head and neck against me, an action that he characteristically undertakes against my ankles when I am standing in front of the fire.

There are subtle behavioural differences between the newcomer and his forbear. Whereas Mr Pussy always entered through the penultimate pair of railings in the garden gate, depositing a build up of fluff, Schrodinger consistently enters through the last pair of railings without leaving a trace.

No doubt he misses the weekly services and classical music concerts that were a regular feature of his life in Shoreditch. Schrodinger will stop in his tracks if he hears the sound of hymns or orchestral music on the radio, no doubt triggering memories of when he famously pranced up and down the aisle, singing along at the church in his tiny high-pitched voice.

After a year, Schrodinger has laid down patterns of behaviour. If I linger too late on the sofa before going to bed, he sits on the carpet and fixes me with his gaze while waiting patiently for me to leave so that he can spend the night there, lying on his back with limbs distended and stretched out to his full extent.

Like his predecessor, he waits at the top of the stair in the morning so that we can leave the house to greet the day together. He runs ahead to escort me like a vanguard, down the stairs and through his cat door. Then he pauses while I step outside and lock the door, before he leads the way down the path, through the gate and along the alley, only peeling off at the last moment before the busy road and leaving me to venture into the city alone.

Perhaps most heart-warming is Schrodinger’s behaviour upon my return. If he sees me in the street, he will run to accompany me into the house and if he spies me coming from up on the sill, he will stand poised at the head of the stair to welcome me home.

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Alie Touw’s Life In Britain

April 22, 2019
by the gentle author

In the final of three stories published over the holiday, Alie Touw speaks of her life in Britain

Centenarian Alie Touw has lived in this country for over half a century and made Spitalfields her home in recent decades. Yet if circumstances had been different, or if Alie had followed her father’s advice, she never would have left Holland at all – as she confessed to me. ”Please don’t go to England,’ my father said, ‘The people there, they look down on small countries.’”

The story of the Dutch in London is rarely told but just a few minutes walk east from Alie’s home is a street once known as ‘Dutch Tenterground,’ with reference to the community of diamond cutters and cigar makers who came here from the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. And just a hundred yards west from Alie’s home, a Dutch Church has stood in Austin Friars in the City of London since 1550. Today Alie is one of the longest serving of its congregation. It was this church that brought Alie to her current home, when Alie’s husband became caretaker there in the eighties

Such is Alie’s moral stature and seniority within the Dutch community in London, whenever a new ambassador is appointed from the Netherlands, I am told it is an accepted protocol that they invite Alie to dinner at the embassy.

At one hundred years old, Alie remains in robust spirits and reassures me when  – in order to arrange a photographer to take her portrait – I enquire of her future plans. ‘Don’t worry,’ she jokes, ‘I am not going to die.’ Mystified by her longevity, Alie is regretful that she has outlived all her siblings, her husband and her eldest son.

Yet she is fascinated and engaged with the lives of the young women who visit as carers, permitting her to live independently. Most are immigrants who are overqualified but accept menial work as a necessary sacrifice towards building a new life in Britain. Alie appreciates their fortitude because theirs is a struggle that she understands keenly.

“I came over from Holland with my husband and two sons in 1956.

My brother-in-law had a factor in Arnhem, manufacturing car radiators, which was destroyed in the war. Opposite was a school where the English were treating their wounded, so he went across to talk with the officers who were staying there. ‘What are you missing?’ he asked, ‘Do you need anything?’ They replied, ‘We would love to have a bath,’ so he said, ‘You can come over to my house and have a bath.’ He made friends with the English officers and they said, ‘Why don’t you start again in England?’ He left in 1947. He took some of his employees and started up his business again in the Midlands and he did very well.

When he came back to visit us after a couple of years, he said, ‘You’re still struggling.’ If you lose everything, it takes so long to recover. If you have children, they always come first. I could sleep on the floor but I wanted a bed for my child. I had lost my sewing machine which I used to make all the clothes for my family. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to England as well?’ He talked us into it.

My husband was a chocolatier and came to London to look for a job and, eventually,  he found one at a factory in Finsbury Park. In Holland, there was no chocolate and he had been working in a bakery. We were still struggling in 1956, so we left for England with our two little boys. My younger son had been born in July 1945.

England had suffered as well, but they had more than we had. We shared a house with the manager of the chocolate factory and his wife, they lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. While we were there my sons went to the local school. I said, ‘If you make a friend, you can always bring him home.’ My younger son brought home a black boy who was his friend. The wife of the factory manager saw him come into the house. I thought it was normal, I never taught my children that you could not do that – all are welcome. He was a nice boy and I went to meet his mother who lived alone, supporting herself with her sewing machine.

A couple of days later, I had a knock at my door and the manager’s wife said, ‘Your son brought a black boy here.’ I said, ‘Yeah, so what?’ I did not see anything wrong in it. She said, ‘You cannot do that, it brings the whole neighbourhood down.’ Some time later, my husband said, ‘I have to leave.’ He got the sack from the chocolate factory and had to find another job.

He found a job in Winchester and we bought a house because there was nowhere available to rent. The factory belonged to an English woman whose husband was Dutch but after a couple of years they had a row and she said, ‘Out you go, and all the Dutch go too!’ My husband was out of a job again until he found one making chocolate in a big hotel at Marylebone, but then he had to stay in lodgings. I had a third baby by then and he came home on Friday night and left again on Sunday.

My brother-in-law said, ‘This is no good, I am going to look for a shop so you can all be together,’  and he found one with a three bedroom council flat above for us in Redditch, near Birmingham. It was a confectionery shop and we sold sweets, bread and cakes. It was in a run of ten shops and we spent twenty years working there from eight until six, Monday until Saturday. We worked so hard and we did survive, but then my husband had enough of it.

We heard that they were looking for a caretaker for the Dutch Church in the City of London. So my husband said, ‘I’m going to pack in, we’re going to sell this shop.’

We had several bakers working for us and about fifteen reps coming to the shop from different factories, and we had to buy stock and pay for it every month. We always needed the bank to help us out. We did well but the shop did not. Sainsburys opened and some of the other ten shops lost everything. I asked my husband, ‘Tell me exactly what you owe,’ and I sold the shop. I was not going to go and live in London if we still owed money to people in Redditch. We had to pay our debts off and then we could leave – and that was what we did.”

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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Alie Touw’s War

April 21, 2019
by the gentle author

In the second of three stories published over the holiday, Alie Touw tells of her life in the occupation

Centenarian Alie Touw lives in a small flat in Petticoat Lane where she delights in domesticity. The kitchen is clean and well-organised, and Alie is especially pleased to have acquired a new grinder suitable for apple sauce. To impart the ideal flavour to apple sauce – she explains – you need to include the peel but then it raises the question of how to achieve the smooth puree that is the desired texture for proper apple sauce, which is why a grinder is essential.

Such culinary matters are important to Alie Touw, not because she is a pedant or unduly house proud but because she believes in the significance of small things. Alie understands that the culture of keeping house is the basis of a civilised life, she knows this because she has experienced the disruption when a family home is destroyed and the domestic world is displaced by chaos and violence.

I visited Alie to hear of her experiences during the war and we sat together in conversation on either side of her kitchen table as the dusk gathered in the late afternoon. ‘I don’t like taking about the war,’ she confided to me with a frown, ‘My father lived through two wars but he would never speak about it.’ Only after she had finished telling her story did I fully understand her reluctance but, now that I know what happened, I am grateful to her for her astonishing testimony.

“We had a hard time in Holland during the war, especially the last winter of 1944, it was terrible. We were occupied for more than five years.

At that time you could not even trust your own neighbours. I was twenty-six, I had been married two years and I had a one year old baby. I had a pro-German neighbour living next to me in our house in Arnhem near the Rhine. He was from Germany and he had ten children who had to fight for his country. His wife was Dutch but she was even more pro-German, so we had to be very careful what we said to them. I never spoke to her anymore, just in case.

People were bringing Jewish children over the bridge, arranging for them to escape from Germany, and sometimes they stayed with me overnight before catching the train next morning to London. Another of my neighbours who I was very friendly with, she had five Jews hiding in the loft of her house. On the other side of me I had an old couple who knew I was alright, that I would never reveal anyone for the sake of a reward. He was in the resistance and every morning he listened to Radio London. He would tell me, ‘It’s going well, it’s going well’ and I would say, ‘Fine, fine.’ But then we all had to leave.

We had to leave our home on the 23rd September, two days after my birthday. Everybody had to leave or they would shoot us they said. We had no telephones at that time, so had no idea what was going on. Arnhem was not a small village, it was big town and everyone had to leave. There were dead soldiers lying in the street. My father went to look in the pockets of the dead soldiers and took their addresses, so he could inform the families. There was shooting through the streets and in the windows. Nothing was safe anymore. There was fighting everywhere and every night the sky was red with the buildings near the bridge over the Rhine burning. We saw people running through the street and we asked, ‘What’s happening?’ and they answered, ‘Our house is gone!’

The Red Cross gave us addresses where we could go to, so we started walking from town to town. I had to walk for hours with my baby. At first, we were staying with my parents, but we had to leave them. Me and my husband and his sister, all of us went walking until we came to the place. The weather was so bad and all we had was a bicycle. It was raining and there was thunder, everything. We got soaked. All we had was a small suitcase for ourselves and a big one for the baby. It was all we could carry, since they told us it would only be a fortnight, so we did not take much with us but it was nine months before we could come back, after the war ended.

They expected a fight over the bridge over the Rhine which was the border with Germany – they called it the Battle of Arnhem. The Germans wanted to hold it but on the other side were the English, American and Polish soldiers. There had been fighting in the streets. The British and the American and Polish wanted to cross the bridge over the Rhine but the Germans would not give up, and so many people died. The Dutch blew up the bridge.

On the first night, a farmer took us in and we had to sleep on the floor because they did not have beds for us. We did not know how long we could stay or how long the war would go on. They were very kind and they had plenty of food for us. We brought what we had with us but we did not have much.

We slept on straw on the floor of the stable with a blanket over us. After five or six weeks, my husband said, ‘We have to go, we are eating up all their food.’ So we had to leave and, one afternoon before we left, we were having a cup of tea and we looked outside and saw a familiar face, my brother-in-law. I rushed out and he told me he had been made to digging holes in the streets for people to jump into if a bomb fell. He had never lifted a spade or done physical work in his life before. So we brought him in and gave him a cup of tea, and he told us my father and my sister and her three little children were sleeping on the floor of a school.

We went to join them and stayed overnight. Of course, we had to ask permission and we asked to stay but we were told, ‘No get out, get out! There are too many here and we don’t trust you.’ So we had to go back.

We had to find a place to stay. My father-in-law contacted his daughter who lived in Aalsmeer near Amsterdam and she said, ‘Come over here.’ The Germans told us we could go to the north or the west. It took us four days to walk there. Every night, the Red Cross gave us an address of a place we could stay. I still cannot understand how they organised it, but there were so many who wanted to take in people who had been evacuated. We could not always stay together. It was November when we started walking, and it was raining and raining for days. We had no raincoats.

Everywhere the Germans stopped us to check our identities. From the beginning of the war, we had to show it wherever we went. We were not free any more. There was a curfew every night between ten and four o’clock when we could not go outside.

On 5th December, we arrived at my sister-in-law’s house. We had been travelling since September. My husband had made a little cart for wood which we put the baby in and attached to the back of the bicycle. When we still had five kilometres to go, a farmer with a big cart stopped. He said, ‘Put the whole lot on board, where do you have to go?’ It was evening already and he took us to my sister-in-law. She was standing outside and my father-in-law was there already. They took us in and we stayed there until the war was over.

In January, my husband said, ‘I am going to see what is left of our house.’ I do not know how he ever dared, we were not supposed to go there. It was so near the end of the war that I do not think the Germans had any ammunition in their guns to shoot you. There had been fighting in the street and lots of houses were damaged. He found our front door open, there was no glass left in the windows and the house was empty. When they blew up the bridge in Arnhem, all the windows in the nearby streets were broken. I had been saving up since I was eighteen and I had some lovely things, some brand new furniture, bed linen and cutlery. There were no curtains left, they even took the curtains off. All my husband found was some baby clothes and a little cot in the loft.

Food was very scarce at that time. The winter was long and cold, and food became so scarce that some people died of hunger. We had no money but you could not buy anything – the Germans stole everything. Every morning we went to farm to see if they had any food and they asked us, ‘You’ve come all the way from Arnhem, we don’t know who you are – we want to know if you have been with the Germans?’ There was a list of people who collaborated with the Germans and, after the war, they got those people. They shaved the heads of girls who had been with German soldiers.

At the farm, they said to us, ‘We will find out who you are, come back tomorrow.’ Next morning they saw us coming and gave us a sack of flour. My sister in law took us in even though she had hardly any food herself. There was almost no electricity or gas to cook but there were these communal kitchens and people brought what food they had to share. My husband said, ‘I will go and try to help out.’ My father-in-law went with him and they came back with soup.

Then the Germans became desperate. They could come to your house and if you said, ‘No you cannot come in,’ they would shoot you. You had to let them in. They went in all the houses looking for radios, although we had already got rid of them because we were not allowed to have radios. We were not supposed to listen to London but people hid radios.

All the young men were summoned to the quay on Saturday afternoon and were taken to Germany. My husband had to go. They were put on a boat to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam sent by train to Germany. It was April and the war was nearly over. I went to the quay to say goodbye to him and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ They were told, ‘Take a blanket with you and a spoon and a mug,’ so that if somebody came to the train when it stopped they might get a drink or some food. The Dutch people did this. But my husband said, ‘I’m not taking a mug or a spoon, I’m going to escape.’

The train stopped at the border with Germany and my husband saw a familiar face. His brother lived there and he recognised his sister-in-law, going round with a kettle giving everyone on the train a drink. There were soldiers on the train and they were at a station. She saw my husband and said, ‘Peter, what are you doing here?’ He told her, ‘They took me, we have to go to Germany.’ She said, ‘You’re not, here’s the kettle,’ and she took him home. My brother-in-law was in the resistance. They stole German uniforms and put them on and went to the gaol every evening with a list of names from Aalsmeer. They said, ‘These people have to come out.’ Each time, they took a few out. It was unbelievable really what they did.

I did not know when my husband would come back, if ever, but one day the baker returned to Aalsmeer. The shortage of food got very bad and there was no soup kitchen anymore. It was just at the end of the war and my husband was still not back. There were no dogs and cats, people were eating the animals.

My son got very ill because he had no fruit, no vitamins. My sister was a nurse in another town and, before my husband left, he put the child on his bike to take him to the hospital where she worked and asked, ‘Can you take care of your nephew?’ They admitted him to the hospital and I did not see him for a fortnight. The hospitals still had a little food. They were able to make him better but he cried, ‘Mama, mama,’ day and night. He was just two years old and when the doctor saw him, he said, ‘This child is so ill.’  I had to send him to bed without any food. The boy should never have been born then, but what can you do?

My brother who lived in Amsterdam was in the resistance and he had a typewriter to type pamphlets for the underground secret service. One day he had a knock and the door and he had to chuck the typewriter out the window. If they had found a typewriter, they would shoot you.

By 5th May, it was over. My husband came back home on a bicycle all the way from the east. He had to travel all the way across Holland on his bicycle, but he came back. There was no money and no jobs but my husband went to the bakery and repaired some bicycles and they gave him a loaf. Sweden sent us flour and bakers started baking. There was no butter but bread tasted like cake for us.

The Red Cross made up wooden boxes of food. We saw the planes came over flying low and dropping the boxes in the fields. Each family got a case containing bacon, beans, sardines, flour, yeast, egg powder, biscuits and chocolate. Those planes were all coming from Lincolnshire and people spread out sheets on the ground with the words ‘Thankyou boys!’ We were so grateful. Today my son lives in Lincolnshire and is married to the niece of one of the pilots who flew those planes.”

Tomorrow, Alie concludes with her account of how she came to London after the war

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Alie Touw, Centenarian

April 20, 2019
by the gentle author

In the first of a series of three stories published over the holiday, Alie Touw tells of her childhood

‘I am an optimist, most of the time’  – Portrait by Sarah Ainslie

‘I don’t know how it happened!’ declares centenarian Alie Touw, shaking her head and raising her hands with a smile of mock bewilderment if you ask the secret of her longevity. ‘I have so many things wrong with me and I fell over several times, but I keep getting up again.’ With her shock of white hair and keen green eyes, Alie sits peacefully and keeps her counsel.

High above Petticoat Lane, Alie lives in a small flat where she peers down upon the City to the west and Spitalfields to the east, observing the relentless passage of life below and contemplating the ironies of existence. Each week, she ventures out to buy food at the supermarket and savour the exoticism of our present age. I doubt if many of those who pass Alie in the street are aware of this traveller from another time walking in their midst. Such is her vitality and demeanour, Alie easily passes as someone decades younger than her hundred years.

Yet Alie is acutely aware of the extraordinary times and momentous events she has witnessed in her long life. She carries equivocal and turbulent memories of the world before we were born. They colour Alie’s personality today and she acknowledges she herself is the outcome of these experiences. This admission makes Alie’s generosity of spirit especially impressive, because her relationship with existence has been forged in dark times and perilous situations. ‘I am an optimist, most of the time,’ Alie will reveal if you press her.

‘There are so many stories to tell,’ Alie confesses to me with a helpless grin, conceding the astonishing journey she has made through inauspicious circumstances, across Europe from Arnhem in Holland and over an entire century, to discover peace in Spitalfields. I visited Alie at her flat in Petticoat Lane over several weeks through this last winter and was inspired and uplifted to hear Alie’s stories because – although she speaks of the past – she has much to say to us today.

“I was born at the end of the First World War. Holland was invaded and there was not much food, so I do not know how they brought me up. I came into the world on 23rd September 1918 as the fifth daughter, the twelfth child of my parents. My father was a train driver. He was born in 1847 and he never talked about his past.

I still remember my mother who died when I was eight years old. She was nineteen when she got married and twenty-one when she had her first child. She went on and on, until she had thirteen children. We were living in Arnhem near the river Rhine and, if the weather was nice, we went for a walk and sat on the riverside with her before we went to bed. When she got ill, my eldest sister looked after her and us, which was quite a challenge.

On my mother’s last night, we were woken up in the middle of the night by my sister who said, ‘Your mother is not very well, you had better come and say ‘Good night’ to her.’ That was the last time I saw her. We were sent to stay with the neighbours but we could hear the carriages in the street and my little sister who was six years old screamed when they took our mother away from our house. I could hear my father crying in the night.

I was always ill. Even as baby, when I was a couple of months old, I was in hospital. My sister told me my mother kept one of my jumpers and would not wash it until I got better. She told everything to my sister. A lot of what I know of her is what my sister told me.

My elder sister was already engaged to be married, with a fiancé who had a good job. She said to my father, ‘I cannot look after the family.’ She was sixteen years older than me and she had her own life to live. My father did not like that, he expected her to stay at home, so we had to go into an orphanage. I spent ten years there until my eighteenth year. In September of that year I was nineteen but I was able to leave at Easter. They looked after us very well, except we did not get enough food. We did not starve but were always hungry. It was just bread and butter in the morning, and in the afternoon we had a meal.

You were not allowed to complain. One girl complained. There was a monthly meeting with the people who looked after us and she was asked to apologise to them, but she said, ‘I’m not going to say ‘Sorry.”  So they said, ‘Out you go!’ and she was thrown out with only the clothes she had on. She was seventeen years old.

Sometimes we had a good time in the orphanage but I was often ill. I had tuberculosis and pneumonia but I recovered. Every day my father visited, to see a different one of us. He came every Friday morning to see me. He had a botched cataract operation so he was nearly blind and he carried a white stick. I said, ‘Oh father, do be careful.’ He came on the bus to see me but one day a van knocked him over when he was nearly home.

In the orphanage, we had savings of ten cents a week – out of which you were given pocket money of three cents to put in the collection at church. On Monday nights, we felt very lonely, so they gave us wool to knit socks for the boys and, every Friday night, we had to wash the boys’ socks. I could knit when I was four years old, my sisters taught me and it came in handy. They would say ‘This is how much you have to do tonight. ‘

The boys never had to do anything, we had to do all the chores. We did not have much free time. We went to an ordinary school with normal children but we had to walk in a line with a woman supervising us. After school, we always had to prepare the potatoes for the next day.

On Sunday morning we went to church, then we had a meal and we could go home for the afternoon. My father walked for half an hour to collect us and we walked home with him. He brought us back again by six o’clock and by seven o’clock we were in bed.

When we were fourteen, we had to leave school and learn domestic service. They wanted me to leave at thirteen but I said, ‘Can I do another year?’ You did six weeks in the kitchen, six weeks in the house, doing cleaning and scrubbing wooden floors, six weeks in the laundry and six weeks in the sewing room. I was not strong enough to scrub floors so they sent me straight to the sewing room. They saved our money for us in the bank and, when we were twenty-one, they gave it to us – a hundred guilders. The first thing I bought was a bicycle. In the last year, you did not have to anything for the orphanage but make your own clothes buying the materials out of that money.

When I was eighteen, I had to go home to take care of my father. He was ninety years old by then. My elder sister who had taken care of us, she took him in after my mother died and took care of him for ten years. She had to do all the sewing and the cooking. She was an angel but she had had enough. We all had to look after my father and our brothers. The two eldest brothers were already married but the other brothers still at home. They needed help.

I was one of my father’s favourites. I said, ‘I want to be a nurse.’ He said, ‘No you have to look after us.’ My other sister had already taken care of the family for five years, since she left the orphanage at seventeen. When she got married, I took over. I did not mind really, I had no choice. Think about it, it was a large house, we had no washing machine or vacuum cleaner or central heating.

When I was twenty, I got engaged and my younger sister had to take over. After a couple of years I got married and had a child. Then the war started.”

Tomorrow, Alie Touw continues with her account of life during the occupation

Portrait copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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