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A Raucous Party in Shadwell

March 15, 2010
by the gentle author

My friend Anne Smith (who I met in Whitechapel last year, when she was wheeling her cat Oscar in a pram) took me to a party in Shadwell last Friday and photographer Sarah Ainslie came along too. A few weeks ago, I visited Anne in the small flat just off Cable St that she shares with her two docile cats Oscar and Cruella whom she likes to dress up in suits and ruffles. Anne is a free spirit with an instinctive sympathy for animals. And the preponderance of leopard and tiger skin prints on the soft furnishings, combined with the pet portraits, fluffy animals and the largest single fish I ever saw in a domestic tank, all in her living room, reflect Anne’s passion for our fellow creatures.

Once Cruella was comfortably installed in the pram, we set out for the community centre next door where there is a social gathering every Friday. On arrival, we were greeted by the master of ceremonies, John Wright, who shepherded us inside to join the happy throng. If you can imagine Larry Grayson, John Inman, Bruce Forsyth, Julian Clary, Paul O’ Grady and Graham Norton all morphed into a single individual, that would be John. With his resplendent blonde locks, immaculate manicure, easy charisma and relentlessly exuberant spirit, it is no exaggeration to say John is the life and soul of this party.

Everyone pays rapt attention to John’s mischievously blue humour and polished repartee, while he keeps everything moving along smoothly. After a career touring the world as a drag artist with his act “The Guys in Disguise”, John has now retired to bring a little necessary glamour to this quite corner of Shadwell, putting his years of professional experience to good use as host of this appealingly upbeat weekly afternoon of chatter, bingo and raffles. And it is much appreciated by the lively posse of local men and women who are under his spell, reciprocating John’s open-hearted affection with a loyal appreciation of his flamboyant rhetoric and idiosyncratic personality.

Many were making merry, quaffing ale, but I settled down to enjoy a quiet cup of tea and biscuits with Betty and Ted Rothon who revealed they have been married over sixty years, since they met when she was twenty-two and he was twenty-four. “We have lived in this neighbourhood over eighty years, our whole lives within a quarter of a mile. We are always together.” said Betty proudly, “We know no other life but we know everyone here!” Continuing enthusiastically, “I was a dress machinist in Ford Square. I started work on the Monday after I left school on the Friday. In the East End nearly all the girls were machinists making coats and dresses. I never got the sack from any job, and I still do it if anyone needs something altered. I worked with Ted’s sister, so when he came out the army, I started going with him and that was it. He was very handsome then and had lovely wavy hair…”

At this point, the conversation broke up into laughter as Betty qualified her statement, stroking Ted’s white hair and protesting that he retains his looks today. Then, with a broad grin, putting his arm around Betty to ease her blushes, Ted told me he worked at East India Dock, “Once upon a time nearly every man in the East End worked in the docks. I liked the friendly atmosphere.” The warmth of this engaging East End couple, still in love after all these years, was tangible.

Next I spoke with Ruby Gordon who came here as a youngster from Jamaica and worked for the “Daily Star”, then as a typesetter at a printing works, a hairdresser and teaching assistant. “I didn’t know anything about snow and smog until I came here,” she admitted to me, widening her eyes to illustrate her amazement, “You couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. I used to get lost in the smog sometimes.” Then with a vivid mime, re-enacting the experience, “You blew your nose and the cloth was dirty with soot from the coal fires.” she told me, shaking her head in amused disapproval. Ruby is a fine lady with a dignified style of her own, elegant features, coiffed hair and attractive gold teeth. It is a style indicative of a justly deserved self-respect, “I never stopped working since I came to this country,” she confessed with a weary smile.

My last conversation was with Doris Jeffrey. Just a few months short of ninety-four years old now, Doris was born in a Peabody flat round the corner that has seen four generations of her family. Full of life and droll understated humour, she looked a picture in her blue floral dress and red cardigan. When I enquired if she had a husband, Doris told me she had been a widow for forty years so I asked if she had ever thought of remarrying but Doris assured me she was quite happy on her own. Like Betty, Doris was also a machinist making clothes though nowadays, she confided, she has no-one left to sew for. Looking around the room and surveying the party, Doris explained to me authoritatively, “Most of the other people here have always lived in this area. It’s very central, convenient for the West End, and the streets are cleaner with better lighting these days. I wouldn’t move out of Shadwell now.” she said, summing it up with the thoughtful disclosure, “I think it grows on you.”

The time had arrived for John to commence calling the bingo numbers, in his distinctively amusing style, and all my interviewees were compelled to silence, concentrating upon their cards, hoping to win as much as four hundred and fifty thousand pounds that afternoon in the special currency that is exclusive to Shadwell.

Later, once the excitement of the day was over, Anne wheeled Cruella in the pram up Cable St, kindly accompanying me partway on my walk back to Spitalfields. But, as we said our goodbyes in Commercial St, I knew it would not be long before I should be paying a return visit back to Shadwell in the hope of meeting some more of the unique personalities that make these raucous Friday afternoon parties so special.

Photographs copyright  © Sarah Ainslie

2 Responses leave one →
  1. julie permalink
    March 15, 2010

    Brilliant. I love the East Enders.

  2. Joan permalink
    March 16, 2010

    This really takes me back. It feels very familiar. Most of my childhood/teenage years were taken up with nights at the Vaughan Club on Lukin Street (just off Cable Street). This was before karaoke and club nights then were a mix of disco (my kids were appalled at my singing along to ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ on Desert Island Discs this week) and Irish set dancing (The Siege of Ennis, the Walls of Limerick). And there was always a raffle and, if you were lucky, spot prizes for best dancer etc. They were all age affairs and I can remember the agonies of hoping that a particular altar boy or member of the parish football team would ask me to dance while all the time being aware that if my wish did come true parents and various disapproving honorary aunts would be watching to see that the dancing didn’t get too close. I can’t imagine going to such a gathering now (I guess I’m one of many of those who left the East End to go to university and became distanced from parts of my origins) but I’m glad to see that the remnants of such a communal culture are being recorded and enjoyed.

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