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A Walk With Clive Murphy

June 10, 2012
by the gentle author

On Saturday, I enjoyed the privilege of accompanying Clive Murphy – the distinguished oral historian and writer of ribald rhymes – on a stroll around Spitalfields visiting some of his favourite haunts. He emerged from his red front door, having descended the stairs from his flat above the Aladin restaurant on Brick Lane where he has lived since 1974, sporting a raffish brown fedora and raincoat, and we headed directly to his usual morning destination, Nude Espresso in Hanbury St.

“It’s the best cafe I know because you don’t meet English people, only Australians and New Zealanders. They’re all so young and fresh and not at all buttoned-up,” Clive explained enthusiastically, as we were seated at a prominent table. And I felt like James Boswell accompanying Samuel Johnson, as the great raconteur let loose his celebrated gift for rhetoric, causing everyone in the small cafe to crane in attention. “I tried to congratulate them on their vocabulary, in the use of ‘titillate’ on the board outside, but then they informed me the actual wording was “open ’til late.'” Clive informed me with a sly smile of self-deprecation.“I remember when they opened and I was the only customer. The owner is Dickie Reed and the food and the coffee are good, and I do hand it to him, because he started here with nothing and now he’s got this place and a roastery and another one in Soho.” said Clive, continuing his eulogy, and only breaking off as a plate of complimentary muffins was placed in front of him.

Then we popped round to Grenson shoes next door where Martha Ellen Smith, the manager, has been working on a linocut portrait of Clive. Despite his uncertainty about the likeness, I gave the picture my approval and congratulated Martha on capturing the spirit of the man. “A friend of mine who spends all day drinking and watching porn says I am becoming a cantankerous old git,” confessed Clive, turning vulnerable suddenly as we left the shop, and requiring vigorous persuasion on my part to convince him of the lack of veracity in such an observation.

Energised by caffeine, our spirits lifted as we strode off down Brick Lane when, to my amazement, I noticed another fellow coming towards us with the same mis-matched shoes as Clive – wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe – which I had been too polite to mention until then. In fact, it was a complete coincidence and, although they were unknown to each other prior to this meeting, both men explained it was because they had problems with ill-fitting shoes, becoming at once affectionate brothers of mis-matched footwear. Yet such is the nature of Brick Lane today, this could quickly become an emergent trend in international street style for summer 2012.

We arrived at Sweet & Spicy on the corner of Chicksand St, Clive’s favourite restaurant, where he has been coming regularly for curry since 1974. Here, in the cool of the peaceful dining room, we were greeted by proprietor Omar Butt, wrestler and boxer, who runs this popular curry house started by his father in 1969. Clive recommended the hot spicy lamb and the pilau rice with saffron to me, enquiring the secret of the rice from Omar who revealed the distinctive quality was in the use of raisins, almonds and butter ghee. Pointing out the weight-lifting posters on the wall, Clive informed me that Omar had been preceded by his brother Imran Butt who was “mad for bodybuilding.”

“We used to have useful things like a laundrette, an ironmonger and an electrical shop in Brick Lane,” announced Clive, turning morose as we retraced our steps, “now one half of it is arty-farty shops and the other half curry houses, and there’s nothing else.” Yet his complaint was cut short as we were greeted by the cheery Sanjay, Clive’s friend who works as waiter in the Aladin restaurant below his flat. “I told him I was going to the supermarket one day and he asked me to bring him a present, so I got him a packet of biscuits,” recalled Clive fondly, humbled by Sanjay’s open-heartedness, “it’s amazing what a packet of biscuits can do.”

Leaving Brick Lane, we turned down Buxton St towards the rear of the brewery where Clive lived for a year in the headmaster’s study of the derelict St Patrick’s School in 1972, when he first came to Spitalfields. “I had a hurricane lamp, a camp bed and a tea chest.” he said as we reached the threshold of the Victorian Schoolhouse, “There was only electricity three days a week and I had a single cold tap on the floor below. I was scared of the meths drinkers who sat outside on the step because I was all alone, I had never been in the East End before and I had never met meths drinkers before. But then three painters moved in and we became a colony of artists, until I was flooded out.”

“I think would have made a go of it anywhere,” acknowledged Clive, in a measured attempt to sum up his forty years in the East End, “I don’t think Spitalfields has been especially generous to me, except it was where I met my heroes Alexander Hartog, the tenor and mantle presser, and Beatrice Ali, the Salvation Army Hostel Dweller, and I am grateful because they were both absolute treasures.” These individuals became the subjects of two of the most memorable of Clive’s oral histories.

By now, a blustery wind had blown up in Buxton St. It had been accumulating all morning and caused me to run down the street more than once to retrieve Clive’s hat, but now it required him to hold his fedora in place with his left hand. Yet before we went our separate ways, heading for home, Clive presented me with a packet of liquorice allsorts that he had secreted in his raincoat pocket, and I was delighted to accept them as a souvenir of our walk.

Patron of ‘Nude Espresso’ Woos Another
“To me you’re Thai fishcakes with rocket and lime;
You’re dark chocolate muffins and brownies divine;
You’re toasted banana-bread, honeycomb butter;
Is she still were alive, you’d pass muster with Mother;
You’re pancakes with yoghurt and gold maple syrup;
You’re utterly scrumptious as once was Prince Philip;
You’re spiced beans, courgettes, creamy mushrooms with cress;
You’re risotto with lemon; you’re muesli with zest.
Some say you’re expensive, you’re over-presented.
What rot! You’ve got style. They should be well-contented.
You’re manna from heaven, your looks Central Casting.
I’d put you inside me. A pity I’m fasting.”
(The food items named were on the menu in Lent 2010)

Clive and antipodean friends at Nude Espresso.

Clive at Grenson Shoes with Martha and Nathan.

Martha Ellen Smith’s lino cut portrait of Clive.

The beginning of a trend on Brick Lane, Clive meets Mark who shares his taste in mis-matched footwear.

Clive with Omar Butt at Sweet & Spicy in Brick Lane where Clive has been dining since 1974.

Clive with his friend Sanjay, waiter at the Aladin Curry House, Brick Lane.

Clive at Old St Patrick’s School in Buxton St where he first lived in Spitalfields in 1972. – “I only had a hurricane lamp, a camp bed and a tea chest.”

Clive encounters a blustery corner in Buxton St.

Clive in his flat above the Aladin curry house on Brick Lane where he has lived since 1974.

Copies of Clive Murphy’s oral histories can be obtained from Labour and Wait and his ribald rhymes can be bought at Rough Trade East.

You may also like to read

Clive Murphy, Oral Historian & Writer of Ribald Rhymes

Beatrice Ali, Salvation Army Hostel Dweller

Alexander Hartog, Tenor & Mantle Presser

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Annie permalink
    June 10, 2012

    More mellow genius on a middling Sunday morning…I keep clicking on links to items I have never read. Excellent accompaniment to coffee and cake.

  2. John Campbell permalink
    June 10, 2012

    Love the lino portrait! A dedicated feature on this artist and her work please.

  3. isabella permalink
    June 11, 2012

    Loved this and I too remember walking around the area and being so happy to imagine how life used to be and will carry on exploring London streets on foot and beathing in the atmosphere.I also love old graveyards and churches.I think Clive Murphy with his odd shoes is amazing.

  4. Cherub permalink
    June 15, 2012

    Glad to read the Aladin is still there. I spent happy times there with friends when I was a mature student at Queen Mary College in the mid 90s. It was always cheap and very cheerful!

  5. January 25, 2013

    What a charming man! It is like meeting somebody that I felt I had already known, but didn’t know from when or where. Thank you

  6. April 4, 2013

    How wonderful to know more about Clive, a fellow regular of Sweet’n’spicy. This makes me miss it even more. We need some kind of support group!

  7. Peter Hart permalink
    June 18, 2021

    A wonderful interesting fellow. Thank you

  8. June 27, 2021

    A very enjoyable report on your walkabout with Clive.

    The mismatched shoes detail brings to mind Johnson and Boswell:
    “Early in his biography Boswell remarks “that minute particulars are frequently characteristick, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man.” In the hands of an artful biographer, these minute particulars, like so many well-placed dots in a pointillist painting, conduce to provide a satisfyingly full picture. So it is with the “Life of Johnson.” Boswell shows us his subject’s gruff table manners, how he walked, his laugh (like that of a rhinoceros), his terror of death, his immense—one can only call it his Christian—generosity to the poor and those defeated by life.” –Joseph Epstein

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