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So Long, Juke Box Jimmy

December 30, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I recall a walk I once took with James Phimister (universally known as Juke Box Jimmy), who died on Thursday aged seventy-two. Jimmy was a Scots Cockney who lived for music and became a celebrated regular fixture at Pellliccis in Bethnal Green where he ate lunch for nearly sixty years.

Jimmy at Pelliccis by Colin O’Brien

Jimmy in 1969

Here is Jimmy on his wedding day at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, aged twenty-three, full of life and surveying the world with a grin that indicated a man who knew his way around. Yet only ten years earlier, he came to London from Cowdenbeath where Jimmy’s father was a Scottish miner who wanted a better life for his three young sons.

In their corner of Fife, the only sources of employment were the mines or the docks, both declining industries. With brave foresight, he quit his job and came alone to London to seek a new life for his family and once he had secured a job at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, they came to join him.

“I went to Daniel St School and when the teacher asked me to read a story from the book out loud, I said, ‘I’ll have to read it in Scots, Sir,’ and obviously all the kids laughed. I didn’t speak Cockney at that time.” admitted Jimmy, describing his first encounter with cultural displacement, adding that he picked up Cockney at once and never looked back since.

One day, I joined Jimmy for lunch at Pelliccis in Bethnal Green where he had been regular diner since 1959 and, once he had polished off his steamed pudding with custard, we walked briskly westward together, weaving our way through the back streets over to 19 Old Nichol St.

In the nineteen sixties, Jimmy used to work up on the third floor as an optical technician, manufacturing spectacles at Prince’s Optical Company and enjoyed a high old time. “We did have some great laughs,” he confided with a twinkly smile.

In Jimmy’s animated company, the street transformed before my eyes as he pointed out the exact spot in Camlet St opposite, where the foreman became visible as he approached – explaining that someone always had to keep watch at the window, especially if all the staff of the spectacle factory were skylarking up on the roof making comedy home movies with a super eight camera, as they liked to do. Crossing to the corner of Camlet St, Jimmy placed his hand on a sill with a significant grin. Here lived the infamous Nell who threw a bucket of piss from this window onto any car that parked outside. Then, with a gesture in the direction of the site of a hut across the road where Marc Bolan played, Jimmy walked into Redchurch St, that was all cabinet makers in his personal landscape of memory, which, I began to realise, was more vivid to him than the mere shadow of our present day.

I ran at his heels scribbling in my notebook as we made our way east again. Jimmy spoke to me as if to one blind, indicating landmarks that were visible only to him, referring to the names of pubs closed years ago and pointing out the bullet hole from the shooting of Ginger Marks in Cheshire St, in the wall that no longer stands. Passing the Cheshire St washhouse that is now flats, he said, “When we first came down from Scotland we used to come here for lovely baths.” Then he halted in his steps, pointed reverentially and announced, “This is where I spent my youth playing football on the grass.” Such was the limitation of my vision, all I could see was the bare concrete car park in front of us.

Next, we crossed Vallance Rd to arrive at the corner of Menotti St where Jimmy lived when he first arrived from Scotland. “There were five of us living in two rooms on the first floor, a front room and a bedroom. I slept with my dad on the lower bunk and my mum slept on the top bunk with my two brothers. The rent was too high and we had mice in there.” Jimmy recalled dispassionately, as he peered up expectantly to the blank first floor window of the newly-built flats that occupy the site today.

Everything had changed on this side of the street, but a passing train drew Jimmy’s attention to the railway opposite. “It took a while to get used to that!” he said and looked over at the gloomy dripping arch which he was was too frightened to walk under alone as a child. He indicated the corner where his loyal friend Alan, who lived in Whitechapel, would wait until Jimmy was safely inside his front door before turning for home. Then we walked away into Weavers’ Fields in the afternoon sun.“This used to be all debris here – bombsites – we loved it,” declared Jimmy, gazing around at his former playground in delight.

“I feel most at home in Bethnal Green, my roots are here because this is where I was brought up. That’s why I come five days a week to Pelliccis, when you go in there you feel part of a family, and I love all the hospitality that goes with it. There’s two chaps I see on a Friday, they are my friends from seventeen years old. To me, it’s the best place I’ve found for food – when they close for a holiday, I’m lost, I don’t know where to go.”

Walking the streets with Jimmy, each place became familiar and domestic, and I envied his ability to strike up conversations with everyone who walked into his path. To Jimmy, the street was a social environment where he felt entirely at home and could meet anyone as an equal. He expected to speak with everyone and when he received no response to his open-hearted entreaties, he exclaimed in disappointed bewilderment.

Next day, I took the 309 bus from Bethnal Green to Poplar where Jimmy lived alone with his cat in a small flat, to see his famous juke box that he was named for. The glistening handsome machine enjoyed pride of place in the living room which was lined with filing cabinets containing Jimmy’s vast and meticulously organised record collection. Unfairly dismissed from his job one day, Jimmy won justice in the form of a lump sum of compensation at a tribunal, allowing him the once-in-a-lifetime chance of an expensive purchase. So he bought the beautiful Seburg jukebox you see below that he cherished as a symbol of both his self-respecting independence and the love of music that filled his life, even if he rarely played the machine out of consideration for his neighbours.

“I’ve still got the Scottish tongue, though I don’t use it now,” said Jimmy, turning Scottish with complete playful authenticity to surprise me, as if he had switched records in his own internal jukebox.“Even when I go back to Scotland I find it too embarrassing to speak it in front of the Scots, but I always spoke Scots to my parents.” he explained. Then, changing tone and referring back to the moment when his father came South more than half a century ago, he added quietly, “I’ve got him to thank for everything in the first place.”

Juke Box Jimmy at home with his beloved Seburg Juke Box

Listen to Jimmy talking about his life and music

Click here for part one

Click here for part two

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Rod permalink
    December 30, 2017

    Every day people with stories to tell, I applaud your dedication

  2. December 30, 2017

    Jim was a legend and a gent – full of great anecdotes about Bethnal Green and the East End in the sixties. He introduced me to so many great tunes that were on the scene then, but fallen out of favour or have become forgotten now..

    Thanks for sharing the audio too

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    December 30, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the warm and touching portrait of James Phimister, another colorful character that makes up the dramatis personae of Bethal Green.

    RIP …

  4. December 30, 2017

    I read through this, murmuring……”Oh, How I WISH I had the opportunity to meet Jimmy….” — and then realized that I just HAD, thanks to your revealing portrait. I would have enjoyed comparing notes about the joys of owning one’s own jukebox (we also own a classic Seeburg, and the sound is downright nuclear). I would have been (like you, GA) an appreciative audience for his glorious stories and recollections. “They” say that we all have a twin somewhere, and I thought you would enjoy knowing that a (now departed) man known as Record Ron lived in New Orleans for years and his story (and fascinations) were very much like Jimmy’s. He had an epic 45 rpm collection, and held court in a shop in the French Quarter, just for the pleasure of talking music with passersby. I happened to meet him just by chance one day, and I treasure that encounter, and the music recommendations I took away. To Jimmy and Ron — Rock on, gents.

  5. December 31, 2017

    So Long, JUKE BOX JIMMY — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  6. stephanie permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Ah. Young to go.

    Met him just once on a steal away birthday Ham ‘n’ Egg and Syrup Sponge lunch (note culinary plug). Have his Rare and Hard To Find Records card tucked under my hall mirror. As An Occasional Blow In to Pellici’s he could have eaten me for lunch, instead he and a friend teased, probed and baited me with artful humour…. The food almost was secondary. Nor have I forgotten the chill of the air when I nervously flung a fantastic or fabulous their way….(echos from a vintage third verse by another regular : ) ). Well deservedly put in my place.

    He and his chum were both of a kind so rapidly dying out – raconteurs (partly killed by technology, partly DNA shortage and that inevitable exit door) – whether authentic or fictitious both (seemingly the terms and conditions indicated) good natured story tellers blended with a bit of fencing skillship which kept this dullard wobbling on her toes.

    I was physically not well at that time but that moment restored me back to good, if slightly shaken good spirits that day.

  7. Katie permalink
    January 19, 2019

    My beautiful dad. One in a million this man. Miss him so much, everyday. Still not real over a year on, have his voice on so many tapes he made so will always have his voice with me. Till we meet again dad, you were so loved not just by me xxxxxxx

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