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Andy Strowman, Poet Of Stepney

February 21, 2022
by the gentle author

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Map of The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields designed by Adam Dant

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Andy Stroman

Let me introduce Andy Strowman, the poet of Stepney. ‘I’ve kept quiet for long periods of my life,’ Andy confessed to me when I met him recently. ‘I hope this interview will help people not to be ashamed and feel able to talk about whatever subject they want in life.’ Of modest yet charismatic demeanour, Andy is a born storyteller and I was rapt by his tale, unsentimental yet full of human sympathy too.

‘At Bearsted Maternity Hospital in Stoke Newington, the doctors said to my mother, ‘I’m sorry Mrs Strowman, you’re going to have to have a caesarean.’ But she said, ”Oh no you won’t’ and I gave one push and out you came.’ She showed formidable East End spirit. They brought me back to Milward St, where we lived at the back of the Royal London Hospital, one of the oldest streets in Whitechapel.

Rose, my mother – maiden name Cohen – was a true East Ender born at the Royal London Hospital. Her sister, my Aunty Rae, lived with us. Her brother Jack worked at the Cumberland Hotel where he introduced me to Mohammed Ali. Then there was Barney who was also a formidable, beautiful man. He ended up in Wormwood Scrubs because he was a Conscientious Objector. He was in the army but he had no bad bones in his body and refused to fight.

My mother started work at fourteen years old, her first job was in Whitechapel Rd at the junction with New Rd. She was besotted with wanting to be a milliner. She always stood up for herself and, in another generation, she would have been a Suffragette. In her first job, the governor told her to clean the toilets so she went home and told my grandmother.

My grandmother told the governor, ‘I sent my daughter here to get a training and learn a trade, she’s not here to clean toilets.’ He said, ‘But that’s how I started…’ So my grandmother told him, ‘My daughter’s not going to be working for you any more,’ and took her away. God bless her for fighting for her rights! My mother got another job and went up to the West End, copying designs for hats, then making them at home before taking them into her new work place where the manager was very pleased.

Her mother came from Vilna which was then in Russia, escaping the pogroms, the mass slaughter of Jews. She was fourteen when she came over and seventeen when she married. It was an arranged marriage to my grandfather, who was nineteen. He was from Warsaw, most likely the Vola district, and he was in the garment trade.

Sam, my father, was an American who became a black cab driver in London. His parents were Russian, from the Ukraine, who landed in New York. He came over here as a soldier in the Second World War and my mother met him in a night club in Piccadilly Circus. They got married in Philpot St Synagogue in Whitechapel, where I and my brothers had our Bar Mitzvahs. 

It is emotional for me to talk about my childhood, because although there were many happy moments there were also many very sad ones. It still stays with me now and it is why I do everything I can to help other people.

There was an expectation that we would go out and play in the street to give our parents a break and we used to play football. We were often tasked with running errands for old people and my mum used to arrange for me to sit with old people in their houses too.

Next door lived Rosie Botcher. Mum and Betty Gillard used to go round and wash her down after she had cancer. When I was born, she was given a year to live but lived another thirteen years. Also in our street was Byla Kahn who was from Poland, I used to love to sit with her because she told me stories. Since I was always a good boy, I waited for that formidable moment when she pulled open a little drawer and produced a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate for me.

One of the stories she told me was about when she was living with her grandparents. One day, she was washing clothes in the river when a resplendent man came along on a horse. He climbed off and started to talk to her. He was beautifully dressed and had a sabre. When she got home and told her grandmother what had happened, her grandmother was furious. That man was a Cossack and they had a terrible reputation for violence against Jewish people.

I have so many memories of Milward St but, like so many good things, it came to an end. We got a letter and my brother Paul, the journalist, read at it and said, ‘We’re going to have to leave.’ By that time, my mum and dad had split up. My father left when I was fourteen and I did not see or hear from him again for nearly seven years. After he left my mother stayed in bed for year and gave up washing. The letter said the houses were ‘unfit for human habitation.’ I did not understand what it meant but my brother told me, ‘We can’t live here anymore.’

We moved to a maisonette in Wager St off Bow Common Lane but we missed the strong community in Milward St where neighbours helped each other. My uncle told me that on a Friday night, before the war, people would go out into the street and talk until one o’clock in the morning. He said that once the war came, people did not do it anymore and the habit never returned afterwards.

Primary school was an adventure for me. I was always the last one in and the first one out. I think I got it from my mother, she was born with a club foot and did not like school because the children used to make fun of her, so she had to leave school after everyone else had gone home.

However I made a lot of good friends at Robert Montefiore School in Hanbury St. My favourite memory is when I was late and got taken upstairs and put into the class room by my mum. She asked ‘Where’s Mr Martin?’ and one of the children said, ‘He’s gone out.’ So she went to the front and announced, ‘I’m going to take the class now – everybody be quiet.’ As you can imagine, I was embarrassed to the hilt but also secretly proud that my mum with so little education had become a teacher. She asked, ‘Anybody going on holiday this year?’ One by one, they announced where they were going to go. Then Mr Martin returned in an advanced state of intoxication and said, ‘Well done, Mrs Strowman, you’re doing a marvellous job, you’d make a great teacher.’

We all had to take the 11-plus exam before we went to a grammar school or a secondary school but we never told our mums. Four of us – Colin McGraw, Keith Britten, Stephen Jones and me – made this pact to sit near each other and fail the exam, so we would all end up in the same school. But, although they failed and stuck together, I got a place at a grammar school, Davenant School in Whitechapel.

There began the tumult of my life. If I had one wish, it would be to have left school at eleven. In the first week, I was completely sabotaged by what was going on. I could not cope or keep up, moving classrooms, and doing homework.

The Chemistry teacher had a formidable stance and a bellowing voice like a ship’s captain. I was beginning to shake in fear and he noticed that – he picked up on my anxiety. He dragged me along the floor by my jacket until we reached the blackboard, where he smashed me to the ground. I could  not believe what was going on. He pulled me up and dragged me all the way back. The lesson continued. We were performing our first experiment, a test for hydrogen with a lighted splint. We were all working from textbooks and I was the only one to take it with me at the end of the class. He swore at me and smashed me against the wall with his fist. I was crying on the floor and my head was swollen. No charge was ever made against this man but I later discovered that he was well known for this kind of behaviour. The climate was fully acceptable for violence in that school.

The next day the headteacher pulled me out of class, took me to his office and said, ‘Strowman, you’ve got to learn to take the rough with the smooth. Now get back to class.’ From that moment onwards, my life was hell. Boys made fun of me and I was frightened most of the time, getting beatings off the other kids – sometimes four or five times a week. I had nobody to tell.

I asked to my brother, ‘Why didn’t you warn me?’ He told me, ‘They are all bad in there.’ He told me he was lining up outside the Art room once before class and heard this noise inside, so one of the boys opened the door to discover the headmaster and the Art teacher on the floor, punching each other.

The Geography teacher tried to make it kinder for me. He encouraged  me to look beyond. ‘Look out the window and think of the real world,’ he said to me once.

Our English teacher gave the books out quickly and put his feet up on the desk. He would learn back in his chair, while a pupil read ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin,’ and drink a half bottle of whisky right down at three o’clock in the afternoon. I got endeared to him quite quickly. On my way back to school after lunch at home, I would see him come out of the Blackboard pub and steer him across Valance Rd and back into school.

Eventually, I was put in a separate class with eight others – two of whom were known to the police – and we did not have to do homework. School was very damaging for me. I received an apology from the deputy headteacher, forty-eight years later.

The sun only began to come out when writing came into my life – it happened for two reasons. I had a teacher who encouraged me to write poetry and my brother Paul became a journalist, he was an inspiration to me. When I came back from school after the beatings and the taunts at fourteen years old, I found reading poetry was a great release – I wanted to change my name to W B Yeats! He was my hero, also Dylan Thomas, John Keats, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg – also the Yiddish writers. These people inspired me. Without money coming in, like a lot of East End boys, I lived on my wits – so I used to dodge my fare to buy books.

After I had left school, when I was sixteen and a half, I met Becky who was from California at Liverpool St Station, where I used to go in the evenings as write my poetry. I wrote her a poem.

To this day, when I write, I cannot believe it is me. It was a passion. It was the way out for me. Suddenly I learnt I could express myself. For around a year and a half, I was wandering around trying to get someone to take on my poetry. I visited publishers but got nowhere.

In the end somebody said to me, ‘Why don’t you try Chris Searle?’ He was the Stepney English teacher whose pupils went on strike after he was sacked. So went to a phone box in Aldgate by Gardiner’s Corner to call him and he said, ‘Why don’t you come round this evening?’ He became like a surrogate father to me. He recognised my work and helped publish STORY OF A STEPNEY BOY. He opened this magic door and I could go through it.

Poetry elevated my spirit and helped me to see myself more objectively. It took the thorns out of my soul.’

Andy, aged seven

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Andy with his mother at the seaside

Andy aged eleven, with his parents

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Uncle Davey

Uncle Jack once introduced Andy to Mohammed Ali

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Andy’s father with Uncles, Davey and Jack

After Andy’s brother Howard’s Bar Mitzvah – Andy sits front left

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Andy’s maternal grandmother

Aunty Rae

The wedding of Andy’s maternal grandparents

Copies of STORY OF A STEPNEY BOY may be obtained direct from Andy Strowman by emailing andy.strowman1@gmail.com

You may also like to read about

Chris Searle & the Stepney School Strike

Sally Flood, Poet of Whitechapel

Derrick Porter, Poet of Hoxton

19 Responses leave one →
  1. February 21, 2022

    Dear Andy Strowman, your life story touched me deeply.  I know about the school strike 50 years ago. And the fact that teacher Chris Searle helped you back then is a predestined fate, indeed.

    Coming to terms with childhood, in whatever form, is a worthwhile exercise. I try to cope with it every day. Doing it in the form of beautiful poems is wonderful.

    I wish you all the best for the future!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  2. Peter Hart permalink
    February 21, 2022

    Amazing story and poems. Thank you for sharing them.

  3. Suzanne permalink
    February 21, 2022

    Dear GA,
    I really enjoyed reading this today. Not only to hear the marvellous news about Community Tourism Project but to listen to Andy’s story. It reduced me to tears of how his childhood was blighted by adult ignorance of behaviour to fellow human beings. My own child can relate to this and so many others I have cared for over the last 10 years. Their stories of how tough schools were made me quite angry. Violence towards any person young or old is never acceptable. I feel so much for Andy he had to endure that horror but the only way I can remove those words now is the fact his poetry and how wonderful it was to read them, has been his liberation. Bless you GA for an insight worthy of keeping us all grounded and bless you Andy may your poetry always keep you in good spirits.

  4. Mo Solter permalink
    February 21, 2022

    This touched my soul, thank you.

  5. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 21, 2022

    Thank you Gentle Author for being the only one ever to write my story like this and include the photos.
    It made me cry because it meant so much to me. I have never once been in a school to read my East End poems and if anyone wants me to please contact me via e mail. I will post copies out
    Likewise, the purchase of my poems.
    Thank you again, deeply, sincerely, for being unique Gentle Author.

  6. Marie permalink
    February 21, 2022

    I was so touched to read Andy’s story. Heartbreaking to hear the brutal treatment he received at school. I’m so glad he found happiness in creating poetry and had the support of Chris Searle. Wonderful photos too.

  7. Saba permalink
    February 21, 2022

    Andy, you have given us all a great gift as you have so openly told your story. “Too tired to pocket one more hope.”
    I wish I were still teaching. I had students who would have connected with these words. I’ve been both up and down myself. I will save these poems.
    Peace to you. Keep writing!

  8. Martine Kaufman permalink
    February 21, 2022

    Thank you for this lovely story. I too went to Robert Montefiore. Lots of wonderful memories

  9. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 21, 2022

    Thank you Marie as well.
    I would like to add that my childhood has conveyed to me great empathy for vulnerable adults and children. To try to help them. The lonely and the hurt. So, some good has come out of thie harmm

    Many of you will already know that children harmed are more prone for difficulties in later life including fitting in and sadly further different abuses. I do not want to make people too sad.
    However, I have survived so far, and as a Jew, I thank G-d for that help, as well as kind people, including those on here, Chris Searle, and the Gentle Author. Both unique to me. Andy Strowman

  10. Cherub permalink
    February 22, 2022

    A lovely story of family memories and above all, hope and moving forward. I love the photo of Andy at the seaside with his mum, it’s so full of joy.

  11. Stephen Barry permalink
    February 22, 2022

    Dear Andy,
    What a great story of surviving a brutal beginning and going on to help others. I too went to a lovely, happy primary school, in Stamford Hill, and then had the misfortune of passing my 11+ exam and was sent to Davenant. I don’t know when you were there, Andy, but I was there for four unhappy years from 1954 to 1959 and left as soon as I could. I don’t remember it being as brutal as you recall, but it was very strict and I was also bullied by a couple of other boys. What I remember is that on our first day the headmaster, wearing a gown like I had seen in comics, told us “You boys have been chosen to come here because you are better than other boys.” Also, after school assembly he said “The Jewish boys can leave now for their own prayers.” There was no such divisions at primary school. From day one this turned me into a rebel as those ‘other boys’ were my friends. I failed most of my O levels but don’t think I am that thick as I went on to a successful career in journalism and PR and gained a degree in my 50s. All the best to you.

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 22, 2022

    My heart goes out to all those who have been bullied in their lives. May Andy’s poems live on…

  13. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 22, 2022

    A moving story. Wonderful photographs. And incredibly emotive poems.
    Thank you for sharing your personal story Andy Stroman.

  14. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 22, 2022

    I have come back to read other comments and Stephen Barry’s and Marcia’s.

    It is as if I am a ghost reading my own story.
    Stephen you suffered too. I am sorry for that.
    There is so much more to say and I thank G-d I survived. At least eight times in my life I have been close to death.

    Stephen I was at Davenant 1964 till 1969.

    I would encourage anyone to paint, or write, or tell someone what it is that they are holding onto for long.

    What happened in Whitechapel I never found anywhere else.
    If I wrote it all would anyone believe me?

    However, we had good times too, and sharing fun, and singing in the public baths at Mile End. Now a place to help people with HIV.

    Having a tiny tray of monkey nuts on a Friday night while we watched “Take your pick” and “Bootsie and Snudge on the television.”

    The Gentle Author has taken my life and many others and given us back the dignity the authorities took away from us.

    G-d bless him.

  15. February 23, 2022

    Hi Andy

    I was born in 1947 and attended Davenant Foundation Grammar School from 1958. My family name at that time was Goldstein. I lived in Stamford Hill and travelled to school on the 653 bus.

    For all I know we may have been classmates.

    I too remember the brutal teachers some of whom delighted in terrorising the pupils. I remember Physon, Philpot , Shimmy Rosen and others.( I may have misspelt their names). I recall being whipped with bunsen burner tubing, having the lid of my desk slammed down on my head and having black board erasers thrown at me. However i did receive a solid education .

    The only caring teacher I can recall was Bark the geography teacher who was an ex fighter pilot. He showed compassion and interest.

    This behaviour would not be tolerated today…the good old days??

    with all good wishes

    Raymond

    The Gentle Author wrote about my late father on his blog entitled The Lost Whitechapel Boy..you may wish to read it.

  16. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 23, 2022

    I read your piece Raymond.
    Your sentiments match mine.
    It was the main dish. The afters were yet to come

    Mr Bark was my form teacher and the one I talked about. A very special man.
    Mr Lines the PE teacher saved my life.
    Andy

  17. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 23, 2022

    Rosen taught Jewish studies, Physics and Maths.

  18. Ros permalink
    February 24, 2022

    Like everyone else, I am horrified at Andy’s account of his grammar school years. How terrible that it happened and robbed him of his obvious promise, and that it left him exhausted and too tired to fight. I see that he received an apology from the school 48 years later, which suggests that the evidence of such brutality was plain and inescapable. I’d like to think there was still chance of financial compensation but don’t know how the law stands on that. The poems are searing, powerful and superb. I have some of the Stepney poems on my shelves but I don’t think I have Andy’s so I shall order a copy from him.

  19. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 24, 2022

    Please forgive me for responding profusely to these comments made. I do it out of resoect to them and the interview is completely unique in my life.

    There is, as people can guess, so much more, and that the events at school and at home, laid the template for lack of confidence, further serious abuse and inability to hold down a job, massive distrust and fear of authority, and almost seraphim idealism of the perfect friend. Finally, groups are largely an anathema to me.

    I thank anyone reading this and if anyone wants to write to me they can at andy.strowman1@gmail.com.

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