About & Quotes
This extract is taken from the start of Chapter Two entitled, The Market. John is eight years old.
Berwick Street Market is one of the oldest markets in London. It dates back to 1778 and runs through the heart of Soho. Our family has had a stall in the market for generations. I worked there with my dad on a Saturday for as long as I can remember. My dad’s main job was as a black taxi driver, but he also ran the stall to boost his income.
The stall was positioned on the corner of Broadwick Street, across the road from the Blue Posts Pub and Hilda’s clothes shop. (During the winter of discontent in 1978 when all the bin men were on strike, there were news bulletins of all the rubbish piled up around London. In one of them you can see Hilda’s shop in the background and our stall as well where the markets rubbish was left untouched and the West End of London became a rat-infested playground.)
The Market had everything. We had a music stall next to us, Ronnie’s Fresh Flowers (which is still there today), a bag stall across from us, and a big fruit stall just outside The Blue Posts Pub which was owned by a bloke called ‘Milky’. Milky had a reputation of being the hardest man in Surrey, his point of origin, and I often used to wonder who would win if he and my dad had a fight? I never found out because they really liked each other, always laughing and joking probably out of mutual respect for each other.
On our stall, we would sell umbrellas when it was raining, to the latest China dolls. Then at Easter, it would be eggs, and then at Christmas, it would be the latest gifts and wrapping paper. Later on, we did a roaring trade in Rubik’s Cubes and ‘I Shot JR badges’.
I used to stand at the end of the stall sometimes with my own little pitch shouting out telling the punters. ‘Have I got a bargain for you today ladies!,’ or ‘Come on gather round everyone, I am practically giving these away today.’(This is where my Cockney accent was shined, shaped and developed into the beautiful sound that it is today….)
I remember one Easter Saturday, I had sold all the eggs by lunchtime and my dad had to go to the wholesalers to get some more.
In fact, the only time I would go quiet was when one of the ‘working girls’ who was working above Hilda’s Shop used to come to the stall and give me a big kiss and tell me I was lovely. I used to go all red as the other market traders jeered me.
‘You’ve pulled there John Boy,’ they all laughed. In the market, there were a lot of stolen goods about. The shoplifters would be working in the West End and come to the stalls to sell their ‘hooky gear.’ In fact, most of these shoplifters would be nicking to order.
Customers would say, ‘I need a nice new tennis racket for my son. He’s looking for a Prince one,’ or, ‘The wife is looking for the new Chanel perfume,’ or ‘I need a nice suit for my son’s wedding, I am a 42.’
Off the shoplifters would go and most of the time come back with the goods. ‘No income tax, no VAT, god bless hooky street.’ as the theme tune from ‘Only Fools and Horses’ tells us. My house often looked like Del Boy’s flat or Arthur Daley’s lockup (from the show ‘Minder’) because there was so much ‘hooky gear’ up there waiting to be sold.
My dad’s best friend was Bill. They were closer than brothers. Anything that Bill nicked, my dad sold for him. Bill was the best hoister in the West End. (Hoister – shoplifter) and my dad was the best fence (Fence – receiver of stolen goods.)
Bill would arrange for a taxi to be waiting outside a shop he would be purloining from to make sure he got a speedy getaway with his goods. Who was driving the taxi? Yes, you guessed it - my dad in his taxi. It was a routine that was so simple it was genius.
The hoister and the fence (doubling up as the getaway driver), were the scourge of Jermyn Street, Bond Street and Regent Street for years.
One Saturday, I was working on the stall and Bill came up and gave me an Arsenal scarf. It was my first Arsenal scarf - the old red and white one. Bill loved Arsenal and used to talk about the ‘Great Double’ side. He would always get me programmes when he went to the games.
Bill and my dad loved Charlie George from that double side because he was the one player ‘Who could get you off your seat.’
When my dad moved to London in 1948, he lived next door to Bill’s family in a block of flats in Covent Garden. They became best friends and my dad started supporting Arsenal because Bill was a mad Arsenal fan. Luckily for me really, as my dad’s two older brothers were Chelsea fans….
On this day, Bill said to my dad, ‘I am going over the Arsenal today, shall I take John? We got United.’
Arsenal versus Manchester United. North versus South, Cockney against Mancs, I had been looking forward to this game all week.
But to actually go and watch the match was a dream.
My dad turned to me and, sarcastically nodding his head, he asked me ‘Do you want to go over the Arsenal boy?’
Trying my hardest not to explode inside I said, ‘Really? Yes. Yes. Thanks Bill.’
‘Okay, off you go enjoy the football but I can’t pay you your full wages today,’ said my dad with one of his cheeky grins.
This was the third Arsenal game I was going to go at our ground Highbury. Funnily enough, my first ever game at Highbury was a Millwall versus Orient cup replay. We sat in the East Stand and already I was in love with the pitch, the stands, the crowd, the feeling of being at a game, the feeling of being amongst your own even if Arsenal were not playing.
As I was watching the game my dad started chatting to a bloke sitting next to him. After a while, I offered my dad and his ‘Friend’ some of my sweets. Which they took.
After the game, I said to my dad, ‘Who was that you were talking to? Was it a friend of yours?’
‘No son. It was Bobby Moore, the England Captain when they won the World Cup. I just asked him what he was doing over here and he said he was scouting for someone.’
I didn’t know what scouting was at the time but I did know that I sat next to the 1966 World Cup winning captain and he ate one of my sweets. For the record, I think Millwall won 3-0.
‘I’ll bring him back safely,’ Bill said to my dad, taking my hand and marching me towards Piccadilly Circus so we could jump on the tube to Arsenal.
He looked down at me. ‘Get your scarf on then John-Boy. Your team needs you today.’
We stood outside the East Stand as Bill spoke to some bloke who then handed over two tickets for the match. I was buzzing as I saw the crowd milling about. I had been to my first Arsenal game four months before on Boxing Day when we beat Chelsea 3-0. I came with my uncles and cousins and all the family was split with half Arsenal and the other half Chelsea. This wouldn’t happen with my family in Scotland where your football team is chosen by what primary school you go to.
The atmosphere inside the ground was electric and as usual, as I sat in my seat in the East Upper, I was transfixed on the North Bank, the Arsenal home end. Waiting for kick-off, I studied the North Bank and knew that when I got older, that was to be the place I wanted to be.
The teams came out onto the pitch. I was thrilled. There just yards away – Supermac, and next to him, the maestro –Liam Brady, one of the most skilful players to ever pull on the sacred Arsenal top.
Nerves shot through me. What if United decimated us? Their centre forward Joe Jordan was fearsome with no teeth plus their two tricky wingers, Coppell and Hill, could destroy any team.
Arsenal went one-nil up through Supermac but then Jordan equalised. Not long after Liam Brady scored the best goal I will ever see at Highbury. In the 63rd minute, he executed a brilliant volley just outside the penalty area and he does so in front of the North Bank – and they go absolutely mad. It was then that I realised that the North Bank was the home that was waiting for me.
Supermac adds a third and I shoot up off my seat to cheer.
Bill then stands alongside me and utters the terrible words, ‘Right, let’s go John.’
No. Not now.
‘Why are we leaving Bill?
‘We have got to beat the rush and I have got to get you back to the stall.’
Grave disappointment rushes up from my stomach. Not that I have a choice in the matter.
As we walked along our aisle with everyone standing up for us I couldn’t take my eyes off the pitch in case I missed something. Even when you couldn’t see the pitch anymore I was jumping up in the air in case something great or terrible happened.
My dad and Bill always used to leave the game before the end.
I sat on the tube reading my program, my brain absorbing every statistic and fact that it could render up to me. We had won and I was buzzing.
‘How’s your mum?’ Bill asked. ‘Seen a lot of her?’
‘Of course,’ I replied. But I was not being entirely on the level. The truth was that on many nights I came down to watch television with her, she was absent. ‘Where’s mum?’ I’d say to dad. ‘You tell me,’ he would angrily reply. I didn’t dare ask him any more questions.
Later, in bed, I would hear her come home, stumbling in the darkness. The next day at breakfast she would be like a zombie. Must have a bad cold I would think to myself.
When we got back to the stall, I ran up to my dad and grabbed him excitedly. ‘Dad it was brilliant. We won three-one.’
‘I know,’ Dad replied. ‘There are these funny things called radios you see…..now say thank you to Bill’
‘Thanks Bill for taking me to the game and for the scarf.’
Victory is the source of forgiveness. Already, I had let off Bill in my mind for making us leave early.
I helped my dad pack up the stall and then sat in the back of his taxi as we drove home looking out the window at the buzz of the West End. I loved being driven around the West End in the back of my Dad’s taxi, especially at night with all the theatre lights on.
On this particular journey, I saw a huge poster by the Astoria Theatre which read, ‘Elvis Live On Stage.’
‘Dad there’s a show that says, ‘Elvis Live On Stage’. I thought Elvis had died?’
‘Yes he has died boy, but he is still live on stage.’
‘Oh okay dad,’ I reply, more confused than ever.
As we drove out of the West End towards home my mind went back to thinking about Arsenal playing Orient next week in the FA Cup semi-final.
‘Hey dad,’ I said ‘It’s the semi-final next week. If we win we will be in the Final and playing at………
‘CAN YOU JUST BE QUIET FOR ONCE SON? OKAY?’ he says in pure anger.
His brusque manner catches me off guard. I see his hands clench the steering wheel a little bit tighter, harder. Fear stalks my soul. We are nearly home. I don’t understand how the mood has changed. The taxi pulls up. We alight. My dad has an angry silence around him. I can hardly look at him.
As my dad puts the key in the door, I see his face – so grim, so angry. We go into the kitchen and then I see my mum.
She sits at the table, smiling at us. But it is a drunken smile. The empty bottle of vodka next to her tells me that.
She is trying to act sober.
‘My two favourite boys!’ she exclaims.
My dad wastes absolutely no time in displaying his disgust and sheer anger at the sight in front of him.
‘You are fucking pissed again!’
And the inevitable anger of his soul gets ready to rumble yet again.