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Sid

 

I don’t remember a great deal… just an ordinary London childhood in an average-sized family… starting from the bottom… there was me… then James, Jack, Harry, Rose, Maria, and Gracie. I went to a non-religious State school… I didn’t seem to do anything right… I’d lost a lot of time in the children’s hospital, so I didn’t fit in… it was really difficult for me to catch up… I ended up being bullied as I was a very sickly child. I was brought up near Richmond Road, between Canal Bridge and Hackney Town Hall… as a kid, I’d get up to anything… smashing anything I didn’t like… I was a very popular person when I was with the boys… I had a loud voice and common sense so I was the gang leader… total respect… they called me ‘Steak’, steak and kidney… Sydney… the kids in other gangs were afraid of me.

I worked in a pharmacy… when I left school… to fill the gaps. My brother, Harry, went away in the army… I think he’s still alive today.

There was my dad… he couldn’t be in the army because he had stomach problems. He used to work bits and pieces… he was a theatre doorman… mostly to give him something to do. He’d been a sergeant in the First World War… and barely survived… badly wounded in the stomach… he was gassed… Chloride gas… he was so ill, he became a nuisance to himself. He was always in Mum’s way… so he used to go round to look after the old ladies during the air raid… a Warden. Mum gave him a hard time… she wouldn’t have done it but she seemed to suffer the intolerance of the War… he took a bashing… I was in the middle of it all but it was Mum who needed my support.

I still really miss my mother… I sometimes see her now when I look over my shoulder… I recognize her face.

I went into the army myself… got my khaki uniform with brass buttons. We all went, all my mates… the very sad thing was the line-up when we all came home, looking around for who was missing… very sad… there were only about four of us… I remember when I came back looking for their names… names we’d cut into the trees and written on the walls… I volunteered to tell the wives of the dead soldiers… it was strange… people used to gossip about it… but I needed to do it… I felt guilty that I came back alive… I couldn’t look at the mothers of the dead men… I knew what they were thinking… I felt ashamed. I believe that there is a God but not in the way that it’s presented… deep down… I think that everyone has a deep sense of fear that we might offend someone… a sense of guilt from somewhere… at the end… God is our hope that everything will be fine.

We went to Norway… we looked around and destroyed everything we could find belonging to the Germans… I was an infantryman. The Norwegian people were very friendly… pleased to see us… the Germans treated them very, very badly… they were trying to make their way to England via the backdoor but we closed it. We were the soldier support of the people planting the bombs… protecting them… I was a personal guard to the officers… I was protecting other people… I saved many lives.

When I came back, London was still being bombed… I remember seeing the German planes in the sky… standing underneath the lamp-post outside Holloway’s Bakers… that’s where I met my first girlfriend, Jane… we’d stand on breadboxes to see each other over the wooden fence.

I was always a man’s boy… I preferred the company of men… my best mate was Frankie Holloway… Frankie became a Medical Officer in Norway and he was one of the many who got killed… he was my best mate… I used to try to stick up for him because he was quite a feminine boy, and the other kids ‘took the Mickey.’ He wasn’t in the Richmond Road Gang but he’d come and have a punch up every once and a while… his dad owned the baker’s shop… I’d help with deliveries… and we used the bake-house for all kinds of imaginary things.

We just hung around outside the shop when they were bombing… I never went down in the shelters because you could be buried alive… I just stood on the street corner under the lamp-post… you had a better chance than if you were in a shelter… you could see the planes approach… then the bombs fell. The ground shook for miles… anybody who lived through it was lucky… I remember stepping over burning incendiary bombs in the street.

Richmond Road was bombed… our windows got smashed so many times we boarded them up in the end. My father stayed throughout… my mother moved out… eventually… to live with an aunt in the country… I didn’t see all of it… I was back in Norway on the boat… the submarines were our danger… our worry… there was so much equipment to land… and it was such an isolated place… we were right up front against the German lines… chasing them all the way out… and came straight back to London. I was in London for the celebrations… the street parties… they were alright until you started to look round… then you found the realization of it… people who you’d known for years… who’d lived next to each other… people you went to the pub and had a pint with… all dead… all dead. I was very lucky… I came through it all without a scratch… I lost all my school friends.

I got a driving job as soon as I came back… basically what I’ve been doing ever since… a chauffeur with a navy blue uniform with brass buttons… and a peaked cap… I felt shy about the nice clothes… even guilty… it was just after the war and I didn’t want to give the impression of showing off. I had some very good clients… Flanagan and Allen… I used to drive them to the theatre where my Dad used to work… Gracie Fields was a bit of a bitch… loud-mouthed… she used to tell you off but we were in a difficult position financially so I had to stick with it… eventually, I got my boss’s wife in my favour because I used to do a lot of favours to her that her husband didn’t know about… she had affairs… so did he. I was always very loyal to my wife… I didn’t mess around.

I married Jane… my first love… we both lived in Hackney and my friend… Frankie… lived next-`door to her… one day, I just asked her to marry me and she said ‘Yes’.

Such a long time ago… it seems like I’d forgotten it for centuries.

Four Years Later 

My mother… I don’t know how it happened, but she toppled into the river… she was walking up a ramp on a ship… the previous one to go up cracked it… when she went up, it broke and tipped her over backwards into the water… the tide was up and she was swept away… they couldn’t find her… she just disappeared.

My mother was the lady of the district… never outclassed… a pretty face with clothing for the centuries. It didn’t matter who you were… she didn’t even need to know you… she would help anyone… she used to go shopping for the families of the dead boys… clean their houses… and their front steps. She used to do everything herself… I followed her around.

My father was a wartime soldier… very badly wounded in the First World War… I remember seeing him come home… he had everything in the house that he needed for his injuries… all the wares from the hospital… we came from Richmond Road… the market-place on the hill… by the church… we lived rock-bottom… working-class… but it was enormous how many people knew you, stopped you… spoke to you. If you needed assistance, in any way, honest men gave it to you… total respect.

My mother, she was the perfect angel… she fell in the river and drowned… I wasn’t around to save her… it’s been there all the time for me ever since… the regret that I wasn’t there, when she’d been there for me… it’ll never go away that I let her down… that I wasn’t there.

I was born a street fighter, I was never afraid. I remember how big I felt, my first day in uniform… grown up… but I was already grown up… most of them were kids. People were tying themselves up in knots to be with the game. I went to Norway… and I went sailing on the ocean too. A lot of people died that shouldn’t even have been there, let alone be killed… young men… young boys left school, then they’re forced to be men straight away, do you see? They were in the army and the army didn’t care a hell about them… I used to stay with them… argue that they shouldn’t be there… nothing I could do in the finish. They were away from their parents, their families, the people they knew and knew they could trust… that was taken away from them and they would be sick with fear. I had a look around at them… unlucky Sidney… and then they weren’t there any more. I saw a lot of fighting, and I saw the dead afterwards… I was overcome by it… good young lads and bastards on both sides.

Frankie was my mate… we had a hole in the garden fence so we could crawl through to each other. In the wartime, I went home one day and went down to the toilet in the yard… the garden fence was fastened shut. He was dead… God it upset me. He went overseas while I was overseas and he was killed… when I came back, I couldn’t get anyone to tell me what had happened… they all knew but I couldn’t get anyone to tell me because they knew of our loyalty to each other. I found out later that he was killed on the retreat to Dunkirk. He was the one I wanted to keep an eye on. We shared a cot. His dad owned the baker’s shop next door. When I look back over the years… I sit quietly sometimes… I go right though the whole history of it, and everything goes back to the beginning… the long line has got to stop somewhere. It all runs back into a film… it starts at the beginning with a baker’s shop.

I came through, lucky, and I was captured once… they treated me fairly… at the end of the war, they released me without any fuss at all… strange isn’t it? Even as I am now, and I’m in my ninetieth year…  my thoughts still run back to the beginning… my schooldays… the boys that lived upstairs, that I went to school with. When I’m sitting quietly on my own, it’ll come back at night… I’m always looking back over my shoulder all the time. It’s in the air… thinking that somebody’s following me around… I don’t usually have any trouble with ghosts… they liked me… if I gave them information, or gave them help, then I was always flattered.

My mother was an elderly East End working lady… not young when I was born. When she died, I couldn’t act properly for months… everything I did seemed to be wrong… strange isn’t it?

Dad was my soldier… he got badly wounded… he spent the rest of his life crippled. We were walking through the streets one day… he had something in his hand… and he turned round sharp, there was a bloke with a bayonet… he thrust it right through the centre of Dad’s tummy… that put my poor old Pop out of being a fit man for the rest of his life.

In the past, I think I passed on information to a young man that went into writing, and people from different parts of the country read it. I can sit down and look back over all of this for hours and dream about it… it’s never gone… if I hear a sound, I turn my head, and it’s something to do with what’s happened in my war time… it used to wake me up in the night… I was always fighting in my sleep. I used to sit on the side of the bed, my wife would get me a drink, and I’d be back off to sleep again. I married the baker’s daughter.

There were twelve of us in the gang… Frankie, David his brother… and then the local lads… I forget their names. I used to get the shopping for all the ladies whose sons didn’t come back. People go through everything in their life… they obsess in their minds about it but going back over the years I can say… and really say… I was a popular person… I did my best. Everywhere I went, the people seemed to come to me… I seemed to be singled out… what for I don’t know… I can’t really make sense of it.

My mother did the donkeywork… she was a diamond… I was just behind her on the ramp in the crowd… we got off this old boat and my dad must have leant on the rail and broke it… she was sat talking to him and the next minute she was in the river… I wasn’t there… I was still in Norway… if I’d been there, I would have dived in and saved her.

I often walk around those houses now and there’s a lamp-post on the corner… I park my motorbike and just have a walk round… just to have a look… because the lads through the windows grew into men and grew into soldiers that went on the fields with me… and they didn’t come back. I’d like to go back to London now and collect twenty or thirty or forty people, in a group, and talk to them but they wouldn’t want to be interested because they don’t know nothing about it… they were babies when it happened.

My mother was the backbone… eventually she fell in the river… she was resting against a plank, on the boat, a bloke turned round, said something nasty, and shot her in the stomach… she fell backwards into the river… she was carried away, and no-one could get to her.

There was Jack, Harry, Rose, Jim, Maria, and Gracie… they were the adult children… they were the daily bakers… in life already… I was the youngest son. They all went in the army… Harry never came back… he went into hospital because, somewhere overseas, a bloke stuck that bayonet through his tummy.

Frankie was my closest friend, and the most loyal person… he was killed in active service… we got a telephone call… a notification… I cried… killed getting on one of the boats at Dunkirk… nearly there, Frankie. I grew up with that boy from when he couldn’t walk on his legs… you go right through your whole life, then someone knocks at the door and says, “He’s dead.” Stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet. You just want to cut your throat, you know. I went home on leave, I went out and shouted across the garden fence… nobody told me… for the first time, nobody wanted to come to me.

I used to get up at night time and go onto the corner, a few yards along, near the bakers, and think about what happened and when it happened… bombs from the outside country… right next to me… all the way from Germany to blow up the fish shop.

I could write a book… I’d like to but I couldn’t… I once spoke to someone, like I’m speaking to you, and he said, “We should write a book together”… he made notes… did some recordings. Sometimes I sit here and it gives me something to think about, going back over the different times, telling the story to myself over and over and over again. It seems to me like, for some particular reason, the past people are always trying to attract my attention.

I was in the Infantry in the peace time… of course, when the war starts, we was bang up there with bayonets… we returned the offer… put away the nasty ones… bang up in the stomach with a bayonet, all face to face. It didn’t take long for them to die. We covered some ground in the army, you and me… a lot of fighting between us… a lot of killing… join in because you had to… I used to stand back… I couldn’t stand it. Do you remember when we were in Norway? When we came home… there was one or two bad raids by sea… running up the ramps… do you remember it?

I was lucky, I got through my life safely… a couple of my mates were killed for no reason at all… I’d make sure the mums and the dads were fed properly… all the mums and dads of my mates who’d died overseas in the army. If anything happened to them, it was always, “Sid, look after Mum and look after my Dad.” People used to trust me.

Who did I marry? Do you know, I can’t remember… it’s not important. I’ve got a rock in the head now… my thoughts are just around the outside.

If I could only get my mother and father together again for you, you’d have some wonderful stories. What I want now is to see my family.

My mother carried me through my recovery… she fell off the back of a boat… quite recently this has happened, as a matter of fact… somebody leaned on the plank and it cracked and she fell in the water and the tide carried her away… we couldn’t get to her… the next thing, I put him upside down and turned him in the water… I swung the bastard over the side of the deck and put the bayonet through his tummy. It was a repayment.

What can I tell you? We were a working-class family… no money… from the bottom… worked as a team.

Mother was dynamite… the strength of us all.

I’ve got brothers… James… Maria… Nancy… Rose… that’s it… the female side. My mother was a good guide.

My dad was a sick man… ill from the war time… he never really recovered… gassed… Chlorine gas poisoning… he was sad about it… he was a good old stick he was… full of friendship, that’s Albert… he was a man you could admire… I don’t remember him too well… I saw him when I saw him.

My mother was the special lady… first class.

Holloways next door… the family friends.

Frankie, he was the boy… he never came home… I used to stand on the corner waiting for him… he wasn’t brought home… not even a body… he was always a grand friend of mine… he was always the neighbour with the garden fence… close contact.

I had my run in the army and I came back… do you know, I can’t remember it… we did a good job, all highly respected.

Frankie admired me.

All the street was bombed… they gave us hell… we were the target… I never gave it a thought… all this is very strange.

I don’t think I ever saw much of my father… he was an army man, wasn’t he?

Is it true I went to Japan? I don’t think so… a long way from here to there.

Mother made sure everything possible was covered… she’d go door to door helping the old ladies who’d lost their sons in the army.

Frankie got killed… my dearest friend got killed at Ansa… I don’t remember… I can’t remember where Frankie got killed… he came home one day and said he was killed… he’s not coming home… he was leaning over the garden fence and he said he won’t be coming home, he’d be going back… he had an admiration for me that made me feel good… he was a bit ladylike… we got on so well together… he never did anything deliberately… if you found out about Frankie, you found out accidentally… we had a house next door with a backyard and a fence.

I’m a bit worried today… I can’t remember very much.

My mother was an angel… she put me on the mantelshelf the day I was born, and said, “Sit there”… she was my angel… she died… she was shot, I think… a German shot her… she was cleaning her step, she turned round a bit quick, and he shot her in the stomach…