My parents settled now for the rest of their lives into 9 Wilton Road, are by 1930 in deep financial trouble. The depression is biting, devouring all in its path and while the minority MacDonald Labour government is under pressure to boost the economy, the economic lifeboat crew of government Ministers named by Macdonald are unsure as to the direction which they should set sail.
Our savings all but spent and my father earning little in the shop, the streetwise logic of my Aunt Becky comes into its own - a grocer’s shop is a necessity, who wants books? My mother must return to work in the shop so that it can remain open for maximum hours. Her presence is also necessary to remind my father that first and foremost the bookshop is a source of income, for he is apt to refuse to sell a book of which he is particularly fond. Rhys Davies writes in his obituary for my father in The Times in August 1971: "Charles Lahr who has died aged 86, was a wayward London bookseller who disliked selling a good book to the wrong customer, his knowledge of the former as instinctive as it was of the latter...sized up instantly and admitted (or not) to a free run of the stock, and pay what you could afford or else borrow a book for a week or two."
Apart from her need to be the business-like end of the partnership, my mother misses the book trade and can no longer ignore its siren call. Muswell Hill and 9 Wilton Road have become a straitjacket imprisoning her intellectual curiosity and energy. She is shut away in mundane household tasks and dull exchanges with neighbours. Her conditions of life made worse by the ending of her love affair with James Hanley. She is bereft even though she knows that the affair was doomed from its beginning. The return to work at the bookshop in Red Lion Street will throw her once more into the turmoil of living. She will take up old interests and contacts, develop her mind and knowledge, be someone in her own right.
Kenneth Hopkins who lodged for a time in a room above the bookshop , let to him by my father, writes in THE CORRUPTION OF A POET (Pubd. James Barrie 1954):
"Red Lion Street is ancient, it runs as it did perhaps four hundred years ago, straight down towards the old Foundling Hospital. Most of the grime of those centuries seems to have stuck to its old houses and shops...Here and there one of the shops has its old eighteenth-century front window, behind whose misty panes can be seen broken china, tarnished brass, and all the accumulated rubbish of years in the old junk trade. It is a busy little street and at the bottom the clanging of the trams in Theobalds road joins with the roar of the buses at the top end, in High Holborn."
To my mother, the very noise and pressure of people promised excitement. She loved the journey by bus and tram through so many districts - shops, street markets, buildings of all shapes and sizes. To look out upon people going about their daily business and wonder about their lives and purpose. The walk down Red Lion Street for she knows every brick and stone of this street. Past the small shops. She gazes into their windows, sometimes receiving a nod and a smile from the shopkeeper who recognizes her as part of the fraternity. The unlocking of the bookshop door to be surrounded by histories, philosophies, political economies, novels, poetry, lives...all in their different colours, red, black, blue...some gold edged, all of them reaching out to her as if they were living entities.
Overshadowing the shop, and unseen by her, is the pile of rubble it will become during the Blitz of 1940, but she refuses to notice my father clambering over the ruins in open sandals, intent upon salvaging something whole, and pays no attention to his cry of pain as a splinter pierces his foot. Nor does she see, or enter, the Income Tax office, solid and squat, which rises on the ruins of the fragile bookshop.
But first my mother must place her children in a place of safety. I have recovered from the setbacks of my first eighteen months and my sister is a bonny, bouncing baby. A childminder might prove to be no better at child rearing than my Tante Maria. If my mother were to return to work my sister and I must be cared for adequately, confined within a hygienic environment, fed a balanced diet and provided with fresh air and exercise. After much thought, and heart searching and consultation with friends, she decides that the answer is a private residential Home and Nursery at Herne Bay, to which I am despatched first to prepare the way, my sister to arrive later.
"I am sure they will both do well at Herne Bay"
writes James Hanley in a letter to my mother.
I am standing in a room leaning over a low table to crayon in a picture. About me I can feel the presence of others, but they are not my concern. I press down hard on the crayon to concentrate upon filling in the confines of the outline in this book of outlines. I feel the door open behind me and a voice says cheerfully "Here’s your little sister. Isn’t that nice!" I turn to glance shortly at the nurse and a young child in woollen leggings and hat in the nurse’s arms and, in confusion, turn back to my picture to once more press down hard upon the crayon. If my sister is here, where is my mother?
I am sitting on a potty in a white room, on either side of me are other children likewise engaged. We sit there for ever.
I am walking down a street in a crocodile of children. I am dragging along, children in front of me and behind. The nurse calls upon us to stand still and points towards a high window where two boys, dressed in smart navy blue overcoats, stand. We wave at them and they wave back at us. I understand vaguely that until recently they were inmates of the nursery, but now they are in this tall and seemingly grim building. Why?
I am in the grounds of the Home pedalling my kiddy car up and down the path. I feel the car turning over and my body twisting with it. There is nothing I can do. It is without my volition. I am lying on the ground, my head against a sharp rock. Screaming, crying, shouting around me and within me. I am lifted up, to find myself in a bathroom and I catch sight of myself in a mirror. "I’ve got red hair!" I say in surprise.
The room is dark. I am lying in a cot. I can see the outline of other cots in the room. My sister is in one of them. We have chickenpox. The other children have a magazine tied round each arm. I have none. My arms are free, but I wish that I, like them, had my arms constricted by magazines.
I am in the grounds walking along a path with other girls. Bigger boys come from the opposite direction. "He’ll get you!" they jeer. Others take up the cry. "Watch out! He’ll get you!"
We have been promised that ‘He’ will come down the chimney. ‘He’ will reward the good. ‘He’ will be cross with the bad. We are anxious for the divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is outside our control and variable. When ‘He’ comes we are sitting cross-legged on the floor, in front of a Christmas tree, waiting. "Children! Here he comes!" a nurse calls out happily. We scream and clutch at one another. The red-clad figure pulls off hat and gown to reveal Matron. She is angry and we hang our heads in shame. Next day the big boys waylay us and sneer "Whose afraid of Father Christmas then?"
I am in a car with Matron and one other. "We mustn’t cross the white line" says Matron. Why? What could happen once we cross this line? I tingle with premonition and hug this bit of knowledge to myself. I am sitting on a table, a nurse cutting my hair. She runs a blunt razor up the nape of my neck and I wriggle and cry. She is angry with me.
This time for me is frozen in photos - a nurse in traditional head-dress and long white dress holds my sister in her arms while I perch on a window-sill. My mother poses with my sister and me. My mother’s dark hair in this monochrome. Me and my mother with the writer John Arrow, a dark-haired handsome man. The adults smile at me. My father is in none of the photos. Perhaps it was he who took them? "Keep still, look at me, smile." And in all these remembered instances, there is something else just out of reach.
In the meantime, my mother busies herself in the Holborn bookshop, each morning walking the route said to be taken by the shades of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw who are said to ‘walk’ this district. For it is in the Red Lion Tavern that on the night of 29 January 1661 that their embalmed bodies lie overnight on their way to be drawn by sled to Tyburn for ritual beheading and execution. Now, lost in deep conversation, they traverse a path now lost, so walking the old and the new, the old in the new and the new in the old of Holborn - the bourne, or river, in the hollow which runs its way into the lost river Fleet on its way to the Thames. The three wraiths stand to watch others - the condemned tied to hurdles and dragged down the steep river banks, on their way to execution at Tyburn. Aware at the same time of the Victorian Holborn Viaduct and the busy traffic-ridden, dry streets. On a day in 1698 they stand bemused to watch the foundations of Red Lion Square being laid by workmen employed by the speculator-developer jerry-builder Nicholas Barbone. All at once the noise of the workmen’s clanging and banging are drowned out by the sound of running footsteps and shouting. A crowd, mainly of men, but with a sprinkling of women, armed with sticks and stones, run fast into the Square. The workmen watch open-mouthed, hesitant, for they cannot be sure that they are the quarry - and the crowd is upon them.
The three shades move through High Holborn’s imposing Victorian tower blocks and the massive post-war blocks. Simultaneously watching Kings and Queens on their way down the country lane Theobalds Road, to their Palace in Theobalds in Hertfordshire.
My parents would have been happy to entertain three such guests, my father would lend them books - "A Guide to the British Constitution", "The Levellers", "The Rights of Man", "A Short History of the World", "A Textbook on Common Law", "Socialism - Scientific and Utopian", "The Poverty of Philosophy", "Capital".....
And, as she had hoped, my mother flourishes now that her exile is at an end and once again she has a place in the world. Later she is to confide in us as if we were adults, but at this time we are too young to absorb her mental energy.
Now that my sister and I are cared for elsewhere, my mother is free once more to throw herself into political action. For at a conservative estimate, there are 2,000,000 unemployed and all over the country protest marches are being dispersed by police baton charges. On 30 October 1932 police attack a mass meeting called by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Trafalgar Square, to which the unemployed have marched from all over the country.
Esther sits on a high wall waiting for the march against unemployment to pass. Others sit alongside her talking and laughing. The pavement lined with the waiting crowd. The very air bristles with excitement as if this were a Bank Holiday celebration. At last she hears the sound of a pipe band followed by the vibrancy of marching feet and the demonstration comes into view. Others jump down to pavement level, but Esther is happy perched up there. Police line the streets, their dark uniforms dominating the scene. The tramping of thousands of feet makes the very roadway tremble and the roar of shouted slogans crash against the walls of surrounding buildings and thunder against the Autumn sky.
WORK OR FULL MAINTENANCE
DOWN WITH THE MEANS TEST
WE WANT BREAD
WE REFUSE TO STARVE IN SILENCE
Many hold banners and posters. The waiting crowd on the pavement wave to friends or run to join in the march, but Esther stays put. Suddenly there is a shouting and the march scatters. Mounted police are riding into the crowd. Banners are trampled underfoot as both marchers and spectators struggle to escape the horses’ hoofs and the staves of the policemen on foot. In line with Esther is a one-legged man, moving ponderously on crutches. He has been struggling to keep up with his comrades by planting the crutches down firmly and hopping his one leg forward. In the melee the crutches are knocked from under his arms, to be kicked along the ground and the man stands in terror trying to keep his balance, hopping on his one leg... And then Esther sees a policeman, stave raised above the amputee’s head while he, futilely, tries to move away. Galvanized, Esther jumps down from the wall to run into the line and grab the policeman’s arm. "He’s only got one leg!" she shouts "Can’t you see?" The policeman lowers his arm and looks at her confusedly, his eyes glazed. She smells alcohol on his breath. "He shouldn’t be here" he mumbles and walks away. (20).
At the time, the New Statesman and Nation reported:
"Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the mounted police, accompanied by foot police, began to charge the crowd right and left...both unemployed and innocent spectators and passers-by. People were forced to run for their lives in order to escape being trampled upon by the police horses or beaten by staves. There was no kind of disorder at any of these meetings, and no reason at all for the police to charge into them in the wanton way they did."
The newspapers report fifty injured and fourteen arrested.
In desperation, the government has appointed J.H. Thomas, the railway union’s former leader as Minister of Unemployment. "I broke all records in the number of unemployed" he jokes. Strikes and lockouts take place as employers cut wages. John Beard addressing the TUC says "Expediency must be our guide. 2,000,000 does not appal me." On August 23 1931 the Cabinet splits and the next day MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas and Lord Sankey combine in a coalition with the Tories and Liberals. A General Election in October confirming this coalition in office when it is elected as a National Government with 554 seats and 56 for Labour. Of the former Labour Ministers, only honest George Lansbury is elected. Now follows cuts in both social services and local government expenditure. The numbers on poor relief rise rapidly and the Socialist Medical Association reports:
"Unemployment benefit and poor relief are entirely insufficient to keep their recipients in physiological health." While the Public Health Committee of Deptford states "It is clear that families in receipt of public assistance...cannot obtain the minimum varied diet recommended by the Ministry of Health."
In I WAS ONE OF THE UNEMPLOYED (Pubd.) Left Book Club, Victor Gollancz 1945) Max Cohen writes:
"I discovered that the symptoms of hunger are not quite so easy to ignore as is imagined by those who have not experienced that enervating sensation...The hunger itself appears to be a hungry, voracious animal, a beast of prey, steadfastly pursuing its course of swallowing its victim whole....I lived in dread of those empty, boring monotonous days of walking about searching for a job that was never there, and returning to a lodging bereft of warmth and stimulating food. The emptiness of the belly, and the accompanying tension and worry, produced an emptiness of the brain and of the spirit...."
My father-in-law, George Tiley, who at this time was working for the Producers and Consumers Dairies as a driver, writes:
"The working hours were just over sixty per week and the wage was £2.10s. And you earned your wages....." (21)
Cuts in the salaries of Civil Servants and public employees lead to demonstrations. Representatives of the police assemble in a special meeting of their Federation at Scotland Yard to protest strongly at the cuts imposed upon them. Unemployment benefit is cut by one-tenth and a Means Test introduced to determine how much benefit should be given to those who have been out of work for more than six months.
On 12 September, 1932 the First Lord of the Admiralty announces cuts which are to apply to Officers and Ratings of 1s. per day, leaving the ratings with 3s. per day only. Three days after the announcement the Atlantic Fleet, preparing to leave from Invergordon for Autumn exercises, refuse to sail. The rest of the Fleet following suit. By the end of the week a frightened Admiralty capitulates and revises the pay cuts on a percentage basis. A month later twenty-four ratings considered to be leading spirits are discharged ‘services no longer required.’
In Germany, on 31 July 1932 the Nazis double their seats in the Reichstag, in time to take the credit for an agreement by the allies to suspend the payment of reparations in order to ease Germany’s economic crisis.
In England Oswald Mosley forms the British Union of Fascists.
As Sean O’Casey says in Juno and the Paycock, the world is in a state of ‘chassis’!
Is it any wonder that my mother wants to leave my sister and me at Herne Bay until we are young adults, for she cannot bear for her children to be caught up helplessly in this political and economic maelstrom. She sees the Home at Herne Bay as a no-mans land in which we are cocooned from economic, political and marital trauma. Instead, my father insists that we return home to 9 Wilton Road and miserably my mother concurs, for by now they are having difficulty in meeting the fees charged by the Home. And my mother’s work at the shop is not compensating for outgoings. Therefore, with heavy heart my mother collects us from Herne Bay and we make the return journey to 9 Wilton Road. Where next can my mother hide us?
I am of school age and Coldfall Council School is only a few minutes walk away, but my mother hesitates. She remembers her own frustration at receiving the minimum education to allow her to leave school and go to work. She fears also that we will be bullied by rough children, the types by whom she herself was waylaid as a child and who responded with vicious malice to any child different to themselves.
"They’ll learn to drop their aitches and say ain’t at a Council school" says my mother "they’ll say ‘me’ instead of ‘my’." Her love of language was such that it was almost a physical hurt for her to hear a mispronunciation and an ignorance of the glottal stop made her wince.
While at that time there was a scholarship at the Council schools, sat at the age of eleven years, a few being chosen to go on to Grammar School, this was a lottery and she would not gamble on her children’s education. Somehow, she and my father must find the fees for a private school, for apart from all other considerations, my mother wanted us to continue her own ascent up the social ladder. An ascent which would provide for us some element of choice in and control over our own lives.
My mother and I spend some weeks in traipsing around numerous small private educational establishments, for in the 1920s/30s these were legion. The most important product of the education they provided appeared to be a smart school uniform, for their staff were uncertificated and their curriculum unorganized, if not disorganized. These schools were successors to the much earlier Dame Schools and attracted parents from a similar milieu. About these William Blake wrote:
"But to go to school in a summer morn
O! it drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend their day,
In sighing and dismay." (22)
The premises used were large, or largish, old houses adapted to a greater, or lesser, extent. I have a vague recollection of a cloakroom in a house, the walls filled on all sides by pegs from which hang coats and shoe-bags. The room smells damp and I find something frightening about these deserted clothes hanging silently from their hooks as if they have no real connection with human kind. Staying close to my mother I follow a strange woman as she opens and closes doors and speaks words which make no connection with myself. At last the front door shuts behind us and with relief I find myself with my mother on the more familiar street.
And so we search both high and low, and at last my mother finds the ideal school in which to immure her daughters - St. Martin’s Convent, Pages Lane, Muswell Hill (23). A school which has the added advantage of not being balanced precariously on the edge of bankruptcy, as was the case with many a private school. Perhaps she foresees the difficulties which will occur at times in meeting the school fees promptly and prefers a school which can afford some tolerance in this respect. A school which takes children from the age of three years so that my sister is included. However, these are not the only considerations for more importantly my mother sees herself as hiding her children among the praying nuns garbed in their black and white habits, and the uniformed children dressed in navy and white sitting in neat rows, or walking in tidy lines. Nuns and children alike surrounded and protected by the might of the Catholic Church.
Ora pro nobis
On to Convent Games
Get You Back Home