Living in an area where poverty was rife and theft and burglary not uncommon it was always a concern for Mum and Dad to protect the shops’ takings. This was especially true when we lived at 21 Golborne Road where the top floor was inhabited by one of the local “toms” whose clients were in and out (in all senses of the phrase) any time of day or night. They had to pass along the passage which had a door into the shop backroom and access to the shop and its till. Even though the door had both a Yale and a mortice lock it wouldn’t take a lot of effort to jemmy it open as the door frame was rotten with age and damp.
Dad would try and bank the takings as often as he could but his opening hours were far longer than the banks. In those days banks were only open between 10 and 3 and Dad stayed open from 8 to 6 except on Thursday which was his half day and he closed at 12. Banks were also closed on Saturdays so no chance of depositing the money then. Usually Dad would bank on Thursday but would also take advantage of a quiet spell to leave Mum in charge and nip down the Harrow Road to Barclays.
“Kool retfa the posh” he’d call to Mum, “I’m going to ekat the yenom to the kaynab” Somewhere Dad had learnt Backslang and this was the preferred medium of communication between him and Mum when there were customers in the shop. What he had just said was, “Look after the shop, I’m taking the money to the bank”
Backslang is thought to have originated in Victorian England as a means of communication between market stallholders to enable them to hold private conversations without customers being privy to what was being said and to enable them to palm off inferior cuts of meat on unsuspecting clientele. As Dad had worked, pre WW2, as a counterhand in a variety of butcher’s shops this may well have been where he picked it up.
Certain sounds such as “sh” and “th” weren’t reversed and extra vowels would be inserted to make the words pronounceable. One word has entered everyday language, albeit with its meaning slightly changed. This is Yob which now carries pejorative overtones. Polari, the language used by the homosexual community during the 50s and 60s has much in common with Backslang although there are also other influences such as strong borrowing from the Romany tongue also.
It enabled my parents to make all sorts of comments about customers. One in particular, who was always intoxicated was known as a “sippy desra dratsab” “a pissy arsed bastard!” Dad would refer to Mum as his “Delo nammow” “old woman” and complain, when we had to use a public convenience, at paying a “yennep rof a eep or a parc”.
On Thursday, his half day, Dad would shut promptly, have lunch,wash and shave then dress in striped trousers, black jacket and bowler hat for his weekly expedition to Stanley Gibbons’ auction rooms in The Strand. Since childhood Dad had been a keen philatelist with a particular interest in New Zealand and British Dependencies stamps. He had been introduced to the delights of philately by one of the many “gentlemen” who lived in the block of service flats where his parents were housekeeper and caretaker. He always tried to emulate the dress standards set by the “gentlemen” when visiting Stanley Gibbons where he was rubbing shoulders with Sir so and so and The Honorable Mr so and so. I suspect, also it was a form of escapism from the drab reality of life in North Kensington. For a few hours a week he could pretend
After he was demobbed, to supplement his earnings he had sent up a postal stamp business. He would buy job lots of stamps at auction, pick what he wanted for his collection and the remainder would be put into small books according to country and a price would be entered underneath each stamp. He had a list of clients, all around the country. The books would be parcelled up and sent with a list of addresses to the first customer who would remove which stamps he wanted, initial the spaces and forward the books to the next on the list. Cheques would be sent to Dad by each customer. It was a system that, potentially, was open to abuse but, in fact, this rarely happened. If a client didn’t pay up he would be removed from the mailing list. It was, as Arthur Daley would say, a nice little earner.
One of the problems for Dad, of being a stamp collector, was that he was colour blind. This was a real handicap when the value of stamps varied dramatically according to their actual shade . Each year he’d buy a copy of Stanley Gibbons’ catalogue, a large, heavy tome bound in red cloth. Stamps were shown in black and white (no colour printing then) and a description of them underneath with suggested prices according to which particular colour a stamp was. So, for example, an Australian, one penny, King George V, stamp could be variously described as maroon, carmine, pink or reddish pink. The different colours were the result of different printing batches and lack of standardisation of inks and acidity of paper. Some colours were commonplace while others had a rarity value.
Also affecting the price were any printing imperfections or omissions. Each batch of stamps was from different printing plates which were line engraved by hand so mistakes were possible. Several different plated were used, one for each colour used in the stamp. One of the most common errors was in version, where the sheet on which the picture was printed was put into the press upside down when the value was overprinted.
Although they were checked before release there was always the occasional mistake that was missed or smuggled out. If there was a flaw it would increase the value of the stamp. Dad was always on the lookout for miscoloured or inverted stamps where the king or queen’s head was upside down. Although he came across a few there was never the “big one” which would have set him up for life financially. When Dad came home with his purchases he and I would sort through them and he’d ask me which colour I thought the stamps were. Consequently I developed a large vocabulary for colours and one of my first jobs after leaving school was as a colour matcher in a printing ink manufacturers.
When we first moved to Golborne Road I quickly made friends with a girl who lived next door to me. Yiannoula Christi was Greek Cypriot and her parents were cousins to the barbers in Kensal Road. We were always in and out of each others homes when we weren’t playing Hopscotch, swinging round the lamp posts on ropes or playing up the “Little Rec” . Her mother Mary introduced me to the delights of baklava and kataifi and Mum would help her and her husband John with their English and filling in official forms.
One time when Yan and I were playing tag she dashed into number 23 slamming the door shut behind her. Unfortunately I had just at that moment put out my hand to catch her and my little finger was caught in the shut door. I screamed in pain and panic. Mum rushed out from the shop to see what was happening and banged on the door while trying to comfort me. Someone came down, opened the door and released my poor finger which was spouting blood and had the nail dangling. Dad called for a taxi (a rare sight in Golborne Road) and Mum took me down to A & E at St Charles hospital where I was injected (more howls), cleansed, the nail removed and bandaged up to return home with a bottle of penicillin tablets. After we arrived home and I’d settled Mum disappeared for a while. When she returned she had a big box under her arm. “For you”, she said, “Because you’ve been so brave” I removed the lid and inside was a large, blonde walkie talkie doll. I’d wanted one for ages. She was fully dressed and said, “Mama”. I called her Brenda and couldn’t wait to show her to Yan next time we played. I’d wanted a walkie talkie doll for ages and it was almost worth the pain in my pinky.
Yan had two cousins, Helen and Doula, the daughters of the barber in Kensal Road. They were both older than us. Dad was on good terms with the family and one day we received an invitation to Helen’s wedding. Dad was surprised as he hadn’t realised the girl was old enough to be married. It turned out he wasn’t the only one who was surprised. The bride to be was unaware of her status until told by her father that he had found her a suitable husband and the wedding date had been set. All she was told was that it was “a nice Greek boy” and he had a motor scooter. Consequently , in the weeks leading up to the wedding, every olive skinned young man on a scooter was examined by Helen and Doula in case he was “the one”. She only met him the week before the wedding in a chaperoned setting but, apparently was satisfied with what she saw because the wedding went ahead.
I can’t remember for certain whereabouts the church was but my feeling is that it was the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Campden. It was certainly a large, imposing building which stood in its own grounds. As we entered there was an icon of the Virgin Mary which everyone was kissing before moving into the body of the church. I shuddered as I went to kiss it as it was smeared with lipstick but a dig in the ribs from Mum stopped me saying anything. Inside it was richly decorated with many icons and murals depicting religious scenes. The bride and groom and, it seemed, all of their respective families stood in front of the altar. The bearded priest in his long dark robe and veiled hat entered with acolytes and deacons following behind waving incense burners which puffed out clouds of sweetly scented smoke.
I remember little of the wedding except, at the conclusion, twin crowns of flowers were passed across the couple’s heads and back again signifying they were now man and wife. The reception was a riot of music and food, far less formal than English weddings with people sitting anywhere and helping themselves from a buffet of strange looking dishes that was being constantly replenished. The only formal part of the evening was when the bride and groom stood up to dance. People came forward and pinned money on Helen’s dress during the duration of the dance. We later heard this amounted to several hundred pounds, enough for them to start up in business. Other than their dance all the other dances were men with men or women with women. It was unseemly for other couples to dance together. The floral crowns the bride and groom wore had rolls of paper attached to them. During the course of the evening the crowns were removed and the strips unrolled so all the guests could sign their names and blessings for their life together. It must have worked because I believe they had a happy marriage and their business prospered.
Yiannoula , likewise, was married early at sixteen and we lost touch. I later heard she had five children by the time she was twenty one. Doula, a more spirited girl, refused to marry a boy of her parent’s choosing and married for love.