There were two things I knew about London before I got there: first that there was gold in the streets and second that it wouldn’t necessarily be a simple matter to find it and take it away. Harringay was exotic, more exotic than Derry anyway. Our landlord was Turkish Cypriot but many of our neighbours were black and of West Indian or African origin. A lot of them wore good suits and carried briefcases.
We had shipped up in Harringay because we were getting a steer on how to survive in England from my travelling companion, Paul’s, cousin, who lived there, who was twenty-five or more and had been in London for some time. He called his black neighbours spades and told us they used the briefcases to carry their lunch in. He had a lot of ideas about the spades and was working, he said, within his union, the Transport and General Workers (he was an employee, a clerical officer, not a member), to wake Britain up to the threat they posed. Paul and I might have been more in the Martin Luther King tradition but the cousin was older, he was pouring the drink and it seemed impolite to strenuously disagree.
Rich in A-levels but poor in cash, we would have been hard pushed to survive for much more than a fortnight without some kind of a wage packet. The sole offer in the first week was selling encyclopaedias door to door, on a commission only basis (“It’s a doddle lads, really, once you get the hang of it.”). On top of that, my favoured option, about which I’d been quite confident, booking office clerk with London Underground (dry, warm, unchallenging, reasonably well-paid) fell through after I failed the simple arithmetic test. If we’d known what was ahead of us we would have gone to “our own people” in Brophy’s Employment Agency on day one. “Well now, here’s one: two young lads they want, no experience needed, live in, all your meals and, well, probably about eight or nine pounds a week after tax. The Good Companions, Slough, Bucks, that’s about half an hour or so from Paddington station.” “We’ll take it.”
It had not been easy to get to England in the first place. My father had views about the place. His brother had died there, alone, in his twenties and everyone knew it was full of temptations: barmaids, divorcees, lingerie ads on the escalators of the London Underground. It was the kind of place where anything might happen.
The Good Companions had been a very successful novel, then a play and a film by the now largely forgotten JB (Jack) Priestley, a popular left-wing writer in mid-twentieth-century Britain. The Good Companions pub, on Stoke Poges Lane in Slough, just a few miles from Thomas Gray’s country churchyard, turned out to be something of an embodiment of the English class system, with colonial extensions.
There was the bar (the “public bar”) and there was the lounge. And in the bar there was the bar proper and the “games room”, an adjacent but separate area from which one could be served through a hatch from behind the bar counter. I worked in the public bar and Paul, who was somewhat better-looking, in the lounge, where the quality, such as they were, drank. I was trained in by the bar manager, Ed Gaffney, a dry but fairly amiable Liverpudlian who told me he’d often been at the Cavern Club and while he didn’t claim to know the Beatles he did know fellow Scotty Road Catholic Priscilla (later Cilla) White (later Black), who he said was a bit of a slag who went out with black fellas. Ed was not overly impressed by me as an employee (“If speed was a disease, lad, you’d be the healthiest man in Slough”) but he showed me the ropes nonetheless: how to prepare without wastage mixed drinks like brown and mild (half bottled, half draught) and, the most important thing, the correct glass in which to serve a pint of beer: for a white man, a straight glass, for a black man a mug with a handle. That’s the way they prefer it.
This wasn’t too much of a problem. It’s a simple enough rule and I can only really remember there being one exception. That was Scottish Jim, who owned a small roofing company. His handful of employees, who usually drank with him, Pat Deegan from Dublin and English brothers Dave and John, were happy enough to keep to regulation procedure but Jim, for some stubborn reason of his own, took his beer in the same vessel that the people of Jamaica and Grenada, Punjab and Gujarat, took theirs in.
The guvnor, Captain Arrowsmith, was a bluff former Royal Navy officer, possibly from Yorkshire, an amiable sort with a plain man’s view of life: “Pablo Picasso? Well that’s all very well but can Pablo Picasso paint me a picture of Glenn (his Alsatian dog) that I’d take pleasure in looking at? No, I don’t think so.” The working day extended from 9am, straight after breakfast, out sorting empties in the yard, through to doing the till and cleaning up after closing time around 11pm ‑ with a perfectly useless three-hour break in the afternoon when the pub was shut. We weren’t great at getting up on time and sometimes the captain would come up and bang on the bedroom door ‑ “Come on, lads! The ship’s sinking!” ‑ until we disgorged, perhaps not so well washed, and skulked into the kitchen to wolf down the very decent cooked breakfast. Mrs A, however, was not quite the softie her husband was and sometimes, arriving at a minute to nine, we would be sent straight out to the yard to work, in the already hot morning, queasily gathering and sorting yesterday’s mixer bottles from stinking bins in which the wasps were already hunting. But we were usually only left breakfastless for a quarter of an hour: as soon as Mrs A had gone off on her business, “Cook” would knock on the window and call us in to eat.
Cook was a kind and pretty blonde woman, perhaps in her later thirties, who we later learned had somehow mislaid her husband. How could this have happened to such a nice person? Maybe my father was right about the English. Perhaps by way of compensation for the loss of her spouse she was followed everywhere by her adoring dog Woppet (the whippet). I think it was from Cook that we eventually learned the circumstances in which the vacancies of which we had taken advantage had arisen and how The Good Companions had suddenly had jobs for two young Irish lads, no experience necessary, at the same time. The matter, it seemed, was shortly to come before the courts, and a few of the public bar regulars (including Dave, who had threatened me with a dart for tendering him his beer in “a wog glass”) would be appearing on charges arising from a race riot involving on the one hand the patrons of the public bar, mostly white, and on the other those of the games room, mostly black. The bar had apparently been wrecked and some of the staff had either walked out or been let go pending completion of extensive repairs.
Many of the inhabitants of Slough came from populations dislodged from the East End of London by the Blitz. Paul and I, two young men on our way up to university after all, did not hold them in great esteem, particularly the white males. Fairly soon we thought we had mastered the essence of their conversation: “’ot, innit?” “Yeah, innit?”
There were exceptions of course. There was the strong, quiet Caledonian Jim. And the hilariously profane Fred, a fat, jolly man with a bald pate and a stroke of a moustache who came in occasionally as relief barman and regaled myself and Paul with obscene patter. Fred had little time for Liverpool Ed, for reasons he was unwilling to specify. Then there were two enormously smiling gents from the Indian subcontinent who appeared every half-hour at the games room hatch to place an always identical order: “Two pints Watney Red Barrel, two double Black & White … and what you want yourself!” I wasn’t sure why they always came up to the hatch together. Was it that they couldn’t bear to be out of one another’s company, or did it just take two to carry all the drink?
Terri and Anne were motherly women in their forties (divorcees like as not) who drank together in the lounge. Terri’s drink, I remember, was a Pony (“the little drink with a big kick”, cream sherry in a Babycham-style bottle with a classy tinfoil wrapper round the top). The reason I remember Terri a little bit better than Anne is that she had a daughter, sixteen or seventeen or thereabouts and quite a looker. She had been hanging out with a bunch of skinhead lads, but her mother thought she would be better off with me and hoped to be able to engineer it. I thought this was a good idea too but in spite of a big smile once nothing ever happened.
Harry and Ciss were perhaps the oldest of our customers. Ciss inevitably reminded me of my grannies, but differed from them in personality. Birdlike, she drank a bottle of Guinness, had her fine, not quite white, hair held back in a bun, never took her overcoat off, loved to chat, perhaps particularly to young men, and had a wonderful dirty laugh, which sometimes became a cackle. She was a Londoner as well, and would do the Lambeth Walk to prove it. Harry was also a genial sort, but was not often required to say much. He may have been a few years younger than Ciss and there was a sort of hint hanging there that he might have been taken on for more than his personality. “Ooh, he was a strong one in his day!” Cackle. They were not married.
At nights after work we would sometimes repair to the TV room for the late news or, on Fridays, perhaps a late film. Here we were often joined by Captain Arrowsmith, who was happy enough to let the wife pop on up to bed while he joined the lads for a bottle or two of pale ale and, as a man who had seen a fair bit of the world, give them the benefit of a few things he had learned along the way. It was in that TV room, on July 21st, 1969, that I saw Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon. I remember that Captain Arrowsmith, being of a more scientific bent and perhaps having been in charge of some quite complex pieces of technology himself in the course of his career, was even more impressed than we were. And having thus – as it was seen at the time – anticipated the twenty-first century, a few weeks later in mid-August we returned shamefully, as Captain Arrowsmith saw it, to the seventeenth as the television news showed footage of Catholics being burned out of their homes in Belfast by Protestants. “Fighting over religion, lads, in this day and age. It’s ridiculous! Ireland must be the only place in the world …” And much more of the same.
Come September, as Paul and I prepared to move on with our scraps of savings to our (separate) universities, the captain made a half-hearted effort to persuade us to stay on. But of course he knew that you shouldn’t stand in a young lad’s way when it’s time for him to start his progress in the world. He and Mrs A had not been blessed with a child.
My short summer stay in Bucks was the first of many trips to England in search of employment. I think it was the happiest, certainly the most secure, with a close friend, The Good Companions as a comfortable home, Captain Arrowsmith as a very acceptable father substitute and a plurality of fond mothers and even grandmothers. And it is true what the captain said: a country that has never built a nuclear power station or an underground railway system or an aircraft carrier could well have something to learn from one which has. Much to learn indeed in many areas. Just not in the correct selection of glasses in which to serve beer.