My fathers son

I actually think that deep down I’m an optimist although my life has been blighted by pessimism and (I think) depression. At the midpoint of my life I found myself in a trap, I couldn’t see a way out of it. I had committed myself to a life I couldn’t lead and it changed everything, I changed and so did the way I saw the world.

My father was a drunk, depressed bore, who despite his obvious intelligence never dragged himself up higher than the factory floor. He and mum had an awful marriage, she was scared of him and he was oblivious to any hurt he caused to her or anyone else it seemed. He seemed to hold a deep grudge against me, he would ‘teach’ me how to box and try to knock me about, with some success I have to say and he was a good boxer. Stockily built with strong arms and quick fists he would laugh as my blows, aimed at his head would either miss, because he was too fast or they would hit his arms. In a flash he would come back at me with a few sharp punches and It would be all over.

I suppose I’m writing this because he’s been on my mind a bit lately, when I look in the mirror I wonder if its him thats looking back or me. I still feel such anger that I find it hard to write about him. At the moment and for reasons I won’t go into here I can’t smell but I remember his smell very well. It was Old Holborn tobacco and beer, I would open the letter box and poke my nose through to tell if he was at home or not and if I smelt him and he didn’t answer the door I imagined he had carried out the threat that he made constantly as I was growing up. His life revolved around horse racing, he had worked in betting shops all his life, in fact he and my uncle ran illegal betting syndicates but neither of them made very much money. Gangland London at that time was a competitive place and if you picked a fight with the wrong people you’d end up propping up a flyover. He was a very secretive man but he told me a few stories about ‘the old days’ as liked to call them. A member of their betting syndicate had been beaten up near Leytonstone Station and they managed to get a good description of the culprits. Over a beer in the pub five or six of them decided to ‘straighten things out’ and they got on the train to Bethnal Green. Somewhere along the way they began to sober up and realised that the ‘firm’ as he like to call them comprised of two lads that would later become infamous, they were well known even then. Who knows what would have happened if they’d confronted the Kray twins all those years ago ? They got the train home, I doubt they even got out of Bethnal green tube.

He liked the east end of London, admired the Kray twins, gambled on everything that moved and probably things that didn’t. He grew up in a small terraced house in Stratford East London in a street that had a pub at both ends , his dad who had been an amateur boxer died before I was born and I can remember the stories he and my grandmother shared on sundays when we used to visit her. His punch-drunk mates with cauliflower ears and the time that one of them went AWOL from the army and hid in the cellar whilst the military police were at the front door asking questions. Dad loved crime and criminals, he had a kind of robin hood ideal about about how crime worked and I began to enjoy challenging him, even if I had no conviction in the argument I put forward I would say it anyway and I noticed that after a while he would leave the room rather than argue with me. One day I asked for something, I can no longer remember what, probably a football or something like that, I was sitting at the dinner table eating my breakfast and he was sitting in his chair near the fire. He stood up and walked towards me, I can distinctly remember feeling a little uneasy, I glanced over my shoulder wondering why he hadn’t answered me and he slowed and walked out the door. Later mum told me that he wanted to hit me but changed his mind.

We had moved into a larger house further away from London seemingly against his will, my memories from that time are filled with conflict, well, more than usual anyway. Mums family wanted us to move away from the little two up two down in Ilford, supposedly because my sister had materialised from a maternity unit at the local hospital. I still don’t want to entertain the thought that mum and dad had s.e.x. However, there was an underlying neighbour issue going on, they had been letting him take a 9 year old me out on trips alone in his car. I think you can guess the rest. I’ll address this later in this blog but the upshot was that we moved house and he lost all control.

In September 1970 we moved a few miles down the Romford road from Ilford to Hornchurch, my first impressions were positive. I enjoyed the huge park at the end of the road and the cricket field a couple of streets away. I’d found football a long time before and it had dominated my childhood, I now had more opportunity to play. I started a new school and endured the usual bullying until I learnt to fight, I found a quick punch in the face ended most situations. Unfortunately this strategy eventually led to my expulsion from secondary school some years later but I had accumulated a reputation by kicking a football at a teacher in the playground and I’d been caught gambling for money, a major crime. Dads mental health deteriorated, the move unsettled him and he would get up in the middle of the night checking the house for woodworm, it had already been treated in the first few days after the move. I remember plastic sheets on wooden floorboards, billowing in the wind, rustling noisily and trying to lift off up to the ceiling fighting against the staples that held it down. Despite that he wasn’t convinced, weeks turned into months and he got worse until one day a lady came around for a chat. I listened from the stairs, she wanted him to go into the local mental hospital ‘Warley’. He of course refused point blank and after a few minutes he got up and walked out. I remember hoping he wouldn’t come back. He had begun drinking, and if he wasn’t working he was at the club drinking himself into a semi coma, he got into fights, got brought home because he couldn’t walk, he would pass out downstairs, fall over etc etc. We called the ambulance so many times we became friends with the driver.

Anna Raeburn

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The first cab I owned was an FX4, it was dark green and I had been warned by everyone that it was going to be an unlucky cab. No one knew quite why but London cabbies are not short of an opinion or two. It smelt of fresh polish and that black paint garages used to apply to everything they could find underneath the body. It had a very basic turny knob radio under the top light and above my head, the speaker was in a plastic housing underneath the radio. There were no pre-set stations and so when I wanted to listen to something else I had to I had to turn the dial until I heard something familiar. My favourite programme was a late night agony aunt phone in show hosted by Anna Raeburn and a resident doctor, she didn’t mess about with niceties she got straight to the point with an abrupt approach towards her phone in guests, it was great night time radio. However, the reception in the City was appalling, the signal used to come and go randomly as I turned corners and crossed bridges. One night I was listening to a particularly graphic problem that an unfortunate listener had phoned in about, I can remember being very frustrated that I couldn’t hear properly, I had my fingers on the dial twiddling away try to improve the reception when two elderly ladies climbed in the back near the Bank Junction. They were happily chatting away in the back and my mind returned to that interesting problem that Anna was dealing with, I turned up the volume slowly and carefully and angled my head so that my left ear was as close to the speaker as possible without it being overheard in the back. The reception was awful but I could roughly follow what the poor man’s problem was. It seemed he had got his girlfriend pregnant before he had dumped her for another girl, she and her family had confronted him and now his life seemed to depend upon Anna’s advice. Well this was exactly what she loved, she tore into this man with gusto and was telling him exactly what she thought of him when the reception died. I was beside myself, I twiddled that dial and fiddled with the volume all the time keeping one eye on the ladies in the back to ensure they couldn’t hear. Well, driving in London requires full attention and so I had to abandon the radio as I approached a major junction and of course that was the exact moment that the signal suddenly improved and Anna’s voice boomed out into the cab and before I could get to the dial she had said ‘it’s your fault she’s pregnant you should have kept your penis in your pants’. The ‘penis’ word hung in the atmosphere like an elephant in the room, I sheepishly peeped at the rear view mirror I saw them both staring, open mouthed at the radio, I began to mumble my apologies and tried to explain the reception difficulties but they were definitely not amused and were not buying my apology either. I decided the best thing was to stop talking and to get them to their destination without any further embarrassment. I watched them clip clop off, their faces stiff with outrage at the awful language they’d heard in the back of my cab, as they turned the corner and disappeared from view I switched the radio back on and turned the volume up.

Can’t please them all can you.