Friday, 1 February 2013

Brick Lane stories

Readers of this blog and friends of the press might remember that we'd posted a "Desperately seeking Robert Poole" note, hoping that someone would help us find any living relatives of the late Robert Poole. We'd wanted to publish his London E1 - the old edition is pictured, with the new edition below, with two family pictures attached (and in the background my rather fetching purple cardie). Two of his family - Lisa Watson and Debbie Towns - got in touch with us. They'd googled their great uncle Robert and were astonished to discover our search. It was all to the good and we moved forward with publication. The book launch was held last week - Lisa spoke on behalf of the family, the broadcaster Alan Dein read from the book and discussed the content with Rachel Lichtenstein. Her introduction to the book is here - - together with some maps and photos of Brick Lane, the setting for Robert's - Bob's - only published novel.
Fittingly the launch was at the Brick Lane Bookshop, hosted by Kalina and Denise, who told me the shop was doing very well at the moment. It is, by the way, one of the few shops that started out as a community bookshop (THAP), became a radical bookshop (Eastside) and is now a local, community and commercial bookshop - which stocks a lot of our books.
But the real surprise was John Charlton, who came along - as did other members of Robert Poole's family. John was his nephew and knew him well, but also lived locally to Brick Lane and was able to confirm or reveal some of the real sites of events mentioned in the book, and reveal some of the real people who crop up in the novel. Among the strong points in the book - read out by Alan Dein - was a description of how local children used to jump onto the speeding brewery dray carts for illicit and dangerous rides. John was one of those children! He described some of the East End pub singalongs when Robert would bring down his showbiz friends, top pianists (Robert himself was an excellent self-taught pianist), to play for the hell of it. Sadly he was unable to identify "Pinkie" the mixed race girl the main character, based on Robert himself, was in love with and did not know whether Pinkie was real or fictional. But John did describe how he would regularly go to an Asian household, with his pot, to pick up a curry made in the back kitchen - that family would later open the first Asian restaurant on Brick Lane.
John was also a "shabbes goy" when he was a child - a gentile who would perform "work" tasks for Orthodox Jews living in the area, such as lighting candles or getting fires going, as Orthodox people cannot work on shabbes (this was long before time switches or central heating). Another Five Leaves writer, Roger Mills, who still lives in the East End, emailed later to say that his mother and aunt were also shabbes goys in the area between the wars. 
The launch was one of those where fact and fiction, East End history and family legends began to blur as the family remembered more of their past and others remembered more of their East End.

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