Monday, September 5, 2022

The Old Man at sea

Eighty years ago at the age of 42 my dad joined the Royal Navy for the second time having already been in the First World War. We do not know if he was called up or volunteered.

When he was sent to Scotland to serve on HMS Whimbrel the following year he was the oldest man on the crew and also the only grandfather. Even the Captain was seven years his junior.

Whimbrel had only recently been completed at the Yarrow shipyard and was doing its sea trials before being handed over to the Royal Navy.  Dad remained with Whimbrel until he was sent home after VE Day to be demobbed.

Whimbrel was a sloop of the Swan class and had been essentially designed as an escort and submarine defence vessel.  It served in this role throughout the war providing escorts for convoys between the UK and America, Russia and the Mediterranean as well as also being involved in the Sicily landings in June  1943.

It was eventful few years in the war not just for Dad but for Whimbrel. It was never damaged by enemy attack but the weather damage during those fateful Atlantic and Russian convoys during winter months took its toll and the ship was in for repairs on several occasions. The Russian convoys were particularly hard on the crew and the ship because of the extreme weather. It is galling to many of the descendants of those men that the present day rulers of Russia have chosen to ignore the sacrifices of the men of the Royal Navy in saving the Russian people by getting greatly needed supplies through. Putin and co of course were not alive then and it is easy for them to choose to portray "the west" that saved them as now being the enemy.

There are several stories about these years in my book "Tales my father told me" available on Amazon at

HMS Whimbrel is still afloat, although under the name ENS Tariq, having been sold to the Egyptian Navy in 1954 despite many attempts over the years to bring her back to the UK for preservation.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Lavender Place,St. George in the East

 Lavender Place was situated just along Pennington Street from where my dad was born in August 1900.

Lavender Place had 11 Houses where 134 people were listed on the 1901 census including 21 children under 14.

It was a multinational community, if it thought of itself as a community, with birthplaces including Russia, Germany, Ireland, Palestine, and Scotland as well as those born in London.  The occupations were also diverse including dock workers, boot makers, rag sorters, tailors, tent makers, as well as the inevitable carmen and van boys. 

The southern side of Pennington Street was the high wall that encircled the London Docks and was the outer boundary of the Parish of St. John of Wapping.  Pennington Street was therefore not in Wapping despite the hundreds of images on the internet which describe it as such because of the problems that arose when the notorious Murdoch moved his printing presses to the newly industrialized London Docks and thus set off a dispute with the print unions.  It was easy for the Murdoch newspapers to describe the strike pickets at the gates in Pennington street as being in Wapping because it took up less room in a column than St. George in the East, although it would have been just as easy to say Stepney.+

Friday, February 4, 2022

Covid 19, Old Age, or food processing?

 One of the symptoms of covid 19 is a loss of smell and taste.  Well, we have experienced that for some time before the pandemic and we are often told that it is related to the aging process. I am inclined to the view that it is also related to eating foods that have been processed or manufactured in some way.

Almost everything that we eat these days has been through some processing. You may think that raw vegetables do not come into this category but with the emphasis on "natural", or "organic" there has been some interference with the normal growing process.  Farming today is as much a factory-type activity as the production of bread. so even the humble potato or carrot is not safe from being manipulated in some way and tomatoes grown in chemical fluids rarely if ever taste like tomatoes.

In ordinary food processing then the recipes have changed over time and the emphasis on being salt-free has changed most foods that we buy.  But simply removing salt from some recipes would not have been enough so something had to be substituted.  Going salt free of course had an added bonus for manufacturers, less cost!

Even meat goes through processing even if it is still referred to as butchering.  If your chops arrived prepackaged, cryovacced etc then they have gone through a process that is far removed from what used to happen at your local butcher. And it is tempting to wonder if beef mince has ever been near a cow let alone being part of one!

Had one of these for breakfast:

Dont know what it tasted like, but it was not like a crumpet.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Smuggling cigars

Dad's stepfather George Pokham was a merchant seaman who worked mainly on the ships carrying various items between the London Docks and the Baltic ports. Only short runs and he was rarely away for more than a week at a time. 

With her somewhat difficult experience with her first husband, our Grandmother did not trust the second one to come straight home after being paid off and she would regularly be at the dock gates and often inside waiting for George to leave the ship. Security was not as great in those days, there were only the Dock policemen on the gate, it was quite a regular occurrence for wives with their children to wait inside the gates for their husbands to come off the ships with their pay.

Gran usually had a couple of the younger boys with her on these occasions and they would run up to George to be lifted up and swung round with great shows of paternal affection. He was also stuffing their pockets with contraband cigars during this process. He would always speak to the dock police at the gate and offer his bag for inspection. Ironically this was at the gate in Pennington Street now being used for the upmarket event venue called Tobacco Dock.

Dad was never sure if Gran or even the policemen for that matter was in on this minor smuggling, but it seemed to happen every time. The blind eye may also have been related perhaps to the fact there was a small block of Police flats in Pennington Street at that time, so many of the regular gate police were neighbours as it were. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

Before Duvets

 Winter has arrived without a doubt in the Northwest of England so we have changed over to the winter weight duvet. 

Perhaps there are still a few people like me who can remember a time before duvets in English bedrooms,  although there is a popular song in these parts called "when I was a lad" which refers to greatcoats on the bed!

The first duvet I encountered was shortly after completing my National Service in the Military Police and spending most of that in the Suez Canal zone I decided to take a hitchhiking holiday in France.

I set off from the ferry at Calais and headed for P\aris and got some lifts on the way, and spend a couple of nights in the little bivouac tent I carried astride my haversack.  I spoke no french.  Although I had learned some French at school, whatever  I knew at 16 had disappeared by the time I was 21 so I relied on a French/English phrasebook, much to the amusement of any french person I tried to speak to.  I was able to speak the french phrases quite fluently which gave the impression that |I knew what I was saying but unfortuna\gtely I could not understand any replies.   Still, I got by although for the most part I lived on bread and cheese which I could buy just by pointing.

Obviously, I did not use the main routes and did a fair amount of walking on the quiet country roads. One day I had not got any lifts so was quite tired by the end of the day and I knew that I was still some way from the Amiens, the nearest town. Seeing a sign on the gatepost of a farm I went in and asked for a room for the night.

  No English was spoken at this house but I was welcomed being both young and English.  I was given a good meal of soup and some homegrown ham and bread and then shown to the bedroom.  Anyone familiar with "Allo Allo" would recognize the room, a sloping ceiling and a large iron bedstead with an enormous feather-filled duvet which I assumed was an eiderdown.  

I was a little nonplussed at first as there was no sheet under the duvet, not knowing that this was not regarded as necessary, and getting in the bed the weight of the cover took some getting used to. But I was tired and soon adjusted and slept like a log until close to midday the following day much to the amusement of my hosts. Still, I had breakfast and was on my way after paying a very trifling amount which I am  sure was much below the going rate even for then. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Catholic tories

In the 1950s I was a young Labour councillor on Lewisham Council.  Having been brought up as a Catholic one of the things I found difficult to grasp was that there were Catholics on the other side of the council chamber.  Tories!  On the Labour side there were several Catholics including John Henry a former fireman with a scarred face as testament to the bravery of his calling and Fred Copeman, OBE, a former member of the International brigade fighting the fascists in Spain just before the war.  My father had been a councillor in Stepney between the wars,  was a Papal Knight and an active trade unionist.

The Pope at the time was preaching social justice and the Catholic Church in the UK was  active in working to secure better conditions for working people.

So how could these "good Catholics " belong to an organisation that ignored all that?  I found it difficult to even be friendly to these blue Catholics.

I was naive of course not yet having come to realise that in a conservative world,  no matter what people professed as a religion, personal gain and advancement took priority. 

Sixty odd years have passed and nothing has changed.  A Tory can claim that they believe in helping those well off and spout the current catch phrase "levelling up " but what they actually do does not bring that about. Conservative government still means that the rich get richer by means of old boy networks, cronyism and access to government contracts.  Legislation that protects the rights of employees gets whittled away so that it ends up being meaningless. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Press button "B"

 Many phrases like this one, well known in the past no longer have any meaning.  It of course referred to the system of payment in public telephone boxes.  The red public phone box was on almost every street corner in the days when there were few telephones installed in private houses and before the invention of mobile phones.  In many remote areas of the Uk, they were the lifeline for a village and the only means of communication with the rest of the county.

 To use a public phone box it was necessary to make a prepayment of the necessary number of coins before dialing the number you wished to call.  If someone answered the call then it was necessary to press button "A" to make a connection.  If there was no reply then press button "B" to get the coins back.

Quite straight forward you would have thought but it did not always work that way.  The coins used for many years were pennies.  Probably the most common coin in the Uk in terms of usage so that they were also then the most worn.

. Pressing button B to get them back often resulted in two coins getting stuck together and not falling through into the receptacle cup as intended.  After a few bangs on the black box, they could come through but otherwise, the frustrated caller would go off. The next person in the box could be lucky and their coins could dislodge the stuck coins and they could make a call by pressing button "a" or their own coins would get stuck as well, adding to the blockage.

Then perhaps along came an enterprising young boy who would manage to dislodge the blockage by various means.  Most youngsters "tested" the phone box on every occasion.  Often it was just a question of pressing button "b" and retrieving the coins left behind by a caller who had been frustrated in making a call and dashed off without retrieving their money.  Otherwise, a few sharp bangs on the box would do the trick, or the judicious use of a penknife, the necessary adjunct to any schoolboy's pocket then, could release stuck coins.  Didn't work every time of course, but it was always worth a try, and if you are sauntering along with nothing else to do.......