Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Wonky Panels Two

Absent Friends

One measure of the strength and depth of relationship in any community is the impact made upon it by bereavement. I have been struck these past few weeks by the extraordinary outpouring of sadness and regret at the untimely loss of Rodney Archer. It is surprising and humbling, the extent to which this gentle, quiet man was loved and admired in Spitalfields, and the readiness of people to express their emotion at his passing. People have been meeting in the street and candidly unburdening themselves of troubled and complicated feelings. Voices have been unsteady. Eyes hint at tears. It is not, obviously, quite the same as some state occasion, like the loss of a royal or celebrity or famous politician, yet in our little, intense, overwrought corner of Spitalfields, it counts at the very least as a milestone in our lives.

There have been other such milestones. Eric Elstob was a colossus in our neighbourhood. His reputation as polymath, conservationist, writer, antiquarian and financier, as well as leading light in the restoration of Christ Church, was immense. In awed tones we first heard about him over a garden fence in Oxford, where we lived at the time, when we explained one day in the early ‘nineties that we were headed for Spitalfields. The donnish, grey-haired, little old lady spoke to us animatedly. She had worked with Eric in one of the colleges. We knew we were taking a chance by sinking everything into this rundown London neighbourhood. Family members recoiled at our plans. But to hear of such distinguished new neighbours lifted our spirits. Like Rodney he was one of the adventurous ones, an early pioneer in tumbledown, neglected Spitalfields.  He owned and restored the best house in Fournier Street, but had his rich, full life cut short at just sixty.

Dennis Severs likewise was famous, almost passing for a rock star in our neighbourhood. If Spitalfields wasn’t Bohemian before, he certainly made it so. We had heard all the stories: the saturnalian Christmas parties, the coach and four comically obstructing traffic on Kensington streets, and of course the majestic curating and breathing life into the imaginary Jervis family, now permanently lodged in their splendid, Hogarthian, Folgate Street home. Dennis was an American, from the mid-West. He owned a petrol station out there, from which all his life he derived a small income. I loved the beautiful irony of this. I loved thinking of Dennis plundering London antique markets for stage props for his house while thousands of miles away some pump attendant in dusty jeans and cowboy shirt was refuelling a gas guzzler on the forecourt of the family business. There are many such contradictions here. Otherwise normal people set about their daily lives in gloomy houses lit by gaslight, cooking their supper on a wood-burning range. This could only happen in Spitalfields.

I didn’t know Dennis too well, though I do remember him very much approving of our coffee house idea, and I liked that. Of course his funeral was a great coup de théatre and I well remember the day. Everyone turned out for the slow procession behind a funeral cart, in true East End style, even stopping the traffic in Commercial Street. How to explain such no-holds-barred, out-and-out enthusiasm for old England? It sometimes seems that we ex-colonials are more keen on the past and preserving it at all costs than native Britons. This is no doubt because we have so little history of our own worth keeping.

Peter Lerwill, in Princelet Street, was one of those sweet-tempered, undemonstrative, older-generation Spitalfields people whose loss when it came struck as such a blow. He too succumbed to cancer. This gentle man was always kind to me, and encouraged my building restoration  project. He admired craftsmanship and gave me his collection of original brass doorbells and spring mechanisms. He wanted me to distribute them after he was gone, and faithfully I carried out this wish. His beautiful house was left to the Landmark Trust.

I first met John Cornwell at a summer garden party in Whitechapel. We would bump into each other on numerous occasions and each time there would be some short, but courteous and friendly, exchange between us. He once gave me a brass fire fender, confiding sadly that it was not to his wife’s taste. I totally understood why he was good at his job - family law. He was such a superb listener. Meeting in the street one day he told me he had eaten with family in my restaurant the night before. I held my breath and waited. “It was magnificent!” he charmingly stated. Of course I knew about the encroaching illness, and friends kept saying how sick he seemed. Not long before the end I turned the corner in Puma Court one day and saw him approaching. I could have bolted - but of course I didn’t. He was so very gaunt and thin under his dashing, broad-brimmed black felt hat. “You’ve been unwell,” I told him. Then, after a pause: “You must be very brave.” “But I’m not brave at all,” he quickly gave back, with little forgiving smile, to excuse my awkwardness. Then he carried on past me, there being nothing else to say.

Christ Church was full, nave and galleries, on the day of his funeral.

There were always plenty of good pubs in Spitalfields, but no two quite like The Gun and The Golden Heart. How sad therefore to relate that the landlords of these two long-lived, characterful, family-run public houses, David Pollock and Dennis Esquilant, both succumbed so cruelly and suddenly to cancer within a year or so of each other in the recent past.

Dennis and David were proper East End: how often can we truthfully say this when we speak of personalities of Spitalfields? They did not come down in the last shower. Dennis was from an old local family still active in the area. His nephew runs a recycling business - I take my waste cardboard to his depot in Greenwich every week. David’s mum and dad had his pub before him, just as son Mark took over from David. There was a photo portrait of them affectionately fixed over the bar. David told me how he used to attend Sandys Row synagogue as a boy every Saturday, and the Repton Club on weekday evenings. He once took chase after a man who tried to steal our A-board. His son-in-law is a local fireman. These two took the place pretty much as they found it: there was no desire to cast it in a new image. This is perhaps what most makes the newcomers different. David was ever the presiding genius of his successful business. I used to see him in chef's whites sometimes, when hosting some freemasons' dinner upstairs. "You're an institution," I once told him, across the bar counter, of his pub. "I might get put in one," he shot back. "He's everywhere I look in this place," Karen told me in the street one day, shortly after his death. I loved how I used to see David stood at the public bar with a pint in The Golden Heart on Christmas Eve - a confraternity of publicans!

I once met Dennis by chance at the counter of the beigel shop at the top of Brick Lane. I was collecting beigels for the coffee house every day back then, and carting them back home again in the basket of my butcher’s bike. Dennis had by then taken a less prominent role in the running of his and Sandra’s beautiful pub. “How’s is it all going, Dennis?” asked the redhead behind the counter, sonorous in her thick Irish brogue. “Brilliant.... That’s what worries me,” Dennis replied. “How so?” she asked, confused. “Because it makes you wonder what’s round the corner.” I never forgot that day - I was haunted by this flash of wisdom.

I can’t remember when I first met Rodney Archer. It must have been near twenty years back. I remember saying that there was no risk of my forgetting his name, since he shared it with my father. This seemed to amuse him. He told me he was writing some magnum opus, a sort of modern-day Pepys or something, that everyone in Spitalfields is in it, and that we will all have to wait till it is published. This seemed slightly threatening, but I probably thought he was teasing. More recently, ever the thesp, he used to ask me if I was Donald Sinden’s son, and perhaps was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t. I never knew till the funeral that he wrote poems. I feel sad about this because he said kind things about mine.

I never saw inside his house, but from the video one can see that it is ravishing. It must be one of the very last Spitalfields houses not tampered with and “themed”, which seems to be the new fashion here. As Spitalfields continues to reinvent itself, we can only speculate on what will be the final outcome. One day last summer he came with two old Spitalfields friends to visit us on the coast. We made a tour of the house, during which Rodney was mostly silent. But he lit up upon seeing a bow front Regency chest with a glove drawer I had bought from Roy in the market. Everyone smiled when he cheekily asked what I gave for it. We had lunch in a nearby restaurant then toured the harbour and town. Rodney came back with a fetching seaside straw hat to add to his collection.

What I especially liked about Rodney was his not joining in with the narrow, “feudy” side of Spitalfields. Perhaps he has something to teach us here. This place is a village - an urban village - but has something myopic about it too, despite its supposed sophistication. Maybe we need to look further sometimes, past these streets, to things beyond, to the horizon. I pictured Rodney on the day of his funeral peering down from heaven on his bed of puffy white clouds, smiling at the assembled mourners (many of whom, as the eulogist hinted, are not actually on speaking terms), and cheerfully lapping up the spectacle.

He would have loved the theatre.