By Ian Sherry
It all came back to me (well I think it did) as I watched the RTE programme. Could I possibly have lived in Lots Road, Chelsea, danced in Charlie Macks, and bet on the Billy Walker, Henry Cooper fight. Did I dance to The Who, throw my arms in the air and shout ‘Hope I die before I get old’. Did I see Charlie Watts fall over his drum kit when Mick invited him to get up and introduce ‘I wanna be your man’. And was it the small matter of paying more or less what you liked should you find a guard at the top of the escalator when you exited the Tube? Or have I such a good memory that I remember things that never happened at all. Like seeing Christine and Mandy go into the Old Bailey and London’s streets deserted during the final of the World Cup.
From 1963 to 1967 I had a wonderful time in Hammersmith, Holland Park, the aforementioned Chelsea and The Old Kent Road, sharing flats with two of my classmates from home. Through it all we ‘kept the faith’ going to Mass each Sunday and to the early Mass in oratories in Queensway and Peckham Rye during Lent. Dancing in all of London’s Irish halls: The Gresham (with its revolving stage) and Charlie Macks – a truly upmarket hall in a truly upmarket part of central London.
Where a door opened at street level into a mirrored passage, where a matronly Mrs Mack held sway. To gain entrance not only did you have to pay; but every eager young man had to pass the grilling of the proprietor herself. A pioneer pin was a good start, then, ‘Have you a pair of rosary beads?’ she’d ask. ‘Can you say The Memorare?’ These questions answered with confidence and sincerity would allow one to gain entry into a small, beautiful and perfectly regulated Irish dance hall.
The Thomas A Beckett pub in the Old Kent Road also draws me back. Digging a trench there I went in and watched Henry Cooper train and spar. On top of that I saw Billy Walker resplendent in his Savile Row suit. He was talking to his brother George outside their city restaurant – ‘The Baked Potato.’ I thought his youth and power would be far too much for Henry. I wagered a fiver on the fight; that put the betting out of me – the best fiver I ever spent.
On Sunday we went to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. There were a range of speakers, dozens on soap boxes, hecklers by the score and hundreds of us milling about. Lord Soper comes to mind. So too does three neighbours I saw walk through in duffle coats and turned down wellingtons. Ten years older than me, lost to their families, fused together in an itinerant navvy life. Their long hair and unkempt appearance momentarily flummoxed me and in my hesitation they were gone.
During my tenure I scrubbed floors in South Africa House. Unbelievably Office Cleaning Services would give me the keys to the building. A mansion in Trafalgar Square, where at weekends I’d let myself in, and although I laboured in daylight I never the less felt more than apprehensive. Being alone in entire floors themed on the African veld, the vegetation, the stuffed animals interspersed with statues of natives armed with assegais (all life size) had me on edge.
I failed to programme huge Hollerith machines in Old Street – the first computers. And for the Post Office; summarised unsuitable material intercepted in the sorting office of Soho. In retrospect the material was quite innocent, photographs of scantily-clad models commonplace in newspapers of a later day. During my time in G.P.O. Headquarters, St. Martin’s Le Grande, I augmented my £6.12s wages, working part time in the ‘new’ philatelic bureau’.
One Sunday morning I collected the key from security and found myself toiling alone. Having used up the last of the 3d stamps to hand I went over to the steel cupboard to take out a new full sheet of that denomination. To my surprise, I found that it had what I can only surmise to have been a printing registration problem: the Queen’s head was out of position on each stamp. Not wishing to send customers defective goods, I put the sheet back. I’ve often wondered – did I do the right thing?
Looking back I was blessed to have had the company of my two class mates. We went to London looking for work and were given the where-with-all to come back and establish careers. Many who remained are hugely successful including two from my own townland. Young professionals now commute, if not daily, then weekly, London is at home with us. I watched a television programme on Arlington House – sheltered accommodation for the elderly Irish stranded in London – I found it heart wrenching. In slightly different circumstances it could so easily have been about me.