My Auntie Alice was born in August 1916 and died in February 2013, aged 96. She was born in Shoreditch and died in Whitechapel, living her entire life in the East End of London, except for a few years in Dagenham of which more later. She lived first in Hoxton, but home was Bethnal Green and the Roman Road in particular. My mum’s older half brother married Alice, and they had Jimmy, Jean and Kim.
When I knew Alice, she already seemed a little old to me, but not quiet. She could raise her voice and give someone an ear bending if they deserved it. She would take food to stray cats, and would help people in the area. She witnessed the community change significantly with the arrival of the Asian immigrants. Be as politically correct as you like, but it was a big change. She always smiled. She was about four feet ten, gave when she had nothing, had strong views, liked a drink and a few tabs. She had a raspy voice and a big laugh.
She mainly lived in council flats, and I remember visits to Crane House. It was always full of cats including Jimmy, Sam and Bodie and Marble who Kim found next to the bins and Clark Gable, who after adoption disappeared. When I was a kid, we visited two or three times a year. Husband Jimmy was permanently in hospital with lung cancer and my mum would visit him with a carton of cigarettes. I never saw Jimmy, unfortunately.
My mum was christened Rose, and she was never Pat in the East End. ‘How are you, Aunt Rose?’ When we came down from York, I could see that they loved her and everyone came over. Crane House was packed, Alice’s kids now grown up, their kids, not always a dad, white and Afro-Caribbean, the cats, a trip to the pub.
Alice saw and felt it all. She lost her beloved husband, Jimmy, and she talked about ‘My Jimmy’ every day. Jean, her daughter, always the life and soul of the party, died suddenly of a heart attack. She also outlived her son, Jimmy. Born during World War I, a child during the depression, World War II, family highs and lows. She just loved her community, the Roman market, she always took the bus. There were the normal tragedies in the community. The Sunday People, News of the World, full of disaster stories.
Alice had one reaction to every piece of bad news:
It could be that someone down the market had died, a bomb dropping on some city or other or that Clark Gable had been sick.
Last week, we found out that the children our school go to, Rudolf Steiner School Kings Langley, yet again failed a school inspection. As a result, it’s probable that the school will close permanently. Alice would have heard this, paused and said ‘Shame’. Then would say that everything would be alright. She is right. Everyone would smile, despite everything.
I loved my Auntie Alice. I last saw her shrivelled, old and laughing, in her bed, surrounded by cats. I loved visits to my East End family, another world from Upper Poppleton. I experienced laughing in the face of adversity.
PS – I was going to tell you about the Dagenham years. She met many East Enders, like herself, who had moved out the ten or so miles into the suburbs. They thought they were better than those East Enders who stayed in Bethnal Green, and Alice would have none of that.