The Republic of Words 1 of 3: Pie and Mash down the Roman Road

“How’s retirement?” “How’s the lady of leisure?” friends asked when I left a busy job at the end of March to take time-out to pause, refresh and reflect. Not surprisingly, it took a while to come off the million-miles-an-hour adrenal whirl, and I struggled to carve out leisure time amid catching up on everything I had neglected in favour of work. Every time I tried to create some lazy space something or somebody would butt in.  Relaxing and letting go takes practice!

Swimming against the tide – jumping out of work at my stage of life  – has its challenges. But whenever, I fidget and fret, wondering how, why, what, what if and what next, I’ve been experimenting with embracing whatever emerges. Instead of being goal-driven and pushing ahead with an agenda, I am seeing what happens if I open up to receiving life, wisdom and guidance in whatever forms it takes. My biggest treat when I let go of the to-do list is sitting on the sofa, drinking tea and reading with Bertie nestled beside me. T

In a recent radio interview journalist Louis Theroux  described he environment he grew up in as a  Republic of Words. I’ve decided to borrow that – books are my current credo, my anchor, my therapy, relaxation and intellectual stimulation. And each book I have read so far has resonated or contained some kind of message.

The first book, Pie and Mash down the Roman Road: 100 Years of life in one East End Market, tapped into my English heritage – in much the same way as an exhibition entitled: Royal Portraits: from the Tudors to the Windsors –  and my fascination with history and the cultural, social and political movements that have shaped my country of origin and who I am.

The Roman Road is the oldest trading route in Britain and, around 1900, stalls extended for a mile. The  book follows the lives of key families who lived, ate, worked, married and had kids in East End. The pie makers, tram drivers, eel dealers, printers, barrow-makers, Billingsgate porters, dockers, costermongers, the lady who looked after the public toilets, Sylvia Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter,  leader of the Suffragette movement) and the notorious Kray Twins.

by Melanie McGrath

G.Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Rd in Bow is another fixture  – the business has been in the same family for nearly 100 years.  I lived in London for nine years in the late ’80s and early ’90s but have to confess I’ve never eaten pie (minced beef), mash and liquor (which is a mix of flour, water and parsley). The Romans first introduced meat in a pastry envelope to Britain and they got it from the Greeks who probably got it from the Egyptians! That same global thread is mirrored in the waves of migrants who have populated the East End. And what a rich mix from Protestant Huguenot weavers in the 17th Century to the migrants from Ireland, Italy and Portugal, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and then in the late 19th Century Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms. By the 1950s the Jamaicans were coming in, and in the 70s it was the turn of the Bangladeshis. Research suggests that sub-Saharan Africans, who were sold as slaves to planters and colonial officials in the 17th and 18th centuries, have been living in London from the 12th Century.

The other migrants are the eels of stewed and jellied fame, whose complex lifestyle sees them travel across the Atlantic Ocean before they reach the coasts of Europe as young eels, from where they head up rivers and streams and, as mature eels, migrate over 3000-miles back to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The author Melanie McGrath has done extensive research both of people and place, and I learnt that eels have been eaten since Anglo Saxon times. As well as being the food of the poor, they have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. One Aldgate eel dealer used to cry out: “Everyone’s a baby.”

Talking of babies, there’s mention of Nonnatus House, which, of course, features in Call the Midwife, a TV series based on the memoirs of a lay midwife who lived and worked with the nuns in Poplar, more than 60 years ago.

This book paints a picture of a strong community, based in hard work and resilience.  The East End was very badly hit in the Second World War – most of the 1.2 million homes lost in the Blitz of 1941 were here. The author describes the area around Kelly’s pie shop in 1945 as resembling “a bad set of dentures; discoloured, smelly and uneven, full of gaping holes.”. As the rubble and slums were cleared, however, and new high-rise developments came in, the easy access to the market, the dance halls, social clubs, dog tracks, pubs and lidos disappeared.

For all the mod cons including indoor bathrooms, the new tower blocks lack the community spirit of the streets where grandmothers sat out on their stoops, peeling vegetables and chatting, and children played hopscotch. And the high rises are no good when the electrics fail. When Rita Willets goes into labour in 1964, she’s living on the 14th floor, the lift doesn’t work and her husband can’t reach the runs at Nonnatus house by phone. In the olden days, the street grapevine would have summoned someone to help. Someone like Marian Old, who worked at the Bryant & May match factory and, although too young to take part, recalled the first all-female strike of 1888 when women campaigned for better pay and conditions. Before conditions improved, women fell victim to ‘phossy jaw’, phosphorus poisoning that resulted in fluorescent vomit and jawbones disintegrating. Men and women alike did it hard in those days; Martha supplemented her wages with egg box-making, midwifery and pickling onions.

Another of my favourite characters is Ron Moss who grew up on Fish Island, now redeveloped as part of the Olympic Park, then a river backwater. Known as the Artful Dodger, he came from a poor family and lived by his wits quickly learning to leaf (Cockney rhyming slang for thief: tea leaf = thief). He forages for food, snares rabbits, steals swans’ eggs and fish from the river and on market days along the Roman he pinches sausages and other food, which he hides in his long-pocketed coat.

Then there’s Marian Old who cleans the toilets and loves her work. She is her own boss and sings while she mops and cleans. She has cups of teas with her regulars and keeps up with all the gossip, even giving sartorial advice as women and girls try on garments they have bought in the market. “She’s grown accustomed to handing out everything from fashion to family to romance advice with the sheets of crispy, disinfectant-smelling Izal paper.” The East End is well known as the home of London’s Rag Trade. Interestingly, the children’s rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel references the manufacture of clothing: Pop is a cockney term for pawn, a weasel both slang for the yarn-winding machine and part of ‘weasel and stoat’, cockney rhyming slang for coat. Incidentally, my father referred to champagne as weasel – as in popping corks!

Redevelopment since the Second World War has changed the social fabric of the East End considerably – Bryant & May’s was converted into one of London’s first gated communities of apartments in the ’80s, and, more recently, areas such as Docklands and the Isle of Dogs have become home to glittering tower blocks, with some areas yuppified and others hippified (think smashed avo and artisan coffee instead of pie and mash). And, yet, the old East End survives in patches; Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Road is still going strong albeit catering to contemporary palettes (chicken and leek pie and vegetarian options) and under renovation.

The author explains the pull of pie and place for customers all over the world searching “for a taste of the past that still lives vividly inside them, or that they may hardly recall or only know from older relatives but to which they nevertheless feel viscerally connected.” That neatly describes how I feel about England – which is why I so loved this book.  Much as I love my life in Australia, you can’t take the Brit out the girl – there’s an essence of Englishness that sits in my DNA. I am heading back to Britain soon and a trip to the East End is definitely on my list.

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