This picture is one of the many taken at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and below is a map of one of the areas in which it was fought. Most people have never heard of this battle and until this morning I didn’t know that I had actually witnessed part of it.
Perhaps I ought to begin at the beginning. A Facebook friend of mine called Bru was talking about the difference between the way people behaved during the second world war and how they behave now and during our conversation I remembered an occasion when I watched the police taking the side of the Blackshirts a very long time ago. She was horrified that the police were on the side of the fascists and the fascists were chanting ‘Kill the Jews, Kill the Jews.’ And as we talked it occurred to me that this might have been part of the Battle of Cable Street that I’d watched as a very small child and that set me wondering.
The memory was very clear but the details were not, I knew I was very young, but not exactly how young nor where I was in London, except that it was in the year after my little sister was born which would have been 1936 and it was in the Autumn and that Dardy and I had gone up to London to visit ‘Petticoat Lane’. I can remember how quickly she took me back to the underground and got me out of harms way when we saw the demonstration ahead of us. We never reached Petticoat Lane that day.
So this morning when my lovely Charlotte arrived I set her the task of discovering whether it really could have been this famous battle that I’d seen all those years ago. And when we looked at the detail together, all of them fitted my memory. We would have arrived at Aldgate East underground and the demonstration was happening just ahead of us at the corner of Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Road. There were policemen and police horses there and they had been sent to clear a way for the fascist demonstration to get through.
And as if that weren’t coincidence enough, Lottie and I had been describing a fictitious demonstration that is taking place in exactly the same route up Whitechapel High Street and past Aldgate East. Hairs on the back of the neck rising!
And while I was telling Lottie how much I liked the traders in Petticoat Lane, who were all Jewish and gentle and spoke a mixture of English and Yiddish and were always kindness itself and that these were the men that the fascists were determined to drive out, I remembered something else.
I liked them so much, that years later I put two of them that I particularly remembered in the novel called Everybody’s Somebody. I gave them names, as though they were fictional characters, but I drew them from the life.
So I thought I would finish this chapter of coincidences with a quotation about them from the novel. This is truly how they were in Petticoat Lane.
“It was an extraordinary outing. Rosie had never been in a street so crammed full of people nor heard so many voices all shouting at once, nor seen so many stalls in such a narrow space, nor smelt so many old clothes, piled in tousled heaps on every stall and hanging from every available hook and rail, dolefully flapping their sleeves in the rush of air as the crowds pushed from place to place.
At first she tried saying ‘’Scuse me!’ but that was no good at all and, after a few minutes, she was pushing and shoving with the rest. They arrived at a shop draped with clothes and presided over by a small plump man in a Jewish coat and a black yarmulke embroidered in gold thread. He threw up his hands in delight when he saw Kitty and greeted her by name. ‘Pretty Kitty Jackson, as I live an’ breathe. Vhat I can do for you, my darlink?’
Kitty explained what she wanted and within seconds he had pulled four possible dresses from his rails and held them out for inspection, extolling the virtues of each one. ‘Nice bit a’ schmutter,’ he said, offering a blue velvet dress with a long stain down the front of it, ‘or you could try this one,’ showing a yellowing white lace. ‘That’ud wash up lovely.’ Then a pink skirt, ‘just your colour darlin’’ and finally a faded grey dress with a dilapidated collar. But Rosie grimaced and shook her head at all of them.
‘Well thank you very much, Mr Levy,’ Kitty said. ‘But they ain’t quite the thing we ‘ad in mind. I think we’ll go on looking.’ And when Mr Levy gave a rueful grimace they were off into the throng again and pushing their way to another shop.
This one was run by a tall man with a horribly tangled grey beard and kind eyes, which lit up when he heard what they were looking for.
‘Now ain’t you the lucky ones,’ he said, ‘I got just the thing. Come in yesterday. Vait there, my darlinks.’ And he disappeared into the dark cavern of his shop and reappeared with an elegant cream coloured suit hanging over his arm as if it had fainted. He hung it on the nearest rail, pushing the other clothes aside to make room for it and smoothed the sleeves and the skirt with a reverent hand. ‘Vhat you think of that, eh?’ he asked, looking from one to the other.
Rosie made her mind up at once. It was just the thing, it looked so soft and so stylish, with all those little buttons running straight down the coat and straight down the skirt and all covered in the same pretty silk. But before she could say she wanted it, Kitty started to bargain.
‘It’s good cloth,’ she said nodding her head from side to side. ‘I’ll give yer that. All depends how much yer want for it.’
‘For you darlink, two quid an’ cheap at the price.’
Kitty made a grimace. ‘Oh do me a favour, Mr Segal,’ she said. ‘Twenty bob more like.’
Mr Segal spread his hands before her placatingly. ‘For you darlink, thirty shillin’,’ he offered. ‘Can’t drop it no further’n that or there’ll be no margin.’
Another sideways nod of the head and a pause for thought. ‘Twenty five.’
Again the hands were spread. ‘Oy, oy. You drive hard bargain. I tell you vhat I do. Call it twenty-eight an’ I throw in a pair of shoes for free. Vhat could be fairer?’ And the shoes were produced from a dark chest of drawers just inside the door and held out for Rosie’s inspection. They were the prettiest shoes she’d ever seen and matched the suit to perfection. There was no doubt in her mind at all that she would buy the entire outfit. And she did.”