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Childhood memories of life on the Arden Estate in Shoreditch

PUBLISHED: 15:30 12 November 2019

The Arden Estate. Picture: Simon Phipps / Extracted from Brutal London by Simon Phipps.

The Arden Estate. Picture: Simon Phipps / Extracted from Brutal London by Simon Phipps.

Archant

In the summer just past I spent some quiet days on islands in the middle of the North Atlantic. It was there that after a gap of sixty nine years I started to reflect on my childhood days in Shoreditch.

Alan Martin aged three. Picture: Alan MartinAlan Martin aged three. Picture: Alan Martin

There could not have been a greater contrast between the bare green islands surrounded by sea and the world my memory took me back to. At first I took random notes. Finally I was amazed at the number of incidents I could recall. In the subsequent days I filled them out to almost 10,000 words. I realised that Shoreditch had been an extremely personal experience for me.

I had arrived there at almost three years after a concerted spell of hospitalisation (TB) that lasted two. You could say that my life began at Hathaway House, the Arden Estate then Cranston, and that Shoreditch represented freedom, hope, release, euphoria.

It is not surprising then that my words express feeling, subjectivity rather than facts and objectivity.

Much of what I write may not be of so much interest to others. However I would like to share several experiences that may bring a gleam of recognition. So, to now step back sixty nine years.

Caliban Tower on the Arden Estate in Hoxton. Picture: Google MapsCaliban Tower on the Arden Estate in Hoxton. Picture: Google Maps

In the early days, even with the iron attached to my leg, I very soon found the Luftwaffe-bombed derelict wasteland that lay a short distance beyond the red brick wall skirting the flats. Here and there were substantial remnants of what we kids called The Bombed Buildings. Grown-ups told us not to venture within because it was there that the bogey man lived.

All to no avail. Despite precarious bricks, tottering staircases, crumbling masonry and the strong fluttering of resident pigeons., the older boys would sometimes hide, wait until the little-uns put a foot inside and then make ghastly, ghostly wails.

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The bombed buildings and surrounding waste area were a wonderful playground. Part of the disused open area was converted into a makeshift speedway track.

All ages of youngsters would squat around the rim while the older ones showed off their daredevil skills. The number of bikes was most impressive. The weekends, particularly Sunday afternoons, was prime time. We younger ones were tolerated.

At one time, a car was left on the wasteland. Naturally it attracted interest. After a few days it was ransacked. There was a knock at the door. My mum answered it to find two policemen. Other kids, upon being questioned, had put my name forward as the culprit. My mum laconically replied: "Would you like to see him?"

Step forward one blond haired handicapped three year-old. Step back, with profuse apologies, two sorry policemen. There was nothing daft about the kids I associated with!

The most wonderful hours were those of November 5, 1951. All of us were out of our flats standing on the balconies gazing at a spectacular scene.

Rockets green, red, yellow and silver criss-crossed as they exploded high up in the inky sky. All around and on the ground were sparkling, spinning, whizzing Catherine wheels and jumping Jacks. Bangers galore. Shouts, murmurs, gasps, widespread awe. Everyone together. It was another celebration of the end of the war. And it was still, quiet, peaceful, not a drop of rain. There seemed no end. And all this in lowly Shoreditch. An experience yet to be repeated for me. Absolutely unforgettable.

There were other, more modest pleasures. Several times a week the red baker's van used to pull up in the open area adjacent to Hathaway House. Now and again, if mum was caught short, she would go down to buy. I loved the aroma of the yeast and dough of the soft freshly baked golden white loaves emanating from within the open back doors of the van. At weekends the toffee apple man drove up and parked in the same spot. Quickly a line of small children would form as he begun to serve runny brown-treacled apples on a stick. It was seldom I received one. Mum took great care of my teeth. But more often I was content enough with the sight and the thought as I gazed out from the corner of our living room window. There was much to relish from within Hathaway House.

A less welcome visitation was that of the tall, lean, moustached rent man. Mum - convent-educated - was a good payer but even she occasionally struggled and asked for the odd extension.

This was always granted, if a tad reluctantly. There were plenty of other neighbours who made themselves scarce as soon as he was spied. Paying rent was an "evil necessity". To evade officialdom was second nature to Shoreditch and the East End.

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