Authors: Carl Merritt
was born in Forest Gate Hospital in east London on 22 September 1965. My mum Val and dad John lived in a tiny two-bed flat at the time. Mum’s always saying I was a bloody huge baby when I popped out. I screamed and fought my way out of her and I’ve been doing the same thing in life ever since. Forest Gate is right on the edge of the old East End and that’s the way I’ve always felt – right on the edge of things. Not many people know this area unless they’ve lived there. It’s the sort of place you don’t bother going to without a real reason. We don’t get a lot of tourists up our way and they say the people east of Finsbury Park and north of Lambeth are different from anywhere else.
My mum told me once that Forest Gate was ‘invented’ when the railway rolled east from Liverpool Street to developments of houses for middle-class commuters more than a hundred years
ago. At first the Quakers constructed the houses, so there were hardly any boozers as they were fiercely anti-drink. Back in those days cows still grazed in front gardens overlooking Wanstead Flats. About the most famous bloke to come from Forest Gate was the actor and film director Bryan Forbes and some fella who wrote the music for
The Sound of Music.
Just about sums this place up really.
After the last war lots of new buildings were constructed in the town centre. These days, Forest Gate is part of the borough of Newham and contains churches, mosques, Sikh and Hindu temples and a cross-section of inhabitants that cover just about every race and nationality in the world.
Traditionally, people move out of places like Forest Gate as soon as they make a few bob but my family never earned a decent enough wedge to make the great escape. If I tried to paint a picture now of what it was like I’d say there weren’t many monuments to the past in Forest Gate. Its history seemed a kind of black void to me when I was a kid.
I recall row upon row of redbrick box houses plus tenement buildings from the Victorian days. There was the pleasant whiff of dough from a big bakery that employed many people. But the other, more constant smell came wafting across Forest Gate from the smelt works in nearby Wapping.
Once upon a time places like Forest Gate, Stepney, Bow, Bethnal Green and Mile End were posh commuter villages with fine houses and rich inhabitants. But those days were long gone by the time my mum and her family set foot in East London.
When I was born, my mum already had John, who was a year older. A couple of years after me, Ian arrived followed by Valerie
(we all call her Lee) five years later. She was the baby of the family. We were all healthy, lively little rascals in our own different ways. My dad John was a plumber by trade, but he didn’t always get enough of that kind of work. He’d do just about anything to earn a few bob. When I was a toddler, Mum and Dad seemed like everyone else’s parents. I was too young to realise that all the racket I heard each night wasn’t just coming from our black-and-white telly. Looking back on it, I hardly ever saw Mum and Dad happy together.
Mum was born in Silvertown in the heart of the old East End. Her mum died giving birth to her, so you can imagine how important we were to her. Her father had been a British military copper over in Italy at the end of the war when he married her mother – she was of Romany gypsy descent – and they had moved back to London, where Mum was born. My grandfather then joined the Met as a copper and my two uncles on Mum’s side are still with the cozzers to this day.
My mum – all four feet eight inches of her – always had quite a mouth on her. Might be something to do with the fact that she had to scream to get any attention as a baby. When she beams, her Italian smile lights up the room, but when she’s angry it brings more than thunderclouds on the horizon.
Dad was born in Canning Town, in the heart of the real East End. His mum was from Ireland and his dad was a German prisoner of war who had been locked up in Kent in a POW camp. Grandad was a cabinet-maker and still is one to this day. Dad’s a big lad with huge shoulders, and has always kept very fit. He was much taller than I ever grew although now he’s got a bit of a beer belly. Smokes roll-ups. But he’s hung onto his own hair, unlike the rest of us, and seems to live in jeans,
complete with long-sleeved shirts and Chelsea boots, most of the time.
Dad was always either out at work or up the local boozer, supping a few too many pints with his mates. Then he’d crash through the front door of our tiny flat, yelling at the top of his voice. That’s when the fireworks usually started going off.
But then my parents had gone and married at such a young age. Mum was just sixteen when she had my brother John. My dad was in his early twenties. The pressure was enormous and they were just a couple of kids. It was never going to be easy.
Mum’s family were all a bit upset when she went up the aisle with Dad. By then they had conveniently forgotten the shotgun that had been pointed in both Mum and Dad’s direction when Mum told them she was pregnant. I reckon Dad’s dodginess rubbed off a bit on my mum. He was from a huge family that consisted of more than twenty brothers and sisters. Mum seemed to deliberately go the other way from the rest of her law-abiding family. I think she got a few wallops for her troubles when she was a kid, so she ended up with little or no respect for the long arm of the law.
There were plenty of old characters on my manor when I was growing up. They were mainly Jack-the-lad types but they’d always help you out if you were in a spot and I learned a lot from them. They weren’t necessarily villains but they were always there if you had any bother. Back then if you wanted a cup of sugar, or a lot more besides, you could always knock on someone’s door. Everyone liked to stop and have a chat in the street. People’s front doors were nearly always left open.
There was a corner shop near us called Clayton’s that sold just about everything from ice lollies to baked beans. You could
always get things on tick at old man Clayton’s place. He had the tastiest sliced ham straight off the bone. It melted in your mouth. I was always in and out of the shop doing errands for my mum.
Old Mr Clayton was a real gent. He knew all the kids’ names as well as the adults’. He’d first opened the shop during the last war and I suppose most of the business back then must have been through ration vouchers and stuff like that. By the time I was growing up on the manor, Mr Clayton was in his seventies but still as sharp as a tack. He was such a decent person he’d never tell a customer they owed money on tick in front of anyone else. Instead, he’d stop kids like me in the street ever so casually and say, ‘Tell your mum I need to see her.’ He was always giving me handfuls of sweets, especially if mum had just paid her bill.
When I went on my first day to St James’s Infant School, aged five, I had to be dragged screaming from our house because I didn’t want to leave home. My two brothers didn’t seem to find it so tough, but I had a real problem getting along with other kids. I was a loner and I’ve stayed that way ever since. It’s stupid when I think back on it now, but I just didn’t want to go to school at all.
About the only thing I did learn in infant school was that it didn’t matter what colour a person’s skin was – if you liked ‘em that was all that counted. I found myself sitting in a class with black, brown, yellow – you name it – and I judged them all the same. Pretty quick I got close to two black kids called Alex and Fraser. Later, I realised that the reason I got on so well with black people was that they knew what it was like to be the outsiders – and that’s how I’ve felt all my life.
Compared to many of my mates back in those days, I was lucky really. At least there was a good atmosphere in the house when my mum was home. We all got on well and she taught me the importance of respecting other people – not to get in their face and cause aggro.
It has to be said we ware something of an accident-prone family. My baby sis, Lee, broke her arm in a playground, brother Ian got run over by a milk float but lived to tall the tale, and there were countless household scraps, but nothing any worse than what other families suffered.
I suppose the TV was my very best friend during much of my childhood. My favourite programme was
I loved losing myself in all that cops-and-robbers action. I’d be glued to the sat for hours on end. Naturally, round where I came from, it was the robbers who were our heroes. I also loved
Tom and Jerry.
I used to get really close to the telly and watch it on my own. Sometimes I’d talk back to some of the characters on the box. They seemed a lot nicer than many of the people I came across.
Then my mum went and ruined it all by making me and my brothers join the local cub pack. She thought it’d be good for us to get out and about. But being a bit of a loner, I didn’t react well to any form of discipline. Worse still, a lot of the other kids were snotty towards us because we couldn’t afford the full cub kit.
The only good time we ever had was when we want on a weekend camping trip to the Lake District. But then my brother John fell in the water from a canoe and I had to dive in and rescue him. I felt really proud to have saved him. But when we got back to London the cub master didn’t even bother saying goodbye to us, which made me feel that none of them really cared.
The last straw came when an older cub took a nasty dislike to me and fired pot-shots at me with an air-rifle when I walked out of the scout hall one day. I got three pellets in my backside. I naturally made out I was close to death so that Mum would let me quit the cubs: it worked a treat. I was much happier back on my own.
From about the age of seven my best mate was a kid called Jason Neill, the son of a well-known local ducker and diver called Ron Neill. I suppose I was dead jealous of Jason because his dad was around most of the time and was always handing out tenners and fivers to us kids. That was a hell of a lot of money to a poverty-stricken nipper like me. Ron Neill seemed to have money spilling out of every pocket.
The Neills lived in a much bigger house than anyone else I knew. Jason and I got up to so much mischief together that they had to separate us in class. He was essentially a shy kind of kid like me, but with more money. Jason had a really expensive pushbike, which made me green with envy every time I saw it.
Nearby Wanstead Flats provided a perfect retreat – a brilliant haven for boys like me and Jason. We’d take our toy pistols with us and have imaginary fights. We pretended we were soldiers trained to the peak of our ability. We were often out until after dark on the Flats, which is something no parent would allow these days. Jason and I even took specially prepared ‘survival kits’, consisting of a bar of chocolate and a soggy cheese sandwich.
We loved laying small traps hidden under a covering of leaves so that anyone who walked over it would be caught by a piece of string and then mud would flick at them. Jason loved digging
holes so deep that anyone walking along the pathway would lose their footing and crash to the ground. We used to hide in nearby trees and laugh our heads off watching them.
Eventually Jason and me made our own secret treehouse, in amongst the woods of the Flats. It was a three-pronged platform built between three massive oak trees. We’d sit in that treehouse for hours watching the traffic flow past a hundred yards away. We were both obsessed by cars back in those days. Jason’s dad had a brand new, flashy Toyota. But Jason said what he really wanted was an Aston Martin, just like James Bond. I kept quiet about the fact my mum couldn’t even afford a Ford Escort. As the cars drove past we had a competition to see who could name the make of car the fastest. We knew all the different models, even down to the engine sizes. ‘I knew a 2000E Cortina from a 1600 just by the sound of the engine.
One day Jason and me spotted the handlebars of a motorbike in the main pond on the Flats. We pulled the bike out of the water to find it was virtually brand new. Obviously someone had nicked it and then dumped it. We spent hours trying to kick-start it and then gave up and pushed it back into the pond for good measure.
At the same time each Saturday, dozens of model airplane and boat operators would swarm onto the Flats. My mates and me used to rub mud on our faces and pretend we were on special patrol through the woods. Then we’d settle ourselves in the treehouse and have a right laugh watching the planes crashing into the woods nearby. We’d run over to where they’d crashed, and start winding up the owners as they knelt over their broken model planes, saying, ‘That’s a rubbish plane that
one. You should go for something dearer next time.’ They’d get really cheesed off.
One time me and Jason found an old air gun in a cupboard in his house and lugged it onto the Flats to take pot-shots at the model airplanes. The idea was to pretend they were Nazi bombers coming over to destroy our homes just like the real things had done in the East End thirty years earlier. It was only when Jason pulled the airgun out of a bag that we realised it might be a real shooter. It seemed heavy enough and it smelt of oil and grease. It turned out to have just two bullets in it and we shot them into a tree nearby. I nearly fell over when it came to my turn. We were bloody lucky no-one was hurt. I’ve never forgotten the terror I felt shooting that weapon. Then we sneaked it back into the cupboard at Jason’s house just before the old man came back. Years later I realised he was probably holding on to that shooter for some blagger to use in a robbery.
The following weekend we stuck to more simple games such as laying obstacles on the runway used to land the model airplanes. That caused a right load of chaos and we nearly got our ears clipped when one owner spotted us running from the scene: but if we’d used that real shooter on the model aeroplanes, God knows what would have happened.
Jason and me used to hold pretend trial biking competitions on Wanstead Flats. All it really involved was jumping over ditches on our bikes but we both always ended up coming home covered in cuts and bruises. One day Jason and I were out playing on the Flats when he told me his mum and dad were always fighting. It’s a bit twisted to admit it, but that made me feel better. So I wasn’t the only one with fucked-up parents.