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Us & Co. The Army Call Up

The Army Call Up


In the May 1942, Joe received his call-up papers.  He too, just like Charlie, had to join the infantry (PBI) he had to do his initial six weeks training at Tidworth, in Hampshire.  Joe now being in the Rifle Brigade was always kept on his toes, as everything in that mob, had to be done on the double.  We saw Joe twice before he went overseas, once, just after he finished his initial training and once again after he had completed his intensive training in Yorkshire.  I know that it used to break dad’s heart to see the boys go.  He knew what they were getting themselves into, after all hadn't he seen enough of it himself?  Dad had joined the Enniskillen Fusiliers, fought in the Boar War in the eighteen nineties, as a young soldier.  He was wounded in the arm, during hand to hand combat, of which he carried the scar.  He had served in India as a pioneer sergeant for five years, with all the filth and disease that goes with it.  Then when the First World War broke out, he served in France.  He was wounded in the Battle of the Somme.  Then went on to continue his service, which he did for twenty five years.  So dad certainly knew what they were getting into.  Soon after Joe's departure, Fred stopped doing his fire watching at Piggott’s.  It wasn't thought to be a good idea to leave me at home during the nights, especially as we were still getting air-raids.  However, I did sleep on my own for a few nights, as Fred had to give Piggott’s a bit of notice, until they found a replacement.
 
In the February the following year we received a telegram telling us that Joe had been wounded in action.  Joe was in North Africa at the time, serving in the First Army.  After reading the telegram, it took a while for it to sink in.  Joe had only been in North Africa a few months, there never seemed to be enough time.  But as dad said, how long do you think it takes?  It only takes a few seconds to get wounded, thank God he's still alive.  At that same time, news about the desert campaign was all good.  Everybody seemed to be talking about General Montgomery and the First and Eighth Armies under his command.  In a way it seemed like he had performed miracles.  Rommel was well on the run, and the end was in sight in North Africa.  We used to say jokingly, wait until Joe gets out there and it will soon be over.  Joe went out to Algiers just before the previous Christmas.  He joined the sixth armoured division of the first army.  They had the mailed First emblem on their sleeve.  The days that followed were full of despair we were on tenter hooks, not knowing anymore about Joe and then right out of the blue, we got airmail from him.  He had been wounded in the head by shrapnel, but was ok now.  Within days, the African campaign was over.  Joe did it after all.  I always remember Joe as a self willed person.  When Joe had formed an opinion that was that.  Like dad, I suppose that could be misconstrued as being obstinate, but it was more than that.  I would rather think of Joe, like dad, a very determined bloke.
 
March nineteen forty three, would always be a time I would remember.  The fact that I was fifteen on the thirteenth is of little significance, but what happened on the third, was to go down in history.  It was to be the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.  The Bethnal underground station had been uncompleted, due to the outbreak of war.  It was always used as an air-raid shelter.  We lived only a few hundred yards from there.  There were times when I was tempted to go down there if I was that way when the air-raid warning sounded, but that was something that I had never done.  It was probably because of my young age.  I had that devil may care attitude, something to do with considering myself a bit of a fatalist. Sometime earlier, Fred had introduced me to a gym instructor.  I was always worried about being short, so I agreed to attend gym classes in the hope that the exercises would help me grow.  These classes were held in Victoria Park Square, which is directly behind the Bethnal Green Museum, which is about a hundred yards from Bethnal Green underground station.  We would normally come out of the gym about nine thirty - ten o'clock in the evening.  Whether the air-raid warning sounded after I came out or whether there was an air-raid already on, I honestly can't recall, as practically every night there was a raid on some time or another.  The next morning we heard that about the same time as I was coming out of the gym, that the disaster happened.  A long flight of steps, lead from the pavement, directly down into the station tunnel.  It had to be that someone either slipped or fell going down the steps.  Then the people following them down, having no control of the surge of people behind them, piled on top of them.  Within minutes there were over a hundred and seventy men, women and children, lying dead on the steps.  Hardly a thing to forget, believe me.
 
As I had turned fifteen years of age, I was shoved on the roster at Toddler’s to do my share of fire watching.  I was usually on duty with the same three other youngsters.  Usually about one night every two weeks Fred did his share of fire watching, but at a different time to me.  This was the firm’s ruling, not to have relations together in the event of bombing.  We were cheered up by an air mail letter, from Charlie, who was now in Bombay.  Dad read the letter again, in the evening after getting back from the pub.  After a few pints, he was always in a mood to reminisce, so I knew what was coming, another story about India.  He began by saying that Charlie would find it very hot out there, even the heat of the wind was almost unbearable.  Freddie just walked through the doorway as the old man was saying, "did I ever tell you about the time when I was in Dulali," Fred couldn't have timed it better "I've heard it" he said " You should have heard the old man shouting "will you bloody well listen.  Anyway I've told you before, it’s an Irishman's privilege to be repeated." Poor old dad.
 
Fred and I were going through a phase of continually arguing and generally disagreeing with each other.  Looking back with regret, I still think it was a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Fred although still very slim was beginning to grow. I used to think two tall brothers and one getting taller and there's me, still stuck in the bloody mud. Fred had taken a keen interest in exercises, he used to be very weak chested, but lately, he seemed to be less and less affected by it.  He wrote off to Charles Atlas and took a home course of Dynamic Tension Body Building.  Charles Atlas was the man who advertised that he was once a seven stone weakling, and people used to kick sand in my face. Take a course with Charles Atlas, and have a body like mine.  During the time that Fred was taking the course, he was also taking our share of eggs and meat which were on ration, also our fresh milk.  All this was dad’s orders, but I didn't mind, there was always powder milk, and a little spam.  Fred used to lock himself in the front room doing his exercises, he was so determined to build himself up. He was quite a good looking bloke and I think in his own way, a bit of a lady’s man. Fred had jet black hair, and an upright posture.  He had a habit of drinking, glassful after glassful of fresh cold water, probably the effect of what dad used to say, was the reason for this. Dad would sometimes say, that water was a slow cure, and a sure preventative, Fred would have picked up on that kind of talk.  Fred had decided that he was going to build himself up, and free himself of his chestiness, it seemed to be working too.  When I think back, I must have been a right little swine.  I used to torment the life out of him, but I would get a clump from him every so often though, so he used to make up for it.  It was getting so, that we disagreed on almost everything.  Although we obviously used to go to work at the same time and nearly always come home at the same time, we would rarely be seen together.  What would proud Fred, coming up to eighteen and just beginning to feel his feet, want with a little nuisance like me?  I would be cramping his style.  I can understand his feelings now.  There was a time, as we were waiting to clock off work one evening.  The floor bully hit me over the head with a wooden shoe last.  I cried from the pain of it.  Fred, who at that time was going through a phase of not talking to me, came over, and asked me what was wrong; I told him that Lesnivitch was always picking on me.  He went straight over to Lesnivitch; Lesnivitch said that he didn't know that Fred was my brother.  Fred shoved him backwards and told him, "In future leave Stan alone.”  I had no trouble from the floor bully after that.  That little episode said it all to me, about Fred.
 
In that summer of nineteen forty three, dad packed up his night watchman's job at Piggott’s.  Now that dad was home every night, we adopted a system of letting each other know who was in and who wasn't.  The last one would always lock up before going to bed.  I would usually be home first, then dad, Freddie who was usually out and about would usually be the one to lock up.  I was usually the first one to get home in the evenings, for what pocket money I had usually ran out by Monday, so I was sometimes glad to get in.  In any case, there was still the odd air-raid, so in my small way I was concerned about dad being on his own. We lived about thirty five feet from the main railway lines, so we were a sitting target for bombers. Money was becoming tight again, now that Joe wasn't at home. Dad had a pension its true, but that was only about twenty four shillings a week compared to an average mans wage of about five pounds ten shillings, it wasn't much.  Freddie and I were only on boy’s wages, so he would only be getting about four pounds five shillings from us.  Dad usually had a pint or two every evening and a pint every afternoon.  Then he would have about half an ounce of pipe tobacco every other day.  Nobody could have begrudged him that.  He had no other vices.  One day dad was complaining to Fred, that as he was getting on a trolley bus, at the bus stop, the bus jerked, as they often did, causing him to fall against a street light post.  Typical of Fred, he said "What do you want me to do about it?""Do" the old man replied "Do, I don't expect you to do anything, nobody ever does anything for me. I think I cracked a rib I've a good mind to sue the blighters.”  The same evening, after getting home from work, he asked me to strap his ribs up with a bandage, he was sitting propped up in a chair.  When I asked him whether he had been out today, he shouted "Been out, been out, how can I get out like this, I've been in all day, four walls and handcuffed to a bleeding ghost."
 
It was no use telling him to go to the doctors, he didn't believe in them.  He was a very obstinate man, I think that's were Joe got it from.  The following evening, I got off the bus, I looked back , there was the old man, bowler hat, raincoat on, as it was raining, with a crutch under his arm.  At that moment, he seemed to do what was known as the soft shoe shuffle, and finished up, arse down on the pavement.  I ran back after him as he was struggling to get up.  It would have been more laughable if he had not been an old man.  As I got to him, I could see that he was using our yard broom as a crutch.  He had the head of the broom under his armpit, and was gripping the handle for support.  When he saw it was me, he said "Well don't just stand there bloody well grinning, pop up the shop and see if you can get one of those rubber stoppers that they put under chair legs.  I want something to stop this bloody silly thing from slipping."
 
 
             By now the war in North Africa was over.  The war was raging in Italy and the Battle of Casino was on.  Fred was waiting for his call-up papers being patriotic he was raring to go.  For some time now, although young men were needed for the forces, there was also a strong need for coal.  Ernest Bevin, a Labour Politician of the time expressed the need for coal.  Itwas agreed through Parliament that potential conscripts for the services were given the option.  They called these miners, Bevin Boys, after the name of the politician.  Dad and Fred had a great difference of opinion.  Dad was saying "Haven't they got enough of my boys already," and Fred, determined to go into the army, played on his weak chest and coal dust.  Soon after, proud Fred received his call up papers.  He had to report to Wellington Barracks in Brentwood to train for the Royal Fusiliers (another PBI).  Dad received a letter from my sister Lily who by this time had three sons John, Ken and Fred.  She said that she had just arrived back in London, after being evacuated to Northampton.  Lily mentioned that she had seen Fred just before he joined up.  She said that she was in contact with Joe and Charlie. She said that she would be over on Saturday afternoon, as she said she knew that Stan was working the rest of the time, and that he hadn't seen her children.  We received another letter from Joe, now he was in Naples.  Joe was usually in the thick of things being as he was in the Rifle Brigade which was traditionally known as a crack regiment.  True to her word, Lily arrived on the Saturday afternoon, just as I got home from work.  I met her at our front door just as I got off the bus.  She told me that she had walked all the way from Stoke Newington which must be a five mile walk; she had the three kids with her, one in a pram.  It was a few years since I had seen Lily, and I had never seen her children before.  You can imagine there was plenty to talk about.  Dad asked her why she had to drag the kids all this way, she explained that she knew that I hadn't seen her children, secondly that her husband Arthur, was working away at Vickers Armstrong, on war work, and thirdly, that her mother-in-law that lived with them, was too old to be lumbered with young kids.  As Lily couldn't get the pram on a bus, she decided to do it the hard way.  Trust old Lily that was typical of her.  While she was there a letter from Charlie arrived, news is coming in thick and fast lately.  Now he is in Egypt, all the indications are that he will soon be going to Italy, that's where all the trouble was then.  Reading Charlie's letter set Lily off.  Like dad, she was a rare one for holding a conversation and reminiscing about old times.  She told me, that as Charlie was the eldest of the four boys and being as he was working, would always have a nice blue serge suit for best wear.  She said that mum would not go to bed on Sunday nights, until he got home from the pictures or whatever.  Directly he did, she would make him take off his suit, give a good brushing, check for any marks or stains, if so clean them off, press it up, fold it up in a piece of clean sheet ready for the pawn brokers Monday morning.  On a good day mum would get seven and six for pawn, on a bad day only five bob.  She said, and I agreed, that Charlie always looked as though he had a few bob.  He wouldn't let the old man know, even if he did, otherwise the old man would plead poverty.  But, she said "Charlie wouldn't see the old man go short if it really came to the crunch.”  I was never aware of a time that my father wasn't short of money.  Although there must have been one time for a short period when I was evacuated that was an exception.  It would have been when my mother and all three boys were working.  But then when mum left home, then as the three boys joined the army, one by one, dad was back to square one.  I always did say, that poor old dad was born poor, died poor and was poor in between.  Next, a letter from Fred, it was the first since his call-up.  Dad opened it up first, and then handed me another letter that was also inside.  It read, Dear Stan, I want to say sorry for the way we used to keep falling out with each other.  I realise that it was mostly my fault, don't worry, I will make it up to you when I get home.  Signed Fred.  After reading that letter, I then knew why Fred had so many friends, and why he was so well liked.  What with me being the only one working now, dad was relying on me more than ever.  Dad kept telling me that he didn't know how we were going to manage now that Fred's gone.  The only way was to ask for a rise, after all I was a conscientious worker, and had passed through the various stages of shoe making.  I thought that Bert must know our financial state, now that Fred and Joe were not working anymore.  So I thought I would put it to him.  Because of that, and because of the friendship between Fred and Bert, I thought that I stood a good chance.  Well, Bert said yes and got me an extra five shillings a week.
 
 
Mum and I had an arrangement to meet outside my firm every Monday evening straight from work.  We would go into the Italian Cafe in Mare Street.  From there we would go to the pictures.  We would either go to the Regal Cinema at the top of Well Street.  The pavilion at the top of Mare Street or the Odeon at Dalston Junction.  Each cinema showed a different film, lasting for one week only.  I mentioned before, that every morning, as a ritual, we would have to eat porridge for breakfast, that was a must in our household, it was made with water, not milk, with sugar to taste.  It couldn't be any porridge, dad would insist on Quaker Oats, nothing else would do, that was law.  And to run out of it, without replacing it for the following morning, was committing a cardinal sin.  Well one morning, this happened.  There was only dad and myself at home by then.  As always, I was the first one downstairs, when I noticed that we were out of porridge.  I called up to let the old man know, as I had no money I couldn't avoid him knowing.  I also knew that he would be down shortly for breakfast.  After getting a lecture from the old man, he said "Get up to the grocers shop now, before you go to work and get some.". When I said, "Give us the money", he said "Money, I've got no bloody money, Just tell him you want it on the account, and don't come back without it".  The ‘him’ dad was referring to, was a little old Jewish man who had the grocer’s shop, in Hackney Road.  This man was a weird looking bloke, he was even shorter than me and that's saying something.  He had a very big round face, with a little bird-like nose, and to top it all he had a very high pitched voice.  When I got into the shop, I told him who I was, and that I was Mr Keyte's son.  He said, "Oh yes, I think I've seen you before, what can I get you sonny?”  In his squeaky voice.  I said, "Dad wants a packet of Quaker Oats and he said, put it on his account, till Friday."  When he was sure who it was for he said, "I'm out of Quaker Oats, and waiting for it to come in.”  It must be understood, that dad had another strict rule.  If you go out to get something, and it can't be obtained, never come back empty handed.  When the old Jew said that he was out of Quaker Oats, I faced a dilemma.  Before I could say anything, he said, "Why don't you have the loose oats," but I said, "Dad only wants Quaker.”  He then pointed to a sack near the door that was half full of oats and said “It's the same, just a different name that's all.”  After agreeing that it should be ok, he weighed it up on the scales in a brown paper bag.  He told me to tell dad, that the price would be the same and to tell dad that he could settle on Friday.  I had to run all the way back, in order not to be late for work.  As I rushed in, Dad shouted, "Is that you boy, have you got the porridge?  Put it on I'm just coming down.”  As I was struggling toget mine down, dad sat down for his.  He would always make a point of tucking the corner of his handkerchief down his neck-front before eating, as a form of napkin, it was an old habit.  He even put his jacket on before sitting down to meals and that included breakfast, it was a wonder he didn't put on his bowler hat as well.  After one or two spoonfuls he was making noises like he had a hair caught in his throat.  He looked at me and said, "Have you been combing your bloody hair over this table again?”  (Another pet hate).  So I said “No.”  Then he said, "Well where are all these bloody hairs coming from then?”  He put down his spoon and said, "Stan is this Quaker Oats?’  So I told him "No.”  Then he asked me what porridge is it?  So I said, "I don't know, all I know is it came out of a sack, it's loose.”  I also told dad that it only cost the same money.  "The b*****d" he said, "He knows we only eat Quaker Oats and I've got a mouthful of bloody sacking.  Put your coat on, and come with me.”  I will never forget that day.  He stormed into the shop with me.  The little old boy in his white smock and flat cap perched on his large head, must have read dad's mood.  He toddled behind the counter, then in his squeaky voice said, "Hello Mr Keyte.”  "Don't you Mr Keyte me, you b*****d," he said, "You know we only eat Quaker Oats in our house and I've got a mouthful of bloody hairs.  How dare you try to catch my boy with this muck?”  With that, he slung the half filled bag of porridge at him.  It hit him on the head, knocking his hat off, and scattering oats all over his shelves.  "I wouldn't go into that shop again for a fortune."
           
 
So, Stan’s three brothers are in the army, Joe has been injured in Africa,  his sister Lily visits with her three children who Stan has yet to meet, because of her being evacuated, and there’s a disaster at Bethnal Green underground station.  But despite everything that’s going on, Stan can still relate a funny story about his crotchety dad.  Typical of Stan! 
 
He’s going to needs his sense of humour when his dad is injured by a doodlebug and things go from bad to worse, as we learn in chapter 6: http://bit.ly/2xWkyiH 
Growing up in London during the 1950s I well remember my Uncle Stan for his hilarious stories of the East-End and the characters he lived and worked with. Following his death in 1998, Aunt Jean gave me a copy of ‘Us’s & Co’ his account of growing up during the 1930s and his talent, for telling a story, had transferred to the written word. Along with his daughters, Donna and Cheryl, we agree that his memories will be of interest beyond our family.

Eric Baker

One among his nephews and nieces.

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