Ronald Basil Girdler

1925 - 2017

Helene Girdler

1927 - 2020

My Childhood

When I was about a year old the family moved from Stepney to a house in Ranelagh Road, Leytonstone. Het, who was then about 14, took me on the bus to the new house to await the arrival of the furniture. She found that the water pipes were frozen, so, not having a bed or cot to put me in, she removed a drawer from the dresser and laid me in it whilst she thawed out the pipes by warming them with a candle. It took about an hour till the water finally came through. On another occasion whilst I was still a baby she and Kit fed me with pickled herring and pickled cucumber! I seem to have suffered no ill-effects!

Dad's Mother, whom we knew as Booba, (Yiddish/Russian for Grandma), had arrived in England following the death of her husband. All four of her children had emigrated by that time; Dad and his younger brother Ike were in London, her only daughter Nellie (Nacha) was in Melbourne, Australia, and her youngest child Eugene lived in Paris. For a while Booba lived with Uncle Ike, later she remarried and lived in the East End. I remember very little of her as she died when I was about eight, but I do remember being taken to see her with Dad and I recall sitting on her bed (although she was up and about) and her talking to me in Yiddish of which I knew very little. She sat me on her lap and called me "Chaiashi", her pet name for me. Het remembers her most and recalls the occasion when Booba was visiting our house. Het was preparing a chicken for dinner as Mum was away, probably in Hospital following Shirley's birth. Booba was horrified to notice that Het, having removed the chicken liver, had placed it alongside the chicken and in contact with it. This was an offence against Jewish dietary laws, and she insisted that they go to the Rabbi to ask his advice on how to deal with the situation there and then, in spite of the fact that he lived some distance away. Het protested but to no avail, they had to go in case the Rabbi would give them instructions to destroy the bird, The Rabbi, however, merely told her not to do it again!

The news of Booba's death came by telephone, whilst I was playing on the piano and singing the latest Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire hit "Dancing Cheek to Cheek". The phone was in the same room as the piano, and Dad told me to be quiet whilst he took the call. When he put the phone down he said "Booba's dead", and left the room. She died of cancer of the stomach. I was surprised that he didn't burst into tears! I continued playing and singing.

Whilst in Leytonstone, the older children often took the younger ones to Wanstead Flats, a large open space nearby which occasionally housed a Fairground. I can remember going there either in or with the pram in which we had placed a picnic, A horse which had been grazing there took a great interest in the pram and its contents and peered right into the pram. We were all terrified! On another occasion when I was a little older, Barbara took me to the Fair there, and we went on a roundabout in which we sat in a seat which itself revolved on its own axis, whilst all the cars revolved in a huge circle. I screamed and screamed to be allowed to get off but of course was unable to do so till our time was up. I have never been able to face a roundabout with equanimity since.

It was on one of these trips to Wanstead Flats when the older children noticed that John became very tired and could not walk and he had to be put in the pram with the baby, (me!). He was then about four years old. He was taken to Hospital and it was shortly after his return home when Mum noticed that he was limping, and it was discovered that he had a tuberculous hip joint. At first the doctor told Mum to buy him some shoes with a built-up heel, but it was soon obvious that this was useless, and from then on John was to be in and out of hospital till he was about fourteen, having had several operations to remove the infected tissue. His schooling during this time was severely restricted, and Het used to teach him arithmetic and English. Also whilst he was in hospital he was visited by a Mr. Turnbull who was a bird enthusiast. He would bring pictures of birds and on his next visit would test John on his ability to recognise and identify them. Later, Mr. Turnbull would come to our home and when I was about seven years old began to test me in a similar way. We both became proficient and learnt to recognise all the cards he presented us with.

When John was home from hospital, we used to play a lot together - he was after all my only and favourite brother! He and I used to make a tent out of a sheet with his crutch as the tent pole. I remember on one occasion he gave me instructions to look out of the window in the toilet to act as "look-out". I obeyed, and stood on the toilet-seat, placing a broken light bulb which was on the window-sill to my eye as a telescope. I don't remember what I was supposed to be looking for. He also used to terrify me by hiding in the stair-well by the cellar door and jumping out at me as I passed.

In Leytonstone Shirley and I attended Cann Hall Road school, but I remember very little of it and have only the annual school photographs to remind me of my time there. Two doors away from our house lived the Cousins family and Dennis who was about the same age, as he became my playmate. Leading from the front gate to the door of our house was a path constructed of black and red quarry tiles arranged in a geometrical pattern. Dennis and I spent very happy morning prising up as many tiles as we could before we were discovered. Denis's mother kept a small shop in her front room in which she sold a variety of items including penny bars of Cadbury's milk chocolate which we bought whenever we had a penny to spare. Mum bought a "Goblin" vacuum cleaner - very new and "modern"- from Mrs. Cousins catalogue.

Our playground was the street, for very few people had cars, and certainly none in our street. In fact it was quite unusual to see a car, so it was notable when Dr Creston's car was parked in the road. He had a small open-topped Ford with a canvas pull-up roof with celluloid windows. The District Nurse did her rounds by bicycle and she once came to visit our next-door neighbour, when I was about three years old. She propped the bike up against the front wall and went inside. I was fascinated by the bike and tried to climb into the saddle but without success, and I fell with the bike on top of me. I don't remember the pain but I do remember receiving very prompt and expert medical attention in the shape of the District Nurse, who pronounced that I had a broken arm. Mum took me to hospital where I was offered a boiled sweet from a Jar, prior to having the bone set and the arm put in a sling. I had chosen a mauve sweet, which was of such foul taste that all my concentration was focussed on how to get rid of this disgusting thing in my mouth so that I was oblivious of what was being done to my arm. What a brilliant idea it was to offer a panacea that was worse than the treatment! Later that day the District Nurse came to see how I was getting on, and when I told her that I couldn't get to sleep she suggested that I lie on my tummy and I'd fall asleep in no time. I have found that this usually works!

We did not celebrate Christmas in our family but I was once invited to a Christmas party at the Cousins' house, where I stood by the Christmas tree enthralled by the glass baubles. It was at this party where I first performed in public my "song and dance routine" which I had learned at school. I wore a pink frilly dress and spoke the line "this way, that way" whilst pointing alternate feet in the manner of a ballet dancer. Also we played "Postman's Knock" which I did not find at all amusing. Dennis's father, a Railwayman, offered me a sweet from a bag, and being the polite child that I was, I refused, to which he replied "all the more for me then" which I thought was quite offensive!

On the sixth of December 1934 the family moved again to 21, Ickburgh Road, Clapton. On the day of the move I sat on the dividing wall outside the house watching the removal men and I thought "I will remember this day for the rest of my life!" This house was much bigger than the previous one, and actually had a bathroom! The Leytonstone house had no bathroom and we used to take turns to have a bath in a big zinc bath in front of the kitchen range. The Clapton house was built on several floors with half-landings and a cellar, and had a scullery, morning room with a big black kitchen range, dining room, drawing room, five bedrooms and a bathroom and separate toilet (then known as the lay.) There was also a lay situated outside the scullery door. The back garden had a rose pergola of Alexandra roses and the front garden had a coal-hole through which coal was delivered into the cellar. The cellar was a fascinating place to me. It had two "rooms" one of which had a huge bricked-up area which I used to think was a bread-oven. There was a cupboard in the cellar in which I found a collection of old books, one of which was a children's book of Christmas Carols complete with illustrations and music. I took this upstairs and attempted to play some of the tunes on the piano. I remember in particular "Here we go a-wassailing". I had never had any piano lessons so I just picked out the notes by ear and with one finger, a very laborious process but it kept me occupied for hours.

Dad had a large workroom in the house where he, Het and an employee Connie, a machinist, used  to work. Both Dad and Het would make the garments from beginning to end- that is to say that they made their own patterns on brown Kraft paper, cut, machined, pressed, finished and fitted-though Dad did mostly coats and jackets, whilst Het made dresses and skirts. Dad was then working for a firm of garment makers known as Baroque whose offices were in Henrietta Place in the West End of London. Dad used to travel up to London by bus on Fridays with the finished articles, and bring back with him the materials for the next week's work. On one occasion he made a suit for Lady Mountbatten, and for this special customer he had to make extra journeys to London for the fittings. Het, who had worked outside the home as an apprentice dressmaker for 6 shillings (30 pence) a week, was now working at home for Dad. Mum also used to help with the finishing of the garments, and they sometimes worked until 10 or 11 o'clock at night on a Thursday to finish the work for Friday. But even in the good times there was little or no work in between Seasons, and it was during the slack periods that Dad and Het used to make clothes for the family. I well remember being lifted onto the cutting table whilst Het tried on, for the first fitting, a dress which she was in the process of making for me. Het was always telling me, with her mouth full of pins, to stand still "for goodness sake", and to stand up straight and hold my tummy in (always a problem for me!) so that she could level the hem. We always had new outfits in the Spring for Pesach (Passover), when Dad would go to Shool (Synagogue) and the rest of us would parade our new outfits for everyone to see.

Mum and Dad would observe all the Jewish Holidays including Seider Nights at Passover when the family would gather round the table for the ritual meal, and on these occasions after John's Barmitzvah at thirteen, John would read the appropriate questions from the prayer book in Hebrew, and Dad would give the responses, Mum would also light the candles on Friday evenings at sunset, and the special candles in the branched candlesticks at Chanuka. All the adult members of the family used to fast for 24 hours on the Day of Atonement. In spite of all these religious observances we were not restricted on the Sabbath as orthodox Jews were, although writing was frowned upon, and I think that Dad only followed the rules because he felt that Mum wanted him to.

My first day at my new school in Northwold Road was memorable for the fact that the Headmistress showed me to my classroom, and as we walked across the polished parquet floor of the Hall she suddenly asked "What are nine fives?". I am amazed to recall that I was able to answer "45". One day when I was about eight, Dad came home with a little black and white puppy. Apparently he had met someone who had this puppy for sale and he bought it on the spur of the moment. The whole family were delighted, and we named her Blackie. We already had a black cat called Tibby, and I was not particularly interested in her, but I loved Blackie very much. At this time we had a series of live-in maids, who wore black dresses, white frilled pinafores and little white hats in the afternoons. One of these girls was called Margaret, and Shirley and I sometimes sat with her in her bedroom and talked whilst she smoked a cigarette. Another girl had only one hand, and I can remember how she used to wring the water out of the floorcloth by winding it round the stump and twisting it out with the other hand. It must have been "in-between" maids when I scrubbed the morning-room floor with scrubbing brush and bucket of water, and whitened the front step - a flight of cement steps leading up to the front door which all self-respecting housewives kept clean with a white powder which had to be rubbed in with a damp cloth.

A visit from Uncle Isaac, Mum's brother, was anticipated with some delight, because he always gave us half-a-crown (12½  pence) to "Buy a box of King Georges chocolates" - a luxury indeed. We did not have a large number of toys - ball, a game of Lotto and Snakes and Ladders and a china-faced doll with closing eyes, a whip and top, a skipping-rope and set of five-stones so I remember vividly being woken up one evening by Het who carried me downstairs to show me a doll's pram which she had bought for my birthday. Mum also bought me a toy cooker with pots and pans following a visit to the dentist for a tooth extraction. And on one occasion - and best of all - when I was in bed not feeling very well, and with I coal fire in the bedroom, Dad came in with "The Blue Fairy Book", a collection of Hans Anderson's and Grimm's Fairy stories. Shirley and I spent hours picking the beads off a 'twenties dress made of pink georgette heavily encrusted with embroidery beads, which must have been out of date by this time as we were given it to play with. Then we'd sort the beads out into types and colours and re-thread them.

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