Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Rag Trade

After the War (which is to say in 1945), my Dad got a job in a London shop selling "trimmings". It sounds like something unsavoury from the butchery trade, but actually it means everything used in making clothes except the cloth - cotton, buttons, zips, elastic, linings and interlinings, and a host of other things most people don't even realise exist. For fifteen years he would take the train to London in the morning, to the shop on Old Street just north of the City and close to the sweatshops of Islington and Hoxton.

Then when I was about eight, he returned from our ritual week's holiday with my grandmother in Dovercourt to be told, "Sorry Reg, business isn't good, I'm going to have to let you go." And that was that, no employment protection then. Luckily my mother worked, part-time, but we had a typical working class hand-to-mouth existence and this was a disaster.

My Dad had few really sellable skills, so finding another job wasn't easy. Like nearly all of his generation he left school at 14. After a few false starts, he was lucky to find someone else in the same business who was willing to pay for him to learn to drive, for a job as a combined salesman and delivery driver.

The firm had the very British name of "Shepperton's". But the owners were actually a Jewish couple called Ettinger, refugees from Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Why Shepperton? They'd seen it on a map somewhere and thought it would be better than a Jewish name, in the bigotted English society of the 1950s. Though I'm not sure why, because practically all of their customers were Jewish too - the clothing trade, or "rag trade" as the insiders called it, was entirely Jewish then.

Soon my Dad had a bright orange Minivan to drive home every night. The routine was simple: bring the van home at night full of that day's orders, drive up to London the following morning dropping the orders off to all the customers in Essex and East London, while taking orders for the next day. He would arrive at Shepperton's in time for a late lunch, then drive round the West End taking orders and making deliveries until 4 or so, when it was time to stock up for the drive home.

The van was a blaze of colour. The sides of all their delivery vans were covered in the logos of the products they sold, long-forgotten names like Lightning Zips - sadly, I'm sure there is no picture anywhere. It took a skilled signwriter several days to prepare each one. My Dad had a deal that as long as he paid for petrol, he could use the van at evenings and weekends - which was good, because we certainly couldn't afford a family car. We had many outings in that and later vans, my brother and I sprawled awkwardly in the flat load space at the back. One early trip I remember was to a farm in the depths of the Essex countryside to get my first and only hamster, Nibs. (I have no idea why I wanted a hamster. I don't think he lasted long).

When I was a teenager, he would sometimes take me along for the day during the school holidays. So it was that I got see his daily routine.

The first call was close to our house, at the end of a muddy track by the railway line. Then we would proceed, never more than two or three miles at a time, stopping at one little clothing factory after another. Everywhere my Dad was welcomed like family, offered cups of tea, taken into back rooms to meet someone new. He was a natural salesman, it's just a shame he never sold anything you could really make money from!

He was a natural raconteur and a brilliant stand-up comedian, though the only time he did that was if we went to that uniquely British institution, the holiday camp, for our summer holidays. He had a huge collection of jokes, which he was always happy to trade for new ones with his customers. These were all Jewish, who seem to be the biggest fans of gently self-deprecatory Jewish jokes, so his collection of those was especially vast. The factories were tiny - the biggest ones had maybe 20 or 30 employees. They have all long since disappeared, replaced by giant sweatshops in Vietnam and Bangladesh.

One of his daily treats was a slice of toast and butter with a cup of strong British tea. He had an exclusive selection of cafes in East London, chosen for the quality of their bread (it had to be the real thing, cut in thick slices from an actual loaf - and under no circumstances sliced bread), the generosity of their butter, and the strength of their tea.  I still remember stopping at one of these places for elevenses, and the sensation of the melting butter oozing from the toast into my mouth. Strong, sweet tea, on the other hand, has never really been my thing. But then I didn't live through the Second World War.

Eventually we would get to Shepperton's, just in time for a late lunch. They had a shop (though you couldn't just go in and buy stuff) on Hampstead Road, close to Euston Station. It's an area that has changed beyond all recognition. There is no trace of Shepperton's, nor of Pat's, the seriously greasy  spoon cafe next door - of which more in a moment. A few steps away was Laurence Corner, the famous military surplus store where, supposedly, the Beatles got the inspiration for the uniforms on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's. The shop itself was barely-organised chaos, with packages of zips and buttons all over the place.

First stop was Pat's Cafe for lunch, something seriously greasy like sausages, bacon, fried eggs, and fried bread dripping with grease. My Dad was never overweight until long after he retired, but I have no idea how, considering everything he ate while he was working. He was (again) a much favoured customer, and would always disappear into the kitchen for a long chat with the eponymous Pat and the kitchen staff. The other staff at Shepperton's complained that after lunch, he smelled so much of kitchen fat that they couldn't go near him.

The afternoon was very different, driving round the West End and the more squalid areas to the north like Camden Town and Kilburn - this was long before gentrification had been invented. I was fascinated by the London bus system so I was very happy to sit in the van while my Dad exchanged jokes with his friends inside, jotting down the buses I'd seen and their destinations in my little red notebook. (I wonder whatever happened to those notebooks?)

Sometimes I'd go inside with him. I remember one place where they made fabric-covered buttons. A dressmaker would order a gross of buttons for a particular design. Everything was done in dozens and gross - a dozen dozen  or 144 - and occasionally a great gross, a dozen gross or 1728. Never 10, 100 or 1000. He'd supply the fabric and specify the size, and this tiny specialized place would assemble the buttons out of metal blanks. I was allowed to make one myself, cutting the material carefully to size, placing all the components in the press, then trimming the edges to make a neat fabric-covered button. I was very proud of my button and kept it for a long time.

Around 4, we'd go back to HQ to load up the van for the morning's deliveries. There's only one person there I remember, the first openly gay person I ever met. He was called Derek. He made sure you could not miss him. It was still illegal in Britain until 1967, so this was either just before or just after. Either way it didn't seem to bother anyone.

Then, the van loaded up with long rolls of interlining (the stiff material that goes between the dress fabric and the lining, to give shape and rigidity), boxes of buttons and zips, and various other odds and ends, it was time to set off home. The orange minivan didn't last long, and my memories are mostly of a series of vans based on the Ford 105E Anglia (the one with the odd sloping-backwards rear window). These were bought to the absolute minimum spec. They didn't have a heater, and they didn't even have a passenger seat. The passenger (me, in this case) sat on the ledge at the front of the load-space, with no back support and absolutely no security. It is unimaginable nowadays.

My Dad has his private route across London, eventually joining the A12 out to Romford. At the time I never understood it, but three decades later when I bought my flat in London I recreated a very similar route, which by using obscure back streets shaves probably 30 minutes off the time it takes to get from Kensington to Leytonstone. Once we reached the "arterial road" (the name given to it when it was built in the 1930s, as an example of high-tech high-speed road design at its finest), we trundled along at a stately 50 mph, close the maximum speed for these minimally-engined vans.

We would arrive home in Romford at about 6.30, in plenty of time for dinner. Strangely, when my Dad was on his own, he'd get home an hour or so later. That corresponded to the time he spent in the bookmaker's, picking up his winnings from the horses (if any) and no doubt sharing jokes with his mates there.


David R.. Harper said...

The trip I remember was to pick up a large bag of manure for our grandmother's garden, which went in the back with us.... In our seats made out of zip boxes.
And I did once see him defeated by the strength of a cup of tea. But only once.
The younger bother

Anonymous said...

You really need to put these posts together in book form. Not sure what the overarching theme would be, though...