Sunday 17 July 2016

Pensioners' Pals

My parents moved to my childhood home a couple of years before I was born, to a brand-new house on a brand-new estate just east of London. The London County Council (LCC) - predecessor to today's Greater London Authority - had an urgent program after the War to replace all the bombed-out housing in inner London. They embarked on a huge project,  building numerous estates around London such as our own Harold Hill, which was the largest. The new houses were luxurious compared to the Victorian slums they replaced, with modern conveniences like running hot water and even baths - despite the assertion by a Tory MP at the time that all the working classes would do was store coal in them.

These new estates included special provision for older people - Old Age Pensioners as they were called then, women over 60 and men over 65 (not that there were many of the latter). At the end of many of the terraces of houses were little bungalows with one bedroom, laid out for the mobility challenged, as well as what would now be called sheltered housing - and in the 17th century would have been called almshouses.

Part of the community support for the elderly was an organisation called the Pensioners' Pals, a voluntary effort to help the old people in various ways - visiting, doing shopping and odd jobs, and arranging the occasional social event. This was important because the whole estate was made up of people who had been ripped from their inner London roots, and didn't necessarily have family living nearby.

I'm not sure why my parents decided to get involved with this group, but they did. By the time I was old enough to remember anything, they were part of the leadership. My Dad loved the social events, and my Mum has naturally organised anything that moves for her whole life, so it made sense. I was only a small child, but for some reason these activities made a big impression and even now I remember a lot of it.

My Mum had "adopted" two of the old ladies. They lived in adjacent bungalows, a ten minute walk from our house. One, Miss Simpson (I genuinely don't think she had a first name), was barely older than I am now, yet she was without any doubt old. She wore old-person's clothes, she moved like an old lady - everything about her said old. It's trite to say "60 is the new 40", but when I think back to these old dears, it is absolutely true. In the 1950s, once you passed 60 you were definitively old. She was also a spinster. That's a word you never hear now, meaning a woman who has never married. It has a certain connotation, of primness and unworldliness, which exactly suited our Miss Simpson.

Our other adoptee was completely different. She was universally called Grandma. I don't think she had any actual names at all. She must have been close to 80, which back then was positively ancient, but she was still pretty active. She had a huge family who were always visiting her, and lived surrounded by clutter in her tiny house. Very clearly she had never been a spinster.

We would visit them once a week, always taking some little treat, making the trek up the hill. On one occasion I was off school sick, and I got into trouble with the school truant inspector because I was admiring his car, parked in the street outside - of course I had no idea who it belonged to. It was something very unusual, a very sleek looking royal blue French Panhard at a time when 95% of cars in Britain were British.

Then there were the social events. Maybe a couple of times a year, a hall would be booked for the evening, a band would be engaged, and things were all set for a re-enactment of the first decade of the 20th century. "Our" pensioners were typically born in the 1880s, and would have been in the full flush of their youth in the Edwardian era (1901-1910). No television, no radio, no cinema - the entertainment of the masses was the Music Hall, a kind of popular theatre with singers, dancers and comedians. And then there were dances, to the popular tunes of the day, the girls carefully chaperoned. The Pensioners' Pals' socials were an attempt to re-create some of this.

I still remember the words to those old songs - "Daisy, Daisy", "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" (from the First World War, that one) and so on. This was brought back to me forcefully when I recently visited my mother in the home where she now lives. They had an entertainer playing old songs, and I could sing along with all of them!

And then there was the greatest of them all, "Knees Up Mother Brown", a vulgar, raucous dancing song where everyone links arms and rushes in and out of a circle. What an excuse for some "accidental" groping back in those prim and proper days. Even now in England a "knees up" is a synonym for an unrestrained, noisy evening.

For some reason these events attracted all kinds of local notables. Our family doctor was often there, drinking away his sorrows - he was well known to be fond of a tipple or three. My father once said to him, "Good evening, Doctor." He replied, "I'm not a doctor tonight, not a doctor." With hindsight there must have been a lot of feeling behind that.

The mayor of Romford showed up from time to time, as well. He had a very grand car for the time, an Armstrong Siddeley - one of the many long-disappeared British marques. I think I even got a ride in it once.

The music for these events was provided by a Mr Button. He ran a radio repair shop, and brought along a gramophone to provide music when the band was having a rest. My mother must somehow have stayed in touch with him, because 40 years later when he died, I inherited his long-obsolete collection of valves (vacuum tubes) - I still have them in my garage.

Then there were the management meetings for the organisation. Along with my parents, there was a childless couple, Mr and Mrs Clark - he was the Treasurer. He had a very flat northern accent, something strange to me back then. Never an adventurous man, his favourite observation was "This is a time for consolidation" - in other words, doing nothing. Several years later, when my Dad had learned to drive, they acquired a car, an awful old pre-war Austin in terrible condition. They insisted on taking us out for the day in it. My Dad drove for some of the time, and afterwards said it was the most terrifying drive of his life. That was before Britain introduced the "MOT test", a way of weeding out the most dangerous of these old wrecks. I doubt that their car survived its first encounter with the test.

My memories of the Pensioners' Pals all stop when I was about six or seven. I don't know what happened, whether my parents just dropped out of it, or whether the whole thing ground to a halt. They didn't lose all contact though. One of the biggest surprises was Miss Simpson, the old spinster who lived in the bungalow, who got married. Approaching 70, she met a widower and they set up home together in Dagenham, a bus ride away from us. We went there to see them once. My Dad's observation was that her new husband had probably got rather more than he bargained for.

Oddly the name came back to life when I was a teenager, when I heard that some of the girls at school - we must all have been about 16 or 17 - were involved in a new incarnation of the Pensioners' Pals. But I doubt if they ever had concerts where all the old dears sung "Daisy, Daisy".

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