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Joginder Singh, Shoe Maker

November 24, 2017
by the gentle author

Observe these two handsome portraits of Joginder Singh taken in Bethnal Green in January 1968 and note his contrasted demeanour and clothing. In one, he wears western garb and is accompanied by the accoutrements of the modern business man, a telephone and an umbrella, while in the other he wears traditional clothing and is accompanied by a bamboo screen, a plant and a decorative table with a book. These pictures speak eloquently of the different worlds that Joginder inhabited simultaneously, as a Sikh living in Princelet St.

More than thirty years after Joginder’s death, his son Suresh spoke to me recently about his father’s life. In spite of the poor living conditions that his family endured in Princelet St and the racism he suffered, Suresh recalls the experience of growing up there affectionately and the family photographs which accompany this interview confirm his fond memories of a happy childhood in a crowded house in Spitalfields.

“My dad came to this country in 1949 from Nangal Kalan Hashiarpur in the Punjab. He came to Princelet St in Spitalfields and we’ve lived there ever since. He couldn’t read or write. He was a shoe shine at Liverpool St Station for twenty-one years and then he became labourer until he dropped dead in 1986 at fifty-six. My dad was tall and strong and, when they lined them all up in the village, it was decided he should be the one to go to Britain. They all said to dad, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ and he was one of the first over. All the men came first, so mum didn’t came over until 1952. My dad came by plane but she came by boat from Bombay and it took six months. She couldn’t read or write either.

My dad was a Pacificist, so he didn’t want to go in the army like my uncles who were in the Bombay Engineers. He was of the old school, he was influenced by the Naxolites, Trotskyites who came in to the Punjab from Communist China, and my dad used to hide them in the field. He didn’t like the religion or the materialism of Sikhism.

He was a shoe maker. He knew how to kill a cow, strip the hide, dry it and make shoes. He was of the lowest caste, an untouchable – because the cow was a sacred creature. He came to Spitalfields with just a satchel with shoe polish in it. When dad got here, he wore a turban and couldn’t get a job. So he went to a friend in Glasgow who said, ‘I’ll tell you how to get a job.’ He took off my dad’s turban and shaved his head, and my dad came straight back to Spitalfields and got a job at once.

My dad was not selfish, he was good to everybody. He brought lots of people over, nephews and cousins, and he’d pick people up in the street and bring them home. The Environment Health tried to close our house down because we had fifty people living in it. The Council said, ‘We’ll close this place, it’s full of bedbugs and fleas and you piss in a bucket. How can you live like this? It’s a slum.’ I was born in Mile End Hospital and I had TB at the age of ten because of the number of people that lived in our house. It’s a four storey house and, eventually, he bought it for two grand and I still live there today.

A lot of my friends at school were in the National Front but they thought I was OK because I spoke Cockney. In 1972, the National Front sold their newspapers in Brick Lane and, in 1977, when punk happened I became the first Pakistani Punk, so I attracted  a lot of racist attention. I played drums for Spiz Energy on their single ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ that made it to number sixty in the Rough Trade vinyl chart. I was so bullied at Daneford School, I got a lot of ‘Paki-bashing’ abuse. I wasn’t terribly macho, I was a quiet boy who was interested in architecture and I went on to study it at University College London. Then I became a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and now I am principal of a school in Southwark that teaches NEETs.

Eddie Stride, Rector of Christ Church was my best mate. I remember Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard, Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Longford all popping in to the Rectory at 2 Fournier St. My elder sister Tejwant married Eddie Stride’s son Derek and she was disowned by my family for seven years.

Other Sikhs moved out to Ilford, East Ham and Southall, but my father wanted to stay here in Spitalfields, he didn’t want to go. They said to him, ‘How can you live among Muslims and Jews?’ and he said, ‘At least they don’t gossip!’ I don’t know why my dad stayed in Spitalfields. He lived next to the synagogue and the church – Spitalfields was multicultural and I think that’s what he loved.

We still go to the Punjab every year, dad bought so much land over there, he lived in a slum here so he could send every penny back to buy fields and farms in the Punjab.”

Joginder’s photographs of his trip home to the Punjab in 1972

Joginder’s brothers were in the Bombay Engineers

In Princelet St, 1972 - “Sometimes my father got the urge to dress up and be a Sikh”

Giano, Suresh and Tejwant, 1963

Joginder with nephews Gurmit and Narincer and family members, 1972

Suresh, Tejwant and friends, 1968

Suresh and his cousin Sarwan Singh, 1968

Tejwant, 1970

Giano and Bhakisa in the yard in Princelet St

Suresh and Naresh, 1968

Tejwant and Suresh, 1968

Suresh, 1972

Christ Church Youth Club football team with Naresh Singh, in the front on the right

Naresh Singh (in blue) on a Christ Church Youth Club summer trip, 1970

Christmas 1979, Bhakisa, Tejwant and Bilber

Chinnee Kaulder

Chinnee Kaulder & Joginder Singh, 1968

At The Great Yiddish Parade

November 23, 2017
by the gentle author

Did you spot a ragtag procession of musicians, people in costume, children and dogs marching from Aldgate through Whitechapel to Mile End Waste last Sunday? Behind this light-hearted frolic was a serious intent, for this was the Great Yiddish Parade, commemorating the procession of Jewish unemployed and garment workers which took place here in 1889. Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I joined the parade to lend our support and bring you this feature.

Whitechapel was once the centre of London’s Jewish community but, during the last century, they left to seek better housing in the suburbs. Yet it remains a significant location for many whose ancestors arrived here a hundred years ago or more, escaping persecution in Eastern Europe and building new lives in this country. Indeed, many of those inspired to participate in Sunday’s parade had past family connections to Whitechapel.

The original parade processed from Berners St in Stepney to the Great Synagogue in Aldgate, demanding that the Chief Rabbi condemn exploitative working practices in East End tailoring trades. After he refused to do so, they continued their march up Whitechapel Rd to Mile End Waste, where last Sunday’s parade culminated in a series of speeches from the eighteen-eighties. A klezmer band led the procession enlivened by rousing Yiddish songs of protest.

Above all, it was a heartfelt celebration to honour the moral courage of those who, in their disadvantage, discovered the power of collective action, advancing social progress for all through their fight for better working conditions. Growing public awareness of modern-day slavery and recent challenges to the dubious practices of the so-called ‘gig economy’ suggest uneasy parallels with our own time, revealing that this struggle is far from over.

(Courtesy of Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick)

Orlando & Lucian Valman

The parade gathers in Aldgate

Vivi Lachs, Historian & Yiddisher, who established The Great Yiddish Parade

Vivi rallies her comrades

Nadia Valman, organiser of the parade, dressed as seamstress of 1889

Michael Ellman in his grandfather’s tailcoat

Walking through Aldgate

Esther Neslen, Singer

Poet Stephen Watts reads a banner carried by Artist Dan Jones

Rabbi Janet Burden of Ealing Liberal Synagogue and  her dog Raz

Julie Begum as Olive Christian Malvery, an Anglo-Indian freelance journalist who reported on the conditions of female and child workers in the East End in the eighteen-eighties.

“So I would like to ask you, brothers and sisters, have any of you here been to a bar lately? I am sure that many of you are familiar with the establishments of the Whitechapel Rd. Well, I want to talk to you about the lives of the barmaids who work there. Many of the young girls who earn their living in this arduous calling are subjected to numerous temptations. And yet they remain good, upright, and respectable women. Often they are obliged to stand behind a counter serving semi-drunken, coarse, and foul-mouthed persons of both sexes. They are obliged to listen to the vile talk of that class of man who makes it a pastime to insult young women engaged in this business. As a girl once said to me,’The life is hard enough without having to be insulted by cads.’”

Walking through Whitechapel

Jo Green, Clarinetist

Walking through Mile End

Phil Whaite, Saxophonist

Speeches at Mile End Waste beside the statue of General Booth

“I have come to you in the East End of London from the United States of America. My friends, I am an Anarchist, and I will tell you why. Anarchism is the great liberator of man from the phantoms that have held him captive. What are these phantoms? Religion, the dominion of the human mind, Property, the dominion of human needs, and Government, the dominion of human conduct, represent the stronghold of man’s enslavement and all the horrors it entails. Break your mental fetters, says Anarchism to man, for not until you think and judge for yourself will you get rid of the dominion of darkness, the greatest obstacle to all progress.”- Emma Goldman, Anarchist & Writer, spoke in Whitechapel in the eighteen-eighties

“‘A good man will be contented fast enough if he be fed and clothed sufficiently, but if a man be not well fed and clad, he is a base wretch to be contented.’ So says William Cobbett, and certainly the strikers might have one more banner with this inscription written on it. We have learned a good deal since William Cobbett’s time, and some of us have become very ‘refined’ indeed, but still on this foundation of victuals and shelter without anxiety must you build ‘refinement’ and all.’” – William Morris, who spoke at Mile End Waste in 1889

“I’d like to know if there are sadder sights anywhere than those we now see around us? I mean the homes of honest working men who have nothing to do, skilled workmen whose trades are itching at their fingers’ ends, who spend their days tramping about looking for work, and come home at night with empty pockets to hungry wives and children? I need draw no picture of these things. You not only see them, but feel them. You know what it is to have wives fainting for want of food, and children crying for crusts you cannot give them. ” – Words of a young man speaking on Mile End Waste from Margaret Harkness’ novel of 1888, Out of Work.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read about these other parades

At The Boar’s Head Parade

At the Spitalfields Nativity Parade

At the Italian Parade

At The Baishakhi Mela

Rose At The Golden Heart

November 22, 2017
by the gentle author


When Sandra Esqulant, celebrated landlady of The Golden Heart in Commercial St, saw this photo taken by Contributinf Photographer Phil Maxwell of Rose sitting in her barroom twenty years ago she told me the story of an unforgettable character who became one of her most loved regulars.

“I loved Rose. I don’t know what happened to her, she’s got to be dead now hasn’t she?

What happened was – you know how you fall in love with some people? – this woman appeared in the pub one day and I fell in love with her. I just liked her.

She asked for a rum & lemonade, and she never had to pay for a drink in my pub.

I used to have to warn everyone when Rose was coming in because she used to pick up everyone’s cigarettes and put them in her bag.

I used to dance with her.

You might think she was dumb, but she was the most astute person I ever met. She didn’t like my husband while I was there, but when I wasn’t there it was a different story!

My husband liked her a lot.

You know I lost my husband.

When she stopped coming, I went round to the Sally Army in Old Montague St, where she lived, but they told me they didn’t know what happened to her, so I went to the Police Station and they were going to search the morgue. I kept going back to the Sally Army and this Irish woman said to me, ‘Are you looking for Rose? She moved to Commercial Rd.’ So I went round to the Commercial Rd shelter and there was Rose. She was very sad because the Sally Army had put her out after forty years. So I used to send a cab to pick her up and take her back from my pub.

The Sally Army, they should have known how fond I was of her and told me where she had gone.

One Sunday, when I was on my own, she collected all the glasses and the ashtrays and the crisp packets and emptied them over the bar. I didn’t mind, Rose could do anything in my pub.

People like Rose would go into a pub and people wouldn’t serve them, but I had everyone in here – this was the dossers’ bar!

One day, Phil Maxwell asked Rose if he could put her in one of his films and she didn’t like that, but he set his camera on the table and took these pictures. And after that, he always had her picture in his exhibitions.

She must have known I was fond of her.

She did like me.

I know she liked me.

She was lovely.

She used to talk about her daughter, but I sometimes wonder if she ever had a daughter.

At Christmas, she always asked me for a Christmas box and, of course, I always gave her one.

They moved her out after forty years, what a thing to do to someone.

If Rose was here today, I’d let her smoke in my pub – I don’t care about the law.

Very special, she was.”

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

See more of Phil Maxwell’s work here

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Phil Maxwell’s Kids on the Street

Phil Maxwell, Photographer

Phil Maxwell & Sandra Esqulant, Photographer & Muse

Phil Maxwell’s Old Ladies

More of Phil Maxwell’s Old Ladies

Phil Maxwell’s Old Ladies in Colour

Phil Maxwell on the Tube

Phil Maxwell at the Spitalfields Market

Phil Maxwell on Wentworth St

Lucinda Rogers At Ridley Rd Market

November 21, 2017
by the gentle author

In the first of a series, Contributing Artist Lucinda Rogers & I visit Ridley Rd Market in Dalston to meet some of the traders featured in her current exhibition Lucinda Rogers: On Gentrification – Drawings of Ridley Rd Market at House of Illustration in Kings Cross until March

Larry Julian, Chair of Ridley Rd Traders Association

Larry Julian – “I was a boy when I first came down here to help my parents Billy & Jeanie. Now I have been here fifty-five years and I am the fourth generation of our family in this market. My great-grandfather James Julian, he was one of the first down here. When I was a boy, all the fruit had to be properly displayed in tissue paper, and we weighed it out and wrapped it for our customers. We were always selling fruit & veg, but thirty-five years ago my mother had a stall selling toiletries while we were still selling the fruit & veg, so I took it over and my brother took over the fruit & veg. I get up at 4:30am and I get down here at 6:30am but, when I did the fruit & veg, I got up at 3am. I enjoy the social life and talking to all my customers. I am not rich but I have always made a living and, if I could have my time over again, I would do it all the same.”

Jimmy’s CD stall with fruit & veg stallholders

Jimmy Figgins - “I started out as DJ in clubs around this area, like the Four Aces and Oasis, as well as various pirate radio stations. Then, after I had done it for twelve years, some of those clubs became stripclubs. I did not want my life to be playing music for strip, so I came down here and Hoxton Market on Saturdays, selling CDs. Then, after twenty years, the market for CDs went down.” (This drawing shows the last day of Jimmy’s CD stall, he has now turned to selling takeway food.)

Cut yams and breadfruit at Back Home Yam Man

Dashamir Coku

– “A friend of mine used to work in the market and he asked me to help him out. We started down here twenty years ago with a stall, and now we have a stall and a shop. I get up at 3am and arrive here at 5:30am. I got to travel around Jamaica, Columbia, Brazil and Mexico, and because I am a cook, I learnt to cook this food. My wife is from Columbia, so I got to learn all about their vegetables. I sell vegetables from the Caribbean and South America, and my customers here in Ridley Rd Market include people from Cuba, Jamaica, St Lucia, Barbados and Montserrat.”

Jakey the parrot, with visiting parrot

“He was twenty years old when we got him. I used to keep Cockatiels, so when a customer split up with his wife, we agreed to have Jakey. That was seven years ago, he is twenty-seven now. Jakey is very cheeky and loves attention, but he can be moody and peck sometimes. He likes it when the parrot from next door visits.”

Drawings copyright © Lucinda Rogers

Lucinda Rogers: On Gentrification – Drawings from Ridley Rd Market is open at House of Illustration, Tuesday – Sunday from 10am-6pm until 25th March

You may also like to take a look at

Lucinda Rogers’ East End

Lucinda Rogers’ Spitalfields Suite

Lucinda Rogers’ Cards

Lucinda Rogers in Tottenham

Maria Pellicci, The Meatball Queen Of Bethnal Green

November 20, 2017
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to announce that the first meatballs of winter will be served at E.Pellicci in Bethnal Green next Wednesday 22nd November and I have already bagged first place in the line …

With the arrival of the first chills in Spitalfields, my mind turns to thoughts of steaming meatballs. So I hot-footed it up the road to Bethnal Green and the kitchen of Maria Pellicci, cook and beloved matriarch at E. Pellicci, the legendary cafe that has been run by her family since 1900. Although I find it hard to believe, Maria told me that meatballs are not always on the menu here because people do not ask for them. Yet she graciously assented to my request, and even granted me the honour of permitting my presence in her kitchen to witness the sacred ritual of the making of the first meatballs of the season.

For many years, meatballs and spaghetti comprised reliable sustenance that could deliver consolation on the grimmest winter day. If I found myself in a cafe and meatballs were on the menu, I had no reason to think further because I knew what I was having for lunch. But then a fear came upon me that drove away my delight in meatballs, I began to doubt what I was eating and grew suspicious of the origins of the ingredients. It was the loss of an innocent pleasure. Thus began the meatball famine which lasted ten years, that ended when Maria Pellicci made meatballs specially for me with fresh meat she bought from the butcher in the Roman Rd.

Maria has worked daily in her kitchen in Bethnal Green since 1961, preparing all the dishes on the menu at E.Pellicci freshly as a matter of principle. More than this, reflecting Maria’s proud Italian ancestry, I can confirm that for Maria Pellicci the quality of her food is unquestionably a matter of honour.

Maria mixed beef and pork together with eggs, parsley, onion and other herbs, seasoned it with salt and pepper, letting it marinate from morning until afternoon. Then, as we chatted, her hazel eyes sparkling with pleasure, she deployed a relaxed skill borne of half a century’s experience, taking bite-sized pieces from the mixture and rolling them into perfectly formed ruby red balls, before tossing them playfully onto a steel baking tray. I watched as Maria’s graceful hands took on independent life, swiftly rolling the meatballs between her flattened palms and demonstrating a superlative dexterity that would make her the virtuoso at any card table. In no time at all, she conjured one hundred and fifty evenly-sized meatballs that would satisfy thirty lucky diners the following morning.

I was at the snug corner table beside the serving hatch in Pellicci’s immaculately cosy cafe next day at the stroke of twelve. After more than ten years of waiting, the moment was at hand, as Anna Pellicci, Maria’s daughter proudly delivered the steaming dish, while Salvatore, Maria’s nephew, brought the Parmesan and freshly ground pepper. The wilderness years were at an end, because I had spaghetti and meatballs in front of me, the dish of the season. Maria made the tomato sauce that morning with garlic, parsley and basil, and it was pleasantly tangy and light without being at all glutinous. As a consequence, the sauce did not overwhelm the subtle herb-inflected flavour of the meatballs that crumbled and then melted in my mouth, the perfect complement to the deliciously gelatinous spaghetti. Sinking my teeth into the first meatballs of the twenty-first century, I could only wonder how I lived through all those years without them.

Outside a cold wind was blowing, so I took courage from ingesting a syrup pudding with custard, just to finish off the spaghetti and meatballs nicely, and restore substance to my attenuated soul. The special quality of E. Pellicci is that it is a family restaurant, and that is the atmosphere that presides. When I confided to Anna that my last living relative had died, she told me at once that I was part of their family now. Everyone is welcomed on first name terms at Pellicci’s in an environment of emotional generosity and mutual respect, a rare haven where you can enjoy honest cooking at prices everyone afford.

I call upon my readers to help me keep meatballs on the menu at E. Pellicci now, because we need them to help us get through the winter, brexit, and the rest of the twenty-first century that is to come. Let us send a collective message to the Pelliccis, that we love their meatballs with spaghetti, because when we have a cook like Maria Pellicci, the meatball queen of Bethnal Green, we cannot forgo the privilege of her genius.

Maria Pellicci has been making meatballs in Bethnal Green for half a century

Anna Pellicci with the first meatballs of the season in Bethnal Green

The coveted corner table, next to the serving hatch at E. Pellicci

E.Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG

You may like to read my other Pellicci stories

Christmas Ravioli At E Pellicci

Maria Pellicci, Cook

Christmas Part at E.Pellicci

Pellicci’s Celebrity Album

Pellicci’s Collection

Colin O’Brien at E.Pellicci

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits ( Part One)

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits (Part Two)

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits (Part Three)

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits (Part Four)