An occasional highlight of these excursions to Redbridge was the narrative with which my sister and I were regaled during the afternoon by my grandfather, Harry Augustus Bush, a veteran of both world wars, sometime cavalryman and twice-torpedoed sailor. In between puffs on a Cuban cigar and sips of 80-proof rum, he’d give us a guided tour of a half century of hard times. For example & as a boy growing up in Limehouse, one of the poorest parts of the East End, he often scavenged family meals from the gutter when the street markets closed. Between the wars, he’d worked at a variety of jobs that my sister and I found bewilderingly unlikely—tap dancer, journeyman butcher, ship’s steward, docker.
At about six o’clock, we’d take a break from the story of our grandfather’s journey through conflict and its absences. The time had come to focus on food, whose arrival would be announced on what I called banger weekends by a crescendo of sizzling and popping signifying that the next hour would be spent disposing of sausage after sausage after sausage—the Englishman’s favorite form of pork. My grandmother would scoop the tubby tubes, as plump as the pig they came from and perfectly browned, straight from her enormous frying pan onto superheated plates. We’d hack at them while they were still almost too hot to eat, still shimmering with the lard in which they’d been cooked. The savory sauce we used as a condiment mixed splendidly with the golden yolk of the accompanying eggs. Relishing every last speck of grease, we mopped up the resulting runniness with yet more doorsteps. And then we’d have more doorsteps, this time painted with the supersalty yeast extract called Marmite, a substance guaranteed to disgust anyone who didn’t acquire a taste for it within a few weeks of leaving the womb. (An American acquaintance of mine who once made the mistake of sampling a mere dot of the stuff pulled a face indicative of terminal perplexity, tried hard not to gag, and yelped, “This isn’t food. It can’t be. It just can’t be.”)
At the end of a day at Harry’s, my parents usually had a tough time dragging me out to our third-hand car for the ride home—particularly on wintry sausage nights, when I’d be begging for one last warming banger as my father, cursing the cold beneath his breath, scraped the ice from the windshield with a copy of the Evening Standard and then struggled for a few tense minutes with the conveyance’s refractory ignition. I’d remind myself that next Saturday night would be fish night, alright in its own way, and that two Saturdays from now I’d once again sit down to the best food, the very best food, in the world.
In November 1998, I visited my father for what I realized, the moment I set down my suitcase and embraced him, would be the last time. (He and my mum had divorced in the late ’70s.) Dad was all skin and dry bones, suffering from a serious lung disease, and the effort of eating left him prostrate for an hour. His half-brother, Don—bus driver, accomplished darts player, lifelong East Ender—had passed away two days earlier.
I found Don’s departure from this world particularly significant. I had always thought of him as an exceptionally forceful reminder of my father’s side of the family, not least because—unlike the rest of the Haney brothers, who moved to suburbs or to the country just as soon as they could in the years following the war—Don chose to spend his entire life in the East End. He had once had his doubts about the durability of my allegiance to the class of which he was, so very indisputably, a fully paid-up member. His misgivings in this regard may have originated in the fact that I went to university—a family first—and therefore might have come to consider myself a cut above the rest of the clan. In 1981, at his eldest daughter’s engagement party, he came straight to the point and asked me if I thought I was “better than us”—better than his family, his friends, his neighbors. This was one of the saddest questions I have ever been asked. Taking a shaky sip of the few drops of beer I’d managed not to spill from sheer surprise, I gave him the benefit of a very firm “No.” Thus reassured, he bought me another pint. The party continued, and people belted out songs I’d first heard as a hysterically excited five-year-old at jubilantly crowded Christmas parties in Don’s postage stamp of a living room in a tiny terraced house in a section of the East End known as the Isle of Dogs (in a part of the world that’s now known as Docklands and bears little relation to the way it was, to the lives that were lived there, before money moved in).
Frankly, I’ve never had that much fun at parties again. What do I see when I repeat my own memories to myself? Torrents of cigarette smoke, Sherry, and stout. The younger men in navy V-necks, the younger women in gray pencil skirts. The older men enormously beery in ill-fitting two-piece suits, waistbands suspendered to their sternums, constantly brushing fag ash from their crumpled synthetic ties. The older women in voluminous black dresses, trailing their daughters’ hiccuping, half-naked babies and a couple of feet of imitation pearls. A kitchen table crammed with squadrons of cocktail sausages, hulking wedges of Cheddar, precipices of ham, mountains of mince pies, piles of piccalilli, stacks of thick-sliced bread, and a teapot capable of accommodating the Mad Hatter and every last one of his lunatic friends. All this, and infinite kindness. Such were some of the happiest times I knew as the constellations wheeled above the bedlam of my infancy.