I was born on the 8th April, 1928. My father, Alfred Lester, was born in 1901, just before Queen Victoria died. He used to say that after he was born, Queen Victoria felt she was able to give up the ghost. He called himself a Victorian, and told me stories about the past. My grandmamma was frightened to go out because Jack the Ripper was about. The murders took place in 1888, thirteen years before my father was born. She was very worried about it. My father was the third of three boys, so my grandmother was probably born about 1870. I can remember my maternal grandmother singing to me. She used to cry “Ten a Penny, Walnuts!”
I believe my father was born in Bow, which is where we lived in my boyhood. Bow was so-called because the bridge over the river Lea was shaped like an archer’s bow. If you’ve heard the expression about cockneys being born within the sound of Bow bells, they aren’t in Bow at all; they are in the church of St Mary Le Bow in Whitechapel. I won a speaker’s prize once, and it was a book all about the East End of London. All my life I’ve been interested in learning about my heritage. I’m a true cockney! I am also an avid collector of facts, and I like to share them with people. Do you know, they used to say if you are a British subject born at sea, you have the right to put Stepney in your name!
We lived in Coburn Road, the boundary between the borough of Poplar and Stepney. We were on the Poplar side in Bow. At one time, London was just a heap of villages with green space in between, and when I went to the pantomime, they might mention picking the daisies in Bow Common Lane. Well there weren’t any daisies there anymore, that’s for sure, but at one time it was probably a meadow. The East End of my day was poverty-stricken and there were notorious slums and workhouses. The villages, and the meadows, were long gone. I grew up at a time of great political ferment. People were starting to advocate reform.
One of those people was George Lansbury. He became leader of the Labour party in 1932, and he came and spoke to us at school. He came to us on Empire Day – can you imagine such a day now! We would all wave union flags around. My dad used to go to school with George’s daughter, so by the time I was born, George Lansbury was 69. He was very popular, a true man of the people. I read his life story. His first elected post was in 1893. He was Poor Law guardian for Poplar. He said he wanted the workhouse to be “an agency of help instead of a place of despair.” On one visit to the workhouse, he saw that there were mice droppings in the porridge. He said to the matron, “Shall we join them for breakfast? And the matron said, “No! That’s for them, not us!” I remember that, because later on in life you remember it’s still a case of them and us, in many situations – in the hospital service and all sorts of things. But George Lansbury, he was a “them” – even though he was an MP and everything.
In 1921, he led the famous Poplar Rates Rebellion, although it’s not so famous now! The Conservative government at the time decided to set the rates across London, as in so much per head. That meant the people in Poplar were asked to pay the same as the rich people in Chelsea and Kensington. Tower Hamlets was very poor; it still is. So George Lansbury and the Poplar town council – who were mostly industrial workers – said, “No, we’re not paying it. We can’t afford to pay the same as Kensington and Chelsea.” The Government said, “You pay up or you’ll be in contempt of court!” The council didn’t give in, so the whole of Poplar council were jailed! The men went to Brixton, and the ladies went to Holloway. I’ve seen the minutes of the council meetings during that time – the women were bussed from Holloway to Brixton for council meetings! The political term “Poplarism” was coined then – it means defying the government, and standing up for the people, particularly the poor and needy. George Lansbury was a hero in our area. He stood up for education and the betterment of all people, regardless of class.
My father was one of the lucky Eastenders who truly managed to better himself. He started out as a waiter, moved on to become a commis chef – an apprentice – which led to being an assistant chef, then chef and finally, banqueting steward at the Café Royal. He had three brothers. His older brother, Morris, was smaller in stature, but pugilistic and ready to put up a fight. When my father got into trouble with a bigger chap at school, he said “I’ll put my brother on to you!” But this big chap just laughed when he saw Morris ready to put up his fists on my dad’s behalf, and that was the end of it.
Little Uncle Morris used to drive a bus for a private firm before they were taken over by London Transport. In a bus all day, you can’t go to the toilet when you want, so he used to come home from work, take an evening paper and retire to the toilet for at least 20 minutes, because his job was so constipating! His eldest brother George, on the other hand, was a snob. My father got a leaving present from a hotel where he was working once, and the men clubbed together to buy him a present, I’m not sure what it was – maybe a silver cigarette case or something. George said, “Huh! Better if the managers had clubbed together to buy you something!” He dismissed the workers out of hand, which is something my father never did.
My first home, Coburn Road, abutted Bow Road, the main highway between East and West London. It was a very busy road. London had mileage marks from various places around us: so many miles to London town from Whitechapel church and gates, for example. Mile End gate was one mile from the gate to the city at Whitechapel. I was an only child; all my parents’ love was devoted to me. My father would wheel me around in a pram, which wasn’t done in those days. But he did. They were a very loving couple, and it’s reflected on me, I’m bonhomie with everyone, as my father was, although he was a far nicer person than myself!
Our house was Georgian or neo-Georgian. We had the ground floor and upstairs was let. The people upstairs did a midnight flit once, which was unfortunate. We were renting too, nobody bought houses then. We had a parlour, a kitchen, and a front and rear bedroom. I had my own bedroom looking out over the back garden, and I remember my soft toy, a big tall rabbit in a boiler suit. I called him Wilfred. He was really big, because of the huge ears! Also at the rear, outside the kitchen window, there was a deep pit, and I had a puppy that fell in the pit once, and I couldn’t get it out. I was alone in the house at the time; it wasn’t unusual for children to be left alone. I saw a man coming across the garden, and I got quite frightened. It turned out he was only coming to get the poor dog out, because it was whining a lot!
I didn’t realise until much, much later that mother hated that house. She felt we were living like troglodytes; it was like a dark cave, almost underground. The light would come in through curved grilles – there were bars on the windows – and we didn’t see a lot of daylight. The roof of the downstairs was level with the ground outside. It was subterranean. In the parlour, the front room, you opened the doors and went into what we called the airy, or the area, and you could look up through the grille and see who was at the front door. My mother would say, “She’s not in today!” if she spotted someone who was coming to collect money. Although we were poor, we still gave a tip to the dustmen. I was given a penny to give the dustmen once. In those days, you put the rubbish in whatever you could, an old bath, or a bucket. They didn’t have doors on the back of the truck; they had curtains. The dustmen used to wear hats and carry things on their shoulders. I couldn’t find the dustmen so gave it to the driver and I think he pocketed it. He was probably not the right person to give it to!
The coal was delivered by a shire horse and coalman, black with soot. We had a coal cellar outside, and the coal hole was about 18 inches in diameter. The chap would lift up the coal hole, and kick the coal down. The cover is actually called an operculum. It’s an anatomical term. It means a small covering or lid – the operculum of a bony fish, for example, is a hard cover for protection over the gills. Plants have opercula to catch flies. People collect the coal hole opercula now, they are very collectible. The opercula are made of cast iron, and they would have crests on them, like Poplar Borough Council. Ours broke once, and my mother put her foot through it. Can you imagine scraping your shin on that broken iron! She danced around, but she was very brave, and didn’t utter a swear word.
We were working class genteel, I would say. But we were snobs! We thought we were better than the Stepney people over the road, even though we were poor! We didn’t go anywhere for holidays. We might spend the day at Southend-on-Sea and then come back. We went by train from Bow Road to Bromley-by-Bow and then changed trains, because the tickets were cheaper if you broke up the journey. Lots of local families and children went ‘oppin’! Picking hops was the closest thing to a holiday many families would get. I used to envy the kids going hopping. They’d go in a big red bus, with Play Fair Bus written on the side, and it used to park in Merchant Street. Father was away quite a lot, because in those days you had to go where the work was.
At one stage, my father was working in Carlisle. I was about four at the time. Mother and I were at home. He was working at the Crown and Mitre, a rather nice hotel, I think that’s what it was called. Mum and I went up and stayed with him, and it was during school time. I was told to keep a low profile in case there was a school inspector around! This affected my life, because I was taken away from the East End to the borders of Scotland, where I saw kilted people, bagpipes, and sheep! You may laugh, but I’d never seen a sheep before. Nearby was a stonemason, and one day he came and asked my mother if he could photograph me wearing his work clothes. Well! You’d never get away with that now would you? People would think you were a paedophile. But it was very innocent, if a little odd.
I don’t remember my mother working other than during the war. Before she married, she was in the rag trade, what she did I don’t know, but she worked in a factory handling clothes. One story she told me is sometimes she’d be hungry at work, and a man would come round outside the factory selling baked potatoes, and they would lower a tape down to him, and he’d tie the potato up and they’d haul it in! But if one of the managers came in – they weren’t allowed to eat next to the clothes – they would drop it and lose it! Drop it like a hot potato, literally!
My mother’s family was interesting. She had an elder brother, Harry, who was the doyen of the family. He worked in a solicitor’s office and if you wanted to know anything, you went and saw him. He married a lady called Annie, and she would write to us in the same manner as she thought and spoke – things like “sod that for a game of soldiers!” – she was wonderful! There was Uncle Morrie, and apparently he was in the army in the First World War, and the sergeant swore at him as the story goes, and Uncle Morrie said “If you swear at me again like that I’m leaving!” The sergeant did it again, and he left! He ended up playing in the West End in The Maid of the Mountains, which had the famous soubrette Josie Collins there. A soubrette would be coquettish, or the source of some intrigue. He went on the stage, took the name Jack Palmer, and eventually became stage manager in the Royal in Reading.
My Uncle Walter, or Willy, was the black sheep of the family. He was a bookmaker, and he had a signboard with Walter Phillips on it. If the favourite won, he would pack up his bags and go home early and disappear! On a good day, you would know about it. On one of his good days, when I was about eight, he saw me playing in the street, and he gave me sixpence. What treasure! Immediately I went to the shop by our house – they used to sell newspapers and things – where I would buy my Beano and the Dandy. I bought a capgun. A superior one, which cost thruppence! The more expensive ones had roller caps, and looked more like a real gun, whereas the penny ones flipped up. This one had a little window on the side, you loaded it from the side and it looked more like the real thing. A big boy from further up the street liked the look of it, and asked to see it and I said “No!” He threw me down on the ground, and although he was much bigger than me, I held on to my little gun, and just at that moment my mother came along, and she hauled him off. She didn’t do anything, but he went to his parents – they had a shop across the road further up – and his father came along and said, “You’ve assaulted my child! I’m taking you to court!” We didn’t even know the name of the child. I think my mother saved me from a beating or from having my knuckles crushed. We said what’s his name? We knew if he’d been hurt, he would have been taken to the doctor, and there was only one in the territory. They had the name Lazarus over the shop, so mother asked if the doctor had had a patient lately called Lazarus. He said no. I don’t know if that was really the boy’s last name, it may have just been the shop. I think mother was taken to court for this, and for all I know she may have got a criminal record!
We didn’t play football in that street, it was a busy street and there was a station at the bottom, we played in people’s back gardens. There was a girl called Muriel across the road. She was quite a tomboy. She used to invite us to her house when her family were out and do dangerous things like cooking eggs and sausages! I wasn’t allowed to, I was only a squeeny! We would sit on the wall at the edge of the garden and get up to all sorts of tricks we weren’t normally allowed to do! We used to laugh and leap around doing nothing in particular. We had a lot more freedom to go where we wanted to go in those days, although my mother did give me rules. Occasionally I broke the rules, but not always meaning to!
Once a brass band came down the street. I was so excited, I ran alongside it jumping up and down. It was glorious! I don’t know why they were there, but I followed them. There’s a trombone in my window today; it inspired me to play later in life. I followed the band all the way up to Bow Road, the big road. Normally I was not allowed to go to Bow Road! There was a policeman there, stopping all the traffic so the band could go across, and I followed them over, and I went all the way to Stepney Green, the next underground along. I loved it! At Stepney Green – which actually didn’t have much of a green by then – the band stopped and unloaded their instruments, and I had to walk back by myself over Mile End Road and Bow Road. Fortunately, there was a policeman there and I got back in one piece. I didn’t tell my parents, or if I did, I made sure I mentioned the policeman. I was chastised only once that I remember. Father didn’t like telling me off, but all mother had to say was, “Just wait till your father gets home!” and that was enough.
By the time the Second World War broke out, my father was working at the Café Royal. During the war he volunteered for the RAF, and he ended up going abroad and working in the desert. He cooked for the Flying Tigers: they were fighter pilots in mustang aircraft, and the cowling over the engine had jaws painted on it like teeth. He negotiated with the locals to buy food; he was very skilled at it. He was a nice man – full of bonhomie. It wasn’t easy cooking in the desert. They heated the food by putting aviation fluid in a barrel of sand and lighting it. On one occasion, there was an explosion, and someone drew a cartoon of Alf with his hair standing on end! He was twice offered a commission in the RAF because of his skills, but he didn’t take it. That was because he really regarded himself as a man of the people I suppose; he didn’t care for pomp and circumstance. I wish he’d got it; the uniform was much nicer than the rough stuff that the ordinary airmen were wearing!
We used to play in the air raid shelters during the war, and on the bomb sites afterwards. The nearest bomb to my house fell about eight feet from my bed. It didn’t go off! We didn’t know it was there until another uncle on my father’s side, who lived two doors away, came through the back because the fence was all down and he saw the rubble, which is when we realised there was a bomb there. And I remember standing around watching the bomb disposal people working. You might think it’s all about working with stethoscopes and being very delicate. Well rubbish! They had to dig the damn thing out of a giant hole, and lever it with great lumps of wood, just to release it from the debris and pull it out. I would have loved to keep the tail fin, but my mother would have been horrified! She used to protect me from nasty things, perhaps too much. Anything nasty and mucky would be something to keep me from! When the V2 bombs started coming down, we fled – my mother couldn’t take it. I must have been 15 or 16. We just fled west, out of rocket range. We went to visit my mum’s brother, Uncle Morrie, in Reading; he used to give us free tickets.
After the war, we lived in a street called British Street – can you get more patriotic than that? We all settled back into normal life. I joined the Lansbury Youth Club, although I didn’t want to, because they had girls there. It was a mixed club, and I was a member of the ATC, the air training corps. I was also a boy scout. They were male organisations, so females were scary and foreign to me! My Uncle Willy used to go round selling on the knocker, going door to door, with ex-servicemen’s knives, telling people they were made at Lord Nuffield’s workshops, which people were glad to support…but I suspect his knives and forks had nothing to do with Lord Nuffield! Meanwhile, my father returned to the Café Royal when he was demobbed. His work makes me think of the play by Arnold Wesker called the Kitchen, which was written in the 1950s when my father was moving through the ranks. In the play, the orders pile up, they work all hours, there is a strict hierarchy; you have to work fast. It’s a madhouse; waiters are saying “I want my order for table 6!” and eventually the chef goes mad and starts screaming with a hatchet!
The Café Royal is not just a café. It’s an institution, and some great names are associated with it. Oscar Wilde was someone who frequented the café in its Victorian heyday, with his entourage around him encouraging his great wit. In the catering trade, they mixed the high and the low, and the Café was always egalitarian, though not cheap! It was never obsequious, and the staff was always helpful – they were genuinely interested in looking after people. I found it to be a very charming world. I would visit my father there. I’ve been all over the building. They had great paintings on the ceilings done a hundred years ago. It was a restaurant primarily, but they used to have masonic dinners there, and in the top they had masonic chapels, which I’ve seen. I remember they still had the wrought iron tables and the plush seats on which Oscar Wilde used to hold court; they were put away on the top floor. I’ve also been to the cellar, where there was even a special room just for champagne. They had bottles of all sizes: Magnums, Jeroboams, even Nebuchadnezzars, which hold fifteen litres. That’s twenty bottles worth!
My father planned many great banquets. They had a dinner celebrating the café’s 100th birthday in 1965, and father was there as a guest with people like Sir Douglas Bader, the famous World War Two pilot, and the wealthy businessman, Nubar Gulbenkian. I have a copy of the guest list still. They had an auction that night, and sold off all sorts of things, including chandeliers the size of a room! On Monday nights, my father used to put up a boxing ring. They used to have the meetings of the National Sporting Club there. I have an article about him with the headline “King of the Caterers”. I’ve got a picture of him with one of his friends called Inky – his name was Ingleman, and he created a cocktail called Inky’s and it won a silver dish. The Café Royal was a big part of my life, as well as my father’s! We had our wedding reception there. I have a photo of the bronze medal my father won in Paris for an International Carving Competition. It included Canard á la Press – which more or less translates as squashed duck! They had it in the Café Royal, but it was new to the Parisians. He did meals for British embassies all over Europe. He could show that British food is not ordinaire! He would only use the best: Scottish strawberries, Bath Olivers – they are a kind of biscuit – English roast beef; these were all things that were wonderful.
We had a copy of Mrs Beeton’s book, it had lost the cover, but it was well thumbed. He cooked at home only rarely, however. Once he suggested a particular dish to my mother, and she said, “What a good idea Alfred! Will you cook it?” He never asked her again! My father only cooked special things at home, but they might sound quite ordinary to you: he cooked marrows and pancakes! But the average person in East London didn’t know what a marrow was – it was a country thing. He would stuff a marrow. And he was a professional pancake maker, because he went to a school where they would toss pancakes into the hall of schoolboys who would scrummage for the pancakes! I don’t know where it was, but imagine! He could toss a pancake in the air, change hands, and catch it with the other hand. The pancake would land on the side of the pan and slide in. I tried this later in life, but failed miserably. I didn’t realise that it’s all in the flick of the wrist! You wouldn’t notice it, it’s so subtle.
Even when he was over 90, he made a lunch for me. I watched him and thought, oh he’s losing his touch, he hasn’t heated the plates. But there was a gap between the first and second course and he turned around and the plates were in the oven. He was a very smooth worker; he knew what he was doing. My skills and attention to detail, when I became a surgeon, came from my father. But he was far more skilled! For example, you would give him a piece of salmon, and he would say, “How many slices do you want? 3, 30 or 300?” If you said 300, you would get that, and they would be wafer thin and perfect. We had eaten at Claridges, and they had almost microtomes of cucumber slices in sandwiches – microtome refers to the tool that cuts extremely thin sections for examination under a microscope. They were really tiny! He could do that, and he taught me how to do it too. He taught me how to handle tools. We couldn’t afford electric drills in those days, and they weren’t very common, so if he wanted to make a hole in a piece of wood, he heated a soldering iron and pushed it through the wood. He taught me all sorts of things, handling tools and how to do a drawing, making sure the measurements were spot on. Later, when I was a teaching surgeon, I dedicated my students’ inaugural lecture to my father, and his exceptional skills with the knife.