Robert Neville passed away on Saturday 20 April 2002 in Malang, East Java, Indonesia.
These memories by Robert Neville are entitled:
Don't Squeeze Me 'Til I'm Yours
I live in Sawojajar, a small town situated in Java the most densely populated island in Indonesia. Down the road from my house is a market, selling everything from scrawny chickens to jars of strange smelling wonder cures that, guarantee to cure cancer in a week, but not galloping gullibility...
The market's humid tropical air is dominated by a sweet fragrance of cloves, which for centuries has been a major trading commodity for the Javanese. But whenever I cycle through the busy market, I like nothing better than catching a whiff of the air emanating from the stalls selling tomatoes and fresh cabbages. To me it's the Chanel No 5 of the market's many aromas, and instantly evokes memories of the place I was born and raised - Walthamstow and its heart and soul - The High street. Where I spent my childhood and adolescent years in the late fifties and early sixties, as a "barra boy," pulling my father's hefty wooden stall over High streets bone shaking concrete road.
In my era, High street wasn't only a source of income for me; it was my world, a mile of fast-talking stallholders, whose antics never ceased to amaze me. Such as the midget who sold spectacle frames on the corner of St James Place. He, strangely enough, is about to contradict my above statement, because he hardly ever spoke a word. But preferred motioning clients down to his level with a flutter of his tiny hands that, delicately fitted punters with their new spectacles. I spent copious hours spellbound, watching the midget deftly waft plastic spectacle frames through the flames of his methylated spirits burner. When the frames were suitably softened to a specific temperature that - without a shadow of doubt in my mind, was a trade secret only the midget knew; he'd carefully manipulate them to fit a punters facial contours. For years, I waited for the day when the midget might accidentally "melt a pair," but he never did.
Enhancing his show stopping performance was the immaculate three-piece suit he wore. And every time he theatrically reached up to fit frames on a customer, I caught a flash of his onyx and gold cuff links. Like all the stallholders, the midget played to the crowd. For a young geezer like me, it was sheer magic.
Parked next to the midget's pitch, was a van with a small serving window cut out of its side, with a sign above it that read, "ENGRAVING." St Christopher necklaces, dog tags, and bracelets, dangled in showcases hanging on the side of the van.
In the early sixties it was fashionable for a man to be seen sporting one if the vans chunky gold bracelet's, complete with his name boldly engraved on it. On Saturdays, the blare from a nearby stall selling secondhand Russ Conway and Nat King Cole records competed with the droll hum of the vans engraving tool which, like the music, never stopped. As cockneys queued at the van to have wedding rings engraved with declarations of love. Or their names indelibly etched onto a glittering array of what the engraving man called, "Genuine twenty-four karat gold plated jewelry."
I could never afford the "seven'an'a'kick" (seven shillings and sixpence) that the kitsch bracelets cost including having my name engraved on it. So I forked out my weeks pocket money of "two hog" (two bob), on a Saint Christopher, and watched the engraver carefully engrave Robert on the back of it. Unfortunately my highly prized sixties fashion accessory, broke two days later. When it's flimsy chain caught on my chin and snapped, when I was bending over pulling a stall. And I found out rather abruptly from the engraving man that my St Christopher was "not an economical repair, tosh."
No one exemplifies the shadier side of High street life, better than the infamous Eric Horst. The suave stand-over merchant who dressed in expensive "fifty nicka" bespoke Mohair suits, and made his... living, menacing and demanding money from stallholders.
Eric deserves a chapter all to himself; so for now, Eric enters this story as an introduction to my father's no fear, no bollocks, approach to life.
"The old man," as I called my father, was one of the few to have told Eric Horst to "Fuck'orf," and survived the deed... without a slash on the cheek from Eric's cutthroat razor - Or worse, as one stallholder found to his horror, when Eric frenziedly attacked him with a chopper.
Possibly, Eric's decision to swallow heavily and retreat from my father's insult, was to do with the old mans boxing background in the forties? He fought on a regular basis at the Buxton club, and the local drill hall. Picking up "beer money" of a "couple'a'quid a bout" which, according to my father all ended in the first round, with his opponent "spark out on the deck." Or maybe Eric caught a glint of the terrible temper lurking behind my father's eyes. And like me, Eric decided not to disturb it...
After years of thinking about my father and trying to reach a deeper understanding of him, I can tell you one thing about him, which I am absolutely certain of: "As a character in High street they didn't come much harder or quirkier than my old man."
I was born Robert Allen Sheepwash on 22nd May 1952, in the Salvation Army Hospital at Hackney. By the late fifties, I was about to attend school for the first time, and this caused my father to change my surname by deed pole to Neville. Because, as he explained, "At school they called me Sheepdip, Sheeparse, an'all sorts. An'I don't want anyone taking the piss out of you." Neville was the name of a family member who went back donkey's years, so my father's family adopted it, but never legally claimed it as their surname. Hence, my father Bobby and his brothers: Teddy, Jacky and Freddy were always known in High street as "The Neville Brothers."
In the early years of their partnership, my parents had two stalls in High street, and a shop at sixty-nine South Grove. "R. NEVILLE & SON - GREENGROCERS" was hand painted above their shop's front window, and we lived in a small residence at the back of it. From the small back yard of the shop, they sold sacks of coal, until London was declared a smokeless zone in the early fifties - and that, as my father quipped at the time, "put the kybosh on it," and ended my mothers years of humping coal, covered head to toe in coal dust. When my brother Martin was born in 1955, my mother gave up her stall. Eventually my parents closed their shop because it was too close to High street, and consequently never attracted serious trade. Leaving my father to concentrate on "makin' a few bob" at his stall in High street.
The old man was stocky, and just under six-feet tall, with a face as broad as the boxer dogs he bred at home. One of his many quirky habits, was to pull his shoulders back, expand his chest and boast it was "Rock'ard" and "forty-four inches in diameter."
To top of his flash demeanor, he wore a traditional East End "Cheese cutter" cap, which sat firmly on his "bonce." On slow days at the stall he'd slide his cap back, and stroking his bulbous forehead, declare, "fuck me blind hooray, I could fire a cannon up this fuckin' street, and not hit a soul." The old man grew up in Tenby road in the depression era of the thirties and forties. In those days, Tenby road was lined with "one up-two down" slum houses. And so notorious were the characters living in Tenby roads abject squalor, the Walthamstow constabulary instructed its officers to patrol it in pairs.
It was in his childhood, my father perforated his left eardrum with a twig he was using to clear his ear, after a swimming session in the River Lea with his mates. Earning him the nickname of "deafy." In the late fifties, he was issued with a National Health Service hearing aid, which constantly whined and crackled, and amazingly, picked up radio Luxemburg. The old man pitched his stall on the right hand side of High street, just up the road from Burton Tailoring, and opposite one of my favorite shops - Matthews the Butchers.
At an early age I spent a lot of time helping my father on his stall, and through my seven-year-old eyes, the front of Matthews looked like a slaughterhouse.
Hung beneath its red and white striped awning were carcasses of NZ lamb and Argentinean beef. Freshly throttled chickens complete with feathers, were skewered through their necks with steel "S" hooks, and they too were hung up and left to sway alongside rabbits and hares. Blood from this very dead produce, dripped onto the pine saw dust covering Matthews tiled floor. But in spite of this, I was never fully convinced they were really dead. Especially the rabbits, whose bulging wide-open eyes seemed to stare back at me...
Roy, the manager of Matthews, was a young man in constant motion. In seconds, or so it seemed; Roy could behead a chicken on his well worn butchers block, pluck it, truss it up, then ask his customer, "Want the innards for hubby darlin? - Cos' last time I saw him he looked as though he could with it - Gawd dear oh dear wot have you been doin' to him!"
Roy launched into his jack the lad patter the minute his first punter arrived. He seemed to have a special relationship with his regular customers, especially housewives, who Roy always addressed as "Darlin," and never forgot what roast they had for last Sunday's dinner.
At Christmas time, whopping great big Norfolk Turkeys went out the door of Matthews at an alarming rate. And if they hadn't all been sold by Christmas Eve; Roy stood on the pavement outside Matthews, wearing his white butchers apron, spruking, "Ere'are mum - I'll even give yer free stuffing," and literally force a Turkey and a packet of paxo stuffing, into the string bags housewives always carried.
My father's stall lights were plugged into Matthews electricity supply, and much to my mothers discontent, the old man had an ongoing "ruck" with Roy, every time Roy handed my father his electric bill. The bill, according to my father's sense of fair play was always, "takin' the fuckin' piss" and "well on top."
At one stage my father was so incensed about it, he told Roy to "stick yer fuckin' electric where it hurts," and stubbornly returned to the old paraffin fueled naphtha lamps to light up his stall. Until one day, my mother Marge who was every inch my fathers equal when it came to their many public slanging matches; let rip with these words of east end wisdom: "You'd cut your nose orf to spite yer face, yer silly bastard."
Reluctantly my father put his tail between his legs, climbed up a ladder and plugged the stall lights back into Matthews electricity.
My father's stall always had one of the best "show's" in the high street. The "show" was his term for the front of the stall. And it was here that my father, like an obsessed artist, created his masterpieces of enticement, by carefully arranging the very best tomatoes and cucumbers on bright green plastic grass, smack bang for all to see.
He'd start this daily ritual at six or seven in the morning, and it normally took him about two hours before he'd stand back and admire his work, stating it was "Fuckin' handsome"
Customers requesting a pound of tomatoes from the show, were without hesitation told by my father to "fuck'orf out of it." The old man's occasional flashes of humour were often self-depreciating, and he had a habit of scribbling signs on his stall with a thick black crayon. A memorable one read, "Noted for service and servility." And at his cryptic best, "I use to be a pheasant plucker."
My father's nonchalant attitude towards punters quizzed me. I often wondered why customers came back to his stall week after week? I asked him about this once and he replied, "Because I'm the cheapest in the market son."
He knew that all to well, because he often barked at me, "Robert, go for a stroll and find out what the other traders are selling gear for."
To disturb my father when he was concentrating on laying out the show, was tantamount to starting world war three. There was a method to his obsession, because the "duds" or tomatoes that in his eyes "didn't shape up," were placed under a layer of choice tomatoes at the back of the stall - very handy to the scales...
One of the first lessons my old man gave me was in the fine art of "palming'orf." A tricky maneuver involving picking up a nice plump red tomato between the forefinger and thumb, whilst at the same time, palming two duds - then, quick as a flash put them in a paper bag, which was already open and laying on the scales. And before the punter knew it, they were saying "tah very much", and their money was jingling in the wooden till by the scales.
My father's boast of being the cheapest in the market was true. But he never mentioned how he achieved his miraculous feat. This, like a lot of other things in his life, he kept firmly "stoom" about. But his bargains had nothing to do with lower profit margins - Oh no...
It was all down to buying inferior produce at Spitafields market, whose porters knew exactly what Bobby Neville was after.
His dodgy gear led to complaints from customers. Who after checking their bag of bargain priced tomatoes, sometimes stormed back to the stall, waving a moldy tomato at the old man. My father had various ways of dealing with these situations... But his best routine was when he simply turned his hearing aid off, cupped his hand to his ear and asked, "can you speak up, me batteries have gone."
I accompanied him on his weekly buying trips to Spitafields market, where a plate of jellied eels drenched in vinegar and a crust of bread, was our breakfast at five or six in the morning.
The old man was never in a rush to start buying. His philosophy on this was very simple: "The longer I wait to buy, the cheaper it fuckin' gets."
So he'd casually stroll around Spitafields market with me in tow, inspecting pine boxes of Jersey tomatoes.
"Ow' much guvner?" He'd ask the seller, and regardless of price, my old mans stock reply was, "I'll come back later."
Sometimes my father played his game with the sellers for hours. Until finally, all that was left in the market was the old man and dodgy gear no one else wanted to buy.
This is when my father pounced, and pulling a wad of notes from his hip pocket, he'd lick his fingers and peel of the dosh.
On one memorable occasion, selling dodgy gear backfired on the old man.
He'd bought a truckload of over-ripe William pears. Which in their boxes in Spitafields, looked sound... Until picked up and squeezed... It was then the pears true state of ripeness was discovered, as the old man's finger literally sunk into one of the pears - But they were a bargain the old man couldn't resist.
By the time the pears reached his stall, via a bumpy ride across London on the back of a lorry; Fifty percent of the pears were, as the old man said to me, "In a fragile state, so stay out of it Robert, and let me handle the pears."
I remember a lady buying some. And when my father plonked the pears in a bag on the scales, unbeknown to him, one of the pears broke its skin in the bottom of the bag, which quickly became a soggy mess of pear juice and paper. When he swung the bag, two pounds of pears shot out, and splattered all over the front of the lady's blouse. The old man, quick as flash retorted, "Look at that mum, they're full of juice."
In the early sixties, Indian and Pakistani punters started roaming up and down High street.
They were hardened market buyers, who brought with them a vast experience of shopping in their own countries street markets.
They also brought with them two unique problems my old man had never dealt with before: Bartering for goods, and dealing with people who were accustomed to choosing exactly what they wanted.
So naturally, they appeared at my father's stall in their turbans, and demanded in broken English, "Excuse me Sir, I vont dat one, dat one, and dat one, thank you velly much."
This was like waving a red flag at a bull, especially when they began picking up gear from the old mans sacred show front...
In these days of racial harmony, I won't go into detail about where he told them to go. But in an attempt to stop what he termed as "a diabolical liberty," the old man had a sign written up in Urdu and Hindustani. Which he placed on top of the tomatoes, and according to the old man it translated into English as, "Don't squeeze me till' I'm yours."
The sign never fully achieved the task the old man designed it for, and his skirmishes with Indian and Pakistani's became legendary over the years.
Occasionally, the old mans unique sense of humour surfaced.
Such as the time an old lady arrived at his stall, and stood staring at the huge watermelons piled on the stall. It was in the mid-fifties, when food rationing was all but over, and tropical fruit had just started to appear again. After standing at the stall perplexed for five minutes, the old dear pointed at the melons and asked my father, "Ere guvner, owd you eat them fings?"
My father replied totally deadpan, "You take two with a glass of water before retiring at night, luv."
Every year, two months before Christmas, my mother was busy at home, pickling onions to sell on the stall. Her scullery was chocker with packets of pickling spices, sacks of small onions, and pots of vinegar boiling away on her stove. Piccalilli was another East End delicacy my mother churned out for the stall.
My brother Martin and I, were given the task of peeling the onions, two hours before we went to school, and again when we got home.
Armed with a knife each, we peeled sacks of pickling onions as fast as the old man could sell them. For this laboriously boring occupation, the old man paid us a three-penny bit each for every jar we filled. It took about four hours for our little fingers to peel enough onions to fill one of the large sweet jars. Much to the disdain of the old man, who was never happy with his sons lackadaisical production line, and always spurred us on with, "Come on you two Herbets, you'll make a fuckin' fortune if you don't fuck abaht."
Pickling onions, unlike Spanish onions, are particularly pungent. Consequently my brother and I had tears rolling down our cheeks the whole time we peeled.
Until one day, when the old man approached us holding two large safety pins.
Bending down to our height at a small table in the back yard we used for peeling the onions; the old man held the safety pins before our tear filled eyes. He was dexterous with his hands, and like a magician handling a pack of cards, the old man made the safety pins take on a magical appearance.
Martin and I were expecting the safety pins to disappear or something, but the unexpected happened.
"Listen, bacon bounce and big head," said the old man, which were his nicknames for us, "see these?"
"Yeah dad," chirped my brother and I, our eyes fixed on the safety pins twirling in my fathers fingers.
"Stick one of these in yer gob, and you'll never cry again..."
Martin and I looked at each other, and I asked my father, "Ow's that work then?"
The old man replied in a low drawn out tone, "These are made of... stainless steel... which reacts wif yer spit... and stops the tears..."
In unison, Martin and I purred "Corrrrr," and couldn't get the safety pins into our gobs fast enough. The old man was right, the safety pins promoted so much saliva, that my brother and I foamed at the mouth - But... Mysteriously our tears stopped?
Until half an hour later, when the power of suggestion faded from our young minds, then it was back to tears, minus the safety pins.
In 1987 my old man's epic battle with the punters of High street, finally ended. When he passed away in Whipps Cross hospital. A victim of emphysema, caused partly by the harsh rain and gales, that blew up High street in the bitter winters. And compounded by the old mans long love affair with the Cock Tavern. Where I always found him perched on a stool, alone, except for his light and bitter parked on the bar, and an Old Holborn roll-up stuck to his bottom lip.
To this day, I can't sincerely say I knew my old man well. He is an enigma, I will never solve.
Now, at forty-eight years old, I'm a little bit wiser, thanks to the unique life lessons that Walthamstow and the old man, drummed into me every day. Which come in very handy. Especially when I'm buying tomatoes at my local market in Sawojajar, where the stallholder's pull the same "strokes" as the old man.
So whenever I'm being palmed'orf with a dodgy tomato or two, I inwardly smile, thinking, "Nah... I won't say a word."
© Robert Neville, 2001.
Kind thanks to this websites team, who have graciously given my writing a voice. Also, cheers to Les Cole and Paul Bonner, for giving the cogs of my flagging memory a much needed grease and oil change.
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