Walthamstow Memories 2

Granada Cinema, Walthamstow, in 1989

Granada Cinema, Walthamstow, in 1989 - © Copyright John Leeming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

For a young growing lad, it would be difficult to describe Walthamstow in the 1950/60’s as the cultural or entertainment centre of the world. Apart from a large number of cinemas either located in Walthamstow or the surrounding areas, something of an entertainment vacuum pervaded this large area of outer north-east London. A number of local public houses did sponsor some decent folk music clubs which I was to discover in later life, but until I was legally old enough to go to these venues, a ghostly dearth of silence descended over the area during the evenings. A large neo-gothic building called the Assembly Hall adjacent to the Town Hall frequently hosted dances at weekends but to a schoolboy this cost money which my 3d (three old pence) a week pocket-money did not permit access to.

Travelling to the west-end of London was also a difficult option. Apart from the question of non-existent money for the fare, transport links into London were very poor of an evening. The only two realistic choices were by bus or train. The bus journey would take one via Tottenham, Holloway and so on and would take an eternity to arrive. This journey would also face one with the daunting prospect of returning the same way. After a night on the town, the lengthy return bus journey home could only be described as something of a passion killer.

At this era of time, the Victoria Line did not exist leaving only two other options for travel into central London. Either a long wait at Hoe Street Station for a steam train to arrive belching steam, smoke and fumes all over ones clothes, followed by a journey in a normally unheated carriage into Liverpool Street Station or, another bus ride to Leyton Station to catch the Central Line into London. Whatever the choice, all were a wee bit impracticable one way or another for travel into London during the evening.

It was almost as if unknown strategic planners had decided that the population did not need to travel far in the evening and it was their sacred duty to stop such a mass exodus by all means possible. These same mythological planners also managed to work out ingenious methods of ensuring that all public transport back to Walthamstow ceased before the end of  any of the West End shows. I take my hat off to these unknown planners as the exceeded in their task well.

A few church based youth clubs existed which were useful if one wanted to play a game of badminton, however some of these suffered from the drawback of also requiring church membership to use the facilities. Even the High Street, busy and bustling during the daytime, became something of a ghost town during the evening. The most exciting thing I can remember occurring in the High Street was the opening of a Wimpy Bar in the parade of shops that replaced the old Palace Theatre when it was demolished. It was hardly the sort of place one could hang out with friends all night and I recall the price of a Wimpy hamburger was always exactly 5 shillings, (25 pence in today’s money). These were not the double or triple hamburgers of today with lots of fillings or relishes, these were simple small hamburgers in a bun with a few fried onions and a dash of tomato ketchup if required.

All in all, the youth of Walthamstow were poorly catered for if at all during the 50/60’s. I suppose it was obtaining by first motorcycle in 1961 that enabled me to escape the dreary humdrum and non-existent mundane nightlife of Walthamstow.

Numbers of motorcyclist cafes sprung up on the outskirts of north-east London, the Bee-Hive in Woodford I recall the most, where tales of doing the fabled ton, (100 mph), down the Epping New Road used to abound. Outside conversation in the car park or more precisely, the bike park would often be interrupted by the noise of a fellow motorcyclist screaming past the establishment. This would soon be followed with the smell of Castrol R wafting across the area followed by nods of approval from the motorbike gurus of the day. Castrol R was a more expensive than usual vegetable based engine oil that was supposedly better suited to high revving engines. It certainly had a distinctive smell and to use it in your motorbike was something of a status symbol. Other motorcycle cafes were located at Charlie Brown’s round-a-bout and on the North Circular Road. Charlie Browns was buried years ago under the concrete of the M11 when it was built. This was a brief era which signalled the transition from the age of the Teddy Boy and prior to the advent of scooters and the Mods and Rockers age.

The cinemas in Walthamstow briefly mentioned earlier ranged from what could be best described as the local flea-pit type through to the middling with the Creme de la creme being the Granada in Hoe Street. I always got the impression that I was entering a mid eastern potentates palace when I entered the Granada. Ornate columns and furnishings abounded everywhere and the seating was plush and comfortable. With some other cinemas one could feel the springs in the seat digging into ones behind  after a short time.

My first experiences of the Granada were the Saturday morning pictures for kids. I think the cost was then 3d and it tended to be more of a social service than a profit-making exercise. The programs always had the same format starting with a few cartoons. Cartoons were a rare luxury then and not the voluminous computer animated material which is churned out today. There was always a cowboy film with the likes of Roy Rogers, Tom Mix or Lash Larue. Whatever the story line of the film, the characters were always stereo-cast. The “Baddies” always dressed in mandatory black clothing, had moustaches and hung around in the local saloon which was normally owned by the Chief Baddie. The Goodies on the other hand were always clean-cut, shaven, did not drink and wore light immaculately ironed clothes. The penultimate finale to all the films always ended up with a horseback chase with the Goodies in the form of a posse chasing the Baddies. The chase always started with immortal lines that went something like “Ok Boys, After them.”. As the film shots switched between both the Goodies and Baddies all the children in the audience would either boo or cheer. The hero always seemed to ride off into the sunset which struck me as being rather peculiar. How many of us would wait until morning before embarking on such a journey?

I recall once at the Granada they were screening a film called “Smiley” as their main feature film for the week. It was the story of a young freckle-faced Australian lad who was always getting into mischief and trouble. As I left the cinema one Saturday morning with my younger brother, we were approached by the manager. It turned out the my brother was the splitting image of the main character in the film and they wanted him to assist in a promotion for them. In all fairness the manager did come to our home to seek my mothers approval and at the end of the week, my brother, (Smiley), was presented with a brand new bike on stage. I also recall I never got a ride on it though.

The cinemas that were on the lower end of the scale appeared to suffer similar fates when VHS tapes and video shops led to the decline of this form of entertainment. First they would suffer from falling audiences and become rapidly dilapidated. Introducing adult sex films often followed before their eventual closure.

One such cinema I recall  was located on the corner of Hoe Street and Forest Road opposite the Bell Public House, I believe it may have originally gone under the name of The Empire. Due to the natural sweep of the road at this point, the pavement immediately outside this cinema was wide. Unfortunately this additional pavement area proved to be a bit of a set back to patrons visiting the cinema on a Sunday evening. This was also the spot the local Salvation Army chose to hold their open air service. I can recall on many occasions watching a film only for the soundtrack to be drowned out by what sounded like the massed bands of the Salvation Army playing outside. The noise from tambourines, tubas, trumpets, the big bass drum let alone the vocal accompaniment flooded through the cinema much to the annoyance of the patrons. While I do support the Salvation Army, I do think they could have been a little more circumspect in both their timing and location.

The Empire also had a reputation for introducing something novel during film performances to liven up the atmosphere. Although the intentions were well meant, they were ideas that had a habit of going disastrously wrong. One such occasion  I recall was during the showing of a horror film. The cinema staff had rigged a wire line around the outside aisles and during the showing of the film, a skeleton with a few internal lights  and dangling from the wire suddenly came out of a side door of the stage. I think the intention was for the skeleton to raise a few screams of terror as it made a circuit of the cinema before disappearing back though another door on the opposite side of the stage. Unfortunately the staff had not seen the possibility of local lads in the audience sticking a foot out into the aisle and bringing the entire contraption to a halt. I recall this rather stupid looking skeleton just hanging in the side aisle for the remainder of the performance. More people in the audience died from laughing that from a fit of terror.

The Carlton cinema that was located on the corner of the High Street and the former Colebrook Road also suffered terminal decline before it was transformed into a local supermarket store and then eventually demolished to make way for the new shopping arcade. I always remember the Carlton as a functional cinema rather that one in the luxury bracket. It was clear this cinema was struggling financially when the already meagre staff were further reduced. Towards the end, the manager would sit in the ticket box and sell you your ticket and then run out a side door as you approached the doors of the cinema, tear your ticket in half before directing you to your seat.

Although I have not lived in Walthamstow for over 20 years now, its nice to be able to use advances in technology  like Google Street maps to take a virtual walk around the place. This however can be both a positive and negative experience. Many of the original cinema buildings still exist but unless you have either personal knowledge or are fortunate enough to see old photographs, frequently few external clues remain as to their former existence or glory. I find it sad and hard to believe that the Creme de la creme that was the admirable Granada complex has become little more than a dilapidated billboard for posters.

For some reason whenever I see sad sights like this a verse from a long forgotten song or poem always crosses my mind. “I have walked this way before, I may never walk this way again.”

What actually is life?

The Spark of Life

One of the most precious and often unnoticed things in the universe we take for granted as we go about our daily business, is life itself. If we stand still in the street for a few moments and consciously look around us for things that are living, it suddenly becomes apparent that our immediate environment is teeming with life. Apart from fellow humans, every animal, creature or insect from a dog or a bird, to a spider or an ant abound around us. Other forms of plant life are equally abundant from a tree to a blade of grass or even a speck of moss growing on a roof. Unseen life in the form of bacteria to microbes are everywhere including inside our own bodies. With so many forms of life around us, its remarkable that mankind still does not know what life actually is.

We certainly know the difference between something that is living and something that is dead but what we do not know is what that something is. I will not get involved in religious argument about the “soul” or other planes of existence, none of which I accept, as common sense dictates there is no difference between a dead person or a dead leaf. Both become non-living organic material.

 I find it strange that so much speculation is given to the possibility of finding extra terrestrial forms of life in the universe without our even understanding what life actually is. I do accept it is inevitable that other life forms will exist in the universe be it animal, plant, bacterial or something we have never even thought about, but how can we effectively think about other life forms without understanding what life actually is itself.

It is possible to identify common characteristics between all known living things but they do not explain what life is. Those characteristics are;

All known living things;

1. Need to take in energy.
2. Need to get rid of waste.
3. Grow and develop.
4. Respond to their environment.
5. Reproduce and pass their traits onto their offspring.
• 6. Evolve over time in response to their environment.

So far it has not been possible for mankind to create life although many have tried. I do not necessarily mean the Frankenstein dream of a humanoid monster roaming the streets but on a more basic level of say an amoeba. While the molecular and chemical structure of a simple single cell  may be known, even if it is possible to recreate that structure, at the moment, the result would still be a dead simple single cell. The spark of life whatever that may be would still be missing.

It may well be that life turns out to be part of a natural occurring process that starts spontaneously rather like the same process which I believe the mind to be. (See “Does the mind really exist“). The simplest analogy I can give of this is that of lighting a match. When we strike a match, a combination of events cause heat from friction in turn to cause additional heat to be produced from a chemical reaction in the head of the match. The heat generated causes a flame to appear that continues while there is sufficient heat, fuel and oxygen and disappears once again once when either heat, fuel or oxygen are no longer available. We do  not ask where the flame came from or where it goes to, we accept it only exists as long as the burning or combustion process is able to continue.

If life did or does occur as part of a process caused by a natural combination of events, it still means that scientists do not yet fully understand what that process or combination of events are.

I cannot help but wonder that with so little understood about the process of life, why does mankind so actively take part in the process of destroying that which he is so far, unable to create?

The Shape of Numbers

Arabic Numbers















Have you ever wondered why numbers are the shape they are?

In the western or occidental world, the numbers are known as Arabic numbers after the great Arabic trading empire from which they were originally borrowed. However in the Arabic Empire the numbers were originally known as Hindu numbers.

Although the concept of numbers goes far back into history, traders needed the ability to commit the concept in writing  for both commercial and arithmetical purposes. The Hindu Empire in India being one of the great early historic trading empires developed a series of symbols based on angles. The number of angles in the symbol being the same as the mental mathematical concept of the number. As the Arabic trading grew during the ninth century, traders utilised the Hindu symbols and developed them further into shapes which are recognisable today. Over time, natural handwriting has embellished the symbols with curves but the original angle concept in the shape of the number remains.

The symbol for the number zero is the only symbol to have no angles. The attached diagram shows the angles in Arabic numbers highlighted in red.

The Boxing Match

On reflection, I suppose the most enjoyable and carefree period of my life was the three years after I left school aged 15. Although education now continues for much longer in most of the western world, this was the UK school-leaving age in 1960. For those three years I was a telegram delivery boy, my first year on a bicycle and the following two on a motorbike when I legally became of age to own a driving licence. It was a period of time when like most youngsters I felt almost immortal. I had money in my pocket that was earned, nothing fantastic but it did give one a degree of independence. Also there were none of the future adult worries about providing for a family, mortgages or insurance, those things would come soon enough but not at that moment of time.

It was also a drug free age for most people, this being something that young and old alike would be horrified at. Drugs were simply not the done thing and it makes me wonder even now why people use them as those who have never tried them will know, you simply do not need them. Life is more enjoyable to the full without them. The almost drug free culture of those days has certainly kept me in good stead and apart from the rare anti-biotic prescription from a doctor that is the way it will always stay as far as I am concerned.

The legal age for buying alcoholic drinks in a public house, (bar), in the UK is 18, the same as it was in 1960. I still had to wait until I was 21 before I legally became an adult and awarded the traditional  “Key of the door”. I am aware the minimum age for buying alcohol remains at 21 in some countries which I find strange as also in most countries, people are now legally classified as an adult at that age. I suspect like most 17-year-old youngsters at the time, we did enjoy the occasional late night pint in a public house, with the oldest looking of our mates being pushed to the front of the queue to do the buying. A new emerging pop group named the Beatles marked the transition from the post-war years and heralded the brave new future.

It was also a time before regular girl friends although my friends and I would occasionally take a girl home from the local dancing hall called the Ilford Palais. As with most youngsters of that time, friends would brag about their sexual exploits from the night before, however one always knew it was not true. It was an era when the pill had not yet arrived and society still attached a great social stigma to unmarried mothers. Due to the potential consequences, most girls simply would not dare get involved in sexual relationship with a one night stand or even more regular boyfriend. Heavy petting however was another thing.

There has always been a strong boxing tradition in the East End of London and the telegraph branch of the Post Office where I worked at was no different. Each year the London Region of the telegraph service would hold a boxing competition between the various postal districts that comprised the London Region. Each year my own Eastern District would proudly hold onto the winners cup and never had been known to lose the competition. It was not a case that all us youngsters were budding world boxing champions but more a case of being “persuaded” to enter. As the Godfather in the film of the same name would say, we were made an offer we could not refuse. In our case it was anyone who did not wish to enter would become the practice punch bag for those that did wish to enter. Needless to say this ploy always worked, it also ensured that my area retained the cup.

The competition was decided on a points basis with so many points being awarded to the winner of a bout and lessor points to the loser. Due to the high number of entrants from my district being much greater than any other, it was required that many of us would be paired against our colleagues rather than rival from another location. This ensured my East London District would always come out with the highest number of points even if we lost every bout against opposing districts.


Our boss was something of an elderly white-haired man and something of a father figure to us all. He was certainly elderly to us youngsters but at that time, I suppose anyone over about 25 years old seemed as equally elderly. Although he was frail looking he did show us some photographs of himself and friends at a swimming pool when he was young. At that time he certainly displayed a muscular physic to be proud of although health problems in latter years clearly led to his wasted away look. Ernie or simply “Guv”, (short for Governor),  to us decided that we need to come up to match fitness several months before the event. Once we submitted to and passed medical tests to confirm our fitness to participate in the boxing match, Guv placed the entire office under a strict training regime. Every time our lunch break came around, Guv would detail us to run a circuit around Wanstead Flats. Wanstead Flats is a large open area of grassland near our office and is the southern most tip of Epping Forest. Our dress was regulation navy blue shorts, white singlet and plimsolls, fancy trainer shoes did not exist then and this would also be our dress during the boxing match. The circuit around Wanstead Flats and back to our office was about four miles and for the first week we all arrived back knackered. (Colloquial language for being physically exhausted). After about two weeks when we arrived back with our rapidly improving fitness levels, Guv simply told us all to go and do another lap.

The basement of the multi-storey office where I worked was huge with a long corridor and doors located on either side. One of these windowless basement rooms about 30 foot square, was allocated to my office and used to store our sports equipment. We did convert it into a temporary gymnasium with punch bags etc. As a person who had never boxed before I began to learn some of the rudimentary skills. As an individual I am not particularly keen on boxing but I did learn I had something of a lightning fast killer punch. As absurd as it may seem, there was a period of time during each training session when we all wore boxing gloves and the room lights were turned off. Being windowless the room was pitch black. The rules were quite simply, one had to simply stumble around in the dark and punch anyone you might make contact with. You would never know who you had hit or indeed, who had hit you. Startled cries of pain from the darkness always meant someone, somewhere had made contact.

The Fight

The night of the big fight finally arrived and I think all contestants felt a little trepidation at how well each would fare in their individual bouts. I think most of those who did not come from the East End felt daunted at their prospects as the fearsome reputation of the East Enders preceded them. To my dismay I was not matched with a contestant from another area but with a person from my own part of the world. Although he came from a different office to mine he was also well-known as an amateur boxer, clearly my own prospects of winning became severely diminished.

All bouts consisted of three rounds of three minutes duration. From the start, my opponent came straight at me like an express train as I came under a deluge of blows. His superior boxing skills soon showed and believe me, it hurt. The lightning fast killer blow that I did not know I possessed until I started training managed to put my opponent on the canvas twice with the referee starting to count him out. Unfortunately he struggled back to his feet on both occasions to return to his vicious onslaught. Eventually the match went to full-time and the judges award the match to my opponent. Although I managed to floor my opponent twice he clearly had the upper hand in term on the number of blows that landed on me. I did not feel too bad about the result considering I was a complete beginner against an amateur boxer and felt proud I managed to stay the distance and never went down once. I was also awarded a silver medal for getting my brains bashed in. That I am glad to say was the my first and also the last  boxing match I ever participated in.

My area as usual retained the champions cup for another year and as for myself, I certainly ended up a lot fitter due to the training, even if somewhat bruised.

For anyone who may read this who is in the same 15-18 age group I was in at that period of time, I would strongly advise you to enjoy your life while you can.

Stuck in a lift

The East End of London is well-known for its community spirit but I did go to one incident where I sadly  witnessed an immediate change in attitude by a few individuals to a fellow human being. Most people tend to think of firefighters dealing with fires as their title implies. There are however a whole range of incidents which are not fire related, many of these come under the heading of Special Services. Releasing people shut in lifts is one type of assistance rendered that comes under this heading and which firefighters are trained to deal with. There are many different lift makers all of with their own variations in the design of their lifts, yet all have to comply with a set of rigid safety standards.

The cinema loves to show disaster movies with lifts, (elevators), plunging at high-speed down a lift shaft. In reality one of the many safety features built into a lift are special quadrant shaped lift brakes that spring out and wedge the lift in the shaft if the speed of travel were ever to increase above a predetermined limit. This would happen in the very unlikely event of the lift cable breaking but the chances of that happening in the UK are remote.

Although I have been to many lift incidents in my career, too many to recall them all, with several calls a day not being uncommon, like many things in life, individual occasions remain embedded in my mind.

In the early 1970’s  We received a call to a lift incident about 8 am in the morning and on arrival at an apartment tower block we could hear the voice of a young boy calling out for help. For whatever reason the lift had stopped between the ground and first floor, no matter what buttons the boy pushed the lift refused to start again. It became clear from the boys calls the he was delivering the morning newspapers to  the various apartments when the lift stopped on the way down. He was clearly worried at being reprimanded by his school teacher as he was going to be late for school. A small crowd of residents had gathered in the lobby as they entered the building to use the lift. We did explain to them that once we managed to get the boy out of the lift we would have to turn the power off to stop anyone else getting stuck and it would remain like that until the lift engineer had the opportunity to inspect the lift. One of the disadvantages of living in a high-rise block that only has one lift is the long climb up the stairs to the top, particularly if people are no longer nimble as they were.

The first thing we attempted was to see if we could bring the lift back to the ground floor by using the Fireman’s Switch. Lifts have a special circuit built into them for fire brigade use. The switch is inside a locked box which firefighters carry a key to access. Once the switch is thrown, in normal operations the lift will do one of several things. All the floor buttons within the lift car and all the call buttons on the landings immediately become inoperable leaving the car occupants or those awaiting the arrival of the lift unable to do anything to its control its movement.

If the lift is going upwards it will continue to the next floor and stop. Without the doors opening, if will the go back down to the ground floor without stopping at any floor. If the lift is travelling downwards it will continue to do so until it reaches the ground. Once the lift reaches the ground floor, the doors open allowing the occupants to emerge and the lift buttons become operable again. The landing call buttons however remain dead. This allows the fire brigade to have complete control of the lift in the event of a fire. Unfortunately in this case, the lift still refused to move.

The second but much longer option which will always work entails some of the crew going to the floor above where the lift is stuck while the remainder of the crew go to the lift motor room. The motor room is normally located immediately above the lift shaft but can sometimes be located in a basement. These rooms are locked but the same key that allows access to the Fireman’s Switch also unlocks these rooms. All fire appliances carry special lift keys that are supplied by the various lift makers. These are normally long metal bars with special shapes to allow them to pass through similarly shape slots in the outer lift doors. These keys override the safety mechanism that keeps the outer landing doors closed when the lift is not there. With the outer door open it is also possible to call up the lift shaft to the members of the crew in the motor room. The motor room crew turn off the electrical supply to the motor and then use a lever which releases the brake stopping the cable drum to the lift from turning when the lift is not moving. As one firefighter releases the brake, others turn a wheel to either raise or lower the lift up and down by an inch or so at a time. It’s hard physical work.

Although many may think it would be easier to lower a lift downwards, the reverse is true. This is due to a series of heavy counterweights attached to the other end of the lift cables which are heavier than a fully occupied lift. This is the reason we originally went to the first floor. Once again we unfortunately struck another problem as the lift door on the first floor above the lift would not open. This meant we returned to the ground floor lobby and opened the outer door there. It would be much harder and slower for the crew in the motor room to wind the lift down but in this case we had no option. Once the lift door in the lobby was open we could hear the young lad more clearly. He was getting more anxious about being late for school but did not seem too worried about his current confinement. We kept reassuring him that there was no problem and the small crowd in the lobby also gave him calls of reassurance. The small crowd also talked amongst themselves how brave the young boy was.

Gradually inch by inch the lift car was lowered down the shaft until it was level with the ground floor and we operated a mechanical switch that allowed the inner door of the lift to open. As the door slid to one side revealing the boy, the sympathetic murmuring from the small crowd suddenly stopped. The boy despite his east end accent was not white and this instantly turned a few of the crowds sympathy into instant disdain. Hostile comments like “You broke our lift” and “Who said that you could use our lift?” were fired at the youngster. My officer-in-charge simply put a reassuring arm around the youngsters shoulder and with a Thank You to the group in a tone that really meant stand aside or else, he led the youngster out the building to where he had left his bicycle. He gave the youngster a pep talk and advised him he had done nothing wrong. He also gave him the fire stations private telephone number. This was in case his school queried his lateness, the fire station would confirm his story.

Some forty years have elapsed since this snapshot of a small cameo of life at that time occurred. On the positive side it was only a few individuals of the small crowd who instantly reversed their sympathetic values. Equally positive, I also think it unlikely if the same incident occurred today that similar unpleasant comments would be made. I do however remember feeling a little sad at the time at the blinkered view of those few individuals. I could not help but think how much of life they were missing due to their narrow view from self-imposed blinkers.

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