The Sweet Smell of Knowledge

A ‘sugary memory’ from guest-blogger Barbara Nadel

nadelMy paternal grandparents were different. Unlike most East End granddads and grandmas in the 1960s they didn’t go down the pub, have a picture of a lady with green skin on their parlour wall or visit Southend on Sea for plates of cockles. Instead they lived in a gas-lit flat that hadn’t seen a new coat of varnish since the 1890s and with no TV, no radio and only my granddad’s disturbing First World War memories for company.

To me they were thrillingly exotic. I loved the fact that every corner of their parlour was crammed with photographs of long dead relatives and I, sometimes alone, would listen for hours on end to my grandfather’s ramblings about his childhood in India. I liked his stories about his mongoose, whose name I can’t now recall. I liked the ones about his bear too, except when he reached to the bit where it got torn to pieces by dogs. A few years ago I wrote a short historical crime series based around a World War 1 veteran, called Francis Hancock, who was loosely based on my grandfather.

But much as I loved my grandparents I hadn’t had to grow up with them. My father, their youngest child, had. And at times it wasn’t pretty. Born in the late 1920s, by the time the Second World War began my father was a young teenager with a keen interest in fire-watching, bomb fragments and homemade bicycles. Because all of my father’s siblings were adults the family didn’t evacuate out of London and so he continued to muck about in the streets of Plaistow, Silvertown, Canning Town and North Woolwich in a pretty unsupervised fashion. My grandfather and his craziness acted as night watchman at the Beckton Gasworks while my grandmother washed and cleaned and fretted about her own mother who could have a whole ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ style book devoted to her.

Dad, consequently, was largely free range. Whenever he saw a dead person in a bombed house he just had to get on with how he felt about that. Whole swathes of subjects were taboo in the lives of my Victorian grandparents and that included sex. Granddad was just too weird to talk about it while my grandmother was way too religious at that time. So Dad at thirteen only knew what he’d heard in the playground, from his older siblings and in church. This all boiled down to something about storks, women’s stomachs and strange lavatorial oozes. One night in 1940 however, all that changed very quickly.

nadel bookDad was hanging about in Silvertown, down by the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery. He had family and friends inside and was lurking around in the hope of a tin of black treacle or golden syrup when the sirens went off. The docks were going to be hit again and he was over a mile from his home and the safety of the Anderson Shelter in the family’s back yard. Not knowing what to do he began to run. But someone saw him and he was pulled up short by a gruff voice which yelled out, ‘Get in here, mate!’

A gate opened and, what turned out to be a very heavily made up woman, pulled him inside the refinery building. Like most of the Tate & Lyle girls she was both glamorous and very frightening to a young boy – and she knew it. ‘Don’t be scared,’ she said as she led him down to the air raid shelter, ‘I won’t eat ya.’ Then she laughed. My dad began to shake. He’d heard his sisters talk about this Tate girl and that Tate girl being able to ‘eat blokes alive’ and he wondered whether he’d actually be better off out in the street taking his chances with the Luftwaffe. But he followed her.

The shelter when they got to it, was packed. Men and women of all shapes and sizes, pretty, ugly, old, fat and thin, all smoking fags and talking at the tops of their voices. Overhead, Dad could just hear the sound of the bombers engines and the whine that always accompanied the dropping of their payloads. Rammed in to what was not a large space, it was hot and when the first bombs hit their targets everybody sweated that little bit more and raised their voices to drown the deadly sound out. The ground shook and my Dad instinctively moved towards to back of the shelter on the basis that if he was near to a wall it would help to protect him from the blast.

Depending on your point of view about sex, this was an error. Because not only did Dad move closer to the back wall, he also moved several light years closer to real sexual knowledge. To use his own words he was suddenly confronted by ‘almost every sexual practice that can happen between a man and a woman and some that shouldn’t be possible’. He gawped. Partly because of what the gorgeous sugar girls were doing with the sugar men but also because he was watching and they didn’t care. Trapped behind a wall of sweating bodies and smoking fag butts he couldn’t escape and so he had to stay where he was, watching these various performances, until they reached their conclusions.

nadel book 2It was quite a night and when the raid was finally over the women he’d seen doing things with their ‘rude bits’ that clearly made them happy, ruffled his hair and smiled at him. He never told his parents about his adventure ever and in fact he didn’t tell his siblings until he was middle aged. But it stayed with him. That vision of the fabulous sugar girls taking life by the balls, as it were, and defying death with joyful sex. Maybe that was why, in spite of his weird background, he was never uptight about sex himself. What consenting adults did to and with each other was OK by him.

But when the raid was over and Dad was let out of the refinery something that was of even more interest to a thirteen year old boy who was very often hungry came to pass. Tate & Lyle’s had taken a hit and there were rivers of molten sugar all over the pavements and in the roads around the plant. As it cooled it became soft, sticky caramel which Dad ripped up in long strips and stuck in his mouth and in his pockets. On his way back to Plaistow he ate as much of the molten sugar as he could while wondering what the beautiful Tate & Lyle girls were doing now that the raid was over. He eventually decided that he probably couldn’t imagine anything odder than what he’d seen them do already. As he later said to me, it was his first exposure to the notion that ‘life will always find a way,’ whatever the circumstances and whatever the odds. And he was grateful for it.

Barbara Nadel is an award-winning crime writer and the author of twenty novels. Her most recent, An Act of Kindness, was published earlier this year. For more information on her books, visit www.barbara-nadel.com.

 

2 Comments

  1. Great blog, as I would expect from such a gifted storyteller. Irreverent and unexpected – full of real life.

  2. Great piece, as I would expect from such a gifted storyteller. Irreverent and unexpected – full of real life.