Monday, 10 October 2011




My Auntie Elsie Fisher was never really my auntie. She’d been invested with the honour of aunt-dom because she was my mother’s oldest friend. She wasn’t even called Fisher when I came into the world because she’d married by then. Even so, my mother continued to refer to her as ‘your Auntie Elsie Fisher’ throughout both of their long lives, which had begun way back even before their infant school days.

Auntie Elsie’s parents had come from Germany sometime in the late nineteenth century and had settled in South Shields on the north-east coast of England. They opened up in business as pork butchers. They weren’t alone in that trade: there were many German pork butchers in England at that time. It was as though they had a special capacity for that arm of butchery.

I can remember going into the shop quite often with my mother in the 1930s. What a wonderful place it was, the rich cooking smell of it enfolding you, a place where they sold red-skinned saveloys and poloneys and pies and sausages and cold cuts and ham and pease pudding and black puddings. All marvellous. But we went in there principally for pork sandwiches. You could get a penny dip – a bun dipped in the hot fat of a roast pork joint – but best of all there were pork sandwiches. Pork sandwiches, the very thought makes me drool. The bun was dipped in fat and then there’d be a fine slice of pork topped with sage and onion stuffing. And I still clearly remember the lady behind the counter always used to ask me: ‘D’you want some scranchum, pet?’ (Everybody’s ‘pet’ up there in the north-east and ‘scranchum’ was what we called pork skin, so crunchy and juicy and tasty.) Ah, Fisher’s Pork Butcher’s Shop. It was so popular and so were the Fishers because they were a genuinely decent family.

But one day, in 1914, when they were about eleven years old, Auntie Elsie came to my mother in tears.

‘They smashed the shop windows last night,’ she sobbed.

My mother tried to console her. It was a lively town, a tough town, at times a rough town, but people didn’t go round doing that sort of thing.  Not normally.

‘They were shouting,’ Auntie Elsie said, ‘a great crowd of them. Calling us all sorts of names. Saying we were Germans, that we were the enemy, saying we’d better look out.’

My mother told me about this many years ago and it stuck in my mind and I used it – or a related version - in ‘And Such Great Names as These.’ Briefly, Rob has taken two young boys, Joshua and Billy, into the Augusta Tea Rooms which is run by an old German couple. He is a decorated soldier wearing civilian clothes and his aim is to show the boys that though we are at war with Germany we have to be tolerant about individual Germans, especially those living in this country. And the boys do learn the lesson in an unexpected manner.

The door to the street opened.
The bell rang shrilly.
They all looked up.
Three soldiers.  Not drunk.  But not sober.  They seemed to fill the remaining space, to darken it with their presence.
'Out. You.'
The tallest of them scowled at Rob.
'Out. You.'  he repeated more loudly, emphasising each word, jerking his thumb in the direction of the street behind him.
His two companions stood behind him, perhaps a little less sure of themselves.
'What's this?' Rob asked, not moving.
'This,' the tall soldier, now bunching his fist and waving it in front of Rob's face, 'this is goin' to bloody knock you off that chair if ye don't get out of here.  That's what this is.'
Rob put up a hand, placatory.
'All right,' he said.  'No need to get rough.  Let's take it quietly.'
As he spoke, one of the other soldiers, short, bow‑legged, sporting the beginnings of a moustache, threw down a cup from one of the other tables.  The third soldier, an older man, maybe thirty years of age, giggled and copied his mate and another cup was shattered.
'Out!Out!' the tall soldier shouted, pushing his coarse young face closer to Rob's.  'D'ye not understand?' he asked, his voice now taking on a plaintive tone.  'These is bloody Jerries in here.  Fuckin’ Boches.'  He gestured over to where old Mr Forster stood silent. 
Behind him, Hannah, his wife, short and stout, came through the curtains.  She stopped, her mouth opening and shutting with no sound issuing forth.
'These is Jerries,' the tall soldier repeated slowly as if for the benefit of the two boys.  'They're our enemies.'  He turned his head to stare angrily at the old man and then shifted his gaze to his wife.
Another cup and saucer were smashed.  The old man still said nothing, simply stood unmoving.  From Hannah, there came a whimper as she put her hand to her anguished mouth.  Then, as though making an enormous effort to speak, she whispered, 'Not again.  Please not again.'
'Have ye been here before?' Rob asked, standing up slowly from the table.  Joshua thought how tall and strong he looked.
'No, we haven't,' the bow‑legged soldier told him.  'But ye'd better scram out of here and fast.'
'Other people.  Three times now.'  The old woman was barely audible.  'We've been smashed up three times.  But other people.'
Her accent was still strong whereas that of her husband had taken on the local tinge.  He could scarcely be recognised as foreign born.
'Please go,' Mr Forster said, finding his voice at last.  'We don't deserve this.  We have a son in the army.'
The oldest of the intruders moved across to the old man, grabbing him by the jacket.
'You bloody shut up, Jerry.'
The soldier's face was twisted with hatred.

But we always think that we are on the side of liberty and justice. Not in those words perhaps, but we believe that we have a general sense of the fairness and kindness which underlie those two great aims. We would say that fairness and kindness are in our make-up, that we hold such sentiments in abundance. They are natural to us. That’s what we think about ourselves.

But our noble aspirations are sometimes betrayed. In World War One it was the Germans who were said to ravage nuns and slaughter babies. Not us. We didn’t treat people in such an abominable manner. So we told ourselves.

The scene above is not the same as what happened in Fisher’s pork butcher’s shop. But the germ was there for this episode in the book. That’s where many stories so often come from, from the real past.

Hope you found this interesting. Back next week.

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
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