Robert Pimm

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Rag’n’bones to riches

By Robert Pimm

Financial Times, February 7 2004

Graham’s a cockney from central casting.  He holds the microphone almost touching his lips, like a night-club singer.

“It took ’em 35 years to build St Paul’s,” he says as our boat swirls down the Thames towards Greenwich.  “Reckon it was the same bloke what’s doing my kitchen.”

Mary’s four daughters all smile, but Mary’s not listening.  She’s watching her grand-children craning over the metal railings, a chill breeze flattening their hair.

We’re taking in a cross-section of London, old and new, to celebrate Mary’s 80th birthday.  That’s a private capsule at the London Eye, a boat down the river, then lunch at Godard’s Pie House in Greenwich.

Mary’s an old and new Londoner herself.  Her dad was a rag-and-bone man in Highbury: her mum used to sort and mend the rags for Mary to sell door-to-door.  “Socks and stockings were a penny a pair,” Mary says, “they could have it on tick until Friday.  Everyone was poor, just we were poorer than they were.”  Times change: Joan, the eldest daughter, is Director of Wealth Administration at an investment company for affluent families; Pamela’s a diplomat in Berlin; Linda’s the director and co-founder of a software development company; and Marian’s a leading Hepatitis C researcher at the Office of Vaccine Research and Review in Washington.

“Happy 80th Birthday,” says Pascale Wilson, our hostess at the London Eye.  A badge on her lapel says she speaks French and Japanese.  “Enjoy your flight.”  Mary looks out over the city and sits down on the bench in the centre of the pod.

“It’s worth a visit, ain’t it?” she says.  “We never even knew where the West End was until the war broke out, I was sixteen.  All we knew about the West End was what we saw in the pictures, at the cinema.  Five of us went walking one night in the black-out, we got lost, we had to ask a man, ‘What’s that building?’  ‘That’s the BBC,’ he said.”

As we step out of the capsule two men with mirrors step in to check under the seats for bombs.

Back on the boat, Graham’s telling us about Waterloo Bridge, completed in 1945.  “It was built by women during the war, see, ‘cos all the men were in uniform.  Then the man from the ministry came along and said, you’ve done a good job, girls.  They said, thanks very much.  He said, the war’s over, you’re sacked.”

Greenwich is so crammed with tourists it’s a relief to find Godard’s looks utterly traditional.  All pies baked freshly on the premises, a blackboard boasts.  Jellied Eels £2.20, stewed eels £2.30 (Thursday-Sunday).  Pie, Mash & Eels £4.00, all served fresh daily.

Joan remembered going to a Pie & Mash shop every week as a child and taking home pots of liquor (a green sauce made of malt vinegar and parsley); so it seemed a good idea to take Mary to one for her birthday.  But no-one in London knew if they still existed.  Marian, in Washington, checked the internet and turned up Godard’s.

Inside, every table is full.  A man in a pork-pie hat is eating with a Chinese woman.  There’s a constant throng at the counter.  Jeff Godard, who runs the shop with his brother Kane, says they’re the 5th generation of Godards since the shop was founded in 1890 in Deptford.  Their mother still comes in on Sundays, the busiest day.  Femmie, who serves us at our table, has married into the family.  “They press gang us all in.”

Anna, 9, wolfs down her pie and beans (the Legendary Home Made Winter Warmer Weekend Special: Minced Beef & Onion Pudding with Mash plus Gravy or Liquor, £2.40) and pronounces herself stuffed.  Then the birthday cake appears.  “Suddenly my appetite’s come back,” Anna says.  Femmie starts singing Happy Birthday and the whole restaurant joins in.  On the table is a 750g container of Saxa salt and a pint bottle of Sarson’s Vinegar.  Excluding the cake, our bill for 10 people, with drinks, comes to £35.40.

Mary remembers past celebrations.  “When my John was called up he bought our mum a piano from a shop in the Holloway Road.  Ten pounds it cost, reconditioned.  It was bright green.  People used to come round and say ooh, you’ve got a green piano!  When we had a party we’d push the piano out the street, we had it in the middle of the road.  Everyone would sit on their doorstep and join in, bring their own beer.  It’s gone, now, Campbell Road, Queenstown Road.  The houses were condemned.”

Mary left Highbury in 1961.   “We wanted to have something better,” she says.  “We had something to strive for.  When we moved out I said to my John, we’ve come a long way.”

I ask Mary if she’s got any tips for other mums.  “They went to a lovely junior school, in Yeading,” she says, “that was the backbone of my kids.  And their dad was very intelligent.  I used to say to them, you got your brains from your dad and the looks off your mum.”

“One thing mum did give us was independence,” Joan says.  Not relying on other people to do things for you.  It made a difference.  So did being four girls with no brothers.”

“She hothoused us without realising it,” is Pamela’s theory.  “She loves babies and small children.  Still does.  She was always talking to us, playing with us, taking us places.”

That evening, Joan looks at the bill from the pie shop and shakes her head.  “I reckon that waitress thought, poor dear, it’s her 80th birthday, and her daughters take her out for pie and eels.”

Mary looks up from a pile of birthday cards.  “It was the best birthday ever, wasn’t it?  Long time since I ‘ad one like that.”

“Good,” Joan says.  “Don’t expect another one for 80 years, that’s all.”

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