From the life of Steve Berry
By Zach Ekpe
My family were Sephardi Jews from Portugal. That would be my grandfather, his father and his grandfather, they were in a pogrom – a pogrom is where the state turns against part of its inhabitants and expels them. They took their money and their lands because they were Jewish. And they landed here in the 1880’s in the East End of London. When they came they changed their name, which quite a lot of people did in those days, and they chose Lewis, which quite a lot of Jewish people did in those days. They were told to assimilate into society; they established themselves.
By the time my mother came along, you had the Black Shirts, Oswald Mosley, and all those anti-Jewish nationalists and fascists, and people suppressed their religion. So although on my mother’s side I was Jewish, they wouldn’t practice their faith because practically speaking, if Hitler got over here, they would have ended up in a gas chamber. I was never brought up in the religion. A lot of people were: the richer ones. If you were brought up in Stamford Hill or Golders Green, then you could band together, but when you were on your own, you denied it.
My mother married my father, and my father’s side were fishermen from Grimsby. My great-grandfather, he was killed on a trawling ship, but in those days Barking had one of the biggest fishing fleets in the country. A chap there owned it all, and there were trawling ships called the Short Blue that plied their trade from Barking Creek right away up the coast, up to The Wash and beyond, with the fish, and that´s why a lot of the pubs in Barking have got fishing names: you’ve got the Lighterman, the Fishing Smack… There was a massive fishing community that took place. During WWII, my father was in the army. My sister was born in 1940, so she can remember the war as a really young girl. My brother was born in 1945. By the time the war was over, things were austere.
I was born in 1950. I can remember rationing, I can remember being in a pushchair, my mother going up the shops in Green Lane, and you had two butchers and a grocer. She’d go there with a rationing card which they would put stamps on, and we’d only be allowed to have a certain amount of sugar and butter. But I still had it the best of the three of my siblings, because I was the youngest. My sister was born in 1945, and my sister, she had it the worst, being the eldest. King George VI was on the throne. He died in ‘52 and Elizabeth was crowned in ’53, and I can vaguely remember that everyone had a commemorative teaspoon: we might have bought it or we were given it, but everybody had one! I don’t remember much else about the coronation but I remember I got a spoon out of it.
I can remember by 1953 things were rationed still, but there wasn’t a shortage of them: you could get your little bit of butter and coffee and meat.
I remember starting pre-school at the age of 4. That was in Dagenham, at Henry Green School. The teachers used to put us to bed during the afternoon and we all had little beds and I can remember when it was sunny they would put them out in the little courtyard and I could never fall asleep. From there, I went into the infant school and it’s from there that your personality starts to develop, isn’t it? 1955 would have been the start of infant school and yeah, that’s when I started to get into trouble. I wanted to dig a hole in the playground to try and get a tunnel going so that we could escape out the other side. And I was leading the other kids into that and I can remember that was my first time getting into trouble.
My Grandfather, he was a foreman in the docks. It was a very good job up at Millwall docks and he could afford a car but he could only afford to run it six months. A lot of people that had cars would tax and insure them for six months and the winter months they wouldn’t drive them. And what he done, my father took the side of the fence off and the car went up on bricks and I can remember getting underneath the tarpaulin and opening the door. It was all leather seats and there was a smell of leather and I could pretend that I was driving and move the steering wheel about.
And my father, he was keeping chickens – Daisy, Gurty… I’d run home from school and say “Can I feed the chickens mum?” Mum would say “Yeah, yeah, yeah” and I’d feed them. Well, it came to Christmas time and I can remember my grandfather coming round, chasing these chickens round and… wringing their necks. And I can remember having to go upstairs and they had them all hanging up over the bath. There it is, Christmas Day, and there was Daisy, Gurty… And would I eat them? Never. I got a good hiding for not eating them too.
I must have been 5 or 6 when my father got a television and I can remember coming home from school, turning it on in the evening – because the programmes only started at about 6 o’clock – and it was the Hungarian Revolution. I can remember watching the tanks coming down the street on the telly and above on the high rise building in Budapest they were throwing molotov cocktails down at the tanks. That was one of my first memories and it imprinted on me and stayed with me. I think it has had a lasting impact on me, made me very interested in history and in war.
Around that time, I was with my brother and my sister and we were all jumping on the bed, right by the window frame. I must have gotten a bit too exuberant and I jumped through the window frame, straight out the window. Bonk, hit me head, and then I was in a coma. I remember the Old Church Hospital and I can remember having to walk between two rails. You had to learn to get your strength back in your legs.
All the rationing had finished and the country was getting back on its feet. I remember going to school in ‘58 at the time of the general election and Harold Macmillan come out with this saying ‘You’ve never had it so good!’ because austerity from WW2 had ended and people were now getting goods and things, and the jobs were there. It was not a time of plenty but the rationing had finished and people were starting to get a few bob together, life was just starting to get a little easier. He won by a landslide.
I was starting junior school. After school you would play in the streets, and that was that. Things were sort of very even, there wasn’t a fantastic amount going on in life with people. Although it was less austere, people still didn’t really express themselves. When you were born in the typical working class family you went to school, came home, and that was followed by more going to school, more coming home. There wasn’t that vibrancy to life, what we take for granted now it wasn’t there because the selection and the choice to do things wasn’t there. But father worked at Ford, so you’d have a holiday for a week or a fortnight away in the summer when it was the Ford factory’s break and then a week or a fortnight’s break at Christmas. I can remember we used to go on holiday down to Leysdown-On-Sea and my grandfather had a chalet down there. That was the highlight of the year.
When I moved to senior school it was a bit of a rough house. The kids were tearaways and there was a lot of bullying. When you went to an ordinary secondary school you would take your 11+, and if you failed that then you went to secondary modern school. You could take it again at 13 and that was the only way you could get out of your mundane situation, really: go to the grammar school in the area. That would enhance your life because that would open a lot more doors for you and possibly even university or college. People were very much stamped by the school you went to, how you pronounced your words; a lot of people would aspire to speak the Queen’s English because they knew if you went for a job and you didn’t speak very well you’d give yourself away as being working class. Although you had the opportunity to take the 11+, so if you did that would help you and you wouldn’t necessarily speak with a working class accent even though you lived in an area that was. You wouldn’t have mixed with the other kids on the streets from the other classes, then. That’s how things were in those days. Today you don’t have to talk with a very good accent to get on. You’ll find that it’s your education, your CV that will speak for you, doesn’t matter how you speak as long as you don’t use swear words. Years ago, you would have been rejected for your accent, and for the elite classes of today it still applies: if you’re privately educated, in Eton or places like that. I’m not knocking it entirely: some people who came from that system, like Winston Churchill, who knows what would have happened in WWII if we didn’t have him? But the people in the position of power, they loathe to relinquish that power, ‘cos it’s a gravy train. So, my school years were a tough old experience really, not a time that I would say I was particularly happy in. The environment to learn wasn’t there and I couldn’t be bothered one way or the other, and that’s followed me right the way through life. I was bright, don’t get me wrong, I just couldn’t apply myself and I knew some of the teachers wouldn’t let me take the GCE because they thought I hadn’t done the work. They were right, I hadn’t – I’d bunked off and all sorts.
I remember England winning the World Cup. I was at home and we were just preparing to go on holiday. We were going to stay in a caravan down in Sussex. There was a caravan park there and my father phoned them up and asked, is there a television there, and they said no, so we stayed on to watch it and we went down late. We wanted to see England win the World Cup, which is exactly what they did! You can’t beat that feeling, it’s euphoria. I’ve only ever had it a few times in my life.
Another time was when I passed my driving test: that also gave me a terrific feeling of euphoria. I was a bit of a Jack the Lad at the time though. I’d gone a bit astray, because my mum died and I went off the rails. I became a nasty person for a couple of years and I got myself a car. I didn’t have a license. Didn’t bother me. Then I thought one day, this is stupid ‘cos I’m gonna get stopped eventually, something’s gonna happen. So I booked up 10 lessons with Wessex School of Motoring. I put in for my test and I was going around in my ‘L’ plates, then getting out and jumping in me actual car going down the road. Everyone was drinking and driving as well. Stupid, really, doing all of that, ‘cos I passed my test no problem at all.
My Jack the Lad years were from 18 to 22. I lost my mother, and both my sister and my brother had moved on to marriages. That’s what I wanted to do too, so I got married at 22, but it was a disaster. So, I came out of that, and I thought I had to come out of it with something.
I bought a house – the same house I’m still in today. It was a positive turn in my life because you know, you’ve got to pay the mortgage, you’ve got to settle down, and you’ve got to do things right. You have to knuckle down at work, you have to accept things from supervisors, you have to eat a bit of humble pie. I’ve always had a problem with authority, I tend to rebel against it. I think I had a little bit of a Promethean attitude.
When Margaret Thatcher got elected in 1979, she got elected on a promise of letting people buy their own council homes, and by her allowing people to buy their council homes, you became a homeowner. Barking and Dagenham, at that particular time, were two different places, different councils: today, they are very much intermingled into one another. Then, Dagenham was all council, and Barking had a lot of private housing but it also had council properties. You got the Leftley Estate, which was for working class people who could afford a property there, but mainly the lower-middle class people. I talk in those terms because those are the terms I was brought up with, knowing about the working class, the middle class and the upper class, and within the working class you got three divides: lower working class, middle working class and upper working class. The middle classes, same thing, and then you got your real upper classes, and then you run out of road.
What Margaret Thatcher did was she got people to cross over. When people started to better themselves, it was people who would sell their council house and buy a new house in a working class area, so you had working class people in Barking and Dagenham buying property in Barking and moving into middle class districts. And it did go full circle, because later on, working for doctors, even the younger doctors that I worked with, to get a foot on the ladder were buying council properties in working class areas.
It was the beginning of many years of graft, hard work right the way through. I just worked and worked. In my own personal life… disasters, really. Well, I say disasters but from a relationship point of view, I wasn’t very good at picking the right women, so that didn’t really work. Things never seemed to happen. Life is a rollercoaster, you have your successes and you have your failures. My most significant investment of my time and energy at that time would have been looking at religion. I wanted to read the Bible before I died, and obviously apply it.
I was offered voluntary redundancy and I knew that by taking it, I could pay off my mortgage. I thought that solved a big problem for me, so I went for it. Once I did that I could work part-time. I started working at a mental hospital. I worked as a ward clerk, but eventually I ended up in the main office, which was responsible for medical records. People of the public would walk in – it was extremely interesting and extremely hard work. But sometimes you couldn’t get any work done because you were constantly on the phone answering enquiries for people. It took me quite a while but I built up an A-Z book, and all the different factors and things I had to deal with I would write them down so I would have a contact for everything. In the end, through constantly applying myself and getting a lot of knowledge I managed to get on my colleagues’ good side – after about seven years. People would knock off at various times and on a Friday, I’d be the last one to knock off. I had to deal with Dr. Cookson’s Friday clinic and his clinic went right the way round to the evening time. A lot of the other staff wanted to get away on a Friday but I really didn’t mind. I would never let anybody walk out of there with me saying “Well, I can’t help you”. So I would sit them down, get an official headed paper, I’d write the letter, get all the details on there, get the official stamp, whack it in at the bottom and sign it Mr. Stephen Kevin Brooks, put it in some official envelope and then address it to the mental health team or doctor on-call, make sure the patients got what they needed. I thoroughly enjoyed it but when they decided to close it all and open up a unit in Bancroft Road, in the hospital there, I thought I better not carry it on, decided it was time to cut my work and off I went. It’s since been closed, the bit I used to work in.
Since I took my redundancy I’ve developed an interest in the garden. Sometimes, I’ll look at something when I walk past a skip and think ‘Oh, that’s alright, what’s that?’ and I’ll pick it up and wonder ‘What can I do with that?’ It’ll be a bit of old iron or some other scrap, and I’ll go back home and notice that there are little butterflies on it, and I’ll pull the butterflies off, chuck the thing away, and nail the butterflies on a tree. And I’ve got pots. I’ve got a Homer Simpson head pot, I’ve got a pot with a bowling ball in it, and I’ll grow real flowers in the pots and put some plastic ones amongst them. Or I’ll get a bush; what I’ve done at the moment is a little bit of topiary on a bush and I’ve put a plaque in there, and then I’ve put a beaded necklace in and around the bush. I’ve got a tree with face and hands, and people will stop and say “What the hell is that?” I do silly things like that. I think the garden might be a reflection of me. I like unorthodox things. I like to make people stop and think.